2018-2019 NFL Preview: AFC

Apologize for the delay in the AFC preview; had something come up Friday afternoon and didn’t have time to edit.  Enjoy!

AFC East

New England Patriots

Projected Record: 11-5

Strengths: Everything that’s not a weakness

Weaknesses: Weapons, front seven 

If there was any other 41 year old quarterback surrounded with this cast of weapons, I’d have many concerns.

The Patriots let go of Danny Amendola for no reason whatsoever; it’s not like he was gonna cost a lot.  Kenny Britt didn’t make it through training camp, and it felt like the Pats gave up on Malcolm Mitchell a little too early.

That leaves New England with Chris Hogan, Rob Gronkowski, Phillip Dorsett, Cordarelle Patterson and Matthew Slater as pass catchers.  For two of those guys, this is their last chance.  Patterson’s bounced around the league, never really finding a consistent role due to inconsistent play.  He’s not even a 3rd receiver, and is hit-or-miss as a returner.  If the Patriots can’t use him correctly, no one can.

Dorsett has a longer leash.  He wasn’t featured enough last year, and therefore couldn’t make a huge impact.  Now is his chance with the Pats lacking weapons.  They won’t cut ties fast, since he was the return in the Jacoby Brissett trade that the Patriots probably regret a little more now.

Julian Edelman’s suspension leaves the Patriots with only two reliable weapons.  It’s probably not gonna matter, because they’re the Patriots, because Bill Belichick is Bill Belichick, and because Tom Brady is Tom Brady.  I’m not gonna worry about his age and performance until it’s an issue.  He’s amazing until he’s not.

The defense, which was torched by Nick Foles in the Super Bowl and finished 31st in defensive DVOA last year, didn’t really get any better.  They added Adrian Clayborne, but he’s not transcending what was a bad pass rush and run defense last year.  Danny Shelton is still a nice flyer, but he wasn’t productive last season either.

The Patriots have concerns every year and they always are never a huge deal.  If the defense takes another step back, then we might worry a little bit.  But for now, I’m not doubting them.  I’ll be late to that party.

Miami Dolphins

Projected Record: 7-9

Strengths: Lines, Competency

Weaknesses: Linebackers, Weapons, Star power

Somehow, a classic 7-9 Dolphins season is a massive success.

With Ryan Tannehill hopefully competent and healthy, the Dolphins should be able to bank on a non-disastrous season.  Him playing at an average level is a win, especially with this paltry group of receivers.  Trading Jarvis Landry was mind-boggling; they have no No.1 receiver for Tannehill to throw 90 balls to.  DeVante Parker has to step up; Kenny Stills can’t be relied on too heavily and Amendola is a 3rd option.  Kenyan Drake would be able to catch passes out of the backfield, but he’ll have a massive workload already given that Frank Gore (Is he 40 yet?  Are we close?) is currently the 2nd running back.

A good offensive line should help, though.  Josh Sitton magically appeared on this roster, bolstering an already underrated line.  I’m a little skeptical about Kenyan Drake as a lead back, but the line should help his production and take the weight off Tannehill to deliver to these receivers.

The Dolphins’ biggest problem is that they are average all around.  Even when completely healthy, Tannehill is hanging around the 13th-16th best quarterback in the league conversation.  They got rid of their best receiver and best defensive player.

I don’t know how much the defense will suffer though.  Even without Ndamkong Suh, the Dolphins are still loaded up front.  Cameron Wake is still a star, and Robert Quinn on the other side means no one is getting double-teamed.  Akeem Spence, Jordan Phillips and Andre Branch create a nice rotation up the middle as well.

That front should be enough to hide a weak core of linebackers who can’t stop the run.  The secondary, another underrated part of this team, can cover well enough that they won’t have to drop linebackers into coverage either.  The hope is that the linebackers can just take up space and clog the middle of the field.

Like the rest of the team though, the collective product is the problem.  The group might be just above average, and no one really stands out.  As you’ve read, one of the biggest themes this year is team’s defenses carrying an offense to an average record.  Miami’s defense might be sneakily underrated, but it’s not impactful enough to carry them to the playoffs.

Buffalo Bills

Projected Record: 5-11

Strengths: Defense, Running game

Weaknesses: Offensive line, Receivers

The Bills are caught right on the border of the “Should we start a rookie quarterback?” game.  They have a defense that can take pressure off the offense and a running game that can reduce possible bad decisions by whoever the quarterback is.  On the flip side, they have a dangerous (That is, dangerous to the quarterback) offensive line and zero weapons for him to get the ball too.

There’s no real upside to starting Nathan Peterman.  If you start Allen now, this is the worst he’ll be, and he can learn from those mistakes whether they are his fault or not.  You risk him getting hurt, but that’s a worst case scenario.  Peterman’s a fiasco as we learned last year.

But maybe this is an important step being taken by the Bills front office.  It’s a step of pure competence, which has been lacking over the past couple of years.  Maybe we should applaud them for having the balls to admit that this team is a disaster, in fact, such a disaster that we maybe shouldn’t put our franchise quarterback at risk.  Sure, it’s not a great look, because they’re admitting to idiotic decisions over the past two years, but at least it’s not getting worse.

At the end of it, their record probably doesn’t change much no matter who plays the majority of the snaps.  Whatever quarterback gets the majority of the snaps is inexperienced; neither Peterman or Allen are making their receivers better this season.

The Bills defense is good enough to get the team to eight wins (They can generate pass rush and have talent in the secondary), but that’s ambitious when factoring in quarterback play.  Allen, who was my QB1 in the draft, will have growing pains when he plays, and Peterman is Peterman.  The talent at that position alone drops the Bills a couple of wins.

New York Jets

Projected Record: 4-12

Strengths: Back seven, running back depth

Weaknesses: Everything else

It was a struggle to find strengths on this Jets roster.

Four wins might be generous.  The Jets have pieces here and there, but no group stands out enough to make them even frisky.  This is the only team in the league where we get to say things like “Thank God for Isaiah Crowell!”

Seriously!  Crowell is a lead back who can run the ball 25 times a game if needed.  That might be the workload considering what rookie QB Sam Darnold has to work with.

I like the Jets’ weapons more than the Bills, but I like Allen and the Buffalo defense more than Darnold and the Jets’.  That’s how Buffalo finishes two games ahead of New York, assuming this Peterman thing only lasts a week or two.

But Darnold has more reliability in his receiving core than Peterman/Allen.  Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse and Quincy Enuwa is a nice group.  Ardarius Stewart is suspended for the first two games, but could be a deep threat when he returns.

It’s not great, but it’s a better group than Buffalo.

When you’re battling the symptoms of the rookie QB disease, your defense matters immensely.  The Jets can’t count on their’s.  Leonard Williams is the only impact player on the defensive line, and a weak linebacker core will give up a crap ton of rushing yards.  The secondary is sneakily talented, but it won’t make up for the deficiencies at other positions.

I’d expect Darnold to struggle no matter how the productive his weapons are.  That will be a common theme throughout all areas of this Jets roster.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers 

Projected record: 11-5, 1st in AFC North 

Strengths: Weapons, offensive line, secondary

Weaknesses: Linebackers, health/age

It’s hard for me to understand all the Steelers backlash coming into this season.  The Steelers might have the best set of weapons in the entire league.  They added Oklahoma State receiver James Washington, who shredded college secondaries for years with his amazing route running and after the catch feats.  He’ll be incorporated immediately, especially so considering Eli Rogers’ Week 1 suspension. Antonio Brown is the best receiver in football, and JuJu Smith-Schuster will look to follow up an impressive rookie campaign.

The Le’Veon Bell situation is a lot more legit than I expected it to be.  He’s probably not playing tomorrow, and who knows how long it will be before he does.  Even with Pittsburgh’s surrounding cast, Bell is a massive missing piece.  That’s due to the fact that Ben Rothlisberger wasn’t exactly great last year!  Health has always been Big Ben’s main concern, but we might be at the point where performance also comes into question.

The offensive line and weapons surrounding him should limit Big Ben’s downfall a little bit.  Like Brady (This doesn’t mean Big Ben is Brady), I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.  He’s good till he’s not.

But the Bell thing could accelerate this.  What if he actually sits out the whole season (By the way, that’s not Le’Veon’s best interest either)?

Another (slight) concern with Pittsburgh is the front seven.  From a pass rush perspective, they’re fine.  But I worry about their ability to stop the run; their lineman are better pass rushers than run stoppers, and the loss of Ryan Shazier all the sudden looms even larger.  They’ll need TJ Watt and Jon Bostic to step up and clog the lanes.

The Steelers’ division projects to be a competitive one.  There’s a chance this falls apart on them.  But even without Le’Veon, this offense is too talented.  They’re going to be fine until the day that they aren’t.

Cincinnati Bengals

Projected record: 8-8

Strengths: Defense, Weapons

Weaknesses: Offensive line, scheme

This is the 5th time I’ve written this column and I’m pretty sure I’ve had the Bengals at 8-8 every time.  Okay, maybe not, but it’s probably the maximum win total I’ve ever given them.

Literally nothing has changed with the Bengals.  It’s the same average team whose defense is the only reason they’re average.

It starts with Andy Dalton.  Stuck somewhere between the 16th and 20th best quarterback in the league, Dalton just isn’t taking any offense to the next level.  He’s so average that this offense, which is loaded with some talented weapons, is actually hurt by his bare competence.  AJ Green, John Ross, Tyler Boyd and Tyler Eifert is deadly arsenal, but Dalton and Marvin Lewis’ inability to turn this offense into a dynamic one wastes it.  Joe Mixon and Giovanni Bernard also have the capability to be useful, but not in a boring, old-fashioned offense.

The saddest part about the Bengals is that they have the two most important pieces for success: A great defense and a cache of weapons to make life easier for a flawed (or not) QB in a good system.

Yet they haven’t found that success.  I mean, I guess success is not losing more than you win?

Cleveland Browns

Projected record: 7-9

Strengths: Relevance, secondary, offensive line, running back

Weaknesses: Linebacker, history, “The Browns”,  coaching

I cannot believe I typed “7-9” after letters which arranged to say “Projected record” underneath a title called “Cleveland Browns”.

I mean, what.

Let’s make the case.  Cleveland has at least one quarterback who can be competent (We should keep in mind that Tyrod Taylor was more than competent with a horrible set of weapons last season), a running back who can take on a 20 carry load (Carlos Hyde), another who can serve as a secondary runner and pass catcher out of the backfield (Duke Johnson Jr.) and a third who can be a third down back or takeover as a primary rusher incase of injury or underperformance from Hyde (Nick Chubb).  They made an awesome trade for a No.1 receiver (Jarvis Landry) and might have another No.1 returning to superstar status (Josh Gordon).  The offensive line is sneakily one of the best in football despite losing Joe Thomas, which will help whichever QB is manning the pocket.

The defense took a hit with the odd loss of Mychal Kendricks, who I believed would’ve been super effective for them.  He’s now gone, which only leaves the sketchy Jamie Collins and some other dudes in the linebacker core.  They’re also a little weak on the defensive front, though Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah can torture QBs.  Run defense, given their tackles and linebackers, is an issue.

I am a fan of the secondary.  The Damarious Randall trade was creative and worked; shedding DeShone Kizer and bringing in a starting caliber safety while not giving up too much draft capital.  The trade allows Randall to play his normal position, safety, rather than at cornerback, where Green Bay had him playing the past two years, mostly due to massive holes left by injury.  They have youngsters Denzel Ward and Jabril Peppers back there as well.  Ward at No.4 overall was high for me in the draft, and Peppers was a point of conflict for me in his respective draft.  His versatility fits this Cleveland well; they need him at safety and at linebacker.  Still, the two are at least interesting and promising.  If Peppers takes a step forward and Ward plays like the No.4 overall pick, then it’s going to be sneakily hard to throw on the Browns.

0-16 to 7-9 seems insane, and it actually is.  I mean, this is the Browns we’re talking about.  One of the biggest things this team has going against it is that right there: That they’re the Browns.  But I do believe there is talent here, and that some of that talent is real.  It’s real in the secondary, it’s real at quarterback (no matter who is playing), it’s real in the offensive line, and it’s real with their weapons.  It doesn’t really fit any of the formulas I’ve crafted for teams this season, but it just feels good.  And I’m rooting for it.

Baltimore Ravens

Projected record: 7-9

Strengths: Lines, secondary 

Weaknesses: Linebacker, quarterback, weapons

You know what I’m not rooting for?  The Ravens to be any better than they deserve.

If you read Thursday, I wrote that I was tired of the teams who had average rosters in general getting away with mediocre seasons due to the fact that their defense was extremely good or that their owner didn’t want to fire a coach or whatever other stupid reason (Cough, Detroit.  You can cough for Washington and Cincinnati for the previous two sentences).  You have to have something going for you to earn that 8-8 “We have a good defense but no offense” record.  The Jaguars have Leonard Fournette.  They get it.  The Giants have Saquon Barkley.  They get it.

The Ravens don’t have anything.  Lamar Jackson makes a case, but I find it unlikely they’ll make that change this season unless Joe Flacco sinks to levels we haven’t seen (or levels that the Ravens are finally horrified by).

Baltimore’s offense isn’t exciting.  It’s Flacco and receivers who are mediocre, unproven or haven’t had a big enough sample size to be properly judged (That’s Willie Snead, who I am a big fan of).  Alex Collins seems like he’s the future back for Baltimore, but could be in for a regression season after bursting onto the scene last season.

That’s countered by their offensive line, which, with Marshall Yanda and Ronnie Stanley, is anchored on the ends.  I worry about the interior, but Yanda is so good that it may not matter too much.

Still, an offense with no star receivers and Joe Flacco is not promising.  The defense is gonna have to save them.  It’s good enough to.

The line is stacked.  Brandon Williams is one of the best run stuffers in the league, and Terrell Suggs is still chugging along and terrorizing QBs.  The pass rush besides Suggs is a little weak, but Williams and Brent Urban can get to the quarterback.  Linebacker is also a bit weak besides CJ Mosley, but the run defense is good enough up front to make up for it.

The most dominate part of the defense is the secondary.  Marlon Humphrey will only get better in his 2nd year, and Brandon Carr is a solid corner.  Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson are a ridiculous pair.

Maybe I’m being too mean.  I’m just bored of Flacco.  I’m not sure how much better Jackson would make them from a wins perspective, but from an excitement/”lets switch this up” perspective, it’s needed.

AFC South

Houston Texans

Projected record: 10-6

Strengths: Skill positions, defensive line, secondary

Weaknesses: Offensive line, linebacker

I am in love with this team.

The offensive line is a massive concern, especially considering that the Texans probably won’t want DeShaun Watson running around as much given he’s coming off an ACL.  But it’s the only real concern this team has.  Their middle linebackers don’t have a ton of talent, but with JJ Watt at the core of the run defense, it’s not a huge concern.

DeShaun Watson is back, and that’s the key to this team.  His electric play is unpredictable, and he has one of the three best receivers in the league to throw too. Every play has the potential to be a touchdown with this offense.  Deandre Hopkins can catch anything, and Will Fuller is a boom or bust receiver.

But the Texans can be consistent offensively as well instead of relying on big plays.  Lamar Miller is an above average lead back.  He’s good enough to somewhat overcome the line.

Watson being the key to this team seems strange when they possess one of the best defenses in the NFL, but it’s more about Watson being the key to some serious success, rather than just winning the division.  The defense can get them to the playoffs alone.  Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney is terrifying; you have to double team both, which means you’re lining up with a tight end every time and can’t block whatever blitz is coming.  You can’t win against this front.

The pressure is one thing, but having no open receivers is worse.  The Texans’ secondary is stacked.  The addition of Tyrann Mathieu hurt my feelings deeply and took this secondary to a new level.  Mathieu’s performance was up and down in his last few seasons as a Cardinals, but he’ll excel in Houston’s scheme.  They have two solid cornerbacks in Jonathan Joseph and Kevin Johnson, and Aaron Colvin as a nice 3rd option.

I think Houston has a chance not only to go deep in the playoffs, but even make the Super Bowl.  There’s only three teams in the AFC that I think can make it there, and I’ve written on all three.  If the Patriots are hurt by their lack of weapons, poor defense or a potential decline from Brady, and if Pittsburgh is without Le’Veon Bell and/or Big Ben is done, the Texans are sitting right there.  They’re ready.

Tennessee Titans

Projected record: 9-7

Strengths: Defense, offensive line 

Weaknesses: Quarterback, playmakers 

This Tennessee team projection came in a lot higher than I thought it would. The defense is very talented, and I like Mike Vrabel as head coach.  There still a lot of questions on the offense end, however.

The debate between Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in the 2014 draft is still ongoing, and that’s in the worst way possible. Neither have been the quarterback we expected them to be. With Mariota, it feels more like it’s been a scheme issue rather than a talent issue. The Titans have never put adequate weapons around him, and have failed to do so this year as well.  They need Corey Davis to step up after being complete afterthought last season.  Rishard Matthews is a decent slot receiver, but can drift out of games.  Delanie Walker is a nice target, but has the same problem as Matthews.  There’s no real playmakers on this roster.

The Titans can rely on Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis, two power runners who are both able to come out of the backfield and catch passes, but that would be too predictable at times especially if there’s no RPO action being used. It’d be interesting to see Mariota in that type of system, one more similar to the one he ran in college. But once again, the weapons are a serious issue.

The biggest reason the Titans came in at 9-7 is their sneakily good defense. They have a surplus of run suffers upfront, and have a ridiculous linebacker corps featuring two rookies who I really liked in the draft in Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry.  With Evans and Landry, the Titans can bring Derek Morgan and Brian Orakpo off the edge to help the pass rush. With their big men up front, they can’t generate a lot right now.  Orakpo and Morgan can help fill that role assuming Landry and Evans are as NFL ready as I believe them to be.

The secondary is equally as talented.  They went out and signed Kenny Vaccaro Malcolm Butler and poached Logan Ryan as well. Ryan and Butler are both former players of new head coach Mike Vrabel.  Both should fit the system well and won’t have too much of an adjustment to make.  Also, they have the electric Adoree Jackson in the secondary, but he may not get too much playing time with the caliber of their starters.  He’ll make an impact on special teams though, and if Tennessee want to get funky they can use Jackson on offense more often since they lack that spark.

Jacksonville and Tennessee are in similar places offensively, but I like the potential with the Titans a little more.  There’s more talent and a higher ceiling.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Projected record: 8-8

Strengths: Defense

Weaknesses: Quarterback, weapons 

8-8 seems mean for a team that made it to the AFC Championship Game last season.  But the first thing we need to consider is that the trip to that game didn’t exactly have everything to do with Jacksonville and more with their competition.  They played a Bills team that didn’t want to be there and a Steelers team that was incompetently coached.  They got amazing production out of Leonard Fournette, and made things easier for Blake Bortles, who miraculously put together a non-disastourous season.

What are the odds that happens again?  Fournette was key to Bortles’ success last year.  He reduced the amount of times Bortles had to throw an interception, and got chunk yards with big plays.  Could he be in for a simple regression season?

Couple that with the fact that this team is depleted with receivers and you have an offense that’s consistently bailed out by its defense, leading to the good ole’ reliable 8-8 record.

Seriously, what was Jacksonville thinking when they let teams steal their weapons? Even with Marquis Lee lining up on the outside, there’s no one to throw to.  Kaelin Cole is in no way a No.1 option, and Donte Moncrief can’t stay healthy.  I do like the prospectus of Dede Westbrook and DJ Chark.  Chark is a lightning rod, and Westbrook brings some big play ability.  Still, it’s not a group that is going to get Bortles to play exceptionally well.

There’s a ton of loaded defenses in the NFL and this another one of them.  It looks like a defense you’d draft in Madden franchise mode.  Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson and Marcel Dareus are big men who can make things happen in the trenches (The run defense issue is strange.  On paper, this works).  Myles Jack is a fierce player, and Telvin Smith is criminally underrated.  They might have the two best cornerbacks in league in addition to one of the best safeties.  I mean, it’s just totally unfair.

Not only do the Jags have a defense good enough to get them to eight wins, but it’s probably good enough to exceed that.  They will probably win more than eight games.  But I don’t feel great, and I don’t think you can blame me about not betting on Blake Bortles to any way elevate a team.  The most success Jacksonville is going to get out of this core is what they did last year.  Without a change on the offensive side, they’re only gonna be heading downward.

Indianapolis Colts

Projected record: 3-13

Strengths: T.Y. Hilton, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Malik Hooker, Jurrell Casey, Jabaal Sheard, Andrew Luck (?)

Weaknesses: Everybody else

My god this team is terrible.

You know it’s bad when you have to individually list players as the team strengths and weaknesses.  They have no collective group that can be considered a strength. Most of their position groups are weaknesses. It’s not great.

They have a couple position groups where there are more than two good players.  Quenton Nelson was the most NFL ready player in the draft, and Ryan Kelly should be able to return to his rookie self after suffering a season ending injury last season year.

Jurrell Casey is one of the best run stuffers in the league, and Jabaal Sheard is a quality edge rusher.

The rest of the guys are on their own.  T.Y. Hilton is the only real weapon they have, though I do like the potential of Eric Ebron finding himself again and Jack Doyle being productive.  No matter what, all this circles back to the biggest question surrounding the Colts.

As long as he’s not horrific, it’s gonna be really good to have Andrew Luck back.  It may not be the case with this team, but he has that Aaron Rodgers/LeBron James like quality to bring any team to the playoffs, no matter how bad the talent is surrounding him.  That is, assuming he’s healthy.

That’s the biggest question here.

A fully healthy Andrew Luck could pull this team to seven wins.  But the man has literally not played football in over a year and a half.

It’s scary doubting someone as talented as Luck, but I think it’s a pretty genuine concern.  If he shows any signs of rust, meaning, if he can’t play to his full ability, then this team is screwed.  He’s their only hope.  I don’t know if we see his peak this year.  Throughout the course of his injury, it seems like no one, not even the Colts, have known how long this would take.  I’m tired of guessing.

AFC West

Los Angeles Chargers

Projected record: 11-5

Strengths: Offense, secondary

Weaknesses: Run defense 

First of all, let’s recognize the fact that I published this year’s column without calling them the San Diego Chargers.

I never know what to do with this team anymore.  They always let me down.  And I’m assuming I’m like everyone else.  The Chargers Super Bowl picks make sense, the team is ridiculously talented, especially on the offensive end. But we have to remember that these are the Chargers.  They carry the same weight as the Browns these days.  It’s the fact that they’re the Chargers and the Chargers are going to do Chargers things.  The Browns are the Browns, and they’re going to do Browns things.

The Chargers have already had multiple Chargers things happen.  Hunter Henry and Jason Verrett are both out already with season ending injuries. I’m not projecting them this way, but we know that at least two more Chargers things are going to happen over the course of the season.  That doesn’t account for the stupid games they might lose by missing kicks, throwing interceptions, or whatever else the Chargers can manage to do in tight situations.

So again, take this projection with a grain of salt.  It’s probably not going to happen. Our projection and is based on talent and the Chargers have the most out of any roster in the division.

The offense is loaded. With Keenan Allen and Mike Williams healthy, they have two dynamic receivers who can make plays downfield.  Allen’s one of the best route-runners in the league, which will help Philip Rivers as he continues to age. Los Angeles also has Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin as big play guys.  This offensive can be dynamite.

The offensive line is in good shape, which means the Chargers can ground and pound with Melvin Gordon if Rivers really falls off.

The Chargers have multiple ways they can score.  They have one of the best weapons corps in the league and have a dominant running game. 

I do however, feel like this defense might be a little over-hyped.  Joey Bosa’s a beast, but he’s already slated to miss Week One. They have Melvin Ingram, but part of what makes them dominant is the fact that they can play both of those guys at the same time.  It makes life hell for offensive tackles.  

The run defense is also a serious issue.  Their linebacking core isn’t great, as they’re relying on multiple rookies to make an impact.  That includes guys like Kyzir White and Justin Jones. If teams are going to score on this defense, it’s going to be that way, because they won’t dare throw ball on them due to the pressure and the secondary.  

The secondary is extremely deep, even with the loss of Jason Verrett.  Before Verrett’s injury, the Chargers had two of the 10 best cornerbacks in the league. They still have one in Casey Heyward, and Trevor Williams is a pretty good third cornerback.  They also have Desmond King, who stepped up big time when Verrett went down last year as well.  They also have Derwin James; he’s going to get playing time right away and might be able to be interchangeable back there. 

If we are going based on talent, the Chargers should be one of the best teams in the league. But with all the Chargers things they’ve had happen over the past years, and their weird stadium situation, we can’t put too much hope into them.

Kansas City Chiefs

Projected record: 8-8

Strengths: Weapons, linebacker

Weaknesses: Run defense, quarterback

Like San Francisco, the Chiefs enter the season as one of the more overhyped teams of the season.

I understand the case for them.  Patrick Mahomes has a big arm, and that’s attractive.  He’s a gunslinger that we really haven’t seen before.  The Chiefs have a dynamic, explosive offense that might be really tough to stop.  They have a good but not great defense that’ll have to rely on multiple young pieces.

The overall theme here is that the Chiefs are relying on a lot of youth.  It’s all over the roster, but it’s also at the helm of the offense.  

I was out on Patrick Mahomes his 2017 draft class.  I thought the idea of him being a first rounder was insane, let alone the Chiefs drafting and not starting him right away.  No matter how bad he was, it would’ve been worth it considering that the other option was Alex Smith. 

Now is his opportunity.

I am notably out on college quarterbacks who came out of an air rate system; there’s hardly any track record of those QBs having success in the NFL.  However, the Chiefs are doing the best they can to replicate the offense for Mahomes, in a way that will make him successful at this level.  They went out and gave Sammy Watkins a little bit too much money, and have Tyreek Hill as a dynamite player.  I can see former Oregon stand-out DeAnthony Thomas having a big role in this offense as well, given his big play potential.

Where I am probably underrating Kansas City is in the run game.  If Mahomes seriously struggles, they can at least rely on Kareem Hunt to rack up yards.  No matter what, the offense is much more potent than the one they’ve had in the past, because even if Mahomes’ big plays are limited, they are at least big plays. 

But there was another element to the Kansas City teams of the past three years, and that’s the defensive side of the ball.  I don’t believe it plays as prominent as a role this season, and that is not a good thing.  The defensive roster is much less talented than it has been in years past.  Guys like Donteri Poe and Tamba Hali are gone.

Their defensive linemen are a tough evaluation.  Chris Jones and Justin Houston can get to the quarterback, but they don’t have run defense in the middle.  Their linebackers, however, can make up for that.  I’m a big fan of Reggie Ragland, and Anthony Hitchens is fine.

The secondary got a lot better per the Alex Smith trade, where they picked up Kendall Fuller for basically nothing.  He, Steven Nelson, and Orlando Scandrick make a pretty decent cornerback rotation.  Eric Berry and Ron Parker in the middle aren’t a bad pair either.

Besides the secondary though, there’s a lot of  “meh” on this defense.  It’s just fine.  We were never saying that about the Alex Smith-era Chiefs defense.  That’s why I am not totally sold on this team for this season.  Mahomes is not going to have the defense Smith had to fall back on.  The idea that that Mahomes is automatically going to be a stud is very daunting.  He has extreme accuracy issues, and the offense that KC is going to run is not going to help him improve that.  He’s going to make mistakes, and the defense will not have his back.  In no way is that a team that can go deep in the playoffs.  

Denver Broncos

Projected record: 8-8

Strengths: Defense 

Weaknesses: Quarterback

This is about as simple as it gets.

The Broncos are the simplest evaluation out of the mediocre/going nowhere/lackluster offense/good defensive teams.  They have an amazingly talented defense and a very average quarterback.

As you can tell, I’m still not ready to believe in Case Keenum.  I’ll die on the hill that proclaims last year was a fluke.  He had the best defense in the league as well as two of the top 10 receivers, along with amazing coaching.  The Broncos have one of those three things.

The defense, as it has been for years, is still ridiculous.  Bradley Chubb and Von Miller should not be able to come off the edges; it should actually be illegal.  The secondary is anchored by Chris Harris, who is one of the five best cornerbacks in the league, and the hard-hitting Darian Stewart.

It’s legitimate, and it will get Denver eight wins.  But the talent on the offensive side of the ball is nowhere close to what Minnesota had last year.  Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are good, solid receivers, but I’m not sure they’re helping out a quarterback.  I like the prospectus of DaeSean Hamilton and Cortland Sutton; Hamilton was a beast at Penn State, and Sutton was a first round talent they got in the 2nd round.  They have the have weapons, I’d just like to see them in use with a different quarterback.

I do not understand how anyone can justify the contract the Broncos gave Keenum. The contract essentially says “We think you can get us to the Super Bowl, and oh by the way, nice job last season.” Keenum is getting above average QB money, when his ceiling is probably average.  

We had never seen Keenum be good until last year, when he had the best defense in the league, two of the ten best receivers in the league, and excellent coaching.  He was put into the most perfect situation and played pretty well in it.  Thinking Keenum is the type a quarterback who can do it him himself is incredibly flawed.

I won’t crap on Keenum too much, because in this offense, which has failed to move the ball the past two years, he won’t have a lot of opportunities to make mistakes. That said the Broncos can go 8-8 because Keenum won’t squander the defense’s performance.  He may not add on to it, but he won’t waste it.  That’s the definition of an 8-8 team.

Oakland Raiders

Projected record: 6-10

Strengths: Secondary 

Weaknesses: Age, coaching

I don’t think this team is terrible, but there is certainly nothing interesting.

The offense feels like it’s going to have trouble moving the ball, due to a lack of playmakers and explosiveness.  The defense is incredibly old and in no sense is better than last year‘s.  And they downgraded at coach.  And they traded their best player for nothing.

I want to like the offense, but I just can’t.  I am a Derek Carr fan; I don’t think he’s the issue.  Amari Cooper is one of the more up-and-down receivers in the league, and Seth Roberts cannot be relied as a second option. Jordy Nelson is probably the second option, but at 33 you have to wonder how much he’s got.  It’s going to be weird seeing Nelson in another uniform, and I wonder if a new offensive scheme may bring down his effectiveness.

Again, there’s a lot of age here.  You have to wonder how much Marshawn Lynch has left in the tank.  If he’s out, your offense is featuring yet another up-and-down player in Doug Martin.

The defense, aside from the secondary, is the weakest spot on this team, as it has been for years.  They have some pass rush after the Kahlil Mack trade; Bruce Irvin, Arden Key and Frostee Rucker is decent.  But Irvin and Rucker are old, and you have to wonder how effective Key will be given that he’s a rookie.  Their linebackers are a little troubling, Derrick Johnson is a good run stuffer, but like the rest of the team is getting up there in age.  Tahir Whitehead looks good on paper, but he wasn’t exactly making plays for Detroit the past few years.

I do like the secondary.  Gareon Conley and Nick Nelson are both pretty young, but the Raiders need that given the rest of the roster.  Nelson is someone who I think can be a shutdown corner someday; expect him to have an impact right away.   

The Raiders are confusing.  I could see them being horrendous, or I could see them at 9-7.  I went kind of in the middle.  But the 6-10 record is reflective of one thing: I didn’t have any trust in Jon Gruden when he was hired, and nothing he’s done since has help me gain any.  And the scary part is that he hasn’t even coached a game.

AFC Playoff Picture

  1. New England Patriots
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers
  3. Los Angeles Chargers
  4. Houston Texans
  5. Tennessee Titans
  6. Jacksonville Jaguars

The 6th seed came down to four teams that I had very little nice things to say about: Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Kansas City, and Denver.  Welcome to the AFC, everybody!