With most of the AFC teams kicking off their second full week of training camp, the focus for 15 of the 16 teams in the conference is dethroning the defending World Champion, New England Patriots. With stars such as Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Frank Clark, and Earl Thomas all on new teams – and players like Melvin Gordon holding out – the 2019 AFC race is getting more interesting by the day. In today’s article we will highlight some of the key things to watch for from the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders, and the New York Jets.
Eighteen months ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers had the best quarterback, running back, and wide receiver trio in the entire league. Any defensive coordinator who had to plan against Bell, Brown and Ben Roethlisberger, lost plenty nights of sleep. With the signing of Bell in New York and Brown being traded to Oakland, “Big Ben” is left with the task of carrying the Steelers back to the Super Bowl.
Without Bell, who held out all of last season, Roethlisberger had arguably the best season of his career. Ben threw for a career-high 5,129 passing yards and a career best 34 touchdown passes. The Steelers finished sixth in the NFL in scoring and fourth in total offense. Even though Brown had 15 touchdown catches, almost 1,300 receiving yards, and 104 catches, it was his teammate, JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had a breakout season. JuJu was voted the team’s MVP on offense, and his 114 catches with 1,426 yards receiving lead the team. With Antonio in Oakland this season, those numbers could increase even more.
Bell’s replacement, James Conner, was awesome as well last season. He may have only played in 13 games, but he complied 1,470 yards in total offense, and had 13 total touchdowns. Along with Smith-Schuster and Conner, tight end Vance McDonald will also be returning to the roster. McDonald and incoming receiver, Donte Moncrief, will look to fill the void that has been left with Brown’s departure. Fans will also want to keep an eye on receiver, James Washington. Washington may have had a limited role up until this point, but he has the big play ability to make fans forget all about Brown.
Yes, Big Ben is almost 37 years old, but the Steelers shouldn’t have a problem making the playoffs – even with his potential chance of a high interception total. Roethlisberger has thrown at least 13 or more interceptions in six of his last eight seasons.
The Jets needed a star and someone who could steal the running back pages in New York City, and they got one in Le’Veon Bell. Before his holdout last season, Le’Veon was the premier all-around back in the entire league. Even though he’s not the fastest player at his position, no one in the league has his vision and ability to find a hole. On top of that, he has some of the best hands of any player at his position in the NFL. With a year off, rust may prevent Bell from having a good start to his Jets career. But by the time October rolls around, Jets fans will see why Bell is one of the top five overall players in the league. Throughout his career, Bell has averaged 91.7 yards a game on the ground in October, and 95.4 yards a game in December.
Last year, rookie Sam Darnold didn’t have the best protection in the world, but with a player like Bell and the addition of Pro Bowl center, Ryan Kalil, Sam has the potential to lead his team to a winning record and the playoffs.
Antonio Brown might be the most electrifying offensive player in the entire league. A sure-fire first ballot hall-of-fame receiver, Brown runs each route of the receiving tree to perfection. He’s caught 100 or more passes in each of his last six years and has seven 1,000+ yard receiving seasons in the last eight full seasons he’s played. He gives his new team, the Oakland Raiders, the most dangerous deep threat since the team signed Randy Moss. Now all head coach, Jon Gruden, and quarterback, David Carr, must do is make sure their newest weapon gets the ball, and Brown will do the rest. If his foot checks out fine, Brown will have extra motivation to lead the league in every receiving category in the NFL.
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