Sometimes, it's simply not your year. Sometimes, even in a league of parity, it gets very late, very early.
As much as the NFL preseason is used to determine rising players and hidden gems and ascending teams and fantasy-football sleepers, alas, it is also a time when the worst of the league begins to stand out for very different reasons. With the preseason wrapping up and major roster cut-downs just ahead, it's impossible not to watch what is going on, talk to other coaches and evaluators and begin to get a sense for which franchises are quite likely to be drafting very high next spring. And it looks like many of the usual suspects, sadly enough for those fanbases.
August has not been particularly kind to some teams, with bad luck, mounting injuries, self-inflicted errors, and bad juju all swirling around. For teams already very much on the margins, and facing a talent imbalance and in many cases with very inexperienced hands overseeing the coaching staff and/or the roster, suffering even one critical injury to a key starter can undermine any gains. Unfortunately for these half dozen teams, they already check far too many of the above boxes, with the potential for overwhelmed coaches and/or facing immediate crisis at key roster spots, with not much going their way heading into the final exhibition contests.
(This is not merely a list of the worst teams – Atlanta surely has a case to be made for that, among others. Nor is it just a list of teams having a rough summer, because the Bills' anti-vax contingent continue to make trouble. But if you are looking for teams with suspect rosters, who have had repeated instances of bad luck or strange occurrences or bizarre situations, all the while trying to dig out of am ongoing malaise, then we have you covered here.)
Conversations with execs and coaches who have faced these teams in the preseason did not paint a very pretty picture, and the rumblings around the league may not bode particular well for them rising from among the cellar dwellers this season. But there's always next year!
The Deshaun Watson investigation into over 20 claims of sexual impropriety and in some cases sexual assault, coupled with his pre-existing demands to be traded, the roster carnage inflicted by ex-coach/GM Bill O'Brien and a bizarre coaching search that further exposed organizational fissures would be enough to rock a solid franchise. Factor in that this is the Texans, ripe with tumult under Cal McNair, and you are looking at an outfit that will be way out of its depth most weeks. There isn't a real position group that stands out, rookie coach David Culley has been dealt a raw hand ("Do we really think that's who Nick Caserio will have coaching this team long-term?" as one general manager put it) and changing the culture there will be quite challenging. Winning games on even a quasi-regular basis would be, as well.
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Several evaluators pointed to Detroit as the next-worst roster going right now. One front office exec whose team faced the Lions this preseason told me the competition was so poor it was hard to draw conclusions from it. "They don't have players," he said. "It's bad. Good thing (coach Dan Campbell and GM Brad Holmes) got six-year deals. It'll take three years just to dig out of this." There is no history of this team sustaining any real measure of success for ages, primary ownership keeps getting shuffled around and game-management could prove to be a problem for this group, too. They are going to give up a ton of points and offensive coaches who I trust believe Jared Goff is really going to struggle without Sean McVay in his ear. "They will be in the market for a QB in 2022," as one exec put it.
Zach Wilson is going to take his lumps, as virtually all raw rookie QBs do. And losing left tackle Mekhi Becton recently, who was a stud as a rookie last year, is the last thing anyone around there needed. It remains to be seen which receivers can or will step up beyond free agent signing Corey Davis, who is having a nice camp. They lack a proven go-to tight end, and perpetually hoping on a Chris Herndon breakthrough might not be nearly enough for the kid QB. And just when you could start believing this group would finally have a front seven with some bite, key signee Carl Lawson was lost for the season before it even began. Hard to build any momentum this way, and the rest of the AFC East looks to be improved. Maybe their luck will turn, but so far the hits just keep coming.
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New York's other team has had an even more eventful summer. For all the wrong reasons. A flurry of sudden retirements, some among veterans being counted on. Kenny Golladay missing time. Kadarius Toney missing time (at least he finally has two cleats that fit him), Daniel Jones ending up at the bottom of pile-ups during fights among his teammates. No one quite sure when Saquon Barkley will be back, and whenever he is back, there will still be big-time concerns about this porous offensive line. "They built that offense backwards, which goes against everything Dave believes in," one executive said of GM Dave Gettleman, noting the outlays to receivers and dependent positions but not up front. Head coach Joe Judge had a rocky first season and drama seems to follow this bunch around on a weekly basis. Plenty of evaluators are skeptical that Jones will thrive in this environment.
Where do we even start? The faux QB competition? The Tebow experiment? The strength coach debacle? The systematic disregard for upgrading any spot on a bad offensive line from a one-win team? The inner-strife already among a staff struggling to marry college concepts and experience with the pro game? Issues with handling an NFL style installation and schedule? Urban Meyer's unfamiliarity with losing and being seemingly unaware that a 1-15 team ain't turning it around tomorrow? Losing do-everything rookie running back Travis Etienne for the season? Looking completely overwhelmed from an offensive standpoint, even against backup talent on other teams? "Urban and that staff are having trouble getting that thing off the ground," said one long-time executive who is friendly with numerous Jags staffers. "It's not good." Many a college star coach has struggled with this stuff in the NFL. And Trevor Lawrence is a generational talent. They need to prioritize keeping him upright above all else, but is Meyer wired that way?
Joe Burrow has been very upfront about the mental demons he is facing coming back from major knee surgery. And all the coaches are saying the right thing … But this is going to be an arduous process and no one is flicking a switch Week 1. Last year's injury will bleed into this season and there remain major questions about the linemen comprising the first-team offensive line. "The interior offensive line is a problem," said one exec who has watched the Bengals. Ja'Marr Chase will ultimately be fine, but a case of the yips or the drops or whatever you want to call them can in no way be construed as a positive development. Playing in the AFC North does them no favors. The specter of how Burrow's rookie season ended will hang over them, and this team should be better in December than it is in September, but anytime your franchise QB is going through something like this it's going to color your training camp panorama, and conjure questions.