Yes, it's time for bold predictions. Bold as in, hard to buy, but not necessarily hard to sell. An example of what you won't find: a prediction of David Johnson doing something incredible, whether that means leading the league in rushing yards, winning Offensive Player of the Year or racking up over 1,000 receiving yards. Not solely because he almost accomplished all of those feats last year, but because everyone who has a fantasy league or watched "All or Nothing" has been chatting up Johnson.
Away we go ...
I can hear you now: Uh ... to whom? The Ravens lost Kamar Aiken and Steve Smith, Sr., the latter of whom now works with me, and Dennis Pittais also gone. But the thing is, at its zenith, the Ravens' ground game is mediocre (28th in the NFL last year). So Flacco's right arm will generate the majority of the buzz in this offense. The addition of Jeremy Maclin should compensate for a portion of the WR defections. Benjamin Watsonhas started practicing -- he was Pitta insurance last year before tearing his Achilles tendon. And then you add Danny Woodhead -- a mid-tier signing of the type no one notices until he grabs 80 balls -- to the mix. With Marshawn Lynch in Oakland, Derek Carr might throw less. Ditto Philip Rivers with Melvin Gordon's ascension with the Chargers. It's becoming increasingly difficult for Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck to play 16 games. As far as Tom Brady is concerned, it's reasonable to assume Flacco will be trailing in more games and attempting more throws. Thus, Flacco could be your passing leader. Really.
For whatever reason, not too many folks realize how effective McCoy was last season. Despite missing almost two full games, the uber confident tailback backed up his football bravado with 1,267 yards, 14 total touchdowns and a sterling 5.41 yards per carry, which was third in the NFL. He also caught 50 balls. Funny, nobody ever thinks of McCoy as much of a receiver. McCoy seems to fly under the radar amid the widespread fascination with David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott and Le'Veon Bell, but he should absolutely be mentioned in their company among the league's elite. The Bills led the NFL in rushing last year. Tyrod Taylor's running ability demands opposing defenses to play 11-on-11. The run-first philosophy in Buffalo shouldn't change much under new Sean McDermott. Thus, fans might tap the brakes before anointing DJ, Zeke, and Lev Bell the rushing champs.
Cincinnati Bengals: They finish with a worse record than last season (6-9-1).
This hasn't happened since 2010, the year of the T.O.-Ochocinco marriage. So what gives? It's not because of the wide receiver group, which should be just fine with A.J. Green and rookie John Ross. No, the issue on offense is the offensive line, a group that didn't play particularly well last season. That group lost its two top players (Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth) during the offseason, which doesn't bode well for the skill positions. Sure, Ross boasts a tremendous 40 time, but by the time he gets downfield, Andy Dalton could very well be on his back. Many draftniks touted second-round selection Joe Mixon as a steal. But he won't be if he's running through some of the same holes Jeremy Hill saw last season. Cincinnati missed Hue Jackson's guidance on offense last season. Leadership on defense has been lacking. Wins could be similarly rare.
Cleveland Browns: They win at least five games.
Whew doggie. Not even Randy Quaid is crazy enough to predict the Browns winning more than a couple of games. Quarterback remains, well, a mess -- at least until Hue Jackson decides on one. Whoever starts (Cody Kessler, please) will retain Kenny Britt and Corey Coleman outside, with first-round pick David Njoku at tight end. Not bad, but it's far from Webster Slaughter, Brian Brennan and Ozzie Newsome. Isaiah Crowell will be once again expected to carry the load at running back. These are good players. The offensive line will be better, with the additions of Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter, plus the depth provided by fifth-round pick Roderick Johnson. The defense added the premier player in the draft in Myles Garrett, along with another first-round pick in Jabrill Peppers. Not to mention the Browns play the AFC South, NFC North and the Jets. The schedule is, as they say, an ally.
While many are predicting a fantastic season for the Von Miller/Shane Ray combo, this prediction is a little ambitious. Consider the other OLB pass rushers currently residing in the AFC. Justin Houston is fully healthy. Khalil Mack is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Jadeveon Clowney (a true hybrid) was the queen on the chessboard for the Texans last season. Brian Orakpo was fantastic last season for the Titans. And, of course, there's Miller. None of these names include the talented group of 4-3 OLBs in the AFC right now, either, like Telvin Smith and Lorenzo Alexander. That said, remember how productive Ray was in 2016 when DeMarcus Ware was unavailable? The Thursday night game versus the Chargers comes to mind. Ray has learned for two years at the collective elbow of the best pass-rush duo in football, and he amassed eight sacks in part-time duty last year. He's ready.
This prediction is not intended to be overly pro-Texans or anti-Tom Savage. It's just that Watson should have every opportunity to wrestle the job from Savage, whose career has been marred by one injury after the other. More importantly, if Watson takes the job, he'll have DeAndre Hopkins, Lamar Miller and other talented young players on offense at his disposal. Most importantly, Watson won't feel the pressure to put up 30 points per game or force too many throws. Remember, Houston's defense finished tops in the league in yards allowed without J.J. Watt, who will be back in action this season. OK, I cheated -- there's no official award for this. I picked Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey to take home the actual Offensive Rookie of the Year award over in the NFC file. That said, I could see Watson being the top newbie in his conference. Side note: As much as we hear about the measurables, particularly in regards to the NFL Scouting Combine, there is much to be said for what John Fox once called "competitive greatness." Watson would seem to own that intangible in spades.
Indianapolis Colts: Frank Gore becomes the second RB in NFL history to run for 1,000 yards in Year 13.
Gore -- who limped past the 1,000-yard barrier last season -- is certainly not an ascending player. But the veteran running back made, and continues to make, a career on patient running based off his vision and feel. So while he might not be able to dash through an opening a la DeMarco Murray, Gore finds seams that other players don't, which is precisely why he's been an RB1 for over a decade. (This also sometimes makes the Colts' line look better than it is.) Indy's youthful right side of the line showed potential late in 2016, contrary to what you hear in the media. (Fake news?) By the way, only five players have surpassed 1,000 yards rushing in their 12th seasons: John Riggins, Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Franco Harris and Gore.
Jacksonville Jaguars: They finish with a top-10 scoring defense for the first time in 10 years.
Contrary to what you might think, the Jaguars can't suck forever. There is too much talent on this team for them to go 3-13 again in 2017. That includes an excellent mix of youth and experience, with a no-nonsense head coach (Doug Marrone) and an even more no-nonsense EVP (Tom Coughlin). Veteran free-agent signee Calais Campbell should add as much to the locker room as he does to the defensive line. Fellow signee A.J. Bouye played like one of the best corners in the league last year with the Texans ... because he was one of the best cornerbacks in the league last year. Newcomer Barry Church has been a steady performer in Dallas for several seasons. Jalen Ramsey enters Year 2. Myles Jack is the wild card here. If he plays to Ramsey's level last year, look out. Drafting Leonard Fournette means a healthier running game and a less-winded defense. We'll all take 8-8 this year.
Only once in his career has Smith soared past a 100 passer rating, and that came in an injury-shortened campaign. Of course, speaking of soaring, that's exactly what Smith's detractors say his passes don't do -- i.e., that Smith is a dump-off king. Perhaps Smith takes the safe route more often than not, but given the strong ground attack the Chiefs have featured during his time there (K.C.'s run game has ranked 15th, sixth, 10th and 10th the past four seasons), it hasn't always been necessary for Smith to put much air under the ball. Nor has Kansas City possessed a DeSean Jackson- or Torrey Smith-type of receiver. The risk of drafting Patrick Mahomes raised many eyebrows around the league -- almost certainly none more than those of the incumbent starter. That's why Smith will put together his best all-around campaign in Chiefs red. Will it be enough to get the team to the next step, the AFC Championship? No answer in this blurb, folks.
Going all in on Allen this year. Again. While I'm excited for first-round pick Mike Williams, there has been some concern that the big-time talent is already lagging behind, given the time he missed because of back trouble. (UPDATE: NFL.com's Mike Garafolo reported Wednesday that Williams is likely to start camp on PUP list following a second epidural for a herniated disc in lower back.) Allen's career has been a living train wreck the last two seasons, but keep in mind that before getting injured in the eighth game of the 2015 season, Allen had already caught 67 passes. That extrapolates to about 140 receptions. With the further development of tight end Hunter Henry and receiver Tyrell Williams, perhaps less targets will go Allen's way. But attention from opposing DBs should also diminish. Bias alert: I am majorly rooting for Allen. He's endured tough luck thus far in a short career.
Miami Dolphins: They feature a top-10 offense for the first time since 1995.
You read that right. The Miami Dolphins haven't fielded a top-10 attack since Dan Marino was the field general, Bernie Parmalee -- a part-time UPS driver -- was one of the feature backs and O.J. McDuffie was catching a ton of balls. Oh yeah, don't forget Irving Fryar and the massive Eric Green at tight end. Don Shula was the head coach, for crying out loud. Ah, but last year, the offense made real strides under first-year head coach Adam Gase, improving from 27th to 17th in points scored. That was with backup Matt Moore playing significant time at quarterback, while all the starters were taking in Gase's system for the first time. Miami also faces the so-so defenses in the NFC South, a bit easier task then the NFC West units (Seahawks, Cardinals, Rams) they saw last year. Most interesting? How far QB1 Ryan Tannehill comes along.
New England Patriots: Tom Brady becomes the first 40-year-old QB in NFL history to be named first-team All-Pro.
No quarterback has ever crossed the Year 40 plateau and been named the top player at this position. Sonny Jurgensen led the NFC in passer rating in his last season, but he shared duties with Billy Kilmer that year. Vinny Testaverde played really well for the Jets when he turned 40 (90.6 passer rating), but he started less than half the games because of the presence of Chad Pennington. Brett Favre produced an incredible season, easing past 40 years of age for the 2009 Vikings (107.2 passer rating), but he couldn't edge out Peyton Manning for first-team All-Pro or MVP honors. Many QBs have played that long, from Hall of Famer Len Dawson to Hall of Very Gooder Jim Hart. Yet, none match Brady, who is still the best player in pro football. Considering the arrival of Brandin Cooks in New England and Brady's diet and workout regimen, I wouldn't bet against Brady.
Yes, I know I picked Cowboys defensive end Taco Charlton for this honor in the NFC file. But I think Adams will play well enough to force a tie. While there's not a lot of encouraging news emanating from the Jets this offseason, I challenge you to find me anyone who didn't like the Adams pick this year. Much like with Leonard Williamsa couple of years back, all of the board-game strategy that presents itself on draft day manifested itself again ... in the Jets' favor, again. Adams found himself falling to Todd Bowles and Co. at No. 6, even though the 49ers (who picked third) or Bears (second) certainly could have used a playmaking safety with leadership skills. When the various draftniks came out of the woodwork in May, the AFC rookies that were circled immediately were Leonard Fournette, Deshaun Watson and, for entirely alternative reasons, Patrick Mahomes. Yet, Adams has a better opportunity than any of them to start Day 1. The fact that the Jets look poised to struggle only spotlights Adams, a player full of talent on a team mostly devoid of it otherwise.
Oakland Raiders: Oakland makes it to the AFC Championship Game.
I'm riding the Raiders hype train all the way through summer camp, preseason, 17 weeks of football and on through January. All eyes are on Marshawn Lynch, and for good reason. The guy is a certifiable star, and at this stage of his career, perhaps a borderline Hall of Famer. From a purely strategic standpoint, Lynch's presence could work wonders for Oakland's defense. With Latavius Murray, the Raiders' ground game was full of peaks and valleys. In fact, you couldn't count on anyone in Oakland's backfield last year to close out games. In Lynch, the Raiders may have found their Dennis Eckersley. Even if Lynch isn't a closer, he could provide Oakland pass rushers with the extra rest they need, a la Zeke Elliott's effect on a verrrrry mediocre defense in Dallas last season. We forgot to mention that Derek Carr is an MVP candidate. We also forgot to mention Khalil Mack is an MVP candidate.
Steelers fans must be thinking what if regarding the last three postseasons. Le'Veon Bell's injury in Week 17 of the 2014 season derailed a red-hot Steelers team ready to make its move. In 2015, Bell missed more than half the season, while the rest of Pittsburgh's walking wounded made a valiant effort to make it to the Divisional Round. Then last year, with a Super Bowl berth at stake, Bell couldn't get through the first half of the AFC Championship Game in Foxborough before getting hurt. I think the Steelers will look to reduce Bell's workload a bit in an effort to keep him fresh. He's not 22 anymore, after all, but rather a 25-year-old star still looking for a long-term deal. He'll put 16 games and 360 touches on his resume this season.
Hey, why not? Why can't the Titans supplant the Texans, who've had a stranglehold on the AFC South despite being the headless horseman, a team without a viable quarterback? That isn't a problem for Tennessee, especially considering Marcus Mariota showed real signs in Year 2. The running game outpaced everyone but the Cowboys and Bills in the NFL last season, while the passing game has added rookie Corey Davis and vet Eric Decker. The Colts might not be good enough on the defensive side of the ball to be in the race come Week 17. The Jags? Well, that's always the question, isn't it? When the Titans had an opportunity to make a play for the division last year, they laid a gnarly egg versus Jacksonville. They were losing by two scores before Mariota went down with a fractured fibula. They must raise their level of play as a squad when the moment arrives this year.