Seemingly every season in the NFL, a least one team will make a surprising leap from finishing last in their division in the previous season to winning it the next. More often than not those turnarounds are fueled by young talent that either was added via the draft or simply developed into game changers as they gained NFL experience.
Which young players will some of last year's worst AFC teams will be looking to change their team's fortunes in 2013?
With AFC East rival New England in the middle of a tumultuous off season and the rest of the division finishing within a game of the last place Bills in 2012, it's not impossible to imagine Buffalo being the team that makes the leap from worst to first in 2013. Without a big year from CJ Spiller, however, it's more likely that Buffalo will be looking up at the rest of the division for another year.
Spiller was one of the most talented players in the league last season, and it was maddening that he didn't touch the ball more than he did. With a whopping 6.0 yards per carry average, there was no question that he should have been getting the all the carries, and yet he was still sharing carries with Fred Jackson. The new coaching staff should help alleviate that problem, and with uncertainty at the quarterback position it's clear that Spiller will be the center piece of the offense. If he can handle the load and continue to make big plays, it'll elevate the rest of the offense and should help turn the franchise around as a whole.
With the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens sitting comfortably atop the division, it's unlikely that the Browns will make the jump from finishing 5-11 in 2012 to winning the AFC North in 2013. Still, improvement should be expected this season, and there's no doubting that much, if not all of that pressure, will rest solely on the shoulders of quarterback Brandon Weeden.
Typically, big coaching changes can spell disaster for a young quarterback. However, getting a new head coach and offensive coordinator may by just what Weeden needs. New OC Norv Turner has been rumored to be incorporating pistol concepts into the offense, and many players have mentioned the emphasis on deep passes during OTAs – two changes that will be playing to Weeden's strengths. It'd be a stretch to think that could put the Browns in position to win the division, but pairing an improved offense with what should be a stellar defense could have Cleveland fighting for a wild card berth.
It's obvious that Jacksonville is taking a long term approach to rebuilding their franchise, and it'd be entirely unfair to expect them to get to first place in the AFC South this season. Still, there's no reason to not have the expectation of seeing improvement out of the team in 2013. On the defensive side of the ball, much of that improvement should come courtesy of Jonathan Cyprien.
The defense is being re-tooled largely around the rookie safety. He'll be playing mostly in the box, exactly where an aggressive player like Cyprien belongs. As a player who already is making plenty of plays during summer mini camps, as well as taking on a leadership role in the locker room, he has many fans in Jacksonville comparing him to Jaguar great Donovan Darius. While he's got a long way to go to live up to those expectations, Cyprien is certainly off to a good start.
Kansas City Chiefs
Ever since Tony Gonzalez departed for Atlanta, the Kansas City Chiefs have lacked a consistent, game changing presence at tight end. For the past few seasons, the hope has been that Tony Moeaki would fill that role, but he's been unable to stay healthy long enough to make the impact the Chiefs have been looking for. Even though Moeaki remains on the roster, Kansas City will be looking to rookie Travis Kelce for a threat down the seam in 2013.
Kelce certainly has the size and athleticism to make such an impact – at 6'5, 255 lbs there's not much more a coach could ask for. That, combined with his senior campaign which saw him catch 45 balls could have resulted in his being a top 50 pick. However, some off the field concerns knocked him down to the third round. He now has the chance to prove those who called his character a “train wreck” wrong, and if he's able to do that there's no reason to think he won't produce on the field. He may not end up propelling the Chiefs past the rival Broncos, but he could very well help make Kansas City one of the most improved teams in 2013.