Forecasting the next three NFL seasons: 25 predictions through 2022

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Monday, July 15, 2019

I'm not really the long-range planning type, but I know some of you are, and I'm here for you. I am here to help.

You're not content simply to know what will happen in the NFL in 2019. You want to know what will happen the year after that, and the year after that. It is for you, Mr. and Mrs. Long-Range Planner, that we produce this particular column year after year.

And while it might seem like a joke, don't sleep on the three-year predictions column. Look back at last year's, and you'll find that quite a few of them have already come true and more than a few others still can. This is more than just your typical tongue-in-cheek bit of offseason content. This is seriously informed speculation, people, and it demands your attention.

With that, we present the 25 NFL predictions for the next three years:

Jump to an interesting player:

Cousins | Elliott | Manning

Bell | Murray | OBJ | Luck

McCaffrey | Rosen | J. Jones

1. Patrick Mahomes will be the first $40 million-a-year quarterback

I don't think Mahomes gets his deal next offseason when first eligible, because (a) why would he be in a hurry? and (b) why would the Chiefs be in a hurry when his fifth-year option season isn't until 2021? But with Russell Wilson already having pushed the bar up to $35 million a year this offseason, it's not a big leap to expect quarterback contract extensions to be tickling $40 million a year by the time Mahomes signs on the dotted line.

2. Kirk Cousins will sign a contract extension with the Vikings

I'm fairly bullish on Cousins and the Vikings this season. I think they'll win the NFC North and that fans will feel very differently about Cousins this time next year, when he'll have a year left on his three-year contract and could very well be interested in talking about an extension that would keep him and his family in Minnesota for years to come.

3. The Patriots will win at least one more Super Bowl

We'll keep hearing, over the next few months, that they're vulnerable without Rob Gronkowski, that no quarterback has ever kept playing well at Tom Brady's age, and so on. We've heard it all before. Bill Belichick remains the best puzzle-solver coach there is, having just figured out how to win a Super Bowl 13-3 at the tail end of the greatest offensive season in league history. New England's division remains soft. The Brady-Belichick machine has no complacency setting, and will remain determined to establish postseason records no one will ever knock down.

4. Ezekiel Elliott will hold out of training camp over his contract

I don't think it'll be this year, though I can't completely rule it out. But unless Elliott and the Cowboys come to agreement on a new deal this offseason or next -- which I don't think happens unless he cuts the team some kind of deal he doesn't seem inclined to cut -- it's not hard to imagine Elliott taking a Melvin Gordon-level stance next August.

He's the most important player on a Dallas team I predicted in last year's column would win one of the next three Super Bowls, but running backs are always fighting uphill in contact situations. It doesn't help that six of the 10 highest-paid backs in the league missed time last season due to injury.

5. Eli Manning will play for a different team

I believe the Giants will move on from Eli next offseason, but I don't think Manning wants 2019 to be his final NFL season. It's going to look super-weird to see him in a different uniform, but I have two guesses as to which one it will be. My favorite guess is the Saints, because he's from New Orleans, his dad played there and it'd be a cool story. But that prediction is tied way too much to other things, especially the completely unknown factor of how much longer Drew Brees wants to play. So my safer guess is the Titans, who could be moving on from Marcus Mariota if he doesn't deliver in 2019.

6. As for the Giants, at least three different QBs will start for them in the next three years

And this isn't a knock on poor Daniel Jones, who's getting way too much grief for the crime of being drafted sixth overall. It's more of a nod to what the Giants have had in Manning for the past 15 years. Since becoming the starter in 2004, Manning has answered the bell for literally every game except the bizarre 2017 one for which they asked him not to. It's far too much to expect the same kind of durability and reliability from his successor, no matter how well Jones plays.

7. Kyler Murray will lead the Cardinals to at least one division title

The NFC West is a nutty place. The Rams are on top, the Seahawks aren't ready to go away and the 49ers haven't made their anticipated arrival yet. Arizona looks like a clear No. 4, and I don't expect the Cardinals to contend in 2019.

But I do believe the marriage between Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury will be exciting and hard to stop -- especially once the Cardinals patch the holes on their offensive line.

8. There will not be an NFL work stoppage

I actually put at roughly 43 percent the chance that the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) gets negotiated and agreed to this offseason, which would be with two full seasons to go. Both sides seem motivated to get this done, especially the owners, who have traditionally dictated timetables on these sorts of things.

There will be stops, starts and moments of panic along the way, but I do believe there will not be a strike or a lockout when the current CBA ends in 2021, because a new one will be in place by then. One of the things I can't wait to find out is how long this one will be. Another 10-year deal seems unlikely, but no one saw that coming last time, either.

9. The next Los Angeles team to reach the Super Bowl will be the Chargers

How far off were they, really, last season? They had the same record as the Chiefs in the AFC West but were consigned to a wild-card berth on the postseason road because of the tiebreaker. On paper, this season's Chargers are absolutely in the conversation for best top-to-bottom roster in the league.

The Chiefs have major questions on defense, won't have Kareem Hunt and could be without Tyreek Hill for a couple of games. Philip Rivers is primed for the run he's been waiting for, and not a moment too soon.

10. Le'Veon Bell will change teams ... again

We nailed this one last year (though, to be fair, that was easy), and we're going to run it back out there. The marriage between Bell and the Jets isn't off to the smoothest start. His contract really guarantees him only two years anyway, and it makes him a lot easier to trade next offseason if 2019 doesn't go well.

11. Odell Beckham Jr. will lead the NFL in receiving yards and touchdown catches

Yes, I believe Beckham will thrive with Baker Mayfield and the Browns. I do not buy the notion that he was a problem in the locker room with the Giants. His teammates loved him. It was the coaches and administrators who had issues with Beckham.

And while that could certainly be the case in Cleveland, too, I think on-field success (assuming the Browns have it) would iron out a lot of the off-field temper issues Beckham had while doing all the losing he did in New York. Too much has been made this offseason of the aspects of Beckham that have nothing to do with his immense talent. We shouldn't forget how good this player is.

12. The Las Vegas Raiders will make at least one playoff appearance

I don't think the Raiders are ready to make that jump in this, their final season in Oakland. But I like the pieces they're putting together and believe they'll hit the desert ground running in 2020.

No idea, of course, how they'll be received in Vegas or what kind of fan base they'll develop there, but I am predicting that they will be a playoff team in one of their first two years there. Heck, the Las Vegas hockey team went to the Stanley Cup Final in its first season, right?

13. The Steelers will win more AFC North titles than the Browns

The Steelers feel a little bit to me like the Seahawks did last season. Far too many people want to write them off and forget that Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season. I'm not of the school of thought that losing Antonio Brown is addition by subtraction -- they'll have to make significant adjustments to replace him and it won't be easy.

But especially with the whole world jumping on the bandwagon of an AFC North team that hasn't won a division title since 1989, the Steelers feel like a quietly dangerous chip-on-their-shoulders type of squad that will be motivated to remind people whose division the AFC North actually is.

14. You will continue to hear talk about an 18-game season, but you may continue to ignore it

I honestly have no idea why this keeps coming up, but yeah, some owners still want to expand the season in spite of that being a horrendous idea on every level other than a naked-revenue-grab one. Talking to people close to this situation, I have come away with the belief that the players adamantly oppose the idea and would entertain it only if the owners came to them with significant financial concessions the likes of which have not been proposed to date.

I simply don't see a calculus in which the owners would make more money by expanding the season than they'd have to give up in order to convince the players to agree to it.

15. Andrew Luck will win an MVP award

As last season showed, the Colts are building something potentially special. A lot of teams that surprise the way the Colts did take a step back the following season before resuming their forward trajectories, and it's absolutely possible that happens to the Colts in 2019.

But if it doesn't, expect Luck to be in the MVP conversation as early as this season. And even if the Colts do have a down 2019, expect him to be in the MVP conversation in 2020 and/or 2021. Heck, it's not crazy to imagine Luck, whose contract runs through 2021, beating Mahomes to that $40 million-a-year mark if things break the right way.

16. Christian McCaffrey will lead the league in yards from scrimmage

With Todd Gurley dealing with some kind of mysterious knee injury, the landscape is open for a new workhorse monster who can pile up rushing and receiving yards. The Giants' Saquon Barkley and the Saints' Alvin Kamara are candidates, but the Panthers will continue to lean on McCaffrey -- especially while Cam Newton works his way back from shoulder surgery this year -- and McCaffrey wants the work.

17. The minimum 'spending floor' will go up in the next CBA

One thing the players will want to get out of the coming negotiations is a requirement that teams spend more money on players. Currently, there is no concrete "floor" teams have to reach each year, but there is a requirement that every team has to spend at least 89 percent of the salary cap in cash over a four-year period.

One proposal that has already been floated in the current negotiations is raising that 89 percent to 95 percent and shortening the window from four years to two. The owners might not go that far, but anything the NFL Players Association can do to require more spending would help create more favorable ground for players and agents to negotiate contracts. Speaking of which ...

18. We will start to see more fully guaranteed veteran contracts -- little by little

No, the new CBA will not require NFL contracts to be fully guaranteed, because CBAs really don't do that. The NBA and MLB CBAs don't mandate contract guarantees, nor does the NFL one prohibit them. Players in those other leagues get guaranteed deals because players and agents at some point in the past insisted on them and established them as the norm.

NFL players, outside of Cousins, have been reluctant to do this. Every time a player like Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers or Andrew Luck comes up for a deal, agents around the league hope he'll push for a full guarantee, and he doesn't. But with star quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Jared Goff (to name a few) due for deals in the coming years, it's a good bet someone will decide to exert the full extent of his leverage and help push the ceiling on this matter a little higher.

19. Josh Rosen will change teams again

It would be a cool story if Rosen played lights-out for the Dolphins and Miami decided he was its quarterback of the future. But even if he beats out Ryan Fitzpatrick for the starting job, I just don't see this season's Miami team being strong enough to put Rosen in the best position to succeed -- especially with him having to learn a new offensive system for like the 95th year in a row.

The Dolphins' financial commitment to Rosen is negligible -- Arizona has already paid the signing bonus on his rookie deal. If their record is as poor as many expect it to be, a quarterback like Justin Herbert or Tua Tagovailoa is going to look like an enticing option in next year's draft.

20. The Packers won't win a division title in the next three years

Part of this is that I just think the Vikings (this season) and the Bears (this season and long term) look too strong, and I don't think the Lions are a team to be overlooked. But other than Davante Adams, the skill-position group around Aaron Rodgers hasn't proved much, and Rodgers hasn't shown a lot of patience lately when things haven't gone well around him. He's not a quarterback to underestimate; I just think Minnesota and Chicago are in better places right now.

21. The marijuana policy will change in the next CBA

This feels like an easy call, particularly with the league and the players' union forming a committee to study alternative pain-management techniques. The NFL's policy on marijuana is outdated and overly punitive. Don't be surprised to see the league adopt a policy similar to the NHL's -- still testing for marijuana but not punishing players for using it.

With the league trying to expand the help it's offering players in the area of mental health, the idea would be to use the testing as a diagnostic tool to identify players who might need some kind of off-field help they aren't getting.

22. Julio Jones will be the first $20 million-a-year wide receiver -- but not the last

The only players in the NFL averaging more than $20 million per year are quarterbacks, Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack. The highest-paid wide receiver?Odell Beckham Jr. at $18 million a year.

Jones has two years left on his contract, but the Falcons got him to camp last year by promising him they'd rework his deal. He is the best player in the group of four superstar wideouts -- himself,A.J. Green, Michael Thomas and Amari Cooper -- who are looking for new deals before the season starts, so let's pick him to set the bar. But don't be surprised if one of those other guys signs after he does and tops him. It looks like everyone in that group is waiting for someone to go first.

23. Carson Wentz and the Eagles will win at least one division title

The NFC East hasn't had a repeat champion since the Eagles did it in 2003-04, so as good as the Cowboys look on paper you can't pick them to win it again this season. It looks like a two-team race between them and the Eagles, so let's say Philly wins it. It would help, of course, if Wentz could stay healthy for 16 games, and I believe he will at some point.

Wentz is under a completely unique kind of pressure: How many quarterbacks have had to live up to the accomplishments of their backups? The Eagles believe he's up to it, and they have the people in place to help him thrive.

24. Nick Foles will win at least one division title with the Jaguars

Speaking of that former Eagles backup! In 15 of the past 16 seasons, at least one NFL team has won its division after finishing last the season before. The Jags are the betting favorites to do it in 2019, and with a still-elite defense leading the way, they really just need Foles to be responsible with the ball in order to jump back into contention.

Foles hasn't always been the model of health or consistency, either, so he's under pressure now that Jacksonville has tabbed him as its man. But the Jaguars look like a team that has a couple of potentially good years in it before the contract/cap problems start piling up.

25. The new replay rules will be a big, stupid mess and will create more big, stupid messes

This is a pet peeve. I get that everybody (but the Rams) was upset about a blown call helping the Rams beat the Saints in the NFC Championship Game. But is making pass interference calls reviewable really the answer we want? Forget the fact that replay reviews are terrible TV and take away from the flow and enjoyment of the game -- pass interference calls are judgment calls.

All you're doing by reviewing them is bringing in someone else's judgment. There absolutely will be more controversy arising from the new rules, and I fear the league will once again determine the answer is MORE REPLAY when in fact the NFL and all of sports would be far better off with LESS REPLAY or, even better, NO REPLAY because replay review is dumb, boring, unnecessary garbage that should go away forever and let us enjoy the games again.

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