Aaron Rodgers, AFC North, AJ Green, Andy Dalton, Antonio Brown, Baker Mayfield, Baltimore Ravens, Ben Roethlisberger, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Deshaun Watson, Detroit Lions, Freddie Kitchens, Gary Kubiak, Green Bay Packers, Jim Caldwell, Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon, Jonah Williams, Jordan Love, Kevin Stefanski, Khalil Mack, Kirk Cousins, Lamar Jackson, Le'Veon Bell, Mason Rudolph, Matt LaFleur, Matt Patricia, Matthew Stafford, Mike Tomlin, Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings, Mitchell Trubisky, Myles Garrett, NFC North, NFL, Nick Foles, Odell Beckham, Patrick Mahomes, Pittsburgh Steelers, Stefon Diggs, Zac Taylor
The Baltimore Ravens finished last season with the best regular season record but came up short in the play-offs against a Tennessee Titans team on a roll. This will lead to ongoing conversations about Lamar Jackson’s ability to win play-off games. That question is going to hang around until he does, but Jackson was the 2019 MVP for a reason, namely over three thousand yards of passing and twelve hundred yards on the ground. The Ravens did a great job of building their offence around Jackson and had a top five by DVOA defence to boot. The Ravens are in fact one of the better run franchises in the league so as long as Jackson can stay healthy then it is hard not to see this team competing again this season.
The Steelers went 8-8 last season despite losing veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in week two to an elbow injury. Their defece ranked third in the league by DVOA and their special teams was was top ten but a dead last offence saw them miss out on the play-offs. This is perhaps not surprising given they had no killer Bs left after Big Ben went down with Le’Veon Bell underwhelming for the Jets and Antonio Brown’s erratic and troubling behaviour seeing him barely play for Patriots before being cut for a second time having already failed to make the start of the season with the Raiders. The Steelers are another stable franchise so if Roethlisberger can stay healthy while getting somewhere near his best and the defence manages not to regress too much then they should be in contention come the end of the year. There are no guarantees in the NFL, and the AFC North should be a battle this year but I expect the Steelers to be in contention again as they usually are. That said, out of the thirteen season he has been head coach for the Steelers, Mike Tomlin has only failed to reach the play-offs in five, but that does include the last two seasons. I wouldn’t expect this to lead to problems for Tomlin if there are further struggles this season as the Steelers have been famously patient with their coaches and he did a great job under the circumstances, but it could be one to keep an eye on.
Turmoil seems to follow the Browns ever since their return to the league, but last year was a nightmare. They had play-off ambitions with a talented roster and a new head coach in Freddit Kitches who had established a connection with young quarterback Baker Mayfield in his rookie year. However, things were not right all season. Mayfield regressed in his second season with a falling completion percentage and similar numbers despite starting the full season for the first time. One of his new receiving targets, Odell Beckham was injured all year and so did not look like himself and nothing quite clicked on offence. The defence was hamstrung with Myles Garrett got involved in a fight with Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph, and having hit the quarterback over the head with their own helmet was suspended for the final six games of the season. The Browns come into this season with another new head coach, who almost can’t help being better than Freddie Kitchens and there is still plenty of talent on the roster, but Mayfield needs to take a step as a quarterback and so a lot is resting on how he will run new head coach Kevin Stefanski’s system. I have a feeling that thinkg will be better for the Browns, but in a competitive division I’m not sure if they will be able to push for the play-offs or not.
The Bengals were truly woeful last year in Zac Taylor’s first season as head coach. Some of that wasn’t his fault as AJ Green was lost to an ankle injury that was picked up at the first training camp practice, which for an NFL 100 event was played on a high school field they should never have been on and soon after that the Bengals’ first round draft pick, left tackle Jonah Williams, was lost to a shoulder injury whilst they were still in camp. In fact, the offensive line was bad all year as the offence struggled so much they had to rip up the approach halfway through to get Joe Mixon going and the defence was bad. They had the worst record in the league for a reason, but they were within a touchdown in half of their fourteen losses and after several seasons where Andy Dalton could never find the form he showed in the 2015 the Bengals moved on, taking college sensation Joe Burrow with the first pick after his ridiculously good Heisman winning season at LSU where he led the Tigers to the college championship. All the talk is that he’s been learning the playbook during the offseason via zoom and has looked in good in training camp, but who hasn’t looked good in training camp this year? There’s no way to know without seeing him in games, and the offensive line needs to be better for him to operate successfully, but there are still lots of good skill players and if they don’t need a perfect pocket for the quarterback to operate then they stand a solid chance of improving on that side of the ball. The Bengals defence has a re-tooled linebacker group and the team signed some free-agents, but it’s hard to get too excited. I think there is a good chance this team will look better and win some more game, they might even flirt with going .500 but after such a bad season I don’t think you can expect a worst to first type performance with a rookie quarterback, and particularly not in this division. I would love to be proved wrong but I think this should be a season of growth for the Bengals and after last season that will be okay.
Green Bay Packers
I think this is one of the more intriguing division in football, and last year’s division winners are an interesting case in point. The Packers went 13-3 and got to the Conference Championship game, but were handily beaten by the 49ers and gave up over two-hundred and fifty yards of running in that game. A lot of the talk through the season and on into the off-season was the play of Aaron Rodgers who still threw for over four thousand yards despite what many were calling a down year and his new head coach Matt LaFleur’s focus on running the ball. If there were to be signs of this approach changing, they were not obvious in the Packers offseason. Not only did they not take a receiver again this draft, but they traded up in the first round to select quarterback Jordan Love. It might be that the Packers are taking the view that you should always have a quarterback in development, or that they saw the opportunity to recreate the transition the Packers had from Brett Farve to Rodgers, but it was a significant move. Given the age of Rodgers (36) and the change of both GM and head coach in recent seasons, they could simply be preparing to move on. However, whilst Rodgers is clearly closer to the end of his career than the start, with modern sports medicine and the NFL’s current rules to protect quarterbacks he should still have several productive years yet and has spoken of playing into forties. The Packers might be expected to regress from thirteen wins this season and will be looking to further improve their defence. I suspect they will remain competitive, but I can’t help but feel this will be a team battling to maintain their success rather than taking a step forward.
The Vikings won a play-off game against the Saints before losing to the Super Bowl bound 49ers in the divisional round, but this did give quarterback Kirk Cousins his first play-off win of his career. Under head coach Mike Zimmer the Vikings have alternated years in the play-offs with seasons missing out despite being around 8-8, but they had a busy off-season and they would be hoping these transactions will helps them build on last season’s success rather than having a fallow year. However, integrating a draft class of fifteen was always going to be a big task, but doing so with the current practice restriction in place for this season could be a step too far. This is particularly the case for an overhauled secondary that lost three starting corners with over 223 collective career games. I have a lot of faith in coach Zimmer to look after a defence, but it makes me hesitant to be too bullish on them, particularly given the number of offensive coordinators that the Vikings have been through under Zimmer and the fact that they traded away star receiver Stefon Diggs. Going into the season with so many unknows makes it hard to be certain of anything, and given the limited number of games in an NFL season there is a certain amount of randomness built in. I like that Gary Kubiak is the offensive coordinator having consulted last season before Kevin Stefanski left for the Browns, and I think the Vikings will compete for the division but I can easily see things going awry for them in a potentially turmultous season.
There is a large amount of anxiety surrounding the Bears, which mainly stems from the quarterback position as Mitchell Trubisky regressed in 2019 after a promising first season in head coach Matt Nagy’s debut as a head coach. I never liked the trade up to pick Trubisky, and that pick looks even worse given that the Bears picked him ahead of both Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. The offence ranked a miserable twenty-fifth by DVOA whilst the defence regressed from first in 2018 by DVOA to eighth in 2019. The defence will likely be good enough, but with Trubisky now having Nick Foles in the quarterback room there is the potential for a quarterback controversy, although it is hard to have a huge amount of faith in either one as Foles has a history of inconsistent play. Special mention should go to Khalil Mack as the fearsome pass rusher he is, but I’m not sure that the fairly traditional for the Bears formula of stout defence and a struggling offence is going to cut it in 2020, and likely wasn’t envisioned when offensive minded coach Nagy was hired. The Bears could surprise me, but I’m not putting any faith in it.
The Lions opened last season with a concerning draw to the very inexperienced Arizona Cardinals, dragged themselves to 2-0-1, before falling back to 3-3-1 and failing to win another game. They were not helped by losing quarterback Matthew Stafford halfway through the season, who was playing well and very nearly had two and half thousand yards through eight games. My concern here is that the Lions were a nearly team under Jim Caldwell, but 9-7 was not deemed good enough when the Lions missed out on the playoffs and so Matt Patricia was brought in from the Patriots to get the Lions the play-off success Detroit thirsts so much for. However, Patricia has rebuilt the Lions as a pale re-imagining of the Patriots and has been unable to recreate the Patriot’s defensive formula away from Belichick. The Lions have only managed to win nine games in the last two season and whilst I can see that if everything goes right that the Lions might vault the Bears in this division, I’m not sure if I can see them doing much more. Matthew Stafford has some good skill players around him so it’s not impossible, but given the history in Detroit it could take a monumental effort to turn things around. Equally, the Lions could be due for a change, but for whatever reason, I do not find Patricia inspiring but as I tend to hope for success he could yet prove me wrong.
DVOA is Football Outsiders statistic for measuring a team’s success on every play versus the league average and you can read more about it and other football topics at https://footballoutsiders.com.