For the past three years, I’ve ranked all 32 teams going into each NFL season. Through that process, I discovered that the most difficult teams to write about aren’t the most incompetent ones. Whether they’re going through radical rebuilds or leaning on young rosters, that group tends to be interesting in its own way. The toughest teams to talk about are the ones in the middle, the franchises stuck in no-man’s-land with no clear way out. Hampered by some combination of meddling owners, questionable team-building practices, and a habit of betting on the wrong players, a familiar collection tends to make up the league’s uninspiring also-rans every year. So, with the NFL firmly in offseason hibernation mode, let’s take a look at the teams that you can always meet in the middle—and the ways they can pull themselves out.
For the past several years, the Lions’ identity has been tough to figure out. Detroit went 11-5 in 2014, thanks to an out-of-nowhere defensive improvement during coordinator Teryl Austin’s debut campaign—the unit finished third in defensive DVOA that season after finishing 14th the previous year. Austin was quickly billed as one of the league’s hottest young coaches, but the Lions never approached that level of defensive success again. In the four seasons since, they’ve won between six and nine games and haven’t performed particularly well in any aspect of the game.
Hiring former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia last year was supposed to imbue the Lions with the defense-first mentality they’d lacked during most of Matthew Stafford’s career. But they finished 31st in pass defense DVOA, and after Year 1, Patricia’s team looks to be the latest franchise trying to emulate the Patriots in all the wrong ways.
The offense also took a step back last season, despite Patricia keeping offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter on staff to preserve continuity. Cooter had success with Stafford in previous years—finishing 12th in offensive DVOA in 2017. But after falling to 23rd in that metric last season, Cooter and the Lions parted ways and the Lions brought in former Seahawks coordinator Darrell Bevell to call the shots.
Reading into coaches’ pronouncements during OTAs is often a mistake, but some of Bevell’s comments last month could provide insight into what the Lions are trying to accomplish on that side of the ball. After noting that the Lions would “always be about running the football,” Bevell told the Detroit Free Press that with so many teams facing offenses like the Chiefs and Rams week in and week out, the Lions’ run-heavy approach could present a different sort of challenge. Let’s pretend for a second that the Rams and Chiefs don’t have drastically different offensive schemes and assume that Bevell meant that after adding Jesse James in free agency and drafting T.J. Hockenson eighth overall, Detroit is planning to put more tight ends on the field and run the ball against shrinking defenses. Last season, the rushing success rate league-wide decreased as more tight ends came into the game. Building a running game around promising second-year back Kerryon Johnson would provide plenty of benefits. But loading up with bigger personnel packages isn’t the way to achieve that goal.
All of this wheel-spinning leads back to a single, commonly asked question about the Lions: What is this team? And for what seems like the fifth season in a row, the answer isn’t clear.
Their best chance to get out of neutral: the defensive line. Detroit’s front four is clearly the strength of its roster right now, especially after adding defensive end Trey Flowers in free agency. Paying Flowers an average of $18 million per year after the Patriots let him walk was a decidedly un-Belichickian move, but Flowers is an excellent player who makes the Lions better. Combined with run-stuffing machine Damon Harrison and exciting younger players like A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand, this group should be the Lions’ strength in 2019—though concerns about the back end of the defense (even after signing slot man Justin Coleman) may temper expectations about that unit as a whole.
On the surface, some of the Bengals’ offseason moves seem like they could be game-changers in 2019. Cincinnati finally said goodbye to Marvin Lewis after 16 seasons at the helm and brought in first-year head coach/play-caller Zac Taylor from the Rams. A new play-action-heavy offense could possibly revitalize Andy Dalton late in his career in the same way it did for Matt Ryan, but looking at the whole of what Cincinnati did this spring, Taylor’s arrival is the only reason to expect a different result from last year, when the Bengals finished 6-10.
Cincinnati’s front office has long had a reputation for being cautious and devoting most of the team’s cap to extensions for its own players, but its decisions this year drifted into self-parody. Every notable signing involved retaining a former Bengals player: cornerback Darqueze Dennard, offensive lineman Bobby Hart, tight end Tyler Eifert, and linebacker Preston Brown. Successful teams have always made it a priority to draft, develop, and retain homegrown players, but that strategy only tends to work if those players are worth extending. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick will have the 14th-highest cap hit at the position this year. Hart and tight end C.J. Uzomah will make about $12 million combined. That’s not value. If a team is going to solely build through the draft, then it better be crushing the process year after year. And despite a strong run at the beginning of the decade, Cincinnati hasn’t been able to keep that up in recent years. For example: Offensive tackle Jonah Williams, whom the team selected 11th overall in this year’s draft, should develop into a solid foundational piece, but his arrival comes after several bungled attempts to fix that group with highly drafted players. The Bengals have enough talent (A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Geno Atkins, Carl Lawson, and others) to hold their own in the AFC, but they are the epitome of a middle-class team.
Their best chance to get out of neutral: reaching another level on offense. Dalton and the Bengals offense had a strong start in 2018 before falling off a cliff to end the year. Through the team’s first eight games, Green was on pace for 90 catches, more than 1,350 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Then a toe injury ended his season. Dalton also missed five games at the end of the season after injuring his thumb. And Eifert finally seemed to be finding his old form again in Cincinnati’s first three games, before he tragically broke his ankle in Week 4 against the Falcons. If Dalton and his pass catchers can stay on the field next season, and Taylor’s approach can give them a bit more life, this unit has a chance to be exciting. But time could be running out for this group to show it deserves to be kept together long term.
New York Giants
The Giants had a chance to start over this offseason. Drafting Daniel Jones with the sixth overall pick would have been a tough sell no matter what, but it would have been easier to pitch as part of a full-scale rebuild that included moving on from Eli Manning (and his $23 million cap hit), accruing an extra first-round pick in the Odell Beckham Jr. trade, and staying quiet in free agency. Instead, the Giants forged ahead in the same way they have for years: They tried to retool their roster on the fly without a cohesive plan.
Throughout general manager Dave Gettleman’s tenure, the Giants have had trouble figuring out what they want to be. The Beckham trade was the sort of move that a future-thinking team would make. Handing $23 million guaranteed to a 30-year-old Golden Tate was not. Reaching for a quarterback with the sixth overall pick indicates that the Giants are willing to build a roster around younger assets. Trading away fourth- and fifth-round picks to move up and take cornerback Deandre Baker in the first round does not. In the short term, both Tate and Baker will probably be better options than the late-round alternatives who’d otherwise be vying for their spots. But by never giving those undervalued alternatives an opportunity, it becomes increasingly difficult to build a championship-caliber roster. Hitting on late-round picks and players on cheap rookie deals is always difficult. But when those guys are constantly passed over for win-now alternatives, it becomes impossible.
And while opportunity cost exists for any decision, all of the Giants’ personnel choices seem to come at the direct expense of another area of their roster. Gettleman traded for guard Kevin Zeitler in early March, but to do it, he had to lose pass rusher Olivier Vernon. New York is now left without a single top-flight edge rusher on its entire defense. At this point, the Giants are just alternating between taking a few steps forward and a few steps back.
Their best chance to get out of neutral: Jones becoming a quality quarterback. That may seem simplistic, but at this point, it’s their only hope. With Manning’s contract (likely) off the books next season and some cost-saving cuts available in 2020 (namely getting rid of Alec Ogletree and Janoris Jenkins), Gettleman will have more financial flexibility than the team has had in quite some time. But considering the money that’s already been committed to offensive players like Zeitler, Tate, Saquon Barkley, Nate Solder, and Sterling Shepard, the Giants already seem committed to this version of their offense. Swapping Manning for the best version of Jones would be the only move capable of transforming the franchise long term.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It’s possible that the Bucs could work their way off this list as early as 2020. Jameis Winston has one final season to show first-year head coach Bruce Arians he’s the answer at QB, and if he doesn’t, the Bucs can move on and find their quarterback of the future with no dead money on the books. Also, of the nine players scheduled to make the most in 2020, left tackle Donovan Smith and wide receiver Mike Evans are the only two with more than $2 million remaining in dead money on their deals. Tampa Bay will have an opportunity to completely remake its roster, potentially with a new GM at the helm.
Until then, though, the Bucs are in the least enviable spot an NFL team can be: They have below-average talent, and they’re tight against the salary cap. Tampa Bay has just under $5 million in cap space, according to Over the Cap, and that’s including the minor relief the team got by releasing Gerald McCoy and signing Ndamukong Suh to replace him. That swap may seem like a lateral move for a team with limited resources, but the one-year, $9.25 million deal Suh signed is one of several low-risk moves the Bucs made this offseason.
Arians’s presence as a head coach alone makes the Bucs more intriguing than they’ve been in recent years, but with Winston in place and the roster looking similar to 2018 (when they finished 5-11), things probably won’t be much different in Tampa Bay this season.
Their best chance to get out of neutral: Todd Bowles invigorates the defense. One of the reasons that it’s been hard to drum up much excitement for Arians’s impact as an offensive mind is that the Bucs offense isn’t the problem. Tampa Bay finished ninth in passing DVOA last season thanks to former coordinator Todd Monken’s work. The problem, though—as it’s been for years—was Winston’s decision-making. Despite finishing fifth in yards per drive, the Bucs were 10th in points per drive thanks to the league’s worst turnover rate. Unless Arians can magically fix Winston’s tendency to throw the ball up for grabs, there’s only so much room for improvement.
The defense, though, is a different story. After finishing dead last in defensive DVOA in 2017, the Bucs followed it up in 2018 by finishing … dead last again. Bowles is replacing fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith (and linebackers coach Mark Duffner, who filled in after Smith’s firing), and that could be one of the most significant coaching upgrades in the league this season. Tampa Bay’s defensive personnel is still lacking in talent (especially with defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul likely out indefinitely after suffering a neck injury during a car accident in May), but it should still be better under Bowles.
The Redskins have easily the most complicated circumstances of any team on this list. After trading for Alex Smith and giving him $71 million guaranteed only 16 months ago, Smith suffered a gruesome broken leg in November—which will keep him out indefinitely—and Washington was forced to take quarterback Dwayne Haskins in the first round of this year’s draft. The team couldn’t have foreseen that Smith would miss the entire 2019 season when it traded for him, but making such a bold move for an aging QB does exemplify the most common type of mistake the Redskins’ brass makes.
Washington’s decisions often seem driven by a paralyzing fear of becoming irrelevant. Owner Dan Snyder’s team is always in play for the big, splashy move because that’s what it prioritizes. Rather than take the compensatory pick the team would have received after linebacker Preston Smith signed with the Packers this spring, team president Bruce Allen gave safety Landon Collins a market-setting six-year, $84 million deal that included $44.5 million guaranteed. With Collins’s contract on the books, the Redskins were cash-strapped enough to release starting linebacker Zach Brown, who had an excellent season in 2018. Brown signed with Philadelphia, and his cap hit this year will be $2.5 million. He’s costing the Redskins $3 million in dead money. There’s a reason the good teams stay good and the mediocre teams stay mediocre.
Signing a player of Collins’s caliber is defensible, but the frustrating part is that Washington’s hole at free safety was the result of the team releasing D.J. Swearinger last December. Swearinger was supposedly let go because of numerous public complaints about the quality of coaching in Washington, which doesn’t seem to be an issue for organizations that actually have quality coaching. And spats between players and management are trending up in Washington, where longtime left tackle Trent Williams is reportedly avoiding offseason activities because of how the team handled his recent medical issues. Dysfunction is often the norm with this organization, and it’s caused the franchise to spin its wheels for years.
Their best chance to get out of neutral: hitting on Haskins and leaning on the defensive line. Landing Haskins, a potential franchise quarterback, with the 15th overall pick is the best fortune that the Redskins have had in years. If he can develop into a quality option early in his career, Washington will be relevant sooner rather than later.
Outside of finding their QB of the future (which, admittedly, is every team’s easiest path to relevance), the Redskins have also built one of the league’s best front fours over the past year. Ryan Kerrigan, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, and Matt Ioannidis already formed a solid core, and then Washington added Montez Sweat in the draft. Trading two second-round picks to move up for any non-quarterback is tough to justify, but for a team that’s never going to shy away from risky moves anyway, landing Sweat could be an overall boon for the defense.