June 21, 2015 - Danny Shimon
Five AFC Teams to Watch That Missed the 2014 Playoffs
Continuing our look ahead to the upcoming 2015 season, we examine five AFC teams, who missed the playoffs last season, which have a chance to surprise many and contend this year. Unlike the NFC teams, where they all had losing records in 2014, our AFC list has three teams who finished last season with winning records. Five NFC Teams to Watch That Missed the 2014 Playoffs Buffalo Bills (2014 record: 9-7) Head Coach: Rex Ryan Key Addition(s): RB LeSean McCoy, QB Matt Cassel, FB Jerome Felton, WR Percy Harvin, TE Charles Clay Key Loss: LB Kiko Alonso, TE Scott Chandler, RB C.J. Spiller Why They Have a Chance: Former Jets coach Rex Ryan was brought in, after Doug Marrone surprisingly opted out of his contract, to help lead the Bills back to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. When we think of Rex Ryan, the first thing that comes to mind is defense. Whether as the head coach of the Jets or defensive coordinator with the Ravens, Ryan’s teams were always strong defensively. With the Bills, Ryan inherits a team with a number of good players on defense already in place. What Ryan needs is an offense that can put up points and keep his defense fresh with a strong running game. In comes offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Running back LeSean McCoy. Roman was Jim Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator in San Francisco where he over looked an offensive unit that finished 4th overall in rushing last season. The 49ers averaged 29.4 rush attempts per game with an average of 136 yards on the ground. Roman utilizes multiple sets, with different formations, and physical lead blockers who help open holes for the running back to get through the line of scrimmage. McCoy, who was acquired from the Eagles for Linebacker Kiko Alonso, will provide the workhorse that Roman loves at running back. Paired with veteran Fred Jackson, the duo gives Roman a one two punch he can ride to close out a game. The questions on offense remain at the quarterback position where veteran Matt Cassel was acquired to compete with former first round pick E.J. Manuel. Early reports out of Buffalo is that Cassel appeared to be the front runner to win the starting job, but early struggles in OTA’s have raised some questions. With weapons on the outside in Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and Percy Harvin to go along with free agent acquisition Charles Clay at tight end, the Bills have the making of a good offense. Solid play from the quarterback position will go a long way in determining the playoff fate of the Bills. Defensively, as mentioned previously, Ryan has good core players in Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams, Preston Brown, Stephon Gilmore, and Leodis McKelvin. The Bills led the NFL in sacks last season with 54. Ryan has predominately coached a 3-4 defense but has indicated, this season, he will not specify the type of defense he will play, instead, allowing his staff the freedom to coordinate the defense that gives them the best chance to stop their opponent that week. There have even been mentions of Buffalo bringing back the famed Bears 46 defense, made popular by Rex’s father Buddy Ryan. A new head coach who exudes bravado and confidence in his teams, a run first ball control offense with weapons on the outside, and a defense who will be let loose to attack and bring pressure from all angles might just be the right recipe to get the Buffalo Bills back in the playoffs for the first time since they lost the Music City Miracle. Houston Texans (2014 record: 9 - 7) Head Coach: Bill O’Brien Key Addition(s): QB Brian Hoyer, NT Vince Wilfork, S Rahim Moore, RB Chris Polk, S Stevie Brown, WR Jaelen Strong (Draft Pick) Key Loss: WR Andre Johnson, DB D.J. Swearinger, C Chris Meyer, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick Why They Have a Chance: Entering his first season as the Texans Head Coach, Bill O’Brien did a nice job finishing with a winning record despite battling a number of keys injuries. Houston won five of their last seven games and just missed out on the last wild card spot. The Texans appear poised to take the next step. Offensively, one of the first moves the Texans made was signing free agent QB Brian Hoyer. By no means is Hoyer a franchise quarterback, but he is familiar with O’Brien, and the system, going back to when both were with the Patriots. Hoyer is a veteran who will earn the respect of the other veterans and can command the huddle. Ryan Mallett (another ex-patriot) was also re-signed and will battle Hoyer for the starting job. The Texans offense will revolve around the running attack, led by Arian Foster. Foster, in only 13 games last season, finished with over 1,500 combined yards (Rushing and receiving) and 13 touchdowns. His backup, rookie Alfred Blue added over 600 combined yards and 3 touchdowns. The Texans did release longtime standout receiver Andre Johnson. Johnson was no longer the player he used to be, but he still had a presence on the field that will need to be replaced. The hope is third year receiver DeAndre Hopkins can fill the void left by Johnson. Hopkins had his breakout season last year with over 1,200 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns. On the opposite side will be former Jaguar Cecil Shorts, signed as a free agent. Houston also drafted receiver Jaelen Strong from Arizona State in the third round. Leading the defense will be the reigning Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. Watt is coming off a superb year where he finished with 20.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. To rely on Watt duplicating those stats again in 2015 might be a reach, so Houston went out and brought in some help. It appeared the Texans were set on upgrading their defense up the middle at all three levels. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork was scooped up, after New England cut him, to help shore up the run defense. Wilfork is not much of a threat to rush the passer but will bring leadership and toughness to the Texans defensive unit. Also signed as a free agent was free safety Rahim Moore who will look to help bolster the pass defense. In the draft, Houston took middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney who, along with Brian Cushing, will man the two inside linebacker spots in defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 defense. With the expected return to full health of last year’s top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, the expectations will be that the Texans will improve on last season’s 16th ranked defense. With Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts in their division, winning the AFC South will be no easy task, but the Texans were competitive in both games last season versus the Colts. With some upgrades on defense, solid play out of the quarterback position, and a healthy rushing attack, Houston hopes to make a run at the division champs this season. New York Jets (2014 Record: 4 - 12) Head Coach: Todd Bowles Key Addition(s): CB Darrelle Revis, CB Antonio Cromartie, WR Brandon Marshall, G James Carpenter, RB Stevan Ridley, RB Zac Stacy, QB Ryan Fitzgerald, CB Buster Skrine, DE Leonard Williams (Draft Pick), WR Devin Smith (Draft Pick) Key Loss: WR Percy Harvin, RB Chris Johnson Why They Have a Chance: The Jets had one of, if not, the busiest off season of any team. Coming off a horrendous 4 – 12 season, Owner Woody Johnson cleaned house and brought in a whole new regime. Mike Maccagnan was hired as the team’s General Manager, while the reigning AP Assistant Coach of the Year Todd Bowles was brought in as Head Coach. From there, the two men started reshaping this team. On offense, incumbent QB Geno Smith will be given a chance to compete and win the starting job. His main competition appears to be veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. The quarterback position might single handedly determine the fate of the Jets 2015 season. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey has been entrusted to build an offense that will bring out the strengths of whomever wins the starting job. Smith will head into training camp listed first on the depth chart, Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, played for Gailey in Buffalo, so he has a feel for his coach and experience in the system. Either quarterback will have weapons at his disposal. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall was one of the first acquisitions made by Maccagnan. Marshall will give the Jets offense a true number one receiver, allowing Eric Decker to slide into the number two spot, something he excelled at in Denver. Second round pick Devin Smith will bring the element of speed to the position. With 4.4 speed, Smith was one of the best deep ball catchers in the draft. At running back, Chris Ivory returns for his third season as a Jet. Joining him will be free agent pick-ups Zac Stacy (Rams) and Stevan Ridley (Patriots). Defensively Todd Bowles did a terrific job in Arizona coordinating a defense that dealt with injuries and suspensions most of last season. Bowles likes to play an aggressive, attacking brand of defense, and one that sets the tone of the football game. He did not have the talent with the Cardinals that he will have with the Jets. The defensive line has the likes of Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison, Sheldon Richardson, and first round pick Leonard Williams supplying pressure up front. Coupled with a secondary that features Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Buster Skrine, and former first rounder Dee Milliner, and Linebackers Calvin Pace, David Harris, Jason Babin, and Quinton Coples. Bowles will have the ability to bring pressure, from all three levels of the defense, at opposing quarterbacks. The AFC east looks to be one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL this coming season. To be a playoff contender, the Jets will need things to fall into place quickly. Offensively, the Jets will be a work in progress until they figure out which quarterback gives them the best chance to succeed. What will keep the Jets competitive from the start will be their defense, and Maccagnan and Bowles have put together a collection of talent that can compete with anyone in their division. K.C. Chiefs: (2014 record 9 - 7) Head Coach: Andy Reid Key Addition(s): WR Jeremy Maclin, S Tyvon Branch, OL Ben Grubbs, CB Marcus Peters (Draft Pick) Key Loss: WR Donnie Avery, TE Anthony Fasano, DT Vance Walker, WR Dwayne Bowe, C Rodney Hudson Why They Have a Chance: The Chiefs won’t exactly be a surprise if they make the playoffs this season. With one of the most respected coaches in the league in Andy Reid, and a talented roster, the Chiefs seemingly always have a chance to make the playoffs. Kansas City took a step back last season after an impressive 11 – 5 season in 2013. They got off to a slow start going 0 – 2. They recovered mid-year winning five in a row before fizzling out down the stretch losing four of their final six games. Offensively, the Chiefs were led by running back Jamaal Charles, who had over 1,300 combined yards and 14 touchdowns. Quarterback Alex Smith had another efficient season in Reid’s offense, throwing for 18 touchdowns and finishing with a QB rating of 93.4. The problem, though, was that none of those 18 touchdowns were thrown to a single wide receiver. The Chiefs were the only team last season to not complete a touchdown pass to a wide receiver. Therein lies the problem. The Chiefs will need to erase that mark, and Smith in particular will need to take more chances down the field. To help resolve that issue, Reid went back to his old stomping grounds and brought in free agent receiver Jeremy Maclin. Maclin has the speed and big play ability that the Chiefs' offense craves. They also drafted speedy wide out Chris Conley out of Georgia. Conley’s size, speed, and ability to catch the ball has been noticeable in the recently completed OTA’s. Along with the development of third year tight end Travis Kelce and a revamped offensive line, the thinking in Kansas City is Smith has the weapons around him to takes this offense up a notch. Will he take those risks and throw the ball downfield? On defense, the Chiefs finished in the top ten. With players like Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, and Dontari Poe, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has talent at his disposal. The unfortunate health situation of safety Eric Berry, who was diagnosed with lymphoma, is still a question mark going into this season. Berry has completed his treatment and is awaiting test results to see if he can resume practicing. The Chiefs did sign former Raiders safety Tyvon Branch this offseason to help fill some of the void left by Berry. They have also toyed with the idea, during OTA’s, of moving cornerback Sean Smith to safety. With young corners in Phillip Gaines and first round pick Marcus Peters, the hope is that one of them can replace Smith on the outside. The AFC West will be a division to keep an eye on this season. With the coaching change in Denver, no one is certain how that will affect Peyton Manning and crew. With Oakland still rebuilding and San Diego dealing with possible relocation speculation, the Chiefs are one team heading into the season without major question marks hovering overhead. With more production from the offense, and healthy returns from some key players, the Chiefs could be back in the playoffs. Tennessee Titans: (2014 Record 2 - 14) Head Coach: Ken Whisenhunt Key Addition(s): QB Marcus Mariota (Draft Pick), WR Harry Douglas, S Da’Norris Searcy, LB Brian Orakpo, TE Anthony Fasano, CB Perrish Cox, WR Hakeem Nicks, WR Dorial Green-Beckham (Draft Pick), WR Tre McBride (Draft Pick) Key Loss: OT Michael Oher, OT Michael Roos (Retired), S Bernard Pollard, QB Jake Locker (Retired), RB Shonn Greene Why They Have a Chance: When a team drafts what they believe is a franchise quarterback, not only does he become the face of the franchise, but he also brings a renewed energy and hope within the building and the fan base. After a dismal 2 – 14 season, GM Ruston Webster and head coach Ken Whisenhunt knew that changes needed to be made. Whisenhunt went through a somewhat similar rebuild in Arizona, where he took over a 5 – 11 team and, in his second season, was leading them into the Super Bowl. The turnaround in Arizona was spearheaded by the play of quarterback Kurt Warner. Similarly, with the Titans, Whisenhunt will need Mariota to help turn around the fortunes of the franchise. I am not implying Mariota needs to be the next Kurt Warner, but Whisenhunt will need Mariota to learn and run his offense as efficiently as Warner ran it in Arizona. There will be a steep learning curve for Mariota coming from the Oregon spread offense to Whisenhunt’s pro style system. Early reports are the Titans are pleased with Mariota’s progress, and the expectation is he should be the starter in week one. To protect themselves, in case Mariota is not ready, the Titans held onto last year’s sixth round pick Zach Mettenberger. Tennessee used the draft and free agency to place weapons around their quarterbacks, drafting troubled, but talented receiver Dorial Green-Beckham in the second round and a possible steal in the seventh round with wide receiver Tre McBride. Free agents Harry Douglas and Hakeem Nicks were signed to go along with Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter and Delanie Walker from last season’s team. In the backfield, last year’s second round pick Bishop Sankey will be joined by 2015 fifth round pick David Cobb and veteran third down specialist Dexter McCluster. Tennessee might be in the market for a veteran runner to join the competition prior to training camp, as they recently released veteran Shonn Greene. On the defensive side of the ball, the Titans brought in former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau as an assistant. He will assist defensive coordinator Ray Horton in devising schemes and game plans. On the field, the Titans brought in outside linebacker Brian Orakpo from the Redskins and resigned linebacker Derrick Morgan. Orakpo and Morgan will give the coaches the outside pass rush needed in this 3-4 system. Cornerback Perrish Cox and safety Da’Norris Searcy were also brought in to shore up the secondary. With the disruptive Jurell Casey up front, joined by Sammie Hill and DaQuan Jones, the Titans had the second ranked rush defense last season. With the addition of Orakpo and LeBeau’ s sophisticated blitzing scheme, the expectation is that Titans will improve dramatically on last season’s 27th overall ranked defense. With so much riding on the success of a young quarterback, the Titans are not viewed by many as a playoff contender this season. History has shown us it can be done. Look back at 2012, when both Andrew Luck and RGIII led both their respective teams to the playoffs. Both quarterbacks had established and successful head coaches/play callers (Bruce Arians and Mike Shanahan) who were able to design an offense that was tailored to their strengths. Mariota has that in Ken Whisenhunt who, during the draft process, already had plays designed specifically for Mariota. With a balanced, efficient offensive unit that is complimented by an attacking aggressive defense, and renewed energy throughout the organization, the Titans just might be the next team that goes from drafting in the top ten the previous season, to making the playoffs.