Yesterday, I talked about how optimistic I was about nearly every team in the NFC. On the other hand, most of the teams in the AFC are rebuilding, whether they know it or not. In fact, figuring out which team is the 3rd best team in the conference is much more challenging than it should be. Let’s break the AFC into tiers.
The “Going to Meet in the AFC Championship Game” Tier
New England Patriots
The “Could be a wildcard if things break right if they were in the NFC” tier
That’s right: the Bengals look to be the third best team in the AFC right now. Geno Atkins and A.J. Green are transcendent players, while Andy Dalton is a capable game manager. Jay Gruden called a miserable game in the playoffs last year, but this year could be the launch pad for a head coaching job for the younger Gruden. Cincinnati was quiet in the offseason, as usual, with the only noteworthy events being the loss of Manny Lawson to the Bills and the countersigning of John Skelton and Josh Johnson to ensure that the Bills couldn’t add any more mediocre quarterbacks. Cincinnati was the 4th youngest team in the NFL last year and holds the 37th pick in the draft thanks to the Carson Palmer trade. The team now fields the best defense in the AFC North, which is how that division is generally won.
Leaving town: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, Cary Williams, Bernard Pollard, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger
New Arrivals: Elvis Dumervil, Chris Canty, Marcus Spears, Michael Huff, Lardarius Webb (from injury)
The Ravens rebounded nicely from the first week of free agency, and the defensive line (Haloti Ngata, Canty, Spears, Terrence Cody, Pernell McPhee, and Arthur Jones) is absurdly deep and flexible. On the outside, Dumervil and Terrell Suggs form perhaps the best pair of edge rushers in the league, and the return of Webb should help the secondary. Of course, that just leaves a hole right up the middle, with Jameel McClain and Albert McClellan as the top two inside linebackers currently on the roster. Now you see why everyone projects Manti Te’o or Kevin Minter to Baltimore with the 32nd pick. Losing both safeties could be an even bigger issue: I’m not a Huff fan and special teams star James Ihedigbo is currently penciled in as the other starter.
And I’m not sure if the offense is on any more solid ground. Sure, Joe Flacco might continue to play like Joe Montana, but I doubt it. If Bryant McKinnie doesn’t return, the line becomes a question mark, and with McKinnie’s history, the line will be a question mark even if he does come back. An offense with an average offensive line, Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta, Ray Rice, and an average quarterback is an offense that will need a dominant defense to be a Super Bowl contender. If Flacco can live up to his huge contract the team will be fine, but if he plays like he has every regular season, the Ravens will finish right around .500.
Perhaps I’m too down on a Texans team that started last season 11-1. But Matt Schaub looked washed up by the end of the season, and I’m not sure how long the Texans can expect Arian Foster and Andre Johnson to carry the offense. Losing Connor Barwin and Glover Quin is offset by the return of Brian Cushing and the addition of Ed Reed, but the already star-focused offense got weaker with Kevin Walter and James Casey moving on. Shane Lechler could end up being a valuable signing, but I am sure Gary Kubiak will have him on the field too often, anyway.
It’s hard for me to get too excited about a team that was outscored by 30 points last year. Losing Bruce Arians could hurt, although the combination of Chuck Pagano and Pep Hamilton should leave Indianapolis in great shape. By the time you read this, Jim Irsay will have probably overpaid for somebody else, but for now the free agent additions stand at Gosder Cherilus, LaRon Landry, Ricky Jean-Francois, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Greg Toler, Aubrayo Franklin, Erik Walden, Stanley Havili (via trade), Matt Hasselbeck, Lawrence Sidbury, Donald Thomas, and Alvester Alexander. Indianapolis spent a lot of money but only marginally improved the team, which they were in position to do thanks to Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, T.Y. Hilton, and Vick Ballard counting for — collectively — 8.1 million dollars against the cap in 2013. Indianapolis should be better, but that still means a drop from an 11-win season to a 9-7 record.
Miami also made big offseason headlines, and the additions of Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler, Brent Grimes, and Dustin Keller should help. But the offense won’t be any better if Jonathan Martin can’t play left tackle, the opinion of everyone who has ever watched him except Jeff Ireland. Ryan Tannehill should make strides in year two, but I’d be a lot more optimistic about the Dolphins if they had retained Jake Long, Reggie Bush, and Anthony Fasano. Sean Smith wasn’t a star but the secondary will be worse without him. Miami made a lot of moves but it still feels like they’re struck in neutral. Of course, in the AFC East, that makes them the Patriots biggest challengers and a wildcard hopeful.
At this point, the Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger and not much else. They’ve lost Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall, and outside of Maurkice Pouncey and the potential of David DeCastro there is nothing impressive on the offensive line. The Steelers ancient defense has been well-chronicled, but James Harrison now joins James Farrior and Aaron Smith as heroes from another era, and you get the feeling that Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, and Troy Polamalu aren’t far behind. If we say the Steelers are about to fall apart every year, eventually we’ll be right! Still, the presence of Roethlisberger alone keeps Pittsburgh in this tier.
The “If This and This and This Happen, Watch Out! (Because we’re in the AFC) ” Tier
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs were labeled a sleeper team entering 2012, presumably because they went 7-9 in 2011 despite losing Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, and Tony Moeaki for essentially the entire year. That belied the fact that they had a Pythagorean record of 4-12 and finished 31st in scoring. My comment in my weekly power rankings after week 1 was: “I can’t get a good read on Kansas City. Some continue to tout them as sleepers, but they’ve now been outscored by 186 points in their last 19 games.”
Andy Reid, Alex Smith, Anthony Fasano, and Donnie Avery (and presumably Luke Joeckel) should revive one of the league’s worst offenses. Meanwhile, the already formidable defense added Sean Smith, Dunta Robinson, and Mike DeVito. If Dontari Poe can develop in year two, the Chiefs will have the right supporting cast around stars like Derrick Johnson, Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Brandon Flowers, and Berry. There are many legitimate reasons for optimism in Kansas City and to hope for a playoff berth in 2013, but I’m going to pump the brakes on the hype train for now based on how much they struggled last year. Unrelated, but a stat I enjoy: It’s been over 25 years since the Chiefs won a game with a quarterback drafted by the team.
I like what the Browns are doing. Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant, and Quentin Groves add to an already strong front seven, while the offense seems to be headed in the right direction. Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon look like solid picks, and Brandon Weeden at least provided an upgrade at quarterback. I don’t know what to think of new head coach Rob Chudzinski, but Pat Shurmur probably cost the team a couple of wins each year, so I’ll go ahead and assume that they’ve upgraded at head coach, too. In a weakened AFC North, with a little bit of luck, the Browns could compete for a playoff spot.
San Diego Chargers
I don’t entirely blame Philip Rivers for his apparent decline, but 2013 is a pivotal year for the current regime. In 2012, San Diego and Atlanta fielded the two oldest offenses in the league; the difference is that the Falcons had an elite offense while the Chargers were a disaster. New head coach Mike McCoy should help, but San Diego has a long way to go to become a contender again, even in the AFC.
The “Can We Split Teddy Bridgewater and Jadeveon Clowney Five Ways?” Tier
The Bills have won 6 or 7 games in six of the last seven years, a sentence that needs its own hashtag like #ThatsSoBuffalo. The Bills wouldn’t know a great quarterback if they saw one, but Buffalo fans can descriptively tell you the differences between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Trent Edwards and J.P. Losman, as all got to 6.5 wins in their own special way. Few things could scream #ThatsSoBuffalo like turning the dial to Kevin Kolb.
After making headlines with the signing of Mario Williams last offseason, some pegged the Bills as a sleeper team in the AFC. A front consisting of Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mark Sanders (and possibly Shawne Merriman) combined with a secondary anchored by Stephon Gilmore, Jairus Byrd and George Wilson had some (myself included) very high on the Bills defense entering last year. And while Kyle Williams and Byrd had outstanding seasons, and Wilson, Mario Williams, and Dareus played well, the cornerbacks and linebackers were among the worst in the league. As a result, the Bills finished 26th in points allowed and in the bottom three in every major rush defense category. And now, for what must be the 9th time in 9 years, the Bills are switching from/to a 4-3 defense to/from a 3-4 defense. #ThatsSoBuffalo
One of the league’s most boring teams just signed Shonn Greene, which means the only reason you had to watch the Titans before is now going to lose carries. To Shonn Greene. Tennessee finished -10 in the SRS last year, and unless you think Jake Locker is going to turn into the next great mobile quarterback (Spoiler: He won’t), the Titans seem destined to be playing out the string in December again.
New York Jets
I’ve already said my piece about the Jets offense and defense and whether the team should trade Darrelle Revis (although the cornerback market has collapsed since that post). I like the additions of Mike Goodson, Antwan Barnes, Antonio Garay and even David Garrard, but that isn’t going to stop the team from going 4-12. The Jets get the AFC North and NFC South next year, and they’ll be lucky to be favored in more than one of those games (thank the stars for Cleveland at home). Depending on when the Jets play the Raiders and Titans, that game could be have massive postseason ramifications. As in after the season, figuring out who gets the first pick.
There’s no sense in kicking these teams while they’re down. I like new Jaguars management (David Caldwell, Gus Bradley) more than what’s in Oakland, but both organizations are going under a total rebuild. Blaine Gabbert isn’t the answer, and Matt Flynn isn’t playing on the Packers anymore. For Jacksonville, the immediate goal iss making sure step 1 of rebuild goes smoothly, and that means hitting in the draft. Oakland isn’t even finished with the tear down part of the project, and is without its second round pick this season.