The NFL regular season has come to a conclusion. A total of 12 teams will now square off in the playoffs for an opportunity to play in Super Bowl 51 in February. The rest of the teams head into an offseason with a ton of question marks.
These questions are the result of the 2016 season. Seven non-playoff teams are now looking for new head coaches, including the San Francisco 49ers for a third consecutive offseason.
On the positive end of the spectrum, the Dallas Cowboys put up one of the most-surprising seasons in the recent history of the NFL. They finished at 13-3 and as the first seed in the NFC with two rookies shouldering the load in the backfield.
For the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans, two more surprising teams, their regular season slates came to loud thuds as their two young quarterbacks suffered season-ending injuries in Week 16. While Oakland is in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, it’s hard to believe they’ll go far with a backup replacing MVP candidate Derek Carr.
Speaking of MVP candidates, New England Patriots signal caller Tom Brady continued his ascension among the best quarterbacks in the history of the game. After missing the first four games to suspension, Brady absolutely lit up the NFL. He went 11-1 as a starter, throwing 28 touchdowns compared to two interceptions.
These are among the top-10 takeaways from the entirety of the 2016 NFL season.
1. Quarterback play remains a major question
While we surely saw some young quarterbacks take that next step during the 2016 season, a wide array of teams find themselves in less-than-stellar situations at this position. The likes of Blaine Gabbert, Bryce Petty, Geno Smith, Matt Barkley, Matt Cassel, EJ Manuel, Scott Tolzien and Derek Anderson all started games this season.
These quarterbacks don’t belong on NFL rosters, let alone starting a game at the highest profession football itself has to offer. And while some of these players were simply stopgap options for injured starters, it tells us a story of a quarterback position in the NFL that’s at its lowest talent level in modern history.
Heading into the 2017 offseason, as many as eight teams (a quarter of the NFL) will be looking for new starters. With a lackluster upcoming draft class at this position and limited options on the veteran market, we’re sure to see teams with questions under center next season.
Some of these questions were answered in the affirmative. Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston both proved to be franchise quarterbacks (more on that below). Meanwhile, Derek Carr took that next step to elite status.
Still, we’re left wondering just where the likes of Tyrod Taylor, Colin Kaepernick and Blake Bortles fit into the equation moving forward.
Taylor had an up-and-down season with the Bills, but ultimately found himself benched for the team’s season finale. With a new head coach set to take over in Western New York and a huge team option for the 2017 season, there’s no telling whether he will be back with the Bills (more on that here).
As it relates to Kaepernick, he actually put up a heck of a season under less-than-stellar circumstances in San Francisco. Despite winning a grand total of one game in 11 starts, Kaepernick tallied 18 total touchdowns compared to four interceptions. Will his national anthem protest play a role in where Kaepernick ends up next season? Is he done in San Francisco? These are two major questions heading into the offseason.
Speaking of major questions, is Bortles actually done in Jacksonville? Now that the team has fired Gus Bradley and was apparently looking at Tom Coughlin as a replacement, we’re not too sure Bortles will return to the Jaguars.
He put up a disastrous 2016 campaign, tallying 23 touchdowns and a whopping 16 interceptions.
Now, through three seasons, Bortles has thrown a ridiculous 51 interceptions. If the Jags decide to move on from Bortles, what will his market look like on the trade block?
These are some of the burning questions surrounding the quarterback position. They don’t even take into account Jay Cutler’s imminent departure from Chicago and the likelihood that the Dallas Cowboys will trade or release Pro Bowler Tony Romo. Enjoy the drama, it promises to bring a ton of that during the spring.
2. New stars were born
Where to begin here? From Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas to Oakland Raiders pass rusher Khalil Mack, a new generation of stars were born in the NFL this season. They exist on up-and-coming teams that took that next step to playoff contention this season. They also exist on teams that might be a year away from taking that next step.
The obvious example here has to be Elliott, who absolutely dominated the landscape of the league for Dallas as a rookie. The former Ohio State running back finished just shy of both the Cowboys single-season rushing mark and the NFL rookie rushing record in an awe-inspiring performance.
All said, Elliott gained 1,994 total yards and 16 touchdowns in what was an MVP-caliber performance. He did so while leading a 13-win Cowboys team.
In the very same backfield, fellow rookie Dak Prescott put up one of the best first years for a quarterback in the history of the NFL. Leading the league’s fourth-ranked scoring offense, Prescott, a fourth-round pick from Mississippi State, tallied 29 total touchdowns compared to just four interceptions.
This enabled him to maintain his status as the Cowboys’ starter despite the return of Tony Romo from injury. And in reality, it’s more than the stats that lead us to believe Prescott is the franchise quarterback in Dallas.
He’ll continually progress past his first read, stays composed with pressure in his face and sees the field better than any rookie we’ve seen in ages. These are all representations of just how big of a steal Prescott was in the mid rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft.
As we mentioned above, both Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota took that next step to near-elite status. Both also led their teams to playoff contention well into December. That’s not a small thing considering Tampa Bay and Tennessee picked these two quarterbacks No. 1 and No. 2 respectively back in 2015.
In reality, the stats tell us a story of two quarterbacks that will assuredly be faces of their franchises moving forward in their still young careers.
This is the talent vacuum the NFL needed to fill at the quarterback position. Add in the performances from the aforementioned Prescott as well as Derek Carr, and there’s a lot to be excited about here.
The same can pretty much be said about the defensive side of the ball. Prior to his injury just after the midway point of the season, Atlanta Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant had proven himself to be among the best players at his position. He was holding receivers to a sub 50 percent catch rate and acted the part of a shut-down guy. Barring further injury setbacks, there’s no reason to believe Trufant won’t fill the talent vacuum being left by the likes of veterans Darrelle Revis, among others, in the NFL today.
And despite some up-and-down performances this season, Kansas City Chiefs corner Marcus Peters has continued to prove himself to be a historically good ball-hawk during his young career. With 16 takeaways in two seasons, Peters could be this era’s version of Charles Woodson.
As most of you can already conclude, the pass-rush position is where it’s at in what has increasingly become a pass-happy NFL. That’s where the likes of Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack and Atlanta Falcons EDGE rusher Vic Beasley come into play. Each ended the 2016 regular season having recorded 11-plus sacks. Again, talking about filling the vacuum … both of these players should be able to replace elderstatesmen DeMarcus Ware and Julius Peppers as well-known pass-rush commodities.
We could make a list about 50 players strong as it relates to the young players in today’s NFL. And despite what seems to be a declining product around the NFL, talent shouldn’t be an issue moving forward.
3. Tom Brady and the Pats, one constant
Like clockwork and with drama surrounding the team, the New England Patriots remain the class of the NFL. Facing a four-game suspension to start the season, Brady sat idly by as the Patriots opened up with a 3-1 record. Now, in Brady’s 12 starts to conclude the season, New England boasts an 11-1 record.
It really is stunning to watch this team do its thing. Star tight end Rob Gronkowski was injury plagued troughout the first two months of the season, only to find himself on injured reserve down the stretch. Despite this, New England finished the regular season as the fifth-best scoring offense. That’s in no small part due to the otherworldly performance of Mr. Brady himself. He ended the season having thrown 28 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions.
Ending the season with a 14-2 record, New England is now the odds-on favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 51. That was taken to a whole new level last week when Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr went down with a broken fibula (more on that below).
New England has now won 10-plus games 14 consecutive seasons, cementing its status as the dynasty of the modern football era. In reality, it’s right up there with the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s and San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s. Though, the team’s performance this season might be its most impressive during this long span of success. Whether that translates to another Super Bowl appearance remains to be seen.
4. The return of the Oakland Raiders to relevance
Prior to the unfortunate injury Derek Carr suffered back in Week 16, the Raiders were having themselves their best season in nearly two decades. In fact, it became readily apparent early in the year that Oakland would post its first winning campaign since 2002.
Following Sunday’s loss to the Denver Broncos, Oakland ends the regular season with a 12-4 record and will play the Houston Texans in the AFC Wild Card round. While it’s a tad unfortunate that the Raiders will have to go the rest of the way without MVP candidate Derek Carr, Jack Del Rio’s squad can be happy about the team’s performance.
We knew this young team was talented, but most figured it would take the Raiders another year to return to relevance. The simple fact that they entered Week 17 with an opportunity for the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC speaks volumes about where Oakland is headed.
More than anything, the progression we’ve seen from Carr and the passing game is what has fans in Northern California excited about the future of this team. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree represent one of the best receiver tandems in the NFL. Meanwhile, Carr himself has been nothing short of amazing. He added 28 touchdowns compared to six interceptions in what was a stellar performance prior to breaking his fibula.
If the Raiders are able to improve what was still a weak defense during the offseason, there’s no reason to believe this team won’t be a Super Bowl contender in 2017. And in reality, the possibility of going one-and-done in the playoffs should matter little here. It’s about the process, and the Raiders have aced that aspect of team building.
5. A season without off-field drama
After the Ray Rice drama, the Greg Hardy off-field issues and Deflategate over the past couple seasons, it was really nice to see that these types of issues didn’t repeat themselves in 2016. Surely, there were some issues. That’s the nature of the beast in the professional sports world. However, there really weren’t those big off-field issues that plagued the league in the past.
More than anything, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had a pretty uneventful season after laying the hammer down on Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Whenever a commissioner can stay out of the headlines, it’s most definitely a good thing.
Let’s just hope this is the start of a trend for the NFL. After all, the league itself had suffered a major PR hit prior to 2016. If this can be the start of a trend, the public perception of football as a whole might change.
6. The Carolina Panthers’ plight and Cam Newton
Carolina went from the Super Bowl to last place within less than a calendar year. That’s hard to do. That takes some skill. It also speaks to the team-wide issues we’ve seen from the Panthers this season. Without Josh Norman in the mix, Carolina’s previously vaunted defense took a major step back. It went from yielding a 73.5 quarterback rating in 2015 to a 92.0 rating and the third-worst pass defense in 2016. It’s simply stunning the difference one player can make — a player the Panthers pretty much gave up on during contract negotiations.
Though, the more readily apparent issue here is pass protection for reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton. He was sacked three more times in Sunday’s season-ending loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was taken down 36 times in 15 games. More than that, Newton was pressured in over a quarter of his drop backs.
It’s these issues that led to him being banged up for the majority of the season, including missing a game with a concussion. More than anything, this had a major impact on Newton’s performance after a stellar 2015 campaign.
Cam Newton had career lows in passer rating, completion percentage, yards per pass, rushing yards and yards per rushing attempt this season.
— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) January 1, 2017
Simply put, Carolina now needs to address this issue big time. That could potentially include finding two new starting tackles, depending on Michael Oher’s ability to come back after missing the majority of this season with a concussion.
Mike Remmers should not be on the football field protecting Newton, especially at left tackle. Short of the Panthers actually going away from their MO of not exhausting capital on the offensive line, there’s no reason to believe this team will be relevant in the NFC moving forward.
7. A time to move on from retreads
One thing became readily apparent during the 2016 NFL season. So-called retread head coaches lived up to that name, failing to lead their teams to anything amounting to contention. From Chip Kelly in San Francisco to Rex Ryan in Buffalo and former Los Angeles Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, these veterans of the sidelines struggled big time.
The same can actually be said for the likes of John Fox in Chicago and even Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati. Coaches with previous success letting the NFL pass them by in this modern era.
This should be seen as a sign for the plethora of teams now looking for new head coaches. Hire more innovative offensive and defensive minds. Ignore the old guard. That’s exactly what the Miami Dolphins did when they hired Adam Gase. The end result there was a 10-win season and the team’s first playoff spot in nearly a decade.
That’s exactly the model teams looking for new head coaches should follow. There’s a ton of qualified coordinators out there, some of whom have been passed up in the past due to teams reaching for retreads. This list includes defensive coordinators Teryl Austin (Detroit) and Sean McDermott (Carolina) as well as Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and Josh McDaniels in New England.
8. Young quarterbacks see tremendous seasons end in injury
Both Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr had tremendous 2016 seasons. Each took that step to elite status with Carr leading his Raiders to a 12-4 mark and Mariota’s Tennessee Titans finding themselves in the playoff hunt through Week 15. Considering where these teams were two short years ago, that’s simply stunning.
Their stats also tell us a story of young quarterbacks that progressed at a level we rarely see from players at their position.
Mariota put up nearly 3,800 total yards with 28 touchdowns compared to just nine interceptions. This enabled Tennessee’s offense to finish in the top half of the NFL in scoring after ranking 28th the previous season. Likely not a coincidence, Tennessee finished the regular season with a 9-7 record, winning four more games than the previous two seasons combined.
On the other hand, Carr led the Raiders to a five-win improvement from the 2015 season. In the process, he tallied nearly 4,000 passing yards with 28 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
Unfortunately for both the Titans and Raiders, injuries marred otherwise tremendous seasons. Mariota and Carr both suffered fibula injuries in Week 16. This ultimately led to Tennessee being eliminated from playoff contention. For the Raiders, Carr’s injury led to a Week 17 loss to the Denver Broncos and a missed opportunity to capture the AFC West and a first-round bye.
Both Mariota and Carr have bright futures. That much is clear. However, there now has to be some concern over their ability to stay healthy over the long term. Anytime a player suffers a serious lower-body injury, that concern is magnified even further.
9. The regression from contender to laughingstock
When the San Francisco 49ers take to the field for Week 1 of the 2017 campaign, they will do so with their fourth head coach in as many years. This comes following the firing of Chip Kelly after just one season. It also comes after San Francisco tied its worst mark in franchise history with a 2-14 record while losing a whopping 13 consecutive games.
In what has to be considered the most-dramatic regression in modern NFL history, the 49ers are now a laughingstock just three short years after being considered Super Bowl contenders. Not only did San Francisco fire Kelly, it moved on from general manager Trent Baalke after a disastrous three-year stretch at the annual NFL draft.
Adding even more fuel to the fire here, there’s no telling whether Colin Kaepernick will be back in 2017. He restructured his contract, enabling Kaepernick himself to opt out of his deal and the 49ers to move on from him completely (more on that here).
With so many questions looming over this organization, one has to wonder where the 49ers go from here. They are still going to be a popular destination for top-end coaching candidates, especially playing at Levi’s Stadium in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
Still, the internal turmoil we’ve seen in San Francisco makes this a less appealing situation. Until that changes, the product on the field is unlikely to improve. And in reality, that starts with CEO Jed York.
10. How about them Boys?
Sunday’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles mattered very little in the grand scheme of things. It was nice to see Tony Romo have some success in his first action in over a calendar year. Outside of that, Dallas did the right thing by resting Ezekiel Elliott and barely playing fellow rookie Dak Prescott. The reality of the situation here is that the 13-3 Cowboys have greater aspirations. Super Bowl aspirations. Think about that for a second. A team relying on two rookies in the backfield is now the odds-on favorite to win the NFC.
We’ve covered Elliott’s performance already here. What he did as a rookie was Adrian Peterson and Eric Dickerson level stuff. That’s historical, and it has the Cowboys feeling good about their prospects heading into the playoffs.
Though, we’d be utterly foolish not to detail just how good Prescott has been under center. Here’s a guy that threw four regular season interceptions in 460 pass attempts. He also tallied over 3,900 total yards with 29 touchdowns. The amazing thing here is that Prescott wasn’t being asked to dink and dunk his way down the field. In fact, he averaged 11.8 yards per completion.
Much like the Raiders over in the AFC, Dallas’ season has already been successful. It could go one-and-done in the playoffs and the 2016 campaign would still be seen as a success. However, based on how the Cowboys finished up the season, they have to be considered NFC favorites. Not too shabby for a team that lost its Pro Bowl quarterback in the preseason and was playing without its top receiver for a quarter of the season.