The end of the NFL regular season is often a chance for reflection. It’s a chance to take stock, to look at what the organization is working with, and see what could possibly catapult a team from the cellar to a challenger, or from a middling team to a contender.
A couple of weeks back I took a look at the most hopeless teams in the league — organizations with deep problems that will need a lot of time and effort to fix. Today we’ll kick off the new year by flipping the coin and diving into teams who may not be elite right now, but greatness is building.
For the purposes of keeping this interesting, I’m not going to look at teams who are already great. You don’t need to hear that the Rams are going to be good for a while, or that the Chiefs have a bright future — that’s already baked in to their recent history.
Pros: Established offensive core, solid young coach, boatloads of cap space
Cons: Suspect secondary
There are almost no blemishes on the future of the Bengals. This is a team who has turned around so quickly they’re stunning the NFL establishment and making a mark. Cincinnati will make the playoffs this year, and the sky is the limit for the future.
The trio of Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins has the feeling of Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. I’m not saying the former are as talented as the latter, it’s too soon, but they evoke the same feelings of a young nucleus who are firing on all cylinders and can keep growing together.
Yes, the Bengals’ defense needs work — especially in the secondary, but only three teams in the NFL have more cap space in 2022. With smart management and some good pick ups there’s no reason this team can’t become a class team in the AFC … fast.
Pros: Excellent young QB, good receivers, huge cap space
Cons: Defense needs work, looming player turnover
History has a tendency to repeat itself in the NFL, and the Chargers find themselves in a very similar position to the early 2000s after trading for Philip Rivers.
There is no doubt Justin Herbert is one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, but the next couple of years will be pivotal to maintaining his early success. Right now the Chargers have Keenan Allen and Mike Williams as their primary weapons, and they’re two excellent 1,000 yard receivers. However, at 29 and 27 years old respectively, the window will be closing where in 3-4 years the team will need to have a succession plan and find guys who can support Herbert moving forward.
There are some gaping defensive problems too which need to be corrected as well, but it’s more than possible with over $70M in cap space and some good drafting. There’s no doubt the future is extremely bright, if the front office can manage the next few years correctly.
Pros: Solid pass defense, excellent coach, elite pass rush, major cap space
Cons: QB question is still unanswered, needs more offensive weapons
This is another team who are far better than most expected, but haven’t really progressed in 2021 the way people hoped. Brian Flores is proving himself to be a hell of a coach who can really get a young team buying in, which is a really important quality to progressing in the future.
Still, there are some issues. Tua Tagovailoa has shown flashes, but really lacked consistency. Especially the kind of consistency you want to see out of a franchise QB. Jaylen Waddle has helped give him a weapon, but there’s no doubt he’s simply not making the most of the starting opportunity.
The Dolphins will be searching for a new QB soon unless something clicks. That’s a major red flag for their future.
Pros: Elite young RB, solid QB find, good cap space
Cons: Needs defensive upgrades, another receiver, overall talent upgrade
The Colts are in great shape in a lot of ways, and have many questions in other areas. There’s no doubt Jonathan Taylor is the best young running back in the NFL, but that’s not exactly a game-changer in the modern NFL.
Pivoting to Carson Wentz was a risk that paid off big time, and for at least the next several years the Colts have their QB of the future. Now it’s just about getting him more weapons, which shouldn’t be too difficult with the great cap space the Colts have.
There’s potential to take another step forward, and that’s exciting — because not many people expected much out of the Colts in 2021.
Pros: Exciting coach, motivated roster, young roster
Cons: This is a bad team right now
I’m rounding out this list with a team I have a lot of blind faith in. The Lions are one of the worst teams in the NFL by record, but they really swung above their weight class and challenged some teams they had no business hanging with.
This is all attributable to Dan Campbell, who has fast become one of the coolest coaches in the NFL. Campbell’s players LOVE him, and they’re putting it all on the field. With some time and upgrades I really believe this could be a special team — but they’re on the edge right now because there’s a lot of work to be done.