An NFL team’s early exit from the playoffs, especially as early as the Wild Card round, can leave a uniquely bitter taste in the mouths of a fan base. They spent the preceding week dreaming of playoff victories and, for those with loftier expectations, the possibility of February football. Instead of moving on, they’re left with a large box of “what if’s”, scant pickings of silver linings, and have to join the chorus of the twenty initially eliminated NFL teams asking the same question, “What’s next?”
Some franchises are certainly better off than others. Teams such as the Carolina Panthers and Los Angeles Rams, that boast young, talented rosters, will almost inevitably improve and consequently maintain success for years to come.
Other teams, like the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills, sport futures that are far more hazy.
That begs this question: Would you rather be the Kansas City Chiefs or the San Francisco 49ers heading into 2018? How about the Buffalo Bills or the Chicago Bears?
San Francisco and Chicago have seemingly found their franchise quarterbacks. Both were fairly competitive throughout 2017, flashing competence especially as the season wore on. Yet, both teams sport high picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, giving them the chance to fill major roster flaws moving into next season.
Trying to mend gaps in a roster over one offseason can be difficult for any playoff team. Usually strapped by the salary cap, teams can use free agency only to address relatively minor weaknesses in a depth chart.
With their later-round draft picks, it’s straining to find viable starters, especially in the short term.
Shackled by circumstance, Kansas City and Buffalo head into this offseason with quite possibly more holes than plugs, and they’re in danger of entering the dreaded ‘rebuild’ mode.
With all this in mind, let’s take a peek at each eliminated team’s offseason outlook.
Kansas City Chiefs
Honestly, who saw this coming?
A season that opened with ecstasy ended in shock in front of a rowdy Arrowhead Stadium, as the Chiefs gave up 18 unanswered points after the half to fall to the Tennessee Titans, 22-21. Questions completely envelope this roster, and it’ll be a long, turbulent offseason for head coach Andy Reid and the AFC West champions.
Much like season’s past, QB Alex Smith will garner the majority of the blame for the disappointing end to the Chiefs’ campaign.
But truthfully, it will be undeserved.
Smith will never overpower a defense, but he’s accurate, provides a legitimate threat as a running option, and rarely turns the ball over.
Kansas City finished fifth in total offense in the NFL, seventh in passing, ninth in rushing, and second in turnover differential.
Smith doesn’t possess the arm talent nor a Rodgers/Wilson-esque element as a passer outside the pocket that win games by oneself. On the other hand, with provided weapons like TE Travis Kelce, WR Tyreek Hill, and RB Kareem Hunt, Smith is fully capable of chaperoning this team on a deep playoff run.
On the other side of the ball, the Kansas City defense was an absolute mess.
KC finished 28th in defense this year, a far cry from the reputation they established during ’14 (7th) and ’15 (7th). Aging (LB Derrick Johnson, LB Tambi Hali), health (S Eric Berry), and losses via free agency (DT Dontari Poe) have crippled a once-dominant force in the AFC, and it’s time for the Kansas City front office to put full focus in rebuilding the defense.
Running back Derrick Henry and the Tennessee offensive line exposed some weaknesses in Kansas City’s front seven, finishing with 156 yards on the ground. The rushing attack paid major dividends throughout the season for opponents of the Chiefs, as they finished 24th in the league at stopping the run.
With CB Marcus Peters, Edge Lamarr Houston, and Berry (given his supposed return to form), GM Brett Veach is still armed with solid foundation to build upon. Revamping the defensive line and searching for an heir apparent for Derrick Johnson through the draft has to be on top of KC’s offseason wishlist.
If the front office decides to move on from Alex Smith, this offense can still perform at a playoff level, even during the maturation process of now-backup QB Patrick Mahomes III.
If the Chiefs can’t find ways this offseason to plug holes in the front seven, the season may end eerily similar as 2017 or possibly worse, as the rest of the AFC West recuperates.
Los Angeles Rams
QB Jared Goff and the Rams drew an unlucky matchup for the Wild Card round in the Atlanta Falcons.
True, the Falcons spent the majority of the regular season in a daze, apparently suffering from the mythic ‘Super Bowl hangover’.
On the contrary, playoff experience is an incalculable commodity when it comes to professional football, and the Falcons possess a mint compared to the youthful Rams.
It certainly showed as Los Angeles suffered a lost in the first playoff game played in the ‘City of Angels’ since 1994. Though the 26-13 final score suggests otherwise, the Rams put in a valiant effort. They were in the game up until the last moment, but struggled all night to sustain any sort of successful offensive momentum.
Regardless of the early dismissal from the playoffs, this season was a surprising success for the squad’s first year under Coach of the Year frontrunner Sean McVay. This is a young team on the rise, and they need to build around MVP candidate Todd Gurley, who, when healthy, is one of the most dangerous players in the NFL.
Defensively, they feature a stacked front seven led by DT Aaron Donald, but were surprisingly weak against the run (27th in NFL). Finding a gap-stuffing tackle from the same strain as Minnesota’s Linval Joseph (easier said than done) to play alongside Donald would go a long way towards shoring up the run defense.
The Rams are very young in the secondary and lack an ideal “shutdown” cornerback at this point, and could use an explosive target at either receiver or tight end to stretch defenses and give Goff another weapon as he improves.
In the end, the main strategy for the Rams this offseason has to feature less revising and more refining. They need to keep the team’s core intact and build off a great 2017 campaign, while adding a few pieces, preferably with some playoff acumen, to both sides of the ball.
Listen, I want to believe in Tyrod Taylor.
He’s tough, smart, takes care of the football, and can be dynamic with the rock in his hands.
But when you miss a wide open receiver in crunch-time of a playoff game, a play that would’ve moved the chains and kept your hopes alive in the game, it’s hard to maintain that belief with conviction.
It’s unfortunate that the play resulted in Taylor’s concussion, but the Bills drew up the perfect zone beater, and either the Bills QB blatantly missed the receiver in the flat, or he was unwilling to take a “risk” at a time in the game where risks need to be taken.
Neither answer bodes well for the Bills, nor Tyrod’s future with the team.
All things considered, the Bills outperformed expectations from the preseason outlooks, and should be somewhat satisfied with the season, even without capturing their first playoff victory since 1995.
They’re gritty on defense, and LeSean McCoy is still one of the best all-around backs in the league.
There’s no “give up” on this Bills team; and the AFC was so poor this year, and that was enough to break the eighteen-year playoff drought. The AFC is expected to see a sort of renaissance in 2018, so leaning on a weak playoff field again is probably out of the question.
The most important thing this offseason is quite simple for Buffalo: Figure out the future at the quarterback position. If they remain stagnant at the game’s most important position, a new postseason famine could be on the horizon, especially as McCoy and the defense start to feel the effects of Father Time.
The end of the Panthers/Saints game was absolutely wild.
Why did Sean Payton go for it on fourth and two at midfield? If you’re going to go for it, why take the ball out of the hands of the top rushing attack in the league? Also, why on earth did Panthers Safety Mike Adams pick off Drew Brees, costing the Panthers 20 yards of field position?
The Panthers fought hard and had a legitimate shot at the end, but the offensive line collapsed to Cameron Jordan and the Saints front, and New Orleans moved on to the Divisional round.
The Panthers are a solid team that matched up with another solid team in the Saints. They, like the Rams, would still be alive if they played within the much weaker AFC.
However, Carolina is out of the playoffs, and they must make a couple moves if they’re to continue to compete in the crowded NFC South.
The Panthers added an exciting utility player in RB Christian McCaffrey in this year’s draft, but they traded away WR Kelvin Benjamin to the Buffalo Bills mid-season, leaving them thin out wide.
WR Devin Funchess took over as WR1, but he’s much more fit to act as a big play, big body, No. 2. Whether it’s through the draft or free agency, Carolina needs to add a top-flight receiver to take pressure off McCaffrey and TE Greg Olsen in the middle of the field, as well as account for QB Cam Newton’s volatile bouts with accuracy.
The Carolina defense carried the team this year, and should continue to be able to do so, barring unforeseen regression. DE Julius Peppers is on his last legs, and it would behoove the Panthers to try and locate and acquire his potential replacement, but that’s something that can be done in the draft.
Carolina experienced a resurgence this season after a 2016-styled ‘Super Bowl Hangover’ of their own.
If Cam Newton, who is still a dynamic playmaker, stays healthy, and the defense can build off its success in 2017, the Panthers can make some minor adjustments to the roster and, at the very least, keep pace with Atlanta and New Orleans in the NFC South.