Ranking the NFL Teams Best Set Up for the Future
A long-term vision is hard to execute in the NFL.
Coaching and front-office personnel turnover comes with a win-now environment, so teams fortunate enough to win consistently tend to have the well-plotted plans.
For some teams, a comfortable outlook centers around a star quarterback. In fact, it's almost a requirement. But a mixture of available funds, upside at other positions and future assets doesn't hurt, either.
The following teams aren't guaranteed to contend for the Super Bowl as soon as 2019. But the foundations they've constructed around clear-cut plans are so superb that they should not only stand the test of time but also let the squads compete for a while—if decision-makers continue to properly pursue the visions.
These are the NFL teams best set up for the future.
10. New York Jets
A team from the New York area probably isn't the first to come to mind for a list like this.
One of the city's two squads continues to suffer public criticism for draft strategy and decisions at quarterback. The other is the New York Jets, who seemed to be doing fine until they abruptly fired general manager Mike Maccagnan well after the draft.
But really, shoving that aside for a moment, everything else looks great for the future. Even after inking Le'Veon Bell to a contract, the Jets stand top six in cap space and have four more years of Sam Darnold on a rookie deal.
Bell, by the way, is one of the best offensive weapons in the NFL and will join budding receiving weapons Robby Anderson and Chris Herndon in helping along Darnold, who only took 30 sacks a year ago behind a solid line.
Don't forget the defense, which corrected plenty of issues this offseason with the big signing of linebacker C.J. Mosley. Quinnen Williams, the draft's third pick, will pair with Leonard Williams to form one of the NFL's more formidable trench duos. Behind them, breakout star Jamal Adams patrols the field at safety.
Provided the building strategy doesn't change much, the Jets are in a good position to keep beefing up a quality roster well before Darnold needs an extension.
9. Houston Texans
It's almost easy to forget about the Houston Texans given the star power and up-and-down nature of the AFC South.
Yet here they are. Deshaun Watson is just 23 years old and completed 68.3 percent of his passes last year for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns. The running game squeezed another solid year out of Lamar Miller. DeAndre Hopkins might be the league's best receiver and almost causally put up 115 catches for 1,572 yards and 11 scores. He's only 27, and Will Fuller V is 25.
On the opposite side of the ball stands J.J. Watt, who quietly had another 16 sacks last year. Jadeveon Clowney and his nine sacks are back on a franchise tag with the front office presumably poised to use some of its top-10 cap space on a new deal. The secondary has a long-term leader in Justin Reid even if it is shuffling names right now—they'll all get to play behind one of the best pass rushes in the league.
The biggest road bump for Houston moving forward is the line that gave up 62 sacks of Watson last year. But two top-55 picks went to addressing that area, as did at least one free-agency move. If the coaching and line play improves and Watson adjusts to get the ball out quicker, everything about the Texans will scream contender for a long stretch.
8. Carolina Panthers
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is only 30 years old. The 2015 MVP has plenty of good football left in him, even if last year was an odd campaign and this summer is about his rehab.
It helps that the Panthers keep getting stronger around him, though. Christian McCaffrey ripped off 1,098 rushing yards and seven scores last year while averaging five yards per carry and also led the team with 107 catches for 867 yards and six more scores. First-round wideout DJ Moore quietly had 788 yards.
This offseason, the offensive line got a big upgrade with center Matt Paradis and even retained offensive tackle Daryl Williams before getting a possible starter in second-round pick Greg Little.
No. 16 pick Brian Burns will boost a pass rush that only had 35 sacks last year. But Mario Addison had nine of those off the edge, and Kawann Short continues to be one of the most underappreciated interior linemen in the league. Joining him there is Gerald McCoy to form a tandem in front of Luke Kuechly and an improving secondary.
Even with Newton's contract, Carolina ranks among the top 20 teams in cap space. Newton will eventually need a new deal, but everything is coming along nicely for a team that could be a surprise contender again as soon as 2019.
7. Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings are something of an outlier on this list in the cap-space department.
They don't have much of it—but it isn't hard to see why.
Varying narratives surround Kirk Cousins, but he'll be only 31 years old in August and during his first year in town completed 70.1 percent of his passes with 30 scores. He's got a star running back behind him with Dalvin Cook and droves of interesting weapons, starting with Adam Thielen (1,373 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018) and Stefon Diggs (1,021 and nine).
First-round pick Garrett Bradbury will join the fray and boost an offensive line that allowed 40 sacks of Cousins last year, and second-round tight end Irv Smith Jr. will flank the recently extended Kyle Rudolph. Defensively, Minnesota allowed only 21.3 points per game last year with 50 sacks and returns the major names.
The cap situation seems bleak, but at the same time, the Vikings are top five in average age. The Rudolph extension created more space. Other contract restructures and cost-effective cuts are surely coming, and Everson Griffen's $13.5 million contract for 2020 will probably come off the books, to name one possibility.
Money is something of an afterthought for Minnesota because the players under contract have the jealousy-inducing combination of production, youth and upside to keep the Vikings in contention.
6. Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears aren't doing too shabby for themselves either.
Mitchell Trubisky is still on a rookie deal, and love or hate his future prospects, the team around him last year showed that even journeyman production can get the Bears far.
Part of that is because the Bears fielded an offensive line that allowed Trubisky to get sacked only 24 times. An effective running game helped. Another facet was the passing game, headed by 2018 second-round pick Anthony Miller and Allen Robinson II and diversified with Tarik Cohen out of the backfield.
Then there is the defense, which figures to keep doing the heavy lifting. Chicago stole Khalil Mack via trade last year and added him to a group with a budding top-10 safety in Eddie Jackson, a star corner in Kyle Fuller and one of the league's most dominant players up front, Akiem Hicks. The result was the Bears allowed just 17.7 points per game and tallied 50 sacks.
Chicago made mostly quiet moves this offseason and still ranks in the top half of the league in cap space and top 20 in average age. Its future is clearly built around shutting down the Kirk Cousins- and Aaron Rodgers-type players in the division, and that should keep taking the Bears far on an annual basis.
5. Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys are just fine regarding cap space—a conversation that will change once the front office starts nailing down extensions for key faces.
But even when that number shrinks, the Cowboys will stick around in the contender's circle for a long time.
Dak Prescott, one of those guys who will eat up some cap, just completed 67.7 percent of his passes with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions in just his age-25 season. Ezekiel Elliott, another, ran for 1,434 yards and six scores on 4.7 yards per carry. Yet another, Amari Cooper, came over and had 725 yards and six scores in nine games.
That is enough to stay in contention for a long time, though it sure doesn't hurt that the offensive line is one of the better units in football. And the defense hardly allowed 20 points per game, in large part because Leighton Vander Esch is one of the next great NFL linebackers. Demarcus Lawrence and his 10.5 sacks are back, and budding secondary members like Chidobe Awuzie and Byron Jones should keep improving as a result.
Barring a gaffe by the front office, the foundation for a prosperous stretch of seasons is there.
4. Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns haven't seemed ready to carve out a path of extended playoff contention for a long time.
But things in the NFL change quickly.
Baker Mayfield inspired hope last year after the team moved on from Hue Jackson and finished the season with 27 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions, not to mention a handful of wins. A running game that averaged 4.6 yards per carry last year only got better with the arrival of Kareem Hunt.
And speaking of arrivals, Odell Beckham Jr., who is still just 26 years old, is aboard and will pair with Jarvis Landry. Feel free to pepper in intriguing high-upside pieces like David Njoku and Antonio Callaway as starters.
The defensive side isn't too shabby either. Myles Garrett had 13.5 sacks last year, Larry Ogunjobi had 5.5, and Sheldon Richardson came over in free agency. A value-minded draft, led by Greedy Williams at No. 46, improved the depth of the foundation.
The hype machine backing Cleveland at least makes sense at this juncture. Thanks to the (mostly) long-term outlook they've applied to the rebuild, the Browns are in a good financial spot too, which has them prepared to dole out big contracts if the roster realizes its potential.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
This one doesn't need a ton of explaining, right?
Most everything else goes out the window with a player like Patrick Mahomes under center. He's on a rookie deal, just 23 years old and one season removed from completing 66 percent of his passes for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions.
Mahomes is the sort of player who uplifts pretty much anything around him. Kareem Hunt might be gone, but the offensive line and threat of Mahomes don't figure to have many problems since the other three players with 50 or more carries last year also averaged at least 4.5 yards. And even if Tyreek Hill isn't available, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins will hit on expanded roles.
The focus falls on the defensive side of the ball, which underwent a major overhaul with a base change. But even if the unit is a mess in its first year, Mahomes provides some long-term leeway. And the talent makes for a superb foundational block for future years too. Most teams would give up quite a lot to be able to build around Frank Clark, Tyrann Mathieu and Emmanuel Ogbah.
Even if the defense struggles and Mahomes trends back toward the mean, the Chiefs have quality cornerstones and the youngest roster and can get creative with the cap if needed.
2. Los Angeles Rams
The guy who helped start an offense frenzy, Sean McVay, isn't going anywhere.
McVay's staff might have been plundered this offseason, but he's still the foremost offensive mind in the league when he isn't grappling with Bill Belichick on the opposite sideline.
A year ago, Jared Goff—just 24 years old—broke away from the silly bust label to complete 64.9 percent of his passes for 4,688 yards and 32 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions. Todd Gurley II ran for 1,251 yards and 17 scores behind an elite line, and four players caught 40 or more passes, including the underrated Cooper Kupp, who played only eight games.
The defense wasn't exactly a slouch either, which is what happens when a unit gets constructed around a generational player like Aaron Donald. He's only 28, by the way, and coming off a season in which he tallied 20.5 sacks.
Naturally, most of the offseason adds went to Donald's unit in the form of helpful veterans like Clay Matthews and Eric Weddle. Second-round pick Taylor Rapp could end up starting, too. Even with those older players, the Rams are tied for the fourth-youngest roster, and their key pieces should keep the arrow pointing up so long as McVay can stay ahead of the curve.
1. Indianapolis Colts
Not too long ago, everyone seemed to have doubts about Andrew Luck given his shoulder injury.
But the issue seems well in the rearview at this point. Luck is entering his age-30 season after a return campaign that featured a 67.3 completion percentage with 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns against 15 interceptions.
Luck took only 18 sacks last year thanks to the remarkable commitment by the Colts to fix that problem. T.Y. Hilton is still around after going for 1,270 yards and six scores, and Eric Ebron was used situationally to the tune of 13 touchdowns. The running game averaged 4.2 yards per carry with a platoon approach led by Marlon Mack and his 908 yards and nine scores in 12 games.
Even the defense surprised in 2018, allowing just 21.5 points per game. Darius Leonard was such a rookie star at linebacker that it's easy to forget about 2017 No. 15 pick Malik Hooker, who continued to emerge. He's flanked by quality upstart Pierre Desir as well as top-35 pick Rock Ya-Sin.
The Colts entered the offseason viewed as a team ready to splurge on big names. Instead, they still have a top-five cap number, a top-10 average age and a top-five quarterback. They also make the most of their talent via scheme and coaching, prodding the best out of guys like Margus Hunt.
While Indianapolis isn't Belichickian in its level of impressive just yet, it sure seems poised to assume the role if New England ever steps aside.