That smell in the air isn’t autumn on the way.
It’s the scent of pigskins being flung across grassy swaths in giant stadiums, football fans.
The start of the 2017 NFL season is just over a week away and fans, fantasy poolies, scribes, executives, corporate sponsors and players are all restless with anticipation.
On Thursday, Sept. 7, the new campaign gets underway with a heavyweight tilt featuring defending Super Bowl champion New England at home in Foxboro, Mass., against AFC West leaders Kansas City.
We can’t think of a better contest to kick things off, so to speak.
After that, it’s a Sunday slate full of intriguing match-ups, many of them between division rivals, as well as two Monday nighters.
Looking into our crystal ball, we can see many teams and players having outstanding years and a whole lot of warfare in the trenches to determine playoff and Super Bowl bound clubs.
Here are 15 of our boldest predictions for the upcoming NFL season, starting with individual leaders.
15. Most Interceptions – CB Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots
There is little more exhilarating, or in some cases exasperating, than a well-time interception. A big one for a pick six can change the entire complexion of a game, in our estimation. Last year, Los Angeles Chargers veteran CB Casey Hayward topped the NFL in this category, snagging seven for 102 yards and one touchdown. However, we don’t think he’ll be a repeat candidate, as he didn’t record one in 2015 and has been up and down that way. Our selection this year is newly acquired New England Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore. The sixth-year vet steadily improved his stock in five seasons with Buffalo and in a Bill Belichick inspired scheme, he will pick off more passes. He had one, two, three, three and five interceptions between 2012 and 2016 and we think he’ll snare seven this year to lead all defensive players.
14. Most Receiving Yards – WR Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders
We think it’s going to be a breakout year for the Raiders and high on the list of their breakout players will be WR Amari Cooper. He and Derek Carr have been together on the Oakland offence for two years now and we believe they have been giving us just a tease of their greatness. This could be the most potent offensive tandem not seen in these parts since Montana-Rice three decades ago. With new running threat Marshawn Lynch in the fold to keep opposing defences honest, we expect that Cooper will get plenty more looks and targets than the 130 and 132 he got in 2015 and 2016, respectively. His numbers in 32 games have been fairly consistent, with 72 receptions and 1,070 yards in his rookie season and then 83 catches and 1,153 yards in his sophomore campaign. Not outside the realm for him to tack on another 300 yards or so to lead everyone in receiving yards this year.
13. Most Sacks – DE Mario Addison, Carolina Panthers
Things will not get worse for the Cats in 2017, after a horrible 6-10 record that followed a Super Bowl appearance. Part of the team’s 2017 resurgence will come from a defence that will make life absolutely miserable for opposition offences. The Panthers were second in overall sacks last season, one behind Arizona with 47. Leading the charge was veteran DE Addison with a career high 9.5. Addison, entering his seventh season, has the luxury of having great defensive players to take some heat off of him, including Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short, Charles Johnson and Star Lotulelei. Ever since becoming a starter with Carolina in 2013, Addison has made marked improvement on the edge, going from 2.5 sacks in 16 games during the 2013 campaign to his team-leading 9.5 in just 14 games last year.
12. Most Rushing Yards – RB LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
It’s been four years since superstar running back LeSean McCoy led all rushers in yards. On a team that is bereft of high end receivers this year, we think he’s poised to bust out again. McCoy ran for 1,607 yards and nine TDs in 2013 with the Philadelphia Eagles. He fell off a bit in his first year with Buffalo in 2015, totaling just 895 yards on 203 carries in 12 games. But, being the stud he is, McCoy bounced back with another monster year in 2016, gaining a personal high 5.4 yards per carry (234 carries, 1,267 yards) for the 7-9 Bills. Buffalo has lost most of their receiving talent from a year ago, on a team that already relied heavily on the run. Add to that the fact that backfield mate Mike Gillislee is gone to New England, along with his 101 carries. Which means McCoy will likely get close to the number of carries he had in his big 2013 season (314) and increase his yardage big time.
11. Most Passing Yards – QB Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
As long as he stays healthy, there is no reason to believe that Drew Brees won’t lead all QBs in passing yards again this season. Sure, the 17th year pivot is 38, but he has shown few signs he is slowing down. For the fifth time in his Hall of Fame caliber career, the Austin, TX native passed for over 5,000 yards (5,208) in 2016, along with 37 TDs and a 101.7 passer rating. He had lots of weapons to sail the pigskin to and for the 2017 season will only be without leading receiver Brandin Cooks, who’ll see passes tossed his way from Tom Brady in New England. There are more than enough hands, though, to fill the void, including second leading receiver Michael Thomas, WR Willie Snead, up-and-coming WR Tommylee Lewis, veteran WR Ted Ginn, TE Coby Fleener, RB Mark Ingram and RB Adrian Peterson. We see yet another 5,000 yard season from the great Brees.
10. NFL Defensive Player of the Year – LB Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Oakland’s Khalil Mack ended T.J. Watt’s two-year stranglehold on DPOY in 2016 and it was much deserved. And keeping with AFC West’s new domination of that honor, this year we think will be the first bestowed on Denver’s Von Miller. For five of his six seasons in the Mile High City, Miller has been the straw that stirs the Broncos defensive drink. He had his best season since 2012 (68 tackles, 18.5 sacks then), recording a career high 78 tackles and 13.5 sacks in 2016. And we think he is going to see a lot more time on the field this season, considering the Broncos will have plenty of trouble offensively (Trevor Siemian is starting QB, enough said). Denver was all about defence last year (fourth least yards and points allowed) and with Miller leading the charge this year, that won’t likely change.
9. NFL Rookie of the Year – RB Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
If it seems we like the Panthers to cop a couple of awards, we will point to the fact this team will turn things around from a dismal 6-10 campaign in 2016. Part of that turnaround gets a youth injection in the form of first round (8th overall) pick Christian McCaffrey. The former Stanford Cardinal superstar running back will get the chance to strut his stuff behind starter Jonathan Stewart. The 2015 college football player of the year was an all-purpose ball hog for the Cardinal, racking up 3,922 yards rushing, 1,206 yards receiving and 1,479 kickoff return yards in three seasons. So far in the pre-season, he has been true to form. McCaffrey has rushed for 87 yards on 17 carries and scored a TD. He has also caught three passes for another 51 yards, including a 38-yard catch-and-run scamper. We see good things from the Castle Rock, CO native this year.
8. NFL Offensive Player of the Year – RB David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
In the past 10 years, the NFL OPOY has been near dominated by quarterbacks, including two each to Tom Brady and Drew Brees. The last running back to win it was DeMarco Murray in 2014 and the only other two were Adrian Peterson (2012) and current teammate Chris Johnson (2009). Thus, it’s high time another back came to the fore and this year we think it will be Arizona’s David Johnson. He led the NFL in all-purpose yards on 2016, running for 1,239 yards and 16 TDs while catching 80 passes for another 879 yards and four touchdowns (falling just 121 yards short of being the third player ever to have at least 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in a single season). Put one way, he accounted for 36 percent of the Cardinals’ total yards gained and 29 percent of their total scoring. Now going into just his third season, Johnson is poised to do what that other Johnson in his backfield did in 2009 and win the offensive player of the year award.
7. Team On The Way Down – Miami Dolphins
If Jay Cutler is their quarterback this season, not even the big man upstairs can help the Miami Dolphins. The Fish, with Ryan Tannehill calling the plays, were 10-6 in 2016 and made the playoffs, only to bow meekly to Pittsburgh in the wild card game. None of the temperamental Cutler, Matt Moore, Brandon Doughty or David Fales will be able to keep this Miami team in the hunt in the absence of Tannehill, who is out for the season with a knee injury. A lack of offence will only put more pressure on a defence that finished 29th in yards allowed in 2016 and 18th in points surrendered at 23.8. Add to that the fact their crossover games this season are tough, to say the least. Outside of a division where they have to play New England twice, they visit the L.A. Chargers, Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs. If that isn’t enough of a recipe for disaster, they host cross-state rival Tampa Bay, as well as New Orleans, Tennessee, Oakland and Denver. We say that record does a 180 this year to 6-10, at best.
6. Team On The Way Up – Carolina Panthers
We’ve already spoken to what we believe will be big years from RB Christian McCaffrey (RoY) and DE Mario Addison (Sacks leader) but what of the rest of the Carolina Panthers? They will be very good defensively, this much we know. The continued progress and leadership from Luke Kuechly and the edge rushing provided by Addison makes a potent compact on the defensive side of the ball. Offensively, this has to be the year that 2015 OPOY Cam Newton shakes off the ill effects he felt after under-performing in Super Bowl 50 and the social media thumping he took after. He’s got nowhere to go but up heading into his seventh season and that 3,509-yard, 19 TD-14 INT, 75.8 passer rating season of a year ago was an anomaly, in our estimation. Newton will still have Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin to chuck the ball at and Jonathan Stewart (ably backed up by rookie Christian McCaffrey) in the backfield. We see a turnaround, especially with a schedule that pits them against sub-.500 teams San Francisco, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans (twice) and N.Y. Jets as well as a Miami squad going the other way.
5. AFC Playoff Teams – New England, Kansas City, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Houston And Tennessee
There won’t be much change to the way the AFC post-season shapes up, other than the fact the Miami Dolphins won’t get anywhere near the playoffs and the Titans make an appearance for the first time since 2008. Again, the class of the AFC will be New England, followed very closely by the Oakland Raiders, who will make big strides in 2017 and capture the AFC West crown, leaving the Chiefs as a wild card club. The Steelers won’t be pushed in the AFC Central by any one of Baltimore, Cincinnati or Cleveland. Which leaves the Houston Texans and Titans in the AFC South, where we think the Texans will again win the division by the slimmest of margins over the wild card game bound Titans. Since the Titans are the only team that didn’t make the 2016 post-season, we will back our prediction up by noting that Marcus Mariota is only getting better, they have DeMarco Murray in the backfield and that their defence got a whole lot better with the additions of SS Johnathan Cyprien from Jacksonville and CB Logan Ryan from New England.
4. NFC Playoff Teams – Dallas, Seattle, Detroit, Atlanta, New York Giants And Carolina
There will be more of a shift in the NFC this year, as we see the exit of Green Bay from the Big Dance and the ascendance of the Lions and Panthers. The NFC East will again have two playoff teams and we don’t foresee the Giants overtaking the Cowboys for top spot in that division. The Seahawks are the class of the NFC’s worst division, the West, and will be the only representative. The Packers, unfortunately, will likely be ousted from post-season contention by Detroit in the NFC North — by the slimmest of margins — for the first time since 2008. The NFC South will see the biggest change, in that Atlanta will again finish first, but the Panthers should return to glory by turning their record around (6-10 to 10-6) and make the playoffs as a wild card.
3. AFC Champions – Oakland Raiders
Of all our predictions here, this is by far the boldest. But, when stacking up the Raiders against the rest of the AFC, including New England, this argument is fairly solid. And speaking of the Patriots, who will more than challenge for top dog in the AFC, we think they are due for a bit of letdown. That is, they won it all in 2014, then lost in the AFC championship game in 2015, followed by another Super Bowl victory last year. The Raiders, on paper at least, seem poised to make big noise. They have an elite QB in Derek Carr, dynamic receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree and loads of running grit and playoff experience in RB Marshawn Lynch. Defensively, the Raiders boast 2016 DPOY Khalil Mack and a host of great defenders including Bruce Irvin (seven sacks in 2016) FS Reggie Nelson (five interceptions). Do they have the gumption to unseat the Pats? We think so.
2. NFC Champions – Atlanta Falcons
All world quarterback – check. Superstar wide receiver – check. Smashmouth running back – check. Stout sack machine – check. Plenty of reasons to erase bad memories from Super Bowl 51 – check, check and check. These Atlanta Falcons, helmed by Matt “Matty Ice” Ryan and featuring WR Julio Jones, RB Devonta Freeman and 2016 sack leader LB Vic Beasley Jr., should use the shame of losing a winnable Super Bowl deep to fire them up and propel them to another Super Bowl appearance. The Falcons cruised to a 28-9 lead over the vaunted Patriots in Super Bowl LI, on the near perfect passing of Ryan (284 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT), the running of Freeman (75 yards, 1 TD) and the hands of Jones (4 receptions, 87 yards) and a long pick six (82 yards) from CB Robert Alford. But, in the space of 13 and a half minutes, they frittered it all away. That has to sting and we believe that lesson was hard-taught and will be put to good use this year.
1. Super Bowl Champions – Atlanta Falcons
The last time the Oakland Raiders made the Super Bowl, Rich Gannon was the quarterback and current pivot Derek Carr was just 12 years old and in middle school. In 2002, Gannon and the upstart Raiders got thumped 48-21 by Brad Johnson (remember him?) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 48-21. The only remaining player from that Raiders starting line-up is kicker Sebastian Janikowski, so there isn’t a ton of experience to draw on. We’re sure the “Polish Cannon” will be up to the task, but he can only influence so much with his big toe. On the other side, our favorites to return to the big game, the Atlanta Falcons, will have oodles of experience heading into Super Bowl 52 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Feb. 4, 2018. If this is the match-up, look for Matt Ryan et al to take a lead, and keep it.