AFC Preseason Wrap
August 28, 2014
By Tony Mejia
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Buffalo Bills: It's going to be interesting to see how E.J. Manuel handles his second season's ups and downs since the potential for permanent scarring appears great. He's already been booed off the field at halftime in the preseason home opener, criticized by Bills legend Jim Kelly and seems to be primed for a scapegoat role if there is no improvement in year two of the Doug Marrone era. After falling behind 24-0 in the dress rehearsal against Tampa Bay, he responded out of the break by going 5-for-5 on a touchdown drive. He'll need to display that type of resilience all season since it's clear that his history of injuries, inconsistency and the fact most didn't view him as a first-round pick has already depleted Buffalo's patience.
Miami Dolphins: Consistency is going to be the key for Ryan Tannehill in a new-look offense that ambitiously seeks to control pace and will require a high level of execution for them to surprise. Despite struggling against Dallas, he's got the weapons in place to make the Dolphins a factor if Mike Wallace does his job in stretching the field and Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, rookie Jarvis Landry and tight end Charles Clay come through in their roles, but that's not the issue. The biggest variable will come when center Mike Pouncey returns from offseason hip surgery, because there will be adjustments timing-wise for an offensive line that carries question marks. Samson Satele has done a nice job filling in during preseason and Miami won its last division title with him snapping the ball to Chad Pennington in '09, but this promises to be a far more aggressive pace he'll have to manage and he's got a less experienced passer making the decisions.
New England Patriots: Developing chemistry with new tight end Tim Wright is going to be among Tom Brady's chief objectives as the regular season approaces. He obviously knows what to expect with freakish Rob Gronkowski when the All-Pro is back at full strength, but developing another weapon out of his team's newest acquisition will make the Patriots all the more formidable early. Not only will it take some pressure off Gronk's comeback, but sets up another potential pairing of elite pass-catching tight ends given Wright's physical gifts and potential. He came on strong midway through rookie season in Tampa Bay, catching at least four passes in eight of his last 13 games while steadily increasing his activity and understanding of the offense. Ideally, he'll make a great red zone target and answer critics wondering how he could be worth surrendering veteran mainstay Logan Mankins.
New York Jets: It appears that the Jets are showing Stephen Hill just how displeased they are with his lack of development by exposing him in the final preseason game. There's nothing against the passive-aggressive approach considering what a disappointment he's been, but the cap hit they would have to take to cut the former second-round pick appears too great given what he can potentially fetch down the road via trade if a suitor comes knocking. As things stand, Hill certainly didn't take the step forward the Jets were hoping he would to help stretch the field to ease the workload for Geno Smith and Eric Decker, forcing David Nelson and Jeremy Kerley into larger roles. So, yeah, count on New York relying on its running game heavily.
Houston Texans: Ultimately, quarterback play remains the primary topic of conversation in Houston as another season approaches. While that does say something about how positive prized rookie Jadeveon Clowney's first impression was, excitement will be tempered if Ryan Fitzpatrick fails to be serviceable. After a dreadful opener, he found a rhythm, demonstrating improvement and seeking out Andre Johnson often in the dress rehearsal against Denver. Local product Case Keenum and rookie Tom Savage will also stick after competent play the past few weeks, but it's tough to forecast the position being a strength and it offers little consolation that former starter Matt Schaub seems to have a dead arm out in Oakland. The Texans will reunite with him out West in Week 2.
Indianapolis Colts: You know offensive line issues have crept up when you're seriously considering adding Richie Incognito to the roster. The headaches started almost immediately with center Khaled Holmes suffering a significant high ankle sprain in the preseason opener and continued with other nagging injuries springing up and inconsistency predictably plaguing key young linemen. It's no coincidence that the Colts entered the fourth and final preseason game winless, but it's also no secret that playing Andrew Luck four quarters is going to smooth out a lot of warts. How effective (and healthy) Holmes is in his projected return during Week 1 will determine a lot, especially with no time to settle in with games against Denver and Philadelphia up first. Incognito could help upgrade the interior line with his experience if he's right, but that obviously carries risk.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles isn't expected to see more than a drive or two, so don't expect to ride the rookie QB in the Jaguars preseason finale against Atlanta. Head coach Gus Bradley and his staff are putting more importance on picking a No. 3 quarterback between Ricky Stanzi and rookie Stephen Morris. Nothing against those two, but it would have been nice to for Bortles to play about a half against Atlanta, especially given the excitement he's generated among season ticket holders stuck with this fourth preseason game. The No. 3 overall pick is not going to get any game reps for the foreseeable future come regular season, but the Jaguars do intend on giving him extended reps during game week, cutting into starter Chad Henne's preparation time. How that delicate balance is struck will be more important than wins and losses.
Tennessee Titans: There are a lot of questions surrounding a team still trying to round out its depth, but it was a promising sign to see Jake Locker fare so well, as he finished with a passer rating of 119.9 in completing 70 percent of his attempts with no turnovers. Rookie Zach Mettenberger has led all NFL quarterbacks in passing yardage, so at the very least, it appears Ken Whisenhunt putting an emphasis on creating depth at receiver has done wonders for the confidence of his quarterbacks. Primary backup Charlie Whitehurst has missed time with a finger issue but is well-versed in the system from his time with Whisenhunt in San Diego. The early success of Locker in picking up a new system put the Titans on the short list of potential surprise teams.
Baltimore Ravens: Despite concern over RB Bernard Pierce's ability to be healthy for week 1 due to a mild concussion and Ray Rice's two-game absence, the biggest long-long-term obstacle remains the secondary. With Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb missing so much time already, odds are they won't be sharp early during the regular season even if they managed to get back without missing any games. Asa Jackson, Chykie Brown, Dominique Franks and newcomer Derek Cox have to hold down the fort and for a team that sees the Bengals and Steelers in a four-day span in their first two regular-season games.
Cincinnati Bengals: Even if he'd never gotten his headline-grabbing, cap-friendly contract and been left out to dry, Andy Dalton would've still been the subject of scrutiny in 2014. This preseason shows he's answering the bell, a good thing since the Bengals season is going to hinge entirely on him breaking through the ceiling. What this last month has also shown is that the Bengals can't afford to get him hurt. Backups Jason Campbell and AJ McCarron have been hurt most of the way and would provide a drastic downgrade if anything ever happened to the Red Rifle. It will be on him and AJ Green to get the season off to a good start at Baltimore. A Joe Flacco-like response to pressure would go a long way, so it seems like a fitting opening test.
Cleveland Browns: Banishing Josh Gordon for a full season is a damaging blow for everyone associated with the franchise, especially Gordon. With the NFL sticking to its stance, the star receiver will have to set up a close circle around him to stay out of trouble and meet conditions for reinstatement in a year's time. As for the Browns, they lose out on having an elite target to help Johnny Manziel develop later on this season, because at some point come November, the former Heisman Trophy winner will probably be starting. Without Gordon, who often played security blanket for all the quarterbacks this preseason, it's inevitable that Manziel's improvisational skills will be put to use more often and we'll witness whether he's learned enough not to get himself killed.
Pittsburgh Steelers: LeVeon Bell and LeGarrette Blount will not only play in the final preseason game against Carolina, but are also unlikely to miss time this season over their recent arrests for marijuana possession since the league will wait out the judicial process. If the offensive line stays healthy, the Steelers could have a monster year on offense and plan on complementing the unit with an aggressive, attacking defense. Playing four of their first six on the road may temper their approach, but this team looks capable of proving they're done with 8-8 seasons right out of the gate.
Denver Broncos: Losing top linebacker Danny Trevathan for a month and Wes Welker's unfortunate latest concussion overshadowed everything else in an otherwise productive August, but neither setback currently appears season-altering. Barring complications, Trevathan will be back at full strength by the postseason, but their receiver's dilemma is far more complicated. It remains to be seen whether the Broncos pull back on sending Welker on his more dangerous patterns or conserve him for the more challenging games, but it would appear that Demariyus Thomas' presence, the emergence of Julius Thomas and arrival of Emmanuel Sanders takes pressure off rushing Welker back or placing too heavy a load on him early. Second-round pick Cody Latimer has looked impressive as a route-runner and blocker, so another quality option has emerged for Peyton Manning.
Kansas City Chiefs: Jamaal Charles didn't need a ton of preseason work as it is given the load that awaits, so news that his bruised foot feels fine and he'll be 100 percent for the opener is reassuring. Andy Reid's system reduces the number of conventional handoffs, but Charles still got over 17 carries per game for the second straight season while more than doubling his targets out of the backfield to finish with a career-high 70 receptions. With Dwayne Bowe suspended for the season opener, he'll be the offense, thrust right in against Tennessee despite the lack of in-game reps. Charles got a season-high 22 carries at Tennessee last year, rushing for 108 yards and a TD while adding five catches. Knile Davis wrapped up the backup gig, while capable options Joe McKnight and Cyrus Gray will vie for time but may both make the team due to their versatility.
Oakland Raiders: Matt Schaub's elbow trouble has Raiders management crossing their fingers, fans hoping for rookie Derek Carr to get on-the-job training anx overachiever Matt McGloin potentially in line to start as many games as he did last season. He's expecting to be fine for the season opener against the Jets, but there's no question that hopes he'd be in for a revival after an awful ending in Houston have taken a hit. It would be best if he's able to overcome this slow start since it would keep Carr from being thrown into the fire and give the Raiders a veteran presence under center to try and set a confident offensive tone alongside veteran backs Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew.
San Diego Chargers: Don't sleep on Philip Rivers appears to be the theme here. He had an efficient August, completing 15-of-18 passes in limited action, adding a touchdown against the 49ers defense to tidily wrap up in-game preparations. He'll have weeks to study the Cardinals defense and knows he's got the freshest Antonio Gates we've seen in years, not to mention his emerging tight end protégé Ladarius Green, Swiss Army knife Danny Woodhead, Vincent Brown, Malcom Floyd and last year's breakout star, Keenan Allen. The Chargers will open in Arizona and then host the same Seahawks that squashed them 41-14 two weeks ago, so we'll know quickly whether they're ready to take a step forward in Year 2 under Mike McCoy.
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