Analysis

2021 NFL free agency: Key roster needs for every AFC team

As the 2021 NFL free agency period draws nearer, here is a look at the major needs for each team in the AFC.

NOTE: All cap-space projections were taken from Over The Cap on March 10. All other cap figures come from Over The Cap unless otherwise specified.

Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens

Needs: Wide receiver, edge rusher, offensive line.


Projected cap space: $19.9 million.


Whatever Lamar Jackson's limitations are as a passer, the Ravens don't help him enough at wide receiver. It's probably safe to say Marquise Brown isn't a No. 1, two years into his career. Baltimore's pass-rush personnel might look a lot different in 2021 -- which isn't a bad thing -- as it wasn't a very effective bunch last year. Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon are among those not under contract for next season. There could be some shake-up on the interior of the Ravens' offensive line. If Orlando Brown is serious about only playing left tackle, his departure would leave a huge void outside, as well.

Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills

Needs: Running back, linebacker, offensive line.


Projected cap space: $16.5 million.


The Bills are set to bring back one of the more complete rosters in the league, even after parting ways with receiver John Brown and defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson, moves that give them a little more flexibility to maneuver in the early phase of this competitive window. They need to address two vacancies on the offensive line (RG Jon Feliciano and RT Daryl Williams), a place where they could use upgrades, anyway, after a porous output in the running game. Despite the presence of two young players in the backfield -- Devin Singletary and Zack Moss -- Buffalo should be in the market for a running back, as well. Linebacker is another need. Matt Milano has seen his role increase the past four seasons but has perhaps priced himself out of Buffalo.


UPDATE: The team announced Thursday that Milano is re-upping with the Bills on a four-year extension; per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, the deal is for $44 million, with $24 million in guaranteed money.

Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati Bengals


Needs: Offensive line, edge rusher, cornerback.


Projected cap space: $43 million.


De facto general manager Duke Tobin insisted the Bengals will be active in free agency. They'll need to be if they're serious about contending while their quarterback is on his rookie deal. Joe Burrow shined in Year 1 in spite of his offensive line, only to suffer a season-ending knee injury amid a collapsing pocket in Week 11. Upgrading his protection should be Cincinnati's top priority. The next biggest needs are on defense. Carlos Dunlap was traded last October, Carl Lawson wasn't tagged and Geno Atkins is a prime cut candidate, so the defensive line is due for a makeover. The Bengals also have multiple spots to fill at cornerback.

Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns

Needs: Defensive line, linebacker, free safety.


Projected cap space: $24.9 million.


Unlike most playoff teams, the Browns have a sizable pot to pull from. Most of it should be put toward their defense, as all three levels could use reinforcements. Myles Garrett has blossomed into an All-Pro and would be even better alongside an improved supporting cast. That could come soon, with defensive linemen Larry Ogunjobi and Olivier Vernon hitting free agency. Cleveland's run defense was better than its pass rush, but the linebacking corps is currently a bit light. It will be interesting to see what the club does at safety after relying on pending free agents Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph, and with youngsters Grant Delpit (who missed all of 2020) and Ronnie Harrison boasting overlapping skill sets.

Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos

Needs: Safety, pass rusher, cornerback.


Projected cap space: $32.4 million.


The Broncos got started early by tagging Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons again. Locking up the budding star long-term seems to be the next step. His hefty price tag could spell the end for fellow safety Kareem Jackson in Denver. Von Miller is also still on the books, but if he were to return for next season, it would presumably be on a restructured deal. The Broncos' pass rush will look much different in 2021, regardless. Shelby Harris is a free agent, and Jurrell Casey has already been cut after appearing in just three games last season. Cornerback will continue to be addressed in the aftermath of A.J. Bouye's release

Houston Texans
Houston Texans

Needs: Offensive line, pass rusher, cornerback.


Projected cap space: $17.7 million.


Just because the Texans can trot out the same starters on the offensive line doesn't mean they should. The flak Deshaun Watson catches for holding onto the ball and taking too many sacks is deserved. But that's basically an offshoot of how bad things are up front. There's a noticeable void at wide receiver since Houston opted not to tag Will Fuller, but new GM Nick Caserio will likely address that in the draft. Houston's pass rush needs revamping, with J.J. Watt gone, Carlos Watkins an unrestricted free agent and Whitney Mercilus a potential cut candidate. The next two levels of the defense aren't in great shape, either. Cornerback was a major issue last year and has at least two vacancies.

Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts

Needs: Left tackle, secondary, defensive end.


Projected cap space: $46.7 million


No 2020 playoff team possesses as much cap space as the Colts, or anything close to it. Chris Ballard and Frank Reich have quickly become one of the league's top GM-HC combos. After trading for quarterback Carson Wentz, they still have pressing needs at key positions. The retirement of Anthony Castonzo leaves a big void at left tackle. Starting defensive ends Justin Houston and Denico Autry are both free agents, and Indianapolis stood to improve its pass rush, anyway. In the back end, the secondary would also benefit from a couple of new faces after allowing 7.3 yards per attempt and being so dependent on interceptions. T.Y. Hilton heads to free agency as a fan favorite -- understandably so, after nine seasons. But the Colts might be better served addressing wide receiver in the draft.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars

Needs: Wide receiver, defensive line, defensive back.


Projected cap space: $73.7 million.


The Jags need a bit of everything. It feels like a lifetime ago that the 2017 squad came one quarter from making the Super Bowl, and the current roster reflects that. Wide receiver will be a priority, with Dede WestbrookKeelan Cole and Chris Conley all hitting the market. The Jaguars surprised many by tagging left tackle Cam Robinson to protect whomever they have at quarterback in 2021 -- presumably Trevor Lawrence. Now, look for Jacksonville to also spend on defensive linemen and defensive backs. The line got little production outside of Josh Allen, who missed half the season with an injury. Jacksonville's pass defense was just as problematic. Only 2020 top-10 pick C.J. Henderson is locked in as a starter in the secondary following a modest rookie season.

Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs

Needs: Offensive line, cornerback, wide receiver.


Projected cap space: -$21 million


Even before losing in the Super Bowl, Kansas City wasn't as formidable as it had been the previous season. The most glaring deficiency was on the offensive line. GM Brett Veach has already said the Chiefs are looking to infuse new talent there. They figure to return a pair of 2020 opt-outs -- Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Lucas Niang -- which will allow for more mixing and matching. But there simply isn't enough depth on the O-line as it stands. There isn't much flexibility with the payroll, either. Still, the Chiefs must figure out how to upgrade at cornerback and wide receiver while comfortably saying farewell to Bashaud Breeland, Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson

Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders

Needs: Wide receiver, pass rusher, free safety.


Projected cap space: $17.9 million.


This will be Year 4 of Jon Gruden's Raiders encore, and the pass rush is still a problem. Even if they get bounce-back seasons from Maxx Crosby and Maurice Hurst, they could really use another strong edge defender. The secondary is an even bigger mess. After acquiring a slew of young DBs, Las Vegas will probably wait to see who develops, but it wouldn't hurt to add a free safety now. A year ago, the Raiders invested heavily in their receiving corps. While results were mixed, the need remains. Free agent Nelson Agholor will no longer be a bargain after becoming a big-play weapon, setting new career highs in yards and yards per catch in the process. 

Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles Chargers

Needs: Offensive line, tight end, secondary.


Projected cap space: $26.7 million


Justin Herbert's historic rookie season is even more impressive when one considers what he was working behind. The Chargers will want to be a better rushing outfit in 2021, and that begins with revamping the interior offensive line. That initiative is already underway, with center Mike Pouncey retiring and guard Trai Turner reportedly being shopped. There's a chance tight end Hunter Henry comes back, though he wasn't tagged coming off a solid season (60 receptions, 613 yards, four touchdowns). L.A. will likely add a couple of pieces in the secondary, where Derwin James hasn't been able to remain healthy and doesn't have a proven partner, and a cornerback (Michael Davis) or two (Casey Hayward, a cut candidate) might be leaving.

Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins

Needs: Wide receiver, running back, edge rusher.


Projected cap space: $24.4 million


No matter what the Dolphins ultimately decide regarding Tua Tagovailoa, who's confident he's the team's franchise QB, they need to upgrade their future quarterback's top targets. DeVante Parker is no more than a solid No. 2 wide receiver. The running back room is of equal concern after Miami ranked near the bottom of the league in rushing yards per game (105.5) and per carry (3.9). The starting job is there for the taking, with Myles Gaskin providing all-purpose value in a complementary role. While the offensive line also requires attention -- trading for former first-round pick OT Isaiah Wilson might help -- the more pressing need is at edge rusher. The Dolphins' middling pass rush was propped up by a high blitz rate. Just imagine what Brian Flores would do with better weapons on the perimeter of his defensive line. Miami, of course, has the draft capital (two firsts, two seconds and five picks in the top 81) to address their issues then, too.

New England Patriots
New England Patriots

Needs: Offensive line, wide receiver, defensive line.


Projected cap space: $68.5 million.


This figures to be a fascinating few months for the winningest franchise of the past two decades. Bill Belichick probably doesn't have time for a complete rebuild, but there's no doubting the Patriots must retool. There are holes everywhere, even with several 2020 opt-outs expected to return. The biggest void is obviously at QB, yet starter options on the FA market aren't particularly exciting. (UPDATE: The Pats are re-signing Cam Newton to a one-year deal.) Outside of a possible trade, expect the Pats' money to go elsewhere. They're sure to add to what was a dreadful receiving corps. Moreover, both sides of the line need replenishing, though trading for OT Trent Brown (again!) is a great start.

New York Jets
New York Jets

Needs: Wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback.


Projected cap space: $69.2 million.


There aren't a lot of wrong answers here. Only better ones. At least the Jets have the cap space to address their many questions. Wide receiver is a clear weakness. So are linebacker and cornerback. It's worth noting GM Joe Douglas isn't responsible for the big money the team threw around two years ago, but it's a critical offseason, now that he has his own head coach in place. Expect the Jets to key in on linebackers who excel in coverage, given that very emphasis in Robert Saleh's 49ers defenses. Cornerback has been a problem position for multiple years, and we could see more than one starter turned over.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers

Needs: Linebacker, cornerback, offensive line.


Projected cap space: $5.3 million.


OK, so they're no longer in the red. But it's hard to see the Steelers saying hello to free agents without saying goodbye to a few more notable veterans. Look for them to primarily fill their void at running back in the draft. Pittsburgh probably can't afford to keep Bud Dupree after tagging him last year, and Vince Williams is a cut candidate, which could leave two holes at linebacker. The Steelers have more than one vacancy to fill at the cornerback position. The same holds for the offensive line, with Maurkice Pouncey retiring and Alejandro Villanueva hitting free agency. It feels like Pittsburgh's championship window might have closed in January.

Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans

Needs: Tight end, wide receiver, pass rusher.


Projected cap space: $13.5 million.


The Titans had a nearly 50-50 split in run-to-pass plays. It works for them, and probably more than it would for most others. But they're going to have to restock at receiver. Wideout Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith are coming off career years and heading into free agency. Both might be out of Tennessee's price range. If so, they were nice pieces, but not indispensable. The Titans also need someone to set the edge on defense after the failed Jadeveon Clowney experiment. The expected release of safety Kenny Vaccaro will give them a little more room to work (his release will save Tennessee $3.9 million against the cap, which the figure above does not account for).

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