NFL 2021-22: Mike Carlson's AFC Conference Preview

Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid and players
Mike says the Chiefs are probably better than last year

In the second of Mike Carlson's 2021-22 NFL season previews our man runs through all 16 AFC teams as they vie to be Super Bowl LVI champions...

"Defensively for the Chiefs, Jarrad Reid joins Frank Clark up front, Chris Jones is one of the league's best, last year's round two pick Willie Gay looks fine and this year's number two Nick Bolton may be just as good. They're solid, deep and probably better than last year."

Kansas City Chiefs

2020-21 record - 14 wins, two losses

Easy to blame the Chiefs' loss in the SB on injuries to both their starting tackles, but the truth was they never adjusted to stop the Buccs rush, partly because having Vea and Suh inside meant it was hard to double team. Andy Reid let both injured tackles go and spent big on Patriots' guard Joe Thuney: Thuney's handling of Aaron Donald was a big reason why the Pats beat the Rams in the Super Bowl, and if he'd been on last year's Chiefs, he would've played LT in the big game. With Orlando Brown acquired in trade from Baltimore to play LT, Dr Duvernay-Tardif and last year's third round pick Lucas Niang returning from Covid opt-out, and rookies Creed Humphrey and round six steal Trey Smith both possible starters the O line is better and deeper, good news for Patrick Mahomes (pictured), still the best QB in the league. The only weak point is who will be the number two/three receiver to provide an option away from Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. Defensively, Jarrad Reid joins Frank Clark in the ex-Seattle Club up front, Chris Jones is one of the league's best, last year's round two pick Willie Gay looks fine and this year's number two Nick Bolton may be just as good. They're solid, deep and probably better than last year.

Patrick Mahomes 1280.jpg

Buffalo Bills

2020-21 record - 13-3

Josh Allen's improvement from year one to two and then two to three is virtually unprecedented in NFL history (though JP Losman had a big jump in completion pct for the Bills way back) and last year much of that was down to the addition of Stefon Diggs, the other top all-round receiver alongside Davonte Adams. But the key to the Bills is Sean McDermott's defense: and they added two pass rushers, Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham in the draft. Ed Oliver is the AFC version of Aaron Donald, Tre'Davious White is one of the top AFC corners, and Matt Milano's ability to cover from the lnebacker position allows McDemott to use him and Tremaine Edmonds like he used Luke Kuechley and Thomas Jones in Carolina. The O line is decent, but not great: Allen's run ability helps but the added Matt Breida to Devin Singletary and Zach Moss to get more receiving from the backs. The Bills look solid rather than spectacular: it may come down to McDermott's ability to do a Todd Bowles if they meet the Chiefs in post-season: and he's already playing a deep cover two to contain dynamic pass games.

Josh Allen 1280.jpg

Cleveland Browns

2020-21 record - 11-5

Loaded on paper, and perhaps on the field, with fine players at the skill positions and Baker Mayfield running the show very well. Nick "Chugg" Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Jarvis Landry and a healthy OBJ are spotlit, but they also might have the best O line in the Conference and multiple receiving threats at TE. Defensively there are more big names, but Jadeveon Clowney has been spotty over the past few years; with Myles Garrett on the other side this might be his chance to be the star he's paid to be. Signing MLB Anthony Walker from the Colts was a big move for the D; he will have a more immediate impact than R2 pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who ought to feature in sub packages, while round one corner Greg Newsome ought to start opposite Denzel Ward to upgrade the secondary.

Baker Mayfield Cleveland 1280.jpg

Baltimore Ravens

2020-21 record - 11-5

I had the Ravens among the AFC elite last week, but injuries may well limit them at the start of this season, and hinder their desire to get more varied on offense, not only to their receivers but now JK Dobbins out for the season and R3 draft pick, the inaptly named lineman Ben Cleveland out too. Ronnie Stanley is back as they rebuild their line, but the key remains QB Lamar Jackson: can they maintain his running game but expand the passing? Defensively they are always physical and tough and Wink Martindale gets the most out of them: last year's rookie linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison were keepers; they need more rush from Jaylon Ferguson and Tyus Bowser. The secondary is so deep, led by Marlon Humphrey, that they traded R5 pick Shaun Wade to New England. Justin Tucker's toe usually wins them some close games too.

Baltimore Marlon Humphrey 1280.jpg

Pittsburgh Steelers

2020-21 record - 12-4

One of the funniest moments last season was watching the Steelers lose to the Browns in the playoffs as Ben Roethlisberger seemed to shake off every call from former offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner to throw an endless series of quick slants to his receivers. Matt Canada is the new OC but whether he gets more Canadian in his football remains to be seen, because the Steelers proceeded to clear out their O line and I am not convinced the rebuild makes them better, even if first-round RB Najee Harris may be an upgrade over last year's luggers. They're still strong at WR with JuJu, Chase Claypool, Dionte Johnson and Jams Washington, but they lack consistency, and the question will be how much juice the aging and battered Ben has left in his arm. Washington washout Dwayne Haskins was signed to provide a downfield option to Mason Rudolph as his successor. Defense is always the key for the Steelers, Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward are the best pair of 3-4 ends in the league, and TJ Watt will provide the rush, with Alonzo Highsmith and maybe R6 rookie Quincy Roche, whom I thought was a steal. Like the receivers, the secondary is talented but inconsistent, a third corner is a necessity, though Minkah Fitapatrick often covers inside in sub packages.

Ben Roethlisberger 1280.jpg

Tennessee Titans

2020-21 record - 11-5

They're a good bet to win their division, but how much further the Titans go is the question. They will miss offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, now the HC in Atlanta, and TE Jonnu Smith, in New England. They added Julio Jones from Atlanta, Jeff Reynolds from the Rams and Marcus Johnson from Indy to replace Corey Davis at WR, and draft pick Dillon Radunz ought to help the O line, but they will run about as far as Derrick Henry takes them on the ground. Which means controlling the ball, lower scoring, and needing to play good D, which they had trouble doing last year. Denico Autry, also from the Colts, helps the line, and Bud Dupree from the Steelers ought to add ppass rush. They signed Janoris Jenkins and invested three draft picks on the secondary, including first round corner Caleb Farley and versatile safety Elijah Molder in R3 who may improve their sub packages. Brad McDougald was signed to backup Kevin Byard, but R6 pick Brady Breeze may have more impact.

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Miami Dolphins

2020-21 record - 10-6

Brian Flores may be the best of the Belichick tree coaches, having built a defense that schemes very well, good enough to let Kyle Van Noy go back to New England, along with Davon Godchaux, while ex-Pats Adam Butler and Jason McCourty join four other ex-Pats on the D. But the offense is the real question, namely whether Tua Tagovailoa can regain his Alabama form after a year off to injury and a rookie season still getting back into playing speed. In college his game was the deep ball, and they drafted Jaylen Waddle from Bama and signed Will Fuller V to provide him with speedy targets: this ought to make DaVante Parker more effective. They've drafted for their O line the last three years, and they need to be effective as deep throwing teams need time. Myles Gaskin is the number one RB, ex-Ram Malcolm Brown and R7 Gerrid Doaks are there too. Pass rusher Jalen Phillips and free safety Javon Holland were their first two picks in the draft, and they re-did Xavien Howard's contract to make him the highest paid corner on the team, if not the league, after a fine season. Andrew Van Giinkel may be the defensive key, if he can provide pass rush as well as the versatility of Van Noy. Flores had them ahead of the Pats last year; the question this year is who has improved more.

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New England Patriots

2020-21 record - 7-9

He Cam, He Saw, He Got Cut. Free of dead cap woes in the year after Tom Brady's departure, Bill Belichick became Dollar Bill, spending on free agents, over-spending on some, but strengthening the team. But this was assuming Cam Newton would be the starting QB while Mac Jones, who fell to them with the 15 pick, adjusted to NFL play. Jones adjusted quickly enough in preseason to win the job, and the Pats set Cam free. Jones may have played well, but he is still a rookie and that is still preseason, though there is no doubt the Pats will be a stronger team than last year. The over-spend came mostly on offense, where they signed Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, no 2 and 3 guys, to the kind of contracts no 1 guys get. Then signed the two best TEs available, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, to the kind of deals the two best guys in the league got (before Kittle and Kelce's new extensions).

But what they see in Jones is another Tom Brady type, whose quick reads and accurate passing will allow them to scheme to those receivers from multiple sets; after all, Randy Moss was really the only true no1 WR Brady ever had. Still their best receiver in preseason was Jakobi Meyers, the undrafted guy who was their best last year too. They kept C David Andrews, traded to get massive T Trent Brown back, and can have a better line than last year despite losing Joe Thuney because last year's rookie Michael Onwenu can play RT or either G spot, especially useful when LT Isaiah Wynn gets hurt (18 starts in 48 games over three years).

Defensively, the Pats lost eight starters to covid or free agency last year; Van Noy is back from Miami, Donta Hightower is back and they spent big on DE/OLB Matt Judon from Baltimore, a perfect fit. They held onto Lawrence Guy and Dietrich Wise, and added Davon Godchaux in the middle, and have a young bunch of LB/DE types who will play. The weakness is in the secondary: officially Stephon Gilmore is on PUP for the first six weeks; unofficially he seems to want to match Miami's Howard. Without him JC Jackson is the no.1 corner and they have little depth; they traded for Wade from Baltimore for just this reason. Last year's R2 pick Kyle Dugger could be the key; the Pats like to play big nickle and the safety can cover some receivers like a corner. I get the feeling that if Jones can be adequate and they can survive no Gilmore early, they could pass Miami.

Bill Belichick 1280.jpg

Indianapolis Colts

2020-21 record - 11-5

Coach Frank Reich decided to gamble on a reunion with Carson Wentz, the oft-injured QB who played well when Reich was at Philly and went steadily downhill after he left. But Wentz right now is on the Covid list, which means Jacob Eason is the QB. Jonathan Taylor's strong rookie year at RB means Marlon Mack's return is a bonus, and a healthy TY Hilton would help the receiving group, but it's the rebuild of the O line around ex-Chief Eric Fisher at LT that is the hidden key to offensive success. Reich is as good an offensive mind as anyone in the AFC. Defensively they remain light and fast but losing Walker and Auty hurts. Rookie Kwity Pane may give them their best pass-rushing since Dwight Freeny, but the defensive key is the speedy linebacker group led by Darius Leonard, who received a big deal in the off-season, as linebacker play starts to get more recognised.

Darius Leonard 1280.jpg

Denver Broncos

2020-21 record - 5-11

Vic Fangio has put together a fine defense that can kill teams who run out of air at Mile High. But the question for an offense, with some big name skill players, is who is the QB? Drew Lock never convinced, and although Teddy Bridgewater seemed to lack big-play ability with the Saints and Panthers, he also protects the ball very well and can take what a defense gives him. I think rookie Javonte Williams quickly passes Melvin Gordon as the number one runner and Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler, Noah Fant and Courtland Sutton give offensive co-ord Pat Shurmur more weapons than he usually knows what to do with. Defensively with Von Miller (pictured) and Bradley "The Other" Chubb rushing, Fangio signing Kule Fuller and Bryce Callahan, drafting Patrick Surtain, and The Outlaw Josey Jewell at LB behind a solid front four, the Bears ought to keep games low-scoring. That's where a QB like Bridgewater, provided with weapons, can take them a long way, if the O line allows. Look for R3 pick Quinn Meinerz to upgrade either center or guard to help.

Von Miller 1280.jpg

Los Angeles Chargers

2020-21 record - 7-9

Justin Herbert has one of the best rookie QB seasons ever, despite a lack of O line support. That might change, with the addition of another of Aaron Rodgers' blockers, Corey Linsley to the line along with Three Stooges' Curly lookalike Bryan Bulaga, and the drafting of Rayshawn Slater, who fell to them in round one. Matt Feiler comes from Pittsburgh and Oday Abushi from Detroit to play the guards. It could be a solid line to protect Herbert and open holes for Austin Ekeler. R3 pick Josh Palmer is another big physical receiver who should fit right in with Mike Williams and Keenan Allen. New head coach Brandon Staley, moving from the Rams across the corridor in SoFi stadium, was a QB in college, although a defensive coach in the NFL. His offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi, learned under Sean Payton, so it will be interesting to see if the offense is more structured and quick-hitting than last year. Defensively, they've lost Melvin Ingram, but Joey Bosa returns and maybe R6 rookie Chris Rumph will develop into a rusher. Asante Samuel Jr, a high school teammate of Palmer's, fell to LA in R2, but the secondary's success depends on Derwin James staying healthy. Veteran Chris Harris remains a good slot corner and Nasir Adderly may step forward at safety. If they build an offense that protects Herbert they could go some way in a division where second place is open.

Las Vegas Raiders

2020-21 record - 8-8

They are pretenders for sure. Head coach John Guru Gruden (pictured) won a Super Bowl with Tongy Dungy's team, playing his old team who hadn't bothered to change his offense. He's coasted ever since. The Raiders keep treading water in terms of personnel, as if instituting a series of five-year plans one after another, which is ok because Gruden still has six years to go on his contract. Derek Carr can be a good QB but it's interesting to note that his 4-33 mark against playoff teams is the second worst of this century, behind only his brother David (3-33). The Raiders built and dismantled a non-functional line, then reached for RT Alex Leatherwood in the draft. But when S Trevon Moehrig was still there in R2 they came out looking like geniuses. They may need to look at line coach Tom Cable, whose speciality is stumbling along with patchwork lines, first. Offensively, Guru wanted to be a power run team behind Josh Jacobs, for which you need a line. For Carr he now has two speedy deep guys (Ruggs, Brown) one slot guy (Snead) and three possession guys (Edwards, Renfrow and Jones). Ho hum. They brought Yannick Ngakoue in to be a sacks guy because the D line was filled with tweener types, although Clellin Ferrell is expected to blossom in his third season. Behind them the LB group was upgraded last year and again this year, although homegrown undrafted Nick Morrow may be the best. Moehrig upgrades the secondary, where R4 rookie Tyree Gillespie could quickly replace Johnathan Abrams, for whom coverage is a problem. Last year's R1 corner Damon Arnette was a reach. In a 17 game season they could peak at 8-9.

Jon Gruden 1280.jpg

New York Jets

2020-21 record - 2-14

New GM Joe Douglas (ex Eagles and Ravens) came on board last year and Robert Saleh (ex Seahawks and Niners) is the new HC, replacing Adam Gase. It's all change for the Jest, who are looking enough like 49ers East to change their name (and honour Joe Namath at the same time) to the NY 69ers. Saleh's LB coach Jeff Ulbrich is the new DC while Mike LaFleur, brother of Matt and fellow Kyle Disciple, is the OC. And the big decision was made to trade Sam Darnold, draft Zach Wilson and go with the rookie as the starting QB. You may question the decision, but you have to admire the decisiveness, the belief that Wilson can deliver in a Shanahanly offense. Hence the signing of Tevin Coleman at RB, who'll compete with last year's R4 Lamical Perine and this year's no. 4, Michael Carter, who may be the best of the three as a one-cut runner. Ex-Titan Corey Davis and R2 draftee Elijah Moore upgrade the receivers, but the key is that the O line, with last year's no.1 Mekhi Becton and rookie Alijah "Aloe" Vera-Tucker on the left side, should be decent. They used late picks on defense, including a second guy named Michael Carter, a CB taken in R5. They were already strong up front with Quinnen Williams and, if CJ Mosley stays healthy, at least solid at LB. Around star safety Marcus Maye the secondary is young and unproven, though speedy former undrafted Javelin Guidry had an intriguing rookie year and R6 Brandon Echols could surprise. As could the Jest.

Marcus Maye 1280.jpg

Cincinnati Bengals

2020-21 record - 4-11

Joe Burrow got hurt last season, after turning in half a very promising rookie season. The Bengals passed on an early draft pick among a solid group of O linemen, instead choosing to reunite Burrow with LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase. I'd rather have a QB standing upright, looking for a non-big name receiver, than a QB on his back trying to throw to a big name. But my name isn't Brown so my vote doesn't matter. R2 pick Jackson Carman probably starts at G while R4 T D'Ante Smith is probably a project as he gets bigger. If 2019's R1 Jonah Williams missed his whole rookie season and six games last year through injury, they passed on a T hoping he'd be fit. RB Joe Mixon (pictured) is top-notch but only played in six games, so they need to be able to keep Burrow upright and healthy to have a chance of winning. Defensively they paid big for Trey Hendrickson's 13.5 sacks, which doesn't do as much as you'd think to upgrade the D. Jesse Bates is one of the AFC's best safeties and Vonn Bell is good alongside him. Full seasons from Trae Waynes, Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie would solidify the secondary. It's what's up in the front seven that may be the problem. That and being in a very strong division.

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Jacksonville Jaguars

2020-21 record - 1-15

Urban Meyer (below) was a winner at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State, but I get the whiff of Steve Spurrier about him, especially when he signed WR Devin Smith, who played for him at Ohio State but hasn't had an NFL snap since 2017. He's got Trevor Lawrence, the no. 1 pick in the draft and a QB who would be a can't miss in a better situation. Meyer also drafted Lawrence's college RB, Travis Etienne, despite having last year's undrafted rookie sensation James Robinson. With ex-Seattle coaches Darrell Bevell and Brian Schottenheimer running the offense, you might assume the pass game will be less than creative. Bringing in Marvin Jones, who played with Bevell in Detroit, reinforces that notion. The O line may be passable, but it's unlikely to be better. Joe Cullen, the ex-Raven LB coach, is the defensive co-ord, and they have talent up front, with Josh Allen transitioning to an edge role and ex-Raven Jihad Ward there for the same thing. They drafted for the secondary, brought in Damien Wilson from KC to play ILB, while Myles Jack and K'Lavon Chiasson ought to fill the other two spots. They could be decent defensively. They may need to be.

Urban Meyer Jacksonville 1280.jpg

Houston Texans

2020-21 record - 4-12

No criminal charges have been filed yet against DeShaun Watson (pictured), though he faces 22 civil suits and 10 criminal complaints: the Texans have made noises about trading him but the Commissioners Exempt List would seem the safest place for him to spend this season, though the Texans might not want to pay him. The politics of Jack Easterby's power grab in Houston would probably make a better series than Hard Knocks, with Bill O'Brien the tragic victim and Nick Caserio the white knight who's trying to assemble a Belichickian 2000 team of undervalued guys while they get rid of big contracts. Tyrod Taylor is likely the QB, Mark Ingram, Philip Lindsay Rex "The Wonder Dog" Burkhead and David Johnson will run a lot. Rookie Nico Collins may be their best receiver, though Brandin Cooks can always go long. Defensively JJ Watt and Clowney are gone, Mercilus remains, there are two ex-Browns in the secondary and Zach Cunningham may be their best player. A long season for first-time head coach David Culley.

Deshaun Watson Houston 2021 1280.jpg

For more tips & insight from Mike, listen to the NFL...Only Bettor season preview podcast, also featuring John Balfe and Kieran O'Connor

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