NFL

NFL Kickoff: Your Comprehensive Guide to the AFC

NFL Kickoff: Your Comprehensive Guide to the AFC

NFL kickoff week is a unique time of year. Fan bases everywhere for a brief time have a feeling of excitement (or despair, depending on what team you root for).

But fear not, I’m here to make or break all your hopes and dreams with my 2015 overview of all 32 NFL teams!

I’m going to break down what I like, what I hate, and what I find interesting about each team this year, followed by my expected record for each team. Let’s get into it:

By Andrew Shimer – Lead NFL Writer

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AFC East

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Miami Dolphins

Strengths: The Dolphins picked up the defensive prize of 2015 preseason in Ndamukong Suh to compliment their already solid defense (Cameron Wake and Brent Grimes are in my mind top 10 at their respective positions). Lamar Miller proved that he can be leaned on as a workhorse back, and Ryan Tannehill has only gotten better with every passing season and no one seems to notice. The team made improvements to both sides of the ball and look primed to make a run for the playoffs.

Weaknesses: For as talented a roster that the Dolphins have had the past couple of seasons, this team has grossly underachieved. Head Coach Joe Philbin has mismanaged this roster for the past three seasons (boasting a 7-9 record, and a pair of 8-8 records over the past three years). Coaching can definitely make or break a team (see Greg Schiano’s Bucs, or Mike Smith’s past three season as Atlanta’s HC).This is probably the most talented team that Philbin’s gotten to coach, another uninspired season and it’s curtains for his time in Miami.

Stories to Follow: Does Tannehill make the next step as franchise QB? How does Suh adapt to his new team? How does second year receiver Jarvis Landry develop? Is Philbin the right man for the job?

Record Prediction: 12-4

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New England Patriots

Strengths: There are good coaches, and then there are otherworldly coaches. Bill Belichick is without a doubt the best in the business. Him and the Golden Boy (aka Tom Brady) are back for yet another season and will probably once again make the most of their roster and prove why they are one of the NFL’s finest. Rob Gronkowski is the undisputed best tight end in the league and will likely capitalize on what was already a stellar 2014 campaign.

Weaknesses: The defending Super Bowl champs lost a TON of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Both Darrell Revis and Brandon Browner for other opportunities, Vince Wilfork’s departure leaves a massive hole on that D-Line, and Brady isn’t exactly getting any younger. This team lacks a lot of experience on the defensive side of the ball, which could cause this team to lose some close match ups.

Stories to Follow: How does Belichick adapt to losing all these key defensive pieces? Does Brady have enough in the tank for a full season? Will the Patriots be able to maintain their iron grip over their division?

Record Prediction: 11-5

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Buffalo Bills

Strengths: The Buffalo front seven is as good as they come (see their dominance of the Green Bay Packers last season if you don’t believe me). I think Rex Ryan was a slam dunk of a hire, he’s coming on to a near perfect roster that compliments his coaching style (a stout defense with a solid running game). I don’t think Ryan has ever had as talented a runner as LeSean McCoy; expect this team to hit the ground running.

Weaknesses: If it was even possible, this Bills team got worse at the QB position. The recent announcement that Tyrod Taylor will be the starter going into week one shows me that the organization does not have faith in their former first round draft pick EJ Manuel. Even if Taylor proves to be the real deal, that offensive line is inconsistent and outside of Watkins, the Bills lack any real playmakers at the WR position. LeSean is coming off a down year, and his running style could very easily mesh poorly with Ryan’s in-between-the-tackles running style.

Stories to Follow: Does anybody on the Bills roster step up as a long term QB solution? How patient will the fan base be with Rex Ryan’s antics? Can McCoy get back to his 2013 form?

Record Prediction: 10-6

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New York Jets

Strengths: The mastermind (Todd Bowels) behind the Cardinals’ bully of a defense has come to the big city, and boy did he inherit some great talent! Their new CB tandem could easily challenge to be one of the best in the league. Adding Cromartie and Revis to compliment a formidable defensive line, it won’t be shocking if this defense can consistently hold opponents to less than 20 points a game. The offense looks like it should be able to hold its own with the likes of Brandon Marshall, Chris Ivory (I’m predicting a career year for him), and Eric Decker.

Weakness: Losing Geno Smith for ten weeks with a broken jaw might not seem like an issue to many (some would even make the argument that Ryan Fitzpatrick is the better option at QB for the short term), but this kind of issue could suggest that the supposed face of the franchise lacks leadership qualities. This could suggest that his teammates might not want to play for him. I feel like the Jets will be much like last year’s Browns, plenty of talent all across the team, but the lack of a real difference maker at QB will make this team’s record look a lot worse than the team actually is.

Stories to Follow: Is Todd Bowels a capable head coach? What form will Smith be in when he comes back from his injury? Is Brandon Marshall still the difference maker he was in Chicago?

Record Prediction: 8-8

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AFC South

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Indianapolis Colts

Strengths: Andrew Luck has the highest ceiling of any of the young QBs in the NFL. He’s a proven winner and elevates all the players around him. The Colts brought in plenty of proven talent to compliment Luck’s skill sets and a prolific passer in Frank Gore and Andre Johnson. TY Hilton is a burner of a wide receiver that has given even the most talented secondary units fits.

Weaknesses: While I can’t deny the long term productivity of the pieces that Indianapolis brought in to improve the offense (Johnson at WR and Gore at RB), I can’t help but think that the expectations are unrealistic for both of these players. Johnson is 34 and Gore is 32. In an ideal world, they both have one, maybe two more years of productivity in the tank. The fact of the matter is Gore was the corner stone of a San Francisco offense for nine seasons; he’s logged over 2,442 carries over that time. That’s a lot of tread on the tires. Father Time is the only undefeated player in sports, and he’s not about to take his first loss to Gore or Johnson. These signings to me signal that the Colts think they are in “win now” mode, and if they don’t pay off, it could be a pretty big setback to Luck’s prime years.

Stories to Follow: Can the defense be consistent enough down the stretch to keep the Colts competitive late in the season? Will Luck’s new toys produce consistently? Can the Colts correct the mistakes they made with Luck’s predecessor, or will they be doomed to repeating the past and squandering Luck’s prime?

Record Prediction: 11-5

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Jacksonville Jaguars

Strengths: Being in a small market having one of the least competitive teams for three seasons running has caused a lot of people to sleep on the Jags. I’ve been a big fan of the work that Gus Bradley has done with this team over the past two seasons, and I think they will make some pretty big steps forward. Blake Bortles has put in work to improve his throwing mechanic, the front office has done great work to bring in plenty of talented, young receivers (Allen Robinson, Marquise Lee, and Allen Hurns all have potential) and a stud playmaker at tight end in Julius Thomas. Furthermore they’ve added depth on that offensive line and a youthful running back that should add balance to the attack and take pressure off their sophomore quarterback.

Weaknesses: Despite all the positives that I’m seeing out of Jacksonville, they’re still one of the youngest teams in the NFL, inexperience could cause this team to be outplayed on many occasions. The secondary unit on the defense is spotty (that’s me being generous), and losing their prized 1st round pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr. leaves the defense worse for wear. One of Bortles’ biggest concerns last year was falling back into bad habits as the season went on. As much as I hope this doesn’t happen, there is always the possibility that the issues could re-emerge. While the offensive line did improve, it’s not hard to improve upon a 50+ sack season.

Stories to Follow: Does Bortles improve on a promising (although flawed) rookie season? Can the young receivers step up? How much time to does Bradley have running this team?

Record Prediction: 8-8

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Houston Texans

Strengths: The Texans have the best tandem of pass rushers in the NFL. JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are dynamic and will give offensive coordinators fits all season long. And the rest of that defense has proven to be a bully too. DeAndre Hopkins looks like he’s primed to make huge strides towards establishing himself as one of the NFL’s great #1 receivers, and he has a great complimentary receiver with the arrival of Cecil Shorts III. Arian Foster is a consensus top 5 running back and if he comes back in a reasonable timetable (optimists are predicting end of September), then this team can definitely contend for the AFC South.

Weaknesses: As it stands, Brian Hoyer currently has the starting quarterback job. He finds himself in an eerily similar situation as he was in last year with the Browns, talented defense, and solid players on offense. While the team started off hot, they collapsed midway through the season due to middling quarterback play. I’m rooting for Hoyer the Destroyer to make the most of his latest chance at starting, but his recent track record suggests that a season of productive play will be tough. Foster’s injury leaves the offense in a tough situation, and he could experience setbacks while recovering (he doesn’t exactly have the cleanest injury history), which will hurt the offense. Strong defense can only help for so long, at the end of the day if the Texans can’t find the end zone, they’ll be lucky to be a .500 ballclub.

Stories to Follow: Foster’s road to recovery. Can head coach Bill O’Brian build on first year success? Will Hopkins adapt to his role as a true #1 receiver? Does a running back take advantage of Foster’s absence?

Record Prediction: 6-10

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Tennessee Titans

Strengths: Delanie Walker is quietly one of the more consistent receiving tight ends in the league (2014 stats include 890 YRDs and 4TDs), he gives a reliable target to their rookie signal caller Marcus Mariota. Furthermore the front office did a great job of trying to give their passing attack a much needed boost by bringing in receivers Harry Douglas and Dorial Beckham-Green. Mariota is a big name prospect that will surely give Tennessee fans hope towards stabilizing the franchise at the most important position. And having an offensive-minded head coach in Ken Wisenhunt will be a godsend towards developing Mariota as a premier passer. On the other side of the ball, the Titans should have a much stronger pass defense than years previous with fifth year veteran Da’Norris Searcy and Perrish Cox, both being significant improvements to the Titans’ weakest position group from the 2014 season.

Weaknesses: The running game is one big question mark at this point. Second year Bishop Sankey didn’t play up to his potential during his rookie campaign, and his back up, David Cobb, is already going into the season with an injury. Mariota needs to work on his pocket presence and continue to take care of the football (aka, avoid another multi turnover night like the 1st week of preseason). Early reviews suggest that he looks uncomfortable in the pocket. Beckham-Green is a raw talent and likely won’t make an immediate impact this year, his route running is raw as it currently stands.

Stories to Follow: How does Mariota adjust to running a pro-style offense from the high powered Oregon spread? Does Sankey salvage his career after an uninspired rookie season? Can the Titan’s defense become more consistent?

Record Prediction: 4-12

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AFC North

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Baltimore Ravens

Strengths: Gary Kubiak engineered a stellar offense last season. So much so, head coach John Harbaugh insists they retain that system despite hiring Mark Trestman as the new offensive coordinator. Justin Forsett emerged last season as an unlikely workhorse after the Ray Rice debacle and performed better than anybody could expect from a 29-year-old back. I’m a big fan of the Ravens front seven, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are a potent duo up front that will only get better with sophomore linebacker C.J. Mosely (even with the departure of Ngata I’m convinced they won’t lose a step). As much flack as Joe Flacco gets (see what I did there?), I think he’s shown that he’s capable of being one of the league’s best quarterbacks. If history shows anything, the Ravens always play their best football when one of their vets announces their retirement. Well guess what? Steve Smith Sr. says this is his last season.

Weaknesses: As talented asSmith Sr. is, he flamed out halfway through last season. And outside of him, the Ravens really don’t have that many playmakers on offense, especially considering that rookie Breshad Perriman will likely miss significant time. It’s hard to assume that Forsett will be a sure thing going into this season. Considering that he’s been a career backup for most of his seven-year career, it’s not difficult to assume that Forsett’s breakout year was a flash in the pan.

Stories to Follow: Does anybody emerge as a breakout star receiver in Baltimore? Does Forsett continue to impress in 2015? Can Smith Sr. remain relevant the whole season?

Record Prediction: 11-5

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Pittsburgh Steelers

Strengths: Big Ben Roethlisberger is one of those quarterbacks that people tend to forget in the conversation of one of the league’s best. Often overshadowed by the likes of Rodgers, Manning, Brady and Brees, there is definitely an argument to be made for the Pittsburgh signal caller. This year he probably has the most talented group to work with on the offense he’s ever had in his career. Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are game breakers, and Martavius Bryant is no slouch either as a deep threat. It’s hard to see this unit regressing once Bell is finished serving his suspension. The retirements of Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor are going to help the team in the short and long term, age caught up to both players. Fortunately, cornerback William Gay has the potential to be a star, he returned all three of his interceptions for touchdowns last season.

Weaknesses: I have no idea what to expect out of the Steelers defense this year. Mastermind Dick LaBeau’s departure will likely hurt more than the loss of any of their longtime defensive playmakers. What has been a longtime calling card to this Pittsburgh team has suddenly become an anomaly. I would not be surprised if this unit experienced some major growing pains for most of 2015. Disciplinary concerns are keeping two major contributors on the offense off the field for the start of the season as well. All in all, many if any of these issues become larger than they appear, I would expect this team to at best start slowly or at worst regress for a majority of the season.

Stories to Follow: How does the offense fair with the absence of Bell? Who steps up on the Pittsburgh defense? Is Pittsburgh’s high powered offense capable of out pacing other teams if the defense struggles?

Record Prediction: 8-8

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Cincinnati Bengals

Strengths: The Bengals roster has the potential to field one of the most well-balanced offenses in the AFC this year. AJ Green is entering the prime of his career while also boasting one of the best first four seasons a wide receiver has ever had (all four years of his career Green has been a 1,000-yard receiver), which is complimented well by the dynamic two-headed monster of Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard in the run game. On the defensive side of the ball, Michael Johnson has returned after a year stint in Tampa Bay. Before leaving, Johnson was the team’s most effective pass rusher, he’s sure to be a welcome sight in Cincinnati joining other talented members of their front seven (Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Domata Peko and Vontaze Burfict to name a few). All these returning pieces will be in their second year in a new defensive system and, given their history (Cincinnati had a top 10 defense in 2011, 2012 and 2013), there is a good chance that last year’s deficiency was an anomaly.

Weaknesses: Andy Dalton does just enough to justify keeping his job every season (he’s helped his team get to the playoffs all four years of his career), but so far he has done little to prove he can be the guy to lead Cincinnati to post season success. While this might be a nitpicky criticism, NFL teams play to win the big games, and nothing is worse for a fan base than rooting for a perennial contender that disappoints once they make it past the regular season. Head coach Marvin Lewis isn’t exactly a guy I’d feel inspired to play for every Sunday. Sure he’s been with the team since 2003, but sometimes the best way to elevate your team is to shake things up at the top of the structure (see John Fox being canned in Denver last season after falling short in the post-season two years in a row).

Stories to Follow: Can the Bengals replicate regular season success in the playoffs? Does Jeremy Hill remain in control of the majority of the carries in the backfield? How much longer does Marvin Lewis have a job if the team does not have post season success?

Record Prediction: 8-8

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Cleveland Browns

Strengths: What began as a media circus upon his arrival, Johnny Manziel looks like he’s making a serious effort to clean up his image in his sophomore year. I’m still skeptical, but so far the Cleveland quarterback looks like he’s much more focused, and the team made an excellent move by bringing in seasoned veteran Josh McCown to help mentor the kid. Isaiah Crowell should do nothing but improve on a respectable rookie campaign now that center Alex Mack has returned to an already impressive offensive line. It’s likely that the Browns will have one of the best secondary units this year on defense, they even made some prudent moves to shore up their abysmal run defense by drafting one of the best linemen in the draft, Danny Shelton.

Weaknesses: While the secondary should be sound, it’s hard to believe that the Browns will have a strong defense all around after having the absolute worst rushing defense in the league last year. Sure it could improve, but they have to prove it first. With the infinite suspension limbo that Josh Gordon currently is in, the Cleveland offense has absolutely zero reliable threats at receiver. Expect to see plenty of stacked boxes against what will likely be a one dimensional offense all season long.

Stories to Follow: Will Manziel be another in a long line of QB busts for the Browns? How does Cleveland fare in what is already one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL? How much does the run defense improve this season?

Record Prediction: 4-12

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AFC West

 

Kansas City Chiefs

Strengths: Jamaal Charles for most of his career has been a force to be reckoned with at running back. Last year he had a “down” year and still produced 1,033 yards and nine touchdowns. In his seven-year career, Charles has five 1,000-yard seasons to his name, and he shows little sign of slowing down now. Travis Kelce looks primed for another great year in the Kansas City offense. Both him and free agent prize Jeremy Maclin will take pressure off the run game. On the defense, the Chiefs brought back Justin Huston, who led the league in sacks last year. Eric Berry successfully beat cancer and is ready to help once again with the pass defense. First round draft pick Marcus Peters has garnered rave reviews during camp and the preseason.

Weaknesses: Zero wide receiver touchdowns is a stat you NEVER want to see, especially in the pass happy NFL. While touchdowns aren’t the only indicator of a pass offense’s potency, Alex Smith needs to challenge defense in the air more to keep opponents guessing when they approach the red zone this year. Outside of Maclin, the Chiefs don’t really have that much receiver talent. Somebody will need to step up to keep the defense honest. As good as I believe the pass defense should be this year, the run defense is another story. As great as Marcus Peters appears to be, discipline was an issue during his time at the University of Washington (he was dismissed from the team his senior year) and losing him could spell trouble for the team. Last season the Chiefs allowed teams to earn 4.7 yards per carry, near the bottom of the barrel. For some reason head coach Andy Reid has a tendency to ignore talented players for stretches at a time (don’t ask me why, but it happens) which could cause the team to drop games.

Stories to Watch: Does Jeremy Maclin replicate the successful season he had in Philadelphia? Does Marcus Peters stay out of trouble? Which wide receiver gets the first touchdown this season (if any)?

Record Prediction: 10-6

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San Diego Chargers

Strengths: Stevie Johnson is a guy who is flying under most people’s radars that I think will experience a career revival with Philip Rivers throwing passes to him. Johnson is an absolute burner that can blow the top off of defenses, and I think Rivers is just the man that can connect with him deep. Melvin Gordon is one of several talented rookie backs to enter the league this season that should grow to become a reliable replacement for the departed Ryan Matthews. Eric Weddle is one of the best free safeties in the business, posting 114 combined tackles last season. He’s looking to go out with a bang his final season on what is looking like a fast, athletic defensive unit.

Weaknesses: Antonio Gates, one of Rivers’ preferred targets throughout his career, is suspended for the first four games. Gordon’s reviews during the preseason haven’t been stellar, harsher critics say he looks hesitant before making his cuts. Personally, I would argue that the offensive line looks ineffective in run blocking, which could mean a disastrous rookie year for the running back. Manti Te’o while good (not great) needs to continue to replicate the success he had at the end of the 2014 season to help make elevate this defense.

Stories to Follow: How does Gordon adapt to the NFL’s speed? Can Stevie Johnson emerge as a receiving threat after a disappointing season? Can the offensive line improve its consistency?

Record Prediction: 9-7

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Denver Broncos

Strengths: John Fox had to go. I think the Gary Kubiak hire is a great one, he clearly knows how to build an offense (see the Ravens offense of 2014), and he’s coming in with the cupboards stocked full of talent. His patented zone blocking scheme should do wonders for CJ Anderson who is coming into 2015 maintaining his firm grip on the starting running back position. Peyton Manning should benefit greatly working in a Kubiak system, especially considering his age. With the assistance of a consistent running game, Manning won’t need to do it all himself, thus making it more likely he finishes the season without a late collapse. It looks like Denver’s defense will likely be a bully thanks to the arrival of a lot of young talent that has looked pretty impressive throughout camp and the preseason.

Weaknesses: Age started to show in Manning’s play towards the end of the 2014 season. Injuries tend to linger at his age, so it’s unclear whether we see 2013 Manning or late season 2014 Manning. If it’s the latter of the two (which I honestly think is more than likely), the team doesn’t really know what they have in back up Brock Osweiler. It’s unknown how much the departure of Julius Thomas, and while virtually all receivers are given the “Manning touch” who knows how they play if/when Manning goes down. While Anderson had an excellent finish in 2014, it could very possibly have just been a flash in the pan for the young running back.

Stories to Follow: How much does the offense change under Kubiak? Does Manning have one more in him? Will Anderson keep his job the whole season?

Record Prediction: 7-9

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Oakland Raiders

Strengths: There’s a lot to like about the Raiders this season. I think for the first time in a little more than a decade, the Raiders finally have some young guys that could develop into top-level players with star power in this league. Derek Carr put together a strong rookie season last year and now he has the best wide receiver from the 2015 draft in Amari Cooper to work with. Kahlil Mack had an impressive rookie season at linebacker last year. All in all the youth on the roster looks legit, especially if they continue to improve on their already solid starts. The overhaul of the coaching staff couldn’t be timed better with this new class of talent. My favorite hire is Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgraves, he coached up Adrian Peterson during his career year, as well as Michael Turner during his breakout year at running back. Look for Latavius Murray to make strides into his first year as the starter.

Weaknesses: It’s important to temper your expectations about this team. Even though there is a lot of potential, these players are incredibly young. I’d expect a lot of growing pains for this young team as they learn to play with one another. The Raiders haven’t had a 1000-yard receiver since 2006, I’m sure that streak will be broken soon with the arrival of Cooper, but he’s still a rookie and has to adjust to game speed. While Murray has shown promise, durability has been a concern (his season was cut short with an injury towards the final stretch of the season last year). While I think this team has the potential to surprise opponents, they still have a long way to go to become a consistent performer.

Stories to Follow: Will Carr continue to develop? Is Murray capable of a full season of work at running back? Is Cooper capable of breaking the team’s drought of 1000-yard receivers?

Record Prediction: 6-10

 

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