Ranking the NFL's Current Rebuilding Jobs
They might not use the word "rebuild," because doing so would create the perception that they don't believe they can compete right now.
But regardless of how they spin it, somewhere between five and 10 NFL franchises are typically in rebuilding mode.
Right now, I see six clear-cut rebuilds. This is how I rate those ongoing jobs as we prepare for the 2017 season.
I didn't include the Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers because they've already been rebuilt. Both have well-supported franchise quarterbacks and are coming off winning seasons, and both are expected to make playoff runs in 2017.
Both teams deserve a lot of credit for the progress they've made the last few years, but it wouldn't be fair to list them with the Browns, Jaguars, Bears, 49ers, Rams and Jets.
The Titans and Bucs have graduated from the realm of the rebuilders. Now they're stuck being compared to the big boys.
Additionally, I decided against including the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles, even though both have recently, let's say, reset or reloaded. Neither have indicated they're rebuilding, as both have been relatively competitive on an annual basis. The Bills are 24-24 since 2014, and the Eagles are 34-30 since 2013.
The word "rebuild" is open to interpretation. If you'd like to include any of those four teams, cool. But I stuck to teams that have removed themselves from contention in order to come back stronger down the road.
6. New York Jets: The Purge
Are the New York Jets tanking?
It's OK if they are, but it's a complicated question with no real answer. Because technically, when teams rebuild they often tank as well.
The Cleveland Browns, for example, let four high-quality free agents walk last offseason without any clear-cut replacements waiting in the wings. And the Browns went on to lose 15 games, "earning" the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
The 2017 Jets appear to be doing their best impression. And again, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. (Spoiler: Cleveland fares well in these rankings.) But the tank itself has to work. If the Jets manage to luck their way into several wins and miss out on the top pick, or if they botch the 2018 draft, none of this will matter.
The Jets have spent the 2017 offseason purging almost every experienced veteran starter from their roster.
First it was 34-year-old quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose contract was voided in February. Then they cut 33-year-old seven-time Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold, 32-year-old seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis and 33-year-old six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall, all before the new league year arrived in March.
They hardly participated in free agency except to sign journeyman stopgap quarterback Josh McCown, cornerback/first-round bust Morris Claiborne and not-terrible-when-healthy offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum. And they oddly selected safeties with each of their first two picks in April's draft (indicating it's all about best player available, and that more moves were moving).
But then they got back to cutting with the release of 33-year-old starting linebacker David Harris and 30-year-old starting wideout Eric Decker, as well as a predictable trade that sent contract-year safety Calvin Pryor to the Browns.
It's a minor miracle former Pro Bowl defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson remains on the roster, but that doesn't mean the Jets want him there. Per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the team was shopping the 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year at the draft.
What does it all mean?
ESPN.com's Rich Cimini wrote:
"After their sixth straight season out of the playoffs, the Jets decided to tear it down and start a long, painful rebuild—a radical approach. They executed the plan with conviction, stripping the roster of big names and big salaries. They dumped 11 veterans, including future Ring of Honor members David Harris, Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis. For the most part, they replaced the departed 11 with cheap free agents and unproven young players.
"Let's be clear: This is a tank job, and it's not hard to understand the motivation. If the Jets land the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, they'll have their pick of what figures to be a strong quarterback class. They also will have $80 million in cap room next year. In the meantime, they'll have one of the worst rosters in the league."
If all goes right, the Jets will climb this list next year. But that roster is a mess, and they don't even appear to have something that could be passed off as a potential heir apparent under center. They still have to prove they can tank, too, which won't be easy for a team that has the league's eighth-easiest schedule based on DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) at Football Outsiders.
Ideally, the Jets will fail to show up in 2017 and wind up with the top pick, draft a promising young quarterback and use all that salary-cap space on said quarterback's supporting cast. But until that happens, the Jets are the worst of the league's current rebuilders.
5. Los Angeles Rams: Painted into a Corner
The Los Angeles Rams are supposed to be in the final stages of a long rebuild, which leaves them with almost no flexibility. Either recent first-round picks in quarterback Jared Goff (No. 1 overall in 2016), running back Todd Gurley (No. 10 overall in 2015) and wide receiver Tavon Austin (No. 8 overall in 2013) become key pieces or the Rams end up back at square one.
All three have failed to live up to expectations. And although 2014 first-rounder Aaron Donald has become an absolute superstar at defensive tackle, they've already given up on that year's No. 2 overall pick, offensive tackle Greg Robinson.
Goff, Gurley and Austin might not have more than a year or two in order to salvage this rebuild. And if they can't, general manager Les Snead will likely be cleaning out his office.
It doesn't help that the Rams didn't have a first-round selection in April. They traded that away in order to move up to draft Goff last offseason, and they didn't have a lot of salary-cap space this year either.
As a result, they again look like a team destined to be trapped in mediocrity—one with too much talent to land a high pick (they've won at least six games in each of the last four seasons) but not enough talent to compete.
Could Goff take a huge step forward after struggling to impress anyone outside of the Goff family as a rookie? Could Gurley put up the video game numbers he had as a rookie, proving that last year was just a sophomore slump? Could Austin finally become the offensive weapon they hoped they found at the top of the 2013 draft?
It might help having new left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who signed on as a free agent after back-to-back Pro Bowl campaigns in Cincinnati, but the odds aren't in the Rams' favor.
On top of all that, the Rams are handing over the head coaching keys to 31-year-old Sean McVay, despite the fact McVay is half a decade younger than Whitworth. Is this a job for the youngest head coach in NFL history? In modern NFL history, four other head coaches have been hired before turning 33, and all four—Lane Kiffin (31), Raheem Morris (32), David Shula (32) and Josh McDaniels (32)—failed.
It's looking increasingly likely the latest Rams rebuild will also fail, and that a team that hasn't had a winning season since 2003 could have to wait quite a while longer.
4. San Francisco 49ers: Talk to Me When You Have a Quarterback
The San Francisco 49ers are that rebuilding team that appears to be on the right track but is still missing a key ingredient: a potential franchise quarterback. Because with all due respect to current 1-2 on the depth chart Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley, everybody knows neither is the answer.
And yes, it's tempting to wonder if rookie third-round pick C.J. Beathard could be the next Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson or Kirk Cousins out of the middle rounds, but the Iowa product is obviously still a long shot. New general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan probably realize they'll be exploring the starting quarterback market again next offseason, and that delay alone hinders the progress of a rebuild that has received plenty of applause early in the Lynch/Shanahan era.
And for good reason.
The 49ers collected three extra draft picks merely to move down from the No. 2 spot to the No. 3 spot in the draft. They still wound up with stud defensive end Solomon Thomas—whom they may have been planning to take with their original pick anyway—and those extra picks enabled them to move back into the bottom of the first round to take former Alabama star and potential starting linebacker Reuben Foster.
With Thomas and Foster and 2016 first-round defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, 2015 first-round end Arik Armstead and star linebacker NaVorro Bowman all on board together, that defense has become quite talented only a couple of years after being gutted by a series of free-agent losses, injuries, suspensions and sudden retirements.
The offense remains a work in progress at basically every position, and the defense is relying on a lot of guys who haven't proved themselves at this level. That's why this is a rebuild, and the hole at quarterback is why it's not a top-of-the-line rebuild just yet. But Lynch and Shanahan are on the right trajectory.
Despite winning just two games last season, those guys are a quarterback away from fielding a team that could contend relatively quickly.
3. Chicago Bears: Options Under Center
The Chicago Bears are one of those teams that might argue with a straight face it isn't rebuilding, but actions speak louder than words for a team that won just three games last season.
The Bears let top veteran offensive weapon Alshon Jeffery get away in free agency, with the two-time 1,000-yard receiver taking a one-year deal from the Philadelphia Eagles. And they also parted ways with all three of the quarterbacks who started games for them in 2016.
Chicago still has young talent, though.
Running back Jordan Howard is coming off a rookie season in which he ranked second in the league in rushing. Also, 24-year-old wide receiver Cameron Meredith will be looking to build on a breakout sophomore campaign. There's also a lot of hope for their top two picks from last year's draft: linebacker Leonard Floyd and center Cody Whitehair.
This is still a team that lacks talent in too many spots, which is typical of a rebuilder. But the Bears rank well here because they've gone out of their way to address the most important position in professional football.
Some might argue too far out of their way, considering how odd it is to give free-agent quarterback Mike Glennon a three-year, $45 million contract before forfeiting four premium draft picks for the right to add former North Carolina signal-caller Mitchell Trubisky with the No. 2 overall selection in April's draft.
But they believe in Glennon, who was solid as a rookie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013 but hasn't done much since. He's still only 27, while Trubisky put up huge numbers last year in college but might need some time to develop.
Both have a lot to prove, but by adding two potential future franchise quarterbacks to the roster, the Bears are at least increasing their odds of winding up with somebody they can build around.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Missing One Piece?
Whereas one could definitively state the 49ers are rebuilding without an answer at quarterback, I've left a question mark in the headline above because the rebuilding Jacksonville Jaguars think they have their franchise quarterback but probably do not.
They're further along in their rebuild than the Jets, Rams, 49ers and Bears because they at least have 2014 No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles under center, and because they have more talent elsewhere than all four of those rebuilders.
Bortles appeared to be making some progress with a 35-touchdown sophomore NFL season, but his bulk stats were inflated by the fact the Jaguars were always slinging it in garbage time. His numbers took a dive as he appeared to regress in 2016, and the Jags—who have lost 34 of Bortles' 45 career starts—once again struggled to win games.
But he's still only 25, and he's been working with new executive VP Tom Coughlin, who recently told NFL Network's Rich Eisen the Central Florida product has basically corrected his mechanics.
He has a heck of a lot of support on both sides of the ball. The Jaguars have three strong young receivers in Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns; an offensive line that should be better with Branden Albert and potential second-round steal Cam Robinson joining the fray; and a new potential star in No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette at running back.
Plus, a defense already loaded with young talent added top-tier free agents A.J. Bouye at cornerback and Calais Campbell at defensive end in March.
It's become hard to find a weak spot on the Jacksonville roster, which indicates the rebuild has gone well. But it can't be ruled a success unless the Jags start to, you know, win games.
If that doesn't happen this year and Bortles is again a major reason why, none of that other stuff GM David Caldwell has accomplished since taking over in 2013 will matter.
1. Cleveland Browns: One Year Away?
A lot of us—yours truly included—mocked the Cleveland Browns last offseason, and the offseason before that, and the offseason before that. We've all been consistently mocking the Browns since the Clinton administration, at least.
But the truth is, the Browns are no longer a mockery. They're no longer a punchline. Despite the fact they won just one game last season, it's obvious they're in the process of completing one of the most thorough, brave and impressive rebuilds of this football generation.
The cherry on top—and this will make Jets fans smile—came when the team threw in the towel on the 2016 season way back in the early days of the preceding offseason.
Despite possessing more than $40 million in salary-cap space, the Browns let four strong starters—center Alex Mack, offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, wide receiver Travis Benjamin and safety Tashaun Gipson—walk in March 2016.
That shouldn't have come as much of a surprise considering they did the same thing one year prior when notable in-house free agents Brian Hoyer, Jabaal Sheard, Buster Skrine and Jordan Cameron "got away." The only difference is Ray Farmer was still running the front office back in 2015, while Executive VP of Football Operations Sashi Brown and Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta had taken over in early 2016.
A good rebuild requires some luck, and the current Browns are lucky that the previous regime seemed to be on a similar page strategically. Now, of course, we're witnessing some form of Moneyball, with the Browns hoarding prime draft picks in an attempt to become good simply by rolling more dice than their counterparts.
If the draft is indeed a crapshoot, the Browns could afford to bat .300 and would still hit more often than the rest of the teams in the league. That's huge. Even if they underachieve, they're bound to get a lot better relative to their opponents because they have far more draft assets than everyone else.
That strategy devalues veterans in its early stages, which explains why we've yet to see results on the field. Cleveland knew it had to get worse before getting significantly better, and that has been the case. A team that won seven games in 2014 has since lost 28 of 32 and is coming off a 1-15 campaign.
But look at the depth chart and you'll see results in a different respect. You'll see a team that isn't good in terms of its track record but looks great in terms of its talent.
The Browns now possess...
- One of the best offensive lines in the NFL, led by future Hall of Fame left tackle Joe Thomas, stud free-agent signings Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter, freshly re-signed left guard Joel Bitonio (back from injury) and 2015 first-round pick Cameron Erving.
- A talented group of pass-catchers with a high ceiling, highlighted by 2016 first-round pick Corey Coleman, top-notch free-agent pickup Kenny Britt and athletically marvelous 2017 first-round tight end David Njoku.
- A promising young running back in Isaiah Crowell, who averaged 4.8 yards per attempt as a 23-year-old in 2016 and got better as his third season wore on (two 110-yard performances in the final month).
- The best player in the 2017 NFL draft class, Myles Garrett. And the most athletic player in the 2017 NFL draft class, Jabrill Peppers.
- Emerging 2015 first-round defensive tackle Danny Shelton, veteran Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins, underrated cover man Jamar Taylor and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden.
- Real options at quarterback. Just a year ago, Brock Osweiler was the prince of the open market. He signed a four-year, $72 million deal with the Houston Texans and had a horrible first season there, but the Browns had more than enough cap space to take a talented, physically promising 26-year-old off Houston's hands. They also drafted enticing quarterback prospect DeShone Kizer in Round 2 this year, and 2016 third-round pick Cody Kessler had a surprisingly strong rookie campaign.
That's what $90-plus million in salary-cap space and 15 first-, second- and third-round picks in a three-year span will do for you. The scariest part is they're still probably not going to be really competitive in 2017 but have two more first-round picks and two more second-round picks in 2018.
The hard part is history now. The Browns have too many good players to remain bad. They may have to shake off some lingering growing pains this season, but they've put together a model rebuild. Now we wait for results.