Losing especially sucks when you do a lot of losing. But in the NFL, losing a lot does have one distinct merit: your team is guaranteed a high draft pick. No need to worry about lotteries here! Getting the worst record guarantees you your pick of any college prodigy you want and pumps your embattled fans full of hope until September.
The season is already half over and we’re starting to get a clear picture at what teams are destined to be picking high. Let’s take a look at those teams. How did they get to this point? Are they pulling in fast to top-five pick island? What should they do once they’re there?
Cleveland Browns (0-8)
Remaining Opponents: Cowboys, @ Ravens, Steelers, Giants, Bengals, @ Bills, Chargers, @ Steelers
How did they get here: Look, being projected with a high draft pick is par for the course in Cleveland. But this season has admittedly felt different. Cleveland has played a handful of nail-biters this year, including close fought battles against the Titans, Ravens, Dolphins, and most recently, the Jets. On top of that, Cleveland has a handful of star players on both sides of the ball. Terrelle Pryor at wide receiver being the biggest revelation. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson have brought life to the run game, last year’s 1st round pick Corey Coleman played great before his hand injury, and of course Joe Thomas and Joe Haden have held strong on their side of the ball. While the Browns do find new and amazing ways to lose and are considering trading their star cornerback, this team feels more 2014 Oakland than say, any other Browns team in recent memory.
Top 5 Pick? Oh, undoubtedly. It’s tough to start 0-8 and rally out of that funk. They could pick up a win or two against their reeling division rivals, but apart from that, they get the Cowboys at the worst possible time, an offensive juggernaut of a Giants squad, and the steadily-improving Chargers. Cleveland is likely headed to a 2-14 finish, 3-13 at best.
Biggest Needs: The Browns once again have the luck of scoring two first rounders, but they can’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Most recently when Cleveland had two first rounders, they used the higher pick for a protective roll (OT Joe Thomas in 2007, CB Justin Gilbert in 2014), followed by a risky quarterback later on in the draft (Brady Quinn in 2007, Johnny Manziel in 2014). Granted, Joe Thomas has worked out great and 2007 wasn’t exactly swimming in great quarterbacks (though they would miss out on the likes of Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, and Darrelle Revis), but in 2014 they could have their pick of Derek Carr, Teddy Bridgewater, or even Odell Beckham Jr. So Cleveland, for everyone’s benefit, if you do end up where you’re heading now and snag that number 1 pick: PICK A QUARTERBACK. Then pick up your defensive stud later on down the line. This isn’t the usual “har har, Cleveland has no QB” type of plea. You have a team now. Solid WRs, great relief RBs, a defense working hard to protect you. A QB/CB combo in the first round could legitimately be what gets your team rolling. PLUS you have Hue Jackson as your head coach. Give him a QB he can work with. Look at Oakland. They had a laughable squad going into 2014. Derek Carr gets added alongside a dynamite defender. They struggle that whole year. 2015? A solid 7-9 record. Now? They’re leading their division and currently are holding to the #2 seed in the playoffs. Let 2016 be your 2014 and we could be speaking about how great the 2019 Browns are after you hand Pittsburgh a loss.
San Francisco 49ers (1-6)
Remaining Opponents: Saints, @ Cardinals, Patriots, @ Dolphins, @ Bears, Jets, @ Falcons, @ Rams, Seahawks
How did they get here: Here’s a fun fact: the Niners aren’t the favorite to win any of their remaining games. Any other team in the league with even a few more wins would look at this schedule and lick their lips at the prospects. With only four of their remaining opponents having winning records you’d think it’d be easy pickens. But poor play in nearly every aspect of the game has crippled this Niners team. Beyond quarterback, you’re seeing receiver drops, a major slump for Carlos Hyde, an OL that may as well be a series of revolving doors, and a defense that let the Buffalo Bills score 45 points on them. San Fran had a statement win in week 1…against the Rams…but since then have been a dumpster fire to watch.
Top 5 Pick? Certainly. I think the 49ers have it in them to beat the Bears…but that’s about it. At best, San Fran could end up 4-12. At worst, 1-15. They may have the better record than Cleveland, but whereas Cleveland seems to be carving out an identity, San Francisco seems to be lost.
Biggest Need: Well, consistency for one thing. Chip Kelly needs to stay on. With that being said, the easy answer is to say a quarterback but if I may, I strongly feel the 49ers can solve that issue in the offseason Chip Kelly style. While he didn’t make any blockbuster moves this year, the 2017 offseason is going to probably look insane for San Fran. Kaepernick after restructuring his contract to benefit both him and the team is certainly out after this year (unless he leads them to a nine-game winning streak). And there is likely going to be a levy of quarterbacks escaping their current teams. Just to name a few who have been speculated: Jay Cutler, Geno Smith, and Robert Griffin III. Add that onto other possibles like Ryan Fitzpatrick or even the slightest chance at Tony Romo and San Fran could really address the problem in a different way. Now, since the 49ers biggest need can best be summarized as “pick one,” they should be going after the best player available. Right now, I’d say that looks like Myles Garrett, an edge back who could give the Niners a sorely needed boost in their pass rush.
Chicago Bears (2-6)
Remaining Opponents: @ Buccaneers, @ Giants, Titans, 49ers, @ Lions, Packers, Redskins, @ Vikings
How did they get here: INJURIES. Chicago limps into all of their games and then limp out somehow worse. And the players who aren’t injured certainly aren’t helping. When you’ve got a backup quarterback who hurls four straight games with 300+ yards and you STILL manage a 1-6 record in your first seven, something is really broken. And it’s broken in several different ways. Having one decent WR and a non existent pass defense (oh, and a run defense that let a wide receiver smoke them in the run game in week 7), it’s not hard to see what has Chicago reeling. I asked my close Bears fan friend how he’s feeling about this season. His response? “Who cares, the Cubs are in the World Series.” That’s about all Chicago has going for it. A different team.
Top 5 Pick? Likely. The Bears and the Niners seem like they’re heading into the top 3, but Chicago’s win over Minnesota gives them something to build on. Jay Cutler also just had his best game of the season, but random division upsets are kind of Chicago’s thing as of late. (Note that their only two wins have come against NFC North rivals.) The most winable games on their schedule are battles with the equally awful 49ers and the chance at a sweep of the Lions. Their remaining opponents all have winning records right now and seem playoff bound. Sorry, Chicago. Momentum or not, the odds are not in your favor.
Biggest Needs: Chicago is going to be a position to take either Deshaun Watson or DeShone Kizer. They should jump on whoever the pick(s) above them don’t take. With Cutler potentially getting the boot and the Bears very rarely finding themselves this high on the totem poll, taking a risk on their quarterback of the future should be universally seen as the way to go. That rookie quarterback will hopefully be coming home to healthy Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White. Now, on the other hand, there’s also a chance that Chicago picks 3rd after losing their shot at these two quarterbacks. In which case, the focus needs to be on their limping run game. At pick #3, Leonard Fournette will be VERY available.
Carolina Panthers (2-5)
Remaining Opponents: @ Rams, Chiefs, Saints, @ Raiders, @ Seahawks, Chargers, @ Redskins, Falcons, Buccaneers
How did they get here: There’s always a surprise team on the win-lose side of things in an NFL season. The Eagles seem to be filling out the surprise winner category while the defending NFC Champions are dwelling in the basement of at least the second worst division in football. The Panthers really do seem to be cursed to never have back to back winning seasons and that’s for a few reasons. Carolina, while doing just fine in offensive yards, is near the middle of the pack for points scored, plays ran, and time of possession. A Josh Norman-less defense is another problem, as the secondary has been burned time and time again, while the opportunistic defense of 2015 that hawked in interceptions and fumbles with a vengeance seems non-existent. Carolina, for whatever reason, is slower and getting beat. And because they find themselves down so often, they’re using Cam more than they did last year. Their running game provided a lot of relief to the MVP. Without that, Cam is throwing for his life more than he should be.
Top 5 Pick? Last Sunday, we saw Carolina start to dig themselves out of the hole. Taking advantage of the Cardinals regression might be the pick me up Carolina needed to get the ball rolling again. The Rams look beatable as well in week 9, so Carolina could kick off a two-game winning streak which could become a three-gamer depending on which KC team shows up. Then it’s some good old fashioned revenge against the mediocre division teams that have already beat them. Carolina, at best, has eight games that could go their way. But even at worst, Carolina can end this season with five wins, which may claw them out of the top 5.
Biggest Need: A ball-hawkin’, trash talkin’ cornerback. Did losing Josh Norman send their entire defense down the hole? No. But it did tank their secondary. Without Norman shutting down teams top receivers, Carolina is in the bottom-five against WR1s. While a rookie might not be an auto CB1 and be ready to stand up to the likes of Julio Jones in the division, there is a very clear reason that Jones had a career day against the Panthers secondary.
Jacksonville Jaguars (2-5)
Remaining Opponents: @ Chiefs, Texans, @ Lions, @ Bills, Broncos, Vikings, @ Texans, Titans, @ Colts
How did they get here: Two words: Gus. Bradley. The Gus Bus has spent the last four years building an absolutely stacked squad. Blake Bortles with his cannon arm, a wide receiver so deadly he’s nicknamed after an actual weapon, a WR duo that exploded early and hard, a pen of running backs able to slice through DLs, devastating defenders in the secondary and at linebacker…and yet here the Jags sit at 2-5. Under .500 yet again. The offense has suffered a huge falling out from their big 2015, only defeating teams whose defenses either died (Chicago) or have forgotten how to play (Indianapolis). The hype train crashed early and it crashed hard for this team as the Jaguars seem to be doing what they always do.
Top 5 Pick? Knee jerk reaction says “no, of course not; they’ve got to get better.” Looking at the tough schedule paints a different picture. Nobody plays each other harder than the AFC South, so none of those games are guaranteed one way or the other. Otherwise, they’ve got a winning Chiefs squad, an on-fire Matt Stafford (and the aptly named defender Darius Slay), the number 1 AND number 2 defenses, and the Buffalo Bills who have become the other surprise winner with a rough and tumble defense of their own. The Jags are marching straight towards another top 5 pick.
Biggest Need: How cool would it be if you could draft a coach? Bradley needs to go and the defense needs to be addressed, particularly at the line. If you’ve been watching college ball this year and your team needs some defense, this draft should definitely excite you. Hopefully, in true Jaguar tradition, their 1st round caliber defensive draft pick won’t suffer a season ending injury this time around.
New York Jets (3-5)
Remaining Opponents: @ Dolphins, Rams, Patriots, Colts, @ 49ers, Dolphins, @ Patriots, Bills
How did they get here: Remember how the Jets went 10-6 last year? With the same roster? Weird, right? Fitzpatrick potential for being an interception machine is a problem, Revis Island being turned into the Revis gift shop is a problem, losing Eric Decker to injury is a problem, the lack of quarterback pressure is a problem. Some have argued that higher quality opponents have led to the Jets demise and perhaps they’re right. They may have had a big win against the Ravens but the Ravens have once again been visited by the injury fairy.
Top 5 Pick? New York is a swingin’ place so they could go either direction. Beating the Bills and Ravens is great. They’ve got some momentum going after beating Cleveland. But the Dolphins are back on the rise and have a surprising homefield advantage. They also have two trips to New England coming up. The Jets could be another team just good enough to sneak out of the top 5, especially if they use the player who has banked them their big wins: Matt Forte. If you look at the three games the Jets have actually won, the common factor is A LOT of Matt Forte. So why wouldn’t they use their star back? Look at all those teams rushing defenses. With the exception of the Rams and Patriots, the remaining teams end zones should look like welcome mats for Forte (they could even say “Welcome, Matt!”).
Biggest Need: Before anybody screams quarterback, let us not forget that Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg were drafted one after the other. Should they lose Geno AND Fitz, they need to let one of their young guys get some reps. Maybe bring in a veteran QB to lighten the load. It’s not the sexy option, but there are exactly two potential starting quarterbacks in this draft and the Jets ain’t getting any of that action. No, the Jets need to strengthen that offensive line. Fitz getting pressured into the great beyond is happening more than it should and that OL let Geno Smith get demolished on Sunday. If Notre Dame Tackle McGlinchey decides to bank on the lack of OL talent in this draft and enter anyway, the Jets should keep a close eye on him.
San Diego Chargers (3-5)
Remaining Opponents: Titans, Dolphins, @ Texans, Buccaneers, @ Panthers, Raiders @ Browns, Chiefs
How did they get here: It could be an amalgamation of things. The Chargers are one of the more puzzling teams in the league as they have flexed enough muscles to earn some statement wins while also coming up just short in several games. Injuries could be partly to blame, poor coaching could be tossed around as a reason, and playing in one of the toughest divisions in football is certainly not helping. The tools are there, but San Diego has had a finishing problem more than anything.
Top 5 Pick? San Diego is a solid “maybe” for a top 5. Favorable matchups at home against equally unpredictable Titans and Dolphins squads, with some other potential wins coming up against Houston, Tampa, and Cleveland. The Chargers could quite easily finish 8-8, maybe even win out to 10-6. But, the Chargers also have as much chance to lose all these games. Not a won is a guarantee given the “will they/won’t they” nature of this team. Those same Titans and Dolphins could give them hell in their own stadium, the Bucs are on the rise, the Panthers are showing their teeth again, and even the Browns could finally have found their formula to win towards the end of the season. Their remaining battles against the Raiders and Chiefs won’t be any picnic either. Chargers could just as easily fall to 3-13 as they could 10-6.
Biggest Need: WIDE. RECEIVER. The Chargers have struck gold on Antonio Gates’ eventual replacement in Hunter Henry, but there are some question marks around their other pass catchers. Potentially more important? An offensive line that can help out San Diego’s running game. Melvin Gordon is finally finding his way, but poor protection and hole creating is the only thing slowing him down.
Indianapolis Colts (3-5)
Remaining Opponents: @ Packers, Titans, Steelers, @ Jets, Texans, @ Vikings, @ Raiders, Jaguars
How did they get here: Any modern NFL fan will admit it’s pretty weird to see the Colts in this position. Even after Manning ruled the AFC South with an iron fist, the Colts have always felt like a shoe-in for the playoffs but now every team they face seems to know exactly where their weak spot is: the secondary. Indy’s defense as a whole has been lacking; unable to make needed tackles, letting receivers walk all over them, and getting eviscerated by the run. Andrew Luck at quarterback has provided glimmers of hope, but he can’t carry this team by himself. Luck shows flashes of greatness and has absolutely won games for the Colts, but as we saw in their battle with the Chiefs, the Colts are doomed when facing quality opponents.
Top 5 Pick? I think they’re heading that direction. Do you see this schedule? If the Chiefs gave the Colts problems, imagine what a suddenly hot again Green Bay, a rising Tennessee, the deadly Steelers, the defensive juggernaut Vikings, the high-flying Raiders, and an offense-driven division rival are going to do to this team. There’s exactly one game I’d favor the Colts in on this list (the Jets), and even that one I’m not sold on. The Colts ceiling is 5-11 as of this moment. More likely? 4-12. We’ll see if any adjustments happen following the bye week after the Green Bay game, but Indy is in for a world of hurt on the back half of the season.
Biggest Need: You could throw a dart on the defensive depth chart and hit a need for the Colts. Key areas are their secondary and their defensive line. The Colts bring no heat to any of their games and they should be paying extra close attention to the defenders that are popping up in the college game. Oh, and maybe ditch Chuck Pagano while they’re at it.