NFLTR Review: 2020 Season Preview

     

Folks, we’ve almost made it. Less than a week from today, the first game of the NFL season will be in the books and the first full weekend of games will be just around the corner. 

In our final issue before one of the most anticipated seasons in recent memory officially kicks off, we’ve loaded up the content to help you pass the time, including:

  • Record predictions for every team
  • The top ten stories to watch in an intriguing 2020 season
  • One final lap around the trade block with 10 more players available

Final Record Prediction

About a month ago, we looked at which teams were poised to take a big step forward into the playoffs and which ones looked like candidates to regress. But I thought it would be interesting to make a full pass through the coming 2020 season, game by game, using Playoff Predictor to see how it could shake out. 

Anything can happen in an NFL season, and a more granular view helps some of those possibilities stick out. For instance, the Broncos have a terrific home record in September and are a sneaky tough draw for the visiting Buccaneers. New QB Tom Brady will be playing just his third game for Tampa Bay and still building chemistry with teammates. If Denver does pull off the upset, though, the next game is a recipe for a letdown with a road trip to the East Coast to play the Jets on a Thursday night.  

All that said, here’s what the final product ended up looking like: 

AFC North AFC South AFC East AFC West
*2 Steelers (13-3) *3 Colts (12-4) *4 Bills (9-7) *1 Chiefs (13-3)
*5 Ravens (12-4) Texans (8-8) *6 Patriots (9-7) Raiders (7-9)
*7 Browns (9-7) Titans (7-9) Dolphins (6-10) Broncos (7-9)
Bengals (6-10) Jaguars (3-13) Jets (2-14) Chargers (6-10)
NFC North NFC South NFC East NFC West
*4 Packers (8-8) *1 Saints (14-2) *2 Cowboys (12-4) *3 49ers (11-5)
Vikings (7-9) *5 Buccaneers (12-4) Eagles (8-8) *7 Cardinals (9-7)
Lions (6-10) *6 Falcons (9-7) Giants (4-12) Seahawks (8-8)
Bears (3-13) Panthers (3-13) Washington (4-12) Rams (8-8)

*playoff seeds

Some quick takeaways: The wildcard race with an extra team will add another intriguing layer to the 2020 season. The NFC is shaping up to be an absolute slugfest. The AFC will be tight, too, but the middle tier of teams in the NFC is a step above the AFC right now. The Falcons, Cardinals, Seahawks, Rams, Eagles and Vikings are all within a game or two of each other battling for two spots, though the NFC North is also wide open. 

The Bears, Buccaneers, Cowboys, Colts, Jets, Saints and Steelers are the teams with the biggest discrepancy between my guess and the Vegas win totals. Looking at their rosters right now, I don’t see any glaring weaknesses for Indianapolis, Dallas, New Orleans, Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay, and each could be primed for huge seasons if they can continue to stay healthy. 

Conversely, I can see the bottom absolutely falling out for Chicago and New York. The Jets are replacing their biggest playmakers on defense last-minute, breaking in an all-new starting five on the offensive line and can’t keep any of their receivers healthy. While the Bears have had a terrifying defense to bail out shaky quarterbacking the past couple years, they appear to be springing some leaks on that side of the ball, most notably at cornerback. And the fact that neither Mitchell Trubisky nor Nick Foles has definitively separated themselves yet in the competition is a foreboding indicator neither of them is the answer at quarterback. 

10 Most Compelling Storylines In 2020

I’ve got just a decade and a half of football watching experience under my belt, but I can’t remember being more excited for a football season to start. The pandemic might be adding a little extra anticipation but I also honestly think there are more interesting storylines this year than any other year in recent memory. Here the ten I’ll be watching the closest: 

 1. Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees

Not only do we get the greatest quarterback of all time embracing a huge change in the twilight of his career as he continues to push the frontier of longevity at the position, but he faces another living legend seeking an elusive second Super Bowl win in what could be his swan song. Brady vs Brees will be appointment television and we won’t have to wait long, as their first matchup is set for Week 1 in the afternoon window. 

2. Patrick Mahomes vs Lamar Jackson

The winners of the last two MVP awards and two of the game’s brightest young stars both play in the AFC. Just like Brady and Peyton Manning were once the prototype for the position, Jackson and Mahomes represent the next wave of NFL quarterbacks. Their battles promise to be just as epic. 

3. The new-look Patriots

Brady may be gone but the other half of the dynasty still stalks the sidelines in New England. 2020 will start to answer the question of what Patriots HC Bill Belichick can do without Brady, and the first quarterback he’ll turn to is former Panthers MVP Cam Newton. Newton will be highly motivated to prove he’s not done after an injury-plagued past few years. And if he can recapture his form, watch out. 

4. Aaron Rodgers’ final year in Green Bay?

The Packers signaled the end is coming by drafting QB Jordan Love in the first round. The only question is when; and it could be as soon as this coming offseason. Rodgers has made it clear he’s aware of that, so what will he do in what could be his last season in Titletown?

5. The race for Trevor Lawrence

The last time a quarterback prospect was this beloved when he was still years away from taking an actual NFL snap was when Andrew Luck was coming out of Stanford. Lawrence could not play a snap this fall — and there’s a decent chance he won’t — and he would still be the slam dunk No. 1 overall pick. The team that finishes with the worst record in the NFL this year and earns the right to draft Lawrence will have basically won the lottery. The Jaguars are the betting favorites, but keep an eye on the Panthers, Jets and the Washington Football Team. 

6. Jets flirt with history — the bad kind

Bettors have the over/under for the Jets set at seven wins. I think there’s a decent chance they could flirt with going winless. In addition to the issues addressed earlier in this column, the team’s 6-2 finish last year seems like fools gold. It included three wins against teams picking in the top five, one against the Bills’ second string and one against Mason Rudolph and the Steelers. Reports out of Jets camp have been as bad as any team and the schedule is tough. They might only win one or two games before the bye in Week 11 and I don’t think HC Adam Gase could hold it together after that kind of start. 

7. Cowboys hit prolific passing landmark

There have only been five teams to ever have three 1,000-yard receivers, but the Cowboys have a great chance to become the sixth. Both Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup topped 1,100 yards in 2019 and Dallas added CeeDee Lamb in the first round this April, who’s been amazing by all reports. Cowboys QB Dak Prescott nearly had 5,000 passing yards last year and 828 went to No. 3 receiver Randall Cobb, so Lamb cracking that barrier is within reach. 

8. Breakout franchises

Last year, the Browns were pegged as the NFL’s offseason darling after a talent-adding spree around 2018 offensive rookie of the year QB Baker Mayfield. This year, the Cardinals are the trendy pick after a number of additions to build around 2019 OROY QB Kyler Murray, headlined by a shocking trade for Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins as Cardinals HC Kliff Kingsbury seeks to open his offense up more in Year 2. But the Browns actually appeal to me as a post-hype candidate. Poor coaching was the team’s biggest issue last year, the roster is still talented and the offensive line should be better. Cleveland has only made the playoffs twice in my lifetime, which makes the Browns fun underdogs to get behind. 

9. Wacky MVP candidates in a wacky year?

The NFL has a pretty good handle on the COVID-19 virus for now. But if that changes it could make for some wacky results like when kicker Mark Moseley won the MVP award in 1982 during the strike-shortened season. If the virus cancels games and knocks out stars, could a running back like Christian McCaffrey win the award? Maybe a defensive player like Jamal Adams? A transcendent guard like Quenton Nelson? Probably not, but it’s fun to think about.

10. Favorites for NFL awards

  • MVP — Mahomes and Jackson are the easy favorites for MVP. But Prescott, Brees, Brady and potentially Seahawks QB Russell Wilson could make a strong case with good seasons.
  • DPOY — On the other side of the ball, keep an eye on T.J. Watt in Pittsburgh, as he’s set to be the best player on possibly the best defense in the NFL. 49ers DE Nick Bosa, Browns DE Myles Garrett, Colts LB Darius Leonard and the always-dominant Rams DT Aaron Donald are also possibilities.
  • OROY — Bengals QB Joe Burrow has to be the favorite for offensive rookie of the year even with Chiefs RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire landing the best gig in the league for a running back.
  • DROY — Washington DE Chase Young is the easy pick but Ravens LB Patrick Queen is another strong candidate.
  • Comeback — Washington QB Alex Smith appears to be the early favorite for comeback player of the year but Newton or Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger could make up the gap with strong seasons. 
  • Coach — Really should be renamed to “coach who outperformed expectations the most of the year” award. New Browns HC Kevin Stefanski would be compelling if he breaks Cleveland’s playoff drought. Colts HC Frank Reich and Cowboys HC Mike McCarthy also seem poised to obliterate their win totals. But if the actual best head coach in the NFL wins the AFC East again without Brady, Belichick could win the award for the fourth time. 

Around The Trade Block

With final cuts this weekend, here’s a quick, last-minute look at 10 names that have or could come up on the block. 

  1. Keke Coutee: The third-year slot receiver needed a big camp to get out of HC Bill O’Brien’s doghouse. Instead, he’s been hurt and appears to have lost the backup slot receiver job to DeAndre Carter
  2. David Njoku: While Njoku has rescinded his trade request and the Browns have maintained they have a role in mind for him, fourth-round TE Harrison Bryant has been impressive and was just voted the team’s most impressive rookie by local media. If another team pushed for Njoku, I can’t imagine Cleveland would say no given he’ll make $6 million next year on the fifth-year option. 
  3. Josh Rosen: The former first-round pick has actually had a decent camp by most accounts. His trade value still isn’t high but it’s growing more than where it was a month ago, as evidenced by recent inquiries. Miami would reportedly take a late-round pick for him. 
  4. Sidney Jones: Injuries have prevented Jones from competing for a starting spot at cornerback and he appears to be firmly behind on the depth chart. A fresh start could be best for both sides. 
  5. Trent Murphy: The veteran is still decently productive as a starting defensive end but the potential $7 million in cap savings make it too tempting for Buffalo to cut him loose. The reality is Murphy’s salary likely leaves him without much of a market but at just 29 a team in need of edge help could be interested. 
  6. Henry Anderson: Anderson is in a similar boat as Murphy and not just as a former Stanford Cardinal defensive lineman. The veteran is still solid but not quite the player the Jets thought they were getting when they signed him to an extension after a seven-sack 2018 season. The Jets would lose money by cutting Anderson, so he’s safe, but they’d also likely take a pick to clear his salary. 
  7. Keelan Cole/Dede Westbrook: Receiver is actually a sneaky strength for the Jaguars between DJ Chark, Chris Conley and second-round rookie Laviska Shenault Jr. Towering 6-6 fifth-rounder Collin Johnson has also been impressive during camp. Shenault’s flexibility makes Westbrook and Cole more expendable as primarily slot receivers, and the flashes both have shown in their careers could make them attractive to other receiver-needy teams. 
  8. Reuben Foster: The reports for Foster out of Washington’s camp haven’t been good, as they indicate he’s still recovering from the severe knee injury that took him out during OTAs last year. Still, a team desperate for help at linebacker could throw a conditional pick at Washington for Foster in the hopes of winning the lottery. 
  9. Hakeem Butler: A polarizing prospect who the NFL clearly didn’t love as much as some in the draft media, Butler went on injured reserve with an avulsion fracture in his hand as a rookie, which raised eyebrows as that injury isn’t usually season-ending. Not so much as a peep has been heard out of Cardinals camp from the 2019 fourth-round pick this year and his name has been floated on the trade block. 
  10. Breeland Speaks: The former second-round pick has seen very limited reps at Chiefs camp despite the fact that Kansas City will be shorthanded on the defensive line to start the season. That’s not a good sign. While there’s a decent chance Speaks could land on the waiver wire, a team could also elect to trade a late-rounder to give him a fresh start. 

This Week In Football

  • The week started off with a bang as the Jaguars finally found a trade partner for DE Yannick Ngakoue with the Vikings. Getting a second and a conditional fifth is about what we expected given Ngakoue’s contract, but had Jacksonville operated with a little more urgency, it’s not hard to think they could have gotten more.
  • Meanwhile, the Vikings are clearly trying to reload instead of rebuild on defense and Ngakoue gives them another ferocious — and young — pass rusher along with Danielle Hunter. Ngakoue was also so desperate to get out of Jacksonville he took a $5.8 million pay cut plus an extra almost $1.2 million in state income tax to play for Minnesota. 
  • To create space, the Vikings essentially forced OT Riley Reiff to take a pay cut. Reiff was scheduled to make about $11 million but cut his salary to $6 million. It’s possible but unlikely Reiff would have exceeded that on the open market one week before the season starts, so Minnesota had all the leverage. 
  • So that’s why I’m all for Jason Peters telling the Eagles to pay him like a left tackle if they’re going to move him there. In this case, Peters has the leverage, as he can step back into the position he’s played for 15 years without skipping a beat as soon as Philadelphia decides it’s tired of entrusting Carson Wentz’s health to Matt Pryor and Jordan Mailata
  • With less than a week until the season, it appears free-agent DE Jadeveon Clowney is ready to make a decision. The Saints were on his wishlist that came out earlier this offseason and they’re reportedly putting on the full-court press for him
  • The Jaguars were shopping RB Leonard Fournette for a penny around the draft but it was still slightly surprising to see Jacksonville outright cut the former No. 4 overall pick. The saga took another twist when Fournette signed with the Buccaneers, going from possibly the worst team to the best team and confounding fantasy owners everywhere. 
  • Jacksonville wasn’t done shaking things up, sending starting S Ronnie Harrison to the Browns for a fifth-round pick. Harrison was inconsistent and graded out poorly per PFF, so it’s not a ludicrous deal. But it’s still odd for a team that publicly insists it’s not tanking to deal a former third-round pick in his third season. The actions don’t line up with their words.
  • It was a big week for running back news, as the Bengals and Joe Mixon agreed on a four-year, $48 million extension. That was in the neighborhood of what the Saints had on the table for Alvin Kamara, but he wasn’t as enthused about that as Mixon, wanting closer to the $16 million a year Carolina gave Christian McCaffrey. Passions flared, Kamara potentially held out and the Saints started checking to see if anyone would give them a first-round pick. Things have cooled and the word is they hope to reach a deal by Monday but would still be open to a trade
  • This is prime extension season and other teams have had a more productive time than the Saints. The Texans re-upped LB Zach Cunningham, Indianapolis re-signed C Ryan Kelly and the Lions dropped a big dollar figure on a team-friendly structure for OT Taylor Decker. Houston and Detroit aren’t finished, either, with deals for QB Deshaun Watson and WR Kenny Golladay potentially on the near horizon
  • Talks were not as fruitful for the Eagles and TE Zach Ertz. The price for an elite tight end has gone up to $14-$15 million and Ertz wasn’t impressed with Philadelphia’s latest offer. But from the team’s perspective, it’s tough to invest that money in Ertz with an accounting quandary coming up in 2021 and another potentially elite tight end in Dallas Goedert who also has two years left on his deal. There’s a lot left to play out but it’s not hard to see how this potentially ends with the Eagles trading Ertz in 2021. 
  • The Chargers defense took a major blow when S Derwin James was lost for the season with a meniscus injury. James is the type of talent that wins defensive player of the year award, so it’s a huge loss for the viewers of the NFL, too. Hopefully he can get back on track next season. 
  • There will be a number of surprising cuts this weekend as teams finalize their rosters and the names already started rolling in this week. The Patriots, Raiders and Cowboys said goodbye to veterans Mohamed Sanu, Prince Amukamara and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. It’s likely only a matter of time until the Giants release 2019 first-round CB Deandre Baker, albeit under different circumstances. 
  • The opt-outs in the college football world have continued and the latest is LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase. His 2019 was so superb that there’s a great chance he’ll still be a top-10 draft pick without adding any more tape to his resume. He’s pro-ready and probably would have been the top player taken in this past draft class.
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