Until dethroned, the Patriots will remain the class of the conference. Beyond New England, thirteen of the fifteen remaining AFC teams have an honest chance to contend for a postseason berth. Expect a genuine dogfight for the AFC wildcard spots in 2017.
The rich get richer. After a 14-win regular season and Super Bowl championship, Bill Belichick has navigated the offseason masterfully. New England signed shutdown corner Stephon Gilmore, traded for dangerous receiver Brandin Cooks and re-signed linebacker Dont’a Hightower. They also reinforced their running back committee and defensive line rotation with solid veterans. If the Patriots can continue coaching up their over performing offensive line, the will maintain their dominance over the AFC East.
Oakland added runner Marshawn Lynch, tight end Jared Cook and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson to their bruising offensive line and receiving weaponry. Their defense will be lead by All-Pro edge defender Khalil Mack and complementary pass rusher Bruce Irvin. Talented corner Gareon Conley and athletic safety Obi Melifonwu were drafted to bolster their pass defense. With a healthy Derek Carr, the Raiders have a well rounded roster that is primed for a deep playoff run.
The triplets - Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell - will be aided by the return of explosive receiver Martavis Bryant and an offensive line that came together down the stretch last year. Pittsburgh’s defense also jelled in route to an AFC championship game appearance in January. The Steelers did lose stalwart linebacker Lawrence Timmons and their draft class may not provide much immediate impact. As always, their fate will depend on the health of Big Ben and their ability to win shootouts in the fourth quarter.
Kansas City earned a postseason bye in 2016 and were able to retain excellent safety Eric Berry. They will field a diverse offense with playmakers at every level. Justin Houston spearheads an effective pass rush in front of Marcus Peters and an opportunistic defense. The decision to draft quarterback Patrick Mahomes as a successor to Alex Smith was questionable because the AFC West is probably the most competitive division in the NFL.
Winners of the AFC South last season, Houston is ready to welcome back elite defensive lineman J.J. Watt. Pairing Watt with Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus should provide the Texans with a potent pass rush. However, the departure of A.J. Bouye could cause their secondary to regress. Big game playmaker Deshaun Watson was drafted to fill their glaring hole at quarterback, he will have some nice offensive pieces to work with. If Watson can produce a Dak Prescott level rookie season, Houston should win the AFC South.
Between retirements, free agency departures and salary cap casualties, Baltimore incurred some painful personnel losses this offseason. Fortunately, the Ravens were able to bring in talented safety Tony Jefferson and further upgrade their defense via the draft by adding several high upside pass defenders. The Ravens desperately need a bounce back season from Joe Flacco and development from their young skill players Breshad Perriman, Maxx Williams and Kenneth Dixon to contend in a loaded AFC.
Following a nine-win campaign, Tennessee is clearly a team on the rise. Defensive back Logan Ryan was their biggest free agency acquisition and playmaker Adoree’ Jackson was drafted to help to their needy secondary. Polished rookie receiver Corey Davis will be Marcus Mariota’s top target. The Titans combination of strong offensive line, pair of powerful running backs and tough defense gives them an opportunity to sneak into the postseason.
Quietly, Miami had a tremendous draft, landing immediate impact rookies in Charles Harris, Raekwon McMillan and Cordrea Tankersley. The Dolphins defense will be stout against the run behind Ndamukong Suh and returning strong safety Reshad Jones. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has a variety of dynamic receivers to target, including newly acquired tight end Julius Thomas. However, Tannehill has not proven he has the ability to rise to the occasion against top teams. Until he does, Miami should be considered an also-ran.
Denver just missed the postseason last year, but still maintain the best pass defense personnel in the NFL. Von Miller, Aqib Talib and company will continue to destroy opposing passing attack. Yet their run defense remains a liability after the draft. Their terrible offense line should be better after drafting Garrett Bolles and inking Ronald Leary. Jamaal Charles was signed and their receivers are skilled vertical threats. Still, new head coach Vance Joseph will be hard pressed to replicate Gary Kubiak’s offensive efficiency. And the Broncos do not appear to have the necessary quality at quarterback to contend in 2017.
Never a team that drafts for need, Cincinnati managed to add speedy receiver John Ross, talented running back Joe Mixon, and a pair of valuable edge rushers - Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson - in the 2017 draft. They hope free agent signee Kevin Minter and re-signed corner Dre Kirkpatrick can help Geno Atkins and Vontaze Burfict boost a defense that regressed last season. Andy Dalton will have plenty of playmakers at his disposal, but an extremely inexperienced offensive line could easily derail their postseason ambitions.
The Chargers did well to surround Phillip Rivers with offense talent in the draft. They added huge wideout Mike Williams and a pair of competent guards to an offense that will return Keenan Allen, Melvin Gordon and Hunter Henry. Melvin Ingram was retained to rush the passer opposite breakout sack artist Joey Bosa. If new head coach Anthony Lynn can correct the Chargers fourth quarter struggles, do not be shocked if the Chargers finish the regular season better than many of the teams above them in these rankings.
Another team that could surprise. Andrew Luck toughed out a strong season while playing hurt last year and has a pair of capable receivers to work with in T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief. Indianapolis went all-in on defense this offseason with impressive results. Jabaal Sheard, Johnathan Hankins, John Simon and Barkevious Mingo were signed to shore up the front-7. Free safety Malik Hooker was perhaps the steal of the first round, while rookie corner Quincy Wilson and Terrell Basham should lend early contributions. Chuck Pagano finally has his team headed in the right direction.
Jacksonville had an interesting offseason. Doug Marrone will replace underperforming head coach Gus Bradley on a full time basis. He will oversee a defense loaded with top notch young talent that added even more difference makers in free agency through the signings of Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye. The choice of power runner Leonard Fournette was questionable, they will need strong seasons from new tackles Branden Albert and Cam Robinson to make the investment worthwhile. The pressure is on Blake Bortles. If he can rebound to properly utilize their impressive corps of receivers, the Jaguars will be in the hunt.
Rookie head coach Sean McDermott inherits a team with potential. All three of Buffalo’s early draft picks - corner Tre’Davious White, receiver Zay Jones and blocker Dion Dawkins project as Day 1 starters. Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy will find running room behind a quality line. Micah Hyde was signed to replace Stephon Gilmore, but the Bills success on defense will be determined by the development of 2016 draft picks Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland.
Cleveland has been busy laying the groundwork for a contender by strengthening their team in the trenches. The Browns spent a boatload to sign interior offensive lineman Kevin Zeitler, Joel Bitonio and J.C. Tretter. Replacing receiver Terrelle Pryor with Kenny Britt is a downgrade. After several consecutive drafts that brought gifted defensive lineman, top overall draft pick Myles Garrett and re-signed linebacker Jamie Collins should lead a formidable front. Jabrill Peppers and David Njoku are two more athletic specimens to develop. Cleveland is still a year away because of their deficiencies in the offensive backfield and secondary, but they are improving.
Head coach Todd Bowles may not last through the year. After jettisoning several steady veterans, including Brandon Marshall, Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis, the Jets will field the least talented roster in the NFL next season. The offense surrounding new quarterback Josh McCown is noticeably short on playmakers. The defensive line will remain a strength with Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson; and the choice of Jamal Adams in the draft combined with the signing of Morris Claiborne give the secondary a chance. Nevertheless, over investment at the safety spot has left the Jets with a vulnerable defense. They are the early favorites to pick first in the 2018 draft.