With the NFL Draft in the books and a long wait ahead for the next season, let’s take a look at the most important areas for each AFC team to focus on to improve their chances. Next week: the NFC.
BUFFALO BILLS: Finding a consistent running game.
The Bills will run it back with recent draft picks Zack Moss and Devin Singletary after heavy speculation that they would select a running back early. Although they did not choose a running back, a few mid-round selections for the offensive line will beef up the depth inside for the Bills. Taking the pressure off of Josh Allen’s electric arm and legs will be a big key for the Bills going into next season. The Bills defense regressed last year, and that would be a potential point of concern with an aging defense. However, they adequately addressed their two other significant needs through the draft, edge rusher, and offensive tackle. With improved health, the biggest need for the Bills will be giving the offense some balance through the rushing attack.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: Putting Tua Tagovailoa in positions to succeed.
The Dolphins found Tua lots of help this offseason. The joint custody of the quarterback position last year between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tua showed a significant edge for Fitzpatrick, but Tua still had some admirable performances. The Dolphins loaded up at receiver, adding likely the most impactful free agent wide receiver in Will Fuller V to go along with draftee Jaylen Waddle. The young offensive line having more experience will also help Tua have more time as well as buoy a suspect rushing attack. For the offense to succeed, the Dolphins will need to find a balance between giving Tua the keys and protecting him from mistakes after playing it fairly conservative in his first year.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Rediscovering an elite defense.
Much has been made about a questionable Patriots quarterback situation. There continues to be questions at wide receiver. Still, a return to greatness for the defense will be crucial for a return to the playoffs. Getting back key contributors like Dont’a Hightower will be key for an aging Patriots defense that seems like it could go either way this coming season. New defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will once again lead the Pats defense, and the familiarity could go a long way. Having a consistent pass rush spearheaded by signee Matthew Judon will be a game changer to go along with an already elite secondary.
NEW YORK JETS: Improved offensive line play.
Though Sam Darnold undeniably struggled as a Jet, there was no infrastructure in place for success. Offensive line play, the rushing attack, and receivers all consistently ranked amongst the bottom of the NFL. For new quarterback Zach Wilson, this must change. Being a young quarterback in the NFL is certainly hard enough, so giving Wilson weapons will be important. The Jets have invested in all aspects of their offense, but for Wilson specifically, improved offensive line play will be necessary. Wilson and his huge arm will prefer to let plays develop to gradually learn to read NFL defenses. For a successful Jets offense, the line must enable Wilson to develop.
BALTIMORE RAVENS: Lamar Jackson taking the next step as a passer.
Jackson is an explosive athlete who is changing the game, and he is a very effective passer. For the Ravens to move into contention, Jackson needs to show that his passing can be just as dynamic as his rushing. With new draftee receiver Rashod Bateman in tow, to pair with Hollywood Brown and tight end Mark Andrews, there will be sufficient weapons for Jackson. There is no questioning that this is an effective offense, but Jackson did take a step back last year as a passer, with a worse completion percentage, fewer yards, and more picks thrown. The Ravens need an MVP Lamar Jackson to take over the division and challenge the Kansas City Chiefs for AFC supremacy.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: Improving the rush defense.
After ranking 29th in rushing yards per game allowed, it makes sense to focus on improving that aspect of your squad. The Bengals heavily invested in linebackers in the 2020 draft, but still have a relatively suspect defensive line that lost long-time Bengals Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. Improvement from a very young linebacking corps will be important, as well as strong performances from the defensive line. The Bengals brought in Trey Hendrickson after a very strong season for the Saints the year prior, and they will hope that Hendrickson along with linebackers Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither will highlight an improved front seven.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: Consistent pass rush opposite Myles Garrett.
Myles Garrett was an outstanding draft choice a few years back and is seemingly the undisputed top pass rusher in the game at the moment. Like many dominant pass rushers, Garrett is given a lot of attention and has to deal with a heavy amount of double teams — he was ranked third in double team rate (24.1 percent) in 2020. The Browns invested in their pass defense with coverage stud Jeremiah Owusu-Karamoah and first round cornerback Greg Newsome II. The Browns filled the need of a secondary pass rusher with Jadeveon Clowney, who has solid advanced stats without the counting stats to show for it. For the Browns, they will need Clowney to produce in a big way for this defense to take the next step.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: A renaissance for Big Ben.
The Steelers are another team with questions going into next season, including significant holes in the defense after departures in free agency. For the Steelers, the key will be Ben Roethlisberger proving he can help carry the Steelers to glory. There are great pieces on the outside to pair with newly added running back Najee Harris. While the offensive line is aging, and the Steelers lost long-time center Maurkice Pouncey to retirement, the onus will be on Big Ben to take care of the football and lead the team to victories. Roethlisberger’s penchant for turnovers has hurt the team in the past, and the defense can not keep holding this team above water for the Steelers to emerge as contenders.
HOUSTON TEXANS: Sorting out the quarterback situation.
At this point, it seems exceedingly unlikely that Deshaun Watson will quarterback for the Texans ever again. That leaves the Texans with Tyrod Taylor and newly acquired draft choice Davis Mills. While Mills has potential, he is definitely a project after starting less than 15 games at Stanford during his college career. In all likelihood, Taylor will be the quarterback for the Texans throughout the season. While this isn’t ideal, Taylor is serviceable and will certainly give the Texans enough to win some games. With a questionable supporting cast after significant free agency losses in JJ Watt and Will Fuller V, the Texans will need Taylor to go above and beyond to approach being a competitive squad this coming season.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Production from the receiving corps.
The Colts have been spoiled for elite quarterback play for decades, from Manning to Luck to Rivers (effective even past his prime) to now Carson Wentz. However, since the days of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, the Colts have had some suspect groupings at receiver. Aside from the ultra-productive T.Y. Hilton, the Colts have not given their quarterbacks much to work with. Now, the Colts move into next season with an aging Hilton and promising young receivers Michael Pittman and Parris Campbell. There is potential for this group, but it was questionable that the Colts did not address this need in the draft. For Wentz to rediscover form from his early career in Philadelphia, effective play from the receivers will be important.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Protecting the prized young quarterback.
After selecting Trevor Lawrence with the first pick, he will be the focus of the franchise for years. The Jaguars gave him his backfield mate in Travis Etienne and also added to the receiving room with Marvin Jones Jr. The key for this team is to keep Lawrence upright so he can give his skilled players pinpoint throws. 2020 draft choice Jawaan Taylor struggled mightily at right tackle last season, and the rest of the offensive line did not succeed in protecting the rotating Jaguars quarterbacks last season either. The Jaguars will have the same projected five starters on the offensive line, and improved play will be necessary for Lawrence to find success in his rookie season.
TENNESSEE TITANS: Above average pass defense.
The Titans defense was solid last year but had some struggles defending the pass, allowing the 24th best QB rating to opposing quarterbacks. The Titans lost Malcolm Butler, Adoree’ Jackson, and Desmond King in their secondary, but chose cornerback Caleb Farley in the first round and added Janoris Jenkins. The effect of retooling is yet to be seen, but on paper there is less talent than before in this secondary. The Titans will hope for a strong rookie season from Farley and strong play from ballhawk safety Kevin Byard to result in a more balanced defense.
DENVER BRONCOS: Trade for Aaron Rodgers.
With Teddy Bridgewater or Drew Lock at quarterback, the Broncos will be fine. Paired with a strong defense and up-and-coming receivers Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, this team has the makings of a playoff team with average quarterback play. This supporting cast paired with Rodgers, though, would compete for a Super Bowl. The Broncos are ready to compete now and John Elway luring Aaron Rodgers to Mile High would rock the league and pit the Broncos against the Chiefs in an entertaining intra-division battle.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Protecting Mahomes.
The Chiefs frankly do not have many issues with their football team, and for a long time it seemed as though they were on their way to another Super Bowl. Tom Brady, as he does, ruined those plans, but he didn’t do it by himself. The Buccaneers defense really got after Mahomes after key injuries to the Chiefs O-line. While parts of the defense certainly will look to improve, Mahomes is the lifeblood of this team and needs to be protected. The Chiefs will get guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif back after opting out, and made a big trade for tackle Orlando Brown Jr. Although the Chiefs lost two very good tackles this offseason, a healthy Chiefs offensive line will be effective and have the team once again in contention.
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS: Better play from the defensive line.
Maxx Crosby has been a revelation for the Raiders, but aside from him the Raiders have had substandard play along the defensive line. The Raiders had a far below-average run defense while only generating 21 sacks, the fourth-worst in the NFL. The addition of Yannick Ngakoue will be significant for a team who has really struggled to generate a pass rush, along with improvement from former high draft pick Clelin Ferrell. The interior of the defensive line will be headed by signee Quinton Jefferson, a proficient pass-rusher, along with run stopper Jonathan Hankins. Along with depth added from draftee and popular sleeper Malcolm Koonce, the Raiders seem primed for improvement on the defensive line that will likely give the defense a much needed spark.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Success in the running game.
Even with another year of a bad Chargers offensive line, Justin Herbert was spectacular last season. However, the Chargers offense did struggle with running the ball after losing Austin Ekeler to injury for most of the year and Melvin Gordon to the Broncos. With more offensive line improvements on the way with the addition of Matt Feiler and Corey Linsley in free agency, along with recent draftee Rashawn Slater, the revamped offensive line seems poised to improve. After placing third to last in yards per carry this past season even with a strong emphasis on the run game, improvement is sorely needed. With the line in place, the success of Ekeler and the other running backs will be crucial for a balanced Chargers offense to move from good to lethal in what promises to be a competitive AFC West.
Photo courtesy of Erik Drost