Even after a successful draft, a team's roster still isn't complete. Not every need can be filled in one rookie class for even the most skilled drafter, much less if you were doing whatever it was Denver was doing last weekend.
We covered the NFC earlier, so let's turn our attention to the AFC now and view the biggest remaining need for each team in the conference now that the draft is over.
Honestly, after draft day brought with it the long-awaited resolution to the Lamar Jackson saga, I’m not sure Ravens fans have much to complain about one way or another. It would be nice to have a firmer replacement for Ben Powers, however – Powers took every snap for the Ravens at left guard last year, but he’s gone. Ben Cleveland is penciled in as his replacement, but he spent most of last season as a reserve with just 92 offensive snaps. By waiting until the seventh round to draft a guard, the Ravens have given Cleveland a massive vote of confidence; some competition as a failsafe would have been nice.
Spencer Brown has not exactly set the world on fire in his first two years in the league. Brown has 53 blown blocks since the Bills drafted him in 2001, and he’s particularly dodgy in pass protection, with a 5.1% blown block rate. Admittedly, Brown was dealing with back injuries for parts of 2022, but it would have been nice if Buffalo had brought in a new swing tackle who could at least serve as insurance in case Brown’s struggles continue.
Few teams used their tight ends less than Cincinnati last season. Hayden Hurst led them with 68 targets, but he’s gone to Carolina; Irv Smith is not a stunning replacement. Even with Hurst in the mix, the Bengals only targeted tight ends 16.3% of the time in 2022, 30th in the league. Smith at least means they have someone with experience on the roster, as the other Bengals tight ends have combined for 19 career receptions, but he’s not exactly a game-changing weapon and has only managed to play 21 games over the last three seasons. Adding a tight end would have allowed Cincinnati to have a more diversified pass attack rather than bombing it out to Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins every down. I mean, there are worse plans, but still.
The Browns should use linebackers less frequently in 2023, switching to Jim Schwartz’s scheme. Still, they had trouble keeping even two healthy linebackers on the field last season, as both Anthony Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah missed time with injuries. If both JOK and Walker are healthy (not to mention Sione Takitaki, who also missed time with injury), Cleveland will likely be fine at the position, but that’s three top linebackers all with injury concerns. Then, add in the fact that Cleveland was 28th in run defense DVOA in 2022 and ranked 25th in second-level yards given up, and it would have been nice to add some extra depth here.
Lloyd Cushenberry was considered a potential third-round steal when he was drafted in 2020, but he has struggled significantly. Part of that is scheme fit – Cushenberry was not really suited for the wide zone system that Nathaniel Hackett and Butch Barry put in – but Cushenberry has ranked fourth-worst, 14th-worst and fifth-worst among centers in blown block percentage in his three years in the league. He’s a better fit for what Sean Payton historically has wanted to do, but Denver’s taking a big gamble by keeping him penciled in as the top option.
Five different tight ends started for Houston last season. Only one, Jordan Akins, qualified for the leaderboards and put up a positive receiving DVOA – and he’s gone, off to Cleveland. The Texans did add Dalton Schultz, but he had a negative receiving DVOA last year too, with his 2021 season being the only year he’s been in positive numbers. That being said, we’re knocking Houston’s tight end situation because they did a solid job addressing their needs elsewhere – not just with C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson, but by adding receiver Nathaniel Dell and center Juice Scruggs on day two. There’s a reason Houston fans are optimistic about the direction their team is going in, even if they destroyed their draft capital.
The Colts, too, did a good job of addressing their needs with their early picks. Their first four picks were quarterback, cornerback, wide receiver and offensive tackle, and that was basically their four biggest needs, in order, checked off one after another. Some teams go for best player available; the Colts clearly had a checklist they were working through.
That checklist stopped at the interior line, however. Indianapolis’ line was a mess in 2022, finishing 28th in adjusted sack rate, 22nd in adjusted line yards, 23rd in run block win rate, and dead last in pass block win rate. If they want to prevent Anthony Richardson from being ground into a fine paste, improvements are necessary. Bringing in competition for Ryan Kelly or Will Fries would have helped. It’s also worth monitoring Quenton Nelson, who was fine last season but paid like a superstar.
The Jaguars appear to have found a real one in Tyson Campbell, who ranked near the top of the league in most metrics during his second season. Darious Williams also improved over the course of 2022 when he got moved to the outside. That, however, leaves the problem of the slot, with Tre Herndon penciled in as the starter at the moment. Herndon’s 9.6 yards per target allowed was third-worst among qualified cornerbacks last season. The Jags opted not to jump on what looked like a deep cornerback class at the top of the draft, and so will likely need Herndon to step things up significantly.
The middle of the Chiefs’ defense is sort of a one-man show, although Chris Jones is a heck of a player to be the star. Outside of him, however, questions abound. The departure of Khalen Saunders is going to put a crimp into Kansas City’s run defense, with Derrick Nnadi and Tershawn Warton looking to step up next to Jones. Wharton is coming off of a torn ACL, however, and Nnadi looked terrible for much of 2022. It wasn’t a first-round quality need, but adding someone on day two would have been a useful boost.
The Raiders signed Jimmy Garoppolo, a quarterback who does amazing things when plays are running properly and is prone to back-breaking interceptions when the pocket collapses. That brings the focus onto the interior of the Raiders’ line, which still leaves much to be desired. Alex Bars is the biggest problem at right guard, second among all guards with 37 blown blocks in 2022. Honestly, though, Las Vegas also needs a big step forward from Dylan Parham in his second season; Parham bounced all around the line and struggled in pass protection basically everywhere. Perhaps being locked in at left guard on a weekly basis will help him find his footing.
The Chargers were 29th in run defense DVOA in 2022 at 6.7%. They ranked 29th in adjusted line yards in 2022, at 4.93 yards per play. They were slightly better in run stop win rate, ranking 23rd, but they gave it all up when backs did get past the first wave of defenders, which they did more often than not. In short, the Chargers were a sieve up the middle, which doesn’t make sense on paper – the combination of Sebastian Joseph-Day, Austin Johnson, Morgan Fox and Otito Ogbonnia seem like they should be adequate, at the very least, but results were results. Perhaps new coordinator Derrick Ansley can work some magic to get the talent they already have on the same page.
What draft? The Dolphins made just two picks in the top 196, so there wasn’t a lot of room to actually fill their needs. And they used those picks on cornerback Cam Smith and running back Devon Achane; players who will find spots on the roster but not the biggest holes Miami had entering the weekend.
Mike Gesicki was never a fit for the Shanahan-inspired offense Mike McDaniel brought with him; they franchised him last year basically because they had no other option. But Miami didn’t seem interested in looking for their George Kittle this offseason. Sure, Durham Smythe and Eric Saubert will at least provide some of the blocking McDaniel’s offense needs to flourish, and Kittles don’t grow on trees. But no team targeted their tight ends less frequently than the Dolphins did last season, and it looks like that will continue into 2023.
It feels like this is the biggest need for the Patriots every season, and 2023 is no exception. Yes, they added JuJu Smith-Schuster, who spent last year getting the Patrick Mahomes bump after gradually declining every year in Pittsburgh. It remains to be seen if he can put up anywhere near his 10.6% DVOA from a year ago with Mac Jones throwing to him.
Jakobi Meyers is gone, so Smith-Schuster’s top running mate is DeVante Parker. A healthy DeVante Parker might be an interesting piece to the puzzle, but Parker was once again injured for parts of 2022 and inconsistent when he was on the field. After them, it’s just Tyquan Thornton, who was injured and unimpressive in his rookie season last year. There is no top receiver on the roster.
Kwon Alexander played 559 defensive snaps last season, and he remains unsigned. That’s a big chunk of work to replace, with Jamien Sherwood being the next man up. The final answer to Alexander’s replacement might be Alexander himself, as there are rumors the two sides remain in contact, but for now, the position’s a question mark. In addition, while C.J. Mosley did manage to earn a second-team All-Pro nod last year, he’s turning 31 and is seeing his salary jump up next year to $21.5 million, the fourth-highest linebacker cap hit. That’s something they may want to move on from, and that would be easier if they had a young player waiting in the wings.
There is a world where Diontae Johnson and George Pickens are a very solid top two receivers. I’m just not convinced it’s this one.
Johnson was dead last in receiving DYAR in 2022, and 81st out of 85 qualified receivers in DVOA. Johnson was first in ESPN’s metrics for receivers getting open. But he very rarely managed to do anything with that separation, averaging just 6.0 yards per target, fourth-lowest among wide receivers. The connection between him and Kenny Pickett just was not there. Drawing 147 targets and never reaching the end zone is the kind of record you don’t want to set. Pickens came off much stronger in Football Outsiders numbers (12th in DVOA; 19th in DYAR), but his route tree was simplistic and limited; he has more development to do to become a full top receiver in the league; the Steelers could use a more successful running mate for him. I don’t believe that’s Allen Robinson, though we covered the risk-reward for that move earlier this offseason.
Treylon Burks looked alright at times as a rookie! A -6.7% receiving DVOA (56th out of 85 qualifiers) isn’t terrible…except when it’s the top mark on your team. The cupboard is bare as bare can be behind him – Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Kyle Philips and Racey McMath are the top options behind them, and none of them have much upside. The depth chart is poor enough that seventh-round pick Colton Dowell has a good chance not just of making the roster, but starting. With no serious draft capital and no free agents used at the position, the Titans will have to resort to picking through other team’s camp cuts to find quality starters for Ryan Tannehill or Will Levis.