The 2020 NFL season is finally here. While it feels like we’ve been previewing this season for ages, here is one finally somewhat official season preview. Below are my predictions (not projections) in how each division will finish along with some general thoughts a few numbers that could shape the divisional race.

Each team is listed in predicted order of finish within the division and Wild Card teams (three in each conference now) are noted with an asterisk.

AFC East

New England Patriots
Buffalo Bills*
Miami Dolphins
New York Jets

Going against the Patriots in the AFC East is going to be something that has to be seen before I’m ready to pull the trigger. Even with expected regression on defense before all of the opt-outs on that side of the ball, the Patriots still have great corners across the board (J.C. Jackson was the league’s best corner by Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap last season) and there is enough versatility remaining in the front seven to get creative in the pass rush. 

Numbers that could shape the division:

  • Lamar Jackson (2019 and 2018) has the two highest rushing totals for designed quarterback runs (including option keepers) in a season since Sports Info Solutions started tracking data in 2015. The next four seasons are 2015 Cam Newton, 2017 Cam Newton, 2016 Cam Newton, and 2018 Cam Newton. How structured/effective the QB run game is for New England could shape the ceiling of the offense.
  • Josh Allen was 10th among quarterbacks in EPA per attempt on intermediate throws (11-19 air yards) outside of the red zone, a clear area of improvement. However, among 34 quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts over 20 air yards, Allen was 33rd in completion percentage and EPA.
  • Stefon Diggs had a league-leading 436 receiving yards on two combined routes: go’s and deep crosses.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens
Cleveland Browns*
Pittsburgh Steelers*
Cincinnati Bengals

The Ravens not only brought all the major players back from the league’s best regular-season team last season (including both coordinators Greg Roman and Wink Martindale), they added to them. Earl Thomas is the biggest loss, but the Ravens didn’t just rely on him to be the deep centerfielder like he was in Seattle, which oddly makes his role easier to replace with a deep rotating group of defensive backs.

Numbers that could shape the division:

  • No team blitzed more often than the Ravens last season (45%). No defensive back rushed the passer on more snaps (82) than Chuck Clark
  • We know Lamar Jackson can run, but he also led all quarterbacks in EPA on pass attempts and had the third-highest positive play rate (percentage of plays with positive EPA) among 42 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts, per Sports Info Solutions.
  • Among 49 quarterbacks with at least 50 non-play-action attempts, only Kyle Allen had lower EPA than Mayfield. How the offense is opened up on play-action and straight dropbacks under Kevin Stefanski will be key to a Mayfield rebound in 2020.
  • Odell Beckham had a crappy season (that’s still saying something for a 1,035-yard receiving season) but he was still Odell Beckham on slants. Beckham had 14 receptions on 15 catchable targets (21 total) per SIS and had the fifth-highest yards after the catch rate (59.4%) among 35 wide receivers with at least 10 slant targets.

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts
Houston Texans
Tennessee Titans
Jacksonville Jaguars

The Colts patiently built up their roster and might have the best one in the division. The initial plan probably didn’t call for a soon-to-be 39-year-old quarterback at the helm, but Philip Rivers gives that offense stability and a high ceiling to go along with the potential of a young, improving defense. Houston actively got worse while Tennessee spent a lot of money to stay mostly the same while regression is likely to hit in many areas.

Numbers that could shape the division:

  • From a clean pocket in 2019, Rivers finished fourth in EPA and sixth in positive play rate. He goes from an offensive line that ranked 20th in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate during 2019 to one that ranked third.
  • Ryan Tannehill completed a league-high 75% of his intermediate passes last season after never eclipsing 57% in a season since 2015. 
  • No team avoided the intermediate area of the field more than the Houston Texans last season at just 12.7% of attempts. With DeAndre Hopkins gone and a wide receiver corps that includes Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, Keke Coutee, and Randall Cobb, Houston could be doubling down on the quick throw or deep shot offense.

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs
Las Vegas Raiders
Los Angeles Chargers
Denver Broncos

One of these teams has Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid. The other three do not. 

Numbers that could shape the division:

  • Patrick Mahomes played in 14 games, some not 100%, and still finished second in the league in passing EPA in 2019.

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys
Philadelphia Eagles
Washington Football Team
New York Giants

Everything aligned for the Cowboys to be a contender in 2019 but they Garrett-ed away that chance. Mike McCarthy did two things really well as a head coach in his final years with the Packers: high early-down passing rates and fourth down aggressiveness. Those don’t signal automatic improvement, but those are the small edges Dallas never took advantage of previously. Add McCarthy wrinkles to the Kellen Moore offense that should see more freedom and the Cowboys could again be one of the league’s best offenses.

Numbers that could shape the division:

  • Dak Prescott was second in the league (behind Mahomes) in EPA on non-play-action passing attempts during the 2019 season. The Cowboys should use play-action more often (they slowed down after an early-season barrage), which could make throws even easier for Prescott and the rest of the offense.
  • Dallas could blitz more often in 2020 under Mike Nolan after having one of the highest four-man rush rates under Kris Richard last season. Both Jaylon Smith (34% pressure rate) and Leighton Vander Esch (30.8%) were effective blitzers when they were sent. Smith rushed on 9.7% of his pass snaps and Vander Esch did so on just 5.0% of his. 
  • No team threw a lower percentage of passes at or behind the line of scrimmage than the Cowboys in 2019 (11.4%).
  • Carson Wentz had the sixth-highest EPA per attempt among quarterbacks on 5-step drops last season (0.22 on 79 attempts) but was among the worst (27th) on 3-step drops, which were much more common in the offense (-0.10 on 228 attempts).

NFC North

Detroit Lions
Green Bay Packers
Minnesota Vikings
Chicago Bears

The Lions love might have gotten too trendy in some analytics circles, but I’m still holding (though not with a strong conviction). This is mostly a bet on what is still likely to be the best offense in the division if Matthew Stafford can stay healthy.

Numbers that could shape the division:

  • Despite playing in just eight games, Stafford finished ninth among all quarterbacks in total EPA on throws from a clean pocket in 2019. He led that group in EPA per attempt on such throws.
  • No quarterback threw more pass attempts off RPOs than Aaron Rodgers last season (49), but he finished 18th out of 22 quarterbacks with at least 10 passes in EPA per attempt (-0.03).
  • The Packers played more Dime than any team in the league last season at 57% of defensive snaps. The next highest team was Baltimore at 43%.
  • Kirk Cousins had seven touchdown passes and no interceptions on designed rollouts to his left. Only 11 other quarterbacks attempt seven such passes. Cousins led the league with 33 attempts.

NFC South

New Orleans Saints
Tampa Bay Buccaneers*
Atlanta Falcons
Carolina Panthers

The Saints probably have the deepest roster in the NFL with substantial depth at nearly every position. They’re also clearly in an all-in type mode to get the most out of the 2020 roster before they might finally have to pay up to the Salary Cap Gods in 2021.

Numbers that could shape the division:

  • Michael Thomas’s aDOT doesn’t matter. He led the NFL in volume, sure, and that led to a huge lead in EPA (89.6 to second-place 67.3) but he also had the highest positive play rate among any player with at least 100 targets at 71.3% (second place was 64.4%).
  • Chris Godwin was that receiver who finished second in EPA last season behind Thomas. 91 of his 121 targets came lined up in the slot, which could put him in prime position to be Tom Brady’s go-to receiver.
  • Last season, the Saints averaged 0.13 EPA per play with Taysom Hill off the field and 0.08 EPA per play with him on it. That’s a difference of -0.05. 

NFC West

Seattle Seahawks
Los Angeles Rams*
San Francisco 49ers*
Arizona Cardinals

Picking the NFC West is a decision on who is more likely to beat regression: Russell Wilson or Kyle Shanahan. Right now, I’m betting on Wilson because there might be too many moving parts for the 49ers. Joe Woods is an underrated loss as the defensive backs coach and the skill position players on offense have already been hit hard with injuries. I’m not particularly low on any of these teams in general and nearly any finishing combination of these four teams would not be a surprise.

Numbers that could shape the division:

  • Russell Wilson finished 2019 third in EPA on throws that traveled at least 20 yards down the field and had the fifth-most attempts. A full season of Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf could make that even more dangerous.
  • Jimmy Garoppolo had the highest completion percentage (63.3%) on 20+ air yard throws. The next highest rate was 48.9% among quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts. However, Garoppolo had just 30 such attempts, which highlights how open those throws needed to be schemed in order for him to throw them.
  • The 49ers averaged 0.01 EPA per play with Kyle Juszczyk off the field and 0.15 EPA per play with him on it. The biggest improvement came in the passing game (0.06 off to 0.29 on).
  • Jared Goff finished second in EPA and 12th in positive play rate on straight dropbacks from a clean pocket among 34 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts.
  • The Rams used the third-highest rate of base defense in the league last season (34%) but also the third-highest rate of Dime (41%). That ended up with them using the lowest-rate of nickel (23%).

Super Bowl pick

Baltimore Ravens over Dallas Cowboys