AFC Roster Reset: Chiefs and Ravens taking reins from Patriots

Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. Gregg Rosenthal examines the pecking order in the AFC.

After nearly two decades at or near the top of the AFC, the New England Patriots are entering a transition year. The teams ready to replace them as the conference's annual elites are almost too obvious -- especially considering one of them is the reigning Super Bowl champ.

The Chiefs and Ravens are stable organizations led by sharp head coaches, with MVP-winning quarterbacks on their rookie contracts. If either team misses the playoffs in 2020, something went seriously wrong. Beyond the big two, virtually every other AFC team could make a case as a postseason contender if you squint hard enough.

Playoffs or bust

It's telling that the Chiefs have yet to officially offer a long-term contract to franchise-tagged defensive tackle Chris Jones, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero. General manager Brett Veach knows that he may not be able to afford Jones beyond the 2020 campaign, with Patrick Mahomes' impending megadeal a priority, but the team is still doing everything possible to keep this year's Chiefs as favorites to repeat.

Andy Reid will hit 2020 supported by the best offensive group of his career, an incredible combination of talent, youth and continuity. A substandard AFC West puts Kansas City in the driver's seat for that all-important top seed in the new playoffs system, where only one team per conference gets a first-round bye.

The Ravens are listed second because their division is tougher and there's an extra year of data showing that the Mahomes-era Chiefs are a top-five NFL team until proven otherwise. There are plenty of reasons to believe Baltimore can prevent a regression after its epic regular season a year ago, primarily Lamar Jackson's maturation process and the steady leadership of general manager Eric DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh.

Contenders

The Steelers and Browns are stuck in the conference's most competitive division, but both rosters have the star power and depth to make a playoff run. Pittsburgh is the safer pick, with Mike Tomlin's defense coming off its best season since Troy Polamalu was roaming the field early last decade. If Ben Roethlisberger is the Steelers' biggest question mark, they have a high ceiling. Cleveland has addressed some needs in free agency and should get a boost from a coaching change. A post-hype improvement could happen after a lost season overstuffed with bad fortune.

The AFC South looks wide open, with a credible case to be made for the Colts, Titans or Texans as the favorites. Coach Frank Reich's play calling, a strong offensive line, plus the additions of Philip Rivers and DeForest Buckner give Indy a slight edge. The division is the best candidate to sneak three teams into the playoffs in this new format.

For the first time since 2010, the Patriots are unlikely to be a consensus pick for the playoffs. They pulled off the No. 1 seed that year, but there is no Peak Tom Brady or rookie Rob Gronkowski to save them this time, unless Bill Belichick pulls off a draft miracle. Still, the bones of a championship-caliber defense, offensive line and coaching staff all remain in place. The Bills appear primed and the roster is more complete, but it'd be foolish to discount the possibility of Belichick conjuring up a 12th straight AFC East title in a relatively weak division.

AFC West purgatory

All three teams here occupy a unique space in the AFC firmament. They have strong resumes to become a "surprise" playoff team, especially considering there are now three wild cards. Facing the AFC East in a down year on the schedule helps, and they all have frisky rosters that could win 10 games if a few balls bounce their way. Then again, they are all huge longshots to win their division with the superpower Chiefs in the way, meaning that any title path would require three road playoff wins. Good luck with that.

The Chargers have one of the best rosters again -- on paper -- if you ignore the quarterback position. It will be fascinating to see if they draft a quarterback with the No. 6 overall pick or a tackle who could more quickly get some wins in a new stadium. Raiders general manager Mike Mayock took a lot of swings trying to improve the defense this offseason because he had to. There's no denying the team's talent base has improved, especially because of the 2019 draft class. The Broncos also aren't far from the fat middle of the NFL, but the team has a lot invested in Drew Lock being the answer at quarterback without a lot of proof it will happen. Hope is better than what they had last year, and head coach Vic Fangio's defense should keep Denver in games.

Uphill battle to playoffs

The Jets finished last season strong, but they enjoyed an easy schedule down the stretch -- and major underlying roster-construction problems remain in place. Where is the strength of this team and where is the help for Sam Darnold? History says that Gregg Williams' overachieving defenses often begin to fade in Year 2.

The Jaguars are all in on Gardner Minshew, but their defense could be an even bigger issue than their young, unproven offense. The Bengals have to climb out of a 2-14 hole, but their roster has a lot more star power than the rest of this tier, especially with a No. 1 overall pick on the way. The Dolphins know they have a quality head coach and their talent level is improving, but they still appear a year away from a playoff-ready roster.

None of this is arguable and none of it will look foolish in retrospect.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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