The adage that you’re only as strong as your weakest link doesn’t quite apply to the NFL, where one or more strong positional groups can mask another one’s deficiencies. Nevertheless, an extremely weak link can torpedo the entire operation. As training camps open across the league and positional battles get underway, let’s take a look at each AFC team’s most glaring weakness.
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New England Patriots -- Offensive line
The Patriots will survive Tom Brady’s four-week football vacation while they get a look at Jimmy Garoppolo, who will be the guinea pig for the Patriots’ re-formed offensive line. The line got brutalized by injuries last season and Bill Belichick brought back longtime O-Line coach Dante Scarnecchia to fix it. Left tackle Nate Solder passed initial tests as he returns from a biceps injury and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is making his way back from a knee injury. Right guard Tre Jackson underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and starts camp on the PUP list and so does left guard Shaq Mason with an undisclosed injury. Center Brian Stork is healthy. Phew. Some better injury luck and Scarnecchia magic permitting, things should be more stable when Brady returns.
Getty ImagesJared Wickerham
Buffalo Bills -- Wide receiver
Third-year wideout Sammy Watkins is a Pro Bowl-caliber talent but nagging injuries have hampered his play. He enters camp this year trying to recover from a foot injury and hopes to be ready for Week 1. If he’s not, the Bills, even though they’ll employ a rush-first offense, are in real trouble. After Watkins there’s Robert Woods, who wouldn’t be a starter on most teams, and then journeyman Greg Salas, who will compete for time with Leonard Hankerson (via New England). 2015 seventh-round pick Dezmin Lewis is raw but big (6-foot-4, 214 pounds) and also in the mix.
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New York Jets -- Tight end
Ah, the protracted Ryan Fitzpatrick-Jets standoff is finally over. Last season Jets tight ends Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Davis combined for eight catches (!!!) on 23 targets. On the season! The tight ends primarily served as extra blockers and not pass catchers, a byproduct of scheme and their limitations. 2014 second-round pick Jace Amaro had 38 catches for 345 yards in 2014 and missed all of last season with a torn labrum. He’s the likely starter but needs to improve his blocking.
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Miami Dolphins - Secondary
The Dolphins stunk in pretty much every facet of the game last season. With new head coach Adam Gase in town, they should get better on offense. The defense allowed opposing quarterbacks a 97.4 passer rating (ranked 24th), 64.6 completion percentage (23rd) and 31 passing touchdowns (T-25th). After Reshad Jones, one of league’s best strong safeties, there’s a load of inexperienced players and rookies vying for starting jobs. There’s also Eagles castoff Bryon Maxwell arriving after a terrible season to replace the team’s best cornerback, Brent Grimes , who left for Tampa Bay with his Twitter-happy wife Miko. At least Maxwell should be better if the team plays more zone under new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph.
Baltimore Ravens -- Health on defense
It would be difficult for the Ravens to suffer any worse injury luck than they did last year when the team had a John Harbaugh-era record 20 players on injured reserve at one point. The Ravens had the offseason to heal up and also got an infusion of youth with their 11 draft picks in the spring. Linebackers Terrell Suggs (achilles) and Elvis Dumervil (foot) are both recovering from injuries and both working to get ready in time for Week 1. Also, starting cornerback Jimmy Smith is trying to overcome a repeat foot injury. Beyond health, some defenders have shifted positions including Lardarius Webb from corner to safety, so they need to congeal and make more plays. Last season’s MASH unit had a -14 turnover differential, tied for second-to-worst in the league.
Cincinnati Bengals -- Wild Card playoffs
The Bengals have a deep and talented roster and will vie for the AFC North title again and (clenches teeth) maybe play on Wild Card weekend for the sixth straight year. They've lost the past five. Things may have gone differently last season if not for some questionable officiating and if Andy Dalton was healthy (although A.J. McCarron played about as well as you can hope for in a backup). The Bengals could use some depth at wide receiver but they don’t really have a true glaring weakness -- just the early January mental hurdle.
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Cleveland Browns - Quarterback
It’s the quarterback, dummy. At least the infamous Browns QB misery jersey got retired, as well as the city’s 52-year championship drought. Can new head coach Hue Jackson work some magic with Robert Griffin III? Otherwise it’s back to Josh McCown, one of the few men left in the NFL born in the 1970’s (1979). We’ll have to wait and see how this shakes out but barring a major revelation from RG3, the Browns fans will be waiting at least another year for their quarterback of the future.
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Pittsburgh Steelers -- Secondary
The Steelers have a scary passing game but also allowed opponents to feast on them through the air last season, allowing 271.9 passing yards per game (ranked 30th). They addressed the weakness through the draft by tapping cornerback Artie Burns (Miami) in the first round and safety Sean Davis (Maryland) in the second. The Steelers hadn’t taken a cornerback in the first round in 18 years. Getting some guidance from veterans William Gay and Mike Mitchell, Burns will probably start in the place of Antwon Blake who struggled last season and is now in Tennessee.
Houston Texans -- Pass catchers not named DeAndre Hopkins
This is going to be a run-oriented team with Lamar Miller but if Brock Osweiler is to become what the Texans paid for, some receivers and tight ends will have to step up. After Hopkins, Nate Washington caught the second-most passes (47) in 2015 and now he’s in New England (of course last year’s Texans quarterbacking disaster has a role in everyone’s production). Speedy rookie Will Fuller is likely to be a starter with Cecil Shorts and Jaelen Strong (some maturity issues last year) probably will fight for the third spot. At tight end, Ryan Griffin and Stephen Anderson combined for 37 catches last year and will compete for the starting spot along with undrafted free agent Stephen Anderson.
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Indianapolis Colts -- Front seven
Now that the Colts drafted about 1,200 pounds worth of offensive linemen to protect their $140 million dollar man, offensive line shouldn’t be the biggest weakness anymore but the defensive front seven. Linebackers Trent Cole (33) and Robert Mathis (35) are nearing AARP-eligible age in NFL years. Like UFC’s Jon Jones, brother Arthur Jones is suspended for a substance abuse violation and will miss four games at defensive end. Meanwhile 24-year-old defensive end Henry Anderson showed promise last year but tore his ACL in November and will start the season on the PUP list.
Getty ImagesMaddie Meyer
Jacksonville Jaguars -- Offensive line
The Jaguars did pretty darn well this offseason in free agency (Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson) and the draft (Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack) plus they return 2015 1st round draft pick Dante Fowler from a torn ACL. The Jags have a great tandem of wide receivers with the Allen duo of Robinson and Hurns but QB Blate Bortles needs better protection, particularly on the left side where Kelvin Beachum (from the Steelers) and Luke Joeckel will compete for the left tackle job. Meanwhile center Luke Bowanko will start the year on the PUP list as he recovers from hip surgery in May.
Getty ImagesChris Graythen
Tennessee Titans -- Secondary
Top cornerback Jason McCourty played only four games last season and should be 100-percent this year after undergoing groin surgery. Last year the Titans allowed an opposing passer rating of 101.3 (28th in league) and a whopping 34 passing touchdowns (29th in league). So they brought in a few free agents including free safety Rashad Johnson from Arizona who should, they hope, help shore up the secondary alongside strong safety Da'Norris Searcy.
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San Diego Chargers -- Special teams
The Chargers have a pretty solid roster top to bottom and added some nice pieces in free agency (NT Brandon Mebane, CB Casey Heyward) and the draft (DE Joey Bosa). Also Eric Weddle will be difficult to replace at safety but special teams really need work. The Chargers allowed a league-worst 27.5 yards per kickoff return last season, 9.8 yards per punt return (ranked 22), netted only 38.8 yards per punt (ranked 29) and stuck only 15 punts inside opponents’ 20 yard line (ranked last). San Diego bid farewell to longtime punter Mike Scifres in April and actually drafted a punter -- Texas A&M’s Drew Kaser. That’s how you know a team is really irked with its special teams play.
Denver Broncos -- Quarterback
The good news is that a hobbled, noodle-armed Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl with this team. He relied mostly on the defense and his brain. The defending champs are holding a three-way competition between Mark Sanchez, second-year man Trevor Siemian and rookie Paxton Lynch. Definitely not where John Elway or head coach Gary Kubiak thought they’d be with the position back in February. With the QB position a work in progress, running back C.J. Anderson may now get all those carries and touchdowns that fantasy football owners desperately wanted last year.
Kansas City Chiefs -- Piecing the defense back together
This offseason wasn’t kind to the Chiefs’ defense (or offense). In free agency they lost starting cornerback Sean Smith and free safety Husain Abdullah retired. With linebackers Tamba Hali (32) and Derrick Johnson (33) not getting younger and Justin Houston out indefinitely after surgery in February to repair the ACL/LCL in his left knee, they can’t afford to be without any key defenders. Now four-time Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry reportedly will hold out for much of training camp and the preseason after he and the team failed to reach a long-term agreement before the July 15 deadline.
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Oakland Raiders -- Inside linebacker
So, the Raiders defense might be really damn good this year thanks to experience and some nice acquisitions in outside linebacker Bruce Irvin from Seattle, Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith and safety Reggie Nelson from Cincinnati. But they could still use improvement from second-year middle linebacker Ben Heeney and Malcolm Smith, both of whom struggled against the run last season.