An Early Holiday Wish List for the Out-of-the-Running NFL TeamsJonathan Moore/Getty Images
Every season, Thanksgiving is about when we start figuring things out, and this year is no exception. Several teams made their playoff case last week, with the Saints, Panthers, Colts, and Eagles all gaining ground in either a division or wild-card race. But it’s also the time of year when teams finally come to the sad realization that it’s time to close up shop. Last week, with losses to a one-win Bucs team and a Matt McGloin–led Raiders team, respectively, those teams were the Falcons and Texans — two teams that came into this season with back-to-back trips to the playoffs.
Including Atlanta and Houston, there are currently eight teams down at least two games in the loss column for a playoff spot, and we know that for those fans, the holidays can be a cold, lonely stretch. So with Black Friday just around the corner, we wanted to give those teams a little something to keep them warm by putting together a holiday wish list for that one gift each needs as it looks forward to next year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Gift: A new head coach
I’m sure the past two weeks have been full of conflicting feelings for Bucs fans. Not being an absolute embarrassment must be nice, but the possibility that Greg Schiano’s team does enough in the final six weeks of the season for him to keep his job is utterly terrifying. As Bill Barnwell posited last week, the only conceivable scenario in which that would happen is if the Bucs won out, and even then it would be unlikely.
There are probably several teams on this list that could use a shakeup on their coaching staff, but I don’t think any team would benefit more from a change than Tampa Bay. Part of that thinking is my trying to rationalize picking the Bucs to win 11 games and make the playoffs in August. But really, look at all that talent! The pieces never really came together on offense, where the Bucs’ running game was supposed to dominate behind a pair of healthy Pro Bowl tackles and Doug Martin taking the leap in his second season. The guards were alternately not healthy or not effective, and Martin averaged 3.59 yards per carry before going on IR.
Where the Bucs are set up to succeed is defensively. Tampa Bay is 12th in defensive DVOA, despite a coach whom most of the players reportedly hate. A nucleus of Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, and Darrelle Revis is one any franchise would love to have. Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron haven’t been the safety tandem many might have hoped, but there is still a ton of talent and potential on this side of the ball.
The question is, who might be the right fit for this roster after Schiano is gone? Lovie Smith has been a popular name, and is one who makes a lot of sense. What better way is there to rejuvenate a roster beaten down by a militaristic disciplinarian than by replacing him with a famously player-friendly option who also has a track record of sustained success? I understand the suggestion of Smith (who has coached in Tampa before), but part of me thinks that with the Bucs likely to draft a quarterback in the top five, they’ll want an offensive-minded coach who’s able to shape his offense around that quarterback. Greg Roman is the name I keep landing on. San Francisco has consistently been one of the most creative, best-coached offenses in the league for the past few seasons, and his presence would be a welcome change for a franchise that’s been stagnant on that side of the ball for a very long time.
Gift: An offensive lineman
This year seems like it would be one-part frustrating, one-part hope-inducing for Bills fans. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has his unit as the seventh-best in football according to DVOA, and Doug Marrone has the Bills’ offense headed in the right direction. It’s all been enough to keep Buffalo in games, but several of those games have been heartbreakers. Buffalo outplayed the Chiefs for most of its Week 9 loss, and the Thursday-night game against Cleveland in Week 5 featured a fresh-off-the-bench Jeff Tuel.
I’m electing to stay positive. Buffalo found the likely Defensive Rookie of the Year in second-round pick Kiko Alonso, and I think with another year, Marrone and EJ Manuel will start to figure each other out. The one area where the Bills really do need an upgrade is along their offensive line. Secondary is another question mark, with Jairus Byrd set to become a free agent this offseason, but none of the other pieces Buffalo has on offense will matter if it doesn’t get better up front. Left tackle Cordy Glenn, a second-round pick last season, has been very good, and Kraig Urbik and Eric Wood have also been solid. But left guard was a problem from the start for Buffalo, which cut Colin Brown six games into the season before moving on to career backup Doug Legursky. There likely won’t be a guard worth taking in the top 10, but it’s an area the Bills need to improve in either the next two rounds or in free agency.
Gift: The ability to time travel
Whenever I used to start a franchise in Madden, I’d use a fantasy draft to populate my roster with a collection of young, highly drafted, often inexpensive players. Initially, the team wouldn’t be very good. I eventually learned that it took about two full seasons for that young talent to develop, and soon, I found myself simulating two or three entire seasons before ever playing a game. I am not a very patient person.
A solution similar to this is really the only one I can think of for the Jaguars. Jacksonville will almost certainly take a quarterback with the first or second pick in the draft, but unlike some of the other teams on this list, they’re far more than a quarterback away from contention. Have you seen the Jaguars’ draft history? It is dark. New general manager David Caldwell needs at least a few offseasons of retooling and repopulating his roster before any evaluation can be made on the job he has done. Teddy Bridgewater or Marcus Mariota would be a nice start, though.
No one likes the guy who asks for money in an envelope, but really, none of us like Dan Snyder either. In defending the job he has done in Washington, Mike Shanahan pointed to a challenge that has gone a bit overlooked during his time there. Thanks to a violation involving Albert Haynesworth, Washington has dealt with a penalty on its salary cap that has restricted it from making any big moves in free agency. Combined with the lack of draft picks stemming from the trade for Robert Griffin III, Washington has been left without many options in improving its team over the past two offseasons. This spring, that changes.
The cap penalties will be gone, and if the salary cap holds, Washington will reportedly have close to $40 million in cap space to spend this offseason. It still owes its first-round pick to St. Louis, but the wad of cash should be enough for Washington to start rebuilding some of the problem areas of its roster. It desperately needs an injection of talent at every level of the defense, and a new safety like 27-year-old Jairus Byrd would be a nice start.
This one is easy, no matter what Adrian Peterson says. The Christian Ponder Experience is over, and Minnesota should take advantage of an unlikely finish in the bottom 10 by starting over at quarterback. The Vikings have good, young players at three key spots along the offensive line, talent at wide receiver in Greg Jennings and 2013 first-round pick Cordarelle Patterson, and the best running back in this — and I’m assuming any — universe. The name that’s been thrown around a lot is UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound mobile guy who’s smooth and patient enough as a runner to remind me of a slightly smaller Cam Newton.
St. Louis Rams
I know what you’re thinking: If I opened a box on Christmas Day and “patience” was in there, I wouldn’t react well. I get it. Part of me wanted to say what the Rams need is a new offensive coordinator (which they probably do), but I think the Internet has piled on Brian Schottenheimer enough this year. We know it’s a problem.
Patience is important here because this really is the final year that the benefits from the RG3 deal are set to pay off. The Rams again have two first-round picks in May, and they again have a chance to add two impact players to one of the league’s youngest rosters. Robert Quinn is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The Tavon Austin experiment hasn’t quite panned out so far (again, Brian Schottenheimer), but the win over the Colts was enough to provide a glimmer of hope that it eventually will. Alec Ogletree has had similar flashes amid his inconsistency. And the Rams’ biggest prize from this year’s draft may be the guy they took in the fifth round — folk hero Zac Stacy.
The questions about Sam Bradford’s future will likely start to pile up this offseason, but the truth is that with or without Bradford, the Rams have something. One more draft, and the chance to add a top-flight cornerback and another front-seven piece in the first round may be exactly what St. Louis needs to finally take that defense over the edge.
Gift: An elite pass-rushing prospect they have no business getting
Every NFL draft has that team in or near the top five that really shouldn’t be there, based on the talent already on its roster. Last year, it was actually the Chiefs, and although Eric Fisher hasn’t paid many dividends this season, adding a top-five talent to an already stocked roster is a good way to leap back into contention after a down year. This year, there are two teams that fit that description.
The Texans were a playoff team two years in a row, but as Bill Barnwell wrote last week, the foundation has been crumbling for a while now. Houston is also in line for a new head coach and a new quarterback, but any team with Duane Brown, Andre Johnson, J.J. Watt, Johnathan Joseph, and Brian Cushing is never that far away. The Texans are better than a 2-8 team that might be drafting in the top five, and that’s why a chance to draft a player like UCLA’s Anthony Barr would be a coup for them. Saliva has already been spilled over the possibility of a Jadeveon Clowney–Watt pairing in Houston, but Barr is familiar with playing outside linebacker in a 3-4, and with the season he’s having this year, the buzz is already starting to build that Barr (in just his second year on defense) might actually be the better prospect. Either way, the Texans could use him. Houston is 21st in adjusted sack rate, and none of its options at outside linebacker have been able to take advantage of all the attention Watt draws inside.
The scarier possibility, though, is in Atlanta. The Falcons were a play or two from the Super Bowl last season, but injuries have torpedoed them this year. Trading for Julio Jones is something the Falcons would likely do a dozen times over, but dealing a handful of picks for a superstar means creating a roster that can’t survive without that superstar. Atlanta’s roster has its share of holes, and those holes are very noticeable without that passing game to cover them up.
Losing both their projected starters at offensive tackle hurts, but the most glaring deficiency on this team is actually on the defensive line. The Falcons are 29th in adjusted sack rate and have missed John Abraham more than they probably thought they would. I’m guessing Clowney might help in that area. In August, it would have been crazy to think this Falcons team might be able to add a player like Clowney at their biggest position of need, but here we are. The Falcons looked done last week in Tampa Bay, and at this point, their most important task is not screwing this up. If I’m Mike Smith, Matt Ryan is discovering some mysterious shoulder pain in the next couple of weeks. Coming into this year, every franchise in football wanted Clowney for Christmas, and now, it looks like one of the more talented teams in the league has a chance at getting him.