On Wednesday, we rolled out our predictions for team MVPs in the AFC. Now it's the NFC's turn. A reminder: Don't @ me. Everything I've written here will be proven this autumn to be a 100 percent accurate and unimpeachable piece of springtime professional football analysis. To the list ...
Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson, RB
Johnson was part of the sad avalanche of NFL superstars who saw their seasons wiped out by injury in 2017. With fresh legs, the Cardinals undergoing a transition at quarterback and millions of dollars at stake (this is a contract year), consider it a huge upset if Johnson isn't one of the very best backs in football in 2018. His dual-threat capabilities make him a safe bet to lead the league in touches this season. For a game-changing talent just reaching his prime, a 2,000 all-purpose yardage season is in play.
Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones, WR
Jones' end-zone slip in the final moments of a loss to the Eagles in the Divisional Round of the playoffs acted as an effective symbol for the Falcons' offense as a whole in 2017: They were right there, but could never quite get over the hump. It was a frustrating season for Jones, who piled up 88 catches for 1,444 yards ... but just three touchdowns. Surprisingly, Jones has never been a TD monster (he's reached double digits only once in his brilliant seven-year career), but a healthy Jones could double or even triple his scoring output in Year 2 under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who knows his job may depend on it.
Carolina Panthers: Luke Kuechly, LB
While Cam Newton and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner feel each other out, Kuechly will be on the other side of the ball anchoring the whole ship, per usual. The first-team All-Pro led the Panthers with 125 tackles and was ranked by analytics site Pro Football Focus as the No. 1 linebacker against the run. Kuechly's instincts at the position are unparalleled. He's as important to the D as Newton is to the offense. Health willing (and the concussion concerns are frightening and legitimate), another year of elite play is coming.
Chicago Bears: Allen Robinson, WR
This is a time of optimism around the Bears, who might actually be -- gasp! -- fun to watch this season. Much of that has to do with an emerging young core on offense shepherded by first-year coach Matt Nagy, fresh off a stint building the Chiefs into a powerful attack under Andy Reid. Robinson was Chicago's centerpiece signing in free agency, and the hope is that the wideout and second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky will be the town's biggest power couple since Jay Cutler and Kristin Cavallari (OK, bad example). Robinson is the clear-cut No. 1 receiver and -- assuming his recovery from knee surgery goes according to plan -- will be a focal point in an offense that will feature plenty of downfield passing. Remember, Robinson once went 80/1,400/14 with Blake Bortles throwing him the rock. To quote a Windy City icon: "The ceiling is the roof."
Dallas Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott, RB
Elliott is now free and clear of a 2017 that was marred by legal troubles, the lingering threat of suspension and then an actual suspension that shortened his season by six games. As viewers of "All or Nothing" know, the drama clearly took a toll on the star running back, who never seemed quite himself after that spectacular rookie campaign of 2016. We expect Elliott to be much closer to his rookie version this fall, and don't be surprised when all the stories about Elliott being in the best shape of his life start piling up in August. Elliott will be motivated and unburdened, and -- given the suspect state of the Dallas passing game -- will assuredly continue to be the focal point of the offense. Zeke gonna eat.
Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford, QB
Here's a fun question: Is Matthew Stafford a superstar? For years, the Lions quarterback seemed to exist just below that special tier of quarterbacks, the one that was reserved for the likes of Brady, Rodgers, Brees, etc. He was a franchise quarterback, sure, but would Stafford ever actually take his game to the next level? Well, it took eight years, but Stafford reached a career zenith in 2017, piling up the yardage and the touchdowns while cutting down on the turnovers that had been his undoing in the past. The partnership with Jim Bob Cooter has done wonders for Stafford's career, and the Lions made the supremely wise decision to retain their offensive coordinator after firing head coach Jim Caldwell. We consider Stafford a belated addition to the Superstar Club ... and we expect him to stay there.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers, QB
When Anthony Barrdrove Rodgers into the turf last October, the resulting clavicle fracture effectively turned out the lights on the Packers' 2017 season. Such is the value of the accomplished State Farm pitch man, who, when healthy, is one of the very best quarterbacks to ever play the game. You can imagine Rodgers, now 34, will be beyond motivated to unseat the Vikings (and Barr) in the NFC North. The addition of Jimmy Graham smells like a red-zone bonanza, and Davante Adams is in line for a career year with Jordy Nelson now lining up wide in Oakland. If Rodgers can stay healthy, he's a lock for team -- and possibly league -- MVP.
Los Angeles Rams: Aaron Donald, DT
The Rams pushed all the chips to the center of the table with the offseason acquisitions of Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, but Donald will remain the most important part of Los Angeles' D. Donald has been one of the best defensive linemen in football for years now, but general manager Les Snead's offseason haul has the potential to take Donald's game to another level. Suh's arrival, in particular, as an elite space-eating nose tackle should free up Donald to attack the quarterback in a way he's never done before. Donald is already in a class of his own as an interior pass rusher -- this could be the year he reaches his statistical apex. It's a scary thought.
Minnesota Vikings: Dalvin Cook, RB
In a parallel universe, Cook's knee doesn't blow out last October, and he and Alvin Kamara are battling for Offensive Rookie Of The Year honors down the stretch. It didn't work out that way, of course, but Cook was on pace for Kamara-like greatness before disaster struck. All reports are overwhelmingly positive about Cook's rehab, and he enters 2018 as the clear No. 1 option in the backfield for a Vikings team that will rely plenty on the ground game, even after paying Kirk Cousins funny money to be the "final piece" on offense. This nug from The Big Fish, Evan Silva: Cook was on pace for a whopping 340 touches before his ACL injury, a figure that would've put him in the top five among all tailbacks. That still feels possible, even with Cousins' arrival.
New Orleans Saints: Alvin Kamara, RB
Even before Mark Ingram's four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances, reports swirled that the Saints were prepared to make Kamara a bigger part of their offense after he won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2017. Kamara -- like Ingram -- went over 1,500 total yards last season, piling up 728 rushing yards, 826 receiving yards (on 81 catches) and 14 total touchdowns. He also led the NFL with 6.1 yards per carry. Expect his touch count on carries to increase significantly this season. When Kamara thrives in Ingram's absence in September, Ingram might find it difficult to work his way back into the mix.
New York Giants: Saquon Barkley, RB
Here's the reminder that rookie running backs hit the ground, well, running in the NFL. Players at other positions might need a few years to reach the height of their powers, but a tailback could give you the best season of his career in Year 1. Which brings us to Barkley, the most talked-up running back prospect in the league since Reggie Bush. Barkley is a true do-it-all back who immediately makes the Giants better, both in the rushing and passing games. Giants GM Dave Gettleman said he was looking at a transformational talent with the second overall pick -- Barkley checks every box. This should be fun.
Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz, QB
If Wentz's knee hadn't given out in Week 14, it's a pretty safe bet (we're allowed to do that now, right?) he'd be the reigning league MVP as you read this. He's likely to be ready for the start of the season, and it's hard to come up with a good reason why The Face Of The Eagles will regress in Year 3. Just entering his prime, Wentz is the type of quarterback who appears to have been built in a football lab for maximum efficiency. Everything is in place for another big year. Really big.
San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo, QB
Traded to San Francisco from New England last October, Jimmy G. changed the outlook of an entire franchise overnight. Pretty good value at the cost of a second-round draft pick, huh? Given a full offseason with head coach/offensive guru Kyle Shanahan, Garoppolo is a sexy dark horse NFL MVP pick. His drive efficiency performance was off the charts in his five starts last season, and that was before he had running back Jerick McKinnon (acquired in free agency) and veteran wide receiver Pierre Garcon (injured) at his disposal. The Niners are relevant again, and it's all thanks to Jimmy G. Now watch him back up the hype.
Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson, QB
This might be a time of transition for the Seahawks -- particularly on defense -- so Wilson, more than ever, will be the center of everything for Pete Carroll's squad. Wilson led the league in touchdown passes last season, and you can safely assume Seattle will keep airing it out until the desert quest for a suitable Marshawn Lynch replacement is completed (you're up, Rashaad Penny). Wilson threw the ball more than ever in 2017, but he still moves the chains with his legs as well as just about anyone. (He went over 500 yards rushing for the fourth time in his career, adding three additional scores on the ground.) The Seahawks need Wilson to be better than ever -- he's unlikely to let them down.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Lavonte David, LB
David might be the most anonymous star in the NFL today. He's been a difference-making presence in Tampa Bay's defense for six years now, but he has only one Pro Bowl nod to show for it. At least the tape geeks are paying attention: Pro Football Focus ranked David second amongst all linebackers last season, sandwiched between Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly. That is pretty solid company. If you believe the Bucs are going to bounce back from last season's disappointment, expect David to be a primary reason why.
Washington Redskins: Alex Smith, QB
Smith has to be wondering what it's going to take to earn some respect. (Well, beating the Titans at home in the playoffs probably would've have helped his cause, but I digress ...) The former Chiefs signal-caller is now leading the offense of the Redskins, who might actually end up paying less for an upgrade after Kirk Cousins skipped town in free agency. Smith was excellent last year, throwing for 4,000 yards, 26 touchdowns and only five interceptions with a passer rating just south of 105. Most impressively, his yards-per-attempt mark matched his previous career-high of 8.0, a figure that throws cold water on the idea that Smith is the league's supreme dink-and-dunker. Washington's weapons come close to replicating the favorable setup Smith enjoyed in Kansas City. Don't be surprised when he gets similar results.