The question that pervades every NFL offseason is this one: Has the balance of power shifted?
Cincinnati ran away with the AFC North in 2013, while the Colts continued their rise and the Chiefs stormed back from a two-win campaign to make the playoffs. Nevertheless, in the end, the conference came down to a battle between New England and Denver.
As March turns to April, the Patriots and Broncos still appear to be the favorites in their respective divisions and possibly in the conference as a whole. They are far from alone as contenders, though. Which teams are ready to make a run for the Super Bowl in the AFC and which need more work? Our grades through the first few weeks of free agency:
Best addition: Brandon Spikes, LB
Biggest loss: Jairus Byrd, S
Losing Byrd was as big a blow as any other team in the AFC has suffered so far this offseason, with the Bills apparently thinking about going the in-house route to replace him. Considering that Byrd is one of the best safeties in football, that's a tall order for Aaron Williams and any other possible replacements. None of Buffalo's signings stole any headlines. Several, though, improved precarious positions on the depth chart -- Corey Graham at cornerback, Chris Williams at guard, Keith Rivers and especially Brandon Spikes at linebacker. The problem is that this team doesn't appear any better on paper than it did a year ago. And that's really the whole point.
Best addition: Branden Albert, OT
Biggest loss: Paul Soliai, DT
Chalk up what Miami has done so far as a solid start. The push to bring in Albert was one necessitated by Miami's utter black hole of an offensive line. Guard Shelley Smith at least adds some depth up front, though the Dolphins still need to hit the O-line hard in the draft. Albert alone will not bring the unit back from the bottom. Slotting in Earl Mitchell for Soliai means the Dolphins should be able to move along on defense, with the re-signing of Randy Starks being an under-the-radar stroke of genius. Same goes for retaining Brent Grimes at CB. He'll be joined at that position by Cortland Finnegan, whom Miami is counting on to rediscover his game in 2014.
Positive steps forward have been taken. Where Miami goes from here along its offensive line will determine the final verdict.
Best addition: Darrelle Revis, CB
Biggest loss: Aqib Talib, CB
Swapping out one impressive cornerback for another may work out in New England's favor -- Revis is better than Talib when both are healthy. New England also signed Brandon Browner, who should jump into the lineup after his four-game suspension ends to help provide the depth that's been missing in New England in past years. Keeping Julian Edelman and adding Brandon LaFell will make Tom Brady smile, although LaFell has yet to take the step up from decent to really good. The Patriots also missed some chances to really bolster a receiving corps that includes several unproven pieces. While the impact of Spikes' departure could linger, the Patriots have last year's second-round pick, Jamie Collins, ready for a larger role.
Best addition: Eric Decker, WR
Biggest loss: Austin Howard, OT
The Michael Vick transaction is exciting considering how close the Jets were to being a playoff team last season, but the issues at cornerback are slightly staggering. If the season started today, Rex Ryan would trot out a starting duo of Dee Milliner and ... uh ...
So, GM John Idzik has to find another able body at that position. The offensive line remains a bit up in the air, as well, with Willie Colon working back from injury and both Austin Howard and Vlad Ducasse departing. Signing Breno Giacomini at RT should offset much of Howard's loss. Can Brian Winters reprise his starting role in 2014 at guard? Or are either Will Campbell or Oday Aboushi ready for a starting gig? Another receiver, on top of the Decker addition, would go a long way toward easing life for either Vick or Geno Smith.
Best addition: Steve Smith, WR
Biggest loss: Arthur Jones, DE
The Ozzie Newsome way: figure out who's expendable, re-sign everyone else, then jump into free agency where it is prudent. This year, that final step landed the Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith, who no longer is a dominant No. 1 receiver but remains exceedingly capable of filling the No. 2 role. Few signings may have as great an impact this coming season as that one. The rest of Baltimore's work was pretty ho-hum. The 2012 champs may prefer to still have Jones, Corey Graham, James Ihedigbo and even Michael Oher, but no one there is irreplaceable.
Best addition: Marshall Newhouse, OT
Biggest loss: Andrew Hawkins, WR
Cincinnati's approach is not all that different from Baltimore's, in that the goal is to build from within without breaking the bank in free agency. That's all well and good, except that while the Ravens kept their losses to a few fringe starters, the Bengals sustained heavy damage. Gone are starting OT Anthony Collins and DE Michael Johnson. Also out the door is intriguing WR Andrew Hawkins, a player Cincinnati easily could have kept with a slight bump in his restricted free-agent tender. The Bengals' key signing thus far is up for debate (either Newhouse or backup QB Jason Campbell). Far from exciting for Bengals fans.
Best addition: Ben Tate, RB
Biggest loss: T.J. Ward, S
A busy offseason in Cleveland, with the crux of the focus on replacing those who left. There's Donte Whitner, in for T.J. Ward; Karlos Dansby for D'Qwell Jackson at linebacker; and perhaps most importantly, ex-Texans running back Ben Tate taking over for rapidly aging Willis McGahee. How Tate fares out from under the shadow of Arian Foster should go a long way toward determining Cleveland's offensive success rate this season. The aggressive move to swipe Hawkins from Cincinnati has a chance to score high marks down the road.
Losing Ward was a temporary setback. Cleveland has marched forward, for the most part, since then.
Best addition: Arthur Moats, LB
Biggest loss: Emmanuel Sanders, WR
The Steelers barely had any money to spend in free agency because of a horrid cap situation. Still, that hardly lets them off the hook for their utter inability thus far to upgrade a porous offensive line. Pittsburgh also regressed at multiple other spots on the field, most notable among them wide receiver -- Lance Moore does not replace Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery in the passing attack.
The signings they have made could play out well: Moats and S Mike Mitchell chief among the low-risk, decently high-reward candidates. But this team had to scratch and claw its way to .500 last year. Plugging leaks as they spring up will not get the Steelers back to Super Bowl contention.
Best addition: Jerrell Powe, DT
Biggest loss: Antonio Smith, DE
(Taps microphone) Is this thing on?
The Texans underachieved to an egregious degree last season. Much like the Chiefs in 2012, the talent on the roster far surpassed that of a 2-14 record. Yet, that record made this the worst team in football last season. Was a massive rebuild in order? Not yet, especially with the No. 1 pick coming. An effort to improve would have been nice, though.
Instead, all the Texans' additions thus far have been restricted to backup (hopefully) QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, S Kendrick Lewis and DT Jerrell Powe -- the latter two allowed by Kansas City to walk without much of a fight. Meanwhile, Earl Mitchell, Antonio Smith and Ben Tate are elsewhere. The Texans were not as bad in 2013 as their record indicated, but as of right now, they're not as good on paper as they were last season.
Best addition: Hakeem Nicks, WR
Biggest loss: Antoine Bethea, S
With Bethea suddenly absent in the secondary, the Colts have a rather sizable void at safety. Remember, there's also no longer a first-round pick in Indianapolis' possession to fill that or any other gap, due to the Trent Richardson trade last season. Speaking of Richardson, one of his safety nets (Ahmad Bradshaw) returned but the more valuable one from 2013 (Donald Brown) is now a Charger.
GM Ryan Grigson again went overboard with financial terms at times, but the pickups of LB D'Qwell Jackson, DE Arthur Jones, C Phil Costa and WR Hakeem Nicks all made sense given the Colts' roster. Nicks could be in line for a huge bounce-back season, and Indianapolis' receiving corps suddenly has the look of an elite group.
Best addition: Chris Clemons, DE
Biggest (likely) loss: Maurice Jones-Drew, RB
Yes, the Jaguars might miss MJD and they're clearly still closer to being a 5-11 team than an 11-5 bunch. There is really no disputing, however, that this team both has improved its talent level and found a way to better fit Gus Bradley's mold over the past month. Clemons and fellow defensive linemen Red Bryant both know Bradley's system (they played for Bradley when he was Seattle's D-coordinator), which should help expedite the improvement process for the entire unit. Ziggy Hood has a shot to be a steal, too.
Obviously, the missing piece in all this is at quarterback. Keeping Chad Henne at least leaves Jacksonville a serviceable option, though he's nowhere near the answer. Whichever guy ends up under center will have help from RB Toby Gerhart and WR Tandon Doss, both underrated talents. The Jaguars overpaid for Zane Beadles ... but teams that have struggled like Jacksonville sometimes must bite that bullet.
Best addition: Wesley Woodyard, LB
Biggest loss: Alterraun Verner, CB
This picture is rather incomplete, because the Titans still would prefer to move on from Chris Johnson -- how they do so will start to put the finishing touches on this offseason. To date, their work has been a mixed bag. Woodyard will fit in well with the Titans' linebacking corps. Will any of Dexter McCluster, Al Woods or Michael Oher be able to match his impact?
The secondary may be far worse off without Verner, so the lack of any extra CB help is a bit of a head-scratcher. Seeing Kenny Britt get his act together in another uniform would sting, too.
Best addition: T.J. Ward, S
Biggest loss: Eric Decker, WR
The Broncos are in full Super Bowl-or-bust mode -- the massive contracts handed to DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib are proof of that. Down the road, those deals may bite the Broncos' cap situation. The defense, this team's weak spot, has talent everywhere now, with Ward perhaps providing the most impactful push forward. He was the No. 2 safety on the market, behind Jairus Byrd, and will provide tremendous support.
Emmanuel Sanders is not on Eric Decker's level, but he will produce with Peyton Manning tossing him passes. Talib in for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a wash at worst. The main issue left? Guard. Beadles bolted for Jacksonville and John Elway has yet to address that spot on the field (RT Orlando Franklin also has some terrible moments, including in the Super Bowl). Could a problematic O-line be Denver's undoing down the line?
Best addition: Vance Walker, DT/DE
Biggest loss: Branden Albert, OT
It is tough to see the forest for the trees in free agency. The list of players to depart Kansas City this offseason is long and noteworthy: Branden Albert, Dexter McCluster, Jon Asamoah, Tyson Jackson, Geoff Schwartz, etc. -- among them, several starters. The Chiefs' relatively quiet approach to the free-agency hubbub then has seemed curious, with Walker and LB Joe Mays tops among the additions.
Nary a player who left will undo the Chiefs' progress on his own, even Albert, who will be replaced at LT by Donald Stephenson. But put together, Kansas City sustained heavy losses and has been slow to replenish its roster.
Best addition: James Jones, WR
Biggest loss: Jared Veldheer, OT
This has been a confusing stretch for Oakland, to say the least. Two of the players that it allowed to leave via free agency, DE/OLB Lamarr Houston and OT Jared Veldheer, arguably are better than anyone who's signed with the Raiders since. That said, for all the oddball decisions (and the occasional Rodger Saffold-related shenanigans), Oakland has brought in some needed talent.
Will it work? There are a ton of variables at play -- James Jones' ability to thrive as a top-two WR apart from Aaron Rodgers, what Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley have left in the tank, how well Austin Howard and Donald Penn stabilize the line. As far as rebuilding projects go, Oakland has gone against the grain, focusing on talent that's 30-years-and-up. The Raiders should be more competitive in 2014 as a result. How about 2015?
Best addition: Donald Brown, RB
Biggest loss: Cam Thomas, NT
Not sure I'm seeing the full picture here, either. San Diego needs help on its offensive line and in the secondary, so it signed ... Donald Brown? The ex-Colts RB is the best player to arrive out west this offseason, with guys like Brandon Ghee and Kavell Conner adding speculative depth. The Chargers' losses have been minimal, limited to Thomas, CB Derek Cox (a former free-agent bust) and a couple others. In other words, nothing that will hammer the roster too badly.