Go big or go home!
No better time than the present to evoke the old adage. That's the beauty of the NFL: Every year, big and bold things happen -- stuff no one saw coming. Just take last season, for example. Here's a random collection of memorable happenings:
The 49ers went from picking second in the draft to hitting the Super Bowl. Gardner Minshew started the season as a sixth-round afterthought behind big-ticket free-agent signee Nick Foles ... and ended up as the Jaguars' entrenched starter. Boston Scott, who sounds like a backup midfielder for Johns Hopkins lacrosse, suddenly began making plays in crunch time to help lift the Eagles into the playoffs.
These are the kinds of unforeseen developments that spawn fearless futurecasting across the football world. And as you know, I'm never lacking for takes on the NFL front. Thinking about the coming season, I have some choice predictions in mind ...
I think the Bills will win the AFC East and a home playoff game. And I really mean it this time when I say the Browns will hit the postseason. Tom Brady taking the Bucs to the Super Bowl? Sure, I could see it. Why not?
But none of those feel truly audacious. It's the offseason. Let's get adventurous!
Here are my boldest predictions for the 2020 season, Schein Nine style:
1) Patriots will collapse to a top-five pick in the 2021 NFL Draft
By Labor Day, I might even push this to top three. Or on the clock.
Tom Brady is in Tampa. Jarrett Stidham is Jarrett Stidham. Yes, Bill Belichick is the greatest coach in the history of sports, but the roster just isn't that good. The problems that ultimately led to New England's undoing down the stretch last season still exist -- in fact, they're probably even more problematic. And the Patriots no longer have the G.O.A.T. to serve as the ultimate deodorant for what stinks. The receiving corps remains underwhelming. I like the long-term upside of the two tight ends New England drafted in the third round -- Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene -- but the roster lacks a proven NFL commodity at the position. The offensive line is average at best. Same with the backfield. Defensively, the Pats went from historic during the team's 8-0 start last season to leaky in the second half of the year. And the unit lost a number of key players, including Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins.
I haven't even mentioned the schedule, which is brutal. Check it out. New England will be the inferior team in almost every single game it plays. Road division games in Miami and New York are hardly givens. The Bills will maul the Patriots.
This season in Foxborough has 5-11 written all over it. If everything breaks right. I think the Jaguars, Patriots and Giants are the three worst teams in the NFL right now.
2) Raiders RB Josh Jacobs will win the rushing title
Despite the purported devaluation of running backs, the position is currently stocked with big-name stars, including Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook and Nick Chubb, to name a few. But everyone's gonna have to move aside for Jacobs in 2020.
The Raiders' second-year back is physical, speedy and fresh, having averaged just 123 carries over his past four years of football (three at Alabama, one in the NFL). Yes, a shoulder injury prematurely ended his fantastic rookie season -- when he rushed for 1,150 yards and forced the most missed tackles as a runner, per Pro Football Focus -- but he'll be recovered and ready to rock in the fall.
In 2020, the presence of rookie speed merchant Henry Ruggs III should loosen things up, preventing teams from always stacking the box. A year removed from the Antonio Brown debacle, Derek Carr and the passing attack are going to sing. The Raiders' offensive line is mammoth and talented -- the unit will provide Jacobs plenty of room to truck the opposition. Jacobs logged 242 carries last season. I think that number gets closer to that of fellow Alabama alum Derrick Henry, who toted the rock a league-high 303 times in 2019. I can't wait to watch it.
3) Jets QB Sam Darnold will become a star
I still love Darnold. His rookie year was a classic roller-coaster ride, not at all helped by the dreadful offensive coordinating of Jeremy Bates, who was fired -- along with head coach Todd Bowles -- after the season. General manager Mike Maccagnan kept his job through 2019 free agency and the draft -- and then got canned. Because only the Jets. Adam Gase was brought in to maximize New York's second-year quarterback ... and Darnold got mono. But don't let all of this misfortune color your view of the No. 3 pick of the 2018 draft. He still has plenty of promise, especially with competent leadership now in the front office.
GM Joe Douglas has shown plenty of promise in a short time on the job, with a calculating, savvy approach. He brilliantly beefed up the offensive line this offseason, adding a whole bunch of big bodies in free agency, then spending the Jets' first-round pick on OT Mekhi Becton. This is how you properly protect a young quarterback, by OVERindulging on O-linemen. Now, Darnold's receiving corps is full of question marks -- which is why this prediction is bold in the first place -- but Douglas did add the explosive Denzel Mims in Round 2 of the draft.
Down the stretch last season, after Darnold was recovered from mono, the young QB excelled. From Week 9 through 17, he averaged 245.2 passing yards per game and compiled a 14:5 TD-to-INT ratio, leading the Jets to a 6-3 record. Darnold has every intangible and tangible you want in a true franchise quarterback. And in 2020, it all comes together over the course of a full season.
4) Coach of the Year Mike McCarthy's Cowboys will be the NFC's No. 1 seed
You betcha. After years of Dallas being stuck in the middle with Jason Garrett, McCarthy is the perfect remedy for what ails this team. The Super Bowl-winning coach is a great offensive mind. He will maximize the incredible weapons Dallas possesses on offense, with Zeke running behind a stout O-line and Dak Prescott throwing the ball to Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb. The defense has some questions, especially in the secondary. But Dallas can rush the passer, and the linebacking duo of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith is strong.
McCarthy also put together a fantastic coaching staff. There's a new culture in Dallas. And with this offense, "America's Team" is going to be so much fun to watch.
5) Seahawks will miss the playoffs
I know that the Seahawks have been one of the most consistent teams in the NFL over the last decade, posting a winning record in each of the past eight seasons, with double-digit wins in seven of them. I know that Russell Wilson is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And I never want to bet against fellow future gold-jacket wearers Bobby Wagner and Pete Carroll. But I have serious questions about the overall quality of this roster -- especially when compared to a host of rosters across the NFC.
San Francisco, last year's NFC champs, look even better right now. Tampa Bay won the offseason, with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski joining a talented young roster and Jason Licht adding some key pieces in the draft. New Orleans will be squarely in the Lombardi hunt for the fourth straight season. The Cowboys and Eagles both upgraded their rosters. I have already declared the Cardinals this year's Cinderella team. And Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers.
Don't get me wrong: I don't expect the Seahawks to fall apart. But they'll lose a few more games than usual, especially in this year's highly competitive NFC West.
6) Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes will throw 51 touchdown passes
In his first full year as a starter, he posted the second 50/5,000 season in NFL history and won MVP. Last season, he was the Super Bowl MVP. This offseason, the Chiefs stole Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who has Brian Westbrook-like qualities as a runner/receiver. And here's the rub: At age 24, Mahomes is only getting better.
Andy Reid is a gem of a coach and play caller. Mahomes is the best show in sports with unreal weapons around him. Why not?
7) Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster will dominate once again
Smith-Schuster was dreadful last season, totaling just 552 yards and three touchdowns. Yes, injuries were a major factor for both him and Ben Roethlisberger. But JuJu fizzled in the spotlight of replacing Antonio Brown as the Steelers' WR1. I think he learned from it. And I am enamored with his amazing talent and work ethic. Not to mention, he's still just 23 years old.
Plus, Big Ben is back! And while I am quite skeptical about the prospect of a 38-year-old coming off elbow surgery staying healthy for 16 games -- and inherently, I wish Pittsburgh had improved its brutal backup quarterback situation -- there is no denying the chemistry the first-ballot Hall of Famer has with JuJu.
Oh, did I mention Smith-Schuster's in a contract year?
8) Lions QB Matthew Stafford will lead the NFL is passing yards
I have loved listening to Stafford talk in jubilant tones this offseason, after a 2019 campaign that was limited to just eight games due to injury. The league is always better when No. 9 is slinging it for the Lions. Stafford's back is healthy, and I think he is primed to have the best year of his underappreciated career.
It's Year 2 in Darrell Bevell's offense, an attack that suited Stafford quite well last fall. Detroit has a fine trio of receivers in Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola, and I think T.J. Hockenson can enjoy a breakout sophomore campaign with better health. Rookie RB D'Andre Swift was a steal in Round 2, and he's a legit weapon in the passing game. Detroit still has issues on defense, meaning Stafford is going to be called upon to throw the ball a lot. And I think the Lions are going to win some games you don't expect them to win this year behind a rejuvenated Stafford.
9) Chargers S Derwin James will win Defensive Player of the Year
The candidates for this award roll deep. Aaron Donald is always a fine answer. Nick Bosa's an emerging superstar. T.J. Watt's now blowing up defenses like his brother. Tre'Davious White's a stud on Sean McDermott's defense. Stephon Gilmore won it last year. And I personally voted for Chandler Jones.
But don't sleep on Derwin.
As a rookie in 2018, James immediately made his presence felt -- as in, he earned first-team All-Pro honors. Not too shabby. Then, unfortunately, he was injured for most of last year, and it changed everything for the Chargers' esteem and team. But I think he comes back with a vengeance in 2020.
To me, James is already the best safety in the NFL. With a Swiss Army Knife skill set, he makes plays and wrecks games. And I envision him taking his game to a whole other level in Year 3.