By Brandon Niles EBS Sports Columnist
The 2016 NFL season kicks off Thursday night, Sept. 8, with a rematch of last year’s Super Bowl contenders, as the Carolina Panthers visit the Denver Broncos seeking revenge. Opening weekend is one of my favorite times of the year, as the culmination of a long off-season of hope and speculation comes to fruition. Here are five bold predictions to get you ready for football!
The Oakland Raiders will make the playoffs instead of the Denver Broncos
Denver won the Super Bowl last year, so it’s hard to imagine they won’t be competitive again this season. However, a closer look reveals a team that still has questions at the quarterback position, lost significant talent on their fourth-ranked defense from last year, and benefited in 2015 from a tremendous amount of luck.
Call me crazy, but with the Kansas City Chiefs looking strong, and the Raiders coming off a promising 7-9 season and loaded with young talent, I think Denver might be in for a rude awakening in 2016, while the Raiders take a step forward into wild-card consideration.
Devonta Freeman will lead the league in yards from scrimmage
This might not seem bold, as Freeman had 1,639 yards from scrimmage a year ago, good for fifth in the league. However, doubt surrounds the third-year back out of Florida State, who seemingly came out of nowhere for the Atlanta Falcons last season.
Freeman is thought to be in store for a time-share with second-year back Tevin Coleman, but when I watch the Falcons, Freeman is the only running back who impresses me. Freeman caught 73 passes last year— third among running backs— and should be relied on heavily again. Some think last year was a fluke, but I’m buying all the Devonta Freeman stock I can get my hands on.
Tyrod Taylor will make the Pro Bowl
And I mean legitimately, not after the first six players decline to go for various reasons. It’s hard to make the Pro Bowl at the quarterback position with so many talented players in the league, but Taylor will lead a Buffalo Bills offense flush with weapons and will benefit from a full off-season entrenched as the starter.
Taylor is a dual-threat playmaker who accounted for 24 touchdowns in 14 games last season and should lead the Bills to a wild-card berth this year.
The Minnesota Vikings will repeat as NFC North champions
While the Green Bay Packers are always considered Super Bowl favorites, it was the Vikings who won the NFC North division last season with an 11-5 record. The Vikings feature an emerging young quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, a tremendous amount of talent on the defensive side of the ball, and an improved offensive line.
Plus, they still have the best running back in the game in Adrian Peterson and added first-round draft pick Laquon Treadwell to their receiving corps. The Packers remain talented and should compete, but the Vikings will win another 11 or 12 games and repeat as division winners.
Tajae Sharpe will win Offensive Rookie of the Year
Usually, quarterbacks or running backs win this award, not receivers drafted in the fifth round. However, this kid out of Massachusetts has been very impressive for the Tennessee Titans in camp and the pre-season thus far, and seems to have already earned a starting job.
Sharpe has the trust of young quarterback Marcus Mariota and his excellent hands and route-running ability have put to rest any concerns there were about his ability to adjust to the NFL level.
In addition to bold season-long predictions, I like to make a pre-season Super Bowl prediction. There are several teams in each conference that should be competitive, including the Panthers, New England Patriots, Arizona Cardinals, and the Green Bay Packers. However, when I look at the off-seasons each team had, the talent and coaching in place, and the quarterbacks leading each team, two squads stand out most to me.
Super Bowl prediction: Seattle Seahawks over the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-23.
Brandon Niles is a longtime fan of football and scotch, and has been writing about sports for the past decade. He is a fantasy football scout for 4for4 Fantasy Football and is co-host of the 2 Guys Podcast.