The NFL season is just seven weeks old, but for a few teams, it’s already time to start looking ahead to 2019. The Raiders, Cardinals, 49ers, Bills, and Giants all find themselves in various states of disarray, and each is so far out of playoff contention that we can all but officially write them off. So what’s the next step for each of these teams?
Whether coaching or quarterback changes are in order, a free-agency spending spree is on the horizon, or a total teardown is needed, the early entrants to the NFL’s “lost season” category all have some major decisions to make — both ahead of the trade deadline and during the offseason.
Oakland Raiders (1-5)
It’s fun to mock the Raiders for trading away all-world pass rusher Khalil Mack, but that die has been cast, and Oakland has to move forward from it. Jon Gruden is here for the long haul — he’s got the long-term security he needs with a 10-year, $100 million deal — and there’s actually some logic to how the Grudster is rebuilding the roster. I mean, I wouldn’t have traded one of the best young defenders on the planet, but Gruden did at least get himself a few key building blocks in return — first-round and sixth-round picks in 2019 and a first-rounder and third-rounder in 2020. Along with the Amari Cooper deal this week (which netted Dallas’s 2019 first-round pick), Oakland now holds five first-rounders in the next two years, including three in the upcoming draft — which, if FiveThirtyEight’s win projections end up being accurate, would be the third, 14th, and 15th picks, plus another two in 2020. That gives the Raiders’ brain trust an embarrassment of draft capital riches that they can use to fortify the crumbling foundation of the roster.
Oakland also has plenty of money to throw around in free agency, too, with $65.3 million in effective cap space for the 2019 league year, seventh most in the league. That number could grow substantially: Gruden might deny that they’re tanking, but the Raiders appear to be in complete fire sale/teardown mode, and I doubt anyone on the roster is completely safe. A bevy of well-paid veteran players could be trade bait or on the cap-cutting chopping block once the year is over, including tackle Donald Penn (a release would save the team $5.6 million in 2019 cap), defensive end Bruce Irvin ($9.25 million), linebacker Tahir Whitehead ($6.38 million), receivers Jordy Nelson ($7.2 million) and Seth Roberts ($4.65 million), and quarterback A.J. McCarron ($5 million).
The biggest decision Gruden must make in the next few months, though, is whether to build around starting quarterback Derek Carr or cut his losses and move on from the team’s highest-paid player. Carr has struggled with turnovers this year — he’s thrown seven touchdowns to eight picks — and there are whispers that he’s started to lose the confidence of his teammates. If Gruden concludes that Carr is not the long-term answer at the position, Oakland could save another $20 million in cap space by cutting their quarterback in the offseason with a post–June 1 designation (or trading him after June 1) while eating just $2.5 million in dead money. That minimal sunk cost gives Oakland a ton of flexibility.
All told, a stripped-to-the-studs Raiders team could head into the 2019 offseason flush with high-end draft picks and cap space (more than $120 million with all the cuts described above). Oakland should begin its rebuild by replacing Mack and fixing the team’s listless pass rush. This year’s draft, which looks to be defensive-line-heavy at the top, lines up well with that need, and the Raiders could have options in free agency with guys like the Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah, Texans’ Jadeveon Clowney, Cowboys’ DeMarcus Lawrence, Seahawks’ Frank Clark, Eagles’ Brandon Graham, Redskins’ Preston Smith, Titans’ Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, Patriots’ Trey Flowers, Jaguars’ Dante Fowler Jr., and Colts’ Margus Hunt all currently slated to hit the open market. Past that, Oakland must address its secondary, its linebackers group, its receiver corps … well, really, Gruden has to add talent everywhere on the roster.
Raiders fans are looking at a multiyear rebuild, and things could get worse before they get better — but Gruden and Co. will wield considerable power in upcoming free-agent bidding wars and in the draft, which gives the team the opportunity to add blue-chip players to build around for the future. Picking the right players is always the biggest hurdle for any NFL decision-maker, of course, but the Raiders should have the resources to add substantial talent.
Buffalo Bills (2-5)
If the Bills have one advantage over most of the other teams on this list, it’s that they have to rebuild only one side of the ball. Buffalo’s defense under Sean McDermott has been competent this year for the most part, and is ranked third in opponent yards per pass attempt (6.7), fourth in yards allowed and yards per play (5.1), tied for eighth in sacks (19), and ranked 16th in points per game (25.0). The Bills have a talented nucleus of defensive playmakers to build around in cornerback Tre’Davious White, safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, and linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. You can’t say the same thing about the offense, which lacks talent at every spot — and, yes, still has a major question mark at the quarterback position.
Josh Allen, who’s currently nursing an elbow injury, was nothing short of a disaster in his first six games for the team. The rookie first-rounder has completed just 54 percent of his passes (dead last among 33 qualifying quarterbacks this year) with two touchdowns and five interceptions and an abysmal 61.8 passer rating (also easily dead last). He’s taken 21 sacks on 160 dropbacks for a league-worst 13.1 sack rate, and is averaging just 6.0 yards per attempt (you guessed it — dead last). Allen has the worst supporting cast of any quarterback in the NFL, sure, an important caveat, but the bottom line is that the state of the Bills’ offense is grim. Buffalo’s offense has the worst DVOA through seven games of any team that Football Outsiders has ever tracked. This team could have an ’85 Bears-level defense and it might not matter; they simply can’t win with an offense this historically inept.
Let’s just assume the Bills are committed to Allen, at least for another year or two. If the big-armed former Wyoming star has any shot at succeeding as a pro, Buffalo needs to build a strong, talented support system around him — and fast. Using an early-round pick on a receiver or offensive lineman wouldn’t hurt, but the Bills should lean heavily on their $85 million and change in effective cap room for next year (fifth most) to go out into free agency and improve its offensive line and buy some game-ready playmaking talent. This year’s skill-position class doesn’t exactly blow you away, but Buffalo’s holding a hefty stack of chips, and there’s possibility for improved depth. Receivers slated for free agency include Golden Tate, John Brown, Chris Hogan, Tyrell Williams, Quincy Enunwa, Randall Cobb, and Devin Funchess; running backs like Le’Veon Bell, Latavius Murray, Mark Ingram, T.J. Yeldon, and Spencer Ware could boost the team’s ground game; and tight ends like Tyler Eifert, Jared Cook, Luke Willson, and Maxx Williams could all blossom into nice safety blankets for a young QB like Allen.
Offenses are exploding around the league and quarterbacking just keeps getting easier and easier, but Buffalo is stuck in purgatory and seeking an answer to whether Allen is a franchise cornerstone. They likely won’t know until they give the signal-caller some help, though, so after spending the past couple offseasons jettisoning offensive talent (including pass catchers like Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and Marquise Goodwin) Buffalo desperately needs to restock the shelves.
Arizona Cardinals (1-6)
The Cardinals have needs on both sides of the ball, but before general manager Steve Keim can set out to address the holes on his roster, a more pressing question must be addressed: Is first-time head coach Steve Wilks the man for the job? Hired ostensibly for his defensive expertise, the former Panthers defensive coordinator has yet to impress in calling the shots in Arizona. The group that ranked fourth in DVOA in 2017 has fallen out of the top 10, and a recent report says that the team’s best defender, Patrick Peterson, is desperately seeking a trade — in part, perhaps, because of the way Wilks’s scheme is using him.
More worrying, though, is what Wilks has done with the offense: The guy he handpicked to run his offense, Mike McCoy, lasted just seven games after failing to show any understanding on how to utilize running back David Johnson. And while rookie quarterback Josh Rosen has flashed at times, Arizona’s offense has been almost as bad as the Bills’, and is ranked in the bottom 10 all time in DVOA through seven games.
Wilks, notably, was hired before Rosen’s draft-day fall, a surprising turn of events that precipitated Arizona’s decision to trade up into the 10th spot to take the former UCLA star. The team had, after all, just signed veteran quarterback Sam Bradford to serve as a placeholder in what looked to be a transitional year following the retirements of Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians. Does the fact that the team seems to have found its new franchise passer change Keim’s perspective? Does it make more sense to pair his young signal-caller with a bright offensive mind, as the Rams did with Sean McVay and Jared Goff or the Eagles did with Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz? We’ll find out. What we know now is that the decision to draft Rosen accelerated the team’s timeline to Super Bowl contention dramatically. A quality quarterback on his rookie contract is still the most valuable asset in football, a factor that should give Keim the salary-cap flexibility to spend big in free agency and build a strong supporting cast around his young passer.
The Cardinals carry $41 million of effective cap space going into next season (13th in the league), and could boost that number with a few cost-cutting moves. Declining Bradford’s 2019 option would add an additional $19.7 million, and the release of veterans like quarterback Mike Glennon ($3 million), tight end Jermaine Gresham ($4.25 million), safety Antoine Bethea ($3.25 million), tackle Andre Smith ($4 million), defensive lineman Corey Peters ($3.75 million with a post-June 1 designation), and cornerback Jamar Taylor ($3.825 million) could free up an additional $20 million or so. That’d give Arizona somewhere in the ballpark of $86 million to work with. If the team does end up trading Patrick Peterson, that would add more than $10 million to that number.
The team’s final nine games could tell us a lot about the direction Keim will take, and newly minted offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich’s performance could be a make-or-break factor for Wilks’s job security. If the first-time offensive coordinator proves he can unlock Johnson as a pass catcher, get Larry Fitzgerald more involved, and get tangible development out of Rosen, the team could stick with Wilks. If not, the rookie head coach could be one-and-done. The Cardinals simply can’t waste any time during Rosen’s rookie contract.
New York Giants (1-6)
There’s no quick fix for a team that’s gone 4–19 in its last 23 games, but the first and most obvious decision that general manager Dave Gettleman must make in the coming months is about what to do with Eli Manning. The veteran and probable future Hall of Famer is no longer good enough to carry a flawed team, and his $23.2 million cap hit in 2019 is prohibitive for a squad with just $15.1 million in effective cap space (25th) next year. New York is likely to ride this season out with Manning under center, but going into next season, the team may need to make some major cost-cutting moves to start to reshape the roster around its twin offensive pillars, Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley.
It seems unthinkable for the Giants to drop the most iconic QB they’ve had, but cutting the soon-to-be 38-year-old Manning would open up $17 million in much-needed cap space and give the team more ammunition to build for the future. Gettleman is also going to have to weigh cost vs. production with pass rusher Olivier Vernon ($15.5 million cap savings with post–June 1 cut), linebacker Alec Ogletree ($10 million post-June 1), cornerback Janoris Jenkins ($11.25 million post-June 1), outside linebacker Kareem Martin ($4.35 million post-June 1), guard Patrick Omameh ($4.75 million post-June 1), and running back Jonathan Stewart ($2.85 million). The purge may already be starting. The team dealt cornerback Eli Apple to the Saints, a trade that may indicate Gettleman is “‘open for business’ ahead of next week’s trade deadline,” per CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora. The Giants are bad, the roster has a bunch of holes, and they don’t have much cap space. None of that is likely to change without an aggressive rebuilding plan.
San Francisco 49ers (1-6)
The Niners offense has a good excuse for its struggles this year. Marquise Goodwin, Pierre Garcon, Dante Pettis, and Matt Breida have all been banged up at different times, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and running back Jerick McKinnon are both on IR. The team simply hasn’t been able to overcome that litany of injuries, but going forward, I’m not really worried about that side of the ball. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has a strong scheme, a good quarterback, and a handful of explosive running backs and receivers — and with a few depth moves over the offseason, that unit could make a big jump in 2019.
The defense, on the other hand, is going in the wrong direction. San Francisco has allowed the second-most points (31.1 per game), has surrendered an opponent passer rating of 101.9 (27th), has just one interception (tied for last) and has racked up just 14 sacks (tied for 24th). Cornerback Richard Sherman and pass rusher DeForest Buckner have both been excellent, but past that, the team doesn’t have many difference-makers. Solomon Thomas, the third overall pick in 2017, has been a non-factor as the team’s tried to figure out where to play him. Arik Armstead would probably fit better in a 3–4 scheme. Second-year linebacker Reuben Foster has taken a step back along with cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, and former first-rounder Jimmie Ward and second-rounder Jaquiski Tartt have both been injured. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s seat might be getting warmer as the year goes on, but Shanahan and general manager John Lynch need to add talent this defense, too.
The good news? The 49ers have $67.3 million in effective cap space for 2019, sixth most, a number that could grow if the team cuts any of the following players: Armstead ($9 million), Garcon ($6 million), linebacker Malcolm Smith ($4 million), tackle Garry Gilliam ($5.1 million), or pass rusher Cassius Marsh ($4.2 million). The stacked free-agent pass-rush group should be priority no. 1 for San Francisco, but the team could look to the cornerback and linebacker spots as well. The Niners aren’t going to transform into a top defense overnight, but Lynch and Co. have the resources to add a few foundational players to that underperforming group.