The Question I Need To Answer for Each AFC Team Before Week 1

For any NFL modeler or handicapper, one of the biggest parts of the offseason is answering the key questions surrounding each team. Figuring out the range of outcomes that can come from coaching changes, player development trajectories, scheme changes, offseason additions, etc. is a pivotal task in offseason preparation and many times there are questions yet to be answered by the time camp begins. To help illustrate this process and provide insight into my own progress, I’ve highlighted a question for each of the sixteen AFC teams that I am looking to answer before Week 1.

For those of you that missed it, my NFL model plays are now available to purchase. The model plays include a full refund if the plays do not yield a five unit profit by the end of the season, making it so that a $100 bettor either breaks even or gets refunded. If you didn’t follow along last year, the model went 75-47-6 record (61% hit rate) for +43.1 units (18% ROI) and you can read a full recap of the results here.

AFC North

The Baltimore Ravens’ defense suffered losses of FS Eric Weddle, OLB Terrell Suggs, OLB Za’Darius Smith, and ILB CJ Mosley in free agency. In fact, the loss is the second-largest offseason net loss by a defense according to Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric (AV). To what extent will the additions of FS Earl Thomas, OLB Pernell McPhee, and Shane Ray help mitigate those losses? The answer to that question will likely determine how far the reigning AFC North champions will go this year.

On the other hand, the Browns made two incredibly exciting additions to their offense with Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt. However, it’s not these additions that I have my eye on – my sights are set on third-year tight end David Njoku. He has been a slight disappointment thus far, but tight ends typically take 3-4 years to begin producing at the pro level. Can Njoku put together that typical leap and finally become the contributor he was promised to be? 

In the last 20 years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had incredible success drafting and developing wide receivers. Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Antwaan Randle El, Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Juju Smith-Schuster are incredible yields across just 24 picks at the position. Who will be the next wide receiver success story for the Steelers? With Antonio Brown donning black for a team on the opposite coast now, eyes are now on 2018 second-round pick James Washington and 2019 third-round pick Diontae Johnson to see who can add their name to that illustrious group. Inability from either receiver to produce on a significant level this year will likely leave the passing offense a bit bare.

With A.J. Green already out for 6-8 weeks and with the expectations for the Bengals so incredibly low, new offensive coordinator Zac Taylor has the perfect opportunity to run the offense he envisions without much pressure. Eyes are certainly on the young and emerging Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd, but the future of this team needs more building blocks to work with. What can Zac Taylor do with the third-year, former ninth-overall pick John Ross? If it’s anything of significance, this offense might be a sleeping giant in future seasons and may even be sneaky enough to cause a little trouble this year along the way.

AFC East

The Patriots will start their annual SuperBowl hunt without Rob Gronkowski for the first time since 2009. They also lost wide receivers Chris Hogan and Cordell Patterson in free agency, and Demaryius Thomas is currently on the PUP list. Who is going to step up and be the weapons necessary for this team to make another serious run? First-round selection N’Keal Harry might be too young and raw, Phillip Dorsett has been disappointing with New England thus far, and Josh Gordon’s likelihood of seeing and staying on the field is always up in the air. My pick is former Redskin Maurice Harris, who seems to already be turning heads in camp.

By the end of the 2018 season, the Buffalo Bills were regularly running out players like Deonte Thompson, Jason Croom, Marcus Murphy, Ray-Andre Holmes, and Isaiah McKenzie. To breathe some new life into the offense, the Bills added 15 free agents worth over $170 million in contract value to the offense this offseason. How much is the massive spending on offense going to help Josh Allen? Some of that spending included adding WR Cole Beasley (fourth in receiver catch percentage) as well as pairing John Brown with Robert Foster, who ranked sixth and first in average targeted air yards (TAY), respectively. Being able to layer the underneath with reliability while threatening big play potential over the top could do wonders for Josh Allen, especially when paired with his lethal abilities on the ground.

According to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost (AGL), the Jets last year ranked 29th in combined wide receiver and running back health. Getting Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa on the field along with the newly added Le’Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder should do wonders for Sam Darnold’s sophomore campaign. But will the Jets’ offensive line completely offset the potential of the skill position players? This unit ranked dead last according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and stuffed rate, and ProFootballFocus ranks this unit 28th heading into 2019. That could spell disaster for Darnold as only Josh Rosen ranked worse in passer rating when pressured last year.

Even when a team is expected to be bad (the Dolphins have the lowest regular season win total), it is still important to be thorough in your evaluation. After all, any team can provide value in the market as long as your evaluation of them is correct. My focus is on one particular position group: wide receiver. Will Kenny Stills and/or DeVante Parker finally be able to deliver on the seemingly annual offseason tradition of having potential? If either (and especially if both) can return significant production, the effect could be enough for the Dolphins to show some value against the spread throughout the season.

AFC South

One of the most pivotal questions I need an answer to is “Will Texans’ head coach Bill O’Brien continue to be one of the worst playcallers in the NFL?“. In 2018, the Texans benefited from the easiest schedule and were able to circumvent the damages done by O’Brien’s playcalling (e.g. he ranked first in first down run rate). This year, they are set to face one of the toughest schedules according to win totals. Ultimately, the likely answer to the question is “no”, but it is something I will keep an eye on because any surprises on that front could lead to heavy upgrades to the Texans’ offensive efficiency.

The Colts exceeded expectations in 2018 despite ranking 30th in total Adjusted Games Lost. Why does this matter? In 2017, the average improvement of the ten teams who ranked highest is AGL was three wins, and five of those teams made the playoffs despite only one team having made it the year prior. Despite what you may think, health can be determined by more than luck. Consistent fortune or misfortune in the health department can signal the quality of a team’s strength and conditioning staff, how the team handles travel, etc. The Colts in particular have been consistently near the bottom in the last five years, ranking 30th, 17th, 20th, 26th, 30th. So the question is “Can the Colts stay healthy in 2019?“.

The Tennessee Titans stumbled through 2018 with Marcus Mariota  playing through seven injuries and Delanie Walker going down for the year in Week 1. With those two presumably healthy going into 2019, the focus is on an offensive line that ranked fourth worst in sack ratelargely in part due to the new and difficult-to-learn zone-blocking scheme that was implemented last year. Will the Titans offensive line have a better grasp of the zone-blocking scheme this year? Some improvement on that end as well as the addition of Adam Humphries can really help the offense put together more dynamic and sustainable drives in 2019.

Will Nick Foles find success with the Jaguars without the plethora of offensive weapons he had on the Eagles? It’s going to be a jarring experience going from Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, Dallas Goedert, Darren Sproles, Nelson Agholor, Golden Tate, and a stout offensive line to this:

I’m not sure why Alfred Blue is listed as the starting running back ahead of Leonard Fournette on ProFootballFocus, but given Fournette’s injury history, this might be an accurate representation of the Jaguars’ offense for a good portion of the season. 

AFC West

For the Kansas City Chiefs, there is really only one questions to answer: “How much regression is too much regression for Patrick Mahomes?“. Regression is essentially inevitable for the third-year quarterback, but even with that regression the Chiefs are still clear-cut SuperBowl contenders. But any fall too far from last year’s results could spell doom for a team that plays in a tough and improving division and fills out the rest of their schedule against teams like the Ravens, Colts, Texans, Packers, Vikings, Patriots, and Bears.

There isn’t much to say about the Los Angeles Chargers‘ offense as not much has changed. They lost Tyrell Williams in free agency but get tight end Hunter Henry back from injury, and whether Melvin Gordon sticks to his holdout or not likely won’t matter as Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson are more than capable of filling Gordon’s hypothetical void. The defense, however, is much more intriguing. The Chargers ranked 28th in health on defense last year, which included missing Joey Bosa for ten games last year. They also added LB Thomas Davis in free agency and DT Jerry Tillery through the draft to a defense that already features studs like DT Melvin Ingram, DE Uchenna Nwosu, SS Derwin James, CB Desmond King, and CB Casey Hayward Jr. One area where the Chargers are lacking and may be left exposed is at safety, especially in dime packages when facing 11 personnel. The Chargers are left to depend on Jaylen Watkins (PFF grade 57.2) and rookie Nasir Adderly, coming off a year where they already ranked second-worst in DVOA against deep passes. Can the rest of the Chargers defense make up for their tendency to give up the deep ball?

The Broncos’ offense will look a lot different to start this year than the way it finished 2018. Joe Flacco is the new quarterback in Denver and will play behind an offensive line that loses star center Matt Paradis but gains RG Dalton Risner and RT Ja’Wuan James, as well as one of the league’s premier offensive line coaches in Mike Munchak (formerly of the Steelers). On top of that Emmanuel Sanders will return from injury after putting up a blistering first half in 2018, second-year wide receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton are primed to take a next step, and stud tight end prospect Noah Fant joins the fray. I’m more than confident that this Broncos offense can’t be any worse than last year’s iteration, so my main focus is actually on the other side of the ball. In a division featuring two elite offenses (the Chiefs and Chargers) and another that is trying to get there (the Raiders added Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Josh Jacobs, etc.), the Broncos seemingly have the best defense to counter the offensive firepower of the AFC West. With former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio now at the helm, can the already prolific Broncos defense take a big enough step forward to push this team to the next level? Combining an average / above average offense with a dominant defense seemed to do wonders for Fangio and the Bears last year, who knows what it can do for the Broncos in 2019?

The Raiders took a lot of risks this offseason in an attempt to make up the talent deficit that plagued their efforts last year. They traded for star wide receiver Antonio Brown (who is entering his age 31 season); they signed Tyrell Williams to a four-year deal worth $44 million despite the fact that he has only eclipsed 100 targets OR 50 receptions OR 5 TDs in one season so far (the season in which Keenan Allen tore his ACL in Week 1); and they took backup Alabama running back Josh Jacobs in the first round of the draft. The Raiders also signed RT Trent Brown (PFF rank 71.0) as well as LG Richie Incognito, who is also a massive risk and did not play in 2018. However, with these two additions the Raiders starting offensive line has all but one player who doesn’t rank “Above Average” or better on PFF: left tackle and 2018 fifteenth-overall pick Kolton Miller. Can Kolton Miller and Richie Incognito stabilize the left side of the Raiders offensive line? Given that Derek Carr ranked 30th in passer rating when pressured last year, this is an incredibly important question to answer for the boys in black and silver.

Ahat’s going to wrap it up for the first write-up of the 2019 NFL season! Hopefully you got some interesting tidbits to chew on or some insight into what to be looking for when evaluating teams in camp and preseason. Next up, I’ll be looking at the key questions I have for the sixteen NFC teams.