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The Schein Nine

Bold predictions for 2021 NFL season: Aaron Rodgers lifts Broncos, Julio Jones fuels Titans

The coaching carousel is static. The free agency frenzy and 2021 NFL Draft are in the rearview. The real offseason is here, football fans.

But not to fret! It's officially time for me to make some bold predictions!!

I always enjoy this undertaking, but it's not a scorecard. It's an annual exercise on what I believe at this very moment, in May, four months before the season actually kicks off.

And this time around, I'm feeling especially frisky. Crank up the spice! Getcha oven mitts ready: TAKES COMIN' OUT HOT! As the great -- and now, Super Bowl-winning -- head coach Bruce Arians likes to say, "No risk it, no biscuit."

Here are my bold predictions for the 2021 NFL season, Schein Nine style:

1) Aaron Rodgers leads the Broncos on a deep playoff run

If you watched Rodgers' chat with the legendary Kenny Mayne on his final SportsCenter on Monday night, you have to believe Rodgers is done with the Packers. Why? Well, the Pack inexplicably put an expiration date on the future Hall of Famer's time in Green Bay. Instead of getting Rodgers some help in a 2020 draft class loaded with receiver talent, the Packers traded up to draft his replacement.

As Rodgers said while talking to Mayne, he threw a wrench into GM Brian Gutekunst's ill-conceived transition timeline by going out this past season and winning his third MVP award. No, the quarterback didn't mention Gutekunst by name, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to read between the lines.

"It's just kind of about a philosophy and maybe forgetting that it is about the people that make the thing go," Rodgers said to Mayne. "It's about character, it's about culture, it's about doing things the right way."

Rodgers is speaking directly to Pack brass there: Gutekunst, team president Mark Murphy and the front-office folks. Those people aren't changing. It's over. It's been over. Go back and listen to Rodgers' press conference following the Championship Sunday loss to Tampa Bay. He basically said goodbye. It's significant he isn't at OTAs for the first time in his career. Do you think he's showing up to mandatory minicamp in a couple weeks? Training camp? Standing side by side with Gutekunst and Murphy?

Enter Denver.

Rodgers is the most talented quarterback ever, fresh off his best season ever, so he won't come cheap. Three first-rounders and OLB Bradley Chubb is the starting point of a potential trade. But man, just think of this quarterback with this roster. The Broncos would surround the 37-year-old with explosive playmakers in the passing game, including receivers Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton and KJ Hamler, as well as tight end Noah Fant. The ground game is rock solid, with enticing second-round pick Javonte Williams joining seasoned veteran Melvin Gordon. And you know Vic Fangio will field a stout defense, especially now that he has stud corners in Patrick Surtain II and Kyle Fuller to fulfill his vision.

I would still call Kansas City "the team to beat" in the AFC West and AFC, but I'd put a Rodgers-led Broncos team up with anyone else in the loaded conference. Denver would be right in the mix with a Bills squad that's beginning to look like a juggernaut, an emerging Browns team thinking Super Bowl, the always-in-the-conversation Ravens and the ready-to-rumble Colts. And come January, are you betting against Mr. Rodgers?

2) Myles Garrett breaks the single-season sack record

Michael Strahan set the record at 22.5 -- with a little last-minute help from Brett Favre -- 20 seasons ago. Over the past two decades, Jared Allen, Justin Houston, Aaron Donald, J.J. Watt and DeMarcus Ware all reached 20-plus sacks, but none could knock Strahan from his throne. Now, with 17 games in the regular season, I expect this record to fall ASAP. And Garrett's the guy to do it.

Garrett looked like he'd make a run at the record in the first two months of last season, racking up nine sacks in the first seven games. But he missed two games after testing positive for COVID-19 and just didn't look the same upon return, dealing with additional injuries that also sapped his superpowers. Make no mistake, though: When this cat's right, he's unblockable, with size, speed, skill and a motor like no other. And it's not like he's surrounded by scrubs, either. With a bevy of high-end free-agent additions (Jadeveon Clowney, Malik Jackson, John Johnson III and Troy Hill) and a pair of instant-impact draft picks (Greg Newsome II and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah), the Browns' D is loaded at all three levels. So opponents can't just throw every resource at Garrett. The man is going to eat.

3) Ezekiel Elliott wins another rushing title

It's been a minute, but Elliott has actually led the league in rushing twice. A lot of people are down on Zeke in the wake of a 2020 season where he averaged a career-low 4.0 yards per carry, but I think he still has it. I know running backs generally struggle to age gracefully, but Elliott's far from geriatric, turning 26 in July.

With a healthy, properly compensated Dak Prescott back in the fold, Dallas is going to dominate offensively. I envision the Cowboys jumping out to a lot of leads, allowing a highly motivated Zeke to play Emmitt Smith meets Mariano Rivera by closing games with chunks of yards.

4) The Bengals win more games than the Steelers

Joe Burrow took the field at Bengals workouts on Tuesday. That's all I needed to see. Burrow will hit the ground running with old LSU teammate Ja'Marr Chase. This connection was special in that 2019 national championship run -- I can't wait to see these two make sweet music together once again. And the Bengals' band of playmakers runs deep. Burrow already showed a fine rapport with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, while Joe Mixon has the all-around skill set to bounce back in a major way from last year's injury-riddled campaign. Like colleague Gregg Rosenthal said, the offensive line looks better on paper than you think. Lou Anarumo's defense remains a big question mark -- with a bunch of notable losses and gains in free agency -- but the offense has the kind of firepower to win some shootouts. All in all, I think the arrow is pointing up in Cincy. Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh ...

The Steelers still have a Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, but he's not Benjamin Button. Now 39 years old, Big Ben clearly hit a wall down the stretch last year. So did Pittsburgh. From 11-0 to first-round playoff exit. And I don't see the trend reversing for the better in 2021. While first-round pick Najee Harris is a stud runner, the offensive line remains problematic. The defense lost Bud Dupree (who'd become a fabulous edge-rushing complement to T.J. Watt) and Mike Hilton (the stud slot corner who just so happened to relocate to Cincy). And it sure doesn't help that the aging Steelers drew the NFL's toughest strength of schedule.

5) The Falcons win 10 games without Julio Jones

I'd never trade Julio myself, but it appears that's where we're headed. Sad for Falcons fans, but on the bright side, I do like the overall outlook in Atlanta with Arthur Smith taking the reins as head coach.

Smith is the right guy to maximize the offensive talent beyond Julio. Think about what he did in Tennessee, turning Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown into a prolific trio. Having just turned 36, Matt Ryan still has plenty left in the tank. Under Smith, I think we'll get a quarterback closer to the guy we saw in Atlanta under Kyle Shanahan -- you know, when Ryan won MVP? Smith coaches up tight ends beautifully, and now he has an absolute freak at the position in Kyle Pitts. Calvin Ridley has already shown he can excel as a WR1, balling out while Julio was injured last season. And overall, Smith brings the kind of winning attitude -- and ability to finish -- that has been lacking in recent years for the Falcons.

6) The Titans win 11 games with Julio Jones

I keep thinking Tennessee makes the most sense as a landing spot for Julio. The Titans lost Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis in free agency, leaving the passing attack thin on weaponry. It'd be an out-of-conference trade for the Falcons. And Arthur Smith obviously knows the Titans roster, so he can pick a player (a linebacker or offensive lineman?) to get in return. Imagine Julio Jones and A.J. Brown running routes for Ryan Tannehill with the best back in the game, Derrick Henry, mauling cats on the ground. I'm in!

Mike Vrabel is a great coach, and I think his defense added some enticing pieces this offseason. Bud Dupree was a superb signing, and barring unexpected setbacks in his recovery from ACL surgery, he should be able to provide the kind of pass rush Tennessee sorely needs. Meanwhile, Denico Autry's a rock on the defensive front and Janoris Jenkins remains a capable corner at age 32. Draft-wise, Tennessee could end up with a steal in Caleb Farley, the spectacularly gifted cornerback who would've been long gone by pick No. 22 if not for health concerns. And versatile DB Elijah Molden was a real nice snag at the No. 100 overall pick.

Vrabel went 9-7 in his first two years, then took the division with an 11-5 mark in 2020. If Julio joins the party, I see another 11-win campaign in 2021.

7) The Colts field the NFL's best defense

Shaquille Leonard is an absolute machine at linebacker. DeForest Buckner wrecks games up front. And hey, welcome to first-round pick Kwity Paye, a freaky-athletic edge rusher of Michigan.

Leonard is fond of telling me on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," that practices are more intense under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus than games. Come game time, when the Colts are flying around and making plays, that shows. Last year, Indianapolis ranked 10th in scoring defense and eighth in total defense, so this isn't exactly an outrageous prediction. But it still feels like this Indy D doesn't get the respect it deserves. I'm here to change that!

8) The Panthers field a top-five offense

All the ingredients are here. Christian McCaffrey says he's "back to 100 percent." Remember his last healthy season? The dynamite runner/receiver became just the third member of the 1,000/1,000 club. And the Panthers just had a receiver duo combine for a 1,000/1,000 of their own, with DJ Moore racking up 1,194 receiving yards and Robby Anderson posting 1,096. These guys are game-breaking wideouts, and Carolina just acquired the perfect third banana in the draft, stealing Terrace Marshall Jr. late in the second round. In Charlotte, Marshall reunites with Joe Brady, who knows how to maximize the receiver's big-bodied skill set from their time together at LSU.

OK, let's stop beating around the bush. What about that other position? You know, the most important position in the game? New Panthers GM Scott Fitterer explained to me on SiriusXM Radio how much he loved newly acquired quarterback Sam Darnold when he was coming out of USC. Same here, Scott. I think he was dropped into a horrendous situation with the Jets, in terms of coaching and surrounding talent. Darnold will thrive under Matt Rhule and Brady, a masterful play caller. In fact, I think he'll blow past 4,000 yards passing for the first time in his career and guide a top-five offense.

9) Derwin James reassumes his rightful title: First-team All-Pro

He's heathy, happy and hopeful at Chargers workouts. That's all I need. James is a ballhawk, a game wrecker ... just a pure playmaker. Plus, he's a great teammate. The shame is that, three years into his NFL career, we've seen one healthy season. But what a season it was! As a rookie, Derwin racked up 105 tackles, 13 passes defensed, six QB hits, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions, earning first-team All-Pro honors in the process. I say he gets right back to that lofty status in 2021.

Dear, Football Gods ... Please keep Derwin healthy. He deserves it. The Chargers deserve it. We deserve it.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter.

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