After years of watching New England turn mid-level signings into valuable roster additions, the Patriots have earned the benefit of the doubt. Belichick could lasso a random sample of 53 humans with zero sports knowledge and churn out an 11-win season.
Ultimately, the big question in the AFC hasn't changed: Who has the firepower to upstage New England? With Denver taking a major hit in free agency, the conference is a wide-open affair with a glut of average clubs amid a few heavy hitters.
The Patriots reinvent themselves annually, with no team doing a better job of molding its offense around the strengths of its players. With Tom Bradyteaching a master class on New England's demanding Erhardt-Perkins attack, Belichick is always hunting for smart players. The coach believes he's found one in Hogan, who wowed Belichick with his "football IQ" and might wind up pushing Danny Amendola off the roster. After also trading for Bennett, the Patriots now have the ability to unleash two insanely talented pass-catching tight ends in Bennett and Rob Gronkowski. With satellite back Dion Lewis also healthy again, Brady has a shot to post epic numbers come September.
The Steelers have holes on defense, especially in the secondary, but Pittsburgh's versatile and powerful offense makes them a Super Bowl threat in 2016. This attack -- even without Martavis Bryant -- has enough talent to dominate opponents. The Steelers came within minutes of the AFC Championship Game despite quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wideout Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell all missing significant time. This time around, the NFL's top "triplets" will do damage in a wide-open AFC.
I've put these in order. The Bengals lost depth at receiver, but they'll add pass-catchers in the draft. Losing talented play-caller Hue Jackson isn't ideal for Andy Dalton, but Cincy's quarterback slayed his doubters last season. With plenty of talent on offense and a complete defense, the Bengals have the talent to take one more swing at winning a playoff game. ... I'm ranking Kansas City atop Denver until the Broncos find a quarterback. Chiefs general manager John Dorsey deserves credit for re-signing his defensive core -- Tamba Hali, Jaye Howard and Derrick Johnson. New deals for Eric Berry and Dontari Poe could be next. Losing guard Jeff Allen and tackle Donald Stephenson won't help the O-line, but signing former Browns tackle Mitchell Schwartz was a smart addition.
The Broncos would rank higher had they not lost both Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler under center, plus talent on defense in tackle Malik Jackson, linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety/special-teams ace David Bruton. The situation at quarterback is murky, but we have faith in John Elway to find a better option than Mark Sanchez. ... Forget last season: The Ravens are a logical bounce-back candidate with Joe Flacco back in the mix. Like Pittsburgh, Baltimore won't be held down for long.
What a jump for the Raiders, who look like a team ready to compete in the AFC. No longer forced to overpay for aging talent, general manager Reggie McKenzie added a trio of impact players in guard Kelechi Osemele, cornerback Sean Smith, pass-rusher Bruce Irvin and safety Reggie Nelson. With promising young quarterback Derek Carr throwing to wideout Amari Cooper and emerging tight end Clive Walford, Oakland has a legitimate shot to win the West.
The Texans house the top defensive player of his era in J.J. Watt, an intriguing passer in Osweiler and a premier wideout in DeAndre Hopkins. Adding Lamar Miller in the backfield makes up for cutting ties with Arian Foster. ... As for the Jets, we need to see what happens at quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick is far from a special talent, but his perfect fit in Chan Gailey's offense made Gang Green a headache in 2015. ... We ranked the Colts alongside the Patriots last offseason, but Indy was exposed with Andrew Luck missing nine starts. They'll be better with their franchise arm back in the saddle, but general manager Ryan Grigson appears allergic to creating a top-tier offensive line. The Colts also need pass-rushing help and new blood in the backfield.
Ready to make the leap?
Fans don't want to see their teams this low, but here's the truth: Not much separates 80 percent of the AFC. The Bills were wise to slap the franchise tag on tackle Cordy Glenn and re-up with guard Richie Incognito. Could a contract extension for Tyrod Taylor come next? The Bills feel in no rush to make that happen.
The Chargers added deep threat Travis Benjamin, but also saw Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, cornerback Patrick Robinson and tight end Ladarius Green all depart. Philip Rivers still gives San Diego a chance to make noise in the West. ... The Dolphins were active again, trading with Philly for cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Kiko Alonso -- questionable moves from where we sit -- while adding pass rusher Mario Williams. He won't make up for the loss of Olivier Vernon, who signed with the Giants.
The Titans have plenty to be excited about with Marcus Mariota at quarterback. We're not sold on the trade for DeMarco Murray, a former Offensive Player of the Year who looked lost in Philly's backfield last season. A big draft by new general manager Jon Robinson, though, could help Tennessee get on track for a successful rebuild.
The Browns are blowing up the roster. After losing four starters Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Travis Benjamin and Tashaun Gipson, Cleveland also cut ties with defensive veterans Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby. At quarterback, the Browns signed Robert Griffin III and loom as a strong candidate to draft Carson Wentz or Jared Goff. Tedious "Moneyball" jokes aside, the Browns have an asset in new coach Hue Jackson. The next few drafts, though, will make or break everything this new front office says they stand for.