NFL Teams Stuck in a Rut Heading into 2017

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJuly 11, 2017

NFL Teams Stuck in a Rut Heading into 2017

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The middle is no place to be in the NFL.

    Sure, it's fine if a team is trending upward and able to go from seven or eight wins to 10 and playoff contention. But the only fate worse than being in that middle ground filled is staying there and sputtering.

    The Buffalo Bills know that wheel-spinning feeling well. They haven't made the playoffs since 1999, and lately their annual fall teasing has led to especially middling results. The Bills have finished with between six and nine wins 14 of the last 17 years.

    That's the definition of a maddeningly mediocre team, and more of the same could be coming for the Bills in 2017. Same goes for the Indianapolis Colts and their improving though still flawed roster. They've ended two straight years at 8-8 and now play in a much tougher division.

    Which other teams could be stuck and unable to take the next step in 2017? Let's take a look.

Buffalo Bills

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    Tyrod Taylor
    Tyrod TaylorAssociated Press

    2016 Record: 7-9

    A team that finishes 7-9 should be within reach of the playoffs going forward.

    The swing from 7-9 to 9-7 should not be a soul-crushing. But with the Buffalo Bills, most things are soul-crushing. They play in the same division as the New England Patriots, which almost automatically takes away one path to the playoffs. But the bigger problem lies at quarterback.

    It's hard to make a definitive statement about Tyrod Taylor as a starting quarterback, which means it's difficult to trust his ability to make the offense less reliant on LeSean McCoy. The 29-year-old running back isn't young anymore and has averaged 306.3 touches per year over his past four seasons.

    Taylor showed promise in 2015, his first year as a starter. His booming arm, accuracy and decision-making gave him eight yards per attempt and a 99.4 passer rating. Then in 2016, he plummeted to 6.9 and 89.7, respectively.

    Maybe he can turn himself around under a new coaching staff, but even so, there are other concerning roster holes for Buffalo.

    Of the 39 sacks recorded by the Bills defense in 2016, 12.5 of them came from outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. But prior to 2016, he had only nine sacks in nine seasons. At 34 and in coach Sean McDermott's 4-3 defense, he might not be able to repeat that anomaly. 

    Defensive tackle Kyle Williams is playing well at 34, but an imminent decline is the precedent at his age.

    The defense also lost cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore (five interceptions) and Nickell Robey-Coleman.

    Safety Micah Hyde is a promising new face, and linebacker Reggie Ragland will return from injury, but the defense will likely not be dependable, which will put all the pressure back on Taylor, and that's a troubling thought.

    2017 Record Prediction: 5-11

Indianapolis Colts

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    Chuck Pagano
    Chuck PaganoAssociated Press

    2016 Record: 8-8

    The Indianapolis Colts are both too old and too young.

    Safety Malik Hooker and cornerback Quincy Wilson are promising, but it's dangerous to lean on two rookie starters in the defensive backfield. There will be a learning curve, and expecting two rookies to have smooth transitions is unrealistic.

    Frank Gore is a future hall of famer and eighth on the all-time rushing list. Barring injury, Gore will be in the top five soon. But he can't beat time forever. He's 34 and has averaged under four yards per carry the past two seasons. Behind him at running back is rookie Marlon Mack, who has a high ceiling but might not be ready for the spotlight as Gore's backup. 

    Team-wide, there's a lack of reliable weapons for quarterback Andrew Luck and little support for wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.

    Donte Moncrief is entering a make-or-break season after battling through injuries and ineffectiveness. He appeared in only nine games during in 2016 but still scored seven times. He is fast and athletic enough to excel as a red-zone target, but has a career average of only 36.2 receiving yards per game.

    Then there's Phillip Dorsett, who is descending toward first-round flop status with only 753 receiving yards over two seasons. Perhaps drafting T.Y. Hilton-lite 29th in 2015 wasn't a great idea.

    Luck's shoulder is a massive question mark. The three-time Pro Bowler had surgery in January and still hadn't started to throw by late June.

    Maybe Luck is fine, maybe Hooker and Wilson won't have any rookie hiccups and maybe Dorsett and Moncrief will finally have breakout years.

    But that's a lot of maybes.

    2017 Record Prediction: 6-10

Arizona Cardinals

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    Carson Palmer
    Carson PalmerOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    2016 Record: 7-8-1

    The window is still open for the Arizona Cardinals' current offensive core. But only by a crack.

    It's likely both wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and quarterback Carson Palmer are entering their final seasons, though neither has made an official announcement yet.

    In the short term, Fitzgerald can still be valuable, despite his age. He'll be 34 and fresh off a Pro Bowl season with 1,023 yards, 107 catches and six touchdowns. 

    Palmer's short-term future is more concerning. If he slams into a wall at 37, even all-world running back David Johnson might not be able to save the offense.

    The statuesque veteran in the pocket has torn an ACL twice in his career, most recently in 2014. He bounced back fast and averaged a career-high 8.7 yards per attempt in 2015, but that spiraled to 7.1 in 2016 with a lowly 87.2 passer rating.

    Palmer was also sacked 40 times in 2016. That's an intense physical gauntlet for any quarterback, especially one in his late 30s.

    Johnson's 2,118 total yards in 2016 show he can carry the Cardinals, but if Palmer's decline continues, the offense will be dangerously one-dimensional.

    And on the other side of the ball, losing several key defensive starters during free agency—defensive end Calais Campbell and safety Tony Jefferson being the most notable—isn't helping either.

    2017 Record Prediction: 5-11

Cincinnati Bengals

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    A.J. Green
    A.J. GreenWesley Hitt/Getty Images

    2016 Record: 6-9-1

    The Cincinnati Bengals added two key offensive weapons during the 2017 draft. Wide receiver John Ross can hurt defenders' necks and pride with his blazing speed, and Joe Mixon was one of the most complete running backs in the class after his 2,921 yards from scrimmage over two seasons with the Oklahoma Sooners.

    But that might create false hope. It'll be hard for quarterback Andy Dalton to find Ross if he's on his back and staring at the sky, and Mixon could be whacked in the backfield far too often.

    A tight salary cap made the Bengals lose stud guard Kevin Zeitler and Pro Bowl tackle Andrew Whitworth.

    Whitworth is 35, but that hasn't mattered in recent seasons. Over the past three years, he gave up just eight sacks, two quarterback hits and 44 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus.

    Zeitler, meanwhile, is only now entering his prime at 27, and allowed just one sack over the past two seasons, again per PFF.

    Even with those two in place, the rest of the Bengals offensive line was so poor that Dalton was sacked 41 times in 2016, the second-highest single-season total in his six-year career. So with Zeitler and Whitworth subtracted, the Bengals' offense could flounder fast with subpar offensive line play derailing talent elsewhere.

    After spotty run blocking contributed to an average of only four yards per carry in 2016, things are not looking up.

    2017 Record Prediction: 5-11

Detroit Lions

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    2016 Record: 9-7

    The Detroit Lions' will not regress in 2017 due to a lack of talent. There's plenty. 

    Wide receiver Golden Tate had his third straight season with 90-plus catches in 2016, and also logged his second year with 1,000-plus receiving yards. And Tight end Eric Ebron is finally starting to fulfill his first-round potential after 711 receiving yards in 2016.

    The offensive line in front will improve after guard T.J. Lang and tackle Rickey Wagner signed as free agents. While there are some concerns after the Lions gave up 33 passing touchdowns last year, rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis should be a versatile presence anchoring the middle immediately.

    But one thing from 2016 could still haunt the Lions. In 2016, quarterback Matthew Stafford set the single-season record with eight fourth-quarter and overtime comebacks. That means the Lions danced on a razor-thin edge and were wildly streaky and lucky.

    Their 2016 season featured two three-game losing streaks at either end. In the middle, they won eight of nine. But of their nine total wins, five came by a field goal or less, and their average margin of victory was just five points.

    Their luck could easily swing the opposite way now, though a healthy Ameer Abdullah will do his part to avoid that fate.

    Abdullah played only two games in 2016. Now he's recovered and moved well in OTAs and minicamp, according to Tim Twentyman of the Lions' official site. Abdullah still isn't far removed from a shining college career at Nebraska, where he averaged 1,705.7 yards from scrimmage per year over his final three seasons.

    The Lions haven't won a playoff game since 1991 and although the addition of Abdullah should make the team look better on paper, it's hard to see them passing Green Bay in the NFC North this year to push for a division title. 

    Despite their 9-7 record last season, the Lions had a -12 point differential. To compare, the San Diego Chargers, who were on the opposite end of luck, had a -13 point differential and went 5-11. The Lions are a strong record regression candidate in 2017.

    2017 Record Prediction: 7-9

Just Missed the Cut

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    Jeremy Maclin
    Jeremy MaclinPatrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Baltimore Ravens (2016 record: 8-8): The Ravens have a mountain of targets to replace after losing the pass-catchers of 338 of Joe Flacco's throws last year.

    That volume of targets is daunting, but signing Jeremy Maclin kept Baltimore off the list, and it should be the solution they were looking for during desperate times.

    Denver Broncos (2016 record: 9-7): An already great AFC West has improved around the Broncos. Meanwhile, Denver did little to address a leaking run defense, and the uncertainty at quarterback remains.

    Minnesota Vikings (2016 record: 8-8): Rookie running back Dalvin Cook should get the Vikings offense back to playing a grinding and pounding brand of football. But if he struggles at all, putting a season in Sam Bradford's hands usually doesn't end well.

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