NFL News & Analysis

Patriots once again sit atop early AFC 2017 projections

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 05: Tom Brady #12 and Joe Thuney #62 of the New England Patriots celebrate a 34-28 overtime win against the Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

We still have several weeks until we even see preseason football, but with other sports seasons wrapped up, the itch for football season to return keeps getting stronger. Of course, plenty of things will change between now and then, it’s never too early to start speculating on how the season might go. After projecting the quality of each team and using them to predict the outcome of all 256 regular-season games, here are the projected standings of each AFC team for the 2017 season (the NFC had its turn Monday if you missed it).

1. New England Patriots (projected record: 12-4)

The defending Super Bowl champions will likely remain Super Bowl favorites until something doesn’t go their way. Only 12 running backs had 70 or more carries in 2016 and averaged more than 3 yards after contact per attempt. New England signed two of them in Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead. Brandin Cooks upgrades the wide receiver group, and there was no better free agent cornerback option to replace Logan Ryan than Stephon Gilmore. Their defensive line depth isn’t as strong as it has been in past years, and father time will catch up to Tom Brady sometime. Until then, the Patriots are the team to beat.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

The Steelers made their way to the AFC Championship game but were unable to beat New England. Few teams had a quieter offseason in terms of player movement. All of their free agent additions will likely be backups, and their biggest loss (of outside linebacker Jarvis Jones) was immediately replaced in the first round of the draft in T.J. Watt. The only team that has two top-10 wide receivers in yards per route run over the last two years is Pittsburgh, with Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, who is returning from suspension. If there is reason to believe the Steelers can make one more Super Bowl run with Ben Rothelisberger at quarterback, it’s the return of Bryant.

3. Oakland Raiders (11-5)

Last year, this article projected the Raiders as the third-best team in the AFC and everything was going according to plan. That is until QB Derek Carr landed on injured reserve. The key to whether the Raiders will take the next step forward is if a few players can play as well as they did a few years ago. Since 2013, Marshawn Lynch has had 245 players miss tackles on his carries, which is by far the most for backs despite not playing in 2016 and missing half of 2015. In 2015, Mario Edwards looked like the next promising front-seven player, but he missed most of 2016. Cornerbacks David Amerson and Sean Smith played well in 2016, but had better seasons in recent years. If those players play at their best, this will be a special season.

4. Los Angeles Chargers (10-6)

Maybe the biggest surprise on this list would be the Chargers doubling their 2016 win total. On offense, they welcome back Keenan Allen, who missed most of last year due to injury. He has a 72 percent catch rate since 2013 when he joined the league, which is the best for a wide receiver who doesn’t primarily play in the slot. Mike Williams was also added to the offense as well as a reworked offensive line. On defense, they get back one of the best cornerbacks when healthy Jason Verrett. Since joining the league in 2014, he has only missed two tackles in coverage, leading him to have the best pass-tackling efficiency. With other starts on defense who are either ascending or in their prime like Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Casey Hayward, this Chargers team has far too much talent to have another losing record.

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5. Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)

Since Andy Reid became the head coach of the Chiefs, they have been a playoff contender every year. 2017 should be no different. The biggest change for them was the loss of Jeremy Maclin. When Maclin has lined up on the outside, he had 1.97 yards per route run. The rest of the receivers on the outside over Reid’s tenure only has had a yards-per-route-run figure of 1.27. Life for Kansas City might be more difficult this year than past due to the quality of the division, but we should still expect more of the same.

6. Tennessee Titans (9-7)

After four straight years of losing seasons, the Titans turned things around in 2016, winning eight of their last 12 games. Early in the offseason they added two of the best free agent defensive backs available in Logan Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien to help their biggest weakness. Over the last two seasons, Cyprien has 53 run stops, which leads all safeties. Later in the offseason they added weapons for Marcus Mariota on first-round pick Corey Davis and Eric Decker. The biggest question now is if Mariota — who went through cold stretches to begin and end the season — can improve his consistency to bring Tennessee to new heights.

7. Buffalo Bills (8-8)

The Bills managed a 7-9 record in 2016 despite missing some of their best players for large parts of the season. In 2015 when Sammy Watkins was thrown to, the team had a passer rating of 128.8, which was third-best for all receivers, but he was only able to play in 381 snaps last year. Since 2014, interior defender Marcell Dareus has only four missed tackles in the run game, which gives him the second-best run-tackling efficiency in that time frame. While the Bills have some key contributors who are aging veterans, the return of their stars should keep them competitive during the season.

8. Miami Dolphins (8-8)

The Dolphins managed the rare accomplishment of double-digit wins last year despite having a negative point differential and just the 28th-best PFF overall grade. Their biggest move in the offseason was the addition of William Hayes, who leads all edge defenders in run-stop percentage since 2014 at 10.81. There were a number of positions that underperformed in 2016, and in some cases they let those players go in the offseason, but didn’t bring in clear upgrades for them. This team should remain average in 2016 and fighting for a wild card spot.

9. Indianapolis Colts (7-9)

After three straight years of making the playoffs to begin Andrew Luck’s career, Indianapolis has failed to have a winning record the last two seasons in part due to an aging defense. This offseason, Indianapolis made massive changes to the defense, using six picks in the first five rounds on various defensive players as well as signing a few under-the-radar free agents. For example, outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard has graded above-average in both run defense and pass-rushing in each of the last four seasons. Andrew Luck took a huge step forward for his career in 2016, but it will take yet another step for them to be in the playoff hunt.

10. Cincinnati Bengals (7-9)

The Bengals had their worst season in six years in 2016. A big part of the problem was key injuries, including A.J. Green missing the last several games of the season. His 2.86 yards per route run last year was a rate bested by only Julio Jones. While his return is a reason to believe they can do better, their losses on the offensive line suggest they won’t. Andrew Whitworth had the top pass-blocking efficiency for tackles, and Kevin Zeitler was in the top five for guards, and both are in new homes. Andy Dalton’s adjusted completion percentage of 60.6 was tied for fourth-worst for quarterbacks, so Cincinnati may be seeing its second straight season without the playoffs.

11. Baltimore Ravens (7-9)

For the first time in over a decade, the Ravens missed the playoffs in back-to-back years. This year could be the same after a few veteran departures they might not be able to overcome. Wide receiver Steve Smith is the only Raven to top 2.0 yards per route run in a season in the past decade. Right tackle Ricky Wagner ended his Baltimore career with eight straight games without allowing a sack or hit. Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil led the team in pass rushing productivity at 10.1. They could have the league’s best run defense, and a great secondary, but their offense and pass rush could hold them back.

12. Houston Texans (6-10)

The reason for optimism in Houston is J.J. Watt returning to pair with Jadeveon Clowney, who had his best year in the NFL in 2016. Despite having some of the biggest star power in an NFL front-seven, they did lose their top two defensive backs in A.J. Bouye and Quintin Demps. When opposing quarterbacks targeted one of those two players, they had a passer rating of 55.6 last year, compared to 92.3 when targeting anyone else in the secondary. Either an unproved Tom Savage or rookie Deshaun Watson will start at quarterback, and in either case it’s difficult to expect success in year 1. The Texans have some of the talent in place to make a deep playoff run at some point, but probably not with a first-year starting quarterback.

13. Denver Broncos (6-10)

The Broncos roster has been largely unchanged this offseason. They lost their best offensive tackle in Russell Okung, but ungraded at guard with Ronald Leary. Leary was one of just eight guards last year with 400 or more pass blocks and no sacks allowed. Their problem is they are playing in what should be the most competitive division in the NFL, and they aren’t getting any younger. Their only two skill players with a grade above 75 last year are receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, who will both be 30 by the end of the season. The majority of their star defensive players are at a point where they likely have already hit their peak playing ability. If their star players don’t begin their decline and they can get better quarterback play, they can remain competitive in the division. If not, we could see the other three AFC West teams leave Denver behind.

14. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)

This offseason the Jaguars added several players who could play key roles on the team including Leonard Fournette, A.J. Bouye and Calais Campbell. The only interior defenders with more pressures than Campbell in the PFF era are J.J. Watt and Ndamukong Suh. If this team can take advantage of their new talent and Blake Bortles plays more like he did in 2015 than 2016, this team will have their best season in years. However, with Bortles’ inconsistency, it’s hard to project them to win too many more games than they had been the last few years.

15. Cleveland Browns (4-12)

The Browns spent the last few months assembling one of the best offensive lines on paper, adding the best player in the draft in Myles Garrett, and acquiring new starters at multiple positions. Garrett had 50 pressures when lined up on the defenses right side at Texas A&M last year, which was fourth-most for FBS defensive ends. Everything points to things going in the right direction, but with so many new players who lack chemistry together yet, it might not be until 2018 that they can fight for the division or a wild card spot.

16. New York Jets (2-14)

The Jets only managed five wins in 2016, and have let more talent leave than they’ve brought in. Among the players with a 70 grade or better who they’ve let go are Eric Decker, Nick Mangold, David Harris, Marcus Gilchrist, Darrelle Revis, and Brandon Marshall. They now only have five players who had a 70 or better grade and 700 or more snaps last year on the roster. When a team lets go of that many veteran players who used to be the stars of the team, it’s a sign that the upcoming year is a rebuilding one.

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