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Every AFC Team’s Biggest Weakness Going Into 2021

From the Ravens’ wide receivers to the Raiders’ secondary, here’s the biggest trouble spot on every team’s roster.
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We’ve made it to the second part of our team-by-team examination of biggest weaknesses (you can find the NFC version here), though not without our hiccups. A team weakness is often relative to the strength of its roster. So, if you’re reading this post, see something you disagree with and fire your Americano at the computer screen, remember: Just because a unit is on this list does not mean it’s bad by NFL standards (unless your favorite team is the Texans!). It probably means your favorite team is quite good.

An example before we get rolling: Down below you’ll find the Patriots and quarterback paired together. Does this mean we think Mac Jones is bad? Quite the opposite. Some of us have been saying he should start Week 1 long before Cam Newton misunderstood COVID-19 protocol and opened the door for Jones to do so. It means that Jones is a rookie, and with rookies there is always limitation. Meanwhile, the rest of the roster is talented and deep.

With that in mind, let’s get started.

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AFC EAST

Buffalo Bills

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: This was a toss-up for me, a process made no easier given that any person or position named in this space would immediately draw the ire of Bills Mafia. And it makes sense; this is as complete a team as we’ll see in the NFL this year. Linebacker was another option. Either is going to sound nitpicky, but remember that this is a weakness relative to the rest of the team and not necessarily the league. A pairing of Ed Oliver and Star Lotulelei sounds good on paper, and Oliver was actually one of Buffalo’s best defensive players in terms of net yards over average last season, behind only Matt Milano. That said, the unit lacks some punch, finishing 26th in yards per attempt surrendered by opposing running backs (Lotulelei opted out of the 2020 season, and in ’19 the unit was eight spots better in the same category). Buffalo did a majority of its work this offseason on the pass rush, which may have been a way of compensating for a threadbare defensive tackle class in the draft.

Miami Dolphins

INSIDE LINEBACKER: Miami spent most of its time shifting between nickel and dime fronts last year, which meant it could have as few as one inside linebacker on the field at one time. Perhaps the team’s reliance on dime (one of the 10 highest-usage teams in the league) reflected its thoughts on the linebacker position at the time. But outside of Andrew Van Ginkel, none of the Dolphins’ off-ball linebackers finished with a positive net yards over average last year. The Dolphins were especially susceptible to getting beat up by zone rushing teams as a result. Not far behind on this list were offensive line, quarterback and running back. We had to ask ourselves: Is adding Benardrick McKinney to this unit better than the upgrades the team made at offensive line this offseason, or how much better the running back position may be as a result of these upgrades. The same could be said of Tua Tagovailoa, who may also improve with a more robust receiving corps and better protection.

New England Patriots

QUARTERBACK: In the NFC version of this post, more than a small handful of readers decided to take the position out of context when I listed quarterback as the 49ers’ biggest weakness. So, to reiterate, this does not mean we’re saying the quarterback you have is bad. It means, relative to the rest of the team, it’s a position that needs to come around a bit. Hopefully, what I have written about Mac Jones this preseason can be added for perspective.

All that said, New England’s roster is pretty complete. Anyone saying this is a paper-thin free-agency patch job is ignoring the fact that the Patriots also got players back at key positions (linebacker) and that their offensive line may be among the best in football. So, relative to the rest of the position groups on the field, the quarterback position is still finding its way. Cam Newton’s COVID-19 testing mishap has opened the window for Jones. Jones has looked phenomenal this preseason. But … it is a rookie and a former MVP relying on some outsized athletic traits that naturally fade over time. We have to keep that in perspective.

New York Jets

CORNERBACK: Jets general manager Joe Douglas had a serious upgrade list this offseason, needing to pacify both the pass rush–needy Robert Saleh and the offensive line–needy Mike LaFleur. This roster was thin up to this point, so there were inevitably going to be positions that struggled. It’s hard to imagine the Jets capably matching up with opponents this year until Saleh and Douglas have time and equity to spend on upgrades. Bless Austin developed year over year under Adam Gase, but not to the point where one would be confident in his matching up with a top receiver in Buffalo or Miami.

AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens

WIDE RECEIVER: At this point, we don’t know when Rashod Bateman will return and, when he does, how effective he can be immediately. The great issue with Baltimore’s offense is, and will always be, how much further Lamar Jackson can take it with the requisite tools. The Ravens built a brilliant offense that took advantage of the NFL’s devaluation of running quarterbacks, road-grating offensive linemen and, especially, tight ends. However, there is a ceiling when it comes to this scheme in its current itineration. Getting the pass catchers healthy and on the field to allow Jackson to more regularly dial up deep shots and balls toward the sideline will go a long way toward making them difficult to defend.

Cleveland Browns

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Cleveland addressed its needs at corner and linebacker in the draft, and while one or two rookies are never going to tip the scales, the presence of Greg Newsome and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah should go a long way toward bolstering the talent on the roster. The one concern now may be their defensive front, which the Browns have tried to stitch together in recent years. They let go of both Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson this offseason and will roll with the dependable but soon-to-be 33-year-old Malik Jackson and Andrew Billings, who had a promising finale to his career in Cincinnati before opting out of last season due to COVID-19. Myles Garrett will dictate an offense’s protection, but do the Browns have the rotational pieces and heft to keep offensive linemen from getting to the second level and preventing someone like Owusu-Koramoah from reaching his potential?

Cincinnati Bengals

OFFENSIVE LINE: I understand the argument that breaking in a rookie offensive tackle could take as long as breaking in a wide receiver. That said, the Bengals’ passing up on a generational tackle class to add some rocket fuel to their receiving corps must be one of the most irresponsible decisions in recent memory. This has nothing to do with Ja’Marr Chase’s preseason drops, which are, like the stories about Joe Burrow’s pocket wariness, the kind of training camp fodder that exists in a vacuum. The Bengals have bigger problems and are trying to build a roster from the outside in. Their scattershot offensive line last year was actually O.K. in that they were one of the better zone running offenses in the NFL. Why not double down on this and nurture something that will make your franchise’s two best offensive players, Joe Mixon and Joe Burrow, better?

Pittsburgh Steelers

OFFENSIVE LINE: A toss-up between offensive line and inside linebacker here, with the nod toward the obvious: This is a time of transition for Pittsburgh up front. While it’s hard to doubt GM Kevin Colbert, who has as strong a track record as any personnel man, the relative inexperience and freshness of this unit will cause some to pause. It may not be a bad thing. Like we saw with the Raiders, every great front has an expiration date, and a house cleaning is helpful. Units can grow organically and become greater than the sum of their parts with good coaching. However, if you go back to November of last year, four of the five starters trotting out on the field for opening day will be different. This, with an aging, not-so-fleet-of-foot quarterback behind center.

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AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans

TOO MANY TO DECIDE: This is, generously speaking, one of the worst rosters in football, but more than likely the worst roster in football. The Texans are in the middle of a complete rebuild, a process that will ultimately leave everyone save for Laremy Tunsil as transactional flotsam. The Texans are going to be a bad team that, depending on the strength of David Culley as a head coach, can vacillate between respectably poor and disastrously poor. There are a handful of fine players on this team who will likely get steamrolled under the weight of a regime change. Here’s hoping everyone remains healthy.

Indianapolis Colts

WIDE RECEIVER: I’m prepared to dodge a few tomatoes for this one as well, but again, just look at how complete this roster is. Zach Pascal, Michael Pittman Jr. and T.Y. Hilton (I’m adding Nyheim Hines in here as well) would be a solid pass-catching group. If the Patriots, for example, had these wideouts, there would be no discussion about a weapons drought in New England. But … we’re talking about roster maximization here. Pittman had one of the lowest drop rates in football for an active wide receiver last year. He and both running backs (Hines and Jonathan Taylor) were among the top 20 players in the NFL in yards after the catch. However, only Jack Doyle was in the top 40 for highest passer rating when targeted. While it’s a flawed statistic, it does reflect how much better their presence makes the quarterback. Lists like that are headlined by guys like Kenny Golladay, one of the best contested-catch receivers in football, or Stefon Diggs or Mike Evans. Had the Colts added a Julio Jones this offseason, how much more ironclad would our belief be in this offense, Carson Wentz or not?

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Jacksonville Jaguars

OFFENSIVE TACKLE: The Jaguars have surrendered 11 quarterback hits so far in two preseason games, which has translated directly to three sacks of Trevor Lawrence. While this is not unexpected for a team that had the No. 1 pick in the draft, recent, troubling trends in roster asset allocation (and what happens to the quarterbacks on the wrong end) should raise some red flags. Andrew Luck was battered out of football. Joe Burrow is entering his second season trying to climb over mental hurdles related to a significant knee injury. Lawrence’s rookie season will be about emerging healthy, but more than that, with a clear path toward stability at the tackle spots, which will marry with a more than adequate offensive line interior that was in place before Urban Meyer’s arrival.

Tennessee Titans

PASS RUSHER: According to Sports Info Solutions, the Titans applied pressure on 27% of all snaps last year, which was 29th in the NFL. And on those plays that they applied pressure, their effectiveness was 27th in the NFL. Adding Bud Dupree is a foundational move that will help the Titans in myriad ways. He was a key component to what the Steelers had been doing defensively in Pittsburgh. Perhaps some of their pressure numbers will improve organically this year, given how bad Houston and Jacksonville will be, but that also means their pressure numbers should have been better to begin with given how bad the division was in the past. Pairing their clock-control offense with a vicious attack will be Mike Vrabel’s white whale in Nashville, but if he can discover how to produce more QB hits, Tennessee can dream more regularly about competing at the highest levels of the AFC.

AFC WEST

Denver Broncos

QUARTERBACK: This was the true bummer of the offseason, that the Aaron Rodgers rumors never materialized to the point where he was a serious candidate to quarterback the Broncos. This team, with its talented receiver set, developing offensive line and top-five defense would have been a serious AFC title game contender with an upgrade at the position. Drew Lock’s ceiling is probably in the Jared Goff realm in absolute best-case scenarios, while Teddy Bridgewater will undoubtedly make the Broncos more efficient to start. Last year his completion percentage over expectation plus expected points added was middle of the road for NFL starters and actually slightly better than that of Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert. Lock, meanwhile, had bottomed out, sinking into the land of 2020 Sam Darnold and Carson Wentz.

Kansas City Chiefs

LINEBACKER: While the thought was there to note that Kansas City’s non-running-back skill-position platoon is getting a little gray in the hair, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are still among the best players in football and figure to remain so for the foreseeable future. The presence of Tyrann Mathieu can cover up a good deal of deficiencies for the Chiefs, but both of their top linebackers on the depth chart allow opposing quarterback completion percentages between 77% and 87%. Willie Gay’s missed-tackle percentage was above 13%. Neither add a great deal to the pass rush despite somewhat frequent blitzing opportunities.

Las Vegas Raiders

SECONDARY: There are a lot of options to choose from here, with Jon Gruden’s reverting back to his old tried-and-true personnel strategy of layering any deficiencies with end-of-career contracts. The defensive line might be O.K., though apparently not good enough to avoid a Hail Mary Khalil Mack trade attempt. Their cornerback position seems like it needs the most help, even with the addition of Casey Hayward. In a division that can still spread out opponents, they will likely get dissected by those who have adequate depth and versatility in their receiving core. Gruden will need to live up to his reputation as an offensive mastermind, as scoring 30 points a game will be a necessity.

Los Angeles Chargers

COMPLEMENTARY WEAPON: A bit of an obscure choice here, so let’s set some qualifiers: The Chargers are excellent at WR1 and RB1, and good at TE1. They drafted a wide receiver in the third round, Josh Palmer, who has promise. Mike Williams has always been … Mike Williams. At his best, he is in the mid-60s in terms of catch percentage (but has been in the mid-50s each of the previous two seasons). He received the largest percentage of L.A.’s targeted air yards last season, which is a serious amount of real estate devoted to a player who, again, is good but perhaps not the kind of player who should be getting more targeted air yards than Travis Kelce or Amari Cooper, for example. 

More from Conor Orr:

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How Derrick Henry Handles a Throwback Workload
Why Installing the NFL’s Trendiest Offense Is Harder Than You'd Think
An Early Look at the 2022 NFL Quarterback Carousel

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