NFL Season Preview: AFC
With the 2019 NFL season now upon us, the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy has officially commenced, but only one team can represent the AFC in Super Bowl Super Bowl 54. Here’s a preview and prediction of how each team in the conference will fare in 2019.
1. New England Patriots
Key pieces from last year’s Super Bowl run have departed via free agency, including blindside blocker Trent Brown and pass rusher Trey Flowers, but New England’s biggest loss came with the retirement of franchise star Rob Gronkowski. As the Patriots gear up for title defense in 2019, they’ll need to rely more on second-year back Sony Michel as well as wideout Josh Gordon, who will be ready to return for Week 1 after being reinstated by the commissioner. Roster problems have never proved to be much of a problem for the Patriots in the past, so expect them to take care of business with their relatively easy schedule.
2. New York Jets
The Jets’ offseason could have made reality TV with all its dysfunction. Defined by the firing of GM Mike Maccagnan after he butted heads with new head coach Adam Gase about the signing of prized free agent Le’Veon Bell, it’s a miracle that the Jets made as many noteworthy moves as they did. Highlighted by their 2019 first-round draft pick in Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, the Jets also added linebacker C.J. Mosley, wide receiver Jamison Crowder and the previously mentioned Bell. With an improved front five, a stronger run game and an offensive-minded coach, second-year QB Sam Darnold has all the pieces necessary to make a huge leap this season, and the Jets’ record should reflect that.
3. Buffalo Bills
Like the Jets, the Bills spent the offseason adding pieces to build around a second year-quarterback of their own in Josh Allen. Unlike the Jets, the Bills chose not to spend top dollar on free agents, instead signing low-risk, high-reward guys for cheap. Receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley are examples, and both should fit in well with Allen’s play style. The surprising roster cut of running back LeSean McCoy most likely means that the Bills are shifting from a one-man backfield to a by-committee system, which will feature ageless wonder Frank Gore and rookie third-round pick Devin Singletary. If the addition of ninth overall pick Ed Oliver can improve on what was a middle-of-the-pack defense last season, then the Bills could be a dangerous sleeper pick in 2019.
4. Miami Dolphins
With Ryan Tannehill and Adam Gase now departed, it’s clear that the Dolphins have decided to blow up everything. Former Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores now owns the head coaching job, but he’s inheriting a roster that’s missing a lot of stars from the 2018 squad. Danny Amendola has been cut, Kenny Stills and Laremy Tunsil have been traded to Houston, and last year’s leading rusher Frank Gore has signed with the rival Bills. The Dolphins did bring in two new quarterbacks to test out (veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick and youngster Josh Rosen), but with an offense that’s been stripped to the bone and a defense that’s missing key veterans like Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn, it’s easy to see that the Dolphins are all in on #TankForTua.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
For the first time since 2010, the Pittsburgh offense will not feature Antonio Brown after his falling out with the team resulted in him being shipped to Oakland. Le’Veon Bell is gone as well, meaning a Steelers roster that missed the postseason in 2018 will also be missing its top two offensive playmakers in 2019. There’s plenty of reason to remain hopeful though. Top 10 pick Devin Bush can fill the hole left by linebacker Ryan Shazier, and young receivers like James Washington and Donte Moncrief have the potential to help Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster replace Antonio Brown’s production. If all the pieces can fit together, then the Steelers should have no problem finding their way back to the playoffs, but with divisional foes like the Ravens and improving Browns on the horizon, that could be easier said than done.
2. Cleveland Browns
Perhaps no team has seen this much hype since the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles “Dream Team.” Of course, the Browns will be looking for a more favorable result, but with the dynamic duo of new head coach Freddie Kitchens and sophomore QB Baker Mayfield at the helm, there's reason to believe. A Cleveland offense that already included big names in Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry and David Njoku has gotten a whole lot scarier with the offseason signings of Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt. The additions of Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon to the defensive line should prove worthwhile as well. It’s crazy to think, but the Browns can contend with the Steelers and Ravens for their first division title since 1989. Whoever thought that could happen two years after not winning a single game?
3. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens spent the offseason shifting their focus away from being a defensive-oriented squad and toward building around quarterback Lamar Jackson after a solid rookie season. Baltimore parted ways with numerous defensive icons, including C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle and Za’Darius Smith, though the addition of former Seahawks safety Earl Thomas should help a secondary that fared poorly in interceptions last season. Newly added running back Mark Ingram does help take the pressure off Jackson in the rushing attack, but Jackson has not yet fully developed his skills as a passer, and the lack of receiving talent in Baltimore really hurts him. Throw in a defense that might regress in 2019, and the Ravens may not make it back to the postseason.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals look almost the same going into 2019 barring the major change at head coach, as former Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor takes over for the recently fired Marvin Lewis. Taylor brings with him promise, as he may be able to help Andy Dalton return to Pro Bowl form, and he could find unique ways to get running back Joe Mixon more involved, especially with an improved offensive line that now features rookie Jonah Williams and free agency pickup John Miller. But if not, the Bengals could find themselves in a similar position as the Dolphins. After all, Cincinnati made no key moves to improve its 30th-ranked defense. That could well cement the Bengals’ status as the official bottom dwellers of the AFC North.
1. Houston Texans
It’s been a bizarre offseason for Houston, which is still GM-less since firing Brian Gaine in June. This experiment has seen lackluster results so far, as the Texans shopped Jadeveon Clowney for scraps and traded away many valuable draft picks for lineman Laremy Tunsil and wideout Kenny Stills from the Dolphins. Tunsil does give Deshaun Watson much-needed protection, but the young QB will have to carry more of the load than ever with running back Lamar Miller out for the season due to a torn ACL. The additions of Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde do help, but it’s unlikely that either of them will match Miller’s workload. Still, the opportunity is there. With Andrew Luck gone, the chance is present for the Texans to take the AFC South once again. They just need to capitalize.
2. Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck’s retirement is obviously a big setback for the Colts, but this isn’t 2017. The Colts aren’t in that same position where Andrew Luck was the lone superstar and the team relied on him every week. Ever since Chris Ballard became the GM, the Colts have transformed at every level. For example, the offensive line has quickly gone from worst to first, and Andrew Luck played the whole season like an MVP candidate as a result. Now that he’s gone, the team is in the hands of Jacoby Brissett. Brissett played almost all of 2017, leading the Colts to a poor 4-12 record, but the situation is not as bad as it seems. A great defense led by second-year linebacker Darius Leonard and a solid run game led by Marlon Mack certainly eases some of the pressure. Still, there will be some major growing pains without the four-time Pro Bowler under center.
3. Tennessee Titans
In trading for former Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, The Titans have realized that 2019 will be a make-or-break season for Marcus Mariota. It’s a contract year, and Mariota has underperformed every year since being drafted. With Delanie Walker returning from injury, Mariota finally has his favorite target back on the field, and Derrick Henry provides a nice failsafe in the backfield. As for the already-good defense, Tennessee adds veteran leadership in Cameron Wake, which should only help last year’s third-ranked squad become even stronger. Clearly all eyes are on Mariota and the lackluster Titans offense. With Tannehill now on the roster, the Titans aren’t relying on Mariota to finally play a full 16 games, but it would be nice for both contract negotiations and a playoff push.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
With Blake Bortles out of the picture, Nick Foles is now the man of the hour in Jacksonville. It’ll be Foles’ first time starting the season opener since 2015, but it won’t be easy. Unlike his Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia squad that was loaded with talent, Foles’ supporting cast in Jacksonville is lackluster. Leonard Fournette has been disappointing as injuries haved derailed his promising young career, and Foles’ top target is likely to be Marqise Lee, who missed all of 2018 with a knee injury. The good news for Jacksonville is that the defense remains dominant as ever, and with Josh Allen falling into their lap with the seventh pick in the 2019 draft, the Jaguars’ defense should get even better. Will it be enough to carry a subpar offense to the postseason though?
1. Kansas City Chiefs
After narrowly missing out on a trip to the Super Bowl, reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes will be commanding a much different-looking Chiefs team in 2019. The Chiefs made some surprising moves on defense, releasing Eric Berry and trading pass rusher Dee Ford. Instead, new faces in Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark will be leading the charge. The passing game looks mostly the same with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill both returning, but the release of Kareem Hunt provides Damien Williams with the opportunity to become the feature back. Expect the newly signed LeSean McCoy to make a splash too, as McCoy has finally been reunited with his old Philadelphia head coach Andy Reid. Overall, the Chiefs did go through some major shake-ups in the offseason, but if Patrick Mahomes can play half as well as he did in 2018, the Chiefs should have no problem returning to the postseason.
2. Los Angeles Chargers
Coming off a 12-win season, the Bolts go into 2019 with one big question: whether or not star running back Melvin Gordon will re-sign with the team. Talks between Gordon and the Chargers don’t appear likely to end in Gordon signing the dotted line. If he holds out, Austin Ekeler will become the feature back in LA, and that’s a major step down. The 37-year-old Phillip Rivers would also have a lot more on his plate if this happens. That’s not even addressing the defense, which will most likely be without defensive leader Derwin James for at least half of the season. With the star safety’s absence leaving a glaring hole in the secondary, Joey Bosa and the Los Angeles pass rush will have to take it up a notch. If the defense holds up and the offense can figure out how to run the ball without Gordon, then the Chargers definitely have the potential to make it back to the playoffs. But that’s a big “if.”
3. Oakland Raiders
Antonio Brown may have grabbed all the headlines, but the Raiders made plenty of other big moves this offseason. Trent Brown became the highest paid offensive lineman in NFL history after inking his deal with Oakland, and additions in Tyrell Williams and Ryan Grant make for a solid receiving threat. The Raiders’ 2019 first-round draft picks should make a splash too. Clelin Ferrell especially should have an immediate impact at defensive end, and Johnathan Abram gives Oakland’s secondary a nice boost as well. Josh Jacobs will most likely split time with Isiah Crowell and Jalen Richard at running back, but his presence does add to a solid offensive core. Derek Carr no longer has any excuses. If he can’t succeed, expect a change at quarterback very quickly, especially with John Gruden as head coach.
4. Denver Broncos
Joe Flacco will become the third different opening day starting quarterback forthe Broncos since Peyton Manning’s retirement, but if Flacco underperforms, we may see second-round pick Drew Lock sooner rather than later. Elsewhere, the defense has been in steep decline since the 2015 Super Bowl, and now linebackers Brandon Marshall, Shaq Barrett and Shane Ray have all departed. On the plus side, the front office did give the offense a bit of a boost by signing lineman Ja’Wuan James and drafting tight end Noah Fant, and young backs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman should split time for a solid ground attack. But in the end, it’s the quarterback production that will most likely prove to be the Broncos’ downfall once again, whether it be the inconsistency of Flacco or the inexperience of Lock.
Logan Bourandas is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.