The Cellar Dwellers of 2018 (AFC)
CELLAR DWELLERS OF 2018: WHAT DOES 2019 HAVE IN STORE?
This article will take a look at each last place team in the AFC and see what went wrong last season and what to expect from them this season. Each team made some moves to improve their records but moving out of the “cellar” takes more than a few splashy signings in free agency and solid draft picks.
AFC EAST: NEW YORK JETS (4-12)
With Sam Darnold pegged as the savoir of an embattled franchise, some argue how well Darnold truly performed in his rookie campaign. On the surface, you can look at the 4-12
record and think that the season was disappointing, and for some, it was. Especially after a week one route of the Lions in Detroit, hopes were high that Darnold could dethrone Tom Brady as the top dog in a historically weak AFC East. But, the Jets faltered, losing their next three, including giving the Cleveland Browns their first win since the 1990s (really it was 2016, but it felt that long for Browns' fans). After back-to-back wins against the Broncos and the Colts, the Jets were 3-3 and primed for a run at the Wild Card. Then the Jets would lose 9 of their last 10 to secure the third overall pick in the draft. Despite the record, the Jets played well in some of the losses down the stretch, including five losses of seven points or fewer.
The Jets made headlines when hiring former Dolphins' head coach Adam Gase, to replace Todd Bowles, and the fiery defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. While these two have tremendous upside, their explosive personalities could lead to an unhealthy clash for power.
When looking at the projected 53-man roster for the Jets, you can’t help but notice the caliber of talent that could potentially lead the Jets into a promising future. Just to name a few; there’s Sam Darnold, stud safety Jamal Adams and defensive tackle Leonard Williams. Plus, the Jets made some notable moves in free agency and the draft, including the signing of Le’Veon Bell, Jamison Crowder, C.J. Mosely, the drafting of Alabama DT Quinnen WIllaims and potential draft steal DE Jalachi Polite. Add these players to the core of WRs of Quincy Enunwa and Robbie Anderson and the oft-injured safety Marcus Maye, the Jets may bury the Giants as laughing stocks in New York football and the NFL. With a tough start to their schedule, the Jets may get off to a slow start, but they have a softer schedule toward the end, including a seven-week run against the Jaguars, Dolphins, Giants, Redskins, Raiders, Bengals and Dolphins. Also noteworthy, the Jets end their season series with the Patriots in week 7.
Worst Case Scenario: The worst that could happen for the Jets would be serious regression from Darnold and Adams, underwhelming performances from their FA signings and rookies, and coaching clashes between Gase and Williams. (Record: 3-13, last place in the AFC East, no playoff berth).
Best Case Scenario: Darnold lives up to the hype, Bell regains his Top 5 RB in the league status, C.J. Mosely and Jamal Adams lead a potentially lethal defense and the coaching staff gets along well enough to win. (Record: 10-6, second place in AFC East, Wild Card berth).
Actual Projection: Darnold doesn’t regress but doesn’t light up the stat sheet, Bell shakes off the rust and becomes reliable but not a star, the defense is solid but not as dominant as they can be. (Record 8-8, second place in AFC East, no playoff berth).
AFC SOUTH: JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (5-11)
Jacksonville came into the 2018-19 season with extremely high hopes. After shocking the NFL world by reaching the AFC Championship game in the 2017-18 season, the sky was the limit for Jacksonville. A team that relied so heavily on their shutdown defense to win their first division title since 1999, was let down by an entire defensive regression. With Blake Bortles
leading the offense, it wasn’t a surprise that the Jags heavily relied on their defense to win games. But nobody could have predicted just how ineffective Bortles would be just one season after an AFC Championship berth. Running back Leonard Fournette showed a promising start but injuries derailed his season, but other than a few games missed by CB A.J Bouye, the defense was mostly the same. After starting the season 3-1, the Jags started to free-fall, losing their next seven games allowing 26.7 PPG and only scoring 15.6 PPG. This stretch began with a 30-14 loss to the Chiefs and a 40-7 drubbing to a struggling Cowboys team. Winners of two of their last five, the Jags still struggled offensively scoring just six and 17 in those wins.
The Jaguars made the smart choice in letting Blake Bortles walk away without a contract offer. They made potentially a smarter choice in signing Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles to a four-year deal worth $88 million. While Foles re-established himself as a capable starter in the NFL, his struggles outside of Philadelphia are cause for concern. His average season with the Rams and his backup duty with the Chiefs led some to believe that Foles’ odds of starting for another NFL team were minuscule, but his postseason heroics for the Eagles lead to the Jaguars taking a chance on the 30-year old QB. While a return to his “Philly form” is not expected, it would be hard for Foles to perform worse than Bortles had. With a limited cap, the Foles signing took up most of Jacksonville’s spending money and the only other notable signing was receiver Chris Conley. But, the Jags did well in the draft getting OL Jawaan Taylor and TE Josh Oliver. In Philadelphia, Foles relied heavily on the tight end position so Oliver may be the most important acquisition the Jags made this off-season. The real question, however, lies with the defense. They have proven that they have the talent to dominate, but last season, they proved they can be beaten. With CB Jalen Ramsey learning not to run his mouth, maybe the unit can focus on their play instead of their smack talk.
Worst Case Scenario: If Foles struggles again outside of Philly and the defense doesn’t show up for a second straight season, 2019 will be a rough year for the Jaguars. (Record: 3-13, last place in the AFC South, no playoff berth).
Best Case Scenario: Foles instantly clicks with the Jags' offense and forms a great connection with TE Josh Oliver. The defense returns to form and shuts down everyone not named Tom Brady. (Record: 11-5, first place in the AFC South, #3 or #4 seed).
Actual Projection: Foles plays decently in a new system and the defense makes some improvements but doesn’t match their 2017-18 effort. In a tight division anything is possible, but the Jags can’t afford to lose games in which they are the favorite. (Record: 7-9, third in the AFC South, no playoff berth).
AFC NORTH: CINCINNATI BENGALS (6-10)
The Bengals have been a bubble team for the better part of a decade but never have been able to push themselves into a true title contender. After the departure of Carson Palmer, the Bengals struggled to find a suitable replacement until they drafted Andy Dalton in 2011. Dalton looked like the real deal as he led the Bengals to five straight winning seasons and five
straight playoff appearances. In a division dominated by the Steelers and Ravens, the Bengals managed to win the AFC North in 2013 and 2015. But, as much early success Dalton and the Bengals had, they lost every single playoff game they’ve been in. Since their last appearance in the playoffs, the Bengals have missed the postseason in three consecutive seasons, with 2018 being their worst season since 2010. Their 6-10 record put them last in the division, taking the spot away from the perennial “cellar dweller” Cleveland Browns. In 2018 with Marvin Lewis still at the helm, the Bengals struggled to get any consistency from his team. They started off red-hot, winning four of their first five games, averaging 32.6 points per game. After their first five games, the Bengals would go 1-2, heading into their week 9 bye with a solid 5-3 record. However, after the bye, the Bengals would lose seven of their next eight, as their offense cooled off dramatically. Even in their wins, the Bengals defense wasn’t great. It was their offense that fueled them to their victories.
Marvin Lewis was a fantastic coach for the Bengals but unfortunately never got the recognition he deserved because he could never win in the postseason. However, his tenure was a little too long and the Bengals finally made a coaching change, bringing in former-LA Rams' QB coach, Zac Taylor, as the successor to Lewis. The Bengals haven’t had a history of splashy FA signings and this off-season was no exception. Their biggest two signings were OLB Preston Brown, and o-linemen Bobby Hart and John Miller, each getting three years and a little over $16 million. They did bring Tyler Eifert back on a one-year deal but other than that, the Bengals didn’t do much to improve. They drafted OT Jonah Williams from Alabama, to add more protection for Dalton. With two likely HOF-ers, Geno Atkins and AJ Green, the Bengals don’t seem too worried about making their final years as elite stars matter.
Worst Case Scenario: With aging veterans and unproven rookies, the Bengals struggle to get any momentum and fail to put together any sustained success. Andy Dalton struggles as defenses key on Green and Eifert, leaving him with no playmakers to help drive the offense. (Record 4-12, last in AFC North, no playoff berth).
Best Case Scenario: Dalton recaptures his magic and leads the team with stellar offensive performances, picking up for an average to lackluster defense. With a tough schedule the Bengals will need to pull out close win after close win and dominate teams in their division. (Record 9-7, second place in AFC North, Wild Card berth)
Actual Projection: With no huge signings, few (if any) improvements, a new head coach and a tough schedule, the Bengals need a “born-again” season to have any hopes of making the playoffs. (Record: 5-11, last in AFC North, no playoff berth).
AFC WEST: OAKLAND RAIDERS (4-12)
The Raiders have only had one season of more than seven wins since their 2002 loss in Super Bowl XXXVII. Needless to say, things haven’t been going great in Oakland, and since they’ve announced their move to Las Vegas, not too many Raiders fans buy tickets to their games. In 2016, the Raiders went 12-4, finishing second in the AFC West and losing a heart
breaker to the Texans in the Wild Card round. The Raiders sported seven Pro Bowlers and dominated on both sides of the ball, but after the signing of John Gruden as the head coach, the Raiders have voided their team of any talent around QB Derek Carr. The Raiders dealt away LB Khalil Mack and WR Amari Cooper, who both went on to flourish with their new teams. Meanwhile, the Raiders would lose eight of their first nine, sporting the worst record in the NFL. However, the Raiders would go on to win three of their last seven, making sure they didn’t get a top three draft pick. After their numerous trades, the Raiders ended up with the 15th pick in the draft, taking OT Kolton Miller. The biggest splash by far was the trade for the overly-dramatic Antonio Brown.
Not great. The Raiders have become the new laughing stock of the NFL due to their horrible trades, both getting rid of stars, and bringing in cancerous players (Antonio Brown, Vontaze Burfict and Richie Incognito). The Raiders don’t have much talent beyond Brown and Carr and don’t seem to be heading in any direction. Gruden spent last year either shaking off the coaching rust or realizing he hasn’t adapted to the game. If the Raiders want to make their last season in the Oakland Coliseum count, they’ll need nothing short of a miracle.
Worst Case Scenario: Playing with aging players and in a tough division, there’s a lot that can go wrong in the 2019 campaign for the Raiders. If Carr can’t carry the team, with the help of Antonio Brown, the Raiders are destined for another abysmal season. (Record: 2-14, last place in AFC West, no playoff berth)
Best Case Scenario: There aren’t too many viable paths to the playoffs for the Raiders, but most of them involve their troubled players shutting up and returning to their elite statuses. Very unlikely, but not impossible. Carr needs to step up and let these players know that the Raiders are his team. (Record: 6-10, third in the AFC West, no playoff berth).
Actual Projection: Very similar to the worst-case scenario. It’s hard to imagine everything going right for the Raiders, and even if it does, that doesn’t guarantee success in Oakland. Gruden may take a few steps forward but that won’t propel them into the playoffs. (Record 3-13, last place in the AFC West, no playoff berth).