KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Strengths: The Chiefs chose WR Mecole Hardman in the second round with their initial draft pick in April when the future of WR Tyreek Hill was uncertain due to a domestic violence investigation. Hill has been cleared to play, which means Hardman gives QB Patrick Mahomes another speedy target in a high-flying offense. Mahomes is building off a season in which he threw for more than 5,000 yards with 50 TD passes.
Weaknesses: Defense kept the Chiefs from beating the Patriots in the AFC title game, leading to a wholesale rebuild. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has changed the scheme from 3-4 to 4-3 base, and GM Brett Veach overhauled the roster to better fit the system. S Tyrann Mathieu and DE Frank Clark were pricey acquisitions but give the defense sorely missing grit, leadership and playmaking. The question remains: Will it be enough?
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 8-1. Over/under wins 10 ½.
Expectations: It’s Super Bowl or bust for the Chiefs. Mahomes established himself as the NFL’s top QB last season, Hill and TE Travis Kelce are among the best in league at their positions, and a veteran line should make the offense hum. The revamped defense should give the Chiefs a better chance of getting off the field, which they failed to do in overtime against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Strengths: Despite RB Melvin Gordon’s holdout and S Derwin James’ injury, the Chargers still have one of the league’s deepest rosters. Philip Rivers, going into his 16th season, remains one of the league’s top quarterbacks and gets back TE Hunter Henry, who missed most of last season with a knee injury. The defensive line, anchored by ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, remains formidable.
Weaknesses: The offensive line struggled in preseason. Left tackle Trent Scott and right tackle Sam Tevi are still working to find consistency in run and pass blocking. Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson are capable running backs, but not at the bell cow level of Gordon, who has become one of the league’s top threats running and catching the ball out of the backfield.
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 14½-1. Over/under wins 10.
Expectations: Rivers says the talent on this year’s team reminds him of the Chargers from 2006 to 2009, who won four straight division titles. It has been another tough camp though, due to Gordon’s holdout and injuries to OT Russell Okung and James. The schedule features four home games in the first six weeks, but the first two are against fellow playoff teams Indianapolis and Houston.
Strengths: The defense, as usual. LBs Von Miller and Bradley Chubb combined for 26½ sacks last season. They expect more under Vic Fangio, the longtime defensive guru who’s getting his first head coaching gig at 61. DE Dre’Mont Jones gives Broncos more push up the middle. Newcomers S Kareem Jackson and CB Bryce Callahan provide upgrades to the secondary.
Weaknesses: Defensive weak link: inside linebacker, where Broncos bypassed Devin Bush with the 10th overall draft pick, trading with Steelers, then selecting TE Noah Fant at No. 20. The offensive line also is a big question mark. OL coach Mike Munchak must fix LT Garett Bolles and C Connor McGovern. RG Ron Leary is coming back from a torn Achilles tendon; new RT Ja’Wuan James has dealt with a sore hip.
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 95-1. Over/under wins 7.
Expectations: Coming off the worst two-year stretch (11 total wins) since 1971-72, 8-8 would mark progress. Moves by GM John Elway scream “win now!” He gave CB Chris Harris a $3 million pay raise this season without extending his contract, kept WR Emmanuel Sanders at $8.5 million, traded for QB Joe Flacco ($18.5 million) and committed $105 million for FAs James, Callahan and Jackson.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Strengths: Tom Brady. Even at 42, Brady is still the Patriots’ biggest strength. Yes, Rob Gronkowski, his go-to TE, has retired. So he’ll need help from Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman, who is recovering from a thumb injury. But newcomers such as undrafted rookie WR Jakobi Meyers could make an impact. They also return their entire starting secondary.
Weaknesses: Edge rusher. New England hopes veteran DE Michael Bennett can fill departed Trey Flowers’ production. The Patriots also are encouraged by the motor shown by rookie DE Chase Winovich.
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 7½-1. Over/under wins 11.
Expectations: It’s hard not to pencil the Patriots into making a fourth straight Super Bowl appearance. The toughest matchups on paper before reaching the Week 10 bye are the opener against Pittsburgh and an October match-up with new-look Cleveland. Things get tougher in the second half with consecutive matchups with Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston and Kansas City.
Strengths: New head coach Brian Flores has spoken of establishing a winning culture, but winning will likely have to wait a while. Ryan Fitzpatrick, 36, won the quarterback competition and will have a solid receiving corps to work with, along with two good RBs in Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage.
Weaknesses: Games are won up front, and that’s where the Dolphins are likely to lose them. The OL is a bigger mess than ever in the wake of T Laremy Tunsil’s departure in a trade with the Saints. The Dolphins had only 31 sacks last year, fourth lowest in the league, and then lost four DEs in the offseason.
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 300-1. Over/under wins 4½.
Expectations: It has been 19 years since the Dolphins won a playoff game, and that streak seems likely to continue. By year’s end the Dolphins will have had 21 starting QBs since Dan Marino. Fitzpatrick will set an NFL record by throwing a pass for his eighth team. Expect QB Josh Rosen to start at some point.
Strengths: The defense, which allowed the second fewest yards in the NFL last season, returns mostly intact, though first-round draft pick Ed Oliver replaces Kyle Williams at defensive tackle.
Weaknesses: The running game. LeSean McCoy was released over the weekend in a stunning move. The ground game needed improvement before that and now will rely on Frank Gore, 36, and a retooled offensive line to relieve focus on the Josh Allen-led passing attack.
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 100-1. Over/under wins 7.
Expectations: Nine wins aren’t out of the question for a retooled team that has added depth throughout the lineup, including a mostly revamped offense to spur Allen’s development entering his second season. Much depends on how quickly many new pieces on offense begin to jell.
NEW YORK JETS
Strengths: Second-year QB Sam Darnold showed encouraging signs in the final four games of his rookie season and has followed that with an impressive training camp and preseason. Bringing in RB Le’Veon Bell — refreshed and motivated after sitting a year out in a contract dispute with the Steelers — with Ty Montgomery complementing him in a versatile backfield will only help Darnold.
Weaknesses: Cornerback is a major concern, with Trumaine Johnson dealing with a hamstring injury and not much experienced depth behind him. The Jets could be vulnerable against the passing game, especially if the pass rush isn’t more disruptive than in recent seasons. Linebacking took a major blow in the second preseason game when ILB Avery Williamson was lost for the season with a torn knee ligament. The offensive line is still a work in progress.
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 80-1. Over/under wins 7½.
Expectations: New head coach Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams give the Jets a re-energized attitude with swagger on both offense and defense. Whether that translates to victories will depend on how Darnold continues to develop, whether Bell can recapture his dominant form, and if the defense can stop opposing passing games consistently.
Strengths: The NFL’s top-ranked defense remains a force, despite the loss of LB C.J. Mosley and pass rushing linebackers Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith. The best unit is the secondary, led by S Earl Thomas and featuring CBs Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr and Jimmy Smith.
Weaknesses: The offensive line is thin and lacks star power beyond RG Marshal Yanda and LT Ronnie Stanley. It’s paramount for the Ravens to protect QB Lamar Jackson, whether he’s running or throwing.
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 36-1. Over/under wins 8½.
Expectations: The Ravens have a decent chance of successfully defending their AFC North title and reaching the playoffs. For that to happen, Jackson must be a better passer than last year, and RB Mark Ingram needs to grind out yardage in new offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s run-oriented attack.
Strengths: Antonio Brown might be gone after eight record-setting seasons, but the Steelers believe their offense can keep humming. Much depends on WR JuJu Smith-Schuster handling No. 1 duties and second-year WR James Washington proving his breakout preseason was no fluke. RB James Conner reached the Pro Bowl last season but also missed time due to injuries. The defense has led the NFL in sacks each of the past two seasons.
Weaknesses: The Steelers had just 15 takeaways in 2018, one of the major reasons behind a 2-4 slide to end the season that finished with Pittsburgh on the outside of the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Pittsburgh splurged in free agency, bringing in CB Steven Nelson from Kansas City and signing Mark Barron to provide veteran leadership at inside linebacker.
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 25-1. Over/under wins 9.
Expectations: The standard remains the standard, to borrow one of coach Mike Tomlin’s favorite phrases. Though his seat isn’t hot, he received just a one-year extension (instead of two or more) through 2021. The offense should be productive, but Pittsburgh’s season will likely depend on the defense taking a significant step forward.
Strengths: Odell Beckham Jr.’s arrival and pairing with Jarvis Landry gives Cleveland a premier pass-catching duo. QB Baker Mayfield broke the league’s rookie record with 27 touchdown passes last season. Cleveland’s defensive line, led by Pro Bowl end Myles Garrett (13 ½ sacks), could wreak havoc.
Weaknesses: New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks favors a 4-2-5 scheme, which will put emphasis on linebackers’ ability to get from sideline to sideline and in pass coverage. LB Mack Wilson and fellow rookie Sione Takitaki will likely be in the rotation.
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 16-1. Over/under wins 9.
Expectations: Through the roof, if FirstEnergy Stadium had one. The Browns haven’t been in the playoffs since 2002, the league’s longest current drought. With an abundance of talent, new head coach Freddie Kitchens will be under pressure to deliver quickly and must hope owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam display patience, as promised.
Strengths: Joe Mixon (AFC-best 1,168 yards) and Giovani Bernard (35 receptions, 218 yards) form one of the better running back tandems in the league. When A.J. Green returns from ankle surgery, Bengals will have a diverse group of receivers for Andy Dalton, who enters a pivotal season with new head coach Zac Taylor. The defensive line is deep, and the secondary returns all its starters.
Weaknesses: The offensive line is again a work in progress that could undermine everything. Linebacking also is a huge concern and in transition after parting with trouble-prone Vontaze Burfict.
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 185-1. Over/under wins 6.
Expectations: It’ll be a transitional season in Cincinnati with a new coaching staff and a roster that finished last in the AFC North. The Bengals haven’t finished last in consecutive seasons since 2001. They still haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season; there’s little reason to think that will change in Taylor’s first season as an NFL head coach.
Strengths: QB Deshaun Watson started every game last year in his second NFL season and put up big numbers despite being sacked an NFL-leading 62 times. Houston traded for franchise LT Laremy Tunsil and got LG Tytus Howard in the first round of the draft, so Watson and an offense featuring star receiver DeAndre Hopkins should be able to take another step forward and be one of the most dynamic offenses in league.
Weaknesses: The loss of disgruntled defensive star Jadeveon Clowney, who was traded to Seattle, is a big blow to a front featuring J.J. Watt that was among the strongest in the league last season. There will be more pressure on a secondary that has questions after the team let S Tyrann Mathieu and veteran CB/S Kareem Jackson go in free agency.
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 45-1. Over/under wins 8½.
Expectations: Watson and an offense starring Hopkins and Will Fuller V and with new addition Kenny Stills should improve behind a stronger line. And if the defense can overcome the loss of Clowney and Watson continues his development, the Texans could be much better than last season as they try to make a deeper playoff run.
Strengths: Everything changed when QB Andrew Luck announced he was retiring at 29. The offensive line went from worst to first in sacks allowed last season and could be better with the same starters for a second straight season. All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard led the league in tackles as a rookie and expects to exceed that total in 2019.
Weaknesses: Injuries. Kicker Adam Vinatieri, the NFL’s career scoring leader, missed most of training camp with a knee injury, All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson has been slowed by an ankle injury and WR Daurice Fountain has been lost for the season with a dislocated and fractured left ankle. The linebackers are young, and depth could be problem.
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 60-1. Over/under wins 7 ½.
Expectations: Even without Luck, this season shouldn’t be a repeat of the 2017 debacle. Why? The supporting cast is significantly stronger. The Colts have a top-five offensive line, a deep pool of talented receivers, two Pro Bowl tight ends and a solid backfield. QB Jacoby Brissett has some valuable experience. The defense is much better, too. The addition of DE Justin Houston should strengthen the pass rush.
Strengths: Coordinator Dean Pees’ return for a second season gives the defense a chance to improve on 2018, when the Titans ranked No. 3 in fewest points allowed and sixth defending the pass. The secondary returns all starters intact, and OLBs Harold Landry III and ameron Wake easily should combine for more than the two sacks Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan managed last season. The return of three-time Pro Bowl TE Delanie Walker, along with the additions of WRs Adam Humphries and A.J. Brown, surrounds QB Marcus Mariota with the most help he’s had yet.
Weaknesses: Questions about Mariota’s health and whether he can earn a new contract will linger all season, and QB Ryan Tannehill’s presence has started speculation about how long Mariota starts. The four-game suspension of three-time Pro Bowl LT Taylor Lewan coincides with three of the first four games being on the road. The Titans threw the second-fewest passes in the NFL last season.
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 90-1. Over/under wins 8.
Expectations: The Titans are a popular pick to finish last in the AFC South despite going 9-7 each of the past three years and being one win shy of a second straight playoff berth last season. Second-year coach Mike Vrabel has been pushing the Titans to go from good to great, and new OC Arthur Smith has tried to make the offense as friendly to quarterbacks as possible.
Strengths: The defense is among the best in the league, with loads of talent up front and arguably the NFL’s top cornerback tandem. Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue and rookie Josh Allen should provide plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, while Marcell Dareus, Abry Jones and Taven Bryan clog up the middle. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are elite in coverage.
Weaknesses: The offensive line was a mess in 2018, with LT Cam Robinson, LG Andrew Norwell and C Brandon Linder ending up on injured reserve and missing a combined 26 games. All three are healthy now, but it remains to be seen whether they can stay on the field, protect QB Nick Foles and create enough space for bruising RB Leonard Fournette to operate.
Vegas says: Win Super Bowl 50-1. Over/under wins 8.
Expectations: The Jaguars believe that last year — they lost 10 of 12 to end the season — was a fluke caused by mounting injuries on offense and poor quarterback play. They insist it won’t happen again and believe Foles replacing Blake Bortles will be the key to becoming more consistent on offense.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/raiders/article/2019-NFL-preview-Capsules-of-AFC-teams-14414874.php.