Success is relative. A handful of NFL teams would be disappointed by anything short of a Super Bowl LIV win, like the Chiefs, Patriots, Rams and Saints. The second tier of teams would set their minimum at making the playoffs. A third tier might simply want to compete for a playoff berth.
There’s a fourth tier of teams that might set their sights even lower. While they likely harbor dreams of playing competitive football in January, their realistic goals for the upcoming season have more to do with developing young talent or finding a solution at a key point of weakness on their roster. Let’s run through the teams that probably don’t have playoff football looming in 2019 and get a sense of what would help make their seasons feel more productive by the end of the year.
To figure out which teams are least likely to make the postseason, I used ESPN’s Football Power Index’s projections of the 2019 season and went with the 10 teams with less than a 20% chance to make the playoffs. Of course, there’s still a chance that these organizations will buck the odds; their combined playoff odds top 100%, suggesting that one of these 10 will make it to the playoffs. Last season, FPI gave the Bears just an 18.3% chance of making it to the playoffs, but after trading for Khalil Mack and drastically improving their interception rate, they rode the league’s best defense to a 12-4 record and a comfortable division title.
We’ll start with the team that has the best (relative) playoff odds, which requires a trip one mile high:
FPI chance to make the playoffs: 17.2%
Clear signs of development from their young receivers. John Elway has sought to rebuild his team’s receiving corps over the past two drafts, drafting wideouts Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton in 2018 before trading down and taking tight end Noah Fant in the first round in April. The refresh is overdue; Elway traded away Demaryius Thomas last season and has 32-year-old Emmanuel Sanders entering the final year of his contract in 2019, while prior draft picks like Cody Latimer, Carlos Henderson, Jeff Heuerman and Jake Butt have failed to turn into useful pass-catchers.
The Broncos need at least one of these guys to look like a starting receiver and an offensive building block by the end of 2019. Fant has the loftiest draft pedigree as a first-rounder, but the list of rookie tight ends who delivered an immediate impact isn’t long, as just four tight ends since the 1970 merger have topped 700 receiving yards during their debut campaigns. He also left Monday’s preseason game against the 49ers with an ankle injury. Even beyond what appears to be a minor ankle issue, it might be more realistic to expect Fant to harness his potentially devastating athleticism in 2020.
First-time offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello might instead hope for one of his wideouts to make a second-year leap alongside Sanders, who made his return to the field on Monday night as part of rehabbing his torn Achilles. Sutton’s role in the offense grew when Thomas was traded and was expected to rise further after Sanders went down, but during those final four games without either veteran, Sutton was third on the team in targets (25) and receiving yards (146), trailing both Tim Patrick and Hamilton. The latter’s versatility led to 38 targets over four games, although Hamilton averaged just 7.3 yards across his 25 receptions during that stretch.
The problem for Hamilton, in a way, might be Scangarello. The Broncos imported their new coordinator from San Francisco, where Scangarello had worked under Kyle Shanahan. The former 49ers and Falcons offensive coordinator loves to use a fullback and runs plenty of plays with two or more tight ends on the field, and when the Broncos use either of those options, it will likely be at Hamilton’s expense. The late addition of Theo Riddick also seems more likely to eat into Hamilton’s targets than those of any of the other wideouts. Sutton didn’t impress over the final month of the season, but he has the best chance of breaking out in 2019.
A turnaround from Garett Bolles. Teams that draft over-aged players take significant risk. The time frame for developing players who are older than typical rookies is shortened by their advancing age, and while the hope is obviously to find a more mature player who can step in immediately, that hasn’t often worked out. Over the past 20 years, there have been eight first-rounders drafted as they entered their age-25 season or older. One — Cowboys corner Terence Newman — made a Pro Bowl. The likes of David Terrell, Danny Watkins, Peria Jerry and Brandon Weeden all failed to impress.
It’s too early to give up on Ravens 2018 first-rounder Hayden Hurst, but the Broncos are on the precipice with their 2017 first-round pick. Having turned 27 in May, Bolles is one week older than the team’s right tackle, Ja’Wuan James, who just signed a massive deal after completing his fifth pro campaign. Bolles just finished his second season and has a serious problem: penalties. Since entering the league, he has drawn 29 flags and a staggering 21 offensive holding calls. No other lineman in the league has topped 13 over that same two-year span.
Enter one of the league’s most important offseason additions. No, not James; it’s former Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who helped develop young linemen like David DeCastro and Alejandro Villanueva during his time in Pittsburgh. Munchak’s most important project in 2019 is Bolles, who committed another holding penalty on one of his 33 snaps during Monday’s loss to the 49ers. Camp reports have suggested that the Broncos are pleased with Bolles, but new coach Vic Fangio has also singled out utility lineman Elijah Wilkinson for praise, too. With Bolles’ fifth-year option decision looming after the season, the Broncos need to figure out whether he’s a building block.
FPI chance to make the playoffs: 16.9%
A 16th-place finish in pass defense DVOA. When the Lions fired former Colts coach Jim Caldwell, it was no surprise to see them opt for a defensive-minded coach in former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. Year 1 didn’t go great on or off the field, with Patricia’s area of expertise the team’s biggest problem. The Lions dropped from 19th to 27th in defensive DVOA, including a 31st-ranked finish in pass defense DVOA. They were the league’s worst pass defense against No. 1 wideouts, sixth-worst against No. 2 wideouts, worst against third wideouts and seventh-worst against tight ends. There’s room for improvement.
The Lions made major defensive investments this offseason, though general manager Bob Quinn did spend his first-round pick on tight end T.J. Hockenson. Detroit essentially swapped Ezekiel Ansah for Trey Flowers, which should be an upgrade in terms of sheer availability before even getting to how the two edge rushers play. The team then imported defensive tackle Mike Daniels after he was surprisingly cut by the Packers over the summer. The names are certainly impressive, and while the Lions finished fifth in adjusted sack rate last season, they were 29th in pressure rate. They weren’t going to turn a league-high 30.5% of their pressures into sacks again, so adding Flowers and Daniels should increase the pressure figures for Patricia’s defense.
When Detroit didn’t get pressure, it ranked 30th in both passer rating and Total QBR allowed. Although the Lions have a Pro Bowl cornerback in Darius Slay, they need to do better in the secondary. Quinn’s other major offseason investment was to sign Justin Coleman to a four-year, $36 million pact to take over as Detroit’s slot corner. There are red flags in making this sort of deal for a player who was bouncing around the waiver wire in years past and just spent two years in service of Pete Carroll in Seattle, but even adequacy would be an upgrade for Detroit.
Detroit will pit disappointing 2017 second-rounder Teez Tabor against veteran Rashaan Melvin for the other starting spot, and there has been little evidence of Tabor playing well as a pro. His speed has been a notable problem, which shouldn’t really be a surprise for a player whose 40-yard dash time was in the 11th percentile coming out of college. Melvin is coming off a messy year in Oakland but has impressed in the past as a man-to-man corner, which is how the Lions typically like to cover under Patricia. No team likes to give up on a second-round pick after two years, but unless Tabor suddenly morphs into a different player, the Lions might not have a choice.
The young player the Lions might need to come along quickest, though, could be safety Tracy Walker. They took Walker in the third round of the 2018 draft — two rounds before Walker himself believed he would come off of the board — and parted ways with veteran Glover Quin to create a starting job for Walker this offseason. The now-retired Quin had slipped after years of impressive play, and the Lions improved by 13.6 points of passer rating and 9.3 points of Total QBR with Walker on the field a year ago. They are deep with safety options in Quandre Diggs, Tavon Wilson and third-round pick Will Harris, but Walker is the most promising. If he has a breakout year, it will be that much easier for Patricia’s defense to jump from 31st to league-average in 2019.
Get the Lions to a league-average pass defense, and Damon Harrison should take care of the rest. Detroit hasn’t posted a top-15 defense by DVOA since 2014; that was also the last time the Lions topped nine wins.
FPI chance to make the playoffs: 13.8%
Significant signs of growth from Josh Allen. This one’s simple, right? The Bills finished second in the league last season in defensive DVOA. Combine that with a competent offense and they’re probably a playoff team. They instead finished 31st in offensive DVOA and pass offense DVOA. Allen finished his rookie season with a 71 passer rating index, the third-worst mark for a first-round pick with 300 or more pass attempts in his rookie season since the merger. Allen was excellent as a scrambler, but he was far worse as a passer than predecessor Tyrod Taylor.
The natural argument from Bills fans was that Allen didn’t have any talent around him. I agree that Allen had a subpar supporting cast and offensive line, but it’s not as if his season was totally tanked by the other 10 guys on offense. Allen’s receivers dropped 4.1% of his passes, which was above the league average of 3.5%, but Baker Mayfield, Patrick Mahomes, Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck all had a higher percentage of their passes dropped, and they still managed to piece together pretty good numbers.
The NFL’s Next Gen Stats also have a say here. Allen threw deep more frequently than any other passer in the league, throwing an even 20% of his passes 20 or more yards in the air. Nobody else topped 14.7%. Even after you adjust for his target depth, though, Allen struggled. Given where Allen’s receivers were relative to the defense when his passes were thrown, the league’s model would have expected Allen to complete 59.6% of his throws. Allen instead completed 52.8%. The 6.8% difference between those two figures was the second-highest among passers with 300 attempts or more, topped only by Blake Bortles at 6.9%.
The good news, of course, is that Allen still has plenty of time to develop. He should work with a much more talented offensive core this season after the Bills acquired four new starting offensive linemen and the likes of John Brown, Cole Beasley, Tyler Kroft and Frank Gore in free agency, although Kroft is recovering from a broken foot and expensive new center Mitch Morse suffered what was at least his fourth documented concussion. There are no obvious superstars in the bunch, but general manager Brandon Beane replaced several replacement-level starters with players who are likely to contribute at or around the league average.
I wonder if the best sign of progress for Allen might be seeing his rushing numbers take a dramatic decline. The Bills ran a few designed runs for Allen in 2018, but it’s not as if he was the focal point of a rushing attack a la Lamar Jackson. Allen was running because he wasn’t comfortable in the pocket and saw openings. It’s difficult to see him keeping up his prior level of success on scrambles over the long term, so if Buffalo can use its new weapons to keep Allen making plays in and around the pocket, it’ll be to his benefit in the long run.
I don’t think there’s a specific number we can throw out there as a lone measure of Allen’s growth, in part because his usage rate was so unique. If he continues to throw one of every five passes as a bomb and scrambles effectively, Allen can be productive and valuable with a sub-60% completion rate. If the Bills ask Allen to make intermediate throws more frequently and ask him to work through his progressions at the expense of scrambles, though, Allen could top 60% and still be well below league-average as a quarterback in a league in which passers completed 65.5% of their passes a year ago.
A step forward from Dion Dawkins. One of the players who was expected to serve as a valuable building block for the Bills’ offense after that unexpected playoff run in 2017 was Dawkins, who stepped in as a rookie in 2017 and played effectively at left tackle in Cordy Glenn’s absence. The Bills were enthused enough to ship Glenn off to Cincinnati last season and turn Allen’s blind side over to Dawkins in the hopes that they had found their new left tackle of the future.
Dawkins struggled badly, committing 15 penalties, which was second in the league behind Morgan Moses. Those numbers included five holding calls and three unnecessary roughness penalties. The former second-round pick also allowed eight sacks, per Stats LLC. The Bills responded by signing veteran Ty Nsekhe from Washington, who filled in as a left tackle for Trent Williams, though it’s clear that their long-term goal is still to keep Dawkins on the left side.
There are worse things to have around than a useful guard or tackle, and if Dawkins continues to struggle on the left side in 2019, it wouldn’t be shocking if Buffalo moved him down the offensive line spectrum and went after a new left tackle. Dawkins’ numbers also suffered by virtue of playing in front of Allen, who wasn’t an easy quarterback in terms of pass protection. If Dawkins does show more of the form we saw in 2017, though, the Bills will have an answer at one of the league’s most important — and expensive — positions.
FPI chance to make the playoffs: 10.6%
A pass-rusher. Any pass-rusher. Khalil Mack is a sunk cost. He’s gone and not coming back. The Raiders don’t need a pass-rusher to help justify trading away Mack; they need one to keep their defense afloat. Oakland recorded sacks on just 2.6% of opposing dropbacks and pressures on 22.8% of those plays last season, both of which ranked last in the NFL. Asking the Raiders to come up with the next Mack is setting the bar unrealistically high. If they can find a defender who can approach eight sacks or 20 quarterback hits, that would be a victory.
The most obvious candidate on the roster could be fourth overall pick Clelin Ferrell, who is expected to start at defensive end. Ferrell is a promising two-way player, but I might lean toward 2018 third-rounder Arden Key, who racked up 11 knockdowns as a rookie. The added depth after signing Ferrell could push Key into more of a situational role, and while that might reduce his week-to-week snap count, it should keep the LSU product fresher when he does get to go after the quarterback.
Development in the secondary. The Raiders have four highly drafted players who could figure into their future at defensive back, including three first-rounders in cornerback Gareon Conley (2017) and safeties Karl Joseph (2016) and Johnathan Abram (2019). Rookie second-round cornerback Trayvon Mullen is the fourth.
Daryl Worley and free-agent import Lamarcus Joyner, who appears likely to move from his free safety role with the Rams back into the slot as a cornerback, will get reps. The Raiders will otherwise want their four young defensive backs to grow into meaningful roles. The most important of the four is Conley, who went through a wasted rookie season and was benched early in 2018 before improving during the second half of the season. His coming-out game, ironically, was an excellent performance against now-teammate Antonio Brown.
If Conley continues to blossom and develops into a No. 1 corner, Jon Gruden & Co. will be delighted. Anything they can get out of Joseph in the final year of his rookie deal might be a bonus, but Oakland will hope that Abram can turn into its version of Landon Collins.
Kolton Miller locking down the left tackle spot. When the Raiders signed Trent Brown to a four-year, $66 million deal this offseason, it seemed likely they would be installing the 6-foot-8 behemoth at left tackle. Given that left tackles make far more on average than right tackles and how Brown had impressed during his debut season at left tackle in 2018 with the Patriots, the tea leaves pointed toward Brown taking over Derek Carr’s blind side and Miller moving to right tackle.
Instead, the Raiders have decided to opt for stability. They’ve kept Miller at left tackle after an uneven rookie season and will move Brown back to the right side, where he played the first three seasons of his career with the 49ers. Stats LLC suggests that Miller allowed a staggering 13 sacks last season, but he has the frame to play on the left side at 6-foot-8, and moving him to right tackle would force him to rebuild his footwork anew. It’s too early to give up on Miller as a left tackle, and I can’t fault the Raiders for keeping things the way they were in what’s likely to be a trying season. If he doesn’t improve in Year 2, though, the Raiders will have to give serious thought to swapping their tackles in 2020.
FPI chance to make the playoffs: 9.9%
Building an effective infrastructure around Dwayne Haskins. It’s an inevitability that Washington will eventually turn things over to its first-round quarterback. While the presence of Colt McCoy might have put a second temporary roadblock alongside Case Keenum ahead of Haskins, it’s unclear whether McCoy will even be healthy enough to play this season as he recovers from several surgeries on his fibula. It would be a surprise if Haskins isn’t the starter by Oct. 1 and a shock if the former Ohio State star is still on the bench come Halloween.
If we assume Washington doesn’t have the horses to compete for a playoff spot this season, the next-best thing would be the team developing some sustainability around Haskins as it works toward 2020 and beyond. Finding a reliable wide receiver would be a start, though getting much out of Josh Doctson or Paul Richardson would be a surprise given their past performance. If rookie third-rounder Terry McLaurin or slot receiver Trey Quinn impresses, it would be a pleasant surprise for Jay Gruden’s offense.
Naturally, figuring out the left tackle conundrum would also help solidify things for Haskins. Trent Williams continues to hold out over what has alternately been described as financial and medical concerns, and while the organization has publicly suggested it has no intention of trading the star left tackle, there has been no sign of him softening his stance on not returning to the team. Whether the organization simply waits out Williams or hands him a new deal to return, this is a much better offense with the seven-time Pro Bowler in the fold.
If Washington does decide to trade him, I wonder if it would consider moving star guard Brandon Scherff back to left tackle, where the Iowa star excelled in 2014 while winning the Outland Trophy. The current short-term solution at left tackle appears to be Donald Penn, as the organization doesn’t want to push former Giants disappointment Ereck Flowers from his new role at guard back to tackle. A pending free agent, Scherff is probably best at guard at this level, but Washington might want to get creative in the long term to put its best player at the most important position on the line.
New York Giants
FPI chance to make the playoffs: 9.9%
Get ownership away from the quarterback position. One of the reasons the Giants have become a laughingstock over the past two seasons is how ownership has meddled publicly and privately in the team’s quarterback decision-making. Owner John Mara insisted that the Giants weren’t tanking when they benched Eli Manning for Geno Smith in 2017, only for ownership to see the fan base’s visceral reaction to the Manning move and reverse it the following week, firing coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese in the process.
Now, with the Giants drafting Daniel Jones in the top 10, Mara is back in the news by publicly suggesting how Manning would start all 16 games “in a perfect world” for the Giants in 2019. Coach Pat Shurmur then publicly agreed with Mara in a news conference.
Here are two things I know. One is that organizations say they’re going to sit their rookie quarterbacks for as long as possible before the season, only to invariably stick them into the lineup at the first sign of their veteran incumbent slipping. The other is that nothing good ever comes from ownership getting involved in personnel decisions for nostalgia’s sake. If Shurmur wants to sit Jones all season and play Manning for 16 games, that should be his decision without any interference or public quotes from Mara.
Find a pass-rusher. While general manager Dave Gettleman has attempted to rebuild the Giants around the sort of running game and physicality the team enjoyed during the Bill Parcells era, he has curiously neglected to find the sorts of pass-rushers the Giants have been built around for decades. Gettleman used Olivier Vernon as a trade chip to acquire another offensive lineman this offseason in Cleveland’s Kevin Zeitler, and while the Giants used a first-round pick on nose tackle Dexter Lawrence, their other key moves to address the edge were signing former Cardinals standout Markus Golden and using a third-round pick on Oshane Ximines.
Golden has the best pedigree of the three, given that the former second-rounder racked up 12.5 sacks in his sophomore campaign with the Cardinals, but injuries limited him to 2.5 sacks over the ensuing 15 games. He is signed to only a one-year deal, so New York probably would prefer 2018 third-round pick Lorenzo Carter to make the leap after generating four sacks and 10 knockdowns as a rookie, given that the Giants have him under contract through 2021. They need one of these guys to break through before making a bigger addition at the position (Jadeveon Clowney?) next offseason.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
FPI chance to make the playoffs: 9.1%
Come to a conclusion on Jameis Winston. With a coach who turns 67 in October, the Bucs can’t afford to let the Winston saga leak into 2020 without making a long-term decision. Tampa obviously hopes that its former first overall pick rounds into form and delivers a full season of the promise he has shown in bursts over the past few years, but it would be better for Winston to crater and the Bucs to subsequently pursue a new path at quarterback in 2020 than it would be for Winston to play just well enough to justify a franchise tag or prove-it deal.
Discover at least one (and preferably two) starters at cornerback. Like the Raiders, Tampa is loaded with high draft picks in the secondary. In addition to 2016 first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves, the Bucs can call on 2018 second-rounders Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart, 2019 second-rounder Sean Murphy-Bunting and 2019 third-rounder Jamel Dean. All five will make the roster, but can the Bucs finally find some building blocks in an oft-leaky secondary?
Even given the receiver depth in the NFC South, Tampa wouldn’t have invested quite as much as it has at cornerback if Hargreaves had lived up to expectations as the 11th overall pick. Coaches and teammates have raved about the former Florida standout in camp, with our Jenna Laine naming Hargreaves as Tampa’s camp MVP. If Hargreaves delivers on his potential, the Bucs would still have him under contract for 2020 on a fifth-year option at just under $10 million.
Davis and Stewart appear likely to start alongside Hargreaves, but given what we know about Todd Bowles’ preferred style of defense, it’s likely that we’ll see the Bucs rotate plenty of defensive backs through the lineup as both cover men and blitzers. Every Bucs defensive back seems to be raving about how the new, aggressive scheme fits them in a way that the zone scheme preferred by Mike Smith did not, but that’s par for the course in a training camp with a new defensive coordinator. We won’t know whether the shoe actually fits until we see Davis & Co. on the field in the new season.
Find a plan at running back. Tampa has been rumored as a possible destination for plenty of free-agent backs over each of the past two offseasons, but the only veteran runner the Bucs have imported since then is Andre Ellington, Bruce Arians’ former charge in Arizona. Peyton Barber retained the job by default last season when second-round pick Ronald Jones lost the coaching staff’s confidence and struggled to stay healthy. The Bucs have generally kept Jones out of the lineup so far this preseason, which might be a positive sign pending what happens in their third practice game.
While the Bucs have given reps to Dare Ogunbowale this preseason, it’s likely that their 2020 starter at running back is either Jones or a back not currently on the roster. They should be one of the more aggressive teams in the league when teams make cuts at running back this offseason, although they also shouldn’t be in position to devote serious draft capital to acquiring a back. They should be giving serious consideration to pursuing backs like LeSean McCoy, Jerick McKinnon and Corey Clement if they’re cut by their current teams.
Get through one season with competent kicking. This might be too much to ask.
FPI chance to make the playoffs: 7.9%
Develop a third pass-rusher behind Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. With the jewels of Cincinnati’s 2010 class now on the wrong side of 30, the Bengals have to start preparing for a future without their two star defensive linemen. Atkins and Dunlap combined for 18 sacks and 40 quarterback knockdowns last season, and the only other Bengals player to top 2.5 sacks was Sam Hubbard, who managed six on just nine knockdowns. Defensive linemen typically turn about 45% of their knockdowns into sacks, so it’s unlikely that he will be able to keep that ratio going in 2019.
Hubbard is promising and still the most likely candidate to step up into the 15-knockdown range this season, but the Bengals have another option in line with Carl Lawson, who had 8.5 sacks and 21 knockdowns as a rookie in 2017 before going down with a torn ACL a year ago. If the Bengals can get continued growth from Hubbard and a return to form from Lawson, they’ll be blessed with one of the deeper pass-rush rotations in the AFC.
Find a young guard. The best-laid plans for the Cincinnati offensive line went down in tatters this offseason when longtime starting guard Clint Boling retired and first-round pick Jonah Williams underwent season-ending surgery on his labrum. Backup guard Christian Westerman, who was one of the options in line to replace Boling, also appears to be retiring. Cordy Glenn, who moved back to left tackle after Williams went down, is out with a concussion. This is all before the season has even begun.
The 2020 line is going to include Williams at left tackle and 2018 first-rounder Billy Price at center. That’s settled. The Bengals signed guard John Miller and tackle Bobby Hart to three-year deals this offseason, but neither deal would preclude Cincy from moving on after 2019. Trey Hopkins, who has served as a utility lineman for the team, is on a one-year deal.
The Bengals are likely to start Miller and former Giants lineman John Jerry on the interior to start the season, but the player who could figure into the lineup by the end of the year is rookie fourth-round pick Michael Jordan. As the first true freshman to start regularly at Ohio State since Orlando Pace, Jordan has been on NFL radars for a while, but the 6-foot-6 lineman still needs some refinement. If the Bengals can help mold Jordan into a viable starter by the end of the season, it would allow them to focus their efforts elsewhere next season.
Come to a conclusion on Andy Dalton. The Bengals finally made up their mind and moved on from longtime coach Marvin Lewis this offseason after 16 years of moderate accomplishment. Dalton will be entering only his ninth season as Cincinnati’s starting quarterback, but the TCU product has been slightly above or below league-average in seven of his eight completed campaigns, with one down-ballot MVP season in 2015 as the exception.
That was a season in which Dalton had arguably the best offensive line in football and a deep, healthy group of receivers, and given that the Bengals are already down Williams and will likely start the season without A.J. Green, he won’t have that same sort of support in 2019. It might seem unfair to slate Dalton for how he might struggle without his starting left tackle or his top wide receiver, but we have yet to see him transcend his teammates for any stretch of time. It would have been tough to move on from Dalton when the Bengals were producing winning seasons, but after starting 50-26 through that 2015 campaign, he has gone 18-24-1 as a starter over the past three seasons.
He has two years and $33 million left on the extension he signed in August of 2014. There’s no reason the Bengals should enter 2020 with Dalton as their lame-duck option at quarterback. If Dalton proceeds to piece together another 2015 season, the team should extend his contract. If the 31-year-old delivers another adequate campaign, it should be time to move on, either in free agency or through the draft.
FPI chance to make the playoffs: 4.8%
Signs of life from Josh Rosen and his pass protection. The Dolphins were smart to take a flier on the 2018 first-round pick after the Cardinals drafted Kyler Murray No. 1 overall in April, but the same issues that haunted Rosen in Arizona are likely to follow him. Rosen played behind a disastrously bad offensive line, with the Cardinals down to street free agents and practice-squad guys by the end of the season. The Dolphins have one standout in left tackle Laremy Tunsil, but they might have the worst line in the league between left guard and right tackle.
If Rosen can overcome the line woes and exhibit consistent positive traits under new offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea, the Dolphins will have acquired a player they can build around for a fraction of his typical value. That would be a huge victory. It would also be a positive if the Dolphins manage to pass protect for the duo of Rosen and Ryan Fitzpatrick. They could start a pair of rookie guards in third-round pick Michael Deiter and undrafted free agent Shaq Calhoun; it’s on new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo to help mold them into building blocks.
Find a pass-rusher. The Dolphins are rebuilding throughout their roster, but no position has been wiped clean like defensive end. Miami moved on this offseason from Andre Branch, William Hayes, Robert Quinn and franchise legend Cameron Wake, and while those were all reasonable decisions for a team looking toward the future, the cupboard is now thin on the edge.
The obvious hope is to get more out of 2017 first-round pick Charles Harris, who will see his role grow after playing as a reserve in each of his first two campaigns. The Missouri product has just three sacks across 847 snaps, but his 17 quarterback knockdowns over that time frame suggest he might be more productive than that sack total. After that, the next guys up are a pair of former disappointing second-rounders in Tank Carradine and Nate Orchard. Rookie first-round pick Christian Wilkins will help from the interior, but unless Harris takes a star turn, the Dolphins will likely be in the market for pass-rushing help next offseason.
FPI chance to make the playoffs: 4.2%
Proof the Air Raid works. The uniqueness of Kliff Kingsbury’s offensive scheme is overstated in a league in which teams like the Chiefs, Patriots and Rams have been integrating Air Raid concepts for years. Nothing Kingsbury is going to run this season is something that will blow the minds of opposing defenders, especially given that so many of them have come through the high school and college ranks against Air Raid offenses. He will have the smallest playbook in the league, though, likely by a considerable margin.
Where the Cardinals can stand out is in their execution of those concepts and their ability to control games with tempo. The original concept underpinning the Air Raid was to beat teams with superior athletes and deeper playbooks by executing a thinner, faster scheme to perfection. If Kingsbury can continue to do that with his offense at the highest possible level, Arizona will be in great shape moving forward.
A successful season from Byron Murphy. Arizona’s cornerback depth chart for the first six weeks of the season is in horrific shape. Patrick Peterson is suspended. Robert Alford, a mess with the Falcons in 2018, was signed to an inexplicable three-year, $22.5 million deal by the Cardinals, and now the 30-year-old will miss much of the year with a broken leg.
The cornerback depth chart consists of journeyman Tramaine Brock, special-teamer Brandon Williams, several undrafted free agents and Murphy, the 33rd pick in April’s draft. Murphy was regarded during the draft process as a player who could step in quickly, but rookie cornerbacks — even the ones who eventually turn into stars — often struggle during their debut campaigns.
It’s asking a lot of him to step in and immediately serve as Arizona’s top cornerback, especially given that the Cardinals might have realistically expected to start the season with Peterson and Alford on the outside while starting Murphy off in the slot. If he can turn into the No. 2 corner Arizona has long sought across from Peterson and do so by the end of the season, it would be a revelation.
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