Are Texans, Raiders and Titans Poised to Seize AFC from Pats and Broncos?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterApril 21, 2016

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 01:  J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans and Whitney Mercilus #59 converse after teaming up for a sack against the Tennessee Titans at NRG Stadium on November 1, 2015 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Patriots don't have a first-round pick. The Broncos don't have a quarterback.

The superpowers that have dominated the AFC for years—for the entire 21st century, in the Patriots' case—are as vulnerable as they have ever been. 

The Texans are entering the final turn of a remarkable offseason. The Raiders have drafted so well for the last two years that they can improve just by standing still, but they haven't sat still. The Titans just sat down at the Rams' poker table and walked away with the table.

The 2016 draft represents a turning point. This is where the balance of AFC power will finally shift, new contenders will rise and, quite possibly, dynasties will begin to topple.

Before we continue, a dissenting opinion from a guy wearing a faded Mike Vrabel jersey:

Whatever, smaht guy. You've been slingin' this same gahbage since Reche Caldwell dropped that pass in the 2006 playoffs. Tom Brady is gonna play until he's 60, Bill Belichick is an immortal wizard, and your precious Texans and Raiders are still gonna be lookin' up at us in the standings, no matter how many draft picks Rodger Goodell steals from us.

Indeed, there is nothing new about springtime "Patriots are in trouble" columns. But this is not just a springtime "Patriots are in trouble" column. This is a "whole power structure in upheaval" column. This is different.

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The Texans spent two years building an everything-but-the-quarterback roster capable of reaching the playoffs with the likes of T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden at the helm. In March, they went out and got the quarterback.

They also picked up Lamar Miller in what may be the most underrated signing of the offseason. J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins, Whitney Mercilus, Brock Osweiler, Miller and Jadeveon Clowney (yes, he was very good in spurts last year): This is the nucleus of a contender.

Derek Carr (left) and Amari Cooper
Derek Carr (left) and Amari CooperThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Raiders' headliners are Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, but they have so much more. They may have the best offensive line in the AFC. They have Latavius Murray coming off his first 1,000-yard rushing season.

Their 2014 draft class—Mack, Carr, guard Gabe Jackson, defensive lineman Justin Ellis—is shaping up to be the best class of this decade, at least. The Raiders upgraded their secondary with Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson in free agency but didn't have to do much else; their draft classes are taking care of themselves.

The Titans' heist from the Rams' draft-pick vault sets them up to win Super Bowl LIII. For now, they must start building the way the Raiders and Texans did. They already have the quarterback.

There are several honorable mentions among the AFC's revolutionaries.

The Dolphins spend millions of dollars each offseason dog-paddling, but this year they finally appear to have acquired more than they gave up. Only the Colts stand between the Colts and a return to the playoff picture.

The AFC North will continue to beat the tar out of itself and churn forth a battered contender each year. The Chiefs remain a thorn in everyone's side. And have you seen the offensive numbers the Jaguars produced last year? Most of their playmakers are under 26 years old.

Allen Hurns (left) and Allen Robinson
Allen Hurns (left) and Allen RobinsonSam Greenwood/Getty Images

Meanwhile, among the old guard, Mark Sanchez is scheduled to lead the Broncos onto the field for the Thursday night season opener against the Carolina Panthers. Are you ready for some football? Will the Broncos be ready for some football?

In the spirit of equal time, here's a dissenting opinion from a guy wearing a "2015 world champions" cap:

It doesn't matter who plays quarterback for the Broncos, buddy. Peyton Manning was a zombie last year, and we still won it all. The Broncos are about defense. As long as Wade Phillips has Von Miller, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and DeMarcus Ware to move around his chessboard, we can win games with Sanchez, Trevor Siemian, Case Keenum, Dak Prescott…heck, John Elway or Gary Kubiak could suit up and win some games.

Yes, the Broncos are built to win games with a bad quarterback. Maybe nine or 10 games. This isn't about clawing into the playoffs like the Texans did last year. This is about perennial Super Bowl contention. No team with Mark Sanchez at quarterback can claim to be the team to beat in the AFC. (Unless Rex Ryan is doing the claiming and it's 2010. And remember how that turned out?)

The Patriots are in better shape than the Broncos. They are just missing a first-round pick. Several first-round picks, actually. The Patriots traded Chandler Jones to the Cardinals to acquire Jonathan Cooper and a late second-round pick earlier in the offseason. Dominique Easley, the 29th player selected in 2014, was released last week. The Patriots have little to show for their recent first-round selections.

Jones was the 21st player selected in the 2012 draft and had developed into an excellent all-around defender. Cooper was selected seventh in 2013 and gave the Cardinals nothing but injuries and disappointment.

The trade made sense for the Patriots, who can never quite assemble a Tom Brady Protection Package that meets their standards these days. But we're a long way from the offseasons when the Patriots responded to a playoff loss by snatching Randy Moss and Wes Welker off other rosters and smirking at the rest of the conference.

Dominique Easley lays into Tyrod Taylor.
Dominique Easley lays into Tyrod Taylor.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Easley turned out to be an injury case (as he was in college; he wouldn't have been available late in the first round otherwise) and a "locker room cancer," according to A. Nonymous Teammate (that part is new from Ben Volin of the Boston Globe). The Patriots knew Easley was a boom-or-bust gamble, the kind of calculated risk on superstardom a dynasty has to make when picking at the end of the first round for an entire generation.

Every lost gamble, though, adds a tiny crack to the foundation.

The Patriots are masters of spackling, of course, and Terrance Knighton and Markus Kuhn have arrived to buttress the line. Both Patriots lines are in need of a lot of buttressing these days. Despite the myth that the Patriots draft poorly, they rely on top picks (Nate Solder, Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower, Jones, Malcom Brown last year) to keep the engine at full throttle.

With so little to show from recent early rounds, the Patriots are a misfire away from becoming the Saints: a team too utterly reliant on its Hall of Fame quarterback to compete.

All the Texans, Raiders and the rest of the proletariat have to do to cause a revolution is stay the course and play it smart over the next 10 days.

The Texans need a final piece. Perhaps it's a complementary receiver to Hopkins: Laquon Treadwell as a possession target, Josh Doctson to turn Osweiler into a mad bomber or Corey Coleman as a slant-and-go threat in the Emmanuel Sanders mold.

The Texans could also tighten up the secondary (Houston's William Jackson III could stay home) or beef up the interior offensive line. They could accomplish two or three of these goals. As long as they land an impact player, the Texans should walk away from the draft as a team poised to win 11 games.

The Raiders need another linebacker. This draft is saturated with good linebackers. Maybe Reggie Ragland arrives from Alabama to anchor the middle. Maybe Darron Lee can fly around and cover receivers, freeing Mack to unleash even more backfield mayhem.

With Mack, their rebuilt secondary and an offense coming into its own, the Raiders are a player away from winning the AFC West. And Broncos fans chanting "In Elway we trust" know it.

The Titans…heck, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce should just purchase naming rights to Friday night's draft coverage. The Titans can build an entire foundation with the 15th overall pick plus five selections between slots 33 and 76.

Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota
Titans quarterback Marcus MariotaJim Rogash/Getty Images

Two defensive backs, two offensive linemen, a linebacker and a wide receiver? Three additions to the front seven, a cornerback, a right tackle and a tight end? This draft is short on high-impact superstars but full of the kind of rank-and-file contributors the Titans need.

Marcus Mariota, Jurrell Casey, DeMarco Murray and some playmakers on the rise (Dorial Green-Beckham, for example) will provide the impact.

While the new contenders ascend next weekend, the Patriots will swing for the fences twice in the second round (and yes, their batting average there is high). The Broncos will polish up a helmet for Paxton Lynch or Connor Cook or somebody. The Bengals and Steelers will stare each other down and growl.

One by one, the members of the ruling class will fade away. By 2017, there will be a new ruling class, a conference turned upside down.

It's going to happen.

And if it doesn't happen in this draft, I'll just edit this column slightly and publish it again before next draft.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeTanier.