Much offseason maneuvering is behind us, with the top NFL free agents off the market and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror. However, there are still pressing matters for each team to address before the 2021 NFL season kicks off on Sept. 9.
Marc Sessler identifies the top remaining offseason priority for each AFC team below.
Top priority: Lean on your rookie class.
First-round wideout Rashod Bateman was brought on board to start right away inside an offense looking to "expand our profile" and "play with the kind of balance that we really want to play with," according to Baltimore's play-caller, Greg Roman. Feisty fourth-round receiver Tylan Wallace feels like a Raven, while third-round guard Ben Cleveland has a shot to win a starting job. On defense, first-round pass rusher Odafe Oweh is all but locked in for a lead role after Baltimore's other edges -- Tyus Bowser, Pernell McPhee and Jaylon Ferguson -- collectively piled up just seven sacks in 2020. It cuts against the grain of Baltimore's typical approach to youth, but the Ravens can't ignore the newbies in 2021.
Top priority: Hammer out an extension for Josh Allen.
For the first time since the days of Jim Kelly, the Bills have a franchise passer with the spicy tools to drag Buffalo into glory. A figure of suspicion a year ago, Josh Allen bloomed as a passer in Year 3, working wonders with a legitimate lead wideout in Stefon Diggs, who arrived via offseason trade in 2020. A bona fide MVP candidate, Allen checks all the boxes for a Buffalo front office likely toiling as you read this on a lucrative new deal for the QB, who has two years remaining (including the fifth-year option) on his rookie contract. Spotrac.com projected a four-year extension worth $168 million with $78 million guaranteed at signing, a notch above what Deshaun Watson received last September. Who in Western New York would protest?
Top priority: Ponder trading for a premier lineman.
Bengals fans will track the career of monstrous tackle Penei Sewell, drafted seventh overall by the Lions, in Detroit for years to come. It's not to say wideout Ja'Marr Chase wasn't the right choice at No. 5 overall. His game has drawn comparisons to Jordy Nelson, Justin Blackmon and Dez Bryant. It's more about the quest to protect quarterback Joe Burrow as if he lived in the White House. The Bengals did sign Riley Reiff to play right tackle and believe in 2019 first-rounder Jonah Williams at bookend. 2020 second-rounder Jackson Carman, though, is ticketed to play guard despite having never played a snap at the position in college. While the needy Chiefs aggressively went after Orlando Brown Jr., the Bengals don't operate as wheeler-dealer types. If they find out in camp this unit is half-baked, though, it's time to explore a trade.
Top priority: Stay humble, stay deadly.
Will they live up to the hype? Or can we only count on the Browns to spin magic during an international pandemic? Reasons to believe:
1) Cool-as-a-cucumber head coach Kevin Stefanski.
2) Crafty general manager Andrew Berry.
3) An offensive line as rugged as any front five in pro football, coached by the masterful Bill Callahan.
4) A defense that adds heady safety John Johnson III, ball-hawking cover man Troy Hill, Jadeveon Clowney, Anthony Walker and potential upside in edge Takk McKinley. Throw in rookie corner Greg Newsome II and freakishly versatile second-rounder Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah -- and you've got a beast on paper.
There's no logical reason for a meltdown. The Browns fan in me, though, is begging the roster to eschew hyper-brags, guarantees, verbal slapdowns of AFC North foes, boastful reveries or anything resembling fat-cat behavior. Put it all on ice until the whistle blows.
Top priority: Shoot the moon for Aaron Rodgers.
Imagine Broncos fans looking back on John Elway in five years and saying this: "He couldn't find a quarterback in the draft to save his life, but who else could tractor-beam both Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers to Denver? Winning one Super Bowl with Peyton was charming, but winning two with Rodgers -- echoing Elway's late-career glory -- was the stuff of legend."
If the Aa-Rod drama in Green Bay wages on into pure darkness -- compelling the Packers to consider the impossible -- Denver should view Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater for exactly what they are: An unknown youth and a patch, respectively.
Top priority: Operate in reality.
From where we stand, it's going to be a long year in Houston. We have no idea if and when Deshaun Watson will play again -- and he wanted nothing to do with the Texans before his off-the-field issues descended. Tyrod Taylor and rookie Davis Mills could flip-flop starts for a franchise bereft of star power and sitting in a funky place with the fan base. The needy defense is littered with dudes on one-year, make-it-through-the-winter contracts. New coach David Culley was airdropped into a tricky situation. He's coming from a Ravens organization that does everything the right way. Can he help turn the Texans into a similar operation? Not overnight. Patience and a dose of reality are required.
Top priority: Look hard at Julio Jones, Part 1.
Whether or not you believe in new quarterback Carson Wentz, there's no question he landed in an ideal spot to craft his comeback. Endlessly badgered a year ago behind a banged-up Eagles line, Wentz now finds himself tied to a front five anchored by bully-man Quenton Nelson. Carson's man crush on Quenton will undoubtedly grow weekly as the 330-pound front-door-shaped protector blows up defenders left and right. Jonathan Taylor is a flowering star in the backfield. Parris Campbell and Michael Pittman Jr. bring youth to a receiving group still featuring T.Y. Hilton, but imagine this: tipping the scales of power in the AFC by swinging a scenery-altering deal for Julio Jones. Indy's $20 million in cap room makes this possible -- and the Falcons are listening.
Top priority: Embrace the weirdness.
Their tagline for this season could read: Interesting, at last. The Jaguars suddenly house a must-watch young quarterback in Trevor Lawrence, a college coaching legend in Urban Meyer and a shotgunned-from-the-wilderness Tim Tebow at tight end. Their first-round running back, Travis Etienne, is playing wide receiver in minicamp, and the entire soup is beginning to look delicious. The Jaguars weren't as bad as last year's record (1-15) suggested, but that's not the point: This club offers elements of the bizarre, with fascinating plotlines yet to be revealed. I get vibes of Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman starting out on their journey together in Dallas in 1989. The pressure on Meyer and Lawrence will build, so enjoy this season for what it is: the beginning.
Top priority: Don't let Honey Badger scurry away.
A month ago, everyone was melting down over the offensive line. Problem solved. The Chiefs -- one of the better operations in pro sports -- still loom as favorites in the AFC. A big-time contract will come for recently acquired left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. But securing an extension for heart-of-the-defense safety Tyrann Mathieu matters, too. Entering the final frame of his three-year, $42 million deal, Honey Badger has been nothing short of sensational. GM Brett Veach sounded optimistic in April that a deal could be worked out, but Mathieu offered a dose of cynicism this week, writing "probably not" in a since-deleted tweet. It's fair to argue the Chiefs could (and should) wait to see how 2021 plays out, but we're also talking about a special squad nestled in a Super Bowl window. Few players mean more to their side of the ball than Mathieu.
Top priority: Don't worry about Derek Carr's feelings.
The Raiders are stuck in a similar fix as Denver. Desperately desiring to shine but mired in a division with high-flying Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. Trapped there for another decade-plus -- longer than even Jon Gruden's contract. Shaking things up requires a move worthy of a devil-may care, seafaring pirate. One that beats Denver to the punch: a go-for-broke run at Aaron Rodgers. Something about pairing Rodgers and Gruden -- two complex, singular-thinking personalities (read: high-maintenance) -- just fits. Rodgers on the Raiders: fits. Rodgers vs. Mahomes twice a year and again in January: fits. Las Vegas has plenty of picks and a chip-on-his-shoulder Derek Carr to send in return if Green Bay chooses to listen. Life is not a dress rehearsal.
Top priority: Please don't mess up Justin Herbert.
The Chargers did all they could for Justin Herbert this offseason, signing stalwart center Corey Linsley and drafting first-round left tackle Rashawn Slater to play across from Bryan Bulaga. It's a sea change after Herbert spent his first professional campaign behind PFF's worst-ranked line. What did work for the Offensive Rookie of the Year, though, was the scheme put forward by then-Chargers coach Anthony Lynn and coordinator Shane Steichen. Herbert was majestic, easy on the eyes and showing the traits of a signal-caller destined to be with us for 15-plus years. The attack under Joe Lombardi will be entirely new, but not without apparent merit: "The spine of it will be New Orleans," head coach Brandon Staley told The Athletic. It tugs on elements of Kyle Shanahan's playbook, too, which all sounds wonderful on paper. That said, an uber-promising young passer must start all over. Fingers crossed Herbert adjusts in rapid fashion.
Top priority: Have co-OCs George Godsey and Eric Studesville live in a shared apartment with Tua.
I'm not angling for the absurd. The concept of co-offensive coordinators doesn't boast a lengthy track record of success, but who's to protest if Godsey and Studesville can make it rain? They need to figure out their lead back. Maybe it's Myles Gaskin, who called this year's post-Chan Gailey playbook "much different," adding: "Surprised with some things, excited for some things." Maybe that means incorporating elements of what Tua Tagovailoa thrived on at Alabama. With dual coordinators attempting to mesh with a quarterback entering a critical second season, I'd throw the trio into a luxurious Airbnb all summer until they seamlessly thrive off HIVE MIND.
Top priority: Look hard at Julio Jones, Part 2.
For all the hoopla around New England's March spending spree, color me not-blown-away by its enhanced wideout room. Nelson Agholor is coming off a stellar season with the Raiders, but it's no guarantee that's who he is. Kendrick Bourne is fine. Holdover Jakobi Meyers shows potential. What gets one going is the notion of two-tight-end sets showcasing signees Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. Imagine, though, dropping Julio Jones into the mix, which isn't simply a fantasy, considering A) New England's cap room (around $16 million) and B) the team's go-for-broke reload. If Jones becomes a Patriot, it'll be Belichick vs. terra firma.
Top priority: Do not engage in funny business with Zach Wilson.
Yes, he looks 16. Yes, his rosy cheeks and little blonde hair suggest a boy guest-starring on That's So Raven. He'll be sitting at the adult table, though, after America watches Zach Wilson zipping lasers through beguiled Patriots defenders. The excitement surrounding the No. 2 overall pick is part of a larger energy shift in Florham Park, where mind-numbing Sundays spent watching Adam Gase ruin Sam Darnold have been replaced by a Robert Saleh-led outfit with the inventive Mike LaFleur running New York's Kyle Shanahan-inspired offense. Wilson has talent around him and a solid bunch of blockers. Darnold knew only the opposite. It's time for the Jets -- and all their loyal fans -- to detach from past hurts. Flush the buffoonery down the river. Zap the "Same Old Jets"-mentality and usher in a new kingdom. It starts with a total, unwavering commitment to putting a quarterback in the best possible ecosystem to grow. It sounds simple, but it's a puzzle this franchise hasn't solved in half a century.
Top priority: Pray offensive line aide Adrian Klemm can pull this off.
First-round runner Najee Harris waltzes into a high-volume role as a three-down weapon drawing comparisons to Le'Veon Bell. Not unlike the Bengals, though, Pittsburgh had plenty of fans hoping they'd dial up a rock-solid lineman over a back. Instead, the Steelers picked Kendrick Green and Dan Moore in Rounds 3 and 4. The worst run-blocking unit from 2020 still lacks anyone who graded higher overall than 66.2 (out of 100), via Pro Football Focus. The hope is that well-regarded line coach Adrian Klemm can make this work. Longtime pro tackle Kelvin Beachum raved about Klemm to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, saying: "Number 1, he's going to change the culture and the mindset of the group. Secondly, his concept of developing players will be big [and] is one of his biggest attributes. He did it at SMU. He did it at UCLA, and he did it in Pittsburgh. He can coach all kinds of different players."
Top priority: Unearth additional weapons.
Hunting for talent post-draft is typically a fool's errand. Tennessee, though, is paper-thin at wideout beyond the presence of human hammer A.J. Brown. Ex-Ram Josh Reynolds offers a dash of intrigue, but Marcus Johnson and Cameron Batson aren't selling tickets. Dez Fitzpatrick and Racey McMath (ah, the old Irish mathematician) are Day 3 rookies. Tight end Jonnu Smith lives in New England now. Arthur Smith, last year's fabulous play-caller, is coaching the Falcons. The Titans can't chase Julio Jones because they're hugging the cap. Names such as Larry Fitzgerald and Golden Tate, Tyler Eifert and Jesse James exist. Options are thin, leaving Tennessee as a prime candidate to add bodies when summer cuts ensue. The current lineup won't make life easy on workhorse running back Derrick Henry.