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The Upward Trend: Four NFL teams to watch for the long future

NFL San Francisco 49ers George Kittle
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sometimes all it takes is a strong offseason to turn an average team into a future contender in the NFL. Sure, not every need can be met through free agency and the draft due to cap space and big boards. But more often than not, one move could change the mood of the franchise. The Chicago Bears are the most recent example of going from pretender to contender.

After finishing 5-11 in 2017, general manager Ryan Pace transformed the Windy City’s hometown boys into a 12-4 NFC North division winner thanks to a productive offseason. Pace hired an innovative coach, added depth to a top 10 defense and found pieces to enhance the skills of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky for the long haul.

While the Bears might be a one year wonder thanks to a less than stellar offseason, their moves proved anyone can go from contender to pretender with the right pieces added. Anything from a simple coaching change to the addition of a young playmaker can reignite the fire in a locker room and bring joy to a struggling fan base.

Several clubs have built their success for the future over the past offseason and should be trending in the right direction for years to come. After all, the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints can’t be at the top of the power rankings forever, right? While there’s still work to be done for the future, let’s take a look at four teams that should become yearly contenders over the next few seasons.

Buffalo Bills

If anyone followed Pace’s method nearly down to the exact model, Brandon Beane would come pretty close. The Bills might have struggled to pick up wins during the 2018 season. But the organization knew last season could be a rebuilding year when they traded away a pair of second round picks for their franchise quarterback in Josh Allen.

It is true that Allen’s erratic cannon of an arm constantly overshot his targets. However, the former Wyoming quarterback did display the ability to find success on the ground. Collecting 89 carries over the course of 12 games (fourth-most among quarterbacks), Allen rushed for 631 yards (most among quarterbacks) and eight touchdowns on the ground (also most among quarterbacks). Part of that reason was due to a poor receiving corps and underwhelming offensive line. This line allowed 41 sacks last season, 14th in the league).

With the addition of John Brown, Buffalo now has a deep threat to complement future top target Robert Foster for the long-term plan. Adding a consistent pass catcher to help spread the field in the short routes, Cole Beasley should be a reliable weapon and a third-down target in the slot. Zay Jones also took steps forward in his development. Last season, he led the team with 652 yards on 56 receptions for seven touchdowns.

The offensive line should be much more stable next season for the sophomore quarterback thanks to a productive offseason. Following the loss of Eric Wood, Beane added former Chiefs center Mitch Morse and veteran swing tackle Ty Nesheke. If that wasn’t enough, the organization traded up for Oklahoma offensive lineman Cody Ford who has the ability to play multiple positions on the offensive line.

The Bills defense finished as a top-three unit in the league last season. This was due in large part to their strong secondary play. While the loss of Kyle Williams will hurt the organization, they did add Ed Oliver. The premier defensive lineman should be an immediate replacement up the middle.

The Bills won’t dominate, but they should be able to finish close to a .500 record. Keep in mind that Buffalo was just a season removed from their 9-7 postseason appearance with Tyrod Taylor under center. He threw for just 2,799 yards and 14 touchdowns. Allen has the ability and talent to spread the field. He also has the ability to become one of the league’s top deep ball passers for years to come.

Beane took a risk in 2018 by trading up for his rendition of a franchise quarterback. In 2019, he built around him for the future. Don’t expect the Bills to be an elite offense. But, their strong defensive play could make them a double-digit winning team for quite some time.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers were much better than the 3-13 that trotted out onto the field last season. They say “everything starts with the quarterback.” The 49ers prove this point.

Franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo only played three games last season before tearing his ACL. Yet, he still threw for over 700 yards and five touchdowns. That proves the offense was making strides in the right direction. In just 10 starts, Garoppolo has proven his ability to take control of an offense and produce. Should he remain healthy, the 49ers have their quarterback of the future. They also should be able to continue their success shown nearing the end of the 2017 season.

But GM John Lynch has built around his signal caller for the impending future. The selection of former fifth-round pick George Kittle is looking like a slam dunk. Kittle is coming off a record-setting 1,377-yard performance during his sophomore season. Marquise Goodwin has the ability to be a homerun vertical receiver. That’s because Dante Pettis averaged 17.3 yards per reception during his rookie season with CJ Bethard and Nick Mullens as his quarterback. Then you add in second-round pick Deebo Samuel, who was a YAC machine at South Carolina. With that, the 49ers receiving corps could be a strength this season.

The offensive line ranked 10th overall in adjusted line yards (4.56) last season according to Football Outsiders. But they also allowed 48 sacks, 9th highest in the league. With the addition of Tevin Coleman along with the return of Jerrick McKinnon, the 49ers should be a more balanced offense. This will allow them to rely on their three-headed monster rushing attack.

On defense, Lynch traded away a 2020 second-round for pass rusher Dee Ford. He also used the No.2 overall selection on top passer Nick Bosa in the draft. Pairing these two off the edge along with DeForest Buckner up the middle could create a disruptive pass rush for multiple years in the future. Let’s also not forget that Lynch signed Kwon Alexander. He will be 25 this season and was a tackling machine his first three seasons with the Buccaneers.

The 49ers perhaps play in one of the strongest divisions in football. Still, a healthy Garoppolo along with an improved defensive line should send the 49ers into the right direction. They might not be a division winner come this season, but a playoff berth isn’t farfetched. This is especially true should the offensive line keep their $137.5 million quarterback off the injured reserve list.

Cleveland Browns

It might have taken 20 years for the Browns to get out of the cellar of NFL rankings. But heading into the 2019 season, they certainly are one of the NFL’s most talked about teams. Gone are the days where the quarterback room is considered a carousel and enter the start of a new era found on Lake Erie.

The Browns 2018 draft couldn’t have gone better for John Dorsey and his scouting staff. Top pick Baker Mayfield finished with 27 touchdowns, the most by a rookie quarterback in NFL. He also threw for 3,725 yards. Running back Nick Chubb finished top 10 in the NFL in rushing yards along with 10 total touchdowns. If that wasn’t enough, Antonio Callaway finished with five touchdowns, averaging 17.3 yards per catch. On defense, linebacker Genard Avery is expected to the long-term starter after his 4.5 sack rookie season.

Thanks to the draft class, the Browns became one of the hottest free agent teams this past offseason. The defense should improve thanks to the trade Olivier Vernon and the signing of Sheldon Richardson. The two will join Larry Ogunjobi and future first-team All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett. While the signing of Kareem Hunt might make some fans mad, the production speaks for itself. The former Kansas City Chiefs tailback led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards during his rookie season.

Hunt is also a Dorsey draft pick, who has been known for taking risks on players with troubled backgrounds. Once he returns from his eight-game suspension, he will pair with the former Georgia runner to create one of the strongest backfields in the league.

If that wasn’t to get Browns fans excited, Dorsey pulled off potentially the greatest trade in franchise history. Acquiring Odell Beckham Jr. for a first-rounder and an underwhelming Jabrill Peppers, Cleveland now has a top caliber receiver to pair with go-to target Jarvis Landry and the improving David Njoku. While the three-time Pro Bowl receiver will need to remain healthy, Beckham has all the skills to be the league’s top receiver along with a young quarterback who has the ability to become of the NFL’s top gunslingers.

Even without a first-round pick, the Browns still improved with the second-round selection of Greedy Williams. After collecting eight interceptions over the course of two seasons at LSU, he’ll be paired with Denzel Ward. Together, they will create one of the league’s top up and coming secondaries. The fifth-round selection of linebacker Mack Wilson could pay off this season should Christian Kirksey struggle to return from his injury.

The Browns’ biggest regret this offseason could be the hiring of Freddie Kitchens. Here’s a man who spent just nine weeks at offensive coordinator before being named head coach. Still, the Bears went with first-time head coach Matt Nagy and found success early out in Chicago. If Kitchens can control the team as well as he controlled Cleveland’s offense last season, the Browns are going to be contenders for the foreseeable future.

Best get your Browns’ jokes out of the way now because that chapter is about to end.

Tennessee Titans

The first three teams are likely going to be on everyone’s list, so let’s throw a curveball. While the Indianapolis Colts are looking to regain control of the AFC South under Chris Ballard and a healthy Andrew Luck, it’s hard to sleep on the Titans after another strong offseason.

Mike Vrabel was a game away from facing off against his former team in the wild card round of the playoffs. However, he had to face the Colts in Week 17 with Blaine Gabbert under center. Even if the Titans defense played lights out, asking Gabbert to take you on a Super Bowl run is like asking someone to make a five-course dinner by just following YouTube and expecting it to be presented like Gordon Ramsey. The Titans saw that issue and found a way to fix it.

Trading a 2020 fourth-rounder along with a 2019 seventh round selection, the Titans acquired former Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill as insurance for Marcus Mariota. The 30-year-old quarterback has missed 24 games over the past three seasons. But when he’s healthy, he’s a quality backup quarterback who has the ability to keep a team in contention for a playoff.

Addressing the offensive, GM John Robinson opened his wallet to add depth to their receiving room. While not a top caliber wideout, Adam Humphries found success in the slot for Tampa Bay last season. He finished with a career-high 816-yard season along with five total touchdowns. He should be a nice addition for Mariota on third down.

While Tennessee did lose Quinton Spain to free agency, the addition of Roger Saffold should be an immediate upgrade to the Titans’ offensive line. Last season, the former Los Angeles Ram graded out with a 73.7 by Pro Football Focus. This was good enough to finish as the seventh highest graded offensive guard. While the Titans offensive line struggled last season in pass protection, the team was ranked top 10 in rushing units, averaging 4.5 yards on the ground. A healthy Jack Conklin and improving Derrick Henry should only help the team’s numbers moving forward.

The Titans also had one of the most underrated drafts last month, finding quality players who can contribute immediately. Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons was a top 10 player thanks to his ability to stuff a backfield. He will be a key player for the defense once he recovers from his torn ACL. The Titans found another weapon for Mariota in second-round selection AJ Brown. Brown finished with over 1300 receiving yards at Ole Miss and can play multiple positions at the next level. Nate Davis was a solid third round selection. He’s someone who could be a full-time starter at guard by the end of his rookie season.

If that wasn’t enough, the Titans added ball-hawking safety Armani Hooker for their dime formations and a quality linebacker in David Long Jr. out of West Virginia. Both should find roles on special teams and add depth behind two solid position groups.

The Titans have all the pieces in place to become one of the NFL’s most fascinating teams this season and well into the future. However, everything will come down to quarterback and if Mariota can remain healthy for a full season. If not, Tannehill should be able to keep this team in contention for a wild-card spot.

If Mariota takes that next step forward though, expect the Music City to be a consistent host of NFL playoff games in the future. The Titans are built to compete now and should continue that success for the foreseeable future so long as the quarterback play is adequate.

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