The AFC is loaded.
Thanks to an incredible first wave of free agency and the star power of quarterbacks that resided in the conference heading into the offseason, plenty of AFC teams had to up their game to have a chance to compete with the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, and Cincinnati Bengals. All three of those teams have franchise quarterbacks 26 years old or younger. They’re not going away anytime soon.
The Los Angeles Chargers had a franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert and a boatload of cap space. They got better. The Denver Broncos had a lot of cap space and acquired Russell Wilson to their talented roster. They got better. The Las Vegas Raiders added the best wide receiver in football over the past six years to help out Derek Carr. They got better.
The Tennessee Titans tweaked their talented roster. The Baltimore Ravens are getting dozens of key players back from injured reserve. The Cleveland Browns traded for Deshaun Watson, the Indianapolis Colts traded for Matt Ryan, and the Jacksonville Jaguars handed out $229.5 million in free agency — changing the market for everyone around the league.
While all this was playing out, the Chiefs, Bills, and Bengals got better by making key free agent signings of their own — making the Super Bowl favorite in the conference the hardest to predict in decades.
This is how the AFC teams stack up after the first wave of free agency. Not by projected order of finish, but how their rosters stack up at making a conference title run.
1. Buffalo Bills
Key additions: EDGE Von Miller, G Rodger Saffold, DT Jordan Phillips, DT DaQuan Jones, DT Tim Settle, TE O.J. Howard, WR Jamison Crowder
The Bills had a loaded roster prior to the start of free agency, led by Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs in the passing game. Not finalizing a deal with J.D. McKissic hurt, but Buffalo added a key slot receiver in Crowder — making the passing game even more lethal.
The Bills immensely improved on the defensive side of the ball. Landing Miller to bolster the pass rush was one of the most surprising moves of free agency, while Phillips, Jones, and Settle add much-needed depth at defensive tackle next to Ed Oliver. The Bills are getting Tre’Davious White back on a pass defense that allowed the fewest passing yards and passing touchdowns last year — which still features Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde at safety.
This team’s window to get home-field advantage and the No. 1 seed in the conference is now. Buffalo’s roster is incredibly deep.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
Key additions: S Justin Reid, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
The Chiefs haven’t been as active in free agency as in years past, but this is a roster that doesn’t need to add much. Kansas City landed its No. 2 wide receiver in Smith-Schuster as an added weapon in the passing game with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, a much-needed upgrade in the slot.
Reid will take the place of Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary, as the Chiefs will lose a leader in their defense. Nick Bolton will only be better in year two at linebacker and Frank Clark returning is big for the pass rush. There’s still work to do on the defensive line, as Melvin Ingram hasn’t signed yet (Kansas City needs another edge rusher) and cornerback needs an upgrade with Charvarius Ward departing to San Francisco.
Until a team takes Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes out of the championship game, Kansas City deserves to be ranked this high. The competition — especially in the AFC West — is a lot tougher this time.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Key additions: G Alex Cappa, C Ted Karras, T La’el Collins
The Bengals addressed the elephant in the room in a big way, adding three massive upgrades on the offensive line — specifically on the interior. Cappa will slide right into right guard and improve the run game, while Collins will man right tackle and give Joe Burrow much-needed protection on that side of the line. Karras will line up at center or left guard, a massive help with left tackle Jonah Williams returning.
Cincinnati is already loaded on offense with Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. The Bengals added Hayden Hurst at tight end, but have room to add another one to the mix.
The Bengals basically have every starter back on defense with Jessie Bates on the franchise tag and Eli Apple re-signing. Their pass rush is still very good and there’s an outside chance Larry Ogunjobi is back after failing his physical with Chicago.
The defending AFC champions are better and are right in the conversation with the Chiefs and Bills for conference supremacy.
4. Los Angeles Chargers
Key additions: CB J.C. Jackson, EDGE Khalil Mack, TE Gerald Everett, DT Sebastian Joseph-Day
The Chargers had plenty of cap space to improve the roster for Justin Herbert, emerging as a contender for the conference title after bolstering the defense with the additions of Mack and Jackson. Mack will team up with Joey Bosa to form one of the best pass rushing tandems in the league, while Joseph-Day will help solidify one of the worst run defenses in the league from 2021.
Jackson joins a secondary that already has Asante Samuel Jr. at cornerback, along with Nasir Adderley and Derwin James at safety. Los Angeles’ defense has significantly improved, giving the Chargers a shot at AFC West supremacy in a loaded division.
The Chargers were able to retain Mike Williams, but still need work to improve the right side of the offensive line. Making the playoffs won’t be enough for this team in 2022.
5. Tennessee Titans
Key additions: WR Robert Woods, TE Austin Hooper, T Jamarco Jones, C Ben Jones
Tennessee was one of the hardest teams to fit into this puzzle of conference contenders (they were the top seed in the conference last year). Their free agency wasn’t as eye popping as the other contenders, but the Titans did reinvent the passing game with the trade acquisition of Woods and the signing of Hooper.
Woods will be the No. 2 wide receiver to A.J. Brown, giving Tennessee a dangerous option in the slot. Hooper immensely improves the Titans at tight end and his numbers should be better as a primary option. The Titans worked on improving the offensive line with the Jones signings, a unit that will need to rise up with the Colts bolstering teh pass rush.
Keeping Harold Landry in the fold was massive for the defense, which needs to cover up a secondary that struggles against the pass. Tennessee is still the favorite in the AFC South, and will be in the race for home-field advantage thanks to their division.
6. Baltimore Ravens
Key additions: S Marcus Williams, T Morgan Moses
No team in the NFL was as injured as the Ravens in 2021, yet Baltimore still was leading the AFC heading into December last year. The Ravens are getting Lamar Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, and Gus Edwards back on offense in 2022 (Dobbins and Edwards didn’t play a down last year) and Ronnie Stanley will be back anchoring the offensive line (Moses addition was one of the most underrated signings in free agency).
The defense will be getting cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters back, while adding Williams at safety. Baltimore’s pass defense should be one of the best in the league. Baltimore’s pass rush needs some work after Za’Darius Smith changed his mind, but there’s still time to find an edge rusher.
With Jackson in a contract year and playing for one of the richest contracts ever, the Ravens have plenty to prove after an injury-riddled 2021 campaign. Don’t sleep on them competing for a Super Bowl.
7. Denver Broncos
Key additions: QB Russell Wilson, DE Randy Gregory, DT D.J. Jones
The Broncos were a quarterback away from competing for the AFC West title. They were able to land the top quarterback in Wilson, who chose Denver over several suitors. Wilson joins an offense that already has rising running back Javonte Williams, along with wide receivers Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, and K.J. Hamler. Denver also has an underrated offensive line, making the Broncos offense one to watch in 2022.
There’s still work to do on defense, as Gregory bolsters the pass rush after Denver couldn’t convince Von Miller to come back. The secondary is still good with Patrick Surtain and Justin Simmons, but Denver needs to prioritize re-signing Kareem Jackson with the cap space they have left. There isn’t much premium draft capital to get better in April.
Wilson was one of the biggest additions this offseason. The Broncos are contenders as a result, but have some work to do to get past the Chiefs and Chargers in the division.
8. Las Vegas Raiders
Key additions: WR Davante Adams, EDGE Chandler Jones, CB Rock Ya-Sin, DT Bilal Nichols
The Raiders added the best wide receiver in the NFL over the past six years as a counterpunch toward what the rest of the division was doing, a much-needed target for Derek Carr. Las Vegas will be dangerous in the passing game with Adams, Hunter Renfrow, and tight end Darren Waller. Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake are an excellent 1-2 punch at running back.
Jones and Maxx Crosby should thrive in Patrick Graham’s defense, which keep the secondary young with the addition of Ya-Sin. If Johnathan Abram can stay healthy and Trevon Moehrig can continue his development in the secondary, the Raiders defense can get them back to the playoffs.
Las Vegas has some work to do at linebacker and cornerback (losing Casey Hayward as a veteran presence hurt), but the Raiders will be in the division title mix and in the hunt for a playoff berth. All the pressure is on Carr to perform with this talent in the passing game in 2022.
Here’s the other elephant in the room. Can Josh McDaniels coach?
Key additions: QB Matt Ryan, EDGE Yannick Ngakoue
The Colts got the quarterback they wanted by patiently waiting for Matt Ryan to become available, a major move for a franchise that didn’t do much in free agency to date. Ryan puts Indianapolis back in contention in the AFC South and improves the passing game after the disastrous finish to last season with Carson Wentz.
Who will Ryan throw to at wide receiver outside of Michael pittman? The market has dried up and the Colts don’t have a first-round pick to find an impact player. They also need to find a left tackle if Eric Fisher doesn’t return.
Indianapolis’ defense is going to be very good with the addition of Ngakoue, who significantly bolsters the pass rush with DeForest Buckner in the middle. The Colts still have Darius Leonard at linebacker and Kenny Moore at cornerback, while also retaining Zaire Franklin at outside linebacker.
Indianapolis is good enough to win the AFC South with Ryan at quarterback, but there’s work to be done and enough cap space to improve the roster in the second wave of free agency.
10. Cleveland Browns
Key additions: QB Deshaun Watson, WR Amari Cooper, WR Jakeem Grant, DT Taven Bryan
The Browns added a top-five quarterback in Watson, immediately making them contenders in the conference. There’s so many unknowns with the 2022 version of this team, starting with the 22 civil suits with Watson involving sexual harassment and sexual assault. Watson is a franchise quarterback, but we’ll leave it at that.
Cleveland still has a dangerous running game with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, backed by a good offensive line. Cooper is the No. 1 wide receiver the Browns coveted, but there isn’t many pass catching options in the offense at wide receiver after Rashard Higgins departed. Cleveland needs an upgrade there (perhaps Jarvis Landry returns or Watson convinces Will Fuller to join him).
The Browns have a good defense, but another edge rusher to compliment Myles Garrett is on the shopping list. Maybe a Jadeveon Clowney reunion is in store. this is an incomplete product at the moment, which isn’t good enough to compete for a Super Bowl yet.
There’s still time in Cleveland — as the Watson trade wasn’t just for 2022.
Key additions: QB Mitchell Trubisky, LB Myles Jack, T Chukwuma Okorafor, G James Daniels, C Mason Cole
This year feels like a transition season for Pittsburgh unless Trubisky immensely improved in his one year with the Bills. The Steelers did a good job allocating their cap space to improve their offensive line, thinking long term instead of going for a Super Bowl in 2022. Najee Harris should be in store for a big second season. Pittsburgh still has good wide receivers in Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool with an emerging tight end in Pat Freiermuth.
Myles Jack under Brian Flores tutelage will be massive for a Pittsburgh defense that already has pass rusher T.J. Watt, linebacker Devin Bush, and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers still need help in the secondary, massive for the AFC North and their gauntlet of quarterbacks.
If the Steelers can find their quarterback in the draft, this team has plenty to be excited about. The Steelers are in transition, but it’s hard to count out any team coached by Mike Tomlin.
Key additions: RB Chase Edmonds, RB Raheem Mostert, G Connor Williams, WR Ced Wilson, CB Keion Crossen, QB Teddy Bridgewater
Even though the Dolphins didn’t make any splash moves in free agency, they made plenty of small improvements to their roster. Adding Edmonds and Mostert gives Miami the 1-2 punch in the running game head coach Mike McDaniel needs in his offensive scheme, which is expected to prioritize zone blocking. Perhaps that’s what the Dolphins need to get their offensive line on track, despite only adding Williams to the stable. Now if Miami can land Terron Armstead…
The Dolphins defense is still good and bringing back Emmanuel Ogbah was needed to keep the pass rush intact — especially with Josh Boyer returning as defensive coordinator. This unit should still be top-10 in the league.
Miami’s success revolves around how Tua Tagovailoa evolves in his third season, with an offense that caters to his strengths. The Dolphins offensive line has to protect their quarterback — and Tagovailoa needs another wide receiver to the mix. Perhaps the draft is where the Dolphins strike.
Key additions: LB Mack Wilson, WR/RB Ty Montgomery, CB Terrance Mitchell
Did the Patriots get any better this offseason? Losing J.C, Jackson in free agency was a massive blow to the secondary, even with Devin McCourty back. New England will have a good defense, but the loss of Jackson puts immense pressure on Matt Judon and Christian Barmore to get to the quarterback.
Who’s Mac Jones going to throw to in 2022? Are the Patriots really going to run it back with Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, and Jakobi Meyers at wide receiver? Or will they look to upgrade in the draft? Trading Shaq Mason to the Buccaneers didn’t make much sense either, weakening a strength on the offensive line.
New England looks primed to take a step back in 2022, unless Bill Belichick has a big trade brewing.
14. Jacksonville Jaguars
Key additions: WR Christian Kirk, G Brandon Scherff, LB Foye Oluokun, CB Darious Williams, DT Foley Fatukasi, WR Zay Jones, TE Evan Engram
No team spent like the Jaguars did in free agency, adding a boatload of players to build Doug Pederson’s offense and Mike Caldwell’s defense. Jacksonville is a better team, as Trevor Lawrence has some weapons in the passing game with the addition of Kirk and Jones to go along with Marvin Jones and Laviska Shenault. The Jaguars also bolstered the offensive line by franchise tagging Cam Robinson and signing Scherff to solidify the right side of the line. This offense is set up for Lawrence to have a good second season.
Releasing Myles Jack didn’t make much sense, but the addition of Oluokun fits what Caldwell wants to do at linebacker. There’s still room for improvement in the secondary, but that goes hand-in-hand with the development of Andre Cisco. Jacksonville also has the No. 1 overall pick, a huge opportunity to go get Josh Allen some help rushing the passer.
The Jaguars are on the rise with Pederson, even if the wins won’t show it immediately. Being in the AFC South helps.
Key additions: G Laken Tomlinson, S D.J. Reed, TE C.J. Uzomah, TE Tyler Conklin, S Jordan Whitehead, LB Jake Martin
The Jets made a lot of wise moves in free agency, knowing they are still in the rebuilding phase. Tomlinson adds excellent value to the offensive line (one of the best signings in free agency), as he or Alijah Vera-Tucker can play either guard spot. Uzomah and Conklin give quarterback Zach Wilson needed pass catches across the middle of the field, good complements to Corey Davis and Elijah Moore.
The secondary received a facelift with Reed and Whitehead, yet the Jets need work at cornerback to help out the pass rush. New York can also improve in that department, even with Carl Lawson and John Franklin-Myers anchoring the edge.
Wilson should be better in year two with more protection up front. The Jets are still a young team that should be a tough out every week.
Key additions: CB A.J. Cann, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin
The Texans traded Deshaun Watson, finally ending that saga as they are still trying to rebuild their franchise. Houston couldn’t make any significant moves in free agency thanks to the limited amount of cap space available. Now that the Texans traded Watson, the multi-year rebuilding process can really get going.
Davis Mills showed promise last year, yet Houston will find out if he can be a long-term answer in 2022. This roster needs a lot of work going forward, and having five of the top-80 picks in this draft will help.
If Houston can capitalize on all the picks they acquired for Watson, the Texans will compete in a few years time. For 2022, their chances to improve on last season’s win total are remote.