With the Super Bowl and all its connected tentacles finally behind us, it’s time to set our eyes on the offseason and the 2019 season.
There has been no shortage of minor maneuvers so far, all setting the table for the typical fireworks display that kicks off the start of each league year. We’re here to preview the biggest storylines for each team, starting today with the AFC:
A full-on Lamar Jackson offense: A Ravens fan might argue that the new Eric DeCosta regime making a decision on Terrell Suggs, who will be a free agent this offseason, might be at the forefront of their mind. That is fair. Also, whether or not the Ravens utilize the franchise tag to evaluate C.J. Mosley for the long term is a major decision (he’ll have to top Luke Kuechly at more than $12 million per year). I’ll make an argument, though, that a team diving into the deep end on Lamar Jackson is fascinating. The fringe of their free agency, where many teams work to acquire scheme-fit role players, will be a major tell on which direction this offense is going.
The re-imagination of Cincinnati’s roster: While the best coaches of late have taken the inherited roster as presently constructed and produced a winning team, there are some coaches who prefer a complete teardown. It’s crazy to imagine that the Bengals’ roster has had the same essential idea or direction for two decades. There are some future Hall-of-Famers on this team, and some highly-productive players who could either be bolstered by new head coach Zac Taylor’s scheme, or left in the dust. The Bengals have to make decisions on 2014 first-rounder Darqueze Dennard, in addition to a flurry of offensive linemen both drafted and acquired via free agency who don’t seem to be a part of the long-term plan.
Free agency as a contender: Over The Cap’s effective cap space rankings put Cleveland third behind the Jets and Colts in available funds this offseason. All three teams should be spending lavishly, especially if the Browns subscribe to the theory that it’s easier to win a title when your quarterback is still cost controlled on a rookie deal. But more than available funds, we’ll see the return on an investment John Dorsey has made in this team. Will it be easier to get people to play here? Do the players believe?
The trade or forgiveness of Antonio Brown: The best wide receiver in football, with potentially a few remaining years of his athletic prime, could be on the block. This will send ripple effects not only through the AFC North, which has been accumulating personnel to defend him for the last five years, but also whichever division Brown may land. It will also signal a further slide toward the preferences of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The offensive line rebuild: The Bills line was so bad last season that some of us actually floated the idea of red-shirting Josh Allen for the entire season. Allen made most of his best plays on the ground, evidence that he’s either taking too long to throw (true: Allen was dead last in average snap to throw time in 2018, about .12 seconds slower than Lamar Jackson), his receivers are struggling to get open or the protection is breaking down. Unfortunately, Buffalo saw a combination of all three.
The Ryan Tannehill transition: General manager Chris Grier said the team has not made a call on their former first-round pick yet. While it’s hard to see an avenue to the playoffs with Tannehill (and hard to count on him making it through 16 games), that’s a decision for Grier and new head coach Brian Flores. Presumed offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell has ties to soon-available quarterback Joe Flacco, while Flores has worked closely with Colts backup Jacoby Brissett.
Major decisions on the offensive and defensive lines: First, let’s be sure not to in any way give an indication that the Patriots are underdogs or that we’re slighting them in any way. They’ll probably be good again next year! This team retools every offseason and emerges a devastatingly large divisional favorite. They also don’t get sentimental when it comes to impending free agents, so how will they treat the expiring contracts of Trent Brown and Trey Flowers? Kicker Stephen Gostkowski and defensive back Jason McCourty are also worth keeping an eye on.
The pursuit of Le’Veon Bell: It’s about the only place it makes sense in terms of the roster construction, though the hiring of Adam Gase sort of complicates that. Gase’s offense would accentuate a player like Bell, but after reading the tea leaves from his time in Miami, is he willing to pay top dollar for a running back who already has teams on notice? Regardless, general manager Mike Maccagnan is spending for his job, and the Jets will have more money than almost any team in football, plus the No. 3 pick in the draft.
Another season, another veteran QB: John Elway has to decide whether or not he wants to pay interest on the Case Keenum purchase and bring him back in 2019. A new offensive coordinator and head coach will probably have their say, which, once again, likely leaves the Hall of Famer scouring the market for a passer with experience. Joe Flacco, Ryan Tannehill, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles and Tyrod Taylor are the familiar faces. Nick Foles could cost them picks, and regardless, a long-term commitment.
Personnel changes under the Steve Spagnuolo defense: The Chiefs have one fantastic edge rusher set to hit the market and top $80 million in Dee Ford, and another in Justin Houston who is entering a decent out year should the Chiefs be interested in totally restructuring their defense. Steve Spagnuolo’s preference for a 4-3 shouldn’t alarm Chiefs fans, but the personnel needed to execute his post-snap, fast-break defense may give this secondary a markedly different feel heading into 2019.
Will they pipeline a quarterback? If there’s an ideal draft for Anthony Lynn to get an eventual replacement for Philip Rivers, it might be 2019. Uncertainty at the top of a defense-heavy class, plus a buyer’s market with so many teams already set on their franchise quarterbacks, could mean capable talent sliding. Rivers showed there should be no hurry to replace him in 2018, but if the value aligns with the board, it would be hard not to pull the trigger. A secondary storyline here: We’ll see how they do shopping for offensive line help. The right side especially left a little to be desired in 2018.
The first of Jon Gruden’s draft haul: After essentially lifting two teams to the playoffs with ill-advised trades a year ago (Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack), Gruden and new general manager Mike Mayock get to place their fingerprints more firmly on the roster. Oakland (San Francisco? Bay Area? San Diego?) picks at No. 4, 24 and 27. Their needs include absolutely everything.
The Jadeveon Clowney contract showdown: Salary cap site Spotrac estimates Clowney will land somewhere between Olivier Vernon and Von Miller, while Pro Football Focus and Over The Cap combined to project Clowney at $135 million, which would place him a tick above the massive Aaron Donald deal from 2018 and just below the Khalil Mack deal. This was always going to be a difficult offseason for the Texans, who were able to glide under the cap thanks to Deshaun Watson and Clowneys’ status on their rookie deals. Now, maintaining this talented core gets expensive.
Hitting free agency locked and loaded: The Colts have everything in order this offseason. Their free agents to be won’t break the bank, and they can sift through the role players worth keeping around. They can also make a serious play at just about anyone they want. There are some excellent interior defensive linemen and edge rushers to be had, allowing Matt Eberflus to build around Darius Leonard at the core of his scheme.
The end of the Blake Bortles era: After two solid years of speculation, the Jaguars are probably done toying around with the idea that Blake Bortles will develop beyond the halcyon days of his sophomore year. They’ll have some difficult cap decisions to make, though they are not pitted in the depths of salary cap hell as some have presumed. A few high-priced but replaceable veterans will go, and the remaining core will likely have one final shot to fulfill their promise and replicate their 2017 trip to the AFC title game.
The final evaluation on Marcus Mariota: The former No. 2 overall pick is playing under his fifth-year option. We’ve not heard a ton of conversations about a new deal, as the Titans will possibly wait to see if he lifts them from their status as a middling-to-pretty-good team before committing long term. With a fair amount of cap space and a new offensive coordinator keeping the same system in place, the Titans’ additions on the offensive line and at receiver should tell us what direction they’re leaning. Is this a team being built around Derrick Henry for the near future, or Mariota?
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