It's only the midpoint of the NFL season, but let's be honest: There are plenty of fan bases already looking ahead to the 2019 offseason.
No offense intended there to any particular team nor certainly to the fact that surprise turnarounds are possible. But if you're a fan of the Raiders, the 49ers, the Cardinals, the Bills or either New York team, you're kidding yourself if you haven't already started thinking about the draft, free agency, a potential coaching change ... some offseason storyline that will affect the team you love.
So as we roll out our midseason look backs and look aheads, we thought it would be fun to take a look WAY ahead and make some predictions for what's to come once the season is over.
Without further ado, here are 19 way-too-early predictions for the 2019 offseason:
1. DeMarcus Lawrence -- not Dak Prescott -- scores the biggest Cowboys contract extension
The Cowboys franchised Lawrence last year because they wanted to see if he could do it again. Well, he's doing it again, which means they should pay up now and give Lawrence one of those fancy new $20-million-a-year pass-rusher contracts. I think they will, even though they also have to sign Amari Cooper, Byron Jones and of course Prescott. They have plenty of cap space, and the bet here is that Prescott does his extension in the Dalton/Bortles/Keenum range rather than insisting on a Cousins/Ryan/Rodgers deal.
2. Lawrence will pace the market but won't be the only pass-rusher cashing in
Jadeveon Clowney is in his walk year. Ziggy Ansah, like Lawrence, was franchised this year and will be on the market. Dee Ford has eight sacks already and his deal is up at the end of the season. Frank Clark and Brandon Graham will be on the market. The pass-rushers are going to dominate in free agency, and those who make it to the market are going to benefit big time from waiting out this year until Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack reset the market.
3. The defensive line bounty will keep flowing into late April
Yeah, it's a defensive line draft! That might not sound as sexy as a big quarterback draft, but with offenses all over the league dropping 30-40 points a week, teams are going to be salivating at the prospect of drafting big, fast, athletic dudes who can help them scheme ways to stop them. Houston's Ed Oliver and Ohio State's Nick Bosa lead a crop of college linemen who have defensive coordinators hoping things fall their way in the draft.
4. Justin Herbert will stay in school
Oregon's stud quarterback will disappoint QB-needy teams at the top of the draft by deciding to return to school for another season, à la Andrew Luck in 2011, and see if he can make some playoff noise with the Ducks. The result is an even thinner draft QB class than expected.
5. The Broncos are the first team to pick a quarterback in the draft
The carousel spins. Case Keenum, coming off a disappointing season, will be thrown into a competition with a rookie (Will Grier?) who becomes the latest hope for John Elway to finally find a franchise quarterback. Most of the teams projecting to pick high in next year's draft (almost everyone but the Giants) won't be QB-hunting, which could work out well for Elway ... if he finally picks the right guy.
6. Teddy Bridgewater will sign with the Giants
By now, it should be clear to Giants management that it's time to move on from Eli Manning. Unfortunately, it wasn't clear last spring, when they were picking No. 2 and had their choice of four quarterbacks who eventually went in the first round. No such luck for 2019, so it's free agency, where they will be fortunate to find the 26-year-old Bridgewater, who knows Pat Shurmur from their time together in Minnesota. It'll cost 'em, because Bridgewater will be the top quarterback in a thin free-agent market. But they have to have someone, and Kyle "Leadfoot" Lauletta probably can't be the answer as early as 2019.
7. Le'Veon Bell will sign with the Texans
Houston might have fluked its way into half of the victories in its current six-game winning streak, but the result is a first-place team poised to make a run to the playoffs. It's also a team with a boatload of projected 2019 cap space and a quarterback on his inexpensive rookie deal. The Texans will be next season's Rams -- the "all-in" offseason team trying to maximize Deshaun Watson's window. Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and Bell? Look out.
8. The Jets, Buccaneers, Cowboys, Broncos, Packers, Dolphins, Ravens and (obviously) the Browns hire new head coaches
The Green Bay and Baltimore situations are the most interesting, since Mike McCarthy and John Harbaugh, respectively, become instantly desirable candidates elsewhere and get new jobs à la Andy Reid when the Eagles let him go and the Chiefs scooped him up. Let's put McCarthy in Cleveland and Harbaugh in Denver. Dallas goes hard after Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley to replace Jason Garrett after missing the playoffs. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross goes hard after the OTHER Harbaugh, trying to lure Jim from Michigan with Jon Gruden-style megabucks. The coaching carousel is going to get weird.
9. Josh McDaniels will get at least one head-coaching interview but won't take a new job
It's just too soon, right? How can an owner trust that McDaniels won't flake post-Super Bowl again like he did on Indianapolis in February? How can prospective assistants trust that he won't leave them hanging if he changes his mind at (or past!) the last minute? McDaniels is still young, talented and well-regarded enough that teams will have him at or near the tops of their wish lists. And I believe he'll be a head coach in the NFL again at some point. But still ... too soon.
10. Jameis Winston returns to the Buccaneers on a short-term extension
Winston reclaims the Bucs' starting QB job from Ryan Fitzpatrick at some point in the second half of this season. And while interception problems remain, the Bucs see no better option than to bring Winston back and give him yet another shot. But not for $20.9 million. They do what the Jaguars did last year with Blake Bortles, spreading out the money over a couple of years and keeping the salary low enough that they can get to work on that defense. Speaking of which ...
11. The safety market bounces back, with Earl Thomas at the top
Thomas will be only 29 when the market opens next spring, and he'll be in demand. The Cowboys would do it if they didn't have so many of their own guys to sign. The Chiefs, Chargers and a bunch of other good teams will be in on him. But the Bucs throw him a bunch of money and sell him on the idea of a team that needs only a couple of stud pieces on defense to match its high-flying offense. Elsewhere, Lamarcus Joyner, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Tyrann Mathieu lead a loaded safety class while the Giants keep Landon Collins off the market with a franchise tag.
12. Jeers turn to cheers for Jon Gruden after the draft
Gruden is taking a lot of heat for the tear-down job he's doing in Oakland, and you can see why. He's tearing apart a team that was 12-4 two years ago so he can make it as strong as possible for when it moves to Las Vegas in two years. Pretty raw deal for the people who live where the team plays now, and the on-field product is dreadful. BUT ... one of the results of Gruden's fire sale is that he has three first-round picks next year and two in 2020. This will enable him to maneuver in the draft to get basically whomever he wants. The entire draft will run through Gruden and center on the moves he wants to make. When it's over, he'll be praised for how he did, if only because the sheer volume of picks will enable him to draft guys everybody loves -- and because almost every position will be a position of need!
13. The Seattle Seahawks sell for more money than any sports team ever
In the wake of Paul Allen's death, the team he owned goes up for sale, and fetches $2.6 billion, more than David Tepper just paid for the Carolina Panthers. The rule change the owners passed in October allowing cross-ownership of teams in different sports will increase the number of billionaires willing and able to bid, so the price goes up. Don't ask me who's going to buy them. I don't know that many billionaires.
14. Marshawn Lynch, Antonio Gates and Larry Fitzgerald announce their retirement
But Frank Gore and Julius Peppers sign new deals and keep on playing, as if time affects everyone else in the world but them.
15. The league announces multiple international games featuring the Raiders
London? Absolutely. Mexico? Yup. Germany? Brazil? Hey, the Raiders need to play SOMEWHERE next season. Their Vegas stadium won't be ready yet and their lease in Oakland is up after 2018. They're negotiating with Oakland, but it's not going great, because why in the world would Oakland cut them any breaks at this point? Minimizing the number of real "home" games might be a creative way of getting a bridge deal. Hey, don't rule out the possibility of the Raiders just being a travel team for 2019. Remember, it's ALL about 2020 and beyond for the Raiders now. They'll obviously take any lumps they have to take in the meantime.
16. Eli Manning ends up in Jacksonville ...
Sometimes, the obvious is the obvious for a reason. The Jaguars obviously need someone to come in and (VOTE FOR ONE: 1. push; 2. compete with; 3. mentor; 4. replace) Bortles, and Manning's connection with Tom Coughlin makes this an easy pairing that makes everyone happy. Except maybe Bortles.
17. ... and Joe Flacco in Miami
Flacco has a tough time finding a job after the Ravens decide to move on to Lamar Jackson, but the situation in Miami is a muddle and Ryan Tannehill isn't locked in beyond this season. If Adam Gase is still coaching there, Flacco comes in as a backup to maybe compete for the job. If not, maybe he signs as the starter.
18. Drew Brees and Tom Brady announce they'll return for 2019
It's about time to speculate about which of these guys will play longer than the other, and whether they see it as a contest. But it feels almost certain that both will play beyond 2018, barring injury or a decision to retire after winning the Super Bowl. These decisions keep Sean Payton and Bill Belichick in their current jobs for at least one more year, of course.
19. Russell Wilson, Marcus Mariota and ... Jared Goff get huge QB contract extensions
This assumes a big 2018 finish for Mariota and the Titans, but he's heading into his fifth-year option season just like Winston is, and the worst-case is a Bortles-style extension for Mariota like the one we predicted for Winston. Best case is a whopper of a deal, which is certainly what Wilson will be in line for. Expect Wilson to surpass Aaron Rodgers and become the league's highest-paid quarterback. As for Goff, his fifth-year option season isn't until 2020, but the Rams' history (Robert Quinn, Todd Gurley) says they tend to do these things a year early. Goff should be the latest to benefit.