Dark-Horse Pick to Win Each Division for 2020 Season

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMay 24, 2020

Dark-Horse Pick to Win Each Division for 2020 Season

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Going into the regular season, we often project a handful of expected division winners—mostly clubs that won the previous year. Once teams hit the field, the results turn some of our predictions upside down.

    Last offseason, the Los Angeles Rams seemed like favorites to win the NFC West coming off a run to the Super Bowl. Yet following five consecutive non-winning seasons, the San Francisco 49ers took the division crown with a 13-3 record.

    Offseason acquisitions, players who return to action from significant injuries and free-agency departures could change the complexion of a division race, which leads to some surprises in the final standings.

    Let's take a look at a dark-horse pick to win each division for the upcoming campaign. These selections are defined as clubs that didn't finish first last year. Secondly, none of the teams listed have the best odds to win a division title, per Caesars Palace.

AFC East: New York Jets

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    New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold
    New York Jets quarterback Sam DarnoldTimothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

    Following quarterback Tom Brady's departure from New England to Tampa Bay, the AFC East is wide-open. Caesars Palace lists the Buffalo Bills as favorites (+100) to win the division. However, the New York Jets' offseason moves combined with quarterback Sam Darnold's growth could catapult this club to the top spot.

    Last year, Darnold adjusted to a new coaching staff and missed three games because of mononucleosis. He threw for 3,024 yards, 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Perhaps the young signal-caller will show significant growth during his second campaign under head coach Adam Gase.

    On ESPN's NFL Live (h/t Connie Carberg), quarterback consultant Jordan Palmer suggested the Jets signal-caller still has a bright outlook.

    The Jets also strengthened Darnold's supporting cast.

    Gang Green's quarterbacks dropped back to the most hurries (76) last season. Rookie first-round tackle Mekhi Becton, center Connor McGovern and tackle George Fant could take on prominent roles within a reconstructed offensive line. 

    In 2019, wide receiver Breshad Perriman recorded career highs in receptions (36), yards (645) and touchdowns (six). The 26-year-old accumulated 17 catches for 349 yards and four scores in his last three starts for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If the 2015 first-rounder realizes his potential, he'll round out a solid trio at the position, which includes Jamison Crowder and rookie second-rounder Denzel Mims. 

    Defensively, the return of linebackers C.J. Mosley and Avery Williamson should help stabilize the front seven, which improves a unit that ranked 16th in scoring and seventh in yards allowed in 2019.

AFC North: Cleveland Browns

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    Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield
    Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker MayfieldAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    During an appearance on FS1's First Things First, Baker Mayfield called the 2019 season a "humbling experience." He threw 22 touchdowns and 21 interceptions while the Browns went 6-10. 

    After a big piece of humble pie, Mayfield's renewed focus could yield positive results. On top of that, head coach Kevin Stefanski's zone-run scheme should put running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in position to wear down defenses. The former ranked second in rushing yards (1,494) last season. 

    The Browns revamped their offensive line after the team faced the seventh-most quarterback hurries (65) during the previous campaign. The front office signed right tackle Jack Conklin. Rookie first-rounder Jedrick Wills Jr. will likely start on the left side.

    With added protection and a stronger ground attack along with wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, two-tight-end sets featuring David Njoku and Austin Hooper can challenge defenses on every level.

    The league reinstated star edge-rusher Myles Garrett, and the Browns later selected safety Grant Delpit in the second round of the draft. The rookie exhibited ball-hawking qualities at LSU, recording eight interceptions through three terms. We should see improvements on both ends of Cleveland's defense.

    In 2019, the Browns split the season series with the Baltimore Ravens. They can pose the biggest challenge to the division champions with a new offensive philosophy, Garrett's return and the addition of a playmaker in the secondary.

AFC South: Indianapolis Colts

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    Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich
    Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank ReichTim Warner/Getty Images

    The Indianapolis Colts made arguably the biggest acquisition within the division—no that's not a reference to 6'7", 295-pound defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.

    If quarterback Philip Rivers cuts down on interceptions and performs at a level closer to his 2017-18 stretch, this club has the offensive personnel to challenge the Houston Texans and the Tennessee Titans. 

    Rivers has a reliable target in wideout T.Y. Hilton whose catch rate topped 63.2 percent in each of the last two seasons. He's recorded at least 1,083 receiving yards in five out of eight terms. To complement him, the Colts selected Michael Pittman Jr. in the second round of the draft.

    Out of the backfield, running backs Marlon Mack and rookie second-rounder Jonathan Taylor will pose a threat on the ground behind an offensive line that's set to return all of its starters from the previous year.

    On the other side of the ball, Buckner and Justin Houston have the potential to become a strong inside-out pass-rushing pair. The latter led the team in sacks (11) during the last campaign. With another dynamic playmaker up front, opposing quarterbacks will struggle to find holes in the Colts secondary.

    With the Jacksonville Jaguars turning the reins over to unproven quarterback Gardner Minshew II, the Colts easily fit into the dark-horse category. Caesars Palace the Titans as the favorites (+140) to win the division, but Indianapolis certainly has a pathway to a home playoff game.

AFC West: Los Angeles Chargers

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    Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Tyrod Taylor
    Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Tyrod TaylorLeon Halip/Getty Images

    In his last stint as a full-time starter, Tyrod Taylor led the Buffalo Bills to the postseason. He's 23-21-1 when opening games under center.

    According to The Athletic's Daniel Popper, Taylor "will almost certainly" start over rookie quarterback Justin Herbert.

    After a brief stop in Cleveland and a one-year backup role behind Philip Rivers, Taylor takes over an offense that's equipped to battle the Kansas City Chiefs on the scoreboard. 

    Through the air, Taylor can go to one of three pass-catchers who accumulated 993-plus receiving yards last season: Austin Ekeler, Mike Williams or Keenan Allen. This doesn't even include tight end Hunter Henry, who finished with career highs in receptions (55) and yards (652) in 2019. 

    The Chargers added cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive tackle Linval Joseph and rookie first-round linebacker Kenneth Murray to their 14th-ranked scoring defense that allowed the sixth-fewest yards last term. By the way, safety Derwin James should bounce back after missing 11 contests with a stress fracture in his foot this past campaign.

    The Las Vegas Raiders have question marks on defense, most notably in the secondary with rookie cornerback Damon Arnette battling for a starting job and safety Johnathan Abram missing all but one outing in his rookie term because of a torn rotator cuff and labrum. Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock seems promising, but he's only played five NFL games.

    If you're looking for an unexpected AFC West winner, the Chargers fit the bill with an experienced, dynamic dual-threat quarterback under center and a solid defense.

NFC East: Washington Redskins

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    Washington Redskins head coach Ron Rivera
    Washington Redskins head coach Ron RiveraAlex Brandon/Associated Press

    This past campaign, the Philadelphia Eagles won the NFC East. The Dallas Cowboys have the best odds (-105) to finish in the top spot for 2020.

    Even though New York Giants signal-caller Daniel Jones (24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions) produced better rookie numbers than the Washington Redskins' Dwayne Haskins (seven touchdowns and seven interceptions), the Redskins defense has enough talent to even the playing field with opponents if their young quarterback struggles in 2020. 

    On paper, the Redskins have one of the best front sevens in the league, featuring Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, Matt Ioannidis, Montez Sweat and rookie first-rounder Chase Young.

    Washington ranked 10th in sacks in 2019. With Young in the mix, this defense should host plenty of sack parties. The Ohio State product logged 30.5 sacks in three years as a collegian.

    Linebacker Cole Holcomb had a solid rookie campaign, logging 105 tackles, six for loss, three forced fumbles, a sack and a pass breakup. On the second level, he'll pair with 15-year veteran Thomas Davis, who's familiar with head coach Ron Rivera from their days in Carolina. 

    If Haskins and former Ohio State teammate Terry McLaurin continue to build their rapport in the passing game, the Redskins would have some offensive sparks to complement a defense that can hold opponents to a minimum on the scoreboard.

    Rivera goes into the season with a 76-63-1 record as a head coach, which gives the Redskins an edge over the Giants, who hired unproven first-time lead skipper Joe Judge.

NFC North: Detroit Lions

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    Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
    Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew StaffordPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions are positioned for a worst-to-first move in the NFC North standings.

    In 2019, the Lions went 3-4-1 before quarterback Matthew Stafford missed the final eight outings because of back and hip injuries. Detroit lost all of its contests with backups David Blough and Jeff Driskel under center.

    Through half of the 2019 term, Stafford played at a high level, throwing for 2,499 yards, 19 touchdowns and five interceptions with a 106 quarterback rating. He could get off to another hot start with Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr., Danny Amendola and TJ Hockenson at his disposal.

    Even if Kerryon Johnson struggles to finish his third campaign because of injury, rookie second-rounder D'Andre Swift can pick up the slack. With both on the field, Detroit has a two-man backfield capable of balancing the offense.

    The Lions traded All-Pro cornerback Darius Slay to the Philadelphia Eagles but drafted the top prospect at the position in Jeff Okudah. Desmond Trufant will fill a void on the opposite side of the boundary.

    Detroit signed defensive tackle Danny Shelton and linebacker Jamie Collins and traded for safety Duron Harmon, who all played under head coach Matt Patricia in New England when he served as a defensive coordinator. Those additions on every level of the defense should fit in seamlessly to patch up a unit that ranked 26th in scoring and gave up the second-most yards in 2019.

    Stafford looked impressive in his first year under offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, which bodes well for the Lions if their starting signal-caller stays healthy.

    With Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky's regression during the previous campaign, take Detroit as the team to knock off the Green Bay Packers atop the division and overcome the Minnesota Vikings' favorable odds (+170) to win it in 2020.

NFC South: Atlanta Falcons

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    Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (left) and quarterback Matt Ryan (right)
    Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (left) and quarterback Matt Ryan (right)Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't win the NFC South last year, but they don't fit in the dark-horse category with all the buzz around quarterback Tom Brady. Secondly, the club has slightly better odds to win the Super Bowl (+1200) than the New Orleans Saints (+1300), per Caesars Palace.

    The Atlanta Falcons would deliver a shock if they took the division crown from the Saints. This club has back-to-back 7-9 seasons with a head coach who landed on the hot seat last year, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    The Falcons' 2016 Super Bowl run, which ended in crushing defeat, seems like a distant memory, but their offense remains potent with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones still one of the league's top quarterback-wide receiver tandems. Over the last two seasons, Calvin Ridley has been a solid No. 2 option in the aerial attack, logging 127 receptions, 1,687 yards and 17 touchdowns.

    The team doesn't have clarity on running back Todd Gurley's health (knee), but the Falcons should have late-offseason options to fill the position if necessary. Coming off an ACL tear in August 2019, Lamar Miller hasn't signed with a team. He's 29 and logged 973 yards along with five scores on the ground in a Pro Bowl 2018 campaign.

    The Falcons' ability to contend with the high-powered passing attacks of the Saints and Buccaneers also weighs on the defense. The front office addressed the front line and the secondary, signing edge-rusher Dante Fowler Jr. and drafting cornerback A.J. Terrell along with defensive lineman Marlon Davidson in the first and second rounds, respectively.

NFC West: Los Angeles Rams

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    Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald
    Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron DonaldMark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Rams traded wideout Brandin Cooks and released running back Todd Gurley but directly addressed both voids. 

    Josh Reynolds will have a chance to line up in three-wide receiver sets. Rookie second-rounder Van Jefferson could push for the position as well.

    The Rams don't have a clear-cut lead ball-carrier, though second-rounder Cam Akers seems poised to take on a sizable workload. At Florida State, he proved capable of handling the majority of rushing attempts and catching out of the backfield, racking up 3,361 yards from scrimmage (2,875 rushing and 486 receiving).

    With a viable ground attack, quarterback Jared Goff won't have to carry the offense with his arm as he did last year, which yielded mixed results. Los Angeles dropped from second to 11th in scoring over the past two terms.

    With defensive tackle Aaron Donald commanding attention in the middle, Leonard Floyd and Terrell Lewis could pressure opposing quarterbacks on the edge. The former has a chance to fulfill his first-round (2016) draft potential.

    Alongside All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey in the secondary, John Johnson and Taylor Rapp should form a solid duo at safety. The former has recorded 24 pass breakups and seven interceptions in 38 outings. The latter put together a solid rookie performance, logging 100 tackles, eight pass breakups and two interceptions.

    The Seattle Seahawks parted ways with center Justin Britt and guard D.J. Fluker and allowed tackle Germain Ifedi to walk during free agency. With major question marks across the Seahawks offensive line, the Rams could pose the toughest threat to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West.