Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus 2017 Regular-Season NFL Predictions
It's finally, blissfully time for football.
NFL football that counts.
On Thursday evening, the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots will begin the long journey at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, that will end for two teams Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
One of those franchises is considered the favorite in the AFC to make it all the way there to Super Bowl LII.
There's a ton of football to be played between now and then, but it's never too early to break out the crystal ball and make some predictions, whether it's who will be the NFL's Most Valuable Player, which teams will make that trip to the Super Bowl or who will hold the Lombardi Trophy aloft at the end of the game.
That's just what the NFL writers at Bleacher Report have gathered to do, with their expert consensus 2017 regular-season predictions.
Before we prognosticate, let's take a look at the NFL writers at B/R who participated in this piece.
Gary Davenport, NFL Analyst
Tyler Dunne, NFL Features Lead Writer
Doug Farrar, NFL Lead Scout
Mike Freeman, NFL National Lead Writer
Brad Gagnon, NFL Analyst
Matt Miller, NFL Draft Lead Writer
Dan Pompei, NFL National Lead Writer
Brent Sobleski, NFL Analyst
Mike Tanier, NFL National Lead Writer
Sean Tomlinson, NFL Analyst
Coach of the Year
Mike Mularkey, Tennessee Titans (4 votes)
Well, it didn't take long for the first curveball.
Except maybe it really isn't a curveball at all.
Heading into the 2016 season—entering the second year of his third stint as an NFL head coach—Mike Mularkey of the Tennessee Titans had a career record of 18-39. When Mularkey received control of the Titans, Will Brinson of CBS Sports called the hire "uninspiring."
That was one of the nicer things said about it. Mularkey was the prince of punching bags.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to another disappointing season in Nashville. After a 1-3 start, the Titans went 8-4. It marked just the second time a Mularkey-coached team finished above .500.
The Titans come into 2017 with a rising young quarterback in Marcus Mariota, arguably the NFL's best one-two punch in the backfield in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, a revamped receiving corps and one of the league's better young offensive lines.
They have all the ingredients to successfully run Mularkey's "exotic smashmouth" offense.
Many snickered when Tennessee gave Mularkey the head job. But no one is laughing now. I've been saying it all summer, and I'll say it again. The Titans are a playoff team—the best team in the AFC South.
Mularkey wasn't a unanimous decision. Five other coaches garnered at least one vote, with NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman going with Hue Jackson of the Cleveland Browns.
"If he gets five wins out of this team," Freeman said, "it will be one of the best coaching jobs of the year. It's just not a talented team right now. Still, I think somehow the Browns surprise this season because of Jackson's coaching acumen."
But after years as a tomato can, a second straight successful season for the Titans is sure to propel Mularkey into the thick of the Coach of the Year conversation.
Others receiving votes: Bill Belichick, New England Patriots (2 votes); Hue Jackson, Cleveland Browns (1 vote); Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1 vote), Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers (1 vote); Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams (1 vote)
Offensive Player of the Year
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals (4 votes)
It's worth pointing out that only once in the past five years has the Offensive Player of the Year and the Most Valuable Player not been one and the same. That was in 2014, when Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the MVP, but the OPOY award went to then-Dallas Cowboys tailback DeMarco Murray.
I suppose it's fitting, then, that Rodgers was the runner-up here—to yet another young tailback.
David Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals will be hard-pressed to top what he accomplished in 2016. In his second NFL season, he topped 1,200 rushing yards, picked up another 879 yards on 80 catches, found the end zone a staggering 20 times and became the first player in league history to gain over 100 total yards in each of his first 15 games of the season.
Other than that, he was just OK.
Back in March, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians made it clear that the Arizona offense is going to run through No. 31.
"He's still too young to overuse," Arians said, via Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic. "I want to have 30 touches out of him, if possible, because that's going to be a lot of offense. When he has his hands on the ball, either as a wide receiver, coming out of the backfield, in the slot, and running, that's a hell of a lot of potential offense for us."
Now, it's unlikely the 25-year-old is going to get 480 total touches in 2017. Only once in NFL history has a player met or eclipsed that mark. But he does appear set for a heavy workload.
And if Johnson can somehow better his breakout 2016, it may be hard not to make him the Offensive Player of the Year.
Others receiving votes: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers (3 votes); Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (2 votes); Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers (1 vote)
Defensive Player of the Year
Joey Bosa, DE, Los Angeles Chargers (4 votes)
We're in the midst of something of a golden age of defense—even in a modern NFL tilted heavily toward the offense.
The last five years or so have seen an impressive influx of phenomenal defensive players, whether it's Oakland Raiders edge-rusher Khalil Mack or Los Angeles Rams lineman Aaron Donald.
Never mind slightly older players like defensive ends J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans and Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants—the latter of whom was Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Mike Tanier's pick as Defensive Player of the Year.
"JPP has had a phenomenal preseason," Tanier said, "but the Defensive Player of the Year Award doesn't always go to the best defensive player. It often goes to a great pass-rusher who also has the most support, like complementary pass-rushers and a secondary that provides coverage sacks. Olivier Vernon, [Damon] Snacks Harrison and the deep Giants secondary will allow JPP to build on his pre-injury 2016 success. The fact that the Giants will spend the whole year in the spotlight won't hurt."
However, the player who garnered the most votes is the newest kid on the block of the bunch.
Despite missing the first four games of last season thanks to a contract dispute, Joey Bosa of the Los Angeles Chargers had the best first NFL season we've seen from a defensive end in some time. His 10.5 sacks were the most by a rookie since Aldon Smith 2011, and despite the time missed, Bosa garnered Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Now, with the Chargers moving to the 4-3 defense in 2017, Bosa slots into a strong-side end spot he's perfect for—in addition to being excellent at harassing quarterbacks, he's a ferocious edge-setter.
And four of our writers expect the former Ohio State star to keep right on acquiring hardware.
Others receiving votes: Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders (3 votes); J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans (2 votes); Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants (1 vote)
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers (6 votes)
Last year, Dallas Cowboys tailback Ezekiel Elliott topped 1,600 yards on the ground and led the National Football League in rushing as a rookie.
His reward for that feat? He got to watch teammate Dak Prescott take home Offensive Rookie of the Year honors after leading the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and the NFC East title.
It's a quarterback's world—everyone else is just living in it.
However, our writers don't expect a similar injustice in 2017. All 10 votes went to tailbacks, with Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers leading the way with six.
Those half-dozen scribes included Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller.
"Christian McCaffrey has true three-down talent and can also contribute as a game-changing return man," Miller said. "The Carolina Panthers will be hyperfocused on getting the ball out of Cam Newton's hands quickly and right into the bread basket of McCaffrey on plays where he can exploit the space afforded to Newton and big targets Greg Olsen [6'5"] and Kelvin Benjamin [6'5"]."
Whether it's off the edge, between the tackles or catching the rock out of the backfield, McCaffrey's versatility led the Panthers to make the Stanford standout the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft. And while we may not have seen much of Newton in the preseason, we saw enough of the Panthers offensively to know they intend to put the ball in McCaffrey's hands early and often.
At least he knows that Newton can't snipe the OROY award away from him.
Others receiving votes: Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings (3 votes); Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars (1 vote)
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns (5 votes)
Unlike the Offensive Rookie of the Year, the voting for his defensive counterpart was much more spread out.
Six players—at all three levels of the defense—received at least one vote, including safety Jabrill Peppers of the Cleveland Browns, who got the nod from NFL Analyst Brent Sobleski.
"Coordinator Gregg Williams will use Jabrill Peppers as a Swiss army knife in the Browns defense," Sobleski said. "He'll line up initially as the team's free safety, but he'll also be found near the line of scrimmage as a force player, covering the slot, blitzing from different angles and maybe even playing some nickel linebacker. With the potential to play so many roles, Peppers will be in position to make play after play."
However, half the group picked Peppers' teammate Myles Garrett.
Bleacher Report NFL Lead Scout Doug Farrar said he expects a huge first season from the No. 1 overall pick from Texas A&M.
"When Von Miller came out of Texas A&M in 2011," Farrar said, “he was everything the Broncos hoped he'd be, and he logged 11.5 sacks in his rookie season, winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Most first-year pass-rushers need at least a full season to deal with the talent they face in NFL blockers, but there are those occasional exceptions. Garrett has the chance to be the next Aggie to break the mold. Through the preseason, he's shown exceptional power, speed around the edge and body lean, and he's dealt with some high-quality offensive tackles. Especially in Gregg Williams' blitz looks, I think Garrett is going to have a monster season."
That Doug Farrar is a smart fella.
Others receiving votes: Jamal Adams, S, New York Jets (1 vote); Jarrad Davis, ILB, Detroit Lions (1 vote); Reuben Foster, ILB, San Francisco 49ers (1 vote); Jabrill Peppers, S, Cleveland Browns (1 vote); T.J. Watt, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers (1 vote)
Comeback Player of the Year
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans (7 votes)
Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is without question my favorite player in the NFL.
It isn't just that Watt's arguably the best defensive player of his generation—one of two men in league history to win Defensive Player of the Year honors three times. He's a dominant pass-rusher—the stuff nightmares are made of for quarterbacks.
But that's only half of it.
In an era when players too often make the news for all the wrong reasons, Watt is also one of the NFL's true good guys. Most recently, his fundraising efforts for the victims of Hurricane Harvey raised over $20 million.
But the 2016 season was a lost one for Watt. He attempted to come back too soon after back surgery, clearly wasn't himself and wound up reaggravating the injury. A second surgery followed.
Now, Watt's reportedly 100 percent, and he told Mark Maske of the Washington Post it felt good to be healthy and back on the practice field.
"I feel great," Watt said last month. "I feel very good. I'm very excited to be out there. I'm not here to make any proclamations. I'm not here to say any breaking news. But I'm very excited. I'm very excited for the season."
Watt wasn't a unanimous vote. Two writers, including NFL Analyst Brad Gagnon, cast their comeback votes for Los Angeles Chargers receiver Keenan Allen.
"Allen went over 1,000 yards while scoring eight touchdowns as a rookie in 2013 but hasn't been the same since," Gagnon said. "He missed the majority of the last two seasons due to injury, but he appears to be fully recovered from a torn ACL and has been receiving ringing endorsements this summer. He looked stellar in camp and caught all five of the passes thrown his way for 45 yards in the team's third preseason game. You know Philip Rivers will give Allen plenty of looks in his age-25 season, and I'm expecting big things."
But Watt was the runaway winner here—just like he will be when the NFL conducts its Man of the Year vote later this winter.
Others receiving votes: Keenan Allen, WR, Los Angeles Chargers (2 votes); Jay Cutler, QB, Miami Dolphins (1 vote)
Fantasy Player of the Year
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals (6 votes)
Over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Twenty touchdowns. One hundred or more total yards in each of his first 15 games of the 2016 season. And 411.8 PPR fantasy points, per FFToday—over 80 more than the No. 2 running back (Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys).
It's not hard to see why Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson was the No. 1 overall pick in the majority of fantasy drafts this summer. Or why he's the preseason pick of our voters as the 2017 Fantasy Player of the Year.
Need more reasons to think that Johnson will once again be a fantasy monster in 2017?
Picky, ain't ya?
As John Paulsen of 4for4 fantasy football wrote for Sports Illustrated, Johnson is also the Cardinals' go-to guy in the red zone:
"In Arizona, Johnson is far and away the best red-zone weapon for the Cardinals. Last year, Johnson averaged 4.2 red-zone 'looks' (targets plus carries), which dwarfed [Le'Veon] Bell's 3.1 red-zone looks per game over the last two seasons. The ratio is even more extreme when we only examine looks inside the opponent's 10-yard line, an area of the field I've dubbed the 'crimson zone.' Here, Johnson has seen 2.4 looks per game compared to just 1.4 for Bell. So even though Bell has a slight edge in total touches (26.3 vs. 23.3), a greater percentage of Johnson’s touches are more valuable."
Bell missed three games due to a suspension in 2016, and the season prior, he sat out 10 games because of injury.
So, Johnson is the fantasy favorite this fall.
Please don't get hurt, DJ.
Others receiving votes: Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers (2 votes); Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings (1 vote); Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders (1 vote)
Breakout Player of the Year
Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints (3 votes)
The voting for Breakout Player of the Year was all over the place. No fewer than seven players received at least one vote, including Detroit Lions tailback Ameer Abdullah.
"Ameer Abdullah has always been a slippery and versatile weapon," NFL Analyst Sean Tomlinson said. "But his burst has sat on the sidelines too much as he watches while bandaged up. But he still has breakout potential and can quickly turn around a 30th-ranked Lions rushing offense. The seeds for a breakout in 2016 were planted when Abdullah recorded 158 yards from scrimmage over only 23 touches. And that came after a rookie season in 2015 when he finished with 780 total yards, even while playing just 32.9 percent of the Lions' offensive snaps."
However, Abdullah didn't win the day. Miami Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker, one of two players who received multiple votes, didn't either.
No, the winner is a player who got a head start on breaking out as a rookie in 2016.
Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints topped 90 catches and 1,100 yards last year, finding the end zone nine times. The Saints thought enough of that performance to trade Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots in the offseason.
"There are a lot of things that are hard to defend with Mike," quarterback Drew Brees said. "He's a physical guy. He plays with violence, especially when guys come to play him on a bump-and-run. I don't think they realize how strong he is."
Three of the NFL writers here at B/R agree.
Others receiving votes: DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins (2 votes); Ameer Abdullah, RB, Detroit Lions (1 vote); Kareem Hunt, RB, Kansas City Chiefs (1 vote); Ty Montgomery, RB, Green Bay Packers (1 vote); Kenny Clark, DT, Green Bay Packers (1 vote); Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars (1 vote)
Most Improved Player of the Year
Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams (8 votes)
As a rookie, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff looked nothing like the No.1 overall pick in the 2016 draft. In seven starts, he threw just five touchdown passes and posted a passer rating of less than 65.
As Pete Prisco reported for CBS Sports, Goff said his first season didn't go as planned, but he thinks he can use those struggles as a learning experience.
"You have to believe in yourself," Goff said. "It's the most important thing. I have a tough time losing confidence in myself. I am not going to make excuses. It's not ideal when you don't win. But we didn't play well as a team, me included. I'm just glad I got the experience [of being beat up]. I am glad I went through it."
There are a lot of new faces in L.A. this year, whether it's offensive-minded head coach Sean McVay, improved passing-game weapons such as Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins or new left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
Given all those new faces, many of our writers are predicting a rebound season from Goff, including Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller.
"The hire of Sean McVay as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams and the addition of Andrew Whitworth, Sammy Watkins and Cooper Kupp give Jared Goff something he never had in his rookie season—a competent supporting cast," Miller said. "Expect the second-year quarterback to still have his ups-and-downs but show why he was the No. 1 overall pick in 2016's draft."
Most of the gang is on board with Miller's assessment.
And that news would no doubt be welcome in La La Land.
Others receiving votes: Nelson Agholor, WR, Philadelphia Eagles (1 vote); DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins (1 vote)
Most Touchdown Passes
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (8 votes)
Over the last three seasons, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers has tossed 109 touchdown passes. Last year, the 33-year-old threw 40—the second time in his career he's met or exceeded that benchmark (that number led the league as well).
Fox Sports NFL Analyst Tony Gonzalez feels that Rodgers could sail past his 40 scoring strikes in 2017 (via Brian Jones of 247Sports).
"I think this guy [Rodgers] is poised to have an MVP-type season," Gonzalez said. "In fact, I'll go so far as to say that I think he might break Peyton Manning's record this year for touchdown passes because of what he has on offense."
That record, in case you were wondering, is 55 touchdowns.
That's a bold statement, but it's hardly outlandish. In Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb, Rodgers has one of the NFL's better receiving corps in the league at his disposal. Rodgers also has a tailback in Ty Montgomery who's a converted receiver and a new weapon in the form of veteran tight end Martellus Bennett.
Oh, and Rodgers is pretty good in his own right. Or so I've heard.
Fifty-six touchdowns is a tall order. So is 50, for that matter. But when you add in an unsettled ground game in Titletown, the Packers will go as far in 2017 as Rodgers' right arm takes them.
That means lots of touchdown passes.
Others receiving votes: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (1 vote); Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (1 vote)
Most Rushing Yards
Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers (5 votes)
At first glance, it might seem a bit odd that David Johnson wasn't the pick for most rushing yards given that he was the winner of both Offensive Player of the Year and Fantasy Player of the Year.
Johnson was a close runner-up, however, and it's worth pointing out that he "only" rushed for 1,239 yards last year—nearly 400 yards off Ezekiel Elliott's league-leading pace.
While Bell had 1,268 rushing yards in 2016, good for fifth in the league, he came in second place on a per-game basis with 105.7.
Bell missed all of training camp and the preseason in a kerfuffle over his contract, and the 25-year-old just signed his franchise tender Monday.
In the opinion of Bleacher Report NFL Features Lead Writer Tyler Dunne, that rust will not matter.
"He's the most dynamic player in the game—Bell could play wide receiver if he wanted to," Dunne said. "The lack of a training camp doesn't change that fact. He'll rev back into the numbingly patient, yet bruising, yet elusive force he was last season."
It isn't just Bell's substantial talents. Thanks to wide receivers Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, opposing defenses don't dare stack the box against the Steelers. They can't, or Pittsburgh will beat them over the top.
That just leaves that many more holes for Bell to explode through.
He doesn't miss many of them.
Others receiving votes: David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals (4 votes); Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins (1 vote)
Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (7 votes)
This may be the least surprising winner of this article. If there’s a surprise, it’s that Antonio Brown wasn’t a unanimous pick.
In 2016, Brown finished one off the league lead with 106 catches. All the way back in 2013, Brown finished three off the lead with 110. In 2014 and 2015, Brown led the NFL in receptions with 136 and 129, respectively.
That’s an average of 120 receptions a season over a four-year span, which is somewhere between ridiculous and "are you sure that isn’t a typo?"
Brown told Sam Quinn of 247Sports that he spent this offseason aggressively trying to get better.
"You always have to get better," Brown said. "You are either getting better or you are getting worse. This offseason I attacked it, working on little things. Trying to improve on it every day and continuing to grow. Every year I try to be a rookie all over again, just a little bit smarter. I never take anything for granted. I take every day like it’s my first day. Don’t look too far, be in the moment and make sure I give it my all."
I’m not sure what a "better" Antonio Brown would look like. In fact, I’m not sure that Brown isn’t some sort of pass-catching cyborg from the future.
What I am sure of is that it’s about to be another long year for cornerbacks in the AFC North. And another phenomenal season for No. 84.
Others receiving votes: Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys (1 vote), Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers (1 vote), Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints (1 vote)
Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders (5 votes)
OK, this is right about the point where someone will storm off to the comments section to berate us (by which I mean me) for J.J. Watt not getting a single vote for most sacks.
Here’s the thing—I originally cast my vote for Watt, who if healthy could easily lead the NFL in that category. But I switched my vote to Khalil Mack to avoid a tie, because ties are horrible and awful and un-American.
We aren’t savages. This isn’t soccer.
Besides, it’s not as if Mack is in any way, shape or form an undeserving candidate. The 26-year-old is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year after a 2016 in which he topped 70 tackles and added 11 sacks and five forced fumbles. The year before, Mack was arguably even better, piling up 77 stops and 15 sacks.
As NFL National Lead Writer Dan Pompei put it, "Mack is at the right time in his development and with the right team to have a highly productive season."
Right on Mack’s heels in this category was Joey Bosa of the Chargers, who had 10.5 sacks in just 12 games last year. The 2016 DROY (and the panel’s choice as Defensive Player of the Year in 2017) got four votes, including one from NFL Analyst Sean Tomlinson.
"The best pass-rushers are disruptive even when they're not getting sacks," he said. "And if they penetrate the backfield deep enough, and often enough, the sacks will roll in too. Bosa is already the definition of a constant disruption. He generated 59 pressures in 2016 per Pro Football Focus, which is especially absurd after the 22-year-old missed three games. If he can do that during an abbreviated rookie year, then Bosa is far away from his peak right now. Which is pretty terrifying."
Add in Von Miller of the Denver Broncos (who got one vote), and it’s a scary time to be a quarterback in the AFC West—especially in Kansas City.
Others receiving votes: Joey Bosa, DE, Los Angeles Chargers (4 votes), Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos (1 vote)
Bobby Wagner, ILB, Seattle Seahawks (4 votes)
Tackles are one of the NFL’s more subjective statistics—especially assists. As Michael McKnight wrote for Sports Illustrated back in 2015, some stat crews across the NFL award assists on less than 10 percent of plays. Others do so on over 40 percent.
Last year, the Seattle Seahawks were toward the high end of that disparity—and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner was the beneficiary. Of Wagner’s league-leading 167 total stops, nearly half (82) were of the assisted variety.
Mind you, this isn’t to say the 27-year-old didn’t earn those stops. Or that he isn’t one of the league’s most impactful inside linebackers. In addition to all those tackles, Wagner added 4.5 sacks en route to being named a first-team All-Pro for the second time in three seasons.
Wagner told Aaron Levine and Dusty Lane of Fox 13 in Seattle that he intends to improve upon those numbers in 2017.
"I had a lot of QB pressures that I’d like to turn into sacks this year," Wagner said. "People say that 167 tackles are great, by why not 200? Instead of 4.5 sacks, why not eight?"
You can have quite the debate regarding who the best tackle vacuum in the NFL is. Some will insist it’s Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers. Others still will swear it’s young Kwon Alexander of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Rookie Reuben Foster of the San Francisco 49ers even garnered a couple of votes here.
But it’s hard to argue against Wagner having the perfect combination of talent and opportunity.
Others receiving votes: Kwon Alexander, ILB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2 votes), Reuben Foster, OLB, San Francisco 49ers (2 votes), Luke Kuechly, ILB, Carolina Panthers (1 vote), Alec Ogletree, ILB, Los Angeles Rams (1 vote)
Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City Chiefs (4 votes)
Tackles may be a subjective stat, but interceptions are most assuredly not. And though many are adept at breaking up passes, few perennially pick off several passes.
Green Bay Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix appears to be becoming one of the few. The fourth-year pro snared a career-best five interceptions a year ago, and NFL Analyst Brad Gagnon believes Clinton-Dix is only just starting to get warmed up.
"Clinton-Dix had one interception as a rookie, two as a sophomore and five in his third season, and I'm expecting that number to climb again in his fourth year," he said. "He also had a handful of interceptions at Alabama in 2012, so he's got a nose for the football. Watch for him to have plenty of opportunities to make plays behind a strong front seven in 2017."
However, five interceptions weren’t enough for the NFL lead last year—Casey Hayward of the Los Angeles Chargers had seven.
It would also be a career low for Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters.
In just two short seasons, Peters has already established a reputation as one of the NFL’s pre-eminent ballhawks. Peters tied for the league lead with eight picks as a rookie and then followed that up by coming up just short of Hayward with half a dozen last year.
If Peters isn’t at or near the top of the NFL in this category, it won’t be because he’s having a down year.
It will be because teams finally wised up and stopped throwing at him altogether.
Others receiving votes: Stephon Gilmore, CB, New England Patriots (2 votes), Kevin Byard, S, Tennessee Titans (1 vote), Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Green Bay Packers (1 vote), Casey Hayward, CB, Los Angeles Chargers (1 vote), Keith Tandy, S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1 vote)
Best Record (Team)
New England Patriots [15-1] (3 votes)
Like it was going to be anyone else.
There’s no dissension among our writers as to who will have the best record in the NFL this year. All 10 writers tabbed the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.
That’s hardly surprising. The Patriots lost all of twice in 2016. They have arguably the best head coach and quarterback in NFL history.
Never mind that while they spent the offseason aggressively getting even better (shudder), the rest of the AFC East was busy falling apart.
The only matter now is figuring out how many games they will win—an endeavor three of our writers passed on altogether.
The minimum number that got a vote was 13 wins. The maximum, which came from two scribes (including me) was 16. A perfect regular season. A repeat of their 2007 campaign.
The Patriots added impact players on both sides of the ball in the offseason, whether it was cornerback Stephon Gilmore, wide receiver Brandin Cooks or approximately 37 running backs.
Yes, the loss of wideout Julian Edelman to an ACL tear was a blow. But it’s a testament to both New England’s depth and their "next man up" philosophy that the loss of their best receiver solicits a shrug from most pundits.
The Patriots aren’t just the best team in the NFL. Or the defending champions. They’re the best team in the league by a country mile. The overwhelming favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LII.
An undefeated season would be less surprising than a 10-6 one.
But the call here is that they stumble once—maybe against the New York Jets.
Others receiving votes: Patriots [16-0] (2 votes), Patriots [14-2] (1 vote), Patriots [13-3] (1 vote)
Worst Record (Team)
New York Jets [1-15] (5 votes)
Then again, maybe not.
There was little dissent regarding the NFL’s worst team in 2017. Only a single vote for the Buffalo Bills prevented the New York Jets from notching a clean sweep.
Told you the AFC East is falling apart.
I will freely acknowledge I’m the writer who picked the Jets to pull off perfection in reverse. The perverse symmetry of an undefeated season and winless season in the same division in the same season was just too good to pass up.
Besides, it’s not like I’m being unfair. The Jets are an awful team. The defensive line is probably the only position group on the team that’s at least average. The starting quarterback is a 38-year-old journeyman who has won two of his last 22 starts. The team’s best wide receiver has been with the Jets about a week (Jermaine Kearse)—and he’s a deep threat on a club with quarterbacks who can’t take advantage of it.
The Jets don’t need a coach and general manager. They need a priest to perform the last rites.
According to Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com, one NFL executive told him back in June, "I think the Jets might have the worst roster I've seen in a decade."
They’ve gotten worse since then.
As the Chargers showed against the Cleveland Browns last year, all it takes is one flat performance by a mediocre team to ruin the pursuit of pitiful perfection. And that’s the call here—that the Jets will sneak up on one team this season.
Others receiving votes: New York Jets (2 votes), Jets [2-14] (1 vote), Jets [0-16] (1 vote), Buffalo Bills (1 vote)
Super Bowl LII Matchup
New England Patriots vs. Green Bay Packers (5 votes)
We’ve established that the New England Patriots are the overwhelming favorites to win the AFC this year. There are good teams in places like Oakland, Pittsburgh and even Tennessee, but it will be a massive upset if Brady and the Tomettes aren’t playing in Minneapolis the first weekend in February.
In the NFC, things aren’t so clear-cut, as four potential challengers for the Pats were tabbed by our panel.
Bleacher Report NFL Analyst Brent Sobleski went outside the box. Way outside the box—picking the Minnesota Vikings to be the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
"The New England Patriots are obvious favorites to come out of the AFC," Sobleski wrote. "The same can't be said about the Minnesota Vikings. However, the Vikings own one of the NFL's best defenses. Sam Bradford set an NFL record last season with a 71.6 completion percentage, and his surrounding cast is much better this season. The offensive line has been upgraded, plus the team added both Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray to the backfield."
Hey, at least you can’t accuse him of going chalk.
The other picks were a bit more predictable, with last year’s top seed in the NFC (the Dallas Cowboys) getting two votes and the NFC’s best team over the last five years (the Seattle Seahawks) getting one.
The leading vote-getter was the matchup many are hoping for. The television networks certainly are.
After all, the Patriots and the Packers would be a programmer’s dream. Two of the NFL’s most successful and popular franchises. And two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game in Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
The Packers came up just short last year with a flawed team that was exposed by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.
An improved defense will put them over the top in 2017.
Others receiving votes: Patriots vs. Dallas Cowboys (2 votes), Patriots vs. Seattle Seahawks (1 vote), Patriots vs. Minnesota Vikings (1 vote)
Super Bowl LII Winner
New England Patriots (8 votes)
I know. You’re floored. Blown away by the shocking twist that is the Patriots being the overwhelming favorite to win the Super Bowl—again.
The notion of Brady and Belichick cementing their status as the best ever at what they do (if they haven’t already) is unpleasant for many fans. Approximately 31 fanbases are sick and tired of watching the Patriots win everything all the time.
The thing is, they’re really, really good—easily the most talented team in the NFL, battle-tested and loaded with talent on both sides of the ball.
As B/R NFL Lead Scout Doug Farrar wrote, it’s hard to see them getting beat.
"Even with the season-ending injury to Julian Edelman, the Patriots have the best receiver corps in the NFL, and Brandin Cooks gives Tom Brady the best vertical threat he's had since Randy Moss' salad days," he wrote. "The underrated force here will be running back Mike Gillislee, who was hidden on Buffalo's depth chart, but has exceptional speed, power and agility. He'll be a more versatile version of LeGarrette Blount. Factor in a defense with bookend cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore, and Bill Belichick's clear coaching acumen, and I just don't see any other team unseating the defending Super Bowl champs."
Of course, hard isn’t impossible. NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman was one of two scribes who picked the Packers to pull a New York Giants and spoil Brady’s fun.
"I feel like Aaron Rodgers is going to have an historic season," Freeman wrote. "I mean, one that will be talked about for decades. He'll just carry the Packers on his shoulders, like he always does, and he'll make the Packers unstoppable."
It’s going to take that kind of history of knock off Patszilla.
Others receiving votes: Green Bay Packers (2 votes)
Most Valuable Player
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (5 votes)
Given that the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots were the pick of our writers as this year’s Super Bowl teams, it’s not exactly a shock that Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are the two leading vote-getters for Most Valuable Player.
OK, it’s not even a little bit shocking—it’s Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Between them they’ve won four MVP awards.
Now, there was one vote that didn’t go to either of those players. Lead NFL Features Writer Tyler Dunne singled out Dallas Cowboys signal-caller Dak Prescott.
"Defensive masterminds may think they got a leg up on Prescott over the offseason, but he's ready," Dunne wrote. "He's already thought three moves ahead. Expect the new face of the Cowboys to pull the trigger more often in his second year and carry the Cowboys to a 12- or 13-win season with or without Zeke."
However, for everyone else it’s Rodgers and Brady. I went with Brady. If the Patriots are as successful in 2017 as I expect them to be and Brady’s per-game numbers are anything like last year (when he set an NFL record for TD-to-INT ratio), the voters will be hard-pressed not to vote for him.
However, NFL National Lead Writer Mike Tanier thinks they’ll find a way to select Rodgers instead.
"The only things standing between Aaron Rodgers and an MVP award in a typical year are Tom Brady and the annual 'What's Wrong with Aaron Rodgers' slump, where half of his receivers get hurt and Mike McCarthy gets into a rut of calling curls-and-flats plays to a bunch of third-stringers," Tanier wrote. "Rodgers' supporting cast is deep and healthy this year, and MVP voters have decided that being Tom Brady is its own reward, clearing the lane for Rodgers. Who, by the way, is in great position to lead the Packers to a Super Bowl."
In any event, if this vote is close to accurate, it’s a two-horse race.
Others receiving votes: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (4 votes), Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys (1 vote)