Here’s a funny thing about the NFL: It’s almost always better to be a bad team than a mediocre one. In the NFL, last place isn’t the worst destination. The worst situation is to be caught in the middle, stuck between 6-10 and 10-6.
The obvious exception is the up-and-coming team that is a free agent signing away from making the leap from 8-8 to 10-6. Sometimes progress is incremental. But getting stuck in 7-9 purgatory, well, that’s the NFL‘s version of the Land of Always Winter.
Just ask the
Chicago Bears , who were the epitome of a middling team from 2007-13. In that span, the Bears averaged 8.6 wins per season. They were almost always on the cusp of playoff success, so they behaved like a contender in the offseason. There was the trade to get
Jay Cutler , which cost them too many draft picks. There were the offseason signings of:
Tim Jennings , Orlando Pace, Brandon Manumaleuna and Chester Taylor. Those moves were made with the present in mind. The Bears made the playoffs once in that span and they’re now one of the worst teams in the league, which is also due to horrific drafting during those middling years.
The problem with most middling teams is that they so often operate under the assumption that they’re one top free agency class away from turning the corner. Meanwhile, the bad teams — we’re talking the worst of the worst — are able to behave more rationally by dumping their aging veterans, using free agency to sign cheap, prove-it type of players with upside, and stockpiling draft picks. By building through the draft, they’re able to acquire cheap assets.
Luckily for the Bears, they’re no longer operating under faulty assumptions. They’re bad, they know it, and they’re not behaving like a contender. There’s certainly room to criticize how they’re going about rebuilding — trading up one spot for a quarterback is a bad process — but here’s the good news: They’re set up to be bad again in 2017 and earn another high draft pick for a third straight year.
They won’t be alone in their pursuit of a top draft pick. Below are 10 teams with a realistic chance at being the worst team in the NFL next season. Some will surprise you, some will be entirely expected.
Just remember: Being last isn’t a bad thing. Embrace it.
Tier 3: The surprising longshots
10. Washington Redskins
One thing you’ll notice is that all of the surprise teams on this list will be situated near the top of his article. The Redskins would certainly be a surprise team to finish with the worst record — only fools would bet on it, to put it another way — but it’s not entirely out of the question.
They reside in the NFC East, which features two playoff-caliber teams in the
New York Giants and
Dallas Cowboys .
Kirk Cousins has been somewhat a product of his stellar supporting cast, which deteriorated this offseason. And they have the seventh toughest schedule in football, as our John Breech calculated earlier this offseason.
The Redskins sorta remind me of those Bears teams above. They’re on the cusp of playoff success, going 17-14-1 in the past two seasons. They finished with a combined plus-22 point differential in those two years. They’re not a good team, but an OK one. They didn’t overperform or underperform a year ago as their Pythagorean win total was 8.3, per Football Outsiders.
It’s not unreasonable to predict a drop off after the best talent on their roster departed.
It all comes down to Cousins. Can he maintain his solid numbers without his two best receivers? I’m skeptical. But they’re last on this list for a reason. Don’t bet on a rapid decline.
9. Buffalo Bills
The Bills are another middling team. They’ve averaged eight wins per season since 2014 and have nothing to show for it — no top draft picks and no playoff appearances. Considering they reside in the same division and conference as the
New England Patriots , tumbling down the standings wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. It might prepare them to conquer the AFC East when if
Tom Brady ‘s inevitable decline finally happens.
Here’s why the Bills’ fall could happen sooner rather than later: For one, they have the fifth toughest schedule in 2017, as their opposition boasts a 0.561 winning percentage. Two, the Bills’ passing attack will be screwed if
Sammy Watkins can’t stay healthy. He’s missed 11 games the past two years. Three, the Bills lost an abundance of talent this offseason, from
Mike Gillislee (their fault) to
Stephon Gilmore (not their fault). Four, the Bills defense will make the potentially awkward transition away from Rex Ryan’s 3-4 to Sean McDermott’s 4-3. It won’t be a problem for the players to learn a new system, but it could be a personnel problem as the Bills might not have the players to fit the scheme.
Still, the Bills are ranked this low on the list because it seems unlikely they’d fall that drastically from a mediocre team to a horrible one.
8. Cleveland Browns (via Texans)
If the Texans have the worst record in football, they would be screwed because they shipped their 2018 first-round pick to the Browns for the right to select
Deshaun Watson . But this could actually happen, which would be an unmitigated disaster for Houston and the best thing to happen to Cleveland since LeBron James.
Let’s start with the obvious: The Texans are lacking a quarterback. Maybe Watson is the answer; there’s no way to know that. But history tells us most rookie quarterbacks struggle. The draft is a crapshoot. There’s no way to predict success for Watson. And if Watson doesn’t win the starting job, he’ll sit behind
Tom Savage , who boasts a career 74.9 passer rating.
The Texans have overcome bad quarterback play in prior seasons by relying on their stellar defense. That defense is the reason the Texans are ranked No. 8 on this list. Barring a dramatic drop off, the Texans won’t wind up in the depths of the NFL. But it’s worth noting that J.J. Watt is coming off back surgery, which can be tricky, and that the team lost cornerback A.J. Bouye in free agency.
Bouye was an absolute stud.
One thing working in the Texans’ favor? They have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. Using opponents’ winning percentage, the Texans’ schedule is tied for the 25th most difficult in all of football. One perk of residing in the AFC South.
7. Detroit Lions
The Lions were a bad football team in disguise last year. Don’t let their playoff appearance fool you. Their Pythagorean win total? 7.7. Their estimated win total (calculated by Football Outsiders)? 4.9.
The Lions got to nine wins due to their ability to win close games, posting an 8-5 record in one-score contests. But that’s more so a function of luck than skill, meaning it’s unlikely the Lions will win 62 percent of their one-score games again.
Matthew Stafford was thought to be an MVP-caliber player, but that’s simply not true (here’s a great Twitter thread on that). His value was inflated due to his ability to engineer late-game drives — he even broke a single-season record for the most fourth-quarter comebacks set by
Peyton Manning . But as I noted at the time, that’s not necessarily the sign of a great quarterback. After all, there was a reason the Lions were facing so many fourth-quarter deficits: They weren’t a great team.
Good teams would’ve beaten teams like the Bears,
Los Angeles Rams , and
Jacksonville Jaguars easily. In four games against those foes, the Lions’ point differential was plus-10.
The Lions are not a great football team. They’re a lucky team with a good, not great quarterback. And they reside in the tough NFC North. A decline is coming. The only question is, how far will they fall?
I’m pessimistic that they’ll fall all the way to the worst in the league. That’s why they check in at No. 7 on the list.
Tier 2: A convincing case can be made
6. Jacksonville Jaguars
The strength of the Jaguars’ defense should prevent them from falling all the way to the cellar of the NFL. This is a unit that features
Dante Fowler ,
Malik Jackson ,
Calais Campbell ,
Myles Jack , A.J. Bouye,
Jalen Ramsey and
Tashaun Gipson . They’re going to be staunch this year.
But about the offense. Yes, they drafted running back
Leonard Fournette and left tackle
Cam Robinson . Yes,
Allen Robinson and
Allen Hurns form one of the more tantalizing WR duos in the league. But as long as they continue to trot out a CFL-caliber quarterback, they won’t be a good team.
Since Blake Bortles was drafted three seasons ago, he ranks 45th in completion percentage, 45th in yards per attempt, 28th in touchdown percentage, 43rd in interception percentage and 41st in passer rating (minimum 200 pass attempts). One way of looking at this — the optimistic way — is to say that the Jaguars will be bad because of Bortles and their good draft position will allow them to draft his replacement in a loaded quarterback class next year. The other way of looking at this — the pessimistic way — is that Bortles will waste the defense’s talent while that defense prevents the Jaguars from falling all the way to the cellar of the NFL, which would prevent the team from drafting Bortles’ replacement.
Either way, the Jaguars will be bad unless Bortles morphs into a decent player. Out of respect for their up-and-coming defense, they’re ranked at the edge of Tier 2.
5. Chicago Bears
The Bears’ fate in 2017 rests on their quarterback situation. If
Mike Glennon proves to be worth the contract the Bears handed him, the Bears will win more games than they did last year. If
Mitchell Trubisky puts on a Russell Wilson-esque preseason performance, wins a non-existent competition, and shines in the regular season, the Bears will win more games than they did last year. I’m not optimistic about either happening.
But — and this might come as a surprise — the rest of the Bears’ roster is filling out nicely.
Jordan Howard established himself last season as one the game’s best backs, right up there with Ezekiel Elliott. The Bears’ offensive line is one of the best in the game thanks to
Kyle Long ,
Josh Sitton and
Cody Whitehair . The front-seven on the defensive side of the ball features capable playmakers like
Akiem Hicks ,
Pernell McPhee ,
Willie Young ,
Jerrell Freeman ,
Danny Trevathan and
Leonard Floyd . Slowly but surely, the Bears are morphing back into the Monsters of the Midway.
In April, Cleveland again passed on a quarterback at the top of the draft, instead taking the best player — pass rusher Myles Garrett, who figures to make an immediate impact. The team drafted twice more in the first round, each time foregoing a quarterback to bolster other needs — safety Jabrill Peppers (who also should contribute immediately) and tight end David Njoku has drawn comparisons to Jimmy Graham. It wasn’t until midway through the second round that the Browns settled on a quarterback, selecting Notre Dame standout DeShone Kizer.
Here’s how they did in free agency:
The month before the draft, the Browns used free agency to bolster an offensive line that was the NFL’s worst in pass protection and not much better (28th) in the running game. Center JC Tretter and guard Kevin Zeitler will start immediately. And while the offense lost a legitimate deep threat when the organization chose not to re-sign wide receiver Terrelle Pryor, Kenny Britt is a serviceable replacement who hopefully will be helped by a group of young players ready to grow into their roles.
And here’s how their roster was already coming along before the offseason:
That includes 2016 first-rounder Corey Coleman, who had a disappointing rookie season (33 catches, 413 yards, three touchdowns), Ricardo Louis, taken three rounds later, who appeared in 16 games and had 18 catches for 205 yards, and the aforementioned Njoku. There’s also running back Duke Johnson, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season in addition to 53 receptions (9.7 YPC).
I’m expecting the Browns to surprise in 2017. They’re not anywhere close to becoming a playoff team, but they’re not a one-win team anymore. If Kizer thrives, look out. Of course, that’s a huge if. But even he struggles, the Browns defense might be better than most expect with
Myles Garrett and
Jamie Collins leading the way.
Tier 1: The ‘favorites’
3. San Francisco 49ers
Since hiring Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch to right the ship, the 49ers’ prospects are looking up. They swindled the Bears in the draft and still got the player they wanted in
Solomon Thomas . They got a top-10 talent in
Reuben Foster at the end of the first round. And they didn’t go crazy in free agency, which is the smartest thing for a rebuilding team to do. Instead, they got solid value in signings like Pierre Garcon.
But about that current roster: It stinks.
Brian Hoyer is the best quarterback on the roster.
By design, the 49ers should struggle again in 2017. And that’s a good thing! They need a quarterback and they can find one in next year’s draft.
2. Los Angeles Rams
The 49ers might be doing their best to be bad in order for future success, but the Rams certainly aren’t. Still, they likely won’t be able to avoid a disastrous season.
Sean McVay will likely be an upgrade over Jeff Fisher — all he has to do is run a non middle-school offense — and it’s not unreasonable to think he’ll help
Jared Goff improve after a horrific rookie season, but he can’t do anything about the current talent level of their roster.
The Rams pay
Tavon Austin like a WR1, but he produces like a WR4, averaging 410 yards and three touchdowns per season. Robert Woods was their “splashy” addition to the receiver corps, but his career-high is 699 yards back in 2014. They did get some help for Goff in the draft —
Gerald Everett ,
Cooper Kupp and
Josh Reynolds — but asking rookie pass catchers to improve a team’s win total substantially is not a realistic request.
A year ago, the Rams won four games and got outscored by 170 points. They actually outperformed their Pythagorean win total (3.3). They’re going to be bad again unless McVay ends up being the greatest coach in the history of the game. Even then, it’s unlikely he can make that much of a difference. Even Bill Belichick wouldn’t win with this roster.
This year is almost entirely about Goff. They can win two games and be happy if Goff shows signs of life under McVay. That’ll be a winning season for the Rams. It’s their best possible outcome.
1. New York Jets
To be honest, the Jets don’t deserve a lengthy write up because nobody needs to be convinced that they’re going to suck in 2017.
Josh McCown is their quarterback.
Christian Hackenberg — a.k.a. the reporter killer — is their best quarterback prospect! This is a team that went 5-11 with
Eric Decker ,
Brandon Marshall ,
David Harris ,
Darrelle Revis and
Nick Mangold . None of those players are on the roster anymore. It’s going to be bad in New York in 2017 — by design.
The Jets are tanking and good for them. It’s the right move. That’s all that needs to be said about them.