I am a little infatuated by the bottom of the NFL these days. I confess.
I've long wondered if or when professional football would start to resemble others sports like baseball and basketball and hockey, where it has long ago become accepted that sometimes a franchise must be willing to tear it all down in order to, eventually, build it back up. And I can't help but wonder if the slow trickle of NFL teams willing to embrace this philosophy will now become more of a steady stream.
For years I've heard all of the counter-arguments against wholesale trading in-season and why it doesn't make sense in this sport. It's never really happened before. It's too much of a team sport. The salary cap makes it too tough. With all of the revenue sharing and competitive balance in the NFL, it's unnecessary. Fans will never accept it. You buy a season ticket expecting to see all of those stars playing in December, no matter what (I guess).
And, for years, I would deconstruct those arguments in conversations with general managers and salary cap gurus and personnel executives and many would agree or at least politely nod along and humor me, but then always offer a caution at the end that things will probably never really change in a sport that can often be slow to adapt. But I'm truly starting to think we may be on the cusp of something.
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Call it tanking if you want, or whatever negative connotation you care to apply. But the reality is, now nearly a decade into this collective bargaining agreement, that there are certain obvious incentives to building a team around the years when a potential franchise quarterback – to say nothing of a pass rusher or a left tackle or a top receiver – are on a rookie deal. And there is an extreme value that can be culled from working the draft pick market and the compensatory pick system. And lesser teams that aren't doing that, and who aren't willing to accept their plight and the need to rebuild or reboot or whatever you want to call it are going to get even further left behind.
With that in mind I started considering the teams in the league who have one win or less (the Steelers, Dolphins, Skins, Bengals, Broncos, Cardinals, Jets). None of them are in an enviable position, clearly, but if I was going to be charged which taking over any of these franchises which roster/cap situation would I find most enticing? Which of these franchises are further along in coming out better in 2020 and beyond … and which are in the most-dire situations?
This is how I would rank them, in order of best positioned to most in the dark when it comes to an organization that understands what it is and what needs to be accomplished to turn it around.
They have tremendous institutional experience and strength and a Super Bowl winning head coach and are in this spot largely because of injuries to their top two QBS, one of whom, Ben Roethlisberger, is a future Hall of Famer. They have pieces on offense and defense and a stout offensive line and are shedding a ton of dead cap in 2019 through Antonio Brown's departure. They generally draft exceptionally well. Ben will be back in 2020, and the Steelers will still be plenty competitive even with Devlin Hodges at the helm.
They take the most flack of all of these teams, but they are also far, far ahead of the pack here when it comes to knowing who they are and how big the chore is to become a true contender and embracing creative and proactive means of getting there. They have a ridiculous bounty of picks in the next two drafts and the ability to move up and down the board however they please. They cleared out the bloated contracts and aged players. They took the pain, already, and will start to gain soon enough. Most of these other teams haven't even had to kind of blunt, uncomfortable conversations with their owner yet, much less actually put a cogent plan in place that everyone is on board with.
I am basing their placement here on the absurd amount of coveted players they have on their current roster. If they wanted to they could deal a half-dozen veterans (the same guys they are threatening to go winless with) and clear out $40M over the next few years and find themselves with a draft haul to rival Miami's. Unlike the Skins and Jets – who don't have many/any players contenders really want – the Bengals have a slew (AJ Green, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Dre Kirkpatrick, Tyler Eifert). And a QB in Andy Dalton they could flip for a second-day pick in the offseason (dealing QBs in-season can be tricky and there aren't a lot of natural suitors now). Of course, no one thinks they'll be willing to go this route. And if they don't, then consider them moved to the bottom of this list. I am allowing for the possibility by placing them here, because they could trim another future wasted season from their transition by doing the right thing this month at the deadline.
This is a tricky one. Sure they have lots of individual talent but the collective has been really bad for a pretty long time. Matt Ryan's new contract, another record-setter, is far from ideal at this point and for a team this bad to have just re-upped with a wide receiver on the other side of 30 may prove to be short-sighted as well. Other GM's who have looked at this job have some trepidation. The Falcons seem to like their high-priced talent a lot more than others do, and their flexibility is in question with half of next year's salary cap tied up in five players alone. Not a lot of flexibility. Coach Dan Quinn is not going to make it to 2020 and this team still looks like it needs to be rebuilt from the inside out along the offensive and defensive line over these many years later.
Sam Darnold is back! And there is every reason to believe he will be a winning QB in this league. That gives them a leg up over a lot of these other teams. And new GM Joe Douglas has a great pedigree and resume. … Problem is the Jets had another ugly power struggle and hired the new GM after letting the old one oversee a buying spree … only for the Jets to now try to be sellers at the deadline given the state of their season and roster. Yikes. And they don't have much to attract motivated buyers. And injuries have beset some of the key guys they just bought in free agency. And ownership has tended not to get much right there, in general. Did I mention Darnold is back?
They too appear to have a QB, which, again, is huge. Will Kliff Kingsbury prove to be an NFL head coach? And besides Murray, the first overall pick, did they get enough in the 2019 draft to try to offset all of their other brutal drafts in recent years? Because the talent level is barren and they'd better find a way to protect Kyler Murray, and fast. GM Steve Keim is under heavy fire, and they need more draft capital, badly, and teams really like Patrick Peterson and Chandler Jones. They have a chance to take some steps to set themselves up to add pieces around Murray in 2020 a year after failing to do so despite being amid an ugly one-and-done for rookie head coach Steve Wilks.
The Broncos are stuck in QB purgatory, again, and may end up with a top five pick. It's unlikely they'll know much more about rookie QB Drew Lock by then given his injury. John Elway has been extremely tough on his coaches and quick to make changes, yet the personnel side, which has been quite bad for several years, doesn't change much. Ownership is murky with dueling lawsuits about the future of the franchise clouds things. Not ideal. However, if Elway trades Von Miller and Emmanuel Sanders and Chris Harris and Derek Wolfe they could be in position to at least lose again in 2020 with a cast of promising rookies around Lock who might grow together (though the drafting in that building has been quite spotty since Brian Xanders was let go).
I struggled with a lot of this list, but this was a no-brainer. The owner came close to firing his coach in January, only to do it in October. The head of football operations should have been fired, too, only he is empowered with finding another coach for a franchise in which no coach ever wins. Rookie QB Dwayne Haskins is already caught up in silly drama and the roster is truly awful. Worst of all, they refuse to trade their best player, Trent Williams, despite being winless and non-competitive and while knowing he will never play for them again. They should deal Ryan Kerrigan, too, but beyond that the options are slim and what appeared to be the biggest asset in the organization - a young, potentially-impactful defensive line, has been downright awful. Good luck and godspeed. Say your prayers and take your vitamins. There is always a new rock bottom in Washington.