With the NFL season kicking off on Friday night in the United States, our American football expert Richard Corbally previews the AFC North, South, East and West…
New England Patriots
Strengths: Brady and Belichek are the best coaching and QB combo ever. The reigning champions are possibly even stronger this year after acquiring Stephon Gilmore to pair up with Malcom Butler and Devon McCourtey for a superb Back-end. Keeping Dant’a Hightower was another coupe for the defense.
Offensively they are stacked having adding Brandon Cooks at Wide receiver and Rex Burkhead at running back, both of whom will most likely be breakout stars, with the Patriots having failed to yet reach their full potential. And just to add to this, they still have Rob Gronkowski, who is basically unstoppable, barring the frequent injuries which hamper him.
Weaknesses: The loss of Julian Edelman – who is basically a cert for 100 catches a year – makes this offense weaker. Apart from the dreadful division they are in, they face a difficult schedule, facing both of the two best divisions in football, the NFC South and AFC West. It’s also very difficult to reach consecutive Superbowl’s, but the Patriots have proven before they can overcome any obstacle.
Outlook: This team is very good. As hard as I try, there is no logical reason why they won’t go back to the Superbowl.
Strengths: The Dolphins lost Ryan Tannehill at QB, but Jay Cutler is of a very similar standard and has worked with coach Adam Gase before. Ndamukong Suh is a player of real quality, and will give the side an imposing defensive line when paired with Cameron Wake. Jay Ajiyi is a good running back but may struggle with an average O-line.
Weaknesses: Rather than possessing major weaknesses, this team simply possesses a lot of average players. Its secondary is very average with Xavien Howard and Byron Maxwell as corner backs. Their offensive line is questionable as Laremy Tunsil (who was good last year) moves from guard to left tackle – where he is unproven – and Jermon Bushrod at right tackle was one of the worst tackles in the league last year.
Outlook: A poor offensive line combined with Jay Cutlers inevitable interceptions and a weak secondary will make it difficult for Adam Gase to manufacture wins again this season.
New York Jets
Strengths: Muhammad Wikerson and Leonard Williams are two good players on their defensive line, but this team is bereft of talent. Darrell Revis has retired, which is actually a good thing considering how bad he was last year.
Weaknesses: They have gotten rid of almost all their best players, such as Eric Decker and Sheldon Richardson, which makes you wonder if they have any interest in winning games this year. Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty are two of the worst QBs in the league and their other option of Josh McCown seems to be physically attracted to teams who are going to gain the first pick in the draft.
Outlook: Might accidently win too many games and not get the first pick in next year’s draft, which for a Jets fan would seem like a disaster. Tood Bowles will do very well to keep his job.
Strengths: Marcel Darrius, Reggie Ragland and Kyle Williams are some solid figures in defence. Lesean McCoy is a truly special running back and perhaps it’s a pity he is not playing for a title contender in one of his final NFL seasons.
Weaknesses: This team, seems like a mess right now. They seem to have no commitment to QB Tyrod Taylor despite the fact he has been of NFL pedigree when given the chance to start the last two seasons. Expect 5th round pick out of the University of Pittsburgh Nathan Peterman to start half-way through the season, as the Bills never ending rebuilding process goes into its 17th year of not reaching the playoffs. Sean McDerrmott is a first-time head coach and may have some growing pains deciding what type of team he wants this to build.
Outlook: Not a terrible team (compared with the Jets), but they have been dysfunctional in the running of their organisation for some time. New GM Brandon Beane seems determined to wipe away everything from the squad former boss Reggie McKenzie was trying to build. Who knows, maybe this is the right strategy, but it’s difficult right now to see a positive season for the Bills.
Strengths: This team and especially its offence is loaded. Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant are an outstanding duo at wide receiver while Le’Veon Bell is probably one of the three best running backs in the league. They also contain a dominant offensive line with Pouncey, Villanueva and Gilbert providing good protection to ‘Big Ben’.
A line backing group that contains James Harrison, Ryan Shazier and rookie TJ Watt (brother of JJ Watt), looks like an imposing group while their back end is solid with Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Senquez Golson, who all should perform at a high standard.
Weaknesses: Injuries and suspensions to key players such as Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell or Martavis Bryant seem to consistently hamper this side every year. Plus, Ben Roethlisberger seems to have major difficulties playing away from home as there is a visible difference between his stats home and away over the last number of seasons. They need to stop losing to bad teams as they have frequently done in recent years.
Outlook: Pittsburgh need to challenge New England for home field advantage in the playoffs if they want to make the Superbowl. They have the talent to do this and should be able to run them close anyway.
Strengths: In what was on paper a great off-season for the Browns, the biggest positive psychologically for the fans must be the fact they are not starting Brock Osweiler. DeShone Kizer looked solid in the preseason. He stands in the pocket, has a strong arm and is an impressive athlete. He will probably throw plenty of interceptions, but he definitely has the chance to become an NFL starter.
One big plus for Kizer is that he has a very solid offensive line ahead of him (pro football focus ranks them 2nd in the league coming into the season). On the defensive side, the first pick of the draft Myles Garrett is already getting double teamed, and with Karl Nassib and Jamie Collins also in the front seven, this defence should be able to create some pressure.
Weaknesses: There is a dearth of skill position players on this roster. Isaiah Crowell at running back, Seth DeVale at tight end and Kenny Brit at wide receiver are all decent players, but they are not going to set the world alight. Losing joe Haden to the Steelers is also going to mean their secondary will struggle this year. Perhaps the biggest issue for the Browns this season will be to learn how to win again.
Outlook: With an impressive offensive and defensive line, this team has a lot of solid pieces in it. However with no winning culture and a rookie QB who is still raw, they will find it hard to win games, even if I still like this teams long term trajectory.
Strengths: This team has a good defense and good Head coach in Jim Harbaugh. This formula has worked for the Ravens in the past and with Terrell Suggs, C.J Mosley, Michael Pierece and Brandon Williams providing an excellent push rush for the defence. The addition of Danny Woodhead at running back should improve their offence.
Weaknesses: Joe Flacco will not be the QB for at least the first two games and possibly four or more games. Backup QB Ryan Mallett a remarkable lack of professionalism in his years in the NFL and never looks like a starting NFL QB. They also have a major lack of skill players on offence and last season relied on kicker Justin Tucker to score most of their points. Mike Wallace is not an inspiring number one option at wide receiver and this looks like an uninspiring team in general.
Outlook: It’s hard to see how teams can win by kicking field goals in 2017. Missing Flacco is not good and I could see this being a rough season by Baltimore’s standards.
Strengths: AJ Green is still a beast at wide receiver and the rest of their skill position group is also impressive with rookie Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard at running back, and Tyler Eifert at Tight end, they have some nice pieces on offence.
Defensively they have some great players like Geno Atkins on the defensive line and Adam Jones at corner back.
Weaknesses: Losing Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler on their offensive line, means they go from having a good offensive line to a terrible one. Nothing stops a team getting offensive rhythm than your QB getting sacked on multiple plays. Dalton is also not a mobile QB so this offense could be seriously limited if it’s line is as porous as I think it might be. Vontaze Burfict’s four game suspension could limit their defensive production at the start of the season.
Outlook: This is a big year for Marvin Lewis because if they miss out on the playoffs again, he could finally get sacked. My prediction is that a poor offensive line will leave their offence with limited scoring drives and this will halt any playoff aspirations.
Strengths: They still have former Superbowl MVP Von Miller, who is a complete wrecking ball on any offense. Aqib Talib was still an excellent corner back last season while Derek Worlfe, Shane Ray and Brandon Marshall are all solid pieces on defence.
QB Trevor Siemian had a good first year as a starter and looks like he has the potential to be a good NFL QB. There are some other nice pieces on offence such as running backs C.J Anderson and possibly Jamaal Charles if he has anything left in the tank, while Demaryius Thomas is an excellent receiver.
Weaknesses: Losing TJ Ward and Demarcus Ware from their defence will not help. Although Siemian has looked good, it seems like former first rounder Paxton Lynch has not developed as they wanted him to and he will be out injured for most of this season.
The biggest concern for this team is their offensive line which is probably one of the worst five O-line groups in the league.
Outlook: This team’s offensive line may stymie any progress for Siemian and it’s hard to see how the defence can cover up enough such an average offence to make a real playoff push.
Strengths: Philip Rivers is still a great QB and their offensive line has been much improved with the additions of Russell Okung, Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney. Melvin Gordon, Antonio gates, Hunter Henry and Kennen Allen gives them some good skill position players. But the biggest strength for this team is last year’s first round pick Joey Bosa, who looks like he could be this year’s defensive player of the year. Couple this with Melvin Ingrim and that defensive line looks nasty.
Casey Haward and Jason Varrett are also a solid corner back pairing. Moving to the smallest stadium in the NFL could be a positive considering San Diego seemed to be filled with opposing fans every game I watched for the past few seasons. The smaller stadium could provide an exciting unique environment which helps the team.
Weaknesses: Coach Anthony Lynn is unproven as a head coach, it may be a concern that he plays a no risk strategy, always punting on fourth down and going for two almost never after a touchdown, this has not been successful for coaches such as Rex Ryan in recent years.
The Chargers have had trouble with their offensive line for years which means Rivers has very little time to throw the ball. They have lacked toughness’ to win close games for the last couple of years which has led to underperforming seasons. I think these issues should be less of a problem however this year.
Outlook: An improved offensive line, good QB and some excellent players on defence, coupled with having a record of losing close games in previous years (which is always likely to change), I think this is finally the year they take the division.
Kansas City Chiefs
Strengths: This is of point, but their second-round pick Patrick Mahomes has shown he can make throws that basically no other QB in the league other than Aaron Rodgers. In saying this his rusty foot work and accuracy problems will most likely keep him on the side-lines for his first season. Tyreek Hill and Travice kelcie along with a solid offensive line gives this offence some juice. Defensively they have some good players like Tamba Hali, Marcus Peters and Justin Houston.
Weaknesses: They win games, but they are boring. Alex Smith is a limited QB and this was fully on show when they lost to a Steelers team that was unable to score a touchdown. Smith has his back against the wall, he needs a massive year or else he will be remembered as just another QB in the history books.
Outlook: They have a formula for winning ten or eleven games a year by not making mistakes on offence and playing solid defence. Their early schedule is difficult though which may lead to fans getting antsy to see some Patrick Mahomes. But my guess is the Chiefs will grind their way to a wild card spot by playing like they did the last number of years. It would be fantastic to see Mahomes come in through and make this team dynamic. Andy Reid is not usually one to take chances though, so we will be stuck with old school football.
Strengths: Derek Carr has proven himself to be an excellent QB who turns the ball over little and can create late scoring drives to win game. Marshawn Lynch is a big X factor and if he is good adds an added dimension to an already talented offense. Amari Cooper and Jared Cook give the a dynamic passing game. The addition of Bruce Irvin adds something extra to this defence which is already impressive thanks to Kalil Macks rooming presence at line-backer.
Weaknesses: They won a lot of tight games last year with plenty of crazy plays in the 4th quarter. Some state this is a good trait but statistically this is a recipe for losing games the next year rather than a sign of automatic success. Their offensive line is excellent apart from the right tackle position which could cause problems. These problems can lead to QB injuries like last years one on Carr. It’s just one piece of caution. A bigger problem may be their secondary who gave away a lot of yards last year.
Outlook: Originally I didn’t have this side making the playoffs, but they have a good offense and defensive line as well as a good QB and a coach in “Black-Jack Del Rio” who plays to win. They should sneak into the playoffs again. Their secondary weakness might stop them from a playoff run however.
Strengths: JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are a fearsome pairing and give the Texans the best defensive front in the NFL. Last year they showed they could cause problems for Tom Brady when they kept their dreadful offence in the game and only being 7 points behind midway through the 4th quarter. That was without JJ Watt and other player like Whitney Merciless and Brian Cushing have shown they have plenty of talent.
Newly minted DeAndre Hopkins is a hyper talented receiver while Lamarr Miller is a solid running back who could be excellent with a good offensive line.
Weaknesses: QB as always is a major weakness for the Texans but Tom Savage should be an upgrade on Osweiler while Deshaun Watson should be happy he gets to sit and learn for either the entire season or most of it. Watson is talented but looks raw and could use time to develop more. Their offensive line is possibly the teams biggest worry as a porous line leads to the stunting of young QBs which has been a theme since David Carr was drafted as the team’s first ever player. Coach Bill O Brien needs to stop saying how good his QBs are if it becomes painfully obvious once again that they are not good enough.
Outlook: This team is about as lob sided as any in the NFL, however their defence plus some competent offensive play should see this team win games. However they were lucky to win ten games last year and losing just one more game will possibly keep them out of the playoffs this year.
Strengths: Andrew Luck is currently this teams only real strength and he is set to miss the first two to four games. To elaborate slightly more, TY Hillton is a good receiver and Vontae Davis is a good corner back, but with nobody to throw the ball or pressure the opposing QB, what can these two players really do?
Weaknesses: Where do we even start. Luck is injured, there offensive line is probably in the bottom third of the league, their defensive line is arguably the worst in the league and some of their key players include Frank Gore, who might be a difference maker, if this was 2011.
Outlook: This team needs Luck back quickly, otherwise they may once again find themselves with the first pick of the draft and have to consider whether to take Sam Darnold or keep Luck. The Jets would be furious if this is the case. On a positive, if Luck can get back and drags the team to a place where others start to emerge as good players, they could challenge for the division considering it’s not very good.
Strengths: This team has a nice identity in a tricky run game or exoctic smashmouth as it was once dubbed. The running game is powered by Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry (don’t be surprised to see Henry become the feature back towards the second half of the season) while QB Marcos Mariota has shown he can run, pass and win games consistently in the NFL. A nice offensive line gives the running game legitimacy as Jack Conklin and Tyler Lewan have proven to be worth their first-round draft price. Eric Decker, Corey Davis and Delanie Walker give the air attack a nice counter-punch for when teams try to solely concentrate on the running game. The addition of Logan Ryan at cornerback should be an upgrade for their back end.
Weaknesses: The defence is not terrible, it’s just not that good either. Jurrell Casey has always been productive in the front seven while Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are also solid starters. It’s just none of these players are quite JJ Watt or Von Miller and so it’s hard to get overly excited. Mariota has not lasted a full season yet and if he continues to be injury prone, this fun team, might come to soon be unwatchable again.
Outlook: Tennessee who have basically been a laughing stock until two seasons ago have become very watchable all of a sudden. They are probably the joint favourites with the Texans to take the division and I think they might just be able to do that.
Strengths: New head coach Doug Marrone looked to be doing a good job with Buffalo until he surprisingly left the job in unclear circumstances. But coupled with the return of Tom Coughlin (who seems to oversee the job of instilling discipline to the players) this side may have the right coaching strategy in the long term.
They have a very good defence on paper with Jalen Ramsey and A.J Bouye giving them a nice corner back duo and with Myles Jack, Dante Fowler Jr, Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson offer a strong pass rush. They even have some nice skill position offensive players with a running back Leonard Fournette and Chris Ivory supplying a nice one two punch (they might even have three good RBs if T.J Yeldon ever comes good). With Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marquise Lee, they have a solid receiving group.
Their offensive line is also good and Allen Linder might be the best center in the game.
Weaknesses: Blake Bortals is not good enough and is starting to annoy his team mates by showing no ability to not turn the ball over or play well when the game is close. It’s odd why they are starting with him considering by all accounts he has not improved since last season. Chad Henne will not be a huge improvement as he has never been anything special when given the chance to start. Although the previous paragraph on strengths listed a whole list of players, many of those players remain merely potential and are not necessarily the finished article just yet.
Outlook: This is a very good team on paper, but Bortals may zap the energy out of the team, if his play continues to undermine their progress throughout the season.
New England Patriots 14-2(Home field Advantage)
Pittsburgh Steelers 13-3 (first round bye)
LA Chargers 11-5
Tennessee Titans 10-6
Oakland Raiders 10-6 (wild card)
Kansas City Chiefs 10-6 (wild card)