After putting out the biggest areas of need for the 16 teams in the NFC, we switch over to the AFC side of things. Once again, this list is about improving all teams as much as possible for this upcoming season by addressing one area of the roster, not building for the future necessarily. That may be just a distinct role player, adding depth at a rather thin position group or even the need for an actual premium at some spot. Like I said when talking about the other conference last week, I am happy that none of these teams are in desperate need for an actual starting quarterback for now and we can focus on other areas.
Baltimore Ravens – Center
When free agency first started and I saw the Ravens give up stalwarts like Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosely and even Eric Weddle, who they flat-out released, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them because it felt like they were losing their identity. However, by signing Earl Thomas, grabbing the guy who broke Suggs’ all-time NCAA sack record in the third round with Jaylon Ferguson, signing the top undrafted free agent in Gerald Willis and just now adding two guys in Shane Ray and former Raven Pernell McPhee, who are looking to prove something and will not impact their compensatory draft picks next year, they might be even better than a year ago. On the offensive side, this offseason has been all about helping Lamar Jackson out. Baltimore got rid of their older, less dynamic receivers and instead drafted the ultimate deep threat in Oklahoma’s Marquise Brown in the first round to keep defenses honest against their heavy run game and multiple tight-end sets, they signed running back Mark Ingram and added to that backfield with the explosive Justice Hill as a fourth-rounder from Oklahoma State, plus they selected a size/speed standout in Notre Dame’s Myles Boykin as well as bringing in Lamar’s former go-to guy at Louisville in undrafted free agent Jaylen Smith. With that being said, I mocked a center to the Ravens in my first round because I think that is the one position they still really need to upgrade. I like what they have put together on that line and they might even have Marshal Yanda’s eventual replacement in Oklahoma guard Ben Powers, but Matt Skura is a below-average starter. If they really want to crank up their run game, this is a spot they could improve upon.
Cincinnati Bengals – WILL Linebacker
After 16 years under Marvin Lewis the Bengals have finally made a change at head coach. Zac Taylor is coming over from Los Angeles as Sean McVay’s number two and quarterback coach, looking to take advantage of a still pretty talented roster. While I could easily see fourth-round pick Ryan Finley out of N.C. State steal the job from Andy Dalton throughout the season, the Bengals have two prime players as their number one receiver and running back – A.J. Green and Joe Mixon – plus they have put a lot of ressources into the offensive line. Defensively they fell apart last year in a way that I had rarely seen up until that point, setting multiple records for most yards allowed in three- and four-game stretches as well as finishing 30th overall in points allowed. That unit still has some studs when you look at an aging yet still feared Geno Atkins, Carl Lawson coming back from injury, Jessie Bates looking like an impact free safety as a rookie and William Jackson quietly emerging as one of the top corners in the entire league. However, the middle of that defense still has question marks. I was close to saying either outside backer could use an upgrade so to speak, because the only one I trust among that group is Preston Brown. Cincy might have fielded the worst trio in terms of pass coverage last season and they only lost Vontaze Burfict. I think third-round pick Germaine Pratt would fit quite well at SAM as a former safety, but I don’t know who will emerge on the weak-side. Nobody outside of Brown on that roster has recorded more than 1000 total snaps, so if I went off potential alone, I would go with last year’s third-round selection Malik Jefferson out of Texas, who I have begged to finally start shooting gaps more consistently.
Cleveland Browns – Strong safety
The hype around the Browns this offseason has been unbelievable and I really think they have special talent. After going 7-8-1 despite Baker Mayfield only being inserted shortly before halftime in week three, Cleveland has done nothing but add even more pieces. They traded for defensive end Olivier Vernon in exchange for guard Kevin Zeitler, who will be replaced by last year’s second-round pick Austin Corbett, they acquired another presence on the defensive interior with Sheldon Richardson, the best pure man-coverage corner in the draft in Greedy Williams fell to them in round two, they added two good linebackers in the draft and of course they pulled off the blockbuster deal for superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr. There is no way I will critique the trade for OBJ, because he is a transcendent talent in my opinion. However, they lost a highly versatile safety in Jabrill Peppers as part of that trade. The third-year man out of Michigan played in the box for them quite a bit, was highly utilized as part of their blitz packages and was a strong run defender from several spots. Cleveland signed Morgan Burnett this offseason, but he is 30 years old and doesn’t give them the same versatility Peppers brought to the table. New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks mentioned the young all-arounder in his opening press conference and now needs to find ways to improve the run defense without him while also being creative on passing downs.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Right tackle
Welcome to the league’s favorite soap opera. The Steelers have had the most drama of any team in the league for the last year almost now. By trading away Antonio Brown and deciding not to bring back Le’Veon Bell they will look to prove that they have enough young guys to make up for the lost production and that Pittsburgh is still about the team instead of individuals (outside of the “only adult” Ben Roethlisberger of course). I think they made a fantastic addition with Michigan linebacker Devin Bush, who will give them that dynamic leader in the middle of their defense they haven’t had since Ryan Shazier went down with that injury. Their pass rush is one of the best in the league and in the third round of the draft they found a physical corner in Justin Layne, who could start for them right away. While giving up AB certainly takes away monster production in the passing game, I think some of their young guys – most notably James Washington – will pick up the slack a little, and this team loves James Conner. However, the Steelers lost Marcus Gilbert to the Cardinals in free agency. I was very high on last year’s third-round selection Chukwuma Okorafor out of Western Michigan, but like I said he still needs time to develop and really is a left tackle by trait. Take him out of the equation and the battle is between Matt Feiler and two rookies. That transition will only be harder with their offensive line coach Mike Munchak going to Denver, who is a top three guy at his job in my opinion.
Buffalo Bills – Punter
This is a squad that I think could surprise some people in 2019. While I don’t think they have a lot of special guys among their receiving crew, they have certainly improved with those free agent additions, the O-line should be much better with bringing in a top five center in Mitch Morse and a top 20 draft prospect with guard/tackle Cody Ford from Oklahoma, to go with a restructured backfield behind LeSean McCoy. Their defense was incredibly underrated with some of the talent they already had and what Sean McDermott did with taking away the staples of opposing teams, yet they just took it to another level with the addition of a true upfield 3-tech in ninth overall pick Ed Oliver from Houston, who will take right over for the retired Kyle Williams. That brings me to special teams for the first time in this article. Who the hell is Corey Bojorquez? I understand the Bills could use a true number one receiver, but I don’t even know who this guy is and that usually never happens to me. Their new punter went undrafted a year ago and while he never saw any action as part of the Patriots’ 90-man preseason roster, Buffalo claimed him off waivers and is no looking like the guy to flip the field for them. Bojourez did get plenty of action through the first half of 2018, but went on to go on IR with a shoulder injury and the Bills resigned Colton Schmidt. With this being a team that will be built around running the ball and playing hardnosed defense, winning the field position level will be crucial for them.
Miami Dolphins – Right tackle
It is kind of ridiculous how everybody is circling in the Dolphins for the first overall pick in the 2020 draft and that general feeling that they would be tanking this entire season. Not only have we never seen an NFL team seriously do that for a full season, but I also hope that whole idea changed when they traded a late second-round pick for Josh Rosen, who I believe can be a franchise quarterback in this league. The defense is now lead by two alpha guys in Minkah Fitzpatrick and Christian Wilkins and they just signed Xavien Howard to the biggest contract for any cornerback in NFL history when you look at the total numbers. With Brian Flores bringing in that attention for detail and weekly gameplans that include multiple schemes I think they could be a formidable unit. Offensively, things are still kind of up in the air. I like running back Kenyan Drake and some of the guys they have behind him, but DeVante Parker still has to become that true number one receiver before I buy in on that group and at this moment Ryan Fitzpatrick is still taking all the first team reps. However, giving them the benefit of the doubt at the skill positions and assuming Rosen earns the starting gig eventually, the biggest position of need is right tackle in my opinion. Miami let Ja’Wuan James walk in free agency and now is expected to start Jordan Mills coming over from Buffalo. They also drafted Michael Deiter out of Wisconsin, who has starting experience at tackle, but to me is a guard only. The rest of that O-line looks pretty solid, but that spot definitely isn’t settled.
New England Patriots – Return specialist
Once again the Patriots come into the offseason as Super Bowl champs and once again people are trying to find reasons why they will finally end their reign over the AFC. While Brady did fall off a little towards the end of the year, I still trust Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels to outwork and outsmart opponents on a weekly basis, plus they just added five picks within the first three rounds of the draft. Defensively they put on one of the best shows I have seen in Super Bowl history by shutting down the Rams’ high-powered offense and they only added to it with Michael Bennett coming over from Philadelphia and a true Patriot player in Chase Winovich being drafted in the third down. As long as Dante Scarnecchia is there I feel confident in the offensive line and last year’s first-round pick Isaiah Wynn is finally seeing the field, taking over at left tackle for Trent Brown. Tight-end would be the most obvious need on the champs’ roster with the retirement of Rob Gronkowski, However, they added Benjamin Watson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins and I while I think Trey Flowers was an outstanding player for them, I think Bennett can do some of the some things for them, sliding inside on passing downs and being a disruptor on the defensive line. Instead I went with an area Belichick values highly – special teams. While Julian Edelman was one of the most underrated return-men in the league for many years, he recently turned 33 years old and the Pats need another dynamic threat, who they can also depend upon to not give away possessions. Cordarrelle Patterson is now in Chicago and there is no obvious replacement.
New York Jets – Cornerback
For as bad a look as it has been with the firing of GM Mike Maccagnan and how much uproar it has led to in the big apple, the Jets might have put together their most talented roster in almost a decade. Adding Jamison Crowder to the mix gives them a pretty solid wide receiver trio, even if considered overpaid, when Le’Veon Bell was last seen he was the best back in the league and despite some question marks remaining, bringing in Kelechi Osemele for a fifth-rounder from Oakland will definitely improve the O-line. On defense they added two key pieces with linebacker C.J. Mosley getting a big contract coming over from Baltimore and they got my number one overall player in the draft with Alabama defensive lineman Quinnen Williams to add to maybe the best young safety in Jamal Adams. New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will give some more attitude to that side of the ball and turn them into one of the better young groups in football. With that being said, I am not sure with that whey have on the perimeter. Trumaine Johnson can be a CB1 in the league, but Morris Claiborne is still on the open market at this point and nobody else fits on the outside really. Gang Green added Brian Poole from Atlanta and they drafted Parry Nickerson out of Tulane a year ago, but both those guys are best in the slot, size-related alone since they both measure in at 5’10”. Their DC likes to play a lot of man-coverage and I’m not sure if they have a second guy they can trust one-on-one.
Houston Texans – Veteran offensive lineman
Every year the Texans seem to fool us thinking they could be championship contenders. However, they always have an ugly playoff exit (mostly against the Patriots) and even last year when they went on a 9-game win streak they just could not get anything going against their division rival Colts. I believe in Deshaun Watson and they should be more dangerous with Will Fuller back, opening up space for DeAndre Hopkins to work underneath. Their defense has some of the baddest guys in the league with J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, two big inside backers and the underappreciated D.J. Reader. I also like the additions they have made in the secondary with Tashaun Gipson and Bradley Roby in free agency as well as the highly talented corner Lonnie Johnson, who they selected out of Kentucky in the second round. However, the Texans went into the draft with a huge need for O-line help after having given up a league-high 62 sacks in 2018. I said before last season already that the unit would be what could hold Houston back from competing with the top teams in the AFC and when you look at how the Colts terrorized Deshaun Watson in the Wildcard Round it was really obvious. They were a pretty good run-blocking group and they could work play-action off that, but when it was time to really drop back and give Watson time to survey the field, they struggled mightily. Despite having the potential to be quality starters down the road, I thought the Texans reached on Alabama State’s Tytus Howard and Northern Illinois’ Max Scharping after just missing out on Andre Dillard in the first round. I think adding a veteran offensive lineman would help them this upcoming season.
Indianapolis Colts – Strong safety
Speaking of Indianapolis, I put out an article on why I think the Colts are building something special and could rule the AFC for a few years. This obviously includes a generational quarterback in Andrew Luck, the wall they have built in front of him, some of the weapons they have in the passing game and a few standout talents on defense. When I put together free agency fits for the top ten teams in terms of cap space at the end of February, I thought Landon Collins would be perfect for Indy to complement Malik Hooker as that in-the-box strong safety. Of course they still needed to add some cornerback help and I understand why they didn’t want to pay him that amount of money the Redskins were ready to, but I’m just not sold on Clayton Geathers. The Colts also passed on Jonathan Abram when they traded out of that 26th over pick, which would have made a lot of sense. While they selected the feisty Rock Ya-Sin at corner out of Temple with their eventual first pick and the front-seven quietly having become one of the best out there, Indianapolis ran all those split-safety looks last year because of a lack of trust in the corners and not having that middle-of-the-field tone-setter. If you look at what defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus wants to do, he is a single-high safety guy all the way, who has the perfect rangy free safety in Malik Hooker when healthy and only adjusted his scheme as last season went along to help out their personnel. Yet, he still has to find his Kam Chancellor or Keanu Neal.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Free safety
I think if there was one team in the AFC that could go from a top ten pick to double-digit wins, it would be Jags. This squad was so close to knocking off the Patriots in the 2018 conference championship game and they still have a lot of the personnel from then. It looks like Telvin Smith will take a season off and Leonard Fournette had a sophomore slump, marked by injuries and suspensions. However, they also made a big upgrade at quarterback by bringing in a Super Bowl MVP in Nick Foles. They were that good two years with Blake Bortles under center, who could not do anything other than completing shallow crossers and scrambling for some first downs. Cam Robinson is back healthy at left tackle and assuming second-round pick Jawaan Taylor checks out fine medically, they have two book-ends to go with the league’s highest-paid guard Andrew Norwell and one the most underrated centers in Brandon Linder. They should be able to pound the rock once again. So Jacksonville’s defense needs to get back to that 2017/18 form and I think they can. However, I didn’t really understand why they let Tashaun Gipson walk in free agency. He was a key piece to that defense I thought because not only was he clearly the best option as the deep middle safety, but he also took on most of the team’s man-coverage duties when it came to moving one of their safeties down into the slot. The Texans ultimately paid Gipson 7.5 million annually on a three-year contract, which would not have kept the Jags from signing some of those other young studs moving towards big paydays. Ronnie Harrison was a steal last year and should fit extremely fell at strong safety, but if they are looking for a rangy free they might have to go with undrafted rookie Zedrick Woods, who was the only one at the combine to run sub-4.3.
Tennessee Titans – Boundary corner
I know I start sounding like a broken record here, but show me the big hole on the Titans roster? I know that not everybody is sold on Marcus Mariota and I need to see him play his best ball throughout this upcoming season, but there are just no glaring needs when I look at this team really. Their O-line only got stronger with interior help in the form of free agent Rodger Saffold and third-round draft pick Nate Davis out of Charlotte, Derrick Henry finally became a rolling train over the second half of last season and their new WR trio of Corey Davis, A.J. Brown and Adam Humphries looks much better, especially with some of the guys they have coming off the bench. While their first round pick Jeffery Simmons might not see the field at all this year, they have some big bodies on the D-line, I expect Harold Landry to emerge as a big threat off the edge, they have an excellent duo of young inside backers with Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans, plus Kevin Byard brings some swagger to that unit. What I do think is an issue is the fact that the Titans only have one true outside corner in Malcolm Butler, who didn’t nearly play up to his contract last year. Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson are at their best at nickel and they only put Leshaun Sims on the field for about 20 percent of their defensive snaps last season. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees likes to use a multitude of looks and combo-coverages, which leaves bother their corners on islands quite a bit.
Denver Broncos – Wide receiver depth
I have been waiting for these Broncos to get back to who they were back in 2015/16, when they rode that defense and a strong rushing attack to the Super Bowl with a combination of a washed Peyton Manning and a still promising young Brock Osweiler. As below-average as that duo actually was throughout the year, the quarterback situation has been absolutely dreadful ever since. However, even though the defense has lost key pieces in Aquib Talib, Bradley Roby, Brandon Marshall and others since last offseason started, they have found the guy to actually be a force off the opposite side on Von Miller in Bradley Chubb and they brought in Kareem Jackson from Houston, as well as turning an undrafted free agent in Philip Lindsay into a 1000-yard rusher behind an offensive line that now looks more than formidable with second-round pick Dalton Risner and free agent Ja’Wuan James on the right side. Joe Flacco is at least a slight upgrade over Case Keenum with what he has proven to be capable of in biggest moments and they got him a hyper-athletic tight end in Iowa’s Noah Fant. Last year the Broncos had some of the best third and fourth receivers in the league. Without an older Demaryius Thomas, Isaiah McKenzie leaving in free agency and Emmanuel Sanders still recovering from an ACL late in the season, those second-year guys Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton will be asked to step into front roles. I really like the outside-inside duo those two present, but after that the wide receiver group is pretty thin for the Broncos. The most productive guy in that room is Tim Patrick, who has more career receiving yards than those other guys have combined with about 300.
Kansas City Chiefs – Center
Everybody is crowning the Chiefs as the biggest threat to the Patriots in the AFC and you won’t find a lot of bigger fans of reigning league MVP Patrick Mahomes than me after I doubted how he would transition into the NFL, which I made clear after just two weeks (and filling in for week 17 last season). However, Kansas City gave up their top two edge rushers and a leading figure in Eric Berry, even if I think they might be slightly better by trading for Frank Clark, signing Tyrann Mathieu and some of their draft picks. More importantly, for as incredible as Patrick Mahomes was in his first year as a starter and all those numbers the Chiefs put up, I am starting to get more and more concerned with this offense. I like Georgia’s Mecole Hardman, but I thought they reached on him in the second round and he is not nearly the same type of player as Tyreek Hill at this point – even though he clearly is a better person. However, more importantly they lost a top five center in the league in Mitch Morse and they did nothing to replace him. Austin Reiter looks like the favorite to take over that spot right now and Cameron Erving has some experience at center, if they thought they had somebody better at guard, but that is a major downgrade. The Chiefs allowed only 24 sacks last season despite the way Mahomes likes to extend plays and make things happen off script, which Morse was a big part of, not being responsible for a single one himself.
Los Angeles Chargers – Punter
Man, this Chargers roster is so damn good. I thought their biggest areas for improvement were the interior of the D-line and a true free safety. They ended up drafting one of most the impressive D-tackles in Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery and my number one safety in Delaware’s Nasir Adderley. The Bolts also added Thomas Davis and some depth to that linebacking crew in the draft, plus they could afford to lose Tyrell Williams because of how Mike Williams emerged for them later on in his second year as a receiver. Philip Rivers showed some signs of aging when the Patriots dared him to throw the deep ball and he could not make them pay in the Divisional Round, but he played at a very high level throughout the season and has as much talent around him as he has had in about a decade, especially with tight-end Hunter Henry returning from injury. So with all that being said, I am improving the special teams for this team – last year they finally got a consistent kicker in Michael Badgley and now it is time to find a field-changing punter. Undrafted rookie Tyler Newsome steadily was around 44 yards per punt at Notre Dame. He has a strong leg and was a bit of an internet sensation when he put up 30 reps on the bench press at his pro day, but he has had a few bad moments with shanked punts. So with how unlucky the Chargers have been on special teams, I think this is the one area they could still upgrade to above-average.
Oakland Raiders – Left guard
This is probably the Raiders’ final season in the Black Hole and they don’t want to leave with another 4-12 season. They improved a whole lot all-around by completely remaking that receiver room led by the offseason protagonist Antonio Brown, adding the top running back in the drafting with Josh Jacobs, spending three of their four picks in the top 40 on big school players on defense and adding two veteran linebackers, who should start for them as well. I might not agree with a lot of their picks and the value they added with them, but I can see a vision from Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock and how they want to build that roster. With that being said, they also lost one of the better interior offensive linemen in the league when they traded Kelechi Osemele to the Jets for only a fifth-round pick. I know this was purely about finances for them, but now they have a big hole at one of those guard spots. Gabe Jackson has been very solid for them these since they drafted him back in 2014, but it might be up to Denzelle Good and Chaz Green to fight for that position on the opposite side. I hated the Kolton Miller pick from a year ago and how they made Trent Brown the highest-paid offensive lineman in league history, but it really is that left guard spot that doesn’t show a lot of promise. When Derek Carr was at his best three years ago, they had one of the elite pass-protecting offensive lines and weapons around him.
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