The 2014 NFL year officially kicks the door open on Tuesday, March 11 at 4pm. No, that doesn’t mean that we are getting football in March. But rather, the 32 NFL teams can start signing free agents, or any player from another team who isn’t under contract.
There’s no such thing as a perfect team, and no matter how good your season was last year, there’s always room to improve. In the NFL, of course, there’s really only three ways to do that: (1) Develop the talent you already have, (2) Draft new talent and try to develop that or (3) Steal talent from other teams.
Free agency is the latter – steal talent from other teams. This can kill two birds with one stone: improve your squad while weakening another. The problem here is two fold. First, no one knows a player quite like the team they’re currently on. So if a team lets a player go, more often than not, he’s not going to be worth what his new team pays him. Second, the NFL is overly oriented in specific systems that it makes it very difficult for a player who was great in another system to transition to a new one.
Whatever holes the NFL teams can’t fix in free agency, they’ll have a chance to plug in May at the draft. Teams that draft right often lack the need to steal talent from other teams. Green Bay is a terrific example of this – recently, they went three years without signing an unrestricted free agent.
Today, we’re concluding this analysis with the examination of the AFC teams.
Baltimore Ravens (8-8 in 2013)
The Ravens suffered an unsurprising setback in 2013, but still managed to fight their way back to .500 after winning the Super Bowl the year before. Baltimore has some young players working their ways into key roles, but a true No. 1 receiver would be the most welcome sight for QB Joe Flacco.
Buffalo Bills (6-10 in 2013)
The Bills are a solid, if unspectacular, developing young team. They could use a big-time playmaker in a lot of places, but they’re most in need of building a run defense. Look for a space-eating defensive tackle.
Cincinnati Bengals (11-5 in 2013)
After winning the AFC North, the Bengals lost both their coordinators to head coaching jobs (the Vikings and the Redskins). The team wisely opted for continuity, promoting from within on both sides of the ball. I am a big fan of QB Andy Dalton, and think his postseason struggles will subside. But he’s not an elite QB, so another offensive weapon would be most welcome.
Cleveland Browns (4-12 in 2013)
Where to start? Well, keeping their coaches and front office members for more than a year would be great. The new group has a high first round pick in No. 4 to play with, and can go a lot of different directions. So what do they need? The Browns need their No. 4 overall pick to be WORTH the No. 4 overall pick. A boom, not a bust. At this point, the position doesn’t really matter.
Denver Broncos (13-3 in 2013)
The Seahawks exposed many of Denver’s weaknesses in embarrassing fashion on the world’s biggest stage. The Broncos have a lot of weapons for Manning; the priority is keeping the squad together. But the biggest need the team has is another cornerback; that unit isn’t aging well.
Houston Texans (2-14 in 2013)
Houston’s epic collapse was one of the most stunning events in the 2013 NFL season; they started 2-0 with Super Bowl hopes, then lost 14 straight to close out the season. A lot of people are talking quarterback. But Matt Schaub took this team to respectability once before and this year’s group doesn’t look like it has a Luck or Wilson among them. The best thing they can do is deal the No. 1 overall pick to a quarterback starved team, then shore up their offensive line. Better protection up front could help Schaub’s resurgence and open up more running lanes for Arian Foster. If Schaub isn’t up to snuff, then at least 2015’s starter will have solid protection.
Indianapolis Colts (11-5 in 2013)
The Colts dealt their first-round pick to the Browns for RB Trent Richardson. BAD MOVE. The Browns already knew they had a losing hand in Richardson, and now the Colts are stuck with him, without a first round pick and still in need of another running back to take the pressure off of young phenom QB Andrew Luck.
Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12 in 2013)
Despite their record, the Jaguars actually showed some progress in 2013. Their roster is among the worst in the league though and they have pressing problems everywhere, it seems, besides left tackle. Like the Browns before, the Jaguars need to hit it big with the No. 3 overall selection. It doesn’t much matter WHO they select, just so long as that’s a high-quality player.
Kansas City Chiefs (11-5 in 2013)
The Chiefs went from worst to near-first in 2013, reeling off a nine win streak to open the season before ending the season 2-3 and falling out of the playoffs. They need skill players on both sides of the ball. No one is mistaking QB Alex Smith for an elite signal caller, so the more weapons he can get, the better.
Miami Dolphins (8-8 in 2013)
No one knows for sure if QB Ryan Tannehill can develop into an elite NFL signal-caller. But what we do know is that he was sacked a league-high 58 times. Therefore: get him some protection, then we’ll see.
New England Patriots (12-4 in 2013)
Despite a vastly depleted roster, the Patriots managed 12 wins and a visit to the AFC Championship game. QB Tom Brady’s championship window is just about closed. The mandate is clear: go get Saints TE Jimmy Graham, by any means possible. He’s ready to go now, and will vault the Patriots’ offense back to respectability. Then fill in with whatever cap space and picks are left.
New York Jets (8-8 in 2013)
The Jets are in a precarious situation. QB Geno Smith was sometimes solid, other times abysmal. When he was good, so were the Jets, when he was bad…not so much. A veteran backup would be a good start; someone like QB Michael Vick. Then surround him with the best weapons possible. If he takes off, great…if not, maybe Vick can hold down the fort until Gang Green can find someone else.
Oakland Raiders (4-12 in 2013)
I love what the Raiders did last year. Faced with a roster full of draft and free agent busts, Oakland cleared the books and took the salary cap hits that came with them. With $66.3 million in available funds, the Raiders re-building really starts now. The key to rebuilding is spending that money wisely. Sign up the best young players available, regardless of position, then develop the offensive and defensive systems that best fit that talent. That’s the best thing the Raiders can do right now.
Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8 in 2013)
QB Ben Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl wins, but no one is going to mistake him for Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning. The team’s offensive line is a mess, but the hiring of former Titan coach Mike Munchak should help. The team also needs another wide receiver to pull the double-coverage off of WR Antonio Brown.
San Diego Chargers (9-7 in 2013)
The team’s turnaround in 2013 was largely due to the resurgence of QB Phillip Rivers, who was always a much better quarterback than he got credit for. While the defense has some significant issues, the Chargers need to double-down on the offensive side of the ball. San Diego needs to continue to give Rivers the room he needs to find the greatness that has eluded him.
Tennesse Titans (7-9 in 2013)
New head coach Ken Whisenhunt helped Rivers with his resurgence in 2013, and will be helping another to book his coming out party in 2014 in Jake Locker. RB Chris Johnson will likely be cut; he and Whisenhunt have already traded blows in the media. The Titans offensive line was one of the better in the league, so a steadying presence at running back is the place to start, not the boom or bust player that is (or was) Johnson.