Bitter division rivals New England Patriots and New York Jets face off for the 125th time this Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
My thoughts on all 32 NFL franchises ahead of the chaotic 2021 offseason continues today with a look at the eight teams from the AFC south and west divisions.
Big question: How does the standoff with Deshaun Watson end?
Oh boy, where do we start here? Watson has made his intentions clear that he wants out after ownership didn’t listen to him during the process of hiring its new coach and general manager. Then new general manager Nick Caserio himself recently said the franchise has no intentions of trading its star quarterback.
Consider this: in the history of the league, only four players have completed 70 per cent of their passes and averaged more than 8.5 yards per passing attempt across an entire season (Joe Montana, Steve Young, Drew Brees and Deshaun Watson in 2020). Montana, Young and Brees all won the Super Bowl the season they did so. With Watson, Houston won four games. Couple this with the political issues in Houston and it’s easy to see why Watson wants out.
Get out of there Deshaun.
Big question: Can the Colts fix Carson Wentz?
Indy brought in veteran Phillip Rivers last season, believing they were a top-flight passer away from winning the Super Bowl. After an 11-win season ended with a close-fought wildcard round defeat to Buffalo, Rivers hung up the cleats after 17 seasons in the league, leaving Indy to trade for Eagles castaway Carson Wentz.
Wentz was downright awful for Philly in 2020, finishing tied with the most interceptions in the league (15), 24th in completion percentage among quarterbacks to have started at least 12 games (57.4per cent) and 23rd in adjusted quarterback rating (49.6). He is broken, and he needs fixing, but perhaps Indianapolis coach Frank Reich – who was the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia with Wentz at quarterback in 2016 and 2017 – is the man to rebuild the once budding superstar passer.
With the Colts’ stud offensive line and powerful run game, Wentz has landed in perhaps the best spot possible to get his career back on track.
Big question: Trevor Lawrence?
That’s not a question so much as an obnoxiously excited outburst. After selecting him with pick one in the upcoming draft, Lawrence will automatically become one of the most exciting players in the franchise’s young history.
The Jags are emerging from a dark decade that saw nine ten-loss seasons with one weird AFC championship game appearance that come from nowhere thrown in. New Jacksonville head coach Urban Meyer will be keen to buck a trend that has seen college football coaches struggle when making the jump to the pros, however, he will take over a roster that is not completely devoid of talent like some others set to pick after them on draft night.
Cometh the saviour, cometh Trevor Lawrence.
Big question: How can they beef up the pass rush?
The back-to-back AFC South champs are clearly in the best position of the four AFC South teams heading into next season…if you forget about the defence.
But there’s that defence, which would have finished last in the league for sacks if not for a four-sack feast in Houston in Week 17. The defence finished 28th overall last season, finishing with a 42 per cent pass rush win rate (17th in the league per ESPN Analytics). The Jadeveon Clowney experiment failed. So too did reclamation project Vic Beasley. Harold Landry led the team in 2020 with just 5.5 sacks.
The Titans haven’t had a player reach double-digit sacks since Brian Orakpo did so in 2016. Something has to change on defence for a team otherwise capable of going head-to-head with anybody in the conference.
Big question: Who’s the quarterback?
It seems a little too obvious, but the pressing concern for the Broncos is the same one that has haunted the franchise since winning Super Bowl 50 and watching Peyton Manning ride off into the sunset.
Despite second-year starter Drew Lock finishing the season strongly for the second consecutive season (posting a 92.1 passer rating with seven touchdowns and two interceptions with a 61.2 completion percentage in the final four games), it sure does look like new general manager George Paton and company are doing all they can to upgrade the position.
After throwing their hat into the ring for former Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford, the Broncos have recently been muted as potential suitors for Houston wantaway Deshaun Watson. Denver have seen division foes Kansas City and Los Angeles find long-term solutions at the quarterback position recently. It’s time for the Broncos to do the same.
Kansas City Chiefs
Big question: Is the offensive line really a problem?
It sure looked like a problem in the Super Bowl, a game in which quarterback Patrick Mahomes was pressured on 32.7 per cent of his snaps despite Tampa Bay only blitzing on five snaps, per Next Generation Stats. Mahomes also scrambled for an absurd 497 yards before his passes and sacks in the championship game, the most such yardage by any quarterback in any game this season.
Left tackle Eric Fisher tearing his Achilles tendon in the AFC championship game wasn’t ideal, nor was losing Mitch Schwartz, arguably the best right tackle in the league, for the season in Week 6. Those two, plus right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff, who opted out of season 2020, should all return healthy for another tilt in 2021.
The Chiefs are fine.
Las Vegas Raiders
Big question: How do they get the defence up to scratch?
The Raiders fell in a heap down the stretch for the second season in a row in 2020, and most of it was down to a defence that continues to defy belief in terms of ineptitude. The Raiders finished 26th in passing defence, 24th in run defence, 30th in scoring, 30th in takeaways and 29th for sacks.
In Mike Mayock’s first two seasons as general manager, the Raiders have had five first-round picks. Three of those selections were spent on the defence that produced the putrid numbers above. Mayock seemed to know what he was talking about when he was part of the NFL Network’s draft coverage. So far with the Raiders, Mayock’s talent evaluation leaves plenty to be desired.
Los Angeles Chargers
Big question: How quickly can this team build a contender?
Rookie quarterback Justin Herbert was a pleasant surprise in year one, and all of a sudden the prospects for the Chargers organisation has changed dramatically. Herbert broke all sorts of rookie records in 2020 during another season that saw the Bolts invent hilarious new ways to lose close games.
After closing the season with four straight wins, the Chargers will enter the offseason with confidence and, maybe more importantly, few holes on the roster (outside of the worst offensive line according to Pro Football Focus and a thin cornerback group). With another good draft and a savvy free agent pick up or two, these Chargers will be a team to watch in 2021, and not merely because of their beautiful uniforms.