1. Kansas City Chiefs
Headline: The Climb Back
Despite their loss in the Super Bowl, the Chiefs still hold the top spot heading into 2021. Everything starts and ends for the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill. No exposé is required to explain what those guys are capable of on a football field. The Chiefs’ biggest unrestricted free agents are Sammy Watkins and Bashaud Breeland. Neither one of those players will be too difficult to replace. Kansas City recently restructured Patrick Mahomes’ contract and cut tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher to create cap space for this year. Expect them to add impactful players on the defensive line, offensive line, and secondary through the draft and free agency. There is no reason why the Chiefs shouldn’t be able to make another run at the Super Bowl in 2022.
Read More: Chiefs Team Needs: Revenge SZN
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Headline: Can Tom do it Again?
Coming off of their Super Bowl win, the Bucs are still one of the most complete teams in the league. They were able to franchise tag star receiver Chris Godwin and re-sign outside linebacker Lavonte David to a two-year deal. Ndamukong Suh, Shaquil Barrett, Leonard Fournette, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown are all unrestricted free agents that have yet to sign deals. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bucs lose at least one of those players to another team in free agency or possibly retirement. Nonetheless, Tom Brady is returning to Tampa and he will become the oldest starting quarterback in NFL history this season. Tampa’s defense looks to be among the leagues best once again in 2021. Brady will at minimum still have Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to sling the ball to. Those things combined create a very good football team.
3. Buffalo Bills
Headline: Take the Next Step
Yes, the Bills got slapped around by the Chiefs in the AFC Championship. However, no one can deny how impressive Josh Allen was in his third season as a pro. Allen’s development has provided great hope for a fan base that has been largely miserable throughout the franchise’s existence. Buffalo is not in a great position when it comes to available cap space. According to Spotrac, they have roughly $7 million to spend. Fortunately for them, their roster is in good standing when it comes to talent.
Buffalo does not have many notable pending free agents. With Matt Milano re-signing, that leaves offensive tackle Daryl Williams as the biggest potential loss. Meanwhile, Buffalo’s defense was middle of the pack last season. For the team to take the next step, that unit that must improve. Buffalo will be strong favorites to repeat as AFC East champs, but the Dolphins could make things a little interesting.
4. Green Bay Packers
Headline: Get A-Rod Some Help
What will the Packers do in the draft to surprise us this year? Well, a pleasant surprise would be drafting a wide receiver in one of the first two rounds to give Aaron Rodgers some more help. Rodgers put together a magnificent season last year that resulted in him earning league MVP. For the sake of this argument, let’s take Davante Adams out of the conversation. Imagine if Rodgers had someone else to throw to besides Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Equanimeous St. Brown. Wouldn’t that be something? Make it happen Brian Gutekunst.
The Packers are also in need of another offensive tackle and a cornerback. Green Bay is very much against the cap, so those needs will likely have to be addressed in the draft unless they are able to clear space fast. Putting all that to the side, the Packers were a play or two away from making it to the Super Bowl last year. There is no reason to expect that the Rodgers and Adams tandem won’t be brilliant again this season.
5. Los Angeles Rams
Headline: Hollywood Stafford
Full disclosure: It was very tempting to put the Rams ahead of the Packers on this list. There is no question Los Angeles has a top-three defense in the league led by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. You could easily make the argument they have the two best defensive players in the NFL. Things get a bit more interesting when you look at the offensive side of the ball. This offseason, the Rams traded Jared Goff, two first-round picks, and a third round pick for Matthew Stafford. Stafford is still a talented passer and should be far more proficient in Sean McVay‘s system than Goff was. LA’s skill positions group is centered around Cam Akers, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp. They are currently dead last in the league in terms of cap space, so any free agent additions seem unlikely. Expect them to address needs at linebacker, offensive line, and wide receiver in the draft.
6. Baltimore Ravens
Headline: What is Lamar Jackson?
Last season was another frustrating year for Ravens fans and Lamar Jackson truthers. Jackson tossed 10 fewer touchdowns than he did the year prior, his interception total went up by three, and his completion percentage dropped as well. There were points during the season where he flat out struggled to throw the ball accurately. This is not a Lamar Jackson hit piece, though. Highlighting these stats and his struggles points to a larger issue. The Ravens need to help Jackson out and go get another receiver. Marquise ‘Hollywood’ Brown is talented, but other than him, most non-Ravens fans couldn’t even name another Baltimore wideout. That issue aside, defensive end and interior offensive line are other positions that the Ravens could stand to improve. Ravens defensive ends Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue are both unrestricted free agents and it’s looking like they could be on the way out. The Ravens have around $20 million in cap space, so look for them to be active in the free agency market. The Ravens still have Jackson, a top-five defense, and will be highly competitive this season.
7. Seattle Seahawks
Headline: Make Russ Happy
Inserting the Seahawks here at number seven is based on the assumption that Russell Wilson will not be traded. Additionally, I think Seattle’s front office will address their offensive line issues that have frustrated Wilson in recent years. The Seahawks have about $21 million in cap space to address parts of the offensive line and also sign a playmaker on defense. Cornerback and defensive end are positions that need bolstering. Seattle’s biggest pending free agents are Carlos Dunlap and K.J. Wright. Both of them are getting older and are not irreplaceable. Seattle’s defense was by no means good last season, but they did have some short stretches where they looked pretty solid. If they can add some pieces alongside Bobby Wagner and Jamal Adams, they can at least be league average. That’s all Russell Wilson needs to turn in another 12-4 season.
Read More: The Curious Case of a Russell Wilson Trade
9. Tennesse Titans
Headline: Defense, please.
Tennessee went 11-5 before being bounced in the AFC Wild Card Round by the Ravens this past season. Derrick Henry ran his way to a monster 17 touchdown and 2,000-yard season. Ryan Tannehill lived up to the hype by throwing for 33 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions. A.J. Brown solidified himself as one of the best young receivers in the league by racking up nearly 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Titans core on offense is in place. The only uncertainty is Corey Davis who is an unrestricted free agent. It seems like he could be on his way out of Tennessee after putting up career-best numbers last season. Finding another receiver either in free agency or the draft is Tennessees’ biggest need on offense. On the defensive side of the ball, they have a ton of holes, however. The largest ones are at defensive end, linebacker, and cornerback. The Titans ranked 24th in the league in team defense last season. If they can find a way to become competent, it will easily improve their chances of making a deeper run in the playoffs.
10. Cleveland Browns
Headline: Continuing Baker’s Development
The Browns made a number of positive strides last season under new head coach Kevin Stefanski. The most important one was Baker Mayfield’s progression in year number three. The easiest indication of this is that in 2019 Mayfield threw 21 interceptions. This past season, he only threw eight. Cleveland’s tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt proved to be lethal both in the running and passing game last season. Despite losing Odell Beckham Jr. early on in the year, Cleveland’s passing game was respectable. Much of Cleveland’s issues were on the defensive side of the ball. Despite having Myles Garrett, the Browns finished just 15th in the league in terms of team sack totals. Cleveland could also shore up holes at cornerback, safety, and linebacker. Cleveland has cap space to maneuver, so they can pick and choose how they want to acquire talent between the draft and free agency. It has been about two decades since the Browns have been legitimate challengers to the AFC North title. That is how they should be viewed this season.