Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz , USA TODAY Sports Published 12:36 p.m. ET Jan. 24, 2017 |
With the NFL’s conference championship games over, it’s time to look ahead to next year for the 30 eliminated teams.
Several organizations are poised for a rise in 2017, with the returning talent to make a playoff push. For several others, rebuilding could be a multi-year project.
Here’s our look at all of the eliminated teams (ahead of Super Bowl LI) ranked by potential success for next season.
Pittsburgh’s parts began to coalesce down the stretch, and a nine-game winning streak showed what a threat this team could be at its best. An AFC Championship Game exit leaves the Steelers wondering what if, but that remains a promising hypothetical for the future. Le’Veon Bell is set to become a free agent, and the Steelers revealed themselves to be dependent upon his patient running style. Martavis Bryant’s return should bolster the passing game, but additional threats must be found to ease the burden on Antonio Brown. The young defense still has room to grow, but Bud Dupree and Artie Burns could take a significant step next season for a unit on the upswing.
In Green Bay’s season-ending unraveling in the NFC Championship Game, the same flaws that were readily apparent through much of the season reappeared. An undermanned defense proved unable to keep up with a potent passing attack, and Aaron Rodgers couldn’t cover for the offense’s lack of playmakers. But this might have been a drastically different team if not for a calamitous run of injuries at the skill positions, even if a reboot is required there. Rodgers, however, is what separates Green Bay from the field. The quarterback showed he can breathe life into any team, though relying on this tactic isn’t a sound strategy moving ahead.
It’s hard to find the silver lining in a 13-3 season that ended in the divisional round, but Dallas is well-situated for the foreseeable future. With Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and three all-pros up front, the offense could be overpowering for years to come. Making a call on Tony Romo remains the biggest offseason story, but a secondary shake-up could be ahead with cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne as well as safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox set to become free agents. With Randy Gregory suspended again, the pass rush also needs refurbishing.
Oakland had a historic bit of bad luck when Derek Carr broke his leg on Christmas Eve. Previously, no quarterback with 12 or more regular-season wins had failed to start in the postseason. Still, if Carr’s recovery goes smoothly, this team has the makings of a contender next season. Led by Khalil Mack, the 26th-ranked defense has the talent to take a significant step forward. Running back Latavius Murray is set to hit the market, but Carr and the dominant offensive line should keep the team in fine shape.
A lack of investment along the offensive line served as Seattle’s undoing, and now Pete Carroll and Co. must take a realistic look at the future of this perennial contender. But with a young core — defensive end Michael Bennett is the only notable starter over 30 — don’t expect the Seahawks to take a step back. If Earl Thomas recovers from a broken leg and Russell Wilson gets some help, Seattle should remain toward the top of the NFC pecking order.
Does Kansas City need a shakeup to reach the next level? Winning the AFC West and 10 of their final 12 games made for impressive accomplishments, but the team needs more than do-everything threat to break an Alex Smith-led offense out of its methodical tendencies. There’s impressive young talent with Travis Kelce and Dee Ford in the fold. But keeping both safety Eric Berry and defensive tackle Dontari Poe could prove difficult, and a tough call has to be made on whether running back Jamaal Charles returns.
A $200 million offseason overhaul of the defense paid off for Big Blue, as key free agent additions helped transform the unit from dormant to dominant. But Ben McAdoo’s offense was a letdown, failing to score 20 points in its last six games and offsetting gains elsewhere with its stagnation. Another threat must be found outside of Odell Beckham Jr., and Victor Cruz could be headed out unless he takes a substantial pay cut. Change also could be looming along the line, as defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins are headed for free agency.
Tennessee has swum against the current of larger NFL trends with its run-heavy attack, but it found sustainable success and now sits on the precipice of a breakout. Despite suffering a broken fibula in Week 16, Marcus Mariota has given every indication he’s a franchise quarterback. A dominant offensive line can help the Titans emulate the Cowboys and Raiders in their rapid rises. And in a wide-open AFC South, there’s plenty of room for growth this offseason for a team with two first-round draft picks and significant salary cap space.
Despite a disappointing defense of its Super Bowl 50 title, Denver may be in position to transition smoothly under new coach Vance Joseph. With a loaded defense and established culture under John Elway, the Broncos can turn their attention to jumpstarting the stalled offense. Having Mike McCoy back as offensive coordinator should aid Joseph in his first year. Developing quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch — or finding a veteran to step in — will be a key concern, and so will restarting a run game that finished 27th in yards per game.
Adam Gase had Miami ahead of schedule in his first year as head coach, leading the team to its first playoff berth since 2008 despite several glaring deficiencies. Upgrades are needed at linebacker after the 29th-ranked defense was repeatedly overwhelmed, but the return of Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones should assist an injury-stricken secondary that struggled down the stretch. Ryan Tannehill’s development looks to be back on track despite his late-season knee sprain, and the emergence of running back Jay Ajayi bodes well for a promising offense.
Jameis Winston’s development positions Tampa Bay as a substantial threat for the foreseeable future. Mike Evans established himself as one of the league’s premiere receivers, though another threat would help him shed his undue burden in the passing game. The defense might not be able to replicate the late-season takeaway spree that keyed its surge, but the young group could continue its rise, especially if Mike Smith remains defensive coordinator. The Buccaneers should have the cap room to make a splash in free agency, but their recent history in high-priced acquisitions has been dodgy.
Washington narrowly missed out on its chance to secure its first consecutive postseason berths since 1992. Assuming Kirk Cousins returns, be it on a long-term deal or franchise tag again, another playoff push seems likely. Balance might be needed, however, given that the heavy investment on offense has left the defense thin. Changes in the receiving corps could be coming, too, with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon set to become free agents.
One year after addressing its longstanding quarterback problems by signing Brock Osweiler, Houston’s problems at the position seem more significant than ever. Osweiler is a near lock to return, though coach Bill O’Brien would not commit to him as the starter. A top-ranked defense will become even more imposing upon J.J. Watt’s return, and no other team has staked its claim to the AFC South. But Houston is stuck in neutral until there’s a serious shift behind center.
Baltimore was a mere minute from positioning itself for the AFC North despite its usual maladies: inconsistency from Joe Flacco, who finished 24th in passer rating, and a reliance on late-career veterans. There’s no promising those issues will be remedied, especially given Steve Smith Sr.’s retirement and the struggles to generate a pass rush beyond Terrell Suggs. But mining more young talent, like cornerback Tavon Young, at key positions could give this team a needed jolt.
Real Life. Real News. Real Voices
Help us tell more of the stories that matterBecome a founding member
Which Cam Newton can Carolina expect next season: the 2015 MVP or this year’s version, who produced career lows in completion percentage (52.9) and total yards (3,868)? The answer may be somewhere in between the two, but something closer to the former should return the Panthers to contention. Ignoring the offensive line for another season could prove perilous, and the pass rush needs to be rejuvenated. But Newton, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are not to be overlooked.
Injuries to Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson and both starting offensive tackles helped unravel Minnesota after its 5-0 start, giving the team a wait-til-next-year veneer. The offensive issues might not be repaired by time alone, however, as the line left Sam Bradford vulnerable and the running game languished as the NFL’s worst. Decisions must be made on a quarterback plan as well as Peterson’s future. But Mike Zimmer could work wonders with a do-over and another go with his defense.
It’s difficult to have much faith in a team that won eight games on fourth-quarter comebacks replicating that same success. Detroit went 0-6 against playoff teams this season, and even coach Jim Caldwell conceded that the team is “a ways away” from a Super Bowl title. Still without a playoff win since 1991, Detroit doesn’t appear to have a clear path forward. Matthew Stafford’s progress was encouraging, but the quarterback could be poised to become the NFL’s highest-paid player this offseason.
So long as Andrew Luck remains healthy, Indianapolis will be a threat. The Colts, however, may have missed their best shot at compiling a proper supporting cast for Luck before making him the highest-paid player in football. The offensive line has yet to find its footing, and the defense requires an infusion of young talent. Still, in the AFC South, Luck makes Indianapolis a perennial contender.
After stumbling in its follow-up to last season’s NFC Championship Game trip, Arizona enters the offseason in a somewhat precarious position. But as long as Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald opt to put off retirement, Bruce Arians could have the makings for a strong group next season. David Johnson is perhaps the NFL’s best young all-purpose threat, and both the offense and defense finished in the top 10. Free agency could provide some trouble, as outside linebacker Chandler Jones, defensive end Calais Campbell and safety Tony Jefferson all are set to hit the market.
San Diego could make a strong case as the NFL’s unluckiest team in 2016. The Chargers finished with 20 players on injured reserve and went 1-8 in games decided by seven points or less. Now it’s up to new coach Anthony Lynn to find a way to finish with Philip Rivers and Co. Having its Los Angeles saga finally resolved could rid the team of one of its distractions, but there’s a wide gap between this team and the rest of the playoff-ready AFC West.
Despite falling flat after a hot start, Philadelphia has reason to be encouraged about the franchise’s direction after its first year under Doug Pederson. How Carson Wentz develops after hitting a rookie wall could determine the course of the season. Major upgrades are needed at the skill positions after the wide receivers continually disappointed and cornerbacks were exposed. Catching up to the rest of the NFC East won’t be easy.
Jacksonville didn’t make the jump many expected in 2016, but there’s more potential here for new coach Doug Marrone than the 3-13 record indicates. If Blake Bortles’ career can be salvaged after this year’s regression, a turnaround could be on the horizon. A breakout defense features several young standouts in cornerback Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Telvin Smith and defensive tackle Malik Jackson.
After its third straight 7-9 season, New Orleans seems to be stuck in place with its top-ranked offense and languishing defense. Drew Brees is still thriving, but the team has done little to look to a future beyond him. Further progress is required on defense, though having cornerbacks Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams healthy should provide a boost.
Cincinnati’s five-year streak of postseason appearances is over, and it’s difficult to see a path toward an immediate return. Continued problems along the offensive line could further inhibit Andy Dalton after he took a step back this season. A.J. Green needs assistance in the passing game, and Adam Jones’ arrest could alter the offseason plans for the defense.
Buffalo has the returning talent to be ranked much higher, but the franchise’s uncertainties run deep with Sean McDermott taking over for the fired Rex Ryan. The organization has to redefine itself after two seasons marked by inconsistency. A decision looms on Tyrod Taylor’s extension after an awkward Week 17 benching. LeSean McCoy and the top-ranked rushing offense could ease the transition, but a disappointing defense might need to be reshuffled.
Sean McVay might have been attracted to Los Angeles’ coaching vacancy for reasons beyond the roster, but there’s substantial work to be done. A horrid offensive line still stands as a threat to the development of both top pick Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley. A fearsome front led by defensive tackle Aaron Donald couldn’t hide the defense’s deficiencies, especially depth in the secondary. With no first-round pick after the trade to move up for Goff, McVay will need to push the right buttons to break the team out of its stagnation.
An unremarkable season may be best known for the potential end of Jay Cutler’s run in Chicago. Matt Barkley fared well as a fill-in, but it’s time for general manager Ryan Pace to make a serious investment in a young quarterback. But there’s young talent emerging, including running back Jordan Howard, wide receiver Cameron Meredith and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd.
The picture isn’t very rosy for Gang Green. Todd Bowles is back, but new leaders must be found after a season of infighting. Starting fresh could mean parting with the likes of defensive end Sheldon Richardson, wide receiver Brandon Marshall or cornerback Darrelle Revis, among others. Neither Bryce Petty nor Christian Hackenberg appear to be viable options to take over at quarterback, but even a veteran quarterback likely won’t save this team in 2017.
After firing Chip Kelly and Trent Baalke in yet another reset, San Francisco appears to be aimless. The last-ranked defense is in disarray. Yet the 49ers may be lured into investing in a young quarterback, especially if Colin Kaepernick departs. With a multi-year rebuild ahead, owner Jed York needs to find the right general manager and coach pairing to establish the proper culture.
Cleveland’s 1-15 season was all the more disappointing for the lack of resolution it provided the franchise moving forward. No answer at quarterback emerged, and counting on either Robert Griffin III or Cody Kessler next season would be a substantial gamble. Linebacker Jamie Collins re-upped, but with wide receiver Terrelle Pryor set to become free agents, the Browns have to find a way to hang onto the few promising players on the roster. Still, Hue Jackson can find room to grow in Year 2 with a stockpile of picks, including the No. 1 overall.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe