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.
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.
New England Patriots
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.
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.
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.
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.