NFL Teams 1 Piece Away from Contending Next Season
The old adage "there's always next year" holds true in the NFL.
One offseason of good work can catapult a team from the bottom of the totem pole to the playoffs. Through a combination of smart moves, the San Francisco 49ers went from a four-win team in 2018 to the Super Bowl this past season.
Several teams could get back to the playoffs next season by improving one specific area. Factoring in current rosters, draft picks, salary-cap room and past and projected success, the following teams fit that bill.
The Piece: Offensive tackles
Plenty of finger-pointing and media chatter would suggest the Cleveland Browns are in sheer disarray. However, they have a potential franchise passer in Baker Mayfield and elite weapons such as wideout Odell Beckham Jr. and running back Nick Chubb around him.
Gambling on first-time head coach Freddie Kitchens backfired on the Browns in 2019, although he never had much of a chance. Poor offensive line play derailed Cleveland's offense regardless of the play-calling.
Left tackle Greg Robinson has never lived up to his status as 2014's No. 2 pick, got benched at one point last year and finished with a mediocre 66.9 grade at Pro Football Focus. Right tackle Chris Hubbard was a disaster in pass protection and had a lackluster 50.6 grade at PFF.
Despite the offensive line struggles, Cleveland still managed to cobble together six wins, went .500 in the AFC North and lost four games by seven points or fewer. Landing a big name like an Andrew Whitworth or trading for Trent Williams wouldn't only help Mayfield's development; it could spark a playoff push, too.
The Piece: Quarterback
Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky took a step back in his third NFL season.
One year removed from guiding the Bears to a 12-4 record while throwing for 3,223 yards, 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 14 games, Trubisky threw for 3,138 yards, 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this past season. He completed only 63.2 percent of his pass attempts compared to 66.6 percent in 2018, and the Bears stumbled to a 8-8 record.
Trubisky got sacked a career-high 38 times in 2019, and Allen Robinson II was the only Bears receiver to cross the 700-yard threshold. As a result, the Bears went from averaging 26.3 points per game in 2018 to 17.5 points per game this past season.
Would a free-agent quarterback like Teddy Bridgewater or Philip Rivers cure those offensive woes? What about trading for Andy Dalton? The Bears held opponents to only 18.6 points per game this past season, so upgrading at quarterback could help them get back into the playoffs.
The Piece: Quarterback
The Indianapolis Colts likewise may be searching for a quarterback upgrade after Andrew Luck's unexpected retirement led to an up-and-down season from Jacoby Brissett.
The freshly extended Brissett stepped into a starting role and completed only 60.9 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions behind one of the NFL's better offensive lines. He ended as one of the league's worst-ranked starters and had the second-highest uncatchable pass rate (23.9 percent), per PFF's Ben Linsey.
Star wideout T.Y. Hilton missed six games because of injuries, which didn't help Brissett. But the Colts' 3-3 record in an AFC South division that sent two teams to the playoffs and a point differential of only minus-12 suggests better play under center could have led to a postseason berth.
The Colts have more than $86 million in cap space and three picks in the top 45 of the upcoming draft, which gives them plenty of ways to bolster their quarterback depth chart. If the right signal-caller comes to town, the Colts could be back in the playoffs in 2020.
The Piece: A big-play TE
The Dallas Cowboys were one of last season's biggest disappointments relative to the talent on their roster, which explains why they moved on from head coach Jason Garrett. They now must attempt to re-sign both quarterback Dak Prescott and No. 1 wide receiver Amari Cooper this offseason.
If they do keep Prescott and Cooper in the fold, adding a big-play tight end would help further bolster their offense. Jason Witten came out of retirement in 2019 and hauled in 63 passes for 529 yards and four touchdowns, but he had only one play longer than 20 yards.
The Cowboys had the third-best point differential in the NFC (plus-113) and won five of their six division games, yet they still managed to finish just 8-8. They ranked first in yards gained per game (431.5), but they were sixth in points scored (27.1).
If the Cowboys don't select a tight end in the draft, they could turn their attention to free agents such as Eric Ebron or Tyler Eifert to further diversify their passing attack and take less pressure off star running back Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys shouldn't have missed the playoffs last season, so they aren't in need of a major overhaul. But getting Prescott a dangerous tight end capable of moving all over the field would be an improvement.
Los Angeles Rams
The Piece: Starting OL
The Los Angeles Rams had one of the NFL's best offensive lines in 2018, and they rode it all the way to a Super Bowl appearance. Last season was about the exact opposite, and the offense fell apart as a result.
Quarterback Jared Goff completed only 62.9 percent of his passes with 22 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Meanwhile, the running game mustered just 3.7 yards per carry.
Even if the Rams retain free-agent tackle Andrew Whitworth, they may look to replace center Austin Blythe (who had a 50.5 grade at Pro Football Focus) or right tackle Rob Havenstein (50.9). Adding a free agent such as Bryan Bulaga or Jack Conklin could stabilize their offensive line.
The Rams have other areas of need as well, but we've already seen what an upgraded line can do for them. They allowed 24.0 points per game in 2018, but their potent offense (32.9 points per game) carried them all the way to the Super Bowl.
All salary-cap figures via Spotrac.