Some organizations are perennial doormats but the great thing about the NFL is parity and a franchise’s ability to make major rebounds from year to year. For many teams that endured miserable 2016 campaigns and others that simply failed to meet expectations, there’s a lot of reasons to be hopeful for this coming season. We take a look at those squads and how things shake up heading toward the start of free agency.
2016 season: Coming off a brutal defeat in Super Bowl 50 and facing a difficult schedule, conventional wisdom rightly predicted the Panthers to suffer a hangover season as they did, stumbling to a 1-5 start en route to a 6-10 finish. A spate of injuries on the offensive line left the unit playing musical chairs and now left tackle Michael Oher’s career is in jeopardy as he works to recover from a lingering head injury.
2017 season: The Panthers clearly felt the absence of Josh Norman as the secondary took a step backwards and several rookies absorbed some lumps after stepping into major roles. The good news is, those rookies including conerbacks Daryl Worley and James Bradberry got good experience and improved throughout the season. With some pass rush help and the combo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis (pictured) in the middle, this defense could become a top-tier unit next season. The offensive line just needs to keep Cam Newton upright.
2016 season: The Bears failed to win a single road game and felt better than a 3-13 squad, alas you are what your record says you are, to quote Bill Parcells. It didn’t help that Chicago had to cycle through three quarterbacks in Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley, but at least they saw the emergence of rookie running back Jordan Howard, who finished second in the league in rushing yards (1,313) on only 252 carries (5.2 average).
2017 season: First things first, quarterback. The Bears will probably release Jay Cutler and free up $14 million in cap space and they might join the Jimmy Garappolo sweepstakes or perhaps go with a veteran and allow Barkley to compete for the job. Whoever is under center should be lined up behind a healthier offensive line. Vic Fangio’s defense showed improvement down the stretch with linebacker Leonard Floyd (pictured) looking like a menace. The Bears will get top cornerback Kyle Fuller back to compete alongside several other playmakers (Danny Trevathan, Eddie Goldman) who missed time.
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2016 season: What a relief the Browns notched that single, morale-saving win. 2016 was clearly a rebuilding season with a lot of young players getting some experience as the infusion of talent continues with extra draft picks upcoming.
2017 season: As always, the question remains, who’s the quarterback of the future? Cody Kessler? The Browns may use the latter of its first-round draft picks to address that (perhaps Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer) and the first of its picks to nab the best player on the board, who might be Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett. Linebacker Jamie Collins is back and hopefully free agent WR Terrelle Pryor will be back too as Cleveland, which has far and away the most cap space in the NFL ($106 million), can’t be much worse this season. That’s the upside of 1-15.
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2016 season: The Titans exceeded expectations, rising from 2-14 to 9-7 and very nearly a division crown in the relatively unimposing AFC South. While most of the league is airing it out the Titans pounded the rock with DeMarco Murray, who proved a really nice fit behind the Titans’ young and improved offensive line.
2017 season: The Titans will benefit from the draft picks haul in the Jared Goff trade, netting the No. 5 overall pick from Los Angeles plus the 69th overall pick (3rd round). Between the extra picks and a ton of cap space ($62 million), Tennessee can target help for its leaky secondary and will probably look to add a weapon at wide receiver. Still just 23 years old, Marcus Mariota should be fully recovered from his broken leg and poised to help the Titans capture the South in his third season.
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2016 season: The 9-7 Bucs’ late season charge was fueled by a flurry of defensive takeaways and Jameis Winston’s continued ascent up the quarterback ranks.
2017 season: Tampa Bay has the fourth-most cap space in the league ($62 million) and will probably make a run at top free agent safeties like Arizona’s Tony Jefferson to help out a suspect secondary. Fortunately for TB, defensive coordinator Mike Smith is sticking around too. If they add another playmaking receiver (maybe in the first round) to that lethal Winston-Mike Evans connection on offense, there’s a good chance the Bucs take another step forward and crack that 10-win barrier and make the playoffs.
2016 season: As head coach Bruce Arians put it, the Cardinals were only a few successful kicks away from a much different and better season. Alas, they missed as Arizona disappointed with a 7-8-1 campaign. The 37-year-old Carson Palmer took a beating and is well into his twilight as an injured offensive line and his lack of mobility resulted in 40 sacks.
2017 season: Larry Fitzgerald will be back for one more season as David Johnson (tied a record for 15 consecutive games with 100-plus rushing and receiving yards) and a healthy John Brown should give Carson Palmer plenty of offensive options again. Defensive playmaking safety Tyrann Mathieu (pictured) will be one season removed from his knee injury as Arizona figures out which free agent defenders it can retain between LB Chandler Jones, S Tony Jefferson and DE Calais Campbell. However that plays out, there’s definitely a core of talent that should see the Cardinals threaten Seattle for the NFC West after a letdown season.
Los Angeles Chargers
2016 season: The 5-11 Chargers led the league in injuries and “man games lost” and also mind-numbing fourth-quarter meltdowns, the latter of which contributed to head coach Mike McCoy losing his job. Enter former Bills running backs and interim head coach Anthony Lynn.
2017 season: This team is not short on talent on either side of the ball as Joey Bosa (pictured), once he got on the field, established himself as one of the league’s most furious pass rushers and the team found that it had a pretty solid young linebacker in 2016 fifth-round pick Jatavis Brown. But the Chargers have to address their struggling and aging offensive line otherwise Philip Rivers will be sidelined for their (awkward) introduction to Los Angeles.
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2016 season: A near-total, abject disaster as QB Blake Bortles and WR Allen Robinson badly regressed and the 3-13 Jaguars showed no ability to run the ball or score at all in the first quarter.
2017 season: After head coach Gus Bradley was swept up in a housecleaning, Doug Marrone ascends to head coach and the tireless Tom Coughlin is back in Florida and back to work as Executive Vice President of Football Operations. This defense possesses a ton of talent as top 2016 pick at cornerback, Jalen Ramsey, looks like a star in the making and he’s surrounded by solid players in DT Malik Jackson and LB Telvin Smith. The Jaguars just need more of a pass rush and, of course, some progress from Bortles and the offense.
2016 season: The 7-9 Eagles mortgaged their future by packaging picks for quarterback Carson Wentz but at least found a way back into the first round by trading Sam Bradford to the QB-desperate Minnesota Vikings. Philly started hot and Wentz looked at times like a future star and at times like, well, a rookie.
2017 season: Wentz also had one of the league’s worst receiving corps which, along with head coach Doug Pederson’s cautious approach, meant a lot of dinking-and-dunking last year. The Eagles have a lot invested in a defense that ranked No. 4 in DVOA last year and very little cap space (they could trade Mychal Kendricks to help this problem). Nevertheless, a free agent wide receiver or two (maybe a DeSean Jackson reunion) and another cornerback should allow the Eagles to compete in the loaded NFC East.
San Francisco 49ers
2016 season: A total and complete disaster. Dysfunction in the front office. Another one-and-done head coach in Chip Kelly. More frustration from the fans as owner Jed York, who correctly pointed out that owners don’t get fired, guided this team into disarray once again.
2017 season: The Niners have holes to fill everywhere, particularly at linebacker and defensive line after getting absolutely shredded by opposing running games last season. Coming off a devastating Super Bowl LI loss, new head coach Kyle Shanahan should bring some creativity and energy to an offense that likewise needs an infusion of talent. At least San Francisco can afford to be active in free agency with the second-most cap space at $78 million.
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