As 12 NFL teams prepare for the playoffs, there are another eight that will finish the season in their division’s cellar. They are the absolute bottom feeders from the 2016 NFL season. They have a whole heck of a lot of work to do in order to become relevant.
Some of these last-place teams are not much more than expansion squads, meaning they need to pretty much start all over again That small list includes the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. Meanwhile, others are recent contenders that fell on hard times in 2016.
As we embark on a new year, hope reigns surpreme. Whether it’s a resolution to stop smoking cigarettes or cut out the fatty food, we all have promises we look to keep as 2017 approaches. The same rings true for each of these last-place teams.
Ciphering through the massive amount of issues each of these eight teams have, we’ve come to one resolution NFL’s last-place teams must follow in order to become relevant once again.
Cleveland Browns: Draft for immediate impact
Cleveland has long been an irrelevant football city. And while the current regime has the right idea about building for the long term, this team needs to be more competitive in the short term as well. It simply can’t go to back to a long downtrodden fan base and demand they accept another five-year plan. That’s not how the professional sports world works today. That most definitely won’t continue to work in Cleveland.
By no means are we saying that Cleveland must go out there and draft lesser prospects that are seemingly more ready to make contributions out of the gate. That would be utterly foolish. Instead, the idea here has to be to avoid quarterback with their two first-round picks and draft at positions that have historically found more early-career success. This is only magnified by what has to be considered one of the weakest draft classes at quarterback in the past decade.
Texas A&M EDGE rusher Myles Garrett seems to be a target of the Browns in the top two. Already gifted with pro-ready pass-rush skills, Garrett could potentially be a 10-plus sack guy out of the gate. Cleveland’s leading sack-getter this season is rookie Emmanuel Ogbah with six. Team him up with Garrett, and a pass defense that has allowed a 101.7 quarterback rating this season will be that much better.
By virtue of a plethora of trades over the past year-plus, Cleveland boasts a ton of picks in the first three rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft. None more valuable than the selection they acquired in the trade with Philadelphia.
This team can go quarterback and wide receiver (two positions where the learning curve is greater) later in the draft while selecting for immediate need and value early on. With a a huge talent vacuum to fill throughout the roster, this wouldn’t necessarily limit Cleveland’s options.
San Francisco 49ers: Fix the front office issues
The Christmas wish list for most 49ers fans likely included Jed York being stripped of his CEO title. He’s public enemy No. 1 in Northern California, followed closely by general manager Trent Baalke. Such is the nature of the beast when a franchise goes from championship contender to laughingstock in three short years.
While 49ers fans might not get their wish relating to York, Baalke appears to be out of a job. That could come as early as Monday. And as it relates to York himself, there is definitely some chatter that he might have some power taken away by his parents, the actual owners of the team (more on that here).
Either way, something drastic needs to change in San Francisco. And that change should not include a fourth different head coach in as many years. The picture painted here has to be the 49ers’ brass looking in the mirror and concluding that they’re the primary reasons for this historic regression. Until that changes, the product we see on the field won’t improve a great deal.
Whether it’s Mike Shanahan taking on a player personnel role or something else, change is needed. A change of perception and culture should also be the organization’s New Year’s resolution.
That’s more important than replacing a quarterback in Colin Kaepernick who has actually performed quite well this season. That’s more important than spending the cash on free agents. And in reality, that’s more important than the Yorks going Scrooge McDuck while their team remains a joke on the field.
Chicago Bears: Say goodbye to Jay Cutler
“Free Jay Cutler.” Okay, that might not be the terminology we’d use to describe what the Bears’ New Year’s resolution should be. Instead, it must be all about this organization freeing itself of the enigma (and black cloud) that is Jay Cutler.
The drama surrounding these two has been unsustainable over the past several seasons, but this has been taken to a whole new level during the 2016 season. From reports that Cutler lost his locker room to early-season suggestions that he’d be open to moving on from the Bears, it’s been a soap opera in the Windy City.
We now know Cutler is as good as gone. That’s been made clear multiple times throughout the season. Unfortunately, this was seemingly the case multiple times in the past. Back in January of 2014, the Bears responded by giving Cutler a shocking seven-year, $126.7 million contract with $54 million guaranteed.
As bad as that contract might have been, he only counts $2 million against the cap next season should the Bears release him. That has to happen. A change of scenery is needed for Cutler. And for the Bears, they simply need to move on from this failed experiment.
Considering Chicago doesn’t have a quarterback of the future on the roster, there might be some push back from within the organization. That’s only magnified by a less-than-stellar free agent quarterback class and a 2017 NFL Draft class lacking truly elite signal callers. None of that matters. Even if they have to roll Matt Barkley out there next season, the Bears can’t enter Week 1 with Cutler as their starter.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Build around talented offense
Blake Bortles was bad this season. Allen Robinson couldn’t repeat the tremendous season he had in 2015. Allen Hurns was injured too often to make an impact. The team’s running game, including free-agent signing Chris Ivory, struggled a great deal. Even with an improved defense, this forced the Jaguars into the all-too-familiar position of the AFC South’s cellar.
But realistically, what are the Jaguars’ options here? Do they exhaust another top-five pick on a quarterback? It would be the third time in seven years that Jacksonville has spent a early first-round pick on a signal caller. That’s not a sustainable model moving forward.
Instead, the team needs to bite the bullet. Its resolution this upcoming year has to be to get an offensive-minded head coach, one that will help Bortles progress at a level we simply did not see in 2016. Some of that will include actually finding a viable running game, because neither Ivory nor T.J. Yeldon are getting the job done there.
Bortles still has a strong arm. He boasts a decent offensive line and his wide receiver group is as talented as any non-playoff team in the NFL. Gus Bradley couldn’t cultivate that into success in what was the worst coaching tenure in NFL history. Bortles shouldn’t get dinged for this. And in reality, neither should a fan base that’s seen its team rebuild for the better part of the past decade. There’s talent here. It’s now time to find a coach to cultivate it while creating a culture of winning.
New York Jets: Tony Romo, at all cost
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith, Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. These are the four quarterbacks currently on the Jets’ roster. The three of them that have actually played this season enter Week 17 having thrown 14 touchdowns compared to 25 interceptions. More so than any perceived ineptitude of head coach Todd Bowles, that’s been the Jets’ biggest issue during a disastrous 2016 season.
Still a talented team on both sides of the ball, New York must find a way to get an above-average quarterback in the mix. Whether that’s overspending in a watered-down trade market or coming up with an alternative in free agency, this simply needs to happen.
We saw last season how the Jets performed with a decent quarterback performance. It might have been a fluke for Fitzpatrick, but his solid season led to a 10-win campaign.
It’s in this that the Jets should seriously consider finding a way to land Tony Romo from the Dallas Cowboys. Romo, who lost his starting job to Dak Prescott this season, has suffered through two injured plagued seasons. Though, when he’s on the field, he’s been a top-10 quarterback in the league.
In reality, Romo himself should be the Jets’ New Year’s resolution. Do they really want to kick the tires on more marginal starters, such as Jay Cutler and Colin Kaepernick? That likely wouldn’t solve the team’s issues under center. A healthy Romo surely would.
San Diego Chargers: Start anew in Los Angeles
We saw the Los Angeles Rams start strong out of the gate in their first few games after relocating from St. Louis this season. Jeff Fisher’s squad posted a 3-1 start to the season before crashing down to earth, ultimately leading to Fisher losing his job. The Chargers simply can’t repeat this model.
That starts with what has to be considered the obvious choice. The firing of head coach Mike McCoy. If the Chargers are going to start anew in Los Angeles, that has to come with a change of culture as well. McCoy and the pedestrian teams we’ve seen over the past several seasons doesn’t represent this. He’s the old guard, someone who oversaw a disastrous 2016 performance.
Heck, this might even include finding a way to let Philip Rivers walk. It sounds a bit ridiculous on the surface, but Rivers himself has in the past voiced his displeasure about the prospects of playing in Los Angeles. He, too, is a representation of the mediocrity the Chargers have seen in their recent past.
Los Angeles is the second-largest media market in the United States. It had not seen a professional football team for 20-plus years up until this season. Even then, calling the Rams a professional football team is a loose definition of the term. There’s a vacuum to be filled here.
If the Chargers blow this opportunity, it will come back to haunt the franchise big time. It’s in this that the organization cannot afford to throw out the same mediocre product we’ve been accustomed to over the past several seasons.
Carolina Panthers: Protect Cam
It looks like left tackle Michael Oher will be returning next season after missing all but three games of the 2016 season due to concussion-related issues. Oher isn’t necessarily a franchise blindside protector, but he played at an exceedingly high level for the Panthers during their conference title winning campaign back in 2015. This could most definitely be a start.
However, the Panthers needs to find themselves upgrades along the offensive line. Whether that’s getting a franchise left tackle and moving Oher to the right side or something else remains to be seen. One thing is clear: Mike Remmers doesn’t belong anywhere near the football field as someone tasked with protecting Newton from the edge. That’s akin to throwing the reigning MVP out here in a Duck Hunt game as a clay pigeon.
In order for the Panthers to improve in this one aspect of the game, it will either cost a high draft pick or a ton of cash. That’s one area general manager Dave Gettleman and Co. have failed Newton. Simply put, they have in the past refused to exhaust a huge capital on the offensive line. This has to change in 2017.
That could come in the form of adding a Riley Reiff or Andrew Whitworth in free agency. It could also come via the draft, where Auburn’s Cam Robinson might be available. Either way, this needs to be addressed.
Philadelphia Eagles: Find Wentz some weapons
Second-year receiver Nelson Agholor has proven to be a downright bust, ultimately finding himself as a healthy inactive multiple times this season. Jordan Matthews failed to take that next step to No. 1 receiver status, and is likely nothing better than a No. 2 option on a good offense. Meanwhile, the Josh Huff experience backfired big time when the now former Eagles found himself in trouble off the field. Needless to say, the 2016 season has been a complete dumpster fire for the Eagles at wide receiver.
The good news here is that Philadelphia surely has options. DeSean Jackson, currently of the division-rival Washington Redskins, reportedly wants to return to Philly. That would give Wentz and his strong arm the down-field presence he’s been lacking.
There’s also a few solid options on the free-agent market. Big-bodied receivers such as Alshon Jeffery and Kenny Britt will likely find themselves available come March. Both would add that consistent third-down threat Wentz has been missing during his rookie season.
Without a first-round pick to speak off, the Eagles may actually be forced to double down on the free-agent market. Short of them doing that, the struggles we saw from Wentz in the final three quarters of the 2016 campaign will likely repeat next year.