Every season 20 NFL teams miss the playoffs, and every offseason those same teams ostensibly set about trying to close the gap between themselves and the dozen who went to the dance. (Tanking is discouraged, Miami!) Free agency and trades are only two parts of the upgrade effort, along with the draft, but this is usually the time of year that many desperate teams over-reach and over-spend and live to regret it. Rinse, repeat.
Taking stock of the many moves made this offseason thus far, let’s identify the non-playoff teams that at least on paper have most improved their chances to reach the postseason in 2019. Remember, in last season’s 12-team playoff field, there were seven clubs participating in the Super Bowl tournament after failing to reach the postseason in 2017, a list that included Houston, Baltimore, Indianapolis and the Los Angeles Chargers in the AFC, and Chicago, Dallas and Seattle in the NFC. So the turnover factor in the playoffs is substantial, and strivers can make a significant leap over the course of one off-season, as the Bears, Colts and Texans did last year.
I submit these seven non-playoff teams that have done the best work so far in their attempt to join the postseason party next January:
I wrote plenty about the Browns’ boffo work earlier in the week, so there’s no need for a deep re-hash. But adding the star power and game-changing play-making of receiver Odell Beckham Jr. would qualify them for this list on its own, and Cleveland didn’t stop there.
Trading for another pass rusher in ex-Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon upgrades the D-line and helps ease the burden on edge rusher Myles Garrett, as does the signing of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. Ex-Bucs inside linebacker Adarius Taylor adds a potential quality replacement for cap-cut Jamie Collins, and even half a season of Kareem Hunt in the backfield (after his eight-game league suspension) is a pretty serious get.
Like the kid who grew four inches over the summer and is suddenly much more formidable than anyone ever expected, the Browns are a laughingstock no more, and Cleveland isn’t the Siberian outpost of the NFL. The glamor-team Browns haven’t had this much buzz since Marty Schottenheimer was losing AFC title games with regularity in the late ‘80s, and get ready to see plenty of Cleveland in prime time (and the playoffs) next season.
We see you, Bills. You’ve been busy. And for the most part, it’s working for us. Granted, adding 57-year-old Frank Gore is curious, but coaches in the non-New England portion of the AFC East love to add some of that vaunted “veteran leadership’’ to their locker rooms, and even at his age Gore is no mere mascot.
But Gore wasn’t the focal point of Buffalo’s many additions by any measure. Knowing the offense needed a major makeover, the Bills signed deep threat receiver John Brown away from Baltimore, and his vertical speed should make for a nice pairing with the big arm of second-year quarterback Josh Allen. Ex-Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley is a useful piece of the puzzle as well in the slot, if Allen can find him often enough with touch passes. Throw in receiver-return standout Andre Roberts and tight end Tyler Kroft and Buffalo’s skill-position talent is undeniably improved.
But I give the Bills credit for knowing how much work had to be done on their overmatched and depleted offensive line as well, and they went out and acquired a whopping four new linemen, including ex-Chiefs center Mitch Morse. Left tackle Ty Nsekhe is solid, and let’s see what Buffalo gets from the likes of interior linemen Spencer Long and Jon Feliciano.
Could Buffalo bounce back this season and make the playoffs for the second time in three years? It’s not out of the question, although much depends on the second-year step taken by Allen at quarterback. If nothing else, he’ll have more help surrounding him than he did in his injury-shortened rookie season.
San Francisco 49ers
Remember all the anticipation and good vibes that preceded the 49ers’ 2018 season? They disappeared in an instant when Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a year-ending Week 3 knee injury, but there’s now reason for renewed hope again in the Bay area. Playoffs in 2019? Maybe. Because there’s a lot to like about what San Francisco has been up to so far this year.
For starters, the 49ers stayed away from Antonio Brown and let cross-bay Oakland go that risky route. Secondly, San Francisco swung a huge deal with the Chiefs, landing pass rusher Dee Ford for the price of only a second-round draft pick in 2020. That’s a potential heist if Ford continues to be force off the edge.
If Nick Bosa ends up being available in the draft at No. 2 overall, after Kyler Murray goes first to the Cardinals, San Francisco’s pass rush should be worlds better this season. Free-agent signee Kwon Alexander was a bit of a gamble, coming off ACL surgery, but the ex-Bucs linebacker can go sideline to sideline and he’ll quickly upgrade the 49ers run defense when he’s right.
Offensively the best thing San Francisco did was sign ex-Falcons running back Tevin Coleman, who played and played well when Kyle Shanahan was his offensive coordinator on Atlanta’s Super Bowl team. And don’t overlook the wisdom of slapping the franchise tag on kicker Robbie Gould, who was probably going back to Chicago if the 49ers hadn’t acted. San Francisco still needs more receiver help, but adding Jordan Matthews was a decent first step, and the one-year, $3.6 million chance the 49ers took on oft-injured ex-Chargers cornerback Jason Verrett might pay off handsomely.
Green Bay Packers
Repeat after me: This is not your father’s (read Ted Thompson’s) Packers. And it’s kind of refreshing. For a change, the Packers are actually players in free agency under new-ish general manager Brian Gutekunst, and he just handed out $183 million in contracts to four players: edge rushers Za’Darius Smith, late of Baltimore, and Preston Smith (Washington), in addition to ex-Bears safety Adrian Amos and former Broncos guard Billy Turner.
It’s doubtful the balance of power in the NFC North just swung Green Bay’s way, but the Packers knew their defensive roster needed a fresh approach and Smith, Smith and Amos are all solid additions that should significantly upgrade the tools defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has on hand. If new head coach Matt LaFleur does his thing to get Aaron Rodgers and the offense back on cruise control, the Packers back in the playoffs for the first time since 2016 isn’t hard to envision.
You can’t really make a strong case the Lions are trying to duplicate the Patriots’ success by adding ex-New England players when Bill Belichick would never have made the decision in the first place to go big and bold and throw $90 million over five years at a Trey Flowers in free agency. That’s not the Patriot Way to roster build, and Detroit’s Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn know it from their many years in Foxboro.
But the Lions desperately needed more edge rush and Flowers was clearly the best option available after the franchise tags were applied around the rest of the league. So from that standpoint, $18 million per year was the price of poker in the Flowers sweepstakes, and the Lions paid it. He’ll probably never live up to this contract, but he’s young, talented, plays the run as well and won’t pull a disappearing act in Motown. He’ll earn his money to a degree, but he’s not Khalil Mack or Von Miller, and he probably won’t turn into either one of them in Detroit.
The Lions weren’t relevant in Patricia’s first season, sinking to last place in the NFC North, and that demanded action. In addition to the standard-setting Flowers deal, they made some smart moves, adding ex-Steelers tight end Jesse James on a four-year deal, and bringing in ex-Dolphins/Patriots receiver Danny Amendola in the old “locker-room culture’’ addition category.
Lastly, Detroit paid a big number ($9 million per year) for a premier slot corner, enticing ex-Seahawk and ex-Patriot Justin Coleman to town. He’ll upgrade the pass defense and is a competitive type who’ll help out in a division known for its franchise quarterbacks.
New York Jets
The Jets got better. The Jets got better. The Jets got better.
Having said that, they finished 4-12 and in last place in the AFC East, so there was plenty of room for improvement when it comes to their bottom-feeding roster. Do I think New York is playoff-bound in 2019 after their flurry of offseason moves? No. I’m not ready to go there. But there were multiple highlights in their recent work, and they extend beyond getting running back Le’Veon Bell under contract in a deal that made sense for them, without breaking the bank.
If Bell is still the same player he was in 2017 — and there are no guarantees of that, no matter how much some what to gloss over that point — he’ll add an elite presence to a Jets offense that was woefully out-matched last season, both when he’s running or catching the ball out of the backfield. New York also upgraded its receiving game, adding the underrated Jamison Crowder from Washington in the slot, and ex-Bears pass-catcher/special team standout Josh Bellamy. So now it’s not just Robby Anderson or nothing for quarterback Sam Darnold.
New York failed to close the deal with Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, but C.J. Mosley, while being over-paid for an inside linebacker, should be a three-down steadying presence for the Jets for seasons to come. Re-signing defensive end Henry Anderson helps, and the trade with Oakland for Kelechi Osemele could be the kind of move that pays huge dividends for Darnold and the Jets running game. Osemele wasn’t himself with the Raiders, but that tends to happen to good players sometimes in Oakland’s dismal environment.
The Jets losing kicker Jason Myers to Seattle and replacing him with Chandler Catanzaro is not an upgrade, and we’ll see if that defection hurts the most come the regular season. But like we said, the Jets got better.
To re-cap the headline activity in Oakland, the Raiders dramatically over-paid ex-Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown, took on a potential debilitating headache in trading for Antonio Brown, and signed a rather inconsistent performer in Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner. You can almost smell the desperation from here, but hey, I’m still going to give Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock some points for trying. The Raiders bottomed out last year and had to something to get everyone to stop talking about the Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper trades.
The story of the offseason in Oakland is still going to be what the Raiders do with four of the draft’s top 35 picks, and credit them for not surrendering any of those in the Antonio Brown deal, sending only third- and fifth-round picks Pittsburgh’s way. And no jokes aside, landing ex-Chargers deep threat receiver Tyrell Williams in free agency was a strong move. He should benefit from having Brown lined up opposite him, and his addition also weakens a division opponent.
That said, Oakland isn’t climbing past Kansas City, the Chargers and probably not even Denver in the AFC West standings in 2019. But if the Raiders hit big in this year’s draft, playoff contention in 2020 isn’t out of the question.