Three weeks into the NFL season and the list of winless teams is a surprising one. Yes, the usual suspects are on there: the New York Jets and New York Giants both can’t get anything right, while the Denver Broncos lost their starting quarterback and the Cincinnati Bengals look plucky with such an inexperienced offense. But they’re joined by four teams that were discussed in preseason playoff pictures: the Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans, and Philadelphia Eagles, who have gone a combined 0-11-1 through September. Not great.
Everyone knows that the first group still has team-building work before them—those rosters were all relying on young quarterbacks to grow throughout the season, and are starting young players at multiple positions to figure out who is part of their future plans. It’s the second group, with largely veteran locker rooms and established expectations, that have cause for deeper concerns.
Here, we’ll take a look at all four teams in four categories of future roster-building: Future Cap Room, Young Talent, Future Draft Capital, and Existing Infrastructure. And at the end, we’ll talk about who should be worried about their long-term team outlook—and who should be really worried about their long-term team outlook.
Future Cap Room
All of these teams are in terrible spots. Not a single one is projected to be under the 2021 cap ceiling, with the current revenue adjustments considered. The Eagles are by far in the worst spot, as they project to come in $66M above the 2021 cap ceiling, with only the 1-2 Saints in a more dire position.
The Falcons are right there, with five humongous cap hits in Matt Ryan ($40M), Julio Jones ($23M), Grady Jarrett ($21M), Jake Matthews ($20M, and Dante Fowler ($19M) comprising two-thirds of a projected $175M cap ceiling. This is without Alex Mack, Takk McKinley, Keanu Neal, and Damonte Kazee under contract for that season as well. They will struggle to generate much flexibility, as none of their big five are really cuttable after this season.
The Eagles have a much longer row to hoe, but have some more obvious and easier moves. They’ve been trying to move on from Alshon Jeffery ($18.6M cap hit in 2021) for more than a year now, and will almost definitely cut him if they can’t find a trade partner. DeSean Jackson’s $10.9M cap figure is far too big for what the Eagles have gotten out of the injury-riddled speedster, and Derek Barnett’s fifth-year option of $10M, guaranteed only for injury, is too much for a rotational edge. The Eagles have been trying to retain a veteran-heavy, competitive roster for seasons now, and have finally crashed into the wall. They’ll molt a lot of deals this offseason.
The Vikings and Texans are both in far more forgiving spots, as some small moves should get them to cap solvency.
For teams that project to be low spenders in the upcoming free agency cycles, young talent is the most valuable resource. When ranking the NFL rosters by average age, once again we find a few of these teams in dire spots. The Falcons are the oldest roster in the NFL, with an average age of 26.9. The last time the Falcons were the oldest roster in the league was in 2016, which was a Super Bowl run sort of year—but the Falcons of yesteryear have devolved into this roster, which still has passing game firepower, but lacks running game dominance, a trustworthy offensive line, or any semblance of a defense. 2016 was also the last season the Falcons were blowing significant second-half leads, if I remember correctly.
The Eagles (19th) and Texans (21st) aren’t in terrible spots here, coming in just below average. But the issue with those teams is the relative success of their draft classes. The Texans didn’t see a single snap from their rookie class in Week 3’s loss to the Steelers, and while their 2019 draft churned out some quality trench players in Tytus Howard and Charles Omenihu, the only quality player they got out of 2018’s draft was safety Justin Reid. Since Deshaun Watson was drafted in 2017, the Texans have not successfully added a young offensive weapon via the draft (RB D’Onta Foreman, WRs Keke Coutee, and Isaiah Coulter, TEs Jordan Thomas, Jordan Akins, and Kahale Warring)
The Eagles have much the same problem. Dedicated to the trenches, the Eagles have spent four picks in the last four years on defensive ends, including a first-rounder in Derek Barnett, and have yet to acquire a clear starter in the group. Similarly, they’ve spent five picks on offensive linemen, including a first-rounder on Andre Dillard. Meanwhile, with a wide receiver room quickly falling to pieces as injured vets petered out, the Eagles spent a second-round pick on a developmental quarterback in Jalen Hurts—a young and talented player that doesn’t have a clear path to the field with mega-contract starter Carson Wentz in front of him.
The Vikings are the only team that looks okay here. They’re one of the youngest rosters in the league (average age: 25.5, good for sixth-best) and have actually drafted some contributors. Interior offensive line continues to be quite the bugaboo for the Vikings, and while Garrett Bradbury is playing better to start his second season, neither Pat Elflein nor Dru Samia actually want a starting job. None of the Vikings’ recent selections at the skill positions are much more than quality backups right now—Alexander Mattison, Irv Smith Jr.—but with Justin Jefferson’s Week 3 breakout performance considered, it seems they indeed found their WR2 in the first round of 2020. The biggest question for the Vikings hinges on the development of their young corners, including Mike Hughes, Kris Boyd, Holton Hill (a UDFA), Cameron Dantzler, and Jeff Gladney. They’ve yet to find consistent starters from that group, and it’s crippling their defense.
Future Draft Capital
The Falcons are finally par for the course here. They are missing only a future seventh on next season’s draft log. The Eagles are missing next year’s fourth-rounder, which they sent in trade to the Browns for rush linebacker Genard Avery, who has been a complete no-show in Philadelphia thus far—but they have an extra fifth-rounder from Dallas, so it’s not a big hit.
The Vikings and the Texans, sellers of both Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins, have more drastic changes to their future capital. The Texans tried and failed to recover from the king’s ransom they exchanged for Laremy Tunsil when they moved on from Hopkins, as they’re missing both a first- and a second-round pick in 2021, and only have an extra fourth to show for it. The Texans also see an extra fourth in 2022 for the Brandin Cooks deal they did with the Rams.
The Vikings are once again positioned best here. They’re out their second-rounder next year as a result of the Yannick Ngakoue trade, but have two extra fourths as a result of the Diggs trade and other draft day dealings. The other pick they lose to Jacksonville could be as big as a third, but right now projects as a fifth-rounder, of which they have an additional pick in 2020 anyway.
This is the category that really separates the wheat from the chaff here. The Eagles and the Vikings are both unlikely to move on from their coaching staff/front office duos given their recent successes, so any faith in these franchises long-term hinges on an evaluation of those setups. There is reason to be frustrated with both groups—the Eagles for their front office’s poor drafting, the Vikings for their neglect of the passing game and modern offensive structure—but both are likely going to stick around and keep on the paths that have given them success in the past.
The Falcons are almost certainly going to turn things over, but attracting a top candidate might be tricky. A new general manager has very little wiggle room to start turning things over in Year 1, so 2021 might be a dummy year altogether, and a new coach will inherit a defensive roster built in the image of Dan Quinn, thirsting for true cornerback talent and actual pass-rushers off the edge.
And the Texans? The general manager and coach are one and the same, and since Bill O’Brien became lord of both church and state, the Texans franchise has gotten measurably worse. If this thing continues to spiral, the Texans could look to reset the team with a more reasonable structure, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. They’ve had unwarranted faith in O’Brien for too long to ignore.
Long-term, the team in the most danger is Atlanta. It’s almost impossible to create a reality in which this team is better in 2021 than they are now, and with so many good players approaching the end of their contracts, the Falcons can’t afford to miss on any draft picks for the foreseeable future—and they’ve been missing a lot recently. Besides Kazee and Calvin Ridley, they’ve failed to draft many impact players.
Behind Atlanta is Philadelphia. The Eagles are going to cut a lot of players and take on a lot of dead cap for 2021, potentially losing out on quality players like Zach Ertz and Brandon Graham in their effort to balance the budget sheets. That wouldn’t be too much of a problem if this team had any young talent to speak of, but poor drafting and decision-making have left the cupboards bare of upcoming stars. Much like Atlanta, they need to get some draft classes right, and fast.
Houston and Minnesota are more difficult to parse. Neither is in terribly hot water. The Vikings have some quality young players and few bad contracts (save for that Anthony Barr deal). If they were able to modernize the offense and find a true passing game with further Jefferson and Smith Jr. involvement, they’d start winning more games, even with the young cornerback room considered.
But the Vikings do have a problem the Texans don’t: that’s at quarterback, where Kirk Cousins just signed a three-year extension. Cousins remains a middle-tier starter at best, and at worst, he’s the player that you see now: author of some head-scratching mistakes, incapable of elevating bad players. Houston has Watson, clearly the best quarterback both short- and long-term of the four teams considered, and that alone keeps them in a national conversation, even as they go a third year without making a first-round pick since he was drafted.
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