A Blueprint for Rebuilding the NFL's Worst Teams

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
A Blueprint for Rebuilding the NFL's Worst Teams
USA Today

Fail harder for Bridgewater!

In the same vein as the "Suck for Luck" crowd of two years ago, who wanted their teams to tank for then-Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the cries have been heard for those who want their teams to end up with Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. He's a game-changer, the argument goes, and he can turn a franchise around.

Well, yes, but it will take even more than that for the NFL's most moribund teams.

For the NFL's worst, it could take anything from a complete overhaul to just a little tweaking and a little better health to work their way back to the NFL's best. Here, we'll take a look at the five worst teams in the NFL and determine what they need to do to get back on the road to success.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars Need to Stay the Course

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

  • Current Draft Order: No. 1 
  • Coaching Hot Seat: Cool as a Cucumber
  • Biggest Strength: Vision
  • Biggest Weakness: Blaine Gabbert/Chad Henne (QB)

I'll admit it: I'm a huge fan of both head coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell. Having watched both of them in action over the years, spoken to league sources about them and seen their blueprint for repairing the Jaguars, I believe they're on the right track.

Most impressive is the unified vision this club seems to have. It could be seen in action on draft day earlier this year as the Jaguars brought in defensive back after defensive back—all in the mold of Bradley's former team, the Seattle Seahawks.

Yet this club is a long way off. Owner Shad Khan has already admitted that he shouldn't have let former general manager Gene Smith run this team into the ground for another year after Khan bought the team from Wayne Weaver. Smith's incompetence put this team's talent level somewhere in the neighborhood of the 0-16 Detroit Lions of 2008.

Thus, the Jaguars have had trouble not only winning games this season, but even being competitive in the process. They've been, for the most part, absolutely atrocious this season, but I'm here to tell you that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. This team is traveling onward and upward. It just needs time.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater

Enter Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

Gabbert has been atrocious as an NFL passer, and the uncomfortable truth is that he wasn't that great in college either. He simply capitalized on a good season in which he was able to showcase some athleticism, and the quarterback-starved NFL overreacted in the worst way.

Bridgewater, almost single-handedly, could make the Jaguars offense a lot more watchable—and maybe even capable of winning a few games here and there. They've got some talent to put around him, with wide receivers Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon—if the latter can stay out of trouble—running back Maurice Jones-Drew (though he is a free agent this offseason) and tackle Luke Joeckel.

The scouting report on Bridgewater is that he's already more polished as a passer than many of his college peers and has an intriguing mix of natural tools and acquired skills. He's a great leader, has no off-field issues and should be able to step right in and contribute immediately.

That said, this team also seriously lacks both starting talent and depth almost across the board. Yet when I say "stay the course," I don't just mean with the current general manager and head coach. They can't get into the trap of thinking a high-priced free agent will fix things. This is a team that needs to build through the draft and find values in free agency.

Some players I like for them in the later rounds of the draft: Shayne Skov (LB Stanford), Antone Exum (CB Virginia Tech), Deone Bucannon (S Washington State), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (TE Washington) and Anthony Steen (OG Alabama).

In free agency, locking up MJD isn't a "must," but it would be helpful if he's willing to play ball. The Jaguars should have a decent shot at value players like Bernard Pollard (S Tennessee Titans), Robert Ayers (DE Denver Broncos), Pat Angerer (LB Indianapolis Colts) or Walter Thurmond (DB Seattle Seahawks).

There's no quick fix for Jacksonville, but the addition of Bridgewater and another year (or two) of steady talent additions should bring this team back to the NFL level of competition.

 

Minnesota Vikings Have to Blow This Up

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

  • Current Draft Order: No. 2 
  • Coaching Hot Seat: Blazin'
  • Biggest Strength: Adrian Peterson (RB)
  • Biggest Weakness: Christian Ponder/Matt Cassel/Josh Freeman (QB)

The best way to sum up the Vikings roster is Peterson and a bunch of "meh."

This team fell off a cliff in 2013, and people need to be held accountable for this. It isn't just Ponder that has held this team back. The offensive line and defense—strengths of this team in years past—have underperformed this season. Even after adding three first-round draft picks (two on the defensive side of the ball), it seems as if there just isn't enough talent on this team to win individual matchups consistently.

To put it mildly, when the head coach (Leslie Frazier) is a supposed defensive mastermind and the defense has declined under his watch, it's probably time to look elsewhere. It doesn't help that other defensive coaches like defensive coordinator Alan Williams and linebackers coach/assistant head coach Mike Singletary were once so highly regarded.

This defense shouldn't be so bad.

If you're going to fire Frazier, the first call (even if it's just a courtesy) is to former offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. I'm not saying that he's the hire, but he's done good work in Seattle and knows the franchise, as well as many of the players. However, his offense stagnated at times in Minnesota when he didn't have good talent, and his time in Seattle may be more about quarterback Russell Wilson's ability than Bevell's coaching.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Broncos OC Adam Gase

The right move here is someone on the offensive side of the ball who has the ability to bring some talented defensive help with him. My vote would be Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Yes, he's had the easy life with Peyton Manning at quarterback, but the 35-year-old has garnered a ton of respect around the league.

Gase has experience on the personnel side of things and grew up in Nick Saban's system. There's an awfully good chance that his father-in-law—New Orleans Saints linebackers coach Joe Vitt—would be willing to make this whole Vikings thing a family affair. If not, Gase has coaching experience with names like Chiefs linebackers coach Gary Gibbs, Denver Broncos defensive line coach Jay Rodgers and plenty more.

Drafting second means missing out on Bridgewater, but the Vikings need a long-term answer at quarterback in the worst way. Oregon's Marcus Mariota is an awesome consolation prize if he decides to enter the draft this year. Otherwise, it might actually behoove the Vikings to go with South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and spend a year seeing if Gase can work some magic with Ponder.

Clowney makes even more sense when one remembers that defensive end Jared Allen is a free agent this offseason.

Later in the draft, it would be nice to see the Vikings spend some capital returning to their roots as a power-rushing/defensively strong football team. That means grabbing guys like Gabe Jackson (OG Mississippi State), Trent Murphy (DE Stanford), Max Bullough (LB Michigan State) and Aaron Colvin (CB Oklahoma).

Assuming Gase is brought in, it would make a lot of sense to go after Eric Decker (WR Denver Broncos) in free agency—if he's not going to break the bank. He was born in Cold Spring, Minn., and was a Golden Gopher in college. He would step in as the Vikings' No. 1 receiver and round out what could be a decent unit.

Travelle Wharton (OG Carolina Panthers) is another player who could help the offense immensely and would help give Peterson a consistent road-grader to run behind.

Vikings fans don't want to hear this, but at 28, the end is coming sooner rather than later for Peterson. If he has four or five elite years left, it would be a borderline miracle. That means there's little time left for the Vikings to get him a Super Bowl. The time is now, which means the whole franchise needs to be revamped in a hurry.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Aren't Getting Enough Out of Their Star Talent

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

  • Current Draft Order: No. 5
  • Coaching Hot Seat: Bonfire in Hades
  • Biggest Strength: Defensive Talent
  • Biggest Weakness: Coaching Staff

Head coach Greg Schiano is ruining this team.

There is simply too much talent—especially on the defensive side of the ball—for this team to be so bad. Yet week in and week out, it seems as if Schiano and his coaching staff simply don't have the wherewithal to have their players ready or in the best position for them to win football games.

A change is needed immediately.

Ignore the calls for Jon Gruden to leave Monday Night Football and return to Tampa. The offensive and defensive systems that won games for Gruden back in 2008 are quickly becoming passe. No, instead of Gruden, go with another coach that has NFL experience and can maximize the best player on the team—defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Bengals DC Mike Zimmer

That coach is Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. He is beloved by his players and fellow coaches and is one of the better defensive minds in the game. He would bring with him a number of talented coaches, including Bengals linebackers coach Paul Guenther, who might be one of the smartest coaches in the game.

For the offensive side of the ball, it's possible that Zimmer might be able to lure Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett if he ends up fired at the end of this season, but even more likely is current Bengals assistant head coach Hue Jackson, who also coached with Zimmer in Atlanta back in 2007. Between Jackson and Zimmer, the resume list for positional coaches would be a mile long.

In the draft, if Clowney is available, you take him. Period. That may almost seem out of the question, as they're currently slotted to draft fifth, but a lot can happen between now and April—including moving up and down the board.

Again, this is about maximizing McCoy. Yes, there's some talent on the defensive front around McCoy, but the addition of Clowney would turn the Bucs defensive line into a unit comparable to Zimmer's current group in Cincinnati.

If Clowney isn't available, the Buccaneers would have to start thinking whether or not quarterback Mike Glennon is their future. A new staff wouldn't be tied to Glennon in any way, and it's possible they'd like Mariota or Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel instead.

Assuming Clowney is gone and they end up with one of the passers, they would still need to add defensive line talent later in the draft. I like Michael Sam (DE Missouri), Jackson Jeffcoat (DE Texas) or Will Sutton (DT Arizona State). They could also use some more offensive skill position talent, and Eric Ebron (TE North Carolina) or DeVante Parker (WR Louisville) would be a good option in the middle rounds.

In free agency, it might be best to stay quiet—very quiet—after being a big spender a few years in a row. The one player that may be worth breaking the bank over is Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson (again, assuming Clowney isn't available).

The Buccaneers have the talent to win a bunch of football games and even compete for an NFC wild-card spot. With a huge boost in coaching ability and a few key upgrades, they could find themselves on top sooner rather than later.

 

Houston Texans Are Stale and Quickly Becoming Average

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

  • Current Draft Order: No. 3
  • Coaching Hot Seat: Heating Up
  • Biggest Strength: Pass Defense
  • Biggest Weakness: Everybody not named J.J. Watt (DE) or Andre Johnson (WR)

Hey, I haven't called for a general manager's head yet! Rick Smith, you're up!

Smith gets a lot of credit (perhaps rightfully so) for players like running back Arian Foster, linebacker Brian Cushing and defensive end J.J. Watt, so it isn't as if his tenure has been all bad. Yet even with those fantastic additions, there still seems to be a whole lot of average to below-average talent on a roster that has been exposed this season.

Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak have had since 2006 to build a winner. It looks like they came awfully close, but their time is up. Mediocre talent and coaching miscues have seemingly become the norm, and it's time to move on.

Arizona Cardinals Director of Player Personnel Jason Licht is the hottest young name that will be attached to a number of general manager openings this offseason. The Texans would be wise to pounce on him early. He's been around the NFL enough where he could bring quite a number of talented personnel men and scouts with him, including the Denver Broncos' Tom Heckert, whom Licht once trained under.

Texas native Lovie Smith is going to be rumored for this job for obvious reasons, but the Texans need to make a bolder move than that. Rather than simply grabbing a guy who grew up in Texas (almost three hours away from Houston, anyway), get the hottest coaching candidate who wouldn't even have to leave the house he just built—Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin.

College Station, Texas, is only about 60 to 90 minutes from Houston (depending on traffic and Sumlin's driving habits). Seeing as how a lot of NFL coaches live out of their offices for the most part either way, Sumlin wouldn't even have to uproot his family.

Sumlin's version of the Air Raid offense is among the most powerful attacks in football and is well on its way to the NFL ranks. The Texans have already been exposed to it with former Sumlin protege Case Keenum under center. More than just an offensive wunderkind, however, Sumlin is viewed as a terrific leader and gets a lot out of his players.

Sumlin doesn't have a ton of NFL coaches who have crossed his path, but he could call upon some talented former colleagues like Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, Eastern Illinois head coach Dino Babers, Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, former NFL head coach Jim Zorn and more.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Sumlin with TAMU QB Johnny Manziel

The Sumlin offense could mean big things for Keenum. Better yet, the Texans could simply draft Manziel to run the same offense that made him a Heisman Trophy winner. Before this year, I was not as high on Manziel as some, but he has clearly improved his arm strength and decision-making and is more than just an athlete under center. He's becoming a polished passer as well.

In the later rounds of the draft, the Texans will need more defensive talent to give Watt and Cushing a little help, and they'll need some more receivers to adequately run the four- and five-receiver sets that make the Air Raid such a fearsome attack.

Names that would make sense include Adrian Hubbard (LB Alabama), Justin Gilbert (CB Oklahoma State), Lamarcus Joyner (S Florida State), Jared Abbrederis (WR Wisconsin) and Daniel McCullers (DT Tennessee).

Free agency is going to look like a bit of a hemorrhage for the Texans, who could lose defensive end Antonio Smith, tight end Garrett Graham, running back Ben Tate and a bunch of other talented players, but that could open up space for a bunch of smaller moves—maybe someone like New York Giants running back Andre Brown or Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah.

Or the Texans could re-sign some of their players, cut some dead weight (looking at you, Matt Schaub) and make a splash with someone like Texas native Jared Allen, who has been playing in a 4-3 but would give the team someone to put the fear in quarterbacks across from J.J. Watt.

The Smith and Kubiak regime in Houston was always seemingly marked by being just not good enough. With bold moves like this, it may not be a quick turnaround, but it could put the Texans ahead of the curve in a rapidly changing NFL landscape.

 

Atlanta Falcons Have Been One Move Away for Too Long

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

  • Current Draft Order: No. 4
  • Coaching Hot Seat: Lukewarm, but rising
  • Biggest Strength: Offense, when healthy
  • Biggest Weakness: Reliance on average players

Perhaps the most interesting team to rebuild on this list is the Falcons.

Their general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, is someone whom I admire as one of the smartest men in all of football. His job, frankly, should be as safe as an underground bunker. Head coach Mike Smith, as well, has won 65 percent of his games and should be safe. Smith's assistants, however, could probably use some shaking up, as things seem to have taken a turn toward the south.

That means out goes offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, whose offenses haven't exactly been that successful in the NFL. While the Falcons have been marred by numerous injuries this season, it's absurd that Koetter has gotten so little out of what's still there.

Dimitroff "grew up," at least in part, in the Patriots organization, where he worked from 2002 to 2007, working his way up from national scout to director of college scouting. He should reach into his past and tap Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator.

Of course, to make that lateral move an upward one, they would likely have to offer McDaniels a title of "assistant head coach"—a title currently belonging to wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie. Even with that, the Falcons would have to hope the Patriots allowed him to take the interview if he is under contract.

McDaniels may have been a flop as a head coach, but is only 37 years old and has a long career ahead of him. He is still highly regarded as one of the NFL's best young offensive minds.

Other solid offensive names include New Orleans Saints quarterback coach Joe Lombardi and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback coach Matt Nagy—really, anybody but Koetter!

On the defensive side of things, coordinator Mike Nolan's job is probably a little bit safer, but they could still use some new blood with some new ideas. At one time, having the former head coach around may have been a crutch that Smith needed, but now he could use a fresh face as defensive leader.

Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports
Jets DL coach Karl Dunbar

New York Jets defensive line coach Karl Dunbar has had success just about wherever he's gone. With the Jets, the defensive front has become one of the most feared in football. Before that, he led the "Williams Wall" in Minnesota. Before the Vikings, he spent one year at LSU, where he sent Kyle Williams (DT Buffalo Bills), Claude Wroten and Melvin Oliver to the NFL draft.

Only 46, Dunbar has never been a defensive coordinator—the Falcons could easily make that happen and reap the benefits.

Drafting so high in the first round is a tricky proposition for the Falcons, who don't need a quarterback. However, there's still plenty of talent. Obviously, if Clowney is there, he is the pick. Otherwise, arguments could be made for plenty of guys like Jake Matthews (OT Texas A&M), Anthony Barr (LB UCLA) or C.J. Mosley (LB Alabama).

Eventually, the Falcons have to find a running back. Steven Jackson is not the guy, just like Michael Turner was not the guy. They also have to replace Tony Gonzalez with another starting tight end. In the later rounds of the draft, that could mean Lache Seastrunk (RB Baylor), Jace Amaro (TE Texas Tech), Ka'Deem Carey (RB Arizona), James White (RB Wisconsin) or Marcel Jensen (TE Fresno State).

In free agency, the Falcons need to focus on re-signing defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry. Maybe they can't keep all three, but they can't strike out either. This isn't going to be a spending spree, and the most fans should hope for is (maybe) a value/upside signing like Jaguars defensive tackle Brandon Deaderick, Detroit Lions defensive tackle Andre Fluellen, New York Giants defensive tackle Linval Joseph or Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler.

The Falcons have been one of the most disappointing teams in 2013, but with a little shake-up and a healthier team in 2014, they could find themselves competing in the NFC South once again. If they try to take another shortcut and believe they're just one move away, they could lose their spot to the Carolina Panthers permanently.

 

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route and follow him on Twitter.

Load More Stories