Yesterday, we unveiled our first run of NFC projections for the 2016 season. Today, things turn over to the AFC, where the top few teams have remained near the front of the pack for the past few seasons. For some of those teams, there are reasons to be concerned, which leaves room for a sleeper to make an impact in the playoffs. While plenty can change between now and the start of the season, here is how I expect each AFC team's schedule to shake out.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (projected record: 13-3)
Entering the 2015 season playoffs, the Steelers were the team that no one wanted to face. It took Peyton Manning’s best game of the second half of the season to knock the Steelers out, but the team should be improved in 2016. Le’Veon Bell was the highest-graded running back in the league before he went down with injury, and is likely to be the best next season, as well. At center, they bring back a healthy Maurkice Pouncey, who was a top-five center in 2014, and was replaced by Cody Wallace, who was a bottom-five center in 2015. If the Steelers can just stay healthy, they have the most talent among AFC teams that are likely to be postseason competitors.
2. New England Patriots (12-4)
The Patriots have lost plenty of players, but replenished their roster with new talent to make up for it. The most promising addition was Martellus Bennett, who forced 25 missed tackles in 2014, a mark that no tight end got close to in 2015. There are still concerns with the offensive line, depth at wide receiver, and depth with their edge rushers, but New England has overcome worse situations. The biggest thing that could hold the Patriots back is their quarterback situation; currently, Brady is expected to miss the first four games due to his suspension. His absence to begin the season may hurt their playoff seeding, but they should still be in a good position to win the division.
3. Oakland Raiders (11-5)
In 2015, the Raiders were a team that played better than their record indicated. They followed that up this offseason with some of the league's biggest free-agent signings, including Kelechi Osemele, Sean Smith, and Bruce Irvin. In each of the last two years, Osemele was among the top five guards in run-blocking grade. Cornerbacks are one of the most inconsistent positions from one year to another, but Smith has stopped that trend; the former Chief has never allowed a catch rate above 59 percent, and each of the past four years he’s recorded at least eight passes defended. Throw in Derek Carr, who had the highest grade for a quarterback age 26 or younger, and Amari Cooper, who should improve in his sophomore season, and you have the recipe for a special year.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
The Bengals have spent each of the last four years hovering between 10 and 12 wins, and this year should be no different. They lost a few veteran players over the offseason, but for the most part, they were either underperforming, or defensive backs over the age of 30. The biggest concern is the lack of depth at wide receiver, but it helps when they have A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert, who were both among the top four players at their respective positions. At the positions where they lost players, they have high draft picks in waiting whom they have groomed to take over. While we don’t know if those players will live up to expectations, the Bengals have enough going right for them to expect at least another trip to the playoffs.
5. Denver Broncos (10-6)
The defending Super Bowl champions are expected to take a step backwards this season, with the question being how much of a step back do they take. While the quarterback position is the one most talked about, they lost players at several positions who helped them throughout the season. On offense, while guards Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez weren’t at their best during 2015, they were still better than other players Denver had on the line. Malik Jackson led their defensive line in pressures (60), while linebacker Danny Trevathan had the second-most stops (53); They have by far the biggest question mark at quarterback among the top 10 teams on this list, but still have the talent everywhere else to keep them in the top five.
6. Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)
After an 11-win season, there is reason to believe the Chiefs will take a step back in 2016. Few teams use their dime defense more than Kansas City, but they lost half of their defensive backs, including Sean Smith to a division rival. On the offensive line, they had two players with an above-average grade: Jeff Allen and Ben Grubbs. Neither will be on the roster in 2016, although they did sign RT Mitchell Schwartz to help make up for it. In what should be the most competitive division in the AFC, it will be difficult for the Chiefs to recreate the same success they had last year.
7. Houston Texans (8-8)
In 2015, the Texans won the weakest division in the NFL, which will be a little more difficult in 2016, thanks to improvements by the Jaguars, and the Colts having a healthy Andrew Luck back. This spring, the Texans revamped their offense, and between the first four rounds of the draft and free agency, added a new starter at quarterback, two new running backs, two new wide receivers, and three new interior offensive linemen—all to go along with the sixth-highest-graded receiver from last year, DeAndre Hopkins, and two decent starting tackles. The defense, on the other hand, remained largely the same. If everything on offense clicks, the Texans could be a dangerous team in the playoffs, but there is also a chance things could take a while to work themselves out, and they’ll find themselves in the middle of the AFC South.
8. Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
The Ravens had a disappointing 5-11 season but for a decent reason: players like Joe Flacco, Justin Forsett, Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman, Eugene Monroe, Chris Canty and Terrell Suggs all landed on injured reserve. In 2014, Suggs recorded 15 sacks, 12 hits, and 38 hurries, which the 2015 Ravens sorely missed. Steve Smith at least lasted seven games into the 2015 season, and in that time, he had 2.90 yards per route run, good for second in the league (behind only Antonio Brown). Adding safety Eric Weddle in free agency and offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley in the draft should help offset the losses of safety Will Hill and linemen Kelechi Osemele. If Flacco can return to the quarterback he once was, the Ravens should make a return to the playoffs; last year, however, with an overall grade of just 68.5, he was only the 24th-best QB out of the 38 with qualifying snap counts. If he continues to be a below-average quarterback, the Ravens will only be average.
9. Buffalo Bills (8-8)
The Bills were as close to average as a team could get in 2015, and not much changed for the team over the offseason. The most notable free-agent addition was Zach Brown, who held quarterbacks to a passer rating of 61.0 when targeted—second best for all linebackers who were thrown at 20 or more times, just behind Luke Kuechly. The loss of Mario Williams won’t hurt much, as his 5.7 pass-rushing productivity was the fourth-lowest for 4-3 defensive ends. It’s unclear when first-round pick Shaq Lawson will be able to contribute, so with not much changing, we are likely to see more of the same from Buffalo in 2016.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8)
The Jaguars are expected to be one of the most-improved teams in the NFL, and for good reason. On defense, they added Malik Jackson to their line and Prince Amukamara at cornerback—both earned higher grades than anyone else on the Jags' defense last year. On the offensive line, they added Kelvin Beachum, who also had a higher grade than anyone else on the O-line. On top of that, they had one of the best drafts, adding Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack, who will join last-year's first-round pick, Dante Fowler, Jr. (returning from injury). On the downside, they still have weaknesses across the rest of the line, and their linebackers and safeties currently on the roster underperformed last year. It might take some time for all of this new talent to gel together, but they should still be noticeably better.
11. New York Jets (7-9)
While the Jets were a tiebreaker away from making the playoffs in 2015, they also had one of the worst offseasons of any team. They lost nose tackle Damon Harrison and halfback Chris Ivory, and while they found replacements in free agency, the replacements aren’t as good as the players they lost. Last year, Ivory forced 47 missed tackles on his 247 carries; anticipated starter Matt Forte has never hit 40, despite six seasons with more than 247 carries. Future nose tackle Steve McLendon has 48 run-stops in his seven-year career, Damon Harrison had 49 last year alone. If they are unable to bring back Ryan Fitzpatrick, they’ll have one of the worst quarterback situations in the conference, which will hurt their playoff chances even more. The team still has a great defensive line and a nice pair of wide receivers, but outside of that, New York seems to be on the decline.
12. San Diego Chargers (6-10)
In 2015, the Chargers played a little better than their 4-12 record suggests, but not enough happened over the offseason to make us believe San Diego will be a lot better. They made some solid moves in free agency with cornerback Casey Hayward, safety Dwight Lowery, and center Matt Slauson, but they also lost talent in safety Eric Weddle (Ravens), cornerback Patrick Robinson (Colts), and wide receiver Malcom Floyd (retired). Their biggest move was adding defensive end Joey Bosa, the man with the most QB hits in college football last season (21). They simple don’t have enough star power to make a strong playoff run. Their only player with a grade above 85.0 last year—and under the age of 30—was cornerback Jason Verrett, who has yet to allow 100 passing yards in a game, and ended the season allowing just 8 and 7 yards in his last two games, respectively.
13. Indianapolis Colts (6-10)
Indianapolis managed an 8-8 season in 2015, despite missing Andrew Luck for part of the year. However, due to their division, they were still in the mix near the end of the regular season. In reality, the Colts were probably worse than their record reflected. For this offseason, they lost more talent than they brought in. Their biggest addition was cornerback Patrick Robinson, who surrendered just 0.78 yards per coverage snap last year, sixth-best for cornerbacks. That doesn’t make up for the losses of Jerrell Freeman, Coby Fleener, and Dwight Lowery, though. While they get Luck back, he started 2015 with six straight games with a below-average PFF passer rating. They will again rely on Frank Gore at running back, who had his lowest yards per carry of his career in 2015, at 3.7. If Luck can be the player everyone expects him to be, the Colts can make a run at getting into the playoffs, but if he plays anywhere close to how he did in 2015, they don’t have the talent to make up for it.
14. Tennessee Titans (5-11)
The Titans had arguably the worst team in football in 2015, and not enough happened over the offseason to expect things to be much better. The team’s big addition was DeMarco Murray, who had an excellent 2014 season, but over the rest of his career, has been an average running back. He leaves the team with the second-best run-blocking grade in 2015 (Philadelphia) to join the team with the 23rd-best (Tennessee). The addition of first-round pick Jack Conklin should help in the future, but rookie offensive tackles have struggled in recent years. Only two of the 13 offensive tackles to receive significant playing time as a rookie these past two seasons had an above-average grade. If Marcus Mariota can make a big leap in year two, then the team could be competitive in the AFC South. If not, then we can expect more of the same out of Tennessee.
15. Cleveland Browns (4-12)
The Browns had one of the best drafts of the year, but only received a B+ for a total offseason grade because they did so poorly in free agency. They lost several good players, with some of them at the peak of their careers, including offensive linemen Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz. The future looks bright for Cleveland, though, due to all of the solid rookies they added, but it’s unfair to expect them to carry the team in 2016. The Browns' biggest addition of the offseason is WR Corey Coleman. Baylor QBs had a 133.1 passer rating when targeting Coleman last year, so if anything, there should be some exciting plays from him this season before the Browns begin their move up the rankings.
16. Miami Dolphins (4-12)
The Dolphins were a 6-10 team last year, lost two of their highest-graded players on defense in Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby, and lost two of their best players on offense in Lamar Miller and Rishard Matthews. In return, they invested in defensive end Mario Williams, who is 31 and coming off the worst year of their career. Their other big additions were linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell. Both players had their best seasons in 2013, so it’s unlikely that they will have a large enough impact to push Miami closer to the playoffs. At least some of the talent is there, but they haven’t been able to put things together yet, so it’s difficult to expect more from the Dolphins soon.