Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan emigrated from the NFC to the AFC last offseason and were both massive wipeouts. AFC star QBs Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson each had arguably their worst NFL campaigns in 2022, at least relative to expectations. Mac Jones and Zach Wilson endured rough second years, and Kenny Pickett was put through the rookie meat grinder.
Yet, even with those developments, the AFC far outpaced its counterpart conference in two big departments: QB talent and contending teams. This offseason's flurry of roster reconstruction likely hasn't shifted that dramatically, either.
Some of the AFC's top free agents who switched teams over the past month stayed in the conference, including Orlando Brown Jr., who left the Chiefs to join the Bengals. Plus, there were net gains with some NFC free agents joining AFC teams.
So, with the far more impressive young arsenal of established QB talents, along with several bounce-back candidates, the loaded AFC appears to be holding its conference supremacy. Now, let's take a look at how those AFC teams stack up against each other prior to the 2023 NFL Draft.
Established title contenders
Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills
Admittedly, the Chiefs probably deserve their own tier here, as they've won 66 games and two Super Bowl titles over the past five seasons -- nearly as strong a run as the Patriots accomplished in any five-year stretch during their two-decade reign.
This offseason, the Chiefs lost some players, signed a few more. But really, is anyone going to suggest they're dramatically different than they were last season? As long as the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes -- the preeminent "That dude" -- they're contenders, just as the Tom Brady-led Patriots were. Other names and faces change, but the bad news for the other AFC teams (especially the three in the West) is the quarterback likely won't for a long time.
The Bengals probably made the biggest dent in the champs by stealing their left tackle. (Even if the Chiefs ultimately let Brown walk, first signing Jawaan Taylor as his replacement.) The process of building a bubble around Joe Burrow needed to continue in Cincinnati, which also added Cody Ford as the latest piece in its kitchen-sink approach to upgrading the offensive line.
Will that be enough to stay ahead of the Bills and keep pace with the Chiefs? Maybe. But the Bengals lost Jessie Bates in the middle of a good defense and also could feature an extremely different RB room, depending on what happens with Joe Mixon, who was just recharged with misdemeanor aggravated menacing.
The Bills have experienced a typical contender's offseason, retaining one key free agent (Jordan Poyer), watching another walk (Tremaine Edmunds to the Bears) and also stealing a division foe's lower-rent veteran (signing Damien Harris from the Patriots).
Buffalo was never expected to make splashes this spring, but there's still hope that one or two quality draft picks or late-summer veteran signings -- maybe at receiver and in the back seven on defense -- can bump the Bills up a peg or two. Really, though, there's just as much potential of Buffalo taking a leap next season via QB Josh Allen and OC Ken Dorsey making small improvements concurrently.
The next wave
Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars
The three teams in the proverbial on-deck circle have young quarterbacks who might be on the cusp of greatness. But all three signal-callers have much yet to prove.
Tua Tagovailoa might be facing the most pressure of the bunch. The Dolphins have given him a nice surrounding cast, with room for improvement from within as Mike McDaniel settles into the job in Year 2. But Tagovailoa's health issues cloud his projection.
Miami's defense underwent a little housecleaning this offseason. But if that unit takes another small step up with the additions of CB Jalen Ramsey and LB David Long, Tua and the offense will be squarely in the crosshairs. The 25-year-old QB needs to produce consistently and stay on the field.
The Chargers and Justin Herbert are not at that same panic level. But it's a big season for both the quarterback and head coach Brandon Staley, who will undoubtedly dot some hot-seat lists later this summer. And boy, have the Bolts been pretty darned quiet in free agency. Their biggest outside move was signing Eric Kendricks, who can help the defense, but the passive approach overall puts a lot more pressure on what they might need to do in the draft to hang with the Chiefs of the world.
The Chargers' staggering playoff collapse at Jacksonville, blowing a 27-0 lead, felt like an encapsulation of the franchise's history. But that's also selling short a Jaguars team that has been completely made over in the course of one year. Talk about improvement from within! That was Doug Pederson's greatest achievement in Year 1: taking all that young, exciting talent and putting everyone in positions to succeed.
So while Jacksonville's offseason has come with a few lumps, losing Jawaan Taylor and some depth on defense, it's also seen the franchise-tagging of TE Evan Engram and the hidden-value addition of WR Calvin Ridley. The Jags' trade-deadline deal for Ridley is more relevant now that he's been fully reinstated from his suspension and has started to work on the side with Trevor Lawrence.
All three of these teams could beat any of the three top-tier teams on their best day. But are any of them ready to surpass or join that group? At least for the Dolphins or Chargers, it might be now or never.
Massive middle-class glut
Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns, Las Vegas Raiders
Does this feel too crowded, lumping all these teams together? Consider: Nine of the 16 AFC teams finished with 7-to-10 victories in 2022. (It's the same number in the other conference, but don't forget: Four of those came from the moribund NFC South.)
The AFC's middle class is just, well, classier. And the two teams at the head of this group might be on the verge of changing their social statuses. As the world waits for the seemingly inevitable Aaron Rodgers trade, the Jets might be closer to receiving that bump than are the Ravens, who are still sweating out talks with Lamar Jackson. Is the Odell Beckham Jr. signing the olive branch that ultimately keeps Jackson in Baltimore?
Interestingly, the Jets were in on the Beckham sweepstakes, even after signing Rodgers' wingman, Allen Lazard. They may not be done adding at receiver. The trade of Elijah Moore to the Browns will be an interesting one to follow. The Jets might not have gotten much out of him, but for Cleveland, this was a sneaky addition that really could pay off with Deshaun Watson.
Cleveland also attacked other needy spots on defense at edge (Ogbo Okoronkwo) and tackle (Dalvin Tomlinson, Trysten Hill and Maurice Hurst). The draft will require some patience, as the Browns currently don't pick until No. 74, but they have eight total selections.
The Raiders, however, do pick early (No. 7 overall), and there's growing talk that they could draft a quarterback -- even after making their biggest-name offseason signing at the position with Jimmy Garoppolo. But the structure of Garoppolo's deal could be telling: peel back the layers, and it's essentially a one-year, bridge-QB contract.
The remainder of the Raiders' offseason has been fairly busy, highlighted by many other Patriots-flavored pickups from HC Josh McDaniels and GM Dave Ziegler. In reality, the biggest addition could be Jakobi Meyers, who was a productive slot on some trudging New England offenses. With Josh Jacobs franchise-tagged, perhaps McDaniels has something brewing with that offense.
What do they have going on in New England? It's hard to say. The Pats quickly reacted to the Meyers loss by signing JuJu Smith-Schuster -- on a very similar contract to the one Meyers received. Interesting. The addition of TE Mike Gesicki can't be overlooked, especially now that Bill O'Brien is back in Foxborough as offensive coordinator. That really is the Patriots' biggest offseason hope right now: that O'Brien can get Mac Jones back on track after a rough Year 2 for the quarterback under ill-fated play caller Matt Patricia. But the fact that Bill Belichick is leaving the door wide open for Bailey Zappe to win the job throws a wet parka on the dwindling Mac fans still lurking out there.
In Tennessee, it's even harder to figure out what the plan is. Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry are in the final years of their respective deals, and the Titans allowed a slew of free agents to walk. They also have been doing a lot of work on the quarterbacks in this draft class. But then they signed two non-starters for starters' money in Arden Key and Andre Dillard. Mike Vrabel hasn't forgotten how to coach, but we just have little idea how this squad will turn out.
The Steelers have patched a few holes after losing some depth on defense, including versatile cover man Cameron Sutton to the Lions. Patrick Peterson is the Sutton replacement, and Cole Holcomb could be a slight upgrade over Devin Bush. It's been a pretty typically uneventful free agency period for the Steelers, but they always have something to say in the draft.
It's a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll
Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans
Before Broncos fans fax us a few thousand copies of Sean Payton's résumé, specifically the part where he inherited a 3-13 team from 2005 and turned it into an NFC title game participant in Year 1 ... we hear you. Truly. He's an elite coach. But the situations are not nearly as congruous as they might seem at first blush.
The AFC West remains a bear as long as Mahomes and Herbert are in the division, which is a tougher road now than Payton faced when he came into the NFC South 17 years ago. The Russell Wilson reclamation project is also a hurdle, and though the Broncos appear to be buttressing the 34-year-old QB this offseason with a number of offensive signings, what we saw last year can't really be memory holed.
The Broncos might be stronger right now than the other teams listed beside them. But Denver doesn't have a draft selection before No. 67 overall. The Colts and Texans are currently scheduled to draft a combined six times before the Broncos make their first pick of 2023.
It also feels like both Indianapolis and Houston could be dueling for the same QB prospects. The Texans are in a better position to get the one of their choosing now, picking second overall, vs. Indy at No. 4. Houston also has more draft ammo overall, too, with six picks in the top 106 overall (including two firsts) compared to the Colts' four in that same range.
We'll make a call after the draft on which of these teams might pace last year's AFC bottom-feeders and have the best chance to make a leap, but yes, for now we are putting Denver in front with Payton's experience edging out the two first-year head coaches in Indy and Houston.