NFL Teams Most Likely to Break Playoff Drought in 2016
One reason the NFL is the most popular American sport is its unrivaled parity. Every season welcomes an unfamiliar face to the playoff gauntlet.
Even with a system in place that allows upstart franchises to quickly rebuild, however, 11 franchises haven’t played in the postseason in the last four years.
At least one team, and possibly more, will break its playoff drought in 2016. Jumping from last in the division into the postseason may be a difficult task, but a refreshed roster or new coaching staff can spur great change. Some teams will benefit from improved health or the demise of their foes.
We've picked six teams in a four-year playoff drought that will be in the thick of the playoff race by the end of the season. In order from most to least likely, let’s take a look at the teams primed to end that spell. Make sure to leave your predictions for these candidates and your favorite playoff sleepers in the comments section below.
The Oakland Raiders have the second-longest playoff drought in the NFL, with their last appearance coming in Super Bowl XXXVII to conclude the 2002 season. The embattled franchise has taken significant steps to regain its past glory in recent years. After big spending in free agency and a few years of developing their young roster, the Raiders are ready to make their playoff push.
Oakland finished 7-9 in 2015 after flirting with a playoff spot before showing its youth at the end of the season. The growth of quarterback Derek Carr and wide receiver Amari Cooper will be key, but general manager Reggie McKenzie continued to upgrade the offensive line by signing right guard Kelechi Osemele. There are some question marks in the receiving corps and at the running back position, but the offense has the potential to be solid.
Another offseason of infusing the defense with talent should pay off as well. The middle linebacker position is the only question mark, and Ben Heeney could surprise in his second year out of Kansas. Playmakers such as edge-rusher Khalil Mack, cornerback Sean Smith, rookie safety Karl Joseph and linebacker Bruce Irvin will form a versatile and opportunistic unit.
The competition in the AFC West will be as tough as any division in the NFL. We can't count out the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos and the 11-win Kansas City Chiefs, and the San Diego Chargers should finish better than 4-12 if they stay relatively healthy. It will take double-digit wins for the Raiders to earn a playoff berth as either division champions or a wild-card team.
ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez projected the Raiders to finish with a 10-6 record, which should catapult them into the postseason. Vegas odds aren’t quite as high, as Odds Shark has the Raiders with the third-highest odds to win the division. But considering the talent on the roster, the Raiders are the most likely franchise to end their long playoff drought.
The longest active postseason drought belongs to the Buffalo Bills. Despite coming close multiple times in the last 16 seasons, the franchise has lacked the quarterback play and coaching necessary to overcome the New England Patriots. The entire AFC East has long been at their mercy.
The Bills came close to earning a wild-card berth in head coach Rex Ryan’s first season at the helm, but they suffered four close losses in the last seven weeks. They picked up a redeeming victory against the New York Jets in Week 17 to keep Gang Green from ending their own playoff drought. But the expectation is for Buffalo to capitalize on having its best quarterback since Doug Flutie in Tyrod Taylor and to challenge the Patriots for the division.
Few teams have a more talented roster. The Bills have question marks at wide receiver and along the offensive line (particularly in terms of depth), but the power-run offense and smashmouth defense are intimidating. The Bills' biggest foes last year were themselves, as they tied for the league lead in penalties committed with 143.
According to Odds Shark, the Bills are tied with the Jets as the second-most likely team to win the AFC East, which should put them in line to compete for a wild-card berth. They may need to rack up 10 wins, as there’s deep competition across the conference. ESPN.com's Mike Rodak projected only nine wins for the Bills in 2016.
The race for the playoffs may come down to the Bills and Jets, and that’s a close battle. The Bills have the better quarterback regardless of who starts for the Jets, but New York has a more complete coaching staff. If Buffalo is healthier in 2016 than it was 2015, it should be in a better position as this young roster continues to improve.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It’s been eight years since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have participated in the NFL postseason. The Buccaneers didn’t come close to ending the drought in 2015, as they finished last in the NFC South with a 6-10 record. But they showed enough promise throughout the season for us to believe they have a good chance to break their drought this year.
Playing in the same division as the NFC champion Carolina Panthers won’t be easy, and the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints have experienced quarterbacks to fall back on. While their task isn’t easy, the Buccaneers have the second-best roster in the division and enough youth to expect growth. Neither the Saints nor Falcons boast a deep or improving roster.
Quarterback Jameis Winston will lead this potent offensive attack again, and it helps that the scheme is staying intact since the front office promoted coordinator Dirk Koetter to head coach. Adding left guard J.R. Sweezy was a savvy move by general manager Jason Licht, especially since the team's array of offensive weapons is back from last year. The offense isn’t where the big questions lie.
The Buccaneers had to add depth to the defensive end and cornerback positions entering this offseason. Veteran defensive end Robert Ayers was an astute signing, and cornerback Brent Grimes (32) should have enough left in the tank to help this year. Rookie defensive end Noah Spence was a steal in the second round and has significant third-down potential as a rookie.
ESPN.com's Mike DiRocco projected a .500 record for the Buccaneers in 2016. An 8-8 finish wouldn’t likely be good enough for a wild-card spot, but outperforming that expectation by one game may suffice.
The race to win the AFC South in 2015 waged on until the final week of the season, but it was only mildly interesting to begin with. Injuries ravaged the Indianapolis Colts, and the division-winning Houston Texans lacked consistent offensive production. A healthy Andrew Luck in Indianapolis and a revamped Texans offense will make this division more interesting; however, the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars look ready to compete.
Jacksonville’s long rebuilding process has been painful at times, but its eight-year playoff drought could come to an end in 2016. This young roster showed major flashes throughout its 5-11 season last year. The Jaguars likely need to double their wins to claim the division this season, which is a difficult jump to make in just one year.
But they have upgraded their roster significantly through the draft and free agency. Their aggressiveness paid off when they acquired free agents such as defensive end Malik Jackson, safety Tashaun Gipson and running back Chris Ivory. The draft was also fruitful, as cornerback Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack could anchor this defense for years to come.
The offense is still quite young, even as quarterback Blake Bortles showed improvement last season. He posted ridiculous numbers, including 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns. He must become more efficient and take care of the ball while still providing the big plays, though, as the offense struggled to stomach his 18 interceptions.
Cole Hartley of Big Cat Country projected the Jaguars to finish 7-9 in 2016. With the expectation at nine or 10 wins to take the division, that would leave the Jaguars out of the postseason for the ninth consecutive season. It may be too much to ask this developing roster to make such a large leap in one year.
New York Jets
Another AFC East squad that has long been stuck behind the New England Patriots is the New York Jets. It’s been five years since the Jets made their last playoff appearance, but they came within one win of earning a wild-card berth before losing to the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 last year. The aging Jets roster may have blown its best opportunity to make the playoffs, since New York has limited salary-cap flexibility moving forward.
Things are often difficult when a team lacks an established franchise quarterback, let alone the situation the Jets are in. While New York has an excellent coaching staff with head coach Todd Bowles and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, the roster doesn’t have many developmental players on the upswing. According to Chase Stuart of Football Perspective, the Jets ended 2015 with the second-oldest average roster age (28.2) in the NFL.
But there’s talent on the team, even if it’s aging. The 10-6 Jets squeezed a decent year out of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the offense became a respectable unit. Fitzpatrick’s status is still in the air, as Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reported he could take a lesser offer from another team just to spite the Jets. Losing Fitzpatrick would be a tough pill to swallow because the team's other options are so bad.
With stiff competition from a younger Buffalo Bills team and the rest of the AFC fighting for two wild-card spots, the Jets likely must reach 10 wins again. It’s hard to see them achieving that this season unless injuries break the right way or there’s sudden development from unlikely players. The Jets look like a team that will be on the outside looking in once again.
New York Giants
It’s been four years since the New York Giants won Super Bowl XLVI, but the mediocrity and missed playoffs since then spurred the team’s ownership to make a change at head coach. Former offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo earned the head coaching job by reviving quarterback Eli Manning’s career with an efficient scheme despite having limited talent to work with. The Giants hope McAdoo will do the same for the entire team in his first season as head coach.
General manager Jerry Reese added as many as six new starters to the roster via free agency and the draft. With their focus on shoring up a woeful defense at premium positions, the Giants could improve their 6-10 record from 2015. Impact veterans such as defensive end Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison and cornerback Janoris Jenkins will help round out a young unit and could boost the defense if they live up to their big contracts.
The 2016 draft picks aren’t a lock to make a difference as rookies, but this was a great haul for Reese. Cornerback Eli Apple, wide receiver Sterling Shepard and fifth-round pick Paul Perkins were household names entering the draft. Each brings needed athleticism and a dynamic skill set to this team.
The NFC East should be a much more competitive division in 2016 if teams stay healthy. The Washington Redskins won a dreadful race last year, while the Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys struggled to finish the season. The Cowboys get healthy and the Redskins continued to add talent this offseason, while the Eagles may fall due to their roster purge.
Big Blue Review writer Keane Macadaeg projected the Giants to finish 10-6 on the season. That seems optimistic based on the massive holes left at offensive tackle and linebacker, plus the overall lack of depth. It is plausible, though, if the Cowboys or Redskins suffer key injuries.
All stats used are from Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.