2020 NFL Futures: My Gut-Feel Division Picks

*Odds provided via mybookie.ag (as of July 9)

*Rankings provided via Doug Farrar and Mark Schofield at Touchdown Wire (May 25)

 

A little statistics, a lotta feeling. My gut is often wrong, but these feel right. Here’s who I think you should bet the mortgage on coming out of their division:  

AFC EAST

Pick: New England Patriots (+100)

Offense: 26th*

Defense: 1st

Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots

Quick side note: In the rankings I point to in this article, there is one clear mistake that can be chalked up to the unfortunate timing of the article. Mark Schofield ranked the Patriots 26th on May 25. And one month later on June 28, a shocking addition to New England’s offense crushed the hearts of Buffalo fans everywhere.

Sorry Bills fans, but Belichick is coming. In all seriousness, this pick is a toss up. The Bills have made strides in performance over the past few years, emerging as the first AFC East team to threaten the Patriots’ eternal reign in quite some time after proving they’re capable of breaking into the postseason. Josh Allen seems like he’s on the verge of coming out and the recent addition of Stefon Diggs will provide some much needed relief at his position. Combine this with a top 5 ranked defense and the Bills will undoubtedly be good this year. But let me remind you: Bill Belichick is coming.

With former-MVP Cam Newton preparing to take over under center, I’m confident Belichick will pick up right where he left off securing another division title. Instead of a 26th ranked offense, I would put them in the lower teens. Josh McDaniels is still one of the best offensive coordinators in the league, and with a significantly more athletic quarterback leading the charge, he will have a lot of fun drawing up new plays that fit this revamped offense. Plus, if he stays healthy, N’Keal Harry should show some significant improvement and emerge as one of their top options. He was held back last season after a preseason injury hindered his development and chemistry with Brady until week 10, but he was extremely talented in college and one of my favorite receivers in his draft. Sanu and Edelman seem to be declining, but a new offense could easily turn them both around.

Oh, and their defense. First in the league isn’t too bad, eh? As Doug Farrar puts it, this may be “Belichick’s crowning achievement as a defensive coach.” Last year in man coverage, the Pats put the absolute clamps on opposing offenses. Led by J.C. Jackson, Jason McCourty, and DPOY Stephon Gilmore–the three best pass defenders in man coverage last season–New England defense wreaked havoc on opposing offenses. In man coverage, the Pats collected 18 interceptions and allowed just 10 touchdowns last season. This, paired with 47 sacks and a league-low seven rushing touchdowns, would frighten any opponent in the league. And they’re not showing any signs of slowing down. 

In short, Belichick’s experience and a league-best defense should hold off other AFC East competition. Cam Newton might help, too.

AFC NORTH

Pick: Baltimore Ravens (-240)

Offense: 2nd

Defense: 4th

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Pittsburgh has good value, too, if you’re one to doubt Lamar. The Ravens powerhouse offense is clearly dependent on an MVP-caliber Lamar, which is risky considering if he can both maintain his numbers and avoid a serious injury. With a comparably-strong defense and Big Ben back on the turf in Pittsburgh, the Steelers could be ready to take back the division if the Ravens encounter turbulence. But in all likelihood, that won’t be happening.

The Steelers may hold a slight defensive advantage (3rd compared to 4th), but c’mon, like, Lamar Jackson. Simply put, Lamar is the difference maker. Last season, with weapons like Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin on the outside as receivers, a duo of Nick Boyle and Mark Andrews at tight end, and Mark Ingram at running back, the Ravens posted a third best 6.1 yards per play, a second best 407.6 yards per game, and a league-leading 33.2 points per game. And next season, they’re all returning. And in case you forgot, they also have Lamar Jackson. Defenses around the league will be trying to catch up with these guys, and if we’re being honest, they probably won’t.

On defense, the Ravens only seem to be improving. Defensive coordinator Don Martindale has done some damage implementing a blitz-heavy style of play that compliments the efforts of their high end secondary. Marcus Peters has stepped up his game considerably since arriving in Baltimore, and the additions of first-round pick Patrick Queen and free agent signee Calais Campbell make the Ravens ever-more threatening. In short, the Steelers have a longshot chance, but as long as Lamar stays healthy, the Ravens should have this locked down.

AFC SOUTH

Pick: Tennessee Titans (+170)

Offense: 10th

Defense: 17th

Tennessee Titans v Indianapolis Colts

The Titans are extremely undervalued. The main reason I am taking them to win the AFC South is the piss-poor division they play in, but it helps that their offense seems to be in a prime position to shock the league. After switching quarterbacks from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill, the Titans really seemed to find their footing last season. Derrick Henry established himself as an absolute force to be reckoned with, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. People also seem to be forgetting about A.J. Brown. Brown finished the season second in the league in yards per pass route (3.46), yards per target (12.5), fantasy points per pass route (.71), and fantasy points per target (2.58). He also finished third in yards per reception (20.2) and yards after catch (447). Oh, and he was a rookie, and the only one at that to surpass the 1000 yard mark. Last season, Tennessee shocked the world with an unexpected playoff run that knocked off both the Patriots and the Ravens. Next season, with Tannehill cemented as their starting quarterback, Henry secured with a franchise tag, and A.J. Brown making leaps in production, it would be naive to assume they won’t pick up right where they left off.

On the other end of the ball, the Titans are very, well, very average. There are a lot of question marks entering the season. Will the retirement of defensive coordinator Dean Pees have a significant impact? Where will the pass rush come from? At the end of the day, the Titans have a lot of potential, but only time will tell how they perform. But they look to be in a much better position than both the Texans and the Colts, the two other teams that realistically have a shot at taking the division title.

The Colts are currently favored to win the AFC South at +120 odds, but Tennessee poses a serious threat to take it from them. With an offense that I’m confident is still being overlooked and a stronger defense than their two significant divisional opponents, I’m putting my money on the Titans to come out on top.

AFC WEST

Pick: Kansas City Chiefs (-400)

Offense: 1st

Defense: 13th

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Not too much to say on this. If you believe otherwise, you’re either delusional or a Broncos fan (which may require some delusion in its own right).

Big-contract Mahomes will put up some electrifying numbers barring a major injury. Magic happens anytime he steps onto the field with Andy Reid calling the shots, and it doesn’t hurt that the most talented passer in the league is still airing it out to Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, among other extremely talented wideouts. Until they prove otherwise, the Chiefs have the league’s best offense, bar none.

Their defense isn’t particularly bad either. The recent additions of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and defensive back Tyrann Mathieu have proved extremely strong moves, and they are only showing signs of improvement. The Chiefs offense will do most of the carrying, but their defense will play a key role in blowout wins to-come. In any division, the Chiefs would likely come out on top, but the icing on the cake is their lack of competition within their own. The Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders are not even in the same ballpark as the Chiefs. In short, don’t be stupid and bet on anybody else.

NFC EAST

Pick: Philadelphia Eagles (+140)

Offense: 13th

Defense: 12th

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Eenie, meenie, miney, mo, Eagles. Okay, in all seriousness, the race between the Eagles and Cowboys will be close this year, but I do really like the Eagles to come out on top. My reasoning is rather simple. Firstly, Miles Sanders: I’m extremely high on Sanders. Last season, Sanders may have slipped under your radar. Despite a few outstanding performances, the Eagles’ rookie back posted respectable, but very underwhelming numbers. But he was held back, forced to play behind Jordan Howard for half the season. Once Howard injured himself, Sanders demonstrated serious potential, establishing himself as extremely capable of becoming a premier dual-threat back. And the Eagles are behind him 100%. With Jordan Howard now in Miami, Darren Sproles now retired, and a lack of moves to draft or sign another running back, Philadelphia has paved the way for Miles Sanders to take over. And if he can, I think the Eagles can, too.

Secondly, the Cowboys seem too problematic. Despite his best efforts, Jerry Jones continues to fuel arguments against his competence. Yes, Dak finally got a contract (kinda) and Zeke will return as another top option, but their organization still has a long list of inner-issues that could easily surface in a season defined by COVID-19. Jerry has a long, long history of stupid decisions, and I’d be naive to think that something won’t spark controversy and chemistry issues within the Cowboys locker room this year. 

In short, the Cowboys and Eagles are neck and neck. But if Miles Sanders can emerge as a star of a revitalized offense, or chemistry issues continue in Dallas, the Eagles will have a leg up.

NFC NORTH

Pick: Green Bay Packers (+165)

Offense: 11th

Defense: 16th

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Minnesota and Green Bay are tied as favorites in the NFC North at +165 odds, but I’m giving the Packers the advantage here because of offensive production and past success. Despite the questionable first-round pick of Jordan Love, the Packers seem to be making moves drafting running back A.J. Dillon and tight end/H-back Josiah Deguara. What this suggests is a transition to a more San Francisco 49ers type offense that thrives on play-action, throwing out of heavy personnel packages, and keeping the defense off-balance. Whether or not this succeeds only time will tell, but Matt LaFleur is a more than capable head coach and Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers, so I’m confident we can expect some results.

As for Minnesota, there are reasons to be skeptical. They lost Stefon Diggs in the offseason, who was one of the best downfield receivers last year and a key part of their offense. They are also facing a transition of offensive coordinators as Gary Kubiak prepares to take over for Kevin Stefanski. While the Vikings were strong last year, I am not easily convinced they will keep it up. Their defense is certainly stronger than Green Bay’s, but the Packers can hold their own. And while Kirk Cousins is good, I’d be reluctant to put him in the same tier as Rodgers. 

The NFC North will be competitive this year. The Vikings could make a big splash. But my gut is telling me the Packers still have it. 

NFC SOUTH

Pick: New Orleans Saints (-115)

Offense: 3rd

Defense: 10th

Seattle Seahawks v New Orleans Saints

As much as I’d like to believe otherwise as a New England fan, I just don’t see Brady and the Bucs coming out atop the NFC South. In my eyes, the Saints already have the division locked down. They’ve stably been an offensive powerhouse for some time now, while the Bucs are just putting the pieces together. Given some time, I expect they will be too, but my gut says they won’t be as strong as the Saints out of the gate. Do I believe the Bucs will make the playoffs? Certainly. Over New Orleans? Unlikely.

It hurts to admit, but Brady is aging. He’s been on the decline of his career, and after having the displeasure of watching New England’s offense fall apart last season, it’s hard to point fingers at anybody else. A strong offensive showing from the Bucs is contingent on a strong showing from Brady, and under a new system, Tom is going to be put to the test. New options in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin could certainly help, but their play styles don’t exactly align, and it could take time for them to find their stride. 

On the other hand, aside from Drew Brees’ questionable offseason comments, the Saints are thriving. Despite an early exit in the playoffs, the Saints were a powerhouse last year. And this year they’ve only gotten stronger. Future-hall-of-famer Drew Brees is of course back and has shown no signs of slowing down, continuing to power their evolving offense to playoff berth upon playoff berth. They return Michael Thomas, who led the league in seemingly everything last season, and little is stopping him from doing it all again. They also bring back Alvin Kamara, who shined as one of the league’s top dual-threat backs, a true wildcard who poses a threat on the ground and in the air. And they’ve made key additions, too, signing Jameis Winston and Emmanuel Sanders, both of whom will add significant depth.

On defense, the Saints have been above average. They have shown considerable strength in run stoppage, ranking fourth in the league by limiting their opponents to 91.3 yards per game. New Orleans also ranked third with 51 sacks, and fifth with a pressure rate of 26.4%. Though their secondary can certainly struggle, I’m confident the strength of the team can pick up their slack. I’m thinking Brees and co. carry the extra load and lead the Saints to another divisional title.

NFC WEST

Pick: Seattle Seahawks (+250)

Offense: 7th

Defense: 22nd

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This is my hot take. San Francisco are the clear favorites to win the West with -110 odds, but they’re not doing it for me. In their defense, Kyle Shanahan has worked wonders with them, and the 49ers are loaded. Their offense has shown flashes of greatness, and their defense is top 2 in the league. But then again, something about them isn’t doing it for me.

The first thing that comes to mind is an overestimated offense. While Jimmy Garappolo was exciting to watch last season, I feel like his success rode too much off that of their defense. He couldn’t show up in the Super Bowl when San Francisco needed him most, and I feel as if this is indicative of larger inconsistencies with his performance that need to be ironed out. I don’t believe their offense is as strong as it appears on paper, and if a stronger opponent manages to break through their defense and force the 49ers to score, they seem to crumple under the pressure. For the 49ers to be great again, their defense needs to be just as great if not better. Additionally, there are now reports suggesting their lead running back, Raheem Mostert, wants out because of problematic contract negotiations. In my opinion, both these issues point to an underwhelming season.

On the other hand, I think Seattle is poised for another strong one. Pete Caroll is of course Pete Caroll, and a fantastic man to have pulling the strings. Russell Wilson continues to prove his worth, putting on an MVP-esque performance for most of last season, and with a supporting cast led by Tyler Lockett and an emerging D.K. Metcalf, he will continue to be dangerous this season. Despite a seriously lacking defense, I think Seattle could shock some people this season if their division rivals neglect to rise to the moment. 

In this quarterback-driven league, the Seahawks undoubtedly have the edge over their division rivals, and as the 49ers are put to the test, I think it could be enough. Maybe don’t put the mortgage on this pick, but maybe don’t put it on San Francisco either.

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