As NFL playoff races heat up, so does the chase for draft’s top pick
It’s still difficult to identify which teams are truly legitimate contenders for Super Bowl XLIX through Week 9 of the NFL season.
But the dregs? That’s easy.
Oakland (0-8), Jacksonville (1-8), the New York Jets (1-8) and Tampa Bay (1-7) have combined for just three victories so far. The NFL hasn’t had that low level of three-win futility among a quad of squads since 1997.
Toss in Tennessee (2-6) and Atlanta (2-6) and we have six teams in strong contention for the top overall pick in the 2015 draft. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is generally projected for that spot should he turn pro following his junior season.
Here is how I handicap the NFL’s other race for No. 1 based upon remaining schedule and the current state of those six aforementioned clubs. Note: Draft order between teams that finish tied for the NFL’s worst record will be determined by strength of schedule. The club that faced opponents with the lowest combined winning percentage will get the higher pick.
1. Oakland (0-8)
Winning percentage of remaining opponents: .600 (39-26). The Raiders still have to play Denver (6-2) twice and have only one game remaining against a team that is currently below .500. That comes in Week 13 at St. Louis (3-5).
What has gone wrong? An 0-4 start resulted in head coach Dennis Allen’s firing, but the problems run much deeper. The skill-position talent is horrendous and the defense has generated the league’s second-lowest sack total (eight). What is shaping up as one of the worst rushing attacks in modern NFL history (65.5-yard per-game average) has failed to give Derek Carr even nominal help as the rookie quarterback experiences his own NFL growing pains.
Has anything gone right? Embattled general manager Reggie McKenzie did have an excellent 2014 draft with picks like Carr, outside linebacker Khalil Mack, guard Gabe Jackson and defensive tackle Justin "Jelly" Ellis already making an impact.
Biggest offseason need: Provided the Raiders are sold on Carr as their franchise quarterback, the next step is giving him a better supporting cast. Oakland would have an easier time doing that by parlaying the No. 1 overall pick into acquiring more selections via trade with a quarterback-needy team that has Mariota in its sights.
2. New York Jets (1-8)
Winning percentage of remaining opponents: .576 (34-25). The Jets have four division games remaining and play three of their final four contests on the road. The lone home game in that stretch comes in Week 16 against New England (7-2).
What has gone wrong: Jets head coach Rex Ryan made the mistake of banking on quarterback Geno Smith to develop into a credible starter during his second NFL season. Smith was benched after throwing 10 interceptions in eight starts. Michael Vick hasn’t fared much better when replacing Smith. The secondary also is a mess because of injuries and general manager John Idzik’s decision not to upgrade that area in free agency during the offseason.
Has anything gone right? Idzik’s in-season trade with Seattle for wide receiver Percy Harvin gives New York a playmaker on offense and in the return game it was sorely lacking.
Biggest offseason need: It’s obviously a quarterback. The bigger question is who will be making that decision with Idzik on thin ice and Ryan considered a goner.
3. Jacksonville (1-8)
Winning percentage of remaining opponents: .500 (30-30). The schedule’s difficulty lessens following the next two games against Dallas (6-2) in London and at Indianapolis (7-3).
What has gone wrong? There was a reason Jaguars brass proclaimed it wanted to sit rookie quarterback Blake Bortles as long as possible until changing course in Week 4 and benching the ineffective Chad Henne. Bortles has all the physical tools needed to become a franchise passer, but his decision-making and ability to read defenses right now is subpar. Jacksonville’s defense isn’t any great shakes either.
Has anything gone right? Denard Robinson has made the successful transition from college quarterback to NFL running back. He has averaged 109.7 yards in Jacksonville’s past three games.
Biggest offseason need: The Jaguars need a young pass rusher to pair with Andre Branch and a cornerback after failing to address the latter position in the first two rounds of the draft since 2003.
4. Atlanta (2-6)
Winning percentage of remaining opponents: .533 (39-34-2). The Falcons face a brutal six-game stretch between Weeks 12 through 16 that features non-divisional games against Cleveland, Arizona, Green Bay and Pittsburgh along with an NFC South trip to New Orleans.
What has gone wrong? Problems rushing the passer continue for a second straight season with the Falcons having registered a league-low seven sacks. A rash of offensive line injuries has heavily contributed to Atlanta’s offensive inconsistency.
Has anything gone right? Taking a 56-0 lead against Tampa Bay in Week 4 was the highlight for a team that has won only six of 24 games since the start of the 2013 campaign.
Biggest offseason need: It’s clearly a pass-rusher but the Falcons need other defensive help at linebacker and safety.
5. Tennessee (2-6)
Winning percentage of remaining opponents: .457 (32-38). The Titans catch a break in December with back-to-back matchups against the Jets and Jaguars.
What has gone wrong? New head coach Ken Whisenhunt couldn’t salvage the career of oft-injured quarterback Jake Locker. Journeyman backup Charlie Whitehurst wasn’t the answer either. This has pushed the Titans into playing rookie Zach Mettenberger to evaluate his long-term potential.
Has anything gone right? Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey has lived up to the four-year, $36 million contract extension he signed just before the start of the season. Tennessee’s linebackers and secondary haven’t fared nearly as well.
Biggest offseason need: TBA. Mettenberger has eight more games to prove himself after a lousy starting debut in a Week Eight home loss to Houston. If the Titans are set at quarterback, finding a pass-rusher tops the wish lost.
6. Tampa Bay (1-7)
Winning percentage of remaining opponents: .484 (31-33-2). The Bucs play their next three contests against teams with losing records (Atlanta, Washington and Chicago) and are unlikely to have a cold-weather game in December.
What has gone wrong? The Bucs usually dig themselves a hole they can’t get out of, getting outscored 75-17 in the first quarter and leading only one game this season entering halftime. An offense that lost coordinator Jeff Tedford to illness has sputtered under quarterbacks Mike Glennon and Josh McCown. The defense is even worse with players failing to grasp the "Tampa-2" system installed by head coach Lovie Smith and coordinator Leslie Frazier.
Has anything gone right? Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is playing like the second coming of Warren Sapp and rookie wide receiver Mike Evans is a superstar-in-the-making.
Biggest offseason need: Quarterback. There are mitigating factors like Tedford’s absence following heart surgery, but Glennon hasn’t shown nearly enough to prove he is the answer under center. The Bucs need plenty of other defensive pieces as well, especially in the secondary.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW: While playing for Seattle (Richard Sherman) and now New England (Darrelle Revis), Brandon Browner is accustomed to the spotlight falling upon another cornerback in his team’s secondary. Browner, though, deserves praise for his efforts in last Sunday’s 43-21 victory over Denver. Browner was the key to a myriad of different defensive looks that helped New England keep Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in check. At 6-foot-4, Browner was big enough to help limit Denver tight end Julius Thomas to just one target during the first three quarters and two catches overall. Browner also was nimble enough to assist in the coverage of faster Broncos wide receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. The more matchup options Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have in their secondary, the bigger the headaches New England can give to even the NFL’s best quarterbacks.
NUMBERS TO NOTE: No quarterback had ever passed for six touchdowns in consecutive games until Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger hit that mark the past two weeks against Indianapolis and Baltimore. But the Steelers’ success the rest of the season will fall upon Roethlisberger extending a more important active streak — that of good health. Roethlisberger has now started 29 consecutive games dating back to Week 14 of the 2012 campaign. Roethlisberger needs three more starts to break his career-high of 31 set between 2009 and 2011 (that figure excludes his four-game NFL suspension in 2010 for violating the league’s personal conduct policy).
Besides luck, three things have contributed to Roethlisberger avoiding the types of debilitating hits that once sidelined him: 1) Improved offensive line play under first-year position coach Mike Munchak; 2) A Todd Haley-coached offensive system that features quicker-developing route options than in the past; 3) Roethlisberger himself understanding that at age 32 it doesn’t behoove him to take a beating trying to extend plays like in his younger years.
THURSDAY NIGHT PICK: Cincinnati 28, Cleveland 16.
Despite some sloppy quarterbacking by Andy Dalton (again), the Bengals avoided a trap-game loss to Jacksonville last Sunday in extending their unbeaten home streak to 14 games. Cleveland (5-3) has made significant progress in Mike Pettine’s first season as head coach but the Browns also have only one victory against a team with a winning record. The second win won’t be coming on the road against a superior Bengals squad.