Though we’re still over two months from the start of the season, we know enough about most rosters and teams that we can start guessing who we tip to do well this season. I’m taking a look at the top six teams in each conference – not necessarily those I expect to make the playoffs, but those I reckon are the platonic best. This time, it’s the AFC.
1) New England Patriots
The Patriots seem to have, much like the Golden State Warriors, broken the system of imposed parity American sport thrives on. The best team in the NFL last year were also the most improved team in the offseason. In comes deep threat Brandin Cooks, #1 corner Stephon Gilmore, underrated running back Mike Gillislie, pass rusher Kony Ealy and tight end Dwayne Allen. Cooks and Ealy came at the cost of picking in the first two rounds. Still, they drafted pass rusher Derek Rivers and tackle Antonio Garcia on Day 2. Neither have big-5 college experience, but both have bags of promise.
What terrifies about this is, these signings are improved replacements or just extra pieces. LeGarette Blount goes, in comes Gillislie. Martellus Bennett goes, in comes Dwayne Allen. Logan Ryan goes, in comes an improvement in Gilmore. Cooks isn’t even a replacement for anyone! The rich get richer, and this team should challenge their 2007 incarnation to go undefeated.
2) Oakland Raiders
Last year was a bit “what could have been” for Oakland. But in a conference where the no.2 team spot is wide open, it should be this year. The Raiders got momentum through the season, though it culminated in Derek Carr’s injury and team collapse. The offense remains impressive, strengthened with the flaky-but-talented Jared Cook at tight end. And a certain running back returning from retirement, but I’m pumping the brakes on Beast Mode. The key is, no-one was really lost. Brit tackle Menelik Watson left, but he’s fairly terrible. And certainly no better than Marshall Newhouse as a replacement #6 lineman.
(Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
The defense is the key, and it’s young this year like last. Another year of experience for Karl Joseph, Mario Williams et al should help. Though, it still looks thin. The draft provided three picks in the first three rounds. Bizarrely I would’ve liked the picks more if Oakland drafted first-rounder Gareon Conley in the 2nd round, and 2nd-rounder Obi Melifonwu in the first. Still, that secondary looks a bit better. And if 3rd-round DT Eddie Vanderdoes can hold the line while learning the ropes, all the better.
3) Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh have been a good-to-very-good team for aeons, and that kind of limbo will continue in 2017. Same QB, same star RB, same star WR, yeah yeah yeah. Same good O-line, as they show Seattle how a tight end becomes a functional left tackle. When they’ve had a healthy offense they’ve been a juggernaut, and that should continue. Through free agency nothing much changed, and the draft saw JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner added. Smith-Schuster will compete for WR3 and Conner for RB2 and that’s kind of that.
The defense, as ever, is the issue. James Harrison is still the best pass rusher – and he’s still great at 39 – but that is a worry. Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats have never come good, though Stephon Tuitt is a good interior rusher. First-round pick T.J. Watt is their latest roll of the dice, but I felt he was half-a-round overdrafted. In the secondary, promising second-year player Artie Burns was arrested recently. Generally, that pass defense is as inconsistent and unpredictable as ever. Relying too much on Mike Mitchell, William Gay and Ross Cockrell isn’t ideal.
4) Tennessee Titans
The Titans are the ascendant team in the AFC. This ranking is admittedly predicated on teams not finding a way to stop their run-heavy offense. Marcus Mariota is a key part of that, and a third year in which he kicks on make him an appealing MVP outsider. Bold claim, huh? Well. His red-zone efficiency was incredible last year – exactly a third of his pass attempts resulted in touchdowns. And none in interceptions. That’s better than Brady (20-of-64, 1 INT), Aaron Rodgers (31-of-108, 0 INT), and Matt Ryan (23-of-100, 1 INT). Though just 54 attempts suggests Tennessee could allow him to uncork it a bit more. To which: drafting Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor and Jonnu Smith should help. As should signing Eric Decker. Tennessee now have a bevy of weapons and an elite O-Line. So it all falls down to the scheming.
The defense should be somewhat improved, too. John Cyprien and Logan Ryan excelled elsewhere when not asked to do it all. Kevin Byard was an under-the-radar rookie star at free safety last year. Adding sky-high-ceiling’d Adoree Jackson in the draft makes this an intriguing secondary group. There’s still some sneaky-good talent in the front seven, too. Jurrell Casey is a terror at 3-4 end, with Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan and Kevin Dodd a good rotation at OLB. This Tennessee team could have been a flash in the pan, but more likely it’s halfway up the ladder to perennial contender.
Brian Orakpo (James Kenney/AP)
5) Kansas City Chiefs
I, like most of the rest of you, have ever decreasing faith in the Chiefs. Their offseason has been…unusual, to be polite. They’ve got an aging roster, built to compete now, but they went all-in on the draft in securing a franchise QB succession plan. They cut their only obvious #1 wide receiver, and a gadget player with a controversial past will take over. The best thing you can say about the offense is it should run-block well and won’t give up many sacks, thanks to both the line and QB play.
The defense remains strong, with an elite corner in Marcus Peters and safety in Eric Berry. There’ll be terrifying pass rush from Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Dee Ford and co. Bennie Logan is a great replacement for Dontari Poe, too.
So given all that doom and gloom, why are they my number 5 pick? Well, they’re coached as well as any team in the NFL not called the New England Patriots. Andy Reid has made a career out of getting the best from his teams, lifting middling rosters to 10-6 or 11-5 seasons. There’s enough talent on the D that the O can win games 16-13. It’ll be mostly functional, but with flashes of excitement and unpredictability. And that’ll be enough.
6) Houston Texans
Unless DeShone Kizer balls out in Cleveland (he may), Deshaun Watson will be the best rookie QB. That, as in most years that aren’t 2012, doesn’t mean much. So, expect Watson to either beat Tom Savage in camp or by week 3, and him to provide a similar level of boost (though in a different way) to what Brian Hoyer gave the Texans in the ’15 regular season. Some, but not too much. Why? Well, the offense outside of DeAndre Hopkins just looks mediocre. Okayish O-line, acceptable running game, questions marks all over the receiving corps.
Expect, therefore, the defense to be what gives Watson the scope to develop by providing opportunity. JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus might prevent every single opponent from converting on third down. If they don’t, Kareem Jackson, Jonathan Joseph and Kevin Johnson will. Safety and nose tackle remain a concern but not enough to make me doubt this D.
What’s that? I didn’t mention your team? Well let’s see how far off I think they are:
Nearly There But Not Quite
Wise moves by Chris Ballard has undone a lot of the damage Ryan Grigson did to the Indianapolis Colts. The O-line kicked on late last year, but the defense still looks a year off. The Baltimore Ravens are perennially close, but I fear for their running game and O-Line. Their defense should be stellar, mind. Where the Denver Broncos end up will depend on their quarterback. Trevor Siemian should help them compete for a wildcard slot, Paxton Lynch could as easily end up with 11 wins or 11 losses.
The Los Angeles Chargers look strong at full health, but there’s a lot of injury history on this roster, and their O-Line was near the league-worst last year. The Miami Dolphins remain a curate’s egg. The quarterback doesn’t inspire enough confidence, the O-Line veers between elite and awful, as does their lead back. It’s hard to have too much faith in the Buffalo Bills when they won’t commit to their good quarterback or star wide receiver.
I refuse to believe in the Jacksonville Jaguars, even though their defense looks strong and their O-Line finally looks serviceable. The Cincinnati Bengals feel like a team in terminal decline – why invest in a deep threat when you’ve let go all your players who can protect the quarterback for long enough? I think the Cleveland Browns should up the win total to about 5 this year; they could be just two years from competing. The New York Jets are bad enough the league should consider taking control of them for integrity’s sake.