Somehow, in what seems like far too short a time, football season is nearly over. For fans of teams that are no longer in contention-of which there are many-this can be a depressing time. Either you begin to support a team that is not your own, and pledge halfhearted allegiance to the best of what’s left, or look ahead and imagine a better future. This is for the latter.
Every year there are teams that are winners and losers, and it’s not just a matter of overall record. A new quarterback can revive a lackluster offense and turn a long-time loser team into a threatening team. A bad offseason plus some injuries and a retirement or two can take a division leader and drop them into obscurity. There are teams that are, for the foreseeable future at least, going to have a shot at championships. Those teams aren’t mentioned here, because I don’t need to tell you that the Green Bay Packers have a pretty decent quarterback, or that the Steelers have a good offense — everybody knows that. Instead we examine the teams that, surprisingly, look to be in the best positions going into the 2016 season.
The emergence of Blake Bortles as a legitimate NFL quarterback is a huge step forward for the Jacksonville Jaguars. If you add Bortles to one of the best young wide receivers corps in the NFL with Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson, a very promising rookie running back in T.J. Yeldon and an upcoming cap space of around 75 million, the Jaguars are in an admirable position to begin building a dangerous team. Their 3-13 of two years ago was improved this season to 5-11, which is not awe-inspiring, but it leaves them with the fifth pick in the draft, which is phenomenally good for such a promising team. Their major concern is the defense, which gave up far too many points to make them consistent game winners. However, if their front office can make use of their high position in the draft and their excellent financial situation moving into free agency, they could shore up a leaky defense and turn into a powerhouse of a team in an AFC South division that looked to be one of the weakest in the NFL this year.
The Dallas Cowboys finished the season in fourth place in their division, which is astonishing when you consider that they almost defeated the Green Bay Packers last season in the divisional round of the playoffs. This collapse can largely be explained through injuries. Tony Romo’s consistently shattered collarbone and Dez Bryant’s broken foot led to a stagnant offense. Although Darren McFadden put in solid performances as DeMarco Murray’s replacement, it wasn’t enough, and the Cowboys drifted into the last position of the volatile NFC East. Romo isn’t young, but an offseason to heal could see his return to a top-level quarterback. The Cowboys still have one of the best, if not the best, offensive lines in football. Once Bryant and Romo start clicking again, plus whatever talent they decide to take with one of the best picks in the draft this year, they return to being a Super Bowl contender. This was a disappointing year, but I would be surprised if the Cowboys didn’t take the division next year. Looking toward the next season and ignoring their appalling 4-12 record, the Cowboys are in a very good position to excel.
Nothing is as exciting as finding a franchise quarterback, and it looks like the Raiders managed to do that in 2015 with Derek Carr. The offseason additions of Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper finally gave the young quarterback legitimate offensive targets, and that propelled him into a Pro-Bowl selection. Khalil Mack, their first round pick in 2014, proved how devastating he can be, particularly against the Broncos in December when he sacked quarterback Brock Osweiler five times in a single game. Under new Head Coach Jack Del Rio, the Raiders improved their record from 3-13 in 2014 to 7-9 in 2015. This offseason will see the retirement of Charles Woodson, the legendary defensive back, and that will certainly hurt their defense. Still, the Raiders showed up this season in a fashion that few expected, and look to be a genuine threat in the future.
The New York Jets are an odd team. In a moment that may have been the most memorable piece of the offseason for the entire NFL, a backup linebacker slugged starting quarterback Geno Smith in the face and broke his jaw. Usually losing a starting quarterback is the last thing you want, but somehow this proved beneficial when Ryan Fitzpatrick stepped into the starting role and played his best year in the NFL. The 2014 season saw the Jets finish 4-12. This year, they went 10-6 and narrowly missed the wild card slot in the AFC. What happened? Apart from the martial mishap that resulted in Geno Smith’s wired jaw, it was a great offseason for the Jets. Head Coach Rex Ryan was replaced by Todd Bowles. They brought back Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, revamping their secondary. Add Leonard Williams in the draft to shore up their already strong front seven, along with free agent wide receiver Brandon Marshall from the Bears, and the Jets turned into a dangerous team that look just as dangerous going into next year.
This next team comes with a note of personal chagrin, because at the beginning of the season I predicted that they would finish dead last in the league. Things looked grim — nobody knew who was their starting quarterback, their draft picks had been questioned by many and they were playing in a division that, at the beginning of the season, looked to be one of the most competitive in the league. Yes, the Washington Redskins. I don’t think anybody saw Kirk Cousins playing like he did this season. By the end of the season, he was playing like a top 10 quarterback, when last season he was being shuffled around in the lineup with Robert Griffin III and Colt McCoy, none of which could prove themselves as the definite starter. Now, Cousins is looking to pick up one of the biggest offseason contracts in the league. As I said before, nothing beats having a franchise quarterback, and suddenly the Redskins, if they can keep him, look certain to have just that.
It certainly helped that the NFC East dissolved into chaos as the “genius” of Chip Kelly failed to materialize, the Cowboys were crushed with injuries, and the New York Giants failed to produce. Although the Redskins were rather brutally beaten by the Green Bay Packers at home in the playoffs, they improved their seating by such a massive margin that they need to be included here.
There are a handful of other teams that have promise going into next year, but are missing something vital. Marcus Mariota looks like the real deal for the Tennessee Titans. But, they’re missing too many pieces to go far next year. The now Los Angeles Rams showed their insane defensive potential, but they’re missing a top level quarterback. Nick Foles doesn’t look like he can cut it, and until they have someone who is at the very least adequate, they won’t take off. Any team can do a 180, which is part of the NFL’s appeal. But those listed above look to be in a better position to excel than others.