The Northeast is still vibrantly celebrating the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are polishing yet another championship trophy, but there are 31 other NFL teams that have already set their sights on the 2017 season. (And don't kid yourself -- Brady and Belichick and the Patriots are already pointing to next year as well.)
The NFL Scouting Combine is just four short weeks away. In less than one month, 2016 will be a distant memory, and the pressure on team executives, general managers and coaches will build as expectations are set for yet another season. There's not really an offseason anymore. Just a couple of long weekends and, in June, a slight lull before the training camp storm.
Here are the five teams that may have the most work to do this offseason:
Cleveland Browns (1-15)
It may be another year, but it's the same story in Cleveland. It almost doesn't seem fair to include the Browns on this list, because it feels like kicking a man who's already been down. Another offseason is here, and the same questions continue to surround the franchise.
I give the Browns some credit for trying something radical in hiring baseball analytics guru Paul DePodesta after the 2015 season. But with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hillmaking the decisions, the Browns actually got worse, going from 3-13 in 2015 to 1-15 in 2016. Some may argue that they had to completely tear down the roster before building it back up again (a credible argument), but I don't see many improvements on the horizon that will become the future foundation of this team. They do have a trove of draft picks, including the first and 12th overall picks in 2017, but Browns fans have seen them squander picks before. DePodesta and Co. must show they're smarter than the average NFL team to get ahead in the zero-sum game of team-building.
I believe in Hue Jackson. I think he is an excellent football coach. But this league has been, is now and will always be about talent, and the Browns are still severely limited there. Quarterback-turned-wideout Terrelle Pryor showed flashes of brilliance, but he was hardly a consistent presence (and he's a pending free agent). (The enormously gifted and troubled Josh Gordon is still on the roster, but he has already squandered some of his best years.) While the defense certainly got more athletic with the midseason acquisition of Jamie Collins (who signed a long-term deal in January), he was traded by the Patriots for a reason (his freelance tactics supposedly got old in New England, though Collins' contract status likely had something to do with the move). Joe Haden was once a premier cover corner, but his best years are most likely behind him.
Joe Thomas is the best player on the team, but what good is a franchise left tackle when he's blocking for a revolving cast of quarterbacks? Seven different players took a snap from center in 2016! SEVEN! Robert Griffin III continued to be dogged by injuries and inconsistency, while Josh McCown -- who was released Tuesday -- failed to complete 55 percent of his passes. If you said third-round pick Cody Kessler was the best quarterback wearing a Browns jersey, you wouldn't get much of a rebuttal from me. Is Jackson really going to roll the dice with RGIII and a very pedestrian Kessler? He may have to. There will be a lot of talk about North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky, from the Cleveland suburb of Mentor, as the Browns' possible savior. But can Jackson afford to put his future in the hands of another rookie, given Cleveland's institutional history of firing coaches as quickly as it can hire them?
San Francisco 49ers (2-14)
It's hard to believe how recently this team was viewed as a model franchise. The power struggle between Jim Harbaugh and former Trent Baalke concluded in December of 2014, but the hangover continues. Like the Browns, the 49ers went in a radical direction with their front office, hiring a GM last month without a single minute of front-office experience. At least John Lynch can lean on his Hall of Fame-caliber football career as leverage as he sits in a room full of "football people." That doesn't mean there won't be a learning curve throughout the process. Lynch will certainly do the right thing by surrounding himself with talented evaluators and other former executives who can help guide him, but it will need to be clearly understood who the real decision-makers are.
Experience runs thin on the coaching side, as well. New top man Kyle Shanahan has never been a head coach -- that's not necessarily good or bad, but there is a learning curve to any head coach's first year. The job looks different when you're behind the desk for the first time and suddenly responsible for everything. Shanahan will lean on his father, Mike Shanahan, for advice, but how this staff learns on the fly will be critical to how quickly it can get this thing turned around.
Like the Browns, Shanahan's Niners don't have many foundational building blocks on the roster. They will be in a complete rebuild, playing for their fourth head coach in as many seasons. But unlike the Browns, they don't control their own destiny in the draft when it comes to picking the top quarterback, seeing as how they draft second. This leads me to believe they might try a trade (for Jimmy Garoppolo or Tony Romo) or hope the Redskins are foolish enough to let Kirk Cousins walk out the door. The free agent market isn't otherwise enticing.
Buffalo Bills (7-9)
This may be the most surprising team on the list, only because the Bills weren't even the worst team in their own division last year. But with the firing of the Ryan brothers, rumors that ownership was meddling in football decisions -- particularly involving the starting quarterback -- and GM Doug Whaley's seat being hotter than a firecracker, you can hardly call Buffalo a stable environment.
New coach Sean McDermott will certainly bring a fresh perspective, but hiring a head coach for his defensive prowess to bolster what is already considered a solid defensive unit sounds all too familiar to Bills fans, who haven't cheered for a playoff team in 17 seasons. McDermott may maximize the potential of an extremely talented defensive line and a secondary that jumps off the page, but with so many NFL teams in flux, it's all about finding the right quarterback. Do the Billspay Tyrod Taylor? Do they draft a QB for the future? Do they look for a better option in free agency? There's no obvious answer. I'd stick with Taylor and also consider using a high draft pick -- but I clearly have an outsider's perspective.
Buffalo is never going to be an extremely desirable destination for top-tier free agents. The Bills need to mold themselves after the Green Bay Packers and build through the draft. Whaley sidestepped the ax this year, but what happens next year? That is why I like how the 49ers went about bringing the coach and GM in tandem, because their fates are tied together. In the case of the Bills, you have your new coach, but you may be starting over again next year anyway if you fire Whaley -- as many expected would have already happened.
Los Angeles Chargers (5-11)
I could have easily listed the other team from Los Angeles. But I'm giving the "more challenging job" edge to the Chargers because they play in the stacked AFC West and are facing the off-field distraction and loss of focus that comes from a franchise move -- something that certainly impacted the Rams in 2016.
The best 5-11 team in football in 2016 actually has some offensive talent, with running back Melvin Gordon coming off a breakout season and a healthy Keenan Allen due back in time for training camp (the rehabbingDanny Woodhead is set to be a free agent). Quarterback Philip Rivers isn't going to throw in the towel just yet, but that doesn't mean the Chargers don't need to start planning for when he does. At this point, they don't have a clear succession plan, and while I'm not suggesting they need to address this immediately, it must be in the cards at some point.
Defensively, they have some solid pieces, not the least of whom is Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa, who could anchor a potentially stout defense. They will also return corner Jason Verrett, who played in just four games last season, to bolster a secondary that boasts veteran talents like Casey Hayward and Brandon Flowers. So from a roster standpoint, the Chargers are clearly the most defined team on this list, which is also why it was one of the most attractive open head-coaching jobs this offseason.
But relatively inexperienced new coach Anthony Lynn will certainly have a handful of challenges as he helps to navigate the franchise's move from San Diego. Lynn has risen quickly, jumping from running backs coach to offensive coordinatorand interim head coach with the Bills last season. Building a franchise in a city with no patience for losing teams will be tough. And the non-divisional schedule features the Patriots, Cowboys and Giants. Chargers fans should buckle up.
Chicago Bears (3-13)
Much like the Chargers, the Bears had the misfortune to play in a strong division, and they were the only NFC North team to finish with a losing record. We have already heard everything there is to say about Jay Cutler; we know his considerable strengths and his considerable weaknesses. I know there are no quick fixes at quarterback, and once you get past overbidding for Romo and Garoppolo via trade, there aren't a lot of options. But sometimes you have to make a change at a position to give the rest of your team a fresh start. It feels like the Bears' relationship with Cutler has run its course. They may even be better off welcoming Josh McCown -- competent in his last tour of duty in Chicago -- back with open arms.
Realistically, this team, which finished 28th in scoring offense and 24th in scoring defense, is not just a quarterback away. There are holes all over the roster, and one of the Bears' most anticipated draft choices of recent years -- talented, injury-plagued wideout Kevin White -- has spent his first two seasons trying (and mostly failing) to get on the field. If not for an almost accidental breakout by running back Jordan Howard, the Bears wouldn't have much to hang their hats on. Alshon Jeffery can be an elite wide receiver, but he's struggled to stay healthy himself -- and he was suspended four games last season for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing substances. Yet, even with those red marks on his resume, the Bears still may not be able to retain him. As odd as it sounds, bringing McCown back may go a long way toward convincing Jeffery to stay, as 2013 -- when McCown filled in for an injured Cutler -- was Jeffery's best statistical year.
Defensively, I'm guessing you'd be hard-pressed to even name three starters off the top of your head. John Fox is a good coach. If Chicago can be patient with him and draft well, he will build this into a competitive team -- but I'm not sure the Bears or their fans will afford him that patience. This is another team that looks to be more than a year away but needs to show definite progress sooner than that.