Heading into the 2016 season, we thought we had things figured out.
We knew the Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars were on the rise with their first franchise quarterbacks in more than a decade. We knew the New England Patriots would be saddled by a Deflategate fiasco that was sure to derail quarterback Tom Brady’s twilight. We knew the Seattle Seahawks would be guided by its dominant defense and the New York Giants would be held back by theirs.
So much for what we knew.
And now, with the 2016 NFL regular season in the books, we have even more questions. And sure, a few answers…
QUESTION: Do the Denver Broncos, Jaguars and Los Angeles Rams have their quarterbacks of the future?
Of all the sordid quarterback situations in the NFL, perhaps none are more intriguing than these three. Other teams are facing more perilous scenarios — New York Jets, anyone? — but Denver, with potentially two and potentially zero playoff-bound quarterbacks on the roster, and Jacksonville and Los Angeles, with questions about high draft picks, are the three to watch out for. Who knows if Paxton Lynch or Trevor Siemian is the long-term answer in Denver ? Can Blake Bortles rebound from a bad year in Jacksonville? Is the Rams’ Jared Goff worthy of being on an NFL roster, much less a top pick?
ANSWER: The Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans definitely have their quarterbacks of the future.
Dallas’ Dak Prescott was a grand slam, but Jameis Winston of the Buccaneers and the Titans’ Marcus Mariota have also proved to be longballs, despite their expensive price tags. In a league that puts a premium on young, talented arms, these three teams seem to be locked up for the next decade.
QUESTION: Has the window closed on the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints?
Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is still productive, but he left a ton on the table in 2016, and the Saints’ Drew Brees had a curious lack of rhythm with his top targets at times. Unfortunately, neither team bottomed out, rendering moot their chances for quick support in the form of draft currency. The two greats have 32 years of pro experience between them, but they may have watched their Super Bowl windows slammed shut.
ANSWER: The Titans and Buccaneers are on the verge of playoff success.
More than just draft success in the form of franchise quarterbacks, both teams made savvy decisions in free agency and took strides in 2016, each team finishing 9-7 and just outside the postseason. These two teams will be in the hunt for a while.
QUESTION: Are the Atlanta Falcons for real?
Seems like we ask this every year, and even an 11-5 season hasn’t calmed our uncertainty. Atlanta allows 25.4 points per game, 27th in the league, and some curious losses this year don’t inspire the most confidence.
ANSWER: The Indianapolis Colts and San Diego Chargers definitely are not for real.
San Diego has made the playoffs once in the 2010s and hasn’t finished with double-digit wins since 2009. Indianapolis has now stumbled to back-to-back 8-8 seasons, and with a front office, defense and offensive line in disarray, quarterback Andrew Luck’s prime might be in jeopardy.
QUESTION: Which wide receiver will top 2,000 yards?
Four years removed from Calvin Johnson’s NFL-best 1,964-yard campaign, and a year removed from twin 1,830-plus seasons by Julio Jones and Antonio Brown, it appeared we were on the verge of the first 2,000-yard receiver. We’re still waiting.
ANSWER: Ezekiel Elliott will be the next 2,000-yard rusher.
Year 1 could not have gone much better for Dallas’ rookie running back. But the real reason for optimism? The true seeds of such pure joy and expectation? That impeccable offensive line, which is still young and relatively cheap. Breaking the 2,000-yard mark is a big task, and a bold challenge, but between Elliott’s breakaway skills and elusiveness and the Cowboys’ emphasis on the run, Zeke is not too far away.
QUESTION: Will coaches Marvin Lewis and Sean Payton stay put?
You can almost ask this question every year, but now more than ever. Lewis’ Cincinnati Bengals battled injuries but also choked away winnable games left and right in a 6-9-1 campaign. The league’s second-longest-tenured coach has taken the team out of obscurity, but hasn’t had playoff success. Payton, meanwhile, has been on a playoff drought in New Orleans while Brees wastes his golden years, and there’s talk of the coach getting moved for a draft pick.
ANSWER: Coaches Adam Gase and Jim Caldwell will stay put.
One young coach (Gase) and one veteran, both solidified their standings with rather surprising playoff runs. Gase led a pedestrian Miami Dolphins team to a 10-6 record, including 4-2 in AFC East play, and Caldwell’s Detroit Lions did just enough to squeeze into the NFC race with a 9-7 record. Each coach’s work with his quarterback — Gase and Ryan Tannehill, Caldwell and Matthew Stafford — has drawn rave reviews.