NFL: AFC 2016/17 team-by-team guide

Jay Asser 23:00 08/09/2016
The AFC season is about to get underway.

The long-awaited summer pause has gone and past. The brand-new NFL season welcomes the highly-anticipated rematch of last season’s Super Bowl as champions Denver Broncos wish to repeat the favourable scenario when they take on the Carolina Panthers this Friday.

While the rest of Week 1’s action will be seen through on Sunday and Tuesday, Sport360 remind forgetful fans who dozed off during the preseason with a brief summary of all the significant changes.

AFC EAST

BUFFALO BILLS

HEAD COACH: Rex Ryan

STAR PLAYER: LeSean McCoy

LAST SEASON: 8-8

KEY INS: Reggie Bush (San Francisco), Jonathan Williams (rookie), Shaq Lawson (rookie), Reggie Ragland (rookie), Adolphus Washington (rookie)

KEY OUTS: Mario Williams (Miami), Karlos Williams (free agent), Chris Hogan (New England)

STRENGTHS: They led the league in rushing yards per game and McCoy and Tyrod taylor should once again form a dynamic ground attack.

WEAKNESSES: Taylor has few pass-catchers he can rely upon outside of Sammy Watkins, who has dealt with injuries.

VERDICT: If they can stay healthy, they have a chance to finish second in the division and grab a wild card berth.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

HEAD COACH: Adam Gase

STAR PLAYER: Ndamukong Suh

LAST SEASON: 6-10

KEY INS: Laremy Tunsil (rookie), Mario Williams (Buffalo), Byron Maxwell (Philadelphia), Kiko Alonso (Philadelphia), Arian Foster (Houston)

KEY OUTS: Lamar Miller (Houston), Olivier Vernon (New York Giants), Derrick Shelby (Atlanta), Rishard Matthews (Tennessee)

STRENGTHS: Defensive line is very talented and should offer plenty of pass rush.

WEAKNESSES: Ryan Tannehill has been inconsistent under centre and the team’s ceiling is tied to his continued development.

VERDICT: They’re fighting from the bottom of the division and need a lot to go right to do better than a .500 record.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

HEAD COACH: Bill Belichick

STAR PLAYER: Tom Brady

LAST SEASON: 12-4, lost in AFC Championship

KEY INS: Martellus Bennett (Chicago), Chris Hogan (Buffalo), Jonathan Cooper (Arizona), Chris Long (St. Louis), Malcolm Mitchell (rookie)

KEY OUTS: Chandler Jones (Arizona), Brandon LaFell (Cincinnati), Akiem Hicks (Chicago)

STRENGTHS: Young defensive stars anchor a unit that keeps improving year after year.

WEAKNESSES: Offensive line is a question mark and will be crucial to buying Brady enough time so the attack can function at an elite level.

VERDICT: They’re as balanced as any team and as long as they can stay afloat the first four games without Brady, another Super Bowl beckons.

NEW YORK JETS

HEAD COACH: Todd Bowles

STAR PLAYER: Darrelle Revis

LAST SEASON: 10-6

KEY INS: Matt Forte (Chicago), Ryan Clady (Denver)

KEY OUTS: Chris Ivory (Jacksonville), D’Brickashaw Ferguson (retired), Damon Harrison (New York Giants), Antonio Cromartie (Indianapolis)

STRENGTHS: Defensive line is where their bread is buttered as it provides both a pass rush and resistance against the run.

WEAKNESSES: Ryan Fitzpatrick’s final numbers for 2015 were relatively impressive, but can you really be much of a threat with a journeyman quarterback?

VERDICT: Should fight for one of the two wild card spots if their offence can repeat last year’s production.

AFC NORTH

BALTIMORE RAVENS

HEAD COACH: John Harbaugh

STAR PLAYER: Joe Flacco

LAST SEASON: 5-11

KEY INS: Ronnie Stanley (rookie), Kenneth Dixon (rookie), Eric Weddle (San Diego), Mike Wallace (Minnesota)

KEY OUTS: Kelechi Osemele (Oakland), Daryl Smith (Tampa Bay)

STRENGTHS: Front seven should be formidable if players like Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervill are healthy, but that’s not exactly a certainty at the start of the season.

WEAKNESSES: The rushing attack, which was unreliable last year, is leaning on a committee that includes unproven backs.

VERDICT: Injuries crushed them last year, but it’s doubtful those now-healthy aging veterans can return them to the playoffs. A rebuild is necessary which means they’re not going to be competing for at least a few more seasons.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

HEAD COACH: Marvin Lewis

STAR PLAYER: A.J. Green

LAST SEASON: 12-4, lost in Wild Card round

KEY INS: Tyler Boyd (rookie), Brandon LaFell (New England)

KEY OUTS: Reggie Nelson (Oakland), Marvin Jones (Detroit), Mohamed Sanu (Atlanta), Leon Hall (New York Giants), Wallace Gilberry (Detroit)

STRENGTHS: Defensively sound across the field with several play-making veterans at key positions.

WEAKNESSES: The wide receiver position has suffered massive turnover in the offseason and someone will have to step up to take the pressure off Green.

VERDICT: This should finally be the year when they get the monkey off their back and make it out of the first round of the playoffs, with the AFC Championship not out of the question. Pittsburgh, however, won’t make their road easy as they’ll still have to thwart their division rivals.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

HEAD COACH: Hue Jackson

STAR PLAYER: Joe Thomas

LAST SEASON: 3-13

KEY INS: Robert Griffin III (Washington), Josh Gordon (suspension), Corey Coleman (rookie)

KEY OUTS: Alex Mack (Atlanta), Robert Turbin (Indianapolis), Travis Benjamin (San Diego)

STRENGTHS: Exciting weapons on a retooled offence will make them entertaining, if nothing else.

WEAKNESSES: Defence ranked near the bottom of the NFL in yards and points allowed last season, with little reason to believe it will get much better.

VERDICT: The names have changed, from the players on the field to the coaches on the sideline and the executives in the front office, but the results will still be mediocre as they rebuild. If they can salvage something from quarterback RGIII and he can stay healthy, that alone might make the season worth it.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

HEAD COACH: Mike Tomlin

STAR PLAYER: Antonio Brown

LAST SEASON: 10-6, lost in Divisional round

KEY INS: Ladarius Green (San Diego), Artie Burns (rookie), Sean Davis (rookie)

KEY OUTS: Kelvin Beachum (Jacksonville), Martavis Bryant (suspension), Heath Miller (retired)

STRENGTHS: They feature several explosive players at skill positions on offence and should be one of the highest-scoring teams in the league.

WEAKNESSES: Secondary struggled last year and while their draft addressed that area of concern, there’s plenty of inexperience.

VERDICT: Health of key players will play a major role and determine whether they reach the AFC Championship or falter early in the playoffs, but their offence should give them a chance to win against anyone.

AFC SOUTH

TENNESSEE TITANS

HEAD COACH: Mike Mularkey

STAR PLAYER: Jurrell Casey

LAST SEASON: 3-13

KEY INS: Demarco Murray (Philadelphia), Derrick Henry (rookie), Jack Conklin (rookie), Tajae Sharpe (rookie), Andre Johnson (Indianapolis), Rishard Matthews (Miami)

KEY OUTS: Dexter McCluster (free agent), Bishop Sankey (free agent), Dorial Green-Beckham (Philadelphia)

STRENGTHS: Rushing attack has been bolstered by new additions and should help control the clock.

WEAKNESSES: Pass-catching unit has some talent, but collectively is one of the very the worst in the league for second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota.

VERDICT: Three to four wins tacked on to last year’s total seems likely and while the division is very much up for grabs, they have a long way to go.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

HEAD COACH: Gus Bradley

STAR PLAYER: Allen Robinson

LAST SEASON: 5-11

KEY INS: Chris Ivory (New York Jets), Jalen Ramsey (rookie), Myles Jack (rookie), Malik Jackson (Denver), Prince Amukamara (New York Giants), Tashaun Gipson (Cleveland), Dante Fowler (injury), Kelvin Beachum (Pittsburgh)

KEY OUTS: Zane Beadles (San Francisco), Stefen Wisniewski (Philadelphia)

STRENGTHS: Receiving duo of Robinson and Allen Hurns is one of the NFL’s best one-two punches out wide and both have room for improvement.

WEAKNESSES: Defence allowed the second-most points in the league last season, but offseason acquisitions and rookies should help alleviate this.

VERDICT: They’re young and exciting, but have to prove they’re capable of producing a winning season before the expectations go any higher.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

HEAD COACH: Chuck Pagano

STAR PLAYER: Andrew Luck

LAST SEASON: 8-8

KEY INS: Ryan Kelly (rookie), Robert Turbin (Cleveland), Josh Ferguson (rookie), Patrick Robinson (San Diego), T.J. Greene (rookie)

KEY OUTS: Coby Fleener (New Orleans), Andre Johnson (Tennessee), Jerrell Freeman (Chicago)

STRENGTHS: Luck and the wide receivers – T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief especially – form one of the best downfield passing attacks around.

WEAKNESSES: Offensive line has been their downfall and even though they’ve devoted assets to offer Luck much-needed protection, he’s likely to take a ton of hits in the pocket.

VERDICT: A healthy Luck should mean a playoff spot in theory, but much is lacking around their franchise cornerstone that limits their ceiling, which is no higher than the first round of the playoffs.

HOUSTON TEXANS

HEAD COACH: Bill O’Brien

STAR PLAYER: J.J. Watt

LAST SEASON: 9-7, lost in Wild Card round

KEY INS: Lamar Miller (Miami), Brock Osweiler (Denver), Will Fuller (rookie), Braxton Miller (rookie), Jeff Allen (Kansas City) KEY OUTS: Arian Foster (Miami), Brian Hoyer (Chicago), Nate Washington (free agent), Brandon Brooks (Philadelphia)

STRENGTHS: Points will be at a premium for opposing teams against a devastating defensive unit led by Watt.

WEAKNESSES: Osweiler should be an upgrade at quarterback from last year, but the jury is still out on if he can stabilise the offence.

VERDICT: It should be their division to lose and the offence will surely take a step forward, but it’s unlikely they have the quarterback to truly contend deep in the playoffs.

AFC WEST

DENVER BRONCOS

HEAD COACH: Gary Kubiak

STAR PLAYER: Von Miller

LAST SEASON: 12-4, won Super Bowl

KEY INS: Paxton Lynch (rookie), Russell Okung (Seattle), Donald Stephenson (Kansas City), Trevor Siemian (rookie), Devontae Booker (rookie)

KEY OUTS: Malik Jackson (Jacksonville), Peyton Manning (retired), Ryan Clady (New York Jets), Evan Mathis (Arizona), Danny Trevathan (Chicago), David Bruton (Washington)

STRENGTHS: Dominant defence will ensure they’re in every game.

WEAKNESSES: Their passing game can’t get any worse than last year, but it will still be their biggest hindrance.

VERDICT: A lot went right last year and some regression should be expected, but their defence is good enough to make them contenders again.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

HEAD COACH: Andy Reid

STAR PLAYER: Justin Houston

LAST SEASON: 11-5, lost in Divisional round

KEY INS: Mitchell Schwartz (Cleveland), Nick Foles (St. Louis)

KEY OUTS: Sean Smith (Oakland), Donald Stephenson (Denver), Jeff Allen (Houston), Chase Daniel (Philadelphia)

STRENGTHS: Defence is anchored by a strong pass rush, though Houston’s current health to start the season is a major question mark.

WEAKNESSES: Ceiling of the passing game remains low, due to the built-in limitations of quarterback Alex Smith.

VERDICT: Hot finish to end last season combined with most of the team returning should mean they challenge, if not topple, Denver for the division and reach at least the Divisional round of the playoffs.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

HEAD COACH: Jack Del Rio

STAR PLAYER: Khalil Mack

LAST SEASON: 7-9

KEY INS: Karl Joseph (rookie), DeAndre Washington (rookie), Kelechi Osemele (Baltimore), Reggie Nelson (Cincinnati), Sean Smith (Kansas City), Bruce Irvin (Seattle)

KEY OUTS: Justin Tuck (retired), Charles Woodson (retired)

STRENGTHS: They boast arguably the second-best offensive line – behind Dallas – in the NFL which should protect an explosive attack.

WEAKNESSES: Bottom-tier defence from last season is much improved, but how will all the new additions work as a collective?

VERDICT: Should have a winning record and potentially double-digits wins, but tough division stands in the way of them being a major darkhorse.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

HEAD COACH: Mike McCoy

STAR PLAYER: Philip Rivers

LAST SEASON: 4-12

KEY INS: Joey Bosa (rookie), Travis Benjamin (Cleveland), Henry Hunter (rookie), Casey Hayward (Green Bay), Matt Slauson (Chicago)

KEY OUTS: Eric Weddle (Baltimore), Malcolm Floyd (retired), Patrick Robinson (Indianapolis)

STRENGTHS: Passing game should be strong again for rivers, who can control the clock and consistently move the chains with short, precision throws.

WEAKNESSES: Run defence ranked 30th in rushing yards allowed last year and there’s been little improvement to that side of the ball.

VERDICT: Win total should improve by a game or two, but a playoff berth is far off and they’re easily the worst team in the division.

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