America’s team have the second easiest schedule behind division rival Philadelphia. Expectations are high in Arlington for a bounce-back season.
The weird, wacky and wonderful 2020 NFL season is now resigned to the history books.
After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers saluted in front of their home fans, winning Super Bowl LV and capturing a second Vince Lombardi Trophy in the process, all 32 teams now turn their attention to what looks set to be a frantic NFL off-season set to begin officially on March 17.
Today I kick things off with the AFC east and north divisions.
Big question: Can they fix the run game?
Buffalo had a terrific season. The AFC East appears to be theirs for the foreseeable future. But a lack of a threatening rushing attack hurt the Bills when it really counted in 2020. Despite finishing with the second best offence in the league in 2020, the Bills finished with the league’s 20th ranked rushing attack. Quarterback Josh Allen finished first on the team for rushing touchdowns (eight) and third for rushing yards total (421), with recent early draft picks Devin Singletary (687) and Zach Moss (481) struggling to lead the Bills’ attack when the offence needed it most.
Rarely is it wise to spend a first-round pick on a running back, but it’s clear the Bills need an upgrade at the position as they launch towards their maiden Lombardi Trophy in 2021.
Big question: What is the long-term plan at quarterback?
What a terrific season for the Dolphins, who were clearly the best non-playoff team after being eliminated in the final week of the season. Second-year coach Brian Flores has proven to be one of the best young coaches in the league, although it is what he does next at quarterback that might determine what level of success he has with the team.
After flipping between veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick and rookie fifth overall pick Tua Tagovailoa all throughout season 2020, the Dolphins have been the team linked heaviest with Deshaun Watson. Miami have the necessary cap room (US$26 million or A$33 million according to Over the Cap) and the draft capital to make the deal happen, if the Texans come to the party of course.
Big question: What does Bill Belichick do at quarterback?
This is going to be an important question for many teams this off-season, but perhaps none more so than for a Patriots team that risks spiraling into long-term irrelevance in the post-Tom Brady era.
The one-year Cam Newton experiment didn’t pan out despite the former league MVP looking good before testing positive for COVID early in the season. It’s still unsure as to where Jarrett Stidham sits in all of this, though the answer might lie within his lack of playing time. New England will have a slew of their opt-out stars return next season, but they’re not going to have Tom Brady return.
Do they go to the draft? Do they get a free agent veteran? Somehow or another the Pats need to grade an offence that finished the league 27th in both overall and scoring offence.
New York Jets
Big question: Stick with Sam Darnold or draft another quarterback?
The Jets are another team who’ve been linked with Deshaun Watson, though if the Houston star doesn’t like organisational dysfunction then he’ll likely not be too fond of the Jets. It comes down to this for the Jets: stick with Darnold and load up on offensive talent, or select a new quarterback with pick two and start over again?
Only seven quarterbacks have been sacked more than Darnold since he entered the league in 2018. He’s never shared the offensive backfield with a 1000-yard rusher. He’s never had a receiver crack the 1000 receiving yard threshold, either. Do the Jets really know how good Darnold is?
There’s a reality where Darnold winds up on another, more competent team and becomes a great long-term starter for them. We might be living in that reality soon enough.
Big question: How do they go from great regular season team to genuine Super Bowl contender?
The Ravens have won 35 regular season games since quarterback Lamar Jackson’s rookie season of 2018 (third most in the league behind Kansas City and New Orleans in that time). In those three seasons, Baltimore have just one playoff victory to show for their efforts.
Three of the four playoff games have followed a similar pattern, with opposing defences shutting down Jackson’s explosive rushing plays. It’s a game plan that has proven effective throughout the regular season, but when the talent of the opposition’s defence increases, the Ravens’ offence falters.
How the black birds approach this off-season will be telling. Do they add more explosive receiving weapons, or double down on their running mantra by boosting the offensive line? Winning a Super Bowl on Jackson’s rookie deal might hinge on the path general manager Eric DeCosta chooses.
Big question: Can the Bengals build a wall?
Long-suffering Bengals fans’ prayers have been answered: they’ve got a quarterback. The bad news is they’re in dire need of protection in front of him. Only eight players were sacked more than Joe Burrow (32) in 2020 despite the Bengals rookie appearing in only ten games before suffering a broken leg.
Cincinnati’s front five finished the season ranked 30th according to Pro Football Focus, with only one member of the group (left tackle Jonah Williams) recording a pass-blocking grade above 70.0. This year’s draft class is flush with offensive line talent, so there’s good news for Burrow: help is on the way.
Big question: Is this team ready to contend?
It’s not hyperbole to suggest that this is the best Cleveland Browns team since man stepped foot on the moon half a century ago.
The problem for the Browns, who emerged late in the season as the dark horse of all dark horses to come within a whisker of advancing to the AFC championship game, was a defence that finished season 2020 as the 17th best unit. Of particular concern was the team’s 22nd-ranked pass defence, which allowed an average quarterback passer rating of 94.8 (14th). The Browns’ defence has a generational building block in edge rusher Myles Garrett, however they are still in need of talent at almost every other position.
Expect them to hit the draft hard.
Big question: Is this team still in contention with Ben Roethlisberger?
Remember when this team was 11-0? Pittsburgh suffered a complete dismantling at the hands of the hated Cleveland Browns on wildcard weekend, and so ensues perhaps their most important off-season of the Roethlisberger/Mike Tomlin era.
They have no money (US$31 million or A$40 million in the red according to Over the Cap), four starters likely to leave in free agency and seemingly no long-term plan at quarterback. Some semblance of a running game (the Steelers finished dead last with an average of 84.4 rushing yards per game in 2020) would surely take some pressure of Roethlisberger, who is hell bent on squeezing every last drop out of his hall-of-fame career.
The Steelers might now be in the worst quarterback situation of the four teams in the AFC North after reigning supreme for 16 years.