AFC breakout teams
With parity in the NFL it is not unusual to see teams go from a losing record one season to the playoffs the next. With that being said, two teams that I feel will go from having a losing record in 2011 to not only a winning record in 2012 but also challenge for playoff spots will be the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills.
The main problem the Bills have is they play in the strong AFC East, which means in order to win the division they have to beat the New England Patriots. No small task in that the Patriots consistently have one of the better clubs in the league year after year. Still, the Bills were better than their 6-10 record showed. The problem they had in 2011 was a lack of depth, and once injuries hit they couldn’t overcome the losses of key players. The Bills spent the offseason acquiring new talent and getting healthy. With this being the third year in Head Coach Chan Gailey’s offensive system, the offense should be ready to roll.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will never be confused with Tom Brady, but he is a very smart player who has shown steady improvement under Gailey. The Bills have a very strong run game with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Spiller also has the versatility to split out as a receiver and gives the Bills a deep threat from the running back position. In Steve Johnson, the Bills have one of the best possession receivers in the game. David Nelson and Donald Jones are two third-year receivers who are ready to break out. The one thing they lacked was a serious deep threat and they hope they got one in draft choice T.J. Graham from North Carolina St.
I feel the line is underrated. Injuries have been a factor the last two years but if the group can stay healthy they can be a strong unit. Andy Levitrie and Eric Wood can be very good interior players, while the Bills hope draft choice Cordy Glenn will solve the problems they have had at left tackle.
The big change for the Bills will be on defense, where they are going from a 3-4 to an attacking 4-3. When Gailey was hired two years ago they tried to become a 3-4 but didn’t have the personnel. With the addition of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson they have two strong outside pass rushers to pair with defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. Dareus played most of his rookie season on the nose at 335 pounds yet still had 6 sacks. This year he has worked to lose weight to play faster in the new scheme. He has the talent to be a dominant defensive tackle in the league. Kyle Williams is a high motor defensive tackle who was never a “fit” for the 3-4. Going back to a 4-3 will only help his game.
The linebacker group is steady and the secondary, which was already fairly good, got better with the addition of first round pick Stephon Gilmore, who gives the Bills the big corner they haven’t had. If the Bills stay healthy, I can see a potential 10-win season. The toughest part of their schedule is the first 5 games which includes the Jets, Kansas City, San Francisco and New England. If they can come out of the first five games at 3-2 they are on their way.
Kansas City Chiefs
ICONIf Jamaal Charles is healthy, the Chiefs can be a team on the rise.
Most people including myself felt that the Chiefs would be the easy winner of the AFC West last year, but injuries and inconsistent quarterback play totally decimated this team. With all the injured back to go along with a strong draft the Chiefs should again be a strong factor in the West.
In Jamaal Charles the Chiefs have one of the best breakaway backs in the league. With the addition of free agent Peyton HIllis, Charles became better. Hillis is a very strong inside runner who will soften up the defenses for Charles. With Dwayne Bowe and Dexter McCluster, the Chiefs already have two good receivers. Last year’s first round pick Jon Baldwin went through some growing pains but should be ready to break out. The young player who could surprise is rookie Junior Hemingway. I did a lot of pre-draft work on Hemingway and felt that he was a very talented player who could have easily gone in the 3rd or 4th round. He is a big receiver with sure hands and a very good runner after the catch.
Signing free agent tackle Eric Winston will vastly improve the offensive line, so all that’s needed is consistent quarterback play. Matt Cassel has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career. What he needs is to do it week after week. If he falters, don’t be surprised if second-year man Ricky Stanzi takes over and gives the Chiefs the consistency they need at the position.
The Chiefs defense is one of the better units in the league. Draft choice Dontari Poe will add size and athleticism to the unit. Losing corner Brandon Carr hurt but he will be replaced by Stanford Routt, who was a free agent pickup from Oakland. In Eric Berry the Chiefs have one of the best safeties in the NFL.
The Chiefs were 7-9 last year mainly because of injuries to key players, don’t be shocked if they bounce back with a 10 or 11-win season this year.