Here is Part II of Scott Dryden’s AFC predictions for the 2014 NFL season.
Indianapolis (11-5) -The Colts are a fantastic team who will be a factor as long as Andrew Luck is healthy. Entering his 3rd season, Luck is already an upper echelon quarterback. He is mobile, has a great arm and displays poise when the chips are on the table. The addition of veteran receiver Hakeem Nicks will help, as will the development of young tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. TY Hilton is a tough cover and a great target for Luck. On defense, the addition of D’qwell Jackson will bring a steady veteran presence. The defense still has plenty of questions - they need a major step up for 2nd year linebacker Bjoern Werner. There will be struggles with the running game and on defense; however Andrew Luck and his mates will be sensational. The playoffs and possibly a championship are on the near horizon.
Rookie Watch - Jake Mewhort will be a solid starter from day one. He is a technically sound lineman who will be a great addition. Donte Moncrief has a shot at being a really good receiver.
Tennessee (7-9) - New coach - new system - same pressure. Jake Locker must produce or he will no doubt be on his way out. The athletic Locker shows glimpses but injuries have curtailed his development. The Chris Johnson era is over - some may be happy the former All-Pro is gone. His production continued to dip but the Titans’ will likely struggle again despite a clear desire for a power running game by new Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt. The receiving corps should be good with Kendall Wright and 2nd year pro Justin Hunter. Hunter has all the skills to be a very good wide out. The offensive line is among the best in the league. Mauler Chance Warmack is a stud as is opposite guard Andy Levitre. Newcomer Michael Oher is a big addition. On defense, there are plenty of questions especially with the loss of defensive back Alterraun Verner. Middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard will bring physicality and sure tackling. There will be some adjustments to the new 3-4 defense, but overall a solid group who will play aggressively under coordinator Ray Horton. There are a lot of nice pieces but for any hope of the playoffs, Jake Locker will have to dramatically improve his game.
Rookie Watch - Taylor Lewan has a lot of nasty in him. He will compete for a starting position early on. RB Bishop Sankey is a quick back with surprising strength. Expect a high number of touches for the former Husky.
Houston (7-9) - The Texans took an epic fall last year. Year after year they were a Super Bowl contender, and then the wheels finally fell off. The quarterback position was the biggest concern - unfortunately for Houston fans the same will be said in 2014. Ryan Fitzpatrick will take over the reins, which is a puzzling choice for many. New Head Coach Bill O’Brien will have to work some magic for the passing game to be even average. If Arian Foster returns to form, he can help take some of the pressure from the passing game. Andre Johnson appears to have gotten over his tantrum. Johnson and TE Garrett Graham will be effective but need 2nd year receiver DeAndre Hopkins to continue his development. The defense is extremely talented. JJ Watt is as good as any player in the game. The 6’5” Watt is a beast against the run and is a dominant pass rusher. The return of Brian Cushing is huge. Overall, Houston’s roster is as good as any from top to bottom but the QB position is a major question mark. Fitzpatrick may play well in spurts but expect fan favorite Case Keenum to get some starts as well. Houston will be much improved but a playoff appearance will be a difficult goal to reach.
Rookie Watch - Jadeveon Clowney is an athletic freak. He will be a major factor right out of the gate. Expect a big season from Clowney. Second round pick Xavier Su’a-Filo has fell under the radar due to Clowney but will be a very good starting guard.
Jacksonville (5-11) - Head Coach Gus Bradley is a fiery competitor. He is building a team in his image - at least on the defensive side of the ball. On offense, there are major questions starting with a shaky offensive line. Second year pro Luke Joeckel must play up to his billing. The rest of the line frankly has plenty of concerns. There will be no more MJD at running back. This may be an upgrade as Jones-Drew struggled mightily last season. Toby Gerhart, acquired via free agency, should get plenty of carries. Ultra talented receiver Justin Blackmon is suspended yet again which will put the pressure on veteran Cecil Shorts and rookies Marquise Lee and Allen Robinson. Chad Henne is slated to start. He is a solid player but in no way the answer. Expect rookie Blake Bortles to get some starts in the 1st half of the season. The defense is turning into a physical group with Seattle castoffs and young head hunters like Jonathan Cyprien. The 2nd year safety is a big hitter who will progress nicely under Bradley. The Jags are a young team whose arrow is pointing up. They will make strides this season, but the 2015 Jaguars may in fact be a team to keep an eye on.
Rookie Watch - Plenty to watch here as Jacksonville had an outstanding draft. QB Blake Bortles, aforementioned receivers Lee and Robinson, along with LB Telvin Smith and RB Storm Johnson should all be major contributors in their rookie season.
Denver (12-4) - The Broncos made several big moves during the off-season, however, the biggest addition will be the return of LT Ryan Clady and Von Miller from injuries. Clady is one of the game’s best and was sorely missed during his absence. Peyton Manning is Peyton Manning - despite the Super Bowl annihilation. There is no doubt Manning will have a big season. His targets are very talented but Eric Decker will be missed, even with the addition of leadership instructor Emmanuel Sanders. Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas will have monster years and expect more of the same from Wes Welker. Running back Montee Ball should take a big leap. On defense, the team took major steps with the additions of TJ Ward, Aquib Talib and DeMarcus Ware. If Ware is healthy, a big if, he will be a big time factor. Von Miller is one of the games most dynamic defenders. The improvement of the interior d-line along with the additions have the Broncos on pace for another AFC Championship.
Rookie Watch - Bradley Roby has all the natural skill to be a high level corner. However, he lacks consistent effort and technique. Former Indiana receiver Cody Latimer should develop nicely in a spot role.
Kansas City (11-5) - The Chiefs had an amazing turnaround last season. They reached the playoffs, which would have been lauded had it not been for a complete meltdown in Indianapolis. Regardless, optimism reigns supreme in KC. Alex Smith had a very good year in Andy Reid’s system. Smith is a smart athletic QB who seldom makes mistakes. The key cog however is Jamaal Charles. The elusive tailback had a tremendous season. The receiver position is a big question mark especially considering the uncertainty of Dwayne Bowe, who continues to make unscrupulous decisions. The offensive line has some questions but expect LT Eric Fisher to make big strides in his 2nd year. When healthy, the Chief defense is outstanding. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are elite pass rushers and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson is a tremendous tackler. Eric Berry is an elite ball hawking safety. Last season was not a one year fluke - expect the Chiefs to return to the playoffs.
Rookie Watch - Dee Ford has the skills to be an elite pass rusher. He will not get a ton of snaps, barring injury, but expect him to contribute to an already elite pass rush. Phillip Gaines will get plenty of action at corner during his rookie campaign. In the long term, former Georgia QB Aaron Murray may pay the biggest dividends.
San Diego (7-9) - It was far from pretty, but the Chargers managed to back into the playoffs which resulted in a dominating win at Cincinnati. Phillip Rivers had a bounce back year throwing for over 4,400 yards and connecting on 32 TDs. Although Antonio Gates isn’t what he used to be he is still a quality target. Keenan Allen surpassed expectations in his rookie year. If he stays healthy, the sky is the limit for the former Cal Bear. The offensive line should be steady once again opening up holes for bruising runner Ryan Mathews. The addition of Donald Brown may go unnoticed to many - but he will be a major contributor in both the passing and running game. The defense was up and down but expect a more consistent unit in 2014. The health of Melvin Ingram will be a major factor. When healthy, he is a very talented pass rusher. The rest of the line backing corps should improve as well. Manti Te’o has a shot at being a very good middle backer. The secondary was ridiculed throughout the season - understandably so. However, an improved pass rush could shore up many issues. The addition of Brandon Flowers will be impactful as well. Free safety Eric Weddle continues to play at a very high level. The Chargers will be solid but a repeat playoff appearance will be very difficult.
Rookie Watch - DB Jason Verett will get snaps out of the gate. He is a versatile corner who will be a big factor. Jerry Attaochu is an athletic freak. He is raw but if used as a pass rushing specialist - he will contribute.
Oakland (3-13) - The Raiders had another major roster overhaul. Now they will look to Houston castoff Matt Schaub. Schaub has been a solid QB throughout his career but last season the wheels fell off. Can he rebound in the face of The Black Hole? Oakland also added Maurice Jones-Drew to combine with oft injured Darren McFadden. They both will be relied on heavily as will versatile FB Marcel Reece. The receiver position once again is severely lacking talent. They have a bunch of OK receivers which is going to make it tough for Schaub. The offensive line will not provide a harmonious habitat either. The offense will struggle throughout. The defense will be no better. The signings of Lamaar Woodley and Justin Tuck could be stop gaps. The line backing unit also has holes with the hope Khalil Mack can be a major addition. The secondary also has holes. DJ Hayden must improve dramatically. The Raiders have a bunch of old veterans past their prime which has been their modus operandi. Expect Oakland to be one of, if not the worst team in the league. The Jameis Winston sweepstakes begin.
Rookie Watch - Khalil Mack has a chance to be a dynamic linebacker. He will get plenty of opportunities to show off his extreme athleticism. Derek Carr will no doubt get a shot to play this year. If he pans out, Oakland’s fortunes could drastically change.
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