Let’s take an early look at what should be the top teams in the AFC in 2016. Of course this is VERY early on in the process. The draft and free agency will change things dramatically in the coming months. For now though, we will look at the teams poised to make a run at Super Bowl 51.
- Pittsburgh Steelers – Coming off their divisional round loss to the Denver Broncos, the Steelers are ready to make the leap to championship caliber. Pittsburgh’s offense is already one of the best in the NFL. Quarterback Ben Roethlisburger has weapons galore at his disposal. The return of a healthy Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown will insure that Pittsburgh once again will have a top offense in 2016. On defense, the Steelers have some work to do. The secondary needs an impact corner in free agency to help upgrade a poor pass defense. Pittsburgh could also use another pass rusher in the draft or through free agency. Salary cap wise, the Steelers are in decent shape. They are currently about 7 million under the cap, and have the ability to restructure contracts to create even more cap space. There are no headline free agents of their own to sign this year as well. Guard Ramon Foster and cornerback William Guay are good contributors, but not essential to have back. With some good offseason acquisitions the Steelers could be holding Lombardy trophy number seven next year.
- New England Patriots– The Patriots are always in the conversation for the Super Bowl as long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are there. The Pats are coming off an AFC championship loss in which Tom Brady was roughed up in a big way. New England’s inability to protect Brady, cost them a chance at another Super Bowl. The Patriots will have to address their pass protection in the offseason. Getting a top tier tackle through the draft will be difficult due to the loss of their 1st round pick in 2016. The Patriots had that pick taken away as part of the deflategate punishment. The good news is the Patriots have no major free agents of their own to sign and have at least 7 million in cap space to use.
- Cincinnati Bengals – Cincinnati is has to deal with a devastating loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild card round of the playoffs. The Bengals basically gave the game away with back to back personal fouls on the games most crucial drive. This didn’t help Marvin Lewis’ reputation as a bad playoff coach. The Bengals are winless in seven playoff games under Lewis. Looking ahead to 2016, the Bengals are one of the top teams in terms of salary cap space. They have approximately 38 million to spend under the cap. Cincinnati has quite a few of their own free agents to sign this offseason. Key players like Adam Jones, Reggie Nelson, Marvin Jones, and Leon Hall are set to hit free agency.
- Indianapolis Colts – The return of a healthy Andrew Luck puts the Colts right in the mix for the best of the AFC. Surrounding Luck with more talent is the biggest issue for Indianapolis. The Colts went 8-8 and missed the playoffs in 2015. This was largely due to Luck missing 9 games because of injury. What makes the Colts scary for 2016 is they have 28 million in cap space to spend next season. Add to that, the Colts have the 18th pick in the upcoming draft. With a few good free agent signings, and a healthy Andrew Luck, the Colts could find themselves playing on Super Bowl Sunday.
- New York Jets – Defense wins championships right? Well the Jets have that covered. New York had the 4th ranked defense in the NFL last season. What the Jets don’t have is a quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick is not, and never will be, a championship quarterback. Geno Smith isn’t the answer either. Recent rumors of Colin Kaepernick wanting to come to New York have surfaced. Maybe a change of scenery, and a much better offensive line would jumpstart Kaepernick’s career. The Jets have close to 15 million in cap space for 2016. The problem with that is they have key decisions on their own free agents Chris Ivory and Muhammad Wikerson to deal with.
- Best of the rest – The defending AFC champion Broncos did not make the top five for a variety of reasons. Peyton Manning will likely retire, and there are major free agents for 2016. Players like Von Miller, Malik Jackson, and Brock Osweiler will have to be resigned if Denver expects to contend. The Chiefs will be essentially the same team in 2016, and that’s not good enough. The Texans need a quarterback before they can be taken seriously. Baltimore should bounce back from an injury ravaged season to be in the playoff hunt. The Raiders and Bills may contend for a playoff spot, but are not ready to contend for a title. While some of these teams will improve themselves in the draft or through free agency, expect Pittsburgh and New England to be the top of the AFC in 2016.