Award-winning sports columnist and all-around great person Edwin Pope used to tell me never to make predictions because, he said, there are a thousand ways to be wrong and only one way to be right.
Pope, my mentor and the best man at my wedding, was a wise man.
Me? Not so much.
Plus, I’m awesome at predicting
So, I landed a punch once. I’m good at predicting like Ryan Fitzpatrick has been good at sticking with one team.
But one of the perks of this new assignment at OutKick is I get to tell you what I think based on what people tell me. And for that reason, as the 2021 NFL season is hours from kickoff now, I’m going to delve into what some NFL people have told me we should all expect this year.
So the Super Bowl winner will be …
Yeah, let’s get to that later.
I begin with what we need to closely scrutinize this year. The scrutiny will be so acute it will be as though teams, players, coaches, and general managers are under the microscope. So …
Teams under the microscope:
New England Patriots: They spent nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in free agency with $159.6 million of it in fully guaranteed money. There has to be a playoff return on that investment.
Las Vegas Raiders: Playoffs? Playoffs? It would be news if they manage a winning season for the first time under Jon Gruden.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They set a high bar in winning the Super Bowl and everyone expects more success this season since they return all of their starters.
Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson wanted out during the offseason and multiple players conducted contract “hold ins” during training camp, refusing to practice until their contract situations were addressed. So will there be regular-season fallout? And did we mention they play in a rough division?
Denver Broncos: Great defensive talent. Great, defensive-minded head coach. They need to show some juice on offense or else.
Tennessee Titans: They’ve been on the ascent the last two seasons and seem to be the class of the AFC South, unless Indy’s Carson Wentz goes nuts. But have they reached their ceiling with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback facing guys like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen in the playoffs?
Quarterbacks under the microscope:
Daniel Jones (New York Giants) — Turnovers are totally unacceptable for quarterbacks and Jones has accounted for 39 (17 lost fumbles and 22 interceptions) in 27 NFL games. Clean it up, or the Giants will be shopping for a new QB after this season.
Tua Tagovailoa (Miami Dolphins) — Coach Brian Flores has articulated his commitment, but of course, what else can he do? Flores started Tagovailoa and benched him in the fourth quarter of two games last year, and then the Dolphins were a player in the Deshaun Watson trade talks in the offseason. Tagovailoa can have a great season and put to rest any suggestion he’s not Miami’s future.
Justin Herbert (Los Angeles Chargers) — Amazing as a rookie. What’s Chapter 2?
Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers) — Big Ben decided to take a pay cut and run it back at age 39. His arm strength has been questioned. His ability to survive behind an offensive line that features two rookie starters has been questioned. Roethlisberger is unsigned beyond this season.
Jared Goff (Detroit Lions) — He was the scapegoat of the Rams’ offensive problems last year and so, given new life in Detroit, he has one season to prove he’s either a legit NFL starter or more of a bridge quarterback.
Matt Stafford (Los Angeles Rams) — Never won big in Detroit, despite good offensive weapons around him. Now he’s got weapons, a very good defense and a great offensive coach. No excuses.
Carson Wentz (Indianapolis Colts) — The preseason was unkind, with a bout of COVID-19 and a foot injury derailing him. Problem is it’s always been something derailing Wentz from meeting amazing potential. So is this year different or more of the same?
Andy Dalton (Chicago Bears) — This is probably Dalton’s last chance as an NFL starter before Justin Fields takes over. How long does Dalton delay the inevitable?
Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens) — Jackson has dominated in the regular season but not met that standard in the playoffs. Where does that lead? The Ravens aren’t going to get rid of Jackson, but exactly how much are they going to pay him and why haven’t they done it already?
Baker Mayfield (Cleveland Browns) — He was very good last year. He wasn’t very good for two years before that. Can Mayfield continue his ascent?
Tom Brady (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) — Father Time is undefeated, but Brady has kicked his butt for a long time. We’ll continue to watch for signs the inevitable is happening — or isn’t.
Coaches under the microscope
Kliff Kingsbury (Arizona Cardinals) — The man with the coolest house in the NFL has not put the coolest offense on the field, as everyone expected he would. It’s time.
Mike McCarthy (Dallas Cowboys) — He gets a mulligan for last year’s 6-10 record because of all the injuries. But Jerry Jones will tolerate only so much.
Zac Taylor (Cincinnati Bengals) — The Bengals wasted A.J. Green and Geno Atkins, but they cannot afford to waste Joe Burrow. So they need a dramatic improvement from their 4-11 record of a year ago.
Bill Belichick (New England Patriots) — He’s not on this list for the same reason some of the other guys are. Belichick isn’t going to be fired if he fails in 2021. But if he fails to make the playoffs for the second straight season, the idea Tom Brady carried him for 20 seasons and he’s basically a good coach who had an amazing quarterback would be well proven.
General Managers under the microscope
Ryan Pace (Chicago Bears) — He traded up to select Mitch Trubisky in a draft that included Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. He gets credit for the Khalil Mack trade, which has probably bought him time enough to draft Justin Fields. But if Fields isn’t a hit, this is going sideways.
Chris Grier (Miami Dolphins) — This is Year Three of a total rebuild, and the Dolphins need to make the playoffs. If they do, all good. If they don’t, it’s someone’s fault and everyone will be looking at Grier. Also, Tua Tagovailoa better play as well as Justin Herbert this year because that will also reflect Grier.
Mike Mayock (Las Vegas Raiders) — It’s tough to work for Jon Gruden, so Mayock is a saint on that score. But, um, Mayock has had some notable misses. Before the 2020 draft, he said having three picks in the third round was like “stealing” and said it was akin to adding three starters to the team. Two of those three picks are no longer even on the team. And 2019 first-rounder Clelin Ferrell is not Khalil Mack. He isn’t even a starter.
Dave Gettleman (New York Giants) — He has bemoaned there being “no patience” in today’s NFL, and he’s right. But that doesn’t get him a pass. He picked Saquon Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick in 2018, and the running back has been trending in the wrong direction the last two seasons. Barkley is also a running back picked second in the same draft in which Josh Allen went seventh. He also picked Daniel Jones in 2019 and that hasn’t exactly been a home run, either. Yes, it’s only been two years for Jones but, wait til you see him run for his life this season behind that middling offensive line Gettleman assembled.
The division winners and Wild Cards
NFC East: Dallas — Welcome back, Dak and thanks, Dan Quinn.
NFC South: Tampa Bay — They didn’t graduate anyone and remain hungry.
NFC North: Minnesota — Crazy, I know, but Kirk Cousins is going to be awesome.
NFC West: Los Angeles Rams — Aaron Donald has a QB now.
NFC Wild Card: Green Bay, Seattle, San Francisco.
AFC East: Buffalo — And it’s not close.
AFC South: Tennessee — Not because they’re great, but because everyone else faces major issues.
AFC North: Cleveland — Perhaps the most depth of any NFL team so they’re built for a 17-game season.
AFC West: Kansas City — Best coach and best QB in the division, still.
AFC Wild Card: Baltimore, Los Angeles Chargers, Miami.
NFC Championship: Rams vs. Buccaneers.
AFC Championship: Bills vs. Chiefs
Super Bowl: Buccaneers over Bills, in OT.
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