A poorly perceived free agency for the Patriots didn't do much to hurt New England's chances at winning another conference title, but an aggressive offseason from Ryan Grigson and the Indianapolis Colts certainly improved the team's stock and puts them alongside the Patriots atop our AFC rankings.
New England has "lost" free agency enough times under Bill Belichick to earn the head coach some benefit of the doubt. Yes, he is now missing one of the three best cover corners in football, and his linebackers are banged up. Still, as evidenced by his sunny disposition at the NFL Annual Meeting last month in Arizona, he's not sweating it.
Grigson, on the other hand, has "won" free agency enough to know that it's more about quality players who will fit the team's vision. For the first time, he seems to have his operation firing on all cylinders.
As we close out our pre-draft look at which teams got -- and remained -- better during free agency, here's a breakdown of our findings from the AFC.
This is a last-ditch effort by the Colts to capitalize on a relatively open window in their conference before needing to retool their roster, which is why they overspent to bring in Frank Gore and Andre Johnson. It's an exciting time reminiscent of the 2011 New York Jets (Plaxico Burress, Derrick Mason) but with a way better option under center and no other team beating them down within the division.
Andrew Luck is the best quarterback not named Tom Brady in the conference, and the Colts have done well to trim some of the excess fat off their last two playoff teams (this isn't a LaRon Landry joke because, come on).
Pass rush aside, this has the feel of an elite offense that needs one hit in the draft across the front five. This will give coordinator Pep Hamilton a true range of plays to work with and an ability to fall back into his comfort zone -- a ground game that opens the field up for its star quarterback. If they could pull something off similar to what the Browns were able to do in the 29-93 range, nabbing a versatile guard/tackle like Joel Bitonio, they could secure their fortunes in 2015.
For the Patriots, their offseason was more about loss, and there's no question that the departure of Darrelle Revis will impact what Bill Belichick can do defensively. Revis, even last year, could take an entire half of the field away. That being said, Belichick's strength has always been versatility. He can churn a roster toward a developing strength better than any coach in football, and his first-round pick will likely be an indicator of what he sees this Patriots team looking like. Don't be surprised if they start out slow like they did a year ago.
Right on the verge:
This is in order. Denver and Pittsburgh both give off a similar feel, though the Broncos are much better off on the defensive side of the ball. This year has Peyton Manning's farewell tour written all over it, but the vulnerability displayed by the offense following his injury, and the subsequent chess moves made by the organization, have us feeling a little down on Denver heading into the season opener. We know Manning can learn Gary Kubiak's new offense in a year, but can everyone else? This could change, of course, and we have no reason to doubt the fact that Manning will play at an All-Pro level once again. But how does everything else work around him? How does Denver's defense work without John Fox and Jack Del Rio? How does a depleted supporting cast play into the offense's dynamics?
Cincinnati gets lumped in the middle for another bland -- but not entirely uninspiring -- offseason, and the Bills get elevated into the mix for drastically improving themselves this offseason. The battle for the final playoff spots in this conference will be fascinating to watch. All eyes will be on the Bengals come draft day to see what direction they decide to go. On one hand, they could improve the team by locking down a pass rusher or one of the elite wide receivers at the top of the draft. Strengthening an offensive line to propel their dangerous running game would also give them an edge. This might be one of the more flexible seasons for Marvin Lewis heading into May.
The Texans also get the nod here because they are one capable draft -- and one miraculous turnaround by Jadeveon Clowney -- away from having one of the eight best defenses in the league. Imagine if they replaced Brooks Reed with an even more dynamic edge rusher?
Important to note: We're assuming Philip Rivers is still playing quarterback in San Diego this time next year.
I'm going to respectfully disagree with my colleague, Marc Sessler, just a bit and drop the Ravens below the Bengals in the AFC North. To be fair, this is a positive reflection on Ozzie Newsome, who is in the midst of a major roster overhaul. He got what he could out of the Haloti Ngata trade and he refused to overpay for departing stars because this is a brief window of time during which he can fix the team's glaring problems without falling into a massive slump. When a GM picks as far back in the draft as consistently as Newsome does, these offseasons are going to come. Now, he needs to do what he does best and hit in the draft.
The Jets, despite making upgrades similar to the Bills', tend to scare me a little more at the quarterback position. Their core offensive linemen aren't getting any younger, and a defense that was hand-selected over six years by Rex Ryan now changes hands. There's no doubt that Todd Bowles will view some players quite differently and might not be able to use them in the same way.
Still, I count the Ravens, Chiefs, Jets and Dolphins in the upper portion of the lower tier. Each of them has a good enough chance at making the playoffs. Miami made improvements but is still top-heavy in terms of talent. A big year from Ryan Tannehill can obviously change my mind.
As for the Chiefs, they'll need to find a way to pair Jeremy Maclin with a solid No. 2 target. Chris Wesseling, in his AFC West reset, was right when he said that their offensive line was inconsistent a year ago, and now they've lost the best player in that group, center Rodney Hudson. It isn't enough to plummet them into the conference's basement, but we'd be surprised if they didn't require a transitional year to get back in contention in 2016.
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