We now have a pretty good idea of what NFL rosters will look like come September. Predicting team records is still very difficult to do in May. However, it is now easier to understand the factors that will lead to success or failure for certain teams. Thus, here are the biggest questions in a couple of AFC divisions. One that is wide open now, and another that could be before long.
AFC West: Is Patrick Mahomes any good?
This might be the biggest question in the entire NFL. Kansas City has taken control of this division over the last two years as Denver has struggled to transition away from Peyton Manning.
Despite a few playoff failures, Alex Smith never posted a losing record as the starting quarterback for the Chiefs. So replacing him with Patrick Mahomes is pretty bold.
Mahomes is headed into his second year with just one career start. Young quarterbacks have to get handed the keys at some point, but was Smith really what was holding the Chiefs back? His career-high passer rating of 104.7 last year would suggest otherwise.
No quarterback does it alone. Kansas City has an average defense and an offense littered with playmakers, but bad quarterback play can drag a very good roster downward. Last year’s Broncos are a prime example. That was not going to be a concern with Smith. There has to be at least a little bit of doubt when it comes to Mahomes.
One start is nowhere near enough to determine whether any player can be successful in this league, and Mahomes may come out and play very well. If he does, Kansas City will win this division again.
Still, the Broncos upgraded at quarterback, the Chargers improved the middle of their defense, and Oakland is once again being coached by Jon Gruden, the last guy that made and kept that franchise relevant. If Mahomes struggles, at least one of those teams will be right there to pounce, and one of the most consistent teams in the NFL over the last half decade will quickly turn into a non-factor.
AFC East: When do we see the rookie quarterbacks?
As long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are around, the Patriots will win this division. They have done so for nine consecutive years. The drama in the division this year is going to be when we see Sam Darnold in New York and Josh Allen in Buffalo. In a perfect world, both guys would probably benefit from a year on the bench.
Particularly in Darnold’s case, that does not seem to be feasible. This is a franchise that has won five or fewer games in three of the last four seasons. It needs a sign of hope and fast. When the inevitable losses start to mount under veteran quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown, the Jets will need to get a glimpse at what they hope is a bright future.
The Jets do have a workable schedule for the first month of the season and could get off to a decent start. So it would not be shocking to see one of the veterans last as the starter until the Week 11 bye. Of course, there is always a chance that the rookie could impress enough in training camp and the preseason to start the season opener.
Either way, the Jets know Brady and Belichick won’t be around forever, and New England does not seem to be ready for life after either one. With Darnold, the Jets have a chance to be the kings of this division in a few years. The first step to helping make that happen is making him the starter at the right time.
Josh Allen is a little more tricky. The Bills made the playoffs last year, but were anemic on offense at times and scored just a field goal in their playoff loss. AJ McCarron replaces Tyrod Taylor as the veteran presence at the quarterback position. Allen was drafted more on measurables than college production and clearly needs time to develop.
However, it is hard to imagine him being afforded that luxury if Buffalo gets off to a bad start under McCarron, who is basically a career backup except for a handful of mediocre performances filling in for an injured Andy Dalton late in the 2015 season.
The Dolphins are just sort of existing in this division at the moment. They regressed last year with Jay Cutler taking the place of Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. Even though Tannehill is coming off an injury, Miami was linked to several of the top quarterback prospects in the draft. This could be a make or break year for him as well as head coach Adam Gase.
These two divisions are interesting in their own way for 2018. The AFC West is intriguing right now because it is impossible to know what to expect from the team that has dominated it for the last two years. Meanwhile, the AFC East could look very different in a couple years.
This year might provide us with at least some answers in that regard. It all comes down to changes that already have and will eventually need to be made at the most important position in all of American sports, quarterback.
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