By: Ladarius Brown
Which teams are the favorites to win their respective divisions? Glad you asked because I will go division by division and give my favorites. Using the compass, we will start north with the AFC North.
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens
This division is about two teams (Ravens & Browns) with an outside chance for the Steelers. There’s always next year, the year after that for you Bengals fans. The Ravens get the edge because it’s the one team that I have the most confidence in. Head coach John Harbaugh has three consecutive double-digit winning seasons. (Steelers & Browns each have one). Their run game and that defense are still formidable.
To be clear, you cannot ignore the Browns after their 1st winning season since 2007 and winning their 1st playoff game since 1994. The question mark here is can they duplicate, or even improve, from last year? They shored up some gaps in their secondary via both free agency and the draft. If Baker Mayfield can keep up his steady improvement, this division will be fun to watch.
For the Steelers, it certainly looked as though Big Ben’s best days were behind him. Is the defense good enough after losing DE Bud Dupree to the Titans? As for the Bengals, Joe Burrow was a ROTY frontrunner before being injured and they drafted his LSU teammate, WR Ja’Marr Chase, as his new target. Overall, this division will come down to QB play and which defense is the best.
AFC East: Buffalo Bills
Josh Allen is a top 5 QB in this league. He was a huge part of their success last season, winning the AFC East for the 1st time since 1995. They return all five of their starting offensive line and if they are a strong tenacious unit this year, this is a Super Bowl contender. There is not a lot of gaps on this roster.
The Miami Dolphins and their franchise is hinging on what QB Tua Tagovailoa can do in year two. Despite going 6-3 in his nine starts, there was still clamor that they should have pursued a starting QB. However, I have faith in Tua because of his accuracy (64.1%) and the ability to win down the stretch (two 4th quarter comebacks). Adding WR Will Fuller in free agency and drafting WR Jaylen Waddle along with WR DeVante Parker gives Tua a nice WR core to throw to. Plus, head coach Brian Flores and his defense drafted LB Jaelan Phillips out of Miami (FL) to replace LB Kyle Van Noy, who signed with the Patriots. They will be in the mix.
Speaking of the Patriots, head coach Bill Belichick opened up the checkbook, especially on the tight end position. Hunter Henry got a three-year, $37.5 million deal, including $25 million guaranteed, and Jonnu Smith a four-year, $50 million deal with $31.25 million guaranteed. They also signed WRs Nelson Agholor & Kendrick Bourne, LBs Kyle Van Noy and Matthew Judon, and C Ted Karras. It is abundantly clear the Patriots are not rebuilding, given the Belichick is 69 years old. Even though they re-signed QB Cam Newton, they drafted Mac Jones of Alabama. Jones will play this season but when is uncertain.
The Jets cleaned house by firing Adam Gase and hiring former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh as their head coach. They drafted a franchise QB in Zach Wilson of BYU and OT Alijah Vera-Tucker to protect his blindside. They also went out and signed WR Corey Davis from the Titans, DE Carl Lawson from the Bengals, and S Lamarcus Joyner from the Raiders. The Jets are far from a contender but I love their upside because I like Zach Wilson and what he can do in this offense ran by OC Mike LaFleur.
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
I am confident that this is a two-team for the division. The Colts went out and traded for QB Carson Wentz. They did not make a huge splash in free agency, but they did sign CB Xavier Rhodes from the Vikings to help in the secondary. If Wentz can stay healthy, the Colts. could sneak into the AFC Championship game. By the way, the Matt Eberflus-led defense with DT DeForest Buckner and LB Darius Leonard was great last year.
Here is what I know about the Titans: Derrick Henry is a beast and traded for a future HOF WR in Julio Jones. I know the offense is great but can we talk about the defense for a second? They signed DE Bud Dupree and drafted CB Caleb Farley of Virginia Tech but is it enough to improve their defense? They were 28th in the NFL in total defense. Having an explosive offense is cool but can you stop anybody?
The Jaguars have their QB of the future in Trevor Lawrence and 1st-year head coach Urban Meyer is looking to get the Jags back on track. As for the Texans, I feel bad for only two people: the diehard Texans fan and head coach David Culley. 0-17 is not out of the realm of possibility here.
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs
Everyone feels this division is a lock because of the Chiefs’ success over the last three years (2 Super Bowl appearances and 3 AFC Championship game appearances). Also, having the QB Patrick Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid helps too. However, they might have some competition because the Chiefs can play down to their opponents. Nonetheless, they vastly improved their offensive line by signing Joe Thuney and Kyle Long, which was their Achilles heel last year. They are the favorite but do not sleep on the Chargers.
The Chargers were plagued with injuries and losing close games, which cost Anthony Lynn his job. Hiring former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley as their new head coach gives me a sense that they make a move in this division. Starting with their offense, QB Justin Herbert played outstanding, garnering the ROTY award. Throw in WRs Keenan Allen and Mike Williams along with signing C Corey Linsley from the Packers solidifies their offensive line. RB Austin Ekler could have a breakout year also. The Rams had the No. 1 defense in the league under Staley last season. He inherits DE Joey Bosa, S Derwin James, and drafted CB Asante Samuel Jr.
The Denver Broncos passed on QB Justin Fields in the NFL Draft for CB Patrick Surtain II of Alabama. They traded for QB Teddy Bridgewater, making it a QB competition between him and QB Drew Lock. They signed CB Kyle Fuller from the Bears to play on the other side of Surtain II. The question is this: Do the Broncos have a Lock or a Bridge at QB?
As for the Raiders, their turnover differential was –11, which was 30th in the league. Derek Carr is not the problem because this was a top 10 offense last season (8th) with a defense ranked 25th. I will contend that the head coach Jon Gruden is a great offensive mind but my concern will always be the defense with this team.
NFC North: Minnesota Vikings
My favorite here is based on one player: Aaron Rodgers. I believe that he might not play a down for them again. With Jordan Love under center for the Packers, they will not win this division. Rodgers moves the needle for me. Plus, they lost their C Corey Linsley to the Chargers and made no other free agency signings but did re-sign RB Aaron Jones and CB Kevin King. However, if no. 12 is not there, this team is going nowhere.
Shifting to the Vikings, their drafts over the last two years have great, yielding WR Justin Jefferson, CB Jeff Gladney, OT Ezra Cleveland, and CB Cameron Dantzler in 2020. This year, they drafted OT Christian Darrisaw, QB Kellen Mond, and OT Wyatt Davis. Throw in that they still have RB Dalvin Cook in the backfield and a still productive QB in Kirk Cousins (still overpaid though). Plus, they still have Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, and Eric Kendricks on defense.
The Bears finally got their franchise QB in Justin Fields. Their defense is still good but not elite, especially after losing CB Kyle Fuller in free agency to the Broncos. They have a good chance to improve if the Packers don’t get Rodgers back. As for the Lions, QB Jared Goff needed a change of scenery and the Lions needed to restart their franchise after trading QB Matthew Stafford. The Lions have RB D’Andre Swift and TE T.J. Hockenson on offense and their defense has promise with CB Jeff Okudah, DE Trey Flowers, and DT Michael Brockers.
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
On paper, the Dallas Cowboys have a talented roster. With a now healthy Dak Prescott as the signal-caller, they have the best QB in the division. The biggest issue I have is if the defense, now under new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, will improve. Last season, the defensive scheme of Mike Nolan was pretty bad and it showed. Plus, the injury bug hit them hard. If this defense takes some major strides, this division is theirs to lose.
The Washington Football Team (WFT) won this division with a 7-9 record in 2020. This offseason, they signed WR Curtis Samuel from the Panthers, CB William Jackson of the Bengals, and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick from the Dolphins. This was the second-best defense in the league last year with defensive ROTY Chase Young leading the way. Offensively, the only concern is the offensive line. They were tied for 2nd, allowing 50 sacks. Can FitzMagic stay upright to get this offense going?
The Giants were all about building around their QB Daniel Jones, signing WR Kenny Golladay, WR John Ross III, and TE Kyle Rudolph in free agency. For GM Dave Gettleman, his job is tied to Danny Dimes. He drafted WR Kadarius Toney of Florida as well. With a healthy Saquon Barkley, this offense has to improve or it could over for Gettleman. As for the Eagles, it’s life after Carson Wentz with the Jalen Hurts era set to commence. New head coach Nick Sirianni has his cut for him as a rookie head coach trying to navigate a roster with talent but needs improvement big time.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
When you re-sign every starter in the offseason and you won the Super Bowl, you are the favorite. If key players remain healthy, the Bucs could be in Los Angeles playing for another Super Bowl.
The Saints lost QB Drew Brees to retirement and players like DE Trey Hendrickson, CB Janoris Jenkins, LB Alex Anzalone, and DT Sheldon Rankins to free agency. However, they still DEs Cam Jordan & Marcus Davenport, CB Marshon Lattimore, and WR Michael Thomas. To me, if Taysom Hill is the starting QB, I do have reservations because he has been a gadget player ever since he’s been in the league. He was a QB at BYU but maybe with a full offseason as a QB, he could adjust.
The Falcons hired Titans OC Arthur Smith to be the head coach after firing Dan Quinn five games into last season. They traded away one of the best players to ever don a Falcons uniform, Julio Jones. They still have QB Matt Ryan, WR Calvin Ridley, and drafting TE Kyle Pitts of Florida, they are in a transition phase. On top of Pitts, GM Terry Fontenot has a great draft and is building for the future. This defense has to be better and new defensive coordinator Dean Pees has to maximize this talent to show gradual improvement.
The Panthers, like the Broncos, passed on QB Justin Fields for a CB. This time, it was Jaycee Horn of South Carolina. It does help their secondary and they traded for QB Sam Darnold. It was clear that head coach Matt Rhule wanted to move on from Teddy Bridgewater and did so. The biggest question coming out of Carolina is if Darnold is the guy. If so, Carolina will pay him. If not, they look to the 2022 draft for their guy.
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals
I am high on the Cardinals. Every team in this division can win this division. I went out on a limb with the Cardinals is because they went out and got better on defense, signing DE J.J. Watt and CB Malcolm Butler. Last year, the Cardinals’ defense was 4th in sacks and a top-15 defense. Plus, signing WR A.J. Green to pair with DeAndre Hopkins gives QB Kyler Murray weapons at the skill position. The x-factor is head coach Kliff Kingsbury. If he can elevate this offense, this team could be dangerous come playoff time.
The Rams upgraded at QB by trading for Matthew Stafford of the Lions. It seems GM Les Snead does not believe in the draft whatsoever, giving up a lot to get him. Their defense lost S John Johnson to the Browns but they still CB Jalen Ramsey and DT Aaron Donald. The concern is if new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris can keep this defense elite to compete for a Super Bowl.
I am a huge Russell Wilson fan but the Seahawks have been leaning on him for some time now. That offensive line allowed 48 sacks, which was tied for 3rd in 2020. Defensively, head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. need to shore up that secondary. They allowed 285 passing yards/game (2nd worse in the league last year). If they want any chance to win this division, this defense has to be better.
Many people like the 49ers to win this division and I get it. Their defense is great and healthier and TE George Kittle is healthy. The biggest question mark I have is under center. Jimmy Garoppolo is not the answer and I feel Trey Lance is not the answer. I love their front office in GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan. However, losing defensive coordinator Robert Saleh concerns me and uncertainty under center.