10 bold predictions for the 2019 NFL season
The 2019 NFL offseason is already well underway, and the next few months will feature major roster changes across the league via salary cap casualties, free agent signings and April's draft selections.
How will things unfold over the next 12 months? Here are 10 bold predictions:
1. The San Francisco 49ers will add Antonio Brown and Earl Thomas, then improve to 8-8 or better.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to trade Brown after a flurry of late-season incidents, and the 49ers are expected to be quite interested. The team claimed that it had made perhaps the best offer to acquire then-Oakland Raiders edge rusher Khalil Mack last summer before he ended up with the Chicago Bears, and it makes sense that it could be similarly aggressive in trying to deal for the ultra-talented Brown.
The Oakland Raiders have more ammo to get a deal done, given their three first-round picks, but the Steelers would prefer to move Brown out of the AFC. The 49ers can offer the fourth pick in the second round. There remains the issue of Brown being investigated by the league for allegedly pushing the mother of his child during an incident in which no arrest was made.
Signing Thomas to play free safety is a natural fit for the 49ers. Former Seattle Seahawks teammate Richard Sherman is pushing for it, and the team's defensive system - mostly cover-one and cover-three - is a copy of what the Seahawks use.
Throwing in two players with budding Hall of Fame credentials to go with the healthy returns of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon should allow the 49ers to challenge the Los Angeles Rams and Seahawks in the NFC West.
2. Le'Veon Bell will sign with the Houston Texans.
Why would the Texans pay $15 million per year for a running back when they already have Lamar Miller? Simple: Quarterback Deshaun Watson is still on his rookie contract, so this is the time to make some make bold investments in an attempt to advance deeper in the playoffs.
They may need to outbid their AFC South rivals in Indianapolis. The Colts beat the Texans in the playoffs' first round; have more than $100 million in salary cap room and three draft picks in the first two rounds; and appear to be AFC contenders behind Comeback Player of the Year Andrew Luck.
The Jets are another team to watch, but they are in transition, so Houston gives Bell a better chance to contend for a championship.
3. In response to the non-call in the NFC championship game, the NFL will add an eighth official to every game to serve as a video consultant.
Based on the missed pass-interference call in the New Orleans Saints' loss, the NFL will need to find a way to fix future errors. The league does communicate with referees in-game, but it doesn't like to make rulings in New York that would change judgment calls. The competition committee typically isn't fond of making interference calls reviewable, either.
That's why adding an official could be the solution. At the cost of around $2 million in salary, the NFL could hire 17 or 18 additional officials to be at games and help referees with decisions, potentially preventing mistakes similar to that blown call in New Orleans.
4. Nick Foles will be the Jacksonville Jaguars' starting quarterback.
The Philadelphia Eagles took the first step by picking up Foles' $20 million option. Foles then agreed to pay the Eagles $2 million to become a free agent, which gave the Eagles the chance to get draft-choice compensation for him. They could place the franchise tag on him and then trade him. If they don't franchise him, they could receive a third-round compensatory pick in 2020.
My prediction is that the Eagles will franchise him and trade him to the Jaguars for a third-round pick in this year's draft. By doing that, the Eagles control where he ends up, preventing him from going to their division rivals in Washington and New York.
5. The Cowboys will target Sean Payton to be their next coach.
Despite winning a playoff game this year, Jason Garrett is on the hot seat. Owner Jerry Jones didn't give him an extension, meaning his contract is up at the end of the 2019 season. If the Cowboys don't advance further in the playoffs, Jones might go for the brass ring by arranging for a trade with the Saints for Payton.
Payton is loyal to the Saints and has as much - if not more - power as any coach in football. But he has been with the Saints since 2006, and Drew Brees is heading into the final stretch of his Hall of Fame career. If Brees were to retire after next season, Payton might be open to a return to Dallas, where he has family.
6. But first, the New Orleans Saints will return to the NFC championship game.
This might not seem all that "bold" on the surface, but it will be difficult for the Saints to recover from their loss to the Rams. Still, this team is good enough to make another run at the conference championship.
Brees may have lost some of his ability to throw deep, but the Saints have enough weapons on offense and are good enough on defense to win the NFC South again - and at least one if not two or more playoff games.
7. The Miami Dolphins will tank to get a top quarterback in the 2020 draft, paving the way for the New England Patriots to get back to the Super Bowl.
For whatever reason, the Patriots struggle on trips to Miami, losing three of their past four road games against the Dolphins. Their 2019 matchup should be easier.
The Dolphins are expected to release Ryan Tannehill this offseason, and the 2020 draft appears to have a stronger group of signal callers than this year's. New coach Brian Flores got a five-year contract; most other hires around the league got four years.
That means New England has a realistic shot at a 6-0 AFC East record, which could pave the way to another first-round playoff bye. The Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers and Colts figure to be tough competition in the AFC, but New England's easy divisional schedule gives the defending champs an edge.
8. Mike Tomlin won't get a contract extension until he cleans up the Steelers' locker-room problems.
Tomlin's job has never been in jeopardy, and the Steelers have continued to support him. They would love to give him another contract, extending the deal that has him signed through 2020.
But the Brown and Bell situations of the past year have made it clear that there are some significant locker-room problems. Tomlin is going to have to get those issues fixed this season - and get the team back to the playoffs - to land another deal.
9. The owners and the NFLPA will reach a labor agreement well in advance of the 2021 season.
There is no question that, in the next labor deal, the players want more guarantees in contracts, more money for the league's "middle class" and for independent arbiters to take away some of Commissioner Roger Goodell's authority in discipline disputes.
But there is significant doubt as to whether a lockout would change the union's strength in bargaining. Strikes worked for the players in the 1970s and 1980s, but it's harder for the union to find players willing to miss paychecks in exchange for bargaining strength. The league is getting younger, and the average length of an NFL career has dropped, making it harder for a player to make up for lost pay.
Talks are expected to start within six months.
10. Scoring will drop by close to a point per game.
NFL offenses had an amazing 2018. But by the end of the season, defenses began to catch up. Coordinators figured out schemes to slow many of the league's highest-powered offenses, and players adjusted their techniques to better avoid helmet-hitting and roughing-the-passer penalties.
The game still favors offense, and several of the league's brightest minds will bring new wrinkles into next season. But 2019 won't be quite as high-scoring as 2018 was.
This article was written by John Clayton, a reporter for The Washington Post.