Ranking the 7 Teams Best Set Up for the Future Entering 2020 Season
The NFL is very much a results-based business. But as vital as it is for a team to perform well in the present, it's also important to set a roster up for the future.
As the Los Angeles Rams showed in recent years, a championship window can close as quickly as it opens.
A number of factors set a team up for future success. The biggest by far is having a talented, young quarterback, especially one on a rookie contract. That allows cap resources to be allocated elsewhere.
However, that young quarterback won't succeed without talent around him on offense. And his team likely won't win without a strong defense, either.
Some of the following teams are already among the best in the league. Others are trying to take the step from playoff contender to Super Bowl threat. And others are just trying to get into the postseason mix.
They should all be a force to be reckoned with in the years to come, though.
7. Arizona Cardinals
In the past two seasons, the Arizona Cardinals have gone a combined 8-23-1. But thanks to some strong moves over the last 18 months, they're set up to be a factor in the NFC West for years to come.
The Cardinals used the first overall pick in last year's draft on Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, who responded by becoming the second player in league history to throw for 3,500 yards and run for 500 yards as a rookie. They also stole running back Kenyan Drake from the Miami Dolphins ahead of the trade deadline, while second-year wideout Christian Kirk flashed more of his upside.
In March, they pulled off the heist of the offseason when they acquired DeAndre Hopkins from the Houston Texans. Hopkins is among the league's most dangerous wideouts, and adding him to a pass-catching cadre that includes Kirk and the venerable Larry Fitzgerald gives Murray and head coach Kliff Kingsbury an impressive array of offensive firepower.
The Cardinals also have the makings of a sneaky-good defense moving forward. Edge-rusher Chandler Jones is fresh off a 19-sack season and has 60 in four seasons with the team. Jordan Hicks and rookie Isaiah Simmons are an imposing duo of off-ball linebackers. And young safety Budda Baker is one of the NFL's best players at his position.
The Cardinals have the misfortune of playing in the same division as the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, but they're poised to be legitimate challengers to the NFC West throne.
6. Cleveland Browns
Since re-joining the NFL in 1999, the Cleveland Browns have posted two winning seasons. Despite receiving an avalanche of offseason hype last year, the Browns floundered yet again, finishing 6-10.
Still, new head coach Kevin Stefanski inherits a roster that looks far better than the team's record in 2019.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield struggled last year, pacing the AFC with 21 interceptions, but he set the rookie record for touchdown passes (27) the year prior. If the 2018 version of Mayfield re-emerges, he'll have as much talent around him as any signal-caller.
Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt might be the NFL's best one-two punch at running back. Veteran wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are in the prime of their careers and are both under team control for at least three more years. Cleveland also brought in tight end Austin Hooper this offseason on a four-year deal.
The Browns' offensive line was a liability last year, but they took steps to address that this offseason. Signing veteran tackle Jack Conklin and drafting Jedrick Wills Jr. with the No. 10 overall pick should help keep Mayfield upright in the years to come.
On defense, end Myles Garrett is one the league's top edge-rushers and the anchor for a stout front four. The back end is clogged with early-round draft picks, with safety Grant Delpit joining cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams.
On paper, the Browns look like a playoff team. They're also sitting on more cap space ($37.3 million) than any team in the league.
5. Buffalo Bills
For the past two decades, the AFC East has belonged to the New England Patriots.
Moving forward, the division may belong to the Buffalo Bills.
Josh Allen may never complete 70 percent of his pass attempts, but he made major strides in his second season as a passer, and he's a significant threat running the ball. At least some of that improvement can be attributed to the weaponry the Buffalo has placed around him.
In 2019, the Bills added wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley and drafted running back Devin Singletary. The result was a 10-win season and playoff berth. This offseason, they added star wideout Stefon Diggs in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings and drafted bruising Utah running back Zack Moss.
The Bills haven't just been bolstering their offense, though.
Players like edge-rusher Mario Addison and cornerback Josh Norman are short-term fixes. But whether it's up front with tackle Ed Oliver and rookie end A.J. Epenesa, at linebacker with Tremaine Edmunds or in the secondary with Defensive Player of the Year contender Tre'Davious White, Buffalo has young talent to build around on all three levels of the defense.
The Bills have built a contender in the present without selling out the future, too. With more than $20 million in cap space, per Over the Cap, they have the wiggle room left to keep talent in town.
4. Dallas Cowboys
It's been a long time since the Dallas Cowboys were a real force in the NFL. They haven't won the Super Bowl since 1995 and have only one postseason victory in the last five years.
This offseason, the Cowboys brought in a Super Bowl-winning head coach in Mike McCarthy to restore the glory to the Star. He's inheriting a cupboard replete with talent on both sides of the ball.
Quarterback Dak Prescott's long-term contract status remains a question mark, but the 26-year-old threw for the second-most yards in the league (4,902) last year. His skill-position talent is as good as anyone's, too.
In four seasons, running back Ezekiel Elliott has topped 1,300 rushing yards three times and led the league in rushing twice. The wide receiver trio of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and rookie CeeDee Lamb might be the best in the NFL, and all three are under contract for at least two more years. Dallas' offensive line ranked second in both run blocking and pass protection in 2019, per Football Outsiders.
The Cowboys don't have the firepower on defense that they do on offense, but the unit did rank ninth in total defense last year. There are some questions surrounding the defensive line and secondary after offseason personnel losses, but Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are a pair of young stars at linebacker.
Once Prescott's contract situation gets resolved (and it will be), McCarthy's Cowboys have the talent to be in the driver's seat in the NFC East for the next few years.
3. San Francisco 49ers
While most of the teams featured here are overflowing with offensive talent, defense is king for the San Francisco 49ers.
The Niners' defensive line is stacked with five first-round picks, including reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year in Nick Bosa. The 2020 campaign will likely be Solomon Thomas' last with the team, but the Niners just re-upped Arik Armstead, and tackle Javon Kinlaw is a rookie. Linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are entering their third and second seasons, respectively.
Defense may drive the 49ers, but the offense isn't a non-factor.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is a capable NFL starter who's comfortable in Kyle Shanahan's offense. Raheem Mostert averaged 5.6 yards per carry last year and keyed the NFC's best rushing attack. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel came up huge in the playoffs as a rookie, and the Niners added first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk to complement him in 2020. Tight end George Kittle is fresh off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
The 49ers might not be as talented on paper as the Dallas Cowboys, but they overcame that gap en route to a Super Bowl appearance last season.
Part of being set up for success in the future is showing you can win in the present.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Nothing sets up an NFL team for the future quite like an MVP quarterback. The Baltimore Ravens have the reigning one in Lamar Jackson.
Jackson had his coming-out party with the Ravens in 2019. In addition to passing for 3,127 yards and a league-leading 36 touchdowns, he set a new NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 1,206.
Jackson wasn't the only reason the Ravens went 14-2 last year, though. He's surrounded by young talent.
Tight end Mark Andrews exploded in his own right as a sophomore, catching 64 passes for a team-high 852 yards and 10 scores. Wide receiver Marquise Brown showed the ability to take the top off a defense as a rookie. Running back Mark Ingram II isn't getting any younger, but the Ravens may now have an even better back waiting in the wings in rookie J.K. Dobbins.
Meanwhile, the Ravens ranked fourth in total defense last year and third in scoring defense. That defense got better this offseason with the addition of veteran ends Derek Wolfe and Calais Campbell and rookie linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison. The secondary boasts a pair of Pro Bowl cornerbacks in the prime of their careers in Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey.
Throw in an offensive line that ranked in the top eight in both run blocking and pass protection last year, according to Football Outsiders, and the league's best kicker in Justin Tucker, and you have a loaded team.
The Ravens' biggest challenge in coming years may not be winning football games; it's finding the cash to keep all of this talent in Charm City.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
Why are the Kansas City Chiefs best prepared for the future heading into the 2020 season? Two words: Patrick Mahomes.
In only three seasons, Mahomes has staked his claim as the NFL's best player. As a sophomore, he joined Peyton Manning as the only other player in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards and 50 scores in a season on the way to winning MVP honors. Last year, he led the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl title since 1969.
A quarterback is only as good as the weapons around him, and Mahomes has a bevy of them.
Tyreek Hill might be the NFL's most dangerous wide receiver, and he's under contract through 2022. Travis Kelce is the AFC's best tight end and is under contract for the next two seasons. Wideout Mecole Hardman likely would have made a bigger impact as a rookie if not for the players ahead of him. The Chiefs just added LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the No. 32 overall pick.
The Chiefs defense isn't as good as the offense, but it isn't the sieve it was even two years ago. Chris Jones' contract situation may be Kansas City's biggest hurdle at the moment (especially with a record-shattering extension for Mahomes looming), but the team will do all it can to hang on to one of the league's best three-tech tackles. Defensive end Frank Clark had eight sacks in 14 games in his first year in Kansas City.
The Chiefs are one ill-timed offside penalty away from potentially being the two-time defending champions. Not only are they the best team in the NFL, but they might become the league's next dynasty.