Training camp is finally upon us, and the NFL season is just around the corner. With that being said, every team has to iron out the rough spots on their rosters, even the top contenders. From quarterback competitions to rookies being acclimated, it all happens now. Let’s look at one thing to watch for each AFC team.
New England Patriots
The obvious Patriots story in camp is Jimmy Garoppolo starting the first four games in place of the suspended Tom Brady. But, let’s look elsewhere here. Julian Edelman is the obvious number one wide receiver, but who will be lined up opposite of him? Well, we know the Patriots will run a lot of two tight end sets with Gronk and new acquisition Martellus Bennett. Gronkowski might end up being put outside against cornerbacks in some formations. With all of that said, the Pats need someone else to step up. Danny Amendola has always been able to produce, but he always seems to find himself on the injury report. The Pats did sign Chris Hogan away from the Bills, but he doesn’t fit the mold of a number two guy. The other solid option is speedster draft pick Malcolm Mitchell. Whoever ends up winning that battle might have to carry a bigger load than they expect, because Edelman hasn’t always been the healthiest either.
In Rex Ryan’s first season in Buffalo, the defense regressed back towards the middle of the pack in production. They added good defensive pieces in the draft, but the injury bug has bitten the Bills hard in camp. First rounder Shaq Lawson could be out until October, and second round thumping linebacker Reggie Ragland tore his ACL near the beginning of camp. Linebacker IK Enemkpali also tore his ACL. With his defensive corps already seriously depleted, Rex Ryan must dig deep and get the absolute best out of what he has. The talent is there at each level, but they need to come together under Ryan’s scheme.
Miami has had talent to make things happen, but with no coach to bring that talent together to win games, they continue to sit in the cellar of the AFC East. Enter Adam Gase, the mastermind behind Peyton Manning’s dominant crew in Denver and a resurgent Cutler season in Chicago. If anyone can turn Ryan Tannehill into an above average starter, Gase can. Even with Lamar Miller bolting for Houston, the weapons are still there for him to succeed. A healthy, set-straight Laremy Tunsil can be a top five left tackle in the game. Jarvis Landry is a reception machine, who can always find the ball. DeVante Parker could have a breakout year, and Jordan Cameron is itching to match his production he had in Cleveland. It is now up to Adam Gase to turn an underperforming offense around in order to make a move in this division.
New York Jets
FitzMagic is back in the big apple. To the delight of all Jets fans, Ryan Fitzpatrick agreed to return to the Jets for another season. Now, the Jets must show that this is in fact a playoff team we watched a year ago. The defense is a top five unit. So, the pressure falls on Fitzpatrick and the offense to repeat their production from a year ago. The addition of Matt Forte should boost the passing offense even more, and with Marshall and Decker still there, Fitzpatrick has all he could want and more, but, ultimately, the way he plays will determine if the Jets play in January.
The Steelers are clear Super Bowl contenders. The offense boasts the best triplets in football. The reemergence of a dominant front seven has them on the ropes to reach the promised land. The only thing that could stand in their way is the secondary. They will have to have young guys help out and step up. First round corner Artie Burns might well be thrown into the fire from the get go, and Sean Davis could get a lot of playing time as well. If the young guys can contribute, Pittsburgh is as balanced as any team in the league.
The Bengals have found themselves in the same spot over and over again, losing on opening weekend of the playoffs. This year, they will once again try to change that. A large portion of the defense returns, but the biggest absence will be on offense. With Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu leaving via free agency, and tight end Tyler Eifert on the mend, it very well could be up to rookie wideout Tyler Boyd. Boyd was a stellar pass catcher at Pitt, and can fit right in as the Robin to AJ Green’s Batman. If he can handle the speed of the game, Cincinnati will put themselves in position once again to have a chance to win a playoff game.
I’m calling an audible. My original thought was all the young talent arriving in Northern Ohio, but I will switch to something that has grabbed attention from many: Robert Griffin III. It is only preseason, but the fact that he is already establishing a rapport with Terrelle Pryor, it’s quite possible that Hue Jackson is in fact the quarterback whisperer we believe he is. Griffin looks as strong and as steady as he did in his rookie season, and with Josh Gordon on track to return this year, the Cleveland offense could be a solid, under the radar group.
A lot of players went down for the Ravens last season. Steve Smith was one key player to go down, which drastically affected the offense. Joe Flacco also tore his ACL late last year. With everyone back in camp, the goal is to stay healthy. But, staying healthy won’t be enough in this crowded conference. They will have to do well on both sides of the ball. One place to look is wide receiver, as Breshad Perriman is on track to play this year after basically redshirting during last season’s campaign. Kamar Aiken grew into his own late last season, and many expect this year to be his breakout campaign. With all of these guys returning, maybe the Ravens can find themselves an identity on offense.
All the eyes in Indy are on one thing: the return of Andrew Luck. Luck hopes to get on track this season after an injury filled 2015. Keeping him upright will fall on the offensive line, which was made a serious priority in the draft. First round pick Ryan Kelly hopes to anchor the middle, and third rounder LeRaven Clark will be asked to shore up the second tackle spot. If Indy can see success out of an offensive line that has underperformed for some time, Luck should be able to return to himself this year.
The biggest thing facing the Texans this season is offensive chemistry. It will be interesting to see how Brock Osweiler, the new $18 million a year man, will handle the high expectations in Houston. Granted, he does have some help. DeAndre Hopkins is as good a receiver as there is in football. Lamar Miller will be a steady presence to help the run game. Rookies Will Fuller and Braxton Miller will give the offense the potential to be more explosive. We know how it looks on paper, but we want to see the chemistry develop.
The Jaguars’ offense burst onto the scene last season. Blake Bortles is growing into his role as the franchise quarterback. Allen Robinson is a superstar and Allen Hurns has grown into a very nice number two guy. Now it is the defense’s turn to become a solid unit if the Jags ever want to become a contender. The good news is that they seem to be off to a great start. They essentially have three first round picks coming in this season (Jalen Ramsey, drafted 5th overall; Myles Jack, who fell all the way to them in round 2; and Dante Fowler, who basically redshirted last year with a torn ACL). So, if you bring those three into the fold with newly acquired guys like Super Bowl Champion Malik Jackson, free safety Tashaun Gipson, and cornerback Prince Amukamara, the Jags, on paper, look miles ahead of where they have been defensively. As long as this group eventually finds itself, watch this team in the coming years.
Many eyes will be on Marcus Mariota as he starts his second season hoping to stay healthy. But, after watching their first preseason game, my eyes have shifted to what else the Titans have planned for their offense. Dubbed “Exotic Smashmouth” by the coaching staff, the Titans dominated the trenches using four running backs (including second round pick Derrick Henry and former leading rusher DeMarco Murray). With the addition of first round pick Jack Conklin at tackle and the signing of free agent center Ben Jones, the Titans have prepared themselves to be a run first offense, which should really help the growth of Marcus Mariota.
The title defense begins now. The Broncos will enter the 2016 season with a new starting quarterback. It won’t be the retired Peyton Manning, or Brock Osweiler, who bolted for Houston. That spot will most likely be decided between two players: Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian. Sanchez has started on successful teams before, leading (using that loosely) the Jets to two AFC Championship game appearances. Trevor Siemian has never started an NFL game, but the good news for him is that he has been around this offense longer than Sanchez has and doesn’t have to adjust to a new game plan. Whoever wins this battle had better be ready, because the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers await them less than two weeks from now.
Kansas City Chiefs
It seems, once again, the same old same old in Kansas City. They go about their business in a productive, but boring, way. So, there is a gigantic headline surrounding them as the season begins. But, since the object here is to find something, I will. Marcus Peters led the league with 8 interceptions last season en route to winning defensive rookie of the year. Now, with Sean Smith leaving in free agency, Peters will take on the role of the number one corner. He has all the confidence to be that guy, and this season will show us if he can truly be one of the best shutdown corners in football.
The biggest story right now about Oakland is whether or not they can survive the serious hype surrounding them this season. It’s been a while since they’ve had a quarterback with this type of ceiling. Derek Carr has the ability to make the next step and bring himself into the elite conversation. Him and Amari Cooper look like a duo we will be seeing for years to come. The offensive line has been boosted with the addition of Kelechi Osemele. The defensive line looks as potent as its ever been. Khalil Mack is a dominant presence on the outside, and teaming up with fellow pass rushers Mario Edwards and Bruce Irvin should give him more one on one opportunities. 2015 draft pick Ben Heeney will be given the opportunity to make a difference at the linebacker spot. With the additions of Sean Smith and first round pick Karl Joseph, the porous secondary of 2015 is a thing of the past. This team is primed for a playoff push, and time will tell to see if they achieve their goals.
San Diego Chargers
Other than the Joey Bosa fiasco, the Chargers have built themselves a nice unit heading into 2016. Even with a bunch of new faces, the most important player this season was drafted last year. Melvin Gordon looks to bounce back from a disappointing rookie campaign in which he never found paydirt. Gordon didn’t get much help last season, with multiple offensive linemen getting hurt for extended time. The Chargers looked to help him out in the draft by grabbing center Max Tuerk and fullback Derek Watt. With an offensive line that is healthy, along with more weapons to pay attention to outside, it looks like things are piecing together for Gordon to have a good year.