Here’s one for the long-range planners. For the husband for whom the 10-day weather forecast just isn’t long enough. For the wife who asks what you want to do for dinner while you’re still eating breakfast. For the kids who ask when you can go back to Disney World while you’re still in line at airport security in Orlando.
Yeah, anyone can do a 2017 predictions column. (And you know we will.) This predictions column takes a much-bigger-picture approach. This is a predictions column to cover the next three years in the NFL.
Whose career will take off between now and the start of the 2020 season? Whose will end? Who’ll be getting the big money? Which teams’ rebuild will bear fruit? Could there really be another lockout?
We’ve surveyed folks around the league to get some idea about which predictions make sense and which don’t. So stare with us, for a moment, into our three-year crystal ball and behold 25 predictions for the NFL’s next three seasons:
1. Tom Brady will start more games for the Patriots than Jimmy Garoppolo does.
Yes, Brady turns 40 next month. He just doesn’t seem like a guy who’s close to the end. The Patriots will likely throw him a bunch of extra money this summer, he has another great year in a souped-up Pats offense and they have to make a tough decision on Garoppolo, a free agent in 2018, when it’s over. Expect Brady to outlast everyone’s predictions for his demise.
2. The Raiders will win a Super Bowl before leaving Oakland.
Which means either this year or next year, because the Raiders might play in Oakland in 2019, though that’s not the plan as of now. All of the pieces are in place on offense, and enough (Khalil Mack, especially) are in place on defense. And regardless of how it might look, the Patriots can’t win every year.
3. The next collective bargaining agreement will be negotiated without a work stoppage.
But not because, as the popular narrative goes, the players won’t push for NBA-level salaries or consequence-free marijuana. No, it’s the owners who want the current deal extended, so they can (A) get some more money for stadium credits and (B) reassure their TV partners of labor peace as the current deals with the networks begin to run out. No lockout or strike in the spring/summer of 2020. There’s too much at stake.
4. The Legion of Boom will dissolve.
Seattle’s vaunted secondary isn’t likely to keep itself together beyond this season. Kam Chancellor will be a free agent in March, and Richard Sherman‘s and Earl Thomas‘ 2018 salary-cap numbers are $13.2 million and $10.4 million, respectively. Some tough choices loom for the Seahawks’ front office, which will need to be nimble in retooling its most consistent strength on the fly.
5. Odell Beckham Jr. will earn more than $20 million per year on his next contract.
Assuming he can wait out the looming extensions for the likes of DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, Jarvis Landry and Allen Robinson — and assuming he can get/keep his on-field and postgame emotions together — Beckham should be poised to blow the top off the wide receiver market no later than the summer of 2019.
6. Kirk Cousins will earn more than $30 million per year on his next contract.
With less than a week to go, it looks unlikely that Cousins will sign a long-term deal with Washington ahead of Monday’s franchise player deadline. That means unrestricted free agency next spring for a quarterback who has passed for more than 4,000 yards in each of the past two seasons. Multiple teams bidding will drive Cousins’ price to new heights for the quarterback market.
Rodgers’ deal runs through 2019, which means he’ll be up for an extension two summers from now. The league’s best quarterback is currently its sixth-highest-paid and will be much further down that list in two years. A correction will be sought — and likely obtained.
8. Eli Manning will be the last of the 2004 quarterbacks left standing.
The move from San Diego to Los Angeles might not be a big one in terms of mileage, but along with the weirdness of playing in a 30,000-seat home stadium for three years, it’ll be too much for Philip Rivers to want to see things through to the new stadium in 2020. He will retire at some point to spend time with his huge family. Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, already seems to have one foot out the door. Manning has come back before from down years, and he will do so again in 2017. He’ll be 39 heading into the 2020 season, and the Giants will give him a new deal to keep him in their uniform until the end.
9. The marijuana policy will be changed within in the next three years.
Whether the league stops testing for marijuana altogether, as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has suggested it should, or whether the players can convince the owners to test for it but not punish players for using it. Marijuana is a major near-term issue for a league that really should be embracing its potential for pain relief but still seems stuck on old stigmas.
10. Drew Brees will retire after the 2018 season.
The 5,830 yards Brees needs to surpass Peyton Manning as the all-time leader are too many for one season — even for Brees, who boasts five of the top eight single-season totals in league history. So one more year after this to make him the all-time passer, then Brees will hang it up at age 40 in the 2019 offseason.
The conventional wisdom tilts the other way on this, because everyone (including me) loves Mariota and loves the way the Titans are building the offensive line in front of him. But Winston is the more durable player, and that’s likely to matter in the short term. The Nos. 1 and 2 picks in the 2015 draft will spend their careers in direct comparison with each other, and it is anyone’s guess who turns out better. But the bet here is that Winston tastes playoff success sooner than Mariota.
12. The NFC East’s no-repeat streak continues.
The division hasn’t had a repeat champion since the Eagles in 2003-04, and that’s not going to change over the next three years. We expect the Cowboys to stay good but to hiccup a bit in 2017, with Washington or the Giants taking advantage and winning the division title. But the Eagles aren’t far away, and the days of the hypercompetitive NFC East could return soon. That means it will be tough for anyone to dominate it for years in a row.
13. The Bills’ playoff drought will end.
Maybe even this season. Buffalo is stronger on the lines than people give them credit for. Tyrod Taylor is better than you think he is. Sixteen games’ worth of good health from Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy might be too much to ask, but if it’s not, this is a wild-card contender under hungry and energetic first-year coach Sean McDermott.
14. The Browns’ playoff drought will continue.
Buffalo has gone a league-worst 17 years without a playoff appearance, but the Browns are at 14 and in position to stretch it to 17. Their rebuild appears headed in a positive direction, but it’s a long way back from 1-15, and we just don’t think they’ll get it together in three years.
15. Dak Prescott will continue to be the best quarterback from the 2016 draft.
This is partly because of the team around him, including a top running back and a great, young offensive line. But people around the league are convinced Prescott is legit and can avoid a sophomore slump. Carson Wentz is a favorite, as well, though most people need to see more before being sure about his long-range prospects. And no one has any idea what to make of Jared Goff and his marriage with a new coaching staff that didn’t draft him.
16. DeShaun Watson will be the best quarterback from the 2017 draft.
Everyone I talk to agrees he has the leadership qualities needed for the position, and his winning pedigree is not in dispute. He’s also in the best position to start and succeed right away. Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes II and DeShone Kizer appear much further from their respective opportunities, while Watson could be starting for a real contender as early as September.
17. Helmet technology will be a big story.
People on all sides are working behind the scenes on helmets as the next big frontier in the player-safety discussion. You’re going to hear more about helmets, the choice players have in them and what can and can’t be helped by technological advancements in them as early as this year’s training camps, which means later this month.
18. Sam Bradford will change teams again.
At this time, the Vikings don’t know what their long-range plans are with Bradford. Their plans are tied at least somewhat to the health of Teddy Bridgewater, which remains in question. But if free-agent-to-be Bradford hits the open market in March 2018, he’s going to cash in again, as has been the story of his career.
19. Bill O’Brien will, too.
There’s too much smoke to ignore in recent years about O’Brien being on the outs (or wanting out) in Houston. If the Texans keep winning division titles, he’s not likely to go anywhere. But one down year could bring about a change there, and the belief is that O’Brien would jump immediately into another NFL head-coaching opportunity, a la Andy Reid.
20. Star players will sign shorter-term deals with bigger guarantees.
Forget the quarterbacks, who don’t have to worry about getting cut. If NFL players are going to make gains in terms of guaranteed money, it’s going to be a non-quarterback star who does it. Maybe defensive end Mack takes three years, $50 million with all or almost all of the money guaranteed on his new deal with the Raiders. Or Aaron Donald does the same with the Rams. Deals such as that would allow players and agents to affect the market for everyone and also allow those star players to hit free agency again while still in their primes.
21. The Jaguars, Rams and Cardinals will be in the quarterback market next offseason.
Goff is addressed above, but if Blake Bortles lets down the new administration in Jacksonville, the Jaguars could decline his 2018 option (currently guaranteed for injury only) and be in the Cousins/Bradford/whoever market next spring. And Arizona is likely to get only one more season out of Carson Palmer, and his replacement likely isn’t on the roster. The market for Cousins is going to be bigger than just Washington and San Francisco.
22. The Falcons will play in at least one more Super Bowl in the next three years.
The core is so strong around Matt Ryan, and the defense is likely to keep getting better under Dan Quinn. And while there are questions about how the Falcons will recover from their Super Bowl disaster and mesh with new coordinators on both sides of the ball, the expectation is that their talent will win out and they’ll continue to be a contender.
23. TV network deals will be a major story.
There is a lot of talk about the next collective bargaining agreement and what will/won’t/can/can’t be in it. But the economic story of the NFL in the third decade of the 21st century will rest on the climate in which the next TV network deals are negotiated. Is there labor peace? What has happened to ratings and advertising in the interim? Who besides the networks that currently have the games will bid for them? Facebook? Twitter? Google? Will the NFL continue to command the kind of rights fees it has in the past? These are the key questions that will determine the economic future of the sport, and the next three years will go a long way toward answering them.
24. Teams will follow the lead of the Chiefs and Falcons to try to keep fans coming to games.
The Chiefs just announced a new mobile-only season-ticket plan that is about half the price of the previous lowest-cost season tickets. The Falcons have trumpeted lower concession prices in their new stadium. Look for more teams to come up with more and newer ways to enhance the quality and affordability of the in-stadium fan experience, as the league remains concerned about people staying home and watching the games on TV.
25. The Jets will find their quarterback of the future.
No, we have no idea who it will be. But at some point, they have to, right?