The following rundown of the biggest 2021 offseason needs for each AFC team (except the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs, who are a little busy right now) keeps one eye on the draft, one eye on free agency, and both feet on the ground (cough, Browns and Texans, cough) when it comes to each team’s salary cap situation and in-house priorities.
How does the AFC’s spectrum of team needs look overall for 2021?
The Indianapolis Colts need a replacement for retired quarterback Philip Rivers. The Pittsburgh Steelers may soon be in the same boat with Ben Roethlisberger. The Tennessee Titans may be one player away from the Super Bowl. The Cleveland Browns may erroneously believe that they are, too. The New England Patriots need a full-scale rebuild. The Houston Texans need an intervention.
Millions of dollars in cap space look great until you realize that a team needs to re-sign a half-dozen of its own starters.
Overall, the AFC situation entering the 2021 offseason is less dire than what’s going on in the NFC, where many teams face a cap crisis. That said, many AFC teams are facing a similar dilemma — they may be pretty good now, but it’s harder than it looks for a “pretty good” team to get better.
Offseason Needs: AFC East
Yes, the Dolphins should pursue Deshaun Watson with (just about) everything they’ve got. And when the Texans inevitably get stubborn and decide to compound their problems by keeping Watson, the Dolphins must stop on a dime, recommit to Tua Tagovailoa, and start building on this year’s success.
Wide receiver is the Dolphins’ most pressing need, and they are in position to double-dip this offseason. Someone like LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase or Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith with the third overall pick, or a veteran role player (speedy Isaiah McKenzie, rugged possession guy Kendrick Bourne, versatile Nelson Agholor) in mid-tier free agency with their $24 million in cap space.
The Dolphins should also seek defensive reinforcements. Assuming that your defense will remain dominant after one come-from-nowhere year is a great way to become the Jacksonville Jaguars.
New York Jets
Sam Darnold is now two head coaches and one general manager removed from the decision-makers who drafted him. Unless he morphs immediately into Joe Montana, he’s a lame duck. And if Robert Saleh and Joe Douglas opt to keep Darnold around, they will just be wasting time or kidding themselves. Both will have the irresistible urge to find “their guy” the first time Darnold throws an incomplete pass in a 7-on-7 drill.
Assuming Douglas and Saleh realize this and solve their quarterback problem with the second overall pick (let’s pencil in Ohio State’s Justin Fields), the Jets’ brain trust must figure out just about everything else. About $63 million in 2021 cap space should help, especially since Marcus Maye is just about the only top-priority in-house free agent.
The Jets must use those cap bucks and the 23rd overall pick (acquired from the Seattle Seahawks in the Jamal Adams trade) on players at high-leverage positions. The previous administration had a weird habit of ignoring positions like offensive tackle (before Douglas selected Mekhi Becton), cornerback, and edge rusher in the draft. The Jets need all the impact players they can find. They should be able to find at least two or three this offseason.
New England Patriots
The Patriots are charter members of the “We Need a Quarterback But Are In No Position to Draft or Sign One” club. (The Washington Football Team, Chicago Bears, and now Indianapolis Colts are also 2021 AFC team members; applications need to be reviewed for the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, and others).
The Patriots have $57 million in theoretical cap space, allowing their fans to fantasize about premium-priced solutions (though Jimmy Garoppolo’s return would be more a 49ers fan fantasy). Though, much of that $57 million is likely to evaporate when the smoke clears on opt-outs and in-house free agents. The Patriots’ biggest offseason need is to admit that they are a rebuilding team — perhaps not to the public, but at least to themselves.
Offseason Needs: AFC South
The Texans need:
- An exorcist;
- At least three workplace diversity and discrimination specialists, possibly armed with tasers;
- That guy from the insurance commercial who teaches people how NOT to turn into their parents;
- One of those deep-cleaning services that get called in after the CSI team leaves a crime scene;
- The wisdom to realize that their relationship with Deshaun Watson is irreparable and they need to start over;
- Two solid years of rebuilding before they even utter the words “Wild Card;”
- Several long mornings staring out into Galveston Bay at sunrise, thinking about all the things they have done so terribly wrong.
Quarterbacks! Quarterbacks! Hello Quarterbacks!
The Colts are an AFC team entering the 2021 offseason with $65 million in paper cap space, making it easy for Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers’ fans to picture them as a storage unit to hold unwanted Carson Wentz and Jimmy Garoppolo types.
In reality, the Colts’ in-house free agent list includes cornerback Xavier Rhodes, wide receivers T.Y. Hilton and (restricted free agent) Zach Pascal, tight end Trey Burton, edge rusher Justin Houston, and many others. Even if they let some of the older veterans and role players walk, the Colts will be forced to use a big chunk of cap change on someone like Rhodes. They should also be looking down the line toward extensions for guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard.
Oh, and left tackle Anthony Costanzo has retired. The Colts may be best off using their first-round pick on someone like Texas’ tackle Samuel Comsi while rummaging through the Sam Darnold bin (or re-upping Indianapolis’ deputy mayor Jacoby Brissett yet again). At the same time, they spend their third straight year trying to find themselves in the wake of Andrew Luck’s retirement. No hurry, guys.
Urban Meyer? Sure, whatever. Trevor Lawrence? Obviously. Everything the Jaguars do next will be seen through the prism of their new coach and quarterback. The Jaguars are guaranteed to get significantly better this offseason because it would be impossible to get significantly worse.
If you really want to go shopping with the Jaguars’ league-high $73 million in 2021 cap space and extra first and second-round picks, then grab a free agent list and PFN’s Free NFL Mock Draft Simulator and have a blast. Kenny Golladay, Texas edge rusher Joseph Ossai, TCU safety Trevor Moehring and Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes? Sounds tasty! Shaq Barrett, Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman, USC defensive tackle Jay Tufele, and Florida State cornerback Asante Samuel Jr.? Sure!
It’s easy, it’s fun, and the Jaguars will still stink when you are done.
The Titans have the easiest-to-fill list of needs in the entire AFC. If they improve their pass rush, they can reach the Super Bowl. And they should only need to clear a little cap space (they are about $7 million over the salary cap entering the 2021 offseason, but there are plenty of ways this AFC team can tidy up their ledger) to land a veteran edge rusher eager to play for Mike Vrabel and a contender.
Melvin Ingram or Ryan Kerrigan could provide an immediate upgrade. Of course, we said the same thing about Vic Bealey and Jadeveon Clowney entering this season, but at some point, the Titans are bound to find the proper fit.
Offseason Needs: AFC North
No, the Ravens don’t need more wide receivers. They need to keep working with Marquise Brown and the other wide receivers they’ve got. Interior offensive line is a bigger need if the Ravens plan to stay the course with Lamar Jackson’s option-based offense (which they should).
A top guard prospect like Tennessee’s Trey Smith or (to stick with the “Roll Tide” Ravens meme) Alabama’s Deonte Brown would fit both the scheme and the budget. The Ravens have $21 million in paper cap space, but they will almost certainly spend most of that on in-house priorities.
The Bengals are that strange little antique shop across the street from your barber that is only open about two hours per week but never goes out of business. Is it haunted? Owned by the tabby cats who inherited it from an eccentric millionaire? A front for an illegal endangered-species barbecuing operation? No one knows. And for most of the year, no one cares.
Anyway, protecting Joe Burrow must be the Bengals’ top priority, and they should be in position to draft Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell with the fifth overall pick. After that, they should just select the best available athlete and keep doing so until about 2023.
Having charted a path from “historically terrible” to “pretty good,” the Browns must chart a path from pretty good to great in 2021 addressing its team needs in a competitive AFC North. That starts with figuring out how to keep their core intact now that they have a core.
Browns fans may want to go shopping with the team’s modest $21 million in on-paper cap space. Still, the team’s front office would be better off re-signing wide receiver Rashard Higgins (he was clutch down the stretch, give-or-take a helmet-to-helmet hit at the goal line, and will make a fine WR3 behind Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.) and locking key youngsters like guard Wyatt Teller into extensions.
Plug in a cornerback like South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn with the 26th overall pick and you have a realistic plan for the Browns as they try to consolidate their gains, instead of falling into the “one player away from the Super Bowl trap.”
The difference between the Steelers and other teams coping with their franchise quarterback’s sunset years is that the Steelers look like they really could prop up someone like Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, or Ryan Fitzpatrick behind the wheel and compete for a Super Bowl.
Selecting yet another edge rusher (assuming they let Bud Dupree walk as a free agent because that’s what the Steelers do) with the 21st overall pick makes as much sense as dealing from the bottom of the quarterback prospect deck so late in the first round.
Alternately, the Steelers could trade back to get extra mid-round reinforcements on the offensive line and in the secondary, select a running back like Clemson’s Travis Etienne or Alabama’s Najee Harris, and try to reach critical mass among their offensive weapons. A Titans or Browns-like offense would look pretty scary when paired with that defense while making life even easier for some limited caretaker quarterback (even if his name is Ben Roethlisberger).
Offseason Needs: AFC West
The Broncos are the San Francisco 49ers of the AFC. They will get much better if they just get healthier. It’s tempting to pencil in a 2021 Wild Card berth with Von Miller and Courtland Sutton back in the fold. Unfortunately, that has been the Broncos’ problem for at least four years. They have been building to make 9-7 their ceiling instead of their floor.
Assuming Drew Lock is the answer at quarterback — he’s not, but it will take a year for new general manager George Paton to convince John Elway of that — the Broncos should prioritize depth and options in the secondary. Safety Justin Simmons is a free agent that the team may not be able to keep; they face the Kansas City Chiefs twice per year.
The Broncos will be an AFC team in position to draft the best cornerback on the board with the 9th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft (Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, perhaps). If they don’t push for BYU’s Zach Wilson or some other quarterback, that’s as fine a plan as any.
Las Vegas Raiders
Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock have built a team with no outstanding weaknesses but no real strengths. Upgrades are necessary across the defense, and the offensive line is aging rapidly, but it doesn’t matter. Mayock will just sign some aging free agents Gruden liked when he was in the Monday Night Football booth, augmented with some draft picks from Clemson.
So in a way, adding wide receiver A.J. Green and drafting cornerback Derion Kendrick really will fill the Raiders’ greatest need — Gruden and Mayock’s need for validation.
Los Angeles Chargers
New coach Brandon Staley should push to build aggressively and contend while Justin Herbert is still under his rookie contract. That means spending the team’s $19 million in 2021 cap space on in-house priorities edge rusher Melvin Ingram and/or tight end Hunter Henry and upgrading an offensive line that was full of stopgaps for aging starters in 2021.
Insert your favorite offensive line prospect with the 13th overall pick, add another one in the second round, and hope Derwin James gets a blood transfusion from Wolverine so he can stay healthy next year.
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