By: Justin Lynch
These teams may struggle in 2016, but their futures are bright.
The NFL season is nearly upon us, but these three teams have little hope for 2016. All picked from the bottom quarter of Vegas win totals, the Eagles, Browns, and Titans may very well be sitting atop the draft order come April. But these teams have exciting futures for various reasons, and I’m going to break down each one and rank, in order, which organization I would like to have the most going forward.
Choice 1: Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles spent this offseason hitting the undo button on the Chip Kelly era, dumping several of his most notable acquisitions including Byron Maxwell, Kiko Alonso, and DeMarco Murray. These salary dumps accelerated the Eagles out of the Chip Kelly debacle and into a phase of rebuilding and growth foreign to the Eagles’ organization but all too familiar to Philadelphia sports fans.
The Eagles have had just three losing seasons since Donovan McNabb came to town at the turn of the century, but now the organization will look to McNabb’s predecessor to bring this team back to contention. Doug Pederson, who quarterbacked the Eagles in 1999, was an offensive assistant in Philadelphia when Michael Vick rejuvenated his career, and then went to Kansas City to recharge Alex Smith and the entire Chiefs offense.
Pederson’s next project is Carson Wentz, the second overall pick in the draft whom the Eagles traded five picks for, including their 2017 first rounder and their 2018 second rounder. Void of next year’s first round pick, the Eagles will have to rebuild with what they have. And what they have may surprise some people.
Offensively, the Eagles boast one of the most promising receiving cores in the NFL. Already armed with breakout star Jordan Matthews, 24, and 2015 first round pick Nelson Agholor, 23, the Eagles just added Dorial Green-Beckham to the mix. Green-Beckham, 6’6” with 4.5 speed, is just 23 years old, and is an absolute freak of nature.
Even better, all three are locked up on rookie deals for the next four seasons, meaning Carson Wentz has time to grow with his young receivers without the volatility that many offenses see at the skill positions.
But the best of Wentz’s options, at least right now, is tight end Zach Ertz. Ertz, 25, inked a new deal that will keep him in Philly for five more seasons. At 6’5”, Ertz is another big target for Wentz, and will be a safety option alongside the big play receiving threats.
The Eagles also boast one of the league’s most sturdy offensive lines. Jason Peters, now 34 years old, is starting to slip, but Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks will pick up the slack. The Eagles know protecting their quarterback of the future is a top priority, and their spending on the offensive line (3rd highest in the league) reflects their priorities.
The defense is a bit messier, though still has talent. Fletcher Cox, 26, is one of the premier defensive tackles in the NFL, and is now getting paid like it. In the second and third levels there are more questions, but lots of potential. Rodney McLeod was a big pickup at safety, and Marcus Smith, Nigel Bradham, and Mychal Kendricks (all 26 or younger) hope to anchor the linebacking core for the foreseeable future.
Of course, it will likely not come together this season, and the Eagles are many pieces away from taking that next step. The lack of a dominant edge rusher or a lockdown corner is paralyzing in today’s NFL, and a weak running game will further the onus on a shaky quarterback situation.
But the Eagles have proven to be a good organization, and have consistently been a winning football team. They may struggle this season, but things are looking up in Philadelphia.
Choice 2: Cleveland Browns
The Browns may have had a tough offseason on paper, but the losses will set them up for future gain. Alex Mack, Tashaun Gipson, Travis Benjamin, Mitchell Schwartz and others left town, and with them, their contracts. The Browns, whether intentional or not, watched their free agents leave town and now will be able to continue their rebuild without the burden of win-now contracts.
And the loss of these players does not mean the Browns are completely void of talent. Joe Haden was one of the top corners in the NFL before a disappointing 2015 campaign, and he looks to return to form this season. Danny Shelton was the team’s 2015 first rounder and he will build on a promising second half of last season. Josh Gordon is still only 25 years old and will return after a four-game suspension, and Duke Johnson, 22, has shown much promise as a receiver out of the backfield.
But the Browns more than anything have the ability to try different players and develop them. Without the high priced starters, the Browns will be able to take chances, just as they did on linebacker Scooby Wright. Considered by many to be the nation’s best college linebacker before last season, Wright injured himself early in the season and saw his draft stock fall. If he can return to form, he will be great value on a seventh round pick for a team that will need to make the most out of its draft picks.
And those very draft picks may be the best thing going for Cleveland. Rookies Corey Coleman, Carl Nassib, and Emmanuel Ogbah look to make immediate impacts this season, and the Browns collection of picks provides even more hope. The Browns, in addition to their own picks, own the Eagles first and the Titans second round pick in next year’s draft. They also have the Eagles second rounder in 2018.
Of course, it is too early to say anything, but the Browns may have hit the jackpot with their timing. They could potentially have two top-5 picks in a draft that features players at the positions Cleveland needs most. A top tier pass rusher? Myles Garrett, who our own Denery Noone has dubbed better than Jadeveon Clowney. Some help in the secondary? Look no further than Teez Tabor, Florida’s stand out star formerly known as Jalen. A franchise running back? How does Leonard Fournette sound? And, of course, the prize of the draft, DeShaun Watson.
Add two of the aforementioned guys to the core of Joe Haden and company, as well as the rookies this season, and you are looking at a real up-and-coming team. And now with Paul DePodesta, I have more faith in the way the Browns front office will operate.
Setting themselves up for success by giving talented, young players opportunities is a great way to rebuild, and the Browns are doing just that. If Robert Griffin III has a huge bounce back season, the Browns may have finally solved their quarterback problem and this will all start to come together quickly. If not, they have draft picks galore and will start to finally build towards contention.
Choice 3: Tennessee Titans
The Titans biggest asset is their quarterback. Marcus Mariota showed promise last season, despite dealing with injuries, and should become at least an above average quarterback. Having relative security at the quarterback position is something the Browns yearn for and the Eagles hope they have already found. Still, Mariota needs players around him to lift the offense out of the league’s cellar.
At receiver, the Titans have Kendall Wright and Rishard Matthews, two typical west-coast offense threats and safety valves for the young quarterback. Their biggest receiving threat was Dorial Green-Beckham until he was traded away to Philadelphia in a move I’m still struggling to understand. Tajae Sharpe has received a lot of training camp buzz, and will look to bolster this receiving corps as well. The only aging veteran in the mix as a pass catcher is Delanie Walker, whose big-play ability will help the Titans’ passing game until Mariota is ready to take off the training wheels.
But the offseason was all about the running game. Using a second round pick on Derrick Henry after trading for DeMarco Murray was a signal that the Titans are going to try to pound it, and their offensive line needs to be up to the challenge. Promising but not proven, the Titans offensive line features rookie Jack Conklin, 24-year-old Chance Warmack, and 25-year-old Taylor Lewan. If this offensive line can live up to expectations, the Titans will have one of the most surprising offenses in NFL, if not, Marcus Mariota may be scrambling for his life as their duo of running backs struggle to find holes.
Defensively, the Titans need lots of help. Jurrell Casey is only 26 years old and may be the lone bright spot on one of the league’s worst units. Da’Norris Searcy is a good safety, and Jason McCourty has his moments, but they will need much more than that if they want to stop the likes of Blake Bortles and Andrew Luck, especially considering both are north of 26 years old and will be up for new contracts at the same time the Titans budding stars will need new deals.
But as of now, the Titans don’t have any contract monstrosities, and this will help them maintain flexibility as they grow. Finding quality young players isn’t the easiest thing, but their stash of draft picks should help. With their own picks and the Rams first and third rounder in 2017, the Titans will have a bunch of shots to shore up their defense, much like they did this year by drafting Kevin Dodd and Austin Johnson.
The Titans haven’t reached double digit wins since 2008, and their inability to get back to their winning ways may be hindered by old school head coach Mike Mularkey. As I noted in our over/under picks, I don’t believe Mularkey is NFL head coach material, and his antiquated offensive views will hurt Mariota. But the Titans have who many think to be a franchise quarterback, and that’s more than most teams can say.
1. Cleveland Browns
2. Tennessee Titans
3. Philadelphia Eagles
The Browns have the brightest future of the three, but certainly not by much. Their focus on analytics in the front office will bump them ahead of many stubborn front office’s around the NFL. Their collection of draft picks will allow them to build from the ground up, and compile a strong timeline for their talent’s development. But mostly, I believe they have the best shot at DeShaun Watson out of the three teams, and even if they don’t land him, Myles Garrett has the ability to transform a defense. The Browns already have Robert Griffin III under center, who may return to form in a new system. With draft picks, cap flexibility, and a new front office, as well as a good chance to land a true star quarterback, the Browns are my pick.
A vote for the Titans at two is a vote for Marcus Mariota, but also against Carson Wentz. Though the Eagles boast such a strong receiving core, they will only be as good as Wentz can make them, and I simply do not believe in Carson Wentz. The Titans have issues of their own, but Mariota is good enough to minimize many of those issues. My fear is that Mariota peaks at a Matt Ryan-level and the Titans flounder in the middle of the league throughout Mariota’s career. But that is not enough to sway me into picking Philadelphia. The Eagles certainly have a promising future as well, and that is why they are included in this at all, but I can’t get over my Carson Wentz hate, and I wonder about the team’s willingness to be aggressive in free agency after whiffing on Nnamdi Asomugha and the “Dream Team” several years back, and then again with Byron Maxwell, Kiko Alonso, and DeMarco Murray. All three of these teams are looking up, but the Browns are the pick.