For many, the 2014 season is over — or almost over, at least. Whatever playoff hopes some teams harbored have long disappeared in the mist of yet another disappointing season. Some teams underachieved. Some are just bad. For some, it’s just the way it always is.
For some of those teams, though, the seeds have been planted for a somewhat brighter future, and the thought that they could make a playoff run in 2015 doesn’t seem so absurd. There’s a long way to go, of course — free agency and the draft will do the most to shape the futures of most franchises.
But for these 2014 also-rans, there are at least the building blocks of a brighter tomorrow. For these 2014 losers, they have the best chance to emerge in 2015:
St. Louis Rams (6-7) – Granted, their last two games were against the Raiders and Redskins, but the Rams won those games by a combined 76-0, and two straight shutouts against any team is impressive. This Rams team can play defense and special teams with anybody, and to go along with wins over the 49ers, Broncos and Seahawks they’ve had near-misses against Dallas, Philadelphia and San Diego. And consider this: They’re doing it all without a quarterback, unless you think Austin Davis or 34-year-old Shaun Hill is really the future. What could’ve been a wonderful, breakout season was hampered by yet another injury to franchise quarterback Sam Bradford. If they can find even a temporary, fill-in journeyman quarterback to give stability to the position next season, they could compete in what has become the toughest division in the NFL.
New York Giants (4-9) – They’ve had 20 players land on injured reserve, including their best receiver (Victor Cruz), their middle linebacker (Jon Beason), two defensive ends (Mathias Kiwanuka, Robert Ayers), and a long list of other key players. But they have the best quarterback among the NFL’s current crop of losing teams (Eli Manning) and a generally good cast of players augmented by a $116 million offseason spending spree. There could be some offseason upheaval if coach Tom Coughlin is fired. But the building blocks are there, especially if they fix their offensive line and find a pass rush.
Chicago Bears (5-8) – Maybe it is all about quarterback Jay Cutler, as many have suggested, but even with a flawed quarterback this team should be better than it is. There may not be a team with a better, more diverse troika of offensive weapons than receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey and running back Matt Forte. Add in tight end Martellus Bennett and there’s plenty of ammunition for a quarterback to succeed. They obviously need to fix their defense, which is one of the worst in the NFL. They also need to be a little more committed to the run game. Maybe Marc Trestman gets the chance to fix that. If not, the ground is fertile for somebody else.
Minnesota Vikings (5-7) – The most important ingredient in any team’s success is the presence of a franchise quarterback, and it seems like the Vikings may have found one now that they’ve ended the Christian Ponder era/error and moved on to Teddy Bridgewater. He’s been OK as a starter in general, but pretty good considering he’s a rookie and not exactly surrounded by potent weapons. Now, who knows if they get back running back Adrian Peterson next season. But if they do, paired with a Top 15 defense and an emerging quarterback, they have a chance to rise in a very competitive division.
Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11) – Don’t laugh. While they rank near the bottom in just about everything, they play hard for Gus Bradley and they have a trio of very impressive young talents in quarterback Blake Bortles, running back Denard Robinson and receiver Allen Robinson. They do need a lot of help – like some boost to their pass rush and better luck with injuries. But the potential is there. Most scouts seem to think they’re more likely to arrive on the playoff scene in 2016. But they’re not exactly in a good division, and the Tennessee Titans seem much worse-off than they are. With a little luck and some accelerated growth from Bortles, they could arrive on the scene sooner than anyone thinks.
— Ralph Vacchiano