In the first two parts of this series I picked out the divisions way out west, both AFC and NFC, as the two strongest divisions to watch next season. So, does that mean for the rest of us there is nothing to look forward to? Of course not! There is still plenty for fans of every team and each division has the potential to surprise us. Let’s work through the divisions from 3 through to 8.
3rd – NFC South
It had to be didn’t it. As soon as the announcements came through that Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski were to be reunited at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFC South became a prime time division. The Bucs have given Brady everything he needs to succeed and to support him for one last push at yet another Super Bowl ring. They are one of three teams in this division who have gone “all in” to be Champions. The New Orleans Saints have one of the strongest rosters in the league and are coming off a third failed playoff run in a row. Drew Brees has re-signed for one last shot and this may be the Saints last chance with this group of players. Could all of their recent playoff heartache ultimately have a happy ending?
After recovering from a 1-7 start to last season, with Dan Quinn firmly in the firing line, the Atlanta Falcons went into the offseason off the back of 6 wins in 8 games. They will be able to field an offense in 2020 made up entirely of previous 1st round draft picks and they have renewed the defense with draft picks AJ Terrell and Marlon Davidson and free agent Dante Fowler JR. There will be high expectations.
Completing the division, the Carolina Panthers, will have an entirely different focus as the “Rhule Revolution” begins. Matt Rhule is used to major overhauls after his work at Temple and Baylor. Panthers’ fans may not expect a playoff berth this year but with a new contract for Christian McCaffrey and a slew of defensive draft picks, most notably Derrick Brown, Yetur Gross-Matos and Jeremy Chinn, Rhule will get the Panthers to be competitive and a thorn in the sides of the other three division rivals.
Winners – New Orleans Saints
4th – AFC North
Not too long ago this division would have been way down the rankings but in the last 2-3 seasons challengers have appeared along with the green shoots of recovery for others. The Baltimore Ravens, led by last season’s MVP Lamar Jackson, have become a real force in the league. They continued to enhance their roster through the draft (linebacker Patrick Queen and running back JK Dobbins will have instant impact) and their astute use of free agency (the arrival of veteran pass rusher Calais Campbell) will keep them firmly in contention.
The drama in this league will no doubt centre around the Cleveland Browns. So much was expected last year, with several star players meant to propel them to the playoffs. However, they could not function effectively as a team and Head Coach, Freddie Kitchens, paid the price. Under the incoming Head Coach, Kevin Stefanski, the Browns have doubled-down on big free agent signings (e.g. offensive tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Austin Hooper). Their first round draft pick, another tackle in Jedrick Wills, was further sign of giving quarterback Baker Mayfield every opportunity to bounce back from a difficult second year.
The Cincinnati Bengals fans will have greater hope this season than many of them can remember. The new face of the franchise, quarterback Joe Burrow, will be the source of that hope. However, the Bengals followed that pick up with further great picks, in particular boosting the linebacker corps with Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither. The Bengals will start moving in the right direction this season. Finally, the Pittsburgh Steelers, are the sleeper of this division. Somehow Head Coach Mike Tomlin engineered an 8-8 finish with no first choice quarterback and after the fall out of the high profile exits of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers were hurting last season. If they can get the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and James Conner back from injury and if Juju Smith-Schuster back to his 2018 form then the Steelers could be a challenger again next year.
Winners – Baltimore Ravens
5th – AFC East
Until last week this was a fairly simple division to preview. The New England Patriots would be vulnerable, the Buffalo Bills were favourites, and the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins were on the road to recovery. Then the Patriots signed Cam Newton. Now the AFC East is a little spicy. I remain convinced that the Patriots demise has been exaggerated. Bill Belichick simply will not let that happen. Top players will continue to come to New England to play “the Patriot way”. Cam probably sees this as a chance to kickstart a second phase in his career. If he remains fit, Belichick and Josh McDaniels will find a way to utilise Cam’s unique set of talents.
The Bills are one year more experienced, with a playoff visit under their belt. This will serve them well next year and they have added to their ranks with Stefon Diggs a target to help quarterback Josh Allen improve his numbers next year. Even with Cam in New England the Bills should still start favourites.
The Jets feel as though as long as Adam Gase is Head Coach there will be a circus which surrounds them. The prolonged (and very public) but near certain departure of Jamal Adams is another example of this. Sam Darnold shows promise but the Jets will need to drop the drama if they are to progress. Finally in Miami, the roster has gone through a complete overhaul. They now have Tua and he may be the most exciting prospect coming out of the 2020 draft once he is fit and ready. They will improve next year but look for them to take 2-3 seasons to challenge for the division.
Winners – Buffalo Bills
6th – NFC East
The NFC East comes next as there are two sides with designs on the title (Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles) and two simply looking for signs of recovery after a dreadful 2019 season (New York Giants and Washington Redskins).
Both the Cowboys and Eagles have solid-looking rosters. Dallas will have a strong set of receivers (including the addition of first-round draft pick CeeDee Lamb) for Dak Prescott to throw to (albeit questions remain over his contract and longer-term future). Philadelphia will be hoping for fewer injuries in 2020 and how the Eagles use rookie QB Jalen Hurts in any sort of tandem with Carson Wentz will be intriguing.
For Washington and New York they will be hoping their 2nd year quarterbacks, Dwayne Haskins and Daniel Jones, can make strides to help them be competitive. Both have new head coaches, experience from Ron Rivera (Washington) and an unknown quantity in Joe Judge (NY). A little like Miami in the AFC East, both these teams are probably focused on making improvements than a more “win now” focus from their rivals.
Winners – Dallas Cowboys
7th – AFC South
For the last two season the Houston Texans have taken the title but the roster shows signs of crumbling under the sometimes bizarre moves made by Head Coach / General Manager / Supremo Bill O’Brien. Star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins has departed to Arizona, essentially for the equivalent of loose change. What must Deshaun Watson be thinking? The Texans are vulnerable.
The Indianapolis Colts lie in wait. Remember that just before the start of the 2019 season Andrew Luck announced his retirement. The Colts were somewhat thrown into disarray. They have a solid roster but the season took its toll and a 5-2 start fell away to 7-9. Now they have recruited a veteran gunslinger for one last throw of the dice. Philip Rivers has previous connections with Head Coach Frank Reich and behind a solid offensive line with targets such as TY Hilton, Parris Campbell and rookie Michael Pittman JR (my tip for one of the best offensive rookies) Rivers should have more fun than in his last year in LA.
For the Tennessee Titans the big question will be is Ryan Tannehill the real deal? He played like never before after his trade to Tennessee and the combination of his arm and Derrick Henry’s juggernaut running style propelled the Titans into the playoffs. The Titans will always be in contention under Mike Vrabel and, well, they’ll finish 9-7 again won’t they? Propping up the division last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars are another team in reboot mode with Doug Marrone firmly on the hot seat. They have rebuilt after the dismantling of the no1 rated 2017 as one-by-one they left the franchise and they have accepted the misstep of the Nick Foles trade with Gardner Minshew as the new starting quarterback. As with others mentioned previously, the Jags will be simply looking for more wins this year or they could be the first franchise looking for a new head coach.
Winners – Indianapolis Colts
8th – NFC North
Apologies to fans of any of these teams but I don’t see much to get excited about in the NFC North. The Minnesota Vikings have had to pull apart key parts of their previously strong defense which may impact their ability to challenge. They will hope that Justin Jefferson will replace Stefon Diggs but doubts remain that Kirk Cousins can lead the Vikings to a title.
The Green Bay Packers may be the team to watch with a bag of popcorn handy as it feels like the Aaron Rodgers swansong. Their draft was perhaps the most unusual of any team, no new targets to throw to as such with instead Rodgers’ probably successor (Jordan Love) and a solid running back (AJ Dillon – a player I loved but he is not a heavy pass catcher). They were 13-3 last year with a NFC Championship appearance without being hugely convincing and Matt LaFleur’s 2nd year may prove more difficult.
If this division is to be interesting next season then both the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions need to challenge. The Bears will hope they have signed the Nick Foles of 2017 in light of Mitch Trubisky’s travails. The Lions will hope that certain high profile free agency captures such as Jamie Collins and Desmond Trufant alongside rookie Jeff Okudah and D’Andre Swift boost the roster. If they can get a full season out of quarterback Matthew Stafford next season then Detroit may be able to turn a corner, which would no doubt save HC Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn’s positions.
Winners – Minnesota Vikings
With around two months to go until the start of the regular season that is a whistle-stop tour of the divisions I see as trying to keep pace with those teams from the west. Sparks may also fly in other parts of the league, particularly with Brady and Gronk in Tampa and now Cam in New England, but if I was paying to go and sit in the stands this year I’d be looking to the NFC West and AFC West to provide the most fireworks of the 2020 season. Let’s all hope the show starts on time!