Around the NFL  

 

AFC Offseason Overhaul: Current conference hierarchy

Print

The New England Patriots are rarely far from the center of the NFL conversation, but this offseason they are inescapable.

The Pats followed up the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history with the boldest free-agent payout (Stephon Gilmore's deal, which included a whopping $40 million guaranteed) and biggest trade (swapping a first-rounder for Brandin Cooks) of the offseason. Sometime around when Rob Gronkowski took the ring at WrestleMania, it felt like overkill.

The Patriots will enter 2017 as heavier favorites in the AFC than they have been in a decade. That 2007 team came close to perfection, but ultimately didn't finish with a title. So what teams are most likely to get in the Patriots' Way this time?

After a week of evaluating Offseason Overhauls across the AFC, here's how the conference shapes up as a whole, based on roster strength:

Come and get them

New England Patriots.

Tom Brady's supporting cast, not his workout routine, could be the key to keeping him young. Brady has never had a group of receivers this deep. Bill Belichick will be the first to point out that many pitfalls stand between the Patriots and home playoff games, but this is an organization that has earned a bye in seven straight seasons. There are questions in the defensive front seven, but the pickup of cornerback Stephon Gilmore gives the team one of the league's better secondaries (if they do indeed keep Malcolm Butler). Anything short of a bye would be a disappointment. That's the bar Belichick has set.

Playoffs or bust

Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs.

The Steelers might wind up with the best "offseason addition" if/when Martavis Bryant comes off suspension. Marshawn Lynch (almost certainly) and Jared Cook will add even more juice to a Raiders offense that was already difficult to stop. The Chiefs have consistently been better than the sum of their parts under Andy Reid, and the parts surrounding Alex Smith have only been getting better. The Broncos have the most questions in this tier because of their new coaching staff and the quarterback situation, but this is an organization that won at least 12 games four straight seasons before 2016. This can still be a championship defense.

It's unlikely that every team in this tier will make the playoffs. But they all have championship aspirations and the pedigree to believe they should be playing in January. Any one of them could take out the Patriots if things break right.

The contenders

Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers, Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals.

Get ready for Chargers hype. The offseason was quiet, but the roster has difference makers throughout -- and a quarterback ready to make the sentimental run that Tony Romo never could. Baltimore wasn't that far away from the playoffs last year, although general manager Ozzie Newsome knows his defense is far away from its heyday. The Ravens need instant impact from this draft, just like the Bengals. Both teams aren't used to having so many depth-chart holes. Miami has a real chance to grow its young offense together alongside second-year coach Adam Gase. The Dolphins haven't had back-to-back winning seasons since Jay Fiedler was at quarterback a decade-and-a-half ago.

There isn't much separating this group from the tier above. They all enter the season with realistic playoff hopes.

The AFC South plus one

Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars.

I'll believe that the NFL's hipster division has a legitimate title contender when I see it. The Titans and Colts both had strong offseasons if you ignore their rehabbing quarterbacks. The Jaguars' roster looks like a playoff team if you ignore their quarterback position and record over the last five years. Houston is due for a market correction after a season where the team was very lucky to win nine games. The Bills fit right in with these AFC South teams. Too many things have to go right for them to make the playoffs, and 6-10 is more likely. At least the combination of Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins should be fun to watch (health permitting).

A playoff berth for any team in this tier should be viewed as a bonus and being a true challenger to the Patriots' throne would be a huge surprise. It's a group of franchises that should try to underpromise and overdeliver.

Wait until next year

Cleveland Browns and New York Jets.

The Browns aren't that far away from being a lot of fun to watch on offense -- well, if they can just figure out that pesky quarterback problem. They were better than their 1-15 record last year and should improve in 2017, but they are among the two AFC teams in which playoff hopes just aren't realistic.

The exodus might not be over in New York. It wouldn't be surprising if Sheldon Richardson and Eric Decker joined the phalanx of veterans (Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall, Nick Mangold) dumped by the team this season. Coach Todd Bowles won't admit this is a rebuild, but this is the most barren roster in the AFC -- even without looking at quarterback. The Jets are in prime position to #ScamforSam.

Print

Fan Discussion