Monday, January 2, 2017

Who can make the leap?

Generally around 50% of NFL teams that make the playoffs one year don't make it the next. This year was the same, with the Broncos, Bengals, Panthers, Cardinals, Vikings and Redskins dropping out. Normally it is around 6, at times drops to 4, on rare occasions will go up to 7-8. So, with that in mind, let's look ahead at the 20 teams that didn't make the playoffs this year and which have the best chance, and what the path is, to making the playoffs. Obviously, we don't know how free agency will change things, or the draft, or a Romo-trade, but I'll take a few guesses and assumptions.

No Chance in Hell

20.) Cleveland Browns
19.) San Francisco 49ers
18.) New York Jets

Saying anything in the NFL has no chance in hell is a strong statement, and sure I'm openly being somewhat hyperbolic, but I really would be surprised if any of these three make it. The Browns are at least keeping their coach (the Jets might too, but that could be a disaster if things go south early in 2017). The Browns are a year into a multi-year rebuilding phase with no real plan to win anyway in 2017. The 49ers are basically entering where the Browns were a year ago with cleaning house and getting rid of Baalke and Chip Kelly. The Jets need to do what the 49ers and Browns have started. Their cap is a mess, their drafting strategy has been rudderless, they have no real QB, and their best players are all either free agents, locker-room cancers, or over 30. Just a mess. Hard to believe this team entered Week 17 last year needing to just win to make the playoffs.

A lot of things will have to break right

17.) Jacksonville Jaguars
16.) Los Angeles Rams
15.) Chicago Bears
14.) San Diego Chargers

Three of these teams have coaching vacancies. I applaud the Bears for sticking by John Fox. That team was better than 3-13, probably more of a 5-11 team based on performance and this is with a ton of injury issues. As for the Rams and Jaguars, their only real path probably doubles as their largest, systemic failing: their issues at QB. I guess we should give Jared Goff a pass, but he was brutal in limited action. If he improves a ton, and similarly with Bortles if he finally takes a step, those teams can navigate a path. Good coaching hires can do wonders for both. The Bears probably need a new QB, but they showed some really good signs late in the season, including a running game and a defense that played well despite missing 3-4 starters. The Chargers have the QB (though Rivers quietly did throw 20 interceptions) and if they can just stay healthy they can make a real push. What hurts them is the strength of the division they are in, and the sneaking suspicion Rivers himself may have started his decline in full.

More likely to stay in mediocrity

13.) Buffalo Bills 

The Bills have a lot of nice pieces that they put out on display the past two seasons under Rex Ryan. From Tyrod's surprising competence, their NFL-best running game this year, and their ability to be good on offense without getting full seasons from Sammy Watkins. What was not one of these things was their defense, which was a Top-5 unit when Rex Ryan came in. My skepticism going forward is it seems pretty clear Tyrod Taylor is gone, and I don't know who they should replace him with. Their defense is also further and further away from the Top-5 unit it used to be, with aging players and few real game-changers. The Bills have enough talent to drive right back to a 8-8 campaign, but the path to getting the two wins they would need is far blurrier.

12.) New Orleans Saints

The Saints have been very consistent the past few years. This was their 3rd straight 7-9 campaign (somehow, Sean Payton has escaped any Jeff Fisher jokes, despite going 7-9 or 8-8 five times despite having Drew Brees), and their 4th in 5 years (the first was in the year Payton was suspended). The Saints cap is still a mess, and what is the hope they'll be anything different in 2017? Especially with renewed uncertainty around Sean Payton's future, the offense may not be as good in 2017 as it has been the past few weeks. The Saints showed some signs on defense late in the season, but I'm put off by the coaching issues and the general malaise of 7-9 they seem resolved to never leave.

Hold your horses a bit

11.) Washington Redskins

Did the Kirk Cousins era peak in that win over the Packers? This was the game where after Rodgers gave his soon-to-be-historic 'run the table' remarks. Out of the game the Redskins were 6-3-1 and fairly safe bets for the playoffs. Now, with a 2-5 finish, losing a game against a team that had nothing to play for, and with Cousins' contract about to become a divisive issue again, it is far to ask if this is the best we will get. The division is tough, and the Redskins have depended on a lot of free agents. Now, that has often been Scott McLoughlan's way of starting off rebuilds, and his drafts may turn out to be great, but so much of their short-term future is wrapped up in the QB decision. They could easily make the playoffs again, but I think it is fair to wonder if 9-7 and 8-7-1 is as good as it will get with Cousins.

10.) Baltimore Ravens

They will look back at losses to the Giants and Jets, both games they could have easily won, as what cost them their playoff spot. Of course, had they tackled Antonio Brown they may have even beaten Pittsburgh just last week. I still believe in the coaching staff and the defensive personnel which all took a collective step up. There are some age concerns, but the Ravens drafting on defense has been solid the past couple years. A lot of it will come down to who Harbaugh picks next for OC. They've gone through a litany of them in Flacco's career. The good one's have worked wonders with Flacco (Cam Cameron in 2008, Jim Caldwell in 2012, Gary Kubiak in 2014), but the most recent set never did. The end of the season was incredibly disappointing, and it is now three out of four years out of the playoffs, but the Ravens still have a strong core.

9.) Philadelphia Eagles
In the end, it comes down to Carson Wentz. He was never as good as the player that was way too lauded during their 3-0 start, and he probably wasn't as bad as the one who fell apart in the second half of the season. The Eagles have a very good defense that should be around as good next year. I would foresee less Special Teams luck, but in reality it will come down to Carson Wentz. I think he still needs more than an additional year of maturation. The Eagles may be a year more away. I hope they stay by Doug Pedersen, as I liked a lot of what he brought to the Eagles team - he had an almost Jim Harbaugh like presence there. Goal #1A should be Wentz, but #1B should be to get Wentz some good players to actually throw to and work with. AN offense structured around Zach Ertz has only such high of a ceiling.

8.) Minnesota Vikings

I feel like I broken record saying all of these come down to what happens at QB, but for the Vikings there is more questions than maybe anywhere else. Sam Bradford was not the problem. I don't think the Vikings would have been any better this year with Teddy Bridgewater. That said, I still question how high the ceiling of a Bradford-led offense can be even if they have competent blocking. The defense is still good, but there are some age concerns there. The Vikings are a good team, but I have no idea who their QB will be next year.

Solid prospects to turn it around

7.) Cincinnati Bengals 

The Bengals are one of the best 6-9-1 teams out there. This is a team that was hammered by injuries, but still had a positive point differential, and a long track record of success. They still have a QB who if he is kept upright can be very successful. You have to imagine more health next year for AJ Green, more seasoning on their young pass catchers. My only concerns with Cincinnati are age on defense (DL) and offense (OL). Their offensive line was a strength throughout their 5-year run but fell apart at times this season. If that is a one-year anomaly, this can easily be a return to the playoffs. If not, there are more structural problems.

6.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
5.) Tennessee Titans

Grouping these two teams together because of how similar they are. They will be linked because their QBs were picked #1-2 in 2015, and both had massive improvements in 2016. The key is getting them to be even more consistent in 2017. The Buccaneers are becoming something like the Giants or Panthers lite. A high-powered but inconsistent offense, and a strong defense that will have 4-5 games a year when they are amazing, and an equal amount with poor play. The Titans 'exotic smashmouth' worked for the most part, but they hvae to analyze what the hell happened against Jacksonville in Week 16. Both teams have bright futures, have done well in the draft (and the Titans have a host of picks coming their way from the Rams) and will be perennial contenders for years. Not sure if it is enough for 2017, but I do at least hope the Titans, if not the team to come, push the Texans out of the playoffs.

I hope this as much as I believe this

4.) Indianapolis Colts

I think Grigson is gone. One of the two have to go. In all honesty, they both have to go, but I think Pagano saved himself with that last win. I have no idea why. The team is a disaster. They went 8-8 with a healthy, and on the whole well-performing, Andrew Luck in a bad division. That is unacceptable, or at least should be. Anyway, there were signs of progress late in the season. The defense got a little more pressure than normal. The OL solidified nicely. Other targets outside of Hilton (who quietly led the NFL in receiving yards) stepped up. The foundation is good, but the gameplanning and the game-changers on defense need serious work.

The Returnees

3.) Carolina Panthers

The next two teams also were playoff teams in 2015 that dropped out. I was shocked about all three, but for all I think there is a great case it is a one-year anomaly. The Panthers are anyway up and down, and had some awful injury luck in 2016. The team foundation is still rock strong. They have tons of cap space to sign free agents (and re-sign guys like Kawaan Short). The OL is the key. Getting improvement there can get them closer to the 2015 Panthers offense. I still believe in everything I've written about the Panthers before. That team was amazing in close games in 2015, and then dreadful at them in 2016. They anyway had the underlying performance of an 8-8 or so team, so jumping back to 10-6 is not too far away.

2.) Denver Broncos

I will drop them a lot of Wade Phillips is let go, but the path back up is so clear. Their defense is tremendous, but if they can improve their rush defense and OL, they should be ready. If they can somehow swindle a trade for Tony Romo, they probably become AFC West favorites. Losing Kubiak hurts, but as long as Phillips is there and that pass defense remains the best in the NFL, they should be able to get another win or two easily next year. The foundation is very strong still.

1.) Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals really should have been a playoff team this year. Their point differential was good enough. Granted, they would still have been a disappointing 9-6-1 or something, but the Cardinals are still a strong defense. The defense was great (led the league with 48 sacks - quietly Carolina finished 2nd with 47) despite injuries. Their young pass rushers gave them a dimension they didn't hvae. Carson Palmer still had his moments late in the season, and if they get some good growth out of their WRs (and get John Brown back - they were never the same after he got hurt), the offense should be good enough. It is pretty clear the peak Arizona was 2015, but they can easily replicated the 2013-14 Cardinals that went 10-6 and 11-5.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.