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Bold predictions: Top running backs, breakthrough wide receivers and more

Fantasy football owners should really consider drafting Texans RB Lamar Miller this season.

No matter when you’re reading this column—be it on the day it is published, over Labor Day Weekend or at some distant point in the future to take stock of my calls—we will be no more than one week away from the start of the 2016 NFL season. The time for ranking players, uncovering deep sleepers and highlighting busts has passed. You have your teams, both the fantasy and real-life versions. All that’s left to do now is watch the season unfold.

Before we can do that, however, we must plant some flags. Let’s put a bow on another successful preseason with some Bold Predictions.

Lamar Miller is the No. 1 back in fantasy football

The most remarkable fact about Miller’s tenure in Miami was that he managed to be a top-10 running back both of the last two seasons, despite the fact that just more than 200 carries per year. Miller turned and ran from Miami as quickly as possible this off-season, signing with Houston—a team that understands how to feature its best players, specifically when those players are running backs.

The fifth-year player is going to do everything for the Texans, making him one of the few true workhorse backs in the league. He’ll handle all the touches in the middle of the field and at the goal line, while factoring significantly into the passing game. In Miller’s final two years with the Dolphins, he averaged 4.81 yards per carry and 7.91 yards per catch, hitting paydirt a total of 19 times. The talent has always been there. Now Miller has the opportunity to match. He’s going to top 300 touches for the first time in his career, and that will result in a monster season from the 25-year-old. Say hello to the No. 1 fantasy back in 2016, and an obvious first-round pick in 2017.

Tyrod Taylor finishes in the top five among quarterbacks, and Sammy Watkins is a top-five receiver

I’ve made no secret of my love for Taylor all summer. The first-year starter was a revelation for the Bills last season, throwing for 3,035 yards, 7.99 yards per attempt and 20 touchdowns against six interceptions, while running for 548 yards and four scores. He was essentially the middle-class version of Russell Wilson, and Taylor’s 2015 numbers were nearly a facsimile for Wilson’s in his rookie year. The Bills quarterback is set to take the next step this season, improving as a passer while giving nothing back as a runner. The pace of the Bills offense could be a knock against him, but the fact that he eats up a large share of the team’s rushing production negates that.

As Taylor ascends to the next level of fantasy quarterback, Watkins will take his place among the elite receivers. The fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft has enjoyed a solid start to his career, but expect him to explode this season. He finished last year with a flourish, catching 35 passes for 679 yards and six touchdowns in his last six games, which is a 16-game pace for 93 receptions, 1,810 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’ll be in the top five at receiver, along with Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham, Julio Jones and A.J. Green.

Melvin Gordon is a top-10 running back

Everything is set up for Gordon to be the surprise back who jumps into the top 10 at the position this season. It may not be as large a surprise to the fantasy community after his strong preseason, but Gordon still has an average draft position that makes him the 22nd back off the board in a typical draft. Not only did almost everything go wrong for the Chargers last year, all of the negative events worked against Gordon in ways he could not control. No running back is going to succeed when his team is forced to use 11 different offensive line combinations due to injuries, and consistently falls into large deficits. It’s entirely possible no back dealt with more adverse game scripts than Gordon did last year.

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The second-year player out of Wisconsin rated in the top 10 in both missed tackles per carry and yards after contact per carry according to Pro Football Focus, and those are two things he could control. With a better environment around him this season, Gordon will prove the Chargers smart for trading up to take him with the 15th overall pick last year.

Odell Beckham Jr. scores 20 touchdowns

Through his first two seasons in the league, Beckham has 187 receptions for 2,755 yards and 25 touchdowns. By comparison, Jerry Rice had 135 catches for 2,497 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first two years, while Randy Moss checked in at 149 grabs, 2,726 yards and 28 scores in his rookie and sophomore campaigns. Oh yeah, one more thing. Beckham played 27 games in his first two seasons, while Rice and Moss both played the full complement of 32. It’s only a matter of time before Beckham gives us a season for the ages, and the Giants are particularly suited to help him produce one in 2016.

The running game will be good enough to keep defenses honest, but Eli Manning and the passing attack will be the focal point to an extreme degree. Sterling Shepard will help take some heat off Beckham, but won’t wrest away too many targets. The Giants defense is improved, but still likely not much better than league average. Combine all that with Beckham’s otherworldly talent, and you get a perfect storm. Only two receivers in NFL history have had 20-touchdown seasons. Moss found the end zone 23 times in 2007 with the Patriots, while 20 years earlier Rice scored 22 (in just 12 games) for the 49ers. Beckham will add his name to that list this season.

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Christine Michael has more fantasy points than Thomas Rawls

How many more signs do you need to stay away from Rawls, late drafters? Sure, he’s expected to start Week 1, but he’s still just eight months removed from a broken ankle. He got significant action in all of six games last year, and that was after being an undrafted free agent. Seattle’s offensive line could be a mess. Rawls doesn’t do anything in the passing game.

Meanwhile, Michael is going to have, at the very least, a role that nets him somewhere in the neighborhood of six or eight carries per game to start the year. It’s entirely possible that the situation develops into an equal timeshare, with the two backs splitting carries down the middle. If that weren’t enough, C.J. Prosise will see his fair share of work, primarily as a receiver out of the backfield. Rawls is an indefensible selection at his ADP, but that isn’t exactly a bold call. What is, however, is that Michael will stay healthy and finally capitalize on the potential he has had since entering the league in 2013. While he won’t finish as an RB1, he will outscore Rawls, and make the incumbent into an unreliable fantasy starter.

Devonta Freeman is not an RB1, but Jeremy Hill is

Talent, opportunity and environment: The holy trinity of fantasy football. When all three are in place, it’s impossible to keep a player from greatness. Everything lined up for Freeman last year, but I fear that the latter two elements did more of the heavy lifting than the first one. With Tevin Coleman healthy and back in the fold, Freeman isn’t going to get the same volume that he did last year. That would be fine if he were a particularly efficient running back, but he averaged just more than four yards per carry last season, and topped 80 rushing yards just twice in his final eight games (he left one of those early with an injury). Freeman won’t be a total bust, but he will fail to rate among the 12 best fantasy running backs this season.

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On the opposite end of the 2015 to 2016 spectrum will be Jeremy Hill. After coming off the board in the first round of most drafts last year, Hill disappointed his fantasy owners. He ran for just 794 yards while turning into a non-factor in the passing game. He did score 11 touchdowns, however, carving out a significant fantasy role, even though he failed to deliver first-round value. New offensive coordinator Ken Zampese has kept in place much of what Hue Jackson left behind, but the Bengals are expected to have more of a running bent this year, and Hill has looked up to the task in the preseason. The increased focus on Hill and the running game, combined with the fact that the Bengals should once again be among the best teams in the league, will give Hill volume like he has yet to see in his career. That will help push him back into the RB1 class.

Michael Floyd emerges as a real-life and fantasy WR1

Look, I know that we weren’t supposed to have to wait until Floyd’s fifth season in the league for his true breakout. Believe me, I’m on the board of directors of the Michael Floyd Fan Club. I know that we all thought there was a good chance this was happening in 2013, and then we were convinced it was coming the next year, only to be let down by the widest expectations-to-production gap of his career. Guess what, fellow Floyd truthers? Our time (well, his time, really, but you know what I mean) is now. Anyone who watched the Cardinals over the back half of last season couldn’t help but come away with the conclusion that Floyd was the best receiver on the team. He had at least one touchdown or 100 yards in seven of his final 10 games, reaching both of those marks three times.

Floyd enters this season as Carson Palmer’s top option in an offense that could be the league’s best. He has proven himself time and again as a downfield threat, and at 6’2” and 220 pounds, he’s a handful for any team to figure out inside the 10-yard line. It’s impossible to envision a scenario in which he falls short of 120 targets, and that will help carry him to career-best numbers across the board. A season of 80 catches, 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns is within his reach, and that would make him a top-12 receiver.

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Drew Brees is not a top-six quarterback for the first time since 2005

Brees’s consistency was a familiar theme we discussed on all summer. He has never finished a season outside the top six at his position as a member of the Saints. That streak will come to an end this year.

It’s not that Brees’s production will slide, however. The league is simply going to move the goalposts on him. Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson are virtual locks for the top six. Andrew Luck should be able to volume his way there, even if his efficiency doesn’t get any better this season. After all, he’s one of the safest bets in the league, along with Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford, to throw 600-plus passes. I’m already on record as believing Tyrod Taylor will be a top-five back. Add to the mix Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer at the head of elite offenses, and Brees is facing more competition to stick in the top six at quarterback. I’d be shocked if the 16th-year pro out of Purdue had a bad season, but the success of his peers will push him out of the top six for the first time in 11 years.

The Cincinnati Bengals repeat in the AFC North … and win a playoff game

Pittsburgh is a popular Super Bowl pick this season, earning that honor from our colleagues on the magazine side of the operation. The Steelers certainly have Super Bowl bona fides this year, but they are not going to win their own division. That distinction will go to the Bengals for the second straight year, giving the franchise its first set of consecutive division titles. Not only will the Bengals successfully defend their AFC North crown, they’ll end the longest active postseason win drought, earning their first win in the playoffs since the 1990 Wild Card round. That will finally put the bed the silly narrative surrounding Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton.

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The Bengals will be joined on the AFC side of the bracket by fellow division winners New England, Indianapolis and Oakland. Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, yes Jacksonville, will earn the conference’s final two berths as wild cards.

Dak Prescott helps lead the Cowboys to an NFC East Crown

The Cowboys were going all set to run away with the NFC East, and then Tony Romo suffered yet another back injury that will cost him half the season. That’s going to make a return to the playoffs a whole lot tougher, but Prescott is up to the challenge. He won’t look as great all year as he has in the preseason, and he may hand the reins back to Romo if and when the veteran is able to return, but the rookie out of Mississippi State will do enough to get the Cowboys back to the top of the NFC East. Thanks to an elite line, the Offensive Rookie of the Year in Ezekiel Elliott and a top-flight receiver in Dez Bryant, Prescott steps into an ideal infrastructure for a rookie quarterback. He’ll have enough moments to convince the Cowboys that he is their quarterback of the future.

No one in the league will cruise to an easier division title than the Packers, thanks in part to Teddy Bridgewater’s season-ending leg injury. Out west, Arizona will repeat as champions, though the Seahawks will be right behind them and get into the playoffs again as a wild card. Carolina will regress, but still win the NFC South, and the Buccaneers surprise everyone by winning 10 games and rounding out the NFC playoff field.

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Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers win Super Bowl LI

Rodgers remains the best quarterback on the planet, and quarterback is still the most important position in all of sports. With Jordy Nelson healthy again, the Packers offense will get back up to the speed at which it previously ran. He, Randall Cobb, and Eddie Lacy will form the league’s best triumvirate of fantasy weapons, and Rodgers will win the third MVP Award of his career. The Packers will lead the NFL with 14 wins, easily securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Over in the AFC, old playoff rivals Pittsburgh and Oakland will meet in the Wild Card round, with the Steelers emerging victorious. Indianapolis will take care of the upstart Jaguars, but then fall to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Divisional Round. Meanwhile, the Bengals will get their revenge on the Steelers, knocking them out of the playoffs and moving on to the AFC Championship Game. It will once again by Tom Brady’s show, however, with the Patriots advancing to the Super Bowl for the seventh time in his career.

Green Bay, Arizona, Dallas and Seattle will be the final four teams alive in the NFC. The Packers will handle the Seahawks at Lambeau in the Divisional Round, while Arizona will dispatch rather easily of Dallas in a battle of former division foes. The Packers and Cardinals will give us a worthy encore to their thrilling playoff matchup last year, this time with Rodgers and the Packers getting the win and moving on to the Super Bowl.

Finally, in one of the best Super Bowls in recent memory, Rodgers and Brady will go back and forth, giving us the highest-scoring, one-score game in Super Bowl history. When it’s over, it will be the Packers hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.