Labor Day weekend is great for a lot of reasons, from grilling meat to enjoying one last chance to bask in the summer sun. But the best part about it has nothing to do with any of that. Labor Day is a reminder that our long, long wait is finally over. Football is coming.
As The Ringer’s 2016 NFL preview package winds to a close, I’ll spend this week ranking all 32 teams as we head toward the season. The order will reveal my inclinations to favor certain kinds of teams (the ones with bad offensive lines will probably be ranked too low) and certain kinds of franchises (the Buccaneers will almost definitely be ranked too high). Overall, though, this is my best estimation for which teams will do what this year and why.
We’ll start with teams likely to toil near the bottom of the standings in 2016.
32. San Francisco 49ers
2015 record: 5–11
2015 DVOA finish: 28th on offense; 27th on defense
Richard Sherman’s "I’m the best corner in the game" moment that followed the NFC championship game happened more than two and a half years ago. No really, look it up. It seems impossible that a 49ers team that finished 12–4 three seasons ago and came one pass away from winning back-to-back NFC titles could fall this far this fast, but here we are. With offensive guard Alex Boone’s departure for Minnesota, only six of the 49ers’ 22 starters from the 2013 campaign will reprise their roles in 2016, and that number is only as high as it is because tackle Anthony Davis came out of retirement. Overall — and especially on offense — this is a roster largely bereft of NFL talent.
The Jim Tomsula era is already a bizarre, "Oh yeah, that happened" footnote, but even with Chip Kelly at the helm, there isn’t a lot of reason to believe the 49ers should be much better than the 5–11 squad they were a year ago. San Francisco’s bleak 2016 outlook probably starts with an offense that averaged a league-worst 14.9 points per game last year and a quarterback battle between Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert that no one really "wins." But equally as responsible for the Niners’ bottoming out is the sad fate of their once-vaunted defense.
San Francisco plummeted from fifth in defensive DVOA in 2014 to 27th last season, and it’s unlikely the 49ers will be much better under new coordinator Jim O’Neil. The team handed linebacker NaVorro Bowman — who is still somehow only 28 — a massive four-year, $42 million extension with $22 million in guarantees this offseason, but he simply hasn’t been the same since shredding his knee in the aforementioned NFC championship game. Last season, the best players on this defense were probably nose tackle Ian Williams and edge rusher Aaron Lynch. Williams has already been ruled out for the year with an ankle injury, and Lynch is suspended for the first four games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Even for the staunchest Kelly believers, the forecast in San Francisco — for this year at least — is pretty grim.
What They Should Do Well: Even without Williams, the front four is the most promising part of this roster, and after the Niners spent their past two first-round picks on defensive linemen, it better be. Arik Armstead showed promise as a rookie, but the organization is banking on this year’s no. 7 overall pick — and Armstead’s college teammate at Oregon — DeForest Buckner being even better.
Where They Will Struggle: San Francisco should be better offensively than it was in 2015. That’s thanks to a healthy Carlos Hyde at running back and the return of Davis to shore up the right side of the offensive line, which might have been the worst part of any NFL roster last year. But this remains a team that is quarterbacked by Gabbert, with replacement-level talent at three offensive line spots and throughout its receiving corps. The Niners finished 28th in offensive DVOA and 32nd in points per play last fall. Kelly might help with some of that, but points are still going to be scarce.
Potential Breakout Star: Lynch. He’ll miss the first four games of this season, but last year he seemed on the brink of becoming a real force off the edge. Though Lynch had only 6.5 sacks in 2015, he recorded 34.5 hurries, according to Football Outsiders. Per FO, 34 players have tallied at least 30 hurries since 2012; 25 had double-digit sack totals. Lynch has been better than traditional stats would indicate, and oh yeah, he’s 23.
Stat of Note: 38 catches for 490 yards. Those were the combined numbers for the non-Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin receivers in San Francisco’s 2015 offense.
31. Cleveland Browns
2015 record: 3–13
2015 DVOA finish: 27th on offense; 29th on defense
If a team is going to be bad, it might as well be bad with a plan. The new front-office regime in Cleveland, headed by executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown, has made it clear that all the organization wants to do right now is stockpile assets. After trading 2014 first-round selection Justin Gilbert to the Steelers on Saturday, Cleveland now has three of its picks from the first and second rounds of a decade’s worth of drafts (2005 to 2014) remaining on its roster. Brown’s response to having no talent by way of the draft has been to give the front office every opportunity to find some.
Rather than reach for a QB with the second overall pick this April, a flurry of trades netted the Browns 14 picks in the 2016 draft. Thanks to a slew of deals, Cleveland already owns the Eagles’ first-round pick for next year and their second-round pick in 2018, the Titans’ second-round pick in 2017, and the Patriots’ fifth-round pick in 2017. The Browns also sent a punter to the Panthers in a move that landed them a 2018 fourth-rounder. That’s some Draft Day shit.
The Browns are undergoing a rebuilding project in the purest possible sense. They have jettisoned nearly every expensive veteran on the roster in favor of ceding playing time to their surplus of young players. Even if outside linebacker Paul Kruger might have been a hair better than second-round pick Emmanuel Ogbah in 2016, it doesn’t matter for Cleveland. The team isn’t playing for this year. It’s gearing up for the future. Some of these picks are eventually going to have to hit if any of this is going to matter, but the Browns at least have direction.
What They Should Do Well: Josh Gordon is back! Well, sort of. The dynamic receiver is suspended for the first four games of this season, but the Browns should have a good amount of firepower at wideout when he returns. Gordon and first-round pick Corey Coleman have the makings of a terrifying pair on the outside, and I can’t be the only person intrigued by the offense’s Terrelle Pryor experiment. It remains to be seen whether first-year coach Hue Jackson can revive Robert Griffin III’s career, but at the very least, Griffin’s receivers shouldn’t hold him back.
Where They Will Struggle: The cornerback spot opposite Joe Haden is a bottomless pit of despair. The Browns swung and missed with Gilbert and recently released 2014 fourth-round pick Pierre Desir. It now looks like former Dolphins second-round pick Jamar Taylor will get the starting nod, but after Cleveland lost one-time interception machine Tashaun Gipson in free agency and cut slot cornerback K’Waun Williams, the back end of its defense is thin, to put it nicely. It’s hard to believe that this was a unit that finished second in pass-defense DVOA only two years ago.
Potential Breakout Star: Duke Johnson. The running back caught 61 passes as a rookie, and Jackson has plenty of experience integrating pass-catching backs into his offense. Before coming to Cleveland, Jackson coached Giovani Bernard in Cincinnati.
Stat of Note: 24.7, the average age of Cleveland’s 11 starters on defense. John Hughes is the oldest guy. He was born on April 27, 1988. That’s insane.
30. Tennessee Titans
2015 record: 3–13
2015 DVOA finish: 32nd on offense; 23rd on defense
One year after taking Marcus Mariota with the second overall pick, the Titans spent their entire offseason turning him into a bubble boy. Tennessee underwent an offensive transformation unlike any other around the league.
About half of the Titans’ 2016 offensive starters weren’t with the team in 2015. On top of drafting Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and trading for DeMarco Murray to revamp its running back spots, the franchise also cut ties with Dorial Green-Beckham and Justin Hunter at receiver. It will roll with free-agent signing Rishard Matthews and preseason star/fifth-round rookie Tajae Sharpe on the outside as it tries to breathe some life into a passing offense that finished 30th in DVOA last year.
Losing Mariota for four games to knee injuries didn’t help matters, but the Titans’ real issue last season was their inability to keep him upright when he was on the field. Tennessee had the highest sack rate in the league (9.6 percent of dropbacks); only 19 rookie QBs since the merger were sacked more than Mariota was in 2015, and again, that was in only 12 games. To remedy the problem, the front office signed new starting center Ben Jones from the Texans and used some of the king’s ransom it got from dealing the first overall pick to trade up and grab right tackle Jack Conklin.
The direction new head coach Mike Mularkey — who was retained after taking over on an interim basis last year, in another instance of mind-numbing boringness in the realm of head coach choices — and first-year general manager Jon Robinson have taken the Titans has raised plenty of eyebrows. Mariota was unstoppable in a spread system at Oregon; putting him in a grind-it-out offense seems counterintuitive. But after a year of Mariota getting pummeled, the team’s approach has been to insulate him however possible, even if it’s by way of personnel instead of scheme. Whether that will work is another story, but the Titans deserve credit for acknowledging it was time to hit the reset button after finishing dead last in offensive DVOA.
What They Should Do Well: The Titans were built to run the ball, and so far it appears to be working. Henry looked like an absolute beast during the preseason, averaging 6.4 yards per carry on 34 rushes. The combination of him and a refreshed Murray could turn Tennessee into a will-stealing force in the running game.
Where They Will Struggle: For the third consecutive season, the Titans should have a tough time stopping the run. Tennessee finished 24th in run defense DVOA in 2015, and that was its best finish since 2011. The organization did little to rectify the issue aside from drafting defensive tackle Austin Johnson in the second round. A complete overhaul on one side of the ball usually means sacrificing something on the other.
Potential Breakout Star: Henry. Even if Murray gets a bulk of the carries early on, the 6-foot-3, 247-pound rookie looks too good to keep off the field.
Stat of Note: 1. That’s how many times since 2000 the Titans have produced two 1,000-yard receivers in a season. The position has been a black hole with this franchise for years, and after missing on high picks in Green-Beckham and Hunter, the hope is that it found a gem with Sharpe.
29. Philadelphia Eagles
2015 record: 7–9
2015 DVOA finish: 26th on offense; 17th on defense
By trading Sam Bradford to Minnesota, Philadelphia executive Howie Roseman finally completed his offseason-long expunging of every significant move from Chip Kelly’s tenure in charge of the Eagles. Gone are Bradford, DeMarco Murray, and cornerback Byron Maxwell, and even though the bill for all three will cost the organization $14.3 million in dead cap money this season, the fact Roseman was able to climb out from under those contracts at all should be considered a victory.
The Eagles still had to pay $11 million for Bradford in 2016 — in the form of the signing bonuses he already got this spring — but Roseman essentially traded $11 million in cap room for a first-round pick next spring and a fourth-round pick in 2018. That’s a deal worth taking. In the long term, netting a first-rounder for the QB was in Philly’s best interests, but by starting Carson Wentz (which it will reportedly do, if he’s healthy), the team’s chances of struggling this fall increase significantly.
Wentz isn’t just walking from a low level of college competition into an NFL starting job with little in the way of preseason snaps with the first-team offense. The rookie is doing it while surrounded by a wanting supporting cast. The Eagles will hang their running game on Ryan Mathews, who has played 16 games just once in his six-year career. And outside of a trade for Dorial Green-Beckham, Philadelphia did nothing to bolster one of the league’s worst receiving corps. Left tackle Jason Peters is 34 and has lingering back issues, and right tackle Lane Johnson is expected to miss 10 games to serve a PED suspension. The Eagles were 26th in offensive DVOA in 2015, and unless Wentz proves to be a revelation, there are plenty of signs pointing to an even worse finish this season. Welcome to the Doug Pederson era, everyone!
What They Should Do Well: The good news for Eagles fans is that the forecast is a lot brighter on defense. Philly’s front four ranks among the best in football, and new coordinator Jim Schwartz will likely get the most out of that group. Fletcher Cox has already emerged as a star, evidenced by the six-year, $102.6 million deal he got in the offseason. In Schwartz’s attacking one-gap scheme, though, he has a chance to establish himself as one of the best defenders in the game.
Where They Will Struggle: Similar to a year ago, the Eagles will likely have issues making plays down the field. Bradford’s affinity for going with the safe throw certainly didn’t help in 2015, but with a receiving trio of Josh Huff, Nelson Agholor, and Jordan Matthews, there probably won’t be many big plays to be had.
Potential Breakout Star: Vinny Curry. Curry’s five-year, $47.3 million deal (with $23 million guaranteed) this offseason may have come as a surprise to some, but he’s an extremely talented pass rusher who can get after the quarterback from a few different spots along the defensive line. He’ll fit in well with Schwartz’s approach.
Stat of Note: 9. In 14 seasons as a head coach or defensive coordinator, Schwartz has sent at least one defensive lineman to the Pro Bowl nine times.
28. Miami Dolphins
2015 record: 6–10
2015 DVOA finish: 22nd on offense; 25th on defense
Miami was a focal point of NFL free agency for the second consecutive offseason, only this time it was because of the big-name players leaving town. Defensive end Olivier Vernon and running back Lamar Miller both got deals (from the Giants and Texans, respectively) near the top of the market at their positions. In both cases, the Dolphins chose to pretend it was 2014 when replacing them.
Arian Foster and Mario Williams came to Miami on relatively cheap contracts, but the franchise’s decision to swap young, attractive talent for players clearly on the downside of their careers is emblematic of why it’s hard to get excited about this version of the Dolphins. For every move that felt like a step forward, there was one that represented a step back, like trading for Byron Maxwell only to cut Brent Grimes. Now, Miami will be forced to rely on either converted receiver Tony Lippett or rookie Xavien Howard at one starting corner spot.
The most significant move the Dolphins made, though, offers some reason for optimism. New head coach Adam Gase somehow concocted an offense that ranked 10th in DVOA last season with a combination of Jay Cutler and a bunch of receivers even Bears fans don’t know. We’re going on the fourth straight year of headlines touting that "Ryan Tannehill is finally figuring it out!" but Gase, the former Chicago offensive coordinator, is the best candidate to get the most out of his QB. This receiving corps has a lot of talent in Jarvis Landry, 2015 first-round pick DeVante Parker, and a reportedly reinvigorated Kenny Stills. It’s just a matter of whether Tannehill can unlock the offense’s potential.
What They Should Do Well: Ndamukong Suh is still Ndamukong Suh, and building a case for the Dolphins defense to take a step forward starts with him and the rest of this front four. Cameron Wake is 34 and coming off an injury-riddled 2015 campaign, but if he, Suh, and Williams can stay healthy, Miami should be much better at rushing the passer than it was a year ago, when it finished 22nd in the NFL in adjusted sack rate.
Where They Will Struggle: The Dolphins were downright awful at defending wide receivers last year, finishing 32nd in DVOA against no. 1 wideouts and 27th against no. 2s. Maxwell will likely be better than he was during his lone season in Philadelphia, but Miami’s lack of depth and proven talent at the other cornerback spot is troubling.
Potential Breakout Star: Laremy Tunsil. Outside of landing Gase, Miami’s biggest break this offseason came in the form of a gas-mask bong. Tunsil never should have been available with the no. 13 pick in April, and despite having Branden Albert at left tackle and former first-round pick Ja’Wuan James on the other side, Miami’s decision to take Tunsil and figure out where he’ll play later should be applauded. The team’s guard spots have been an issue for years, and even if Tunsil takes some time to transition to the interior, he’s still a significant upgrade from what the Dolphins have recently had.
Stat of Note: 3.4 yards per attempt. According to Football Outsiders, that’s what Tannehill averaged last season when teams sent six or more pass rushers. No quarterback in the league was worse.
27. Chicago Bears
2015 record: 6–10
2015 DVOA finish: 10th on offense; 31st on defense
Talk about a teardown. Culminating with Sunday’s release of longtime kicker Robbie Gould, Bears GM Ryan Pace has managed to overhaul almost the entire roster since taking over in 2015. Quarterback Jay Cutler is now the only member of the roster who was with the franchise before 2012, but even that doesn’t tell the whole story about how much turnover there has been in Chicago. Not a single member of the Bears’ 2016 starting defense was on the roster before 2014, and if rookie defensive end Jonathan Bullard edges out Mitch Unrein for a starting spot, eight members of this first-team defense will be in either their first or second season with the team.
Considering how the Bears have played defensively over the past couple of seasons, no one could blame Pace for wanting to start over. Chicago hasn’t finished better than 25th in defensive DVOA since 2012, and it slipped all the way to 31st last year. Run defense has been the main culprit, as this unit has finished dead last in DVOA against the run twice in the past three seasons. Enter free-agent signings Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. The Bears went from having one of the NFL’s worst inside linebacker pairings to one of the best in a single offseason. The hope is that their additions will help solve the team’s run-defense woes.
It’s reasonable to expect Chicago to improve defensively given the talent upgrades it has made, but what it was able to accomplish offensively a year ago was nothing short of a miracle. Even with receiver Alshon Jeffery missing seven games due to injury, and the now-departed Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett nicked up for chunks of last season, the Bears found a way to finish 10th in offensive DVOA. A lot of that was made possible by Cutler, who was the best QB in the league under pressure. The Bears’ offensive line should be better, especially with the stunning addition of former Packers All-Pro guard Josh Sitton. With Dowell Loggains replacing Adam Gase as offensive coordinator, though, the Bears are likely to take a step back even with more consistent play up front.
What They Should Do Well: When coordinator Vic Fangio’s defenses were at their best in San Francisco, they featured a deep rotation of players along the front four, with guys who could line up everywhere and wreak havoc by way of ability and creativity. During the course of the past two offseasons, Pace has shown that he’s after something similar. Losing outside linebacker Pernell McPhee for the first six weeks of this season as he recovers from knee surgery is a bummer, but with Akiem Hicks, Willie Young, Lamarr Houston, Eddie Goldman, and rookies Bullard and Leonard Floyd, the Bears finally have some options along the defensive line.
Where They Will Struggle: Cornerback Kyle Fuller is still out after undergoing knee surgery on August 17, making an already thin group of corners even thinner. The Bears tried to sign former Browns slot man K’Waun Williams after he was released, but he failed a physical. It’s left Chicago with Tracy Porter, fourth-round pick Deiondre’ Hall, and 2015 undrafted free agent Bryce Callahan. That is … not great.
Potential Breakout Star: Goldman. On an otherwise brutal defense, Goldman showed flashes of potential as a rookie. He has talent as a pass rusher even at 320 pounds, collecting 4.5 sacks in his debut season. With the talent the Bears have added around Goldman in the front seven, he’s a candidate to take a significant leap.
Stat of Note: 47 percent. The Bears went from 32nd in rushing percentage in the first half (30 percent) of 2014 to first (47 percent) in the same category in 2015. That’s John Fox for you.
26. San Diego Chargers
2015 record: 4–12
2015 DVOA finish: 15th on offense; 28th on defense
Philip Rivers just can’t seem to catch a break. For the past two seasons, the Chargers have seen their offensive potential ruined by injuries along the offensive line. It felt like San Diego was playing with a new combination of guys up front every week, and for as good as Rivers has been during the past couple of years, he hasn’t been able to overcome the medical issues his offense has experienced.
In terms of projecting how the Chargers could be better in 2016, health is the key. After signing center Matt Slauson, they boast the best group of offensive linemen they’ve had in quite some time. Now, it’s just a matter of keeping everybody on the field. The San Diego ground game can’t be worse than it was a year ago, when it ranked 31st in rushing DVOA and rookie Melvin Gordon failed to get anything going. And with Rivers, newly signed receiver Travis Benjamin, and a healthy Keenan Allen, the Chargers have the makings of an upper-echelon passing game.
Still, San Diego’s problems on defense go way beyond injuries. It allowed 4.8 yards per carry last season; only Washington and a historically awful New Orleans group were worse. Essentially, running backs playing against the Chargers last fall turned into the equivalent of Todd Gurley, and fixing that problem in 2016 won’t come easy. By adding nose tackle Brandon Mebane in free agency and ceding full-time linebacker duty to 2015 second-round pick Denzel Perryman, the middle of the Chargers defense shouldn’t be as soft as it’s been in recent years. But this remains a team without a reliable force on its defensive interior. That’s why figuring out how many things no. 3 overall pick and recent signee Joey Bosa can do is paramount.
What They Should Do Well: The Chargers’ passing game has a remarkably high floor. Even as the rest of the offense crumbled around him, Rivers still lifted San Diego to finish eighth in passing DVOA last season. As long as he’s playing QB, the Chargers are going to throw it well. It’s that simple.
Where They Will Struggle: Mebane, who turned 31 in January and isn’t quite the player he was at his peak in Seattle, probably won’t be enough to solve the run-defense woes. Expect opponents to go to the ground early and often versus San Diego.
Potential Breakout Star: Jason Verrett. The former first-round pick is already among the most talented cornerbacks in the league; his only problem has been an inability to stay healthy. After missing 10 games to a shoulder injury as a rookie, he missed two more last year. If he’s active, the Chargers’ combination of Verrett, Casey Hayward, and Brandon Flowers could rank among the better corner trios in the AFC.
Stat of Note: Zero. No team in the NFL had a larger DVOA disparity when pressuring quarterbacks than the Chargers, who finished fifth in DVOA with pressure and 30th without. Outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu has been effective in spurts, but San Diego will need more from both him and former first-round pick Melvin Ingram if its pass defense has a chance to make up for the unit’s inability to stop the run.
25. Atlanta Falcons
2015 record: 8–8
2015 DVOA finish: 23rd on offense; 22nd on defense
For as much fun as it was to watch quarterback Matt Ryan throw the ball to Julio Jones (approximately) 30 times a game last season, Atlanta’s lack of a second receiving option played a big role in its offensive decline during the second half. The Falcons opened last fall 5–0, including drubbing the Cowboys and the Texans in back-to-back weeks, but a turnover-riddled run from Ryan and the reality of having Jacob Tamme as their no. 2 receiver eventually took their toll.
Atlanta made it a point to fix that problem, signing former Bengals wideout Mohamed Sanu to a five-year deal with $14 million in guarantees this March. It was one of two major moves on offense; the other was stealing center Alex Mack away from the Browns. Mack was excellent when paired with current Falcons coordinator Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland, and he should make a difference for Atlanta’s ground game in 2016.
With Ryan, Jones, and running back Devonta Freeman, the outlook for this offense is encouraging, but coach Dan Quinn’s defense still has plenty of question marks. Atlanta took a step forward in its debut campaign under Quinn in 2015, going from dead last in defensive DVOA in 2014 to 22nd, but this unit had some major shortcomings. Only the Saints pressured QBs less frequently than the Falcons did last year. That’s especially bad considering that Atlanta used its 2015 first-round pick on pass rusher Vic Beasley.
Beasley reportedly played his entire rookie year with a shoulder injury, so the hope is that he’ll be significantly improved in 2015. If he is, this front four suddenly becomes interesting. Derrick Shelby was underrated during his time with the Dolphins and gives Atlanta a nice piece at end, and 2015 fifth-round defensive tackle Grady Jarrett could end up being a steal. The Falcons may not have any stars on their defensive line just yet, but most of the low-cost moves they’ve made have at least given them some options.
What They Should Do Well: The passing game should be more efficient with Sanu lining up opposite Jones, but Ryan will need to prove that his performance from the second half of last season was an aberration rather than the start of a drop-off.
Where They Will Struggle: If Beasley doesn’t turn things around, the pass rush will remain the roster’s foremost cause for concern. Desmond Trufant is one of the premier cornerbacks in football, but even a talented secondary can’t overcome the total lack of pressure the Falcons mustered in 2015.
Potential Breakout Star: Jarrett. He should play a drastically increased role this year, and based on what he showed in spurts toward the end of last season, he may have enough playmaking ability to overcome his 6-foot-1 frame.
Stat of Note: 7.5. That’s the number of sacks Osi Umenyiora had for Atlanta in 2013. Since John Abraham left town after the 2012 season, no Falcons player has managed more than eight sacks in a single season.