There’s always next year. It’s a sad mantra, yet unfortunately relevant for the losers of this past weekend’s wild-card games.
Three of those four teams (Bills, Panthers and Rams) made the playoffs after not making it in 2016 (and 2015, 2014 … 2001, 2000 in the Bills’ case). All four, though, need to make crucial upgrades if they want to go further next season. Let’s rank each on their prospects of doing just that.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
The lack of depth on defense really shone through this season. Outside of impact players such as Chris Jones, Justin Houston and Marcus Peters, there were a lot of subpar grades for their starters. Even former all-pro safety Eric Berry is no lock to return to his previous form. He’ll turn 30 next year and is rehabbing a torn Achilles. Tamba Hali (34 years old) and Derrick Johnson (35) are squarely in the twilight of their careers.
The question now becomes, how do they restock? They’ve struck out mightily outside of their top picks in the draft, and their cap situation is one of the worst in the league. As it stands, they’re currently over the projected cap in 2018. Even after some cap-shedding maneuvers, it’s impossible to think free agency is a realistic option for them. It also means that even after a career-high 87.2 grade from Alex Smith, he and his $20.6 million cap hit next season could be out the door. With the uncertainty at QB and a declining defense, the Chiefs are a regression candidate in 2018.
3. Buffalo Bills
They weren’t supposed to make the playoffs this season. After cleaning house, stocking up on picks and clearing cap space, the franchise is perfectly set up to be molded in Sean McDermott’s image. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be back immediately next season. They still have no long-term solution at quarterback and few playmakers on the outside to boot.
At the same time, this defense is set up to be a playoff contender for the foreseeable future. All four starters in the secondary (Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde, E.J. Gaines and Tre’Davious White) earned top-15 grades at their respective positions, a feat no other team could match this season. That wins games in today’s NFL. The Bills also have two first-rounders (Nos. 21 and 22), two second-rounders, and two third-rounders in the upcoming draft.
They’ll acquire talent, but will they be able to do so at quarterback? It’s currently the elephant in the room, but you don’t bench Tyrod Taylor for a fifth-round rookie if Taylor’s part of the franchise’s plans. Luckily for them, it’s one of the few years in which multiple starters could be available via free agency and trade. Alex Smith, Kirk Cousins, Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater all could be had for a price this offseason. If they get one of them, the Bills are back in the hunt next season.
2. Carolina Panthers
I imagine the Panthers’ offseason plan is just two words written in bold across an entire whiteboard: wide receivers. Anyone who watched them lose to the Saints on Sunday would agree. Whether it was Kaelin Clay dropping an easy touchdown pass or Brenton Bersin falling on his face with open field in front of him on a crossing route, the receivers ruined an amazing performance from Cam Newton.
As far as the defense is concerned, cornerback and edge rusher could still stand to be addressed. Julius Peppers is no sure thing to come back as he turns 38 and cornerbacks James Bradberry (42.4 grade) and Daryl Worley (58.9) both quietly regressed in Year 2 instead of taking a jump to the next level. That being said, the best linebacking corps in the NFL does a great job of masking some holes in the secondary, and Newton is enough on his own to field a competent offense.
1. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams simultaneously have the most potential roster turnover and the most reasons to be excited. Impact players such as Trumaine Johnson, Sammy Watkins and Lamarcus Joyner are all set to hit free agency, but L.A. has room to re-sign them with the 11th-most cap space heading into 2018 (a projected $50 million). They also now have a franchise quarterback in Jared Goff, the likely offensive player of the year in Todd Gurley, and the league’s most impactful defensive player in Aaron Donald. That core is set up for long-term success, and they’re in a flexible enough cap situation to only add to it.
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