Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2019 NFL Draft. Gregg Rosenthal examines the pecking order of the entire AFC below.
The best AFC organizations of the decade are having rough offseasons, at least on paper. The Patriots watched a lot of talent leave the building, including most of the defensive coaching staff. The Steelers have been in the news for a lack of leadership from Ben Roethlisberger and the dumping of Antonio Brown, rather than any roster improvements. The Ravens are undergoing a defensive overhaul unseen by the team in over a decade, all while trying to build around Lamar Jackson. And the Chiefs lost their best players off a lousy defense.
“On paper” doesn’t mean much in the NFL, but this is a recipe for even more parity than usual in the AFC, with greater hope than ever that New England’s incomparable streak of nine straight playoff byes could finally end. Then again, we’ve heard that before. As we wrap up our Roster Reset series, let’s take a quick look at the AFC hierarchy heading into the draft.
Playoffs or bust
Anything less than a tournament appearance for these three teams would qualify as a massive letdown. Chargers general manager Tom Telesco has been carefully building this roster for years and it’s loaded with talent, if thin in spots on both lines. It’s go time, with Philip Rivers set to turn 38 years old late in the coming season.
The Chiefs are putting a lot of faith in new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s system while getting rid of talented pass rushers Dee Ford and Justin Houston. The team’s defensive additions outside of star safety Tyrann Mathieu came at sneaky-good values, with Alex Okafor, Emmanuel Ogbah and Bashaud Breeland arriving able to play quality snaps. Any team with the best offensive mind in the conference (Andy Reid) and the best player (reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes) should make the tournament.
Replace Bill Belichick with, say, Jason Garrett, and the Patriots‘ roster looks like a seven-win outfit. That seems unlikely to happen, but Belichick and Tom Brady have earned the right to kick back and join the NFL’s soft middle after stretching their dynasty far past any historical precedent. A warning: two of the four teams in last year’s “playoffs or bust” category — the Steelers and Jaguars — did indeed go bust.
Let’s be real: There’s not that much separating this large group from the ones above and below it. They are teams capable of making a Super Bowl in the ultimate year-to-year league, yet a playoff spot is hardly assured. The Steelers still have strong line play on both sides of the ball and finished last season going toe-to-toe with the Patriots and Saints. The Colts were ahead of schedule in Frank Reich’s first year as head coach and enjoy enviable continuity, with talented general manager Chris Ballard’s 2019 draft class yet to come.
If Baker Mayfield ascends to top-five-quarterback status, which feels eminently possible, this ranking will be too low for the Browns. The team’s strong-looking backfield and defensive line give Mayfield margin for error. The entire AFC South makes an appearance in the AFC’s middle, with the Jaguars‘ signing of Nick Foles and Tennessee’s smart free-agent pickups tightening an already competitive division. The Ravens are dealing with the most upheaval in this tier, with this being a year the team’s organizational sturdiness will be tested. Jackson will be looking for a big second-year leap, like the rest of last season’s excellent rookie-quarterback crop.
Don’t sleep on us
Zac Taylor has impressed in his brief time in Cincinnati and the roster is better than most inherited by first-year head coaches. The Jets‘ Adam Gase has all the pieces around Sam Darnold to fulfill his reputation as a quarterback guru. Bills coach Sean McDermott has proven he’s a significant value as a defensive leader and the team’s offseason moves mostly look heady, but Josh Allen‘s accuracy issues could lower Buffalo’s ceiling. Joe Flacco is a boom-or-bust pickup for Denver, but it’s hard not to like a coaching staff led by defensive mastermind Vic Fangio and offensive line maestro Mike Munchak. All of the teams above have enough talent to believe a wild-card game appearance is possible if everything breaks right.
Uphill battle to the playoffs
Crazier things happen every season than the Dolphins scratching out a winning record in a season where Ryan Fitzpatrick is the Week 1 starting quarterback. Dolfans who believe in going “full tank” may be disappointed by eight or nine wins, but it would be a sign that new coach Brian Flores is the real deal. The team’s defensive roster has a long way to go, though.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.