For a much more hopeful projection of the teams that are locks to make the playoffs, check out my colleague Cameron DaSilva’s story here. It covers established teams with proven quarterbacks who can carry an offense. They’ve got leaders and playmakers on both sides of the football.
On the other hand, the arrow is not pointing down for all of the teams that appear below. But they’re all in challenging rebuild situations, face rough schedules, and for a variety of other seasons, won’t be playing January football this year.
Getty ImagesDarren McCollester
The selection of the Bears here is the most likely to end up on @FreezingColdTakes. But Chicago just has too many weaknesses as it continues to rebuild under general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox. The defense was devastatingly bad against the run last season (ranked dead last per Football Outsiders) and not much better against the pass. The Bears spent three draft picks to retool their secondary and acquired inside linebackers Danny Trevathan from Denver and Jerrell Freeman from Indianapolis to shore up the middle, so the defense should become less porous. But with Matt Forte gone, the rushing attack has a very inexperienced, unproven backfield.
The main impediment is the Bears’ division. Green Bay is the heavy favorite to claim the NFC North again, the Vikings will be competitive despite the loss of Teddy Bridgewater and the Detroit Lions have what looks like a .500 squad or better. The NFC West will produce one Wild Card team (Seahawks or Cardinals), leaving just one spot for the Bears to claim. Not this season.
Getty ImagesStacy Revere
They’re improving, no doubt, but head coach Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” Titans offense is not going to solve the league this year. The AFC South is one of the most winnable divisions in football, but the Texans might have fixed their quarterback problem, the Colts have a healthy Andrew Luck and decided to build him an offensive line, and the Jaguars are ascending from the depths of misery. Tennessee also got a tough draw with four games against the AFC West and NFC North squads.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has his work cut out for him with one of the league’s worst defenses(30th per Football Outsiders’ DVOA) that didn’t improve much in the offseason. Preseason is preseason, but in its first three contents, the first-team defense got burned for opening possession touchdowns by the Chargers (44 yard touchdown pass to Melvin Gordon, Panthers (61 yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn) and Raiders (7 yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Washington).
Getty ImagesFrederick Breedon
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams will start Case Keenum and eventually rookie quarterback Jared Goff in a brutal division against the third most difficult strength of schedule behind an underwhelming offensive line. Todd Gurley can’t do everything. The perpetually 7-9 Jeff Fisher will be lucky to pick up another seven wins in the team's first season back in Los Angeles.
The defensive line is dominant with DT Aaron Donald and DE Robert Quinn, but the secondary lost two of its top two starters in the offseason with the departures of free safety Rodney McLeod and longball-prone playmaking cornerback Janoris Jenkins. The Rams will be competitive most weeks but simply don’t have enough horses to contend for the NFC West crown right now.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY SportsKelvin Kuo
The good news is that Cleveland amassed 14 draft picks and delivered an influx of youth into the organization. The bad news is that a very shaky pass defense lost its best defender, Pro Bowl free safety Tashaun Gipson, to the Jaguars after a season in which it allowed opposing passers a 101.8 rating (29th in league) and 8.2 yards per attempt (31st in league). Can new coach Hue Jackson successfully rebuild Robert Griffin III? It’s a tall task and looked like it might be impossible after RG3 absorbed five sacks in one half against the Bucs this preseason -- a combination of wobbly protection and holding the ball too long. With the Steelers and Bengals, the NFC North has two major contenders for the AFC title. At least the Browns no longer have to worry about Johnny Manziel’s whereabouts.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers
The story of the entire preseason has not been about the quality of the 49ers’ play, rather, it has been quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s controversial decision to sit (and kneel) during the National Anthem in a continued protest of social inequality and police brutality against minorities. He may have earned his roster spot with a solid performance against the Chargers on Thursday night, but Blaine Gabbert will start and that’s not a good thing.
Chip Kelly has to turn around a team that struggled everywhere last season, has a shaky offensive line outside of left tackle Joe Staley, has no real receiving threat outside of Torrey Smith, and faces the league’s toughest strength of schedule. Kelly also has to get his players to buy in to his high-tempo offense that heavily taxes both offensive and defensive players. Eagles players, many of whom detested Kelly per an NJ.com report, were not sad to see him go.