We’ve got one day until the preseason games start up in earnest. So, let’s take a quick spin around the AFC to see what’s up in each division.
This season, as has been the case lately, the Steelers will be kings in the North. Unless something happens to Big Ben, they just have too many weapons, even if LeVeon Bell is disgruntled and holds out until just before the season starts. Martavis Bryant is gone, but Juju can fill his shoes in the big play sweepstakes and they still have that Antonio Brown guy. If the defense can repeat its quietly effective performance from last year, they can contend with the best in the AFC.
The Ravens look like a team that has the future on its mind, trading to get Lamar Jackson with the final selection in the first round of the draft. I had Jackson off the board well before that pick, so I’d imagine that Baltimore is very happy with the value proposition there. Despite winning a Super Bowl, Joe Flacco has always seemed to be on a lower plane than the games best signal callers. He’s prone to badly-timed interceptions and bad mental errors. I doubt that they’ll give him the chance to age badly. The Ravens will run the ball A LOT and hope to stretch the field with Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead IV for some (hopefully wide open) dramatic plays. Fun fact, Baltimore ranked sixth in scoring defense last year. Will the defense be able to stifle offenses again this season? That’s a lot to live up to as Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle navigate their mid-thirties.
The Browns. Man. I want to tell you that they didn’t whiff in the draft. I want to tell you that this is the year that they rise up and take the North or contend…or go 8-8. It probably won’t happen. Reports are that number one pick Baker Mayfield hasn’t been able to separate himself from Tyrod Taylor in camp. That’s seriously bad news, but not unpredictable. Number four pick Denzel Ward has the goods to be a Pro-Bowl corner, but if they missed on Mayfield, the Browns are still years away from contending. Fun fact. The Browns two first-rounders from this year’s draft are the only two first round selections that remain on their roster. That’s how often, and how badly, they whiff on high draft picks. Josh Gordon is away from the team as well, using personal time to focus on his sobriety. I have to guess that this is Gordon’s last chance to become what we all thought he might, one of the game’s best receivers. Here’s the good news. The Browns simply can’t get any worse than they were last year.
Cincinnati has a problem. Here it is in a nutshell. They just aren’t as close as they think they are. They’ve been to the playoffs six times in the past nine years (but haven’t won a single playoff game in that stretch) including the year that earned Marvin Lewis the Coach of the Year award and apparently a lifetime contract. They’ve won thirteen games in the last two seasons combined and haven’t been close. Last year, they were middle of the pack defensively, while ranking dead last in total offense. What did they do in the draft? Exactly what I thought they would. They took the best center available. It might shore up the O Line, but it isn’t going to get them into contention. Tear it down. Start over.
The Texans had the look of a contender last year until the injury that ended Deshaun Watson’s season. Will they contend this year? Quite possibly, IF Watson can stay healthy. If he can’t, Brandon Weeden is the backup. Ugh. Reports are that JJ Watt looks like the guy who was the game’s best defender in camp, and if he can go full gas all season long, that defense will be a top unit again. Coach Bill O’Brien has good reason for optimism if all the important pieces stay in play.
Jacksonville was a surprise last year, but after a deep playoff run, they have even higher aspirations this year. Malik Jackson is out here predicting a perfect season, and why not? I’ll tell you why not. Blake Bortles. The chances of Blake Bortles being that guy again this year are almost nil. That defense will be tremendous again, but I expect the offense to regress a bit. They’ll still run the ball well with Leonard Fournette, but they won’t take defenses by surprise, and Bortles needs that advantage to succeed like he did last year. I think they are still the class of the division, but it might be closer than people think.
The Titans were something of an enigma last year, going 9-7 and making it to the playoffs, but doing so with a negative scoring differential. They’ve made changes as a result. Good ones, by the looks of it. Former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel is the new coach, and he brought some swagger, not to mention Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis from the AFC Champs. The Titans gave up a lot of points last year, and they used their first three picks in the draft to shore up the defense, highlighted by inside linebacker Rashaan Evans out of Alabama. He will make that defense a good bit stiffer and Harold Landry might be a factor at the edge.
Andrew Luck is back in Colts camp after a whole year away from the game. Will he be the same? Can he put up the numbers we’ve come to expect from him? He can if he can stay upright, and the brass in Indianapolis know it. That’s why they spent two of their first three picks on offensive guards. One problem. The defense was bad last year. Really bad. They’ll need more than all the Luck in the world if they can’t improve on that side of the ball.
In New York, Jets fans are excited to see what their number four pick, USC quarterback Sam Darnold can do to lift the J-E-T-S back into contention in the East. They’ll probably need to wait a while. In camp, he’s seeing less first team reps than both comeback kid Tedy Bridgewater and journeyman Josh McCown. Bridgewater looks to be the week one starter unless something changes during the preseason games. The locker room might need more of a lift than Bridgewater can provide though, if Bleacher Report’s recent interview with safety Jamal Adams are any indication. “I came in, and it was like everybody wanted to do the bare minimum.” Yuck. The Jets were a somewhat surprising 5-11 last year, and they won’t be any better if Coach Todd Bowles can’t lift the listless locker room.
New England looks to have weakened somewhat on paper, with a depleted receiving corps, after the departure of Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis and Malcolm Mitchell, but if you think that coach Belichick doesn’t have the squad he wants in Foxboro, you don’t know the Patriots. The Patriots were a sneaky-good scoring defensive unit (mostly because they gave up yards, not points) and they’ve added some nice pieces to shore up the offense to protect Tom Brady in OT Isiah Winn and RB Sony Michel. Michel is the type of back who can seamlessly provide a replacement for the departed Dion Lewis, one of Brady’s favorite targets. Both first rounders are out of Kirby Smart’s program in Georgia, so clearly the Hoodie likes what he’s seeing down there from the former Alabama assistant.
The Bills are headed for a quarterback controversy of their own. And probably not a good one. They shipped off Tyrod Taylor, and grabbed Josh Allen in the draft at seventh overall, hoping to develop him into the QB of the future. While that still might be the case, early indications are that Allen is mired in the depth chart, taking only third team reps, well below both modest journeyman A.J. McCarron, who’s getting most of the first team reps, and last year’s failed experiment, Nathan Peterman. The Bills were a happy surprise last year, returning to the playoffs and making some noise in the East. Here’s hoping they didn’t get too tricky by sending Taylor away without a realistic plan at QB.
In Miami, there aren’t many surprises at camp thus far. New addition Danny Amendola should give Ryan Tannehill a solid slot receiver for check downs, and old man strong Frank Gore will look to pound the ball like he literally ALWAYS does. Here’s the thing about Miami, though. Have they done enough to turn around a 6-10 season where they ranked 28 th in scoring offense and 29 th in scoring defense? Probably not. Danny Amendola isn’t THAT good. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was a very strong selection in the draft, and I think he can help shore up the secondary, but per the Dolphins first depth chart, he hasn’t cracked the starting lineup. With little to move the needle, are the Dolphins headed up, or down?
Oakland is in chaos as the team adjusts to new/old coach Jon Gruden and prepares to move to Las Vegas. QB Derek Carr loves where the team is headed under the new regime, but he’s going to need some help. Marshawn Lynch just isn’t the same guy he was in Seattle. Martavis Bryant has already drawn the ire of his new coach for showing less than full effort thus far in training camp, per the team’s camp reports, plus he’s preparing for the season under the specter of a potential suspension, which would not be his first. The Raiders also added Jordy Nelson from the Packers, but you’ve got to assume that if the frequently injured Nelson held little value as Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target, he’s unlikely to shine in the silver and black. To make matters worse, the team seems to be cooling on star edge rusher Khalil Mack, who is holding out for a new deal. He’s one of the top five defenders in all of football. He needs to get paid or sent to someone who will pay him what he’s worth. Apparently, the new coach thinks so little of Mack that the two haven’t even sat down to talk yet. That’s not a good sign for the Raider defense at all.
Denver breathed a sigh of relief this offseason when Minnesota Vikings signal caller Case Keenum found his way to the Broncos. The former third-stringer had a breakout year, taking the Vikings all the way to the NFC Championship game before being unceremoniously replaced by Kirk Cousins, who really wasn’t much better, but costs a lot more. It’s a boon for a Denver team that had some of the worst QB play in the league last year. Defensively, the Broncos were extremely solid, and they’ve added one of the two sure-fire top-tier players in the draft, selecting defensive end Bradley Chubb fifth overall. Keenum will still need a little help offensively, and they picked up Courtland Sutton in the second round to pair with Demaryius Thomas. I’m not sure it’s enough to get the Broncos out of the basement, but it’s a really good start.
The Chiefs had a great season last year, winning the West and enjoying the emergence of rookie running back Kareem Hunt. They also got a peek at their quarterback of the future in Patrick Mahomes, Jr. toward the end of the year. Andy Reid clearly liked what he saw, because steady veteran Alex Smith is calling the shots in the nation’s capital, and Mahomes has the confidence of the coaches. Or does he? The coaching staff in KC have acknowledged that the young QB has been having some struggles in camp, throwing more than his share of interceptions. That’s what camp is for, to make mistakes and learn from them, but in the tough AFC West, Mahomes might not have given the Chiefs the best chance to win. The Chiefs added Sammy Watkins to help in the passing game, we’ll just have to wait and see if the Chiefs can recreate their magic from last season.
One team that doesn’t want to see a repeat of last year is the Chargers. The Chargers went 9-7 last season, and were, by a wide margin, the best team to MISS the playoffs. Why? Because they started the season out terribly, or at least terribly unlucky. How so? They went 1-4 to start the season, but that lone win was a resounding victory over the Jaguars. The losses included bad beats to both the Colts and the Raiders. They were just sloppy and unbalanced early on before righting the ship. By the end of the year, Philip Rivers ranked behind only Tom Brady in passing yards, and the Chargers were in the top five in total offense AND allowed the third fewest points of any defense, behind only Minnesota and Jacksonville. Rivers is likely approaching the twilight of his career, and I expect the Chargers to go all-in accordingly.
Image source: *Chron