The NFL offseason is a time for hope to blossom, buoyed by the twin fonts of optimism: free agency and the draft. The feeling that anything can happen when the season kicks off is pervasive, exciting even the fans of those teams whose most recent playoff appearances are but a distant memory.
With that in mind, I thought I'd take a look at the six teams with the NFL's longest playoff droughts. Will their offseason moves make a difference? Here is my take on where these organizations stand, with the teams listed according to their chances of making the playoffs in 2014:
1) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Length of drought: Six seasons.
After a chaotic 2013 campaign, things are definitely looking up for the Bucs, who have a proven winner at head coach in Lovie Smith and a boatload of good players on the roster.
Tampa Bay had a great draft, highlighted by its first three selections; receiver Mike Evans, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and running back Charles Sims all should be able to contribute immediately. The Bucs also made solid free-agency additions, including cornerback Alterraun Verner and defensive lineman Michael Johnson, to a roster that already included standouts like Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. The return of top-notch running back Doug Martin, who missed 10 games in 2013, will be a boon. The biggest question mark is the quarterback position, though veteran Josh McCown -- another offseason acquisition -- is coming off a solid season with the Bears. In short, this is a good team.
In Smith's nine years coaching the Bears, Chicago had 310 takeaways -- the most in the NFL during that span. That makes him a natural match for a Tampa Bay squad that posted a turnover differential of plus-10 last season, an excellent number augmented by 21 interceptions. In fact, Smith is really walking into an ideal situation, with expectations relatively low and talent levels sky-high. There's a good chance we'll see the Bucs competing this postseason, especially if the Carolina Panthers slip back to earth in the NFC South.
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2) St. Louis Rams
Length of drought: Nine seasons.
If history is any guide, the Seattle Seahawks will take a step or two backward after winning the Super Bowl, potentially leaving an opening for the Rams in the NFC West. St. Louis will be powered by a strong defensive line, featuring Robert Quinn (19 sacks in 2013), Chris Long, Michael Brockers and rookie Aaron Donald. Though the offensive line was supposedly a weakness, the Rams finished with a sack-differential of plus-17 -- and that was before they used the second overall draft pick on Greg Robinson, who should step in and start right away. St. Louis had a very strong draft overall; when you get two players in the top 13 (Donald was the other), you're doing pretty well.
Still, the Rams' fate in 2014 ultimately rests on quarterback Sam Bradford's ability to stay healthy and play well for 16 games. Though his 2013 season was abbreviated by injury, the former No. 1 overall pick was actually pretty good in the seven games he played, completing 14 touchdown passes against just four picks. St. Louis has a tough schedule, but the Ramsdo play four of their first six games at home. This team has all the pieces -- including a very good kicking game and one of the best coaches around in Jeff Fisher -- to have a decent chance of making the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
3) Buffalo Bills
Length of drought: 14 seasons.
The Bills are in a truly epic playoff dry spell. Since losing a wild-card matchup in the 1999 season, Buffalo has won just 88 games and posted one winning campaign, a 9-7 effort in 2004. And while I'm not sure this infamous stretch of futility will come to an end in 2014, I do think this is the best roster and coaching staff the team has run out there since the drought began.
I can't say whether or not the uncertainty surrounding the sale of the Bills following owner Ralph Wilson's death will be a motivating factor for the team this season, but I can say that Doug Marrone is the right guy for this head-coaching job. He and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett are very good at what they do. And new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is excellent in this role. I fully expect him to figure out a way to adapt to the loss of top-flight safety Jairus Byrd and keep this unit -- which notched 57 sacks and 30 takeaways in 2013 -- humming.
I liked Buffalo's draft. Yes, the team did pay a steep price to move up and draft receiver Sammy Watkins at No. 4 overall. But while receivers historically take some time to adapt, I think Watkins is different; he has a fine chance to be Offensive Rookie of the Year. Cyrus Kouandjio, meanwhile, should be a plug-and-play starter at right tackle.
If the Bills are to finally knock off the New England Patriots -- and hold off the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins -- in the AFC East, it will happen because quarterback EJ Manuel takes a huge leap forward in his second year as a pro. And if anyone can help Manuel do that, it's Hackett. Realistically, I don't see Buffalo competing for a postseason berth until 2015. But still, the Bills are pointed in the right direction.
4) Cleveland Browns
Length of drought: 11 seasons.
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It's a new day in Cleveland; there's a new head coach (Mike Pettine), a new general manager (Ray Farmer) and, yes, a new quarterback (Johnny Manziel). One of the most important aspects of the Browns' latest organizational overhaul is that Farmer appears to be the type to develop a plan and see it through to completion. Consider what Cleveland did in free agency. The team didn't simply add players indiscriminately; safety Donte Whitner, linebacker Karlos Dansby, running back Ben Tate and receiver Andrew Hawkins all have playoff experience and a history of success. As for the draft, the Browns definitely helped themselves, bolstering their Joe Haden-led secondary with eighth overall pick Justin Gilbert while also acquiring a pair of extra picks -- including a first-round choice -- for next year. And, of course, they landed a signal-caller (Manziel) who has the ability to bring a ton of excitement to this squad.
One of the biggest issues hanging over the Browns' head is the uncertain status of receiver Josh Gordon, who might receive a significant suspension after a positive drug test. The ultra-talented Gordon led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards last season -- despite missing the first two games of the year due to a previous suspension. If Gordon is out for any length of time, he'll be hard to replace.
Yes, the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals still loom large in the AFC North, and I don't think the Browns will be able to push their way to the playoffs this season, especially if they have to make do without Gordon. Ultimately, though, I think Cleveland is on track for better things, and I would expect the squad to be a real threat in 2015.
5) Oakland Raiders
Length of drought: 11 seasons.
To be blunt, the odds are stacked against the Raiders making the playoffs this season. Their schedule -- stuffed with imposing opponents from both the AFC West and NFC West, as well as a healthy dose of undesirable (and lengthy) travel -- looks to be one of the toughest I've ever seen. Oakland opens the season by visiting the Jets in a game that starts at 10 a.m. PT, heads home to host Houston, then goes back east for another 10 a.m. PT start in New England -- before going to London to take on the Dolphins. Dire though the picture might seem, however, there is a saving grace: This team has hit rock bottom and is finally ascending once again.
One reason to feel better about the Raiders is that they seem to have stabilized their quarterback position. Offseason acquisition Matt Schaub is really a good signal-caller. He deservedly took a lot of flak for a dismal 2013, but I would still rank him as about the 12th-best at his position. Knowing how well he takes care of himself, I think he can be a key contributor for some time. Meanwhile, Oakland nabbed a prospect in the draft who could become Schaub's successor one day in Derek Carr. Between Schaub and Carr, the Raiders should be in good shape at quarterback going forward.
Another key factor is that coach Dennis Allen and his staff were retained. He's taken plenty of heat since he was hired two seasons ago, but I don't think everyone fully appreciated just how good a job Allen and Co. did to squeeze four wins out of this team last season; that was a real feat. Between the draft -- highlighted by No. 5 overall pick Khalil Mack -- and a helpful free agency period, Oakland has gotten better. If it weren't for that schedule, I'd peg this team for seven wins; even with that tough slate, the Raiders can reach six victories if things break the right way. The playoffs aren't in the cards in 2014, but Oakland did turn a corner, and I think this team will become competitive in the next few seasons.
6) Jacksonville Jaguars
Length of drought: Six seasons.
The Jags have won just six games total over the past two seasons, but one major factor is working in their favor: This organization -- from the ownership to the front office and right down to the head coach -- is special. They're innovative, creative and progressive; they have not been shy about aggressively trying to improve, and they've undertaken one of the best transformations I've seen. Owner Shad Khan's son, Tony, who serves as senior vice president of football technology and analytics, has plenty of great ideas about coming trends; I never miss an opportunity to chat with him.
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Coach Gus Bradley is one of the team's most valuable assets. Not only does he know his X's and O's, but he has a great rapport with his players. What he accomplished last season, getting the team to scratch out four wins after a dreadful 0-8 start, was really something.
Jacksonville's future as a playoff team depends largely on what happens with Blake Bortles. Off the field, they don't come any better than the UCF product, who notably chose to throw at the NFL Scouting Combine. (It might seem like a small thing, but it can mean a lot when a guy is willing to go out there and show what he's got like that.) His selection at third overall might have raised eyebrows earlier this month, but I think when we look back five years from now, we'll say it was a smart choice.