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 two of a doubleheader that included AFC Predictions.
1. The Saints Will Have a Better Record Than the Buccaneers
Tom Brady has proved me wrong countless times before as a Jets fan. Last year, he had of the best seasons of his career, but after turning 45 years old, it's fair to wonder how many years he has left. I wouldn't be surprised if he experiences a decline similar to Peyton Manning's in his final season.
Meanwhile, the Saints quietly had a strong offseason despite the retirement of Sean Payton. The offense will get back Jameis Winston who went 5-2 before suffering a season ending injury. His weapons will include Alvin Kamara (if he's not suspended), a healthy Michael Thomas, rookie Chris Olave, and free agent signing Jarvis Landry. Defensively, the Saints added all pro safety Tyrann Mathieu to an already strong unit that includes Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore. New Orleans won't be a powerhouse, but given that they finished 9-8 despite a number of injuries, a division title is not out of sight.
2. Justin Jefferson Will Win Offensive Player of the Year
Although Offensive Player of the Year has only been handed out four times to three receivers (Jerry Rice won it twice), two of the last three seasons have seen receivers take home the award. It is true Michael Thomas and Cooper Kupp both needed historically great seasons to win the award, but Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings is no stranger to that. He set a rookie record for receiving yards and proceeded to improve his receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns the following year. His final numbers were 108 catches for 1,616 yards and 10 touchdowns. Additionally, Jefferson is only 23 years old and is entering the prime of his career. If he not only improves all of his numbers, but leads the league in two out three major receiving categories, Jefferson should be a heavy favorite to win Offensive Player of the Year.
3. Trey Lance Will Outperform Jalen Hurts
The Philadelphia Eagles and San Fransisco 49ers view Hurts and Lance, respectively, as the quarterbacks of the future, and rightfully so. Both teams are coming off playoff appearances, and will be competitive again, but I think Trey Lance is in for a better season than Hurts.
Jalen Hurts wasn't asked to do much in his first year as the Eagles' starter besides protecting the football and using his mobility. While his first taste of playoff football was an ugly defeat to the Buccaneers, the Eagles continued to surround him with more talent by trading for AJ Brown.
Out west, Trey Lance will be starting for the San Fransisco 49ers after watching them make the Championship game as a rookie. Lance was played sparingly as a backup, with his only start being against an awful Texans team. However, he's surrounded by a talented roster with playmakers in George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, as well as one of the best offensive lines in football. While Hurts also has a strong supporting cast, the biggest factor influencing my take comes from the head coaching.
Kyle Shanahan is considered one of today's best coaches for his ability to maximize his players' strengths in his schemes with the 49ers. In a league where many coaches build their offenses around the strengths of their quarterback, Shanahan will certainly look for ways to utilize Lance's rocket arm and mobility outside the pocket. Given that most quarterbacks from Matt Ryan to Robert Griffin III enjoyed career years under Shanahan, it's likely Lance will enjoy similar success.