Which of these recently vanquished teams is in the best shape heading into next year?
This weekend of football has already come under fire for being underwhelming from an entertainment standpoint. After last year’s surprisingly good first weekend where every road team came out on top, it comes as no shock that this year was the exact opposite. No game finished within 10 points, as Houston’s 13 point victory over Oakland was the closest final of the weekend.
With the array of beatdowns that came over the weekend, it might be assumed that all of the Wild Card losers are far from contention, or even a return to the postseason. Despite the lopsided contests, some of the vanquished sides might be farther along towards contention then they showed, but that cannot be said for all of them. How much does each team have to improve, and which of the teams are closer to advancing to the Divisional round?
4. Detroit Lions
The Lions were one win away from hosting the Wild Card round game, but three straight late season losses to playoff teams to end the season reduced Detroit to hoping that New York could knock off Washington. When Big Blue made good, the Lions found themselves falling backwards into the postseason for the second time in three years. A fourth straight loss to a playoff team showed that the Lions aren’t ready to challenge the league’s finest teams, even if good fortune placed them there.
Offensively, this team could hold their own, but not enough to stand out among the best in the league.
Matthew Stafford is a very good QB who has thrown for numerous 4,000 yard seasons and is one of five QBs, along with Hall of Fame level players Drew Brees, Dan Marino, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning, to throw for 5,000 yards in a season. But he has yet to prove capable of leading a team deep into the playoffs, despite having a really solid late-game track record during the regular season. Much of that might not be Stafford’s fault, as he rarely has the benefit of a solid running game, and certainly did not this year.
Jim Bob Cooter, for all of his offensive genius, could only muster the third lowest rushing total during the regular season. They were sixth worst in rushing yards per attempt, which isn’t much help for Stafford and the receivers. Those figures might seem poor (and they are), but considering the Lions’ o-line play was rated as the second worst run blocking in the NFL, it seems that Detroit was operating close to their ceiling in regards to their rushing game. Detroit has important decisions to make about G Larry Warford, whose contract is up, and Travis Swanson, who had significant concussion issues. At least first round OT Taylor Decker proved to be a keeper.
There is no doubt that the rushing game can make some improvements with a more cohesive and talented offensive line, but there is also a need for a quality ball carrier. Not a single Lion had 100 carries this year, and top backs Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah are more suited to change of pace and third down roles than being a workhorse. With a lot of talented players set to come into the league through the draft this year, Detroit might want to invest.
The wide receiver position is one of strength as the Lions have a really nice one-two punch in Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, two free-agent signings that have paid off big time. With Eric Ebron emerging as the type of receiving threat at TE that they had hoped when selecting him in the first round, Matthew Stafford has enough weapons to throw to to get the job done.
This side of the ball has been the true Achilles heel of this franchise since they let Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and Cliff Avril leave via free agency. That is a startling amount of talent to lose and still expect the team to be fine going forward. Needless to say, the Lions were dead last in the NFL in DVOA defense in 2016.
The run defense has been a problem since the aforementioned exodus. This year was no different as the Lions surrendered 4.4 yards per carry, the second most of any NFC playoff team. Missing DeAndre Levy for stretches of the season surely hurt the run defense, but Haloti Ngata didn’t play up to the level they expected when they made the move to acquire him from Baltimore. LB Tahir Whitehead certainly came into his own this year, but Detroit might need two or three new defensive linemen to see the proper improvements.
The passing defense was unprecedentedly poor, setting an NFL record for worst completion percentage allowed with 72.7%. That was more than 5% worse than Dallas for the next lowest mark, and was the main contributing factor in the Lions being the last ranked DVOA pass defense.
Secondary play was rough all year as Darius Slay and Glover Quin tried to prop up a group that could not stay in front of receivers. Slay is a keeper, and Quin is a solid vet though even he is heading towards the twilight of his career. The pass rush didn’t help much and might be nearly as culpable as the coverage. The Lions were second worst in the league in sacks with only 26 all year. Ezekiel Ansah is a quality pass rusher, but he needs significant help if Detroit is to improve on this year’s returns.
Simply put, while the Lions have some players who can help turn this unit around, they need to improve the talent level on the defensive side of the ball. If they can get some players who can rival Suh, Fairley and Avril, as they had a short few years ago, they will be back in position to take another step.
Making the playoffs was a nice end to a season that not many people had high hopes for in the Motor City. The rumblings that Jim Caldwell’s job might be at risk have been rightfully put to rest, though another year without much improvement might put him on the hot seat. The Lions need to make upgrades to the run game and defense so the league can finally determine if Stafford is capable of taking them to their first Super Bowl. As currently constructed, Stafford would have had to be a miracle worker to take that crew to Houston.
3. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins were an afterthought in the AFC East at the start of the season. New England was the talk of the league, Buffalo was a trendy pick to break their long-standing playoff drought in Rex Ryan’s second year, and the Jets had narrowly missed the postseason the year before.
When Miami started 1-4 with their only win coming from lowly Cleveland, it seemed the prognosticators had been right in their skepticism of the Fins. Just when it looked like Miami was headed for a top 10 pick in the upcoming draft, they ripped off a monster six game winning streak, started by a huge upset victory over the same Pittsburgh team that thrashed them over the weekend. How did that happen and what to make of this Jekyll and Hyde team?
Much of the mid-season transformation that Miami underwent had to do with a change of identity on offense and almost all of that can be attributed to RB Jay Ajayi. Rookie head coach Adam Gase made his first rookie mistake in the very first week of the season when he not only gave the starting RB job to the nearly finished (he would hang up the cleats a few weeks later) Arian Foster, but also kept Ajayi at home during their Week 1 contest in Seattle.
During the first five weeks of the season, no Miami player had more than 42 rushing yards in a single contest and in one of those weeks, Ryan Tannehill was their leading rusher. Somewhere along the way, Gase made the schematic switch to a power run game, loading Ajayi up with 25 carries which he turned into over 200 yards. A star was born, and with him came an identity for a team which seemed to be looking for one since Dan Marino left. From Week 6 on, Ajayi would lead the league in rushing, finishing with 1,273 yards in total and ranking seventh in DYAR.
While the season was reborn after the coronation of Ajayi as the workhorse back, the Dolphins managed to win with passable QB play from Ryan Tannehill. The former Texas A&M product’s numbers aren’t great, 24th in QBR and 25th in both DYAR and DVOA, but he was competent enough to keep Miami on the winning side of the ledger. When he was injured in Week 14, Miami turned the keys over to veteran Matt Moore, who actually outplayed the starter by most metrics, boasting a far better QBR and DVOA. Tannehill has done enough to remain the incumbent, but it will be worth noting that if he slips up, Moore is an adequate replacement.
Both QBs were aided by having some really solid receivers in Kenny Stills, former first round pick, DeVante Parker, and the incomparable Jarvis Landry. Stills is a really solid slot receiver with reliable hands and good route running technique. He had nine TD catches and was surprisingly good in the red zone for a receiver of his size. Parker started coming on, especially later in the season, when he could use his natural athleticism and size on smaller or less physical defenders. Though he caught only four TDs, he could be the red zone threat moving forward. Landry is unlike any other receiver as he has the most catches in the league over the last three years, hauling in 288 since his rookie season. Once he has the ball, he becomes a running back, leading all receivers in yards after the catch in 2016 after finishing third in 2015. He brings a toughness that cannot be synthesized.
If Miami had to pinpoint a weakness of offense it would be the right side of the offensive line and tight end. The Dolphins seem fairly secure with Branden Albert, Laremy Tunsil, and Mike Pouncey as a set and forget blind-side, but they could stand to upgrade the aging Jermon Bushrod and middling former first rounder Ju’wuan James. Neither is killing them, as their 4.5 yards per carry average would indicate, so it might be low on their offseason wish list. Tight end has been a long underperforming area that needs to be addressed if Miami is to get to the next level on offense. Dion Sims is is a nice blocker, but isn’t a strong pass catcher. OJ Howard could be a fit here.
The defensive line was supposed to be a dominant bunch spearheaded by Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake that would challenge for the league lead in sacks and pressures. Instead, they were pushed around in run defense, surrendering the second worst yards per carry average in the NFL and were not able to cause disruption in the backfield on pass plays. Their 4.6 adjusted sack rate was the second worst in the NFL, despite 11.5 from Wake. They will need to bring in a couple new talents to play alongside Suh and Wake in lieu of the departed Olivier Vernon (we’ll get to him in a minute), who they just couldn’t seem to replace with Mario Williams.
The linebackers were not at the level needed for a playoff caliber defense, but on the bright side, Kiko Alonso seemed to show his old form another year removed from debilitating injuries that set his career back in Buffalo and Philly. Jelani Jenkins is a solid player, but always seems hurt and Spencer Paysinger isn’t dynamic enough to warrant a starting spot. This is a position they will want to address in the draft.
The defensive backfield, probably the biggest mystery heading into the season, turned out to be the area of strength for Miami. Tony Lippett emerged as one of the best young ball-hawking corners in the NFL, which is not surprising after he played wide receiver for four years at Michigan St. Byron Maxwell bounced back to a respectable level, and while he isn’t as good as he gets paid to be, he is a solid NFL number two corner. Isa Abdul-Quddus and Michael Thomas are average at the safety position, and though they aren’t particularly playmakers, they are passable enough to dissuade Miami from trying to make big upgrades to the position.
This is a unit that has some unique and special talents, and if given to the right scheme and coordinator, could be one of the better ones in the league. If the Dolphins make upgrades to their run defense and can get some added pass rush next year, this could be a low-key strength for the team.
Similar to Detroit, this was a team that had low expectations headed into the year that over performed for their rookie head coach. The most important step in Miami’s progression was finding an identity, which they have as a power run team behind the perpetually moving legs of Jay Ajayi. They have the skill talent out wide to be a dynamic offense, Gase just needs Tannehill to break through next season. It could be his last shot.
Defensively, this unit boasts some truly transcendent talents like Suh and Wake, with the potential for another in Alonso. When the dust cleared on this season, the trade for Maxwell and Alonso that was so widely panned, may have been a positive for the Dolphins. If Lippett can continue on his path towards being a lockdown corner and Miami can make some talent upgrades around their studs, they might be able to put together a top-10 defense. Let’s see how they handle higher expectations for next year.
2. New York Giants
After years of mediocrity, the Giants decided to move on from legendary head coach Tom Coughlin, who guided the team to two Super Bowl wins. Tired of missing out on the postseason and wasting the final few years of Eli Manning’s career, New York brass went on a shopping spree to boost the talent level of their porous defense. In Ben McAdoo’s first season in charge, he made good on that spending by leading the Giants to their first winning record since 2012 and first postseason excursion since wining Super Bowl XLVI. While the season extended only an extra week, there was a lot to be happy about for Giants’ fans when looking back on the year.
The Giants have long been a team dictated by the ebbs and flows of Eli Manning, but this year was different. The veteran QB played below the level of a former Pro-Bowler and two time Super Bowl MVP. He finished the season 27th in QBR and 20th in DVOA despite having some of the league’s most dynamic weapons at his disposal. He had a very low 6.7 yards per attempt average and 16 INTs thrown, fourth most in the NFL. One thing he did well was avoid sacks, only taking 21 and helping New York to the second lowest adjusted sack rate in the league.
Manning’s struggles cannot be blamed on the offensive line, which did a better job than anticipated this year. They played well in pass protection and though some of their young lineman didn’t improve abundantly, they worked well as a unit. McAdoo’s scheme had a lot to do with the avoidance of sacks, coupled with Manning’s ability to get rid of the ball quickly.
The problem that the Giants’ o-line faced was in run blocking, where they averaged a measly 3.5 yards per carry, scored a league-low six TDs and ranked 24th in run blocking efficiency. Center Weston Richburg, G John Jerry, and RT Marshall Newhouse struggled at paving holes for the runners and most of New York’s run success came behind former first rounders Ereck Flowers and Justin Pugh. Expect some funds to be allocated to this group in the offseason.
The running backs didn’t give the offensive line much help, but at the end of the year McAdoo might have found his guy. Paul Perkins emerged as the top back at the end of the year, rushing for over a 100 yards in the season finale at Washington and becoming the first Giant all year to do so. He might not be a game breaker, as the Giants were the only team in the league not to have a run of more than 25 yards all season, but he did enough to move the chains and keep defenses honest. They also might look into drafting one of the many talented running backs in this upcoming draft.
That brings us to the most talented group on this offense, and possibly one of the most talented units in the entire league, New York’s wide receivers. Led by bombastic superstar Odell Beckham Jr, the Giants also boast a former second-team All-Pro in Victor Cruz and a promising rookie, Sterling Shepard.
Beckham’s exploits are well known as he went off for over 1,300 yards and 10 TDs, but made headlines with consistently bizarre behavior during and after games. Shepard had eight TDs, one behind Michael Thomas for most among rookie wide outs, and has plenty of room for growth. Cruz, though his role has been reduced, still provided value as his sure hands and sound route running made him a reliable third down target. If rookie tight end Jerell Adams can improve over the offseason, this could be a very potent group for years to come.
2015 was a season to forget for Giant defenders, giving up the most yards and third most points per game. 2016 ushered in a drastic restructuring of the entire unit, mostly due to expensive offseason imports. While that normally isn’t a good way to build teams (ask Vince Young and his Eagles’ “Super Team”), this rebuild came out a masterpiece. The Giants rocketed up to tenth in yards allowed and second in points allowed behind only New England. They showcased the fourth best DVOA pass defense and third best DVOA run defense, good for second overall. Steve Spagnolo’s men were unrecognizable from the previous year’s rendition.
Much of that started upfront where two huge free agent signings raised the talent level immensely. Damon “Snacks” Harrison shuttled from the Jets to the Giants in the offseason, making centers and guards quake in his wake, his contributions leading him to an All-Pro selection for the first time. Similarly, Olivier Vernon was sensational off the edge, combining with Jason Pierre-Paul to terrorize QBs and RBs. Vernon may have only pulled in 8.5 sacks, but he was unblock-able in run defense. That trio dominated and if they can re-sign JPP, expect more of the same next year.
The linebackers are the one group that could use some improvement. Keenan Robinson stepped up and played admirably, and Jonathan Casillas squeezed out with he has left, but an upgrade here is most likely coming. There are some really top notch LBs in this draft and New York might use their first rounder to procure one.
The secondary’s transformation was jaw dropping when factoring in Big Blue gave up more passing yards than any other team in 2015. Janoris Jenkins lived up to his big payday, Eli Apple turned out to be one of the best rookies of this class and Landon Collins, a newly minted All-Pro, became a legitimate star. Toss in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as the nickel and all of the sudden, the Giants’ secondary rivals Denver’s.
The Giants had all the makings of a Wild Card team that would make a deep run in the playoffs, but Aaron Rodgers had other ideas. Still, getting into the playoffs for the first time in half a decade is a win for a rookie head coach who really added to his credibility. If New York can make similar but more subtle improvements in this offseason, they might be set up to challenge Dallas’ division supremacy next year.
1. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders hadn’t been a part of the postseason in 14 years, so it would seem like just making it to Wild Card weekend would be enough for their patrons. But after starting the season 10-2 and staring a first round bye in the face, their 27-14 road loss to Houston seems like a failure.
I had detailed the Raiders’ team structure on two different occasions, as they ascended towards the playoffs and the week before their Wild Card showdown, so I won’t go into too much detail over the team’s roster construction. Losing Derek Carr was a sad ending to a season which featured the franchise’s most wins since John Madden was strolling the sidelines.
This team rose to the top of the standings due to the late game heroics of Derek Carr, so losing him in the second to last week of the year was the worst thing that could have happened to Oakland. Carr’s growth coupled with explosive outside receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper made the Raiders a headache to defend.
It would be one thing if Carr had to run for his life or constantly look over his shoulder in the pocket, but the Raider line was one of the best in the NFL, with Donald Penn, Rodney Hudson, and Kelechi Osemele all making the Pro Bowl.
With a solid stable of running backs in DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, Oakland doesn’t need to focus on bringing in an RB. That said, with this upcoming draft flooded with quality ball carriers, they might want to think about getting a player that might not be available otherwise. Tight end is another position to watch, as OJ Howard could be a fit here as well.
The Raider defense is led by one of the league’s most dynamic players in Khalil Mack. With a superstar like him already in place, Oakland can build knowing it has an elite pass rusher/overall player. Having Mack will be handy when trying to bring in high caliber free agents, especially pass rushers and secondary members who will love the extra attention being directed away from them and onto the multiple time All-Pro.
Karl Joseph and Reggie Nelson made up one of the better safety duos in the league and were instrumental in forcing 30 turnovers, good for second in the NFL behind Kansas City. Nelson himself accounted for five INTs and two fumble recoveries, while Mack forced six fumbles on the year. The Raider defense may not have been the best at keeping opponents off the field, but they were opportune and always seized their chances at creating turnovers. Leading the league at turnover differential went a long way towards getting to 12 wins for the first time in 40 years.
Oakland does need to look at upgrades in the interior of their D-line and their linebackers, now that Perry Riley is set to hit free agency. They also might favor bringing in a new nickel corner as DJ Hayden’s departure will take away some of their depth. It will be surprising if Reggie McKenzie doesn’t use a first round pick on defense this year. The turnovers might not be as plentiful next year, which could strain an offense that is operating at a league pacing level. Defensive linemen like Malik McDowell and Carlos Watkins could be good fits, as would linebackers Raekwon McMillian and Zach Cunningham.
The Raiders have built themselves into one of the most talented teams in the NFL, with a front line that can dominate games, and skilled players who are game breakers. Had it not been for Derek Carr’s injury, they might have beaten Denver and would be awaiting their first postseason game since Rich Gannon quarterbacked the team. Unfortunately, they got a bad break (sorry for the pun) and will have to wait until next year to show they can contend for a Super Bowl. If they stock up with the appropriate talent, they might be ready to take that next step and challenge for the AFC title.
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