Given the nature of the NFL, even bold predictions sometimes don’t end up being all that bold once things play out.
An offseason ago, if someone had predicted that a rookie quarterback would lead the Baltimore Ravens to the playoffs, the Jacksonville Jaguars would implode, Adrian Peterson would rush for 1,000-plus yards and Patrick Mahomes would throw 50 scores, “bold” wouldn’t have been the only way to describe it.
But it’s a little like mock drafts: Those are easily discredited, yet the way the draft played out would have looked like the silliest mock possible.
Bold predictions aren’t popular, often proclaimed or expected. They’re like Mahomes’ 50 touchdowns-a long shot. Should they come to pass, they would be understood as just another wild moment of the season.
It’s a little too easy to forget about David Johnson, which means he’s about to strike.
A since-fired coaching staff botched Johnson’s usage in Arizona last year, and he rushed for just 940 yards and seven scores on a 3.6 yards-per-carry average in his first season back from his wrist fracture. His targets through the air dipped from 120 in 2016 to just 76.
Those 2016 numbers? A stunning 1,239 rushing yards and 16 scores with 80 catches, 879 yards and four more touchdowns for good measure.
Johnson is one of the best outright weapons in the league when used properly, which makes the arrival of an offensive-minded coach like Kliff Kingsbury encouraging. Johnson himself has said the offense is looking to run 90-plus plays a game.
“I think it’ll be similar to 2016,” he later added, according to Darren Urban of the team’s official website.
With 2019 first overall pick Kyler Murray likely to occupy the minds of defenses, Johnson is in line for a massive re-breakout year that could have him in the MVP conversation.
Outside of New England, a Super Bowl loser’s regression is a common occurrence.
Before the Patriots made it to the championship game last season, only two Super Bowl losers had returned to their conference title games over the prior 20 seasons.
So, no, things don’t look great for Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams.
McVay’s coaching staff, after a stiff-as-a-board plan in the big game itself, predictably drew interest from other teams looking to hop on the wave. Notably, quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor took the head coaching position in Cincinnati. The staff has lost a ton of talent to work with too, including five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Lamarcus Joyner. Don’t forget Todd Gurley’s knee issues.
Keep in mind the NFC West is looking like one of the best divisions in football. The San Francisco 49ers are getting back potential franchise passer Jimmy Garoppolo. The Cardinals have a new approach and talent. And Seattle still has a top-five passer in Russell Wilson, not to mention new pieces such as defensive end Ezekiel Ansah.
When it comes down to it, the Rams could miss the playoffs altogether.
It could only get worse for the Pittsburgh Steelers from here.
Pittsburgh dropped from 13 wins to nine last year and slogged through some drama, culminating in the loss of star wide receiver Antonio Brown via trade. After sitting out 2018, Le’Veon Bell left for the New York Jets.
While the Steelers made a good move to trade up and get Devin Bush at No. 10 overall in the draft, he’s still not guaranteed to solve the defense’s biggest problem: the loss of Ryan Shazier.
And Brown’s departure is a much bigger issue than most realize.
It’s not just the loss of his production: 104 catches on 168 targets, 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns over 15 games. It’s that coverage will further clamp down on JuJu Smith-Schuster, and the Steelers will be asking the underwhelming James Washington to do even more. Running back James Conner will be receiving more attention than a year ago. And the team is asking more than ever of a 37-year-old Ben Roethlisberger.
And yes, there is silly drama. Big Ben apologized to Brown in taped segment for KDKA last month, and safety Terrell Edmunds liked a “Two Face” tweet from Brown that seemed to be in reference to Roethlisberger’s apology. (According to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,Edmunds said he “didn’t mean anything” by liking the tweet.)
In the meantime, the Cincinnati Bengals have made a change at head coach, Baltimore is on the upswing and the Cleveland Browns are hyped and dangerous. It feels like Pittsburgh is trending downward in a variety of ways.
Much of the offseason hype train in Ohio has stationed itself in Cleveland. Yet the state’s other NFL franchise might have a bigger claim to breakout status.
The Browns are intriguing, of course, with star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. joining second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield. But a lot has to go right before on-paper projections materialize into a playoff run, and none of Cleveland’s five victories from Week 10 onward last year came against winning teams.
The Bengals, on the other hand, were intriguing under then-head coach Marvin Lewis before the injury bug struck in Week 4. Andy Dalton had thrown 11 scores, winning three of those contests (two against eventual 10-win teams).
Even after Dalton (thumb) and A.J. Green (toe) got hurt, Joe Mixon performed well enough to lead the AFC in rushing (1,168 yards), and wideout Tyler Boyd had a breakout year.
Fast forward to the offseason. Cincinnati has a new coaching staff for the first time in 16 years under the offensive-minded Zac Taylor. The offensive line got a supposed upgrade in 2019 first-rounder Jonah Williams, and young players such as Jessie Bates III and Carl Lawson should be stepping into bigger roles.
Much of Cincinnati’s success hinges on whether the coaches properly utilize the talent. Lawson was asked to play some linebacker last year before getting hurt. Former defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who was fired midseason, took 2016 first-round cornerback William Jackson III out of his strengths, and his performance suffered.
But given the talent on the roster and the nature of the coaching changes, Cincinnati looks better positioned for a breakout year than other AFC North teams.
Derek Carr just needed a better environment. It didn’t take a pro analyst to see the quarterback was going to struggle with the Oakland Raiders last year.
Head coach Jon Gruden traded away Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper. Carr was left with a defense that managed a league-low 13 sacks all season, and his offense had a then-33-year-old Jordy Nelson as the top receiver-not to mention Doug Martin (723 rushing yards) and a 32-year-old Marshawn Lynch (376 rushing yards) as the starting backs.
Things have changed.
Carr will not only have the benefit of playing with Antonio Brown, but he will also have the underrated Tyrell Williams as a target. And the Raiders added Trent Brown in free agency to bolster the offensive line after Carr took the third-most sacks in 2018. First-rounder Josh Jacobs shouldn’t have a hard time being better than any of the team’s backs from a year ago.
In 2015, his second year, Carr tossed 32 touchdowns with 13 interceptions while flirting with the 4,000-yard mark. He surpassed that yardage count last year but only managed 19 touchdowns to 10 interceptions while taking a career-high 51 sacks. Flanked by better weapons in 2019, Carr is going to slingshot back to 30-plus touchdowns and silence any quarterback chatter surrounding the Raiders.
Josh Rosen never had a chance.
A year ago, a now-fired Arizona staff under head coach Steve Wilks tossed Rosen into his NFL debut late in a game against Khalil Mack’s Chicago Bears, and it went like most would expect.
Rosen, protected by a miserable line and flanked by a poor coaching staff, struggled to a 55.2 percent completion rate with 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions before the front office traded him after drafting Kyler Murray in April.
Now with the Miami Dolphins, Rosen is about to make a few people look foolish. Even amid the chaos, he flashed plenty of upside as a rookie. He will have to adjust to a new offense again, but he’s working with more talent than before.
For starters, he has a wideout core of DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills, a high-upside back in Kenyan Drake and an intriguing 6’6″ target in tight end Mike Gesicki.
While the Dolphins haven’t had a headline-grabbing offseason outside of the Rosen trade, a new direction under head coach Brian Flores is a big boon for the sophomore passer. Given the negative public perception of Rosen and Arizona’s dealings with him this offseason, the 22-year-old is bound to turn some heads after taking another step in the right direction.
Matthew Stafford should be a personification of the Detroit Lions’ impending turnaround in 2019.
The quarterback bumbled his way to 3,777 yards and just 21 touchdowns to 11 interceptions a year ago as the Lions won six games. It marked his lowest yards total since 2010, when he played only three games, and his fewest touchdowns since 2012.
But it’s easy to forget the issues around him. Tight end Eric Ebron left for the Indianapolis Colts. Golden Tate was sent to the Philadelphia Eagles at the October trade deadline. And Marvin Jones Jr. and Kerryon Johnson had season-ending injuries.
The arrival of first-round tight end T.J. Hockenson should fix some of the problems. Jones is still aboard, as is budding breakout receiver Kenny Golladay. The offense should feature the run more too, which means more looks for Johnson, who managed 5.4 yards per carry over 10 games.
Part of the theme under head coach Matt Patricia is defensive revitalization. Trey Flowers is a do-it-all force obtained in free agency to play alongside an elite front boasting Da’Shawn Hand, A’Shawn Robinson and Damon Harrison Sr. Linebacker Jarrad Davis, the team’s 2017 first-rounder, should only benefit behind that line.
None of this is to say the NFC North is a cakewalk. But regression for Chicago makes some sense, Minnesota has to hope the offensive line is fixed and nothing is guaranteed under new head coach Matt LaFleur in Green Bay. With a better complementary defense and a budding offense, Stafford seems poised to lead one of the NFL’s breakout teams next year.
It almost seems like blasphemy to do anything other than praise Patrick Mahomes.
That’s fair enough, at least to a degree. After attempting just 35 passes as a rookie, Mahomes took the Kansas City Chiefs to the AFC title game last year on the back of 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns against 12 interceptions while completing 66 percent of his passes.
Even so, some things point toward a regression. As ESPN’s Mike Clay pointed out, the past 15 quarterbacks who averaged at least 13.2 yards per completion, 8.37 yards per pass attempt or had a touchdown on at least 7 percent of passing attempts had a drop-off in each category. Mahomes surpassed all those marks.
If that data isn’t convincing, consider other factors that might nudge Mahomes toward a regression.
The rest of the NFL has droves of film on him now and can adapt. His defense is undergoing a schematic change with new faces and is bound to struggle. Tyreek Hill’s availability is an unknown as police investigate allegations he abused his three-year-old son. A whole heap of pressure will be on second-round wideout Mecole Hardman. Leading rusher Kareem Hunt is gone.
And keep in mind the AFC West isn’t a cakewalk.
The beauty of it is simple. Regression has a negative connotation, but with Mahomes, it’s more like a walk back to the mean. That still likely plants the Chiefs in the playoffs again with plenty of highlight-worthy no-look passes along the way, but the stat sheet won’t be stuffed like it was last year, no matter how much it seems like Mahomes is a revolutionary trailblazer.