Being well into the month of August, all NFL teams are now starting to wind down training camp and starting to prepare for the regular season with the exhibition games now underway. Let’s take a brief tour through each division in the AFC and take note of any major news and developments. An NFC edition will follow later in the week.
Things in Orchard Park haven’t been overly rosy for the Buffalo Bills lately. A multitude of injuries and suspensions has left the team very shorthanded, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They will be without DT Marcel Dareus (four game suspension), OLB Manny Lawson (one game suspension), OLB Shaq Lawson (on the six game PUP list, shoulder), ILB Reggie Ragland (out for season, knee) and OLB IK Enemkpali (out for season, knee) for various amounts of time. For a defense that struggled to find its footing last season, obviously this is a major concern. Stud WR Sammy Watkins is also working his way back from foot surgery as well. On the bright side, the team did sign starting QB Tyrod Taylor to a six year contract extension. Taylor emerged last year in his first full season as a starter, and will hopefully give the Bills some stability at the position for years to come.
The biggest news in South Florida was the addition of RB Arian Foster to the Miami Dolphins backfield. This had been a position the team tried to address through free agency, but the Broncos matched their offer sheet to C.J. Anderson earlier in the off-season. Foster has had trouble staying healthy throughout a good part of his career, but having him in the fold means there is less pressure on Jay Ajayi to shoulder the load. The offense under new head coach Adam Gase has had a sluggish start to the pre-season, but that’s what the pre-season is for. QB Ryan Tannehill has a bevy of weapons at his disposal, but the biggest key is having WR DeVante Parker emerge in his sophomore season. Defensively, the biggest concern for the team is a glaring lack of depth at corner back. Off-season addition Byron Maxwell is the defacto top corner. Beyond him, there are only former undrafted free agents, unproven draft picks and veterans rehabbing from injury.
We all know where things start with New England Patriots news: QB Tom Brady will miss the first four games of the season due to a league imposed four game suspension from the never ending deflategate saga. Third year QB Jimmy Garoppolo has been given the reins, and has shown to be competent thus far through the first pre-season games, despite not having a lot of weapons at his disposal. Head coach Bill Belichick will put him in the best position to succeed and will expect the team not to miss beat without Brady. The team received some bad news this past weekend when it was announced that RB Dion Lewis will need a second surgery to his knee from an injury that knocked him out last year, and RT Sebastien Vollmer will miss at least the first six games of the season with a hip injury, and could very well end up missing the entire season.
The Ryan Fitzpatrick drama definitely dragged on much longer than it needed to, but the New York Jets and their immensely bearded quarterback finally agreed to a contract at the end of July. With the success the team had last season with him at the helm, it was imperative the team found a way to bring him back because the Geno Smith experiment has already proven to be a failure, and Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg are still in the developmental stages of their careers. With the addition of RB Matt Forte to an offense featuring the elite WR tandem of Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, the Jets offense shouldn’t miss a beat. There appeared to be a lot of animosity between the team and star DE Muhammad Wilkerson much of the off-season, but he and the team agreed to a 5 year, $85 million dollar contact in July, keeping the Jets stout defensive line in good stead.
The Baltimore Ravens were ravaged by injuries across the board last season, resulting in a subpar season for a team that usually finds itself in the playoffs, or contending for the AFC North crown. The biggest injury returnee is QB Joe Flacco. But grizzled vets WR Steve Smith and OLB Terrell Suggs who were both dearly missed after they went down with injury, were both activated from the PUP list last week and will be welcomed back with open arms. Unfortunately, last years first round pick, WR Breshad Perriman continues to be plagued by recurring knee problems and is still out indefinitely. It will be interesting to see how things shake out at the running back position in Baltimore as well. Buck Allen filled in well for the injured Justin Forsett last season, Terrence West has been the darling of training camp and the early part of the pre-season, while 4th round pick Kenneth Dixon is also no slouch. Odds are all four will contribute at some point this season, but look for Forsett to get the early nod based on his seniority.
There was a fair bit of change for the Cincinnati Bengals in the off-season, as they lost offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to division rival Cleveland, along with WR’s Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, CB Leon Hall and S Reggie Nelson. Losses like that may have been debilitating to another team, but for a team like the Bengals that has drafted and developed as well any team over the past few years, they should be able to withstand those blows. They brought in free agent Brandon LaFell and drafted Tyler Boyd in the second of the draft to help offset the loss of Jones and Sanu, and still have A.J. Green around to help out QB Andy Dalton. Unfortunately though, breakout TE Tyler Eifert will miss the start of the season with a foot injury suffered in the Pro Bowl. Don’t be surprised if the Bengals decide to grind it out a little more with RB’s Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard early on in the year.
Expectations for the Cleveland Browns are very low, and upon looking at the overall talent and depth on the roster, one can see why. There is some optimism though that new head coach Hue Jackson is the right man for the job. His first take will be trying to rejuvenate the career of QB Robert Griffin III. It’s still much too gauge his overall progress, but the early signs are promising. The Browns could be sneaky good on offense with first round pick Corey Coleman, the soon-to-be returning Josh Gordon and the blossoming Terrelle Pryor at wide receiver joining breakout TE Gary Barnidge. It’s on defense where there is still a lot of concern. There are some decent pieces in place with veteran CB Joe Haden, NT Danny Shelton and second round pick OLB Emmanuel Ogbah, but overall the unit is very green.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had the makings of a high flying offense, and still will likely put up more than their fair share of points this season. But they will have to make due without WR Martavis Bryant after he was suspended for the entire season, and will also be without Le’Veon Bell for the first three games of the season for missing a league mandated drug test. There is also concern big free agent addition TE Ladarius Green might miss significant time as he continues to recover from off-season ankle surgery and recurring concussion symptoms. That all being said, QB Ben Rothlisberger and WR Antonio Brown will still keep the offense going at full throttle. Aside from losing CB Senquez Golson to another season ending injury, things look pretty solid on defense with a lot of returning pieces and new additions via the draft.
The biggest concern for the Houston Texans right now is the health of DE J.J Watt, arguably the best defensive player in the league. He underwent back surgery about a month ago, and while he is expected back early in the season, there is no exact timetable for his return. At minimum, it seems he will at least miss the first two regular season games. He makes a monumental difference when on the field, so he will absolutely be missed in the games he is unable to suit up for. The Texans made it a priority to upgrade the offense around star WR DeAndre Hopkins, and with QB Brock Osweiler and RB Lamar Miller added via free agency and WR’s Will Fuller and Braxton Miller added early in the draft, they did just that. Assuming Osweiler doesn’t need too much time to get used to his new team, the Texans offense should be much more electric this season.
All the Indianapolis Colts need for improvement this year is a healthy Andrew Luck at quarterback, and in order for that to happen, he needs to protect himself more when he runs, and get improved play from the offensive line. He missed a good chunk of the season last year, and it kept the normally high octane Colts offensive in neutral. The addition of C Ryan Kelly in the draft should help solidify what has been a problem position since Jeff Saturday retired. Everyone knows about T.Y. Hilton, but keep an eye out on WR’s Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett as both have major breakout potential. The Colts main issue on defense right now is at defensive end where Henry Anderson is coming off a torn ACL, Kendall Langford is out for a month with a knee injury and Arthur Jones is suspended for the first four games of the season.
There is no doubt the team with the most off-season buzz and hype has been the Jacksonville Jaguars. They signed RB Chris Ivory, LT Kelvin Beachum, DT Malik Jackson, DE, Jared Odrick, CB Prince Amukamara and S Tashaun Gipson and added CB Jalen Ramsey and MLB Myles Jack. Suffice to say, that is a huge infusion of talent to a roster that already had a lot of good pieces in place, led by QB Blake Bortles and WR Allen Robinson. They key to the Jaguars taking that next jump will be improvement of their defense. The aforementioned names, along with the return to health of last years first round pick DE Dante Fowler, should give the Jaguars defense a much needed shot in the arm. As long as the team can avoid the injury bug, coach Gus Bradley should be able to get the most of a very talented team on paper.
It might be another long season for the Tennessee Titans, but there is reason for optimism in Nashville. QB Marcus Mariota so far looks like he’s ready to take another jump forward in his development in his second year in the league, and an improved running game should go a long ways to helping him as well. The Titans added DeMarco Murray via trade and drafted behemoth Derrick Henry in the second round of the draft this year, in order to help usher in the exotic smashmouth era of football. Both backs have been as advertised thus far, and rookie fifth round pick WR Taje Sharpe has also come out of nowhere to climb to the top of the WR depth chart. Their defense is still very much a work in progress, especially in the secondary so the Titans will likely have to put up a lot of points to stay in games this season.
All eyes are on the quarterback position for the Denver Broncos where legend Peyton Manning retired and back-up Brock Osweiler left for the starting job in Houston. So far, there hasn’t been a whole lot of separation between veteran Mark Sanchez, relative unknown Trevor Siemian and first round pick Paxton Lynch, as all three have had their up and downs in training camp and during the pre-season thus far. Whomever starts the ever important third pre-season game may tip coach Gary Kubiak’s hand as to who he may be leaning towards, but given the circumstances, it might not really mean anything. Make no mistake about it though. This Broncos team will rely heavily on their defense again this season, just like they did in their Super Bowl winning season of last year. The defensive line is a minor concern with the loss of Malik Jackson to free agency, and Vance Walker to a season ending ACL tear, but other than that, the defense shouldn’t skip a beat.
The Kansas City Chiefs have had a relatively quiet training camp and pre-season thus far, and that’s not a bad thing at all for a team that made the playoffs last year without star RB Jamal Charles for most of the season. He just recently returned from the PUP list and should be ready to go for the start of the regular season. There are a few question marks on the other side of the ball however. Unfortunately, premier pass rushing OLB Justin Houston, is still recovering from off-season knee surgery. There is currently no timetable for his return, but he will likely miss at least the first six games of the season. In the secondary, CB Marcus Peters should get even better in year two, but won’t have Sean Smith bookending him this season as he bolted for Oakland in free agency. Safety Eric Berry is currently holding out, but expect him to be back with the team by the start of the regular season.
If the Jaguars are leading the off-season hype train, the Oakland Raiders aren’t very far behind. They showed a ton of progress last season, and with the additions of OG Kelechi Osemele, LB Bruce Irvin, CB Sean Smith and S Reggie Nelson, they look poised to take another step forward this year. They have looked a little sluggish in the early going of the pre-season, but this team is brimming with talent. Derek Carr and Amari Cooper should be one of the leagues most dynamic duos, and Khalil Mack headlines an underrated and improving defense. The biggest news in the off-season for the Raiders though revolves around the future of the team in Oakland, as they could be on the move to Los Angeles or Las Vegas if they can’t get a new stadium built
The San Diego Chargers had a fairly productive off-season, addressing many of their positions of need through free agency and the draft. It might not be enough to win the division or make the playoffs, but they should no doubt be improved after injuries decimated the team last year. QB Phillip Rivers always gives the team a chance to win, and the return to health of WR Keenan Allen will be huge as he was sorely missed in the second half of last year. Matt Slauson should help put an end to the issues at center the team had, and as long as they stay healthy, the offensive line as a whole should be much improved. The team will no doubt miss the presence of Eric Weddle in the secondary, but they have a blossoming star at corner back in Jason Verrett. Of concern defensively is the fact top pick DE Joey Bosa continues to hold out over a contract dispute. He is expected to contribute in a big way once he signs, but the longer he holds out, the longer it will be before he makes an impact.