- Losing star players, failing to plug holes or being tied to the wrong quarterback could land a team on this list.
Welcome back to another Friday roundtable! Last week the MMQB staff offered up thoughts on some teams that improved the most this offseason. We’re back with a natural follow-up: eight teams that got worse. That’s not to say these teams will be bad this year, but for a variety of reasons we believe they are worse off than they were four months ago.
You can email us to let us know what you think and suggest future roundtables.
Like we discussed when I wrote about the Dolphins in last week’s roundtable, I think there’s a difference between improvement and becoming healthier. On paper, the Raiders may be the most improved team in football (hello, Antonio Brown), but is this a healthier organization than it was a year ago? Mercurial free agent acquisitions—especially the likes of Richie Incognito—may not be a permanent fixture in Oakland’s locker room, but send a message to the young core of offensive linemen building around him. The whole point of signing Jon Gruden to a 10-year deal was that this was deemed to be a long-term rebuild, and that it would take so much time that he’d need the security to tear the roster down. What, then, do we call this entree of microwave popcorn Oakland is serving in 2019? Why not develop young players and then add when the team is on the cusp of competing like other clubs who have gone through a similar process? —Conor Orr
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
I think what amounts to a swap of Dee Ford for Frank Clark will eventually pay dividends for the Chiefs. No problem there. Letting Justin Houston and Eric Berry hit free agency will hurt initially, but new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will live. Kareem Hunt, suspended eight games for violating the league personal conduct policy, was a necessary cut, and the team figured out how to get along without him in the last third of the season after video of him attacking a woman in a hotel surfaced. The biggest loss, obviously, is Tyreek Hill, who is awaiting potential discipline from the NFL. If he's out, either for good or for any lengthy stretch of time, Patrick Mahomes and this offense will struggle immensely. Hill's 1,479 receiving yards in 2018 only tell half the story. Hunt went up against an eight-man box on just 15.47% of his rushing attempts, 41st among running backs with 85 or more attempts last season. That percentage will go up for Chiefs running backs with the field-stretching Hill out of the mix, just as the number of times tight end Travis Kelce enjoys single coverage will go down. —Robert Klemko
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Over the past four months, only one team lost the greatest player ever to play his position. Rob Gronkowski had lost maybe half a step—his decline was overstated in part because of his galloping, at-times clunky running style, and in part because of folks’ inability to understand the context surrounding statistics, therefore rendering the analytics they hold sacrosanct virtually meaningless. Despite the fact that he wasn't as helpful for your fantasy team, he was still consistently drawing double teams, opening things up for the rest of the offense. He was still the key to the Patriots' formationing, a crucial element of their offense and one that—as Bill Belichick once told my podcast partner and soulmate Andy Benoit—takes an exceedingly high IQ, football and otherwise. Gronkowski was, objectively, the second-most valuable player on the Patriots.
So New England lost the greatest tight end in NFL history and is replacing him with Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who is not the second- or even the third-greatest tight end in NFL history. Or, at least it will be Seferian-Jenkins until Ben Watson returns from suspension and takes Seferian-Jenkins's job on account of Seferian-Jenkins not being particularly good. No matter how you slice it, one of the roster's biggest strengths is now a relative weakness for the Patriots. Those melvins will probably barely even win the Super Bowl this year. —Gary Gramling
After Deshaun Watson got sacked 62 times in 2018, the Texans' top offseason priority was fixing the offensive line. They added potential new starters, but will Watson's protection be better this season? In free agency, the Texans signed Matt Kalil, who was released by the Panthers just two years into a five-year, $55 million deal—after missing the 2018 season with a knee injury he's still rehabbing. The Texans also used first- and second-round picks on tackles Tytus Howard and Max Scharping, but were leapfrogged in the first round by the Eagles, who traded into the slot ahead of Houston to nab Andre Dillard, whom many teams saw as the best pass-protector in this year's draft class. The Texans need both players to contribute early, but there can be a steep learning curve for rookie linemen, especially since neither comes from a Power Five school.
The Texans also took a hit in the secondary this offseason, losing Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson in free agency, and Andre Hal to retirement. They brought in replacements, Tashaun Gipson and Bradley Roby, who came cheaper than the contracts Mathieu and Jackson fetched in free agency, but they definitely bore a talent drop-off in those losses (though second-round draft pick Lonnie Johnson, Jr., brings both size and speed to the back end). Finally, the Jadeveon Clowney situation is hanging over the Texans. Will they be able to strike a long-term deal with Clowney, will he play on the one-year franchise tag or could they trade him?
Watson is entering the third-year of his rookie contract, a prime window with maximum team-building flexibility, but the roster still has some big questions for 2019. —Jenny Vrentas
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
This is difficult for me to do because, truthfully, I believe the Steelers are actively worse than last year and there’s little doubt in my mind about it. I also believe the Dolphins are worse, but I’ve written about them recently and at least they’re worse on purpose. So I turn my attention to Tampa Bay, where the Buccaneers have been fooling me in the offseason and preseason for the last two years into thinking they’ll be contenders. That’s not going to happen in 2019.
I understand they have Bruce Arians there now and people should feel excited about that, but the Bucs still have Jameis Winston at quarterback. Here’s a quarterback who hasn’t been able to take the next step in his four years, continuing to turn the ball over at inopportune times. (Even the backup position took a step back from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Blaine Gabbert.) Winston could never connect with DeSean Jackson in two years together and now the speedy receiver is back in Philly. The offensive line is mostly the same as last year, and right tackle Demar Dotson will be 34 later this season.
The most change came on defense. Yes, the Bucs got Ndamukong Suh, who is no doubt a better player than Gerald McCoy. But McCoy was the heart of the defense and the team, and this is a worse locker room without him. Jason Pierre-Paul suffered a neck fracture in a car accident and the timetable on his return for 2019 is unclear. The Bucs may be better suited for the future with No. 5 overall pick Devin White at middle linebacker, but I can’t see them being better this season without Kwon Alexander anchoring the middle of the defense. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves needs to finally play like a first-round pick to lift up a secondary that wasn’t very good last season and lost its most effective pass defenders in safety Andrew Adams and cornerback Brent Grimes. —Jonathan Jones
LOS ANGELES RAMS
The headline here is Todd Gurley's knee. Neither the Rams nor Gurley have confirmed that he does have arthritis in his left knee, but if the reports are true, Gurley may never be the same player that he was for the first four seasons of his career. The Rams’ underwhelming Super Bowl LIII performance was a bad omen, and I think the Super Bowl hangover might be real in L.A.’s case. The Patriots exposed Jared Goff's flaws and the rest of the NFL was watching, taking notes on how to do the same. The Rams’ 2019 offseason was much quieter than a year ago, because they had less cap money to spend. Unexpected playoff star C.J. Anderson is gone, and their new rotational back behind Gurley is third-round pick Darrell Henderson. Ndamukong Suh left for Tampa Bay, and the Rams signed two aging free agents on defense: linebacker Clay Matthews and safety Eric Weddle. Both those veterans have something left in the tank, but won't be every-down guys. —Kalyn Kahler
The Bears were legitimately the NFC North's best team last year, but in the NFL the line between best and worst is often finer than you'd guess. Given Green Bay's firepower, Minnesota's defense and Detroit's offseason improvements, it would not be the biggest shock if Chicago fell to fourth in its division. Losing defensive coordinator Vic Fangio (now the head coach in Denver) really hurts. He employed deceptive, blurry matchup zone coverages that were smartly disguised and hard for quarterbacks to undress. New defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is an accomplished coach with his own respectable scheme, but it's predicated more on blitzing, which puts pressure on Chicago's pass defenders to win one-on-one. Fangio's scheme always centered around helping pass defenders. If the Bears tail off by, say, 10 percent defensively, they'll need much more from their—granted, up-and-coming—offense in 2019. Is Mitchell Trubisky ready for the offense to expand? —Andy Benoit
In last week’s roundtable, I argued that the Steelers had improved the most this offseason because Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell were no longer spreading bad vibes throughout the locker room. However Pittsburgh has yet to replace that star power. The team added Donte Moncrief in free agency and drafted another wide receiver, Diontae Johnson, in the third round of the draft. But the bulk of the offensive production lands on the shoulders of JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner, who both reached the Pro Bowl in their second career seasons in 2018.
Last year Smith-Schuster had 1,426 receiving yards (more than Brown) and seven touchdowns, while Conner had 973 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in Bell’s absence. But keep in mind that when Brown was on the field, he occupied every opponent’s top defensive back, if not two of them. Can Smith-Schuster match or exceed that level of production against the NFL’s best DBs as the Steelers’ WR1 this season? And can Conner, who also benefited from Brown’s presence on the field, show that last season wasn’t his ceiling but instead his floor? I made the case last week that things could get better, but have to acknowledge that things could always get worse. —Bette Marston
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