With the bulk of roster reshuffling in the rearview, we've truly entered the NFL's offseason. Still, all 32 rosters carry their share of unresolved issues. Today, Marc Sessler examines one burning question for each AFC team.
Baltimore Ravens: One workhorse -- or three -- in the backfield?
Baltimore's 206 ground yards per tilt were a whopping 61.9 yards more than any challenger from a year ago. Makes sense when your quarterback barrels for 1,206 yards at a psychedelic 6.9 yards per pop. Lamar Jackson's 176 carries were just 26 fewer than featured back Mark Ingram. With Gus Edwards and Justice Hill also in tow, heads turned when the Ravens dialed up Ohio State runner J.K. Dobbins in the second round. Adding strength to strength is dandy, but let the speculation ensue on how opportunities will shift come September. Ingram fit like a glove last season -- an A+ teammate, too -- but Dobbins must be viewed as Offensive Rookie of the Year material, based on how this attack plans to grind enemies into dust. With play-caller Greg Roman at the motherboard, we could be months away from the Ravens unveiling Single-Wing chaos and Power-I pandemonium to exploit their gaggle of backs all at once. You can't hand everyone 130 carries, but the Dobbins pick safeguards the offense against injury and leaves the rookie as a contender to ride as Baltimore's hot hand down the stretch.
The Bills made it their mission to furnish Josh Allen with a lineup of capable targets. Trading for Stefon Diggs completed a wideout room that last offseason added Cole Beasley and John Brown. The threesome ranks among the AFC's finest on paper. In real life, Diggs spent 2019 mired in "palpable" frustration with Minnesota's air attack -- and passer Kirk Cousins. How will the receiver feel about a cold-weather offense that finished bottom seven in passing with Allen ranking dead last in completion percentage among qualified QBs (Cousins, meanwhile, ranked fourth)? Diggs boasts the physical traits to help his quarterback, carving out the highest contested catch rate (61.1 percent) of any wideout in the NFL since 2017, per PFF. The metrics site grades all three Bills wideouts favorably in separating from defenders, a quality that should quell Allen's penchant for erratic lobs. A boom-or-bust vibe surrounds the Diggs swap, but there's no denying his talent.
Cincinnati Bengals: Is this coaching staff up to the task?
Average teams look golden in the light of May. Still, the Bengals are undergoing an energy shift that suddenly paints them as a contender in the AFC North. Let's assume Joe Burrow clicks. The prized rookie quarterback finds himself inside an offense stocked with A.J. Green, Joe Mixon and rookie Tee Higgins across from a defense adding interior nuisance D.J. Reader, safety Vonn Bell and cornerback Trae Waynes. Pieces are in place, but it's unclear what this coaching staff brings to the table. I'm glad they kept Zac Taylor despite last year's 2-14 implosion. The fog of war made it impossible to blame or credit the newbie coach, but he also failed to leave a strong impression. You could argue Brian Flores did more with less down in Miami. The Bengals dropped a pile of close games, but also floated through the season with zero identity. Burrow changes all that, but I'm interested to learn more about Taylor's vision -- and prowess -- for the gig.
Cleveland Browns: Wait. Is this the team we were promised last offseason?
Understandable exhaustion lingers when it comes to people hyping up the Browns. Last year's offseason made fools of us all, talking about Cleveland as ready-to-roll playoff material instead of a club unprepared for the spotlight. Back under the radar, the Browns somehow authored a better offseason this time around. Signing Jack Conklin and drafting fellow tackle Jedrick Wills turns last year's shaky offensive line into a strength. New coach Kevin Stefanski desires to use multiple tight ends and has a bundle to choose from after the front office signed Austin Hooper and drafted the intriguing Harrison Bryant to team with David Njoku. Odell Beckham Jr. remains! Olivier Vernon remains! Instead of appearing as the game's youngest general manager with lots to learn, Andrew Berry sprinkled the roster with short-term veteran free agents and value adds throughout the draft. The offense is loaded. The defense is capable. The front office and coaching staff are operating in unison for the first time in a thousand generations. What could go wrong? Your move, Mr. Mayfield.
Denver Broncos: Behold the AFC's next great offense?
Broncos fans have suffered through plenty of mediocre football since Peyton Manning strode into the gloaming. Is that about to change? Check out the offense here in May:
Denver was ecstatic to see Alabama's Jeudy fall into its lap at No. 15 before adding Hamler in the second round. Jeudy hits Denver as a pristine route runner who thrived against big-time competition. Hamler struggled with drops at Penn State, but offers lid-lifting ability. Sutton has bloomed into a star, while Fant should improve off his shaky rookie campaign. Lindsay and Gordon form a potentially brilliant backfield. It all boils down to Lock taking a big step forward -- no sophomore slump, sir! -- but the potential for fireworks is real.
What more to say about the head-scratching trade that sent star wideout DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals? Coach-czar Bill O'Brien was scorched by pundits for allowing his shiniest weapon out the door for a flock of underwhelming draft picks and the vastly overpaid Johnson. Houston must now hand $11 million to a running back who produced 345 yards at 3.7 yards per dash during a season that saw him benched for Kenyan Drake. Johnson was morphing into a superpower before a wrist injury tabled his 2017 season. Failing to cross 4.0 yards per carry since, it's unclear if his finest work will ever be matched. He's still a threat to catch passes out of the backfield, but Johnson loomed as a cut candidate for Arizona. O'Brien sees things differently and will be judged without mercy on how Johnson shines -- or dims -- in Houston.
In the most frenzied offseason of quarterback movement ever, the Colts shuffled the deck to wind up with Philip Rivers. While Tom Brady in Bucs duds will look weird forever, something about Rivers in royal blue and white feels organic. Still, not all these aging arms are locks to thrive. Rivers is coming off a season that saw him toss his fewest touchdowns (23) since 2007 and the second-most picks (20) of his 16-year career. Playing behind a top-shelf line helps a bundle, as does adding rookie wideout Michael Pittman Jr. and runner Jonathan Taylor to the mix. Rivers also knows the offense and gets along swimmingly with coach Frank Reich. All of this should point to a playoff spot for the Colts, assuming Rivers doesn't magically (or black-magically) morph into Brett Favre circa 2010.
Nearly named Beowulf, Gardner Flint Minshew II brought joy to millions as a sixth-round rookie, flinging aggressive downfield darts, scrambling from peril and essentially turning Nick Foles into a giant bowl of vanilla ice cream. The Jaguars thought so, too, shipping the overpaid veteran out of town in favor of Minshew's low-cost upside. With nothing but Josh Dobbs and (uh-oh, sixth-rounder) Jake Luton behind him, Minshew sits today as the unquestioned starter.
Here are my concerns: The O-line is suspect, the defense sits in flux, the coaching staff rests squarely on the hot seat and Jacksonville looms as a leading candidate for Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence. Let's also factor in the unknown future of Cam Newton, who might view the Jaguars -- if interested -- as a clear pathway to making starts in 2020. Unlike Drew Lock, Minshew's surrounding talent isn't primed to explode. He spent last season creating plays, but I don't love the environment. If the Jags stumble hard, the quarterback -- fair or unfair -- will take plenty of blame.
Kansas City Chiefs: Will anyone slow this roaming juggernaut?
The first hurdle is history itself. The NFL is unkind to Super Bowl champions, with no team repeating since New England pulled it off in 2003 and '04. Tom Brady's on the short list of seven signal-callers to produce back-to-back titles, alongside John Elway, Troy Aikman, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw (twice), Bob Griese and Bart Starr. Outside of Brady, though, all that jazz happened a million years ago in a vastly different landscape. When Aaron Rodgers and the Pack knocked off the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, the question wasn't if Green Bay would win another -- just how many. It's realistic to feel the same about a Chiefs warship that returns 20 of 22 starters and added a perfect-fit, do-everything running back in Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Patrick Mahomes is unlike any quarterback we've seen, and Andy Reid spent last year slaying every career ghost that badgered him. The oft-maligned defense gave up the seventh-fewest points in 2019. Here in May, no visible weakness exists. Which AFC enemy will hatch an effective plot to outwit this seemingly unstoppable force of nature?
Guilty as charged. Two offseasons running, I've predicted the Raiders to pinpoint someone other than Carr to play quarterback. I pegged the Silver and Black as a logical candidate to sign Tom Brady. No dice. I wondered if coach Jon Gruden might gamble on Jordan Love in the draft. He didn't. Instead, general manager Mike Mayock added a pair of new targets in Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards. The Raiders also drafted Lynn Bowden Jr., a Taysom Hill-ish prospect who could see snaps at running back, wideout and even as a gadget passer, having taken over quarterback duties last season for a banged-up Kentucky squad. With Tyrell Williams and Hunter Renfrow catching balls, Offensive Rookie of the Year runner-up Josh Jacobs in the backfield and Darren Waller at tight end, Carr is flush with assets. Consider 2020 nothing short of an acid test.
Here's something Herbert achieved that eluded this typist: a dazzling 4.01 GPA at Oregon en route to winning the William Campbell Trophy, a.k.a. the Academic Heisman. Chargers general manager Tom Telesco gushed over Herbert's "quarterback makeup, his leadership skills, his toughness, his mental toughness," but coach Anthony Lynn has long touted Tyrod Taylor as a capable veteran stopgap while de-emphasizing a trial by fire for Herbert, telling ESPN: "I don't want to put a timetable on this young man. ... Does he need a couple of years? Does he need one year? Maybe he doesn't need any at all. I don't know. They're going to go in and they're going to compete. The best guy is going to play."
Pangs of deja vu surround Taylor, who was touted all offseason as Cleveland's unquestioned starter in 2018, only to be catapulted to the pine in favor of Baker Mayfield by Week 3. In today's NFL, first-round rookie quarterbacks don't wait long to play. Despite the verbal dog-and-pony show surrounding Taylor's starting status, I'd consider it a tremendous upset if Herbert isn't rocking by Week 4.
Miami Dolphins: Is Brian Flores the AFC's next great coach?
Don Shula, an all-time great coach who gave Miami a pair of Lombardi Trophies, passed away at age 90 on Monday. The Dolphins have cycled through 10 coaches (including interims) since Shula's retirement following the 1995 season, making the playoffs just twice in the past 18 years. But suddenly, things are beginning to look up for the team. Hope floats in Tua Tagovailoa emerging as a rainmaker and waltzing arm in arm with Flores, Miami's buzzy head coach who carved out a 5-4 finish last season capped by a stunning 27-24 win in New England. After entering last season surrounded by whispers of a tank job, Flores veered off script despite a massively wanting roster. Players fell for him, especially after seeing Flores tear into an official following a controversial pass interference call in a December loss to the Jets. "It just makes us fight even harder for him," said cornerback Nik Needham. Like high-expectation young quarterbacks, though, coaches navigate growing pains of their own. Long-term success hinges on Tua's health and Miami's overall team-building approach clicking sooner than later. Is too much expected of Flores heading into Year 2?
Reiss labeled Stidham as the "leading candidate" for Tom Brady's old job while dismissing the idea of adding Cam Newton, saying: "The short answer (to why they aren't interested in Cam) is that they are intrigued enough with what they've seen from Jarrett Stidham, that they want to keep investing in him."
We can wishcast Newton and/or fill-in-the-blank to serve as Brady's heir, but Bill Belichick took zero action in free agency to add a genuine challenger. He took zero action in the draft. From where we sit today -- barring a disastrous preseason -- Stidham is the crystal-clear favorite to start Week 1.
Arrow up on Gang Green general manager Joe Douglas following one of New York's better on-paper drafts in many moons. Third-year quarterback Sam Darnold received immediate help in the form of mountainous bookend Mekhi Becton and Mims. Seen as a juicy mix of height, weight and speed with an "insane catch-radius," per draft analyst Lance Zierlein, Mims boasts a 4.38 40-yard dash and more contested catches than any wideout in college football since 2017, per PFF. It's not unusual for rookie receivers to struggle out of the gate -- and the Jets always find a way to make it difficult -- but something feels different this time around.
Does JuJu deserve a mulligan? Is he the player who dazzled in 2018 with 111 grabs for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns? Or closer to the guy who squeaked out a 42/552/3 line during an injury-plagued follow up? Everyone suffered last season as the Steelers were forced to roll out the hyper-ill combination of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges after losing Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2. James Conner missed six games at running back and the attack never jelled during a hard-fought 8-8 campaign. Instead of running with Antonio Brown's suggestion -- that JuJu simply isn't the same guy without Brown pulling top corners away -- I'd point to a player who fought through toe, foot, knee and concussion issues. Brown's absence is a factor, but the hyper-shoddy quarterback play can't be ignored. After Smith-Schuster saw 61.4 percent accurate ball placement in 2017 and '18, that figure tumbled to 50.8 in 2019, per PFF. If Big Ben is still Big Ben, JuJu should rise in a career-defining year.
Thirteen starts (including the playoffs) earned Ryan Tannehilla whopping $62 million fully guaranteed as part of a four-year extension with Tennessee. The Titans believe they have their man under center, showing faith in Tannehill's ability to repeat what he pulled off during a campaign that netted Comeback Player of the Year honors. The ex-Dolphins flameout sizzled with a 70.3 completion percentage and league-best 117.5 passer rating. With Derrick Henry back for another season of boulder-rolling-over-humans highlights in Nashville, Tannehill is helped by a strong offensive line and just enough skill-position spice to make it work. I love his fiery persona, willingness to take shots (he led the NFL at 9.6 yards per attempt) and fit with the surrounding talent. Should we ignore the bevy of mediocre starts in messy Miami? Tannehill deserves to be seen with fresh eyes. I just can't help but wonder if he'll regress as the sample size expands.