9 Bold Predictions for the 2020 NFL Season

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJuly 15, 2020

9 Bold Predictions for the 2020 NFL Season

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    At this point in the offseason, NFL teams typically would have begun organized team activities and minicamps. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a massive wrench into those plans, but as things stand today, the regular season is still scheduled to kick off on September 10 in Kansas City.

    So long as that's the case, another annual happening also remains on schedule: speculation about the season to come.

    After an offseason of free-agent acquisitions, trades, coaching changes and draft picks, much has changed in the NFL. Teams like the Arizona Cardinals appear to be on the rise. Others like the New England Patriots are barreling in the opposite direction.

    If there's one constant in the NFL, it's change.

    As we move into the summer and hopefully get closer to opening of training camp, here's a look at some bold predictions for the season to come—players who will shine, teams that will stumble and an early pick for the champion of Super Bowl LV.

The Pittsburgh Steelers Will Win the AFC North

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    In 2019, the Baltimore Ravens won the AFC North by a staggering six games. The Ravens posted a 14-2 mark that was the best in the NFL, won 12 games in a row and set an NFL record for rushing yards in a season.

    After an offseason of adding veteran talent like defensive lineman Calais Campbell and talented rookies like running back J.K. Dobbins, the Ravens enter the 2020 campaign as prohibitive favorites in the division and one of the leading contenders to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LV.

    But these are supposed to be bold predictions—so we might as well start off with a bang.

    Often in the NFL, it can be that much harder to sustain success than to attain it. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh admitted to Clifton Brown of the team's website that in 2020 the Ravens have gone from hunter to hunted. 

    "Going into our season last year, we were the iceberg," Harbaugh said. "Ninety percent of what we were going to be capable of was still under water and people hadn't seen it yet. Starting next year, we're not going to be the iceberg. People are going to see us. We're going to be everybody's most important game."

    The Pittsburgh Steelers, on the other hand, are trying to wash off the stink of a disappointing 8-8 campaign that went sideways the moment Ben Roethlisberger went down with a season-ending elbow injury.

    That Steelers team isn't short on talent in its own right—the defense might well be better than Baltimore's. And it wasn't that long ago (2017) that Pittsburgh was a 13-3 team in its own right.

    Baltimore's Thanksgiving Night tilt in the Steel City is going to be one of the most important regular-season contests of the year. And much like the race in the division, the Steelers are going to eke out an upset.

The Green Bay Packers Will Miss the Playoffs

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    The Green Bay Packers won the NFC North last year and were one of three NFC teams to finish with a 13-3 record. Despite all of that, the oddsmakers at Caesars Palace have installed the Minnesota Vikings as a slight favorite in the division this season.

    This bold prediction is taking that one step further. After an unusual offseason in Titletown, the Packers will not only fail to repeat as division champions but will miss the playoffs altogether.

    This isn't to say that the Packers aren't good. So long as Aaron Rodgers is under center, Green Bay can't be underestimated. But they also aren't without problems.

    Salary-cap issues prevented the Packers from doing much in free agency this offseason. And rather than draft another passing-game weapon for Rodgers in the first round of the 2020 draft, Green Bay traded up for Rodgers' successor in Jordan Love.

    The Packers were third in turnover differential last year and ninth in scoring defense, but they were also 18th in total defense, 15th in sacks and 23rd against the run. In more facets of the game than not, they were an average defensive team that survived on turning the ball over, which is difficult to sustain.

    The NFC is as deep in 2020 as it has been in recent memory. It isn't outside the realm of possibility that a 10-6 team could miss the postseason even with a seventh playoff team added.

    It's fixing to be an uncomfortable season for the Packers. And if they do miss the playoffs, the decisions that general manager Brian Gutekunst made over the past few months will be cast in an even harsher light.

So Will the Overhyped Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Every NFL offseason has its darling—a team that surfs a wave of hype after a flurry of offseason activity.

    In 2019, it was the Cleveland Browns, who had acquired Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon. That didn't pan out so well, as the Browns stumbled their way to a 6-10 finish.

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers might not take a significant step backward from last year's 7-9 record. But they also aren't going to take the big step forward that so many expect now that they have Tom Brady under center.

    Yes, the Buccaneers have one of the NFL's best one-two punches at wide receiver in Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. They also lured Brady's former tight end, Rob Gronkowski, out of retirement. No team allowed fewer rushing yards per game in 2019 than Tampa Bay, too.

    That's the good news. But the news isn't all good.

    Brady is turning 43 in August and is coming off his worst statistical season in years. The Bucs added offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs with the No. 13 overall pick, but their offensive line ranked 22nd or worse in both run blocking and pass protection last year at Football Outsiders. They were also 24th in rushing and fielded the league's third-worst pass defense.

    In an NFC South that features a top Super Bowl contender in the New Orleans Saints and an Atlanta Falcons team that isn't too far removed from a Super Bowl trip of its own, the Bucs' flaws can't be ignored.

Chase Young Will Break the Rookie Sack Record of 14.5

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Washington selected Ohio State edge-rusher Chase Young with the No. 2 pick in this year's draft. A number of pundits regarded him as the best overall player in his class after he led all FBS players with 16.5 sacks in 2019.

    New Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio can't wait to get the wildly athletic 6'5", 264-pounder on the practice field, according to Les Carpenter of the Washington Post.

    "I think the sky's the limit for him in terms of what he will be able to bring us," he said. "We haven't seen him yet [on the field], but I've watched enough tape. He's going to be a really good player for us."

    Young's physical gifts are as impressive as any edge-rusher who has come along in quite some time. As good as Joey and Nick Bosa have been (both won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors), Young might be even better.

    He's also walking into a highly favorable situation in Washington. Ryan Kerrigan, Jonathan Allen, Da'Ron Payne and Montez Sweat were all first-round picks in their respective drafts, which will make it difficult for opponents to key in on Young.

    The rookie sack record of 14.5 has stood for two decades since Jevon Kearse set it in 1999. It's been almost 10 years since Aldon Smith nearly toppled it.

    In 2020, Young is going to pull it off.

Myles Garrett Will Have a Record-Setting Season and Win DPOY

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    When last we saw Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, he was swinging Mason Rudolph's helmet at Mason Rudolph's head. That Week 11 outburst drew him the longest suspension for an on-field incident in NFL history and ended a promising third pro season in which he piled up 10 sacks over his first seven games.

    Garrett entered the 2019 season with aspirations of winning Defensive Player of the Year, but that obviously didn't come to pass. Still, new Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods told Grant Gordon of NFL.com that Garrett is doing all the right things ahead of the 2020 season.

    "I think as a young player in this league, you go through a lot of different things so I definitely think he is going to learn and grow from the situation that happened last year. ... He is focused on getting better. He is focused on being a good teammate. He has been in the meetings. He is trying to step up and take more of a leadership role. I definitely think he is moving in the right direction and has the right mindset."

    If Garrett's head is 100 percent in the game, he could be set for a monster season. And he has about 100 million reasons to be motivated. That's the amount in guarantees (per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network) in Garrett's new extension, which made him the highest-paid non-quarterback in the game.

    As NFL.com's Nick Shook noted, Garrett was the league's most disruptive pass-rusher last year.

    "Garrett's disruption rate was the best in the NFL. He registered a pressure on 17.1 percent of dropbacks in 2019, which was the highest percentage posted by a player since the 2016 season. He also became one of just three players to post a pressure rate of 12 percent or higher in each of the last three seasons. The other two: Aaron Donald and Von Miller. With each Browns contest, there was a moment or two in which a quarterback would hit the turf and there'd be only one word to say in response: Myles."

    Cleveland's front line is loaded with talent. So is Garrett. And in 2020, it will all come together. 

    Garrett will break the franchise record of 14 sacks, challenge the NFL record of 22.5 and win the Defensive Player of the Year Award that he covets. 

The Cincinnati Bengals Will Win More Games Than the New England Patriots

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    Life comes at you fast in the NFL.

    On Oct. 27, the New England Patriots were coming off a 27-13 win over the Cleveland Browns. At 8-0, the defending Super Bowl champs looked like the class of the AFC—again. The Bengals, meanwhile, had just fallen 24-10 to the Los Angeles Rams. They were 0-8 and looked like the worst team in the NFL.

    Quite a lot has changed since.

    The Bengals finished the 2019 season 2-14, earning the first pick in the 2020 draft. They used that selection on LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. The Bengals were more aggressive in free agency than they have been in years and will get back wideout A.J. Green (ankle) and tackle Jonah Williams (shoulder) from injuries. By all indications, they should be significantly improved in 2020.

    Meanwhile, the Patriots lost the best player in franchise history when Tom Brady joined the Buccaneers in free agency. The Pats still possess a great defense (including reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore), but the same lack of offensive firepower that dragged them down over a 4-4 second half is still there. That problem could become even worse if it exposes their massive question mark at quarterback.

    Granted, the Patriots attempted to answer that question by signing Cam Newton. But the Newton we saw the past two seasons looked nothing like the 2015 NFL MVP, and he's winless in his last eight starts.

    It's hard to imagine a world in which the Bengals are a better team than the Patriots. The Pats have won six Super Bowls since the Bengals last won a playoff game. The last time Cincinnati had a better record was in 1995, when the Pats were 6-10 and the Bengals were 7-9.

    Twenty-five years later, we're going to see a repeat.

The Los Angeles Rams Will Finish in Last Place in the NFC West

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Consider this the second installment in "life comes at you fast in the NFL."

    Two years ago, the Los Angeles Rams were a 13-3 team that represented the NFC in Super Bowl LIII. Since 2017, the Rams have produced a Coach of the Year, an Offensive Player of the Year and a two-time Defensive Player of the Year.

    However, the Rams took a substantial step backward last year. Quarterback Jared Goff regressed. Running back Todd Gurley II battled injuries, and his production dropped precipitously. The Rams outright released him this offseason two years into a massive four-year, $57.5 million contract extension.

    Gurley isn't the Rams' only notable loss. They also traded wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the Houston Texans. And the big extensions that they gave Goff, Gurley and Aaron Donald (among others) left them not only unable to add talent, but players like Clay Matthews and Dante Fowler Jr. were either released in cap-cutting moves or allowed to leave in free agency.

    The Rams have taken a sizable talent hit over the past few months, but that isn't their only problem.

    The NFC West has the look of an absolute meat-grinder in 2020. The San Francisco 49ers are the defending NFC champions after a 13-3 campaign. The Seattle Seahawks have missed the playoffs only once since 2012. And the Arizona Cardinals added firepower on both sides of the ball this offseason even faster than the Rams lost it.

    Not long ago at all, the Rams were playing for the Lombardi Trophy in Atlanta. The only thing they will be playing for in 2020 is position in the 2021 draft, except they don't even have a first-round pick.

DeAndre Hopkins Will Have the Best Season by a WR in Arizona Cardinals History

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The Arizona Cardinals have been busy this offseason. But the crown jewel of their acquisitions was the trade that landed them superstar wideout DeAndre Hopkins.

    Over the past six years, Hopkins has been as good as any pass-catcher in the game. He's topped 1,000 yards five times, caught 100-plus passes and/or scored double-digit touchdowns three times and hit the 1,500-yard mark twice.

    Now Hopkins joins a Cardinals passing game that already included a future Hall of Famer in Larry Fitzgerald and a talented youngster in Christian Kirk. ESPN analyst Louis Riddick thinks Hopkins' arrival will elevate Arizona's entire offense (and quarterback Kyler Murray), per Nick Kosko of 247Sports.

    "What you're looking at here is whether or not the combination of him and Deandre Hopkins can take Kyler Murray's game and raise it to a new level. DeAndre Hopkins has said that if it wasn't for the fact that he had so much inconsistency at quarterback in Houston before he had [Deshaun] Watson coming to play for him as far as upgrading that position, then he would have some of the best numbers in the NFL as far as receiver.

    "I'm expecting him to, maybe, have one of the best seasons in his career. For Kyler Murray to have the best season of his young career. We'll see if the Cardinals can make some headway in the NFC West."

    The stars have aligned for more than just a career year from Hopkins. If he can catch more than 109 passes, he'll break Larry Fitzgerald's franchise record for receptions. More than 1,598 yards will break David Boston's record in that category. More than 15 scores will set a new franchise high-water mark for touchdowns.

    Sweep all three, and it will be far and away the best season by a receiver in Cardinals history.

The New Orleans Saints Will Win Super Bowl LV...and Drew Brees Will Be NFL MVP

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    No player in NFL history has thrown for more yards (77,416) or touchdowns (547) than New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. But despite those records, his 13 Pro Bowl nods, two Offensive Player of the Year awards and his Super Bowl XLIV MVP award, Brees has never been named the league's Most Valuable Player.

    That's going to change in 2020.

    Coming off a 13-win season, the Saints might be the most balanced team in the league on paper. They added veteran wideout Emmanuel Sanders to an offense that includes a top-five running back in Alvin Kamara, the league's most prolific pass-catcher in Michael Thomas and a top-three offensive line in both run blocking and pass protection, per Football Outsiders.

    Defensively, the Saints added a three-time Pro Bowl safety in Malcolm Jenkins to a squad that already included talent at every level in defensive end Cameron Jordan, linebacker Demario Davis and cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

    In what could conceivably be Brees' final season, everything is going to fall into place. The Saints are going to win the NFC South. And then the entire NFC. And then Super Bowl LV.

    The day before that game, Brees is finally going to get that long-awaited MVP trophy—even if it's more of a lifetime achievement award.