Chaos is a ladder, or so we’ve been told, and for the NFL’s ambitious, power-hungry non-playoff teams, the 2018 season could provide an extraordinary opportunity to climb up the rungs. It’s not just because of the garden-variety parity drivers we see every year, like the unpredictable draft, the salary cap, or free agency. It’s not just that seven teams are going through head-coaching changes (that’s about average), that another three are under the control of new general managers (that list may grow), or that many more are facing turnover at the coordinator positions. It’s all those factors combined with the most exciting quarterback carousel in recent memory and the fact a handful of the league’s most stable franchises appear to have developed cracks in their normally rock-solid foundations that creates a formula for uncommon pandemonium in 2018.
This Stability Index is focused primarily on the transition from the 2017 season to 2018 and beyond. This competition does not include the number of division titles, playoff games, or Super Bowls any of these teams have won over the past five or 10 years, it weighs factors that matter most right now: continuity in the front office and the coaching staff, security at the quarterback position, a core nucleus of stars, established schemes, a strong culture, and an identity. Stability is fleeting, but for the most steady teams, we know what we can expect—and for the other end of the spectrum, it’s a total crapshoot. Here’s a list of all 32 teams, ranked from most to least stable heading into next season.
1. Atlanta Falcons
If this feels underwhelming, that’s because, well, it is underwhelming—but the Falcons’ place atop these rankings hints at the current state of tumult across the league. In three years at the helm, head coach Dan Quinn has proved to be a savvy game planner (see: the team’s wild-card win over the Rams) and capable leader, and is in no danger of losing his job. Both coordinators will return (a rarity this year), the schemes and language therein remain unchanged, and both sides of the ball are packed with talent—with few major holes to patch. There’s plenty of hand-wringing in Atlanta about the decision to retain offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, but a drop-off from the team’s offensive explosion under Kyle Shanahan in 2016 was completely predictable (plus, they weren’t as bad as you might think from an efficiency point of view, finishing ninth in offensive DVOA). This isn’t the sexy top pick, but it’s hard to find a team that checks more stability boxes.
2. New Orleans Saints
The only reason the Saints aren’t no. 1 on this list is because of one small, technical detail: Drew Brees is a free agent. However, it’s all but a lock that Brees returns to New Orleans in 2018 and plays under Sean Payton’s guidance for the 12th time in the past 13 years. That kind of head coach–quarterback relationship is practically unheard of outside New England, Pittsburgh, or Green Bay, and sets the Saints up to hit the ground running: Brees still has his top-tier outside threat Michael Thomas, his elite offensive line, running back Mark Ingram, and Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara. On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen returns for his fourth year on the job, and retains most of the key players on his top-tier defense.
3. New England Patriots
The Patriots have been the gold standard for organizational stability for damn near two decades, but head into 2018 in a state of relative disarray. There are the reports of internal strife, and that devastating Super Bowl LII loss and defensive meltdown caused, in part, by Bill Belichick’s mysterious decision to bench Malcolm Butler. There’s also the loss of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, and the uncertainty around if and when 40-year-old Tom Brady will fall off the performance cliff (he’s shown few signs of that yet, but it’s called a cliff for a reason). Even Belichick’s drive to keep coaching comes into question following Josh McDaniels’s decision to back out of the Colts head-coach job. Oh, and Rob Gronkowski might retire. Still, this is a team that just put up 600-plus yards and 33 points on one of the best defenses in football in its Super Bowl loss. There’s work to be done on the defense, obviously, but Brady and Belichick remain. Players, coordinators, styles, and schemes come and go, but as long as the Patriots are held up by those two pillars, they’ll have a shot at contending every year.
4. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles have all the pieces in place for a title defense in 2018. Sure, offensive coordinator Frank Reich could be headed to Indianapolis, and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo may be off to Minnesota, but this is still going to be head coach Doug Pederson’s offense. The defending champs have most of their nucleus of playmakers locked in, and getting left tackle Jason Peters, middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, and cornerback Sidney Jones back from injury next year should provide a nice boost. Carson Wentz’s timeline to recovery from ACL/LCL surgery is the main wild card here: Reports indicate he’ll be good to go by the start of the season, but every injury is different, and a decision must be made about what to do with Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. Still, having two starting-caliber quarterbacks on the same roster is a problem every quarterback-needy team would want.
5. Baltimore Ravens
John Harbaugh (heading into his 11th year as head coach) remains a constant, and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg returns for 2018, as does the architect of Baltimore’s breakout run game, assistant coach Greg Roman. Quarterback Joe Flacco’s back, too, and while that’s not necessarily something to celebrate, he’ll at least have an entire offseason to prepare this time around. Baltimore must make upgrades in the pass-catching corps and address the offensive line (guard James Hurst and center Ryan Jensen are free agents), but running backs Alex Collins, Buck Allen, and Danny Woodhead provide a solid foundation on which the team can build its offense. The Ravens’ top-echelon defense returns most of its key pieces, but will be playing under new coordinator Don Martindale after Dean Pees’s departure. GM Ozzie Newsome is set to retire following the 2018 season, but the team’s succession plan (which has been in the works for five years, per Newsome) to highly regarded assistant general manager Eric DeCosta should make for a smooth transition.
6. Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers’ move to L.A. and their ownership situation in general is less than ideal, but apart from that, they have a strong foundation for a big jump in 2018. The troika of head coach Anthony Lynn, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley returns next year, as does the offensive big four of quarterback Philip Rivers, running back Melvin Gordon, tight end Hunter Henry, and receiver Keenan Allen. Defensively, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram make up one of the best pass-rush duos in the NFL, and the secondary’s stacked, featuring cornerbacks Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams, and Desmond King. They just have to figure out their kicking game.
7. Los Angeles Rams
L.A. lost offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur to the Titans, but head coach Sean McVay’s still going to be calling plays for an offense that returns quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley, most of the offensive line (center John Sullivan is a free agent), and its top two wideouts, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Defensively, L.A. must lock up Aaron Donald for the long term (a no-brainer), and must address the secondary, with cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson and Nickell Robey-Coleman and safety LaMarcus Joyner all set to become free agents. The Rams were the most improved team in 2017—and the foundational pieces are there for their continued ascent into the NFC’s elite.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
Mike Tomlin returns for his 12th year as head coach of the team: Check. Ben Roethlisberger says he’ll be back for his 15th season: Check (sorta). Antonio Brown, still a Steeler: Check. The offensive line, all set to return: Check. The elite defensive line, still intact: Check. Pittsburgh appears ready to hit the ground running in 2018, but a few major questions hang over the team’s figurative head: Will star running back Le’Veon Bell get a new deal—or is a holdout or possible retirement on the table? What will the offense look like under new coordinator Randy Fichtner? And how can the team add depth to a linebackers group and secondary that got exposed by Blake Bortles and the Jaguars in the divisional round?
9. Green Bay Packers
The Packers overhauled their front office, fired both coordinators, and, much to the chagrin of Aaron Rodgers, dumped their quarterbacks coach. With those changes come many questions, like: How is the dynamic between new general manager Brian Gutekunst, director of football operations Russ Ball, senior adviser to football operations (and former GM) Ted Thompson, and head coach Mike McCarthy going to work? What type of scheme can we expect from offensive coordinator Joe Philbin (now in his second stint with the team)? And how will the defense change under Mike Pettine? Only time will tell, but the Packers also have the most talented quarterback on the planet returning to action, and Rodgers’s ability to put the team on his back provides enough stability to keep Green Bay in the top 10 on this list.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars return their head coach, offensive and defensive coordinators, and most of their devastatingly stout defense—and the foundational run game under Leonard Fournette should remain a constant. But the Blake Bortles decision (do they keep him as starter? Will they be forced to pay his fifth-year option if he can’t pass a physical in March?) looms large. With receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson set to hit free agency as well, Jacksonville’s got some work to do on an offense that held the team back at times in 2017.
11. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys head into 2018 with (albeit uneasy) continuity at general manager, head coach, and both coordinator spots. They return most of the pieces that make the offense—and by extension, the entire team—go: starting quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, and a road-grading offensive line. Dez Bryant’s future is in doubt, and Prescott must recover from a disastrous second-half performance last year, but the Cowboys are set up to bounce back.
12. Cincinnati Bengals
Quarterback Andy Dalton and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor developed a nice rapport in the second half of the year, so it made plenty of sense when the Bengals signed Lazor to a two-year contract extension in early January. A.J. Green returns, as do running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard, so there are pieces upon which to build. But Cincy’s offensive line is still a mess, and that factor puts a cap on the team’s offensive potential. On the other side of the ball, new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is a wild card. The Bengals have talent on defense, but it’ll be up to Austin to squeeze more out of that unit in 2018.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers boast plenty of stability in the form of returning head coach Dirk Koetter, offensive coordinator Todd Monken, defensive coordinator Mike Smith, quarterback Jameis Winston, and offensive stars Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. But that stability is tenuous: Tampa Bay underachieved on both sides of the ball in 2017, so Koetter heads into next season with one of the warmest seats in the league. If he can’t quickly right the ship, a coaching staff reboot may be in order.
14. Houston Texans
Head coach Bill O’Brien returns, and while defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel has been hired away by Tennessee, a familiar face in Romeo Crennel takes over the Texans defense. With that relative continuity, there’s plenty of reason for optimism in 2018, especially if Deshaun Watson can get back onto the field and pick up where he left off before he tore his ACL at practice in Week 9. Plus, if J.J. Watt returns to the fold after sitting out most of the year with a broken leg, the defense will gets its leader and best player back out on the field.
15. Carolina Panthers
Quarterback Cam Newton was erratic as a passer for most of last season, the team fired offensive coordinator Mike Shula and lost defensive coordinator Steve Wilks to the Cardinals’ head-coach job, and the franchise is up for sale. But under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, much of the language and play design should remain the same, making for what should be a relatively smooth transition, and another year in the system should pay dividends for both running back Christian McCaffrey and receiver Devin Funchess. Plus, this club can still lean on its always dependable defense, anchored by linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive tackle Kawann Short.
16. Seattle Seahawks
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll fired some of his assistant coaches (or, in Kris Richard’s case, sort of just decided to start dating other people) and could be without several key defensive players. Safety Kam Chancellor and pass rusher Cliff Avril may both retire due to neck injuries, and All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman may not be ready for the start of the year with an Achilles injury. Safety Earl Thomas has threatened a holdout, fueling trade rumors, and both tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive end Sheldon Richardson are free agents. The Seahawks have lost their identity—the run game was a total no-show in 2017 and the defense took a step back. Still, what Seattle has over most of the teams that follow is a bona fide, proven franchise quarterback.
17. San Francisco 49ers
For the first time in three years, the Niners are set to kick off a new season with an incumbent head coach at the helm. Kyle Shanahan—along with GM John Lynch and returning defensive coordinator Robert Saleh—has San Francisco poised for big things, but a few uncertainties remain: First, they must officially lock in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for this season, whether that means a long-term deal or the franchise tag. And second, Garoppolo must prove that his outstanding performance over the last five weeks of the 2017 season was no small-sample-size fluke. The 49ers look like they’re on track toward contention next year, but “stable” isn’t the word I’d use in describing this franchise quite yet.
18. Miami Dolphins
Both Jay Cutler and Matt Moore are free agents, and the team must decide whether or not to double down on Ryan Tannehill (and his twice-injured knee) or release him and take its chances on the open market. Miami would take a $4.6 million dead-cap hit if it releases its former starter, but the Dolphins would save $15.2 million of cap space, which they could use to go after Kirk Cousins, Josh McCown, Tyrod Taylor, or any of the other quarterbacks who could become available in the coming months. What happens at that spot could define the Dolphins’ season.
19. Washington Redskins
As long as Dan Snyder owns the team, Washington will never achieve much stability. And its decision to trade for quarterback Alex Smith rather than retain the incumbent starter, Kirk Cousins, creates plenty of uncertainty going into next year. Will Smith play up to his performance last year, when he threw 26 touchdowns and just five picks? Or will he revert to the checkdown-heavy passer we saw for most of his career? How will Smith fit into the Jay Gruden offense, and how will he mesh with the team’s pass catchers? It may end up looking like a brilliant sign-and-trade, but right now it’s a major unknown.
20. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings return most of the pieces to their vaunted defense, and the leadership structure—general manager Rick Spielman, head coach Mike Zimmer, and defensive coordinator George Edwards—remains a constant. There are just two huge, glaring issues: Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, the architect behind the team’s offensive explosion last year, is gone, and the team has zero quarterbacks under contract. Until we know who’s calling plays, and whether the Vikings are going to bank on Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, or someone behind Door No. 4, it’s impossible to know what to expect from the offense in 2018.
21. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders are going through a near-full reset on the coaching staff. Jon Gruden, who hasn’t coached in a decade, replaces Jack Del Rio. The team’s got a new set of coordinators (Greg Olson and Paul Guenther), and a new offensive line coach (Tom Cable). Everything, from schemes, culture, identity, and style, could be different in 2018, and it’s unclear how Gruden and his new staff will mesh with the team’s $125 million quarterback, Derek Carr.
22. Tennessee Titans
I’m excited to see the direction the Titans take in 2018. New head coach Mike Vrabel sounds dedicated to modernizing the team’s offense under new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, and Tennessee gets an experienced, respected defensive coordinator in Pees, who should bring toughness and physicality to that side of the ball. But right now, we just don’t know how, or whether, any of these changes will work.
23. Detroit Lions
Matt Patricia isn’t coming to Detroit under the best of circumstances, having surrendered 41 points and over 500 yards to a Nick Foles–led Eagles offense in the Super Bowl. The first-time head coach has a long way to go toward proving that his reputation for attention to detail and unmatched preparedness translates to his new team. Keeping offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is a good start.
24. Kansas City Chiefs
To sum up the Chiefs’ offseason, consider this: They’re transitioning from a quarterback (Smith) best known for being conservative and protecting the football to another (Patrick Mahomes II) best known for his derring-do as a downfield passer. Mahomes’s talent is undeniable, but stylistically, he couldn’t be more different from his predecessor—and it’s anything but a given that the Chiefs’ transition to their new starter is going to be smooth. (It should be fun as hell to watch, though.)
25. New York Giants
The Giants have a new general manager (Dave Gettleman), new head coach (Pat Shurmur), new offensive coordinator (unknown), and a new defensive coordinator (James Bettcher). They will also have: new schemes, a new identity, a new culture, and likely many new players. Add in uncertainty about the contract status of the team’s best player (Odell Beckham Jr.) and, well, there’s no telling what to expect. The only reason the Giants aren’t last on this list is that they still have an established, somewhat predictable quarterback in Eli Manning.
26. Chicago Bears
I love the Matt Nagy head-coach hire. I love the Mark Helfrich offensive-coordinator hire. And I love the idea of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky running that duo’s hybrid scheme, which should marry college-style plays with pro-style concepts. But Trubisky’s still very much a work in progress. We don’t know whether Nagy, a first-time head coach, has the makeup to be more than a good play-caller for the franchise, either. Uncertainty abounds … but this is a team to watch.
27. Buffalo Bills
The Bills made their first playoff appearance in 18 years this season, but, once again, must figure out what to do at quarterback. It’s pretty clear that Tyrod Taylor isn’t long for Buffalo, so the question becomes whether GM Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott will look to Nathan Peterman, to the draft, to free agency, or to all three, to fill that role. Until we know the answer to that, it’s tough to project what this team will look like in 2018.
28. New York Jets
Maybe the Jets make a run at Kirk Cousins. Perhaps they add Taylor, or Keenum, Bradford, or Bridgewater. It could be Foles, or even Bortles, who ends up under center for New York. But as it’s been for, well, seemingly forever, the outlook for the Jets’ season hangs on what the team does at the quarterback position.
29. Cleveland Browns
The Browns have won just a single game in the past two years and they have no apparent starting quarterback. They’re not last here because they have a shitload of draft picks, including no. 1 and no. 4 overall, and those two picks could be a catalyst toward some semblance of stability.
30. Denver Broncos
First-year head coach Vance Joseph kept his job after the Broncos’ disastrous 5-11 campaign, but six of his assistants weren’t so lucky. Denver’s once-fearsome defense has lost most of its bite, and the team’s search for its quarterback of the future has not gone well. Paxton Lynch doesn’t look like the answer, and now Brock Osweiler is a free agent (again).
31. Indianapolis Colts
32. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals have an almost entirely new staff and zero quarterbacks under contract. The team returns many pieces of its stellar defense from last year, but there’s no telling how that group will adapt to Steve Wilks’s new scheme.