The long winter is finally over, as the NFL returns Thursday night when 44-year-old Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys on "Thursday Night Football."
Having the season open with an ageless GOAT taking on Jerry's boys is a good way to whet the appetite before a full Sunday slate that will see the full-strength 49ers take on the Detroit Lions, Aaron Rodgers perhaps begin his final season in Green Bay and the Alabama bowl between the New England Patriots and Dolphins in New England.
Before the season kicks off, let's look at the awards picture and make some slightly educated predictions on who will take home the individual hardware at the end of the year.
Coach of the Year
All the Los Angeles Chargers steam has new head coach Brandon Staley pegged as the preseason favorite to take home Coach of the Year honors. The thought process is simple. The Chargers are super-talented, have a young star quarterback in Justin Herbert, and as long as Staley can manage a game better than Anthony Lynn, who apparently has never seen a clock, the Bolts should be in the playoff picture.
But it's a lot to ask of a first-year head coach to wash the Lynn stink off a franchise that has been cursed for the past decade.
Brian Flores, Kevin Stefansky and Sean McVay also are atop the watchlist, but I'm going to give the nod to Kyle Shanahan.
The 49ers head coach is viewed through one of two lenses. Either you think he is a genius offensive mind who has been dealt bad injury luck, or you think he is a guy who has a below .500 record and hasn't earned the reputation he has been given.
The 49ers had $86 million on injured reserve last season. They enter the season healthy and itching to get back to title contention. As long as they stay healthy, the 49ers should be in the Super Bowl picture and Shanahan will have his fingerprints all over one of the best teams in the NFL.
Prediction: Kyle Shanahan
Comeback Player of the Year
Outside of the year that Ryan Tannehill took home the award for coming back from, well, being bad, this award normally goes to a player who returned from injury or a difficult life circumstance to either regain their former form or achieve a level they have not yet reached.
Dak Prescott is the easy pick, but I'm not going the conventional route.
Instead, I'm going with a quarterback who needed a change of scenery and some eye surgery to help turn his career around. Yes, Jameis Winston was a turnover machine in Tampa Bay. Yes, that sort of risky play is in his nature. But I think being paired with Sean Payton will help him tone down the turnovers, and a good season by Winston and the Saints is a feel-good story the NFL loves and all of us should be rooting for.
Prediction: Jameis Winston
Defensive Rookie of the Year
I'm going to keep this short.
Patrick Surtain II has been a stud from the moment he stepped on the field for the Denver Broncos. All reports out of camp suggest he has already mastered Vic Fangio's defense and the Broncos feel comfortable moving him around the field, something rare for rookie cornerbacks.
I'm well aware that rookie corners are prone to struggles, but I think Surtain is different. Michah Parsons, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Kwity Paye likely will be in the discussion, but I think Surtain has what it takes to be a lockdown corner in Year 1 and a star on one of the NFL's top defenses.
Prediction: Patrick Surtain II
Offensive Rookie of the Year
We only need to look at five players in this category. You know the five. They'll be forever linked and probably a focus of an ESPN 60 for 60 documentary in 30 years.
As much as I like Justin Fields, I'm not sure Matt Nagy, who apparently doesn't enjoy being employed, will give him enough starts to win the award. Trey Lance, likewise, won't get the snaps.
That leaves us with three.
Mac Jones has been very impressive early on and is a perfect fit for Josh McDaniels' system. However, don't be surprised if Bill Belichick keeps him on a tighter leash. New England has a great front seven and will just ask Jones to take care of the ball and not do too much.
Trevor Lawrence is the anointed one and the clear favorite. But I think Zach Wilson will be able to rack up the yards and passing attempts with the Jets almost always playing from behind. That will be enough for him to win the award and give Gotham something to cheer about in 2021.
Prediction: Zach Wilson
Defensive Player of the Year
Maybe we should just call this the Aaron Donald Award? The Los Angeles Rams star is far and away the best defensive player in football, and as long as he stays healthy, should win his fourth DPOY award.
I do think Chase Young, T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett and a healthy Nick Bosa can challenge the Rams wrecking ball for the trophy, but there's no reason to predict anything other than the man who trains with knives, swords and who knows what else grabbing the hardware.
Prediction: Aaron Donald
Offensive Player of the Year
Can Derrick Henry keep up the immense workload without breaking down? Will Christian McCaffrey or Saquon Barkley be able to carry below-average rosters to a playoff berth? Let's not forget about George Kittle and Travis Kelce.
The OPOY award is strange in that it's often not given to the league MVP. Three of the last four winners -- Henry, Michael Thomas and Todd Gurley -- won this award but were not named MVP.
With that in mind, I'll go with a running back who should be getting a lot of work up north in Dalvin Cook. The Minnesota Vikings rushed for 1,557 yards and 16 touchdowns last season and I expect even more from him this season. He is the NFL's most explosive runner, and if he can get more targets in the passing game then he should put up big numbers.
Prediction: Dalvin Cook
I really, really wanted to pick Justin Herbert here, but I just can't. As good as the Chargers QB is, I wouldn't be surprised if he has a bit of a sophomore slump.
Last year, I went with Kyler Murray and that looked good for about eight weeks. The last eight weeks ... not so much. I need to see a little more creativity from Kliff Kingsbury to get back on that train.
I want to see Josh Allen do it again before I buy that his unprecedented accuracy improvement is for real.
So, we're going with the ageless one. There is a good chance that at 44, this could be Brady's last season. I expect the Bucs' offense to be much better than it was a year ago, and what better way for the GOAT to go out than winning his fourth MVP and perhaps his eighth title.
Prediction: Tom Brady