If you haven't won a game by Week 5 of the NFL season, it's time to put the youngsters on the field and start evaluating for next year. That's where six clubs currently find themselves.
The Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Washington Redskins and Arizona Cardinals (with one tie in their corner) have virtually been eliminated from playoff contention after one quarter of the 2019 season.
How can we be so sure? Only one team (the 1992 San Diego Chargers) has made the playoffs after starting 0-4. For these squads, it's already all about next year. And yes, the 0-3 Jets and 0-3-1 Cardinals are in similar trouble.
So, what's next for these teams? They, surprisingly, have options.
It turns out Zac Taylor isn't Sean McVay. Or maybe Andy Dalton isn't Jared Goff. Or maybe both.
The first year of the Taylor experience isn't going well as the Bengals struggle to produce offensively after a surprising Week 1 output against the Seattle Seahawks. And that's not to mention a defense that looks like the NFL's worst.
The Bengals, who are a near-lock to earn a top-five selection, can truly go best player available in the 2020 first round. If Taylor keeps his job and loves Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the Bengals can (and should) move on from Dalton. If they're content with the Red Rifle under center, adding a pass-rusher like Ohio State's Chase Young or a playmaking wide receiver in Alabama's Jerry Jeudy would be a smart play.
The biggest question is if ownership for a franchise with no real front-office structure believes in Taylor by season's end. If the Bengals limp to a 1-15 finish, does Taylor get to see this through or will the shine of his brand as a McVay disciple wear off?
The Dolphins can at least claim they planned to be bad. The Bengals have no excuse other than poor performance.
John Elway may be cursed. Are we sure he didn't sell his football soul to win those two Super Bowls with Terrell Davis in his backfield and then the Peyton Manning finale against the Carolina Panthers? His track record since that game is not good, friends. Not good at all.
Elway has missed at quarterback (hello, Paxton Lynch). He's missed at head coach (Vance Joseph). Even his vaunted defense is falling apart with Chris Harris Jr. wanting out and the team's pass rush impotent so far this year.
The thing about being a god is that you're not going to be replaced no matter how badly you perform.
That's where Elway is at as the Broncos go through an ownership fight. He won two rings. He orchestrated another. It's highly unlikely he'll be fired. Instead, with what looks like a top-five pick coming to Denver in the 2020 draft, he needs to hire an assistant he truly respects and trusts. Someone to push back against his decisions.
What the team does with the 2020 draft is up in the air. Quarterback Drew Lock was drafted in the second round of 2019 but is on injured reserve with a hand injury, making any type of evaluation of his readiness to take the starting job next season impossible. The front office must replace a miss at left tackle (Garett Bolles), add a No. 1 cornerback for when Harris leaves and find some depth at receiver.
The best outcome for the Broncos would be to win a few ball games and fall into Ohio State's Jeff Okudah, the No. 1 cornerback in the 2020 class and arguably the best prospect at the position since Jalen Ramsey. But if they fail to do that, this could be another reset for Denver and a restart all over again at quarterback.
When you hire a head coach recently fired by his alma mater and give him his first NFL job, you expect a learning curve. The same goes for drafting a one-year starter at quarterback who broke every preconceived size threshold the NFL held. The Cardinals are learning on the job, but the offense seems to be regressing since the second half of its Week 1 tie against the Detroit Lions.
Improvement is needed, and you have to wonder how long general manager Steve Keim will remain safe on the job given his struggles to build a winner following the Carson Palmer years.
He drafted a top-10 quarterback then immediately traded him away for pennies on the dollar to go all-in on the Kliff Kingsbury Air Raid experiment. If there aren't obvious improvements on the field, this could be the end for Keim and a one-and-done for Kingsbury.
The Cardinals have the talent to win enough games down the stretch and allow both to return in 2020. But what would their offseason plan look like? The offensive line needs to be addressed in the worst way, but Kingsbury's offense has never been about a powerful front five. Would he and Keim spend a premium pick on Andrew Thomas (Georgia) or Tristan Wirfs (Iowa)?
The defense actually has weapons, but it would be hard to imagine the Cardinals passing on Okudah to pair with Byron Murphy if he's available. The same could be said for Iowa's powerful defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa to go opposite Chandler Jones.
It feels like we've seen this plan before, but maybe not to this extent.
The Cleveland Browns famously tanked under the direction of Sashi Brown, but neither Brown nor head coach Hue Jackson survived long after the team's winless 2017 season. Will Brian Flores and Chris Grier, in their first year on the job as head coach and general manager, respectively, survive this season?
Ownership has to be on board given the team's shipment of Laremy Tunsil, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Kenny Stills for draft picks. But if the noise gets too loud in south Florida, this will be an interesting rebuild to watch. Grier has torn this team down to the studs and will attempt to rebuild through the draft. They have the capital to do that with three first-rounders and 12 total picks already in the cupboard for 2020.
The thing about having a lot of draft picks is that you still have to draft well.
The Dolphins must decide if second-year quarterback Josh Rosen is the future around whom they'll build or if they'll go for broke to add Tagovailoa. Building around Rosen would give the team a ton of flexibility with what, right now, is a projected two top-five selections—Young and Jeudy would both look nice in Miami—but the first step of the plan is deciding on the current quarterback.
Until that's done, it's hard to get a clear picture of what Miami will look like next season. The only thing we know for sure is that the NFL's worst roster will be a lot younger in 2020.
It's tough to assign blame for the Jets' winless start to new head coach Adam Gase, as the team has been plagued by injuries, especially to quarterback Sam Darnold. But Gase will need to show improvement down the stretch. No matter how friendly he and new general manager Joe Douglas are, it's important to remember Gase was hired by (then pushed out) the former regime.
A top pick could be good news for the Jets, though. No one really expected this team to compete in the AFC East this season (or they shouldn't have, at least), and more ammo to load up and make a run at the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills is needed.
A top-five pick could answer the team's massive hole at edge-rusher in the form of Young. It could give Darnold a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. And if Douglas and Co. are willing to trade down slightly, the Jets could look to answer the left tackle question with Thomas or Wirfs.
Losing is never fun, but it could be a blessing in disguise for the Jets.
Bad teams have a way of staying bad. That's the case for the dysfunctional Washington Redskins. From ownership down through the org chart, this is a cluster of a mess that doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon.
Good luck recruiting a new head coach with that in mind.
And a new head coach is highly probable here. According to league insiders, the front office has soured on Jay Gruden and wants to go a different direction. The new head coach will have an early Round 1 selection but no 2020 second-rounder to work with after the team used it to trade up and select Montez Sweat this past offseason.
The Scout's Report
—The Jalen Ramsey saga continues. After missing last week's game due to an injury and the impending birth of his child, Ramsey is still not practicing. All signs would point to him sitting out as he hopes a trade will come through. That might not happen as Jaguars owner Shad Khan told the Associated Press he has no plans to trade the star cornerback.
Ramsey can try to go the Antonio Brown route and force a trade, but the reality is the team owns his rights through the 2020 season and could then apply the franchise tag to keep him around for two more years.
This is an issue the NFLPA will likely raise with owners when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is signed: whether a team should be able to control a player for seven seasons. Ramsey has done all he can by formally requesting a trade through his agent; the ball is in the Jaguars' court.
—Stefon Diggs hasn't come out and requested a trade from the Minnesota Vikings—at least not that has been leaked—but many around the league believe a deal could have happened after Diggs was a healthy scratch from practice on Wednesday.
Diggs would have excellent value on the trade block, but the Vikings might limit his options to the AFC, which would eliminate receiver-needy squads like the Green Bay Packers from contention but could open doors for the Bills or Patriots.
With Adam Thielen and Diggs seemingly frustrated by the passing game in Minnesota, maybe quarterback Kirk Cousins is the one who should be moved?
—The NFL knows it can schedule basically anything it wants and we'll watch. This is truly frustrating—and honestly, the entire 2019 schedule has been. Better is expected.
The Big Board
We're breaking away from the top overall big board this week to take a more in-depth look at what might be the best overall wide receiver class in the last decade:
1. Jerry Jeudy, Alabama (junior)
2. Tee Higgins, Clemson (junior)
3. Henry Ruggs III, Alabama (junior)
4. Cee Dee Lamb, Oklahoma (junior)
5. Laviska Shenault Jr., Colorado (junior)
6. Tyler Johnson, Minnesota (senior)
7. Donovan Peoples-Jones, Michigan (junior)
8. Jalen Reagor, TCU (junior)
9. Collin Johnson, Texas (senior)
10. Michael Pittman Jr., USC (senior)
Andrew Magnuson @AndrewLMagnuson
@nfldraftscout How do you know if a Running Back can transition from splitting carries in college to being a workhorse in the NFL? Example: Josh Jacobs His max carries in college was 120 his final year at Bama. This year at Oakland he’s on pace for 248. #MillerMailbag
One of the hardest parts of scouting is the projection of how a player's body will mature and how they'll handle the punishment of an NFL season.
One thing we try to do is look at a player's body to project how they'll do when asked to take on NFL defenders over a long season. Jacobs, for example, has thick legs that can absorb tackles and also has broad, muscular shoulders.
Players on the leaner side—like Christian McCaffrey, for example—have to be more creative evading tacklers. It might sound simple, but sometimes it's as elementary as looking at body composition to project how a player can handle the punishment.
I'm hesitant to compare anyone to Adrian Peterson given how naturally gifted he was as a runner, but I do think he's an upside version of Joe Mixon.
Comparisons are hard to come by because there will always be something that doesn't quite match up with the player to whom you're comparing. I see where you're going with the fumbles and high running style for AD and Taylor, for example. But for me, a rule of making comparisons is to avoid comparing to Hall of Famers.
Tua Tagovailoa, Chase Young, Jerry Jeudy, Jeff Okudah and A.J. Epenesa are locks. Outside of those five players, I would say a lot can still change. No one feels great about Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert right now, but I'd say there's a very strong chance he's a Round 1 player. The same goes for a lot of the wide receiver class, in which players could rise or fall based on combine performances.
The 2020 draft class is good and will likely only get stronger as the season goes on and players emerge, but it's not a top-heavy group.
Without a doubt, it's wide receiver and cornerback. No question.
There are five wide receivers ranked in my top 20 overall, and more are pushing up the board weekly. This has the potential to be a legendary class.
At cornerback, there is an elite prospect in Okudah followed by really solid players in CJ Henderson, Trevon Diggs, Kristian Fulton and Paulson Adebo. There are four probable first-rounders at the position, and each has legitimate top-20 talent.
6. Game of the Week
LSU facing Utah State isn't must-watch television because the game will be good, but it's certainly must-watch for scouts and evaluators of the quarterback position.
In this one-sided contest, Utah State quarterback Jordan Love will face the best test of his college career. On the other side, LSU's Joe Burrow will look to continue a streak of near perfection to start the year. A close and exciting game isn't expected in this one, but you should be sure to check it out if you like evaluating quarterbacks.
5. Stock Down
Travis Etienne started the year with a red-hot name and an expectation that he would be a Round 1 player with a chance to fight D'Andre Swift and Jonathan Taylor for RB1 status. That opinion has changed, if it was ever valid to begin with.
Based on conversations with evaluators this week, many feel Etienne is more a product of the system. One scout texted that Etienne "doesn't have the power or vision of a starting back" and attributed most of his success to teams bailing out to stop the Clemson passing game.
That might be a stretch, but teams are cautious when it comes to Etienne while doubling down on the talents of Swift and Taylor as Round 1 backs.
4. Stock Up
The wide receiver talent in the 2020 draft is truly special, and now another name can be added to the upper tier.
Minnesota's Tyler Johnson looks like a college version of Davante Adams with his smooth route-running and ability to beat coverage with his legs. He's not the most physical receiver on the field, but his lean 6'2", 205 pounds is enough to set up excellent breaking routes.
In a class dominated by Jerry Jeudy, Tee Higgins and others, keep a close watch on Johnson's ability.
3. Sleeper of the Week
Damon Arnette has been on an NFL draft watch list for three seasons now, quietly biding his time until he's ready to emerge as a standout cornerback. It might finally be his time after a difficult 2017 season and a quiet 2018 campaign.
Arnette has the size (6'0", 195 lbs), but his traits profile best as a potential nickelback. What he's put on film at Ohio State this year has been solid, and his decision to return to school for his senior season looks like a great call for his NFL draft stock.
2. Tailgate Tour
Our Stick to Football tailgate tour was recently announced. If you get a chance to come out, these tailgates are free fan events with no ticket to the game required:
Oct. 6 — Colts at Chiefs (Kansas City, Missouri), Lot J at 3:00 p.m. CT
Oct. 12 — Oklahoma at Texas (Dallas), Off the Cuff at 9:00 a.m. CT
Oct. 27 — Rams vs. Bengals (London)
Nov. 9 — LSU at Alabama (Tuscaloosa, Alabama)
Nov. 23 — Cal at Stanford (Palo Alto, California)
1. Stick to Football is back in-house this week with our podcast episodes now also available on YouTube as a video series. Check out the podcast and subscribe if you haven't already. We will also post a ton of behind-the-scenes content on our Instagram page.
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.