- Can the Patriots keep dominating the East?
- The South provides a very intriguing set of quarterbacks
- Anything can happen in the wild, wild West
There’s still a lot to be settled before we even hit OTA’s. While the NFL’s free agency period is still ongoing, with bargains still available on the shelves, the general public is quickly shifting its attention on next month’s NFL Draft.
There is nothing quite like it, a powder keg of eager front office personnel, coupled with bright-eyed soon-to-be-millionaires and fan bases desperate for the key piece to put their squad over the top. There will be plenty of fireworks, for sure.
In anticipation of that, why not see how the field has shaped up already, with a peek at the early leaders for division titles. We cover the AFC this week, and look for the NFC edition early next.
- Pittsburgh Steelers – 7/13
- Baltimore Ravens – 4/1
- Cincinnati Bengals – 7/1
- Cleveland Browns – 39/1
Outlook: There’s only one other division where there’s a more overwhelming favorite as in the North (we’ll get to that juggernaut a little later), where the Pittsburgh Steelers should reign supreme. Their offense is riddled with playmakers up and down the depth chart – including boasting arguably the top wideout (Antonio Brown) and running back (Le’Veon Bell) in the game. It’s all orchestrated by a Hall-of-Famer in Ben Roethlisberger, whose days at pivot are coming to an end. Going out with another ‘chip would be a sweet way for him to put a bow on his career.
Baltimore gets the respect nod for a chance at a division title, because John Harbaugh and the Ravens have been so successful at instituting a consistent effort level, which usually comes with success. Their problem is that quarterback Joe Flacco has been reverted to a pumpkin since that Super Bowl win, and it doesn’t look like anything is going to snap him out of it, no matter how many Michael Crabtrees or John Browns the team brings in for him.
The Bengals will hit AJ Green for some pretty bombs, as they do year in and year out, but Cincinnati looks more like a team that just hasn’t shaken the tree enough to understand that what they have isn’t Super Bowl contender-worthy, let alone enough to compete for a division crown. Not changing course from Marvin Lewis as their head coach is either laziness by the front office, or they have some long term Lewis stock that they won’t give up until it sells higher. It won’t.
And Cleveland, is sitting at a 2.5-percent shot at the North, but it’s a good 2.5. Like, an on the rise 2.5. The Browns are busy replenishing the roster, and just having successful and useful players like Jarvis Landry, Tyrod Taylor and Carlos Hyde will help. Restocking what already is a sneaky-good offensive line with Chris Hubbard and Donald Stephenson will help too, as will the acquisition of the corner combo of Travis Carrie and Terrance Mitchell to bolster the defensive secondary. Throw in a boatload of draft picks, including the 1st and 4th overall in this year’s talent-rich class, and you’ve got the makings of … well, a team that will improve on the 1-31 record of the last two years.
- Jacksonville Jaguars – 3/2
- Houston Texans – 3/2
- Tennessee Titans – 17/3
- Indianapolis Colts – 19/1
Outlook: Of all the division battles in the conference, this one has to be the most intriguing. It feels like a two-team race between the incumbent Jags, fresh off a trip to the AFC championship game, and the upstart Houston Texans.
The Jaguars possess a pressure-heavy defense that demolishes offensive lines that aren’t synched up to what’s about to hit them. They’re complemented with the best cover duo in the game with Jaylen Ramsey and AJ Bouye. On the other side of the ball, Jacksonville spent its hard-earned cap space on the best guard available in free agency in Andrew Norwell. Expect to see a wider lane opening for Leonard Fournette, who can use that road, or still bowl over dudes to where he needs to get. The only question mark is at QB, where the team went back to the Blake Bortles well, a prove-it season for the much maligned no. 3 pick from 2014.
That position of weakness is the beginning of the strength for the Texans, who will bring back the most electrifying player at the position in the South in Deshaun Watson. The rookie pivot out of Clemson added the explosive and star element that team had been lacking, before blowing out his ACL to cut his season short. In his short sample size with the team, Houston averaged over 30 points per game with Watson under center. Without him? Just over 14 points. If the offense holds up their end of the bargain, the big question mark will be: can JJ Watt come back from his back injury and be the dominant defender that’s led him to three DPOY awards? If he does, watch out. That defense is legit scary and good with him as the point man.
The Titans could be in the mix, but Mike Vrabel’s plan to turn Tennessee into New England South is going to take some time, mostly with taking the training wheels off Marcus Mariota and let him spin. If he can unlock the prestigious talents of the Heisman winner, this team could make some noise. Some Patriots’ additions (Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis) can only help reshape the culture, but again, these things will take time. If Watson and Watt aren’t 100 per cent from their injuries and Bortles is .. well, Bortles, the Titans have the talent to lead this division.
And there are just too many question marks surrounding Andrew Luck to give the Colts any sort of chance of being up there – though he is, when healthy, the best quarterback in this division. The Colts have far more work to do to ensure that Luck remains upright this season, and they took the first steps to replenishing a weak roster pool by trading down the draft board with the Jets, netting the 6th pick, a pair of top-end 2nd-round draft choices this year, and another 2nd-rounder next year.
- New England Patriots – 3/97
- Buffalo Bills – 99/1
- Miami Dolphins – 99/1
- New York Jets – 99/1
Outlook: I’d usually say pencil this one in, but you won’t need an eraser. This one is a lock. Since 2001, the Patriots have won the division title 15 times in 17 years – the first miss was in 2002, when they labored after winning their first Super Bowl. The second was in 2008, when Tom Brady’s knee exploded on the first series of the first quarter of the first game of the season. Other than those? Complete and total domination. As long as Brady and Belichick are the combo, they won’t just be in the running for the division, but the Super Bowl. They have lost some key contributors this year, but like they always do, they’ll be in the picture.
As long as Brady and Belichick are the combo, they just won’t be in the running for the division, but the Super Bowl.
For the first time in forever, Buffalo has a front office and coaching staff that knows what it wants to be, and they’re quite literally ahead of the curve by breaking their playoff drought last season. This offseason has been about unloading players to accrue more draft capital to move up the board and take their franchise QB. It will take some time, but their moment for East dominance might come just as the Patriots’ window closes shut.
Ditto the Jets. They have already aggressively moved up from 6th to 3rd in the draft to claim their franchise pivot, as their later-round prospect blossoming into a star (a la Brady) strategy went the way of the tire fires that were Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. Their biggest get so far is at corner in Trumaine Johnson, but they are trending in the right direction.
Meanwhile, Miami. They did one thing right, and that was sign Josh Sitton to shore up the offensive line. But that seemed to be more throwing a dart and hitting a bullseye than executing a plan. What the hell is that plan? They just released Ndamukong Suh and used his cap relief to buy up more receivers they don’t need. They have a QB coming back from an ACL injury they’re not sure they want in Ryan Tannehill, and they’re still nowhere near contention. Oh, and they’re still in cap hell.
- LA Chargers – 7/3
- Oakland Raiders – 7/3
- Kansas City Chiefs – 7/3
- Denver Broncos – 9/1
There are three teams with massive flaws but tantalizing traits all able to win the division outright – and then there’s the Broncos. Welcome to the wild, wild West.
LA has to be considered a favorite because of the way they seemingly put it all together by the end of the season, winning six of their final seven games. Philip Rivers regained his upper echelon status, while Melvin Gordon finally rounded into the first-round talent everyone expected. They were even better on defense, with a scary duo of rush ends no one wants to block in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. They even have a lockdown corner in Casey Hayward. Still, that wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs, because the Chargers’ curse is they can’t win close games. They started out the year 0-4 losing three of those games by a combined 7 points. When it gets dark in LA, it gets dark.
Oakland should be better, they are really too talented not to be, and they welcome back their prodigal son Jon Gruden, trading in his perched spot in the Monday Night Football booth to try and revive a franchise that seemed to be on an upward trajectory before last season’s speed bump. Derek Carr is a good QB bordering on great. They let Michael Crabtree walk and replaced him with veteran Jordy Nelson, a cap casualty in Green Bay. Marshawn Lynch will be joined in the backfield by ex-Buc Doug Martin, two years removed from a 1,400 yard season. Their defense will need help, as they surrendered 373 points a year ago, but they’re not bereft of pieces. Khalil Mack might very well be the best edge rusher in a division loaded with them.
Is there a team with a scarier set of playmakers than Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and now Sammy Watkins? Goodness gracious.
KC went from division winner to playoff fodder. Or as they refer to it in KC, ‘the usual’. Instead of taking the sure thing of Alex Smith, which translates to double-digit wins but forces you to essentially pitch perfect games without injuries to any cog on the engine, they went with the youngster Patrick Mahomes III. There’s an extremely small sample size of what he can do, but what he brings to the offense is too tempting to not at least give it a shot. This could mean wasting a season to get him up to speed, but not so fast. There is talent and playmakers across the board on this team, and couple that with Andy Reid’s coaching (not a joke), can carry Mahomes until the signal-caller can carry them. Can you name a better set of playmakers than Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and now Sammy Watkins? Goodness gracious.
And then there were the Broncos, who swung for the fences and landed … Case Keenum. If you were in a coma in 2017 and woke up just now to find the Broncos signed Keenum to a two-year, $36 million contract, you might just go under again. Keenum had a monster year for the Vikings, and the Broncos feel like he’s the piece under center to add stability to the position, and thus help ease all the other pressures across the board, ultimately leading to more wins. Von Miller and that defense isn’t what it’s been in the past, but they are still dangerous. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are a solid duo to throw to, but that’s about where the fun stops. The offensive line is plain … offensive? And their running game is nowhere near contender level to succeed. There’s too many question marks to put them on par with the other three.