For a league that plays six months a year, the NFL is a round-the-clock operation and it’s never too early to look into the near future. The league has been gamely nicknamed by its players as “not for long” anyways, so let’s get into the fun stuff right away.
Patrick Mahomes is the man of the hour, having led the Kansas City Chiefs to its second Super Bowl victory in franchise history, leading a stunning fourth-quarter comeback that will forever be immortalized through the magic of NFL Films. Spoiler alert: I see sustained greatness from Mahomes, even if it’s not altogether a bold take.
If high school was disappointing for you, have no fear, these superlatives will be a lot more fun! I take a look at the NFL’s top offseason storylines and make some predictions that I’m sure won’t come back to haunt me by next spring.
Where will Tom Brady end up?
This isn’t a fun prediction per se but Brady will remain with the Patriots. New England’s commitment to winning by any means necessary, along with the institutional knowledge Brady has accrued within its system — hell, he might be the system — makes it nearly impossible to fathom him playing elsewhere.
Bill Belichick and Ernie Adams would’ve built a stronger contingency plan if they anticipated Brady leaving anytime soon, with Jarrett Stidham and Cody Kessler ill-equipped to take over as the presumptive starter. None of the options in free agency would be appealing to Belichick, but then again, predicting what him and Adams are up to is a fool’s errand.
If not the Patriots, I could see the Chargers making a move. But really, I’d be shocked if this is the end for Brady in New England.
What will be the biggest free agency signing?
Miami will sign Jadeveon Clowney to a six-year, $120-million contract, which falls short of equaling Aaron Donald’s six-year, $135 million deal as the largest ever given out to a defensive player in NFL history, but addresses a glaring need. Perhaps by design, since the Dolphins unleashed one of the most blatant tanking campaigns in the history of the sport, they finished dead last in pass rush DVOA — a metric designed by Football Outsiders to take into account down and distance when weighting their real output. Clowney recorded just three sacks, but also notched four forced fumbles in 13 games and his blazing speed off the line is nearly unrivalled.
Clowney hasn’t been the generational defensive talent anticipated when he was selected first overall in 2014, but when healthy, he is one of the NFL’s most feared edge rushers and deservedly earned three consecutive Pro Bowl selections from 2016-2018. Miami has all the cap space in the world and will throw money at Clowney, which he won’t be able to refuse.
Which team will be the most surprising?
This prediction might backfire on me, but let’s give it up for the 2020 Cleveland Browns. Everything that could’ve gone wrong under Freddie Kitchens did in 2019. Odell Beckham Jr. posted the worst season of his career while playing through the majority of it with a sports hernia, Jarvis Landry never saw eye-to-eye with Kitchens, while the offensive line barely gave Baker Mayfield any time to breathe in the pocket.
I’ve gone this far without mentioning Myles Garrett, who committed one of the most stunning acts in NFL history, swinging his helmet at an unguarded Mason Rudolph on Nov. 14 and was suspended indefinitely.
Kitchens has been fired and replaced by former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, Garrett was reinstated Wednesday, while Beckham, Landry and Nick Chubb — the team’s lone standout in 2019 — will be freed up in a more innovative offense. They might not unseat the Ravens in the AFC North, but it would be somewhat surprising if the Browns don’t at least compete for their first playoff berth since 2002. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Beckham and Landry bust out “Get The Gat” after wins?
Which team will be the biggest disappointment?
This question always acts as a function of expectation management but considering their pedigree as a perennial playoff contender, the Seahawks will be the biggest disappointment in 2020. Football Outsiders listed Seattle with 8.2 pythagorean wins — a representation of a projection of the team's expected wins based on points scored and allowed — which had them functioning closer to the Buccaneers than the 49ers.
Russell Wilson is incredible and there’s a reason why he was the leading MVP candidate for large stretches of the season before Lamar Jackson figuratively and literally ran away with the award. Although Wilson has never suffered as a result, Seattle’s failure to invest in its offensive line will hinder its progress. Seattle’s top-heavy structure which relies so heavily on Wilson, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and the remains of its 2013 Super Bowl will finally come back to haunt them, but what a run it was.
Next year’s most fun team will be...
If I’m strictly taking into account on-field performance and style, this superlative would clearly belong to the Chiefs. However, it’s difficult to root for them as star wide receiver Tyreek Hill and Frank Clark have some gruesome domestic violence records, and since they play such a large role on the defending champions, it wouldn’t feel right to select them here.
I’m doubling down on the Ravens as a result. Lamar Jackson revolutionized the league with his unmatched running ability, showing the elusiveness of Barry Sanders in the open field, while dicing opponents up with 36 passing touchdowns. Jackson won NFL MVP unanimously for a reason during his age-22 season and he’s won everything but a Super Bowl. I’m all in on “big truss” with another season of Jackson, Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards and co. running all over teams at a historically proficient level.
And now, onto my way-too-early awards predictions.
MVP: Patrick Mahomes. In what will be the closest MVP race in NFL history, Mahomes will edge out his counterpart Jackson for the league’s highest individual honour, his second win in three years. If it weren’t for a dislocated kneecap, Mahomes would’ve pushed Jackson and Wilson for the award, and we’ve seen how explosive he is, even while playing a rough three quarters in Super Bowl LIV. We’re all just living in his world.
Offensive Player of the Year: Lamar Jackson. This award is often given to the NFL’s second-best quarterback, even if it should be doled out more proportionately to the league’s best non-quarterback. That’s not our problem, however, and while Michael Thomas will fight valiantly to recapture this honour once again, Jackson will win it, serving as a consolation prize after losing the MVP to Mahomes.
Defensive Player of the Year: Tyrann Mathieu. For the first time since 2009, the NFL handed out this award to a defensive back with Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore emerging victorious. Although there are a host of edge rushers — Nick Bosa, Von Miller and Khalil Mack namely — along with Aaron Donald constantly vying for the award, it’ll go to a defensive back again as Mathieu will be recognized for his all-world talent. Functioning as a box linebacker, safety, slot cornerback and anything else the Chiefs need, Mathieu’s status will be amplified, winning the lone award he hasn’t captured during his iconic career.
Super Bowl: Ravens over Saints. In a moment that will reflect the NFL’s old guard in Drew Brees and its bright, tantalizing future in Lamar Jackson, the Ravens will use their record-breaking rushing attack to wear down a deep, talented Saints’ front seven.
Earl Thomas will make just enough plays to stop the Saints’ ferocious passing attack, and Jackson will have his Super Bowl title to match Mahomes, teeing up an individual rivalry that evokes Larry Bird-Magic Johnson or Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo, if you’re looking for something more contemporary.
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