Burning Questions for Each AFC Team

By Connor Pignatello

As the NFL Preseason approaches, each team in the league has a different agenda. Some teams are hoping to stay on top (Patriots); others are hoping to turn a young team into a playoff contender (Buccaneers); still others are just trying to make it to .500 (Vikings); and a few are simply trying to get a high draft pick and rebuild (Jets). Some teams have enormous make-or-break questions that need to be answered, while other teams have it all pretty much figured out.

No matter the team’s aspirations, each team has a player or concept that will decide their fate.

This post will explain the most substantial questions for each team in the AFC, while the next post will deal with the same for each NFC team.

I’ll also list three key players — at least one on offense and one on defense — for each team, to give you a refresher on the team’s personnel.

AFC East

New England Patriots

Key Players: Dont’a Hightower, Tom Brady, Malcolm Butler

Key Question: Can Brandin Cooks and Tom Brady develop chemistry?

The Patriots have reloaded this offseason in an attempt to stay on top of the NFL. Their X-factor this year will be Brandin Cooks, a new receiver they acquired in a trade with the Saints. It will be vital for Cooks to settle down in New England alongside Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. If he can develop chemistry with Tom Brady, the rest of the NFL will have to bend a knee to the almighty New England dynasty.

Miami Dolphins

Key Players: Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake, Jay Ajayi

Key Question: Who starts at quarterback?

The Dolphins are scrambling after Ryan Tannehill went down with a potentially serious knee injury in training camp last week. Last year was Tannehill’s breakout season, as he proved the critics wrong and delivered the Dolphins their first playoff berth since 2008.

In a true panic move, Miami convinced Jay Cutler to come out of retirement on a 1-year, $10 million deal. Another option at quarterback is Matt Moore, who started in Tannehill’s stead last season. Moore is one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL, but isn’t starting material. If the Dolphins want to build on last season’s success, they need to find an answer at quarterback.

Buffalo Bills

Key Players: Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy, Lorenzo Alexander

Key Question: How will the new staff help the team?

The Buffalo Bills ownership has done nothing this offseason to suggest that they will be able to end the NFL’s longest playoff drought: 17 years (!).

They fired their head coach, Rex Ryan, with one week still to go in the season. Then they renegotiated Tyrod Taylor’s contract, amid rumors that they wanted him out of Buffalo. And in the most confounding move of all, Buffalo ownership fired the entire scouting department and general manager the day after the draft.

The Bills have made head-scratching move after head-scratching move, all but guaranteeing the continuation of their playoff drought.

New York Jets

Key Players: Leonard Williams, Sheldon Richardson, Matt Forte

Key Question: How committed are they to a rebuild?

The Jets have gutted their roster this offseason, releasing veteran players like Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold and David Harris.

This signifies a changing of the guard in New York, and the Jets are hoping to rebuild around young players like Christian Hackenberg and Jamal Adams. If the Jets build through the draft instead of adding veteran players in ill-fated win-now moves, they will secure a bright future.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key Players: Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Ryan Shazier

Key Question: Can Le’Veon Bell stay on the field?

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The Steelers, one of the most dangerous teams in the league, depend on Le’Veon Bell to do the heavy lifting on offense. Bell has the highest career yards from scrimmage per game average (128.5) in NFL history. But he has been limited by two drug suspensions and a knee injury, which have forced him to miss a combined fourteen games over the past two years. Bell has only one 16-game season in his four year career, but if he can stay on the field, the Steelers have a chance of dethroning the Patriots as the AFC’s best team.

Baltimore Ravens

Key Players: Zach Orr, C.J. Mosley, Joe Flacco

Key Question: Contend or tank?

Since winning the Super Bowl in 2012, the Ravens have defined mediocrity. They’ve gone 31-33 in the four years since while ranking 16th out of 32 teams in point differential. The team is too old and simply not good enough to contend for a championship. They do have some stars on the team, but this unfortunately discourages them from rebuilding. Last season’s 8-8 campaign should encourage the Ravens to try a rebuild and start anew.

Cincinnati Bengals

Key Players: Andy Dalton, Geno Atkins, A.J. Green

Key Question: Is Marvin Lewis Head Coach of the future?

After losing in the Wild Card game a record five times in a row, the Bengals took a step back last year, finishing 6-9-1. They lost their two best offensive linemen, Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth, in addition to defensive line stalwart Domata Peko in free agency. After the team was raided in free agency, the Bengals failed to make movements to either contend or rebuild.

Marvin Lewis is in the final year of his contract, and the league’s second-longest tenured head coach may not see a contract renewal at the conclusion of the season.

Cleveland Browns

Key Players: Jamie Collins, Joe Thomas, Isaiah Crowell

Key Question: Who will be the starting quarterback?

The Browns, the laughing stock of the NFL for so many years, are now suddenly a promising franchise. They had an excellent offseason, using their three first-round picks well, and making value signings in free agency. They took on Brock Osweiler’s contract in a salary dump that netted them a second-round pick. But Osweiler will have to compete with rookie DeShone Kizer and last year’s primary starter Cody Kessler for the starting job. Osweiler was announced as the starter for the first preseason game and he appears to have the inside track to the job. Even though Osweiler may be the starter for this year, Kizer looks to be the long term option at quarterback.

AFC South

Houston Texans

Key Players: Jadeveon Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt

Key Question: Is Deshaun Watson ready?

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The Texans won the South last year thanks to their defense, which ranked first in yards allowed. Jadeveon Clowney broke out last year, and with J.J. Watt opposite him, the Texans should scare opposing teams.

However, the Texans ill-fated Brock Osweiler experiment cost them next year’s first and second round picks. The first was used to trade up in the NFL Draft and select Osweiler’s replacement, and the second was employed as an incentive for the Browns to take Osweiler’s contract.

Watson is expected to start for the Texans, but if he’s not ready, the Texans will be forced to play Tom Savage. The Texans need Watson to perform well if they want to win their third consecutive AFC South title.

Tennessee Titans

Key Players: Jack Conklin, Marcus Mariota, Jurrell Casey

Key Question: Are they ready to contend?

Marcus Mariota and the Titans improved by six wins last season, and if it wasn’t for a late-season injury to Mariota, they probably would have made the playoffs. Mariota broke out last year, Demarco Murray bounced back, and the Titans flexed their ‘exotic smashmouth’ offense in wins over playoff teams like the Packers, Chiefs, and Texans. The Titans also boosted their previously weak receiving corps by selecting Corey Davis in the draft and signing Eric Decker in free agency. The Titans play in the easiest division in the league, and they have a great chance to make the playoffs this year.

Indianapolis Colts

Key Players: Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, David Parry

Key Question: Can the Colts keep Andrew Luck on the field?

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Andrew Luck, the Colts franchise quarterback and possibly the best young quarterback in the NFL, has struggled the last two years due to inadequate talent around him. Last year, he was sacked 41 times, more times than any other QB besides Tyrod Taylor. The Colts rank 26th in the league in money spent on their offensive line, and don’t have a single Pro-Bowl offensive lineman. Because his offensive line can’t keep him upright, Luck has missed ten games in the past two years due to kidney, shoulder, and head injuries. If the Colts can’t find a way to protect Luck, they’ll waste their young star’s prime.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Key Players: Blake Bortles, Telvin Smith, Malik Jackson

Key Question: Is Blake Bortles really their QB?

In the 2014 NFL Draft, the Jaguars took Blake Bortles third overall, but he has struggled with decision-making since coming into the league. Bortles showed promise after a solid 2015 year in which he threw for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns. However, he regressed last season and threw for 529 fewer yards and 12 fewer touchdowns. Since entering the league, Bortles’ interception per pass attempt ratio ranks worst in the NFL behind only Ryan Fitzpatrick. In the final year of Bortles’ rookie deal the Jaguars have a decision to make — is Blake Bortles their quarterback of the future?

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs

Key Players: Marcus Peters, Eric Berry, Alex Smith

Key Question: Will Tyreek Hill repeat his success?

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Tyreek Hill had an astounding 2016 season, and proved his worth as one of the best all-around weapons in the league. Last season, Hill became the first player in NFL history with at least three return, rushing, and receiving touchdowns. But after Jeremy Maclin’s departure, Hill became the Chiefs’ number one receiver — a move that will reduce his return duties, according to Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star. Recent return aces like Devin Hester and Cordarrelle Patterson have struggled mightily when their teams tried to mold them into receivers. It remains to be seen whether Hill can move to full-time receiver, but the Chiefs’ success depends on it.

Oakland Raiders

Key Players: Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, Kelechi Osemele

Key Question: Can they improve their defense around Khalil Mack?

Last year, the Raiders’ top ten offense carried them to a 12-4 record, but their bottom ten defense held them back. Their star defender, Khalil Mack, won Defensive Player of the Year and became the first player ever to receive first-team All-Pro honors at two different positions: defensive end and outside linebacker. However, the rest of the defense suffered, and Oakland ranked 26th in yards allowed. The Raiders took defensive backs Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu in the first two rounds of the draft, showing a commitment to building their defense. If the Raiders can improve their defense, they will be able to challenge the Patriots as the AFC’s best team.

Denver Broncos

Key Players: Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Trevor Siemian

Key Question: Is Paxton Lynch ready?

During the 2016 NFL Draft, the Broncos selected their QB of the future in Paxton Lynch after Peyton Manning retired. But they were forced to start seventh-rounder Trevor Siemian because Lynch wasn’t ready for NFL competition yet. The Broncos retained their top-five defense, but their bottom-five offense held them back and they finished third in the AFC West. Paxton Lynch acted like a deer in headlights during the three games he played in last year, averaging a dreadful 165.7 passing yards per game. If Lynch can grow up and improve, the Broncos will contend in the AFC West.

Los Angeles Chargers

Key Players: Philip Rivers, Casey Hayward, Melvin Gordon

Key Question: Are we going to see the 2015 Melvin Gordon or the 2016 Melvin Gordon?

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Melvin Gordon broke out last season, justifying his selection as the fifteenth overall pick in 2015. However, in 2014 Gordon had possibly the worst rookie season imaginable. He failed to score a touchdown despite touching the ball 217 times. But in 2016, his fortunes reversed completely, and he scored 12 total touchdowns, good for seventh in the league. Gordon also averaged 108.9 yards from scrimmage per game, which ranked fourth in the NFL.  If Gordon continues his brilliant 2016 form, the Chargers have a great chance of escaping the basement of the AFC West.

Special thanks to Pro Football Reference and Spotrac for all of the statistics that I used in this article.

I would also like to thank ESPN for each team’s depth chart.

Stay tuned for Part II which will include burning questions for each NFC team.

To be continued…

Brandin Cooks Picture Credit: By Paul Perillo [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Incredible Transformation of the Greek Freak

By Connor Pignatello

When Giannis Antetokounmpo was drafted fifteenth overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2013 NBA Draft, he had never been to America and barely spoke a word of English. He was a lanky 18-year-old kid who measured at 6’9” and 196 pounds. Now, just four years later, Antetokounmpo is a 6’11”, 222 pound beast who can pass like a guard, score like a forward, and defend like a center. This past season, the Greek Freak started the All-Star game, was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player, and became the embodiment of the NBA’s future.

However, Giannis didn’t get to this point without hard work. After Bucks losses or bad games, Antetokounmpo drives to a gym in full uniform and works on his game until the wee hours of the night, sometimes until 3 AM. He is one of the hardest-working players in the league, a trait he learned as a kid in Greece with undocumented parents, tight money, and a yearning to play basketball, the game he loved.

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To truly understand how Giannis broke out and wreaked havoc in the NBA last year, we must go back to the year 1991.

That year, Antetokounmpo’s parents moved from Nigeria to Greece in an attempt to start a better life in Europe. It was in Greece that Giannis’ older brother Thanasis, and younger brothers Kostas and Alex, were born.

Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo were undocumented immigrants, with kids who did not have Nigerian nor Greek papers. This meant that any day, the authorities could knock on the family’s door and deport them back to Nigeria.

This incentivized the Antetokounmpo kids to trust no one, behave themselves, and keep quiet. In a January interview with Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, Antetokounmpo said that when he first arrived in Milwaukee he feared that somebody would wake him from his dream, send him home, and “take it all away from me”.

Giannis’ parents struggled to find work in Greece, and the Antetokounmpos were very tight on money. When they were kids, Giannis and his older brother Thanasis would sell sunglasses, handbags, and watches to earn money for the family. If they didn’t make any money on a particular day, the family might not eat dinner that night. Giannis gained his tireless work ethic from those nights as a kid in Greece.

When he was 12, Giannis picked up a basketball and began training, molding his lanky frame into the body of an athlete. He loved basketball, because he saw that the amount of time he spent working on his game was directly correlated to his performance. He couldn’t control whether the tourists bought his trinkets, but he could control his own destiny on the basketball court.

He started playing for a neighborhood club in Athens, with one pair of shoes for him and his brother to share. But quickly his natural talent was noticed, and he earned a contract with a Greek second-division team, Filathlitikos, in 2012.

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Giannis played for Filathlitikos for just one season before he was taken fifteenth overall in the 2013 NBA Draft. Even though he was expected to go in the mid-to-late teens of the draft, the Bucks received criticism for their selection. This was understandable, as Antetokounmpo was a relative unknown. As much as his physical tools projected success at the NBA level, he had never played against competition in the same stratosphere as the NBA.

Antetokounmpo had a rough rookie season, which was reasonable seeing as it was the 19-year-old’s first time in the United States. He averaged just 6.8 points per game, and was mostly an afterthought. Despite flashes of brilliance — a putback dunk here, a eurostep there — he had just as many moments where he seemed lost and the game looked too fast for him. The Bucks finished with the worst record in the NBA that year, but Antetokounmpo made strides as the year went on.

In Antetokounmpo’s second year, he improved his stats in all five major statistical categories and boosted his scoring to 12.8 points per game. He was a primary starter for a Bucks team that improved to .500 and made the playoffs as the sixth seed. Antetokounmpo got his first taste of playoff action, but he played horribly and shot just 37% for the series. He also got ejected in Game 6 of the first round for bodychecking Mike Dunleavy into the stands, and the Bucks were eliminated after losing by 54 points on their home court.

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After that playoff embarrassment,  Antetokounmpo returned in 2016 with a vengeance. The Bucks missed the playoffs, but a post-All-Star-break experiment by Head Coach Jason Kidd changed Antetokounmpo’s fortunes. Kidd experimented with the Greek Freak at point guard, and it was a magnificent success. Antetokounmpo improved his stats in all five major categories for the second straight year, and after the All-Star break he averaged 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 7.2 assists, while recording 5 triple-doubles.

This past season, Antetokounmpo broke out, showing that his 2016 second-half was not a fluke. He established career-highs in all five major statistical categories for the third straight season, and led the Bucks in each category, becoming just the fifth player to accomplish that feat. Antetokounmpo piloted his team to the playoffs, even though his two sidekicks, Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker, played exactly one game together due to injury. The Greek Freak also became the first player in NBA history to finish in the top 20 in all five statistical categories, an incredible accomplishment.

This past season, Antetokounmpo broke out, showing that his 2016 second-half was not a fluke. He established career-highs in all five major statistical categories for the third straight season, and led the Bucks in each category, becoming just the fifth player to accomplish that feat. Antetokounmpo piloted his team to the playoffs, even though his two sidekicks, Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker, played exactly one game together due to injury. The Greek Freak also became the first player in NBA history to finish in the top 20 in all five statistical categories, an incredible accomplishment.

Antetokounmpo finished the season averaging 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.9 blocks this year; a truly remarkable stat line.

All of these accolades earned him spots on the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams, and he was voted the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

Antetokounmpo’s past drives him to improve every day, and as his late-nights as a street-vendor in Athens have turned into late-night workouts in Milwaukee, he has maintained his indefatigable march toward greatness.

Thanks to Basketball Reference for these helpful stats and Sports Illustrated for their article on Antetokounmpo.

Thanks also to Wikimedia Commons for the picture of Antetokounmpo playing against the Cavaliers

By Erik Drost (Giannis Antetokoummpo) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons