B/R NFL Expert Picks for 2020 Division WinnersJuly 31, 2020
B/R NFL Expert Picks for 2020 Division Winners
The 2020 offseason has been like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out minicamp, OTAs and the entire preseason.
But with rookies reporting to training camp and veterans preparing to join them, we are finally inching toward the NFL's return.
There are any number of uncertainties facing teams this year. The lack of prep time would appear to put teams with new coaches and schemes (as well as the entire rookie class) behind. A number of players (including some big names like New England Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower and Kansas City Chiefs running back Damien Williams) have opted out of the 2020 campaign altogether.
The first season with 14 playoff teams is going to be a doozy.
With just over 40 days to go until the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs are scheduled to open the regular season, five of the NFL writers here at Bleacher Report have gathered to cast their votes for the champions of the league's eight divisions.
How many teams will repeat? Who is prepared to change the balance of power in their division? Will the status quo or chaos reign in 2020?
Here's what they had to say.
AFC East: Buffalo Bills
Gary Davenport: Buffalo Bills
Tyler Dunne: New England Patriots
Brad Gagnon: Buffalo Bills
Matt Miller: Buffalo Bills
Brent Sobleski: New England Patriots
For the last decade-plus, the AFC East has been the ultimate exercise in foregone conclusions. The last time a team not named the New England Patriots won the division was 2008. That's the only time the Pats haven't claimed the division since 2003.
However, the times they are a-changin'. Tom Brady is in Tampa Bay. New England lost a handful of key defensive players to free agency, and even more (including defensive starters Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung) opted out of the 2020 season.
The Patriots won't necessarily be a bad team in 2020 with Cam Newton under center. But they aren't the front-runners in the division. The Buffalo Bills are, and it's been over 20 years since anyone said that.
The Bills aren't dominant in any one facet of the game, but the team also doesn't have any glaring weaknesses.
Josh Allen improved as a passer in his second season and got a big boost in the offseason when the team traded for wideout Stefon Diggs. Buffalo's eighth-ranked rushing attack added a bruising young running back in this year's draft in Utah's Zack Moss. The Buffalo defense doesn't have a ton of star power outside cornerback Tre'Davious White, but the team ranked third in yards allowed during 2019.
After a 17-year postseason drought, the Bills have earned a wild-card berth in two of the past three seasons under head coach Sean McDermott. But they haven't won the division outright since all the way back in 1995.
That changes in 2020.
NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles
Davenport: Dallas Cowboys
Dunne: Philadelphia Eagles
Gagnon: Philadelphia Eagles
Miller: Dallas Cowboys
Sobleski: Philadelphia Eagles
On paper at least, the Dallas Cowboys look like the most talented roster in the NFC East. The addition of explosive rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb to the league's No.1 offense in 2019 gives Dallas one of the NFL's most loaded units on that side of the ball.
Of course, that's been the story in Dallas for several years. The team has looked the part on paper but has come up short on Sundays. The Cowboys brought in a new head coach, Mike McCarthy, in an effort to put a stop to those disappointments. But in a year without minicamps, OTAs or preseason games, change can be a dangerous thing.
The reigning NFC East champions, on the other hand, are heading into their fifth year under Doug Pederson. As Dave Zangaro reported for NBC Sports Philadelphia, the head coach thinks that continuity can only help the Philadelphia Eagles in 2020.
“We've been blessed," Pederson said. "I've been blessed going into my fifth year here in Philadelphia and maintaining the staff that I have and adding some great additions to the staff this year. And our players are excited because they are not having to learn a necessarily new offense or defense or special teams."
Veteran cornerback Darius Slay was a big get for Philadelphia, and rookie wideout Jalen Reagor should add some pop to a unit that was ravaged by injuries last year.
But the main reason the Eagles are the pick to win the NFC East may well be that while the Cowboys regularly fail to meet expectations, Pederson's Eagles have a habit of exceeding them.
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens
Davenport: Baltimore Ravens
Dunne: Baltimore Ravens
Gagnon: Baltimore Ravens
Miller: Baltimore Ravens
Sobleski: Pittsburgh Steelers
It's hardly a surprise that the Baltimore Ravens are our panel's pick as the AFC North champions. After all, the team posted the best record in the NFL a year ago. After starting the season 2-2, the Ravens peeled off 12 wins in a row, setting a record for the most rushing yards by a team in league history along the way.
If there's a surprise here, it's that the Ravens weren't a unanimous pick, especially because the team got even better in the offseason.
There wasn't much improvement to be made to an offense led by reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson. But by selecting Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins in the second round of the 2020 draft, Baltimore's already fearsome ground game got that much more formidable.
The defense, on the other hand, received a massive boost. The Ravens drafted two athletic young linebackers in LSU's Patrick Queen and Ohio State's Malik Harrison, filling the team's biggest need in the process. The defensive line got a capable veteran starter in Derek Wolfe and a five-time Pro Bowler in Calais Campbell.
Baltimore also didn't sustain any major personnel losses in free agency on either side of the ball.
With a healthy Ben Roethlisberger back under center, the Pittsburgh Steelers aren't going to be an easy out this season, but the Ravens are more than just the favorites to win their division. They're the best bet in the AFC to knock the Kansas City Chiefs from their perch atop the conference.
NFC North: Minnesota Vikings
Davenport: Minnesota Vikings
Dunne: Chicago Bears
Gagnon: Minnesota Vikings
Miller: Green Bay Packers
Sobleski: Minnesota Vikings
For most of the past decade, the NFC North has belonged to the Green Bay Packers. They've won the division in six of the past 10 years, including last season.
However, after a puzzling offseason in Titletown, during which the Packers invested more in a potential successor to quarterback Aaron Rodgers than in fixing the issues at wide receiver around him, the majority of our experts believe a changing of the guard could be on the horizon.
It's not that the Minnesota Vikings don't have issues of their own that will have to be addressed this season. The trade that sent Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills created a hole at wide receiver opposite Adam Thielen. The Vikings lost their top three cornerbacks in the offseason. The defensive end spot opposite star Danielle Hunter is a question mark.
And fair or not, quarterback Kirk Cousins has developed a reputation for coming up short when it matters most.
However, they added young talent at both corner and receiver in the draft to offset their losses at those positions. Head coach Mike Zimmer hasn't ruled out a reunion with veteran end Everson Griffen, and the Vikings still have a talented and balanced roster without any major weaknesses.
As Bryan Perez wrote for NBC Sports Chicago:
"In the last 30 years, 52 teams improved by 6+ wins from one year to the next. Only 18 of those 52 teams improved to record at least 12 wins, like the Packers (from 6-10 to 13-3 last year). Of those 18 teams:
"Zero won the same number or more games the following year
"All lost at least two more games the following year
"13 lost at least four more games the following year
"On average, these 18 teams lost 5.9 more games the following year."
That regression will open the door for the Vikes.
AFC South: Houston Texans
Davenport: Houston Texans
Dunne: Tennessee Titans
Gagnon: Houston Texans
Miller: Houston Texans
Sobleski: Indianapolis Colts
The 2020 offseason was not especially kind to the Houston Texans. As Ben Standig reported for The Athletic, they received the most votes (11) in a poll of NFL agents for the team that had the worst offseason, largely because they traded star wideout DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals.
"I just don't understand them whatsoever," one agent said.
"They rid themselves of their best player when not forced," another added.
And yet, the Texans were the pick of three writers to repeat as AFC South champions, mainly because they are the defending AFC South champions.
In a season during which continuity is king, the 2020 Texans will look an awful lot like the 2019 Texans. Yes, Hopkins is gone. So is running back Carlos Hyde. But they got an upgrade over Hyde in David Johnson thanks to the Hopkins trade, and they brought in a proven veteran replacement for the departed wideout in Brandin Cooks. If they can stay healthy, the Houston offense shouldn't take a big step backward this season.
The Texans still have defensive end J.J. Watt and inside linebacker Zach Cunningham to anchor the defense, as well as one of the NFL's most electrifying young quarterbacks in Deshaun Watson.
This is a Texans team that raced out to a 24-0 lead in last year's playoff loss to the Super Bowl champion Chiefs. While the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts aren't far behind, Houston is the pick to once again rule the AFC South.
NFC South: New Orleans Saints
Davenport: New Orleans Saints
Dunne: Atlanta Falcons
Gagnon: Atlanta Falcons
Miller: New Orleans Saints
Sobleski: New Orleans Saints
The NFC South has the makings of a real brouhaha in 2020. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the most-hyped team in the entire league after adding quarterback Tom Brady. The Atlanta Falcons went 6-2 over the second half of the 2019 season and are only a few years removed from a Super Bowl trip. The Carolina Panthers…
OK, so the Panthers stink. But still, it has the makings of a tough division this year.
And the New Orleans Saints remain the team to beat.
Drew Brees doesn't have an MVP award (somehow) like Brady or Matt Ryan, but he does have more passing yards and touchdowns than any signal-caller in league history. In running back Alvin Kamara, wide receivers Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Jared Cook, Brees has a bevy of weapons at his disposal. The Saints also have a top-three offensive line in both run blocking and pass protection, per Football Outsiders.
The defense has no shortage of talent, either. Defensive end Cameron Jordan and linebacker Demario Davis are two of the most underrated players in the league at their respective positions. Veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins is back in Big Easy, joining a secondary that also includes one of the NFL's best young corners in Marshon Lattimore.
It's not hyperbole to say the Saints might be the most balanced team in the NFL—and while New Orleans came up short in the postseason last year, the team is one of the leading contenders to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LV.
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs
Davenport: Kansas City Chiefs
Dunne: Kansas City Chiefs
Gagnon: Kansas City Chiefs
Miller: Kansas City Chiefs
Sobleski: Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs are pretty good.
In 2019, they won 12 games and the franchise's first championship in half a century. They have arguably the game's best player in quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who just signed the largest contract extension in the history of professional sports.
And to hear the Chiefs tell it, the team is only just getting started.
As McKenzie Nelson reported for KSHB-TV in Kansas City, defensive tackle Chris Jones (who just inked a massive extension of his own) has predicted that the Chiefs will win five Super Bowls. Star wideout Tyreek Hill went one (actually two) better, forecasting a seven-ring dynasty that would be the greatest the NFL has ever seen.
Mahomes is on board with the idea of the Chiefs dominating the NFL for the next decade.
"You love the guys have the goals and they want to be in Kansas City for a long time and that they want to win championships and they don't want to be average, they want to be great every single year," he said.
Now, seven championships might be stretching things just a bit. It's been almost 20 years since the NFL had a repeat champion. But the Chiefs have an MVP quarterback, an absolutely loaded offense and a defense that made major strides in the team's march to the title in 2019.
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks
Davenport: San Francisco 49ers
Dunne: Seattle Seahawks
Gagnon: San Francisco 49ers
Miller: Seattle Seahawks
Sobleski: Seattle Seahawks
The San Francisco 49ers won 13 games last year and eventually represented the NFC in Super Bowl LIV, where they very nearly defeated the Kansas City Chiefs. Now that a seventh playoff team has been added in each conference, there's an excellent chance the Niners will make it back into the postseason.
According to the majority of the NFL writers polled for this piece, it just won't be as champions of the NFC West.
The Seattle Seahawks actually came close to capturing the division last year. Despite a so-so pass-defense, one of the NFL's weakest pass-rushes and a litany of injuries, they almost pulled off a Week 17 upset over the 49ers that would have given them the division title.
Seattle's defense got a sizable boost in recent days with the trade that brought All-Pro safety Jamal Adams to the Emerald City. But its hopes in 2020 rest where they have since 2012: with quarterback Russell Wilson.
As Mike Sando wrote for The Athletic, at least one NFL offensive coordinator thinks Wilson is every bit the quarterback Patrick Mahomes is.
"If Wilson was playing in Kansas City, people would be calling him the best quarterback in the NFL, and if Mahomes was in Seattle, they would be saying, 'God, this guy is really good, but you wish they would give him a chance early in games,'" the coordinator said.
Having an MVP-caliber quarterback could be more important than ever this year.
And while Jimmy Garoppolo and Jared Goff are good and Kyler Murray is ascending, Wilson is the gold standard under center in the NFC West.