With the 2015 NFL draft and free agency in the books, our up-to-the-minute read on the AFC’s division-by-division pecking order reveals only a few changes at the top.
If you measure the long NFL off-season as beginning the day after the Super Bowl and ending once the league’s annual Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason schedule, we’re almost exactly halfway through that six-month slog. Three months down, three months to go.
But with the 2015 draft now in the history books and free agency largely completed, the personnel acquisition phase of the off-season is all but over. For all intents and purposes, with a few exceptions, what we see now is pretty much what we’ll get in the fall. Forget some meaningless attempt at off-season power rankings, which don’t translate into anything once the regular season arrives. Here’s our up-to-the-minute read on this season’s division-by-division pecking order, based on the current state of roster and coaching/front office affairs with all 32 NFL franchises. We’ll put the spotlight on the AFC today and cover the NFC on Thursday.
Keep in mind that the status quo was all the rage in the NFL last year, with six of the league’s eight divisions featuring repeat champions in 2014, and three clubs (New England, Denver and Green Bay) winning their fourth consecutive division titles going back to 2011. I don’t foresee that trend changing dramatically. I do reserve the right to re-visit these projected standings at the end of the preseason, but this is how I see things shaping up from this early vantage point:
1. New England Patriots: The talent drain has been pronounced for the Super Bowl champs, with Darrelle Revis, Vince Wilfork, Brandon Browner, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and Akeem Ayers all heading elsewhere in the past two months. But nobody does a better job of re-spackling their roster than the Pats, and it looks as if New England will again have to rely on contributions from a good bit of the youth within its decent draft class. Has the gap been narrowed in the division? Yes. Have the Patriots at last been overtaken in the East? Nope. Not yet.
2. Buffalo Bills: The arrow is definitely pointing up in Buffalo and a splashy series of moves this off-season will provide upgrades in any number of areas, including coaching (Rex Ryan), the running game (LeSean McCoy), tight end (Charles Clay) and all-around offensive playmaking (Percy Harvin). Going from Kyle Orton to Matt Cassel as the alternative to EJ Manuel seems like a wash at best, but this Bills team is finally deep enough to end the playoff drought and earn a wild-card slot.
3. Miami Dolphins: There’s an unmistakable make-or-break vibe in Miami this year, and when does that kind of backdrop ever seem to pay off in a big way? Love the receiving upgrades like Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker and Jordan Cameron, and moving on from the problem that was Mike Wallace is a plus. But Ndamukong Suh is not a savior, Joe Philbin is not about to become a coaching savant, and Miami’s long run of mediocrity will continue.
4. New York Jets: How can you not love the renovation work of new general manager Mike Maccagnan thus far, having secured the services of Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Brandon Marshall, Buster Skrine, Stevan Ridley, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Zac Stacy, Marcus Gilchrist, Leonard Williams, Devin Smith and more? But will new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey be able to extract enough decent quarterbacking from Geno Smith to keep the Jets in playoff contention with that greatly improved supporting cast? Until I see it, I won’t believe it.
1. Cincinnati Bengals: Talk about status quo, the Bengals have won between nine and 11 games and made the playoffs in each of the past four years, losing their postseason opener each time, a Groundhog Day-type existence if there ever was one in the NFL. But I still love the Bengals' talent and view only Baltimore as a true threat to challenge them for division supremacy. If the returning Michael Johnson can jack up the pass rush and rookie offensive linemen Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher add quality depth in 2015, this is a Cincinnati team with no serious regular-season flaws.
2. Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens roll on, having responded well to their losses, plugging in Marc Trestman for Gary Kubiak, Breshad Perriman for Torrey Smith and Maxx Williams for Owen Daniels, with Haloti Ngata being replaced by some combination of Timmy Jernigan, Brandon Williams and the newly drafted Carl Davis. With superb coaching and a personnel department that keeps the talent coming, Baltimore will again take part in the AFC playoff bracket.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers showed me something in terms of resilience last season, fighting their way to an 11–5 record and the division title, but it seemed more of an aberration rather than a return to playoff perennial status. So much has to go right for Pittsburgh to repeat that first-place finish, and I can’t see first-round pick Bud Dupree being the difference-maker on the pass rush, with rookies Senquez Golson and Doran Grant transforming a weak-link secondary. Back to .500 the Steelers go.
4. Cleveland Browns: The new-look uniforms aren’t really all that new, and that’s a decent analogy for where the Browns will finish in the AFC North, in their familiar fourth-place slot. I liked Cleveland’s first-round work in the draft, with defensive tackle Danny Shelton and center-guard Cameron Erving putting the focus on the big guys up front. But I didn’t understand much else about the Browns’ draft, and even if the emphasis is going to be on the running game first and foremost, the neglected receiver position (Dwayne Bowe and who?) remains glaring. To believe in the Browns' rise, you have to have faith that Johnny Manziel will resurrect his career or Josh McCown will channel his 2013 work in Chicago. I’m 0-for-2 there.
1. Indianapolis Colts: The Colts loaded up on proven vets who can still get it done, in a clear-cut bid to climb that last rung and conquer the Patriots en route to a berth in the 50th Super Bowl next February. And on paper, it all looks good in adding Andre Johnson, Frank Gore, Trent Cole and Todd Herremans to what is already the cream of the AFC South crop. Indy has plenty of talent to cruise to another division title and 11 or 12 wins, but let’s see how the 30-and-up crowd is holding up come January. That’s the bottom line in Irsay-ville, and it ain’t moving.
2. Houston Texans: The Texans were over-achievers at 9–7 last season, and I like what Bill O’Brien is building in Houston. But I could foresee a scenario where the Texans are better in 2015 but don’t have the improved record to show for it, if Jacksonville and Tennessee can manage to offer any competition at all in the South. It’s hard to peg Houston's chances until we know whose team this is at quarterback: Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer or Tom Savage? Kevin Johnson at cornerback and Wilfork at defensive tackle will be upgrades, but Houston doesn’t have enough to chase down the Colts.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: I swung and missed mightily on the Jaguars last year, predicting a wild-card playoff berth before Jacksonville went 3–13 and suffered a one-game regression from 2013. So carefully I tread in 2015. But I can see the makings of 8–8 and real hope on the horizon, and a superb draft class that added Dante Fowler, T.J. Yeldon, A.J. Cann and Michael Bennett could be one of those foundational hauls in time. If Blake Bortles and his impressive young group of receivers is that much better for tight end Julius Thomas’s arrival, Jacksonville’s offense will finally be ready to take the training wheels off.
4. Tennessee Titans: When you’ve sunk as far as the Titans have, just returning to relevancy is the first step in constructing a turnaround. And Tennessee now has a reason for fans to pay attention, having drafted franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota with the No. 2 pick last week, and then doubling down by getting him an intriguing talent like receiver Dorial Green-Beckham in the second round. Brian Orakpo and Perrish Cox were decent defensive additions, and it’s not out of the question that if Mariota thrives early, the Titans could triple their 2014 win total.
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1. San Diego Chargers: Wouldn’t it be just like the Chargers to go out with a flourish, putting together a big season as all the relocation drama unfolds this season in San Diego? I’m using the same logic in foreseeing a strong bounce-back effort by quarterback Philip Rivers, who’s in the final year of his contract and was playing at an MVP level in the first half of 2014. Rivers can compartmentalize with the best of them. With rookie running back Melvin Gordon giving the Chargers offensive balance, and improved health on the O-line, San Diego features the talent and coaching acumen to reel off an 11-win season.
2. Denver Broncos: We’re about to find out if less-is-more translates into a late-career revelation for the aging Peyton Manning and the Super-Bowl-or-bust Broncos. New head coach Gary Kubiak is going to shift some of the offensive burden off No. 18's shoulders and onto the running game, and you can almost hear John Elway telling Manning that Terrell Davis was the best thing to ever happen to him. Denver’s pass-rush-heavy defense will carry its share of the load too, but my gut tells me this season will be a struggle for the Broncos just to secure a wild-card berth and one last shot at a ring.
3. Kansas City Chiefs: Perhaps another 9–7 could be in the offing in Kansas City, but I don’t sense any dramatic forward momentum is in store for a Chiefs team that could be dealing with a dissatisfied star in outside linebacker Justin Houston this season. Ten years ago, Andy Reid’s 2005 Eagles self-destructed as the Terrell Owens saga unfolded, and while things won’t reach that disastrous state in K.C., Houston’s mood ring bears watching. Another mandatory piece of the winning puzzle is the health of running back Jamaal Charles. As he goes, so go the Chiefs.
4. Oakland Raiders: The Raiders would have helped themselves considerably this off-season if all they did was rid their roster of the mounds of dead weight acquired last year (see LaMarr Woodley, Matt Schaub, Maurice Jones-Drew, James Jones, etc.). But Oakland also took real steps toward respectability this season in hiring Jack Del Rio as the new head coach, turning over the defensive coordinator slot to ex-Seattle assistant Kenny Norton Jr., and landing pro-ready receiver Amari Cooper in the draft’s first round. The AFC West is too tough for Oakland to climb out of the cellar just now, but six or seven wins seem well within reach for the re-tooled Raiders.