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A deep dive into the discrepancy between talent in the NFC and AFC

The AFC is loaded with talent this year, but how sizable is the difference?

NFL Pro Bowl Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The past two weeks around the NFL have been filled with headlines. If you have been paying attention to free agency as a Cowboys fan, your two likely takeaways are that the Dallas Cowboys have been passive and the AFC is loading up with talent.

At this point, it is almost uncanny how every traded player and big-name free agent seems to be heading to the AFC. This is likely a result of the conference having young, talented quarterbacks on rookie deals and thus these teams have money to spend.

But whatever the reason for this trend, how big is the difference between talent in the AFC and NFC?

A deep dive into the discrepancy between talent in the NFC and AFC

NFL Pro Bowl Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

As a quick overview, it is worth noting where the AFC talent pool started and what major additions have occurred since the end of the season. After all, a lot has happened so let’s briefly look at the current state of this conference.

Overview

The NFC was equivalent, if not better, than the AFC last season. After all, the Super Bowl winner, NFL MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Assistant Coach of the Year all came out of the NFC.

And looking at where AFC teams finished by various metrics last year, the NFC might have been the better conference:

  • Number of AFC teams in the top ten by DVOA: 3
  • Number of AFC teams in the top ten by EPA per Play: 4
  • Number of AFC teams in the top ten by PFF: 4
  • Number of AFC teams in the top sixteen by DVOA: 6
  • Number of AFC teams in the top sixteen by EPA per Play: 8
  • Number of AFC teams in the top sixteen by PFF: 8

The NFC was solid all-around whereas the AFC was slightly top-loaded last year. No one will dispute that teams like the Chiefs, Bills, Bengals, and Titans were contenders. But compare this to the NFC, where the Packers, Buccaneers, Cowboys, Rams, Cardinals, and 49ers all looked like Super Bowl winners at various points in the season. Even teams like the Saints and Seahawks looked solid when their respective QBs were healthy.

But this is not a history lesson of last season. What has happened ever since the confetti rained for the Los Angeles Rams? First, there have been some notable cross-conference trades:

  • Davante Adams traded from NFC to AFC
  • Russell Wilson traded from NFC to AFC
  • Amari Cooper (sigh) traded from NFC to AFC
  • Khalil Mack traded from NFC to AFC
  • Robert Woods traded from NFC to AFC
  • Matt Ryan traded from NFC to AFC

and even the players that could have switched conferences by means of trade still stayed in the AFC:

  • Tyreek Hill traded from AFC to AFC
  • Deshaun Watson traded from AFC to AFC
  • Yannick Ngakoue traded from AFC to AFC

But surely there were some players traded from the AFC to the NFC right? Well sure, there is one:

  • Carson Wentz traded from AFC to NFC

And it doesn’t stop at trades either. Here are the top-ten largest contracts signed so far of the players that changed teams in free agency and who they signed with:

  • Von Miller to the Bills (AFC)
  • J.C. Jackson to the Chargers (AFC)
  • Terron Armstead to the Dolphins (AFC)
  • Christian Kirk to the Jaguars (AFC)
  • Randy Gregory (sigh) to the Broncos (AFC)
  • Marcus Williams to the Ravens (AFC)
  • Chandler Jones to the Raiders (NFC)
  • Brandon Scherff to the Jaguars (AFC)
  • Allen Robinson to the Rams (NFC)
  • Foyesade Oluokun to the Jaguars (AFC)

This is not every free agency transaction, and there are likely to be moves made by the time you finish reading this article. But by this count, of the 20 biggest names that will be playing elsewhere in 2022, only three moved to the NFC.

But, as stated the AFC was arguably the weaker division last year. So what impact does this have on the landscape of the two conferences?

The results are in

Yes, the AFC is loaded with talent now, but there will never be a complete imbalance in the league. There will always be good players in both conferences.

But the talent discrepancy is none more apparent than at quarterback. Ranking the top twelve QBs by EPA per play (minimum 600 dropbacks) over the last two seasons, it is easier to see this drop-off:

  1. Aaron Rodgers (NFC)
  2. Deshaun Watson (AFC)
  3. Patrick Mahomes (AFC)
  4. Josh Allen (AFC)
  5. Tom Brady (NFC)
  6. Ryan Tannehill (AFC)
  7. Joe Burrow (AFC)
  8. Jimmy Garroppolo (NFC)
  9. Kirk Cousins (NFC)
  10. Russel Wilson (AFC)
  11. Teddy Bridgewater (AFC)
  12. Derek Carr (AFC)

Yes, you read that right. Eight of the top 12 quarterbacks by EPA per play over the last two years are now in the AFC.

But, a quarterback isn’t the only player on the roster. So, if we look at the other positions, maybe it tells a different story. Here is the number of now-AFC players that landed inside the top ten for their position group, by PFF grading last season:

  • Running back: 6
  • Wide receiver: 6
  • Tight end: 6
  • Offensive line: 5
  • Defensive interior: 5
  • Edge defender: 5
  • Linebacker: 3
  • Cornerback: 4
  • Safety: 8
  • Special Teams: 8

The dropoff in talent isn’t as apparent on defense, with the exception of safety. But the consistency of AFC offenses having more players ranked inside the top ten at nearly every position is scary. And this is only top ten, which doesn’t include half of the traded or signed players that have moved to the AFC this offseason.

And as a result, out of the ten players with the highest odds to win MVP in 2022, six of them are in the AFC. And eight out of the thirteen teams with the highest odds to win the 2022 Super Bowl are in the AFC.

But what does this all mean for the Cowboys?

Well to state the obvious, despite most fans knowing it won’t happen, Dallas needs to be in a win-now mentality. The NFC has been depleted, and when the three best quarterbacks remaining are a 38-year old Aaron Rodgers, a 44-year old Tom Brady, and a 34-year old Matthew Stafford why not try and take advantage now? There is a window of opportunity that just opened and Dallas has done nothing in the wake of all of this.

But if you want optimism, the NFC will be a lot easier to win next year. If the Cowboys can somehow gain consistency and find a way for the offense and defense to work at the same time, there is no reason they can’t make a run.

Because Dak Prescott is now inarguably a top-five quarterback in the conference, and he is playing with a defense that finished second by DVOA. There is still going to be competition. The Rams, Packers, and Buccaneers remain contenders, but now is as good a time as ever.

But knowing that Dallas does not like to take advantage of a situation, the largest implication for Cowboys fans is that this is just a weird shift in the NFL. Interesting to watch nonetheless.