1. New England Patriots (2013: 12-4)
In my opinion, the Patriots have been an average team the last couple of seasons elevated to a good team through the play of an All-Time great quarterback, Tom Brady, and the coaching of an All-Time great coach, Bill Belichick. The loss of tight end, Aaron Hernandez, to legal issues stemming from murder charges, allowing wide receiver Wes Welker to leave via free agency, and the recurring injuries to superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski have really diminished the effectiveness of the offense. While they obviously need a healthy Gronkowski for most of the season and the playoffs to legitimately contend, they also made a nice signing in Brandon LaFell during the offseason. He has adjusted to the new system and is already receiving praise from Belichick. As we have seen from Troy Brown, the Patriots like to have versatile players. While he LaFell is no star, he should be a productive complementary part of the offense and team. The Patriots will also need Danny Amendola to stay healthy and play like Wes Welker as they expected when they signed him. A potential breakout player on the Patriots this season is running back Shane Vereen. He is an explosive receiver out of the backfield. He should get an opportunity to get most of the touches at running back since the Patriots appear weary of last year’s starter, Steven Ridlay’s, fumbling problem. On defense, their draft picks and free agency signings have not panned out in recent seasons. Consequently, they have been living off Bill Belichick’s reputation rather than substance. However, they made major offseason moves by signing cornerbacks, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, to significantly improve the secondary. Revis was the best shutdown cornerback in the NFL before getting injured in his last season with the Jets. I believe he will play great for the Patriots. It is scary to imagine how good Belichick’s scheme will be executed with Revis in the mix. Barring an injury to Brady, the Patriots will definitely win their 12+ games this season, win the division, and be a contender to win the AFC.
2. Miami Dolphins (2013: 8-8)
The Dolphins were a trendy pick last season as a sleeper. They started out well. However, things got messy with the Jonathan Martin bullying scandal that translated to dysfunction on the field. Although the Dolphins were 8-6, they lost their last two games to play themselves out of the playoffs. The Dolphins will try to move past the controversy and continue to progress as a team. The key is the improvement of QB Ryan Tannehill. He began to emerge but played terribly in the last two games as the Dolphins were eliminated. They have added weapons to help him develop over the last two offseasons. Last year’s major acquisition, wide receiver Mike Williams, is a legitimate deep threat to complement Tannehill’s strong arm. It is their second season together so the hope is that they will build better chemistry this season. The Dolphins have also accumulated a good group of supporting receivers behind Wallace. In addition, they signed veteran running back, Knowshon Moreno, to back up talented second year back, Lamar Miller. Moreno obviously benefited from playing with Peyton Manning the last two seasons. However, he is a quality veteran. Nevertheless, neither back will have a chance if the offensive line does not play any better. It has been destroyed at the line of scrimmage in preseason. If they do not significantly improve, the offense will not be effective. Unfortunately, I do not think it is a problem that is easily fixed. Consequently, the Dolphins will probably finish the same or worse than last season.
3. New York Jets (2013: 8-8)
The Jets offense was tough to watch last year. They added significant pieces by signing wide receiver Eric Decker, running back Chris Johnson, and backup QB Michael Vick. Decker clearly got a boost on his numbers by playing with Peyton Manning. Nevertheless, he is a quality receiver and a significant upgrade over any receiver the Jets had last year. Chris Johnson still has his straightaway speed and I think he does well in his share of the carries. Johnson will provide explosiveness while Chris Ivory will bring the power. The hope is that QB Geno Smith takes a significant jump from his shaky rookie season. In fairness to him, he had no weapons. If he falters, Vick will get a chance. Vick still has a cannon arm and speed. Of course, he would get injured if they tried to play him the full season. They also drafted talented tight end Jace Amaro. He is struggling out of a college system so it will take him time to adjust. He may not be a factor until next season. On defense, they have a great defensive line but a mediocre secondary. It is a reverse of the situation Rex Ryan inherited when he first took over the team and had a great secondary but poor defensive line. 3rd round pick and cornerback, Dexter McDougle, is already out for the season due to injury. Last season’s first round pick Dee Milliner also got hurt in the preseason and is questionable for Week 1. It is not a good sign for an already questionable secondary. They also drafted hard hitting safety, Calvin Pryor, in the first round so they need him to make an impact. Their secondary may get them lit up this year. From my perspective, the Jets overachieved a little last season to get to 8 wins. While they added more talent, they will probably end up around the same number of wins when some of the breaks they got last year do not go in their favor this year.
4. Buffalo Bills (2013: 6-10)
Like the Jets, the Bills are aiming to build around a young quarterback in EJ Manuel. They traded up in the draft to select extremely gifted wide receiver, Sammy Watkins, to give Manuel a big time weapon. They also expected running back CJ Spiller to break out as a star last season. Unfortunately, it did not happen. Spiller definitely has homerun ability as a runner. However, I do not think he is a workhorse, every down back star. On defense, the Bills signed middle linebacker Brandon Spikes away from the Patriots. He is a good veteran presence and should definitely improve the run defense. In the end, the Bills will go as far as EJ Manuel will take them. He has been very inconsistent in the preseason and will probably need more time to work through his growing pains. I think they will hover around their record from last season. Nevertheless, a successful season should be defined as Manuel progressing into a productive NFL quarterback by the end of the year.
1. Cincinnati Bengals (2013: 11-5)
The Bengals have some of the best talent in the NFL on both sides of the ball. It includes a very talented QB in Andy Dalton that has increased his touchdown total every year in the NFL. However, their ascension to the top of the league depends on his advancement to a top QB. Despite his strong numbers early in his career, he has rightfully deserved criticism for his terrible and winless postseason record. However, fans have become very impatient in the modern era. Dalton is 3 for 3 in his young career in helping his teams get to the playoffs despite not winning a playoff game. He is clearly very talented and productive already. The Bengals would have an extremely difficult time getting a better QB. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees do not grow on trees. As such, Bengal fans will need to be patient and wait to see how Dalton continues to develop. He will definitely have help. AJ Green is one of the top receivers in the NFL. Second year running back Giovani Bernard is primed for a breakout season. Marvin Jones had a strong rookie season. He will miss the early part of the season but will be back in plenty of time to make an impact. Regardless, the Bengals are a very good team that will contend for the division again.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (2013: 8-8)
The Steelers dug themselves in a huge hole they could not crawl out of last season by starting 0-4. Nevertheless, they are a proud franchise and fought all the way to the end. At 5-8, they won the last three games to finish the season at 8-8. Nevertheless, their problems last season were real and not just due to a terrible first four games. The Steelers franchise has won with defense and a power running game. The defense got old so they struggled as they were transitioning to younger players. It looks a lot more athletic and poised to progress into a good defense this season. In terms of the running game, the Steelers hope Le’Veon Bell continues to improve. They also signed veteran LeGarette Blount. Unfortunately, both running backs just got busted for marijuana. While it is embarrassing and disappointing for a classy organization such as the Steelers, Mike Tomlin is a strong leader and will guide his team through it. Of course, they also have two time Super Bowl winning Ben Roethlisberger. Antonio Brown has become his go to receiver hauling in 110 passes for 1,499 yards and 8 touchdowns last year. The passing game will be fine. I expect them to be in contention for the division like usual. In the end, their season will depend on how well the running game and defense advance.
3. Baltimore Ravens (2013: 8-8)
After winning the Super Bowl two seasons ago, the Ravens are in a transition period as they become Joe Flacco’s team and the franchise retools around him. Similar to the Steelers, the formula of the Ravens franchise is a strong running game and a great defense. While the regression in the defense was expected as they moved to unproven and young players, their star running back Ray Rice plummeted in production. Of course, Rice also had a controversial offseason after he knocked out his now wife in an ugly incident. He will continue to face heat for his actions. In terms of his on the field play, I do not think he will ever be the same player again. When it comes to older running backs, they tend to fall off in performance drastically over night. Once they go, they usually do not rebound. The only running back I can remember having a rebound season was Curtis Martin, who had a one off big season a few years after he started his decline. Nevertheless, I think Bernard Pierce is a capable running back who can handle the expanded role as Rice’s touches decrease. Rice can still contribute as they try to keep him fresh with less touches. The passing game also regressed last season. It was mainly due to the loss of weapons as they traded Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta got hurt. Pitta will return this year from injury. They also added Owen Daniels as another tight end. He has been injury prone and inconsistent in his career but makes big plays when he is on the field. I also like the signing of veteran wide receiver Steve Smith. While he is a shell of himself, he is tough and a great competitor. He should fill the role Boldin had two seasons ago. In terms of their defense, it should progress again this year and has impact veterans in linebacker Terrell Suggs and corners Jimmy Smith and Ladarius Webb to lead them. Except for last season, the combination of QB Joe Flacco and head coach John Harbaugh has made the postseason every year they have been together. I expect them to be in contention and in position to return to the playoffs.
4. Cleveland Browns (2013: 4-12)
The Browns definitely have talent. I also like the veteran additions of linebacker Karlos Dansby, safety Donte Whitner, running back Ben Tate, and wide receivers Miles Austin and Nate Burleson. The young team definitely needs the veteran leadership. Nevertheless, they will deal with a circus atmosphere. First, their best offensive player, wide receiver Josh Gordon, will definitely be suspended. He may avoid the original season long ban. Nevertheless, he will miss significant time. Next they drafted Johnny Manziel. He definitely has the ability to be a star. However, he needs to learn the playbook and grow up. His immaturity definitely showed in the preseason when he flipped off the Washington Redskins after they purposely got under his skin. Although Brian Hoyer is named the starter, the specter of Manziel’s talent and his off the field drama will not go away. I fully expect Manziel to assume the role of the starter during the season. Nevertheless, I think it will take a few years for Manziel to mature as a person and player.
1. Indianapolis Colts (2013: 11-5)
The Colts are a below average team elevated by the greatness of the young, Andrew Luck. In my opinion, he is clearly the NFL’s next great quarterback. They signed wide receiver Hakeem Nicks in the offseason to give him another weapon. Veteran receiver Reggie Wayne and promising tight end Dwayne Allen are returning from injury. Coby Fleener is another talented tight end who has played with Luck since their college days at Stamford. T.Y. Hilton has already established himself as one of the league’s best deep threats. As such, Luck will have plenty of playmakers to throw to this season. However, the problem is the offensive line. They need to play much better so Luck does not get killed. They could have used a first round pick to draft a lineman but they surrendered it in exchange for running back Trent Richardson at the beginning of last season. After a promising rookie season with the Cleveland Browns, Richardson was a disaster last year after the trade. While it is difficult to learn a system in the middle of a season, he will not have that excuse this season. He has not looked good in preseason so it is not encouraging. I am also not a big fan of the Colts defense. It was carried by a great player in linebacker, Robert Mathis, last season. Unfortunately, he is suspended the first four games of this season due to a failed drug test from a fertility drug. There are significant issues on this team that scare me. While I would not bet against Luck after what he has accomplished so far, one player can only carry a team so much for so long.
2. Tennessee Titans (2013: 7-9)
The Titans are a young team trying to establish themselves. They will do well to finish at .500 with a couple of young players establishing themselves at the end of this season. The first player they need to step up is QB Jake Locker. He has a strong arm but needs to stay healthy. Next, they are replacing their former star running back, Chris Johnson, with second round pick Bishop Sankey. While Sankey has shown playmaking ability in preseason, there are also rumblings of fumbling and pass protection issues. I never like to hear a running back have those shortcomings because they will keep him off the field if they continue. Locker has a nice core of young receivers. Kendall Wright is solid. On the other hand, Justin Hunter has a chance to be special. The second year receiver has made some big plays in practice and the preseason. He is a player to watch with his star potential. Locker, Sankey, and Hunter are the keys to the future. However, I think it takes them at least another year before they become a playoff team.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (2013: 4-12)
The Jaguars will have another long season. They are starting the season with Chad Henne as the quarterback. However, Blake Bortles has looked great in preseason and will take over as the starter during the season. Regardless, there are not too many playmakers for either QB. While they have a good defensive line, their defense is not that much better. If Bortles can develop into a solid starter and show some signs of greatness, it will provide some hope going into next season for Jaguars fans. There will not be much to root for this year.
4. Houston Texans (2013: 2-14)
The Texans were projected to be one of the better teams in the league going into last season but had a complete collapse en route to the worst record and the first pick of the draft. They hired a new coach, Bill O’Brien. He is a great choice. He did very well running the offense with the New England Patriots and also performed miracles at Penn State despite heavy sanctions as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The Texans defense should turn around quickly. They drafted the freakishly talented Javadeon Clowney as the first overall pick. The combination of JJ Watt and Clowney will be devastating to offensive lines and the opposing quarterbacks. The Texans also have other quality defenders. One of the mosre important players is linebacker Brian Cushing. It is no coincidence that their defense has gone downhill each of the last two seasons when he got injured and was lost for the rest of the season. They need him to stay healthy. On offense, they also need star running back Arian Foster to stay healthy. Wide receiver Andre Johnson is aging but still an impact player. DeAndre Hopkins had a good rookie season. He has the talent and they need him to continue to progress as a second receiver and eventual heir to Johnson. However, this offense is dependent on a shaky quarterback situation. The starter will be Ryan Fitzpatrick. He has not put up great statistics in his career and has not been a winning quarterback. I can definitely see them returning to the playoffs but they are limited by their quarterback situation.
1. Denver Broncos (2013: 13-3)
It is easy to assume that the Broncos will not surpass their record setting season on offense last year. Nevertheless, they should still be the highest scoring offense in the league. They allowed running back Knowshon Moreno to leave via free agency but Monte Ball is a more explosive and younger back. He has Peyton Manning’s stamp of approval, which is good enough for me. They also let receiver Eric Decker to sign with the Jets. However, they replaced him with a talented Emmanuel Sanders who Manning is already making look good. Manning has plenty of weapons again. One of the keys will be the health of Wes Welker. He missed some games due to concussion last year and the Broncos need him to be at their best. He has already suffered a concussion in the preseason. The Broncos defense was average last year. During the offseason, they added some veteran star presence and toughness by signing Demarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, and Aqi Talib. They were a top defensive team two seasons ago. As such, these additions can help them rebound. The Broncos are reloaded and ready to make another run at winning the Super Bowl. As long as Peyton Manning is healthy, his team will win 12+ games and contend for a championship.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (2013: 11-5)
The Chiefs are a good team on both sides of the ball. Their defense generates a lot of turnovers. They also have a great running back in Jamaal Charles as their workhorse on offense. Head Coach Andy Reid was definitely a difference maker last year. Nevertheless, they lack game breakers on offense outside of Charles. Dwayne Bowe is a good receiver but he usually racks up most of his stats against weaker competition. One promising player is extremely talented and young tight end, Travis Kelce. They need him to develop into a big play receiver in order to add some explosiveness to their passing game. While they are a good team, they will need to be better this season since their schedule is more difficult to be in line with their significant improvement last year. I agree with the general consensus that the Chiefs will take a step back this year.
3. San Diego Chargers (2013: 9-7)
The Chargers finished strong last year as weapons developed around QB Philip Rivers. The biggest reason for their late season success was the emergence of Keenan Allen. He is a big, explosive receiver. He is definitely primed for a big season as the connection between Rivers and Allen looks special. Another potential breakout star is tight end Ladarius Green. He has freakish athleticism that reminds fans of a young Antonio Gates. If he progresses as expected, the Chargers can definitely be one of the best offenses in the NFL. While they lack big playmakers on defense, defensive coordinator John Pagano does a great job coaching his defense to give his offense a chance. I am very high on the Chargers this season and expect them to be in the mix for a Wild Card berth and do damage in the playoffs.
4. Oakland Raiders (2013: 4-12)
The Raiders were voted the least desirable team to play for in the NFL. In the past, the Raiders were the rebels in the league using an unorthodox approach and dirty play to win. Now, they are just dysfunctional. They brought in Matt Schaub as a veteran QB. However, he looked done as a player last season and is showing more of the same in the preseason. It is only a matter of time before rookie Derek Carr takes over as the starter. It looks like another long season for the Raiders.