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AFC Roster Reset: Conference hierarchy heading into 2024 NFL Draft

The AFC boasts the NFL's current dynasty (Kansas City Chiefs) and reigning MVP (Lamar Jackson). It houses the most recent recipients of Defensive Player of the Year (Myles Garrett), Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year (C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson Jr.) and Coach of the Year (Kevin Stefanski). It features a preponderance of the league's best young quarterbacks (Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa, Trevor Lawrence, etc.), as well as the most intriguing older quarterback coming off a season-ending injury (Aaron Rodgers). Oh, and one of its most iconic teams (Pittsburgh Steelers) has two of football's most enigmatic quarterbacks (Russell Wilson and Justin Fields).

The AFC is the dominant conference right now, in results and storylines. The 2024 NFL Draft might shift some things -- let's see who ends up with which of the highly regarded quarterbacks by the end of April -- but with significant roster resetting already complete, here's an early look at how the teams stack up.

Class of their own

Kansas City Chiefs

They've won three of the past five Super Bowls, with the most recent coming on the back of a stellar defense that held the season together while the offense was as inconsistent and vulnerable as it has been in the Patrick Mahomes era. The departure of cornerback L'Jarius Sneed hurts, but keeping defensive tackle Chris Jones was a huge win. Receiver Marquise Brown is the veteran deep threat Kansas City desperately needed, although adding another wide receiver in the draft seems likely. There are certainly questions -- including the legal status of emerging wideout Rashee Rice -- but the Chiefs are going for an unprecedented three-peat and nothing that's happened so far this offseason seems as daunting as overcoming the departure of Tyreek Hill (which resulted in a Lombardi Trophy) and a downward dip of the offense (yup, another Lombardi).

In the chase

Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins

The common denominator with this group is obvious: They all have top-level quarterbacks and playoff experience. These are the teams that, at least right now, appear to have the goods to challenge the Chiefs. There is a pecking order within the group, though.

Baltimore was the best team in the 2023 regular season, going 13-4 despite playing in the only NFL division that produced three postseason participants. And the offense might be even better in 2024, with Jackson benefiting from increased comfort in Year 2 with OC Todd Monken and the long-awaited addition of running back Derrick Henry. If there is an area to watch, it is the offensive line, which has lost three starters, and the defense, which not only has to replace linebacker Patrick Queen (who left for the rival Steelers), but also defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald (who is now the head coach of the Seahawks). Still, the Ravens have consistently shown the ability to restock the roster -- this offseason doesn't feel any different.

The Bengals, with Burrow returning from an injury-riddled season, have already proven themselves to be the only AFC team that can consistently stress the Chiefs -- and their offseason suggests an intent to ramp up explosive plays. The addition of tight end Mike Gesicki should be a boon for Burrow. Cincinnati signed running back Zack Moss, who burst onto the scene last season in relief of Jonathan Taylor in Indianapolis. And Trent Brown, at right tackle, should solidify the line protecting Burrow -- if, of course, the veteran bookend can stay healthy. Receiver Tee Higgins got franchise-tagged and requested a trade, but assuming the Bengals don't budge on that, keeping him and Ja'Marr Chase together for one more run has Cincy well-positioned for another push to the Super Bowl. The Bengals also did a lot of work on their defense, which struggled against explosive plays last season, bringing on DT Sheldon Rankins, as well as safeties Geno Stone and Vonn Bell. Losing D.J. Reader hampers an already-suspect run defense, so defensive tackle figures to be a draft focus.

Is the window closing on Buffalo's Super Bowl aspirations? Not as long as Josh Allen continues to play football. But this is starting to look like a reset that will test Allen's ability to carry the offense, the way Mahomes had to do it last season. The Bills endured a severe roster makeover, and among the familiar faces gone are Gabe Davis and Stefon Diggs, whose trade to Houston completes a strange arc in which his role diminished dramatically during Buffalo's late-season surge. That leaves the receiver room pretty bare, even though the Bills signed Curtis Samuel. Clearly, Brandon Beane will have to add wide receivers, either in free agency or from a very good draft crop at the position. The overarching issue for the Bills remains the same, though: After failing to close out the Chiefs in the playoffs at home last season, are the Bills even further away from a Super Bowl breakthrough now than they were then?

A very active free agency has the Texans continuing a rapid rise, after a breakout rookie season by Stroud and head coach DeMeco Ryans. Danielle Hunter, Denico Autry, Joe Mixon, Azeez Al-Shaair and Jeff Okudah will all help, and the acquisition of Diggs gives Stroud a veteran game-breaker weapon to add to a receiver corps that already features Nico Collins and Tank Dell -- if we assume that Diggs' disappearance in the second half of last season was not indicative of the start of a decline. The Texans do not currently have a first-round draft pick, but their success drafting last year, combined with their free agency this year, has them poised to take another step up the AFC ladder.

The Dolphins are standing on the shakiest ground in this tier, after a conga line of young talent left in free agency, including Christian Wilkins, Andrew Van Ginkel, Robert Hunt and Raekwon Davis. And Xavien Howard was released. That's an awful lot of homegrown players leaving, which is not generally how contending teams work. Even more daunting: The Dolphins still have to pay Tagovailoa. The draft figures to see them focusing on bolstering both lines, but after four straight winning seasons with no playoff victories and all that attrition, it's fair to wonder if Miami slips down a notch on the AFC ladder while reloading.

The vast middle class

Los Angeles Chargers, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts

There's a lot of potential for upward mobility with this group, and the Jets are at the top of that list with their all-in approach. Everything hinges on Rodgers' health, obviously, which is why Gang Green is in this group before the season. But a rebuilt offensive line and the addition of receiver Mike Williams will help, too (as would another receiver through the draft), while Haason Reddick will be a fine, if older, replacement for Bryce Huff. If it doesn't work, it's a disaster and a lot of people probably lose their jobs. But if Rodgers plays at anything close to a normal Aaron Rodgers level, the Jets will be tremendously improved and should vault high into the category above.

Pittsburgh is in something of the same spot. If Wilson plays like he did last year when Sean Payton was not screaming at him, he is a huge step up from what the Steelers got out of Kenny Pickett, and Arthur Smith's offense should make Russ (or Fields) comfortable. Adding Queen strengthens the defense, which is the heart of this team. Look for Omar Khan to shore up the offensive line in the draft, but the Steelers should look much more functional with Wilson, even though they play in the NFL's toughest division.

The Browns added receiver Jerry Jeudy to a host of weapons, but the offense hinges on one question: Can Deshaun Watson return from injury and finally perform consistently like the quarterback they thought they were trading for? Cleveland made the playoffs last year with a revolving door of backup quarterbacks, thanks to the real strength of the team: the defense. Jameis Winston is his new backup, and in the draft (the Browns don't have a first- or fourth-round pick), they will probably seek reinforcements for the offensive line, which was also battered last season.

For the Jaguars to get back in the hunt in the AFC South, they need Lawrence to stay healthy and probably have to select a receiver early in the draft to go along with the addition of Davis. Keeping Josh Allen was a win -- as will be the arrival of Arik Armstead, if the Jaguars can keep him healthy.

The Colts spent free agency largely keeping their own, which was important, especially in the case of receiver Michael Pittman Jr. They hope Joe Flacco never has to play, but after Anthony Richardson's injury-shortened rookie season, having a trustworthy backup QB is critical. The Colts have plenty of needs going into the draft -- a No. 2 receiver, a corner, a safety -- but they won nine games last year and nearly made the playoffs in Shane Steichen's debut, so if Richardson emerges in his second season, the Colts should be able to at least push the Jaguars and Texans in the division.

The Chargers sacrificed receivers (Keenan Allen and Williams) to keep edge rushers (Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack) in their salary cap purge, and that tells you that Jim Harbaugh plans to play Jim Harbaugh football: with defense and a power running game (SEE: the Gus Edwards signing). Los Angeles has to draft receivers, but the real hope for this team coming off a five-win season is that Harbaugh has historically been a quick turnaround artist.

The great unknowns

Las Vegas Raiders, Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots, Denver Broncos

These teams all have either new coaches or will have new quarterbacks -- or possibly both. Maybe they get lucky and have a Texans-like rise. Maybe it's a protracted rebuild. Whatever it is, it's a whole lot of uncertainty.

The Titans are the only team in this quartet that goes into the 2024 season knowing who their quarterback is -- Will Levis -- and they have been extremely busy in the last month, getting new pieces to jump-start their rebuild around him. The trade with the Chiefs for corner L'Jarius Sneed was a huge plus, as were the additions of Calvin Ridley and Tony Pollard to the offense. The Texans and Jaguars are still at the top of the AFC South, but those additions likely ensure the Titans will at least be competitive.

The Raiders were galvanized by Antonio Pierce's ascension last season, but now Pierce, along with new Raiders GM Tom Telesco, have to decide if Aiden O'Connell or Gardner Minshew is the starting quarterback or if both are better off as backups, with the draft providing the possibility of a quarterback. Las Vegas made a huge splash in free agency, signing defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. If passion equaled wins, the Raiders would be in the Super Bowl already, but the choice at quarterback will determine if Vegas moves out of the NFL netherworld this season.

The Broncos feel a little like a teardown right now. Wilson was jettisoned, but his huge dead-cap charge meant Denver had to make other difficult decisions and was quiet in free agency. Star safety Justin Simmons is out, as is Jeudy. Payton can finally put his stamp on the team by selecting his next quarterback in this draft, but the Broncos feel at least another year, and more roster pieces, away from putting any pressure on the Chiefs.

The Patriots are the most fascinating team of this group -- and one of the most interesting teams in the league -- because this is the first non-Belichick draft in more than two decades and because New England badly needs a quarterback. The Pats actually need a whole lot for the roster, but they had an underwhelming free agency, despite Jerod Mayo's early promise that the Patriots were going to spend money. The priorities are obvious: get a quarterback, get some playmakers on offense, get the offensive line together. Still, those pleas for patience coming from the brain trust in Foxborough are happening for a reason.

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