Christmas is less than two weeks away, and that means it’s consolation season for about a quarter of the teams in the NFL. As the jumble of squads in the league’s middle class scratch and claw to secure playoff berths, the dregs at the bottom of the standings will play out the string and wonder how it all went wrong.
Among the teams that will end up picking in the top 10 of the 2018 draft, there are those that once harbored postseason dreams (the Giants and Buccaneers), those that are perpetually rebuilding (Browns and 49ers), those that lost star quarterbacks to injury (Colts), and those that may soon be searching for new head coaches (Bears and Broncos). No matter how these teams got here, though, it’s never easy for the group that knows its campaign is over by early December.
But things aren’t all bad. A new chapter is right around the corner. To boost the morale of this season’s bottom-feeders, I analyzed the outlook for each team with fewer than five wins through Week 14 and sent them off with a parting message. Consider this the Trash Teams NFL Yearbook.
Projected first-round pick: N/A
Projected cap space: $54 million
Houston may have the best outlook of any team in this group. Its best-case scenario requires little imagination, since we’ve already seen what Deshaun Watson is capable of. By the rookie quarterback’s third start this fall, the floodgates had opened. Watson passed for nearly 1,500 yards with 18 touchdowns in the final five games before tearing his right ACL, and the Texans scored at least 33 points in each. Among all the unforgivable acts perpetrated by turf monsters this season, stealing maybe the most exciting player in football was the cruelest.
The trio of Watson, a rejuvenated and dominant DeAndre Hopkins, and wide receiver Will Fuller has already shown how formidable it can be, and that’s great news for Houston, because it’ll have to rely on those three in a big way going forward. The Texans sent their 2018 first-round pick to the Browns in the trade that netted them Watson and shipped their 2018 second-rounder to Cleveland in the Brock Osweiler salary-dump deal. While Houston’s front office has a nice cache of salary-cap space, it also has several glaring holes that need to be filled.
The Texans’ offensive-line play has been horrific all season, and three of their five starters in that group are set to hit free agency. Houston could consider taking a similar approach to Minnesota’s last spring: throw money at two new starting tackles and draft a plug-and-play interior lineman in the third round. Regardless, it’s clear that something has to change. Watson (47.7 percent) and Tom Savage (46.8) rank first and second in pressure rate among quarterbacks, and that leaves one culprit.
One factor that could throw a wrench into an offensive-line overhaul is the need to re-sign both Johnathan Joseph and Marcus Gilchrist to keep the secondary from falling apart. Joseph is 33 years old, but he’s been the team’s best cornerback this season. And Gilchrist has played well on a one-year, prove-it deal. If Houston can keep the rest of the defense mostly intact, the looming returns of J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus could lift this unit back into the top 10 next fall. Watt’s durability is a concern, but his season-ending foot injury came on a fluke play and is unrelated to his lingering back issues. Before he went down, he was on his way to putting together a J.J. Watt campaign of old. His health is the X factor that could determine this team’s ceiling.
Dear Texans, what a long, strange trip it’s been! I was starting to worry that you’d never find that special someone, but here we are. I’m so happy for you and Deshaun. You’re perfect for each other! No matter what else happens ( even if you can’t fix your offensive line), at least you have Deshaun and Nuk. Anyway, I’m sure I’ll see ya around. HAGS.
San Francisco 49ers
Projected first-round pick: No. 4
Projected cap space: $116 million
The 49ers’ offseason might have become much less intriguing after the Jimmy Garoppolo trade in October, but San Francisco’s fortune got a hell of a lot better. Two starts into his tenure under head coach Kyle Shanahan, Garoppolo looks like the future of the franchise. Jimmy G is set to hit the free-agent market in March, but that’s not a major concern: The Niners wouldn’t have dealt for him if they weren’t willing to fork over whatever it takes to keep him.
Even if Garoppolo’s contract comes in north of $20 million per year, general manager John Lynch will still have a silo of money to fill out the rest of his roster. With Joe Staley and Trent Brown penciled in at tackle, the interior of the offensive line should be the most pressing need up front. Shanahan worked as the offensive coordinator in Atlanta when the Falcons broke the bank for Alex Mack, so don’t be surprised if the Niners are willing to pay for an upgrade at center. Finding a true no. 1 receiver on the outside is also a priority; luckily, the Niners have the means to get one. Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson are both poised to become free agents and could be attractive options for this offense. Lynch and Shanahan also have an expected top-five 2018 pick at their disposal.
There’s a chance that San Francisco could try to find a new focal point of its running game, too. Carlos Hyde will be a free agent next spring and has no ties to the current regime. The more complicated decision may be whether to re-sign safety Eric Reid. In Reuben Foster and DeForest Buckner, the Niners have a pair of young stars to anchor the middle of their defense, and it’s possible that Lynch and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will use the team’s massive cash reserves to remake the unit to fit Saleh’s vision.
Lynch has a blank canvas and pile of money with which to fill it. This team could go in any direction, and, with a viable quarterback aboard, that’s enviable flexibility.
Hey, Niners! I know it’s been another tough season, but I’m so glad you found your quarterback. You two are going to have such a blast together. And I’m SO jealous of all that cap space you have for next spring. Hope you don’t spend it all in one place! For real, though, you guys are in a great spot. Especially considering how bad it’s been the past couple of years. You’ll be competing again before you know it.
Projected first-round pick: No. 3
Projected cap space: $84 million
The Colts’ future is tied to the health of Andrew Luck. That may sound reductionist, but Luck’s ability to lift up the rest of this roster (and the $101 million left on his contract) make it simple. If Luck comes back next fall and plays like his old self, the Colts can overcome their deficiencies elsewhere. If he doesn’t, not much else matters, no matter who the coach is.
Save for Luck, left tackle Anthony Castonzo, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, and the free agents whom GM Chris Ballard signed in his first season, Indy has almost as much team-building wiggle room as San Francisco does. Only five Colts players will make more than $5.3 million next season. That leaves the franchise with more cap space than every team but the 49ers and Browns. Beyond that, Ballard’s initial moves have largely paid off. The September trade for Jacoby Brissett — while made a couple of weeks too late — has netted Indy a high-level backup quarterback (at the very least), while defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, edge rusher Jabaal Sheard, and safety Malik Hooker (now on IR) have looked great in their debut seasons with the team. The Colts have a few enticing defensive pieces; they need about eight more.
Cornerback is by far the top priority on that side of the ball. Second-round pick Quincy Wilson is the Colts’ only long-term option on the outside, now that Vontae Davis has been cut and Rashaan Melvin (who was playing well before injuring his hand) is set to hit free agency. On offense, it’s the same tired story for this team. The line is in tatters, and guard Jack Mewhort is set to hit the market in the spring. With or without Luck, adding key pieces up front should lead Ballard’s to-do list.
Colts! I’m really sorry about Andrew. I hope he gets well soon because watching you guys without him really bums me out. When he does come back, though, things are going to turn around faster than people think. Your GM knows how to pick ’em, and he’s got plenty of resources to reshape this roster. So cheer up. It’ll be better real soon. LYLAS.
Projected first-round picks: No. 1 and no. 6
Projected cap space: $111 million
Anyone wondering why new Browns GM John Dorsey chose Cleveland over other potential front-office landing spots needs to look at the arsenal of resources he has at his disposal. Thanks to two trades with Houston, the Browns are set to have two picks (including the no. 1 overall selection) in the top eight of the 2018 draft, and four picks in the top 40. There could be one hell of a haul coming, and it’s not as if the roster is barren right now.
The Browns have the league’s best run defense and rank a respectable 17th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA. Myles Garrett has already flashed his game-wrecking potential, and Cleveland’s defensive-line rotation is full of useful players. Viewing the offense’s upside through rose-colored lenses isn’t tough, either. When Joe Thomas returns, the Browns should boast one of the league’s most talented lines. Receiver Josh Gordon (whose contract Cleveland controls for two more years) picked up right where he left off three years ago, and some projected improvement from David Njoku and Corey Coleman could make the Browns’ pass catchers a fun group.
But any optimism about this team must come with a caveat so huge that it can be seen from space: It needs to find a quarterback. DeShone Kizer has been awful for the majority of his rookie season, thereby putting Cleveland in the mix for a passer in the 2018 draft, particularly if Dorsey feels anyone in the incoming crop is worthy of the no. 1 pick. The Browns have turned over the ball about once every five drives, far and away the worst rate in the league, and they are also dead last in red-zone scoring, in large part because of Kizer’s NFL-worst five interceptions inside the opposing 20-yard line.
Until the Browns find their quarterback of the future, they’re not going anywhere. But if they can hit on a competent passer next spring, they shouldn’t be an NFL laughingstock.
Oh, Browns … what’s left to say? This will be the ninth time in the past 10 years that you’ve finished with fewer than six wins. I can’t imagine any of this has been easy. But there’s a light at the end of this tunnel, I promise. For the first time in a while, your team has a bunch of real NFL players! Myles Garrett is already so fun, and I’m really glad that Josh Gordon is back. We all missed him. If John Dorsey can find you a quarterback, next season has the potential to be your favorite in a long, long time. I hope we get to hang out more soon!
Projected first-round pick: No. 7
Projected cap space: $48 million
Any optimism about the Bears’ potential beyond 2017 starts with the team’s 33–7 win over the Bengals on Sunday. Nearly every member of Chicago’s rookie class contributed in a meaningful way. Most encouraging was the performance of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (25-of-32 passing for 271 yards and a touchdown), who turned in the best game of his young career. Trubisky had previously shown flashes of the arm strength, accuracy, and mobility that should excite Bears fans; it all came together in Cincinnati.
As a Bears fan, I find it hard to imagine that head coach John Fox will come back for another go-round. He is 13–32 in his tenure and headed toward his third-straight last-place finish in the NFC North. Even for a rebuilding team, those types of results typically lead to changes at the top, and if the Bears move on from Fox, their goal should be similar to the one the Rams had last winter: find a coach who can build the right infrastructure around a young, highly drafted quarterback. By hiring Sean McVay and revamping Jared Goff’s supporting cast, the Rams went from the league’s worst offense to one of its best. The Bears, who rank 26th in offensive DVOA, don’t have to go that far. Still, their moves this spring should revolve around providing Trubisky with the help he needs.
The Mike Glennon signing was an epic miss by Chicago, although the team will add $11.5 million in cap room with his upcoming release. Combined with the likely cuts of receiver Markus Wheaton and a few others, the Bears could end up with $70 million in cap space and not lose any of their key contributors. That’d give GM Ryan Pace the ability to add a pair of receivers, which Trubisky and Co. desperately need. Hiring McVay was the most important move the Rams made last year, but don’t sleep on how vital it was for the Rams to surround Goff with a new set of wideouts. The rest of Chicago’s offense (including the line and the running back duo of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen) is relatively set compared to some other teams on this list. With a schematic overhaul and the introduction of some new playmakers on the outside, this group could certainly crack the top 10 in 2018.
Ah, the Bears. I don’t have much to say here because we’re BFFs and we chat so often. This year was all about Mitchell, and I’ve got to say, it’s gone much better than it could have. I’m actually excited about the guy playing quarterback, and that’s a new feeling. Talk soon.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Projected first-round pick: No. 8
Projected cap space: $64 million
The Bucs went from trendy playoff sleeper to incomparable mess in the span of about a month. Much of the preseason confidence surrounding Tampa Bay’s chances was rooted in the idea of quarterback Jameis Winston ascending to the upper echelon at his position. There’s a chance, though, that what we’ve seen from Winston so far in his career is what we’re going to get. The Bucs rank 28th in turnovers per drive after finishing 29th in that metric last season. It feels like Winston makes at least two absolutely inexplicable decisions per game; people have thrown tennis balls to their dogs with more regard for where they end up.
Even with Winston’s maddening tendencies, the talent in the Bucs’ passing game is undeniable. Wide receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson form an excellent pairing on the outside, and this should be an above-average group in terms of passing efficiency every year by default. Tampa Bay’s bigger problem is up front, as it lost its two best linemen to season-ending injuries. And while both center Ali Marpet and right tackle Demar Dotson should be back next season, it may be time for the Bucs to upgrade at left tackle. The Bucs took Donovan Smith 34th overall in 2015, and he simply hasn’t panned out. Improved protection and a better running game would go a long way in helping the passing game reach its ceiling with Winston.
The other side of the ball is in even worse shape. As is the case with the offense, this defense features a pair of superstars and not much else. Tampa Bay is an abysmal 31st in defensive DVOA and could use talent upgrades at nearly every spot not manned by Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. It will also need to replace Brent Grimes and T.J. Ward, both of whom are set to become free agents. Bucs GM Jason Licht has a lot of money to play with this spring, but his team also has a ton of issues to address.
Yo, Bucs. I want to say I’m sorry for all the expectations heaped on you this year. It’s easy to get distracted by all that star power, ya know? The thought of Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson was so exciting that we got a little carried away. You weren’t ready. But that’s OK! Take your time.
New York Giants
Projected first-round pick: No. 2
Projected cap space: $30 million
The Giants are looking for a new GM after they fired Jerry Reese, and whoever gets the job will have to hit the ground running. The decision about what to do with Eli Manning is the first item on the list. If Manning is released, this team would get about $10 million in cap relief that it sorely needs. The Giants’ two best offensive linemen (Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg) are both set to hit free agency this spring, and the guys who surround them on the depth chart probably shouldn’t be starters next year.
Typically, having a projected top-five pick would seem like a means to land a tackle. If the Giants release Manning, though, that pick will presumably be reserved for selecting a quarterback. The franchise’s new head-coach-GM pairing has no ties to 2017 third-round pick Davis Webb, and this draft may represent the Giants’ best shot at snagging their future face of the franchise.
At this point, quarterback and offensive line are two of the only spots where the front office has much flexibility. The Giants have $85.1 million allocated to their defense this fall, the second-highest figure in the league. New York’s free-agent splurge last offseason was supposed to provide the finishing touches on a playoff-ready roster. Now, whoever takes the reins will have to rebuild on the fly while locked into nearly $80 million in defensive contracts for 2018.
Dear Giants, first off, I want to say sorry for all the Ben McAdoo jokes these past two years. I know they weren’t very nice, but in my defense, they were very easy. I know this year has been a nightmare, and I wish I could say something to make you feel better. But friends tell the truth, and even with Odell Beckham Jr. coming back, 2018 is shaping up to be a long year. Just know that you can call me anytime. And we’ll always have those haircuts.
Projected pick: No. 5
Projected cap space: $33 million
The sheer amount of talent on Denver’s defense means that this unit can sink only so low. In a way, though, that’s the problem. The Broncos have $91.5 million tied up in defensive contracts next season. That’s nearly 60 percent of their overall cap, the third-highest figure in the league. Denver could get some relief by cutting an expensive veteran or two (Aqib Talib’s release, for example, would save $11 million), but that isn’t happening. The Broncos need their talent on defense to stay afloat because their offense is an absolute train wreck.
Quarterback is the first, second, and third priority for GM John Elway this offseason. Denver needs to find an answer under center before it can worry about anything else, and so far Elway has failed to provide one. Trading up to grab Paxton Lynch in the first round of the 2016 draft already looks like an all-time misstep, and the Broncos would only compound the problem by choosing not to pursue a top quarterback this spring.
If Denver does take a quarterback in the top 10 of the 2018 draft, its next priority should be shoring up the offensive line. Center Matt Paradis, the team’s best lineman, is about to become a free agent, and it may be time to move on from Menelik Watson at right tackle — one year into his three-year, $18.4 million deal. For all the brilliant defensive moves Elway has made during his tenure, his moves on offense have been equally terrible. And the bill has finally come due.
I’ll be honest, Broncos: It’s hard to feel bad for you. You’ve enjoyed two straight decades of good fortune, and you’re only two years removed from winning the Super Bowl. Sure, it’s a bummer that you had to watch Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler torpedo your offense for a season. But if this is as bad as it gets, just know that you’re doing pretty damn well.