AFC Contenders: Who Has Improved?

Has your team done enough in the offseason to be competitive with the top teams in the AFC Playoff hunt? Get inside to find out what's team experts think in part one of our AFC Contenders series.

Has your team done enough in the offseason to be competitive with the top teams in the AFC Playoff hunt?

Alain Poupart (Dolphin Digest):
The Dolphins haven't made many headline-grabbing moves since last season, instead focusing on retaining their own potential free agents. Two additions of note were cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, taken in the first and second rounds of the draft. The Dolphins also added quarterback Pat White, who should help make the Wildcat more dangerous than it was last season. Many observers felt the Dolphins needed to address the wide receiver position in the offseason, specifically in terms of getting a legitimate No. 1 guy at the position. But the Dolphins pretty much stood pat there, hoping to make do with the young receivers they have along with third-round pick Patrick Turner. The Dolphins won the AFC East title last year and appear to be a slightly better team at this time, so they definitely should be competitive, although a very tough -- on paper -- schedule will make things more difficult.

Charlie Bernstein -
The Jacksonville Jaguars have seemingly improved their team in the offseason, however it likely won't be enough for them to be a legitimate playoff contender in the AFC. Jacksonville had issues on both sides of the ball, and mostly in the locker room a season ago, and the dismissal of veterans Fred Taylor, Mike Peterson, and Paul Spicer, along with free agent and draft busts Jerry Porter, Drayton Florence, Matt Jones, and Reggie Williams may make for a better locker room, but certainly not a more talented product on the field.

Jacksonville had a solid draft in which the addressed the offensive line with their first day picks in tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton. They also inked veteran free agents Torry Holt and Tra Thomas to help patch holes at the wide receiver position and offensive line respectively. Still, the team is paper thin on the defensive line and secondary, and must depend on an inconsistent David Garrard to lead them to victories in 2009, something that cannot be counted on.

Michael Lombardo -
Despite signing only one free agent this offseason (LB Kevin Burnett), the Chargers have made enormous strides to patch their weaknesses from a season ago. It starts with the pass rush, where sack-master Shawne Merriman returns at full health after missing last season with a knee injury. He'll be joined by first-round pick Larry English and the explosive Shaun Phillips to give the Chargers an elite edge-rushing triumvirate.

The increased pressure on opposing quarterbacks should help a pass defense that ranked dead-last in the AFC last season (247.4 yards per game). San Diego's secondary has other reasons for optimism, as well, including the healthy return of Antonio Cromartie -- who played through a hip fracture in 2008 -- and the development of youngsters Eric Weddle and Antoine Cason.

On offense, the Chargers hope a rejuvenated running game will complement one of the NFL's most potent passing attacks. The key will be a healed-up LaDainian Tomlinson, who led the league in rushing in 2006 and 2007 before being slowed by toe and groin injuries last season. He'll follow the lead blocks of FB Jacob Hester, who should be much improved in his second year on the job.

Jim Wexell -
The Steelers, as per their philosophy, concentrated on extending the contracts of their own future free agents instead of bringing anyone else in. They only lost two starters on defense and replaced Larry Foote and Bryant McFadden with players who alternated with them last season -- Lawrence Timmons and William Gay. The team extended James Harrison, Hines Ward and Max Starks and gets last year's first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall and punter Dan Sepulveda back healthy. Rookies Mike Wallace and Joe Burnett should bolster the anemic return game. The Steelers should again go deep into the playoffs.

Aaron Wilson --
The Ravens are close to being good enough to overtake the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, but have undergone a lot of changes with the losses of Rex Ryan, Bart Scott, Jason Brown, Jim Leonhard, Matt Stover and Chris McAlister. They're banking on the following replacements as being viable enough to make up for those subtractions, including Gregg Mattison, Tavares Gooden, Matt Birk, Dawan Landry, Graham Gano or Steve Hauschka and Domonique Foxworth. With Joe Flacco, a punishing running game and an intimidating defense spearheaded by Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, the Ravens are at least a wild-card team again. And it wouldn't be a shock if they challenge the Steelers in the AFC North for the division title.

Charlie Bernstein -
The Texans believe they have done enough to be considered a legitimate contender in the AFC Playoff race. Without much of a need to improve the league's third-ranked offense from a year ago, the team addressed their defense by signing free agents Antonio Smith and Shaun Cody on the defensive line. The team then spent their first day of draft picks on linebacker Brian Cushing and defensive end Connor Barwin, and added Brice McCain, Glover Quin, and Troy Nolan to bolster the secondary in the second day.

The only things that can seemingly hold the Texans back are team chemistry and an injury to quarterback Matt Schaub, both of which are more than possible. Franchised corner Dunta Robinson is extremely unhappy about not getting a long-term contract, and he has vowed to hold out all of training camp and into the regular season. Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels was given the high tender as a restricted free agent and he skipped most of the team's OTA's. Quarterback Matt Schaub hasn't expressed any public discontent about his deal, at least not publicly, but he is yet to complete a full 16-game season as a starter.

Alfie Crowe for
Yes, the Tennessee Titans have done enough. While the Titans did lose a big piece of their defense in Albert Haynesworth, their entire defensive line has been on a tear. The team drafted Sen'Derrick Marks to fill Haynesworth's slot. They also have Jason Jones, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Tony Brown, Jacob Ford, and they added Javon Haye in the offseason.

On offense, the team added a deep threat in Nate Washington, and drafted former Rutgers' wide receiver Kenny Britt in the first round. Those two players should help Kerry Collins and the Titans have a more balanced offense in 2009. The addition of third-round pick Jared Cook at tight end could also pay dividends as he's performed very well in the team's OTA's.

Eric Hartz -
While the Indianapolis Colts looked vulnerable at times last season and were one-and-done in the playoffs for the second straight year, the Colts have enough pieces in place to again be one of the AFC's top teams in 2008. As usual, the team was quiet in free agency, electing to attempt sign its own free agents. The Colts were successful in that strategy and have center Jeff Saturday and top corner Kelvin Hayden back under contract for 2009.

The Colts used the draft to address their weaknesses, selecting national rushing champion Donald Brown to help jump start a running game that was dismal in 2008. The team also drafted defensive tackles Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor and re-signed former starter Ed Johnson to boost the run defense. Strong-legged Pat McAfee will replace departed punter Hunter Smith, and rookie WR Austin Collie could also see some field time this fall.

While the Colts do have questions — the biggest being how they will respond to someone besides Tony Dungy calling the shots — there's no reason to think they won't make their eighth-straight playoff appearance and be on the short list of Super Bowl contenders.

Jon Scott
New England was a breath away from the playoffs last year without Tom Brady. His replacement, Matt Cassel, guided the team that had his core group of players still intact, players like Tedy Bruschi, Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, Randy Moss and Wes Welker. With Brady back, they should not only be in the hunt, but also have a better shot than most in their division. Oddsmakers have the Patriots pegged as favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Other moved the team made have contributed to their overall success. Though they're starting new defensive backs for the second year in a row, this group has more talent in Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs. The rookies from last year are now more prepared to help and the core players from last year's run are back. Considering the players New England Drafted this year may help, the Patriots are on track to be right in the thick of things come January.

Be sure to keep an eye on this space for more articles in this series as we pose additional questions to team experts. Home

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