NFL Teams Entering Make-or-Break Offseasons in 2019
The NFL offseason is upon us. For the fans of some franchises, this can bring a sense of hope for 2019. For others, it can bring a bit of anxiety. After all, we just saw a quarter of the league's teams change head coaches, and a poor showing next season could lead to your favorite team making some drastic changes.
Poor seasons, of course, often begin in the offseason. A few missteps can lead to a team being downright bad—like the Khalil Mack-less Oakland Raiders—or slipping out of contention. Both the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars were in the latter category thanks in part to their quarterback choices in the 2018 offseason.
Offseasons can go both directions, though. Look at the Los Angeles Rams, who made some critical moves to get over the hump and into the Super Bowl. They easily could have been in the same position as Minnesota and Jacksonville.
The following eight teams have the most riding on their respective 2019 offseasons. The next few months could lead to some significant changes for them or drastically alter the perceptions of their franchises.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams handled their make-or-break offseason the right way in 2018. They added some key pieces, like cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, and pushed ahead to the Super Bowl because of them. Los Angeles is entering another critical offseason, though, While the right decisions should keep the Rams in title contention, the wrong ones could drop them back in the NFC pack.
There are a lot of big decisions to make too. A number of crucial players—including Suh, safety Lamarcus Joyner, linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., running back C.J. Anderson, left guard Rodger Saffold and cornerback Sam Shields—are set to become free agents, meaning L.A. will need to prioritize accordingly.
There is a very real chance the Rams could watch their championship-contending team fall apart just as quickly as they built it.
The Pittsburgh Steelers may be closing in on the end of an era. Ben Roethlisberger turns 37 in March and is entering the final year of his contract. Running back Le'Veon Bell is set to become a free agent (again), and wideout Antonio Brown wants out of Pittsburgh.
Brown is also being investigated for allegedly assaulting a woman in a domestic dispute. And now one longtime Steelers columnist believes it's time for the Steelers to oblige the receiver.
"It no longer should be how much the Steelers can get for him in a trade, but how soon they can dump this man," Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote on Tuesday.
On top of everything else, it's hard to imagine that Steelers ownership is thrilled with head coach Mike Tomlin after he mismanaged much of the 2018 season and ultimately missed the playoffs.
If the Steelers cannot set the stage for a postseason return in 2019, big changes could be on the way.
The Carolina Panthers made it to the Wild Card Game with 11 wins in 2017, but they slid back to 7-9 and missed the postseason in 2018. The 2019 season will likely determine if Carolina is building its way back to being a contender or simply rebuilding.
There will be a lot at stake next season, including the futures of head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton. Rivera is entering his ninth season as head coach and has accumulated a 71-56 record during that time. Newton turns 30 in May, has just two years remaining on his contract and is coming off another shoulder surgery—though the Panthers do expect him back for training camp.
"It's all positive," a source familiar with Newton's procedure told ESPN's Adam Schefter.
If a not-so-positive offseason leads to missing the playoffs again, the Panthers could potentially look to move on from Newton, Rivera or both in 2020.
This is a huge offseason for the Buffalo Bills. They finally ended a 17-year playoff drought two seasons ago, but they then slipped back out of contention while participating in a mini-rebuild. Part of that rebuild included nabbing former Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, who flashed both promise and rawness as a rookie.
This offseason is all about surrounding Allen with the talent needed to become a quality NFL starter. At the same time, though, general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott need to put the pieces in place to get back to the postseason as soon as possible. A legitimate No. 1 receiver and some offensive line help should top the list.
Developing Allen for the future is a fantastic goal, but another 6-10 season could leave ownership looking for a new front office to do it.
New York Jets
The New York Jets hired Adam Gase as head coach in January after he was fired by the rival Miami Dolphins. As a new coach, he should get a bit of leeway in 2019. However, this is still a make-or-break offseason for the Jets, particularly general manager Mike Maccagnan.
Maccagnan selected quarterback Sam Darnold with the third overall pick in last year's draft. While Darnold showed a lot of promise, he also made his share of head-scratching decisions, and he didn't have the talent around him to challenge the New England Patriots in the AFC East.
Both of these things have to change in 2019, and the responsibility for setting the stage falls on Maccagnan. If Darnold doesn't grow and the Jets suffer through another 4-12 campaign, it will likely be time for a new decision-maker at the top.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers got close to a title shot in 2018. Despite finishing with an impressive 12-4 record, though, they lost the AFC West to the Kansas City Chiefs and were forced to play on the road in the postseason as a wild-card team.
The Chargers are probably only a few pieces away from being in the Super Bowl. However, they're running out of time. Quarterback Philip Rivers is still playing at a high level—he threw for 4,308 yards with 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2018—but he's also 37 years old and entering the final year of his contract.
If the Chargers cannot get past the Chiefs in the division and deep into the playoffs next season, Los Angeles may well start planning for life without Rivers. The Chargers absolutely must focus on adding the missing pieces this offseason or risk watching the current window close. Strengthening the offensive line to better protect Rivers, who was sacked 32 times during the regular season, should be priority No. 1.
Kansas City Chiefs
It's going to be a huge offseason for the Chiefs. Their window isn't closing the way Los Angeles' might be, but Kansas City could still suffer a backslide like the up-and-coming Jaguars did in 2018. The Chiefs must make the necessary moves to stay ahead of the Chargers and get past the Patriots in the AFC.
There are some big decisions to make too. Key contributors like fullback Anthony Sherman, receiver Chris Conley and linebacker Dee Ford are all scheduled to become free agents in the offseason.
The trick for the Chiefs will be walking the line between adding enough new pieces to improve the 31st-ranked defense while not messing with the existing chemistry of the team too much. MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes isn't likely to have a Blake Bortles-like fall. However, if the offense stumbles the way the Jaguars defense did at times in 2018, the team could risk becoming an also-ran.
The Cleveland Browns are no strangers to dysfunction. However, much of it can be forgotten if they are able to build on their strong 2018 finish and reach the postseason in 2019.
General manager John Dorsey set the stage for a Browns revival by adding key players like quarterback Baker Mayfield, running back Nick Chubb and cornerback Denzel Ward through the draft and safety Damarious Randall in an offseason trade with the Green Bay Packers. Now, Dorsey has to add the additional pieces to transform Cleveland into a legitimate contender and not just an exciting story.
Cleveland should improve as its young players continue growing together, but it needs a No. 1 receiver, a franchise left tackle and a dominant interior defensive lineman—to start.
The Browns took a risk by naming former interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens the new head coach. If the team slides back into obscurity in 2019, owner Jimmy Haslam may view the move as a mistake and once again make drastic changes to the front office.
If Dorsey is going to continue building the Browns into a contender, he's going to have to start in the offseason.
All contract information via Spotrac.