The Denver Broncos have a big decision to make about Drew Lock. The Los Angeles Chargers must find the right head coach to further mold Justin Herbert. Brian Flores, Tua Tagovailoa, and the Miami Dolphins must figure out how to take the next step. And the Houston Texans may need an exorcism. Here’s a last look back at 2020 — and, more importantly, a look ahead to 2021 — for the AFC teams which failed to reach the playoffs this year.
Editor’s Note: For the rest of Mike Tanier’s individual NFL playoff previews, make sure to check out his full NFL Week 17 Recap. Not only does he give in-depth breakdowns of each game, but he also provides you with his Week 17 Stud ‘n’ Duds. Also, make sure to check out what 2021 has in store for these NFC teams.
AFC East teams that didn’t make the playoffs
Tua Tagovailoa needs help. He needs weapons because Brett Favre would struggle if forced to throw to Mack Hollins and Isaiah Ford. He needs something close to a normal offseason. It’s easy to forget that Tua was still rehabbing a dislocated hip this time last year and was extra limited in an uncharted offseason with all of its limitations.
Tua also needs a full commitment from head coach Brian Flores. No more quick hooks, no veteran looking over his shoulder who is eager to remind the media how much he loves being a starter.
The Dolphins defense could also use reinforcements to build upon the gains it made in 2020. Luckily, the Dolphins have extra picks in the first and second rounds of the draft, thanks to the Laremy Tunsil trade. It’s easier for an AFC team to improve through the 2021 NFL Draft when it’s already pretty good in the first place.
New England Patriots
The Patriots need a franchise quarterback, an entire receiving corps, lots of reinforcements for a rapidly aging and deteriorating defense, a kicker, and probably a new offensive staff now that Josh McDaniels and company have been exposed as little more than Tom Brady’s window washers. It’s not clear how this AFC East team will solve even half of those problems in 2021. In part, because no one knows what a Bill Belichick rebuilding project even looks like.
One thing is certain. Every questionable move Belichick makes this offseason won’t be given the “Patriots have outsmarted the world again!” treatment. A little less adulation and a dose of reality (like being an AFC team that didn’t make the playoffs) may be good for this particular franchise.
New York Jets
Adam Gase is gone! (Hooray!) Sam Darnold is unlikely to stick around as anything more than a lame-duck incumbent. The roster has less talent than a second-year expansion team, a fact that general manager Joe Douglas gets a mulligan for (at least for now). And Trevor Lawrence will not be walking through the door.
The Jets are such a blank slate right now that it’s not even fun to speculate about what they might do next. Wake NFL Recap when they find a new coach.
AFC North team that didn’t make the playoffs
What a weird season — upsets of the Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers, losses to just about everyone else, plus a tie. Joe Burrow looks like a franchise quarterback when he’s not getting suplexed, safety Jesse Bates is a worthy All-Pro in search of 10 defensive teammates, and the Bengals somehow still have too many guys on the roster trying to win a 2014 Wild Card game.
Improvement will begin with an offensive line upgrade to help Burrow, followed by an overhaul of the entire defensive front. You know what, the Bengals may be the only team who would benefit from hiring Dave Gettleman as GM. He would at least be an upgrade over their current general manager, who doesn’t exist.
South teams that fell short and eye 2021
Everything starts with locking self-help guru/Totally-Pinkie-Swear-Temporary Top Exec Jack Easterby in the boiler room. Get some quality football people in the front office and coaching staff. If the Texans can’t do that, nothing else will matter. Deshaun Watson will replace Archie Manning as the greatest quarterback ever to have his career wasted by a miserable organization.
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Even if the next Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick walk into Texans headquarters (and sidestep Easterby’s piranha-pool trap doors), the Texans are unlikely to be relevant until 2022 due to their lack of incumbent talent and draft capital. The Texans didn’t make the playoffs this year, and it’s a team in need of rejuvenation to compete in the AFC South.
Trevor Lawrence. Three other draft picks among the top 50. A new general manager. A new head coach. About $77 million in cap space. It will be hard for the Jaguars to screw this up. But remember that teams like the Jaguars wind up at the top of the draft order with extra picks and gobs of cap space because of how phenomenal they are at screwing things up.
Team owner Shad Khan is already muttering about maintaining personnel control, which is such a red flag that it’s practically infrared.
West teams that didn’t make the playoffs
Your mileage on Drew Lock’s “development” may vary. I think he played just well enough to fool the Broncos into wasting another year trying to make Mitch Trubisky out of him.
It’s tempting to write 2020 off as an injury year for the Broncos due to the absences of Von Miller, wide receiver Courtland Sutton, and other important players. That said, we’re entering Year Five of they lost a lot of close games and are just waiting for the quarterback play to get a little better.
The Broncos’ 2020 bad luck was the residue of bad design. This was a team that was built to max out at 9-7 but missed. And if Lock doesn’t pull a Josh Allen in the offseason for his team, the 2021 Broncos run the risk of being a lot like the 2020 Broncos in the AFC and not making the playoffs.
Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders need a thorough rebuild but do not realize it yet. Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock are so good at larding the roster with mid-tier veterans and high floor/low ceiling rookies that the team could compete for the final Wild Card spot for years to come. And it will be hard to replace Gruden and Mayock as long as the team is competing for the final Wild Card spot, plus Gruden’s 10-year, $100 million contract will be one whopper of a sunk cost.
At least the Jets and Jaguars have a chance to break their vicious cycle. The Raiders like theirs.
Los Angeles Chargers
Fired head coach Anthony Lynn did an excellent job grooming Justin Herbert. He did a terrible job at just about everything else. Meanwhile, general manager Tom Telesco built a roster that is still long on Philip Rivers-era holdovers. Some of them passed their prime, and a few key starters (edge rusher Melvin Ingram, linebacker Denzel Perryman, tight end Hunter Henry) are 2021 free agents.
The Chargers could be primed to leap into contention next year. Or, they could remain in the sputtering-not-quite-rebuilding cycle that really began the moment they showed up in L.A. with nothing but a suitcase and a dream. Their choice of head coach will be critical. They need someone with a win-soon plan but may be lulled into hiring some “culture changer” who wastes Herbert’s affordable years on bringing in “his guys.”