Every NFL season has seen some huge surprises, from injuries to unexpected turnarounds. Going into last year, no one thought the Cincinnati Bengals would narrowly miss out on a Super Bowl victory or that the Seattle Seahawks wouldn't come close to the playoffs. With this season getting closer by the day, here are my three hot takes for the AFC.
Note: This article is part of a doubleheader that will also include NFC Predictions.
1. Von Miller will be the Final Piece Buffalo Needs
The Buffalo Bills have established themselves as contenders during the last two years. With plenty of talent on both sides of ball, the Bills have gone 34-15 in the last three years, winning the AFC East twice in that span. However, they have yet to reach the Super Bowl, with a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Chiefs leaving a bitter taste. In free agency, the Bills successfully agreed to a six year $120 million contract with defensive end Von Miller.
While Miller is 33 years old, he still has plenty left in the tank after logging four sacks during the playoffs, en route to his second Super Bowl championship. What made his performance last year even more impressive was that he missed all of 2020 with a torn ACL. The Bills have a talented defense, but their pass rush lacks a difference maker which proved costly in their recent playoff losses. Miller will probably not play out his entire contract in Buffalo, but his experience and productivity is exactly what the Bills need to get over the hump to finally win it all.
2. The Raiders Won't Make the Playoffs
Last year's Raiders surprisingly made the playoffs with a 10-7 record before losing a tight contest to the Bengals. They then proceeded to make big offseason moves, signing defensive end Chandler Jones and trading for all pro wide receiver Davante Adams. These moves will make the Raiders competitive again this year, but in a stacked conference, it still might not be enough.
In their four game winning streak that propelled them to the playoffs at the end of the year, they beat two teams with backup quarterbacks and another whose quarterback didn't practice that week. That's not mentioning their four overtime wins as well. Teams who won a large portion of close games usually take a step back the next year which is why I'm not sold on the Raiders despite high expectations. I think that they simply won't be as lucky this year.
3. The Jets will have Two Rookie of the Year Winners
In the 55 year existence of the Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year award, only two teams had players from both sides win the award. However, I believe there's a strong chance my Jets will become the third team to accomplish this feat. While some of this prediction has to do with my fandom, plenty of other people applauded this year's Jets' draft.
Their notable selections are cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, wide receiver Garrett Wilson, defensive end Jermaine Johnson, and running back Breece Hall. Gardner has a strong chance to win Defensive Rookie of the Year thanks to his tall, athletic frame, that allows him to excel in man coverage. He's also likely to make an immediate impact compared to many of the pass rushers selected. Offensively. Hall has a pretty good chance at winning the award. He'll have plenty of opportunities to succeed in a run-first offense and with only one quarterback taken in the first round, the award is wide open. As a franchise notorious for missing out on young talent in the draft, this kind of feat could hopefully change their reputation.
Every NFL season has seen a few players experience a breakout season shortly after their rookie year. Often, they have shown promise before eventually playing to their full potential the following season. Prime examples of last year's breakout stars include running back Jonathan Taylor and cornerback Trevon Diggs. With training camp underway, many players are ready to showcase their full potential after showing upside last season. Here are my four breakout candidates, not including quarterbacks:
1. Devonta Smith
Last season, Devonta Smith was one of the top rookie receivers for the Philadelphia Eagles, tallying over 900 yards and five touchdowns. While those numbers sound decent on paper, they are very impressive for a rookie receiver who was the only bright spot on one of the league's weakest receiving groups last season. Smith managed to turn short completions into long runs with his speed, and caught a ton of contested passes despite his small frame. With the acquisition of fellow receiver AJ Brown this offseason, Smith should see a lot more single coverage which will increase his production.
2. Patrick Surtain II
Patrick Surtain II of the Denver Broncos was certainly the most impressive defensive back to come out of last year's draft class, given that a large number of rookie cornerbacks started last season. He intercepted four passes and returned one of them for a touchdown, but that's not all. Surtain II also surrendered only 545 yards along while allowing a 61 passer rating. Some of his best games came against pass-happy offenses where he made guys like Tyreek Hill and Ja'Marr Chase non-factors. Although Micah Parsons' historic rookie season kept Surtain II from winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, he still has plenty of upside going forward.
3. Javonte Williams
Denver gets another nod on this list with running back Javonte Williams coming in at three. Although Williams was part of a running back committee with Melvin Gordon, he still managed to total 903 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He was almost impossible to bring down as 31% of Williams' rushing attempts saw him break tackles - 63 to be exact. Williams will likely be the starting running back for Denver. With Russell Wilson now in town, Williams will be in an even better position to excel, since defenses will devote less attention to him.
4. Amon-Ra St. Brown
As a fourth round pick for the Detroit Lions, Amon-Ra St. Brown went into last season with the least hype out of all the players mentioned on this list. He had a few solid games, but it wasn't until the final six weeks of the season when St. Brown began to showcase his potential. In that stretch, St. Brown had 474 yards and five touchdowns which included a game winner against the Vikings. St. Brown's increased usage makes him a heavy favorite to be Detroit's starting receiver going into this season.
5. Elijah Moore
With high upside as a second round receiver, Elijah Moore recorded over 500 yards. These stats are decent at best, but considering that Moore was either injured or barely targeted in the early portion of the season, his progress in his final six games has given Jets fans plenty of optimism. From weeks 8-13, Moore had 459 yards and five touchdowns. Even more impressive, Moore posted these numbers while playing without fellow rookie Zach Wilson who was injured for four of those games. With a bigger role and more young talent, it's very likely Moore's play will take a huge jump in year two.