The landscape in the AFC has certainly taken on a fascinating new shape. With money to spend, general managers have done a nice job building their rosters and loading up on talent.
Less than a week into free agency, the competition has heated up in the conference for the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots, who have also been busy restocking and reloading in their usual way.
The way it looks, Bill Belichick’s team is going to once again be challenged by some of the contenders from last year, along with a few new teams in the mix based on the impressive early looks of some opposing rosters in the conference.
It’s still early. The draft is more than a month away, and there are still free agents being added. It’s never easy dealing with what the Patriots bring to the table. They usually have it figured out when it counts. They’re at the top until someone takes them down. But here’s how we’d break it down with the challengers at this stage.
Already in conversation
Chiefs — They cut Justin Houston and traded Dee Ford, two of the better cogs in their defense last season. With that duo, they were able to rush the passer from the flanks. Taking that away from a defense that really needs to improve to clear the Patriots hurdle won’t help matters. Helping mitigate those losses, they signed Alex Okafor. They also cut veteran safety Eric Berry, but brought in free agent Tyrann Mathieu, who signed a
whopping three-year, $42 million deal. Mathieu will be the new tone-setter in the defensive backfield. Carlos Hyde was signed to help their running game. Even though the defense remains suspect, the Chiefs are still the premier threat as long as Patrick Mahomes is under center, and he still has a formidable cast around him. Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and Damien Williams didn’t go anywhere. We’ll see about Tyreek Hill, who is under investigation for alleged battery.
Colts — They had a terrific year with new coach Frank Reich and the return of Andrew Luck, as they made it back to the playoffs as a wildcard entry after a long hiatus. They built an effective defense largely through the draft. They had a reported $105 million to spend in free agency, but somewhat surprisingly, haven’t done much. They resigned cornerback Pierre Desir (three years, $25 million) along with defensive lineman Margus Hunt (two years, $10 million). In terms of new bodies, they brought in a receiver for Luck, signing former Panther Devin Funchess. He’s a huge target who’s bound to hit it off with Luck. They have four picks in the first 90, which is where GM Chris Ballard typically shines. They were an up-and-coming team last year. Will they take a step forward or back? With a another year in Reich’s system, and Luck having another year back, the arrow is pointing up.
Chargers — They were a 12-win team in 2018, and have merely stayed the course, re-signing a few of their own (Brandon Mebane, Denzel Perryman), while adding linebacker Thomas Davis and backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
They need offensive line help – a tackle – which they can still get in the draft. They seem content to ride the wave, but it should have rattled a few cages the way they got manhandled by the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. They have a ton of talent on both sides of the ball. But they might want to change a few things given how a smart, physical team can easily scheme and take them out.
Texans — The AFC South division champs put the franchise tag on Jadeveon Clowney so they wouldn’t lose their star defensive end/outside linebacker, but they did see safety Mathieu head to the Chiefs. They rebounded with pick-ups of safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerback Bradley Roby. So their defense remains strong. Offensively, it’s all about quarterback Deshaun Watson. Thus far, they haven’t done much to give him any more help. It’s been all about supplementing the defense. Looks like the offense will have to wait until the draft.
Gaining contender status
Browns — Prognosticators were already giving the Browns a lot of love. And that was before the arrival of Odell Beckham Jr. But now, the Browns have moved into a different league. They already assembled a darn good defense, which got better with new additions Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson. Don’t underestimate how much they’ve improved the defense with those move.
But all the talk is about the offense that’s now been assembled. After putting former LSU teammates Beckham and Jarvis Landry together in the receiving corps, with David Njoku at tight end, along with running backs Nick Chubb, Duke Johnson and, Kareem Hunt, who will be inserted into that star show after serving an 8-game suspension.
Baker Mayfield has all the weapons and talent he needs to put up a ton of points.
Njoku described it as having a “platinum” offense. The only question mark? How will Freddie Kitchens, the offensive coordinator of the Browns last season, do as a head coach? Will it even matter with all the talent GM John Dorsey has assembled?
Falling off the stage
Steelers — They didn’t make the playoffs last year, and most people don’t want to count them out. But it’s hard to get on board with the Men of Steel.
They surrendered to their best player, shipping Antonio Brown to the Raiders for little return (third and fifth round picks). They also saw Le’Veon Bell, who sat out last season after refusing to sign the franchise tender, sign with the New York Jets.
They have a ton of holes. The Browns and Ravens have already made moves. Ben Roethlisberger still has a talented cast around him on offense, but the road is now much tougher in the division.
Ravens — They lost four key players — linebackers C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, and safety Eric Weddle — from a top-ranked defense that essentially made it a contender last season.
Bringing in Earl Thomas, who signed a four-year, $55 million deal, helps in a big way. But there are still spots to fill.
They added running back Mark Ingram who will complement Lamar Jackson well, but Jackson’s entire receiving corps disappeared, not that it was much to brag about, with John Brown signing with Bills. Michael Crabtree was still at large as of Friday. Tight end Maxx Williams is also a free agent.
They can re-stock at linebacker and at edge rusher in the draft. They can also dip back into free agency. It’s just a lot of positions to replace.
Jaguars — Blake Bortles is out. Nick Foles is in. Will that be the difference maker for the Jags, who were the cellar-dwellers in the AFC South last season? Bortles played his best games against the Patriots, but was pretty awful against everybody else. Foles works play action so much better than Bortles. He’ll work their offense so much better. If the defense recaptures its 2017 form, they’ll be tough to beat.
Raiders — They’re in a tough division with the Chiefs and Chargers, but they’ll make it fun to watch. GM Mike Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden have upgraded the offense with the addition of Antonio Brown, who they got for peanuts (3rd and 5th round picks), and Tyrell Williams. They dropped a bundle on OT Trent Brown, overspending to make him the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL, but they had the cash. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with three first round picks on draft day.
Jets — They spent a lot, but they had a lot to spend. It can be argued whether they spent too much. But that’s not the point. They’ve upgraded pieces they’ve assembled around quarterback Sam Darnold, who they see as a star, and continued to add to a good defense. In theory, Le’Veon Bell will take a lot of pressure of Darnold both as a back and a pass-catcher. Jamison Crowder is a terrific slot receiver. Guard Kelechi Osemele is a great addition to the offensive line. Defensively, adding C.J. Mosley and re-signing Henry Anderson were top moves by the AFC East’s last place team.
Titans — They finished just out of the playoffs, and have added some good players in free agency between wide receiver Adam Humphries, guard Rodger Saffold and edge rusher Cameron Wake. They also got a bit of insurance for the oft-injured Marcus Mariota by trading for Ryan Tannehill. Mike Vrabel got a good response his first year in the Music City. Watch for more Year 2.