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 ...
Arizona Cardinals: They reach the NFC Championship Game.
It felt weird to see 7-8-1 sitting next to Bruce Arians' Cardinals in the standings last season, given that Arizona averaged 11 wins per year the previous three seasons. Then I realized that that feeling was weirder, given that Arizona sucked in the three years prior to Arians' 2013 arrival. (Plus, there's the fact the franchise won one playoff game in 60 -- 60! -- seasons prior to Kurt Warner earning the full-time QB gig in 2008.) With the team now healthy, the most productive RB in the bidness in place and new, young talent on defense, why can't the Cards overtake the depleted Cowboys, inconsistent Packers or bickering Seahawks?
No wide receiver has ever won the MVP award. While Ryan became the first Falcon to take home the hardware last year, his game might slip with the departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Jones, however, was elite before Shanahan came on the scene -- and he seemed to turn his game up a notch last season. If Ryan regresses, and he uses his running backs less in Steve Sarkisian's attack, who do you think the quarterback will look to? Jones' 2017 could end up looking like Calvin Johnson's 2012: with the receiver pushing 2,000 yards. Also of note: I think Atlanta wins the NFC South again, making this candidacy more possible.
Much was made of how high the Panthers took McCaffrey in the draft. Eighth overall ... yeah, that's showing some hefty praise (and spending some significant coin) for a kid who is supposed to see the ball in bite-sized chunks -- unless McCaffrey forgoes the role of Darren Sproles 2.0 and takes on more than the typical third-down-back workload. McCaffrey can handle 20 touches per game, plus he owns that Gale Sayers-esque nifty ability to turn a short gain into a chunk play. The presence of Cam Newton, rushing threat also forces defenses to play 11-on-11 against Carolina. Well, guess who that helps?
Howard had himself a year in 2016 -- though it didn't look like he was going to, not early on. The fifth-round pick out of Indiana had recorded just 12 carries heading into October. Who could've guessed he'd finish the season with 1,313 yards? Howard produced those numbers despite moderate shuffling on the offensive line and major rejiggering at quarterback. What can he do with a full training camp as the starter and continuity on offense? John Fox wants to Run. The. Football. Losing receiver Alshon Jeffery in free agency practically demands the Bears coach embrace that strategy. Couple that with Elliott missing two starting offensive linemen in Dallas from a year ago, and Howard might be running away with a rushing title.
No rookie is in a better position to help his team immediately than Charlton -- and no team needs more help from a rookie than Dallas does from Charlton. The Cowboys recorded 36 sacks last season, a so-so figure made decidedly less relevant by the fact that opposing quarterbacks attempted 633 passes against them. Moreover, the team's leading "edge rusher" (a term I use generously), Benson Mayowa, garnered six whole sacks. Get excited. Charlton was an impact player at Michigan, a football powerhouse. He's a full-time player. He will also get every chance to play, and earn those Taco Bueno deals. Side note: They have the best bean burritos. Better than Taco Cabana or Taco Bell.
Detroit Lions: They win the NFC North.
Admittedly, this is a tough sell. Predicting the Lions will win a division they haven't ever won (the NFC North was formed in 2002) already feels shaky after two sentences. Yet, there are reasons to think Detroit could pull off beating out Green Bay for the top spot. Start with addition by subtraction, as the Lions signed former Packer guard T.J. Lang in free agency. General manager Bob Quinn further bolstered the offensive line by adding tackle Ricky Wagner. Each should help running back Ameer Abdullah stay on course. Abdullah merely needs to stay healthy. This team was on its way toward winning the NFC North last year until Matthew Staffordinjured his middle finger. How many teams can survive their starter hurting his throwing hand in the midst of a playoff run? No major injuries and no Hail Marys might mean an end to the days of merely sneaking into the postseason.
Rodgers played lights-out the back half of last season. It was an epic run: 18 touchdowns and no picks over the last seven games. He averaged over 8 yards a throw, with nary an outing in which he completed less than 60 percent of his passes. That accuracy has additional meaning because he wasn't nibbling at the defense with 3-yard outs -- he was throwing downfield to anyone who would look up. So could he toss 40 touchdown passes again in 2017? Sure. But would that make Green Bay win more? Mike McCarthy knows the Packers need to run the football to close out games. Ty Montgomery has been switched to RB, while the club drafted three more backs. The Packers also play a tough schedule. So don't be surprised if Rodgers' numbers fade slightly.
So you're probably thinking, This bold prediction isn't that bold. Yet, considering Donald plays defensive tackle, it really is a stretch. No interior lineman has won the top defensive honor since Y2K. Since the award became official in 1971, six defensive tackles have received the award. ("Mean" Joe Greene won twice.) However, as the NFL morphed into a 60-40 pass-run league, the impact of interior defensive linemen diminished. Fans and media look at sacks. While 10 sacks is a phenomenal number for a DT, it fails to stack up to the totals compiled by the likes of Khalil Mack (15 in 2015) and Von Miller (18.5 in 2012). That said, Donald's game has been noticed by everybody. Presumably, the Rams won't be terribly behind in as many games this year, meaning opponents will be running out the clock less and throwing more. Donald could increase his sack total (eight last year) while still blowing up plenty of run plays ... and entrenching himself firmly on everyone's radar.
Unrealistic? Maybe. For Bridgewater to get in on more than just a few garbage-time plays in Week 17, 1) his knee would have to be strong enough to allow him to do more than simply drop back and throw (as he did in minicamp), and 2) Sam Bradford would have to be pulled for one reason or another. The former seems likely, but the latter does not. The Vikings should be in the wild-card race at least through December, meaning Bradford will be in the lineup, barring unforeseen circumstances (like, say, Bradford stinking up the joint). OK, so what's this prediction doing here, then? Well, if Minnesota is to make an informed decision for 2018 at the quarterback position, don't the Vikings need to see what Bridgewater can do? Also, I wouldn't be against the guy's want to.
A philosophical shift is gaining a foothold in Metairie, Louisiana, and it involves running the football more frequently. Recent drafts have focused on the defensive side of the ball, with the only two offensive players taken this year being tackle Ryan Ramczyk and running back Alvin Kamara. Let's see ... drafting a ton of defensive players, an offensive lineman and a running back, plus signing Adrian Peterson. Forgive the expression, as the man used to be Sean Payton's boss, but New Orleans is gearing up to play Parcells football. Bill Parcells won two Super Bowls with efficient quarterback play augmented by strong running games and even stronger defenses. Payton's group isn't there yet, and it probably will never be totally balanced, not with Brees present. But I'd expect Brees' passing totals to be more in the 4,300-yard range than 5,000. That's saying something for a guy who has led the league in passing yards three years in a row.
Rookie tight ends make the Pro Bowl about as often as new pop artists write their own music. OK, maybe that was a needless music-was-better-in-the-old-days comment (even though it was!), but it's not far off course. Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten, who have caught more balls than any tight ends in history, managed just 33 and 35 receptions, respectively, as rookies. Engram, however, could benefit from the defensive attention Giants receivers Brandon Marshall and Odell Beckham Jr. will command. So many people in this industry -- be it former scouts, analysts and fantasy gurus -- are excited about Engram's potential in this offense. Plus, who are the dominant TEs in the NFC right now? Witten is aging. Martellus Bennett is in a new offense in Green Bay. We're still waiting on Jimmy Graham to break out in Seattle. Washington's Jordan Reed has been hurt a lot. That leaves Carolina's Greg Olsen and -- maybe -- Engram in the Pro Bowl.
The Eagles last made the postseason in 2013, carried by Nick Foles' epic (?) season, LeSean McCoy rushing for 1,000 yards and a buoyant wideout (DeSean Jackson). Last year's receivers couldn't keep the passing game afloat, Darren Sproles evolved (or devolved) into Philly's biggest weapon on offense and the team sputtered down the stretch. Wentz's supporting cast was anything but, well, supportive. That's where Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and LeGarrette Blount come in. The Eagles have the firepower to bump scoring by 20 percent while increasing their yards per play (28th in the NFL last year) with a few more vertical connections. Schwartz's defense should presumably play faster in Year 2 after being the team's backbone in 2016. Why not Philly?
Kyle Shanahan developed an offense that pushed Matt Ryan from viable franchise quarterback to MVP of the league in 2016. Does that mean he can work wonders with Brian Hoyer? Perhaps not, but how much does he need to? While Hoyer has never been one of the NFL's premier quarterbacks, it isn't a stretch to say his career was unfairly marred by one dreadful playoff appearance in Houston. Hoyer was averaging well over 300 yards per start with the Bears last season in the four starts before he was hurt in the Packers game in October. He's smart enough to know where to go with the football, and he should benefit from Shanahan's penchant for getting everyone involved (particularly the RBs). With the proper offense, Hoyer might be better than everyone thinks, and certainly not the quarterback they saw in one wild-card game in the 2015 playoffs.
This prediction is bold simply because we don't know what Lacy's workload will be. Here's what we can hang our hats on:
A) Last we checked, Lacy was slimmer than he was when he signed, and he seems to have the support of head coach Pete Carroll (not to mention, no coach is better at motivating his players).
B) Lacy has a stronger pedigree than fellow Seahawks backs Thomas Rawls or C.J. Prosise, and it includes a pair of 1,000-yard seasons for a pass-happy Packers team.
C) Prosise has been hurt a bit more often than Carroll or the Seahawks may have tolerance for.
D) Seattle wants to run the football and play defense, irrespective of the talent (and effort) of Russell Wilson. It's in the organizational DNA, from Curt Warner to Chris Warren to Ricky Watters to Shaun Alexander to Marshawn Lynch.
E) Although it seems like Lacy has been around for years, he is only 27 -- still in his prime.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They make the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.
OK, so the Bucs won nine games last year. That doesn't mean they'll duplicate the feat this year, especially with the out-of-division schedule they face: Giants, Patriots, Cardinals and Packers. Arizona blew the Bucs out last time they linked up, while the Giants, Pats and Packers won 35 games between them in 2016. Still, coach Dirk Koetter is building a business around Jameis Winston, with great satellite offices in Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and the Cameron Brate-O.J. Howard combo TE platter. The defense should creep toward being a top-10 unit. Tampa fans probably hate hearing this, but much could ride on Doug Martin's return.
Cousins' brilliant play has almost become a sideshow to the drama over his contract. But over the last two seasons, Cousins has racked up 54 touchdowns against just 23 interceptions while completing over 68 percent of his passes. The numbers get even more impressive the further you dive in, specifically with regard to his last 26 regular-season games, in which the TD-to-INT ratio jumps to 48:15 and his passer rating hovers around 104. Cousins continues to improve, with the uptick in his play commensurate with having now started more than 30 games. With Josh Doctson, Terrelle Pryor and Jamison Crowder working outside and in the slot, and with Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson gone via free agency, most folks are expecting a regression. How about more efficient play instead? Cousins could spread the ball around and let Doctson (who posted an over-40-inch vertical), Pryor (called one of the NFL's best athletes) and Crowder (instant acceleration) use their physical tools to their advantage. Put another way: Cousins' career arc > the loss of two good veteran WRs.