As the Falcons proved in 2016 and the subsequent playoffs, a few good roster moves (adding free agent center Alex Mack and wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel) plus some some solid rookie play (linebacker Deion Jones, safety Keanu Neal) can help elevate an also-ran to a Super Bowl squad.
The Falcons had a strong core entering the season. Some of the teams below do not, but if they play their cards right, they can steer their franchises in the right direction, whether that’s breaking .500, joining playoff contention or making a Super Bowl run. As the Combine, free agency and then the draft come at us in rapid order, these are the teams facing the most important offseasons.
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The Browns’ first season under the new Sashi Brown/Paul DePodesta/Hue Jackson GM-chief strategy officer-head coach triumvirate was a disaster but not a complete one as the team struggled to 1-15 but at least played competitively throughout. A lot of young players gained experience and the team locked up talented linebacking import Jamie Collins from the Patriots. But there are many, many holes to fill as Cleveland, as always, needs a quarterback.
Fortunately, the Browns possess the No. 1 and No. 12 overall draft picks after their trade with Philadelphia last season and also picked up an extra third- and fifth-rounder. The Browns might make a run at Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo, although he won’t come cheap. Or they could try drafting the QB of the future. Cleveland has a league-leading amount of cap space ($106 million) to bring in the right free agents, such cornerback A.J. Bouye from Houston, and to retain its own playmaking receiver Terrelle Pryor. Browns fans have waited long enough for a winner.
Tennessee was the other major benefactor in last season’s race to the top of the draft to grab a franchise QB. The Titans have the No. 5 (via Rams) and No. 18 overall picks (their own), plus an extra third-rounder from L.A. Tennessee has a number of holes to fill, namely in the secondary and at wide receiver. It might make a run at top free-agent wideout Alshon Jeffery with all its cap space ($62 million, fourth most in league).
After a nice 9-7 season (that followed a 2-14 campaign in 2015), the Titans found an identity as a bruising rush-first team led by DeMarco Murray, behind a solid offensive line. Tennessee still has quarterback Marcus Mariota under a team-friendly contract (through 2018) and with a few more key pieces it's poised to take the AFC South crown.
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San Francisco 49ers
Niners owner Jed York hit the reset button again, this time sweeping out GM Trent Baalke and head coach Chip Kelly after Kelly spent just one season the job. Enter first-time GM and nine-time Pro Bowl safety John Lynch, who has zero front office experience, and head coach Kyle Shanahan via Atlanta off a devastating loss in the Super Bowl for which he’s been scapegoated.
The Niners have a ton of cap space ($78.5 million) but very little talent on the roster as a starting point. Once again it’s unclear whether Colin Kaepernick, who has an opt-out clause that he can exercise in March, will return to the team. Will the Niners look to draft a QB at No. 2 overall, perhaps North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky? Do they try to trade for Kirk Cousins? Given the franchise’s penchant for dysfunction, can it lure top free agents like linebacker Melvin Ingram from the Chargers? The Niners won’t be very good in 2017 no matter what unfolds this offseason, but we should get an indication of how soon they might be able to rise again.
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Owner Shad Khan said he felt it was reasonable to expect that the team could go .500 or better last season. That was reasonable, but despite a free-agent spending spree it didn’t come close to happening as the offense badly regressed. That led to head coach Gus Bradley’s (awkward) firing, Doug Marrone’s promotion and the re-introduction of former coach Tom Coughlin as the executive VP of football operations.
The Jaguars have a solid defense in place but have issues on the other side of the ball. Obviously, quarterback Blake Bortles is the major question -- can he get his mechanics and mind right this offseason?
The Jaguars must also address its poor offensive line. They could/should try to bring in Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler or tackle Andrew Whitworth, perhaps Cowboys guard Ron Leary. Bortles may not be the long-term answer heading into his fourth season, but without a bolstered offensive line they probably won’t know for sure.
This is now the do-or-die Year 3 for GM Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox. For starters, at times promising but mostly vexing QB Jay Cutler will probably get released, creating some cap space. Will the Bears use it to keep free-agent wideout Alshon Jeffery? And who will be throwing him the ball? Chicago may enter the Jimmy Garappolo sweepstakes, try for Tony Romo, draft a QB and/or give Matt Barkley a shot to win the starting job.
Things looked promising at times on defense for Chicago last season despite a 3-13 record. First-rounder Leonard Floyd began to find his way and could become a force at linebacker, but Chicago needs help in the secondary. It will probably use the No. 3 overall pick for the best defensive player available unless it sees its QB of the future sitting there.
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Los Angeles Chargers
Aside from trying to make a good impression in a new city that wasn’t pining for another NFL team, this offseason is crucial because Philip Rivers’ window is closing and may only remain open for 2-3 more years. The offensive line didn’t do much to keep the immobile Rivers upright this past season as the line endured a number of injuries. Both tackle positions could use attention, which is sub-optimal considering the team spent a lot on RT Joe Barksdale.
The Chargers do have a talent-rich roster, though, at the skill positions and on defense -- where last year’s No. 3 overall pick Joey Bosa emerged as the Defensive Rookie of the Year once the front office resolved that silly contractual squabble. The AFC West is absolutely stacked, but if the Chargers get some tackle help and better coaching from new HC Anthony Lynn they could make a run at the division title.
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New York Jets
Which way are the Jets going? Last year they tried to take an aged roster and stay the course after a surprising 10-6 season in 2015. This offseason, GM manager Mike Maccagnan, entering his third season, will need to decide if they want to rebuild or try to make a run with little cap space to work with.
The Jets will almost certainly cut ties with embattled cornerback Darrelle Revis and reap the cap savings benefits. But the cornerback position is in rough shape and must be addressed.
The Jets are also in bad shape at quarterback. Do they cross their fingers and hope Bryce Petty is the QB of the future? Because it’s not Christian Hackenberg, and the Ryan Fitzpatrick experiment is over. Will they draft another? Head coach Todd Bowles also fired several of his assistants, and it remains to be seen how the new staff will congeal this offseason and motivate a team that failed to show up for several games.
Like the Chargers with Rivers, the Steelers are approaching the end of a long, successful era as Ben Roethlisberger recently floated the idea of imminent retirement. He’ll be back, but Pittsburgh has to press the right buttons this offseason to get back to the Super Bowl.
The first and second order of business should be signing Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown to long-term agreements (and mending fences with the latter).
The Steelers got some very solid play from young defenders, including CB Artie Burns (2016 first-rounder) and safety Sean Davis and saw OLB Bud Dupree come on strong late in the year. But they could still use help at linebacker (perhaps Melvin Ingram?) and a solid pass rusher. One of these days James Harrison is going to retire, but regardless, they need to generate more pressure.