Are Jaguars the favorite in the AFC in 2018 after latest moves?

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Even with recent cuts and the departure of two front-line players who signed elsewhere, the Jacksonville Jaguars are a slightly better football team right now than they were when they lost in the AFC Championship Game.

The New England Patriots, who beat the Jaguars 24-20 at Gillette Stadium to advance to the Super Bowl, and Pittsburgh Steelers are not.

So it's logical to argue that what has happened over the past week should make the Jaguars the slight favorite to win the AFC in 2018. That's over the Patriots, who have played in three of the past four Super Bowls (winning two). And over the Steelers, whom the Jaguars beat twice at Heinz Field last season.

Certainly, other teams in the AFC improved significantly through free agency, specifically AFC South rivals Houston and Tennessee. The Texans added safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback and former Jaguars nickelback Aaron Colvin, while the Titans added cornerback Malcolm Butler and running back Dion Lewis.

The Los Angeles Chargers, who barely missed the playoffs last season, added center Mike Pouncey. The Denver Broncos may have found a quarterback in Case Keenum, and the Oakland Raiders gave Derek Carr an additional playmaker in Jordy Nelson.

But the Jaguars' addition of 2017 first-team All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell is arguably the free-agent signing of most impact in the AFC. Per Pro Football Focus, Norwell had just 42 negative blocks in the running game (8.7 percent of all his run blocks) and didn't allow a sack or quarterback hit all season. His pass-blocking grade of 90.0 was significantly higher than that of any Jaguars guard last season.

Norwell was arguably the best non-quarterback player available in free agency, and the signing was a perfect fit. He should help make the running game consistent and prevent the late-season drop-off that saw the Jaguars rush for 51.3 yards per game less in the final six weeks of the season than they did in the first 11.

Losing receiver Allen Robinson to the Chicago Bears hurts, but it may not be as significant as it first seems. The Jaguars went 10-6 and won their first division title since 1999 without him last season and added Donte Moncrief, re-signed leading receiver Marqise Lee and are expecting big strides from second-year players Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook.

The Jaguars tried to bring Colvin back but he wanted to be a starter outside. They still have Pro Bowlers Jalen Ramsey (a first-team All-Pro) and A.J. Bouye, and while Colvin was a good tackler he didn't make a lot of big plays: 14 pass breakups and no interceptions in 48 regular-season games. That includes just seven pass breakups when he started 15 games on the outside in 2015.

The Patriots suffered much more critical losses. Left tackle Nate Solder left for a big contract with the New York Giants (four years, $62 million with $35 million guaranteed). His Super Bowl benching aside, Butler was one of the Patriots' best defensive players. Lewis was a significant part of the offense. Danny Amendola, who signed with the Miami Dolphins, led all players in receptions and receiving yards in the postseason.

New England does get receiver Julian Edelman and linebacker Dont'a Hightower back from injuries and they still have Tom Brady, but the offensive line is weaker and the pass rush needs work. The Patriots will win 11-plus games and the AFC East title and will be in contention for home-field advantage in the playoffs again, but the Jaguars nearly -- and should have -- beat them in January.

The Steelers didn't lose significant players but they didn't gain any, either. Their best defensive player (Ryan Shazier) isn't going to play in 2018 as he recovers from spinal stabilization surgery.

This doesn't mean the Jaguars are by any means the clear favorite to win the AFC. There are a lot of things that must take place for that to be the case:

  • The elite defense must stay healthy again (linebacker Telvin Smith was the only starter to miss a start) and players must produce at similar levels.

  • Blake Bortles has to continue to improve and take care of the football the way he did last season.

  • Leonard Fournette must stay healthy, have a complete understanding of the offense and produce at a higher level than he did as a rookie.

  • The Jaguars must navigate a first-place schedule that includes the Patriots, Steelers and the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.

The draft and inevitable injuries obviously will play a large role in what happens in 2018, but the Jaguars' work in free agency, which includes adding tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and beefing up special teams, arguably should make them the slight favorite to win the conference.