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A Look Around the AFC (Pt. 4)

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

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

Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3

The Sink-or-Swims

Members of this foursome may do either, but all of them appear to lack the balanced tool set needed to compete with contending teams week in and week out. For that reason, I sense that they’ll struggle to earn enough notches in their belt to be serious players for post-season berths. However, each of these teams has one potential strength that could end up making me eat my words: respectively, a great pass rush, a stout defense, a gifted-when-healthy QB, and an underrated WR group.

Denver Broncos

Toughest 4-game stretch: Weeks 6-9: LAR, at ARI, at KC, HOU

Easiest 4-game stretch: Weeks 2-5: OAK, at BAL, KC, at NYJ

Dark horse or lack of horsepower? It isn’t yet apparent which descriptor fits the 2018 Broncos. Case Keenum played well above his pay grade last season and earned himself a new one with Denver. If he succeeds long term, it will be an incredibly rare instance of a QB developing into a franchise player well after he’d been written off as a career backup at best (in part thanks to renowned QB guru Jeff Fisher). If Keenum fails, John Elway will rightly wind up viewed as one of the worst QB evaluators of all-time, despite being one of the best to ever toss the pigskin himself. At least he didn’t pay Brock Osweiler big bucks ... I miss Brock Osweiler the Texan, things would be sooooo much simpler if he were still around.

HC Vance Joseph, who is unfairly already on the hot seat after only one season, promoted Bill Musgrave from QB coach to OC. Musgrave held that title for the Raiders in 2016, which suggests this offense could put some points on the board if the pieces fit. On defense, the No Fly Zone is no longer in effect minus Aqib Talib, but most position groups remain average or above, and there is quality depth at pass rusher. So why isn’t Mile High higher up in these playoff rankings? As it stands, I don’t see enough sure things in terms of offensive weaponry, I don’t yet fully trust Keenum without Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and I’m not sold on their pass coverage across the LB and S groups.

Schedule: In line with what I’ve mentioned so far, in my opinion there are a lot of glass-half-empty outlooks for this roster. If I’m wrong, and Denver can home in on a reliable offensive approach while also getting after the QB at a high clip, their schedule is conquerable. That’s why, out of all the AFC teams, I’m least confident in my projection of them. I view outings against the Rams and Steelers as near-certain losses, no matter how well things go. Beyond that, there could be a lot of “coin flip” match-ups. I would expect their post-bye stretch (beginning week 11) to be more challenging than their first 9 games, giving them plenty of time to iron out any wrinkles.

Unlike a lot of teams, I don’t project it as mandatory for them to make their hay in division—even a .500 AFC West record could still leave them a path to the playoffs. More importantly, they need to consistently beat out-of-division opponents that aren’t playoff bound: the Seahawks, Ravens, Jets, Cardinals, Bengals and Browns feel like near must-wins, and they’ll probably need a victory against either the 49ers or Texans as well (defeating both obviously wouldn’t hurt).

Roster: On offense, running back stands out as the Broncos’ biggest weakness. Devontae Booker passes the eye test athletically, but has yet to make a steady impact in his first two seasons, achieving averages of 3.5 and 3.8 yards per carry. Former Duck Royce Freeman was added this off-season, but it remains to be seen what percentage of carry share he’ll receive and whether he can offer more than Booker at the pro level.

A middle-of-the-pack OL is virtually unchanged, though Denver hopes its starting five can be on the field together more often this go-round. At WR, two known names coming off down years, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, must bounce back if this offense is to operate at its full potential—based on what we saw last year, Keenum needs two things to play at his peak: a running game that can sell play action effectively and WRs who can make plays on the ball in the air (as well as after the catch). Two rookie wide-outs, Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton, will hope to make early impacts as well, while 2017 draft pick Jake Butt is set to take over at TE after sitting out his rookie campaign due to injury.

On “D”, the obvious highlight is the cadre of potential sack artists. Edges and ends Von Miller, number 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb, former first-rounder Shane Ray, undrafted gem Shaquil Barrett, and former second-rounder DeMarcus Walker should all be able to pin their ears back and attack alongside a well-rounded DL. The loss of Aqib Talib will necessitate Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby remaining ultra reliable at CB. Ideally for Denver, rookie Isaac Yiadom will be able to translate his fiesty collegiate style of play to the NFL immediately and allow Harris Jr. to lineup primarily in the slot. My biggest concern on this side of the ball is at S and LB, where coverage ability is a major question mark. Those units turned what should’ve been a top-5 pass defense into an average one, overall, last year. No feasible level of pass rush or CB play can prevent quick passes to backs and TEs. Luckily, out of all the Broncos’ 2018 opponents, only the Chiefs (x2), Rams, Steelers and 49ers have proven track records of forcing those issues.

Record Prediction: 7-9

Baltimore Ravens

Toughest 4-game stretch: Weeks 6-9: at TEN, NO, at CAR, PIT

Easiest 4-game stretch: Weeks 1-4: BUF, at CIN, DEN, at PIT

To me, the most prominent regression candidate in the AFC is Baltimore. OC Marty Mornhinweg ran a stagnant offense last year, and it seems his plan this year is to rely more heavily on two- and three-TE sets (What’s with coaches whose initials are MM?) and plug in castoffs from around the league at WR. I don’t believe an offense with a focus on heavy formations and deep shots, especially one with Joe Flacco at the helm, can win in 2018—just imagine last year’s Titans offense sans the running ability of MM8. The defense should be top-10 worthy and win some games on its own, but I don’t see it being good enough to overcome many match-ups with balanced contenders. How bad would things have to get for John Harbaugh to be out as HC after this season?

Schedule: The Ratbirds start their year off with three winnable games. In fact, if they want to prove doubters like myself wrong, they really need to go 3-0 as they see a yuuuge uptick in competition after that: at Steelers, at Browns, at Titans, Saints, at Panthers, Steelers. If things don’t go well through that stretch, Baltimore will likely sense their season slipping away heading into their bye. Another “ramp up” follows, with two winnable home games against Cincy and Oakland, before the going gets tough again.

Roster: Imbalanced, like a gym rat who skips leg day every week. The defense is chock full of quality starters, whereas the offense seems to lack any outside of G Marshal Yanda, who himself is still recovering from an ankle injury suffered last season. Based on Alex Collins’ 2017 campaign, I think you can make the case that he is a decent running back, but probably not one that can be the focal point of an offense while working behind a so-so offensive line (admittedly, something very few backs can do). At WR, Michael Crabtree might end up an upgrade over anybody the Ravens started at that spot last year, but he’ll no longer benefit from playing opposite Amari Cooper. Unless John Brown has a sudden career resurgence, Willie Snead proves he isn’t just a former product of Drew Brees, or things finally click for Breshad Perriman, expect Crabtree to be a target magnet on the outside, and it’s doubtful that’s a recipe for success. But wait! What about all those tight ends? Real talk: Does anyone honestly believe two rookies and Nick Boyle are going to be the driving force behind a dynamic offense? Put Lamar Jackson out there and see what kind of spark he can provide. Figure out the rest after that.

On defense, not much has changed, which based on most metrics seems like a good thing. Ravens’ fans weren’t necessarily upset to see ex-DC Dean Pees’ retire and then promptly unretire to join Mike Vrabel’s staff. I’m not exactly sure why. The Ravens placed within the top-10 in fewest yards allowed per snap as well as almost every team defense metric Football Outsiders calculates. They also tied Jacksonville for the most forced turnovers. If that’s not enough, what is? C.J. Mosley could use a running mate at ILB that possesses coverage skills, and the Ravens didn’t go out of their way to acquire one this off-season. Marlon Humphrey got lost in the shuffle among all the other talented rookie CBs from the 2017 class, but he came on strong towards the end of last season. Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle are ageless wonders that haven’t shown signs of slowing down at this apparent late stage of their careers.

Record Prediction: 7-9

Indianapolis Colts

Toughest 4-game stretch: Weeks 2-5: at WAS, at PHI, HOU, at NE

Easiest 4-game stretch: Weeks 6-9: at NYJ, BUF, at OAK, BYE

The Messiah returns ... and he’s throwing non-regulation footballs!? I’m interested to see what Frank Reich can manifest in Indy’s offense, coming over from Doug Pederson’s system in Philly. The Andrew Luck of years past could eff stuff up in that system. Outside of the prospects of that version of Luck returning, this roster is in the debate for worst in the league. Coaching will need to massively elevate the talent on both sides of the ball in order to make a playoff push.

Schedule: Game-to-game match-ups are so hard to evaluate with the Colts because nearly everything rides on Andrew Luck willing this team to victory. If the quarterback position was taken out of the equation, the only teams on Indy’s schedule that they’d compare favorably or equitably against would be Buffalo and Miami. If for some reason Luck can’t go for a segment or the entirety of the season, Jacoby Brissett may still be able to hold things together, as long as the offensive scheme takes a step forward under Reich and rookie OC Nick Sirianni. With the expectation for at least some improvement in that regard, I anticipate the Colts will at least be competitive most weeks. They actually were for much of last year, but their schedule difficulty has increased for 2018—to maintain that would still theoretically be an upward trend. Indy’s third-place AFC South finish last year netted them contests against Cincinnati and Oakland in 2018, and those should constitute two of their more winnable games.

Roster: I continue to hear analysts prop up hope for the Colts’ OL, with some ready to declare it a top unit in the NFL. Miss me with that last part. I don’t see as much of a positive dynamic in that position group, outside of the addition of rookie (i.e. hasn’t played a single snap against pros) Quenton Nelson, as it seems some do. I’ll grant that they should appear better, but I think it’s more likely they benefit from a quicker-rhythm passing attack than a true overall change in ability level. In the same vein, I don’t see the Colts’ run game suddenly becoming the counterweight to their passing attack that we saw the Eagles’ run game provide Carson Wentz and Nick Foles last year. Their WR group is lackluster outside of T.Y. Hilton, who himself has proven not to be a do-it-all WR1. Jack Doyle is solid if unspectacular at TE, while Eric Ebron comes over from Detroit as a more vertically-oriented receiving TE (though he was never a game changer in Detroit’s pass-happy offense).

The safety group should be the backbone of the Colts’ defense. Malik Hooker will be back from his knee injury, and should provide a ballhawk to pair with Clayton Geathers, who excels against the run. Mathias Farley is an underrated 3rd safety who could start on certain rosters. The CB room lost Rashaan Melvin, so attention now turns to Quincy Wilson as the #1. He was a very raw but physically imposing prospect coming out of Florida just a year ago, so he’ll need to grow up quickly if he’s to hold that spot down against a good slate of QBs for 2018. The rest of the corner group is unproven at best and pretty bad at worst.

The Colts are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base, so the front seven is likely to take some time to sort it self out. Their DL personnel is probably more suited to the new approach, frankly. Jabaal Sheard is everything Titans fans wish Kevin Dodd was and can really set the edge. Indy managed to get far more out of Al Woods than Dick LeBeau did when Woods was a Titan. The team did jettison Johnathan Hankins as part of the transition, despite him playing fairly well for the Horseshoes in 2017—it’s a mystery why NFL teams haven’t been more interested in his services. Expect Indy’s LBs to be their defense’s weakest link, as none excel in space.

Record Prediction: 6-10

New York Jets

Toughest 4-game stretch: Weeks 14-17: at BUF, HOU, GB, at NE

Easiest 4-game stretch: Weeks 8-11: at CHI, at MIA, BUF, BYE

The Jets have room to improve off last year’s 5-11 mark, depending on how they ultimately assemble the assortment of puzzle pieces on their roster. There is indecision and logjams aplenty at various position groups, especially on offense, which tells you there aren’t many sure things. However, some incumbent starters are fully healthy again, and with increased competition, the team as a whole stands to get better. Todd Bowles is firmly within win or go home territory, and the significant potential for him to be out as Jets’ HC in 2019 may have prevented him from attracting a more promising OC (Jeremy Bates was the Jets’ QB coach last season, but was out of football for a few years prior after failed stints as OC in Seattle and QB coach in Chicago). If Bowles is to stick around for the long haul, he and his staff will need to unlock the potential of a promising WR group and continue to develop a defense with star potential at a handful of spots.

Schedule: Manageable. Of course, until proven otherwise, Gang Green will be underdogs in the grand majority of their games. That said, the pace is balanced and they may even luck into catching some of their tougher opponents late in the year after said opponents have clinched playoff bids. New York appears to be in a slightly more advanced phase of the rebuild process as compared with AFC East rivals Buffalo and Miami, so a winning divisional record isn’t out of the question, especially if they can steal a game from New England—laugh if you will, but their first game against the Pats comes after the Jets’ bye, and the second will be in week 17 when, as mentioned, the Pats may be resting starters and/or playing with less motivation.

Roster: I believe the Jets’ best outcome for 2018 involves Teddy Bridgewater starting at QB, as opposed to being dangled as trade bait. Sam Darnold is unlikely to provide the consistency needed to win ... well ... consistently, right away. Josh McCown hasn’t been atrocious in New York but he is who we think he is. The WR room is somewhat tantalizing, with Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse, Terrelle Pryor and Quincy Enunwa all having flashed playmaking ability in the past. Whoever calls signals for New York should have plenty of chances to let ‘er rip, as the Jets’ run game doesn’t seem poised for effectiveness based on the mostly-unchanged OL’s weak run blocking last year.

On defense, *should’ve-been Titan* Leonard Williams (I kid, I kid) anchors a now-underrated (minus Sheldon Richardson and Mo Wilkinson) DL which includes former Colt Henry Anderson and Steve McClendon. That group is better against the run than they are rushing the QB, a drawback that’s compounded by a lack of coverage capability among their LBs. If conclusions are made based on last year’s PFF grades, Avery Williamson is the best coverage LB the Jets have—yes, that Avery Williamson. Darron Lee possesses the physical tools to excel in coverage, and this will be a crucial year for him development wise. The secondary has the talent to achieve something like “low key fire” status, but also the potential to be wildly inconsistent. Ex-Ram Trumaine Johnson, former Cowboy Morris Claiborne, a yet-to-be-determined slot CB, and 2nd-year safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye make up the group.

Record Prediction: 6-10

Final Part Next Week