Super Bowl LIV's nearly upon us, but 30 teams already have begun the effort to reach Tampa a year from now for Super Bowl LV. Here's one thing each AFC franchise can do to supplant the Kansas City Chiefs as conference champions.
BALTIMORE RAVENS: Upgrade the front seven.
The Ravens would like to get another receiver on the outside for Lamar Jackson to throw to, but Baltimore's offense is a strength to build on. That's not true of the team's ability to pressure the passer without blitzing. Keeping Matthew Judon from leaving via free agency would be a strong start, but perhaps general manager Eric DeCosta can get creative, with plenty of pass-rushing options like Jadeveon Clowney, Yannick Ngakoue and maybe even Chris Jones potentially available this offseason. The Ravens also struggled to replace inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. Baltimore used to create front-seven talent through the draft as if from an assembly line, but production has slowed in recent years. It's time for some outside help.
The Bills can be encouraged with Allen's second-year progress without fooling themselves into believing he can carry a franchise with his arm alone. He has a scheme that covers up his weaknesses and accentuates his strengths under underrated play caller Brian Daboll. Now Allen just needs more offensive teammates who can make plays on their own. General manager Brandon Beane did a fantastic job upgrading the talent base last offseason with the additions of wide receiers John Brown and Cole Beasley, running back Devin Singletary and center Mitch Morse. Anything close to a similar haul this year will help Allen lean on his athleticism as a poor man's Cam Newton, with Sean McDermott's defense doing the rest.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: Draft, then protect Joe Burrow.
Despite owner Mike Brown's obsession with Ohio State products, it seems highly unlikely the Bengals would consider taking pass rusher Chase Young or trading out of the No. 1 overall pick. LSU's Burrow -- who, of course, did spend his first three years of college in Columbus ... -- appears to be a no-brainer much like Carson Palmer was back in 2003. That Bengals team jumped from two wins to four straight non-losing seasons with a terrific offense in short order because of a strong O-line with great skill-position talent around Palmer, who took the QB reins from Jon Kitna in 2004. The Bengals are excellent at running back and the receiver group has potential if they bring A.J. Green back, but the pass protection in Cincinnati didn't improve in Zac Taylor's first year as coach. The healthy return of last year's first-round pick, OT Jonah Williams, is a start, but that's not enough. Unlike with Palmer back in '03, it's nearly impossible to imagine Burrow spending a full season on the bench behind a veteran.
For most of the teams on this list, I focused on personnel changes. The Browns' roster could certainly use upgrades along the offensive line and in the secondary, but new coach Kevin Stefanski's ability to develop Mayfield supersedes any transaction. The 2018 No. 1 overall pick took a step back in Year 2, unable to adjust when defenses took away his initial read. It was the first on-field adversity he's faced in a while and he reacted with mixed results. Perhaps that was poor coaching or perhaps it was just the natural part of a young quarterback's development. No matter the reason why Mayfield appeared a beat late in 2019, it's up to Stefanski to speed up the 24-year-old's process. The Browns are a big Mayfield leap away from delivering on their hype, just a year later than everyone expected.
DENVER BRONCOS: Let Vic Fangio build the defense of his dreams.
It sounds counterintuitive for the Broncos to worry about defense, but much of their young offensive nucleus is in place and will need time to grow under new coordinator Pat Shurmur. The decline of the once-great Denver defense slipped under the radar in 2019, with Fangio presiding over a unit that fell from fifth in defensive efficiency in 2018 down to 13th. With four of Denver's best defensive players (Justin Simmons, Chris Harris, Derek Wolfe and Shelby Harris) headed for free agency, GM John Elway has plenty of work to do and plenty of cap space to work with. Fangio's defenses have succeeded everywhere he's coached once he's put the right players in place via free agency and/or the draft. He needs to find those guys now, before his defense takes a bigger fall.
HOUSTON TEXANS: Spend cap space and draft picks on the secondary.
Bill O'Brien is running out of people to blame after ousting another personnel executive and moving on from defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. With a young and talented offense mostly in place, O'Brien figures to stay aggressive this offseason addressing his defensive personnel after elevating D-line coach Anthony Weaver to DC. Whitney Mercilus, J.J. Watt, Justin Reid, Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham are too good to be the core group on a bottom-10 defense. While the team could use a little more pass-rush juice, the Texans' secondary continues to be an open sore that any quality opponent picks on. O'Brien doesn't have a first-round pick in 2020, another reason why letting Tyrann Mathieu leave town last year looks especially curious.
Rivers rarely had a competent offensive line or running game during his time with the Chargers. The Colts would provide both in abundance. The chance for Frank Reich to reunite with Rivers without having to give up a draft pick could be difficult for Indy's head coach to pass on. I stubbornly believe Rivers could still excel in the right situation -- and this Colts team is absolutely the right situation. General manager Chris Ballard, now entering his fourth season in charge, also needs to finally find some pass rush off the edge, but that would be a second thing necessary for making the Super Bowl and this exercise only requires one, so forget I wrote that. Rivers is spicier.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Get unemotional about past personnel mistakes.
Jaguars general manager David Caldwell is getting another chance to re-shape the roster after the departure of Tom Coughlin. To move forward, the team needs to make some tough choices regarding some of the moves Coughlin and Caldwell made over the last few years. They have a raft of cap-related decisions pertaining to veterans like cornerback A.J. Bouye, guard Andrew Norwell, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, wide receiver Marqise Lee, linebacker Jake Ryan and possibly even running back Leonard Fournette. The Nick Foles-Gardner Minshew QB conundrum won't be easy to solve because of Foles' contract, but the arrival of new coordinator Jay Gruden was a big step in the right direction. Jacksonville has prized continuity to a fault over Caldwell's seven seasons, resulting in one campaign with more than six wins. Before Caldwell gets to spend his three top-50 draft picks in April, he needs to honestly assess what's gone wrong.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: It's the offensive line, same as it ever was.
The Chargers are the most talented team drafting in the top 10 and could be in position to draft the successor to Philip Rivers at No. 6 overall. It's possible that coach Anthony Lynn will lean heavier on the run game than ever (with Tyrod Taylor ascending to the starting job) and the team's underperforming defense needs better bulk on their interior line. But general manager Tom Telesco essentially faces the same challenge he's struggled to solve year after year in an otherwise-excellent stewardship of this Chargers roster. The team's offensive line hasn't posted a Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade north of 26th since 2014. Based on precedent, there's little reason to believe the Bolts will be able to fix the problem quickly.
I don't know who the perfect quarterback is for Jon Gruden or how general manager Mike Mayock is going to get him. The Raiders could certainly do a lot worse than Carr, who showed improvement across the board in 2019 even if his better-safe-than-sorry playing style doesn't appear to satisfy Gruden's ever-wanting taste. If Carr were in line to be the unquestioned starter in 2020, Gruden would have said so. He went out of his way not to. Whether the Raiders would take a swing on Tom Brady, Jameis Winston or a draft pick to be named later, Carr's trade value might never be higher than right now. Any quarterback change would involve huge risk and an array of moving parts, but Gruden does not look like a man afraid to take a huge gamble just as he hits the Vegas strip.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: Pay the price for Tua Tagovailoa.
Dolphins fans should skip the next three months of draft speculation and accept that Tagovailoa isn't falling to pick No. 5. I have doubts that he'll even get past No. 2 once his trade market develops closer to draft day. To get one of the most talented and productive college quarterbacks of the last decade, Miami will have to use some of the draft capital they acquired since coach Brian Flores hit town. Tagovailoa's injury shouldn't ultimately change his draft stock that much. Any team interested in him is hoping to pay him for at least a decade, and the Dolphins know Ryan Fitzpatrick can handle the starting job in the meantime. That's not a recipe for a Super Bowl appearance next season, but it makes such a feat a whole lot more feasible in the long run.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Turn over the roster like it's 2010.
Blowing up the depth chart doesn't mean giving up on the season. Bill Belichick's most dramatic roster overhauls in New England came in his first year (2000) and 2010, which is the last time the Patriots entered a season with most prognosticators believing they would miss the playoffs. Instead, they went 14-2 with rookie Rob Gronkowski leading a loaded draft class. They need a similar teardown and infusion of talent this year, along with fresh offensive thinking. Stalwarts like Devin McCourty, Joe Thuney, Kyle Van Noy, Patrick Chung, Stephen Gostkowski, Jamie Collins and even Dont'a Hightower are all possibly on the way out. Will this overhaul include the departure of Tom Brady? While it wouldn't be a surprise if Belichick wanted to truly start from scratch, Patriots owner Robert Kraft would have to sign off on saying goodbye to No. 12.
NEW YORK JETS: Let Joe Douglas build the offensive line of his dreams.
The Jets have their annual needs on defense at cornerback and on the edge, but the first priority for Douglas in his first full offseason in charge is to fix the group protecting Sam Darnold. Douglas was a collegiate offensive lineman who worked for an Eagles front office that cultivated line play above all else. Philly did it through trades, draft picks and free agents, a comprehensive approach Douglas is likely to take with 3-4 starting jobs to fill, including both tackle spots. Darnold's protection has been so bad at times that it's hard to evaluate him.
It's a shame that the best Steelers defense of the Mike Tomlin era came in the season with Roethlisberger on the sideline. Counting on a 38-year-old quarterback coming off elbow surgery is a roll of the dice, but there's no question that Pittsburgh was a competent signal-caller away from Super Bowl contention in 2019. While even a healthy Roethlisberger showed signs of decline in 2018, hoping for the best out of Big Ben is the only option the Steelers really have. Some tweaks to the offensive line and skill-position group would help, but ultimately this team will rise or fall on Roethlisberger's weathered wing.
This strange final season of the current collective bargaining agreement allows for teams to use the franchise tag and the transition tag. That could help Tennessee essentially put off some difficult decisions for a year. By using tags on both Tannehill and Henry, the Titans could keep together the nucleus of their AFC Championship Game squad without making a long-term commitment. I'd want to see Tannehill over the course of a full season under Arthur Smith before investing over $50 million guaranteed. I'd also want to retain Henry during his prime, rather than give him a Todd Gurley contract. Titans general manager Jon Robinson has more than enough cap room to accomplish both tasks, while also looking to add more juice on defense.