To quote Bill Murray from Groundhog Day – “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last the rest of your life.”
The shelf life for contention in the NFL is about as small as any professional sports league. For teams that rely on running backs to succeed, said window is even smaller.
Though, the following six teams have more than just one or two positions to worry about in looking to continuing to remain in contention.
For the New Orleans Saints, it’s all about an inability to build even an average defense that has failed veteran quarterback Drew Brees at every turn.
In Seattle, a combination of the team’s unwillingness to invest in its offensive line and surprising struggles on defense has led to regression in a big way.
These are the six NFL franchises who have peaked and are now heading downhill
New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees may want to play into his mid 40s. That’s great in theory, but father time pretty much catches up with everyone. At 38 years old and coming off the fifth 5,000-yard passing performance of his career, Brees is still playing at a high level. That’s really not the issue here. Instead, New Orleans has failed in every way to surround him with a roster capable of contending in the NFC.
Last season saw the Saints’ pass defense finish dead last in the NFL. This came on the heels of that unit ranking 31st in 2015. Sure the selection of former Ohio State corner Marshon Lattimore in the first round of this year’s draft will help. But the expectation here is that Lattimore, who only has one year of high-level college starting experience, will struggle out of the gate. Outside of that, there’s not a whole lot to write home about as it relates to the Saints’ secondary. And in reality, that’s been the team’s biggest downfall during two consecutive seven-win campaigns.
Though, there are now more concerns on offense than we have seen in the past. New Orleans traded enigmatic wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the defending champion Patriots back in March. Cooks is coming off a two-year span that saw him put up 162 receptions for over 2,300 yards. The Saints hope Michael Thomas fills the void there. After all, the former Ohio State standout put up a ridiculous rookie season, tallying 92 receptions for 1,137 yards.
The problem here is that New Orleans downgraded at a position of strength to upgrade in an area it really didn’t need help. With the first-round selection acquired from New England, the Saints picked up offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk from Wisconsin. Considering the team already has two plus-level book-end tackles, one has to wonder why it went in that direction.
The NFC South might still be wide open. Are the Atlanta Falcons as good as their conference championship 2016 campaign suggests? Can Jameis Winston cut down on mistakes to make the Buccaneers true contenders? Was the Panthers’ struggles last season more of a mirage than anything else? These are surely some big questions in that division. Though, it’s readily apparent that the Saints are at the bottom right now. With a 38-year-old quarterback and not much else in terms of proven young talent, the Saints are headed downhill fast. It’s that simple. And no, Adrian Peterson won’t change this.
Ben Roethlisberger has decided to return for the 2017 season, but he’s far from committing to the team beyond that. This has to be a major concern for a Steelers team that’s facing a major juggernaut in the form of the defending champion Patriots in the AFC. In reality, Pittsburgh’s window at contending for a Super Bowl will close the minute Big Ben decides to hang it up.
Much like the Saints, that’s a major problem considering Pittsburgh does not have an heir-apparent on the roster. Sure selecting Josh Dobbs in April’s draft gives the team another young arm to go with Landry Jones. But it would be foolish to believe either of them can take the baton from Roethlisberger and run with it.
Outside of the all-important quarterback position, there are also major issues here. Le’Veon Bell will play under the franchise tag in 2017 and there’s no signs of a long-term agreement between the two sides. As the face of Pittsburgh’s offense right now, Bell has put up an absurd 6,050 total yards in four NFL seasons. This is a situation the team needs to get settled if it wants to remain in contention over the long term.
Another issue is on defense, where general manager Kevin Colbert has struggled finding pass rushers through the draft. Here’s a team that has now selected three EDGE rushers in the first round over the past five years. A first-round pick back in 2013, Jarvis Jones is no longer with the team. Meanwhile, 2015 first-round pick Bud Dupree has recorded a combined 8.5 sacks in two seasons.
Pittsburgh better hope that former Wisconsin standout T.J. Watt lives up to his namesake. Selected in the first round back in April, the team is going to be asking a whole lot of him.
There’s really no one prepared to run away with the AFC North this upcoming season. And in reality, the Steelers are likely the favorites once again. That’s fine and dandy. Unfortunately, this is a team that has now taken a step back in comparison to the Patriots and Raiders of the world. That’s the harsh reality of the situation right now.
There’s a good chance that both Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald will call it quits after this upcoming season. Both considered retirement heading into the offseason, but decided to give it one more go. That’s good news for Arizona.
Unfortunately, neither player performed at an extremely high level last season. Both are on the back end of their careers and can’t be asked to lead this team to the promised land.
Palmer put up 14 interceptions en route to leading his team to a 6-8-1 record in 15 starts. He headed an offense that regressed from a No. 2 ranking in 2015 to finishing outside of the top five this past season. And while Fitzgerald did put up 107 receptions, he averaged a career low 9.6 yards per catch. With speedster John Brown struggling due to injury, wide receiver has become a major concern for the Cardinals.
Arizona’s offense will run through dynamic young ball carrier David Johnson after he put up a league-high 2,118 total yards and 20 touchdowns last season. He’s among the top skill-position players in the NFL. But unless Palmer and Fitzgerald up their games from last season, it will matter little.
Outside of that, there has to be growing concerns over the team’s ability to stop the pass. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu remain two of the best defensive backs in the game. But the No. 2 corner position dogged Arizona big time last season. That was not filled in free agency or the draft.
The good news for Arizona is that the rest of the NFC West has also regressed in recent seasons (more on that later). The bad news is that the Cardinals themselves have also regressed. And without future starters at quarterback and wide receiver, this regression will likely continue moving forward.
It really doesn’t matter how good Denver’s defense is if the team doesn’t find a way to solve its problems on the other side of the ball. Even after both Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch struggled under center last season, the Broncos did very little to address the quarterback situation. This has put new head coach Vance Joseph in an unenviable position of having to hold an open competition for the starting gig during the summer. These two combined for 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while leading an offense that ranked in the bottom 11 in points scored.
Neither quarterback was aided by much help on the ground. C.J. Anderson dealt with more injuries and played in a total of seven games. Meanwhile, rookie Devontae Booker failed to do much of substance in his stead. This led to a Broncos rushing attack that ranked 27th in the NFL.
Attempting to fix these issues, Denver signed former Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles in free agency. The issue here is that Charles has played in a grand total of eight games over the past two seasons after dealing with the second torn ACL of his career. With no guaranteed money on Charles’ deal, there’s a chance he might not even earn a spot on the 53-man roster.
When we factor in Demaryius Thomas’ consistent struggles in seasons that Peyton Manning isn’t tossing him the rock, there has to be major concerns on offense for Denver heading into the 2017 season. Thomas himself is averaging just 639 yards in the three seasons that Manning has not been Denver’s full-time starter. It’s now at the point where his new head coach is calling the receiver out publicly.
We absolutely love what Denver has on defense. Von Miller remains one of the best all-around players in football. Young EDGE rusher Shane Ray looks ready to step up following the retirement of DeMarcus Ware. And the team’s secondary — led by Aqib Talib and Chris Harris — remains one of the best in the game.
But with Oakland going nowhere but up and the Chiefs coming off yet another stellar season, it looks like the Broncos are not even legitimate playoff contenders right now. Depending on how the Los Angeles Chargers perform, we could really be looking at a bottom feeder in Denver this upcoming season.
Green Bay Packers
As long as the Packers have Aaron Rodgers under center, they should be top contenders in the NFC. That’s the argument many will use when questioning why Green Bay appears on a list like this. It’s also foolish.
Sure Rodgers is one of the top-three quarterbacks of this era. The former MVP is coming off a 2016 campaign that saw him throw for 4,428 yards with a league leading 40 touchdowns to go with just seven interceptions.
Even then, that wasn’t enough for the Packers to break away in the pedestrian NFC North. In fact, it took a Week 17 win over Detroit for the Packers to capture the division title.
After wins against the Giants and Cowboys to open the postseason, Green Bay laid an absolute egg in the NFC Championship Game. It fell down 31-0 in the third quarter before ultimately losing 44-21.
All of the Packers’ issues came out on full display in that game. Their defense couldn’t stop Matt Ryan from dominating through the air. Offensively, Rodgers was sacked twice and found himself under pressure throughout the game. Wide receiver-turned- running back Ty Montgomery didn’t help on the ground with just 17 yards on three attempts.
This is the crux of the issue for Green Bay. It seems that the team is simply looking to piece together broken parts to go with a perennial MVP candidate in Rodgers.
Is Montgomery suited to be the three-down running back Green Bay is asking him to be? Can Randall Cobb rebound after a down 2016 season? On defense, how will the Packers’ inside linebacker position play out with Clay Matthews looking to move back to a pass-rushing role?
More than that, Green Bay’s talented but inexperienced secondary will be challenged big time. The team did add cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones with its first two picks in April. They now join a defensive back group that has a long way to overcome some horrendous performances last season, including in the NFC Championship Game.
There’s just too many questions for the Packers. We can’t look at them as legitimate Super Bowl contenders right now. All of these pieces have to fall in place for Aaron Rodgers to lead his squad to the promised land once again. And at 33 years old, it’s possible his individual window at contending for a championship is closing as well.
Outside of what is looking like a pretty interesting split in the locker room between Russell Wilson and the rest of the team’s roster, there’s a lot of other things to look at here.
First off, Seattle’s offensive line remains one of the worst in the NFL. Signing first-round bust Luke Joeckel to play left tackle won’t fix that. And pretty much ignoring the offensive line early in this year’s draft will likely come back to haunt general manager John Schneider.
Despite his ability to escape the pocket, Russell Wilson was pressured at a higher percentage than all but four regular starters last season. That’s a huge problem here.
Also important to note, the Seahawks were a downright disaster on the ground in Marshawn Lynch’s first (and only) season in retirement. Youngster Thomas Rawls failed to remain healthy, and there wasn’t a whole lot behind him on the depth chart. Will Eddie Lacy be able to help Pete Carroll and Co. get back to the basics on the ground after signing an incentive-laden deal? That’s a huge question heading into the season.
All the while, there seems to be this major black cloud hanging over the Seahawks. It’s not a secret that All Pro corner Richard Sherman found himself on the trade block throughout the offseason. Heck, he could still be moved. With Earl Thomas coming off major lower-body surgery, Seattle’s Legion of Boom could be doomed to pedestrian status here soon.
It was just a couple short years ago that the Seahawks’ Super Bowl window seemed to be wide open. That’s obviously no longer the case. The only saving grace here is that the rest of the NFC West appeared to be average at best.