2011 record: 10-6
Biggest need: Second banana at wide receiver
This is one franchise in fine shape for 2012. Give the Texans a healthy Matt Schaub, and there’s a good chance they would have squared off with the Giants in the Super Bowl. GM Rick Smith is tilting at windmills with his top priority, finding a way to bring back Mario Williams without benefit of the franchise tag. After the emergence of Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed as book-end pass rushers, the Texans aren’t desperate enough to match the outlandish offers Williams will see on the open market. While the defense is loaded with young talent, the offensive needs include re-signing restricted free agent Arian Foster and adding a playmaker opposite Andre Johnson.
2011 record: 2-14
Biggest need: A transition from the Peyton Manning era
Even if Manning wasn’t due a $28 million roster bonus, the only move that makes sense is the transition to Andrew Luck. Manning can’t win with the roster as currently composed, and the Colts don’t have the salary cap space for a quick turnaround. New GM Ryan Grigson will prioritize Robert Mathis and Pierre Garcon among his free agents, leaving the futures of long-time stalwarts WR Reggie Wayne, C Jeff Saturday, MLB Gary Brackett, and perhaps even TE Dallas Clark in doubt. Grigson must rebuild the offensive line and add talent at the skill positions while boosting his linebackers and secondary.
2011 record: 5-11
Biggest need: Offensive playmakers
GM Gene Smith staked his future to Blaine Gabbert by trading up to select him at No. 10 overall, firing a skeptical Jack Del Rio, and bringing in Mike Mularkey to oversee the young quarterback’s development. Whether or not Gabbert’s shaky pocket presence is fixable, Smith is charged with upgrading the shakiest wide receiver corps in the NFL. The top priority for Mel Tucker’s promising defense is re-signing DE Jeremy Mincey and CB Rashean Mathis while getting Tyson Alualu, Paul Posluszny, and Clint Session back to full health.
2011 record: 9-7
Biggest need: Fix the running game
No healthy player was more of a disappointment than Chris Johnson last season. Although Johnson came under fire for conditioning, effort, and loss of confidence, the overwhelmed offensive line is the area that will receive the most offseason attention. Look for the Titans to fix the interior on offense while concentrating on the defense’s front seven. Cortland Finnegan, one of the top corners in the league in 2011, could be slapped with the franchise tag. With Kenny Britt returning and Jake Locker and Jared Cook potentially emerging, the young offensive talent could make up for the overhaul on defense.
2011 record: 8-8
Biggest need: Talent infusion on defense
The public narrative will always default to Tim Tebow, but new defensive boss Jack Del Rio desperately needs an upgrade on nearly half of his starters. Pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, run-stuffer Broderick Bunkley, DE Robert Ayers, CB Champ Bailey, and perhaps MLB D.J. Williams are keepers. The rest of the unit would be best-served by hitting the “reset” button. Offensively, the Broncos figure to add competition for Tebow, a playmaking complement to Willis McGahee, and an upgrade at tight end.
Kansas City Chiefs
2011 record: 7-9
Biggest need: True franchise quarterback
Coach Romeo Crennel and new coordinator Brian Daboll have both espoused confidence in Matt Cassel, which means more wheel-spinning in 2012. The Chiefs will bring in competition, but they clearly want Cassel to win the job outright. It’s a recipe for continued mediocrity, even with the return to health of Jamaal Charles and Tony Moeaki. The top two free agent priorities are WR Dwayne Bowe and CB Brandon Carr, franchising one and extending the other. With Kelly Gregg due to hit the market, nose tackle is the biggest defensive need.
2011 record: 8-8
Biggest need: An injury-free season on offense, revamped secondary
Carson Palmer certainly isn’t worth the exorbitant price Hue Jackson paid for his services last season, but it’s hard to blame him for offense’s failures down the stretch. Darren McFadden, Jacoby Ford, and Denarius Moore -- the team’s three most explosive offensive talents -- missed significant action in the final two months. Outside of potentially franchising free agent pounder Michael Bush, the Raiders are fairly set on offense. New coach Dennis Allen’s defensive priority is fixing a secondary that set franchise records for TDs passes allowed, yards passing, and total yards.
San Diego Chargers
2011 record: 8-8
Biggest need: Refurbished offensive line
The story of San Diego’s season was a soft defense and a disappointing showing by Philip Rivers for the better part of three months. Free agent deep threat Vincent Jackson isn’t expected to be franchised, but the Bolts can help Rivers by rebuilding an offensive line that was in tatters by November. Blindside tackle Marcus McNeill, ravaged by neck and back injuries the past two seasons, is expected to be cut in March to avoid an $11 million salary. New defensive coordinator John Pagano has several needs, including defensive end, outside linebacker, and safety.