With the season opener just a few weeks away, it is officially time to make some predictions. Media and fans alike will go on record with their Super Bowl picks, as well as the major individual award winners. The track record for most of us in this department isn't pretty. This league changes so fast that it's nearly impossible to see into the future and nail these projections.
However, I've decided to aim at a much bigger target. I've identified 10 players that I believe will be vastly improved from last year. I put this list together based on what I've seen in the preseason, along with what I've heard in my conversations with team sources. Some of these players haven't really accomplished a whole lot in their NFL careers, while others are already viewed as elite performers. I expect all 10 to take their game to the next level this fall.
This is a scary thought. Newton was the 2015 NFL MVP, and I think he'll be much better in 2016. He is playing with supreme confidence, and the return of Kelvin Benjamin, who missed 2015 with a torn ACL after recording 1,008 receiving yards in 2014 as a rookie, is huge. Newton throws the best skinny post in the league, and Benjamin is borderline uncoverable on that route. Don't be surprised if we have a repeat MVP in 2016.
Murray was a poor fit in Chip Kelly's Eagles offense, but he looks very comfortable in the Titans' ground-and-pound attack. The league's 2014 rushing yards leader is a pure downhill runner, and his vision is really highlighted in this system. He will share carries with gifted rookie Derrick Henry, but I expect Murray's numbers to jump way up from last fall (193 carries for 702 yards and six TDs).
Williams had a solid rookie campaign (63 tackles and three sacks) but he has taken his game to a new level this preseason. He is a dominating run defender and is learning how to better use his hands as a pass rusher. The talent around him will keep him from being double-teamed, which should allow him to be a terror on all three downs this fall.
Just stay healthy. That's the main goal for Clowney this fall, as he has battled a string of injuries since he was drafted first overall in 2014. If he can suit up each and every week, the numbers will be impressive. He has always had an elite get-off burst as a pass rusher, but he's starting to develop other ways to get to the quarterback. He's converting speed to power off the edge, and his hand usage is dramatically better. I'll be very surprised if he doesn't produce double-digit sacks this fall -- after recording just 4.5 sacks in 2015. Again, assuming he finally stays healthy.
He's far from skinny, but Lacy did get himself in better shape this offseason. He's regained some of the short-area quickness and burst he was missing last fall. He's always had the vision, balance and power to be a feature back, but he simply didn't have any juice last season. That's not the case anymore. He is ready to provide some much-needed balance and physicality to the Packers' offense.
General manager David Caldwell has hit several home runs in the draft during his time in Jacksonville. Everyone knows about the Allen brothers (receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns) and quarterback Blake Bortles, but let me give you another name to remember: A.J. Cann. The Jags selected Cann in the third round in 2015, and he started 13 games at guard. His play was very steady last year, but Caldwell and others inside the organization believe he is primed to make a huge leap in 2016. He's been dominant in the preseason, piling up several knockdowns in the run game. Don't be surprised if he's a Pro Bowler in Year 2.
I'm not going to get carried away with preseason performances, but it is obvious that RGIII has regained some of the confidence he lost over the last few years. He's making quick decisions, and he's thrown a couple of beautiful deep balls in preseason action. I'm still not sold on the notion that he'll be able to handle the adversity that is sure to come his way, but there's no denying he's a better player than when we last saw him in Washington.
Niklas only caught four balls last season, but I believe he'll be one of the most improved players in this league in 2016. GM Steve Keim -- along with head coach Bruce Arians -- has been very impressed with his recent development, especially his overall physicality and urgency in both the run and pass game. Niklas isn't a dynamic mismatch player, but he will have lots of room to operate, because of the skill-position talent around him. Every year, we see a tight end emerge out of nowhere. Niklas could be that guy this season.
Dorsett has rare speed and athletic ability, but he was still a work in progress as a rookie last fall. He's much improved this training camp, especially as a complete route runner. There is a lot of buzz building inside the organization about an enormous breakout campaign for this speedy pass catcher. Something to keep an eye on in his sophomore campaign is what he does after the catch. I think he will turn some underneath throws into huge chunk plays.