In part 2 of the M-FANS division previews club members broke down the AFC using a mix of our own opinions and the market-implied odds. M-FANS members each picked a division to break down intertwining analysis and statistics. They are ordered:
- AFC North
- AFC West
- AFC South
- AFC East
by Larry Lu @LarryLu302
1st Place: Ravens (+115)
The Ravens barely take the edge for winning the very tough AFC North. The Ravens boast a heavy run offense featuring the dual threat Lamar Jackson and second year back J.K. Dobbins. In an attempt to find a true number one receiver to complement above average tight end Mark Andrews, the front office added Sammy Watkins via free agency and drafted stand out receiver Rashod Bateman in the first round to join Marquise Brown. Look for the Ravens offense to be less one dimensional and stretch the field vertically compared to previous seasons.
On the other side of the ball, the Ravens downgraded by losing edge rusher and sack leader Matthew Judon to free agency without finding any obvious replacement. Harbaugh and Co. will likely continue to bring in additional players to blitz at one of the highest rates in the league to make up for the lack of talent on the line. Fortunately, the Bengals and Steelers have some of the projected weakest offensive lines in the entire league. The secondary however is a different story boasting Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, a pair of cornerbacks that are arguably both top 10 at the position.
The Ravens should absolutely harbor super bowl expectations, but they are in the projected 2nd hardest division in the league and are leaning on Lamar Jackson to possibly regain his MVP form.
2nd Place: Browns (+150)
On paper the Browns are one of the most talented teams in the league and the odds of winning the division are only slightly lower than that of the favored Ravens. The offense led by fourth year quarterback Baker Mayfield sees all 11 starters from last season returning. The largest question mark on offense will be whether Mayfield regresses or continues his hot streak from the end of last season that saw him post the third highest QBR from week 7 to week 15 (the two with better ratings were reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and 2019 MVP Patrick Mahomes). The offensive line was the best in the league and the skill positions group are headlined by Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Odell Beckham Jr, and Jarvis Landry. This will also be Mayfield’s first season starting with the same head coach and offensive coordinator that he had from the previous season. Look for Mayfield to take a step forward with a stacked team around him and continuity in scheme.
While the offense virtually did not change, the defense saw a complete overhaul at all three levels using free agency and the draft with notable additions S John Johnson III, CB Greg Newsome II, CB Troy Hill, and EDGE Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney will hopefully provide a reliable pass-rusher on the line opposite from Defensive Player of the Year candidate Myles Garrett. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods will have his hands full with a defense that looks almost unrecognizable from this time last year. Depth on the line is still an issue so an injury to Garrett or Clowney for any extended time may derail the Browns.
The Browns have finally climbed out of the basement of the NFL and are even considered contenders for the first time in a long time, but will they be able to put all the talent together and knock off the AFC powerhouses Chiefs, Bills, and even Ravens?
3rd Place: Steelers (+500)
The AFC North was actually won by the Steelers last season, but they ended last season losing 4 out of their last 5 regular season games and riding their 11 win streak at the start of the season into the playoffs where they were bounced by the division rival Browns in the wildcard round. While QB Ben Roethilsburger has standout receivers such as Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Diontae Johnson, he still lacks a true number one option and will look for one of the mentioned or someone else to step up. Big Ben is also no longer the force that he once was, but he is still good enough to at least not set the Steelers back. The real worry is the Steelers rushing attack. The offensive line had one of the most abysmal rushing attacks in the league last season with an overall run grade of 66.7 (30th in the league) and a run block grade of 50.3 (31st in the league). They do hope that drafting one of the best backs in the new class, Najee Harris, will somewhat revitalize the rushing attack, but they didn’t do much to fix the offensive line and saw the departure of longtime pillars in a historically strong line. In a division that boasts some very good defensive lines and defensive schemes that create lots of pressure, the Steelers must hope their lackluster rushing attack improves or else this offense will be in for a long season.
In contrast to the offense, the Steelers defense is filled with proven stars such as EDGE T.J. Watt, DL Cameron Heyward, and S Minkah Fitzpatrick among others. While it’s common for defenses to regress especially after being ranked 2nd overall according to PFF, I do not expect to see much especially with the additions of LB Joe Schobert and Melvin Ingram III. There is one small question about who will fill the departure of former CB Mike Hilton opposite to Joe Haden, but with a defense stacked in so many other places it should make whoever ends up in that spot’s job a lot easier.
Head coach Mike Tomlin will have a challenge coming up in the upcoming season and will have to find a way to plan a decently efficient offense that has a virtually nonexistent rushing attack, but with a defense that should once again be at the top of the league they only need to score enough to beat their opponents.
4th Place: Bengals (+2500)
The Bengals are the long shot to win the division, but they shouldn’t be counted out just yet. They have a talented playmaker room featuring the 5th overall pick WR Ja’marr Chase, the heavily underrated WR Tyler Boyd, and RB Joe Mixon all at the disposal of second year QB Joe Burrow who was looking to have a very good rookie season before tearing his MCL and ACL midseason. The fear is the Bengals could be looking at an Andrew Luck -esqe situation where they do not protect their young quarterback nearly as much as they should. The Bengals may be one of the few teams that can (unfortunately) say they have a worse offensive line than the divisional rival Steelers.
The Bengals defense features a revamped defensive line featuring the reigning sack leader Trey Hendrickson. While on the back end, they are anchored by one of the best, young safeties Jessie Bates III who posted a PFF grade of 90.1 (the best among all starting safeties who had a notable number of snaps).
The Bengals will most likely be in the basement of the AFC North in this upcoming season and won’t sniff the playoffs, but the offense is dangerous and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them sneak wins against any of their division rivals.
by Arjun Menon @arjunmenon100
1st Place: Chiefs (-250)
As the two-time defending AFC champs, it should not be a surprise that the Chiefs are the betting favorites to take the AFC West this year. Their offense contains 3 players who are arguably the best at their position in Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce. Since Mahomes took over in 2018, the Chiefs have ranked 1st in EPA per dropback (0.294) by a considerable margin. This offseason, they also made moves to protect Mahomes and prevent a “Russell Wilson” situation from occurring in Kansas City by overhauling this offensive line. We could potentially see 5 new starters along this line by the time week 1 rolls around. While the process to protect Mahomes was good, the results could be worse than expected. The two high-priced players the Chiefs paid a pretty penny for were Orlando Brown Jr. (traded a first round pick), and Joe Thuney (made him the highest paid guard). The thing to note is that these two players will be coming from two of the most run-heavy offenses from 2020. Now they will be playing for Andy Reid, who is one of the most pass-heavy play callers in the league.
Their defense could struggle a bit this season though. The clarity of how bad the Frank Clark trade has come full circle, and with his most recent arrest, he could be watching games instead of playing them. To compensate for his loss, the Chiefs are reportedly moving Chris Jones to edge to generate a pass rush from the outside, while still generating an interior push from newly signed Jarran Reed. The success of this defense will likely hinge on their ability to stop the pass given how much they play when leading. While Tyrann Mathieu is one of the best safeties in the league, the Chiefs will need contributions from young guys like L’Jarius Sneed and Charvarious Ward.
2nd Place: Chargers (+450)
The Chargers success this season ultimately begins and ends with Justin Herbert. The former Rose Bowl MVP won offensive rookie of the year last year, and has been pegged as a dark horse MVP candidate for most of the offseason. In the analytics community, there have been numerous discussions if he will regress or not, and how that will affect the Chargers in 2021. He led the league in EPA under pressure last year, which will inevitably lead to some regression this season.
The Chargers have done a good job to prevent him from being under pressure as much as last year (2nd highest pressured dropbacks in 2020) by signing Corey Linsley and Matt Feiler while drafting Rashawn Slater. He also has a pretty good skill position room headlines by Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Austin Ekeler, aand Jared Cook.
Where the Chargers get interesting is on defense. New head coach Brandon Staley was heralded last year for his innovative defense that was built around Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald. While Derwin James and Joey Bosa don’t play the same position as those two, they are no slouches either. Derwin James is one of the most versatile players in the NFL, and the ultimate chess piece. Brandon Staley is likely to continue his high usage of two-high safeties to disguise his coverages. Given that Mahomes struggled mightily vs the Broncos – who run a very similar scheme under Vic Fangio – and the Buccaneers in the super bowl who ran a lot of two-high looks, the Chargers could be the team that slows down Mahomes in the regular season.
3rd Place: Raiders (+2200)
The Raiders are probably the best bet to make if you don’t want the Chiefs. At +2200, they give great value to any bettor, and were one of the few teams to beat the Chiefs last year (and came very close to winning again in week 11). The issue with the Raiders is that they broke apart the strength of their team: the offensive line. Last year, the Raiders offensive line was admittedly a mess. Trent Brown was out for most of the year, Richie Incognito only played 81 snaps, and Kolten Miller was banged up. The Raiders then proceeded to trade Rodney Hudson to the Cardinals, Gabe Jackson to the Seahawks, and Trent Brown back to the Patriots.
The players they’re replacing them with are all worse, not to mention the rookie Alex Leatherwood who will be switching right tackle after playing left tackle at Alabama. They also go and give money to Kenyan Drake, despite having Josh Jacobs who is one of the best pure runners in the NFL. This offense can be top 10, but a lot of things have to go right for them, and offensive line cohesion is one.
Defensively, this team has been awful since Jon Gruden took over. They’ve allowed a 0.132 EPA/play since 2018, which is last in the NFL. They made a switch to Gus Bradley as their defensive coordinator this offseason, who will be bringing his Seattle Cover 3 roots to Vegas. They should finally see some positive regression on defense after signing Yannick Ngakoue, Casey Hayward, and drafting Trevon Moehrig to play deep safety. The biggest questions are where does 2020 first round pick Damon Arnette fit in this scheme if at all, how will this linebacker group play after a disappointing 2020 year, and will the Raiders finally have a pass rush?
4th Place: Broncos (+600)
The Broncos enter the 2021 season with one of the worst quarterback situations in the NFL. Drew Lock has been one of the worst starters in the league, while Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t seem to be anything more than a game manager. The success of this team lies in their defense, which could be the best in the league this year. Their secondary easily has a claim as the best group in the NFL, and they’re getting Von Miller back from injury. This has all the makings of a 2017 Jaguars team, but it’s hard to go that far just yet. A lot of things need to go right for the Broncos to reach that point, and having at least an average offense is where discussions need to start. It’s possible that they can get there with the conservative Bridgewater given the plethora of weapons at his disposal (Sutton, Jeudy, Hamler, Fant), but there are also question marks there. Do we know Courtland Sutton can return to his 2019 form after his ACL tear in 2020? Will Jeudy actually take that next step to stardom? Is Javonte Williams really the real deal after a prolific 2020 year at North Carolina? Too many questions about this offense makes them the most likely team to finish last in the tough AFC West.
by Tej Seth @tejfbanalytics
1st Place: Titans (-105)
At -105 to win the division, the Titans are deservingly the favorites in Vegas. Last season, an offense featuring Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Corey Davis ranked 2nd in offensive EPA/play with an 0.28 EPA/dropback and a 0.06 EPA/rush. Despite losing Corey Davis, they arguably got an upgrade in Julio Jones and had him to one of the NFL’s best young wide receivers in A.J. Brown who has averaged 2.6 YAC over expected, which is 1st since entering the league in 2019.
Despite being the favorites to win what is arguably the weakest division in football, the Titans still have some glaring issues. They lost their offensive coordinator, Arthur Smith, who helped orchestrate Tannehill’s resurgence by using play-action and passing against heavy boxes. They also didn’t do much to change a defense that ranked 28th in EPA/play last year. Lastly, under Head Coach Mike Vrabel, they have been keen to running the ball, especially on early downs as their 51% early down run rate was their downfall in their playoff games against the Ravens. For now, the Titans are the best team in a down-division but they still have work to do to get into the elite AFC teams.
2nd Place: Jaguars (+600)
At +600 to win a division that can be won by going 9-8, the Jaguars are the best value bet. Last season, Jacksonville went 1-15 but that record can be deceiving. They went 1-6 in one score games, something that is historically random from year-to-year.
On top of that, with a mis-mash of Garnder Minshew and Mike Glennon, their passing offense ranked 28th. To fix this, they drafted Trevor Lawrence at #1 overall, signed a reliable pass catcher in Marvin Jones Jr. and get their best wide receiver, D.J. Chark, back from injury. On top of that they also are going to be able to use versatile weapons in Laviska Shenault and James Robinson.
There are obvious problems with the Jaguars like how their offensive line isn’t stable and their defense ranked 29th last year in EPA/play. Additionally, Urban Meyer is a first-time NFL head coach and might have some growing pains. Despite all of this, I believe their passing offense can be among the NFL’s best and they can take advantage of a down-year for the division and maybe even compete for a playoff spot.
3rd Place: Colts (+140)
Colts Head Coach Frank Reich has worked well with any type of quarterback he’s been given but 2021 will be his toughest test yet. After winning a Super Bowl as offensive coordinator of the Eagles in 2017 with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles, Reich had Luck playing at a top-12 level in 2018 and then was able to get some quality starts out of Jacoby Brissett before he regressed at the end of 2019. After having a good year with Philip Rivers in 2020, Reich is now given arguably the worst quarterback of the past season: Carson Wentz.
Among 30 NFL quarterbacks, Wentz ranked 28th in EPA/play and 27th in Completion Percentage Over Expected (CPOE). Even with a good quarterback last year, the Colts only won 10 games and now get a massive downgrade at the game’s most important position. Because of all this pile-up, I have the Colts projected as the 3rd best team in the division.
4th Place: Texans (+2800)
At +2800, the Texans are the biggest longshot of any team to win their division in the AFC. Even if Deshaun Watson plays, it’s hard to see a receiver core of Brandon Cooks, Chris Conley and Anthony Miller competing for many football games in 2021. On top of that, the Texans defense ranked 31st last season and they lost one of the better players in franchise history: J.J. Watt. The Texans are in full rebuild mode and will probably be starting perennial backup Tyrod Taylor or rookie Davis Mills at quarterback. The top 3 of the AFC South could go in any order but we have a pretty good idea of who will be 4th.
by Joey DiCresce @joey_dicresce
1st Place: Buffalo Bills (-160)
I love what head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have built in their 4 seasons in charge. They built a great foundation which allowed the team to blow expectations out of the water when Josh Allen had maybe the best 3rd year breakout in league history. After playing like a bottom 5 QB for his first two years, Allen exploded and led the Bills to a top 5 passing offense. McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll understand the analytical edge in throwing the ball, as they threw the ball for a league leading 63.1% on early downs in non garbage time situations. Part of Allen’s breakout has to be attributed to Stefon Diggs’ career season. Diggs looks to be a top 5 WR for years to come, the question is do the Bills have enough weapons to take some of the pressure off Diggs? Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders round up a well balanced receiving corps, and recent mid round pick Gabriel Davis had a promising rookie year. Bringing back Brian Daboll is huge for the Bills, Daboll missed out or passed up on head coaching jobs, so the Bills get to keep one of the best offensive minds in the league. We could see some regression from this offense but I have confidence that the Bills have the pieces in place to have a top 5 passing offense for years to come.
Buffalo had strong defenses in 2018 and 2019 ranking in the top 4 in EPA allowed per play in both seasons. Last year Buffalo’s defense didn’t play as well and finished just around league average.
McDermott is a great defensive coach and the Bills have the talent to bounce back on defense. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer never get the love they deserve as they may be the best safety tandem in the NFL. Star corner Tre’ White leads a solid group of corners with Taron Johnson and Levi Wallace. Not having any weaknesses in the secondary is essential to defensive success.
Former first round IDL Ed Oliver had an extremely disappointing season, putting up a PFF grade of 45 with a run defense grade of 30. At 6’1’’, 285 lbs there were concerns about Oliver’s size coming out of Houston and they have been warranted as Oliver has been blown off the ball consistently. Buffalo also has a lot of new and intriguing talent at EDGE. The always reliable Jerry Hughes has made up almost all of the Bills pass rush the past 4 seasons. Rookies Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham along with second year AJ Epenesa should be able to add to a pass rush rotation with a lot of potential. Pass rush has been a weakness for the Bills but it may become a strength very soon.
2nd Place: New England Patriots (+350)
New England is one of the most interesting teams heading into the season after an extremely active free agency. Namely, the Patriots added TE Hunter Henry (3 years, $37.5 mil), TE Jonnu Smith (4 years, $50 mil), WR Nelson Agholor (2 years $22 mil), and EDGE Matt Judon (4 years, $54.5 mil). While public consensus may be that these were overpays, these signings along with Covid opt-outs like LB Dont’a Hightower returning give the Patriots a more talented roster than in 2020. The issue however is that Cam Newton has been an average or better passer only once since his MVP season in 2015.
Despite Cam’s limitations, his unique size and rushing ability could pair well with the Patriots elite offensive line and the addition of two top-10 TE’s. Belichick and McDaniels have the opportunity to create a scheme that would be unique in today’s NFL if they are able to utilize 12 and 22 personnel sets with a strong run game. Getting Newton involved in the run game could be a key to the Pats’ success or failure in 2021. The offensive line is the definitive strength of the offense. New England is slated to start Isiah Wynn, Michael Onwenu, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Trent Brown. Last year each of these players had run blocking grades of 70 or above. All 5 of these guys have the ability to play at an all pro level and with Wynn and Onwenu still being under 25, there is room for the group to become even more dominant.
The New England defense struggled last year, ranking 19th and 28th in EPA per pass and rush respectively. I think the squad has plenty of talent though, the corners in particular are ridiculously deep with former DPOY Stephon Gilmore, and multi-year starters J.C. Jackson and Jonathon Jones all consistently play well in a system that puts a lot of pressure on their corners with heavy man coverage usage. The front 7 isn’t inspiring but there is a lot of depth on the DL. A breakout pass rushing season from young players like Chase Winovich, Josh Uche, or rookies Ronnie Perkins and Christian Barmore would be a huge boost to this team.
I believe in Belichick’s ability to elevate the defense with creative blitz packages that complement their versatility and depth in the front 7 and their strength at corner. This is a uniquely built roster that I would not trust in the hands of most coaching staffs, but at the end of the day the Pats will only be able to get over the hump if Newton or Mac Jones is able to play well and I don’t know if I like either of their chances.
3rd Place: Miami Dolphins (+350)
I want to say make sure my point is clear here, I do not think that the Dolphins success in 2020 was due to luck. The defense played great, especially in key situations like third down and the redzone. The Dolphins D led the league in Third Down Conversion Rate Allowed Over Expected at -6.8%, meaning they stopped teams on 3rd down 6.8% more often than they were expected. The Dolphins were also 7th in red zone TD% at 57.4%. Xavien Howard led a stacked corner group putting up his best season yet along with a league leading 10 interceptions. However, history has shown that these stats are extremely unstable year to year, so we should not expect the Miami Defense to be a top 3 defense again. If Miami is going to compete for a playoff spot, they need second year QB Tua Tagovailoa to play better. Tua ranked 26th out of 32 QBs in EPA and Completion Percentage Over Expected (CPOE) in 2021 and struggled to keep the starting job, being benched in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick in the middle of multiple games.
Miami is doing what they can to ensure that Tua has support. They signed pro bowl WR Will Fuller and drafted Tua’s former Alabama teammate, Jaylen Waddle at 6th overall. Both players run 40s in the 4.3s and will bring explosiveness that the Dolphins severely lacked last season. The offensive line however is a clear weakness. Miami started two rookies last year, 1st rounder Austin Jackson at LT and 2nd rounder Robert Hunt at RT. However Miami is moving a lot of players around, switching Hunt to RG along with switching guard Jessie Davis to starting RT. Miami also drafted OT Liam Eichenberg out of Notre Dame but he is projected to start at LG this season. This group is young but unproven and we should expect improvements from Jackson and Hunt as young OL tend to struggle, however there is a lot of uncertainty in how this group will play. The team can afford to have some struggles at the OL if Tua is able to continue to get rid of the ball quickly. Per PFF his average time to throw was 2.52, putting him above league average.
Despite my projection of defensive regression, the defense still should be a top 12 unit. The secondary is stacked and like New England puts a lot of pressure on it’s corners. Byron Jones and Xavien Howard are both true number one corners, so if second year player Noah Igbinoghene is able to improve this unit could be absolutely dominant. Igbinoghene was thrown into the fire last year, putting up an atrocious PFF grade of 37.1, however Miami’s high usage of press man coverage did him no favors.
Overall I love what Brian Flores has built in Miami in only 2 years. The rebuild has gone great, but a shocking 10-6 record will likely give fans unrealistic expectations for 2021. The Dolphins have a high ceiling and I still think Tua has a good shot at being a franchise QB, but with too much uncertainty at QB, OL, and defensive regression being imminent, I have the Patriots just edging out the Dolphins for 2nd in the East.
4th Place: New York Jets (+2500)
The bottom 3 of this division are really tough to rank as I see all of these teams finishing with around 7-9 wins. However, Miami and New England do not have the same disaster potential that the Jets have due to their coaching and defenses. Even though I have the Jets in 4th, I am higher on this team compared to consensus, mostly due to Zach Wilson likely already being a significant upgrade to Sam Darnold. The Jets are also building a legit offensive line. LT Mehki Becton drastically exceeded expectations for a 1st round rookie OT who was viewed as a very raw talent. Although I do not like the Jets move to trade up for USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker, he should be an immediate solid player. The rest of their line of Connor McGovern, Greg Van Roten, and Morgan Moses have all been at least slightly below average lineman for the past 3 seasons. The Jets OL does not have a weak link which is essential for pass protections. The Jets also made some moves to add playmaking talent, by signing WR Corey Davis and drafting WR Elijah Moore and RB Michael Carter. The Jets lack a true WR1 but Davis, Moore, and always solid slot WR Jamison Crowder make up a group that at least will allow the team to get a true evaluation of Zach Wilson. Former 2nd round pick, WR Denzel Mims has reportedly been running with the third string at practice, so a breakout from him is looking more and more unlikely.
The Jets defense was 6th to last in 2020 in EPA per play, and the unit still lacks even average talent at most positions. IDL Quinnen Williams and S Marcus Maye are both pro bowl caliber guys but outside of them I think LB C.J. Mosely and CB Bryce Hall might be the only other average or better players at their positions.