After Week 1 of the most recent NFL season, I wrote an article making predictions for the rest of the year, which consisted of making a single prediction for each division in the NFL. Now that the season has concluded, it is time to reflect on my takes. Let’s take a look at how right or wrong these turned out to be.
AFC East: Mac Jones will win the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year
If it weren’t for the historic rookie season of Bengals WR Ja’Marr Chase, Patriots QB Mac Jones would have likely won OROY. Jones started every game of the regular season, recording a 0.124 EPA/play and 2.4 CPOE, which both ranked top 15 in the NFL amongst QBs with over 320 snaps recorded. While his numbers were nothing special, he was a significant reason why the Patriots offense moved from 27th to 11th in Dropback EPA from 2020 to 2021. As a whole, the offense moved from 21st to 10th in EPA/play, which was key in getting the Patriots back into the playoffs. Despite the first round exit, the Patriots are starting to move in the right direction again, which was sparked by stabilizing their quarterback situation.
AFC North: The Baltimore Ravens will miss the playoffs
While this prediction ended up being correct, it took a series of unfortunate injuries to age well. In addition to their preseason injuries, the Ravens had to deal with several key players missing extensive periods of time, including QB Lamar Jackson, CB Marlon Humphrey, and OT Ronnie Stanley. The outlook of the Ravens season shifted dramatically during their Week 14 game against the Cleveland Browns. Heading into the game, the Ravens were 8-4, good for first in the AFC North. However, Jackson injured his right ankle early into the game, which put an end to his season. Including the Browns game and the remainder of their schedule, the Ravens relied on Tyler Huntley and Josh Johnson for their quarterback play. As a result, over the final five games, the Ravens did not win a game, as their -0.024 EPA/play on offense and 0.171 EPA/play on defense did not combine to make a winning formula. Despite the disappointing end to the season, the Ravens should be back as contenders in the AFC once healthy, as DraftKings has them tied with the Cincinnati Bengals in the odds of winning the AFC North.
AFC South: Trevor Lawrence will struggle a lot
Given the numerous circumstances going against him, Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence struggled very often. He recorded a -0.047 EPA/play and -4.9 CPOE over 17 starts, both ranking outside the top 25 for quarterbacks with at least 320 snaps. Despite these ugly numbers, a lot of these shortcomings can be attributed to the culture of dysfunction established by Urban Meyer. A single play to summarize the Jaguars season occurred in their Week 14 loss against the Tennessee Titans, in which Laviska Shenault Jr. and Laquon Treadwell ran into each other on a poorly designed route concept. Despite the numerous shortcomings throughout the season, the Jaguars ended on a high note, defeating the Colts 26-11 and eliminating their chances of making the playoffs. Furthermore, Lawrence played by the far the best game of his career, recording a 0.199 EPA/play and 4.5 CPOE, and he showed flashes of his #1 pick potential during an improbable TD pass to Marvin Jones Jr.. Lawrence and the Jaguars will look to build off their final performance in hopes for improvements next season.
AFC West: Keenan Allen will lead the NFL in receptions
After recording 106 receptions in 16 games, WR Keenan Allen finished with the 7th most receptions in the NFL. It was a new career high for Allen, and it was also his 4th time in the past 5 seasons recording at least 100 receptions. Combining the talent and consistency of Allen along with 13 Week 1 targets deemed me to make this prediction, but it was difficult to forecast the historic season of Rams WR Cooper Kupp, who came up with 145 receptions. Another hurdle in the way of Allen leading the NFL in receptions was the emergence of teammate WR Mike Williams, who gathered 129 targets en route to a career best season. Williams’ future with the Chargers remains unknown, but Allen seems to be in line for lots of targets again next season regardless of the receiver situation, as the Chargers are likely to continue their elite offensive production.
NFC East: The Philadelphia Eagles will win the division
While the Eagles came up short of winning the division, they did end up making the playoffs after a 9-8 season. Due to the fact that they did not beat a team with a winning record the whole season, some may view it as an undeserved appearance, but the Eagles did improve from last year with a new emphasis on running the football. Using our own Tej Seth’s RYOE model, the five ball carriers with at least 50 attempts on the Eagles (Sanders, Gainwell, Howard, Scott, and Hurts) churned out positive RYOE per attempt. Combining the efficient running with high volume (2nd in the NFL in attempts as a team) led to better results in terms of offensive EPA/play, moving from 29th to 12th. Furthermore, the Eagles cut down their turnovers from 29 in 2020 to 16 in 2021. Despite the defense declining slightly in EPA/play between the two seasons, the improved offense was enough to cover up the defense and squeeze into the playoffs. Potential questions surround the future of QB Jalen Hurts, but the Eagles are heading in the right direction again after an ugly 2020 season.
NFC North: The Detroit Lions will exceed expectations
In terms of record, the Detroit Lions certainly did not exceed expectations, but the team did show flashes at times, and they consistently performed well against the spread, indicating they exceeded the expectations of the market. The offense and defense both ranked towards the bottom of the NFL in just about every statistic, but there are a couple of positives that can be taken away from the year. To begin with, the Lions set the NFL record for 4th down attempts and conversions in a season, which attributes to the aggressiveness of head coach Dan Campbell. In addition to the numerous fake punts, the Lions broke out creative play designs at unexpected times, seen in a 75 yard TD against the Packers in Week 18. It was encouraging to see a combination of creativity and aggressiveness that was nonexistent over the past few years. Another strength of the team is the offensive line, featuring three players with a PFF grade over 75.0 (Ragnow, Sewell, Decker). A final note worth mentioning is defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, who filled the role nicely and even received head coaching looks from the Saints and Broncos. While the Lions are far from contending, the draft capital they possess is appealing, and they have a good amount of cap space to work with. Many questions remain, but the foundation seems to be slowly forming in Detroit.
NFC South: Jameis Winston will have an elite QB season
Unfortunately due to a Week 8 torn ACL, Saints QB Jameis Winston was never able to complete a promising season. However, when he was on the field, he was playing well. During the first 8 weeks of the 2021 NFL season, Winston was 3rd in the NFL in EPA/play amongst QBs with at least 200 snaps. Using the same amount of snaps for the whole regular season, Winston ranked 2nd in the NFL in EPA/play, only trailing back-to-back MVP QB Aaron Rodgers. Winston cleaned up the turnovers from his infamous 2019 campaign, only throwing 3 interceptions during the time he was on the field. Without Winston, the Saints offense struggled tremendously due to poor quarterback play, ranking 29th in the NFL in EPA/play from Week 9 to the end of the year. While his future with the Saints remains unclear, if Winston were to hit the free agent market, he would be an interesting option for teams looking to improve at quarterback.
NFC West: Kyler Murray will win MVP
It was a tale of two halves for QB Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals. Through the first seven weeks of the season, the Cardinals were 7-0, and Murray led the NFL in CPOE while being 4th in EPA/play amongst quarterbacks with at least 100 snaps. However, in a Week 8 loss to the Green Bay Packers, Murray rolled his ankle, which caused him to miss three games. Upon return, Murray struggled from Week 13 until the end of the year, ranking 18th in EPA/play and CPOE during that stretch. Unfortunately for Murray and the Cardinals, these struggles to end the season transitioned into the playoffs, resulting in a first round exit against the Rams. Murray looked like the MVP after the first seven weeks of the NFL season, but the sharp decline for himself and the Cardinals quickly took him out of contention. Murray’s future in Arizona is in question, but he has displayed the ability to play at an MVP level.
All in all, some of these predictions hit the mark, while others were far from correct. Regardless, it was interesting to see the sudden changes that can occur in the NFL and its impact on attempting to predict the future. Furthermore, a few of these predictions focused on players with uncertain futures, and it will be exciting to watch their situations unfold during the offseason.