Making gains: The AFC
With Free Agency and the Draft now in the books, some teams’ rosters are looking very different to a few months ago. With all the personnel changes (on and off the field for some teams), some will get stronger and some will fall away.
Here we take a look at each division and pick the one team that saw the biggest improvement through this period, starting with the AFC.
AFC East: New England Patriots
Maybe a controversial view point as really they did very little in the draft and they won the Superbowl last year, but there is no doubt that this team has improved.
New England won the Superbowl then went on to win Free Agency. The Patriots put value in veterans this year over rookies, trading away a 1st round pick to bring in Brandin Cooks, a 2nd round pick for defensive end Kony Ealy and a 5th for Mike Gillislee, 3 players that were potentially underappreciated with their old teams. In free agency the pick up of Stephon Gillmore adds not just a replacement for Logan Ryan, but a vast improvement. Gillmore had a rough season last year, but has been a consistent performer for the Bills. If the Pats can access that then they might have one of the best corner pairings in the league, with Malcolm Butler on the other side (well… as I’m writing this, he’s still on the team).
The additions of Rex Burkhead and Dwayne Allen are sneaky good picks too, adding a solid tight end that can block and catch as well as yet another solid, gadget back. Whilst they had limited picks, the Patriots picked up a great defensive end in Derek Rivers as well as a handful of back ups.
The Patriots go into next season as undoubtedly the team to beat, all whilst managing to keep hold of back up QB Jimmy Garoppolo for the future. Sorry guys… they’re still the Pats.
AFC West: Oakland Raiders
The AFC West is the ultimate “yeah, but…” division. Every team in it has a solid shot at being the most improved, but all with a fairly solid question mark. In the end I went with the Raiders, who improved a number of areas of need.
The big name pick up is unquestionably Marshawn Lynch, who has come out of retirement to join an Oakland team who’s window is wide open. The other free agent pick ups have an air of “get good quick” about them. Despite being underwhelming the last 3 years, Cordarrelle Patterson gives them a solid kick returner and gadget player. Jared Cook leaves the Packers after a big season to hook up with Derek Carr, another top flight QB and on another team that stands a legitimate shot at a super bowl.
What put the Raiders a hair above the other teams in the division is what they did in the draft. Oakland’s 1 and 2 picks went into their real area of need, picking up Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu, who should vastly improve their secondary. Oh, then there’s the “yeah, but”. This is still the same defensive coordinator that was in charge of last years defence, the unit that gave up more passing yards per play than any other team in the league, thanks in no small part to a consistent inability to stop tight end play.
In theory this should improve with the new pieces, but there has to be some concern that maybe the biggest issue is the guy calling the plays.
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
An easy one really, picking the worst team in the league that had $150m to spend in free agency. The simple fact is though they’ve done an excellent job improving their team and although they’re not set up to be a contender this year, they’re definitely taking steps in the right direction. In free agency the key focus was the offensive line, adding JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler, vastly improving the interior of a beaten up O-line.
Aside from the the offensive line help, the Browns added underrated receiver Kenny Britt to replace Terrelle Pryor, but their biggest move in free agency involves a player that may never take a snap for them. The Browns, having a ton of capspace, took on Brock Osweiler’s contract from the Texans along with a 2nd round pick. Brock Osweiler is a Cleveland Brown in pretty much name only.
I would say the Browns “won the draft”, if that was something I’d ever say. The Browns in draft picks alone navigated the draft like a rally driver, picking up the Texans 1st rounder for next year (along with the 2nd that they picked up for the Brock trade). In terms of what they turned the picks into, they managed to grab some of the top players in each of their positions. In the 1st round they picked up Myles Garrett with the no. 1 and then Jabrill Peppers and David Njoku later in the round. Then in the 2nd they picked up a possible future starting QB, without having to give up picks for him, like the Bears, Texans and Chiefs did to pick up their QBs. To round off a solid draft they grabbed raw defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi in the 3rd and Caleb Brantley in the 6th, although Brantley comes with the potential legal issues that might see him never take a snap in the NFL.
The Browns have vastly improved in the trenches and particularly on defence with the help of Greg Williams this team should be a lot better than last year, although as previously stated, that’s not that hard.
AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars
If I was doing a write up on most improved division, the AFC South would probably head it up.
Heading that division up is the Jacksonville Jaguars, who came into 2017 with a clear plan. Defence in free agency. Offence in the draft. In free agency the Jags struck defensive gold picking up a who’s who of free agency. Calais Campbell has been a rock for the Cardinals defensive front. Now he adds some much needed beef to the Jags defensive line. In the secondary they picked up AJ Bouye from the Texans and Barry Church from Dallas. These 2 will join Tashaun Gipson and Jalen Ramsey to create one of the best secondaries they’ve had in a long time.
With the defence sorted in free agency, the Jags had the chance to pick up some luxury talent on offence, to give Blake Bortles the best possible chance to succeed (or, you know… fail). Leonard Fournette seems like one of the picks that made the most sense in the draft. In Fournette they’ve got a legitimate chain mover, who will eat clock, keeping their newly revamped defence off the field. With Fournette the Jags will be looking at winning games 10-3, which should take the focus off Bortles and help him find his mojo (if it’s still there). Finally the pick up of Dede Westbrook adds a 4th solid receiver for a loaded Jacksonville receiver core.
The key for this team now is, can Blake Bortles return to his form from a couple of years ago. If he can, then the Jags might just be in a position to take a run at the playoffs.
So that’s my take on the AFC. Up next will be Simon with a look at the NFC.
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