Two division favorites, the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers kick off the 2021 NFL season on September 9th. Using a mix of our own opinions and the market-implied odds, Michigan Football Analytics Society (M-FANS) members each picked a division to break down intertwining analysis and statistics. They are ordered:
- NFC North
- NFC West
- NFC South
- NFC East
by Akshay Jalluri
1st Place: Green Bay Packers (-160)
At -160 to win the division, the Green Bay Packers are the clear favorites to win the NFC North. With 3x MVP and reigning MVP QB Aaron Rodgers chaos out of the way and his decision to return with the Green Bay Packers for his “Last Dance” along with arguably the best receiver in the league 4x Pro Bowler WR Davante Adams, it just solidifies their chance at repeating as division winners. On the offensive side, they were graded a 90.7 PFF score overall in 2020, which was the highest in the NFL that year. After signing their star Pro Bowler RB Aaron Jones to a massive contract extension in the offseason, they’ve managed to keep their most dangerous offensive trios in the NFL in Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, and Aaron Jones. Don’t forget about TE Robert Tonyan’s breakout year as a receiving threat too! Brian Gutekunst, their GM, also managed to keep their star-studded offensive line mostly intact from last year. After 2020’s mess up in the draft of not drafting any receivers, they finally drafted WR Amari Rodgers in the 3rd round to give Aaron Rodgers some receiving weapons. But with the loss of first team All-Pro center Corey Linsley, it will put a lot of pressure on 2nd round rookie OL Josh Meyers (Ohio State) to fill in his shoes. Also, the loss of Jamaal Williams, who was seen as one of the best backup RBs in football was a great blow to this offense. Will 2nd year RB AJ Dillion, who showed flashes of greatness in the postseason, live up to his expectations?
Now on the flip side to defense, their defense was certainly impressive last year with a PFF grade of 71.8, putting them at #8 best defense in NFL. This was led by Pro Bowl CB Jaire Alexander who shut down every fanbase’s favorite receiver, and is poised to do the same in 2021. They have one of the better young safety duos in the league in SS Adrian Amos and FS Darnell Savage, and they will continue to get better in 2021. The Packers front 7 is led by Pro Bowler NT Kenny Clark and 2x Pro Bowler EDGE Za’Darius Smith, but other than that it is filled with some holes, especially at DE and ILB, which they failed to address this offseason. In the Packers’ continued search for a true corner opposite of Jaire Alexander, they drafted CB Eric Stokes in the 1st round. Will he pan out or will they be stuck with CB Kevin King who struggled last postseason? And will 3rd year EDGE Rashan Gary opposite of Za’Darius Smith follow up from his breakout sophomore year season?
2nd Place: Minnesota Vikings (+250)
At +250 to win the division, the Minnesota Vikings are not too far behind in the odds to win the division. On the offensive side, they had a PFF grade of 84.3 overall in 2020, which was the 7th highest in the NFL that year. As long as 2x Pro Bowl RB Dalvin Cook can stay healthy, the offense will continue to revolve around him and dominate. With Cook healthy, QB Kirk Cousins proved last year that he can be a great leader who can get the job done, relying on the play-action game to keep the opposing defenses on their toes. Their deadly receiving duo of WR Adam Thielen and 2nd year WR Justin Jefferson who shocked the whole league with his production as a rookie last season to continue into 2021. After releasing aging star TE Kyle Rudolph last offseason, the Vikings are hoping 3rd year TE Irv Smith can fill his shoes after a promising 2020 season. At all the skill positions, the Vikings look polished on paper. But for the last couple seasons, it looks like their offensive line will again hinder them from taking the next step. Releasing veteran LT Riley Reiff did not make the situation any better production-wise. To try to address this issue, GM Rick Spielmen resigned RT Rashod Hill and drafted 1st round OT Christian Darrisaw (Virginia Tech) and 3rd round G Wyatt Davis (Ohio State), hoping they will fix this woeful offensive line.
On the defensive side, they graded 53.4 PFF overall in the 2020 season, putting them at 27th best defense in the league, disappointing for their historically outstanding defenses late in the past decade. Their only bright spot from last season was their safety duo of Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, who both had a slight regression from the season prior. But with the loss of Anthony Harris to free agency, the Vikings are hoping either S Xavier Woods or 4th round rookie S Camryn Bynum (Cal) can quickly fill the hole. The woeful cornerback group saw a revamp last offseason, bringing in 8x Pro Bowler CB Patrick Peterson and CB Bashaud Breeland to take over the new group. In the front 7, the Vikings did not play well in that department either last season. However, Vikings fans are definitely happy to see First-Team All-Pro EDGE Danielle Hunter be back on the roster after a season-ending neck injury last season, and big signing of IDL Dalvin Tomlinson. They also drafted 3rd round LB Chazz Surratt (North Carolina) and 3rd round DE Patrick Jones II (Pittsburgh), hoping they can improve this front 7 too. Will this new-look defense can bring this team back to their usual defensive dominance like from 2017-2019?
3rd Place: Chicago Bears (+550)
At +550 to win the division, it seems like a pretty long shot for the Chicago Bears to win the NFC North. However, their team is on the right path to shock the league next year. Despite QB Mitch Trubisky’s late surge in the last few weeks of the 2020 season which led them to the postseason, HC Matt Nagy and Co. still decided to release him. Instead, they steered in a different direction and brought in veteran QB Andy Dalton and aggressively traded up in the draft to snatch highly prospected 1st round QB Justin Fields (Ohio State), which we don’t see a lot from GM Ryan Pace. In 2020, the Bears recorded a PFF grade of 79.0 offensively, putting them at the 12th best offense. WR Allen Robinson was franchise tagged, giving Justin Fields a deep threat to target. However, their other receiver has a new look. Say bye bye to WR Cordarelle Patterson and welcome WR Marquise Goodwin. As for the running backs, RB David Montgomery broke out in 2021 as one of the better running backs in the league and speedster RB Tarik Cohen not too far behind in the depth chart. After a disappointing rookie season for TE Cole Kmet, will he take the sophomore leap of TEs or follow suit of most other products of “Notre Dame TE factory”? As for the offensive line, it was dreadful all-around in 2020, and they did little in free agency to improve it either. However in the draft, they drafted 2 offensive tackles back-to-back in 2nd round OT Tevin Jenkins (Oklahoma State) and 5rd round OT Larry Borom (Missouri). Investing heavily on offense this offseason and drafting almost all offense, will the Bears’ young pieces pan out to take this mediocre offense to the next level?
The defense however had a 73.6 PFF grade in 2020 which was 6th highest in the NFL, which was amazing. The offseason for the defense was pretty quiet for them, with not many notable additions added to the team, so it is basically the same look going into 2021 as in 2020. Their dominant front 7 still features Pro Bowl DE Akiem Hicks, Second-Team All-Pro LB Roquan Smith, EDGE Robert Quinn, and 3x First-Team All-Pro EDGE Khalil Mack. And NT Eddie Goldman will return to the team after opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19. Nothing else needs to be explained about this front 7; they will be as dominant as ever. Moving onto their secondary, it was at-best just above average in 2020. This group is led by First-Team All-Pro FS Eddie Jackson and will do so into 2021. However, they did lose star First-Team All Pro CB Kyle Fuller in free agency. That will put a lot of pressure on 2nd year CB Jaylon Johnson who had a phenomenal rookie year to step up into a #1 CB role. We know what to expect from this Chicago Bears defense, will the offense finally catch up and shock the league?
4th Place: Detroit Lions (+2800)
At +2800 to win the division, it is looking like the Detroit Lions will be sitting in the basement of this division for the 4th straight year. After the firings of HC Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn last offseason, ending the “Quinntricia Era”, the Lions brought in new HC Dan Campbell and GM Brad Holmes along with a completely coaching staff and new front office. On the offensive side, the Lions graded 77.5 PFF in 2020, which was the 12th best that year. This was highlighted by Pro Bowler QB Matthew Stafford, Pro Bowler WR Kenny Golladay, Pro Bowler TE TJ Hockenson, and WR Marvin Jones. However, with the departure of Stafford, Golladay, and Jones last offseason, the offense will see a significant downgrade from last season, signifying a start of a committed rebuild with the new coaching staff. This will be the right chance for Hockenson to break out again with a very empty receiver room. In comes QB Jared Goff to take the helm along with 2 1st round picks, hoping to get the same kind of production from 2018 which led the Rams to a Superbowl appearance. Also, free agent signings WR Breshad Perriman and WR Tyrell Williams look to be the new starting receivers, which is not good. Lions are hoping 4th round pick WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (USC) can step up into the role to help this atrocious receiving corps. The offense isn’t entirely bad though. 2nd year RB D’Andre Swift is primed to take a huge step this season after showing incredible potential in 2020. To help him out, Lions brought in one of the best backup running backs in football in RB Jamaal Williams to help Swift out in the backfield. Expect a deadly 1-2 punch out of them with a run & play-action scheme the offense will run this year. The offensive line proved to be one of the best last season, and it looks to be even better this year with the addition of 1st round OT Penei Sewell (Oregon) to join LT Taylor Decker, 2nd year LG Jonah Jackson, Pro Bowler C Frank Ragnow, and moving RG Halapoulivaati Vaitai back to his position. Will the improved O-line and RB corps be enough to compensate for the valuable losses at the other skill positions?
On the defensive side, the Detroit Lions graded 42.7 PFF in 2020, which was the worst in the NFL. So much for the “defensive guru” Matt Patricia claimed to be when he was brought into the Lions. It can only go up from there… right? Starting in the secondary, much of it will look the same from last season. However, SS Duron Harmon has left for free agency, giving 3rd year SS Will Harris a chance to step up into a more comfortable position for him in the box after 2 disappointing seasons where he played further back. The coaching staff is hoping FS Tracy Walker can flip the script around after back-to-back underwhelming seasons after his promising rookie year. The starting outside corners look to be the same too. We know what we will get from reliable CB Amani Oruwariye, but after a very disappointing rookie season from CB Jeff Okudah, he looks to be ready to take a huge step next year and become one of the better corners in the league. Now, the front 7 sees many improvements from last season. After another disappointing season by LB Jahlani Tavai, the Lions are hoping that 4th round rookie LB Derrick Barnes (Purdue), who fits the new scheme better, can step into his role. Lions also brought in LB Alex Anzalone, DT Michael Brockers and drafted 2nd round DE Levi Onwuzurike (Washington) and 3rd round DT Alim McNeil (NC State) to help out the leaders of this defense in the Okwara brother EDGEs, LB Jamie Collins and DE Trey Flowers who is yet to show that he’s worth all that money he is making. Will this revamped scheme and the new pieces in the front 7 finally be able to transform this defense?
Also, don’t forget how surprisingly great punter Pro Bowler P Jack Fox who was signed off of undrafted free agency had last year. He will definitely follow it up this season with another outstanding performance.
by Sam DiSorbo @analytacist
San Francisco 49ers (+180)
In what may prove to be the most competitive division in football, the 49ers come out as slight favorites despite a poor 2020 season. However, last year’s struggle is largely due to the absences of Jimmy Garoppolo, who had the 9th highest expected points added (EPA) per play amongst QBs in 2019 (.15 epa/play), George Kittle, who ranked 3rd amongst TEs in total receiving yards (1053) and 4th among total receptions in 2019 (85), and Nick Bosa, who found his way on the sack leaderboard as he bullied his into getting 9 sacks in his rookie debut two seasons ago.
The Niners tossed things up with the third overall pick of the NFL draft, selecting QB Trey Lance from North Dakota State–not only does this create a QB competition for the team this season, but it places a lot of pressure on Lance performing up to standards and following through with a division title should he win the starter’s spot. Injuries continue to be a common theme for the 49ers: there is still some uncertainty about the health of the Niner’s backfield committee, as Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson battle knee injuries going into camp. Last season, with their backs in and out of IR, the 49ers only managed to rack up the 15th most rush yards in the league, so a pair of healthy RBs could be just what the team needs to put their run game at the top of the pack.
Los Angeles Rams (+190)
The Rams are projected to finish second in the NFC West for the second year in a row after a strong 10-6 season. Their Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey-led defense remains the number 1 ranked defense by PFF should continue to be the backbone of this team, while young offensive stars in Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Darrell Henderson will have another year under their belts to help bring this team to the next level.
This offseason the Rams traded away a large chunk of the franchise’s future (two first round picks, a third round pick and Jared Goff) for 33 year-old Mattew Stafford. Stafford ranked 14th amongst QBs in expected points added last season boasting a .146 EPA/play, which is over 5 times higher than former Rams QB Jared Goff, who ranked 30th with a .027 EPA/play. While the QB swap is certainly effective on paper, was it worth for LA to risk so much on a seasoned QB with little playoff experience? With this trade, the Rams are seemingly enforcing a “win now” tactic as their Superbowl window slowly begins to close.
Seattle Seahawks (+275)
Interestingly enough, last year’s NFC West winners are projected to finish 3rd in the division–this doesn’t come as much of a surprise as in 2020 they were only projected to come in 2nd at +220. With one of the most versatile QBs in the league, Rusself Wilson holds a .179 EPA/play and a 6.85 completion percentage over expected (3rd overall in the league), the Seahawks can never be put out of the picture. Lead rusher Chris Carson also adds some firepower to the offense through the run game as he ranked 2nd amongst RBs last season with a .12 EPA/play. Seattle’s two star receivers also carry their weight in expected points added for their teams: D.K. Metcalf sits at 75th amongst WRs with a .46 EPA/play and Tyler Lockett settled at 47th last season with a .56 EPA/play in 2020.
Amongst NFC west receivers (with over 50 receptions), Metcalf and Lockette stack up fairly well, ranking third and fourth in EPA/play as shown by the graphic below. With another to build chemistry, the duo could lead this team to new heights and possibly finish above their predicted 3rd place divisional finish (size of logo corresponds to number of receptions).
Arizona Cardinals (+650)
While they are a massive underdog in NFC West futures, the Cardinals are certainly not out of the divisional picture. While QB Kyler Murray only ranked 21st in QB EPA/play (.11 EPA/play), Arizona made some key pick-ups that could get their team over the 8-8 hump. Adding veteran WR AJ Green, who ranks 53rd over the past 5 seasons amongst WRs (with over 250 plays since) in EPA/play (.25 EPA/play) could be a huge boost to Card’s passing game, especially alongside star receiver Deandre Hopkins. RB James Conner could also give their run game a boost as the vet will join forces with Chase Edmunds, who struggled in 2020, posting a rough -.069 EPA/play. While they are certainly the weakest team in the division at first glance, the Cardinals are still a serious contender to take the west–no team can be cast aside!
The graphic below shows the EPA/play for QBs and RBs in the division from 2020. One thing to note is the poor performance of RBs in the division barring Chris Carson (logos correspond the number of dropbacks per QB and the number of carries per RB).
by Nabil Chamra @nabilchamra
1st Place: Buccaneers (-200)
Coming off of a dominating performance over Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to win Super Bowl LV the Bucs are deservingly heavy favorites to win the NFC South. Where to begin with this team. The Bucs managed to re-sign stars LB Lavonte David, OLB Shaquill Barrett, and WR Chris Godwin, TE Rob Gronkowski, and WR Antonio Brown this offseason to ensure they will be starting the 2021 NFL season with all 22 of the same starting players as the 2020 NFL season. The Bucs ranked 4th in Offensive Pass EPA and 7th in Defensive Pass EPA this past season in an NFL where passing and stopping the pass have been key to winning. On top of all of this, they still have the GOAT Tom Brady who ranked 4th in the NFL with a .280 EPA/Play this past season. Coming off an impressive regular season, he shows no signs of slowing down. All of this combines to make the Bucs clear favorites to cruise to the NFC South division title.
2nd Place: Saints (+350)
The New Orleans Saints exit a turmoil filled offseason where they had to overcome being nearly 100 million dollars over the cap in decent position to finish second in the NFC south, mostly in part to the situations of the following two teams on this list. The Saints lost 8 starters this offseason, including HOF QB Drew Brees and their sack leader DE Trey Hendrickson. On top of this, star WR Michael Thomas is out until at least October rehabbing from surgery on his injured ankle, further diminishing the Saints roster.
However, not all is bad, the Saints still have All-Pro RB Alvin Kamara, ranked as the 5th best
RB by PFF heading into this season, Jameis “flameis” Winston (14th in EPA/Play in the 2019 Season) expected to start week 1, and an elite offensive line that was ranked as the 4th best offensive line in the NFL by PFF entering the 2021 season. Despite their tumultuous off-season, the Saints still find themselves in a position to finish 2nd in the NFC South and even potentially fighting for a wild card spot by season’s end.
3rd Place: Falcons (+900)
The Falcons had themselves quite the offseason. What started as a new wave of hope for Falcons fans with the hire of Titans Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith as their new head coach, hiring of Saints Assistant GM Terry Fontenot as their new General Manager, and drafting generational TE talent Kyle Pitts 4th overall turned into demise with the news that star WR Julio Jones has requested a trade who was subsequently traded to the Titans for a 2022 second round pick and a 2023 fourth round pick. They then lost starting safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal to free agency, leaving a defense that ranked 26th in EPA/dropback even more depleted for this upcoming season. They also have an unproven offensive line ranked 24th by PFF going into the 2021 season. With Matt Ryan also coming off a season where he finished a measly 19th in EPA/play. Now that he no longer has WR Julio Jones to throw to, it is not looking good for the 36 year old former MVP QB.
Despite their shortcomings, the Falcons do still possess a lot of talent. They have stars like MLB Deion Jones, DT Grady Jarrett, and WR Calvin Ridley, who are all arguably top 10 to even top 5 at their position. Also last season, the Falcons massively underperformed with an expected Win-Loss of 7.6-8.4 according to Pro Football Reference, yet due to their horrific late game management and mistakes, they finished the season 4-12. That is why despite the Falcons obvious flaws and shortcomings, they still possess enough talent and good coaching to finish 3rd in the NFC south.
4th place: Panthers (+900)
Despite an offseason where the Panthers took several strides to improve their team, they still find themselves in a bad position as a team overall who are situated to finish last in the NFC South this year. The Panthers marquee move of this offseason was trading their 2021 sixth-round draft pick and second-round and fourth-round picks in 2022 for Jets QB Sam Darnold who finished last season dead last in the NFL among qualifying QBs with a -0.100 EPA/Play, one of only 3 QBs (Nick Foles and Carson Wentz) to have a negative EPA/Play last season. The Panthers will hope Darnold now having weapons DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, and rookie Terrace Marshall Jr. out of LSU will help the former Jets QB improve. However, giving him an offensive line ranked 30th by PFF going into the 2021 season will not benefit Darnold. Getting star running back Christian McCaffery will certainly help, but a young and unproven defense that lacks reinforcements besides rookie CB Jaycee Horn that ranked 24th in EPA/play this past season leave the Panthers in a bad position to win games. This all combines to make the Panthers likely to finish last in the division behind unimpressive QB play and a subpar defense.
by Zach Betron @ZB_Stats
1st Place: Dallas Cowboys (+130)
The 2020 Dallas Cowboys offense could largely be summed up by a singular “good news, bad news” phrase: The good news is that they finished first in the division in terms of offensive EPA/play. The bad news is that they still ranked in the bottom eight league-wide per the metric. That said, a great deal of their lackluster offensive performance could be attributed to health issues at the quarterback position, as their often-reliable Dak Prescott was sidelined for most of the season after suffering a broken ankle in Week 5 against the Giants. Despite questions going into 2021 regarding his availability, Jerry Jones and the Cowboys inked him to a 4-year, $160 million contract, including a $66 million signing bonus, the largest in NFL history.
Among a division of teams that all finished below .500 in 2020, Dallas is likely to be the squad with the most positive regression in the ensuing campaign. They endured a season in which their roster was riddled with injuries, had one of the worst defensive secondary units in modern NFL history, and still had a chance at making the playoffs entering the final week. After locking up Prescott to a long-term contract to answer their question at quarterback and spending their second- and third-round picks in this year’s draft on cornerbacks, the Cowboys should be considered the safest bet to win the division amid relatively unsafe alternative options.
2nd Place: Washington Football Team (+230)
After a season in which they sent out four different quarterbacks to start a game, the Washington Football Team enters 2021 with career journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, following the offseason retirement of Alex Smith and the December release of Dwayne Haskins. Despite the instability of Washington’s quarterback room in 2020, their defense led them to a postseason appearance, becoming just the third team to do so with a losing record (7-9) in a 16-game regular season. Chase Young, a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, anchors a pass rush that forced a -0.064 EPA/play on dropbacks in the 2020 regular season, good for third in the NFL.
With regard to Fitzpatrick, he played surprisingly well in a fill-in role for Miami this past season despite his age. The 38-year-old Harvard product found himself among the NFL’s top passers in his sixteenth professional season, albeit while appearing in only nine games and starting seven before handing the starting role off to rookie Tua Tagovailoa. Admittedly serving as a bridge quarterback for a year or two until a younger talent arrives to lead the team in the future, Fitzpatrick brings momentary stability to a quarterback committee that produced the league’s second-worst dropback EPA/play last year (-0.063 EPA/play).
3rd Place: New York Giants (+450)
The Giants are most likely the most prominent wild card in the NFC East, largely due to unknowns surrounding Daniel Jones. Dave Gettleman and Co. spent valuable capital on improving his supporting cast in hopes that the offense finally clicks in Year 3. After signing the biggest free agent on the market this offseason in wide receiver Kenny Golladay and using their first-round pick on do-it-all playmaker Kadarius Toney from Florida, head coach Joe Judge and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett are looking to expand the offense, particularly in the passing game. Much of that expansion is reliant on Jones’ ability to minimize momentum-halting plays in the form of turnovers and sacks. In order for the offense to take the next step, Jones must improve his decision-making, as he is among the worst quarterbacks in the league in terms of PFF’s Tej Seth’s sacks over expected model: https://twitter.com/tejfbanalytics/status/1394705471072788485?s=20 <embed>
On the opposite side of the ball, New York’s defensive squad is highlighted by their secondary, including 2020 Pro-Bowler James Bradberry. Bradberry posted a 79.8 overall PFF grade in his first season with the Giants, and was joined by offseason free agent signing Adoree’ Jackson, who compiled a 76.2 player grade in 2019 before being injured early in the 2020 season. Former Michigan standout Jabrill Peppers spearheads the safety group, alongside veteran Logan Ryan and second-year talent Xavier McKinney, offering defensive coordinator Patrick Graham the opportunity to get creative with his coverage schemes throughout the ensuing season. Assuming Jones mitigates his field analysis issues and the team remains healthy, the Giants could be a high-upside value pick to win the division in 2021.
4th Place: Philadelphia Eagles (+550)
Undoubtedly as a result of the quality of their competition in the division, the Philadelphia Eagles still have a legitimate shot at winning the NFC East, despite serious questions surrounding their presumed starting quarterback, Jalen Hurts. Among passers that participated in at least 200 plays in 2020, the Alabama-turned-Oklahoma product ranked dead-last in CPOE. After Hurts spent most of last season as Carson Wentz’s backup, new head coach Nick Sirianni hopes that a larger sample size will help the second-year QB take the next step, as Wentz departed for Indianapolis and new signees Joe Flacco and Nick Mullens don’t appear to challenge for the starting role.
Weaponry has also been a trait of diminishing quality for the Eagles over the past few seasons. After winning the Super Bowl in 2017, Philly’s offensive core of Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, and Nelson Agholor dwindled in caliber, before Jeffery and Agholor were left unsigned and Ertz became a shell of the top-3 tight end he once was. With that in mind, the Eagles had no choice but to trade up two spots from the 12th to 10th pick in this year’s draft as soon as reigning Heisman Trophy winner Devonta Smith fell to the double-digits. The former Alabama wide receiver produced one of the most dominant college seasons at his position in recent memory, averaging an unheard-of 142.8 receiving yards per game in his senior season and finishing college with the most career receiving yards in SEC history. Again, much of the Eagles’ success this season relies on the quality of Jalen Hurts’ play and the coaching staff’s ability to squeeze out wins from a very thin roster. Don’t expect Philadelphia to be outright contenders throughout the year, but don’t be surprised if they are still in the hunt in the waning weeks of the regular season.