As the excitement for NFL action ramps up with training camps in progress, every team must iron out wrinkles. Some of those situations can change the complexion of a division race.
Typically, quarterback questions dominate the headlines, specifically open competitions. However, a few clubs have more substantial issues in other areas.
In a best-case scenario, a team on the rise can challenge or win its division. Conversely, mere minimal improvement in certain aspects could keep fringe contenders outside the playoff bubble.
We'll examine the biggest question in each division and what it means for that club's 2021 outlook.
AFC East: Will Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa Show Signs of Promise?
In 2020, quarterback Tom Brady left the New England Patriots for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Buffalo Bills won the AFC East title. While the New York Jets rebuild with rookie signal-caller Zach Wilson and first-time head coach Robert Saleh, can the Miami Dolphins challenge the Bills for the division crown?
Last season, the Dolphins barely missed the playoffs with a loss to the Bills in Week 17, falling to 10-6. Ryan Fitzpatrick (nine starts) and Tua Tagovailoa (seven starts) split time under center. The former signed with the Washington Football Team, so the latter has the job to himself.
The Dolphins selected Tagovailoa fifth overall in last year's draft. Going into his second season, he's under pressure to elevate a playoff-caliber roster and show why the front office picked him over 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year, Justin Herbert.
As a rookie, Tagovailoa threw for 1,814 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. The coaching staff benched him for Fitzpatrick multiple times in the heat of a playoff race. Coming off a full offseason program, further removed from a late 2019 hip surgery, the Alabama product could make significant strides. He has a trio of playmaking wideouts in DeVante Parker, William Fuller V and rookie first-rounder Jaylen Waddle.
If Tagovailoa takes a big step forward, the Dolphins can win 10 or more games and clinch a postseason berth. On the flip side, he would raise serious concerns with an underwhelming second term.
AFC North: Did the Browns Fix Their Defense?
In 2020, the Cleveland Browns established an effective offensive formula. Head coach Kevin Stefanski implemented a run-heavy attack that finished third in rushing. Quarterback Baker Mayfield put his stamp on the season, throwing for 11 touchdowns and just one interception in an efficient six-game stretch from Weeks 12 to 17. They finished 11-5 and won a playoff game.
However, the Browns didn't show offseason complacency. The team acquired notable players for each level of its defense to bolster a unit that ranked 21st in points allowed last year. Cleveland added safety John Johnson III, edge-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, defensive tackle Malik Jackson, rookie first-round cornerback Greg Newsome II and rookie second-round linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
According to The Athletic's Zac Jackson, the defense could have nine new starters, which suggests star edge-rusher Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward are the only surefire holdovers in the first unit.
With that much turnover on one side of the ball, the Browns clearly thought a stronger defense would help them advance further in the postseason. In a division with quarterbacks who went No. 1 overall, won multiple Super Bowl titles and earned a league MVP, Cleveland needs a complete roster to win the AFC North.
AFC South: Will Colts' QB Carson Wentz Bounce Back?
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson still wants to move on from the franchise. According to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, the team is willing to trade him.
Most importantly, Watson and his legal team face 22 lawsuits from women accusing the quarterback of sexual assault and misconduct. Watson has said any sexual activity that occurred was consensual and has denied the allegations.
Regardless of whether he faces legal ramifications or NFL discipline, or is traded, his short-term future doesn't have much bearing on the race for the AFC South title.
However, Carson Wentz's 2021 outlook will have a significant impact on the Indianapolis Colts' ability to win the division.
First, Wentz must avoid major injury. He's out indefinitely and will undergo testing on his foot, per ESPN's Adam Schefter and Mike Wells. Per NFL Network's Mike Silver, the team is "bracing" for news about a possible surgery.
Wentz's stock dropped tremendously after his abysmal 2020 with the Philadelphia Eagles. He completed a career-low 57.4 percent of his passes and led the league in interceptions (15). Over the past year, Wentz dropped from Tier 2 to 3 in The Athletic's quarterback rankings, which surveys 50 coaches and evaluators.
He looked completely out of sorts with his decisions in the pocket last season, but the Eagles' banged-up offensive line didn't provide much protection.
Last June, Philadelphia lost right guard Brandon Brooks to a torn Achilles for the season. Right tackle Lane Johnson missed nine outings because of ankle, shoulder and knee injuries. In place of left tackle Andre Dillard (torn biceps), Jason Peters struggled to seal the edge, allowing a bottom-three total of eight sacks, per Pro Football Focus. Wentz faced pressure on 29.3 percent of his dropbacks—fifth among QBs with at least 200 attempts—and took the most sacks (50).
Though Wentz has his faults, he'll play behind a stout offensive line that features two-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly, three-time All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson and right tackle Braden Smith, who just signed a four-year, $72.4 million extension. By the way, two-time Pro Bowl tackle Eric Fisher could make his debut with the team in October, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
Coming off an 11-5 campaign, Indianapolis has a playoff-caliber roster. If the Colts can stay competitive without Wentz and make a push with him healthy, they can potentially challenge the Tennessee Titans for the division crown.