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AFC free agency needs: Chiefs must find pass-catching help; will Ravens bolster O-line?

It's that time of year again: The NFL free agency negotiating window opens at noon ET on Monday, March 11, with contract signings becoming official when the new league year begins at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 13. This marks the first phase of player movement during the offseason, as franchises look to address their rosters' most pressing needs. Before the frenzy begins, the Next Gen Stats analytics team delves into the three biggest needs for each of the 32 NFL teams.

Below, we hit the AFC. (Click here for the NFC rundown.)

NOTE: All cap figures pulled from Over The Cap at 11 a.m. ET on Thursday, March 7.

Baltimore Ravens
2023 record: 13-4 · 1st in AFC North
  • Needs: OL, WR, Edge
  • Cap space: -$10,032,381

General manager Eric DeCosta and head coach John Harbaugh have a decision to make with limited cap space this offseason: shore up their pass rush or maintain an offensive line that helped reigning MVP Lamar Jackson to throw for a career-high 3,066 yards from inside the tackle box. Starting tackles Ronnie Stanley and Morgan Moses missed a combined seven games in 2023, but the more pressing issue is in the interior, where incumbent guards John Simpson and Kevin Zeitler are set to hit the open market. The Ravens have been the gold standard at handling defensive turnover, but the prospect of losing coordinator Mike Macdonald as well as their 2023 pressure leader in Jadeveon Clowney (71 pressures), linebacker Patrick Queen and safety Geno Stone is daunting. The decision to franchise tag DT Justin Madubuike will help smooth the transition, as he led the league with 38 pressures from a 3-technique alignment last season.

EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Ravens re-signed Madubuike to a four-year, $98 million extension, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported on March 8.

Buffalo Bills
2023 record: 11-6 · 1st in AFC East
  • Needs: WR, S, DL
  • Cap space: -$9,052,381

An already shallow pass catching corps that dropped 22 passes last season requires depth behind Stefon Diggs, especially with the likely loss of Gabe Davis to free agency, but the lack of cap space for GM Brandon Beane to work with is a hindrance to making any signings of consequence. This matter further exacerbates the issue along the defense line, as Ed Oliver, Gregory Rousseau and Von Miller are the sole carryovers from last year’s unit that generated pressure at the third-lowest rate (29.9 percent) from Week 13 though the end of the regular season. Sean McDermott’s coverage unit, which allowed the second-highest completion percentage (55.4 percent) on attempts of 10-plus air yards last season, could use replenishing -- especially after the release of cornerback Tre’Davious White and safety Jordan Poyer and with safety Micah Hyde and backup safety Taylor Rapp headed to the open market.

Cincinnati Bengals
2023 record: 9-8 · 4th in AFC North
  • Needs: DT, TE, OT
  • Cap space: $48,551,440

The Bengals find themselves flush with cap space after an ill-fated season doomed by two significant injuries to Joe Burrow. Continuing to protect Burrow is always going to be central, but especially so this offseason, with Jonah Williams heading for the market. Williams allowed the lowest pressure rate (8%) and produced the longest average time to pressure (2.99 seconds) of his career in his first season switching from left tackle to right. The wide receiver position is stable for at least one more year, thanks to the decision to apply the franchise tag to Tee Higgins. Elsewhere on offense, the Bengals do not currently have a tight end under contract for 2024. The reliable yet unspectacular trio of Irv Smith Jr., Tanner Hudson and Drew Sample had the second-highest catch rate among tight end groups from Weeks 8 through 18 (79.1 percent) but averaged the second-fewest yards per reception (8.0).

Cleveland Browns
2023 record: 11-6 · 2nd in AFC North
  • Needs: WR, DT, OT
  • Cap space: $6,799,577

Even with the $30-plus million increase in cap space for the 2024 season, the Browns are hardly in the clear. Deshaun Watson’s contract, an impending draft class and multiple key players coming off season-ending injuries have the cap-strapped Browns in a bit of a bind with needs aplenty. Cleveland’s right tackle spot allowed pressure in an average of 2.77 seconds last season, the third-quickest in the league. Jack Conklin is expected to be healthy for 2024, but his contract may not be in tune with Cleveland’s cap. The same can be said of running back Nick Chubb, whose replacement in Jerome Ford generated the fourth-fewest rush EPA (-46.9) league-wide. While a weapon opposite Amari Cooper may be convenient, the defense that allowed a league-low -6.4 percent CPOE also needs tending to. Multiple defensive tackles are set to his free agency, as well as linebackers Anthony Walker and Sione Takitaki.

EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Browns are acquiring Jerry Jeudy from the Denver Broncos in exchange for fifth- and sixth-round picks in 2024, NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported on March 9. The trade does not become official until the new league year begins at 4 p.m. ET on March 13.

Denver Broncos
2023 record: 8-9 · 3rd in AFC West
  • Needs: QB, WR, CB/DL
  • Cap space: -$2,656,555

With the Broncos set to release Russell Wilson, Jarrett Stidham is QB1 … for now. They lack the capital to really attack the position in free agency but possess a premium draft pick and can still bring in cheap competition. Whoever it ends up being under center will miss the steady play provided by Lloyd Cushenberry, who allowed just two sacks last season and the sixth-lowest sack rate among centers (4.8 percent, min. 300 pass blocks). A defense that has remained surprisingly steady throughout this disappointing era of Broncos football may need to support the offense more than ever in 2024. A reliable corner opposite Patrick Surtain II would help, as would an improved pass rush and replacement for recently released Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons. Denver’s quick pressure rate last season was just 13.3 percent, seventh-lowest in the league, and it pressured opposing quarterbacks in 2.82 seconds on average, fourth-slowest in the NFL.

EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Broncos are trading Jerry Jeudy to the Cleveland Broncos in exchange for fifth- and sixth-round picks in 2024, NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported on March 9. The trade does not become official until the new league year begins at 4 p.m. ET on March 13.

Houston Texans
2023 record: 10-7 · 1st in AFC South
  • Needs: CB, DT, RB/LB
  • Cap space: $70,000,173

Surrounding C.J. Stroud with talent is hardly the issue in Houston this offseason. Devin Singletary rushed for a career-high 898 yards and tied Christian McCaffrey with 11 games generating positive rush yards over expected, but his production is replaceable. Dalton Schultz is back on a multi-year deal and was a reliable outlet for Stroud, generating the second-most receiving EPA among tight ends in the middle third of the field (+21.1). But defensively, names like Blake Cashman and Jonathan Greenard, as well as most of their defensive backfield depth, could be in line for big paydays. Cashman allowed the second-fewest yards per target among linebackers last season (4.5, min. 25 targets) and Greenard tied for the fourth-highest sack rate league-wide (3.3 percent, min. 300 pass rushes) on a career-high 12.5 sacks. Cashman, Greenard, and the rest of Houston’s standouts from last season are getting paid. It’s only a matter of if the Texans are the ones to do it.

Indianapolis Colts
2023 record: 9-8 · 3rd in AFC South
  • Needs: CB, WR, DT
  • Cap space: $49,208,378

Kenny Moore II was on top of the world after returning two Bryce Young interceptions for touchdowns in Week 9 of last season. He received the highest possible honor at the time: being named the league’s top slot defender by Next Gen Stats. From there, though, it was not smooth sailing for the soon-to-be free agent, as he allowed four touchdowns and defended just one pass the rest of the season. Where a consistent slot corner has become vital on defense, a stud No. 1 receiver is more so on offense. The Colts believe they have one in Michael Pittman Jr., who received the franchise tag earlier this week. Pittman’s presence was certainly beneficial to Gardner Minshew following Anthony Richardson’s injury, as Pittman led the NFL with 64 receptions and 319 yards after the catch on the fourth-most receiving yards (731) from a wide alignment from Week 6 through the end of the regular season.

Jacksonville Jaguars
2023 record: 9-8 · 2nd in AFC South
  • Needs: WR, DL, IOL
  • Cap space: $24,598,300

Calvin Ridley may have eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving and led the Jaguars with eight receiving touchdowns during his comeback season, but the former Falcon was simply not the world-beating top receiver the Jaguars had hoped to pair with Trevor Lawrence. This was apparent when Ridley faced press coverage, gaining an average of 2.3 fewer yards per target than when not pressed. Jacksonville has too many other holes and not enough funds to justify a contract for Ridley on the premise that he could elevate his game next season. For starters, its interior offensive line is due for a makeover with left guard Ezra Cleveland set to hit the open market and right guard Brandon Scherff being floated as a potential cap casualty as he accounts for $23.9 million in 2024. Defensively, the Jags had to mortgage much of their defense in order to retain Josh Allen, who generated the league’s second-most pressures last season (96), by releasing Rayshawn Jenkins, Darious Williams and Foley Fatukasi.

EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Jaguars re-signed Cleveland on a three-year deal worth $28.5 million with $14.5 million guaranteed, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported on March 7. 

Kansas City Chiefs
2023 record: 11-6 · 1st in AFC West

Needs: WR, LT, DT

Cap space: $3,462,361

Judging by the release of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, the Chiefs have not learned the wrong lesson from winning the Super Bowl with a motley crew at receiver. The historic increase in cap space already assisted K.C. by allowing the team to apply the franchise tag to L’Jarius Sneed, and it should also help in improving a receiver room that collectively caught the second-fewest tight window targets last season (10), as well as the hole at left tackle, with Donovan Smith set to hit free agency. Another issue: The defensive unit that led the NFL with 73 unblocked pressures is set to lose multiple contributors to the open market, including Chris Jones, Mike Danna, Willie Gay and Drue Tranquill. Sneed led the NFL with seven games aligning across from one receiver on at least 65 percent of their routes, so if he sticks around, he should at least help alleviate the pass rush turnover.

EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Chiefs are re-signing Chris Jones to a five-year contract that will pay him around $32 million per season, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported on March 9.

Las Vegas Raiders
2023 record: 8-9 · 2nd in AFC West
  • Needs: QB, OL. DT
  • Cap space: $41,605,109

Quarterback Aidan O’Connell performed admirably as a rookie after the team fired its head coach and benched Jimmy Garoppolo and finds himself as the incumbent starter on an offense with exceptional skill position players, including pending free agent Josh Jacobs. Vegas will undoubtedly add competition at quarterback this offseason, but whoever is under center for the Raiders come Week 1 is going to need protection. Center Andre James, right guard Greg Van Roten and right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor are all on expiring deals. Eluemunor allowed the seventh-lowest pressure rate at his position (7.7 percent, min. 300 pass blocking snaps), while Van Roten’s 3.29-second average time to pressure was fifth-longest among right guards (min. 300 pass blocking snaps). Both were inexpensive veterans in 2023 who could be retained. The defensive unit that responded well to Antonio Pierce’s coaching down the stretch is mostly intact but will look to upgrade defensive tackle position with its top three playtime leaders at the position (Adam Butler, John Jenkins and Bilal Nichols) set to hit the open market.

Los Angeles Chargers
2023 record: 15-2 · 4th in AFC West
  • Needs: CB, LB, WR
  • Cap space: -$20,159,997

Any number of stars -- including Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack -- could get cut purely for cap reasons. But in 2023, Allen gained his most receiving yards in a season (1,243) since 2017, including a league-leading 446 when used in shift/motion. Mack generated his most pressures (80) since at least 2018, as well as a career-high 17 sacks. Whichever veterans are kept around for the beginning of the John Harbaugh era will be tasked with leading a roster sure to be rife with cheap players on rookie deals, as stalwarts like Austin Ekeler, Gerald Everett, and Corey Linsley are headed for the open market or retirement without obvious in-house replacements. The Chargers are still a year away from Justin Herbert’s extension sucking up the majority of their cap space, but in the meantime, Harbaugh has his work cut out developing talent around his franchise QB.

Miami Dolphins
2023 record: 11-6 · 2nd in AFC East
  • Needs: OL, DL, S
  • Cap Space: -$20,402,846

Tua Tagovailoa led the NFL with a 2.36-second average time to throw last season. The ball was out before pass rushers even had time to think, which was a massive help for Miami’s offensive line, and as a result, it kept a lot of their pressure rates fairly low (Tua was pressured on a league-low 25.4 percent of his dropbacks). One can’t help but wonder if this could influence impending decisions on free agents along the offense line, such as Robert Hunt, Isaiah Wynn and Connor Williams, especially with the Dolphins so far over the cap. Miami also has a lot to consider defensively after opting not to tag Christian Wilkins. Both Bradley Chubb and Jaelan Phillips are coming off late-season injuries and standout Andrew Van Ginkel, whose 19.1 percent pressure rate in Weeks 13-18 was the fourth-highest among edge defenders (min. 100 pass rushes), is set to hit the open market. 

New England Patriots
2023 record: 4-13 · 4th in AFC East
  • Needs: QB, WR, OT
  • Cap space: $88,751,054

While there’s no shortage of needs for this Patriots roster, it all comes back to the holy trinity of the modern NFL: quarterback, receiver and offensive tackles. One of these needs will be addressed with the third overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft; the others should be addressed with generous amounts in free agency. Both incumbent starting tackles, Trent Brown and Mike Onwenu, are set to hit the open market. Onwenu should be prioritized, as his average time to pressure allowed was just 3.27 seconds -- one of nine right tackles to allow pressure in longer than 3.25 seconds on average (min. 300 pass blocking snaps). Whether New England drafts or signs a QB, pass catchers who can separate will be tantamount. Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki are set to depart a pass catching corps that averaged the lowest separation (3.0 yards) and the highest tight window rate (19.6 percent) league-wide.

(EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Patriots re-signed Henry to a three-year, $27 million deal, NFL Network Insiders Mike Garafolo and Ian Rapoport reported on March 8. New England also re-signed Kendrick Bourne, locking up the receiver on a three-year, $19.5 million deal, per NFL Network Insider Tom Pelissero.)

New York Jets
2023 record: 7-10 · 3rd in AFC East
  • Needs: OT, S, DT
  • Cap space: $20,705,353

2024 is looking like a crucial juncture for Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh -- and for the sanity of Jets fans who had to watch Aaron Rodgers tear his Achilles just four plays into his tenure with the team. Of primary importance is protecting their 40-year-old quarterback, as Mekhi Becton will hit free agency, while New York's right tackle position, as a unit, allowed the most quick pressures (28) and sacks (14) league-wide. Saleh's defense isn't in the clear, either, as the unit that allowed the fewest completions (nine) on attempts of 20-plus air yards in 2023 is expected to lose starting safety Jordan Whitehead, as well as backup Ashtyn Davis. Up front, Quinnen Williams is one of just two defensive tackles under contract for 2024, while Bryce Huff, the league's reigning leader in pressure rate (21.8 percent, min. 250 pass rushes), has likely played himself into a lucrative deal elsewhere.

Pittsburgh Steelers
2023 record: 10-7 · 3rd in AFC North
  • Needs: QB, OT, CB
  • Cap space: $7,999,755

Mitchell Trubisky has been released, and Mason Rudolph could be headed elsewhere in free agency, making Kenny Pickett the last quarterback standing on a team that is ready to compete right now. Based on what Pickett has shown, Pittsburgh shouldn't enter 2024 without ample competition at the position. Pickett finished last season with the third-lowest success rate among quarterbacks (38.8 percent). There's one QB set to hit the market with whom new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith has worked well in the past: Ryan Tannehill, who led the NFL in success rate (55.1 percent) in 2019, when Tannehill and Smith helped push the Titans to the AFC Championship Game. Elsewhere, an upgrade at whichever offensive tackle spot Broderick Jones doesn't end up starting at is likely warranted, as is a consistent cornerback presence opposite Joey Porter Jr. Porter allowed -16.0 target EPA last season, the fourth-fewest by a rookie cornerback since 2016.

EDITOR'S UPDATE: Russell Wilson plans to sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers when the new league year begins on March 13, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported on March 10.

Tennessee Titans
2023 record: 6-11 · 4th in AFC South
  • Needs: OT, WR, CB
  • Cap space: $75,817,844

Owner Amy Adams Strunk decided to pair young QB Will Levis with an offensively minded head coach in Brian Callahan; now it's time to set Levis up for success. Taylor Lewan's tenure with the Titans ended after the 2022 season, and the left tackle position has been in limbo since; in 2023, Titans players who lined up at left tackle combined to allowed a pressure rate of 20.9 percent and 28.5 total sacks, the highest marks in the NFL. Even with DeAndre Hopkins under contract for one more season, the Titans have a dire need for talent in a wide receiver corps that created 3-plus yards of separation when targeted at the second-lowest rate in the league (32.0 percent). Even as Ran Carthon works on the offense, an abundance of cap space should allow the second-year GM to improve a secondary that allowed the second-highest EPA per dropback on passes of 10-plus air yards last season (+0.63).

John Andersen, Chace Daskalos, Katherine Baker, Ethan Biddle, Sam Fraley, and Jack Habegger contributed to this article.

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