The 2019 NFL season is less than 100 days away. In other words, we still have a lot of time to kill before real football returns. Man, summer is going to be the worst.
In the meantime, let's take a spin around the league and predict which players will be the most valuable to their respective teams in the upcoming season. Let me also preemptively apologize to all you kickers and offensive linemen out there. You are all super valuable, just not valuable enough to show up in an exercise like this. I respect you.
Anyway, let's get to it. Below, you'll see my picks for each AFC team; click the tab above (or click here) to see my picks in the NFC. Bonus fun: One of these 32 players will be the NFL MVP in 2019. I guarantee it, or your money back.
Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson, QB
I was tempted to give the nod to Earl Thomas, who joins the Ravens after a lost final season with the Seahawks. General sports truth: Always bet on a superstar with something to prove. Still, I'm going with Jackson, who the Ravens believe is their answer to Kyler Murray in Arizona. We know Jackson will wreak havoc with his legs -- his team MVP prospects are directly tied to how he progresses as a passer. It's an important summer, as Jackson refines his mechanics and learns a new offense under coordinator Greg Roman. The Ravens need their QB1 to be a quick learner.
Buffalo Bills: Josh Allen, QB
That blend of optimism and apprehension in Baltimore can also be found up north in Buffalo, where the Bills hope Allen will take the next step. Like Jackson, Allen is a first-round pick who flashed as a rookie but also struggled at times with ball placement and mechanics. Even with those Year 1 deficiencies, Allen gives Bills fans the kind of quarterback excitement they haven't seen since ... Jim Kelly? That dash of Fitzmagic a while back? Flutie Flakes? Allen doesn't have a true No. 1 wideout to throw to, but we love the fireworks potential of Allen's howitzer and free-agent addition John Brown's blazing straight-line speed. Sportswriter Rule No. 483: "Cannon" and "howitzer" are the only artillery-related terms allowed to describe the power of a quarterback's throwing arm.
Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green, WR
Speaking of superstars with something to prove, let's talk about A.J. Green. The torn toe ligament Green suffered last season didn't just ruin his season -- it ruined the Bengals. Cincinnati was 5-3 when Green was healthy last year and 1-7 when its playmaker was sidelined (including the Week 13 game that he exited in the first half). With apologies to Andy Dalton, it is Green who makes this offense go -- there are only a handful of wide receivers in the league you can say that about. Entering a contract year, Green has extra motivation to get back to his quiet-assassin ways. If he does, the Bengals could be a sneaky playoff contender.
Cleveland Browns: Odell Beckham, WR
Well, here it is. If you're one of those people who love to hate on Eli Manning's game (I know you're out there, you guys make a lot of noise), you've spent the last couple of years wondering what kind of production Beckham could put up with a better quarterback. Beckham has one now in Baker Mayfield. The Baker-to-Beckham connection is tantalizing to think about. Last week on the "Around The NFL" podcast, colleague Chris Wesseling likened the anticipation currently building in Cleveland to the Patriots' brilliant move to pair Randy Moss with Tom Brady ahead of the 2007 season. There's nobody better than a healthy and focused Beckham. You could say the same about Moss 12 years ago.
Denver Broncos: Von Miller, OLB
There are all sorts of question marks surrounding the Broncos' offense. The realistic hope in Denver is that an offense led by current-day Joe Flacco can be average or a bit better, putting the defense in position to carry the day each week. Miller, of course, is the centerpiece of the whole thing. Making peace with star cornerback Chris Harris was important, and Bradley Chubb had the look of a future All-Pro as a rookie. But Miller -- to borrow an old line from Yankees great Reggie Jackson -- remains the straw that stirs the drink. Miller can't do it alone, but the Broncos can't do anything without him.
Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson, QB
Why does it feel like Watson gets overlooked when discussing the best young quarterbacks in football? People seem to forget how the Clemson legend exploded on the scene as a rookie in 2017 before an ACL tear wiped out his momentum. More recently, people sleep on how Watson -- and, of course, DeAndre Hopkins -- carried an otherwise meh Texans offense to the AFC South title. The Texans have done a terrible job of protecting their prized asset -- Watson took an astounding 62 sacks and suffered 132 knockdowns a season ago, but Houston still averaged 25.1 points and scored 38 touchdowns. Watson accounted for 31 of those TDs, and that number will tick upward if reinforcements take hold along the offensive line. I love Watson as a dark horse league MVP candidate.
Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck, QB
Last year in this same exercise, my prediction of Luck as the Colts' MVP was pretty much wishcasting. Luck had missed the entire prior season with shoulder troubles, and no one knew if he would be the same player once he returned. Well, Luck wasn't the same guy we saw before 2017 -- he was better. Like Peyton Manning before him, Luck is the unquestioned face of the Colts. When talking about the most valuable players on the team's roster, no one else is even close.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Jalen Ramsey, CB
The short explanation for the Jaguars' crash-and-burn 2018 season is typically explained thusly: Blake Bortles was bad, and the Jaguars didn't realize until it was too late. And while I absolutely agree with that sentiment in a vacuum, the Jags' bitterly disappointing 5-11 finish extended beyond the struggles of an inconsistent quarterback. In 2017 -- when the Jags came within a questionable call of reaching the Super Bowl -- Jacksonville piled up 55 sacks and forced 33 turnovers, both the second-best marks in football. Last year, with much of the same cast, the Jags managed just 37 sacks and 17 turnovers. The defense -- a dominant, game-wrecking force in 2017 -- couldn't run it back. Ramsey took a step back himself; he was the NFL's 28th-best cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus. Expect better in 2019.
Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes, QB
Best not to overthink this one. Mahomes delivered one of the greatest quarterback seasons in league history en route to claiming the NFL MVP award in 2018. He is 23 years old. The greatest thing Andy Reid ever did was dominate that punt, pass and kick competition as a giant boy in 1971. The second-greatest thing he did was move up to get Mahomes in the 2017 draft. Big Red will likely get to enjoy the spoils of Mahomes' unreal greatness for the remainder of his coaching life.
Los Angeles Chargers: Philip Rivers, QB
There are no shortage of realistic MVP candidates for the Chargers. Joey Bosa and Derwin James jump out on the defensive side of the ball. On offense, you love the production of Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon. But Rivers is the choice. The wily old vet remained his typical rock-solid self in 2018; PFF ranked the prolific human reproducer as the fourth-best quarterback in football in his 15th season. Father Time will eventually come calling for Rivers' football soul, but we don't see it happening in 2019. It's Super Bowl or bust for the Chargers. Trust the man in the bolo.
Miami Dolphins: Kenyan Drake, RB
Is this the year the Dolphins allow Drake to become the workhorse? He's certainly earned the gig, even if his first three NFL seasons saw him taking a backseat to Jay Ajayi (2016 and 2017) and Frank Gore (2018). Drake displays elite elusiveness and the ability to pile up extra yards after contact. I break no news in telling you that's the recipe for stardom at the position. The Dolphins have no excuse not to feature Drake this season: Adam Gase has migrated north to Jersey, while the quarterback tandem of Josh Rosen and Ryan Fitzpatrick provides, at this point anyway, more intrigue than genuine reason for optimism. C'mon now: Let. Drake. Eat.
New England Patriots: Tom Brady, QB
Reports of Brady's decline were overblown last season. While he certainly struggled in pockets -- a midseason knee injury undoubtedly played a role -- he remained one of the top 10 quarterbacks in football. Oh, and the Patriots won the Super Bowl, so there's that. Entering his age-42 season, you just know Brady is using the buzz about his impending demise as competitor fuel. This is a man with a work ethic that makes his contemporaries cry. Is he middle-aged? Yes. Will he miss Gronk? Absolutely. Can Brady and Josh McDaniels still find a way to make New England one of the top offenses in football in 2019? Just watch.
New York Jets: Le'Veon Bell, RB
Lost in the hysteria about the Jets' decision to fire general manager Mike Maccagnan is the reality that this team is looking pretty damn decent on paper. The biggest upgrade came at running back, where Bell replaces the Isaiah Crowell/Bilal Powell pupu platter. Tune out the noise about Bell's salary and Gase's reported behind-the-scenes bellyaching about the investment. Focus on how Bell -- with fresh legs after a one-year layoff -- can return to All-Pro ballots as a 320-plus touch bell-cow back in the Meadowlands. If Sam Darnold takes the next step at quarterback, Bell will be piling up first downs and touchdowns all season as the best Jets running back since Curtis Martin.
Oakland Raiders: Antonio Brown, WR
We're not sure how long the honeymoon between Jon Gruden and Brown will last, but Brown is going to pile up some gaudy numbers in the meantime. If Brown stays healthy, no other receiver in football is going to come near him in terms of targets. And since Brown has the uncanny ability to catch almost anything thrown his way, don't be surprised if he matches the production of his best seasons in Pittsburgh. A 130-1,700-15 season is in play. Make this man your first-round pick in fantasy.
Pittsburgh Steelers: JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR
How cute is this? AB and JuJu, two teammates-turned-social-media foes, sitting right next to each other in this post on account of alphabetical order. Smith-Schuster will undoubtedly see his targets tick upward with Brown now 3,000 miles away. I predict a particular spike in red-zone production. Could Brown and JuJu end up as first-team All-Pros together? Not a crazy thought at all. Note: I would have gone with Ben Roethlisberger here, but poor Big Ben has one team MVP trophy to show for 15 years of consistent greatness. Betcha AB has theories.
Tennessee Titans: Derrick Henry, RB
Yes, I am well aware that Marcus Mariota has put on 12 to 13 pounds this offseason (the specificity of this number range has annoyed me for days). And good for Marcus -- one more hit last season, and he would have burst into flames. But while others will bank on Mariota finally staying healthy and realizing his promise, I'll get behind Henry, who was the league's most productive running back over the final quarter of last season. Henry carried the Titans' offense down the stretch, rushing for 585 yards on 87 carries with seven touchdowns in the last four games. Henry is squarely in his prime and has established himself as a difference-maker. It's Henry, not Mariota, who should be the engine of Tennessee's attack.