Sullivan: Predictions For 2017 Season Include Seeing The Best Of Dez

More times than not, I'll read my columns and feature stories after they are published. Not so with my annual NFL predictions. I wait the full year, until here and now, when I forecast the season ahead. It's more fun that way because outside of, say, the Super Bowl and the Cowboys' record, I tend to forget the rest of them.

I did all right last time around. Had Dak Prescott starting 14 games, and had Ezekiel Elliott becoming the fifth rookie running back to rush for at least 1,200 yards and 5.0 yards per carry. Was a little off on the record, had them winning nine games and earning a wild-card berth. David Irving gave me a solid showing as my breakout player, too.

As for this season, there really is no sexy prediction to make. The Cowboys are one of the top-tier teams in the NFL, can't imagine anyone debating that. Maybe because the rosters are so much larger than other sports, that's why, outside of the occasional outlier, we don't see teams go from 4-12 to double-digit wins. The top-seven teams (Patriots, Steelers, Seahawks, Packers, Raiders, Falcons, Cowboys) via the Las Vegas over/under win totals this season were playoff squads in 2016.

Now, with a major injury, like Tony Romo in 2015, teams can go in the other direction, from the postseason to the basement. That's more doable than vice versa.

That said, I have the Cowboys finishing 11-5, although it's not because of the perceived more challenging schedule or the Zeke situation. It's that the NFC East is the best division in the league, and it's not even close. I have the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles all making the playoffs, and Washington is coming off of back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1996-97. Wow, that in and of itself is stunning, this being the same franchise that won double-digit games in eight of nine seasons from 1983-91.

Here are a few more fearless forecasts for the 98th season of the National Football League:

  • Dak throws for more yards, more touchdowns and, yes, more interceptions than his historic rookie campaign. He also rushes for more yards. No one surprised me more during training camp and the preseason. His arm strength is significantly improved, he's connecting on at least 20 percent more of his practice targets. And his arm slot, his delivery, looks slightly higher, too. Only reason he's going to throw more picks, besides that four was ridiculous, is because he's going to take more chances downfield. I'm thinking 4,058 passing yards and 31 touchdown tosses, eight interceptions and 352 rushing yards.
  • Of those 31 scoring passes, Dez Bryant is going to catch 17 of them, which leads the NFL. I don't think, just because of how this offense has evolved, that he surpasses his career highs of 93 receptions and 1,382 yards, but this will be the best Dez that Cowboys fans have seen so far. Also, there's absolutely no reason to think he won't eventually finish fourth on the league's career receiving touchdowns list, behind only Jerry Rice, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens. Cris Carter is fourth with 130 and Dez enters the year with 67. He's 28 years old.
  • AFC playoff teams: New England, Pittsburgh, Houston, Oakland, Kansas City and Baltimore. NFC picks: Dallas, Green Bay, Carolina, Seattle, Giants and Philly. Steelers beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl LII, and yes, that was my prediction last year as well. Obviously, the Cowboys have a legitimate chance at playing for the Lombardi Trophy, but I've only picked them to do so one other time in nine years, that being 2015, and that didn't turn out so well, so I'm not picking them again.
  • Three Dallas defensive players earn Pro Bowl nods: Sean Lee, Byron Jones and Jeff Heath with six interceptions.
  • Still think Elliott finishes among the top three in rushing yards, no matter how many games, if any, he misses this season. Also, I don't think the distraction and/or him missing time on the field has much of an effect on the Cowboys. Remember, no one is more valuable to his team than quarterback Tom Brady, and the Patriots won 26 games and a Super Bowl during the two-year stretch of "Deflategate."
  • Cowboys sack leaders: DeMarcus Lawrence leads the way with 8.5, David Irving has 6.0 in 12 games and first-round pick Taco Charlton has 5.5. Really think the front seven is going to outperform predictions. And while the original plan was taking it slow with Jaylon Smith, he's bypassed the highest of expectations these last seven weeks, or however long this ridiculous training camp/preseason has been. Seems like they reported to Oxnard during the Reagan administration. Anyhow, for Smith give me 75 tackles, three takeaways and a touchdown. Next year, the Pro Bowl.
  • As for Rico Gathers, I think he plays in a couple of games down the stretch and catches his first regular-season NFL touchdown. I'm reminded of what ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla said of 2014 first-round NBA pick Bruno Caboclo: "He's two years away from being two years away." And that's where Gathers was when the Cowboys drafted him last year.
  • NFL Awards: Ben Roethlisberger (MVP), David Johnson (Offensive Player of the Year), J.J. Watt (Defensive Player of the Year), Christian McCaffrey (Offensive Rookie of the Year), Myles Garrett (Defensive Rookie of the Year), J.J. Watt (Comeback Player of the Year) and Bill O'Brien (Coach of the Year).
  • Finally, Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan make all my dreams come true this season and let Dez unleash one of the better arms in the game – end-around, give him a second to plant the feet and 58 yards down the middle of the field to Brice Butler. There is no way of knowing the total tonnage of joy this would bring to my life.
  • Oh, Week 1, Cowboys beat the Giants, 31-29, on a last-second, 52-yard field goal by Dan Bailey, who for the first time in his NFL career will be wearing new cleats.

Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at jsullivan@dallascowboys.net.

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