With the NFL offseason here, USA TODAY Sports provides early assessments of the 16 AFC teams:
GM Ozzie Newsome excised much of the core of the 2012 champions, sacrificing the franchise's best shot at a repeat to build a long-term contender. But he probably didn't expect to miss the playoffs — something coach John Harbaugh and QB Joe Flacco had never experienced — for the first time since 2007. Statistically, the revamped defense didn't regress without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. But the offense predictably deteriorated after Newsome exported WR Anquan Boldin over a contract spat then watched TE Dennis Pitta and RB Ray Rice suffer debilitating injuries.
Contract issues: Pitta, Flacco's best friend on the team, made it back from a major training camp hip injury, but it remains to be seen if Newsome re-signs him. Fellow TEs Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson will also be free agents, so this area may be entirely re-cast. Matters are even worse on the O-line with starting Ts Eugene Monroe and Michael Oher also poised to hit the market. As well as LB Daryl Smith played in Lewis' stead, second-round pick Arthur Brown may replace him. Return ace Jacoby Jones, who's no better than a No. 3 receiver, is a luxury.
Draft pickings: Given Newsome's conundrums, tackle and tight end are logical targets, and Michigan's Taylor Lewan or Notre Dame's Eric Ebron could be respective considerations.
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Doug Marrone has some good young pieces to build around in EJ Manuel, the lone quarterback selected in the first round of last year's draft. Manuel is backed by second-round WR Robert Woods and play-making LB Kiko Alonso. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson provide a good one-two running punch. Buffalo's issue is upgrading a 28th-ranked run defense if it wants to get off the 6-10 treadmill.
Contract issues: The Bills have an estimated $15.9 million in salary cap room. With new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, they will be moving to a 4-3 scheme and will need more pieces that fit his philosophy. Whether to re-sign FS Jairus Byrd is the biggest free-agent issue.
Draft pickings: With the ninth overall pick, the Bills will get the chance they need to bolster their interior run defense for a unit that notched 57 sacks but surrendered far too many big plays on the back end.
The good — they were in the playoffs a third consecutive year for the first time in franchise history. The bad — after winning all of their regular-season home games in dominant fashion, the Bengals were blown out at Paul Brown Stadium by the sixth-seeded Chargers in the wild-card round. The ugly — QB Andy Dalton once again blinked under the postseason spotlight. Coach Marvin Lewis lost coordinators Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer to head coaching jobs.
Contract issues: After receiving the franchise tag a year ago, DE Michael Johnson responded with 3½ sacks, though he may have been most directly impacted by the midseason injury to all-pro DT Geno Atkins. Owner Mike Brown has plenty of cap space but typically pays his own players rather than recruit outsiders. Still, before he weighs re-signing Johnson, he'll likely look to extend WR A.J. Green and possibly Dalton.
Draft pickings: Lewis' support for Dalton seems solid, but don't be shocked if they grab a developmental quarterback. Interior line depth on both sides of the ball would help, and the secondary could probably use some fresh legs.
After the stunning dismissal of first-year coach Rob Chudzinski hours after the regular season wrapped, the Browns are starting fresh. Again. Pro Bowlers Joe Thomas, Jordan Cameron and breakout wideout Josh Gordon are nice offensive building blocks, but that trio is surrounded by question marks. The defense is changing coordinators again, didn't get much from rookie pass rusher Barkevious Mingo and appears to have serious secondary problems, CB Joe Haden notwithstanding.
Contract issues: The Browns are swimming in cap space and can solidify their nucleus by re-signing Pro Bowl C Alex Mack and S T.J. Ward. Haden, Cameron and DL Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard will be candidates for early extensions, a stratagem team CEO Joe Banner often used in Philadelphia.
Draft pickings: The Browns are sitting on 10 selections, seven in the first four rounds, including two in Round 1 thanks to what appears a deft trade of RB Trent Richardson to the Colts. But Cleveland may have to bundle some as currency assuming they target either QB Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater, who may not fall to the No. 4 spot. The run game was on blocks all year and requires reinforcement, and new coach Mike Pettine will surely want to add weapons on defense.
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USA TODAY Sports' Tom Pelissero breaks down what's next for Denver.
A week ago, the Broncos looked to be in great shape for 2014. After an embarrassing blowout loss in the Super Bowl, Denver faces more questions — about its defense, blocking and even that high-powered offense for inevitable future games against teams trying to recreate the Seahawks' formula for stopping it. The good news is that, barring an unforeseen issue with his spring physical, QB Peyton Manning will be back as will at least three of his favorite receivers or tight ends. The Broncos will also look far different in 2014 as starters like T Ryan Clady, OLB Von Miller, DT Kevin Vickerson, S Rahim Moore and DE Derek Wolfe get healthy. All missed Denver's playoff run.
Contract issues: The Broncos will have some wiggle room under the salary cap but will have to make some tough choices, too, especially with impending free agents like WR Eric Decker, G Zane Beadles and RB Knowshon Moreno. Decker could draw plenty of interest and bigger contract offers to be a No. 1 receiver. Several defensive starters, like pass rusher Shaun Phillips, S Mike Adams, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, LB Wesley Woodyard and DE Robert Ayers will also become free agents.
Draft pickings: Denver will pick 31st, and what happens in free agency could dictate the biggest need in the draft. The Broncos will need help at receiver, linebacker and depth for the interior offensive line.
They entered the season as presumed contenders after winning consecutive AFC South titles. They finished it with a 14-game losing streak and the league's worst record despite a talent-laden roster. Head coach Gary Kubiak was fired Dec. 6, but his early dismissal allowed Houston to lure Bill O'Brien away from Penn State just days after the season ended. O'Brien has a reputation as a quarterback whisperer, but he probably won't invest much time in incumbents Matt Schaub, Case Keenum and T.J. Yates. RB Arian Foster broke down after averaging 372 touches the previous three seasons while defensive captain Brian Cushing again landed on IR.
Contract issues: Schaub is owed eight-figure salaries each of the next three seasons, but an organization that clearly lost faith in him might opt to cut him loose and re-allocate the future savings. DE Antonio Smith, G Wade Smith and backup RB Ben Tate played out their deals.
Draft pickings: The Texans hold the No. 1 choice in the 2014 draft and seem a natural destination for Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel or Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater. However owner Bob McNair claims the team is open to dealing the pick.
They ran away with the division crown despite losing their veteran heartbeat, WR Reggie Wayne, to a midseason knee injury that sent the offense into a temporary tailspin. QB Andrew Luck and Co. found their groove again late in the year, but issues remain. Wayne will be back in 2014, but he won't fix the protection around Luck or the running game. And though coach Chuck Pagano is trying to build a more physical defense, it's still struggling to stop the run and isn't generating much pass rush outside of OLB Robert Mathis.
Contract issues: The secondary stands to lose starting CB Vontae Davis and S Antoine Bethea. The special teams could be looking at an overhaul if veteran K Adam Vinatieri and P Pat McAfee are not re-signed. RB Donald Brown's inspired play earned him a late-season promotion to starter, but he'll probably walk as the team tries to figure out how to salvage its pricey investment in Trent Richardson.
Draft pickings: The acquisition of Richardson from the Browns cost the Colts the No. 26 pick. GM Ryan Grigson, who's not afraid of taking a risk, may again have to rely on free agency to fill his most pressing roster holes.
The roster is probably the weakest in the NFL, and Jacksonville seemed a strong candidate to go 0-16 after looking hopelessly overmatched during the first eight weeks of the season. But first-year coach Gus Bradley's unwavering positive demeanor seemed to take root, and the Jags never quit on their way to playing .500 ball in the second half despite trading arguably their best player (LT Eugene Monroe) and watching his replacement (first-round pick Luke Joeckel) suffer a season-ending broken ankle. WR Justin Blackmon remains on suspension.
Contract issues: RB Maurice Jones-Drew's deal expired, so the Jags will probably need a new face for the franchise. Starting QB Chad Henne will also be a free agent, and the Blaine Gabbert experiment is almost certainly over. Veteran C Brad Meester retired. However GM Dave Caldwell is sitting on a pile of salary-cap dollars and already earmarked some into a four-year extension for DT Sen'Derrick Marks.
Draft pickings: Assuming the Texans pick Manziel or Bridgewater, Caldwell will probably have the option of taking the other with the No. 3 pick — unless the Rams deal out of the No. 2 slot. However it wouldn't be shocking if Jacksonville targeted a playmaker like South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney or Clemson WR Sammy Watkins and then tried to acquire Fresno State QB Derek Carr, whom Bradley's staff coached at the Senior Bowl, down the board.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
They had the NFL's best turnaround in 2013 under new coach Andy Reid and QB Alex Smith. The challenge now is to maintain that momentum and find a way to close the gap on the Broncos in the AFC West. The Chiefs are off to a good start with RB Jamaal Charles and Smith, who played his best game of the season in the playoff loss to the Colts.
Contract issues: The Chiefs' biggest impending free agent is LT Branden Albert. He played last season under the franchise tag. Other free agents include KR/WR Dexter McCluster, S Kendrick Lewis and OL Geoff Schwartz.
Draft pickings: The Chiefs have the No. 23 pick — putting them in a far different situation than Reid and GM John Dorsey in their first draft, when they owned the No. 1 pick in 2013 and took T Eric Fisher. They need more help at receiver and in the secondary, especially if Lewis does not return.
After a promising 3-0 start, coach Joe Philbin's team faded to miss the postseason for a fifth consecutive year. A roller-coaster season was marred by a four-game losing skid, locker room scandal and a season-ending slide when the Dolphins were outscored 39-7 in two make-or-break matchups with the Bills and Jets.
Contract issues: New GM Dennis Hickey will have $17.2 million in cap space to sift through a combined 20 unrestricted and restricted free agents. Top priority should be addressing the left part of the O-line where the embarrassing Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal left QB Ryan Tannehill's blind side exposed.
Draft pickings: Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman was fired after a 26th-ranked scoring offense never got in sync, averaging 19.8 points. Tannehill was the league's most sacked (58) passer, and that needs to be addressed starting with the 19th overall pick.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Despite winning 12 games and leading a depleted team to the AFC Championship Game, Tom Brady's Super Bowl window is shrinking. First priority is getting him a big-ticket receiving weapon, then a more reliable tight end. Oft-injured Rob Gronkowski, played just seven games after returning from multiple surgeries but subsequently tearing up his knee.
Contract issues: The Patriots are snug against the cap. CB Aqib Talib should be the top priority in free agency. The team can create more cap space by restructuring the contracts of DT Vince Wilfork and G Logan Mankins.
Draft pickings: They select 29th overall. Aside from their offensive needs, they must shore up the interior of their defensive line.
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NEW YORK JETS
Everything depends on the offseason development of turnover-prone QB Geno Smith. The Jets need to bring in a proven veteran, such as Michael Vick, who worked with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg previously with the Eagles. The jury is still out on Smith but surrounding him with more dynamic receiving options is the best way to start helping the second-round pick from West Virginia.
Contract issues: QB Mark Sanchez is a lock to be released. His 2014 cap cost is $13.9 million for a team that is roughly $19 million under the cap.
Draft pickings: The Jets have the 18th pick and a tight end or receiver would be among the top priorities. If Smith is going to improve, it will depend on better skilled players after his 21 interceptions (against just 12 TD throws).
Dennis Allen and his staff will return for a third season, but Allen will be coaching for his job after the Raiders went 4-12. If they don't show progress quickly, with a roster that is still in transition, there could be another regime change. The biggest offseason issue is at quarterback. Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin will be back, but neither seems the long-term solution.
Contract issues: Two of their best players will become free agents, former first-round RB Darren McFadden and DL Lamarr Houston. Backup RB Rashad Jennings, CB Tracy Porter and DE Justin Hunter also played last season on one-year deals. But Oakland will have lots of room under the salary cap for a change.
Draft pickings: The Raiders will pick at No. 5, where they should have plenty of options to address numerous roster needs, including defensive line, wideout and running back.
Their 0-4 start ultimately doomed them, but a 6-2 finish built some momentum heading into 2014. That's especially true on offense, where QB Ben Roethlisberger and coordinator Todd Haley finally seemed to find their groove while the second-half surge of rookie Le'Veon Bell was a big help. The O-line should get a needed boost from the hiring of Hall of Famer Mike Munchak. The defense had the worst showing of coordinator Dick LeBeau's 10-year tenure and could move on from mainstays Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Clark.
Contract issues: Clark and Keisel are free agents. Underperforming Woodley has eight-figure cap hits each of the next three years, and the team may opt to move on and try to re-invest in younger Jason Worilds, who will get a raise from someone with his next contract. WR Antonio Brown could get lonely with Plaxico Burress, Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders all unsigned.
Draft pickings: Pittsburgh is perilously thin at wideout and defensive back. It may also be time to start thinking about an heir apparent for revered TE Heath Miller, 31, whose cap figure is nearly $10 million heading into the final year of his contract.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
They were the AFC's hottest team in December when they won four in a row to clinch a wild-card spot, then went to Cincinnati and beat the No. 3 seed Bengals. San Diego's turnaround was possible through QB Philip Rivers' resurgence, although offensive coordinator/playcaller Ken Whisenhunt left to become the Titans head coach. A scrappy, improving defense led by S Eric Weddle and strong play from several rookies — notably RT D.J. Fluker and WR Keenan Allen — were key.
Contract issues: The Chargers won't likely have much money to spend in free agency and might have to do some restructuring to keep such veterans on the roster as ILB Donald Butler, special teams standout Darrell Stuckey and WR Danario Alexander, who missed 2013 with another knee injury.
Draft pickings: They have the No. 25 pick and could use that to take one of the top corners available and fill their biggest need. The Chargers also could use additional pass rushers after their outside linebackers were decimated by injuries in 2013.
The culture is changing in Nashville. Bud Adams, the franchise's sole owner since its inception as the Houston Oilers in 1960, died in October. Head coach Mike Munchak, who had been associated with the Oilers/Titans since being a first-round pick in 1982, was terminated for philosophical differences. But change may not be the worst thing for a team that hasn't won a playoff game in a decade. New coach Ken Whisenhunt will have to assess whether oft-injured Jake Locker is the answer at quarterback and if high-priced but underperforming RB Chris Johnson, who has said he won't accept a pay cut, has a future with the team. A defense with young talent could get a lift from highly regarded coordinator Ray Horton.
Contract issues: CB Alterraun Verner had a breakout season and re-signing him should be a top priority. Extending emergent DT Jurrell Casey would make sense, though he's a year away from free agency.
Draft pickings: The verdicts on Johnson, Locker and Verner will surely influence Tennessee's direction with the No. 11 pick. The Titans could also use more pass rush off the edge and may need safety help if Bernard Pollard does not re-sign.
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