After a news-filled past few months, the NFL is officially off for the summer. Rookies will attend virtual minicamp over the next few weeks, but with free agency and the draft in the books, the rest of the league will be dormant for the remainder of May. With rosters now (mostly) set, that makes this the perfect time to recap the player movement that’s happened and forecast how it could shape the league landscape in 2020. During the next two days, we’ll examine the biggest moves, changes, and question marks in each conference, going division by division. Today, we’ll break down the AFC. For the NFC, click here.
Team That Improved the Most: Dolphins
It wasn’t going to take much for Miami to improve on its 2019 roster. Last season was an intentional low point for the rebuilding Dolphins, and their moves this spring indicate that they’re ready to turn the corner. We’ll see how quickly Tua Tagovailoa gets onto the field, but Miami’s quarterback room is in much better shape even if he opens the year backing up Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Dolphins added athletic left tackle prospect Austin Jackson with another first-round pick, and he’ll join second-rounder Robert Hunt and free agent addition Ereck Flowers on a revamped offensive line.
The Dolphins also made substantial changes on defense via surprising forays into the free agent market. Miami made Byron Jones the league’s highest-paid cornerback with a five-year, $82.5 million deal; it shelled out a four-year, $51 million deal for linebacker Kyle Van Noy; and it added pass rusher Shaq Lawson on a three-year, $30 million contract. With Jones, Xavien Howard, and 2020 first-rounder Noah Igbinoghene at corner, head coach Brian Flores is trying to replicate the blueprint he followed in New England by building this team from back to front. Miami isn’t ready to compete in the AFC just yet, but GM Chris Grier has brought in a ton of talent over the past few months.
Team With the Most Work Left to Do: Jets
Joe Douglas had his hands full in his first full offseason as the Jets GM. Somehow, the franchise he inherited had both a shortage of talent and an expensive roster. It’ll take a while before Douglas can pull the Jets out of their current hole, but he made some prudent moves during his first spring in charge. Letting Robby Anderson walk in free agency and replacing him with Breshad Perriman for half the guaranteed money is the type of move that smart GMs make. Rookie wide receiver Denzel Mims and third-round safety Ashtyn Davis give the Jets much-needed speed on both offense and defense. And by retooling his offensive line with first-round draft pick Mekhi Becton, George Fant (on a somewhat questionable three-year deal), and a few low-risk veteran additions, Douglas mimicked the multifaceted strategy that Buffalo followed last offseason to remake its offensive line.
Even with those moves, though, the Jets are still woefully thin at cornerback and edge rusher. There was simply too much on Douglas’s to-do list to fix this team in a single offseason.
Most Notable Departures: Tom Brady, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins (Patriots); Reshad Jones (Dolphins)
The Patriots apparently said goodbye to their quarterback this offseason. Maybe you’ve heard of him. The divorce between New England and Tom Brady makes sense for both sides, but it leaves the Pats without a surefire answer at QB. While multiple reports have indicated that the team likes 2019 fourth-rounder Jarrett Stidham, he’s still an unknown joining a fairly pedestrian offense. Bill Belichick picked a couple tight ends in the middle rounds of the 2020 draft, but for the most part New England will trot out the same group of pass catchers that it did last season.
If the Patriots are going to maintain their AFC East supremacy, they’ll need to lean on their defense—but that unit has also experienced attrition this offseason. Van Noy was the type of versatile piece that helped the New England scheme function; now, he’ll fill that role for the Dolphins. Elandon Roberts joined him in an exodus south to Miami, and linebacker Jamie Collins left for the Lions in free agency. This is going to be a year of transition for Belichick and Co., and that goes beyond losing Brady.
As the Pats hemorrhaged talent this offseason, most of their division rivals added pieces. The most notable departure elsewhere was probably Miami releasing safety Reshad Jones and leaving behind more than $10 million in dead money. Jones was a fixture in Miami for nearly a decade, but the writing was on the wall: There’s no room for a 32-year-old safety in an organization that’s trying to get younger.
Instant Impact Veteran Additions: Byron Jones, Kyle Van Noy, and Ereck Flowers (Dolphins); Stefon Diggs (Bills)
We’ve already touched on the Dolphins’ high-profile moves. Jones and Xavien Howard have the potential to be the best cornerback tandem in the entire NFL. And they might have to be for Miami to slow down the Bills. Buffalo GM Brandon Beane has done an excellent job constructing this roster over the past three years, and in the spring he made his finishing touches. By trading a haul of picks (including a 2020 first-rounder) to the Vikings for Stefon Diggs, Beane completed a receiving corps that he’s been assembling for the past two years. Diggs is a true no. 1 option, the type of wideout who can do a bit of everything and gives Josh Allen an elite target on the outside. Diggs will join speedster John Brown and slot option Cole Beasley to form one of the most well-rounded trios in the league. If Allen can’t get it done with this group, the Bills will know everything they need to about the QB’s long-term outlook.
Best Under-the-Radar Additions: Quinton Jefferson and Mario Addison (Bills); Matt Breida (Dolphins)
Beane has been shrewd in how he’s built positional groups for the Bills. He hunts for bargains and creates units featuring players with complementary skill sets. This offseason was no different. Jefferson is an effective interior rusher who should pair well with 2019 first-round pick Ed Oliver inside in nickel packages. Addison is a solid edge rusher who will join forces with Jerry Hughes and 2020 second-rounder A.J. Epenesa to give Buffalo a nice three-man rotation. Together, Jefferson and Addison have about the same amount of guaranteed money on their deals that former Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson received from Miami.
It’s a nice change of pace to see teams in the AFC East making smart moves—just in time for the Patriots to lose Brady. Along with all of their high-profile additions in free agency and the draft, the Dolphins sent a fifth-round pick to the 49ers for running back Matt Breida. Trading away a late pick to add a useful running back is a much better use of resources than burning a second- or third-rounder to fill that spot. Breida was phased out in San Francisco by Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert, but he’s capable of holding down Miami’s starting job in the short term.
Intriguing Draft Picks: Tua Tagovailoa and Austin Jackson (Dolphins)
Landing Tagovailoa with the fifth pick in the draft would have been a dream scenario for Miami at the start of last season. The Alabama product has franchise-altering talent, and the Dolphins managed to snag him without fully devolving into a punch line last season or trading away a ton of capital to move up in the draft. Given all of the questions surrounding the NFL practice schedule and Tagovailoa’s considerable injury history, Miami might be best served bringing Tagovailoa along slowly as a rookie. But when he’s ready to play, he could take off in coordinator Chan Gailey’s wide-open offense. By adding Tagovailoa and Jackson in the same draft class, the Dolphins potentially filled their two most important offensive holes in a single night.
Team That Improved the Most: Browns
The Bengals should be considerably better this season than in 2019 after adding Joe Burrow with no. 1 pick, but Cleveland improved more holistically by adding several pieces at positions of need. Offensive tackle was the weakest part of the Browns roster entering the offseason, and they addressed it by signing right tackle Jack Conklin to a three-year, $42 million deal and then nabbing stud prospect Jedrick Wills Jr. with the 10th pick in the draft. Free-agent addition Austin Hooper gives Cleveland another solid pass-catching option who’s familiar with the play-action-heavy system that head coach Kevin Stefanski wants to run. And the combination of Karl Joseph and second-round pick Grant Delpit potentially gives the Browns a new pair of starting safeties. This may sound familiar after last offseason, but Cleveland has a ton of talent on paper.
Team With the Most Work Left to Do: Bengals
This isn’t meant as a slight to the job that director of player personnel Duke Tobin and the rest of Cincinnati’s front office did this offseason. Burrow looks like a transformative quarterback, and pairing him with second-round pick Tee Higgins could ignite the Bengals passing game for years to come. Burrow, Higgins, franchise-tagged receiver A.J. Green, and slot option Tyler Boyd could combine to give this team an above-average passing game.
But Cincinnati’s offensive line is still a serious problem. Even with free agent addition Xavier Su’a-Filo stepping in at right guard and left tackle Jonah Williams returning after missing his entire rookie season to injury, the Bengals could use more improvements up front. If Burrow pans out, this offseason will go down as a victory for Cincinnati no matter what else happens. Even with their quarterback of the future, though, the Bengals are a long way from being relevant in the AFC.
Most Notable Departures: Javon Hargrave (Steelers), Michael Pierce (Ravens), Joe Schobert (Browns)
Hargrave was overshadowed and underutilized as a member of the Steelers’ loaded defensive front last season, but he’s a talented interior rusher who will be missed. A lot more casual fans will know his name after he spends a season as a starter in the Eagles’ attacking 4-3 scheme.
The Ravens also lost a steady presence in the middle of their defensive line with Pierce heading to Minnesota in free agency. And to address that spot, all Baltimore did was trade for Calais Campbell and sign Derek Wolfe in free agency. Pierce is a stout run defender who vastly outperformed his undrafted free agent status, but the Ravens should just be fine without him.
Cleveland might not be so lucky when it comes to Joe Schobert. The Jaguars probably overpaid for the linebacker by handing him a five-year, $54 million deal, but he was a reliable presence in the middle of the Browns defense for years. Cleveland will need third-round draft pick Jacob Phillips to step in and make an immediate contribution.
Instant Impact Veteran Additions: Calais Campbell (Ravens), D.J. Reader and Trae Waynes (Bengals)
It’s still hard to believe that the Ravens got Campbell for the fifth-round pick they acquired last offseason by trading a kicker, but here we are. Campbell is 33, but he’s still an absolute force as a pass rusher and a run defender. He’ll only count for $10 million against the cap this season. That’s an absolute steal for a Ravens team whose directive is Super Bowl or bust.
Campbell will actually carry a smaller cap hit than D.J. Reader, who signed a four-year, $53 million deal with the Bengals in March. That might sound like a shocking number for a player few casual NFL fans know about, but Reader is a standout interior pass rusher who was nearly as effective on a per-snap basis last season as All-Pro Grady Jarrett. Along with Reader, the Bengals also added former Vikings first-round pick Trae Waynes. The speedy corner had issues with penalties and consistency in Minnesota, but he’s an upgrade over what the Bengals had at the position in 2019.
Best Under-the-Radar Additions: Stefen Wisniewski and Eric Ebron (Steelers), Derek Wolfe (Ravens), Karl Joseph (Browns)
Several AFC North teams found great value in the bargain bin this offseason. Pittsburgh added guard Stefen Wisniewski on a two-year, $2.85 million deal. In his last two stops with the Eagles and Chiefs, Wisniewski has stabilized offensive lines for Super Bowl winners, and the Steelers got him for next to nothing. Pittsburgh’s other big offensive addition is tight end Eric Ebron, who inked a two-year, $12 million contract with only $5 million guaranteed. It’s a low-risk signing for an athletic tight end returning from injury, and could pay huge dividends for a Pittsburgh team in search of pass-catching weapons.
Baltimore scooped up former Broncos defensive tackle Derek Wolfe on a one-year, $3 million deal, which looks pretty damn good next to the $10.1 million cap hit that Reader will carry for the Bengals. And Cleveland hopes that it found its own savvy one-year rental in Karl Joseph, who signed a $2.5 million deal. Joseph is the sort of free agency gamble worth taking. A former first-round pick who fell out of favor with the Raiders regime, Joseph has a chance to remake his career with first-year defensive coordinator Joe Woods in Cleveland.
Intriguing Draft Picks: Grant Delpit and Jordan Elliott (Browns), Patrick Queen and J.K. Dobbins (Ravens)
In Delpit and Elliott, the Browns landed two potential first-round talents outside the top 32. LSU’s Delpit was one of the best safeties in the country heading into 2019, but was bothered by injuries for most of last year. He’s a playmaking force who could thrive as the deep-middle defender in Woods’s scheme. Elliott is a raw but fascinating defensive tackle prospect who could flourish as a one-gap penetrator in defensive line coach Chris Kiffin’s attacking system.
The Ravens’ draft haul outside the first round has similar upside. Some people may scoff at the positional value of taking an off-ball linebacker and running back in the early rounds, but Queen and Dobbins could turn into superstars for Baltimore. Both fit exactly what the Ravens want to do.
Team That Improved the Most: Colts
What a profoundly weird offseason in the AFC South. The Titans used the majority of their available cap space to retain Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry and keep the core of a top-10 offense intact. Imagine reading that sentence a year ago. The Jaguars auctioned off the final pieces of their excellent 2017 defense for scraps as the franchise hit the reset button. And the Texans, well … ask Bill O’Brien.
Among the teams in this division, the Colts added the most talent. Philip Rivers is an upgrade over Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, with head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni (both of whom coached Rivers with the Chargers) forming the perfect duo to get the most out of the veteran’s final seasons. The Colts also traded away the 13th pick in the draft to acquire DeForest Buckner, who was then signed to a monster four-year, $84 million deal. Players of Buckner’s caliber rarely hit free agency, and Indianapolis felt that splurging on him was the right move with its ocean of cap space.
In the draft, the Colts added freight-train running back Jonathan Taylor and playmaking outside receiver Michael Pittman Jr. to complete their offense. That may not seem like a blockbuster offseason, but that speaks to how stagnant the rest of the AFC South was this spring.
Team With the Most Work Left to Do: Jaguars
Saying the Jags are the least-talented team in this division isn’t an insult. That was their plan. Jacksonville consciously chose to tear its roster down to the studs as newly reinstated general manager David Caldwell institutes a full-scale rebuild. A.J. Bouye, Calais Campbell, Jalen Ramsey, Marcell Dareus, and Nick Foles were all shipped out in the past 12 months, and franchise-tagged pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue is likely the next to go. Even after adding first-round picks C.J. Henderson and K’Lavon Chaisson, the Jags will likely land somewhere in the top 10 of next year’s draft. They’re playing the long game in Florida.
Most Notable Departures: DeAndre Hopkins (Texans), Jack Conklin and Jurrell Casey (Titans)
The DeAndre Hopkins trade remains just as inexplicable now as it was a few weeks ago. Just to remind everyone: Bill O’Brien and Houston really traded away one of the league’s best receivers for David Johnson and a draft pick that was later shipped to the Rams to acquire Brandin Cooks. Both Johnson and Cooks were actively being shopped so their former teams could escape onerous contracts. As the Cardinals and Rams tried to wiggle out from beneath financial boulders, all they had to do was call the Texans—who were willing to give up DeAndre Hopkins in the process.
Tennessee lost notable pieces along its offensive and defensive lines, but the Titans should be just fine. They drafted Georgia product Isaiah Wilson to replace Jack Conklin at right tackle, and 2019 first-round pick Jeffery Simmons will take over for Jurrell Casey at defensive tackle. Tennessee’s most significant loss might actually be defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who retired at age 70. Pees was an underrated play-caller for a long time during stints as the coordinator for the Patriots, Ravens, and Titans. We’ll see how Tennessee’s plan to replace him with a committee works out.
Instant Impact Veteran Additions: DeForest Buckner and Philip Rivers (Colts), Jay Gruden (Jaguars)
There just weren’t many splashy moves made in the AFC South this offseason—at least not that made teams better, anyway. Buckner should make a major difference for a young Colts front four by providing some pass-rushing pop on the interior. Buckner, Justin Houston, Denico Autry, and recent draftees Ben Banogu and Kemoko Turay form a nice collection of pieces up front. They’ll be responsible for carrying the defense, especially considering the state of the Indianapolis secondary.
The most interesting divisional addition might have actually come on the Jags coaching staff. Former Redskins head coach Jay Gruden is a talented play-caller who should get the most out of Gardner Minshew II. Minshew will need to be incredible this year to prevent the Jags from drafting a QB like Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields next spring, but he should have a chance to succeed with Gruden and a solid group of pass catchers.
Best Under-the-Radar Additions: Tyler Eifert (Jaguars), Tim Jernigan (Texans)
Both Eifert and Jernigan are low-risk additions who could help their respective units. Tight end was an absolute wasteland for the Jags last season, and Eifert is a useful pass catcher when he’s healthy. Nabbing him for only $3.25 million guaranteed is a smart move. Likewise, Houston was smart to bring in Jernigan, who will carry a $3.75 million cap hit this season with only $1.25 million guaranteed. Both players come with worrying injury histories, but won’t do much cap damage if they don’t pan out.
Intriguing Draft Picks: Laviska Shenault Jr. (Jaguars), Ross Blacklock (Texans)
The Jags are mostly starting at square one with this roster, but their pass-catching group has the potential to be entertaining. Shenault is devastating with the ball in his hands, and should nicely complement budding star DJ Chark on the outside. Blacklock, meanwhile, was an excellent pocket penetrator during his time at TCU, and the Texans badly need an interior presence after losing D.J. Reader in free agency. The combination of Blacklock and a healthy J.J. Watt could create problems for opposing offensive lines.
Team That Improved the Most: Chargers
It’s not easy for a team to lose an entrenched starting quarterback and get better, but the Chargers might have done just that. Moving on from Rivers didn’t dissuade GM Tom Telesco and the front office from being ultra-aggressive this offseason. Adding right guard Trai Turner in a trade and signing steady right tackle Bryan Bulaga in free agency remade the Chargers offensive line. Inking cornerback Chris Harris Jr. gives this team the most complete secondary in football. Those moves overshadow subtler ones like signing defensive tackle Linval Joseph after he was released by the Vikings. And Telesco topped everything off by nabbing Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert with the sixth pick in the draft and trading back into the first round to snag speedy Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray. Even without Rivers, this Los Angeles roster is much more talented from top to bottom than it was at the end of last season.
The Raiders have a case here as well. They entered this offseason with holes at linebacker, pass catcher, and defensive back, and Jon Gruden and Co. addressed all three spots. Adding Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski could turn the linebacking corps from a weakness into a strength, while draftees Henry Ruggs III, Bryan Edwards, and Lynn Bowden Jr. give Gruden a trio of complementary playmakers with varied skill sets. Plus, first-round pick Damon Arnette will pair with 2019 second-rounder Trayvon Mullen to give the Raiders a promising young outside cornerback duo. Gruden and Mike Mayock have stocked this roster with talent, but I’m giving the Chargers a slight edge.
Team With the Most Work Left to Do: Broncos
The Broncos are the choice here essentially by default. Every other AFC West team is loading up in an attempt to catch the Chiefs, and Denver simply added fewer pieces than its division rivals. But that doesn’t mean the Broncos had a bad spring. GM John Elway turned his pass-catching group into a track team by drafting Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, and Albert Okwuegbunam to add to an offense that already featured vertical threats in Courtland Sutton and Noah Fant. I have no idea if Drew Lock will pan out, but Elway is giving him absolutely every chance to thrive.
The Broncos added so many speedy receivers that it’s easy to forget that running back Melvin Gordon is now also on this team. And Denver made a couple low-risk trades to nab cornerback A.J. Bouye and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, fortifying two areas of need. Denver still has a hole at linebacker, a question mark at its second outside cornerback spot, and concerns on the offensive line, but if this is the weakest team in the division, the AFC West is doing well.
Instant Impact Veteran Additions: Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkowski (Raiders); A.J. Bouye (Broncos), Bryan Bulaga, and Chris Harris Jr. (Chargers)
Littleton is arguably the best cover linebacker in the league: He erases running backs in space, sticks with tight ends up the seam, and has the awareness to excel in zone coverage. Off-ball linebackers are considered a marginalized position in today’s NFL, but Littleton has the skill set to stay relevant, and his contract ($11.75 million per year with no guaranteed money beyond 2021) is a great value for the Raiders. Kwiatkoski is more old school than Littleton, but he is capable of holding his own in coverage and is effective as a blitzer. He was excellent after being pressed into duty last season for Chicago; as a Bears fan, I will miss him.
For Elway and Denver, trading for Bouye was a smart bit of value-sniping. The Jags were having a clearance sale, and even if Bouye’s $13.4 million cap hit is steep, Denver had the available space. It had to give up only a fourth-round pick to acquire someone who can play like a top-tier corner. Broncos head coach Vic Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell have a history of getting the most out of their defensive backs, and Bouye could see a resurgence in Denver. If he doesn’t, the Broncos aren’t on the hook for any dead money if he’s let go next offseason.
Bulaga and Harris both got less money in free agency than I expected, probably because both of them are on the wrong side of 30. But they can still flat-out play. Bulaga is one of the most reliable right tackles in football when he’s on the field, and his three-year, $30 million deal nearly matches the one that the Jets handed former Seahawks backup George Fant. Meanwhile, even if Harris declined during his last few seasons in Denver, Telesco was smart to add a player with his résumé to an already great defense. Harris should be rejuvenated now that he’s surrounded with quality pieces. The Chargers secondary is not only absurdly talented, but also extremely versatile.
Most Notable Departure: Russell Okung (Chargers)
Most of the big-name players who left the AFC West this offseason (Rivers, Derek Wolfe) were immediately replaced, but the Chargers didn’t do much to account for losing Okung. Telesco dealt his starting left tackle to the Panthers to acquire Turner; that’s arguably a talent upgrade and gives the Chargers a younger player, but still leaves a massive hole on the left side of L.A.’s offensive line. That could be an issue regardless of whether Herbert or Tyrod Taylor starts the season at quarterback.
Best Under-the-Radar Additions: Graham Glasgow (Broncos), Linval Joseph (Chargers), Mike Remmers (Chiefs), Maliek Collins and Damarious Randall (Raiders)
Adding Glasgow is under the radar only because he’s a guard. The Broncos gave the interior lineman a four-year, $44 million deal to stabilize their offensive line, placing him among the league’s 10 highest-paid guards by average annual value. Glasgow’s play went up a notch after moving from center to guard for the Lions last fall, and he should be a solid contributor for the Broncos and lauded offensive line coach Mike Munchak.
Elsewhere on the offensive line, the Chiefs added Mike Remmers on a one-year, $1.2 million deal. That’s practically nothing for a player with experience at both guard and tackle. Similarly, the Chargers found value with Joseph’s two-year, $17 million deal. Joseph is 31 and in the back half of his career, but he’s still a disruptive presence in the middle. He should make Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram better as he collapses the pocket.
My favorite overlooked moves in this division, though, belong to the Raiders. Mayock is probably relying too much on the development of 2019 draftees Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby to jump-start the pass rush, but adding underrated defensive tackle Maliek Collins on a one-year, $6 million contract should give this front four some juice. Collins tallied 48 pressures last season for the Cowboys—the same number that Leonard Williams racked up for the Jets and Giants. Williams is playing on the franchise tag this season, and will make about 2.5 times what Collins will get from the Raiders. Mayock also added safety Damarious Randall on a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Randall is coming off of two forgettable seasons in Cleveland, but for that price the Raiders got a veteran presence for next to nothing.
Intriguing Draft Picks: Justin Herbert (Chargers), Willie Gay Jr. (Chiefs), Lloyd Cushenberry III (Broncos)
It’ll be fascinating to see how quickly the Chargers turn to Herbert this fall. Tyrod Taylor has been solid for most of his career, but teams don’t typically keep first-round quarterbacks on the bench for long. The Chargers have constructed a ready-made contender around their new franchise QB, and Herbert may not have to wait to get his chance even with a truncated offseason that could slow his development.
Gay was the necessary addition for the Chiefs in the second round. The only real weaknesses on Kansas City’s 2019 roster were at cornerback and linebacker, and Gay should give this team the athleticism it previously lacked in the middle of the field.
The Broncos made a similar move to address a position of need by drafting Cushenberry in the third round. The LSU center will have every chance to win the starting job and slide between Glasgow and Dalton Risner to round out the interior of the offensive line. If Denver hits on its picks and Lock takes a step forward in 2020, this offense could be fun as hell.