The 2019 NFL Draft is in the past. Free agency feels like a distant memory. And training camp is just a couple months away.
So it's not too early for some bold predictions.
Now, things can change. Injuries. Trades. Drama. The usual.
But in mid-May, it's time to go big or go home. So here are my bold predictions for the 2019 NFL season, Schein Nine style:
1) Derek Carr returns to MVP form.
I was one of the voters who cast a ballot for Carr as the 2016 Associated Press NFL MVP. It feels like a lifetime ago, given the injuries, coordinator changes, head-coaching changes, trades that rocked the franchise, questionable roster moves and so on. Yes, Carr also experienced a personal slippage in play after a broken leg prematurely ended that 2016 campaign, but so many things have been beyond his control.
This offseason, though, Mike Mayock has restocked the previously-bare offensive cupboard. Off-field nonsense aside, Antonio Brown is a Hall of Fame receiver who's still in his prime, having just posted an NFL-best 15 touchdown grabs in 2018. This was a dream acquisition for Carr. And don't sleep on what Tyrell Williams means on the outside. The field-stretching extraordinaire has averaged a robust 15.9 yards per reception over the past three seasons -- that's the kind of weapon who opens up space for all of his teammates. Oakland also upgraded Carr's protection with the addition of Trent Brown. Sure, the offensive tackle didn't come cheap ... but that's not Carr's money. I'm sure he warmly welcomes the addition of a 6-foot-8, 380-pound bodyguard. In the draft, the Raiders scooped up do-it-all running back Josh Jacobs, who'll shoulder a healthy dose of the offensive load through his hard running and deft pass catching. And don't sleep on the addition of fifth-round slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, whose ability to consistently get open in the clutch belies his underwhelming physical dimensions.
I can't wait to watch Carr and the Raiders get back to relevance and domination on offense, specifically in the passing attack. Carr will once again be a top-10 quarterback in the NFL, lighting up opposing teams on a week-to-week basis.
2) The Green Bay Packers win 11 games to sit atop the NFC North.
I love what Green Bay has done this offseason. General manager Brian Gutekunst arguably added five defensive starters in free agency (S Adrian Amos, DE Za'Darius Smith, OLB Preston Smith) and the draft (DE Rashan Gary, S Darnell Savage). Big for a unit that hasn't cracked the top 20 in points allowed since 2015. Gutekunst also upgraded two offensive areas that needed attention: offensive line and tight end. And I love the appointment of Matt LaFleur as head coach. With a clean bill of health, Aaron Rodgers' "I can be coached" tour is going to be real and spectacular.
Now, the division is tough, no doubt. But Chicago's kicking game scares me a little bit. Vic Fangio leaving to coach Denver scares me even more. The Bears will still be legit, but I have the Packers at 11-5, Chicago at 10-6. Meanwhile, Minnesota has plenty of talent ... but there's just something off about this mix. And the Lions? Well, they haven't won a division title since 1993.
3) Baker Mayfield becomes an MVP candidate while taking the AFC North.
Why not? Baker set a rookie record for touchdown passes (27) -- and he will be even more comfortable in his second year.
Now, I'll admit that I didn't initially love the shotgun marriage with Freddie Kitchens as the head coach. But it should help Mayfield's growth. The 24-year-old quarterback told me on my SiriusXM Radio show that he wanted Kitchens. And given how Mayfield performed in the back half of last season, with Kitchens as his offensive coordinator following the firing of Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, I get it.
I've yet to even mention Odell Beckham Jr., an incredible addition to Mayfield's arsenal. With Beckham joining his old LSU teammate, Jarvis Landry, Cleveland could boast the best receiving corps in the NFL. The backfield duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt will be lethal down the stretch. (Hunt won't be in the mix until November, due to his eight-game suspension.)
Mayfield has the ability, leadership and swagger needed to make sure the Browns live up to the hype. And they will, by winning the AFC North.
4) The Pittsburgh Steelers finish third in the AFC North.
I loved the Steelers' aggressive draft move for Devin Bush, but it's everything else that concerns me. Starting with the fact that Cleveland and Baltimore are better.
Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell are gone, but the drama isn't -- not with Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin still in the fold. And how exactly are the Steelers going to replace Brown's production? Over the last six years, AB averaged 114 catches for 1,524 yards and 11 touchdowns. Good luck, JuJu and friends.
5) Daniel Jones starts at least seven games for the New York Giants.
With a pair of road games (at Dallas and Tampa Bay) sandwiched around the home opener against the rising Bills, it's definitely not out of the realm of possibility that the Giants start the season at 0-3. Daniel Jones vs. Dwayne Haskins in the all irony/rumor bowl in Week 4? Dave Gettleman and Bruce Allen get the party started with a cage match in warmups? I'm all in.
The Jones pick was bonkers for all the reasons everyone has laid out over the past couple weeks. But Eli Manning has been cooked for years. So, while the Duke product was a reach at No. 6, he's also the best quarterback on the roster today. Big Blue is going to be really bad in 2019. And everyone will be in job preservation mode. That means taking the rookie QB out for an extended test run.
6) The NFC West is the most exciting division in football.
Los Angeles, the reigning NFC champion, is the obvious headliner. The Rams are an absolute show on offense under Sean McVay. Aaron Donald is must-see TV on the other side of the ball, as the best defensive player in the sport today. Meanwhile, the Niners are going to bounce back this year and sizzle with a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo. And don't sleep on the return of Jerick McKinnon, with Tevin Coleman also joining the backfield mix. Rookie DE Nick Bosa is going to sack the quarterback 10 times.
Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner and the Seahawks are always pure excitement. And speaking of excitement, Kyler Murray is going to be the most fascinating player in the league. He will create plenty of fireworks in Kliff Kingsbury's offense, throwing to a talented and diverse group of receivers led by future first-ballot Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. Talking to Kingsbury on SiriusXM Radio, the first-year coach said he's been picking Lincoln Riley's brain to make sure Murray experiences a seamless transition from OU to AZ. That shows Kingsbury has no ego and will do what's best for Murray and the team. I love it.
NFC West football: I'm here for it.
7) Andy Dalton enjoys the best year of his career.
Jonah Williams was a steal at No. 11, an excellent first-round pick to solidify Cincinnati's offensive line. A.J. Green will be healthy again -- and there's depth and youth around him at receiver. Joe Mixon is a star, having led the AFC with 1,168 rushing yards last season while averaging a healthy 4.9 yards per carry. And count me in the "Zac Taylor can coach" camp. In fact, call me camp counselor! The Bengals needed a major lift post-Marvin Lewis, and I think they got it. Taylor will maximize Dalton. Cincy's offense is going to surprise some people.
But wait a second: In the Steelers blurb above, I essentially intimated that the Bengals would finish fourth in the AFC North. So, what gives? How does this add up: Dalton enjoying the best season of his career and Cincinnati staying in the cellar? Well, while I believe Taylor's offense will put points on the board, I don't think Lou Anarumo's defense will stop other teams from following suit. The 2018 Bengals ranked 30th in scoring defense and 32nd in total D. What did the organization do to shore up that unit this offseason? Acquired Preston Brown and B.W. Webb in free agency, while adding some mid-round talents in the draft. Yeah, that's not gonna cut it. Cincy will give up points in bunches, which will actually serve as a statistical boon to Dalton. Weekly shootouts for the Red Rifle!
8) Sean McDermott earns Coach of the Year honors.
Back in early April, I predicted Buffalo would be the NFL's Cinderella team in 2019. In the wake of a draft that saw the Bills steal DT Ed Oliver and wisely move up for OL Cody Ford, I fully stand by that Cinderella forecast. GM Brandon Beane has done a fantastic job building this roster. But my bullishness on the Bills stems most from the guy in the headset.
McDermott is a fantastic teacher and leader of men. His defense quietly ranked second in the NFL in yards allowed last season. And his team exudes toughness and discipline, giving Buffalo a great opportunity to overachieve.
9) The Los Angeles Chargers field the best defense in NFL.
The defenses in Chicago and Dallas get a lot more pub, and don't misinterpret -- I think both units will be great. But the Chargers' draft under Tom Telesco was quite strong. Again.
Jerry Tillery was a sturdy pickup for the defensive line. With Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram coming off the edges, the Notre Dame DT will provide the kind of interior disruption this unit has lacked in recent years. Talking to Telesco on SiriusXM Radio, he expects even bigger things out of Derwin James in Year 2. That's frightening, considering James was first-team All-Pro as a rookie. And now he has a new running mate at the safety position, with second-round pick Nasir Adderley joining the mix as a ballhawking center fielder.
This unit ranked top 10 in points and yards allowed in 2018 -- and that was with Bosa missing more than half the season. Gus Bradley's group is going to wreck shop in 2019.