Bills: The Bills starting quarterback is undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel. This is not the way head coach Doug Marrone hoped to start his new job. QB EJ Manuel might be ready in time. WRs Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods are very good and the running game should be solid with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. The line is solid but has no big name guys. It should be fine.
The D has talent but has under preformed. The team is also dealing with a switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4. Last year’s big free agent Mario Williams failed totally playing his bas position of DE. This year he will be moved to OLB. That is something to watch. DE Kyle Williams is one of the best linemen in the league.
The bottom line: The only thing keeping the Bills out of 4th place is the Jets.
Dolphins: QB Ryan Tannehill is improving and the receiver corps is better with the addition of Mike Wallace. The injury to TE Dustin Keller is a problem. The O line is just OK. The defense has always been decent but ranked 22nd last year. That is not good enough to challenge the Patriots. Former CFL star DE Cameron Wake is outstanding. MLB Dannell Ellerbe brings his Super Bowl ring to the team from the Ravens. He is a very good addition. CB Brent Grimes from the Falcons helps the back four.
The bottom line: They will be 2nd in the division but out of the playoffs.
Jets: What a mess! HC Rex Ryan is in the middle of a fire storm. QB Mark Sanchez is out and rookie QB Geno Smith completes as many passes to the defense as to his receivers. RB Chris Ivory is capable but has never been the main ball carrier. The receiver corps includes a one year wonder in Jeremy Kerley and a bunch of “never wases.” 2/5 of the O line is good. The rest is injury prone and not that good. The D has some good parts including DE Muhammad Wilkerson and OLB Calvin Pace. They traded away their best player.
The bottom line: The only good news is there is a good chance they will have the 1st pick in the 2014 draft. That will not help Ryan keep his job.
Patriots: The dress rehearsal was as bad as it could get with turnovers and dropped passes. The talk of the Pats being fine is very premature. Tom Brady is great but someone has to catch the ball. WR Danny Amendola is fragile as fine china. TE Rob Gronkowski is out indefinitely. The rest of the group could not catch cold during a Boston blizzard. The running game is OK as long as the line stays healthy.
The Pats D has not been a strength for awhile. DT Vince Wilfork is outstanding and CB Aqib Talib is very good. That is about all they have.
The bottom line: The Pats will win the AFC Least but this is not a Super Bowl contender.
Bengals: The Bengals have gotten a lot better over the last couple of years. But never forget they are the Bengals. Many are picking them to win the division and some to go to the Super Bowl. In order to get to the SB they have to win a playoff game. The key question is can QB Andy Dalton led the team to a title. I doubt it. The O line is coming along and they added some weapons for Dalton. A.J. Green is among the best WRs in the league. RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been inconsistent. They drafted RB Giovani Bernard to provide speed and the ability to catch the ball. Dalton needs a strong running game. But the Bengals still get flagged and turn the ball over at the worst times.
The Bengal D has been under appreciated for a couple of years. The D line is top quality. DT Geno Atkins and DE Michael Johnson are as good as it gets. The LB group has been greatly improved by 2012 undrafted OLB Vontaze Burfict and the addition this year of ex-Steeler OLB James Harrison. The backfield is solid with the exception of strong safety regardless of the outcome between George Iloka and Taylor Mays.
The bottom line: The Bengals will battle the Steelers for a playoff spot.
Browns: To quote former Cardinal HC Dennis Green “They are what we thought they were!” Despite two outstanding preseason games by QB Brandon Weeden, the game against the Colts looked like any game in 2012. Weeden has to stop staring down his receivers and must learn to deal with pressure in the pocket. He did both against the Rams and Lions but got away with it. That works in the preseason but not when the real games start. Until he corrects those flaws the Browns will continue to struggle on offense. RB Trent Richardson is the real deal but there is no depth behind him. The O line has lost two starting OGs and was over rated by most before the injuries. First time HC Rob Chudzinski has not used veteran Davone Bess much or speedster Travis Benjamin at wide receiver at all this preseason. Is that a “Belichickian” plot to hide them or does the team not value their abilities? The top WR Josh Gordon is suspended for the first two games of the season. Third year wideout Greg Little is dropping passes and starting TE Jordan Cameron hurt his groin in the loss to the Colts.
The new 3-4 D has been better than expected but it still struggles to stop the run. The team is putting a little more pressure on the opposing QB. The LBs are going to have to cover TEs and RBs out of the backfield. In the first two games they did well but blew a lot of coverages against the Colts. The two big holes in the backfield are at CB opposite Haden and FS. Without fixing those two positions the Browns will give up a lot of passing yardage.
The bottom line: The Browns are still at the bottom of the best division in football.
Ravens: The Ravens O has looked lethargic all preseason. The first string finally scored a touchdown in preseason week three against the Panthers. That is a bad sign for a team that gave QB Joe Flacco a big contract in the off season. He has not been sharp. The team has lost a lot of his targets from the Super Bowl run. They lost starting TE Dennis Pitta for the season. Veteran WR Anquan Boldin is gone too. Without those key parts of the Super Bowl run both Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones will see many more balls this year. The line returns in tact except for the retirement of long time C Matt Birk. So far the starting line has not played up the level of last year. The running game is in good shape.
The defense is in transition because they lost so many key players. Ray Lewis retired and free agency took its toll at all three levels. DE Chris Canty, ILB Daryl Smith, Elvis Dumervil and FS Michael Huff are name brand free agents brought in to fill holes. Getting corner Lardarius Webb back will help. He was hurt most of last season. CB Corey Graham and S James Ihedigbo were 2012 free agent signings that are expected to step up this year. First round pick S Matt Elam may have to wait his turn but won’t wait long.
The bottom line: There has been a lot of talk about how the defense is the biggest issue for the Ravens. Expect the D to play at a championship level. It is the offense that concerns the coaching staff. The Ravens are still the best team in the division. They should win it and be a force in the playoffs.
Steelers: The team has had trouble scoring TDs rather than field goals for the last few years. With the issues on the O line, that is not likely to change. They have lost their top deep threat Mike Wallace to free agency and have suffered injuries at RB and TE. QB Ben Roethlisberger can expect to get hit often and must stay healthy for the team to get to the playoffs. The running game will be by committee until rookie Le’Veon Bell recovers from his Lisfranc injury.
The D is very good but fragile as fine china. They have drafted a bunch of guys on this side of the ball that have yet to break into the starting lineup. NT Steve McLendon is a weak spot on the line. Rookie OLB Jarvis Jones looks good. The pass D depends on Troy Polamalu staying healthy something he has not done in recent years. The CBs are still questionable. The front 7 is still solid and will stop most teams’ running games but sometimes struggle to pressure the passer.
The bottom line: Penalties and mistakes by an over aggressive Ben Roethlisberer will determine how far the Steelers get in 2013. They should be in position to get to the playoffs.
Colts: QB Andrew Luck carried the Colts on his back to a playoff spot last year. The O should be better with free agents at both tackles. The receivers drop a lot of balls. Luck hopes that WR Reggie Wayne stays healthy. Even at 34 he is a quality wide out. The running game last year did not exist. Do not expect to see it any time soon despite the signing of ex-Giant Ahmad Bradshaw.
The D struggled all last year but they drafted DE Bjoern Werner who should help. They also spent big money signing free agents to shore up the D. That should help. The D will be better in 2013.
The bottom line: The Colts will take a step back. They have to likely win the division to get back to the post season.
Jags: The biggest question about the Jags is can QB Blaine Gabbert ever become a legitimate NFL starter? He was given some weapons last year like RB Maurice Jones-Drew only to lose them to injury. This year he will face the first 4 games without his best WR Justin Blackmon who is suspended. TE Marcedes Lewis is starting the season hampered by injury as well. Jones-Drew needs to return to his 2011 production to give the O any chance to compete. The line is not going to be much help. RT 1st round draft pick Luke Joeckel is the best guy on that unit.
The best defensive lineman on the Jags is E Jason Babin who has changed teams 6 times in 10 years. The second level is not much better with only middle backer Paul Posluszny being solid. Safeties Dwight Lowery and Johnathan Cyprien are decent. The corners are a work in progress.
The bottom line: The Jags will be a top 2 draft pick in 2014.
Texans: The team is worried about their bell cow RB Arian Foster who has missed the preseason. He has had back issues. FB Greg Jones comes in to block for Foster. They run a lot. The passing game was QB Matt Schaub to WR Andre Johnson. They hope they have found a partner for Johnson in WR DeAndre Hopkins a 1st round pick this year. He has missed time with injuries. Schaub is good but not a top level QB. He needs to prove he can lead the team to a title in crunch time. The O line has blocked well for the run and pass. Without Foster they struggle to score TDs in the red zone.
The D has been led by DE J.J. Watt. LB was a weakness of the D last year when ILB Brian Cushing went down. He is back and that will help. The Texans seem to be able to beat the Bengals in the post season but don’t go any farther. They need the D to help out more to get the team into the Big Game.
The bottom line: This team is good enough to win it all but seem to have a mental block. That block will likely keep them out of the Super Bowl again.
Titans: QB Jake Locker is the most critical year of his short and underwhelming career. He better get the team into the playoffs or he could be gone next year. The line has been upgraded with the addition of free agent LG Andy Levitre and the drafting of RG Chance Warmack. That is great news for RB Chris Johnson who hopes to get back to a 2000 yard season. The receivers are not special.
The D was the 6th worse in the league last year but got younger. Colin McCarthy and WLB Zach Brown are the strength of the front 7. LCB Jason McCourty is solid but the rest of the backfield is questionable at best.
The bottom line: This is a bad team with a coach on the hot seat. It will take a couple more really good drafts to make them competitive in the AFC South.
Broncos: Yes there have been suspensions. Yes there has been a player lost due to a bad fax machine. But when the team has Payton Manning everything will be fine. Manning will be better this year than last because he is one more year removed from the neck issue. The team brought in WR Wes Welker from the Pats joining an already solid receiver group. The line is not great but is good enough to protect their QB. The running game is an issue. Ronnie Hillman has not been impressive. They drafted Montee Ball who was the Wisconsin offense in his first three years there. He has been beaten up a lot in college but is a solid up the gut guy.
The D has taken a lot of hits. But it was the 2nd best D last year and even if they fall a few spots the team will be fine. They lost all pro DE Elvis Dumervil and star OLB Von Miller is suspended for 6 games. DE Derek Wolfe is hobbled by injury. The D still will be solid. The front line will generate pressure and the back seven can cover.
The bottom line: The Broncos will be back in the playoffs and could have home field advantage. Payton won’t let another shot at the Super Bowl get away.
Chargers: Phillip Rivers gets the credit for the wins and the blame for the losses of the team. Neither is fair. He has had little from the running game and an offensive line that seemed to always be replacing injured or departed starters. He has also suffered from a lack of quality receivers. He has regressed due to all those issues. The keys for an average armed quarterback are anticipation and mechanics. He has not trusted his receivers enough to throw to a spot. The new offense will help him by giving him more defined reads. This is the critical year for running back Ryan Mathews. The former first round pick must prove he can produce and stay healthy all season. He has the skills but when he is in the training room they are useless. The primary targets will be tight end Antonio Gates and wide out Malcom Floyd.
The defensive line is solid especially at DE. Kendall Reyes and Corey Liuget provide pass rush and are effective against the run. They signed former Colt DE Dwight Freeney who will move to outside linebacker. That is not his natural spot and he may struggle. The rest of the second level is nothing special despite the publicity that rookie Manti Te’o has gotten. The unit could be much better if they can get Melvin Ingram back healthy. FS Eric Weddle is one of the best in the game but the other spots are up for grabs. It doesn’t matter much who win because they are all just guys.
The bottom line: Despite having a quality QB this team is going nowhere. It will require a huge rebuilding job to get the franchise turned around. But they are better than the Raiders.
Chiefs: The smartest thing the Chiefs did was to get a QB. Alex Smith does not have a great arm or quick feet but compared to what the team has had the last couple of seasons, he is a gift. He will get rid of the ball quickly and spread it around. Both those qualities will help this team. The one man that is most thankful for a passing game is RB Jamaal Charles. The little man needs a passing game so he is not running against 47 guys in the box. The top 3 receivers are very good. If they can adapt to the new offense of Andy Reid they will flourish. The line is just OK despite all of them being high draft picks. LT Branden Albert is over rated. Rookie 1st pick overall Eric Fisher is technically solid but seems to be sidelined with minor injuries. RG Jon Asamoah can be special and is improving.
The defense is full of high draft choices that have not produced many wins. DE Tyson Jackson was a second overall pick but has never become the dominant player they expected. NT Dontari Poe is really coming along. He can collapse the pocket through a double team. The strength of the defense is the linebackers. Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali all made the pro bowl last season. Johnson is particularly dynamic.
The bottom line: Reid and Smith will improve the club but this team is not ready to get to the playoffs yet. There are just too many holes and over rated players.
Raiders: “With the first pick in the 2014 NFL draft, the Oakland Raiders select…” This is the worst team in the league. The bad trades, poor drafting and over paid and over rated free agents have taken their toll. Exhibit A—free agent QB Matt Flynn. The reason he was a 7th round pick is he has a rubber band for an arm and bad mechanics. At least Terrelle Pryor has an arm and the feet to get out of trouble. The receiver group is fast but has bad hands across the board. The running game will be fair as long as Darren McFadden is healthy. That has not been the case often in recent years. The line is a disaster after budding star LT Jared Veldheer went down. C Stefen Wisniewski is the best remaining lineman.
The expensive unproductive linemen have been removed from the Raider defense. Only RE Lamarr Houston looks like a player and he is switching sides. They brought in DT Vance Walker from Atlanta and he can handle the run. Rookie OLB Sio Moore is an under rated player that will be very good. Free agent Mike Jenkins looks good but they took a big risk on 12th pick overall CB D.J. Hayden. He is the player that almost died on the college practice field last year. He is a great story and a good kid. But that is a BIG risk with the 12th pick.
The bottom line: Unless the Raiders get really lucky they will get the first pick next year. It is going to be a long year for Raider fans.
That’s what I think. Tell me what you think.
Bill Smith is a former coach of several semi-pro teams, has officiated both football and basketball, done color on radio for college football and basketball and has scouted talent. He has also published several novels on .
To keep up with the News, Notes & Rumors podcasts, follow me on twitter @NNRonDSN.
NFL AFC 2013 Preview by Bill Smith