Underrated division favorites around the NFL
By: Ian Evans (@ianacevans)
Every division has a favorite to win their respective division based on their offseason acquisitions and the talent they possess. For example, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the clear favorite to win the NFC South after they won the Super Bowl last February. The Buffalo Bills are favored to reclaim the crown of a fairly weak AFC East division. And the Indianapolis Colts are favored to win the AFC South after signing Carson Wentz from the Philadelphia Eagles.
But there are always teams that come out of the woodwork to surprise the rest of the division. For example, not too many experts had the Washington Football Team winning the NFC East before the start of last season. Nor did too many have the Browns one win away from taking the AFC North crown or the Dolphins only three games back from the Buffalo Bills in 2020.
However, anything is possible, especially in the NFL. There will always be a couple of teams that tend to surprise the league by exceeding expectations and proving the doubters wrong. The difficult part is predicting which teams these will be beforehand. With that being said, here are three dark horse teams that could potentially win their division in the 2021 NFL Season.
1. New York Giants
Most experts either have the Washington Football Team or the Dallas Cowboys winning this division as they both got better this offseason. For Washington, they added Ryan Fitzpatrick, Curtis Samuel, and Bobby McCain and also added to their stout defense with a solid selection of defensive draft picks including Jamin Davis (LB, Kentucky), Benjamin St-Juste (CB, Minnesota), Darrick Forrest, (S, Cincinnati), and Shaka Toney (DE, Penn State). And for Dallas, quarterback Dak Prescott returns to the starting lineup after suffering a gruesome leg injury last season against the New York Giants. They also added to their defense, which ranked 28th in team defense, by using eight of their eleven draft picks to take defensive players including standout college linebacker Micah Parsons.
However, the Giants could be a dark horse to steal this division. As the Cowboys get their franchise player back, so too do the New York Giants. Saquon Barkley should be set to return from tearing his ACL early in the 2020-2021 season. Let’s not forget that he is one of the most dynamic running backs in the league that is lethal in the run game, can catch out of the backfield, and is a nightmare in the open field. Besides the 2020 season, Barkley has rushed for over 1,000 yards twice in just three years, has rushed for 17 touchdowns, and averages 4.7 yards per rushing attempt over his career thus far.
Along with Barkley returning, New York’s acquisitions and draft picks could prove useful. For starters, they signed former Lions star wide receiver Kenny Golladay to a four-year, $72 million dollar deal. Especially after releasing Golden Tate, Golladay could provide a deep threat for the ever-improving Daniel Jones as he already has Evan Engram and Sterling Shepherd to assist in the passing game as well.
Furthermore, they also drafted Kadarius Toney, the star college wide receiver from Florida with the 20th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. On the defensive side of the ball, the Giants signed cornerback Adoree Jackson and defensive tackle Danny Shelton to assist in their pass and rush defense which already ranked 9th in team defense. With everything New York has done this offseason, they have the potential to shock the NFC East.
P.S. They also have the 8th easiest schedule in 2021.
2. Miami Dolphins
The Bills are the clear favorite to win the AFC East and for good reason. They won 13 regular season games, beat the Colts in the wildcard, limited Lamar Jackson and the Ravens to three points in the divisional rounds, and made it to the AFC Championship game where they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 38-24. Josh Allen is only getting better and will probably have an MVP award under his belt in the future while Stefon Diggs is one of the best route runners and pass catchers in the game. But there’s another team in that division that continues to turn heads.
Miami could be a sneaky team that could potentially steal the AFC East crown. It’s a long shot but it is definitely possible. Why? They signed the highly sought after wide receiver in Will Fuller V to complement DeVante Parker, added a highly respected safety in Jason McCourty to its already sound defense, and for fun decided to sign cornerback Justin Coleman to add to their secondary depth that already is composed of Byron Jones and Xavien Howard. Did I mention that they also signed running back Malcolm Brown to assist Myles Gaskin in the run game? That’s lethal.
Besides their offseason moves, Miami had a solid draft by selecting players that adhered to team needs. With the sixth overall pick, they selected the stud Alabama wide receiver and national champion Jaylen Waddle who has the potential to be the best wide receiver from this draft class. They also drafted linebacker Jaelan Phillips from the University of Miami 12 picks later who adds to their pass rush as he totaled eight sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss, and recorded his first career interception last year. For a defense that ranked 6th in total team defense, they got even better.
However, this pick for the Dolphins to be a dark horse depends on one thing: can Tua Tagovailoa produce offensively and avoid a sophomore slump. In his rookie season, he did total 1814 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, five interceptions, and a QBR of 52.5, which is solid, but he did struggle as he was replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick frequently. He needs to show why he was selected 5th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. If the Dolphins are clicking on all cylinders with their additions and improvements, Miami could contend with Buffalo for AFC East bragging rights.
P.S. The Dolphins have the 5th easiest schedule in 2021.
3. San Francisco 49ers
This is probably a head-scratcher to most and I completely understand that. Why would this team be a dark horse as they’re in the same division as the league’s best defense in the Los Angeles Rams who recently traded for Matthew Stafford, perennial MVP candidate Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks, and the Arizona Cardinals who just signed defensive superstar J.J. Watt? Well, when they’re healthy, they’re easily a playoff team.
Although they only finished with six wins last year, let’s quickly recount who was out for the team with injuries for the 49ers last season: Solomon Thomas (ACL), Nick Bosa (ACL), Ezekiel Ansah (biceps), and Jalen Hurd (ACL). Not to mention that Jimmy Garopollo, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, and George Kittle also battled injuries throughout the season as well. Keep in mind, when every single one of these guys was healthy they went to the Super Bowl two years ago.
They didn’t have the most stellar offseason regarding free agency signings as their most notable moves were resigning offensive tackle Trent Williams to a monster deal, signing Wayne Gallman, and trading up to secure the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. However, San Francisco had an outstanding draft. With that third overall pick, they drafted Trey Lance who had a stellar career playing just one full season at North Dakota State. They also drafted offensive lineman Aaron Banks from Notre Dame in the second round to help their pass protection and drafted an elusive Ohio State running back Trey Sermon from Ohio State
Like the Miami Dolphins, quarterback play would be one of the main reasons why they wouldn’t be a dark horse. There will most likely be some quarterback competition and controversy with Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo could also capitalize off a disappointing year last season as he only threw for just over 1,000 yards, only seven touchdowns, and five interceptions in the six games he played due to injury.
However, the main reason why they made it to the Super Bowl in 2020 wasn’t mainly because of their offense. Their defense when healthy is one of the most formidable in the league. If San Francisco can stay healthy and fine-tune their quarterback play, the 49ers have a shot at the division title. It’s a long shot with the division they’re in, but anything is possible.