On Wednesday, we rolled out our predictions for team MVPs in the AFC. Now it's the NFC's turn. Let's get to it.
Around The NFL Podcast colleague Gregg Rosenthal put it well in a recent write-up on key homegrown players, pointing out that Vander Esch is the Cowboys' modern-day version of Sean Lee -- the defense is simply not the same when he's missing in action. Vander Esch was a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine as a rookie, but a neck injury limited him -- and the Dallas defense as a whole -- in 2019. Vander Esch recently said he is feeling "wonderful" as he looks ahead to 2020, and his presence in the middle of the Dallas defense is the rising tide to lift all boats. To put it another way, peak Vander Esch could be the difference between 12-4 and 8-8 at Jerrah World.
Saquon Barkley is the rare sports star whose injury hurts you. And not just if you're a Giants fan or you selected Barkley in the first round of your fantasy draft. The guy is an athletic genius, and to see that compromised by injury -- in last year's case, a nasty high-ankle sprain -- makes you feel cheated by the Football Gods. It's a testament to Barkley's greatness that he still managed nearly 1,500 total yards and eight scores despite missing about a quarter of the season. Barkley will have his legs back in Week 1, and an improved offensive line and Year 2 gains by quarterback Daniel Jones could mean a potentially transcendent year for SaQuads. God, this man needs a better nickname.
Sanders, the 53rd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, established himself as a fixture in the Eagles' offense by the midpoint of his rookie season. He averaged more than 5 yards per carry and nearly 100 scrimmage yards over the final nine games. His 1,641 all-purpose yards put him in the league's top 10, and he said during his obligatory offseason training video that 2020 will be his "MVP year." We think he's right ... but probably not in the way he means it. Sanders is a born playmaker and the clear-cut No. 1 backfield option for an offense that will rely heavily upon his versatile skill set.
While we remain in wait-and-see mode on 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins, there's no doubt about McLaurin, last year's third-round selection who was an immediate-impact player for an otherwise-soggy Redskins attack. "Scary Terry" -- another nickname in serious need of an upgrade -- finished his rookie campaign with 58 receptions, 919 yards and seven touchdowns on only 93 targets. (For perspective, fellow NFC East No. 1 WR Amari Cooper was targeted 119 times. Michael Thomas had 185 targets.) Haskins showed signs of growth last season, and new offensive coordinator Scott Turner should allow the pair the opportunity to "explore the space" in Washington's attack. McLaurin has all the looks of a foundational piece in D.C.
Mack got a little too much heat for his "down" season in 2019. He still finished with 8.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and 30 quarterback hurries, just two behind some guy named Aaron Donald. Still, it's fair to say Mack wasn't dominant like he was during the healthy portion of his first season in Chicago. He'll have to regain that game-wrecking ability to lift the Bears out of also-ran status in the NFC. Thankfully, he'll have more help. The addition of pass rusher Robert Quinn should give Mack a break from some of some of the double- and triple-teams he fought through in 2019. The return of defensive lineman Akiem Hicks from injury is another lift. Mack, 29, is squarely in his prime and fully capable of nabbing a second Defensive Player of the Year award.
Calvin Johnson has been retired for four years, and now the Lions have another receiver who can put up video game numbers every Sunday. Say hello to Kenny Golladay, the rising superstar nobody seems to talk about. Despite getting only half a season with Matthew Stafford in 2019, Golladay still finished with 65 catches for 1,190 yards and a league-leading 11 touchdowns. Detroit was a top-10 offense before Stafford's back gave out. With a healthy Stafford, it's not crazy to imagine Golladay surging to All-Pro-level production in his fourth season (a contract year, by the way). Fun fact: Only Mike Evans averaged more than the 16.7 yards per reception put up by Golladay since 2018 (min. 100 catches). That puts Golladay a tick ahead of Tyreek Hill, the receiver widely believed to be football's greatest home-run threat. Draft this man in your fantasy league with impunity.
Let's press pause on the soap opera for a moment. Yes, the Packers had what appeared to be an obvious need at wide receiver and instead selected a quarterback in the first round of April's draft. Yes, Rodgers has developed a reputation for his prickly persona behind the scenes, and yes, it's hard to deny his counting-numbers production has looked increasingly pedestrian in recent seasons. (Though 51 touchdowns to six interceptions since 2018 ain't bad!) But don't be so quick to send Rodgers out to pasture at age 36, something I don't think Green Bay intends to do, either -- even with Jordan Love in the building. Second-year coach Matt LaFleur will continue to seek balance on offense that puts plenty in the hands of breakout running back Aaron Jones, but this is still Rodgers' show. He remains the engine, and will you really be shocked if he turns back the clock and delivers an All-Pro season in 2020?
The Vikings may have given Kirk Cousins a contract extension before doing business with their star running back (a subplot to watch in Minnesota), but there's no question who The Man is in Minnesota's attack. That would be Cook, a do-it-all playmaker who topped 1,600 total yards with 13 touchdowns in 2019. Durability issues -- he's played in just 29 regular-season games over three pro campaigns due to a variety of maladies -- remain a serious concern, but the team's decision to trade wide receiver Stefon Diggs only underlines Cook's importance to Minnesota. If he can stay healthy, he should be a lock to put up All-Pro-level production in a Gary Kubiak offense that adores running backs of his style.
This feels like the year Ridley "makes the leap" from quality starter to breakout star. The 2018 first-round pick has been a consistent source of production in his first two seasons, totaling 17 touchdowns and close to 1,700 yards while lining up across from Julio Jones. At 31, Jones will continue to command double-teams -- and Atlanta's lack of a proven third wideout (hi, Russell Gage) or the presence of tight end Austin Hooper (off to Cleveland in free agency) means a healthy Ridley should easily surpass 100 targets for the first time. Jones hasn't had a running mate with this talent level since Roddy White, a member of the Falcons' Ring of Honor.
I don't need to tell you how great McCaffrey is. The man is on a Hall of Fame trajectory through three seasons, and he's coming off a year where he went over 1,000 yards both as a rusher and receiver. His 2,242 scrimmage yards were more than 600 yards clear of Ezekiel Elliott, the next-closest running back in football. OK, so I did tell you how great CMC is. And now factor in the arrival of Teddy Bridgewater, a conservative passer who will undoubtedly lean heavily on his star running back in times of need. McCaffrey's workload is a long-term concern, but at 24, there's no reason to doubt another gaudy season of production is on the horizon.
Listen, I get it. I was like you. I agonized between selecting Kamara and Christian McCaffrey in my fantasy draft last August and decided on the star of the Saints. But let's not hold that against Alvin in the here and now. He had the snakebitten season that every pro has at some point, as ankle and knee injuries cost him games and robbed him of the speed and lateral agility that made him one of the great running backs in football over the first two seasons of his career. Kamara should be back to his old self come September, and Sean Payton will almost certainly continue a game-plan trajectory that puts less on the plate of 41-year-old Drew Brees and more on Kamara, a superstar in his prime. Forgive and forget, people!
I will readily admit I've been consumed by the hype. We have significant circumstantial evidence, from both last season and the season before, that Brady -- set to turn 43 in about six weeks -- is in the midst of a gradual and irreversible decline. And yet ... and yet! ... I can't help but buy into the setup in Tampa. A vastly improved supporting cast (including Gronk!), a proven offensive mind and veteran QB whisperer in head coach Bruce Arians, and yes, that impossible-to-measure competitive fire that rages inside the old man. They can spin it along Patriot Place all they please, but Tom Brady was booted out of town. Even if I'm wrong (I'm not), you know Brady's mindset is tuned that way. Bill doesn't think he needs me. Bill believes he already got the best of me. Bill thinks he's better off with ... JARRETT STIDHAM. I must destroy everything and everyone.
The Cardinals front office did Murray a serious solid with the acquisition of DeAndre Hopkins, the type of All-Pro wideout who can fast-track the development of a promising young QB. That's an apt description for Murray, whose strong close to 2019 earned him Offensive Rookie Of The Year honors. We'd feel more confident in Murray taking a Lamarian Year 2 leap had Kyler had the benefit of a traditional offseason, but there's still plenty of room for unbridled optimism in Arizona. The NFC West is a rugged division, but Murray can make the Cardinals a playoff team right now if he continues on his progression path. Arizona has a special young talent behind center.
Aaron Donald is the chalk pick here, but let's mix things up and focus on the other side of the ball in a transition year for Sean McVay's offense. Robert Woods is a target monster for Jared Goff, something unlikely to change with Brandin Cooks now doing his business in Houston. But if you're looking for a breakout playmaker, someone with a better nose for the end zone, Kupp is the safer choice in this exercise. He set career highs across the board last season during a 94/1,161/10 campaign, and the 2020 season takes him another full year away from his 2018 ACL tear. Kupp and Goff have undeniable chemistry, and don't be surprised if it leads to a season that produces All-Pro consideration for the 27-year-old wideout.
Kittle was a warrior for the 49ers last season. He suffered groin, shoulder, knee and ankle injuries and still played in 17 of 19 games, including the playoffs. Given that level of bad injury luck, you'd think that Kittle would have suffered a down year statistically, but nope: He went over 1,000 yards receiving for the second straight season with five touchdowns and a career-best 79.4 percent catch percentage. Throw in the stuff that doesn't show up in a box score -- Kittle is one of the league's best blocking tight ends -- and you're talking about a complete player just now reaching the peak of his powers.
Brian Schottenheimer: Let Russell Wilson be great. OK, Wilson is already demonstrably great -- he's a Super Bowl-winning quarterback on a collision course with Canton. But it feels almost immoral that Schottenheimer's run-obsessed offense created a reality where Russell Wilson threw the same number of passes as Mitch Trubisky last season. (They tied for 12th amongst QBs with 516 attempts ... and Wilson played one more game!) Go back to 2018, and Wilson finished 20th in passing attempts. Egads. In Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, Wilson has star-quality weapons to light it up on Sundays. He'll put up stellar numbers worthy of league MVP consideration even if Seattle stays the course on offense. But just imagine if Pete Carroll ever let him chuck it around the yard at the rate of his fellow superstar passers.