2021 AFC East Winner
Current Odds to win 2021 AFC East (Per DraftKings):
|Team||Current Odds||Implied Probability|
I love the value on New England right now to win the AFC East in 2021. The Patriots had an up and down 2020; a season in which they had no semblance of a passing game and owned a run defense that was gashed week in and week out. I think they have substantially improved their roster by addressing these deficiencies through the draft and most notably through free agency.
Patriots Roster Improvements:
Defensive Roster Upgrades:
Time and again, the Patriots had no answer for power running games. The defensive front 7 in 2020 was made largely of journeymen tackles and a young, unproven group of linebackers. Teams like the Rams and 49ers took advantage of and exposed these weak fronts and pounded the Patriots defense into submission. In these two games alone, the Patriots defense surrendered 383 yards on the ground. It is extremely rare to see a Bill Belichick coached team have such little resistance against the running game.
Why do I think it will change in 2021?
Look at how different the projected starters at linebacker will be vs. who played the majority of the snaps last season:
|2020 Linebacker Group||2021 Projected Starters:|
|Chase Winovich||Matt Judon|
|John Simon||Donte Hightower|
|Anfernee Jennings||Kyle Van Noy|
|Ja’whaun Bently||Ja’whaun Bently|
Judon, Hightower, and Van Noy are significant upgrades to the personnel group that we saw last season which was helpless in almost all areas of the game. All 3 have shown that they are extremely versatile in their alignments and can be effective in running and passing situations. This linebacking group is much stronger on the edge and should help contain the running game far more effectively.
Much of the same can be send about the interior defensive lineman. Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson were added in free agency, and the Patriots spent a high 2nd round pick on Christian Barmore from Alabama in an attempt to bolster the middle of the defense. The only reliable interior lineman in 2020 was Lawrence Guy and he was retained for 2021.
I think the secondary remains intact. There is still potential for Stephon Gilmore to be traded, but aside from that, JC Jackson and Devin McCourty return as the leaders of this group which has been excellent for several years in a row. In defensive passer rating the Patriots have ranked 9th, 1st, and 7th in the past 3 seasons. I believe that the defensive backs remain a position of strength for New England, and I have full confidence that they should generate another top 10 ranking in defensive passer rating. I think the secondary should benefit from the addition of effective pass rushers as well. With this veteran personnel group, I think you will see a more blitz-oriented, aggressive scheme.
Offensive Roster Upgrades:
It’s no secret that the Patriots passing game struggled mightily in 2020. Cam Newton was one of the least efficient passers in the NFL, and there was virtually no life in the New England offense for much of the season. But he was far from the only problem with the offense. In fact, the offense was almost equally as bad under Tom Brady’s command in the 2nd half of 2019.
|Player||Yards / Att||Passer Rating||Points Per Game|
|Tom Brady 2019 (Weeks 10-17)||5.94||80.84||21.25|
|Cam Newton 2020||7.20||82.90||20.40|
This is why Bill Belichick completely overhauled the personnel and looks to have changed the philosophy of the offensive attack by focusing on the running game and playing out of two tight end sets. There’s no question that the main focus was to rebuild around the tight ends as the Patriots added the top two tight end prospects on the market in Johnnu Smith and Hunter Henry. The addition of Trent Brown at left tackle could end up being the best move of the offseason. The last time we saw Brown in a Patriots uniform, he was the anchor of the Super Bowl winning offensive line that pounded through the post season with a mediocre set of running backs in Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead. Last year, I think Damien Harris showed some explosiveness out of the backfield that the Patriots haven’t seen since Corey Dillon in the early 2000’s. Expect the offense to revolve around him and the big, strong offensive line.
The Patriots have owned arguably the worst group of receivers for the past two seasons. Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne should step in play alongside slot receiver Jakobi Meyers. While this isn’t the flashiest set of receivers, I think they immediately become more reliable in terms of quickness separation at the line of scrimmage. I think you will see a noticeable improvement in the Patriots passing game in 2021, regardless of who is taking snaps at quarterback.
Backup Plan at QB:
While I expect Newton to be much improved over what we saw from him last year, Mac Jones could be a solid contingency plan if Cam continues to struggle. Among all of the QB prospects, the majority of analysts argue that Mac Jones is the most “NFL Ready” of them all. While I tend to question the idea that a rookie can step in and be effective right away, I believe that this is one of the best QB situations to walk into. He should inherit a solid defense, an effective running game, and an offense where he wouldn’t be asked to do “too much”. I think Josh McDaniels would ease him into the offense slowly, and lean on the tight ends, offensive line, and Damien Harris. I am confident that Jones can manage the game when surrounded with great talent much like he did at Alabama.
Expect Regression from Josh Allen:
I think the Bills are massively overvalued at their current odds number. Looking back at last season, almost everything went right for Buffalo. They largely avoided injury at virtually all key positions, and Allen had a phenomenal season. At -150, the odds makers are certainly counting on Allen to have a season much like his 2020 campaign.
He made remarkable improvements across the board in all major QB statistics last year:
|Season||QB Rating||Yards / Attempt||Sack %||Completion %|
However, despite all of his steps forward in his progressions, decision making, and accuracy, I would be stunned if he was able to replicate his production from 2020. Over the past few years there have been several young quarterbacks to have breakthrough seasons early in their career, but once the expectations around the team depended on their high-level performance, they had noticeable setbacks in the following year. I think the betting public can get trapped into believing that what happened last year will automatically carry over into the following season. I believe that there is far more evidence that there will be a substantial drop-off in production in 2021.
Here are a few quarterbacks that came to mind when I performed this analysis:
|Quarterback||Breakout Season QB Rating||Following Year QB Rating||% Drop from Breakout||Following Year W/L Record|
Of these 5 young quarterbacks who emerged early on in their careers none of them were able to win their division in the year following the breakout season. What this tells me is that it is extremely difficult to play at an elite level in consecutive seasons. Right now, I think only Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Patrick Mahomes fit into that elite level that can be relied on year in and year out (a case could probably made for Deshaun Watson as well). I think these quarterbacks are justified in their team’s implied odds to win their divisions based on their proven consistency. I simply don’t believe that we have enough evidence to value Josh Allen in this elite tier yet. I think it is far more likely that he falls back closer to the pack given his tougher schedule and with more of his bad habits and tendencies on film. Given how reliant the Bills offense is on Allen’s productivity, I think any type of set back or regression would open the door for the Dolphins or Patriots in the AFC East.
Despite Allen’s phenomenal season, he managed to post 7 games with a 90 QB rating or below in 2020. When you compare that to Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, they only had 3 games of that nature combined last season. I just think you are playing with fire if you expect Allen to remain as efficient and prolific without getting those back breaking turnovers and mistakes that plagued him early on and at times in 2020.
I also have major questions about Buffalo’s ability to run the ball. The running game is highly effective when Allen keeps the ball, but I’d be surprised to see him run as much as he did last season. Allen rushed 102 times in 2020 which represented about 25% of the teams total rushing attempts. I expect to see his attempts go down as the team tries to focus on protecting him and the future of the franchise. The other Bills running backs managed a total of just 1,302 yards on 309 attempts. For a team that played with the lead for a significant amount of time in 2020, I think that is a very low number.
Advantageous Schedule for Patriots:
I think the Patriots have a significant schedule advantage over the Bills this season. While both teams play all the teams from the NFC South, the Bills will be forced to play at Tampa and at New Orleans (two games in which they will likely be underdogs). The Patriots have lucked out and will host both the Bucs and Saints. In addition, the Bills are forced to play the Steelers, and also have to play at Kansas City (another likely matchup as an underdog). The Patriots instead will host Cleveland and travel to LA to play the Chargers. Although it’s often difficult to gauge a schedule before the season starts, I would certainly choose the Patriots schedule as the path of least resistance.
Final Analysis / Commentary:
As a New England native, I have watched the Patriots closer than any other team. More often than not in the last 6 years I have picked against them, and I have mostly enjoyed success during that stretch. I have found that Vegas has often overvalued them as they have been one of the most popular teams to bet on. However, I think this season they are severely undervalued at +330 to win the AFC East. I think the Bills earned the right to be the favorite, but at a much closer implied value. I think the proper value for the Patriots should be somewhere around +150 which would indicate about a 40% chance of winning the division as opposed to their 23.30% current implied value. I think the current odds of +330 is an extremely high value betting opportunity as I don’t believe the market has properly accounted for the roster overhaul, the schedule advantages, and the immaculate track record of Bill Belichick. The other potential wildcard is that there is still speculation that they could add a huge piece at wide receiver. Rumors continue to swirl about the possible addition of Julio Jones, but I think a dark horse candidate to be added could be O’Dell Beckham.
I didn’t talk about Miami in this writeup. I think they are a team that should hover around .500, but I don’t see them as a true contender to win the division. However, they could definitely catch the Bills or Patriots off guard and deliver a key loss to either opponent. There’s a lot to like about their defense, but I think Tua and the offensive line remain a major question mark.
Shorestein Says take New England +330 to win the AFC East!
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