You don't get a trophy for winning the offseason. But you do get a bandwagon.
To state the obvious, it's been a harrowing, tumultuous spring in the real world. And typically, in times of strife, sports can be there to supply what is truly their most important function: joyful distraction. But of course, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all live athletic competition in America. So, with much of the nation in quarantine, NFL roster reconstruction was essentially the only game in town for sports fans seeking a release. This only heightened intrigue in free agency and the draft, ratcheting up the hype that naturally spawns from offseason wheeling and dealing.
And it was quite an interesting few months of NFL activity, with the stunning relocation of the greatest quarterback of all time, the staggering trade of a first-team All-Pro wideout and the surprising stimulation of the league's first-ever virtual draft.
Consequently, bandwagons are filling up fast at various outposts across the NFL. Here's the strange thing, though: I'm kinda feeling these bandwagons -- like all of them. Maybe all the real-world distress has me seeking out optimism wherever I can find it.
So, without further ado, here's a list of NFL bandwagons I'm advising you to hop on in 2020, Schein Nine style:
For the first time in a quarter-century, Buffalo is taking the AFC East. By multiple games. And for good measure, the Bills are going to notch their first playoff victory since that division-title-winning group completely overwhelmed Dan Marino's Dolphins in what was then called Rich Stadium. The droughts end this season, Bills Mafia. The fine football fans out in lovely Western New York are gonna party like it's 1995.
Yes, with great hype comes great pressure. Last offseason, I christened Buffalo as my Cinderella team for the 2019 campaign, and the Bills reached double-digit wins for the first time this millennium before losing in overtime at Houston on Wild Card Weekend. This offseason, the Bills bandwagon's filling up, especially with Tom Brady out of the division and Stefon Diggs on the roster. The most important individual figure, though, might be Sean McDermott. In Year 4 on the job, McDermott's a gem of a head coach; he'll have Buffalo ready to meet the great Jim Kelly's lofty expectations. McDermott's fingerprints are all over the ferocious defense, which boasts playmakers on every level, including a pair of young Pro Bowlers in LB Tremaine Edmunds and CB Tre'Davious White.
On the other side of the ball, QB Josh Allen took great strides as a thrower in Year 2, boosting his touchdown passes (20, up from 10 in his rookie campaign), completion percentage (58.8, up from 52.8) and quarterback rating (85.3, up from 67.9), while reducing his interceptions (9, down from 12). Not to mention, nobody had more fourth-quarter comebacks (4) or game-winning drives (5) than Allen in 2019. I think, under the watchful eye of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, the 24-year-old takes another big step forward this season. In fact, as I wrote last month, I see Allen blossoming into a dark-horse MVP candidate, with Diggs now headlining a stellar receiving trio that also includes John Brown and Cole Beasley.
Tom Brady! There's not a chance this fails, even with Brady turning 43 in August. The G.O.A.T. is still great. And as star linebacker Lavonte David told me last month on my SiriusXM Radio show, Schein on Sports, Brady's going to "fall in love" with Mike Evans. David called Evans, who's eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving in all six of his NFL campaigns, a top-three receiver in the NFL. I don't disagree -- and after the coming season, with TB12 delivering the football, neither will you. Brady will maximize the elite WR duo of Evans and Chris Godwin -- and have a blast taking a trip down memory lane while throwing touchdowns to Gronk! Getting Iowa OT Tristan Wirfs with the No. 13 overall pick was a coup. Obviously, building a fortress around the game's oldest active player is essential.
And circling back to Lavonte David, don't sleep on this Bucs defense. The unit really started to come into its own down the stretch last season, as the young secondary caught up with the outstanding front seven. The front's a brick wall against the run, while Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul terrify opposing quarterbacks off the edges. And it's hard to find a better off-ball linebacker duo than David and Devin White.
Wouldn't it be perfect for the Brady-led Bucs to become the first team to ever host a Super Bowl in the home stadium?
Last week, in a bold predictions edition of the Schein Nine, I said Mike McCarthy will win Coach of the Year and the Cowboys will enter the playoffs as the NFC's No. 1 seed. Now, that is a bandwagon you want to hop on. And given the Cowboys' nationwide fan base, that's a bandwagon that'll fill up rather quickly. So you better hop aboard now!
I really think the McCarthy hiring was one of the most significant moves of this offseason. The Super Bowl-winning coach will help Dak Prescott become consistently great. Dallas' loaded offense is going to sizzle, and CeeDee Lamb is going to become the next great Cowboys receiver to wear No. 88.
Really, I mean it this time.
Like many others, I spent much of last offseason predicting BIG things for the 2019 Browns. I said Cleveland would win the AFC North and make a run in January. I had Baker Mayfield third in a June ranking of potential MVP candidates. I had the Browns as the third-most complete team in the entire NFL.
Cleveland, of course, went 6-10, while Mayfield suffered a sophomore slump where he threw nearly as many interceptions (21) as touchdown passes (22).
But I truly believe these Browns are different -- and much improved after an offseason full of significant additions (and subtractions). Tight end Austin Hooper and offensive tackle Jack Conklin were ideal pickups in free agency. They'll make Mayfield better. As will first-round OT Jedrick Wills. And Baker will thrive in his first season under the biggest addition of all: a new head coach/play-caller in the form of the cerebral and buttoned-up Kevin Stefanski. What a major upgrade that is, after the chaotic, short-lived mess that was the Freddie Kitchens era. Or error. There's a reason Kitchens was one-and-done in the big chair: His Browns were completely undisciplined and unprepared.
With a talented defense supporting him, Mayfield is leading Cleveland to the playoffs. Secure your space on the bandwagon now. Plenty of good seats still available!
If I had to give each team's offseason an emoji, Indianapolis would get Heart-Eyes. This is true love, people.
It's not just that the Colts cleaned up in the draft. (Though GM Chris Ballard certainly did that, snagging a perfect receiving complement to T.Y. Hilton in Michael Pittman and an instant Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate in RB Jonathan Taylor.) It's the fact that the Colts cleaned up in the draft after rightly trading their first-round pick for the great DeForest Buckner, who'll immediately anchor Matt Eberflus' defensive front.
Oh, and they signed a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Philip Rivers, who has a great chance to bounce back from a disappointing 2019 now that he's playing behind the best offensive line in football. The Colts bandwagon is rolling right into the playoffs as a product of brilliant design.
I hope you were paying attention two months ago, when I revealed Arizona as my Cinderella team for 2020. Not to brag, but I'm going to, as I've nailed my last three Cinderella picks: Jacksonville in 2017, Chicago in 2018 and Buffalo in 2019.
So, why do the Cardinals only sit here, at No. 6 on this list? Well, as I touched on in that Cinderella forecast, I think Arizona is going to be one of the most explosive, fun teams in the league this year. It will be a show you won't want to miss each Sunday. But the NFC West looks like the toughest division in football. And the Cards still have some question marks on both sides of the football (specifically, in the trenches). So, unlike the five teams listed above, I'm not ready to pronounce Arizona playoff-bound. At least not yet. But that could change ...
I still cannot believe the Cardinals' highway robbery of DeAndre Hopkins. Suddenly, ascending young star quarterback Kyler Murray not only has a WR1, but one of the very best receivers in the game today. I still cannot believe the Cardinals stole Isaiah Simmons at No. 8 in the draft. He's a freak! And then Arizona followed that up by snatching bright tackle prospect Josh Jones in Round 3.
I don't have the Broncos making the playoffs, but if they do, I won't be shocked. This is a longer-term play. Get a premium seat on the bandwagon now and thank me later.
I love how John Elway has surrounded Drew Lock with an influx of talent this offseason. When you finally get a young quarterback you believe in, give him every chance to be successful. The Broncos have certainly done that. In free agency, Elway and Co. signed Melvin Gordon to partner with Phillip Lindsay in the backfield. And they spent big bucks on versatile O-lineman Graham Glasgow. In the draft, Denver used their first two picks on explosive receivers (Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler), selected a plug-and-play center (Lloyd Cushenberry) and then grabbed Lock's old college tight end (Albert Okwuegbunam).
All of that means that we're gonna find out if Lock's the real deal real quick. That's smart team management.
I'm kind of obsessed with what's going on in Cincy. Joe Burrow has it. He's going to change the perception -- and reality -- with the Bengals in the coming years. And I love how the team immediately supported him with the second-round selection of WR Tee Higgins.
The Bengals also (finally) spent money in free agency, smartly addressing the front and back of the defense (see: DT D.J. Reader, CB Trae Waynes, S Vonn Bell). I don't expect a playoff bid in 2020. This team just went 2-14, after all. But I love where Cincy is headed.
I thought Matt Rhule was simply fantastic on the always-entertaining Around the NFL Podcast. I loved how he gushed about Teddy Bridgewater's leadership, saying "he brings out the best in people." I am a big believer in the new coach and the new quarterback.
Rhule was a fabulous hire. Look at what he did at Temple and Baylor. Monumental stuff for those programs. Meanwhile, Teddy has the accuracy and leadership -- and now the opportunity. He will thrive under offensive coordinator Joe Brady, a great hire who just took Joe Burrow and the LSU offense to another stratosphere. I loved the Robby Anderson pickup, giving Carolina a field stretcher to complement playmaking wideouts D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, as well as provide the transcendent Christian McCaffrey with more room to operate. Carolina then smartly went ALL DEFENSE in the draft.
Don't judge the Panthers by their 2020 win total. Buy stock now for the bright future.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.