1. Luke Kuechly is Defensive Player of the Year
Houston’s J.J. Watt in 2015 was NFL Defensive Player of the Year, for the third time in his five-year pro career. But he’s recovering from back surgery, and he will never be as good as new. Back injuries are endlessly treated, seldom cured, as Larry Bird, Tiger Woods, Tony Romo and other sports superheroes have learned.
Watt is the hardest worker since John Henry, and I wouldn’t bet against him being in Pro Bowl form by midseason.
But a better bet for Defender of the Year is Carolina’s Luke Kuechly. He’s the game’s greatest diagnostician, calling out most of the opponent’s plays a second or two before the snap. Teams can scheme against Watt, stationed as he is to the line. But Kuechly as a linebacker can roam the field and cannot be contained.
2. Russell Wilson is MVP
When you’re talking MVP you’re talking QB, and this is the year Wilson gets recognized for being as good as he is. If you listen to audio of him directing the Seattle Seahawks’ offense, you can tell he’s as fine a field commander as Tom Brady or Drew Brees. And it was the 5-foot-10 Wilson who had the best passer rating in the NFL last season, while scrambling better than any quarterback other than the MVP of 2015, Cam Newton.
3. Seattle wins the Super Bowl
Green Bay is the trendy pick, but the Seahawks have a more consistent running game, almost as sharp a passing game, and a much stronger run defense. They fell a tad short last year because of a season-ending injury to star receiver Jimmy Graham and a secondary that was out of sync following the late arrival of holdout Kam Chancellor, nagging injuries to Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas and communication problems with defensive coordinator Kris Richard.
Look for everyone on the same page this season, as the Legion of Boom re-forms, and Russell Wilson (MVP, above) ushers the offense down the field, with Graham soon to be the TD-maker he’s supposed to be.
4. Ezekiel Elliott will be Rookie of the Year
The latest back setback by Tony Romo means the Dallas Cowboys’ offense will consist foremost of Ezekiel Elliott running the ball, with occasional relief from reliable veterans Darren McFadden and Albert Morris. Escorted by the best offensive line in football, Elliott will have some open lanes. It’s also worth noting that he’s a fine receiver and pass-blocker. The only question is his intensity. When training camp began, he was overweight, flab covering the washboard abs he proudly fashioned on Draft Day. He missed the first two preseason games with a strained hamstring. He then drew criticism for visiting a marijuana dispensary several hours prior to the preseason game in Seattle in which he played.
Is Zeke another Ricky Williams? Let’s give him benefit of a doubt. He looked entirely focused against the Seahawks. He twice ran through the Legion of Boom’s Kam Chancellor.
5. Chuck Pagano will be first coach fired
He’s actually a solid and inspiring head coach. But he almost got fired last season, and his Indianapolis Colts are likely to slip from last year’s 8-8, despite the return to health of franchise QB Andrew Luck. GM Ryan Grigson, who also barely avoided termination, has done little to produce a running game or a run defense. This could be a double execution.
Jim Irsay is arguably the most erratic owner in the NFL, and his notoriously short fuse is burning already.
6. Gus Bradley will be second coach fired, should be first
Jacksonville’s 26-21 victory over Cincy in the almost meaningful Preseason Game 3 was misleading. The banged-up Bengals led the Jags’ first team 14-3 before scrubs took over. Jags QB Blake Bortles’ assessment throws shade on the coaches as well as the players: “We played badly at every position.” Jax safety Tashaun Gipson said the game “was not up to our standards.” That’s another brutal self-deprecation, as he’s referring to the lowest of bars; they’re an NFL-worst 19-61 over the past five seasons, three of those under Bradley.
They now have enough talent and maturity to be a winning team, but their head coach adds nothing.
When he said, “We didn’t come out like we wanted to,” and “we got punched in the mouth,” it means he and his staff didn’t prepare the team. Which is too often the case with these pussycats. Someone else will be their caretaker before this season’s done.
7. RG3 will have the Comeback of the Year
All but run out of Washington like a scandalized congressman, Robert Griffin III finds redemption in Cleveland. The Browns’ new coach, Hue Jackson, performed magic as coordinator in Cincinnati when he developed the reticent Andy Dalton into the team leader. Griffin, blessed with a nuclear arm and quick, if reconstructed, legs, is healthy, re-energized and much more connected to Jackson than he was to Jay Gruden. Griffin will connect with a couple of other promising reclamation projects, Terrelle Prior and Josh Gordon. Also there will be helping hands from rookie first-round pick Corey Coleman. The Browns will still be bad, and Griffin will fail to complete 60 percent, but he will make games interesting.
8. Rams will regret drafting Jared Goff No. 1
The reinvented Los Angeles Rams tried for too much Hollywood story when they rewired the NFL Draft to claim Jared Goff with the first overall pick. Goff played his college ball at the U of California, and he’s blond and handsome and well suited for media stardom. If only he could play. He’s been lousy throughout the preseason, averaging 5.0 yards per pass, completing under 50 percent, unable to elude the rush or avoid picks or beat out the widely traveled linguini-armed Case Keenum.
Jared Goff is not Andrew Luck or Eli Manning. More like David Carr or Brady Quinn.
9. Tampa Bay has a winning record
The Buccaneers have had five losing seasons in a row, including their 6-10 of 2015. Talk about tradition, they’re 145 games under .500 since their ominous 0-14 debut in 1976. But the current roster has some of the NFL’s finest young talent: RB Doug Martin, DT Gerald McCoy, QB Jameis Winston, LB LaVonte David, WR Mike Lewis and rookie first-round CB Vernon Hargreaves. New coach Dick Koetter is an aficionado of the pass and will lift the Bucs out of the sludge pit that Lovie Smith built. The defense stabilizes with new coordinator Mike Smith, former Atlanta Falcons head coach.
10. Reformed, refreshed, Rice returns to Ravens’ backfield
When the horrifying video emerged from a casino elevator that showed him punching his fiancée, Ray Rice became the face of NFL domestic violence. So he’s been out of the game for two years. He’s undergone many months of therapy, the woman he slugged married him, no charges were filed against him, and he’s had no disturbing incidents since. He’s paid his dues, considering how Greg Hardy played half a season after a jury found him guilty of assaulting his girlfriend, and considering that Giants kicker Josh Brown gets a wrist slap, a 1-game suspension 15 months after he’s arrested for assaulting his ex-wife and also for violating a restraining order. Rice is a former Pro Bowl honoree who is 29, and no running back could have fresher legs. He will get a second chance, perhaps in Baltimore, where he remains popular and the fading Justin Forsett won’t be for long.
Alan Truex formerly covered the NFL for the Atlanta Journal and Houston Chronicle.