The 2018 NFL season kicks off Thursday night with the defending-champion Eagles taking on the Atlanta Falcons. But before one of those teams takes its first L of the season, and before Nick Foles reminds us all that he’s still Nick Foles, the Ringer staff took a look at the season ahead and tried to forecast which teams and players would come out on top at year’s end. Here are all of those (extremely correct) predictions.
Super Bowl Winner
Rams over Patriots
Robert Mays: Every once in a while, it just feels like a certain team is in control of the season before it even starts. The Rams have the chance to fully assert themselves in 2018 with the league’s most stacked roster, and the determination to go all in while they can still afford stars all over the roster.
Patriots over Vikings
Kevin Clark: It’s pretty boring to pick the Patriots at this point, but I’ll stop picking them when they stop making the AFC title game on a yearly basis. Their consistency is remarkable. As long as they have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick operating at a high level, they should be the Super Bowl favorites. I’m sorry that’s boring. If it makes you feel better, I also like the Browns to win eight games this year.
Saints over Patriots
Danny Kelly: New Orleans is going to have to run the gauntlet to make it out of the absurdly stacked NFC, but the Saints have the kind of balance needed to do just that. They can beat teams in so many ways, whether it’s with their top defense, their elite run game, or, oh yeah, that future Hall of Fame passer they’ve got under center. And in the AFC, I still can’t muster the strength to bet against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Rams over Patriots
Riley McAtee: Picking a Super Bowl matchup before the season isn’t a decision worth overthinking. So I’m picking the Rams and Pats to meet up this February because (1) they’re both very good teams, and (2) time is a flat circle. Tom Brady’s first and maybe brightest Super Bowl moment came against the Rams—it’s only appropriate that his last one comes against that same team. Only this time, it’ll go differently.
Rams over Patriots
Rodger Sherman: Basically, the way this works is: I know the Patriots will make the Super Bowl every year, but can’t actually bring myself to pick them to win, so I have to select some NFC team at random. This year, I’m going with the Rams because I’ve been living in Los Angeles for about a week now and I’ve caught Rams fever. (The only evidence I’ve seen that the Rams exist is that the Tostitos bags at the grocery store have Rams logos on them.)
Saints over Chargers
Danny Heifetz: Only cowards and Massholes pick the Patriots to make the Super Bowl (and apparently many of my colleagues). The Pats’ roster issues this year are real, the Steelers’ Super Bowl dreams may die of a thousand paper cuts, and … the Chargers are actually the next best team in the AFC? The NFC is loaded, and the NFC South might be the most loaded division of all, but the Saints have the best top-to-bottom roster in the league.
Todd Gurley, Rams
Mays: The MVP typically comes from a team with one of the best records in the league, and while a quarterback is the safe bet, L.A.’s usage of Gurley makes him a more likely candidate than Jared Goff.
Drew Brees, Saints
Clark: At some point, Brees’s production will fall off a cliff. You cannot keep throwing as efficiently as he does well into your 40s. But this won’t be that season. Weapons like Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas are extending Brees’s prime, and if the Saints win the NFC South, voters will be ready to hand him this award.
Aaron Rodgers, Packers
Kelly: I’m expecting Rodgers to throw 40-plus touchdowns this season and lead the Packers to the playoffs. There’s just no consistent way to defend against the newly paid $134-million man: He throws with pinpoint accuracy, is one of the best in the game at the line of scrimmage, and is an impossibly shifty scrambler and passer on the run. And now he’s got Jimmy Graham, another elite red zone threat, to pair with Davante Adams.
McAtee: Rodgers has already won two MVP awards, and he’s one of just two active players to accomplish that feat—that alone makes him an obvious favorite. But what tips me to Rodgers’s side this season is that he’s pissed. In August, he lit the Packers’ young receivers on fire in the press after their “piss-poor” performance in a scout-team drill, and he went on to call himself a grumpy old man. I can’t remember Rodgers ever acting like this (remember when he was simply known for photobombing his teammates?). An angry, motivated Rodgers could storm through the NFL.
Deshaun Watson, Texans
Sherman: If Watson produced the numbers he had in seven games last year across the entire season, he would’ve been MVP (and close to the league leader in interceptions, but, look, shut up). It might be unreasonable to expect him to put up those numbers again in 2018, but I’d like to see him try.
Heifetz: As long as Rodgers doesn’t suck enough to bring out the “actually, Aaron Rodgers isn’t that good” contingent this year, he is the favorite.
Offensive Player of the Year
Julio Jones, Falcons
Mays: Atlanta’s offense is due for a resurgence after a down year in 2017. That staff has heard loud and clear about the team’s inefficiency in the red zone and Jones’s paltry touchdown numbers, and they are going to feed Julio plenty near the goal line.
Drew Brees, Saints
Clark: See: MVP.
Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
Kelly: With wholesale changes at the receiver position, and basically no experienced tight ends on the roster, the Cowboys’ offense is going to run through Elliott. Yeah, there are some injury concerns on Dallas’s offensive line, but Elliott runs with the power and elusiveness to cope with those issues. I expect Elliott to put up elite yardage and touchdown numbers—and I think he’ll become more involved in the team’s passing game this year as well.
Todd Gurley, Rams
McAtee: This award often goes to the same player who wins MVP, but where’s the fun in predicting Rodgers again? No player has won this award in back-to-back years since Marshall Faulk in 2001, but Gurley has an excellent shot at doing that this season. He’ll stand out among all offensive players in the league this year, but especially among running backs: Le’Veon Bell hasn’t reported to practice yet, Ezekiel Elliott’s offensive line is falling apart, Alvin Kamara will be in a time-share after Week 4, and David Johnson plays for a terrible team. Gurley is the league’s best back, and he plays for a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers
Sherman: Look, nobody has ever meaningfully explained to me the difference between MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, so I’m just going to pick two different guys I like and hope one of them works out.
Saquon Barkley, Giants
Heifetz: Is this because I’m a Giants fan? Yes. Still, there are reasons to think Barkley could make this happen. There are only a handful of other running backs around the league in line for as many touches as Barkley this season, and he’s the most exciting of them all. Gurley won this award last year behind an offensive line in which every starter played in every game (except a meaningless Week 17 matchup), and that is unlikely to happen again this year.
Defensive Player of the Year
Khalil Mack, Bears
Mays: As a Bears fan, there’s really no other option at this point. I am all aboard the Mack Express.
Joey Bosa, Chargers
Clark: There are many dominant defensive players this year—I think Myles Garrett is going to have a great year, for instance. But Bosa will wreck games while on a good team, and voters love that. The Chargers are a good candidate to be a breakout team this year, and Bosa will be leading the defense.
Aaron Donald, Rams
Kelly: Donald was hard enough to block when he wasn’t rushing right next to Ndamukong Suh ––now, he’s going to be damn near impossible to handle. Donald is motivated to prove he’s worth that new six-year, $135 million contract, and I think he’ll have his best season yet.
McAtee: The dude has 23 sacks through 28 career games. Paired with Ingram, Bosa is part of one of the most talented pass-rush duos in the league, which will give him the chance to have a monster year in his third season.
Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars
Sherman: Only one cornerback has won DPOY this millennium, so this is probably a bad pick. But Ramsey is the best player on what’s probably the best defense in the league, and he’s going to yell at anybody who doesn’t vote for him.
Heifetz: Each of the last four seasons, this award has gone to the league leader in quarterback pressures, as recorded by Pro Football Focus. Aaron Donald’s superhuman play won’t be as appreciated now that he has so many star-studded teammates, and among the 10 other players who had more than 70 pressures last season––Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Demarcus Lawrence, Terrell Suggs, Chandler Jones, Melvin Ingram, Bosa, and Cameron Jordan, Calais Campbell, and Carlos Dunlap—Bosa is the best candidate to make The Leap in 2018.
Coach of the Year
Kyle Shanahan, 49ers
Mays: This award often goes to the coach of a team that drastically outperforms its record from the season before, and no team is more likely to make a huge jump in wins than San Francisco. A full season of Jimmy Garoppolo could give the Niners double digits in the victory column and have them pushing for a playoff spot.
Andy Reid, Chiefs
Clark: Voters are going to love Reid’s ability to retool his offense around Patrick Mahomes II. Reid is one of the most forward-thinking coaches in football, and his plan for Mahomes will probably be as innovative as anything he’s ever done.
Mike Vrabel, Titans
Kelly: The Titans already had the infrastructure you’d expect from a fringe playoff team, including an up-and-coming defense and an offense led by dynamic young franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota. But it never felt like former head coach Mike Mularkey got the most out of all that talent. All Vrabel has to do this season to get the Titans over the proverbial hump is to bring the team’s once-archaic schemes, particularly on offense, into the 21st century. I’m betting that Mariota has a big bounce-back season in an offense that’s better suited to his skill set, and that could be all Tennessee needs to turn into a legit contender in the AFC—and win Vrabel this award.
McAtee: If Vrabel can get the Titans’ defense to make a jump and get Mariota back on track, the Titans have a chance to win the AFC South—and perhaps even the conference.
Sherman: He’s extremely good at offense.
Sean Payton, Saints
Heifetz: There are two main blueprints for Coach of the Year: (1) The coach of a team that earns a first-round bye in the playoffs (Jason Garrett in 2016, Ron Rivera in 2015, Rivera in 2013, Belichick in 2010), or (2) a new coach that turns a talented but previously horribly coached team into a double-digit playoff squad (Sean McVay in 2017, Jim Harbaugh in 2011, Mike Smith in 2008). If the Saints finish the year as the top seed in the NFC, Payton will be rewarded.
Comeback Player of the Year
Andrew Luck, Colts
Mays: There are a ton of candidates for this award, but if Luck is healthy for the entire season, he’s likely to put up the type of numbers that will make him the clear front-runner.
Deshaun Watson, Texans
Clark: Watson looked like a potential superstar in less than half a season of action last year. If he even approaches that level of play over 16 games, he’ll take this easily.
Kelly: Watson was on pace to lead the NFL in touchdown passes when he tore his ACL ahead of Week 9 last season. I don’t know if he’ll quite reach that level this year, but I think he’ll pick up where he left off when it comes to his ability to challenge defenses deep downfield and make plays with his feet. He has the ability to transform the Texans offense from one of the worst in the league to one of the best.
David Johnson, Cardinals
McAtee: Johnson should be amazing this year, but I hesitated before picking him. He plays for the Cardinals, a team that isn’t expected to do much this year, and he’ll have to fend off bigger names like Odell Beckham Jr., Wentz, Aaron Rodgers, Watson, and Watt in this category. Still, I think Johnson has a more obvious path to return to his previous level of production than most of those other guys, so he feels like a safer bet. (Does it make sense that I’m picking Rodgers for MVP but not for Comeback Player of the Year? Of course not! I’m hedging my bets here, people.)
J.J. Watt, Texans
Sherman: I’m going to keep picking Watt until he comes back, which could happen this year.
Heifetz: He was the most fun part of the 2017 regular season, and if he plays anywhere near that level again in 2018, this is the only award that should be a lock––don’t @ me about Carson Wentz.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Saquon Barkley, Giants
Mays: In my mind, there’s no other answer. He’s going to get a ton of work for an offense that will give him every opportunity to show what he can do.
Clark: It’s easy for a running back to establish himself early, especially when the rookie quarterbacks—who are better long-term values—will be busy working through their early mistakes.
Kelly: Let’s just start with his first run as a professional football player, in the Giants’ preseason Week 1 matchup with the Browns:
Yeah, this dude is going to go off this year.
McAtee: There’s a chance one of the young quarterbacks comes on strong and steals this award. There’s also a chance Royce Freeman has a big year and bypasses Barkley. But you have to jump through a lot of hoops to talk yourself out of the guy who is guaranteed a ton of touches and may just be the most hyped running back out of college since Reggie Bush. Give me Barkley.
Sherman: The 2018 draft was defined as the Year of the Quarterback, but Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson aren’t starting yet. Meanwhile, the Giants will be banking heavily on Barkley as a pass-catching back if their offense is going to be anything resembling effective. (I just lost my Jets fan card for not picking Sam Darnold.)
Heifetz: Stare into the quads, and the quads stare back into you.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Roquan Smith, Bears
Mays: Gaudy tackle numbers are typically a quick path to postseason awards. It’s possible that this fall, the Bears’ defense so far outpaces expectations that both Smith and Mack take home some hardware.
Derwin James, Chargers
Kelly: When it comes to winning this award, stats matter. If you’re a pass rusher, you need to rack up sacks. If you’re a defensive back, you need picks. If the Chargers utilize James in the same way he was deployed in college—all over the field, as a coverage defender, and as a blitzing, pass-rushing menace up in the box—he could end up double-dipping into both statistical categories. Past that though, I just think he’s going to make a big impact on the L.A. defense.
Bradley Chubb, Broncos
Clark: This is not a particularly elite defensive crop of rookies. There is no Bosa, Garrett or Jadeveon Clowney here. But Chubb will help the Broncos defense get better, and he’ll be an immediate contributor.
McAtee: Chubb gets to play with Von Miller, and that alone puts him in a better position than every other defensive rookie. Chubb will make the Browns look silly for passing on the chance to pair him with Myles Garrett.
Sherman: Smith is a human homing missile.
Josh Jackson, Packers
Heifetz: This Josh Jackson should surpass the Phoenix Suns’ Josh Jackson in relevance by November when the Packers corner records his second pick-six of the season.