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NFL predictions through 2021: Bell's future, new champs, more

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Riddick: Bell 'taking a big gamble on himself' (1:19)

Louis Riddick is surprised Le'Veon Bell did not accept the Steelers' contract offer as he is betting on himself heading into the 2018 season. (1:19)

We have a mighty crystal ball here at ESPN. Yeah, of course, we have the regular ones that we use to predict what happens in the upcoming season or offseason or draft or whatever the story of the moment is. But we also have a special one that can see three years into the future.

You want to know what will happen in the NFL in 2018? We'll get to that. Predictions come out in August, early September, whatever, and you know what they'll look like.

But this column? This is all about the much bigger picture. This column predicts what will happen over the next three years. We did it last year, and some of the predictions already have come true. Which means you know it's just a matter of time for the others. So, because this is such a valuable service to you, the reader, we decided to do it again.

Here, without further ado, are 25 NFL predictions for the next three years.


1. Le'Veon Bell will change teams.

No way Pittsburgh can franchise him again next year for $21 million, which means Bell becomes the running back version of Kirk Cousins and an open-market free agent next March. If he gets through 2018 healthy, that offers him his chance to reset the running back market at a level well beyond the Devonta Freeman/LeSean McCoy levels and likely even beyond the Adrian Peterson level. Think $13 million or more per year. Assuming he gets through the year healthy.

2. So will Odell Beckham Jr.

Yeah, I know, this could look really dumb in a couple of weeks if Beckham gets some whopper of a five-year deal from the Giants before camp, as he absolutely should. I just don't get the sense that the Giants are super-eager to extend Beckham at the level he seeks, which means either they don't get this done before camp and they have a headache that leads to him leaving in the next year or so, or they do a shorter-term deal that ends at some point in the next three years and allows him to land elsewhere.

3. The Dallas Cowboys win one of the next three Super Bowls.

It just feels as if people are sleeping on a team that went 9-7 last year while its best player/key to the offense was suspended for six games. Assuming Ezekiel Elliott plays all 16 games, there's no reason not to like the Cowboys as 2018 contenders. And with their dominant offensive line all under contract and Dak Prescott still on his rookie deal at quarterback, there's no reason to think there's any major drop-off coming in the short term.

4. The Philadelphia Eagles won't.

This is nothing against the Eagles, who should have a very good team again and stand as a legitimate threat to become the first repeat NFC East champion since 2003-04. This is just to make a point about how hard it is to repeat and sustain the kind of success Philadelphia had last year. In 18 NFL seasons since the turn of the millennium, there have been 12 different NFC champions. Of those, the only one that has returned to the Super Bowl within three years is the Seattle Seahawks, who played in back-to-back Super Bowls following the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Carson Wentz is a young superstar quarterback, the roster is well-built and well-coached, and if there's a team built to buck history, this could well be it. But it's really hard to buck that kind of history.

5. The anthem controversy isn't going away.

The NFL hopes its new policy requiring players to stand for the pregame national anthem or wait it out in the locker room will quiet the furor over the issue. But it won't. The NFL Players Association is already mulling a legal challenge to the new policy, and there's sure to be at least one player who decides it's worth challenging the new policy to make a public point about social injustice. No doubt attendance will be taken at every game, and the names of players who elect to stay in the locker room will become a public source of continued controversy. This issue is far from settled, and the owners' effort to settle it with a new rule that tries to please everybody isn't likely to work.

6. At least two more teams will be sold.

The Carolina Panthers just sold for $2.275 billion. That price tag alone is enough to grab the attention of any owner who has even considered the idea of getting out. The unfortunate health situation with the current ownership of the Denver Broncos makes that team the most obvious candidate to be the next one sold. (Watch to see whether Peyton Manning is involved when that happens.) It's obviously hard to predict situations like that, or like the one that forced the aforementioned Panthers sale, but the Tennessee Titans have a situation to which many around the league are paying attention on this front.

7. Russell Wilson will become the highest-paid quarterback.

Oh, don't misunderstand. Aaron Rodgers will do it first, likely surpassing Matt Ryan's new deal before this summer is out. But Wilson's deal is also up after the 2019 season. If he performs at or near the level he showed in 2017, Wilson will be in position to demand more than Rodgers gets, while the top of the quarterback market moves ever upward. Perhaps he'll look to do a Cousins-style fully guaranteed deal. And yeah, it's possible that Wentz or Prescott will end up surpassing Wilson before these next three years are out, but a lot of that depends on performance over the next year or so.

8. The Cowboys end up in a bind over the Ezekiel Elliott contract.

Bell's situation isn't going to be the last difficult running back contract over the next couple of years. Running back is a weird position. Because of the rookie wage scale and the relative stagnation of veteran running back salaries, a back taken in the top five or 10 picks of the draft these days instantly becomes one of the highest-paid backs in the league. Teams aren't getting bargains on backs taken that high the way they are with quarterbacks and pass-rushers on their rookie deals. This is why the Cowboys are going to have a problem when Elliott's rookie deal ends. The Rams' 2019 fifth-year option on Todd Gurley is $9.63 million, which means Elliott's fifth-year option in 2020 is likely to be higher than $10 million, which means a high starting point for negotiations when Elliott's agent goes to the team to start discussions on a second contract. And this will continue for backs taken high -- Leonard Fournette's 2021 option will be higher than Elliott's 2020 option. Saquon Barkley's 2022 option will be higher than Fournette's. And so on. Either the top of the running back market has to move soon, or teams are going to have to make tough decisions on these guys when their rookie deals start ending.

9. David Johnson will lead the NFL in scrimmage yards over the next three years.

Because Johnson wasn't a first-round pick, there's no fifth-year option on him, and his extension likely has to get done this summer. Assuming it does and he doesn't miss any 2018 games, Johnson is in position to shoulder more of his team's offense than any other player in the league. As a runner and a pass-catcher, Johnson should be the best friend of whomever the Cardinals use at quarterback -- Sam Bradford or Josh Rosen. And if he does get a huge new deal, you can bet the Cardinals will use him as much as they can to justify it. Johnson's 2017 injury was a wrist, not a leg injury, so there's no reason to doubt that he can return to his dominant 2016 form.

10. NFL players will continue to complain every year during NBA free agency that their contracts aren't guaranteed.

The question is whether any of them will actually do anything about it. Look, there's no way they're going to get a provision in the next CBA that mandates guaranteed contracts. The NBA doesn't have that. Major League Baseball doesn't have that. It would be unprecedented, and there's no way NFL owners will (or even should) agree to it. It will fall to individual players to start doing what Kirk Cousins did -- wait out a couple of very lucrative franchise tags and hit the market with maximum leverage, then insist on fully guaranteed deals until they become the expectation and the norm. Every July, NFL players complain about non-guaranteed deals. Then every August, they rush to do extensions that don't offer full guarantees. The change has to come from the ground up.

11. Threats of a work stoppage will only get louder.

I'm still sticking with last year's prediction that the new CBA gets done without a work stoppage, but I don't feel as good about it as I did last year. The current deal expires after the 2020 season, which means during the period these predictions are supposed to cover. And at this point, it's hard to see the ground on which the two sides will fight the key battles. It'll come down to revenue and where things stand on that front as new TV deals get negotiated. The union is going to want a say in those negotiations and in aspects of the NFL's business (stadium deals, for example) into which it hasn't previously been invited. Will the owners listen? If they don't, will the players find ground on which they can hold together an effective strike for the first time in their history? Do the owners have the same kind of resolve they had last time for a lockout? Lots of issues to work out over the next two years on this, and there will be plenty of saber-rattling.

12. The Houston Texans win at least two of the next three AFC South titles.

Bill O'Brien is the best coach in the division and has a history of finding his way to the playoffs with brutally unsettled quarterback situations. Assuming Deshaun Watson returns to and stays at full health, O'Brien finally has a dynamic solution to his biggest persistent problem. That, combined with the number of fine young players the Texans have on defense, makes them the biggest threat in a rapidly improving division.

13. Someone besides the Patriots finally wins the AFC East.

Yeah, I know. This one doesn't seem so bold. But the Patriots have won the past nine AFC East titles and 15 of the past 17. They're heavy favorites to win it again in 2018, and assuming Tom Brady returns, they'll be favored again in 2019. But at some point, the Brady/Belichick run will end, and one of these other three teams will be in position to be the next AFC East titlist. Which one? I say it depends on which quarterback is better sooner -- Sam Darnold with the Jets or Josh Allen with the Bills. The Dolphins are probably the non-Patriots AFC East team in best position to contend now, if things break right for them. But they also may end up having to start their rebuild a year or two from now, while the Bills and Jets already have started theirs.

14. Drew Brees plays longer than Tom Brady does.

This one dovetails with the last one. Brees isn't out there with a bunch of "Drew vs. Time" longevity hype videos, but Brees at 39 remains in peak playing shape and shows no real signs of slowing down. He'll own the NFL's career passing yardage record by Halloween of this year, and I wouldn't be surprised if one of his long-range goals is to play longer than Brady does. I also doubt Brady harbors the reciprocal goal.

15. Kirk Cousins wins more games than Alex Smith.

There's this offseason drumbeat about how Washington upgraded at quarterback with Smith over Cousins. And it could be true, but even if it is, it's close. I just think Cousins landed in a much better situation in terms of the quality of his defense and of the offensive arsenal at his disposal. The Vikings are better positioned to win games now than Washington is, and Cousins -- who's clearly aware of his place in NFL contract history -- should be motivated to prove that he's worth his new deal and get another one once it's over.

16. Josh Rosen plays the most games of any 2018 rookie quarterback over the next three years.

My offshoot prediction is that, at the conclusion of the 2020 season, Baltimore's Lamar Jackson is the 2018 draft quarterback about whom the league's fans are most excited. But since I don't expect Jackson to start at quarterback for the Ravens until 2019, I hedge here against Sam Bradford's injury history. The Browns, Bills and Ravens don't want to play their first-round quarterbacks this year, and the Jets probably would rather wait to play theirs as well. The Cardinals, given Bradford's well-known fragility, may have no choice.

17. Jim Harbaugh returns to the NFL as a head coach.

No way that's over, right? Harbaugh was too good for too short a period of time as an NFL head coach to not want to try it again. If things do fall apart in Miami, watch for Dolphins owner and Michigan man Stephen Ross to make another major play for Harbaugh to come back and coach his team.

18. Marvin Lewis will still be coaching the Bengals.

Unless, of course, the Bengals are one of the teams that gets sold. (See No. 6.) Look, if it wasn't over after last year, what's to say it ever will be? Lewis seems to like it there, and Bengals owner Mike Brown seems to like the face Lewis puts on the organization. It's an odd dynamic there, and it's not for everyone. Brown has a guy for whom it all works, which is why he's not inclined to change it up.

19. Josh McDaniels will get another head-coaching interview.

What McDaniels did to the Colts was ridiculous and should cost him. I'd be at least mildly surprised if he drew any interest in the January 2019 hiring cycle. But come on. The guy just turned 42 and clearly knows how to coach. Time softens everything, and there's another McDaniels image rehab tour to come. I have no idea if he'll ever want to take another head-coaching job, and I don't think he'll succeed Bill Belichick in New England. But some team will kick the tires again at some point in the next three years.

20. The kickoff will disappear.

The kickoff got a reprieve for this year, as special-teams coaches successfully lobbied the league to try out some changes designed to make the play safer. But owners have made it no secret that if the play doesn't become demonstrably safer than it is (five times as many concussions on that play than others in 2017), they're willing to scrap it. The prediction here is that they end up doing it within the next three years.

21. The combine will move to Los Angeles.

And it'll be a shame, because Indianapolis is set up just perfectly for it. But the NFL is going to want to make the Rams' and Chargers' new stadium complex a destination, and in order to do that, it's going to need events. For a long time, people around the league expected the league to move the draft to L.A. on a permanent basis too, once the stadium complex was complete. And that may well happen, but at this point, the league seems to be enjoying moving the draft around to different cities every year.

22. Speaking of L.A., the Rams will continue to make it interesting.

Personally, I think the Chargers will be the better of the two L.A. teams this year, even though I expect the Rams to be good as well. (I like both rosters a lot.) But big-picture, I would expect this Rams' active offseason to become something of the norm. The people running that organization seem very cognizant of the importance of selling their team to their new, massive market. Yes, the Rams want to win games and championships above all else. But the moves they're making have an eye on getting and keeping people interested in what they're doing. So expect them to be a consistently risk-taking and fascinating participant in the NFL's offseason player-movement circus.

23. The recreational drug policy will change, but not the way you may think.

The NFLPA doesn't really want the league to stop testing for marijuana. It wants the league to stop punishing players for testing positive. If the union got what it wanted on marijuana testing, the result would be a program where players were tested for the drug but for clinical purposes. Example: If someone is using it excessively, are they trying to deal with an injury they're trying to conceal from a team? Do they have an addiction? The result would ideally be a situation where players who only occasionally use marijuana wouldn't have to worry about multigame suspensions for relatively harmless violations, but the testing could actually have a positive impact on the lives and health of players who need more attention.

24. The Browns still won't make the playoffs.

I know, I know. They're some kind of trendy pick to "make noise" somehow this year, even though there have been two Christmases since the last time they won a game. I just think there's still a lot that can go wrong. They don't have a left tackle. Josh Gordon is basically one beer away from a lifetime suspension. They need more pieces on defense. Even if they improve by five games this year -- which is a massive one-year improvement by NFL standards -- they still probably miss the playoffs by four. Then, if their plan works out the way they expect, they switch to an inexperienced Baker Mayfield at quarterback next year and goodness only knows who the coach is. This is a longer rebuilding project than a lot of people want to think it is.

25. The ties between the Jacksonville Jaguars and London will only intensify.

Owner Shad Khan has plenty of interest there. The Jaguars might not eventually move there (although they absolutely might), and even if they do, three years is probably not enough time to make it happen. But we'll say this: If an NFL team is going to go to London, Khan wants it to be his. So I wouldn't expect the Jaguars to start playing fewer games in London anytime soon. If anything, bet that it will be more.