The Biggest Questions for all 32 NFL Teams Heading into the 2018 Season Pt. 1 - AFC

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Following the 2018 NFL Draft and free agency period, teams have added a crop of young talent, superstars, and coaching personnel to address their weaknesses. With over a month to go until the start of the NFL season, everyone is feeling excited about their teams, so I’ll play devil’s advocate and ask the daunting questions that need to be answered. As much as I hate to be a buzzkill, it’s time to start tempering some unrealistic expectations. Let’s dive in.

AFC East

Buffalo Bills – Was their first playoff appearance in 17 years a fluke? They set high expectations for themselves but it’s hard to imagine that they will reproduce last season’s performance. Why? Their offence is a major concern. The losses of Eric Wood and Richie Incognito could hurt the O-line, which paved the way for their strong running game last season. Without a receiving core that is feared by opposing defences, teams will hone in on stopping running back, LeSean McCoy. This means the Bills might look to take chances down the field. Josh Allen seems a promising QB to take over Tyrod Taylor, who was traded to the Browns, but he was the most turnover-prone top QB in this year’s draft. Barring a miracle, the Bills offence will have a hard time clicking in Allen’s first season and they are in for a step backwards. Sorry Bills Mafia.

Miami Dolphins – Goodbye Jarvis Landry, hello a newly reinvigorated Ryan Tannehill? The Dolphins seem to be in limbo right now, not poised for a rebuild but not for competing either. After missing the entirety of last season to an ACL injury, Tannehill must prove himself. Unfortunately, he has stated that he will be wearing a knee brace, which screams that the Dolphins are too dependent on his health. If he doesn’t improve on his 93.5 QB rating from the 2016 season, which saw Miami reach the post-season, it might be time for the Dolphins to cut their losses and go full rebuild.

New York Jets – How will Sam Darnold develop? He is simply the future of this franchise. After being led by some average QB play from Josh McCown, surely Darnold can’t do worse, right? With the Dolphins and Bills likely to falter this season, the Jets are in pole position to finish second in the division. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson is a huge addition and with a deep defensive line, any success the Jets have this season may come from their defence. Sam Darnold may be the future, but head coach Todd Bowles may not be in any rush to promote him to starting QB. Seeing who takes the first snap in week one will point to where the Jets see themselves as an organization. Regardless, they should fare better than the Bills and Dolphins.

New England Patriots – Three Super Bowl appearances in a row? Death, taxes, and the New England Patriots winning the AFC East, are all things that have become a certainty for Jets, Dolphins, and Bills fans. This division is a lock for the Patriots, again, but perhaps for the first time in a while, the foundations at Foxborough seem to be buckling (ever so slightly). They have seen some big losses this offseason – Brandin Cooks, Malcolm Butler, Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis, and Matt Patricia – that have been instrumental to their recent success. Does it matter? No. They have not only one, but TWO GOATs – Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Along with Rob Gronkowski and Josh McDaniels, the Patriots still have plenty to keep them in the pursuit of the Lombardi Trophy. Never ever bet against big bad Bill and his Patriots. You better believe Tom Brady’s heart is set on Super Bowl ring number 6 after last season’s heartbreaking loss to the Eagles.

AFC North

Cleveland Browns – Will this team win a game? Contrary to popular belief, winning football games is actually important –, imagine that. Enter Denzel Ward, Damarious Randall, Jarvis Landry, and coveted 1st overall pick, Baker Mayfield. Nothing more needs to be said – these guys have to win a game. With LeBron James gone, the people of Cleveland need something to cheer about.

Cincinnati Bengals – How on Earth is Marvin Lewis still around? He boasts a remarkable 0-7 playoff record, not to mention back-to-back losing seasons. Why would this season be any different? It feels as though the Lewis-Dalton duo has already peaked in Cincinnati. The Bengals are amongst the most vanilla teams in the league and pose no threat to anybody. They’ve finished in the bottom-third in points scored in the past two seasons and went a dismal 6-4 against non-playoff teams last season. Unfortunately, this season has disappointment written all over it.

Baltimore Ravens – Is the Flacco-Harbaugh era over? Defence has carried the Ravens over the past several seasons but their success has been dependent on whether their offence is clicking. Joe Flacco is making elite QB money but is hardly living up to it. Despite being in the playoff race in week 17 of last season, the Ravens went 0-5 against playoff teams with Flacco stooping to a career low of 5.7 yards-per-attempt. Despite signing Willie Snead, Michael Crabtree, and John Brown, and drafting Jordan Lasley and Jaleel Scott to strengthen their receiving core, it is not a question of whether Flacco is returning to his former glory, but rather when heir-apparent Lamar Jackson will take over.

Pittsburgh Steelers – Can the Steelers defence match its illustrious offence? Much like the Patriots, this division should be a lock for the Steelers. With the three killer B’s – Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and Ben Roethlisberger – on the field, the Steelers offence can carry them deep into the playoffs. However, this is entirely contingent upon their defence stepping up, big time. They went 8-2 in one-score games last season, which seems impressive, but statistics show the ability to win close games does not translate from year-to-year. If the Steelers are to challenge the Patriots, now is the time to make a stand and contain offences in December and January. The Steelers did well to pick up linebacker, Jon Bostic, in free agency and nab safety, Terrell Edmunds, in the draft - but big question marks remain over Bell’s contract situation.

AFC South

Houston Texans – Will the Texans be healthy enough to make the playoffs? Most teams live and die by their QB play. All eyes will be on QB Deshaun Watson’s comeback from an ACL injury that derailed the Texans' season. Before his injury, Watson had a pass rating of 103, only for Tom Savage to take over with a dismal 71.4 rating. Their defence is undoubtedly improved with the additions of safety, Tyrann Mathieu, and cornerback, Aaron Colvin, and both J.J Watt and Whitney Mercius returning from injury, but this won’t be enough to see Houston return to the playoffs. The AFC South will be as competitive as ever this season, and if Watson can stay healthy and play like he did in his rookie season, the Texans could edge out the Titans for a wild card spot.

Indianapolis Colts – How Luck-y will the Colts get? See what I did there? I’ll see myself out. But seriously, the Colts' situation mirrors that of the Texans. Andrew Luck has proven he is an elite QB in this league and can cover up many of the team’s flaws. He led his team to the post-season in his first three seasons, including an AFC Championship appearance and a league-leading 40 TDs in 2014. After missing the 2017 season to a shoulder injury, the Colts' season will be entirely dependent on the health of Andrew Luck. Indianapolis is under the impression Luck will be playing this season but there is still too much uncertainty around the issue. He hasn’t thrown a football competitively in a year, which should concern most. Until that doubt dissipates, it is too difficult to project them making the post-season. He’ll have to knock that rust off quickly if the Colts are to have a winning season.

Tennessee Titans – How well will the Titans transition in Mike Vrabel’s first year as head coach? Despite their first playoff appearance in nine seasons, QB Marcus Mariota, had his worst season as a pro (13 TDs, 15 INTs, 79.3 QBR). As a result, former head coach, Mike Mularkey, was fired for not being able to maximize Mariota’s ability. Given Vrabel’s defensive background, the Titans focused on bolstering their defence. They picked up cornerback, Malcolm Butler, and defensive tackle, Bennie Logan, in the offseason, while drafting linebackers, Rashaan Evans, and Harold Landry. They should be better on defence this year, but they won’t be as good as Jacksonville. It’ll come down to new Offensive Coordinator, Matt LaFleur, and what he does with Mariota to see if they will outshoot the Texans.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Can the Jaguars maximize their window of success? The Jags are the real deal; the only thing standing in their way of the Super Bowl last season was Tom Brady doing Tom Brady things in the AFC Championship. It’s time for them to show the AFC that they are consistent enough to contend for the Super Bowl. While the Steelers' great offence is countered with subpar defence, the Jags have almost everything to compete with the Patriots. The only question mark remaining is around QB, Blake Bortles. Bortles showed improvement and maturity in the pocket last season. His interceptions were on the decline – 13 INTs vs. 16 INTs the season before – and he posted a 91 QBR after leading the Jags to the AFC Championship. Jacksonville signed guard, Andrew Norwell, at the start of free agency to bolster an already strong offensive line. Leonard Fournette is a monster running back and their defence is among the league’s best. If Bortles can continue to make strides, these guys could go all the way.

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs – Will the Chiefs consistency carry into the post-Smith era? The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Kansas City is 10-6 or 11-5. They have been one of the steadiest teams in the NFL as of late, thanks to QB, Alex Smith, head coach, Andy Reid, and good defence. After going to the post-season in four of the past five season with Smith at the helm, the Chiefs traded their stout QB and have given Patrick Mahomes the green light. Mahomes only played one game last season, but Reid knows what he’s doing. With only one losing season since 2006 and eight top-ten scoring offences in that time, Chiefs fans should be confident in the direction their team is going. Their offence will be even more explosive with the addition of wide out Sammy Watkins and they shed some overpaid veterans on defence. If Mahomes is anywhere near as consistent as Smith, they should make the playoffs in a weak AFC.

Oakland Raiders – Will Jon Gruden pick up where he left off? Gruden hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2008 and hasn’t coached the Raiders since 2002. The biggest question is whether the NFL has passed him by after his nine years on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. Gruden is an old-school guy set in old-school ways. When asked about analytics, he said he’s, “not going to rely on GPS and modern technology.” One major concern is how this is going to mesh with QB, Derek Carr, who had an MVP-level season in 2016, but dropped off significantly in 2017. On top of that, the Raiders are equipped with a new secondary, number 2 receiver, and specialists. Point being, their roster is behind the Chargers and Chiefs, and it might take a season for Gruden to get this team to gel.

Los Angeles Chargers – How many people still call them San Diego? Just me? Okay. Real talk now, can the Chargers win the AFC West? The Chargers had a quiet offseason and clearly feel good about what they’ve built. It’s very rare for a QB to start 16 games and post a 96.0 QBR, but that’s exactly what happened to Philip Rivers last season. Losses early in the season (due to poor kicking) really put a dent in their playoff hopes, but now they’re poised to put everything together this season. With their divisional rivals going through changes at the head coach and QB positions, the Chargers are anointed favourites to win this division. They’re deep at the receiver position with Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Tyrell Williams, and have a solid 1-2 punch out of the backfield in Melvin Gordon and rookie, Justin Jackson. The addition of rookie safety, Derwin James, bolsters a backfield with Casey Hayward, Jason Verrett, Desmond King, and Trevor Williams to solidify what was once the worst defence three seasons ago. They have the best team on paper in the division and should play like it.

Denver Broncos – How is Case Keenum going to play? Keenum is coming off a season no one saw coming, and the Broncos will be hoping he can pull them out of their 5-11 disaster last season that saw them go on an 8-game losing streak. The Broncos had the third-ranked scoring defence and will continue to pester opposing QBs, so any success this team sees this season will depend on how the Broncos tailor their offence around Keenum and how he can build off a career year. GM, John Elway, is trying to re-introduce the stability they saw under the Manning era. Despite having Thomas and Sanders, the Broncos drafted Courtland Sutton and DeaSean Hamilton. Likewise, they drafted pass-rusher, Bradley Chubb, despite having Von Miller, Shane Ray, and Shaquil Barrett. The Broncos' draft class and Case Keenum will make them a more well-rounded team but with the Chiefs and Chargers in the way, it may take a season or two before we see just how good the Broncos are.