4 NFL Teams Whose Super Bowl Windows Are Closing in 2020
The Super Bowl window is a fleeting thing in the NFL.
Some teams rarely open it enough to make it happen. Others, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars recently, have a variety of factors slam the window shut quickly.
The majority of teams to actually boast a Super Bowl window generally see it close over a handful of years. Salary-cap management, including escalating costs to keep quarterbacks and in-house free agents, and the diminishing returns of the NFL draft if a team is picking later while still winning games combine to steadily close a window.
This season, the window could slam shut on a handful of teams. Quarterback play is regressing with age, the cap outlook isn't great, and either the roster isn't getting refreshed well enough or a veteran core is fading. Perhaps the big outlier, thanks to the shocking efforts of the front office, is the Green Bay Packers, a team that reinforced the depth chart behind 36-year-old Aaron Rodgers with first-round pick Jordan Love, keeping the window open.
Otherwise, these are the NFL windows ready to close.
The Atlanta Falcons won only seven games a season ago, matching their record from 2018 and continuing a steady decline in the win column from that 2016 sprint to 11-5 on the back of an MVP effort from Matt Ryan.
Ryan is now 35 years old. A season ago, his completion percentage (66.2), yardage (4,466), yards per attempt (7.3) and touchdowns (26) all dipped while his interceptions doubled (14).
Though the Falcons have worked hard to improve the line in front of Ryan after he took 48 sacks last year, it might be too little, too late. A shaky defense has allowed 24.9 or more points per game in each of the last two seasons and mustered just 28 sacks last year, and Todd Gurley isn't a guarantee to help a running game that hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2016.
Perhaps most concerning is the cap situation, as Atlanta currently projects to have negative cap space in 2021. Ryan, Julio Jones, Jake Matthews and Grady Jarrett all have cap hits north of $20 million in 2021, forming a top-heavy core with no player younger than 27.
All this continues under the supervision of head coach Dan Quinn, owner of a 43-37 record in Atlanta. The Falcons also now have to navigate an NFC South that not only features the New Orleans Saints and Drew Brees, but also Tom Brady on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams feel like a team on a steady downturn.
Los Angeles predictably regressed in 2019, going from a 13-win team with an appearance in the Super Bowl to a 9-7 squad with a .500 mark in the NFC West.
Arguably the biggest concern for the Rams is Jared Goff, which isn't what anyone should want to hear about a 25-year-old former No. 1 pick. Goff attempted more passes last season than the year prior, yet he regressed in yardage (4,638), percentage (62.9), touchdowns (22) and QBR (48.5) while throwing four more interceptions (16).
Los Angeles has already restructured Goff's deal, but he's still a gaudy 16.4 percent of the cap in 2021 at $34.3 million (pending any future cap changes). As such, the Rams sit just 18th in projected cap space in 2021 while staring down the barrel of a free-agent class led by Jalen Ramsey.
The Rams already hemorrhaged talent this offseason, losing the likes of Dante Fowler Jr. and Cory Littleton for a defense that ranked middle of the pack at 22.8 points allowed per game. Aging is also a concern and especially in front of Goff, with left tackle Andrew Whitworth checking in at 38 years old.
Some of this wouldn't be as concerning if the Rams didn't reside in an NFC West that had San Francisco and Seattle win double-digit games last year and Arizona seemingly start an upswing with Kyler Murray. But a pause-worthy cap approach, aging veterans and potential questions under center don't help the outlook—it's starting to feel like now or never.
This might be it for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In a perfect world, Ben Roethlisberger soars back from an injury that limited him to two games last year and helps the Steelers keep pace with the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North and the greater Brady-less AFC as a whole.
But Big Ben is now 38 years old. He returns to a team that a season ago didn't feature a 500-yard back or 1,000-yard receiver. And while the Steelers cobbled together a .500 record anyway, it was a continued downswing since the 13-win outburst in 2017.
It seems improbable Big Ben will come close to the 5,100-plus yards he put up in 2018 with the trio of James Washington, Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster. And while the defense did permit fewer than 20 points per game last season with 54 sacks, it did lose a massive piece in defensive lineman Javon Hargrave.
Even if Big Ben does keep playing beyond next season, the Steelers slot 28th in projected 2021 cap with just 44 players under contract. Four of their top six cap hits (Big Ben, Joe Haden, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro) are 30 or older.
With Baltimore primed for another great record, Cleveland and Cincinnati presumably improving and a rough cap outlook, Pittsburgh is entering a critical year. It all hinges on Roethlisberger's play.
New Orleans Saints
It's worth repeating: It all hinges on the quarterback.
The New Orleans Saints went 13-3 a season ago on a plus-117 point differential, permitting just 21.3 points per game and getting 36 touchdown passes and six interceptions from their quarterbacks.
Quarterbacks is plural because Drew Brees only made it into 11 games. Teddy Bridgewater, who signed with Carolina in March, stepped in and won five games.
Brees, now 41 years old, has already inked a television deal. Which isn't to say he can't still play. After all, he had a 74.3 completion percentage, 27 touchdowns and four interceptions last year. But it seems one foot is out the door, and behind him on the depth chart are Taysom Hill (already 29 with 13 career attempts) and Jameis Winston (coming off a 30-interception season in Tampa).
For all the good on the New Orleans roster going into 2020, the 2021 salary projection comes in at roughly $36.6 million over the cap. Brees coming off the books would help the Saints break even—but that would mean Brees is gone. That also wouldn't help much in trying to keep a free-agent class including Sheldon Rankins, Marcus Williams and Alvin Kamara, among others.
The Saints have clearly gone all-in on the final efforts from Brees—and it just might result in another Lombardi Trophy. But if he's hanging up the cleats after 2020, they'll be left with an unsustainable team-building strategy and quarterback questions.
Salary information via Spotrac unless otherwise noted.