ATLANTA — The Super Bowl is over, and to paraphrase one of its head coaches, we are on to 2019.
That’s right. Let someone else sweep up the confetti, plan the parade and discuss the impact of Super Bowl LIII on various individuals’ legacies. We are looking ahead, into a long-distance crystal ball that reveals what will happen over the next calendar year in the NFL.
Way-too-early 2019 NFL Power Rankings
Super Bowl LIII is in the books, but we’re already on to the 2019 season. Who is at the top of our projection? Here’s how our experts have the league stacked.
Even though it’s way too early, even though almost none of last year’s predictions from this column came true (though some did!), and even though fans of teams that played deep into January and early February might not have switched their minds to offseason mode, we nevertheless present to you 10 bold predictions for 2019.
Please take them in the spirit in which they are intended.
1. The Jaguars will acquire Nick Foles, somehow, but still miss the playoffs
This is not to diminish the talents of Mr. Foles, and woe unto the rest of the AFC South if those teams let him hang in contention until mid-December. But the Jaguars team we predict Foles to be joining is not of the same caliber as the Eagles teams for which he performed his late-season and postseason magic the past two years. I believe the Eagles will work with Foles and allow him to have some say in where he ends up.
I also believe they’re wary of him ending up in the NFC East with Washington or the Giants, and directing him to a faraway AFC destination like Jacksonville will be more appealing to Howie Roseman & Co. Jacksonville’s hiring of former Eagles QBs coach John DeFilippo as offensive coordinator could make the Jags appealing to Foles as well.
2. The Texans will sign Le’Veon Bell to a deal that eclipses Todd Gurley’s
Bell didn’t just sit out a whole season to take a penny less than the four-year, $57.5 million contract Gurley signed with the Rams last summer. And in spite of that missed season, Bell will have a market for his services. The Jets, 49ers and Texans are all in it, but Houston wins out by selling Bell on what he can do in an offense that features Deshaun Watson at quarterback and DeAndre Hopkins at wide receiver.
The Texans must — and likely will — address the offensive line in free agency and the draft. But Bell is what my colleague Bill Polian calls a “BYOB” back (bring your own blocking). He can help elevate the Texans’ offense to where it needs to be to compete for an AFC title.
3. Antonio Brown will lead the league in receptions with the San Francisco 49ers
The odds strongly favor Pittsburgh trading Brown this offseason. Releasing him would allow a conference rival like Baltimore or New England to get him, and that’s not in the Steelers’ interests at all. So shipping him off to an NFC West team makes more sense. San Francisco has the cap space to give Brown a new contract if he wants one, and there’s no doubt Brown knows all about what Julio Jones did in Atlanta two years ago as the No. 1 wide receiver in a Kyle Shanahan offense.
Russell Wilson’s next contract should be a record-breaker. Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire
4. Russell Wilson becomes the highest-paid player in the NFL
Wilson’s contract runs out after the 2019 season, and the Seahawks aren’t going to want to let him enter that final year without an extension. Given Wilson’s performance and durability, there’s absolutely no reason for him to sign any contract that doesn’t surpass those of Aaron Rodgers (four years, $134 million), Matt Ryan (five years, $150 million) and Kirk Cousins (three years, $84 million). What the industry is watching is to see how much of the deal he can get guaranteed.
What is Foles’ future?ESPN’s Adam Schefter breaks down how the Eagles plan to move QB Nick Foles this offseason.
5. The NFL establishes some sort of video review system that pertains to penalties
In spite of the furor over the non-call at the end of the Saints-Rams NFC Championship Game, there’s no way the league owners will approve a system that allows coaches to challenge penalty calls (or, in this case, non-calls). Pandora’s box. However, there’s enough push from enough people connected to the league that the NFL likely will find a way to assist officials in egregious cases such as the one in New Orleans.
It could be an extra official in a replay booth at the game who radios down to the referee to change or help with a call. Could be oversight from the league office in New York that allows it. The drumbeat of “Use the technology at your disposal” will become too much to ignore, even though the changes might not be as extensive as many of you might like.
Now that Freddie Kitchens is head coach, can the Browns and QB Baker Mayfield take the next step? Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports
6. The Cleveland Browns will win the AFC North
I think this is going to be a popular one come summertime, so let’s get out ahead of it. Cleveland went 5-2 over its final seven games in 2018 with Baker Mayfield at quarterback and Freddie Kitchens running the offense. Kitchens is now the head coach, Mayfield is, of course, still the quarterback, the defense is still stocked with young stars and the offense has enough around Mayfield to make the Browns a legit contender. The Browns have the third-most projected cap space and eight picks within the first five rounds of April’s draft with which to bolster their roster.
One year ago, Dan Graziano predicted …
Andrew Luck returns and plays all 16 games for the Colts: “Luck looks like a pretty good candidate to beat out J.J. Watt, David Johnson, Aaron Rodgers and others in one of the most crowded Comeback Player of the Year races in history.” (Luck won Comeback Player of the Year Saturday night.)
As you likely figured out by reading Items 2 and 3 above, things are falling apart a bit in Pittsburgh. And I predict some more growing pains for Lamar Jackson in Baltimore (though I still like him long term). Cleveland’s third-place schedule will help too. For instance, the Browns get to play the Broncos while the Ravens have to play the Chiefs and the Steelers have to play the Chargers.
7. The other new playoff teams will be the Vikings, Titans and 49ers
Minnesota’s offense clicks better in Kirk Cousins’ second season there. The AFC South starts to look like the league’s new power division, with Tennessee pushing the Colts and Texans. And assuming Jimmy Garoppolo gets through the season healthy, another busy and productive offseason should put San Francisco in position to make some noise.
The 2018 playoff teams whose places these three take are the Bears, Colts and Cowboys, respectively. The Eagles reassert themselves atop a once-again-weak NFC East.
2019 NFL DRAFT
When: April 25-27
Where: Nashville, Tennessee
How to watch: ABC/ESPN/ESPN App
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8. Four quarterbacks get drafted in the first round
They are Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, Missouri’s Drew Lock and Duke’s Daniel Jones, maybe in that order. What’s interesting about this year is that none of the top three teams (or likely the fourth) are in desperate need of a quarterback. So QB-needy teams such as the Giants, Dolphins, Broncos and Washington might end up dealing extra picks to move up to get ahead of each other and snag the guy they like.
Add in later-picking teams such as the Patriots and Chargers that might consider drafting a long-term replacement for their incumbent, and you could have a very interesting, maneuver-heavy first round.
9. There will be no formal talks about an extension to the collective bargaining agreement
The players’ union continues to have no motivation to come to the table and talk about the extension the owners want to the current deal, which runs out after 2020. The relationship between the two sides is badly broken, and there seems to be a chasm between what the owners expect the players to want (stop testing for marijuana, for example) and what the players actually want (a role in the TV rights negotiations over deals expiring in 2021 and 2022, for example). At this time next year, there will be a lot of talk about a looming work stoppage after the 2020 season.
10. The Saints will defeat the Texans in Super Bowl LIV
Yeah, it’s crazy not to pick the Patriots to win the AFC at this point, but a way-too-early predictions column isn’t the place to take the easy way out. As for the Saints, we’re doubling down here. I thought last year that they’d rebound from the heartbreaking end to their 2017 season and reach the Super Bowl, and I was painfully close to being right. More heartbreak this time, same stacked roster and Hall of Fame quarterback. Drew Brees finally gets that second ring after being oh-so-close two years in a row.