NFL Preseason Predictions We Got Way Wrong
The scariest three words in the English language: I was wrong.
Making that admission is hard, because often it means a belief or view you had, and perhaps a deep, meaningful one, was flawed in some way. So let's soften the blow here and add a few more words. Instead, say this one with me now: I was wrong with a prediction about the 2017 NFL season.
There are very few who can say that statement doesn't apply to them, and do it with a straight face. We don't need to get far past the surface to see why.
At midseason, the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two offseason favorites after a long list of eye-catching moves, have combined for three wins. The Oakland Raiders, who made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2002, are 3-5 and falling.
Individually, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is playing far below his 2016 MVP form, and any offensive rookie of the year consideration hopes have already died for Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, who entered the season as the favorite for that award.
It was easy to feel confident in an August prediction, but it's only early November and we're already looking back with deep regret.
Before the season, a group of Bleacher Report writers made predictions for award winners and the highest producers in statistical categories. Many of those predictions are still holding up well, but some aren't at all.
Today those writers (myself, Doug Farrar, Brad Gagnon, Gary Davenport, Brent Sobleski, Mike Tanier, Mike Freeman and Matt Miller) are lamenting the preseason forecasting that went south fast. Here are the picks we'd most like to take back, with comments from each writer.
Brad Gagnon: The Jets Are...Not Bad?
Flip back to late July. I know it's already hard to remember a time in your life when an egg taco didn't exist, but just work with me for a minute here.
The New York Jets were getting prepared to enter a season in which winning even a few games seemed impossible. They had jettisoned nearly every veteran who mattered in 2016, most notably wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, linebacker David Harris and center Nick Mangold.
So 2017 was set to be filled with youthful mistakes during a rebuilding year, and the Jets would surely fall far enough to get a top-five draft pick in 2018. Instead, at midseason they're somehow respectable with a 4-5 record.
That surprised Brad Gagnon just as much as the rest of us. He also had high hopes for Green Bay Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Most Interceptions
After seeing his interception totals increase from one to two to five in his first three seasons, I thought the 24-year-old 2014 first-round pick had a chance to explode in 2017. He has the nose for the ball and plenty of support up front in that defense.
But 43 players have intercepted more passes than Clinton-Dix's one through seven games. It'll be pretty hard for him to pass all of those guys and catch up to former teammate Micah Hyde, who already has a league-leading five picks in his first season as a member of the Buffalo Bills.
New York Jets, Worst Record
The Jets were supposedly tanking after gutting their roster in the offseason. Considering they won just five games with more talent and experience on the roster last year, this was supposed to be a gimme. That's why eight of my nine colleagues agreed they would post the worst record in football this season.
But to their credit, the 4-5 Jets have played hard for head coach Todd Bowles. With just enough talent on defense and an offense that has had its moments, they managed to win three games in the first half of the season. That put them three wins clear of both the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers, and their 34-21 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Thursday night probably guarantees the Jets won't have the top pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
Doug Farrar: Panthers Aren't Getting the Most out of McCaffrey
It's far too early to call McCaffrey a bust. He's still contributing, and that label doesn't belong anywhere near a running back with 378 receiving yards on 49 receptions at midseason of his rookie year.
McCaffrey is an effective offensive weapon in a specific role, but that's the problem. The Panthers didn't think they used the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft on a one-dimensional player. No, they selected McCaffrey after he recorded 1,600-plus rushing yards in each of his final two collegiate seasons.
They may already be regretting that pick, just as Doug Farrar is his selections of McCaffrey as the offensive rookie of the year and the New England Patriots' Stephon Gilmore for the most interceptions.
Christian McCaffrey, Offensive Rookie of the Year (117 rushing yards, 378 receiving yards, two receiving touchdowns)
It was expected the Panthers would use McCaffrey as a Swiss Army knife—an outside runner and multiposition receiver who would open up Carolina's offense and give quarterback Cam Newton multiple first-read options.
Instead, they've used him primarily as an inside runner—not ideal for his 200-pound frame—and a receiver on simple screens. This is an under-utilization of his skill set. McCaffrey proved in a diverse college offense that he could make plays not only in the run game, but as a receiver capable of everything from wheel routes to going 30 yards down the seam. As a result, McCaffrey is averaging just 2.4 yards per carry. The fault is not with the player; it's with the coaching staff for putting McCaffrey in positions where he's not able to fully show his talents.
Stephon Gilmore, Most Interceptions
It seemed the addition of former Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore would be an ideal move for the New England Patriots. Gilmore wasn't always effective when asked to play off-coverage and zone schemes in Buffalo, but he was a dynamite press-coverage player.
The Patriots gave Gilmore a five-year, $65 million contract with $31 million guaranteed to be the lead man in their secondary. But he has struggled to adapt to the specific assignments and communications in New England's defense. Add that to the concussion that has forced him to miss his last three games, and Gilmore, who had a single-season high five picks for the Bills in 2016, has just one this season.
Not that he's been the league's worst cornerback—per Pro Football Focus, he's allowed 13 catches in 19 targets for 185 yards, a touchdown and an opponent passer rating of 95.3—but Gilmore hasn't performed to expectations, and the injury hasn't helped. It will take a while for him to get up to speed in his new environment, but he is a talented player.
Gary Davenport: Shedding a Tear for J.J. Watt
Thinking about Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt isn't much fun right now. It leads to staring out the window for a long, long time, and maybe also sad hangout time with a bowl of ice cream.
Watt was once the most dominant defender in the NFL. He could take over a game on his own, and for a time was even a consistent goal-line threat as a pass-catcher. But we haven't seen that version of Watt for two seasons now due to separate and serious injuries.
And as he gets set to turn 29 years old in the offseason, it might be time to entertain some truly depressing thoughts. For that we turn to Gary Davenport, who also wants to take back his decision to predict the New England Patriots will finish with the best record.
J.J. Watt, Defensive Player of the Year (11 tackles, 0 sacks)
There were injury concerns surrounding Watt entering 2017, but they centered around his surgically repaired back. No one could have predicted that in a home game on Oct. 8 against the Kansas City Chiefs Watt would suffer a season-ending tibial plateau fracture.
It was a rotten end to a quiet season on the field for Watt, who now has just 1.5 sacks since the beginning of 2016. It was all the worse given Watt's fundraising efforts off the field before the injury, which raised well over $30 million for the victims of Hurricane Harvey.
But the worst part about the whole mess? The part that leaves a knot in the pit of my stomach?
This is Watt's second serious injury in as many years. They've been the type of injuries many players never fully recover from. Watt is a generational talent and one of the best edge-rushers to ever play in the NFL. But it's fair to wonder at this point if we're ever going to see him play at the level that won him three Defensive Player of the Year awards. I voted with my heart here instead of my head, which said to pick Joey Bosa of the Chargers.
New England Patriots, Best Record
It didn't take long for me to look foolish here. All of one week, in fact.
Granted, at 6-2 it's still well within the realm of possibility that the Patriots could have the NFL's best record in 2017. They're only one game off the pace, and this is the most battle-tested club in the league.
As they always are, New England is one of the top contenders in the AFC. But I went one further than just predicting the Pats would have the best record. I predicted a perfect record. Um…no.
The Patriots got smoked at home by the Chiefs, and at the halfway mark of the 2017 season, they already have as many losses as all of last year. In my defense, no one expected the Patriots to be terrible defensively. Or that linebacker Dont'a Hightower would suffer a season-ending injury. But I was still embarrassingly, totally, completely wrong.
Brent Sobleski: Another Victim of the Buccaneers' Preseason Hype
The most entertaining part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2017 season so far has been quarterback Jameis Winston's dogged pursuit of Marriott points. The actual football, however, hasn't exactly made for engaging television.
The Bucs' Hard Knocks-fueled hype faded fast. The Winston-led offense is now averaging only 21.1 points per game (19th), and that sputtering has them already three games back in the NFC South.
Like many, Brent Sobleski believed in the revamped Buccaneers roster after an offseason highlighted by signing free-agent wide receiver DeSean Jackson. That's when he predicted Dirk Koetter would win coach of the year. That's already gone up in flames along with any thought of the Browns' Jabrill Peppers winning defensive rookie of the year.
Dirk Koetter, Coach of the Year (Record: 2-5)
Things haven't gone as planned for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs were a chic preseason pick to make the playoffs, but they find themselves stuck in the NFC South basement.
The roster's lack of development is startling. Jameis Winston continues to make the same mistakes, top free-agent addition DeSean Jackson wasn't happy with his role earlier in the season and the defense is ranked 29th overall. Instead of competing for a division crown, Koetter's squad is 2-5 and counted among the league's worst teams.
Jabrill Peppers, Defensive Rookie of the Year (26 tackles, one pass defensed)
Cleveland Browns safety Jabrill Peppers was supposed to serve as a versatile weapon in Gregg Williams' aggressive defense. The first-round pick's skill set allows him to play near the line of scrimmage, blitz, cover the slot or drop deep as the last line of defense.
Unfortunately, only one of those skills has been seen since Williams decided to play Peppers as a deep safety with very little variance within the scheme. Plus, Peppers is dealing with a toe injury that caused him to miss the last two contests.
Mike Tanier: What's Wrong with Matt Ryan?
The 2016 Atlanta Falcons offense was a white-hot inferno that roasted everything in its path. That should have ended with a championship banner hanging from the shiny new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Now the 2017 Falcons are learning that life without Kyle Shanahan means far fewer crooked numbers on the scoreboard. The Falcons offense is averaging 21.9 points per game, which is down significantly from its league-leading 33.8 average in 2016.
New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkasian has sucked the life from a unit that didn't change much throughout the offseason, and quarterback Matt Ryan finds himself suffering the most. A year ago after seven games, Ryan had thrown 16 touchdown passes. Now he's thrown only nine.
Mike Tanier projected Ryan to lead the league in TD throws and wants that one back. And like Farrar, he also looks back not so fondly on his preseason McCaffrey excitement.
Christian McCaffrey, Offensive Rookie of the Year
Well, McCaffrey is the Rookie of the Year in some really fluky fantasy PPR leagues, amiright?
But seriously, folks, all McCaffrey needed to be this season's breakout star was a) an offensive coordinator who wouldn't bang an obvious perimeter playmaker between the tackles like he's LeGarrette Blount Jr.; and b) a quarterback who can complete flat passes and crossing routes in stride instead of firing fastballs behind and over his target.
My mistake was being too optimistic about the adaptive capabilities of Mike Shula and Cam Newton. I keep a GIF of McCaffrey lining up at fullback in a fumbled Panthers triple option on my desktop to make sure I never make that mistake again.
Matt Ryan, Most Touchdown Passes
I took a shot at Mike Shula in the McCaffrey section, but Shula is the second-best offensive coordinator in the NFC South at this point.
Given Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to work with, Steve Sarkasian gets to the goal line and thinks "let's get Austin Hooper and Tyler Gabriel more involved." Ryan looks uncomfortable with the decisions being made by Sark's Random Play-Call Generator. And while Ryan proved in the past that he's capable of MVP-caliber play when everything is in sync, minor changes/losses/setbacks can make him look very ordinary.
Mike Freeman: The Fall of Amari Cooper
There are a lot of reasons why the Oakland Raiders have fallen down a fiery pit of despair. And one of them comes with a name: Amari Cooper.
Cooper should be taking off in his third season after being the 2015 fourth overall pick. He should be building on his single-season high of 1,153 receiving yards on 83 catches in 2016. Instead he's gone in the opposite direction, largely because of a long battle with slippery hands.
The 23-year-old is among the league-leaders in drops with four, and as a result Cooper has caught just 50 percent of his targets. That's down drastically from his 62.8 percent catch rate in 2016.
Cooper is on pace for only 808 receiving yards after topping the 1,000-yard mark in each of his first two seasons. Meanwhile, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant has also established an uncharacteristically sluggish pace and is on track to finish with 73 receptions. That would be his lowest single-season catch total since 2011.
Mike Freeman did a bit of grumbling about making Bryant his catch leader and projecting Cooper as the best fake football player of 2017.
Amari Cooper, Fantasy Player of the Year
Cooper seemed poised to at least continue what's been a nice run as a top-five receiver. Instead, he became Leonard Hankerson. He's had one good game this season, but the rest have been trash, leaving him with 9.5 fantasy points per game. Nice pick by me.
Dez Bryant, Most Receptions
It looked set to be another breakout year from one of the game's star receivers. Instead, the stars for the Cowboys continue to be Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. Not Bryant and his 32 receptions.
Matt Miller: The Perfect Season Died Early for the Patriots
The New England Patriots seemed destined to be unstoppable again prior to the season. They'll still win a whole lot of games and be a championship contender, but the Patriots will be doing it without that juggernaut status after getting knocked down a peg early in the season.
The Patriots came dangerously close to starting out with a 1-3 record, and only quarterback Tom Brady's last-minute heroics in Week 3's 36-33 win over the Houston Texans saved them from that fate. They've since turned their season around with four straight wins, but the Patriots did that while overcoming a struggling defense for the early part of the season. They're still allowing a league-worst 417 yards per game.
The shine of undefeated potential has worn off from the Patriots, and Matt Miller wishes he could have a do-over on his best-record pick. Elsewhere in lost shine: The Tennessee Titans, and his coach of the year pick.
Patriots, best record
The Patriots may still finish with the NFL's best record, but the preseason prediction of a 16-0 perfect season looked pretty bad when the Kansas City Chiefs beat New England in Week 1, 42-27. Sitting at 6-2, the Patriots look more like a 13-3 team right now.
Mike Mularkey, Coach of the Year
Looking back at all our predictions from the preseason, I bit hard on the belief that the Tennessee Titans would become a top-tier team this season. Oops.
Mike Mularkey might actually be the problem for his 4-3 Titans right now instead of the solution.
Sean Tomlinson: Still Waiting on the Ameer Abdullah Breakout
And since thinking long and hard about your own failures is always fun, here's where I messed up.
Ameer Abdullah, Breakout Player of the Year
I guzzled back that delicious preseason hype on a finally healthy Ameer Abdullah.
The Detroit Lions running back suffered a severe injury during his second season, tearing his Lisfranc in Week 2. But prior to that he showed impressive burst during the season opener in 2016, posting 120 yards from scrimmage. And going further back, he finished with a solid 780 total yards despite a limited role (nine starts) as a rookie.
Abdullah slashes and cuts with power when healthy, so 2017 was supposed to be his breakout campaign. ESPN.com Lions beat writer Michael Rothstein was on board with that thinking too: He projected Abdullah to be the team's first 1,000-plus-yard rusher since Reggie Bush in 2013.
Now at midseason, the 2015 second-round pick still hasn't lifted off and is averaging only 3.7 yards per carry as the Lions' search for some semblance of a rushing offense continues.
Mike Mularkey, Coach of the Year
If the playoffs started today, the Tennessee Titans would be hosting a game. That feels strange and wrong, but it says more about the annual clown-car division that is the AFC South than anything the Titans are doing. After all, the Titans needed overtime in Week 7 to sneak past the lowly Cleveland Browns by a field goal.
It was easy to find yourself staring wide eyed at the Titans throughout the offseason and labeling them as the next young, rising team. They still have time to earn that title, and the return of rookie first-round pick Corey Davis from injury will help.
But in addition to Davis, the Titans added wide receivers Eric Decker and Taywan Taylor. On the other side of the ball, they plugged in two new cornerbacks: Logan Ryan and Adoree' Jackson. Despite all those changes and a quarterback who's still young and promising, the Titans have the league's 18th-ranked offense and 16th-ranked defense.
All that leads to wondering whether head coach Mike Mularkey is the right man to get the most out of his roster.