The NFL’s offseason, despite the unprecedented situation confronting the United States and the world at large, is still generating plenty of compelling storylines. In addition to the usual offseason transactions, there have been some major surprises — none bigger than the Packers’ move to select Utah State quarterback Jordan Love with the 26 th pick in the draft. That decision touched off immediate speculation about Rodgers’ future with the team as well as debate about how he would handle it, having been in Love’s position when he was selected in 2005.
No one knows for sure how Green Bay’s quarterback situation will play out in the long run, but it’s worth trying to separate fact from fiction in that particular instance as well as in several other major storylines around the league.
2020 will be Aaron Rodgers’ final year as Packers’ starter: FICTION
The temptation to place an expiration date on Rodgers’ tenure with the Packers is understandable; he won’t finish his career with the team, something he has already more or less acknowledged. That said, it’s going to take more than a year for Love to be ready; he had a disappointing junior season at Utah State, and his accuracy is very much a work in progress. Ideally, he will sit for a full two years behind Rodgers, learn his craft and then take over for the 2022 season. Conveniently for Green Bay, moving on from Rodgers becomes considerably easier after 2021 when his dead cap number drops from $31.5 million to $17.2 million. In the meantime, Rodgers is still plenty good enough to lead the Packers to the playoffs, particularly if he and head coach Matt LaFleur can get along.
Dak Prescott will be wearing a different uniform in 2021: FACT
Call this one a hunch, though admittedly it is difficult to envision Jerry Jones and Dallas moving on from Prescott, even if the two sides can’t reach a long-term deal by the July 15 deadline. Prescott will make $31.4 million on the exclusive franchise tag this season and would cost $37.68 million on the tag in 2021. Jones has surrounded his young quarterback with elite weapons, but Andy Dalton is now in the mix, and if Prescott fails to deliver a deep playoff run this year, it’s not inconceivable that Jones would decide to move on, make Dalton the bridge to a different young quarterback and use the money he would have spent on a long-term deal for Prescott to build a more complete roster, particularly on defense.
Ben Roethlisberger’s return makes Steelers a Super Bowl contender: FICTION
Roethlisberger represents a massive upgrade at quarterback for Pittsburgh, but it’s unrealistic to assume that his presence alone morphs them into one of the AFC’s best teams. The Steelers forced a league-leading 38 turnovers last season, only the third time in the last decade they’ve topped 30. Moreover, at least three of their wins were the direct result of defensive scores. There is no established feature running back — or reliable tandem — to take some of the offensive pressure off Roethlisberger, and airing the ball out is not a winning recipe; in his regular-season career, Roethlisberger is 21-36-1 when attempting at least 40 passes. No Antonio Brown means no clear No. 1 receiver either. Pittsburgh should absolutely contend for a playoff spot but is closer to the middle of the AFC pack than the top.
Josh Allen holds the Bills back: FACT
After Baltimore and Kansas City, the Bills have the best roster in the AFC. If they had Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes, they’d be the odds-on favorites in the conference as well as likely defending Super Bowl champions. Instead, they have the wildly inaccurate Allen, who looks more like a project than a polished product as he prepares for his third season. While he is better than average at making intermediate (10-19 yards from the line of scrimmage) throws, Allen had the fifth-worst expected points added on throws of at least 20 yards, with Devlin Hodges, Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen joining him near the bottom. There is nothing in Josh Allen’s history to suggest he’ll magically become a more accurate passer, and if he doesn’t take a step forward, opponents will take away intermediate throws, stifle Buffalo’s offense and, in turn, the team's chances of winning the AFC.
Russell Wilson will win the MVP Award: FACT
In Wilson’s eight seasons, he has not received a single MVP vote. Not one. This despite leading the league in passer rating in 2015 and having a combined 66 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions over his past two seasons. Wilson is also going to top 4,000 career rushing yards this year and remains one of the best quarterbacks in the league when it comes to extending plays. He has never missed a start, and he dragged the Seahawks to an 11-5 mark almost single-handedly last season. Only two teams attempted more runs than Seattle in 2019, but the Seahawks ranked just 23rd in pass attempts. That ratio should be flipped. If it is, not only is Wilson going to get the respect he deserves in the form of some long-overdue MVP votes, but he also should earn enough to win the whole thing.
The Patriots will have a winning season without Tom Brady: FICTION
Bill Belichick's great, but the biggest reason for his coaching success is a 20-year run with Brady in New England. The league has changed plenty since he was coaching the Browns, but he mostly struggled in five seasons in Cleveland, save one 11-5 season. Jarrett Stidham has all of four pass attempts in his career, and one went the other way for a pick-six. The idea that Belichick can win with defense and a conservative offensive game plan is flawed; in the Patriots first three Super Bowl runs, Brady made innumerable big plays in close games. There is no reason to expect that New England will catch lightning in a bottle twice in a row. And last year’s vaunted defense looked off against better offenses; when the Pats couldn’t force turnovers in bunches, they were merely good, not transcendent. Add everything up, including major losses in free agency, and you get a long, mediocre year in Foxborough.
Bill O’Brien will get fired before the Texans’ bye week: FACT
Houston’s bye comes in Week 8, but O’Brien won’t make it that far. The Texans open the NFL season with a road tilt against Kansas City and then have a home date with Baltimore, a road stop against the Steelers and a home contest with Minnesota. An 0-4 start is a distinct possibility, and given the unpopularity of O’Brien’s offseason maneuvers, that might be enough to cost him his job. Even if it isn’t, the rest of the pre-bye schedule includes a road game with Tennessee and a home matchup against Green Bay. Only a home date against the Jaguars looks like a definite win. O’Brien shot for the moon last season and came up short, and he’ll reap what he sowed in 2020. Not even Deshaun Watson can save him.
Antonio Brown will play in the NFL in 2020: FICTION
Brown has kept a mostly low profile of late, but the league still has not formally completed its investigation of him, and despite his working out with Lamar Jackson, it seems more and more likely that the pool of teams willing to take a chance on the mercurial wide receiver has dwindled to zero, at least for the time being. Only stable franchises seem like plausible destinations for him, but there’s a catch-22: The organizations most equipped to provide Brown with both structure and major offensive opportunities seem the least likely to take such a chance. There is always the possibility that Brown gets cleared and does not have to serve any sort of suspension, and a team desperate for wide receiver help takes a chance on him. For now, it looks like one of the league’s all-time best receivers will continue to languish in a purgatory of his own creation.
Tampa Bay will win the NFC: FACT
I’m all aboard the Tom Brady hype train for 2020. Tampa has elite wide receiver talent in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin and a situation weapon in Rob Gronkowski, and the Bucs got better at major areas of need, particularly offensive tackle and safety, with their first two picks in the draft (Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs and Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr.) The Buccaneers also have a dynamic linebacker duo in Lavonte David and Devin White and seem a near lock to put up points in bunches. Rumors of Brady’s demise in 2019 were greatly exaggerated; he had the 12 th- highest passing grade from Pro Football Focus despite operating an offense nearly devoid of quality targets. Outside of Julian Edelman, the Patriots had no trustworthy receivers. That won’t be a problem in Tampa, and Brady will be hypermotivated to prove that he was the driving force behind New England’s unprecedented run of success. The rest of the NFC should be very, very afraid.
The league will start its season on time: FACT
I’ve grappled with this subject for weeks now, much like the rest of the football-obsessed public, but there’s enough time between now and Sept. 10 for the coronavirus situation to change dramatically. Moreover, due to the timing of the virus’ emergence, the NFL has had ample opportunity to beef up its planning and strategy, and there is time for testing production to ramp up to a degree that allows games to proceed with an absolute minimum of risk. Or, more cynically, the NFL sees itself as some sort of beacon for the rest of America and has no intention of losing any more money due to COVID-19 than is absolutely necessary. There probably won’t be fans in the stands, but when the Chiefs set out to defend their title, they’ll do so on schedule.
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