1 Reason for Every NFL Team to Be Optimistic for the New Year

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistDecember 27, 2019

1 Reason for Every NFL Team to Be Optimistic for the New Year

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    Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson
    Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar JacksonNick Wass/Associated Press

    Heading into Week 17 and the playoffs, NFL teams can extract positives from the regular season and attempt to build on bright spots for the 2020 campaign. 

    Whether the 2019 season ends with a chance to win a Super Bowl or a losing record, all 32 teams have at least one reason to feel good about next year. 

    Going into 2020, a contender may look at the growth of a quarterback or an entire unit and envision significant development. Meanwhile, teams that have a high draft selection may land a franchise cornerstone in April.

    Before front offices devise offseason blueprints for how to improve, they must pore over their current rosters and pinpoint what worked this season.

    Let's take a look at one encouraging aspect that should excite each team heading into the 2020 season.

          

Arizona Cardinals: QB Kyler Murray Off to Good Start

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    Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray
    Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler MurrayLindsey Wasson/Associated Press

    Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray has overcome a number of obstacles to produce impressive numbers in his first NFL season.

    Arizona's offensive line ranks 27th in pass protection, per Football OutsidersRunning back David Johnson didn't come close to regaining his 2016 All-Pro form, logging 94 carries for 345 yards and two scores on the ground while battling nagging back and ankle ailments. Although running back Kenyan Drake has performed well, he spent only half his season in Arizona.

    Despite all of that, Murray ranks 15th leaguewide in QBR (58.9). He also became the third rookie quarterback to record 3,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards in a season, according to CBS Sports' Jeff Kerr, joining Cam Newton (2011) and Robert Griffin III (2012).

    Cardinals center A.Q. Shipley spoke highly of Murray's leadership skills and growth during an interview with Arizona Sports 98.7 FM's Bickley & Marotta

    "He's more confident in the huddle," Shipley said. "He's more commanding in the huddle, he's really taken over this team. The other 10 guys in the offensive huddle are well aware that he's the guy that makes this thing roll."

    Based on the early returns, the Cardinals made the right decision to turn their offense over to Murray under first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

Atlanta Falcons: Offensive Line Will Have Time to Jell

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    Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Kaleb McGary
    Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Kaleb McGaryCarmen Mandato/Getty Images

    In April, the Atlanta Falcons selected two rookie offensive linemen in the first round of the draft, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary. The former missed 11 games with a broken foot, while the latter struggled in pass protection, allowing 7.5 sacks through 15 games, per the Washington Post's STATS

    Left tackle Jake Matthews also had a rough year, surrendering 5.5 sacks, per the Washington Post's STATS.

    Despite those rough patches, Atlanta can look forward to a relatively stable offensive line in 2020. The rookies will have a chance to improve. Matthews, who signed a five-year extension in July 2018, will have an opportunity to bounce back only one year removed from his first Pro Bowl campaign. 

    Although the Falcons need better performances out of guards Jamon Brown and James Carpenter, the five-man unit has the potential to become a formidable group with consistent reps together in the offseason. 

    Matthew Tabeek of the team's website expressed optimism about the offensive line in a recent mailbag.

    "The Falcons need to get the offensive line figured out and stabilized once and for all," Tabeek wrote. "I think Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary are going to be good players for years to come. I think Jake Matthews is a very good left tackle and Alex Mack is one of the best at his position still."

    A stronger offensive line would allow quarterback Matt Ryan to stand tall in the pocket and find wideouts Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley downfield. Tailback Devonta Freeman would see bigger running lanes, too.

Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson Exceeded Early Expectations

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    Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson
    Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar JacksonRon Schwane/Associated Press

    The Baltimore Ravens turned a project into a star under offensive coordinator Greg Roman.

    In one season, quarterback Lamar Jackson has become a playmaking sensation.

    Jackson bulked up this past offseason, which has helped him handle hits as a ball-carrier. But the Ravens have also allowed him to use his arm more often than he did last year under former play-caller Marty Mornhinweg. Jackson averaged 26.7 pass attempts per outing this season compared to 22.6 in his seven starts last year.

    Jackson has three five-touchdown performances, and he's the clear front-runner for MVP. The second-year signal-caller leads the league in passing touchdowns (36), improved his completion percentage from 58.2 to 66.1 and broke Michael Vick's single-season rushing record for quarterbacks (1,206).

    Under Roman, Jackson made improvements in leaps and bounds rather than incremental steps. If the Ravens add more offensive firepower at wide receiver to join rookies Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin, Jackson may match or even exceed his numbers from this season.

    The Ravens have found a franchise quarterback who will keep them competitive for 2020 and beyond. Now they need to add more skill-position talent and establish continuity to help him reach his peak.

Buffalo Bills: Nearly $90 Million in 2020 Cap Space

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    Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott
    Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermottBillie Weiss/Getty Images

    The Buffalo Bills, who clinched a playoff spot with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15, don't have massive contracts on their payroll moving forward. A few impact free-agent signings could put them in position to overtake the New England Patriots and win the AFC East in 2020. 

    According to Spotrac, the Bills will have a projected $89.5 million in cap space this offseason, which should help them address areas of need on the roster.

    The Bills could go after an established big target at wide receiver such as A.J. Green to help quarterback Josh Allen in the red zone. Conversely, they could stick to their mold of small, quick receivers and pursue Randall Cobb or Emmanuel Sanders as reliable pass-catchers for crucial third downs. 

    The Bills also have to decide whether to re-sign left guard Quinton Spain or allow him to test free agency. The front office could retain the 28-year-old for the sake of continuity across the offensive line or upgrade with a player such as Pro Bowler Andrus Peat if he's available. 

    Coming off a double-digit win season, the Bills appear poised to remain in the playoff discussion.

Carolina Panthers: They Will Have Options at QB

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    Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton
    Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam NewtonBrian Blanco/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers face a difficult decision at quarterback this offseason, but they have multiple options at their disposal.

    After veteran Cam Newton suffered a Lisfranc injury early in the season, the Panthers turned to Kyle Allen, who played well in a handful of games. However, the second-year signal-caller sputtered between Weeks 13 and 15, throwing four touchdowns and six interceptions during that three-game stretch.

    Allen's subpar performances opened the door for rookie third-rounder Will Grier to start in Week 16. He finished 27-of-44 for 224 yards and three interceptions in a 38-6 loss against the Indianapolis Colts.

    Heading into Week 17, the Panthers would have the eighth pick in the 2020 draft. Barring a move up, they won't be in a position to draft Joe Burrow, but they may have a shot at Tua Tagovailoa if he declares for the draft. Another prospect may gain steam during the predraft process and garner consideration in the top 10.

    Carolina could opt to keep Newton for the short term as well. Before his foot injury, he showed flashes in offensive coordinator Norv Turner's offense, completing a season-high 67.9 percent of his pass attempts in 2018. The 30-year-old signal-caller has one year left on his deal. 

    The Panthers will have an entire offseason to contemplate what to do at quarterback. They aren't necessarily tied to Newton or anyone else on the roster, and that flexibility puts them in a good spot.

Chicago Bears: Defense Remains in the Top 10

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    Chicago Bears edge-rusher Khalil Mack
    Chicago Bears edge-rusher Khalil MackDylan Buell/Getty Images

    The Chicago Bears haven't tallied as many sacks and turnovers as they did last year, but they still boast a top-10 defense in both points and yards allowed. In a league with quarterbacks freely moving the ball through the air, that's a notable positive.

    Although the Bears struggled against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 16, giving up 350 yards and 26 points, they have held nine of their opponents to fewer than 21 points this season. They've gone 6-3 in those contests, which could be even better with an improved offense.

    The Bears would love to see quarterback Mitchell Trubisky become more consistent, but in the meantime, the defense can alleviate some of the pressure on the young signal-caller. 

    The Bears selected Trubisky with the No. 2 overall pick in 2017. If the 25-year-old shows moderate improvement—as he did in 2018—Chicago can win with him paired alongside a strong defensive unit.

    Edge-rusher Khalil Mack, cornerback Kyle Fuller, inside linebacker Roquan Smith and safety Eddie Jackson will have another year to grow within defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's system, which should only make Chicago's defense more fearsome in 2020.

Cincinnati Bengals: In Position to Select QB Joe Burrow

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    Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton
    Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy DaltonBobby Ellis/Getty Images

    The Cincinnati Bengals will move into the next phase of their rebuild this offseason.

    Midway through the regular season, the Bengals benched veteran quarterback Andy Dalton in favor of rookie fourth-rounder Ryan Finley for three games. Dalton voiced his displeasure with the timing of the decision to bench him, per ESPN's Ben Baby.

    "It happened three hours before the trade deadline," he said. "I wish they would have, at least if he was thinking about it, at least try to let me see if I could end up somewhere or at least see if there was interest in possibly getting traded."

    The Bengals can still salvage their relationship with Dalton, but he's going into a contract year in 2020 and is coming off one of his worst statistical seasons with 15 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. The 32-year-old does not appear to be their long-term answer at quarterback.

    Now that the Bengals secured the top spot in the 2020 draft with their loss to the Miami Dolphins last week, they can turn their attention to LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who won the Heisman Trophy this season.

    Burrow started two seasons at LSU. He displayed significant improvement this year, completing an NCAA-best 77.9 percent of his passes with 48 touchdowns and six interceptions. He's also mobile, having rushed for 741 yards and 11 touchdowns across his college career.

    With an opportunity to find their quarterback of the future, the Bengals will likely take a long look at Burrow leading up to April's draft. 

Cleveland Browns: RB Nick Chubb Is a Foundational Asset

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    Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb
    Cleveland Browns running back Nick ChubbDavid Richard/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns didn't have much working in their favor on offense this season. 

    Quarterback Baker Mayfield regressed as a sophomore, throwing for 3,548 yards, 19 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Wideout Odell Beckham Jr. caught a career-low 55.9 percent of his targets, and Jay Glazer of Fox Sports reported the three-time Pro Bowler isn't happy in Cleveland. Meanwhile, fellow wideout Jarvis Landry may need offseason hip surgery, according to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com.

    One of the Browns' few offensive bright spots is workhorse running back Nick Chubb, who leads the league with 1,453 rushing yards. 

    The Browns struggled to protect Mayfield early in the season, but the offensive line has opened lanes for the ground attack, ranking 10th in run blocking, per Football Outsiders.

    If the Browns trade Beckham this offseason and start the 2020 campaign without Landry because of hip surgery, the coaching staff can rely on Chubb to move the ball as the focal point of the offense. The 23-year-old has quietly become one of the league's best running backs.

Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott Made Significant Strides in 2019

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    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott
    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak PrescottPatrick Smith/Getty Images

    The Dallas Cowboys may not have their head coach of the future in Jason Garrett, but quarterback Dak Prescott has shown enough to solidify his spot under center.

    Cowboys owner Jerry Jones should view Prescott's production as a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season. He's recorded a season high in both passing yards (4,599) and passing touchdowns (26).

    Now that the Cowboys know Prescott can move the ball with a solid pass-catching group, they can build around him and upgrade the coaching staff for optimal offensive production.

    Prescott and star tailback Ezekiel Elliott could lead this team toward prosperity, assuming the Cowboys re-sign Prescott and wideout Amari Cooper and/or Randall Cobb this offseason.

    In the NFL, teams have little chance to compete without a competent signal-caller. Dallas has that building block in place.

    If (when) they sign Prescott to a new deal, the Cowboys can begin the process of maintaining or revamping a top-10 offense.

Denver Broncos: Drew Lock Showed Glimpses of Promise

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos went through three quarterbacks this season.

    Veteran Joe Flacco didn't provide enough of a spark before he went on injured reserve with a neck injury. Brandon Allen was a placeholder until 2019 second-round pick Drew Lock recovered from thumb surgery. 

    The Broncos inserted Lock into the starting lineup in Week 13, and he has responded with 843 passing yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions while completing 64.8 percent of his attempts across four starts. He struggled against the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Missouri product flashed the ability to carve up an NFL defense against the Houston Texans in Week 14. 

    With time to throw, he's moved the ball efficiently and found his top pass-catchers, tight end Noah Fant and wideout Courtland Sutton. 

    Despite his small sample size, Lock's arm talent gives the Broncos some hope for the future. Potential starting signal-callers often show early signs of their ability at the position, and the 23-year-old checked that important box over his four outings.

    Complemented with a top-10 scoring defense and a solid run-blocking offensive line (seventh, per Football Outsiders), Lock can help the Broncos move back toward playoff contention in 2020.

Detroit Lions: Darrell Bevell Brought Balance to Offense

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    Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell
    Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Darrell BevellLeon Halip/Getty Images

    In recent seasons, the Detroit Lions have been heavily reliant on quarterback Matthew Stafford's arm. They hired Darrell Bevell in January to replace former offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, and he brought more balance to the team's offense.

    Although we didn't see the Lions' ground attack in full swing for most of the 2019 campaign because of Kerryon Johnson's eight-game absence with a knee injury, Bevell instilled more of a commitment to the run.

    The Lions rank 14th in rushing attempts, their highest since the 2013 campaign under Scott Linehan. After Johnson went down, 2018 seventh-round pick Bo Scarbrough emerged as a solid contributor, piling up 72 carries for 301 rushing yards and a touchdown in his first four starts.

    Because of Johnson's recent injury history, the Lions figure to add another running back in the offseason. If they do, Bevell should have the pieces to implement a physical dimension to the ground game in 2020.

    If Johnson can stay healthy or yields touches to another ball-carrier, the Lions offense should be able to attack opponents in multiple ways next season.

Green Bay Packers: Defensive Acquistions Paid Immediate Dividends

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    Green Bay Packers edge-rusher Za'Darius Smith
    Green Bay Packers edge-rusher Za'Darius SmithBill Kostroun/Associated Press

    In recent years, the Green Bay Packers' bottom-line outcome hinged upon quarterback Aaron Rodgers' arm. If he failed to engineer multiple scoring drives, the team often lost.

    This year, the Packers have gone 4-2 when scoring 21 points or fewer. Despite giving up yards in bunches at times (18th leaguewide), the defense ranks only ninth in points allowed.

    As Rodgers continues to age, the Packers need to provide him with more help. While the front office still has work to do on the pass-catching group behind wideout Davante Adams, Green Bay fields a formidable defense, which features a ferocious pass rush. 

    This offseason, the Packers signed Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith, who have combined for 25.5 sacks. They also signed Adrian Amos and selected Darnell Savage in the first round of this year's draft to shore up the safety position. They have a combined four interceptions and 13 pass breakups.

    Because of those additions, the Packers no longer have to rely on Rodgers' heroics for a victory. For the first time since their 2010 Super Bowl campaign, they boast a top-10 scoring defense.

Houston Texans: DE J.J. Watt Isn't Due for Long Recovery

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    Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt
    Houston Texans defensive end J.J. WattTim Warner/Getty Images

    Houston Texans star defensive end J.J. Watt suffered a torn pectoral muscle in Week 8, but he has already returned to practice and expects to play in the team's first playoff game, according to ESPN's Sarah Barshop.

    Houston desperately needs the three-time Defensive Player of the Year back on the front line.

    In Watt's absence, the Texans struggled to generate pocket pressure or stop the run. They logged only 14 sacks over the last seven outings, and four of their opponents ran for 145 or more yards during that same span. In Houston's first eight games, it allowed only two teams to eclipse 100 rushing yards. 

    While Watt's return bodes well for the Texans' chances in the playoffs, his quick recovery is also great news for the defense going into 2020. He's still the foundational piece within the front seven—even more so after the Texans traded outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney to the Seattle Seahawks in September.

    The Texans won't have to worry about their best defensive player having to slog through another lengthy recovery process this offseason. Although he's injury-prone, no other player on the roster provides a bigger impact on every down than Watt.

Indianapolis Colts: An Offseason to Regroup After Andrew Luck's Retirement

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    Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich
    Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank ReichSean Gardner/Getty Images

    General managers and head coaches rarely give the media a laundry list of excuses for a disappointing campaign. However, the Indianapolis Colts have a legitimate reason for their fall from a playoff team last year to a 7-8 record in 2019.

    Quarterback Andrew Luck announced his retirement two weeks before the 2019 season opener, which gave the Colts little time to adjust around Jacoby Brissett. They had to roll with the lineup they assembled during the offseason and hope their backup-turned-starter could step into a prominent role under short notice.

    The Colts tossed their support behind Brissett, signing him to a two-year extension ahead of Week 1. However, he didn't have enough firepower around him, partially because of injuries to key offensive players like running back Marlon Mack (ankle and hand) and wideout T.Y. Hilton (quad and calf). 

    This offseason, the Colts can re-evaluate Brissett's performance and decide whether to build around him or move in another direction. Considering the circumstances, he had a decent campaign, throwing for 2,780 yards, 18 touchdowns and six interceptions while completing 61.6 percent of his passes in 14 contests. 

    The Colts have a projected $97.8 million in cap space (the second-most leaguewide), per Spotrac, and three top-50 picks in the 2020 draft. They're in the midst a down season, but don't count them out as a contender next year. Indianapolis has the resources to add impact veterans and rookies in the coming months.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Front Office Has Draft Capital to Retool Roster

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    Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue
    Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Yannick NgakoueJames Gilbert/Getty Images

    In terms of financial flexibility, the Jacksonville Jaguars are in a bind. They're projected to have only $1.2 million in cap space, according to Spotrac, while star pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue could command north of $20 million annually on a new deal.

    Since entering the league in 2016, Ngakoue leads the Jaguars in sacks (37.5). With defensive end Calais Campbell going into a contract year in 2020, Jacksonville will have to make a tough decision regarding its lead pass-rusher.

    Jacksonville's quarterback position will also come into focus this offseason after Nick Foles lost his job to rookie sixth-rounder Gardner Minshew II while on the first year of a four-year, $88 million contract.

    But in October, the Jaguars traded cornerback Jalen Ramsey for the Rams' 2020 and 2021 first-round picks and a 2021 fourth-rounder. They currently hold the Nos. 6 and 20 picks in this year's draft.

    Jacksonville can use one of those picks to select a quarterback if it plans to move on from Foles in the near future. The second first-round pick can be a replacement for Ngakoue if the Jaguars choose not to pay him or trade him away. That player would join Campbell and Josh Allen to form a new pass-rushing trio.

    While the Jaguars' financial situation seems bleak, the deal for Ramsey provides them with a means for retooling the roster as opposed to a full rebuild.

Kansas City Chiefs: Defense Trending Upward

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    Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo
    Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve SpagnuoloRey Del Rio/Getty Images

    The Chiefs defense regressed under former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton over the past few years. It came close to hitting rock bottom last season, ranking 24th in scoring and allowing the second-most yards. 

    The Chiefs fired Sutton in January and brought in Steve Spagnuolo, who transitioned the base defensive alignment from a 3-4 to 4-3. He also integrated several new players into his system.

    The Chiefs traded Dee Ford to the San Francisco 49ers in March and released fellow edge-rusher Justin Houston along with oft-injured safety Eric Berry.

    Meanwhile, Kansas City acquired defensive end Frank Clark via a trade with the Seattle Seahawks and signed versatile defensive back Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Bashaud Breeland. In April, the Chiefs selected safety Juan Thornhill in the second round to round out their defense. 

    The Chiefs coaching staff fit several new components into a new defensive system. That group ranks seventh in points allowed and has conceded 17 points or fewer in each of the last five contests.

    Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is an exceptional talent, but the Chiefs won't have to rely entirely on him and an explosive offense to win games if the defense continues to progress under Spagnuolo.

Los Angeles Chargers: RB Austin Ekeler Has Star Potential

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    Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler
    Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin EkelerHarry How/Getty Images

    The Los Angeles Chargers will have to answer an important question at quarterback this offseason with Philip Rivers playing on an expiring contract. He's coming off a down year with his lowest QBR (49.1) since 2012.

    Whoever starts under center for the Chargers in 2020 will have an emerging playmaker in the backfield.

    This season, Austin Ekeler proved to be one of the NFL's top pass-catching running backs. He leads all players at the position in yards per touch (7.1) and logged 83 receptions for 950 receiving yards and eight touchdowns with an 85.6 percent catch rate through 15 games. 

    Not only can the Chargers replace Melvin Gordon III, who's set to hit free agency, but they can also feature Ekeler in the short passing game to help a young signal-caller or cut down on Rivers' interceptions. 

    Because of Ekeler's heavy involvement in the aerial attack, Rivers shouldn't have to unnecessarily push the ball downfield as he's done this year. He can dump off to his third-year running back for chunk yardage. Ekeler has accumulated 896 of his 950 receiving yards after the catch this season. 

    Without Gordon in the mix, Ekeler could reach 2,000-plus yards from scrimmage and earn Pro Bowl or All-Pro honors as one of the top all-around running backs next year.

Los Angeles Rams: Rookie Offensive Linemen Show Promise

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    Los Angeles Rams offensive tackle Bobby Evans
    Los Angeles Rams offensive tackle Bobby EvansRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Rams had to shuffle the deck among their offensive line. Left guard Joseph Noteboom (torn ACL and MCL) and center Brian Allen (MCL) landed on injured reserve, while right tackle Rob Havenstein missed five games because of a knee injury and was a healthy scratch in Week 16.

    The Rams acquired Austin Corbett via a trade with the Browns in mid-October to fill the left guard spot. They otherwise turned to a pair of rookies—third-round tackle Bobby Evans and fifth-round tackle David Edwards—to address the remaining holes.

    While Edwards had some trouble spots in recent outings, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer seems willing to give him a shot to retain his starting role, per Greg Beachum of the Associated Press. And even with Havenstein healthy last week, the Rams trusted Evans against the San Francisco 49ers' ferocious defensive line featuring Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner.

    In eight contests (six starts), Evans hasn't allowed a sack, per the Washington Post's STATS.

    If this year is any indication, Edwards and Evans might help solidify the Rams' offensive line in 2020. That would give running back Todd Gurley II bigger holes to run through.

    According to Football Outsiders, Los Angeles' offensive line ranked 17th in run-blocking adjusted line yards (4.34). Maintaining continuity up front would bode well for the group.

Miami Dolphins: Brian Flores Established Competitive Culture

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    Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores
    Miami Dolphins head coach Brian FloresBrynn Anderson/Associated Press

    The Miami Dolphins got off to a rough start under first-year head coach Brian Flores, losing each of their first four games by a combined margin of 163-26. However, they've been far more competitive since their Week 5 bye, going 4-7 while being outscored by only 54 points.

    The Dolphins front office stripped down the roster, trading left tackle Laremy Tunsil and receiver Kenny Stills to the Houston Texans and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick to the Pittsburgh Steelers for draft considerations, but Flores never embraced a tanking mentality.

    "It's just a testimonial to Flo, just his approach to the whole season with everything, starting back in the preseason with 'Tank for Tua,'" guard Daniel Kilgore told Chris Perkins of The Athletic. "From Day 1, he's been all about winning and he's been all about respecting the game. And that's huge as a player."

    Rather than start second-year quarterback Josh Rosen, who has room to grow, Flores has started 37-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick for 12 of 15 games. The journeyman has completed 61.4 percent of his pass attempts for 3,209 yards, 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions on the year.

    "I think it's easy for people to sit and say, 'You should do this or that, or this or that,'" Flores told Perkins. "I don't think those same people will stand in front of that group and say, '(Playing Rosen) is in the best interest of the team for us to win this week." 

    With the players on board with Flores' direction, Miami can move into the next stage of its rebuild with more talent and established faith in the coaching staff.

Minnesota Vikings: QB Kirk Cousins Has Top-Notch Supporting Cast

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    Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook
    Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin CookStephen Maturen/Getty Images

    Following a Monday Night Football loss to the Packers in Week 16, Minnesota Vikings fans likely aren't feeling optimistic about quarterback Kirk Cousins' ability to lead this team to victory in high-stakes matchups.

    However, Cousins doesn't have to carry the Vikings for them to remain in postseason contention. Minnesota clinched a playoff berth this year with a top-10 ground attack and a stingy defense that's ranked sixth in scoring heading into Week 17.

    Third-string running back Mike Boone fell short of expectations in a spot start against the Packers, but if Dalvin Cook or Alexander Mattison can return by the Wild Card Round, the Vikings should be able to move the ball on the ground even if Cousins struggles in high-pressure situations.

    Cook has averaged 4.5 yards per carry this season, while Mattison logged 4.6 yards per rushing attempt. They appear poised to form one of the NFL's best running back tandems going forward.

    Although Minnesota's pass defense took a step back this season, 2018 first-rounder Mike Hughes and second-year undrafted free agent Holton Hill may be able to patch up holes in the secondary. The youngsters have both shown promising flashes in fewer than 24 appearances.

    Despite Cousins' shortcomings in prime-time games, the Vikings have enough talent on both sides of the ball to overcome his meltdowns in the spotlight.

New England Patriots: Defense Can Compensate for Offensive Woes

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    New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore
    New England Patriots cornerback Stephon GilmoreBillie Weiss/Getty Images

    Since Week 9, the Patriots have struggled offensively, scoring more than 22 points in only two outings. Father Time appears to be catching up with quarterback Tom Brady, who doesn't have a reliable pass-catching group outside of wideout Julian Edelman and running back James White.

    The Patriots have tried to lean heavily on their ground attack, but they rank a mediocre 19th in rushing yards. Lead ball-carrier Sony Michel is averaging only 3.7 yards per carry.

    Despite all of their offensive shortcomings, the Patriots claimed their 11th straight AFC East title with Saturday's victory over the Buffalo Bills. Their defense, which leads the league in both points and yards allowed, deserves much of the credit for that.

    Linebacker Jamie Collins has put together his best statistical season, logging 77 tackles, six sacks, seven pass deflections and three interceptions. Defensive end Chase Winovich has shown flashes with 5.5 sacks. Stephon Gilmore has been the NFL's best cornerback this year, recording six interceptions and 19 pass breakups. He's part of a stingy secondary that has allowed the league's fewest passing touchdowns and second-fewest yards.

    Brady could walk away via free agency or retire in the offseason. But regardless of whether he stays, the Patriots defense is good enough to keep this team in contention. 

    New England will have the cap space ($42.7 million) to retain key defensive players on expiring deals like Collins, linebacker Kyle Van Noy and safety Devin McCourty.

    If defense wins championships, the Patriots won't necessarily fall to the bottom of the AFC standings with a new signal-caller. When Brady missed all but one game in 2008, New England went 11-5 with Matt Cassel under center and a top-10 defensive unit.

New Orleans Saints: Future at Quarterback Isn't an Issue

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    New Orleans Saints quarterbacks Drew Brees (left) and Teddy Bridgewater (right)
    New Orleans Saints quarterbacks Drew Brees (left) and Teddy Bridgewater (right)Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    The New Orleans Saints have the best quarterback situation in the league.

    At 40 years old, Drew Brees continues to perform at a high level. He's thrown for 24 touchdowns and only four interceptions this season while completing a league-leading 75.3 percent of his passes.

    In Week 15, Brees claimed the all-time record for touchdown passes when he lit up the Colts by going 29-of-30 for 307 yards and four scores. If he wants to play for another year, the Saints should welcome him back with open arms. 

    And if Brees retires, the Saints can turn to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. As Brees recovered from thumb surgery earlier this season, Bridgewater looked sharp through five starts, throwing for 1,205 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions while going 5-0.

    Both Brees and Bridgewater have contracts that will void at the end of the season. But if one or both signal-callers return, New Orleans will remain a contender in 2020. 

    Having dynamic offensive playmakers such as running back Alvin Kamara, wideout Michael Thomas and tight end Jared Cook will make life easier for whoever starts under center.

New York Giants: Offense Built for Big Strides

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    New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones
    New York Giants quarterback Daniel JonesScott Taetsch/Getty Images

    The New York Giants need to bolster their offensive line this offseason, but they otherwise have the skill-position talent to make strides quickly.

    Quarterback Daniel Jones took his rookie lumps, but he has the mobility to evade pressure and deliver strikes downfield, as he demonstrated against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lions, Jets and Washington Redskins. He put his upside on full display Sunday while going 28-of-42 for 352 yards and five touchdowns in an overtime victory against Washington.

    Jones will go into the 2020 campaign with a loaded pass-catching group featuring tight end Evan Engram and receivers Golden Tate, Sterling Shepard and rookie fifth-rounder Darius Slayton, who's been a pleasant surprise this season. The first-year wideout leads the team in receiving yards (690) and touchdowns (eight).

    Star running back Saquon Barkley had an underwhelming sophomore campaign, which was in large part derailed by an early-season ankle injury. However, he flashed his upside Sunday against Washington while erupting for a season-high 189 rushing yards and a touchdown on 22 carries to go with 90 receiving yards and a touchdown on four catches.

    If the Giants add a decent offensive tackle this offseason, Jones should have more time to carve up defenses, while Barkley could see bigger holes between the tackles after handoffs. Nate Solder has been a $62 million disappointment on the left side, allowing 20.5 sacks over the past two seasons, per the Washington Post's STATS, while right tackle Mike Remmers is set to become a free agent.

    Considering Barkley's ability to catch out of the backfield, the Giants should have a high-powered offensive attack if Jones continues to develop behind an offensive line that gives him time to throw downfield.

New York Jets: Joe Douglas Will Lead Roster in New Direction

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    New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas
    New York Jets general manager Joe DouglasMitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Former New York Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan didn't have a great draft record. Between the 2015 and 2016 classes, only one player from Rounds 1 to 3outside linebacker Jordan Jenkinsremains on the roster.

    Jets fans can thank Maccagnan for selecting quarterback Sam Darnold with the No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft, but that came two years after he spent a second-round pick on fellow signal-caller Christian Hackenberg. The Penn State product didn't play a single regular-season down in the NFL.

    The Jets allowed Maccagnan to preside over free agency and the draft this offseason before firing him in May. He and new head coach Adam Gase reportedly weren't on the same page with some of his major personnel moves, per Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News.

    The Jets now have a breath of fresh air in the front office with new general manager Joe Douglas. He spent four years (2016-19) as the Philadelphia Eagles' vice president of player personnel, and he had a hand in building their 2017 Super Bowl-winning squad. 

    Following Maccagnan's draft gaffes, the Jets desperately needed change and a new perspective. Having Gase and Douglas on the same page won't necessarily lead to great draft classes, but it's a step in the right direction.

Oakland Raiders: 2019 Draft Class Has Promising Outlook

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    Oakland Raiders running back Josh Jacobs
    Oakland Raiders running back Josh JacobsSarah Stier/Getty Images

    In December, the Oakland Raiders hired NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock as their new general manager.

    He and head coach Jon Gruden deserve credit for a high-impact 2019 draft class.

    Running back Josh Jacobs, the No. 24 overall pick, immediately blossomed into the Raiders' offensive centerpiece. The Rookie of the Year candidate currently ranks eighth leaguewide in rushing yards (1,150) and has logged five 100-plus-yard performances. He has also missed only two games despite suffering a fractured shoulder in Week 7, which is a testament to his toughness.

    Since trading away Khalil Mack in September 2018, the Raiders have been on the hunt for a solid pass-rusher. In Week 11, fourth-round defensive end Maxx Crosby burst on to the scene with a four-sack performance against the Bengals. He leads the team with 8.5 sacks on the season and is tied for 34th leaguewide in quarterback pressures (26).

    No. 4 overall pick Clelin Ferrell has displayed great instincts against the run and continues to flash down the stretch, as Pro Football Focus recently noted. Second-round cornerback Trayvon Mullen took over a starting role after the Raiders traded Gareon Conley to the Texans in October, and he now leads the team in pass breakups (nine). Fourth-round tight end Foster Moreau has hauled in five touchdown receptions. 

    Even though the Raiders ran out of steam in the second half of the year, losing four of their last five contests, this rookie class has the potential to push the team through late-season lulls in 2020.

Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz Shows Durability, Big-Game Poise

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    Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz
    Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson WentzPatrick Smith/Getty Images

    When the Philadelphia Eagles signed quarterback Carson Wentz to a four-year, $128 million extension, two questions came up. Can he stay healthy and does the young signal-caller have the ability to lead his team in high-pressure situations? 

    Between the 2017 and 2018 terms, Wentz missed eight regular-season games with a torn ACL and a fractured vertebra. In both seasons, the 26-year-old hadn't played beyond Week 14. His former backup, Nick Foles took over the huddle late in those campaigns through the playoffs. 

    Nearly two years ago, Foles led the Eagles to a title and earned Super Bowl MVP. Now that he's in Jacksonville, Philadelphia needed to see Wentz stay healthy and produce in a high-stakes game.

    Wentz checked both boxes this year with added difficulty. This season, he hasn't missed a game. Over the last three weeks, the fourth-year pro has thrown for 910 yards, six touchdown and zero interceptions without Alshon Jeffery, who suffered a Lisfranc injury 20 offensive snaps into Week 15, and Nelson Agholor (knee). Tight end Zach Ertz suffered a rib injury on the first drive of the last outing against the Cowboys.

    In a win over Dallas, Wentz helped put the Eagles in the driver's seat for a division title with former collegiate quarterback Greg Ward as his top wide receiver. He threw for 319 yards and a touchdown with limited weapons available, mostly Ertz, Dallas Goedert, Boston Scott along with rookie second-rounders Miles Sanders and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. 

    After watching Wentz's performances through December, the Eagles have to feel good about their franchise quarterback. He's worth every penny in his new contract.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger Returns to a Balanced Roster

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    Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
    Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben RoethlisbergerJustin Berl/Getty Images

    Despite losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2, the Pittsburgh Steelers boast an 8-7 record. If they beat the Ravens on Sunday and the Tennessee Titans lose to the Texans, they'll be the No. 6 seed in the AFC's playoff bracket.

    Following their Week 7 bye, the Steelers won six of their next nine games. Backup quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges have helped keep the Steelers in playoff contention despite being without No. 1 wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for four contests.

    If the Steelers can win with Rudolph and Hodges under center, they should have a good chance to compete for a playoff spot when Roethlisberger returns next season.

    Big Ben will be coming back to an offensive line that ranks ninth in pass protection, per Football Outsiders. With the exception of right tackle Matt Feiler, who will be a restricted free agent this offseason, the five-man group is otherwise signed through 2020. 

    Without Roethlisberger, young wideouts James Washington and Diontae Johnson flashed in the passing game. The former leads the team in receiving yards (735), averaging 16.7 yards per reception. The latter has a team-high 55 catches. Both could continue to grow with their starting signal-caller back on the field.

    Lastly, Roethlisberger will pair with a defense that ranks fourth in scoring and made strides after adding safety Minkah Fitzpatrick via a trade with the Dolphins. The second-year defender earned Pro Bowl honors, recording 53 tackles, nine pass breakups, five interceptions and two defensive touchdowns in 13 games with Pittsburgh.

    The Steelers will have a formidable squad capable of challenging the Ravens for AFC North supremacy in 2020.

San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo Looks Like a Franchise Quarterback

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    San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo
    San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy GaroppoloLachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo came into his sixth season as somewhat of an unknown commodity.

    Heading into the year, Garoppolo had not played more than five games in a single season. He served as a backup to Tom Brady for three-and-a-half years in New England and tore his ACL in Week 3 of the 2018 season after taking over the starting job in San Francisco

    Through the first seven weeks of this season, Garoppolo experienced plenty of ups and downs, throwing seven touchdowns and six interceptions in that span. However, he reached another level after the 49ers acquired wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders via a trade with the Broncos in October.

    Since Week 8, Garoppolo has thrown 20 touchdowns compared to only seven interceptions. More importantly, he's still an effective passer when Sanders posts pedestrian numbers.

    In nine games with the 49ers, Sanders has been held to fewer than 42 receiving yards in six outings, but Garoppolo continues to shine.

    Because San Francisco boasts the league's eighth-ranked scoring defense and No. 2 ground attack, Garoppolo doesn't need to put the team on his back every week. However, the 28-year-old can do enough to keep his squad in close games and pull out victories down the stretch, which has the Niners in contention for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. 

Seattle Seahawks: Passing Attack Features Solid Wide Receiver Tandem

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    Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf
    Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK MetcalfScott Eklund/Associated Press

    Don't allow anyone to tell you that Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson doesn't have quality pass-catching weapons.

    Yes, the Seahawks lost wideout Doug Baldwin when he retired at the end of last season, but the front office added a playmaker in second-round wideout DK Metcalf during this year's draft.

    Metcalf struggled to stay healthy at Ole Miss, suiting up for only 21 contests in three seasons. However, he has played every game this season and has been one of the most productive rookies in the 2019 class.

    Metcalf ranks third among rookies in catches (52) and receiving yards (819) as a key component to the Seahawks' aerial attack. If he avoids the injury bug, the 6'3", 228-pound wideout will continue to beat defenses with chunk plays because of his size-speed combination. 

    Across from Metcalf, Tyler Lockett has blossomed from a high-end gadget pass-catcher into a lead wide receiver. The 27-year-old has hauled in 73.8 percent of the career-high 103 targets thrown his way this year, and he has already set a new personal best with 1,006 receiving yards.

    With a 1,000-yard season under his belt, Lockett has shown he's capable of producing against the opponent's top cornerback. Furthermore, he can move to different spots across the formation to exploit matchups.

    Wilson has the perimeter pass-catchers to dissect a defense, which is important for the team's offensive balance.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bruce Arians Can Win with QB Jameis Winston

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis WinstonDon Juan Moore/Getty Images

    Jameis Winston may keep both his team and his opponent in games with his mix of touchdown passes and interceptions, but he's a productive passer who gives the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a chance to win a shootout every week.

    Under head coach Bruce Arians' pass-heavy scheme, Winston has proved to be a serviceable quarterback with some flaws. He has tossed a league-high 28 interceptions, but the fifth-year quarterback also leads the NFL in passing yards (4,908) and has thrown a career-high 31 touchdowns.

    If the Buccaneers can deal with the pros and cons of Winston's decision-making, he's going to lead a productive aerial attack, which ranks No. 1 in yards this season.

    To cut down on Winston's turnovers, the Buccaneers should lean more heavily on their ground attack. Improving their ball control would help them avoid having to put up 30-plus points for victories.

    Once viewed as just a mistake-prone quarterback, Winston may have extended his tenure in Tampa Bay as the centerpiece in Arians' offense. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the signal-caller is likely to remain with the Buccaneers next year.

    If Tampa Bay improves defensively (30th in scoring) and acquires a dynamic running back, this team could make a run at 10-plus wins in 2020.

Tennessee Titans: Ryan Tannehill Solves Quarterback Question

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    Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill
    Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan TannehillMark Zaleski/Associated Press

    The Tennessee Titans may have stumbled upon their solution at quarterback.

    After Marcus Mariota got off to an underwhelming 2-4 start, head coach Mike Vrabel pulled him for Ryan Tannehill. The Titans immediately improved on offense, got more production from rookie second-round wideout A.J. Brown and won six of their last nine contests.

    According to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, the Titans were excited about Tannehill back in November, though the organization hadn't formally engaged with the quarterback's representatives about an extension.

    "Tannehill is earning rave reviews within the Titans organization, and the team is expected to make attempts to retain him should he continue this level of play, although sources said no conversations have taken place yet," La Canfora wrote.

    If Tannehill leads the Titans to a win over the Texans on Sunday, securing the No. 6 seed in the AFC, the 31-year-old should be back for 2020 on a new contract. Even with a loss, he's still an upgrade over Mariota, and a full offseason in the system could help him further elevate the offense.

    Going into his age-32 season, Tannehill is deserving of a two-year deal. He's built a strong connection with Brown, who's capable of explosive plays. The tandem's rapport would open up the field for the ground attack led by Pro Bowler Derrick Henry.

Washington Redskins: Dwayne Haskins Has a Playmaker in WR Terry McLaurin

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    Washington Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins
    Washington Redskins quarterback Dwayne HaskinsPatrick McDermott/Getty Images

    Dating back to training camp, third-round rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin showed promise with the Washington Redskins. He opened the season as a starter and logged five catches for 125 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles with Case Keenum under center.

    The rookie wideout has been productive throughout the year and leads the team with 58 catches for 919 yards and seven touchdowns. 

    McLaurin exhibits the qualities and production of a lead wide receiver. He has reliable hands (62.4 percent catch rate), produced big numbers despite changes at quarterback (three 100-yard performances) and provides a big-play element to the aerial attack.

    In Week 15, rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins had his best start, throwing for 261 yards and two touchdowns while McLaurin racked up a season-high 130 receiving yards. 

    The Redskins whiffed on signing wideout Paul Richardson two years ago. He's landed on injured reserve in back-to-back seasons, logging 48 receptions for 507 yards and four touchdowns through 17 games. McLaurin's emergence gives Haskins at least one reliable target going into his sophomore season. 

    To develop Haskins into a franchise player, Washington must surround him with quality talent. McLaurin is a good start.

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