News & Analysis

The biggest remaining need for each AFC team

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 13: Quarterback Bryce Petty #9 of the New York Jets and teammates are seen on the line of scrimmage in the second quarter against the Los Angeles Rams MetLife Stadium on November 13, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

With the NFL draft past us and free agency essentially dried up, teams are looking towards OTAs, mini-camps, and installing playbooks. While each team did what they felt was necessary to fill holes and needs of the team, no team is perfect and they will have weaknesses. We’re taking a look at every team to determine what each team’s biggest need is heading into the summer. (The AFC is below; click here for the NFC.)

AFC East

Buffalo Bills – Safety

Buffalo made several changes this offseason, including the entire front office and coaching staff. With a new coaching staff comes player cuts and adding players that fit the scheme the coach desires. A position that will look completely different for the Bills is safety, as the team cut veterans Corey Graham and Aaron Williams in favor of signing Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Graham has had a fine career but considering his age, cutting him for youth makes sense. Hyde was inconsistent in Green Bay but has versatility to play every position in the secondary. Relying on Poyer, though, to lock down the free safety position is questionable. Poyer started six games for the Browns in 2016 before a devastating blindside hit placed him on the IR with a lacerated kidney. Poyer primarily played on special teams in Cleveland and has limited experience in the NFL at safety while grading at a below-average level. While Buffalo has multiple holes to fill and players needing to step up, shoring up the back end in a division with Tom Brady at the quarterback position is paramount.

Miami Dolphins – Guard

The Dolphins addressed the guard position this offseason by signing Ted Larsen from the Bears in free agency and drafting Isaac Asiata from Utah in the fifth round. That said, the Dolphins should in no way be set at guard considering Larsen has just two slightly below-average seasons paired with five very bad seasons under his belt and the subpar play that Jermon Bushrod has displayed throughout his career. Asiata has a very good shot at starting this season and may exceed expectations of a fifth-rounder only because of the competition of the position. Laremy Tunsil started at LG but will kick out to LT this season, leaving the guard position as a big question mark and in the eyes of PFF, the biggest need still left on the team.

New England Patriots – 3-tech/interior pass-rusher

The defending world champs unsurprisingly have very few holes on their roster, even after losing some key pieces on defense in CB Logan Ryan and Edge Jabaal Sheard. Their biggest weakness a year ago was generating pressure from their interior defensive lineman as Alan Branch, Malcolm Brown, and Vincent Valentine all graded very poorly in pass-rushing despite being stout against the run. Bill Belichick re-signed Branch to a team-friendly two-year deal and signed Lawrence Guy from the Ravens in free agency, but Guy also graded poorly as a pass-rusher in 2016. It’s difficult to nitpick the moves Belichick makes, but it is odd that he didn’t address the lack of production at the position.

New York Jets – Quarterback

No one knows who the Jets plan to roll out at quarterback in Week 1. In consecutive years, the Jets drafted Bryce Petty out of Baylor and Christian Hackenberg out of Penn State, but opted to avoid the position in the 2017 draft despite a 100 percent consensus that the Jets still have a major need at the most important position in the NFL. While they did sign Josh McCown as a free agent, he clearly isn’t a long-term answer at the age of 37. In a draft with question marks with the top four QBs, the Jets most likely have their sights set on the 2018 class, which they are (un?)favored to have a top-three pick.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens – Right tackle

Whichever position Alex Lewis doesn’t play, the Ravens have a hole. With James Hurst slotted to start at RT, Baltimore will have a big concern despite improved play from the three-year veteran. Grading as one of the worst OTs in the NFL in 2014 and 2015, Hurst played just 305 snaps in 2016 allowing three hits and 11 hurries but no sacks. While he showed improvement, relying on Hurst to start and play well is unlikely. Since Ozzie Newsome drafted two guards in Nico Siragusa out of San Diego State and Jermaine Eluemunor out of Texas A&M, the Ravens have some pieces attack the OL holes.

Cincinnati Bengals – Offensive tackle

Forward thinking, the Bengals drafted two offensive tackles in 2015 in the first two rounds and eased them into the roles as rookies. Once RT Andre Smith departed for Minnesota, Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi battled for the starting role but both struggled mightily with neither being able to lock down the job. LT Andrew Whitworth, one of the best tackles in the NFL for the past five seasons, wasn’t re-signed and allowed to leave for Los Angeles to protect Jared Goff’s blindside. With Fisher and Ogbuehi grading at 43.5 and 39.4 respectively, the OT positions are far from set. If both continue to struggle in training camp and preseason, expect the Bengals to look to address the position on cut down days.

Cleveland Browns – Free safety

While the Browns have roster holes still needing filled and most notably still a question mark at the quarterback position, the biggest need the team has after free agency and the draft is free safety. Cleveland addressed several positions of need this offseason, but one of the team’s biggest weaknesses in 2016 was getting beat deep due to the backend of the defense either busting on the coverage or biting on play action and double moves. The Browns drafted Jabrill Peppers in the first round, but he’ll be used as more of a versatile chess piece that can play all over. Currently, Ed Reynolds and Tyvis Powell look to be contenders for the starting job at FS, but Reynolds posted a poor coverage grade in 2016 and Powell has yet to play a regular-season snap on defense in the NFL.

Pittsburgh Steelers – Inside linebacker

The Steelers allowed long standing linebacker Lawrence Timmons to leave via free agency and didn’t add anyone to complement Ryan Shazier this offseason. With Shazier very much a boom-or-bust type player, having a consistent counterpart next to him is vital. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, that looks like an open competition between Vince Williams (68.4 2016 overall grade), L.J. Fort (47.3), and Tyler Matakevich (56.6). The team still has question marks elsewhere, but for a team losing its top tackler and stopper (team-high 45 defensive stops in 2016), the Steelers are rolling the dice on inexperienced and inefficient youth.

AFC South

Houston Texans – Right tackle

Once Derek Newton tore both patellar tendons in a Monday night game against the Denver Broncos last year, the Texans had a big void at the RT position. Chris Clark graded as one of the worst OTs in the NFL at 37.0 and as much having Newton return would help solidify the OL, relying on him to return from such a devastating injury is unwise. In a draft with a lack of quality offensive lineman, the Texans added just Julie’n Davenport out of Bucknell in the fourth round. While some fourth-round players can make an immediate impact, Davenport doing so out of Bucknell is unlikely and he assuredly needs time to adjust to the NFL.

Indianapolis Colts – Inside linebacker

New GM Chris Ballard has been very busy this offseason transforming the roster to his liking but since Rome wasn’t built in a day, the Colts still have holes in a roster that has been deteriorating the past several years. Most of the pieces on defense will look very different in 2017 and there are still many concerns about how they will mesh together but inside linebacker is probably the most concerning. Sean Spence has bounced around the league but played well enough in 2016 with the Titans and looks to start at one ILB position with an open competition opposite. Edwin Jackson (61.6) is the early favorite and will compete with rookie Anthony Walker Jr. and Antonio Morrison. With such massive turnover on the defense, having both ILB spots solidified would help for communication and leadership.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Tight end

The Jaguars have plenty of holes on their roster, especially concerning their offensive line, we’re settling at tight end as the biggest need for the team. Jacksonville added Mychal Rivera this offseason via free agency, but his grades the past three seasons aren’t very inspiring — he has struggled in all facets as a blocker and receiver. Marcedes Lewis is a shell of his former self, as he hasn’t graded above-average since 2013. With the team not addressing the position in the draft, they are hoping for bounceback seasons from both but neither has shown high-level play in several seasons.

Tennessee Titans – Nose tackle

Titans GM Jon Robinson has done a marvelous job putting together a roster that is poised for playoff contention in 2017. While inside linebacker could be improved as could their tight end depth, the weakest position heading into the season is nose tackle. It’s not the worst thing in the world to have a player that will see typically just 40 percent of the team’s defensive snaps as a team weakness, but having a run-stuffing NT helps the team beyond the plays he’s on the field (see Damon Harrison’s impact for the Giants). Sylvester Williams is slated to start and has a reputation because of playing on a generationally great Denver Broncos defense, but his play didn’t elevate the players around him; it was the players around him that made him perform better.

AFC West

Denver Broncos – Right tackle

John Elway has done a good job addressing the porous offensive line this offseason, even if he arguably reached for OT Garett Bolles in the first round. Bolles will probably struggle at LT as a rookie, but adding Menelik Watson and relying on him to start at RT is a major concern. His 49.4 2016 grade is a career high and he arguably single-handedly lost the Wild Card game for the Raiders as he couldn’t block Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. While QB is a question mark as Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch have yet to prove anything in the NFL, having sieves at both OT positions will destroy any offensive production.

Kansas City Chiefs – Cornerback

In a draft with a plethora of quality cornerbacks, the Chiefs opted to stay out of the pool entirely and are currently looking to start journeyman and former seventh-round pick Terrance Mitchell at RCB. In a division with budding star QB Derek Carr and the multitude of offensive weapons the Raiders have, and Philip Rivers throwing to a healthy receiving corps that also added top-10 pick in Mike Williams, the Chiefs will have their hands full defending the pass. Doing so with uncertainty at cornerback could be a big detriment. While WR depth is an issue as is ILB, shoring up their CB depth is of the utmost importance.

Los Angeles Chargers – 3-tech/interior pass-rusher

If CB Jason Verrett can stay healthy, the Chargers will have one of the best secondaries in the NFL with few holes to fill on the defensive side. While the offensive line still raises concerns, they at least addressed the holes via the draft in OT/G Forrest Lamp and G Dan Feeney. Currently Corey Liuget and Damion Square are slated as DIs in their nickel package; neither graded well as pass-rushers, and they combined for three sacks and seven hits in 2016. With one of the best duos on the outside in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, if Los Angeles is able to get some interior pressure, the defense, which might already be playoff-caliber, could take it to top-five status.

Oakland Raiders – Defensive interior

Even though GM Reggie McKenzie drafted Eddie Vanderdoes in the third round and Treyvon Hester in the seventh, the defensive line remains a big concern. Vanderdoes struggled with injuries at UCLA and getting production out of a seventh-rounder is never reliable. With Denico Autry, Justin Ellis, and Jihad Ward all grading in the bottom third of the NFL, getting any of them to produce at above replacement level is asking a lot. With tremendous talent on the edge and in the secondary, improving on the DL will help Derek Carr compete for the AFC Championship this year.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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