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A Look Around the AFC (Pt. 3)

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With Rosters Mostly Formed, What to Expect from the Titans’ Primary Competition

NFL: Tennessee Titans-Minicamp Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Previously: Pt. 1 and Pt. 2

The Not-Quites

The teams covered in the next section of our “look around” are relatively close to contending, but something (specific to each team) is keeping them off the same level as the 6 previously covered outfits, at least based on what we know right now. The NFL regular season always ends up yielding some pleasant surprises (and an inverse number of disappointments). If any AFC team is going to exceed expectations and steal a playoff spot from under the noses of one of those feeling confident currently, it may very well be a member of this grouping. The separation between these squads is murky, with many variables making it difficult to say one is more likely to overcome their particular obstacles than the others. Still, the show must go on, so I’ll do my best to sort things out based on rosters and schedules. Interestingly, all three of these teams play each other at least once, which will obviously impact the final standings.

Kansas City Chiefs

Toughest 4-game stretch: Weeks 2-5: at PIT, SF, at DEN, JAX

Easiest 4-game stretch: Weeks 7-10: CIN, DEN, at CLE, ARI

I see a clear distinction between the Chiefs and the rest of this tier when considering overall roster talent combined with experience and coaching track record. The only factor that kept them from being listed as “Prove-Its” in part 2 is their absolute gauntlet schedule.

Andy Reid is one of the greatest regular-season coaches of all time. Since the focus of this series is to identify which AFC teams are likeliest to make the playoffs, his poor postseason track record doesn’t have much bearing. Still, facing KC’s 2018 slate, and without the benefit of a veteran QB or a rock-solid defense, he’ll need to turn in one of his best overall coaching performances in order to secure another bid.

Schedule: HEADLINERS: The Bolts (2 Sets)—Terrible Towels—Kyle Shanahan & Jimmy G—Sacksonville—Boston Baked Bradys—The New Dream Team w/ Sean McVay APPEARANCES BY: I Am Gruden. (2 sets)—Goodnight, Cleveland—Flacco—Pete Chews Gum—& More!

If the NFL were the music festival circuit, the Chief’s schedule would be a god-awful, four-day indie-hipster-pop gathering I wouldn’t be caught dead at. But, hey, all the big names, according to kids these days (and Pitchfork), would be there.

In all seriousness, KC could easily exit week 6 at 1-5. Asking a first-year starter at QB to dig you out of that kind of hole isn’t wise, so if they are to stay in contention, they’ll need to come out guns blazin’ a la last year. Unlike last year, there won’t be any margin for error against the lesser/average opponents they’ll encounter in the middle and latter portions of the season. The slump the Chiefs went through in 2017 may have partially stemmed from complacency, which likely won’t be in the mix this time around. If that wasn’t the case, and it truly came down to nonsensical shifts in play-calling responsibility and offensive philosophy, Andy Reid and new OC Eric Bieniemy had better sort out any similar wrinkles sooner rather than later.

Roster:

Any offense that features a strong arm, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt (not to mention Chris Conley and De’Anthony Thomas, for pure speed purposes) has a definite chance to be top-10 statistically. The vertical iteration of their scheme which was being deployed before their slide last year is an even better fit for this year’s roster, given Patrick Mahomes’ cannon and the influx of even more fast. As a ball carrier, Kareem Hunt should benefit from the increased stress placed on secondaries as long as he remains integrally involved. Mahomes is getting a bit of of the Deshaun Watson/Jimmy Garoppolo treatment, as fans and media alike are wildly hyped based on a small sample size (albeit a much smaller one). His ability to limit turnovers will likely determine the peak of this offense on a game-to-game basis.

Defensively, expect the Chiefs to hover around average. They have some impressive pieces, but also some noticeable holes. Stalwarts Justin Houston and Eric Berry remain, and although they’re both beginning the back nine of their careers (and, in the case of Berry, coming off a knee injury), they should still have plenty to give at 29 and 30 respectively. Their cornerback situation is likely the most worrisome, with only former Redskin Kendall Fuller looking like a long-term solution. He could be enough to make the unit respectable, but this is the first time in his career he’s being relied upon as a bona fide shutdown corner.

Anthony Hitchens was signed in free agency (from Dallas), and will add better coverage skills to the LB unit. The yang to Hitchen’s yin, Reggie Ragland profiles as more of a run-stuffing ILB, akin to former Titan Avery Williamson. Chris Jones is an up-and-coming, potential future star at DT, who will be paired with Xavier Williams (FA from Arizona) on the interior line. At the very least, as long as everyone remains healthy, the Chiefs should be better against the run than they were a year ago (Football Outsiders ranked them 32nd in run defense in 2017).

Beyond those mentioned, however, there is a lot of so-so—journeymen, stop gaps, young pieces that haven’t displayed much so far in their careers. It appears that each unit may have a weak point or two, and for offenses with prowess, those may stick out like injured members of the herd.

Record Prediction: 8-8

Cleveland Browns

Toughest 4-game stretch: Weeks 7-10: at TB, at PIT, KC, ATL

Easiest 4-game stretch: Weeks 14-17: CAR, at DEN, CIN, at BAL

Trust the process, eh? I don’t know ... it sort of worked out for the Sixers, finally. A lot of clear similarities exist between the two franchises, despite the differences in sport and league dynamics. The process itself is over at this point. If Cleveland tries to spin a different story line, they’re outright conning one of the most loyal fan bases in all of professional sports. If the Titans sucked that bad for decades in a row, many of us MCMers might still be around, but the average Nashvillian or Tennessean would be long gone (completely tangential side note: The Nash-Villain could be another great nickname for ol’ JRobbery when he’s in the middle of swindling a clueless GM).

The question now is twofold: Can Hue Jackson get out of this team’s way? Is there enough solidified veteran leadership to guide younger players towards excellence? This roster is as primed for prolonged contention—especially once Brady, Roethlisberger and Rivers retire—as the Titans, Jaguars and Chiefs, so long as they’ve found at least a single competent QB between Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield. Wouldn’t it be the most Browns thing ever for Tyrod to play well this season, be put on the trade block to make room for Mayfield as the unquestioned starter, and for Mayfield to turn out to be another bust? Not predicting it, but that would be some tihs ssa nworB*.

*for the children.

Schedule: Not easy. Not quite as tough as KC’s, but still littered with big dawgs. Home against the Steelers and on the road against the Saints to start the year should reveal a lot about this team. Even simply keeping those games close would be a good sign for their prospects over 16 games. Nab a win (or two) and all of a sudden they’d be a figurative 16-year-old in the driver’s seat under no supervision for the first time: giddy, wholly naive, and a danger to those around them. If they stick around up until it, their difficult mid-season stretch (listed above) will probably determine boom or bust for this season. Their bye comes on the tail end of that span, and they’ll spend that week either building confidence for a playoff push or ruing about opportunity lost.

Roster: Talented, but, in my opinion, its ceiling comes down to one man: Josh Gordon. When on the field and at his best, Gordon is waaaaay up, in an exosphere occupied exclusively by himself, Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson in terms of physical ability among WRs historically. It should be interesting to gauge the dynamic between Gordon and Tyrod Taylor—a QB known for his low-risk decision making—as Gordon can only dominate 50/50 balls if he’s given the opportunity. Elsewhere on offense, there’s a lot of solid (unless you feel Jarvis Landry is also elite) and very few weak points, though we need to see if anyone can stick a toe in Joe Thomas’ empty shoes at LT.

To truly contend, the defense also needs to rise up, but on paper it has very few obvious soft spots. If Denzel Ward can play up to the level of some of last year’s rookie CBs (specifically Marshon Lattimore, TreDavious White, and our own Adoree Jackson) the Browns’ corners can be much better than the average NFL fan would assume, as Briean Boddy-Calhoun and T.J. Carrie are underrated. The defense’s biggest question mark exists behind them, at both safety spots, with converted CB Damarious Randall (signed from GB) and 2017 rookie Jabrill Peppers, who didn’t turn in an outstanding initial campaign, set as the last line. If the secondary can give Myles Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah and the rest of the Browns’ front seven time to do their thing, blitz-happy DC Gregg Williams will be in business.

Record Prediction: 8-8

Oakland Raiders

Toughest 4-game stretch: Weeks 8-11: IND, at SF, LAC, at ARI

Easiest 4-game stretch: Weeks 13-16: KC, PIT, at CIN, at DEN

They say, “If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.” To some, including myself, there’s certainly something about this Raiders off-season that hasn’t felt right. Perhaps it’s Jon Gruden’s comical contract, or his incessant Chucky-ness ... or, going back further, the fact that he still thought Marcus Mariota was a running quarterback when he called the Titans’ Monday Night game vs. the Colts last year. There have also been curious decisions to bring in aging vets who appeared to be finished as primary contributors (Doug Martin, Jordy Nelson and Derrick Johnson). The Raiders’ roster had some major question marks as it was, especially on defense, but very little the team did leading up to the draft felt like a step in the right direction. To compound matters, they appeared to severely reach on their first-round selection, Kolton Miller (OT), at least according to most draft experts. The rest of their draft haul (9 total picks) was full of gambles too, though reports from camp are that Michigan product Maurice Hurst, who was diagnosed with a possible heart condition during the combine process, looks like a steal.

In an effort to remain as objective as possible, it’s important to consider some of the positives that exist for the Silver & Black, despite the icky vibes they’re giving off. Gruden has led several successful teams in the past (although his legacy is a bit overrated—even with a Super Bowl victory to his name—if you ask me). He’s a major branch of an innovative coaching tree and, like the Titans, he targeted a member of last year’s Rams staff to be his OC (though Greg Olson has not been very good in that role in the past). There is Khalil “Certified” Mack, of course, and some other building blocks that at bare minimum have significant potential.

Pit this team against the Chiefs’ schedule and I think they fall apart. Oakland’s schedule isn’t nearly as formidable, though, so as long as Gruden and Co. deploy an offense from this decade, and some of the young pieces continue to grow, I think there’s a chance the Raiders rebound marginally from last year’s 6-10 mark.

Schedule: Oakland faces their current in-state brethren, the Rams, in the first Monday night game of the 2018 season. Later in the year, they’ll get a shot at the 49ers, and they obviously play the Chargers twice. I don’t expect the other Cali teams to be kind to the Raiders on their way out of the Golden State (i.e. “Don’t let the door hit you ... ). Games against the Browns and Seahawks feel like toss-ups, while a week 14 Sunday night home game against the Steelers is only a question mark for the visitors due to their propensity for random, ugly performances against weaker competition on the road. I don’t see enough talent in the Raiders’ secondary to believe that they can limit the Chargers’ and Chiefs’ aerial attacks, so it wouldn’t shock me at all to see them go 1-5 or 2-4 within the AFC West. All in all, they’re likely going to have to scrap together as many wins in close games as possible—I don’t foresee many runaway victories.

Roster: There seems to be a lot of “yeah, but”s throughout Oakland’s depth chart. Derek Carr has a great arm, but struggles with his pocket presence. Amari Cooper has all the athletic ability to be great, but can’t catch the damn ball half the time. The offensive line was elite in 2016, but regressed in a similar fashion as the Titans’ in 2017. Their defense has a generational talent in Khalil Mack, but can’t seem to get him any help in the pass rush or secondary. It sort of all feels like a dice roll. How consistently can all that potential coalesce in the same week? We’ll find out.

Young secondary members Gareon Conley and Karl Joseph will need to step up in concert with FA addition Rashaan Melvin (who I liked in Indianapolis) for the Raiders to realize any of their overall potential. Their pass coverage has been a truly awful sight to behold over the last few years, and that needs to change more than anything. While Derrick Johnson was still acceptable in coverage last season for the Chiefs (in his 13th year no less), the Raiders’ incumbent LBs were not. A phrase that has haunted Titans’ fans for years is likely to continue to haunt the Black Hole: “Backs and Tight Ends”.

Record Prediction: 7-9

Pt. 4 Around the Corner