With the majority of NFL training camps opening this week, fans will get their first chance to see the 2017 editions of teams play full-speed, full-squad, full-pad football.
But half of the 2016 playoff field was made up of teams that didn’t make it to the postseason in 2015. If recent history holds, this spring’s roster churn will lead to similar turnover: In nine of the past 11 seasons, at least five of 12 NFL playoff teams have failed to return to the postseason the following year.
So which players who’ve changed teams have the potential to tip the balance of power in each division? Today we take on the four divisions of the AFC. We’ll do the NFC later this week.
AFC East: Brandin Cooks, WR, Patriots
Opportunity: The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl last season, in case you forgot. And in doing so, they did it with possibly the least star-studded Patriots squad Tom Brady’s ever led to the big game. The Jets and Bills seem intent on rebuilding this year (not like the Patriots were losing sleep over them anyway). But the Miami Dolphins, who finished 2016 on a 9-2 run under rookie head coach Adam Gase, could pose a serious threat to the Patriots for the first time since 2008 — the last time any team besides the Patriots won the AFC East. Perhaps this is why New England spent the offseason getting better on offense.
What needed to be addressed: No team had a bigger difference in effectiveness between their shotgun and under-center offense last season than the Patriots, according to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. With All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski missing eight games (and the only proven downfield threat when he was on the field), the Patriots offense was ineffective under center as opposing defenses were able to key in on the short passes that traditionally butter Brady’s bread. As a result, New England became reliant on Brady’s ability to read the field from shotgun and produce something from nothing.
The last time Gronkowski missed more than half of a season, 2013, Brady threw to wideouts an average of 25.2 times per game, second-most in his career — but his passer efficiency rating while doing it, 91.0, was his second-worst ever. Over the next three seasons, Brady targeted wideouts just under 19 times a game. But in 2016, the heavy use of shotgun helped Brady’s rating shoot up to a whopping 109.9. So 2016 was a bit of anomaly for the Brady Patriots, one he’d be unlikely to reproduce while still relying on the likes of Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan at wideout.
|ATTEMPTS PER GAME||PASSER EFFICIENCY RATING|
Potential impact: The Patriots traded their first-round pick to the New Orleans Saints for Cooks, addressing their need for a vertical threat with one of the most explosive receivers in the NFL. Last season, Cooks finished 14th in the league in yards per reception, with an average of 15.0 yards; only T.Y. Hilton and Julio Jones averaged more yards per catch and had at least as many catches as Cooks (78). Cooks’s ability to get open whether a quarterback is dropping back or under center should be a boon to the offense. Patriots owner Robert Kraft compared Cooks’s potential impact to the 2007 addition of Randy Moss.
Question mark: Brady is famously dedicated to keeping his body in great shape and avoiding the effects of aging; in June, ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported that Brady doesn’t seem to have lost any arm strength. But if Brady’s arm turns into a wet noodle on his 40th birthday, Cooks’s vertical threat will be minimized.
AFC North: Jeremy Maclin, WR, Ravens
Opportunity: Baltimore finished 8-8 in 2016, ahead of the 6-9-1 Cincinnati Bengals but well behind the 11-5 Pittsburgh Steelers. With significant questions surrounding the veteran cores of all three rosters, the Ravens could claw back to the top of the pack — or fall into the basement.
What needed to be addressed: The decline of Joe Flacco’s deep-ball game has affected both his output and the Ravens’ offensive results. Although Flacco’s passer rating has been at his career norm in each of the past two seasons, his average yards per completion in 2016 (9.9) and 2015 (10.5) were the lowest of his career. According to TruMedia, Flacco had the third-most passing attempts that went at least 10 yards beyond the sticks from 2008 to 2014, but he ranked just 18th from 2015 to 2016. Now, two of Flacco’s top three targets of 2016 — Steve Smith (retired) and Dennis Pitta (career-threatening injury) — are unavailable.
Potential impact: Before a lingering groin tear depressed his 2016 average yards-per-catch to a career-low 12.2, Maclin averaged 13.6 yards per reception over his career. That includes a high of 15.5 in 2014, the year before he came to Kansas City after five seasons in Philadelphia. If Maclin returns to his pre-injury form, he’ll be an excellent fit for what Flacco and the Ravens have always done best: attacking downfield. Getting to play with Flacco, rather than Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, could do wonders for Maclin, too:
Question mark: What if Maclin is fine but Flacco isn’t? Should Flacco, who’ll take up $24.5 million of the Ravens’ salary cap this season, turn in yet another subpar season despite the addition of Maclin, the clock could start ticking on the quarterback’s time in Baltimore.
AFC South: Eric Decker, WR, Titans
Opportunity: The Titans tied the Houston Texans at 9-7 last season, losing the division on a tiebreaker. Houston will add J.J. Watt to a defense that finished seventh in DVOA last season, despite missing the perennial All-Pro for 13 games. But the Texans are going back to the drawing board at quarterback, as they have every year under head coach Bill O’Brien (not that Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer and Brock Osweiler haven’t left room for improvement). The Titans, meanwhile, went 8-4 in the last 12 games of 2016, and third-year quarterback Marcus Mariota seems primed to take another big step forward, as he did from his rookie season (51.6 Total Quarterback Rating) to his second (64.9).
What needed to be addressed: In the spring of 2016, Titans rookie general manager Jon Robinson went on a mission to build a power run game, drafting first-round tackle Jack Conklin and second-round tailback Derrick Henry and signing free-agent tailback DeMarco Murray. In 2017, Robinson added weapons for Mariota, drafting wideout Corey Davis No. 5 overall and catch-and-run threat Taywan Taylor in the third round. That being said, Davis’s learning curve is likely to be even steeper than for most rookie receiverss; the MAC product wasn’t medically cleared for full-speed practice until June.
Potential impact: Decker has solidified himself as one of the league’s most dangerous slot receivers. Neither No. 1 wideout Rishard Matthews nor tight end Delanie Walker, who accounted for more than 50 percent of the Titans’ non-RB targets last season, boasts Decker’s combination of size and speed. If Matthews, Walker and Mariota can build on what they did last season, Decker will make it difficult for opponents to defend the middle of the field.
Question mark: Mariota, like Davis, is recovering from surgery; he was a limited participant at June minicamp. Even if he has fully recovered in time for training camp, missing any offseason work isn’t ideal for a young quarterback. There’s also the question of how often he’ll be asked to throw to all of these weapons, considering that the run-first Titans finished 28th in team pass attempts last season.
AFC West: Marshawn Lynch, RB, Raiders
Opportunity: The Oakland Raiders were in the process of winning their 12th game when young quarterback Derek Carr was lost for the season with an injury. The Kansas City Chiefs capitalized on the opportunity, winning both of their final regular-season games and claiming the division crown on a tiebreaker. With Carr back and hometown hero Lynch coming out of retirement, the Raiders will be looking for the division crown … and maybe more. At the very least, the lame-duck Raiders should give the city of Oakland one real playoff run before they run to Las Vegas.
What needed to be addressed: Latavius Murray, who was the Raiders’ main running back last season and now is a Minnesota Viking, has a reputation as a boom-or-bust runner. In 2016, though, he was almost the opposite. He finished 16th in Success Rate, a way of measuring how consistently backs keep the offense on schedule in terms of down and distance, but 23rd in DVOA (-3.7 percent).
Potential impact: Before retiring at the end of the 2015 season, Lynch was one of the hardest backs to tackle in the NFL; in 2014, Lynch topped the league in Pro Football Focus’s Elusive Rating. To evaluate Lynch’s potential impact on the Raiders’ offense, we can compare the 2016 Raiders’ offensive line to that of the 2015 Seahawks, the last team Lynch played for, using Football Outsiders’ two advanced metrics to measure running success: Adjusted Line Yards1 and Power Success rate.2
Compared with the 2015 Seahawks, the 2016 Raiders didn’t average quite as many Adjusted Line Yards as (4.09 vs. 4.18) or perform as well in Power Success (59 percent vs. 71 percent). However, the Raiders blocked much better in the second level (8th vs. 15th) and the open field (7th vs. 12th). Over the last three seasons, according to TruMedia, Murray has had to fight through more resistance than most starting tailbacks, but Lynch took his first average hit far earlier than most of the rest of the league. Meanwhile, Lynch is far better after first contact. Bottom line? The Bay Area may feel a lot of Beast Quakes.
Question mark: Lynch is a 31-year-old running back who just took a year off. He might not have any more Beast Quakes left in him.