It's August. So dare to dream.
Every year around this time, the football cognoscenti produces scores of award predictions that are, for the most part ... well ... the same. Different bylines, same forecasts. Groupthink reigns. Everyone spotlights the same players. Shoot, I'll probably follow suit in the coming weeks, as well.
But what about the sleeper candidates? You know, the guys who could shock the world and hijack the universal narrative.
Here are my preseason deep sleepers for the most coveted individual awards in the NFL. And I stress again: THESE ARE NOT MY PICKS! They are my dark horses, those who could change the conversation in a major way.
As I wrote a few months back, the Bucs are my sleeper team in 2016 -- I think they can win nine games and seriously contend for a playoff spot. And I believe Winston, who enjoyed a very solid rookie campaign, will take an even bigger step forward. The game slows down in Year 2. He's on the same page with Dirk Koetter, who not only remains Jameis' play-caller but now assumes head-coaching duties. The coaching change will equal more wins in Tampa. I think Winston will post a very impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio, as his rapport with the receiving corps (particulary third-year man Mike Evans) continues to improve.
Look, admittedly, I was initially opposed to Tampa Bay taking Winston No. 1 overall. All of the issues that arose during his time at Florida State -- from the serious (a sexual assault allegation that didn't end up spawning criminal charges) to the stupid (crab legs, anyone?) -- just didn't sit right with me. I questioned his maturity and ability to take on the role of franchise face. But to his credit, he's been a model citizen in Tampa, drawing rave reviews for his work ethic and dedication to his craft. Winston has kept himself out of trouble and emerged as the Bucs' leader, wise beyond his years.
"He's already great. He sets the bar high for himself. And he's already established himself as a leader," Martin told me. "He always wants to get better. He's the first guy in the building setting the tone, wanting to get better. It shows the type of character he is. It trickles down to everybody else and it's contagious. We are all accountable to each other to stay at that level [that Jameis establishes]."
Winston is primed for a big second season and is a dark-horse MVP candidate.
Last year on my SiriusXM radio show, "Schein on Sports," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim compared Johnson -- who had yet to even play an NFL snap -- to Jamaal Charles. And we saw why in Johnson's neophyte campaign -- particularly in the second half, when he really got an opportunity to show off his full skill set. As noted by colleague Chris Wesseling: From the time Johnson entered the starting lineup in Week 13 through the regular-season finale, no NFL player averaged more yards from scrimmage per game than the former Northern Iowa star's 131.7.
This 24-year-old is a multi-talented terror in the backfield. Talking to the press this week, Keim said Johnson is "probably the best receiving back I've seen."
"A lot of people have compared him to Marshall Faulk, and our coaches had Marshall Faulk in Indy," Keim said. "I think he's very similar in some ways athletically and in terms of ball-catching skills to Marshall."
When Steve Keim speaks, we listen. Johnson is a freak and a perfect fit in Bruce Arians' offense. He is going to put up monster numbers this season.
This cat is a budding star. Ansah doesn't get the love he deserves because he plays on a weak defense and lackluster team. And when you look at the galaxy of stars on the defensive line in today's NFL, it's a long list with a number of big names. But don't get it twisted: Ansah is the real deal, the kind of premier pass rusher every team covets. Thirty sacks in three NFL seasons -- including 14.5 last fall -- is no fluke. The Lions, a consistent NFL laughingstock, deserve credit for nailing their first-round pick in a 2013 draft full of misses (especially in the top 10).
I'm predicting 17 sacks and at least five forced fumbles for this freak of nature. And those kind of numbers would put him in the DPOY conversation, regardless of how Detroit performs as a team.
The Jaguars stole Jack in the second round, thanks to a knee issue that plummeted his draft stock. Thus far, as Jaguars fans continue to knock on wood, Jack is healthy and has been running with the first-team defense at times. In last week's preseason opener vs. the Jets, Jack looked like the versatile defensive weapon who had NFL types salivating before his meniscus tear at UCLA last September. One of the highlights of the game occurred when Jack lined up across slot receiver Jalin Marshall on third down. Marshall ran a route across the middle, Geno Smith delivered an accurate pass ... and Jack walloped the wideout to force an incompletion. That's the kind of play -- by a 20-year-old who checks in at 6-foot-1 and 247 pounds -- that has Jags fans thrilled about Jack's potential.
Talent and execution were never questions here. If Jack can indeed stay healthy, I expect him to dominate for the upstart Jags.
Sleeper Coach of the Year candidate: Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis Colts
In four NFL campaigns, Chuck Pagano is 41-23 in the regular season with two division titles, three playoff appearances and a 3-3 postseason mark. Not too shabby, eh? And let's take a closer look at the "disappointing" 2015 season. Pagano's Colts won eight games despite playing five different quarterbacks. That says something about the coaching.
Can a second-year guy be the Comeback Player of the Year? When you don't play a single snap because of injury in Year 1, why not? As a voter I've asked the Associated Press if there is any criteria for the award -- something specific a player has to be coming back from, etc. There is none.
Don't sleep on White and his ability to break games open going downfield and helping Jay Cutler. Dude's a specimen, with the size (6-3, 216 pounds), speed (4.35 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine) and playmaking ability to take this league by storm.