AFC Roster Reset: Who can disrupt the conference's status quo?

Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2018 NFL Draft. Gregg Rosenthal examines the pecking order of the AFC.

The Jaguars made their move last season, coming minutes away from taking down the Patriots/Steelers hegemony in the AFC in successive weeks. But old habits die hard in a conference where Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and, to a lesser extent, Andy Reid have been playoff mainstays this decade.

This is a conference in need of fresh blood, but without the obvious firepower and depth of the NFC. After a week of going over the state of each division in our roster reset series, here's a look at the conference's overall power structure.

Playoffs or bust

These are the only teams that should consider their seasons an unmitigated bust if they don't reach the tournament. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has to figure out why he's becoming the NFL's answer to Billy Beane, with his s--- not working in the playoffs. (At least on defense.) Pittsburgh's offensive talent is unmatched and the defense is in better shape on paper than it has been since the beginning of Tomlin's tenure.

The Patriots have a lot of work left to do this offseason and a lot of early draft picks to try filling roster holes, especially in the front seven. The Jaguars return one of the best defenses of the decade and hope to work around their quarterback again. The Chargers make this top tier because general manager Tom Telesco has constructed a well-balanced roster with few glaring holes and plenty of Pro Bowl players. They are running out of Philip Rivers years to waste.


The transition to Patrick Mahomes is cause for excitement -- not concern -- in Kansas City. I trust Andy Reid to help Mahomes put points on the board, but the Chiefs' defense is a work in progress, at best. The Raiders are similarly imbalanced, with many of the same offensive pieces in place which had them heading into last season with so much buzz. Jon Gruden could have a much easier time than defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will have fixing a mostly broken Raiders secondary.

Guenther's old boss in Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis, remains employed because the team finished out last season strong and because Lewis has helped to draft and develop players well throughout the decade. The Bengals' roster is not far away, which also can be said about the Titans if new coach Mike Vrabel can develop some defensive difference makers. The Ravens resemble their early-2000s squads more each season on offense, which is a bad recipe when Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are not walking through that door on defense. Houston might have the most superstars of any team in this tier, but it's a top-heavy roster with gaping holes on the offensive line and in the secondary.

The Ravens and Bengals are under the most pressure in this tier to make the playoffs ... or risk fundamental changes atop the franchise. Each of these teams should be considered playoff contenders, but will need a few things to break right to make it happen.

Uphill battle

The end of the Bills' playoff drought doesn't change the reality they still remain a franchise very much in transition. Buffalo might need to take a step back in Year 2 under coach Sean McDermott for his long-term vision to be fully realized. It's hard to see a Bills passing game approaching league average this year.

The Colts could be a tier higher if Andrew Luck is healthy, although the team's consistently poor defense and thin skill-position talent don't look much better than they did during former general manager Ryan Grigson's run. The Dolphins remain a team stuck in the middle, while Broncos executive John Elway hasn't shown the ability to solve the team's offensive line or quarterback issues.

The Jets and Browns were initially in a tier below, but there's just not as much difference between 0-16 and 6-10 in the NFL as people think. The Browns have made enough moves this offseason to be competitive on offense, and the influx of draft picks will only bolster the roster. The Jets could have a new identity under Todd Bowles with a strong secondary -- IF they can manufacture some pass-rush pressure.

While Jets and Browns fans may understandably disagree, the gap between the top teams and the bottom-feeders is less pronounced in the NFL than in other pro sports. In the ultimate year-to-year league, all of the teams above should only be a few smart moves and a few lucky breaks away from a season of happy Sundays.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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