Every NFL season, there are teams that are pleasant surprises and glaring disappointments. The Jaguars and Giants rose up from 2021 bottom feeders to make the playoffs, while the defending Super Bowl champion Rams top the list of failed teams with a lot of work to do in 2023 to return to the top.
Here’s my list of five such teams — among many others — coming off down seasons, starting with the Rams, and my proposed pathway to success going forward.
Sean McVay’s Rams had the most losses by a defending Super Bowl champion. The main culprit was injuries as 24 players spent time on injured reserve, including their three best players. There was not enough quality depth to recover for a team that has traded away so many high draft picks in recent years. The 2023 draft will be the team’s seventh straight without a first-round pick due to trades for receiver Brandin Cooks (traded again to the Texans in 2020), corner Jalen Ramsey and quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Stafford (neck-spinal cord contusion) and top receiver Cooper Kupp (ankle) each missed eight games, while All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald (ankle) was out for six games. These three players have combined salaries that average $99 million per year (ouch!).
The Rams suffered with their absences. Los Angeles dropped from ninth in total offense in 2021 to last, and its scoring average fell nine points per game, a shocking turn of events for a team coached by a perceived offensive genius in McVay. McVay is reportedly considering a break from coaching after this awful season. The Rams started four QBs in 2022 so there was little continuity, and the offensive line was hurt by left tackle Andrew Whitworth’s retirement, among other changes.
Rams’ Next Steps/Possible Solutions
The all-in strategy of general manager Les Snead and McVay in trading for veteran stars worked great in 2021 but not so much this past season. The Rams first need to get McVay fully committed. Then they must hope for better health in 2023 and get the team’s tight salary cap loosened with restructures for Kupp, Ramsey and possibly Stafford (but not for the 31-year-old Donald).
After that, the Rams must hit free agency and the draft (with second and third-rounders as their only picks in the first five rounds) to upgrade the offensive line and the receiver group. Allen Robinson, a 2022 free-agent signing, finished with only 33 catches and missed seven games, and did not pan out. They also need help in the secondary and for the pass rush, which saw its sacks total drop from 50 in 2021 to 38, which ranked 21st. They have to keep Donald on the field. He had only five sacks after averaging 15 during the previous four seasons.
Also, the Rams should try to re-sign Baker Mayfield at backup QB money (plus big incentives for games he starts and wins) as he played better than John Wolford in the games they replaced Stafford (Mayfield went 2-3 and would know the offense better next season so he’s a more viable insurance policy behind Stafford).
With coach Nathaniel Hackett fired after Week 16, Bronco fans could direct all their wrath toward Russell Wilson because the team did not reach the lofty expectations projected after trading away so many high draft picks to acquire the quarterback. I’ve always considered Wilson a top QB and a future Hall of Famer, but between Hackett’s shaky play calling, a scheme that didn’t incorporate enough Wilson runs and bootlegs and so many injuries to key players on offense, it was a mile-high mess.
Two key offensive line starters — left tackle Garrett Bolles and center Lloyd Cushenberry — landed on injured reserve along with top running back Javonte Williams and receivers Tim Patrick and K.J. Hamler. Top receivers Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton each missed multiple games. Denver led the league in sacks allowed (63) and had the second most players hit IR (27).
It was somewhat encouraging to see Wilson play better late in the season when he threw more deep balls and ran more (119 rushing yards and two TDs during the last four games) as was his strength in Seattle.
This was an undisciplined team that took too many penalties, dropped a lot of passes and fumbled too much. The run game was No. 21 in the league, and the defense held on as long as it could before it became too difficult to compensate for the NFL’s lowest-scoring offense (16.9 point per game).
But Denver’s defense ranked 23rd in sacks with high-priced acquisition Randy Gregory playing only six games and notching two sacks due to a knee injury. It didn’t help when their leading sacker Bradley Chubb was traded to Miami mid-season.
Broncos’ Next Steps/Possible Solutions
The Broncos are in a seven-year playoff drought. With new ownership in place, the pressure is on general manager George Paton to turn things around quickly, and the coaching hire is obviously a key element. As with the Rams, better health is an obvious need, but it’s of the utmost importance for the Broncos to hire a quarterback guru as the next coach to get Wilson back to where he should be as an elite QB.
I’d suggest the Broncos seek a Kevin O’Connell-type. He’s a former NFL QB and was the Rams’ offensive coordinator under McVay before the Vikings hired him a year ago. O’Connell has built up Kirk Cousins’ confidence and empowered him in a QB-friendly system, allowing Cousins to lead the Vikings to 13 wins and the NFC North title. Wilson and Cousins are the same age (34), and if his supporting cast is healthier and the scheme is conducive, then Wilson certainly should return to Pro Bowl status.
Also, use the first-round pick from the Chubb trade to upgrade the offensive line, pass rush or secondary, and use the limited cap room (and do a few contract restructures) to add free-agent help and better depth in these areas.
It was an ugly free-fall for last season’s top AFC seed. The Titans started out 7-3 and then proceeded to lose their last seven games to hand the AFC South to the Jaguars. The last five defeats were after the Titans fired general manager Jon Robinson. It’s convenient to blame quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who missed five games (including the last three) because of ankle injuries, but the team was only 6-6 with him in the lineup, so it runs deeper.
The Titans needed a better backup QB than Malik Willis or Josh Dobbs after Tannehill was lost for the season. Robinson also made a major error in trading top receiver A.J. Brown and counting on rookie first-rounder Treylon Burks and veteran Robert Woods to pick up the slack and prevent teams from ganging up on star back Derrick Henry. Woods and Burks caught three TD passes between them, and neither was the game-breaker that Brown is in Philadelphia. Henry was great as usual (1,538 rushing yards), but he was not enough.
The defense is good enough under Mike Vrabel’s guidance. The Titans held Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars to 222 yards and 13 points on offense in the season finale, but the offensive line gave up the back-breaking strip-sack of Dobbs, resulting in the Jaguars’ game-winning fumble return TD.
Titans’ Next Steps/Possible Solutions
Vrabel fired offensive coordinator Todd Downing, and he needs to find a top replacement to fix the 30th-ranked offense. Tannehill (34) still has some good years ahead, but he needs a replenished offensive line (they were bottom five in sacks allowed with 49) and more depth at wide receiver (their 16 TD receptions were third lowest in the league). The new offensive coordinator must get Willis to improve more rapidly so there’s a viable backup QB.
The Titans have their top three picks in the 2023 draft for the new general manager to add talent on offense and more help at linebacker and cornerback. They will have to restructure some contracts to free up money for free-agent help. They also should extend their Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons (7.5 sacks, 54 tackles), who is going into his fifth-year option season.
Like the Rams and Titans, the Raiders were a 2021 playoff team (at 10-7) and thought they had taken a step forward by trading for superstar receiver Davante Adams to pair with quarterback Derek Carr, his college teammate. Adams was terrific as always (1,516 receiving yards, 14 TDs), and the Raiders had the league’s leading rusher in Josh Jacobs (1,653 yards).
But Carr’s play declined in new coach Josh McDaniels’ offense. Carr’s passer rating fell eight points from 2021 and 15 points below 2020. McDaniels benched Carr in the last two games for Jarrett Stidham, making it appear likely Carr will be traded or released this offseason.
The offense still ranked No. 12 in the league so the defense was a bigger problem, falling from 14th in 2021 to 28th with a league-worst 13 takeaways and six interceptions. The Raiders blew three games with 17-point or larger leads. Other than his wild TD return off a failed lateral to beat the Patriots in Week 15, Chandler Jones didn’t play up to his $17 million per year free-agent deal with only 4.5 sacks. Maxx Crosby had a Pro Bowl season with 12.5 sacks, but he needs help.
Raiders’ Next Steps/Possible Solutions
With his 17-28 head coaching record, the question has to be asked whether McDaniels is a great offensive coordinator but not a good head coach. He and general manager Dave Ziegler have to get the QB situation resolved by trying to trade Carr, who has value but also has a no-trade clause, so he can control his next destination (or the Raiders must cut him to avoid a $40 million guarantee triggered on Feb. 15).
The dead money hit is only $5.6 million, and moving on from Carr will free up a tight salary cap (saving $28 million). The best solution is to trade Carr, draft his successor from a strong QB class with the seventh overall pick and keep Stidham as a bridge QB who knows the system. Stidham almost beat the 49ers and their stout defense in Week 17 with a 365-yard passing day and 3 TDs, but his interception while being pressured lost the game in overtime.
The Raiders have eight other draft picks to improve the secondary and the overall defense with more speed being the biggest need. Colts quarterback Matt Ryan, who is 37, had a 39-yard run against them in a loss to the Colts. Really?
They must extend or put the franchise tag on Jacobs after making what in retrospect was a mistake by not exercising his fifth-year option. The Raiders also have to figure out how to keep Darren Waller healthy after the star tight end missed nine games this season and six games in 2021.
The Bears, who have missed the playoffs the past two seasons, were competitive early with a 3-4 start before dropping their last 10 games. Quarterback Justin Fields had a 1,000-yard rushing season, but with a sub-par receiving corps and shaky offensive line (57 sacks allowed), he needs a much better supporting cast.
The defense was dismantled through trades of top players Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn to the point the Bears ranked 29th in total defense and 31st against the run. Matt Eberflus’ defense generated a league-worst 20 sacks, and it’s never good when your leading sacker is a safety (Jaquan Brisker) with only four sacks.
So general manager Ryan Poles and Eberflus have a lot of work to do in order to upgrade the roster in both trenches and at wide receiver, where Darnell Mooney led the group with 493 receiving yards, ranking 86th in the league. They have a quality tight end in Cole Kmet (50 catches for 544 yards and seven TDs) and some talented players in the secondary.
Chicago has not had a first-round pick in three of the past four drafts due to trades for Mack and moving up to take Fields. That will change in a big way in the upcoming draft as the Bears hold the first overall pick after the Texans beat the Colts in Week 18.
Bears’ Next Steps/Possible Solutions
I like Fields, who is a dynamic runner, and he improved as a passer in Year 2. With a better supporting cast, he can be a franchise QB so there’s no need to toss him aside and take a quarterback with that top pick. Better to trade down one spot with Houston, which would pick its No. 1 QB (most likely it will be either Alabama’s Bryce Young or Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud).
The Bears could pick up several picks before selecting the best defensive player in the draft — either edge rusher Will Anderson from Alabama or defensive tackle Jalen Carter from national champion Georgia. Either player would fill a big need for the Chicago defense. The Bears could drop a few more spots and get even more picks, but that’s a risky move if they want to get Anderson or Carter.
They have seven other picks (and should pick up more by trading out of No. 1) to fortify their many areas of need, including the offensive line, wide receiver and the front seven on defense. They also must tap into the largest amount of projected salary cap room (an estimated $113 million) to upgrade the roster.
That includes at backup QB where journeyman Nathan Peterman started the season finale at Minnesota because Fields was held out with a hip injury … or was it to have a better shot at losing in order to possibly get the top pick? If that was the hidden goal, then mission accomplished.
>> Debate: Should Bears Draft Fields’ Replacement?
Jeff Diamond is a former Minnesota Vikings general manager and Titans team president. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.