Football

AFC Preview: Who is Going to Step Up in 2017?

AFC North      

Pitt

Pittsburgh Steelers

Grade: B+

Record Prediction: 11-5

The Skinny: An easy schedule which features matchups against league bottom-dwellers: Jacksonville, Chicago, and a pair of divisional matchup against the Browns should see the Pittsburgh Steelers near the top of the AFC once again. Ben Roethlisberger’s health, like it has been for the past few seasons will be the biggest question on offense. Defensively, the team will hope that their defensive additions of Tyson Alualu and first round pick T.J Watt will help their run defense.

Cinn

Cincinnati Bengals

Grade: B

Record Prediction: 10-6

The Skinny: When A.J Green went down in Week 11, the Cincinnati Bengals lost a lot of athleticism and explosiveness on offense. This summer the Bengals added both of those traits to their offense with the drafting of John Ross and Joe Mixon. Offensively the weakness of this team is their offensive line. After two veterans in Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler bolted this off-season, the line is very inexperienced. The defense which looked slow last season let go of older members Karlos Dansby, Rey Maualuga, and Domata Peko, while hoping youthful additions of MLB Kevin Minter, and a pair of rookies in Jordan Willis and Jordan Evans will help them this season.

BALT

Baltimore Ravens

Grade: C+

Record Prediction: 7-9

The Skinny: Training camp could not have gotten off to a worse start for the Baltimore Ravens as Joe Flacco has come down with a back injury, starting Center John Urschel has opted to retire at the young age of 26, something that is becoming a trend around the National Football League, and up and coming running back Kenneth Dixon will miss the entire season due to a meniscus injury. Defensively a group which badly needed a youth movement got one as GM Ozzie Newsome spent his first four draft picks on the defensive side of the ball, while also going out and signing defensive backs Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr.

CLEV

Cleveland Browns

Grade: D+

Record Precition: 5-11

The Skinny: BREAKING: This is not going to be a pretty season for the Cleveland Browns. If you were expecting an overnight franchise turn around, you are not going to find it in “The Land”. The rookie Deshone Kizer will get the first crack at the starting job after the team released Brock Osweiller. The weapons around him as far as receivers are by no means elite as Corey Coleman and Kenny Britt headline the receiving corpse. Defensively, all eyes will be on two of their prized first round picks in Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers. The hope is that this tandem shows some promise throughout their first year in the league.

AFC East

 

new_england_patriots

New England Patriots

Grade: A

Record Prediction: 13-3

The Skinny: Somehow, some way, the New England Patriots off-season have set the Super Bowl Champions in a better position than they were last season. Bill Bellichek got a little scoring happy as they took the teams credit card on a bit of an offensive scoring spree adding the explosive Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints, Tight End Dwayne Allen from the Indianapolis Colts, while also adding running backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead. The Patriots did not forget about defense either adding former top ten draft pick Stephon Gilmore. The Patriots will also welcome back the return of Rob Gronkowski as he is 100% healthy after back surgery. While the Patriots were the class of the NFL last season, they look to raise the bar of excellence again in 2017.

miami_dolphins

Miami Dolphins

Grade: B

Record Prediction: 9-7

The Skinny: Before the preseason could even get underway, the Miami Dolphins suffered a detrimental blow with the loss of Ryan Tannehill. However, Quarterback Guru Adam Gase proved last season he is more than capable of being the head coach of the Miami Dolphins as he led the team to their first playoff birth since 2008, and even without Tannehill I believe he will do a good enough job with Jay Cutler. An offense which also features Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and a power run game spearheaded by Jay Ajayi should be one of the more exciting offensive attacks to watch in 2017. The reunion of Adam Gase and Tight End Julius Thomas will also help the Dolphins pass and run game in 2017. Defensively, the team is hoping linebacker upgrades Lawrence Timmons, first round pick Charles Harris, and second round pick Raekwon McMillian will improve what was one of the leagues worst run defenses.

BUFF

Buffalo Bills

Grade: C

Record Prediction: 5-11

The Skinny: New Head Coach, new General Manager, new Offensive Coordinator, and New Defensive Coordinator highlight the many changes the Buffalo Bills will be undergoing heading into 2017. Offensively, the team boasts one of the worst wide receiver’s cores which consists of Jordan Matthews, Zay Jones, Andre Holmes, and Philly Brown. Although the air game does not look appetizing, Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy who led the NFL’s most effective run game will be returning this season. Defensively, the team hopes a full season is in the cards for Defensive End Shaq Lawson as when healthy, was an important member of the defense. The loss of defensive backs Stephon Gilmore, Ronald Darby, Nickell Robey-Coleman, and Corey Graham will hurt, but the team will try to mask these absences with the drafting of Tre’Davious White in the first round, signing Micah Hyde from the Packers, and the acquisition of E.J Gaines. A Bills team which is relatively young will undergo what will be a rebuilding season.

NYJ

New York Jets

Grade: D-

Record Prediction: 1-15

The Skinny: The New York Jets are about as bad of a football team you will find in 2017. The team on offense possesses a below average quarterback who is surrounded by below average wide receivers, who is also surrounded by a below average offensive line. In football, the best way to win is by scoring more points than your opponent, and even though Bilal Powell and Matt Forte form a formidable running attack, the Jets will not be scoring more points than their opponents very often this year. Defensively, the team features a solid front and linebacker core, but a very inexperienced group of defensive backs will be torched often by opposing passing games.

AFC West

OAK

Oakland Raiders

Grade: B+

Record Prediction: 10-6

The Skinny: It was a heartbreaking finish for the Oakland Raiders in 2016 as in my opinion, last year’s MVP Derek Carr suffered a broken leg in Week 16 and the Raiders went from being the number one seed in the AFC, to being bounced in the first round of the playoffs. However, the Oakland Raiders made big waves this off-season becoming the destination for recently retired running back, Marshawn Lynch. Behind one of the games best offensive lines, Oakland’s offense should be right back at it in 2017. The Raiders are also hope that the draft pick acquisitions of CB Gareon Conley, S Obi Melifonwu, and DT Eddie Vanderdoes are able to help the defense and make up for the loss of LB Malcolm Smith, and S Nate Allen.

Chargers

Los Angeles Chargers

Grade: B

Record Prediction: 9-7

The Skinny: It will be hard for the Chargers to have a worse opening season in the city of Los Angeles than their bunk buddies, the Los Angeles Rams. After an injury-filled season in 2016, the Chargers with a healthy Joey Bosa and Keenan Allen look to make a push in the AFC West. New Head Coach Anthony Lynn should be great in the development of RB Melvin Gordon, as he was just a running back coach for the Bills a year ago. The O-Line gets a boost too, as they acquired LT Russell Okung, LG Dan Feeney, and RG Forrest Lamp this off-season. The O-Line pieces should allow Philip Rivers to have much success throwing to Keenan Allen, and first round pick Mike Williams when he returns. Defensively, this unit is very underrated as names like CB Casey Hayward, CB Jason Verrett, and OLB Melvin Ingram do not get the recognition around the league they deserve. I know I have the Chargers slotted as an 9-7 team, but this team has the pieces in place to outperform their original projection.

KC

Kansas City Chiefs

Grade: B

Record Prediction: 8-8

The Skinny: The Kansas City Chiefs have qualified for the playoffs in three of the past four season, but with the AFC West being an ultra competitive division, the Chiefs will have a difficult time qualifying for the post-season. The team lost some major pieces this off-season with Dontari Poe and Jeremy Maclin both leaving the Chiefs. While RB draft pick Kareem Hunt should be an excellent addition to the offense, and TE Travis Kelce should have a big season, the team’s offense did not get much better and this was a team which struggled to convert when in the Red Zone last season ranking 26th in Red Zone efficiency. Kansas City will keep competitive in 2017, but will not be successful as they have been recently.

DEN

Denver Broncos

Grade: B

Record Prediction: 8-8

The Skinny: Below .500? The Denver Broncos? How? It’s not the Broncos, it is the division. The AFC West in my opinion is the most difficult division in the entire National Football League, and unfortunately, the Denver Broncos happen to be the worst of the best. On the offensive side of the ball there are a lot of questions. The offensive line looks to be fairly stout this year with first round draft pick Garrett Bolles primed to be the blindside blocker for Trevor Siemian. The run game has many questions surrounding it, with many wondering what kind of C.J Anderson will show up, as well as how will Jamaal Charles perform coming back from season ending surgery? The weapons are there with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders combining to make a strong pair of options in the passing game. Defensively, the team loses one of the best in the game, OLB Demarcus Ware to retirement, but the team still possesses one of the best linebacking cores in football spearheaded by Von Miller and Brandon Marshall. The defensive backs CB Aqib Talib, CB Chris Harris, and SS T.J Ward (if he remains a Bronco) lead a vaunting secondary that will be among the leagues best. Despite all of the success the defense projects to have, their Quarterback and Running Back woes are enough to knock them back to 4th place in the AFC West.

AFC South

 

TEN

Tennessee Titans

Grade: B+

Record Prediction: 10-6

The Skinny: There is a lot to like when looking at the Tennessee Titans. For starters, the team is in what has been historically one of the worst divisions in the NFL. Secondly, the area that gets me most excited about the Tennessee Titans is their offensive line. Jack Conklin firmly established himself with a solid rookie campaign at RT last season, and the play of Taylor Lewan at the opposite tackle spot helped shore up the edges, giving Marcus Mariota lots of time to pass the football. The strong play at tackle also opened up what turned out to be a solid one-two punch at running back with Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry. The Titans made sure that their star Quarterback was not short on weapons in 2017 drafting WR Corey Davis in the first round while also signing Eric Decker from the New York Jets. Defensively, the team lost CB’s Valentino Blake and Jason McCourty, but signed CB Logan Ryan from the New England Patriots as well as drafting CB Adoree’ Jackson in the 2nd round, as both men project to start Week 1 for the Titans. The Defensive Line features back-to-back Pro Bowler Jurell Casey, and a pair of solid linemen in Sylvester Williams and DaQuan Jones. The linebacker combination of Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo caused a lot of trouble for football teams last year and should do the same this year. The Titans, although yet a household name, are on the verge of being contenders in the AFC.

HOU

Houston Texans

Grade: B-

Record Prediction: 9-7

The Skinny: A playoff appearance for a team that had no answer at Quarterback and played the entire season without their best player is a pretty impressive accomplishment. Unfortunately, the question of who will be the #1 QB still remains. While it is being said Tom Savage will start week one, I do not think that will last long. Simply put, first round pick and National Championship QB Deshaun Watson is too good to be sitting behind Savage. The WR weapons are there as DeAndre Hopkins and C.J Fuller shape up to be a scary combination. Lamar Miller hopes for more success this season as he should have a decent shot at being the bellcow back once again in Houston, a team which will look to lean on it’s run-game. On the defensive side of the ball, the team gets better as they expect to have J.J Watt back. A defense which features names such as J.J Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, Brian Cushing, and Jonathan Joseph looks to be one of the best in the NFL this season.

INDY

Indianapolis Colts

Grade: C+

Record Prediction: 5-11

The Skinny: Andrew Luck has come out and been very non-committal about his shoulder being 100% ready for the season opener, and unfortunately, the Colts are going to live and die by their All-Pro Quarterback who was reported by team Owner Jim Irsay as unable to be ready for week one. A very young and inexperienced offensive line has made life very difficult for Indy’s snap callers, and in turn, has hurt both the team and Luck throughout his career. Offensively the team projects to be very similar to what they were last year, but on the defensive side of the ball, the team experienced a huge facelift. Out are pieces like S Mike Adams, LB’s Trent Cole, D’Qwell Jackson, and Robert Mathis, in are LB’s Jon Bostic (Detroit), Barkevious Mingo (New England), Jabaal Sheard (New England), John Simon (Houston), and Sean Spence (LB). How well these line backers are able to gel and fit into a new defensive scheme is going to be integral to Indy’s success on defense. The team also acquired DE Margus Hunt from the Cincinnati Bengals.  Unfortunately, I believe it will take a year before the Colts are ready to seriously compete, as it is too much change on the defensive side of the ball to expect results immediately.

JAX

Jacksonville Jaguars

Grade: C

Record Prediction: 5-11

The Skinny: The Jaguars were up their usual tricks this off-season throwing money around and making waves as the team acquired OT Branden Albert who shortly after retired, SS Barry Church, CB A.J Bouye, and All-Pro DE Calais Campbell. On offense, the Jaguars finally filled the need at RB by drafting LSU standout Leonard Fournette in the first round. The book is still out there on Blake Bortles, and this appears to be the former third-overall picks last chance to prove that he can be the starting quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars. On defense, the team appears to have a very underrated unit. Malik Jackson and Calais Campbell prove to be a vaunting tandem on the d-line, and if Dante Fowler’s health (and off-field issues) hold up, he could be a very dynamic player on their defense. At linebacker, Myles Jack looks to get more snaps as he has been moved to MLB and Paul Posluszny is now the SLB. At CB, the addition of breakout CB A.J Bouye now gives them one of the best CB duos across the league as he will play opposite of CB Jalen Ramsey. If the team can get better play out of FS Tashaun Gipson, this group could end up being a “No Fly Zone” for opposing teams.

 

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