Setting the Early Odds on 2017 NFL Division Winners

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystAugust 1, 2017

Setting the Early Odds on 2017 NFL Division Winners

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Death, taxes and the New England Patriots winning the AFC East are the only certainties in life.

    The Patriots have claimed eight straight division crowns and 14 of the last 16. Tom Brady's knee injury in the first minutes of the 2008 campaign is the only reason New England isn't on a 14-year roll.

    To place the Patriots' paramountcy into perspective, only two teams—the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packershave won at least five division titles since 2007.

    Despite New England's dominance, plenty of turnover should occur in this year's races. Last season, six different squads topped the eight divisions compared to the previous campaign.

    There's hope for most franchises.

    But a few—like the Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams, New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers—may require bona fide miracles to usurp the top spots in their respective divisions. Anything can happen, but it'll be next to impossible for each to claim a division crown.

    For the rest of the league's teams, may Bleacher Report's odds be ever in your favor. 

AFC North

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    Cleveland Browns: 18-1

    The last time the Browns captured a division title was 28 years ago. Cleveland ruled the AFC Central long before smartphones, Bill Belichick's first head coaching gig and even the franchise's move to Baltimore. Since the organization's return in 1999, the Browns have only challenged for the top spot twice, falling just short of the Pittsburgh Steelers both times. 

    The current edition is in Year 2 of a complete rebuild. The front office finally decided to strip it down to the studs and start from scratch instead of attempting the same type of patchwork restarts that failed numerous times in the past. 

    In doing so, Cleveland fielded the NFL's second-youngest team a year ago (behind the Rams). After selecting 14 players in the 2016 NFL draft, it added 10 more this April. As a whole, the roster is full of potential, but that potential needs to be developed. 

    Everything starts at quarterback, where the Browns continue to search for the ever-elusive franchise signal-caller. Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler and second-round pick DeShone Kizer will each have the opportunity to open the season as the starter. The rest of the roster is more athletic and talented than it has been for a long time, but Cleveland needs to become competitive before it can develop into a winning program.

        

    Baltimore Ravens: 8-1

    Everything seems to be going wrong for the Baltimore Ravens as training camp opens. 

    In minicamp, veteran tight end Dennis Pitta suffered yet another hip injury, and Baltimore subsequently released him. Quarterback Joe Flacco is dealing with a back injury and could miss three to six weeks, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero.

    This would be enough to rattle most teams.

    But the Ravens also experienced an unexpected retirement when potential starting center John Urschel decided to step away from the game, per Ryan Mink of the team website. On top of that, backup running back Kenneth Dixon is expected to miss the 2017 campaign after he needed surgery to repair his medial meniscus, per Rapoport

    Baltimore featured a top-10 defense last season, yet that unit suffered a key injury, too. Cornerback Tavon Young tore his ACL during minicamp. However, the group has the potential to be better with the additions of Tony Jefferson, Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey and Tyus Bowser. 

    The hits the offense took may be too much to overcome, though.

        

    Cincinnati Bengals: 5-1

    On paper, the Cincinnati Bengals appear to be readying themselves for a bounce-back campaign. Cincinnati won division titles in 2013 and '15 and had made five straight playoff appearances before last season's 6-9-1 effort. 

    Talent is certainly not an issue.

    Andy Dalton needs to get beyond his postseason bugaboo, but he's a solid starting quarterback. The franchise selected a speed demon in John Ross during the first round of the draft in April to play alongside A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and Brandon LaFell. Tight end Tyler Eifert, meanwhile, is a big-time red-zone target. 

    The defense still features Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Vontaze Burfict, Dre Kirkpatrick and George Iloka. The Bengals drafted a pair of pass-rushers in Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson, too. This unit is better than the one that fell to 17th in total defense last season. 

    But the offensive line remains the biggest concern. No team can easily overcome the losses of players the caliber of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler. Both were among the best at their respective positions.

    The front office picked Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher in the first two rounds of the 2015 NFL draft for a reason. If they can't hold up their end of the bargain, Cincy will stagnate.

        

    Pittsburgh Steelers: 1-2

    Though they lost 36-17 to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers are a contender—and have a chance to dethrone Bill Belichick and Co. this season.

    Pittsburgh's path starts with the return of Martavis Bryant. After serving a year-long suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, the 6'4", 211-pound target will add another explosive option to an offense that already features Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell.

    The Steelers' offensive potency doesn't stop with Brown, Bell, Bryant and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, however. Sammie Coates, Eli Rogers and Jesse James flashed last season and should contribute again this fall. General manager Kevin Colbert also drafted USC's JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round in April. The unit's offensive front can also be counted among the league's best. 

    If Pittsburgh plans on overtaking New England, a dynamic offense will be only part of the equation. Tom Brady shredded the Steelers secondary. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler plans on being more aggressive this season and won't lean as heavily on zone coverage. Instead, he'll rely on his young defensive backs—Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Cameron Sutton—to match up against each opponent's top receiver. 

    Anything less than a Super Bowl appearance will be a failure for Pittsburgh. 

NFC North

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Chicago Bears: 19-1

    John Fox's history as a head coach indicated he could turn the Chicago Bears around during his second campaign. The opposite happened. Chicago fell to 3-13 overall. 

    The team isn't ready to compete for a division title. Instead, it's in the midst of a rebuild. That approach solidified when the organization traded for the second overall pick in the draft in April to select North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky. 

    Yes, the Bears signed Mike Glennon to (supposedly) be their starting quarterback, but it's only a matter of time before Trubisky takes over. 

    Chicago has the pieces in place to show improvement after its worst season since the strike-shortened 1982 campaign. Jordan Howard finished second in the league last season with 1,313 rushing yards. The offensive line can lean heavily on Cody Whitehair and Kyle Long. The additions of Dion Sims and Adam Shaheen overhauled the tight end room. Plus, the defense finished 15th overall. 

    But the quarterback and wide receiver positions aren't even close to being settled, and that puts the Bears at a disadvantage.

        

    Detroit Lions: 4-1

    Last year's cardiac cats set an NFL record with eight fourth-quarter comeback victories. A rubber-band effect can occur after a series of closely contested games, and the Detroit Lions snapped back to reality at the end of the 2016 campaign with four straight losses.

    Detroit has an imperfect roster, and a major minicamp injury only added to that issue.

    General manager Bob Quinn attacked the offensive trenches in free agency. Previous starters Riley Reiff and Larry Warford left, while the organization signed T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner. However, left tackle Taylor Decker suffered a possible season-ending shoulder injury in June. 

    In response, Quinn acquired Cyrus Kouandjio and 2014 second overall pick Greg Robinson to compete on the blind side. Will they be able to adequately protect quarterback Matthew Stafford? That remains to be seen. The injury will also have an effect on the running attack, which finished 30th overall last season. 

    The Lions are a prime candidate for regression after a surprise playoff appearance in 2016.

        

    Minnesota Vikings:  3-1

    Injuries derailed the Minnesota Vikings' 2016 campaign. The offensive line fell apart. Adrian Peterson barely produced in his final season with the organization. Sharrif Floyd appeared in one game. Even after a 5-0 start, the Vikings couldn't hold it together. 

    Sam Bradford developed into a pleasant surprise, though. The 2010 No. 1 overall pick was traded just eight days before the start of the season after Teddy Bridgewater injured his knee, and he set an NFL record with a 71.6 completion percentage. 

    Now in Year 2, Bradford's comfort level will continue to grow, especially behind a rebuilt offensive line. Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers will take over at tackle, and a competition will ensue at center between third-round pick Pat Elflein and Nick Easton. 

    "You really want to get that body in as soon as possible," offensive line coach Tony Sparano said, per the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Andrew Krammer. "I think the longer a center position competition goes, as opposed to maybe some other competitions within the line, you know, that can cause confusion."

    A settled offensive line along with the additions of Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook in the running game coupled with the league's third-ranked defense make the Vikings a playoff and potential Super Bowl contender.

        

    Green Bay Packers: 1-1

    All things are possible with Aaron Rodgers. He's a gifted quarterback—maybe the best the NFL has to offer—but it's more than that. 

    His greatness can be tempered by a poor supporting cast. That isn't the case this year. The Packers feature one of the NFL's best offensive lines. The wide receiver corps extends five deep, with Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison and Trevor Davis. Late-round draft picks DeAngelo Yancey and Malachi Dupre will compete for roster spots, too. Green Bay signed the best available free-agent tight end in Martellus Bennett. As long as Ty Montgomery holds up as a running back, opposing defenses will have trouble slowing Rodgers and Co. 

    The organization's biggest problem area has been defense, and particularly the secondary. General manager Ted Thompson signed veteran corner Davon House and drafted Kevin King and Josh Jones with his first two picks. The loss of Micah Hyde in free agency will certainly have an effect, but the Packers back line now has more depth than it did a year ago. 

    A healthy roster makes Green Bay the favorite to emerge not only from the NFC North but the entire conference.

AFC East

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    New York Jets: 50-1

    On paper, the Jets appear to be the NFL's worst team.

    That shouldn't be viewed as a bad thing. Yes, they may be facing a difficult season, but there's nothing worse than a team stuck in mediocrity. The goal is to be either really good or really bad. Otherwise, the organization would reside in limbo. 

    New York parted ways with numerous veterans this offseason, including Brandon Marshall, Nick Mangold and David Harris. It will now undergo a youth movement, but there's one major problem.

    The Jets don't have an answer at quarterback. As of now, 38-year-old Josh McCown is projected as the starter, with very few expectations being placed upon Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. 

    Of course, a couple of players on the roster can excite the fanbase. The defensive line is talented. The new safety tandem of Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye should redefine the secondary. 

    But this season is all about the race to become No. 1. No, not No. 1 in the division. New York is the favorite to "earn" the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft—and have the opportunity to select USC's Sam Darnold or Wyoming's Josh Allen. 

        

    Buffalo Bills: 20-1

    Changes needed to be made within the Buffalo Bills organization. Owner Terry Pegula obliged, dismissing Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley. Sean McDermott took over as head coach, while Brandon Beane became general manager. 

    As a result, the Bills are starting over—but not from scratch.

    Buffalo has pieces in place to compete. It finished last season with the NFL's No. 1 rushing attack, and LeSean McCoy is a dynamic presence. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor posted a 37-to-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the past two seasons. Plus, last year's top draft picks—Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland—entered this year's training camp fully healthy after injury-plagued rookie campaigns. 

    The Bills finished 7-9 last season even with all the internal strife. What will continue to hold this team back is a change in systems plus the fact it's lacking in certain areas. Taylor needs help from a suspect wide receiver corps. The secondary also needs to jell after the additions of Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Leonard Johnson and first-round pick Tre'Davious White. 

    McDermott's squad can compete if everything comes together. It's still not close to dethroning the Patriots, though. 

        

    Miami Dolphins: 10-1

    Head coach Adam Gase and running back Jay Ajayi last season took the Miami Dolphins to a place the organization hadn't been since 2008: the playoffs. 

    The team's commitment to a physical brand of football changed its outlook. Ajayi amassed 1,197 rushing yards in 12 starts. The offensive line helped the running back with its ability to consistently win at the point of attack—but that group will look different this fall. 

    Laremy Tunsil will take over for Branden Albert at left tackle. Both guard spots are open. The Dolphins received great news when center Mike Pouncey passed his incoming physical, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport (via NFL.com's Conor Orr). 

    The development of quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a talented trio of receivers could take Miami from a fringe playoff contender to AFC East competitors. Tannehill showed signs of growth under Gase, only to have his season end with ACL and MCL sprains in Week 14 against the Arizona Cardinals. Meanwhile, excitement continues to build around Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker. 

    A strong ground game is a passing game's best friend. As Gase's offense continues to evolve, and with expected improvements on the other side of the ball, the Dolphins have an outside chance to challenge the Patriots' superiority—though that seems unlikely to happen this fall.

        

    New England Patriots: 1-5

    New England has a stranglehold on the AFC East. The only reason it's not guaranteed to win the division is because unforeseen events are known to happen from time to time. The Patriots have showed an ability to overcome adversity in the past, though a devastating injury to Tom Brady could do them in.

    Don't get mad, Patriots fans. Every quarterback is only one snap away from the injured reserve. It's just a fact of NFL life. 

    But the roster is better today than the team that won Super Bowl LI. 

    New England traded for wide receiver Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen and defensive end Kony Ealy. In free agency, the organization signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore, defensive lineman Lawrence Guy and running backs Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee. 

    It re-signed Dont'a Hightower, Alan Branch and Duron Harmon, too. 

    The Patriots are loaded. Rob Ninkovich's surprise retirement is the only thing that didn't go New England's way this offseason. 

NFC East

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Philadelphia Eagles: 7-1

    The Carson Wentz hype train careened out of control this offseason. Last year's second overall pick flashed franchise potential, but he was a below-average quarterback for most of his rookie campaign. 

    The Philadelphia Eagles needed to address two areas this offseason to improve upon last season's 7-9 record. 

    The front office achieved the first with the acquisitions of veteran wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Wentz previously lacked the supporting cast to maximize his talent. He shouldered too much of the responsibility instead of being brought along slowly. Jeffery will provide a physical presence outside the numbers, while Smith is a consistent vertical threat. 

    Wentz is expected to progress with an improved supporting cast. He also needed to work on his mechanics. His footwork has been an issue dating back to his days with North Dakota State. His reworked his release, too. 

    "I've always felt good with where I've been at [mechanically], and I'm always trying to keep refining and getting better," Wentz said, per the Philadelphia Inquirer's Les Bowen. "And yes, I do think it's been talked about quite a bit, but you know, it's the nature of the game."

    If Wentz is going to be the quarterback many envision, he'll need to play at a higher level now that fewer excuses exist within the offense. 

         

    Washington: 4-1

    The NFC East constantly flips, offering opportunities for teams to rise from non-playoff squads to win the division. Washington is only one year removed from its last division title, but it will need to come together after a chaotic offseason. 

    Owner Daniel Snyder dismissed general manager Scot McCloughan at the start of free agency. Offensive coordinator Sean McVay is now the Rams head coach. Head coach Jay Gruden fired defensive coordinator Joe Barry. The offense's two leading receiversDeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon—left in free agency. To top it all off, the organization couldn't come to a long-term agreement with franchise quarterback Kirk Cousins. 

    There's enough talent on the roster for Washington to remain competitive, and it made a few upgrades as well. 

    The additions of Terrelle Pryor Sr., Zach Brown and first-round pick Jonathan Allen improved those positions. Pryor adds a physical component Cousins didn't previously have at wide receiver. Brown is expected to start at inside linebacker after he finished second in the NFL in total tackles last season. Allen was considered a top-three talent and a dominant defensive line prospect yet fell to the 17th pick because of previous-injury concerns. 

    Considering all those change and a possibly festering situation with Cousins, it's difficult to imagine Washington usurping the Dallas Cowboys or even overcoming the improved New York Giants. 

        

    Dallas Cowboys: 2-1

    Dallas experienced a magical year, finishing 13-3 in 2016. Two stars emerged in running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott. The Cowboys will challenge for division titles for years to come. Yet a step back should be expected this fall. 

    First, Elliott's uncertain status is problematic. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, last year's league-leading rusher could face a short suspension after the NFL's investigation into a domestic violence incident. No one knows exactly when an official announcement is going to be made. 

    Second, the league's best offensive line destabilized this offseason with Doug Free's retirement and Ronald Leary's departure in free agency. Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin can each make an argument as the best player at their respective position, but an offensive line's effectiveness is built upon continuity. La'el Collins and Jonathan Cooper must prove to be worthy replacements in the starting lineup. 

    The secondary experienced an overhaul, too. Dallas lost four starters in free agency. Veteran Nolan Carroll and second- and third-round draft picks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis will join Anthony Brown, Byron Jones, Jeff Heath and Orlando Scandrick to form the new-look back line. 

    Because of these lingering issues, the Cowboys are no longer considered the favorites to win a division crown.

        

    New York Giants: 2-1

    The NFC East hasn't experienced back-to-back champions since the Eagles captured four straight titles from 2001 to 2004. The Giants are the most likely candidate to overtake the Cowboys after they finished 11-5 last season, notching their first playoff appearance since the 2011 campaign. 

    The defense spurred New York to a successful first season under first-year head coach Ben McAdoo, finishing second in scoring defense after Janoris Jenkins and Olivier Vernon signed monster contracts during free agency. 

    The offense could experience a similar boost this season after the additions of veteran wide receiver Brandon Marshall and first-round pick Evan Engram at tight end. At 6'4" and 230 pounds, Marshall brings a physical presence the team lacked opposite Odell Beckham Jr. Engram, meanwhile, has drawn rave reviews. 

    "He's unbelievable," former Giants tight end Mark Bavaro said, per the New York Post's George Willis. "I don't know what he's going to look like in pads and playing football. But he can move. He can run and he can catch. He's impressive."

    An improved offense and a stingy defense place the Giants in the driver's seat for their first division title in six years.

AFC West

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Chargers: 7-1

    The Los Angeles Chargers are experiencing change at every level. This is their first training camp in the Los Angeles market—which can be a difficult transition by itself. But the team has a new coaching staff as well. That means new coordinators and new offensive and defensive schemes. 

    On paper, the Chargers have a talented roster. Philip Rivers remains at quarterback. They have talent at wide receiver. Melvin Gordon broke through with a 997-yard campaign and 10 touchdowns in his second season. Tight ends Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates present matchup problems. The offensive line has been revamped. The defense features Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and Casey Hayward.

    There's no reason L.A. can't be competitive, but injuries have been a major problem, and there was another major one during training camp. This year's seventh overall draft pick, Mike Williams, could miss the entire season with a lower-back disc herniation, per ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams

    The Chargers are set at wide receiver even without Williams—as long as Keenan Allen is in the lineup. But the Clemson product's absence would still be a blow. 

    A healthy squad could compete on a weekly basis. If Los Angeles continues to suffer injuries like it has in recent seasons, it won't be able to crawl out of the AFC West basement.

        

    Denver Broncos: 5-1

    The Broncos' 2017 campaign will be determined by their starting quarterback and how he plays. Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch are entering Year 2 of their competition, and Siemian still has the edge. 

    Every snap each quarterback takes will be scrutinized. The third-year signal-caller earned the job last year, and the 2016 first-round pick has yet to do enough to take it from him. 

    "I'm competing against myself, too," Siemian said, per BSN Denver's Zac Stevens. "For me, that's really what I'm focused on."

    The fact that Siemian, a 2015 seventh-round pick, is still developing often gets lost in the equation. Lynch is so physically talented he's expected to take over when the game slows down for him. Yet the same will happen for Siemian. The more reps he gets with the first team, the better he'll become.

    As they continue their development, the Broncos will once again rely on what's left of their stingy defense. 

    The Denver secondary is the best in the business. However, a retirement and two injuries hurt the front seven. DeMarcus Ware left the game after the 2016 campaign, Shaquil Barrett is still recovering from a hip injury and won't return until at least September, per Andrew Mason of the team website, and Shane Ray will miss six to eight weeks with a torn ligament in his wrist, according to the team.

        

    Kansas City Chiefs: 4-1

    The Kansas City Chiefs are often overlooked despite how good they have been during the previous two seasons. Kansas City is 23-9 over that period. New England is the only franchise to produce more victories, with 26. 

    Andy Reid's squad isn't sexy. The offense doesn't post big numbers. The defense utilizes a bend-but-don't-break approach. But it's a fundamentally sound group with enough playmakers on both sides of the ball to create difficult matchups.

    This year's version of the Chiefs will have a slightly different look than past seasons. The organization's all-time leading rusher, Jamaal Charles, is no longer around. Nose tackle Dontari Poe left in free agency. The team decided to part ways with Jeremy Maclin, too. 

    All three were hampered by injuries at some point during the previous two campaigns, but their contributions played a significant part in Kansas City's success. Reid and his staff will turn to Spencer Ware, Tyreek Hill and Bennie Logan to fill those voids. 

    The Chiefs are mostly the same team today they have been. There's been turnover, yet no key pieces need to be replaced. That means Kansas City has an opportunity to grab control of the AFC West and make the playoffs for a third straight season. 

        

    Oakland Raiders: 1-1

    Everything is aligned for the Oakland Raiders to not only challenge for an AFC West title but also bid for a Super Bowl berth as well. The Raiders and Steelers are the two most likely candidates to dethrone the Patriots. 

    Those are the expectations placed upon an organization after a 12-4 campaign. It helps that Oakland also feature the NFL's highest-paid player in quarterback Derek Carr and its reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Khalil Mack. 

    However, it's two other key components that will make the team better and help raise its profile. 

    First, the offensive line should now be considered the league's best. The Cowboys need to replace a pair of starters, but the Raiders will feature the same starting five they did a year ago. (Oakland will need to appease left tackle Donald Penn, who is in the middle of a contract dispute.)

    Second, Marshawn Lynch will help set a different tone this season, as his history of violent runs is legendary. 

    "Marshawn Lynch brings a toughness that the Raiders did not have," former Oakland linebacker Bill Romanowski said on The Herd with Colin Cowherd. "... They were not tough last year."

NFC West

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    Los Angeles Rams: 5-1

    The Rams finally decided to shift gears and dismiss Jeff Fisher as their head coach. That was a massive step in the right direction since they had not posted a winning season during his tenure. While Fisher's removal was necessary, it will take time to complete a philosophical shift within the organization. 

    New head coach Sean McVay is Fisher's antithesis. McVay is an offensive whiz kid and hasn't been in the league for decades. He'll bring a breath of fresh air to an organization that had grown stagnant. 

    How he's viewed will depend on his ability to develop last year's No. 1 overall pick, Jared Goff. Goff's rookie struggles were well documented. The blame shouldn't fall entirely on the young signal-caller, though. His offensive scheme and surrounding cast were less than ideal. 

    Goff enters his second training camp with far more confidence than he did his first. 

    "Night and day," he said, per the Los Angeles Times' Gary Klein. "I feel good. Feel comfortable."

    The Rams need to see progress this year. They can compete for division titles further down the road.

        

    San Francisco 49ers: 5-1

    Like the Rams, the 49ers are searching for a new identity. They'll do so under the supervision of new general manager John Lynch and new head coach Kyle Shanahan.

    Stability is what San Francisco needs after its messy divorce with Jim Harbaugh, two failed one-year head coaches after that and the dismissal of Trent Baalke as general manager. 

    As a result, CEO Jed York signed Lynch and Shanahan to six-year deals. The organization then attacked the offseason, producing a flurry of activity in both free agency and the draft. 

    The additions of quarterback Brian Hoyer, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and wide receivers Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin and Aldrick Robinson will help shape the offense and allow a relatively smooth transition from Chip Kelly's simplistic system to Shanahan's complex scheme. 

    The team's first three draft picks helped to supplement each line of the defense. Solomon Thomas will join DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Aaron Lynch along the defensive front. Reuben Foster will bring a new level of intensity to the linebacker corps. And cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon will join a young secondary. 

    As active as the 49ers have been this offseason, it takes time to build a cohesive unit after so much turnover.

        

    Arizona Cardinals: 2-1

    After three straight seasons of 10 or more wins under head coach Bruce Arians, the Cardinals fell flat with a 7-8-1 campaign in 2016. But a bounce-back season appears to be coming. 

    Everything starts with Arians and his health, though. The coach was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma in December and had surgery in February. 

    "Now I feel great," Arians wrote in his book, The Quarterback Whisperer, per Darren Urban of the team website. "My energy has returned. I'm told I'm cancer-free again. I'm ready for at least one more season of NFL footballmaybe more."

    Arians is one of the league's best coaches. It had to be impossible for him not to worry about his situation or let it become a distraction. Now healthy, Arians can continue doing what he does best. 

    Problem areas exist. First, Arizona's leaders—quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald—may be done after this season. The defense must overcome the loss of Calais Campbell and the fact Patrick Peterson still doesn't have a reliable running mate at cornerback. 

    But this team finished 13-3 two years ago. The current edition is talented enough to fall somewhere between that point and last year's performance.

        

    Seattle Seahawks: 2-1

    The Seattle Seahawks are only co-favorites with the Cardinals for one simple reason: Seattle still features one of the league's worst offensive lines. 

    A team must win consistently in the trenches to be viewed as a contender. 

    Defensively, the Seahawks are set. While the Legion of Boom secondary receives most of the attention, the defensive line is tasked with yeoman's work. Michael Bennett is a dominant pass-rusher. He's joined by Frank Clark, Cliff Avril and Cassius Marsh at defensive end. Ahtyba Rubin and Jarran Reed, meanwhile, are massive cloggers in the middle.

    The same type of depth can't be found along the offensive front, though, and offensive line coach Tom Cable will continue to work with different combinations to find his best five blockers. It'll take some time before the starting group is established. 

    If the offensive line plays above expectations, Seattle will become the clear favorite to win the NFC West.

AFC South

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    Jacksonville Jaguars: 20-1

    There's no better time than now for the Jacksonville Jaguars to fulfill their potential. Jacksonville hasn't won more than five games since the 2010 campaign. Gus Bradley's .225 winning percentage during his four-year tenure was the second-worst in NFL history among head coaches with 50 or more games of experience. 

    Changes needed to be made.

    Owner Shahid Khan decided to retain Doug Marrone as head coach after he served on an interim basis. Tom Coughlin also returned to the franchise as executive vice president of football operations. Coughlin's no-nonsense approach combined with Marrone's coaching ability will set a new tone. 

    The Jaguars also splurged in free agency, adding cornerback A.J. Bouye, defensive lineman Calais Campbell and safety Barry Church. Each is an improvement at their respective position, yet everyone has seen this type of free-agency approach before, and the team still failed. 

    There's simply too much talent on the Jacksonville roster for it not to improve this fall, but how much will depend on the development of the team's young core, particularly quarterback Blake Bortles.

        

    Indianapolis Colts: 4-1

    To make any type of determination about where the Indianapolis Colts stand among their divisional rivals, Andrew Luck's health must factor into the equation. The quarterback began training camp on the physically unable to perform list, but he's expected to be back in the lineup for the start of the regular season, per the Indianapolis Star's Stephen Holder

    Luck's recuperation wasn't the only major injury news that came out of Colts camp. The team placed first-round pick Malik Hooker on the PUP list after he tweaked his hamstring during a conditioning test, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. However, he returned to the practice field four days later, per Fox 59 and CBS 4's Mike Chappell.

    The effect of Luck's absence is obvious. Hooker's availability, though, is just as important since he was brought in to be the defense's top playmaker. The Ohio State product has a chance to be an eraser along the back line once he's healthy. It's easy to imagine him experiencing a slow start, however. 

    New general manager Chris Ballard did a tremendous job rebuilding the defense this offseason, but Indianapolis will be playing catch-up if two core pieces of its long-term plans aren't at full speed by the start of the season.

        

    Houston Texans: 3-1

    The Houston Texans captured the past two AFC South crowns. They did so without any type of consistency from the quarterback position. The team faces the same problem as it prepares for the 2017 campaign. 

    In the long run, Houston should be better at quarterback after it selected Deshaun Watson with the 12th pick in the draft in April. But how much of a difference will he make behind a patchwork offensive line?

    Considering the Texans' supporting cast at wide receiver, running back and on defense, Watson should be a serious candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. If head coach Bill O'Brien doesn't start Tom Savage. O'Brien and his staff should embrace Watson. 

    The offense will need to cater to the rookie's strengths. A step back should be expected when a team is led by a first-year signal-caller, but this squad needs to find the right quarterback in order to achieve anything more than a 9-7 record and an early playoff exit.

        

    Tennessee Titans: 1-1

    The Tennessee Titans emerged as the NFL's surprise team last season under the direction of head coach Mike Mularkey. They were viewed as a long-term project, yet the squad experienced a six-game improvement and just missed the playoffs. 

    General manager Jon Robinson continued to build the roster, and questions remain regarding all of Tennessee's rivals. 

    After addressing the trenches and supplementing franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota with an impressive ground game, Robinson wanted to make the Titans more athletic and explosive. The organization used three of its first four draft picks on wide receivers Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor along with tight end Jonnu Smith. Robinson signed veteran Eric Decker as well.

    Rishard Matthews led the team with 945 receiving yards last season. He'll now be the third or fourth option in the passing game. 

    Tennessee overhauled the secondary, too. After finishing 30th against the pass, the Titans signed Logan Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien in free agency and drafted USC's Adoree' Jackson with their second first-round pick. 

    Tennessee had two major areas of concern entering the offseason and attacked both with fervor. 

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    New Orleans Saints: 7-1

    The New Orleans Saints fell into a cycle of mediocrity during the past three seasons, finishing 7-9 in each campaign. 

    With quarterback Drew Brees operating in the final year of his contract, this may be the last chance for the 38-year-old signal-caller and his head coach, Sean Payton, to make a run.

    The offense has never been a problem. Brees is still one of the league's most prolific passers. The defense hasn't provided him with much help. 

    General manager Mickey Loomis tinkered with the roster to try to improve upon last year's 27th-ranked defense. The additions of A.J. Klein, Manti Te'o and Alex Okafor in free agency along with Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams in the draft were meant to overhaul the group. 

    Will it be enough? It seems unlikely in a division that already features the Atlanta Falcons and an up-and-coming squad in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

        

    Carolina Panthers: 3-1

    Which Carolina Panthers squad will appear this fall? Will it be the one that finished 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl during the 2015 campaign or the team that fell to 6-10 and last place in the division in 2016?

    Cam Newton's progress will be the biggest determining factor. The quarterback required offseason shoulder surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff. Newton started to throw just before camp, and it'll take time before he's completely back to the player everyone knows.  

    When the 2015 league MVP reaches that stage, he'll need to integrate himself into a new offensive approach. The Panthers coaching staff wants Newton to run less and be more precise in the short passing game. The front office added Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel with its first two picks in the draft in April to take some pressure off the quarterback, hoping they can create chunk plays as outlet receivers. 

    "We're going to look at maximizing our personnel, all of them, no matter who's here when they're in the game," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said, per The MMQB's Jonathan Jones. "Finding guys who can best make plays for us and finding ways to get them to ball."

    Carolina will attempt to adapt after its disastrous 2016. The results will be determined by Newton's ability to makes changes within his game.

        

    Atlanta Falcons: 5-2

    Mental toughness will define the Falcons in 2017. 

    The team was one or two plays from being crowned Super Bowl champion. The roster is as talented todayif not more sothan it was in February. 

    The Atlanta defense will almost certainly be better than the one that finished 25th overall last year. Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Brian Poole enter their second seasons after having developed into key contributors. The organization signed Dontari Poe to pair with Grady Jarrett on the interior. Desmond Trufant will also return after missing 10 games, including the playoffs, with a shoulder injury.

    On the other side of the ball, the Falcons will return 10 of 11 starters from last year's No. 1 scoring offense. Only right guard remains undecided, with Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland competing to replace the retired Chris Chester. 

    Atlanta must avoid the dreaded Super Bowl hangover, however, because each of the teams in the division has the ability to supplant it atop the standings.

        

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2-1

    The Buccaneers are this year's chic pick to make the playoffs and potentially knock the Falcons off their perch. 

    The reason why is threefold.

    First, Jameis Winston will continue to develop after becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to post a pair of 4,000-yard passing efforts in his first two seasons. Second, the front office built around its young signal-caller, adding veteran receiver DeSean Jackson and the top tight in this year's draft, O.J. Howard. Finally, the defense is entering its second year in Mike Smith's scheme. That unit needed time to fully adjust to his system and excelled during the second half of the 2016 campaign. 

    Questions remain about the running game, and the offensive line has been reshuffled. Even so, Tampa Bay appears poised to take over the NFC South if Atlanta regresses this fall.