The 2020 NFL season gets underway Thursday night, as Deshaun Watson and the Texans take on the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs. But before we think about Patrick Mahomes adding Clyde Edwards-Helaire to his arsenal, The Ringer’s NFL writers came together to predict which teams will make the playoffs—and win the Super Bowl!—and who will come away with awards at the end of the season. Here’s what they came up with.
Playoff Predictions and Super Bowl Winner
Kevin Clark: Picking Super Bowl winners is just an educated guessing game, no matter the season. You take the teams with talented rosters, good quarterbacks, and solid coaching staffs, stack them next to each other and stare at them until something makes sense. The problem, of course, is that this year, nothing will make sense. The more people I talk to, the more folks seem to believe that this season will follow two wildly different paths: Either there will be a massive gulf between the good and bad teams, or there will be a stunning amount of parity. I happen to believe the former. I’m picking the Ravens because I am having a hard time figuring out who is going to stop Lamar Jackson when most of the preseason game-planning happened over Zoom. The Chiefs and Ravens are the two best teams in the sport, and I won’t be surprised by either team winning the AFC or the Super Bowl—but I give the nod to Baltimore.
Nora Princiotti: Top to bottom, New Orleans has the most complete roster in the NFL. Coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees, and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen give the Saints great continuity in leadership, and this team is returning players who accounted for over 73 percent of its total snaps last season. The addition of Emmanuel Sanders should make Michael Thomas even better—if such a thing is possible—and the defense doesn’t need Jadeveon Clowney to stop the Chiefs from being the first team to repeat in nearly 20 years. Important note: As the confetti is falling, someone remember to ask Payton what his deal is with Taysom Hill.
Danny Heifetz: No team is in a better position to succeed in this strange year than the Saints. Brees and Payton have been working together for 14 years and can adapt on the fly better than anyone else, which will be a huge advantage in the absence of offseason practice time. On offense, the Saints have Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Thomas, but they also have perhaps the league’s best offensive line. On defense, they have an excellent pass rush and an elite secondary. Almost as impressive as their top-line talent is their depth. New Orleans might have the league’s best starting 22 players and the best group of players 23rd through 53rd on the roster. This might be the last run for this team with Drew Brees under center, and it will be the year the Saints set the record straight with a Super Bowl win.
Kaelen Jones: The Patriots’ Super Bowl repeat in 2003 and 2004 marked the NFL’s last successful title defense. Following an unprecedented offseason, the Chiefs remain built to pull off the feat—and if anything, they might have fortified their chances. It helps that Patrick Mahomes is football’s best quarterback, and that he’s leading a high-octane offense surrounded by a plethora of options. This team is capable of anything.
Danny Kelly: I said it last year when I picked the Chiefs as my preseason Super Bowl winners, and I’ll say it again now: I can’t see anyone keeping pace with this Mahomes-led offense. With him under center, Kansas City is going to jump out to a lot of early leads and keep its foot on the gas pedal from start to finish.
Rodger Sherman: I do this thing where if the best team in a given sport suffers a comical/embarrassing postseason loss, I become convinced they’re going to win the championship the next year. (I call it the UMBC Theory.) The Ravens and Saints were the best teams in their respective conferences last year, and I believe they’re both simultaneously due this year. (Either that or they’re cursed to repeat their failures for the rest of time.)
Riley McAtee: Even the best NFL teams have flaws. The Chiefs have only an average defense, with questions in the secondary and at linebacker. The Ravens have a thin receiver corps and could stand to upgrade their pass rush. The 49ers don’t have an elite quarterback. But the Saints? Where they don’t have All-Pro players, they have Pro Bowlers, and where they don’t have Pro Bowlers, they have starting-caliber players with tons of depth. I wish they’d added Jadeveon Clowney just to see how all-in one team can go. The Saints are just stacked.
Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
Clark: Mahomes’s numbers regressed slightly in 2019, partly due to health and partly due to the fact that his numbers in 2018 were historically good. Touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, yards per game, and passer rating were all down a tick. But none of those stats, nor the MVP, actually mattered last year because Mahomes was busy getting ready for one of the best playoff runs ever. Jackson has the capability to do something similar this year, but Mahomes is simply the best quarterback in the game. I’m picking him to win the MVP because he’s got the supporting cast, the coaching staff, and the talent to put up 2018 numbers whenever he wants.
Princiotti: What if I told you the Chiefs offense should get better? Mahomes missed two games last season and had his mobility limited due to the knee injury he suffered last October, and he still threw for over 4,000 yards and won the Super Bowl. Those limitations should be gone this season, and Mahomes will have his top five pass catchers from last year’s team back in the huddle, plus first-round draft pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire. One issue the Chiefs had last season was red zone efficiency, where they ranked no. 19. Improve that, and Mahomes could easily have another 50-touchdown, MVP-winning season like he did in 2018.
Heifetz: MVP is a team award disguised as an individual award. Twelve of the last 13 MVPs have been quarterbacks whose team earned a first-round bye. If you want to pick an MVP, choose a QB who will get the credit if their team finishes 13-3. The Chiefs are favored to win the AFC, so why wouldn’t Mahomes be the favorite here?
Lamar Jackson, Ravens
Jones: Jackson is likely due for some regression from last year’s incredible numbers, including a league-best 36 TD passes, 1,206 rushing yards (most ever by a QB), and seven rush TDs. But how drastic will that really be? Jackson will be the most dynamic force on one of the NFL’s best offenses, and defenses will probably take a few weeks before getting their legs back under them this season. We’ve seen what Jackson can do to game-ready defenses. Now you’re telling me he’s facing defenses with less prep time?
Kelly: Mahomes’s numbers fell off last year as he battled ankle and knee injuries, but his postseason performance served as a good reminder of what the guy can do on two good legs. The newly minted $500 million man is the perfect quarterback to run Andy Reid’s aggressive, pass-happy offense. He’s going to pass for approximately a million yards and a million touchdowns.
Kyler Murray, Cardinals
Sherman: Over the past two years, Mahomes and Jackson have proved the power of the Year 2 quarterback. After an embarrassingly bad pick in this category last year, I’ve completely changed my opinions about guys who transferred to Oklahoma, won the Heisman, and became the no. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Friendship over with Baker Mayfield, Kyler is my best friend now. He’ll go nuts in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, provided he can stay upright behind Arizona’s flimsy offensive line.
McAtee: This award is for quarterbacks, and Mahomes is the best passer in the league. Regression is coming for the Ravens and Lamar Jackson, and while I still think Baltimore can tear up the NFL even if that squad does take a step back, the Chiefs should actually get better in 2020 with Mahomes healthy. Plus, since Mahomes didn’t win last season, he won’t have voter fatigue as an obstacle. Mahomes is just the best player in the league and it’s not even close.
Offensive Player of the Year
Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
Clark: See: MVP.
Deshaun Watson, Texans
Princiotti: This is a weird award that I don’t fully understand, since the MVP is almost always a quarterback, and quarterbacks play offense. In this case, though, it’s convenient, since Watson fits the mold of a player who will probably be deserving of MVP buzz but won’t be on a team good enough to actually win that award. The offensive line has stabilized in front of him since the Laremy Tunsil trade, and Watson should have plenty of opportunities to rack up stats. Plus the narrative power of Watson’s continued success in spite of the Texans’ roster moves should help him.
Heifetz: He is Patrick Mahomes.
Lamar Jackson, Ravens
Jones: See: MVP.
Kelly: I mean.
Christian McCaffrey, Panthers
Sherman: Did you guys realize Michael Thomas won this award last year? Over Lamar Jackson? I truly don’t know how Offensive Player of the Year Award voting works. Give me a second to compute which player will be the best offensive player without being the most valuable player in the league ...
McAtee: Bet you didn’t see this coming.
Defensive Player of the Year
Nick Bosa, 49ers
Clark: This offseason, I’ve considered T.J. Watt, Chandler Jones, and Nick Bosa as the front-runners for this award. All three will have monster seasons, but I’m giving the nod to Bosa because I think the 49ers will go far again this year, and Bosa will be the face of the Niners defense in the same way Stephon Gilmore was the face of a great Patriots defense last year. Even if all three of my candidates have similarly great seasons, Bosa will be doing it for a Super Bowl contender, and that matters.
Myles Garrett, Browns
Princiotti: Myles Garrett was collecting a sack per game last season before he swung a helmet at Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph and got suspended. To win this award he’s going to have to do … not that. Between the whistles, though, Garrett just has to pick up where he left off last season, a safe bet for a player who has gotten better every year he’s been in the NFL. Garrett would have finished third in the NFL in total sacks if he’d continued getting to quarterbacks at the same rate across 16 games last season, so he should have plenty of impact plays to make his case.
T.J. Watt, Steelers
Heifetz: Sacks are overrated, but we’re obsessed with them. It’s no accident a cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, won Defensive Player of the Year last year after a season when no pass rusher reached 20 sacks. Expect the pendulum to swing back this season with Watt. He is the best candidate to break 20 sacks in 2020, and the Steelers defense will deserve an award this year.
Jones: Watt is coming off his first All-Pro season and second consecutive double-digit sack campaign. He finished third in DPOY voting last year, but this season could see Watt’s playmaking ability—he snagged two picks and led the league with eight forced fumbles in 2019—earn the appreciation it warrants.
Kelly: I went with the process of elimination for this one: Seven of the last nine Defensive Players of the Year have been pass rushers (both edge and interior guys), and every DPOY winner over the last 13 years has been on a first-place or 12-plus-win team. After racking up 9.0 sacks as a rookie, Bosa’s going to take another big step forward and emerge as the superstar leader of the 49ers defense.
Sherman: Aaron Donald will be the best defensive player in the NFL again, but it won’t be enough to win the award a third time.
McAtee: I think people might be sleeping on the fact that the Steelers defense carried Duck Hodges and Mason Rudolph to an 8-8 record last year. Pittsburgh could give the Ravens a run for the divisional crown—and a defense that was no. 3 in DVOA last season (and no. 1 in weighted DVOA, which puts a higher emphasis on later-season performances) should still be elite this year. T.J. Watt has 27.5 sacks in his last two seasons and was a first-team All-Pro last year. He was Pro Football Focus’s no. 1 graded edge defender in 2019 and came in second in pass rush productivity, which combines sacks, hits, hurries, and pressures.
Coach of the Year
Mike McCarthy, Cowboys
Clark: This might be the most narrative-heavy award of them all. It’s typically given to the coach who exceeds expectations, not necessarily the one who did the best job. McCarthy will exceed expectations because he is not Jason Garrett, and because he’s taking over a very talented Dallas roster.
Sean McDermott, Bills
Princiotti: The coaching award typically goes to someone who brings a team the farthest, record-wise, which usually involves being bad the previous season. The Bills went 10-6 last year, so McDermott is going to have to buck that trend in order to win this one. The reason he can is the same reason that 10-6 hasn’t been good enough in the AFC East for so many years: Bill Belichick. I’m betting that dethroning the Patriots and getting a good season out of Josh Allen will make voters feel like the Bills came farther than record alone would indicate.
Bill Belichick, Patriots
Heifetz: Remember when Leonardo DiCaprio won the Oscar for The Revenant? It wasn’t his finest performance, but he was due. Belichick is in the same situation. Since he last won this award in 2010, Belichick has reached eight AFC Championship games and five Super Bowls. The fact he has not won Coach of the Year in that span only highlights how dumb the award is (the real Coach of the Year award is called the Lombardi Trophy). But if Belichick wins another AFC East title, this time without Brady, he should win a lifetime achievement award.
Mike Tomlin, Steelers
Jones: Tomlin should have been more strongly considered for this last season after miraculously getting the Steelers into the postseason. But if Pittsburgh’s defense is as dominant as it was in 2019, its offense returns to the ranks of the NFL’s most feared, and it reaches the playoffs, Tomlin will once again have a very strong case.
Kelly: With Ben Roethlisberger back under center, a high-octane passing game should work in tandem with the team’s ascending defense to make Pittsburgh one of the most improved teams in the AFC. That should finally get voters’ attention―and help Tomlin finally get his due as one of the league’s top coaches.
Sherman: The season hasn’t started yet, but I feel like most voters have already made up their minds that this award is going to Belichick. Anything 8-8 or better from the Tom Brady–less Pats and Belichick will get his fourth award.
McAtee: Belichick should have won this award 10 times.
Comeback Player of the Year
Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
Clark: Roethlisberger is almost the playing version of Mike McCarthy, insomuch as the reason he’s an obvious pick here is that he’s solving a very easy-to-fix problem: He’s good, and he’s replacing Duck Hodges and Mason Rudolph. The Steelers got to 8-8 last season because of a top-five defense, and Roethlisberger playing above-average football will get them to the playoffs if they repeat that task. I’m guessing they will, and he does, and he wins this.
Alex Smith, Washington
Princiotti: Twenty-two months after he suffered a brutal compound leg fracture that, to doctors, looked more like a battlefield injury than a football field injury, Smith made the Washington Football Team’s 53-man roster. That alone should be enough to win this award, but if any Dwayne Haskins fans are curious what kind of impact Smith can have on a young quarterback, they should ask Patrick Mahomes.
Cam Newton, Patriots
Heifetz: If the Patriots win the AFC East, not only will Belichick be the favorite for Coach of the Year, but Newton will earn Comeback Player of the Year too. Newton was cut so the Panthers could save less than $20 million, and it will be irresistible to vote for him if he leads the Patriots to double-digit wins.
Jones: Between Newton’s foot injury and eventual release, it was a sobering conclusion to the former MVP’s Panthers tenure. But Newton has a chance for a resolute comeback story in New England, despite a limited supporting cast. Who better to help script Newton’s next act than Belichick and Josh McDaniels?
Kelly: The Roethlisberger-less Steelers had the worst offense in the NFL last year. This year, they’re going to be one of the best. Quarterbacks are important, turns out, and even at 38, Roetlisberger can still spin it.
Rob Gronkowski, Buccaneers
Sherman: I’m starting to think Gronk’s abrupt retirement and instant return were just excuses to get him into the two-time Comeback Player of the Year award club. (Either that or he went into a deep bunker immediately after the 2019 Super Bowl and single-handedly launched the spiked seltzer industry, only to return to the league now that he’s accomplished his goals.)
McAtee: Newton has been pretty awesome almost every time he’s played 16 games. Belichick and McDaniels are going to find a ton of fun and exciting ways to unleash the former MVP. We haven’t seen a healthy Cam in nearly two years—this comeback has been a long time coming.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs
Clark: Putting CEH on the Chiefs feels like cheating. Andy Reid wants to scheme up plays for his running back out of the backfield, and he’ll be doing it with Mahomes at quarterback. Prayers up for defenses.
Joe Burrow, Bengals
Princiotti: I initially wanted to pick 49ers receiver Brandon Aiyuk, a yards-after-catch dynamo who should be an excellent fit in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Aiyuk is currently nursing a hamstring injury, though, a notoriously tricky ailment for a receiver. So instead, I’m going with Burrow. Burrow should be enough of an immediate upgrade in Cincinnati to be the third first-overall pick to win the award in the last nine years, following in the footsteps of Kyler Murray and Cam Newton.
Heifetz: This award goes to players who are cool. Just look at the winners since 2010: Kyler Murray, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Dak Prescott, Todd Gurley, Odell Beckham Jr., Eddie Lacy, Robert Griffin III, and Cam Newton. Cool quarterbacks dominate the Rookie of the Year list, and if no cool quarterback played a dozen games in a season, it goes to a cool running back. This year the obvious favorite is Joe Burrow, who, unlike every other rookie quarterback, is both cool and starting in Week 1.
Jones: Believe the hype. CEH should be one of the league’s most productive and dynamic rookies this season.
Sherman: I have spent a lot of time obsessing about Kansas City’s offense and a lot of time obsessing about LSU’s 2019 offense. Edwards-Helaire finding his way to Kansas City is just too perfect. Running back was the one offensive area where the Chiefs didn’t have an obvious star last season, and they’ll be without their top two rushers from last year. CEH is gonna perfectly slide in to fill KC’s one gap like a Tetris piece that wipes out four rows at once.
Kelly: It was tough to decide between Burrow and Clyde Edwards-Helaire here, but I had to go with the Bengals’ soon-to-be star. Burrow is a baller, mixing pocket awareness, athleticism, and just the right amount of aggressiveness with uncanny accuracy. He’s got some underrated weapons to work with in Cincy, too, especially with A.J. Green now expected to be ready for Week 1. I think Burrow’s got a good chance to break the rookie touchdown record (27), and if he does that, he’s a lock for this award.
McAtee: Grabbing a running back in the first round was a reach, but the fit is perfect for CEH and Kansas City. The former LSU back is a superb pass catcher whom coach Andy Reid has compared favorably to Brian Westbrook.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Chase Young, Washington
Clark: In a weird year, with no offseason programs or preseason games, one thing you can count on is Chase Young’s ability to hit quarterbacks. If defenses struggle in the early part of the season, it will be because linebackers and defensive backs don’t have their timing right. A dominant pass rusher like Young won’t have those issues. You don’t need much of a ramp-up period to pin your ears back and hit the passer.
Princiotti: The rookie awards are definitionally about promise, which means they go to players on teams with losing records more often than the overall player awards. That favors Young, who should get plenty of snaps right away as Ron Rivera rebuilds in Washington.
Heifetz: The main hurdle to Young winning is that it would mean giving Washington’s football team an award of any kind. Other than that, he’s the clear favorite. Last year’s winner, Nick Bosa, was a standout Ohio State defensive end who was drafted second by the 49ers and wrecked games on a talented defensive line. Young’s story is similar. He went to Ohio State, was drafted no. 2, and is playing on a ridiculously good defensive line where he’ll have more one-on-one matchups than he’d get elsewhere. Young could challenge the rookie record of 14.5 sacks set by Jevon Kearse, which would nearly guarantee him this award.
Isaiah Simmons, Cardinals
Jones: Going with my heart: Simmons is a super versatile, crazy athletic, and extremely intelligent defender who should have an immediate, tangible impact in Arizona.
Kelly: Young came in at no. 1 overall on The Ringer’s NFL Draft Guide this spring for a reason: He’s incredibly good at rushing the passer. He has double-digit sack upside as a rookie.
Sherman: There was no debate about who the best defensive player in the 2020 draft class was. Young is a destructive force who will teach the Giants’ and Eagles’ offensive lines a new definition of pain.
Patrick Queen, Ravens
McAtee: This award has gone to players on good teams in recent seasons; Nick Bosa (49ers, 13-3), Darius Leonard (Colts, 10-6), and Marshon Lattimore (Saints, 11-5) took it home the past three seasons. The versatile Queen has already earned a starting role on the Ravens defense, at a position where Baltimore needed some help. The Ravens were fifth in defensive DVOA last season—Queen could make them even better.