The Kansas City Chiefs came up just short of going back-to-back in 2020, falling to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV. While the sting of that loss will likely last throughout the offseason, the future is still tremendously bright throughout the halls of Arrowhead Stadium. As the NFL looks toward the 2021 season, Kansas City is viewed as the betting favorite to get back to the Super Bowl and this time hoist the Lombardi Trophy for the second time during the Patrick Mahomes era.
With the Chiefs are likely not going away any time soon, that means that the rest of the AFC will have their work cut out for them this offseason to draw even with K.C. in hopes of dashing their hopes of reaching the big game once again. How can they do that? Glad you asked. Below, we're going to highlight one thing that each team in the AFC will need to do this offseason to inch one step closer to knocking off the Chiefs and becoming the top dog in the conference by as early as next season.
Key move: Add another receiver for Lamar Jackson
The Ravens have an MVP caliber quarterback and have been knocking on the door of jumping up to that elite tier of teams in the AFC for the past two years. So long as they are able to retain a couple of key free agents on the defensive side of the ball to keep that unit among the best in the conference, the biggest need for Baltimore is providing Lamar Jackson help in the passing game. We all know the Ravens have a lethal ground attack with Jackson and J.K. Dobbins coming out of the backfield, but oftentimes the Ravens needed more stability through the air. Finding an above-average pass-catching option for Jackson either at the draft, free agency, or via trade this offseason to pair with Hollywood Brown and Mark Andrews will go a long way in making Baltimore's offense more well-rounded.
Key move: Continue the ascent
If you were to bet on a team to dethrone Kansas City next season, the favorite is likely the Bills. Sean McDermott's club took a significant leap in 2020 and that was largely due to Josh Allen becoming an MVP caliber quarterback. As long as they continue to have that needle moving in the right direction and they take no steps backward, 2021 could be a massive year for Buffalo. As it relates to the roster, solidifying the offensive line should be a high priority.
Key move: Get Joe Burrow healthy and build a wall around him
In all likelihood, the Bengals are not going to be able to go toe-to-toe with Kansas City by next season. They are still a few seasons away from legitimate contention in the AFC. That said, they have the hardest part of any rebuild complete after drafting Joe Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick last offseason. What they'll need to focus on this offseason is seeing that he recovers smoothly from his torn ACL and, in the meantime, build a strong offensive line in front of him. In just 10 games played, Burrow was sacked 32 times last season and ultimately wasn't able to play through an entire season. He showed in those 10 contests that he is capable of leading a franchise into the playoffs, but he won't be able to if he's getting bombarded on a weekly basis. If Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell were to fall to them at No. 5, that'd be one heck of a start towards building a wall in front of their franchise savior.
Key move: Improve the secondary
Cleveland was able to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season this past year, but couldn't get past Kansas City in the divisional round. With Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill both going over 100 yards receiving, that loss showed that the Browns still have some work to do, particularly in the secondary. Kevin Stefanski's defense ranked 25th in the NFL against the pass in DVOA last season. It should be stated that the team was without Denzel Ward for stretches and didn't have and 2019 second-round pick Greedy Williams nor 2020 second-rounder Grant Delpit this season due to injury. That being said, getting those players healthy and continuing to add to that unit will be important for Cleveland to take that next step in 2021.
Key Move: Upgrade from Drew Lock
Offensively, there is a lot to like with Denver. The wide receiver trio of Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, and Tim Patrick (RFA) is promising and that's not even mentioning tight end Noah Fant along with running backs Phillip Lindsay (RFA) and Melvin Gordon. What that unit needs to fully ascend as a player for the AFC, however, is an upgrade at quarterback. Drew Lock has shown flashes of potential, but if the Broncos can land a Deshaun Watson or even Sam Darnold, that should be looked at as significant upgrades that could eventually help move them over the top.
Key move: Convince Deshaun Watson to stay aboard
Many expect that Deshaun Watson will not be on the Texans roster by the time we are kicking off the 2021 season. However, the fastest way for Houston to contend with the Chiefs is to figure out a way to make him stay. There's a strong case to be made that Watson is the second-best quarterback in the conference and only looking up at Patrick Mahomes. He has the talent to bring a team to the promised land but that team has to have a better collection of talent than the cast from The Longest Yard, which Houston did not last year. Again, it appears unlikely that they can find a way to keep him, but if we're talking about a way for the Texans to compete with the Chiefs, they are better having Watson than being without him.
Key move: Trade for or sign an upper-echelon QB
Philip Rivers has called it a career, meaning the Colts are once again searching for a quarterback. Outside of under center, Indy has the pieces in place to contend in the AFC, but this step is pivotal for them being able to advance in the playoffs. Given his history with Frank Reich, the Colts have been looked at as a player for Carson Wentz, who is searching for a trade out of Philadelphia. If Reich is able to acquire him and get him back to the quarterback he was back in 2017, the Colts could be sitting pretty. Even if Wentz isn't the answer, Indy does have a ton of cap space to attack that need, giving them plenty of options this offseason.
Key move: Set a strong foundation around Trevor Lawrence
The Jaguars are not going to go from worst to first in 2021, but they have a very exciting future. They are going to select Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 pick at the 2021 NFL Draft, giving them the highest touted quarterback since Andrew Luck. Not only that, but they hired Urban Meyer as their next head coach and have the most cap space in the NFL this offseason. While they won't content in 2021, this offseason is all about setting up a foundation around Lawrence to have Jacksonville pushing for the playoffs as early as 2022. If Lawrence is as advertised, this could be a quick rebuild.
Key move: Pour resources into fixing the defense
The Raiders had the 28th ranked defense in DVOA in 2020 which was, in part, the reasoning behind the club moving on from defensive coordinator Paul Guenther towards the end of the year. They have since hired Gus Bradley to lead the unit going forward, but they'll now need to double-down on that addition with personnel. There will be plenty of talk about possibly moving on from Derek Carr this offseason, but I don't see him -- or the offense -- as the glaring problem in Vegas. If they can possibly trade backup quarterback Marcus Mariota for help on defense while also using their draft capital to fill holes on that side of the ball, it'd go a long way in helping Carr, Darren Waller, and the rest of the Raiders offense not having to match Mahomes throw-for-throw twice a year.
Key move: Play smarter, allow Justin Herbert to develop
The Chargers are a team on the rise after Justin Herbert proved to be a true franchise quarterback out of the gate over his rookie season. They merely need to allow him to develop more to truly be a yearly contender. They do have a number of big-name free agents (Hunter Henry, Melvin Ingram, etc.) but the biggest priority surrounding Los Angeles is simply playing smarter football in 2021. Under now-former head coach Anthony Lynn, there were a number of costly mistakes made throughout the season that ultimately led to losses. Special teams was a clear issue throughout the year, which is typically a sign of poor execution from a coaching standpoint. With former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley now in place as the head coach, he'll need to implement a more disciplined club and weed out those self-inflicted miscues.
Key move: Give Tua every chance to take the leap
So long as Miami doesn't make a splash for Deshaun Watson or another quarterback, all eyes will be on Tua Tagovailoa next season. The Dolphins 2020 first-round pick didn't live up to expectations over his rookie season, but it also seemed like the coaching staff was reluctant to take the training wheels off of their young signal-caller. For Miami to truly know what they have in Tagovailoa and get one step closer to contending in the AFC East and in the conference, they'll need to let the quarterback loose next season to see what they have. While swapping him out for Ryan Fitzpatrick late in games last season helped earn a couple of wins, Brian Flores needs to sink or swim with Tagovailoa in 2021 to allow him the chance to live up to his potential. If he does, Miami has the pieces ready to take a leap.
Key move: Find a quality quarterback and give him weapons
New England's issues stretch beyond just finding a quarterback. As we've seen over the last two years, it doesn't matter if it's Tom Brady or Cam Newton: the pass-catchers on the Patriots roster are subpar. That gives them two things to target this offseason. First, they'll need to identify and acquire a quality quarterback. Is that a reunion with Jimmy Garoppolo or kicking the tires on Marcus Mariota? It ultimately remains to be seen. However, when they do bring him aboard, they'll then need to use their cap space and draft capital to find pass-catching weapons for them on the open market. Tight end Hunter Henry and receiver Curtis Samuel seem like solid and realistic options. When you pair that with Bill Belichick and a still solid defense, New England has a chance to enjoy a solid bounce back from a dreadful 2020.
Key move: Trade for Deshaun Watson
There have been some reports suggesting that Deshaun Watson's preferred landing spot is the Jets. If that proves to be the case, New York needs to put the full-court press on the Texans to pry him away from Houston. By acquiring Watson, the Jets give themselves arguably the second-best quarterback situation in the AFC and have a strong counter to Josh Allen in Buffalo. From there, New York could use its cap space to continue to build around Watson, who would certainly attract a number of free agents.
Key move: Get better quarterback play from Big Ben
Pittsburgh arguably has the best defense in the conference and has talented pass-catchers, but they simply fell apart down the stretch after starting the year out 11-0. Part of that was a countless number of drops made by Steelers pass-catchers, but Pittsburgh also needs better quarterback play from Ben Roethlisberger as he gears up for what could end up being his final season in the league. According to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, Roethlisberger ranked 20th among 33 quarterbacks who have thrown at least 200 passes last season. For reference, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Tom Brady -- all quarterbacks who reached the conference championship last year -- made up the top four on that list. Roethlisberger needs to be more efficient if Pittsburgh wants to contend against K.C. in 2021.
Key move: Improve the defense
Edge rusher and the secondary are big needs for Tennessee this offseason after ranking 30th against the pass in DVOA last year. Signing the likes of J.J. Watt could be a start towards addressing the pass rusher spot, but considering the veteran is on the back-nine of his career, he likely won't be able to fix this unit alone. If they were to make major splashing by acquiring Yannick Ngakoue or Shaq Barrett, that could prove to be massive additions to help get after the quarterback next season and put them in contention with the Chiefs. As for the secondary, options like Richard Sherman could be intriguing to pair with the corners Tennessee already boasts.