There were three top teams in last year’s AFC. The Patriots, who secured the top seed and a Super Bowl berth, the Steelers, who were oh so close to the top seed themselves, and the Jaguars, who beat said Steelers and nearly knocked off the Patriots. All three teams returned enough of their rosters from a year ago that it would be plausible to assume each team will be expected to win their respective t=divisions and make a serious run at the Super Bowl. But while each time has maintained their core strengths, there are some critical weaknesses that make the AFC seem more open that it has in quite some time.
The obvious threat to the Patriots making their 8th straight AFC Championship game is a decline from Tom Brady in his age 41 season. As tempting as that would be, it would seem that Brady has earned his way into the Mariano Rivera club. Members of this club have played at a high level past the point where we would have expected a decline for enough seasons that they are exempt from speculation until such time as they actually demonstrate a decline.
Brady just came off an MVP season, and he earned it. This wasn’t the 2010 MVP Brady that was laser sharp for the entire season. That was so incredibly in command of the offense that he broke the record for passes without a touchdown. That left defenses bewildered with a hurry-up pace and lightning quick decisions. This version of Brady had to improvise, extend plays, and find guys on the run to keep the offense on schedule. Part of that was the cast around him. Julian Edlelman went down with an injury in preseason, Chris Hogan missed eight games, and Danny Amndola still couldn’t get to sixty percent of the teams offensive snaps as the Patriots made an effort to preserve him for the playoff run.
Brady was left throwing to Brandin Cooks, who struggled late in season to get off the line against press man coverage, and Phillip Dorsett, who joined the team after the last preseason game. He mainly threw to running backs and the always dangerous Rob Gronkowski, but he was constantly forced to make plays when his receivers didn’t.
That is the first danger point for the Patriots – can the receiving corps be good enough?
Contrary to popular belief, the most valuable pass catcher on the Patriots is not the best. Gronk might be the best player on the team behind Brady. It’s hard to overstate how good he is, because he sets the bar for himself so high. But what last season showed to educated observers is that the offense relies more heavily on Julian Edelman. Gronk is the matchup nightmare, the guy who is always open, regardless of coverage, and the guy that defenses fear. Edelman is the one who’s pristine route running and reliability help Brady get the ball out fast and keep the offense on schedule. Without Gronk, the offense is less potent, less scary. But without Edelman, it must function differently.
And Edelman is 32, coming off a serious injury, and suspended for four games. The guy who most closely replicated his slot-receiver skill set last year is on a different team. Cooks, the guy who was supposed to turbocharge the offense last year, and probably ended up saving it, was traded. Initial roster cut downs left just three receivers on the roster: speedster Phillip Dorsett, gadget/return king Cordarelle Patterson, and deep ball specialist Chris Hogan. Each of those guys brings speed, and Patterson in particular has the big play gene that many teams covet. But none looks like a go to guy. Until Edelman returns from suspension and shows he’s the player we last saw plucking the ball from between three Falcons, there will be questions about this group.
Rebuilding the Defense
The other side of the ball is scarier. The Patriots were the best scoring defense in 2016, but they ranked middle of the pack in 2016. They didn’t face many top-flight offenses, and most of those teams gashed them. The only really encouraging showing was the Super Bowl, where they were able to keep the Falcons off-balance, even while allowing three touchdowns. That group had a very strong defensive backfield, a solid pass rush and Dont’a Hightower leading the linebackers.
In 2017, the team upgraded its backfield by replacing the underrated Logan Ryan with Stephon Gilmore, but saw their rotation on the edge implode. Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long left in free agency, and Rob Ninkovich retired. Trey Flowers, their only remaining end, still played well, but injuries had the team relying on rookies and players plucked off practice squads and scrap heaps. Gilmore had a rocky start, and Malcolm Butler was inconsistent. Hightower spent most of the year on injured reserve. They finished 31stin DVOA. the team muddled through the regular season, but got absolutely torched in the Super Bowl.
The pass rush looks like it will be rejuvenated with an expected five-man rotation on the outside. They hope Hightower makes it through the season ok, because he’s the only player in the group who can cover running backs man-to-man. And with Malcolm Butler and his Super Bowl benching in Tennessee, corner is still a huge question. Gilmore has looked like a stud, and Eric Rowe is solid, but a team needs three corners, and the Patriots have to be concerned about who that third guy will be. Three rookies and an undrafted free agent in his second year-round out the group, with Jason McCourty as an emergency option. Good offenses will target the weakest link, and one of those guys is going to be it.
Last offseason couldn’t have been worse for Pittsburgh. Big Ben contemplated retirement, Martavis Bryant demanded a trade, and Le’Veon Bell held out. And they still managed to put on a show on offense. Antonio Brown was unreal, Bell was a horse, and Roethlisberger made it through the season unscathed. Conventional wisdom says they came within a controversial non-touchdown call of the number one seed, which would have helped them to avoid the Jaguars in the Divisional Round and to cruise to the AFC Championship game. Plus, Juju Smith-Schuster exploded as a rookie, which made Bryant expendable. They even got contributions from a rookie linebacker in TJ Watt.
The Holes in the Steel Curtain
But all was not rosy for the Steelers, especially on defense. Once middle linebacker Ryan Shazier went down with a career threatening spine injury, the defense started to fall apart. The run defense disappeared completely without the speedy Shazier in the middle. Shazier is walking around again, which is incredible, but the Steelers still need to replace him. TJ Watt, Cameron Hayward, and Stephon Tuitt give the team a dangerous front, but it wasn’t enough last year with a stop-gap linebacker group, and it may not be this year. The Steelers signed Jon Bostic to be Shazier’s nominal replacement, but that seems like replacing a broadsword with a stick pin.
In the long run, they are likely pinning quite a bit on the development of first round pick Terrel Edmunds. Edmunds played safety in college, but the Steelers are hoping that he will do a bit of everything. The team has a recent history of reaching for defensive backs early in the draft, and many felt like the pick of Edmunds was more of the same. If he develops into a hard-hitting safety who can play the nickel linebacker, he could justify the pick. But he may not do it this year, and there are certainly growing pains ahead for the Steelers’ young secondary.
Keeping the Killer B’s
The offense is a bit concerning as well. Most teams have a focal point of the offense. The guy who make everything go. As noted above, the Patriots rely on Julian Edelman. The Rams have Todd Gurley. The Steelers are almost uniquely blessed with two such players in Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Lost in the wild and crazy finish of last year’s Patriots-Steelers showdown was that Antonio Brown left the game with an injury early. The Steelers pivoted the offense to Bell and kept on chugging. Bell is big, fast, and has great hands and vision. He’s an ideal back for the modern NFL. He’s also eclipsed 400 touches the last two seasons and had trouble staying healthy in his career.
He is also not currently with the team. At some point, he will sign his franchise tender and join the team, but until he does there is a hole in the lineup. There’s also the risk that he won’t be ready when he does report, or that he might rush into things and injure himself. That uncertainty will continue to be a drain for the Steelers until Bell makes it go away, or the team continues to thrive without him.
Which they are capable of doing thanks to Brown. He may not be the best receiver in the league (by a hair or two), but he is the most prolific. His elusiveness, route-running, and incredible ball skills have allowed him to develop a connection with his QB that is unparalleled. Big Ben looks for him in big spots, and small spots and all the other spots. He defies superlatives and expectations on a weekly basis.
He’s also 30, and has had a number of nagging injuries this preseason. His workload will increase with Bell out, and there is a real risk of injury. The two stars haven’t shared the field as much as one would expect over the past few seasons, but one is usually enough to keep the offense rolling. Bell’s rocky off-season puts a crimp in that dynamic that leaves the team exposed in a way they haven’t been in quite a while.
With the Legion of Boom disbanding in Seattle, Jalen Ramsey wants the Jaguars to be not only the best defense in the NFL, but the meanest. Ramsey, AJ Bouye, Telvin Smith, Myles Jack, and Yannick Ngakoue form the young core of the dynamite defense, and veteran stars like Calais Campbell and Tashaun Gipson add plenty of pop as well. They are easily the most stacked defense in the conference, with only the Vikings offering a challenge in terms of sheer depth and star power.
There is little to worry about here. Mentioning that they replaced their slot corner, or that Barry Church might be overrated feels like nit-picking. They struggled defending the run earlier last year, but they did a nice job shoring that up by acquiring Marcel Dareus for a pick. Even if Dareus doesn’t continue to plug that hole, rookie first rounder Taven Bryan is waiting in the wings.
The biggest concern is health. Not because the team lacks depth or any particular injury risk (outside of Myles Jack, who fell to the 2nd round because of concerns about his knees), but simply because it didn’t happen last year. The defense was remarkably healthy. They will not be again. It’s simply impossible. The team will have the depth to withstand one or two injuries, but if injuries blunt some of the defenses edges, the unit will slip. That’s true of any team, but the Jags are relying on their defense to be the best again, not just very good.
The question of context comes up with this team as well. They played the Colts without Andrew Luck twice, the Texans without Deshaun Watson twice, and the Titans with Mike Mularkey twice. They also played the Browns and the Ravens. That would inflate any team’s defensive and sack numbers. Again, you don’t have multiple ten sack games without a ferocious defensive front, but you need some weak offensive lines and inept quarterback play too.
Bad Blake Bortles
The concern, as it always been, is the offense. Specifically, Blake Bortles.
It’s a shame, really. As interesting as Jalen Ramsey’s rating of NFL starters in GQ was, the quarterback that everyone most wanted to hear about was spared from his withering words basically by default. Bortles followed up a career year in 2015 with a massive dud in 2016. After 2015, experts chalked his success up to his continued development. After 2016, it looked like an outlier due to lots of blowouts and the success of Allen Robinson at winning jump balls. But others observed that, for whatever reason, his mechanics had actually regressed.
According to one approach, Bortles never had a great season as a passer, he just had inflated numbers that made it look like he did. The other approach indicates that he had some real success in 2015, and should be able to return to that form if his coaches could get his mechanics straightened out. He entered 2017 as one of the biggest enigmas of the season.
After a season the answer to those questions is… still unclear. Bortles had stretches were he looked good. He also had games where he looked like a third stringer. In the playoffs, Bad Blake showed up and his team barely scraped by the Bills. He had a great game against Pittsburgh, and looked in command against the Patriots in the first half, until the team put the clamps on him in the second.
For whatever reason, OC Nathaniel Hackett and Doug Marrone opted to go away from throwing the ball in the extreme in the 2nd half, and may have cost their team a trip to the Super Bowl by doing so. Maybe it was because they didn’t have faith that Bortles would continue to play well, and so they opted to play it safe. It’s hard to blame them for not trusting Bortles. What the league learned about Bortles last season is that he is a mystery. That he can’t be relied on to perform at a particular level from game to game. And knowing that, the team gave him an extension. They are locking themselves in to his roller coaster for the time being.
The hope is that with a fully health Leonard Fournette and an improved offensive line, thanks to the addition of All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell, will protect them from the fluctuations in Bortles’ play. To be clear, this is different than when teams want to run the ball more to open up the easier and more efficient passing game. The team will be at its best when Bortles has a good day, and can take advantage of those easier plays to help make the offense more explosive.
But their best chance for a consistent offense may be to take the ball out of Bortles’ hands as often as possible. Smart defenses will force him to make throws, and in those cases it is up to the coaching staff to make sure they are makeable. The team can obviously succeed with him struggling, but if he has more bad days than good, they may win fewer games than last year.
No NFL team is perfect, but some flaws are more dangerous than others. This is particularly true when the team in question (like the ones discussed here), are expected to compete for a Super Bowl. The question of whether Nathan Peterman will have more bad days than good, or if the Cardinals defense has too many missing pieces, is just less important, since those teams are not going to compete for a championship. And the reality is that the teams in the NFC, like the Saints, Vikings and Eagles, just have fewer question marks. That doesn’t mean they will necessarily be better, it simply means there is a clearer picture of how they will perform.
One of these teams will likely overcome these flaws (or do a good enough job exploiting the weaknesses of the others) and win the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The others will be back here next season trying to figure out how to answer.
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