NFL 2017: A look at the AFC


AFC WEST

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Going all the way: Even though the Chiefs ranked 20th in total offense last season, they have a couple of game-breakers in tight end Travis Kelce and all-around big-play threat Tyreek Hill. Alex Smith is a steady hand at quarterback who has won a lot of games, and Patrick Mahomes will make it fascinating to watch the team’s future at that position. Kansas City has the ability to get hot and assemble long winning streaks.

They’re doomed: The AFC West always proves to be a tough, so there’s no coasting. The Chiefs have had warning-track power before, looking great in the regular season before gagging in the playoffs. This team was 26th in run defense last season, allowing 121.1 yards per game on the ground.

Now hear this: “It’s Alex’s job. That’s what it is. There’s no gray area with that.” — coach Andy Reid on the veteran Smith starting at quarterback, as opposed to Mahomes, the rookie first-round pick

DENVER BRONCOS

Going all the way: The defense remains championship-caliber behind star linebacker Von Miller and that secondary. The team showed signs of being able to stop the run this summer, a real problem last year. The Broncos are hoping their offense springs to life under new coordinator Mike McCoy, the former San Diego coach who was the Broncos offensive coordinator for part of Peyton Manning’s time there.

They’re doomed: If they can’t stop the run and can’t run, the Broncos are going to be in big trouble. They’re investing a lot of hope in quarterback Trevor Siemian, who’s better than a lot of people think, but he’s still Trevor Siemian. They sank to the bottom of the league in rushing last year after C.J. Anderson got hurt. The team was 26th in red-zone efficiency. Basically, the reason they won games at all was because of their defense.

Now hear this: “We want one of them to take the reins and take over. That would be the ideal situation.” — John Elway, executive vice president and general manager, before QB Paxton Lynch suffered a shoulder injury

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Going all the way: As long as the Chargers have Philip Rivers, they have a chance. He’s an elite quarterback, and he’s got some solid skill position players around him, among them receiver Keenan Allen, running back Melvin Gordon, and tight ends Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry. They have some defensive standouts too in Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and Jason Verrett.

They’re doomed: Although they need to win in hopes of capturing a bigger slice of the Los Angeles fan base, the Chargers haven’t had much success recently, going 9-23 over the last two seasons. They’ve had injury problems over the years, and already first-round pick Mike Williams (back) hasn’t gotten on the field, and second-round guard Forrest Lamp (knee) is out for the year.

Now hear this: “I hope to still be playing football in 2020, and certainly I hope I’m still playing here. So yeah, I hope to get to see that stadium then.” — Rivers, to Rich Eisen, on whether he’ll still be playing when the Inglewood stadium is completed

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Going all the way: Quarterback Derek Carr has recovered from the broken leg that torpedoed Oakland’s playoff hopes last season, and he looks excellent. He’s got stellar receivers in Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, and tight end Jared Cook, and plays behind an elite line. In the backfield is Oakland native Marshawn Lynch, who figures to be more than a feel-good story. He’s still an ultra-tough runner. Although their defense is suspect, the Raiders have defensive player of the year Khalil Mack, who will cause major headaches for opposing offenses.

They’re doomed: The defense is the Achilles’ heel for this team, and last year was ranked 26th overall. The football world will be watching how Oakland fans respond to the fact that the Raiders are a lame duck team for two and possibly three seasons, as the franchise is building a stadium in Las Vegas that will open in 2020.

Now hear this: “Waking up early and having to go and do something physical in order to get my body back to playing ability was probably the hardest thing for me because I’m not a morning person. But after that was over, it was straight.” — Lynch

AFC NORTH

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Going all the way: The Bengals made a concerted effort this offseason to improve team speed. They drafted scorching receiver John Ross and running back Joe Mixon, who will bump them up on offense. On defense, they replaced slower linebackers Rey Maualuga and Karlos Dansby with the younger, quicker Kevin Minter and Nick Vigil.

They’re doomed: This offensive line could be in trouble, with the departure of Andrew Whitworth to the Rams and guard Kevin Zeitler to the Browns. The group has looked OK in the preseason, but it’s the preseason. Trey Hopkins, the starting right guard, has been activated for one game in his career. Coach Marvin Lewis is still looking for his first playoff victory. He’s 0-7 in the postseason.

Now hear this: “He likes to run down that field like he is scoring a touchdown, and we are going to give him a lot of opportunities to do that. That’s just part of his makeup, and that’s good. He can never lose that.” — Lewis, on controversial rookie Mixon

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Going all the way: Offensively, Baltimore has more speed on the outside than it has ever had, with receivers Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman and Jeremy Maclin. They should be able to stretch the field more than the Ravens have in the past. On defense, they have the league’s best safety combination in Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, who said the defense has a chance to be “legendary.”

They’re doomed: Quarterback Joe Flacco missed training camp with a back injury, and presumably the first time he’ll step on the field for a game is in the opener at Cincinnati. The offensive line looks as if it will return just two starters from last season, left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right guard Marshal Yanda.

Now hear this: “This year it is a special unit. We feel it. I think the defense as a whole feels it. We know it, and like I said over and over, you have to prove it now.” — Jimmy Smith, cornerback

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Going all the way: There is hope in rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, though the Browns have been a revolving door at that position. The team has built a solid offensive line with the addition of guard Kevin Zeitler (Bengals) and center J.C. Tretter (Packers). No. 1 pick Myles Garrett could provide a pass rush for a franchise that sorely needs it.

They’re doomed: This team nearly lost every game last season (its only win came in Week 17 against the Chargers), so turning around the franchise is no simple task. The quarterback situation remains unsettled, even though there’s a flicker of hope there. The Browns have not tackled well, particularly on the back end of their defense.

Now hear this: “I’ve never had a chance to draft the first overall pick ever, but I’ve had some pretty high draft picks. He’s the one that has jumped out and fit in faster than any of the other ones, and I have had some really, really good ones.” — Gregg Williams, defensive coordinator, on Garrett

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Going all the way: Martavis Bryant was suspended all last season for violating the NFL’s drug policy. The 6-foot-5 receiver is back and that’s huge for the Steelers. Outside linebacker Bud Dupree, a first-round pick in 2015, missed the first 10 games last season with a groin injury. He came back and had 4{ sacks in the final six games and will start on the left side. The Steelers’ best defensive lineman, Cam Heyward, will be a welcome sight as he returns from a torn pectoral muscle. Pittsburgh has a great quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and one of the league’s best offensive lines.

They’re doomed: The main area that needs improvement is the secondary. Their cornerbacks are a soft spot. At least back Le’Veon Bell isn’t suspended to start this season, but he’s in his fifth year and has made it through a 16-game season once.

Now hear this: “I want to win everything. I just won the dart tournament that they have in camp. I want to win in everything we do.” — Roethlisberger

AFC EAST

NEW YORK JETS

Going all the way: At this point, going all the way for the Jets would mean getting the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. The arrow is going up in a handful of spots, however. The team has some building blocks in defensive lineman Leonard Williams from USC, and rookie defensive backs Jamal Adams (first round) and Marcus Maye (second).

They’re doomed: The quarterback situation is a disaster with Josh McCown, Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty, and the situation at wide receiver isn’t much better. The Jets cut veterans Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. Quincy Enunwa was going to be their No. 1, but he suffered a bulging disk in his neck at the start of camp and is out for the season. So now the top guys are a collection of unknowns from the class of 2016: undrafted free agents Robby Anderson and Jalin Marshall, and Charone Peake, a seventh-round pick.

Now hear this: “I really don’t have time for a bunch of … that happened a year ago.” — Todd Bowles, coach, on Sheldon Richardson criticizing former teammate Brandon Marshall

BUFFALO BILLS

Going all the way: LeSean McCoy looks great in his third training camp with the Bills, and he might be the best running back in the NFL. He’s got a lot of mileage, but he’s not breaking down. Buffalo’s defensive line is intact with Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Jerry Hughes and second-year defensive end Shaq Lawson.

They’re doomed: They are light on receivers. Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin left via free agency, Sammy Watkins was traded to the Rams and Anquan Boldin retired. The team picked up former Philadelphia receiver Jordan Matthews, but he suffered a chipped sternum in his first practice. It remains to be seen if Tyrod Taylor is the long-term answer at quarterback, and the odds are against him now that he’s been stripped of weapons.

Now hear this: “This is not a throw-in-the- towel thing at all. … You don’t know me if you think I’m throwing in the towel.” — Brandon Beane, general manager, on Buffalo’s big-name talent purge

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Going all the way: Quarterback Jay Cutler had the best year of his career when he had Adam Gase as offensive coordinator in Chicago, so that bodes well for the Dolphins. Receiver DeVante Parker had a terrific summer, and this looks like it will be a breakout season for him. Running back Jay Ajayi is coming off a tremendous year. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons should help fortify a porous run defense.

They’re doomed: Cutler is who he’s been over his 11-year career — not a proven winner, and a difficult teammate. The offensive line is filled with health questions. The run defense was ranked 30th last season and probably didn’t do enough to make dramatic improvements. The Dolphins were 8-2 in one-score games last season, and the law of averages are due to catch up to them.

Now hear this: “Those are tough. They wear you down. But that wasn’t the sole reason. … I mean, they released me, so it was kind of end of the road at that point.” — Cutler, on all the losing in Chicago

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Going all the way: With Tom Brady turning 40, the Patriots are clearly loading up for another Super Bowl run. They signed Buffalo corner Stephon Gilmore and traded for New Orleans receiver Brandin Cooks. They re-signed their defensive leader, Dont’a Hightower, and Super Bowl hero James White. Rob Gronkowski is healthy again. They are rolling.

They’re doomed: They’re thin on the defensive line after letting Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long go. Their top draft pick (a third-rounder), defensive end Derek Rivers, is already done for the year because of a torn ACL. They didn’t have much of a pass rush last season, but they didn’t play many top-notch quarterbacks. This year they face Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Derek Carr …

Now hear this: “This team is so far from where we need to be. We have so far to go. It’s really unfair to set expectations.” — Brady

AFC SOUTH

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Going all the way: Quarterback Andrew Luck has a surgically repaired shoulder. If he can get back by mid-September, there’s a flicker of hope for the Colts. The Colts are getting production out of two players who are senior citizens by NFL standards: running back Frank Gore (34) and kicker Adam Vinatieri (44).

They’re doomed: For the most part, the Colts played their starting defense for the first half of a preseason game against Dallas and surrendered 281 yards in those two quarters. No team in the league has its fortunes more closely tied to its starting quarterback. If Luck doesn’t come back soon, the Colts are cooked. The schedule is conducive to a good start, but stand-in quarterback Scott Tolzien is 0-2-1 as a starter. The Colts don’t have much of a pass rush, and with a young secondary, that’s a toxic cocktail.

Now hear this: “There’s no timeline.” — Chuck Pagano, coach, on when Andrew Luck will come back

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Going all the way: The arrow is pointing up on defense, where the Jaguars added lineman Calais Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye. Second-year corner Jalen Ramsey is their best defensive player, and Jacksonville is pinning its hopes on its secondary coverage being enough of a strength to give time for a pass rush. On offense, they want to run the ball with rookie Leonard Fournette and play smart.

They’re doomed: The quarterback situation is a mess, with Blake Bortles and Chad Henne both sub-par at best … a lesser-of-two-evils situation. No. 4 pick Fournette has been hampered by a foot injury and hasn’t played much this summer. The offensive line is not the worst, but not very good.

Now hear this: “I think his issue at this stage is more that six inches between his ears than anything. I think it’s a mental thing now.” — Charlie Taaffe, former Central Florida offensive coordinator to SI.com, on his onetime quarterback Bortles

TENNESSEE TITANS

Going all the way: Marcus Mariota looks healthy, and he has more offensive weapons around him. Two rookie receivers should make an immediate impact: first-round pick Corey Davis and third-rounder Taywan Taylor, plus savvy free agent Eric Decker. The Titans addressed special teams in free agency by signing former Raiders Daren Bates and Brynden Trawick, and drafting USC speedster Adoree’ Jackson. Special teams already have shown great improvement.

They’re doomed: The Titans are pretty solid at most positions but don’t have a lot of depth, so they’re an injury away from putting some inexperienced players on the field. Pass rushing is a vulnerability behind solid starting outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan. While the Titans added Logan Ryan in free agency, they still have questions at cornerback.

Now hear this: “You have to be realistic. I mean, I ain’t going to do this forever, you know? I don’t want to stay too long, let’s put it that way.” — Dick LeBeau, legendary defensive coordinator, now with the Titans, via PaulKuharsky.com

HOUSTON TEXANS

Going all the way: The Texans had the eighth-ranked running game last season, and it figures to be good again, especially with the emergence of rookie D’Onta Foreman. The defensive front seven might be the best in the league, with J.J. Watt recuperated from his back injury and Jadeveon Clowney and Brian Cushing expected to be in top form. Second-year nose tackle D.J. Reader could be terrific.

They’re doomed: Until the Texans prove they have a quality quarterback, either Tom Savage or Deshaun Watson, that spot is a question mark. The team needs a receiver to complement DeAndre Hopkins. Will Fuller is out for at least a month with a broken collarbone, Braxton Miller has ankle problems and Jalen Strong is suspended for the opener. Left tackle Duane Brown is holding out for a better contract.

Now hear this: “There’s a lot to build on. There’s a lot to correct. He knows that.” — Bill O’Brien, coach, on rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson

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By Sam Farmer

Los Angeles Times