Still the one: How the AFC ranks heading into training camp
No team is settled in the days leading up to training camp. Roster moves are coming, and they're coming in waves. But it's possible to take a snap-shot look at the core pieces of clubs around the league and gauge their chances.
Cleveland has an energetic new head coach in Hue Jackson, and they put together a promising draft class with receiver Corey Coleman and defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib. But if they can't figure out how to make Robert Griffin III a capable starting quarterback once again, they'll be stuck at the bottom of the standings.
It seems as though the AFC West will be unkind to Philip Rivers and the Chargers in 2016. Arguably the conference's toughest division, San Diego doesn't look like it will have the pieces to muster any kind of run at a playoff appearance. Rookie edge defender Joey Bosa could provide the franchise with some excitement, but he hasn't even signed his rookie contract yet.
Miami's hoping that first-year coach Adam Gase will be able to infuse the Dolphins offense with some life, but his schemes will only be as effective as quarterback Ryan Tannehill will allow them to be. Without much of a running game, and with a defense that lost its best player, Olivier Vernon, this offseason, there will be too much on Tannehill's shoulders to allow this team to find much in the way of success.
If Marcus Mariota makes a big-time leap in his second season, it wouldn't surprise me if the Titans surpassed the Colts in the AFC South. Much will be made of the additions of running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry this offseason, but it's rookie tackle Jack Conklin whose presence will impact Mariota most.
Andrew Luck did not look like Andrew Luck last season, but now he's healthy and should resemble the guy who threw 40 touchdown passes in 2014. He'll have to regain that type of form if the Colts want to compete. The rest of their roster is lacking at multiple positions on both sides of the ball.
Rex Ryan's job shouldn't be in jeopardy. Any new coach should be afforded a few years to install his program. Otherwise why sign him in the first place? But, if he's relieved of his duties, it will be because his defense has taken yet another step back since his takeover. With Mario Williams now out of the picture, and with first-round selection Shaq Lawson dealing with an injury, that's certainly within the realm of possibility.
For Patriots fans who still lament the number of injuries that impacted their team's 2015 season, consider what the Ravens went through: Joe Flacco, Steve Smith, Justin Forsett and Terrell Suggs all endured season-ending injuries and the team finished 5-11. They're a better team than that, even if they're now a year older. Making it through the grind of an AFC North schedule and coming out the other side unscathed seems unlikely, though.
On paper, this appears to be a playoff team. But with Jamaal Charles, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali all coming back off of injury, this has the feel of an older unit that may have already missed its chance at a run atop the conference. Potential issues on the offensive line could compound whatever problems the Chiefs face health-wise.
I'll freely admit it: This could be a reach on my part. It's just that the pieces they added this offseason -- both in free agency and in the draft -- make me believe that the Jaguars will have a legitimate shot at the postseason sooner rather than later. Snagging both Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack in this year's draft looks like an absolute coup for the Jags front office.
This spot is based on the assumption that the Jets and Ryan Fitzpatrick will agree to a new contract at some point before the start of the regular season. The team is too good at other spots to entrust the fate of its season to Geno Smith of Christian Hackenberg. With a Fitzpatrick in the mix, the Jets should challenge for a Wild Card playoff berth.
Can Brock Osweiler quarterback Bill O'Brien's squad back to the playoffs? Whether or not he's a sure thing as a signal-caller, he'll certainly be paid like one. The heart of the Texans defense, JJ Watt, will miss time following back surgery and could hurt their ability to get off to a quick start.
The Broncos defense lost defensive tackle Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan this offseason, but they still have enough talent on that side of the ball to give opposing offenses fits. Their biggest question mark is not an insignificant one: Will it be Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemien or Paxton Lynch behind center? None of those options is all that enticing, but having Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas to throw to will make life a little bit easier for whoever's trusted with the gig.
One of the most intriguing teams on this list, the Raiders are loaded with young talent, and they've supplemented it with what look like smart free-agent additions. Grabbing pass-rusher Bruce Irvin, guard Kelechi Osemele and corner Sean Smith bolsters a roster that already has one of the best young defenders in the league and a dynamic-and-improving quarterback-receiver connection. Khalil Mack, Derek Carr and Amari Cooper are the kind of core that could have the Raiders in postseason contention for years to come.
One of the most consistent regular-season performers over the last few years, this should be another successful fall for Marvin Lewis and his club. Though the Bengals lost receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, they still have one of the best "triplets" in the conference with receiver AJ Green, tight end Tyler Eifert and quarterback Andy Dalton. They may trip themselves up yet again in the postseason, but they seem like a lock to get there yet again.
The Patriots aren't the only ones dealing with a key suspension. In fact, they're stuck with two. They've lost Martavis Bryant for the year, and Le'Veon Bell is scheduled to miss the first four games of the season. Despite those losses, this will remain one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. Should they get some better luck on the injury front in 2016, they'll be a force into January.
Even without Tom Brady for the first four weeks of the season, the Patriots are still favorites in Vegas to both make the Super Bowl and win it. Top to bottom, this is the most talented roster in the conference. If they can survive the first month, they should be back in the AFC title game for the sixth consecutive year.