AFC: Patriots reload after Super Bowl victory
1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Coach: Bill Belichick
Last Year: 14-2
Key game: at Pittsburgh, Oct. 23
Impact players: QB Tom Brady, TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Julian Edelman, WR Brandin Cooks, CB Malcolm Butler, CB Stephon Gilmore, DE Trey Flowers
The good: Belichick reloaded after a Super Bowl victory, adding veterans such as Cook, Gilmore, RB Mike Gilleslee, LB David Harris and DT Kony Ealy. Brady turned 40, but predicting a dramatic drop-off would be foolhardy. The addition of Cooks along with the development of Chris Hogan gives Brady all the receivers he needs to get this team in the end zone over and over.
The bad: How long will Gronkowski’s back hold up? That’s a huge question. Belichick replaced Martellus Bennett with Dwayne Allen, but that’s a drop-off. Rob Ninkovich’s retirement leaves a leadership void and opponents will be looking to take advantage of questionable coverage ability in the linebacker corps.
2. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Coach: Mike Tomlin
Last year: 11-5
Key game: vs. New England, Dec. 17
Impact players: QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le’Veon Bell, WR Antonio Brown, C Maurkice Pouncey, G David DeCastro, ILB Ryan Shazier, CB Artie Burns.
The good: There may be no better offense in the league. Bell and Brown are among the best at their positions. Receiver Martavis Bryant is back from suspension to add another deep threat. The offensive line is one of the best around. Roethlisberger isn’t done yet and could have a big year.
The bad: Outside of Shazier, there isn’t a true impact player on defense. The Steelers drafted T.J. Watt hoping he could team with Bud Dupree as bookend pass rushers, but their front line got pushed around in the run game and they can’t let that happen again. They’ll be counting on youth at several key positions.
3. OAKLAND RAIDERS
Coach: Jack Del Rio
Last year: 12-4
Key game: vs. Denver, Nov. 26
Impact players: QB Derek Carr, RB Marshawn Lynch, WR Amari Cooper, G Kelechi Osemele, C Rodney Hudson, DE Khalil Mack, S Reggie Nelson
The good: Carr is recovered from the broken leg that cost the Raiders dearly in the playoffs and he’s got Lynch there to make his play-action game all the better. The addition of TE Jared Cook will help the down-the-field game, giving the Raiders one of the most complete offenses in the NFL. There are threats everywhere.
The bad: As good as Mack was, the defense didn’t do a very good job of stopping opposing passing games, ranking last in the NFL in sacks. There’s no reason to think the rush will improve dramatically. The Raiders ranked 24th against the pass, in part because of youth at cornerback. The linebacker corps isn’t very strong and could be the defense’s Achilles’ heel.
4. TENNESSEE TITANS
Coach: Mike Mularkey
Last year: 9-7
Key game: at Indianapolis, Nov. 26
Impact players: QB Marcus Mariota, TE Delanie Walker, T Taylor Lewan, T Jack Conklin, RB Derrick Henry, OLB Derrick Morgan, DT Jurrell Casey
The good: Mariota is healthy after missing the latter part of the year with a broken leg. Management got him a big-time rookie receiver in Corey Davis and potential help in veteran Eric Decker. On defense, the addition of cornerback Logan Ryan, rookie cornerback Adoree Jackson and safety John Cyprien should help a woeful secondary. There is a ton of talent on this team.
The bad: If Davis doesn’t excel right away, Mariota won’t have a game-breaker to throw to. While the tackles are outstanding, the interior of the offensive line isn’t great. The secondary should be better, but it was so bad last year anything would be an improvement. It will take awhile for that unit to gel.
5. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Coach: Andy Reid
Last year: 12-4
Key game: vs. Oakland, Dec. 10
Impact players: WR Tyreek Hill, TE Travis Kelce, ILB Derrick Johnson, OLB Justin Houston, CB Marcus Peters, S Eric Berry
The good: The defense led the NFL in takeaways last season, and with Johnson and Houston healthy it could be even better this year. Reid had all off-season to figure out how to get the ball to Hill, an emerging star. He also hedged his bet on quarterback Alex Smith by moving up in the draft to select Patrick Mahomes.
The bad: Smith isn’t getting any younger and he has never been a difference-maker. He’s been good enough to keep the Chiefs in the AFC mix, but not good enough to get them over the hump. They don’t have a franchise back and will try to figure out a rotation with Spencer Ware, Charckandrick West, C.J Spiller and Kareem Hunt.
6. CINCINNATI BENGALS
Coach: Marvin Lewis
Last year: 6-9-1
Key game: vs. Pittsburgh, Dec. 4
Impact players: QB Andy Dalton, WR A.J. Green, TE Tyler Eifert, DT Geno Atkins, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, ILB Vontaze Burflict
The good: The Bengals are always going to be tough on defense and while they have jettisoned some veterans, they have some promising young players to help fill the void. Offensively, Green wasn’t healthy last year and the Bengals weren’t the same. But he’s healthy, Eifert is healthy and the running game is solid.
The bad: The Bengals took some chances on the offensive line in the off-season, allowing left tackle Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler to leave. They don’t have ready-made replacements and this could be a tough year for Dalton. If the Bengals make the playoffs, they go in knowing they have yet to win with Lewis at the helm.
7. BALTIMORE RAVENS
Coach: John Harbaugh
Last year: 8-8
Key game: at Pittsburgh, Dec. 10
Impact players: QB Joe Flacco, OG Marshall Yanda, RB Danny Woodhead, CB Jimmy Smith, LB C.J. Mosley, S Eric Weddle, K Justin Tucker
The good: General manager Ozzie Newsome has gone all in on rebuilding his defense, adding cornerback Brandon Carr and safety Tony Jefferson and spending the team's first four picks on defense. The Ravens should be faster and deeper than a year ago and have the defensive backs to hang in there against the Steelers.
The bad: Flacco’s back injury shouldn’t keep him out of the regular season, but he really could have used some work with his receivers, including newcomer Jeremy Maclin as well as Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman. What’s more, the tight end position is in flux with Dennis Pitta no longer around.
8. DENVER BRONCOS
Coach: Vance Joseph
Last year: 9-7
Key game: vs. Kansas City, Dec. 31
Impact players: WR Demaryius Thomas, WR Emmanuel Sanders, OLB Von Miller, CB Chris Harris Jr., CB Aqib Talib, S T.J. Ward, K Brandon McManus
The good: You know the Broncos are going to play good defense. As long as they have Miller and the two cornerbacks, they’re going to give teams fits. They dodged a crisis when DE Derek Wolfe’s ankle injury proved not as serious as it looked. They shored up their defensive line with nose tackle Domata Peko and have a healthy Brandon Marshall back at linebacker.
The bad: The quarterback competition between Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian could be a distraction but more importantly it could be neither is worthy of starting. The offensive line has been retooled and needs to protect whichever guy it is. The running game didn’t help this year and may lean heavily on aging Jamaal Charles.
9. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
Coach: Doug Marrone
Last year: 3-13
Key game: vs. Tennessee, Sept. 17
Impact players: RB Leonard Fournette, DT Malik Jackson, CB Jalen Ramsey, DE Calais Campbell, CB A.J. Bouye
The good: The defense promises to be very good this year. If ILB Myles Jack can build off his rookie season and DE Dante Fowler can regain the pass rush ability he had before a knee injury, the defense could be stifling. Marrone likes a hard-nosed running attack and Fournette has the ability to thrive in it.
The bad: Quarterback Blake Bortles is on his ninth life. If he doesn’t get his act together quickly, he’ll be out of a job. Wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns disappeared last season and TE Julius Thomas is gone. The offensive line has been pieced together and badly needs second-round tackle Cam Robinson to be an instant starter.
10. HOUSTON TEXANS
Coach: Bill O’Brien
Last year: 9-7
Key game: at Tennessee, Dec. 3
Impact players: WR DeAndre Hopkins, LT Duane Brown, RB Lamar Miller, DE J.J. Watt, DE Javeon Clowney
The good: The best news is that the Texans won’t have to rely on Brock Osweiler to win games this year. Tom Savage is a stop-gap until rookie Deshaun Watson is ready to take over. The starting wideouts, Hopkins and Will Fuller, are dangerous and Miller is capable of taking on a heavier load.
The bad: The exodus of veteran talent is going to be too much to overcome. From nose tackle Vince Wilfork to cornerback A.J. Bouye to safety Quintin Demps to outside linebacker John Simon, there just isn’t that much talent on defense beyond the front four. And the talented players they do have can’t afford to miss any games.
11. MIAMI DOLPHINS
Coach: Adam Gase
Last year: 10-6
Key game: vs. New England, Dec. 11
Impact players: RB Jay Ajayi, DT Ndamukong Suh, WR Jarvis Landry, LB Lawrence Timmons
The good: The Dolphins went on a hot streak no one saw coming last year, winning nine of their last 11 in the regular season, and carry some momentum into this season. Even though QB Ryan Tannehill (knee) is out for the season, Ajayi should be able to carry a huge load. They learned how to win close games last year and that’s a big plus.
The bad: It doesn’t take long for Jay Cutler to destroy a locker room. Gase handled him well when he was offensive coordinator in Chicago and will try to take pressure off him with a strong run game, but in the end, can you really win with Cutler?
12. LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Coach: Anthony Lynn
Last year: 5-11
Key game: vs. Denver, Oct. 22
Impact players: QB Philip Rivers, WR Keenan Allen, TE Antonio Gates, CB Jason Verrett, CB Casey Hayward, OLB Melvin Ingram, DE Joey Bosa
The good: The Ingram-Bosa combination provides a huge challenge for pass-oriented offenses. They can rush all day long. The return of Allen from a season-ending injury is huge for Rivers, who also will find a way to get the ball to impressive rookie receiver Mike Williams. Running back Melvin Gordon bounced back from a tough rookie year and could be an all-around threat.
The bad: Changes on the offensive line were needed, but how quickly the new group can come together remains to be seen. Rivers has to be protected better. The kicking game was an adventure and there weren’t any changes in the off-season. This team was injury-prone last year and it can’t afford a repeat.
13. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Coach: Chuck Pagano
Last year: 8-8
Key game: vs. Tennessee, Nov. 26
Impact players: QB Andrew Luck, RB Frank Gore, WR T.Y. Hilton, DE Jabal Sheard
The good: Luck should be recovered from labrum surgery in time for the regular season. His offensive line is getting better and it showed at the end of last year when Luck was sacked far less often. The tight ends should be a factor. The defensive line should be solid with the addition of Sheard and former New York Giant Johnathan Hankins.
The bad: The linebacker corps is not good and it’s going to put tremendous pressure on the defense. The Colts should benefit from the addition of rookie safety Malik Hooker, but it’s a lot to ask for a rookie to have an immediate impact there. The corners will be hard-pressed to hold up if Pagano plans on blitzing a lot.
14. CLEVELAND BROWNS
Coach: Hue Jackson
Last year: 1-15
Key game: vs. Pittsburgh, Sept. 10
Impact players: OT Joe Thomas, G Kevin Zeitler, S Calvin Pryor, DE Myles Garrett.
The good: The Browns have greatly improved their offensive line with the addition of Zeitler and center JC Tretter, which means their quarterback, probably rookie DeShone Kizer, should be protected. Garrett should have a productive year and be a pass-rushing force for years and the corners could be a strength.
The bad: Where do you start? No running game, no receivers, no tight end. The defense won’t be a slouch, but the Browns won’t be able to survive with just Garrett’s pass rush. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is going to have to blitz a lot.
15. BUFFALO BILLS
Coach: Sean McDermott
Last year: 7-9
Key game: vs. New England, Dec. 3
Impact players: RB LeSean McCoy, DE Lorenzo Alexander, DT Kyle Williams, DT Marcel Dareus, OLB Jerry Hughes
The good: McCoy has a chance to excel in a new zone scheme even though it didn’t work for him that well in Philadelphia under Chip Kelly. This time, he’ll have two outstanding fullbacks clearing the hole for him, which he’ll enjoy. Wide receiver Jordan Matthews adds a solid slot guy to the mix.
The bad: The Bills all but gave up on this season when they traded two of their best players, receiver Sammy Watkins and cornerback Ronald Darby. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor needs as much help as he can and losing Watkins hurts. Darby’s departure, on top of Gilmore’s exit, dooms the Bills secondary.
16. NEW YORK JETS
Coach: Todd Bowles
Last year: 5-11
Key game: vs. Miami, Sept. 24
Impact players: DT Sheldon Richardson, DE Leonard Williams, DE Muhammad Wilkerson, RB Matt Forte
The good: This team doesn’t have a lot going for it, but it does have three interior defensive linemen who can cause problems if they’re playing at their best. Forte is getting older, but he can still function as a dual threat and take some pressure off quarterback Josh McCown.
The bad: There are no receivers, no tight ends and the offensive line isn’t that good. The safeties are young and Bowles will be keeping his fingers crossed that cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine can hold up. At age 38, McCown is the best the Jets can do.