AFC: Three Teams on the Rise

In the NFL, there’s always teams from both the American and National Conferences that improve from previous seasons. For this article, I want to look at three teams from the AFC who finished 2015 with losing records, but will finish 2016 with winning records.

1. Oakland Raiders

The Raiders haven’t had a winning record since 2002 when they finished the year 11-5 and lost in Super Bowl XXXVII to the Tampa Bay Bucs. Since then, they have failed to finished in the top half  of the AFC West in every single season; they haven’t even ended a season with nine wins. I expect that to change in Jack Del Rio’s second year with the Raiders for a number of reasons.

Third-year Quarterback Derek Carr made great strides in his second season in the NFL. It helps that the Raiders drafted Amari Cooper last season, and he’ll enter his second year with a ton of confidence. Cooper caught 72 passes for over 1,000 yards and six touchdowns in his rookie campaign. He was a big reason for Carr’s 32 touchdown/13 interception season. The Raiders also have a good offensive line that Latavius Murray runs behind. He finished with over 1,000 yards and six touchdowns last season, and him, Carr and Cooper alone should put up points. Last year, they finished 17th and 24th in points scored and yards recorded respectively (Pro Football Reference). I expect them to finish in the top 15 in both in 2016.

(Side note: The Raiders caught a great season from Michael Crabtree, who turned 85 catches into 922 yards and nine touchdowns).

Another reason I expect the Raiders to improve is their focus on the defensive side on the ball. The Raiders improved their secondary by signing free agent cornerback Sean Smith to start at cornerback, and safety Reggie Nelson to replace the legendary Charles Woodson. Smith had 10 interceptions and 87 passes defended with the Chiefs in the past three seasons, and Nelson had eight interceptions with the Bengals last year. The Raiders also drafted safety Karl Joseph in the first round in this year’s draft.

Khalil Mack. Mack had 15 sacks in his third season with Raiders, ranking second in the league behind J.J. Watt (17.5). Mack is a beast. Check out his five sacks against the Broncos in week 14 last year. His pass rush will get even better with the addition of Bruce Irvin. Irvin had 22 sacks and two pick-sixes in his four seasons with the Seahawks. Their pass rush will help the Raiders’ secondary make plays.

The last reason I expect the Raiders to make a jump next season is their division. The Broncos are in trouble because Mark Sanchez may very well be their starting QB next season; The Chargers went 4-12, and even though they should be better, the Raiders can certainly beat them out to compete at the top of the division; The Chiefs are coming off an 11-5 playoff season, but would you really be that shocked if the Raiders beat all three of these teams to win the AFC West? I certainly wouldn’t, and if you couldn’t already tell, I expect it to happen.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jags haven’t finished above .500 since 2007, back when Jack Del Rio was the coach. Like Del Rio in Oakland, I think Gus Bradley is going to win nine or more wins this season in Jacksonville.

Like the Raiders, the Jags have a third-year quarterback leading the charge and two good receivers. Blake Bortles threw for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns in his second year in the league. He has one of the best 1-2 WR duos in the league in Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. While Bortles certainly has to protect the football (league-leading 18 interceptions in 2015), he also deserves time to grow and adapt to NFL football. Luckily for him, fellow third-year pro Allen Robinson is adapting just fine. Robinson posted insane numbers in his second year: 80 receptions/1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns.

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gif courtesy of rotoballer.com (NFL on CBS). 

The Jags offense is also accompanied by former Broncos’ TE Julius Thomas, who only started 11 games last season due to injury. He’ll be back and him, the Allen duo, and Bortes will form one of the most explosive passing attacks in the NFL next season.

The Jaguars’ defense last season ranked well in the bottom half of the league (24th by NFL.com), but will see immediate relief in 2016. The Jags picked up Malik Jackson from Denver, and 2015 first-round draft pick Dante Fowler is now healthy and ready to join in on the Jags’ newfound pass rush. They also drafted Myles Jack and Jalen Ramsey, arguably two of the five best prospects in this year’s NFL draft if it weren’t for Jack’s valid knee concerns. On top of that, they added CB Prince Amukamara and Safety Tashaun Gipson via free agency, a duo that will immediately help their secondary.

Their offense should be explosive, and their new defensive weapons should help create turnovers. They were 29th in the league last year in turnover differential (-10), and that should change thanks to their new look secondary and improved pass rush. I expect the Jags to finish with nine or more wins this season and have a legitimate shot at winning the AFC South.

3. Buffalo Bills

The Bills have only won nine or more games twice in the 21st Century. In Rex Ryan’s second season, I expect that to change. The Bills went 8-8 last season, so maybe I’m not going out on much of a limb; but I feel like whenever you’re banking on Rex Ryan, you’re pretty much always kind of going out on a limb. And now another Ryan is joining the fun, as Rex got his brother Rob Ryan on staff an assistant.

The Bills were the epitome of 8-8 last season; they never won three straight games, nor did they lose three straight. Buffalo should be optimistic about change if Tyrod Taylor meets expectations in his second season as starting quarterback in the NFL. Taylor threw for over 3,000 yards on only 380 passing attempts, and held an efficient touchdown/interception ratio (20/6). Taylor can run too: he picked up 568 yards on the ground and four touchdowns, but also fumbled nine times. Taylor desperately needs stud receiver Sammy Watkins to stay healthy; he caught nine touchdowns in only 13 games. LeSean McCoy is another stud Buffalo needs to stay healthy. If him, Taylor, and Watkins can each play 14+ games, nobody is going to want to face this offense. (Watkins dealing with a broken foot, reported to be ready by the season). When’s the last time Rex Ryan had an offense “nobody wanted to face?”

Ryan is usually known for the defensive side of the ball, but the Bills were straight up underwhelming last season. They only sacked the quarterback 21 times, 31st in the league. Rookie Shaq Lawson will help that, but he’ll be sidelined for most of the season. If the Bills can just improve at rushing the passer, they can be a nine-win team. I think they will.

Gif credit: Rotoballer.com, NFL on CBS

Featured Image Credit: Raiders.com 

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