Future focus: Where things look better and worse across the NFL

— -- There is no choosing in the NFL. It is not a win-now or win-later league. Outside of maybe the Browns, every team in football went into 2016 thinking that they had a shot at winning a playoff berth this season. Just about every team (again, outside of the Browns) is trying to win over the next seven weeks of the NFL season. (Even the Browns might appreciate a win or two right now.)

Every coach and general manager is under pressure to win now, but there's also almost always some sort of internal pressure to win later, too. We don't think about the later part of the calculation because we're so focused on the day-to-day operations of each team that the bigger picture puts in context. A team can enjoy little success in 2016 and still manage to build the team for the future; others can field a playoff team this year but have to mortgage their future or lower their ceiling.

There's plenty of analysis on what's going right and wrong for teams this season, but let's take a step back and consider the bigger picture. Ignore, if you can, as much of the win-loss stuff from 2016 as possible. Just think about each team's plan over the next five seasons from an (informed) fan's perspective. Does the plan seem better now (or more likely to succeed) than it did back in August, before the season started? I'll try to answer that question in these capsules, but we won't know for sure for a few years.

The goal: pick out teams in which the future looks either dramatically better or worse than it did when the season started.

Dramatically worse

Chicago Bears

Even given low expectations, the Bears have been disappointing. Injuries have ravaged Chicago, with 14 players on injured reserve and free-agent-to-be Alshon Jeffery suspended. The signs of promise Jay Cutler showed last year have dissipated, and the expected improvement from the defense has pushed them to only 24th in defensive DVOA. The development of first-round pick Leonard Floyd -- who has 4.5 sacks and six hits over the past three weeks -- is promising, but there are precious few building blocks on this team, which looks to be years away from contending with the QB situation a mystery.

Houston Texans

It's weird to say this about a team that is currently 6-3 with a 73.7 percent chance of making the postseason, but this is exactly the difference between looking at a team's situation over one year and over five. The Texans are a bad football team by every measure more advanced than wins and losses. They're 30th in DVOA, between the 49ers and Jets. They've been outscored by the opposition by 27 points. Their only win by more than a touchdown is by nine points over the lowly Bears in the opener. They've already banked enough wins (and the AFC South is sufficiently bad) to make it to the playoffs, but it would hardly be a surprise if they repeated their one-and-done run from last season.

Even if the Texans do consider another AFC South title as a success, the long-term outlook is far more troubling. There was at least some hope the Texans had found their quarterback of the future when they signed Brock Osweiler away from the Broncos, but thus far Osweiler has been a problem, not a solution, ranking 29th in Total QBR (49.5). Even worse, franchise player J.J. Watt reinjured his back and has missed most of the season; there have to be concerns about whether the back injuries will recur in the years to come.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The development from the defense is promising; not only are the Jaguars up to 17th in DVOA, but they're mostly doing it with work from their young core. Dante Fowler, Yannick Ngakoue, Telvin Smith?and Jalen Ramsey are all on rookie deals and playing like above-average starters at their respective positions. For all the flak Gus Bradley has taken this year, his defense hasn't been the problem.

While I was more skeptical of Blake Bortles' "breakout" 2015 season than most, he has come undone during a wildly disappointing 2016 season. Bortles' mechanics were erratic and are now seemingly random from series to series, and while his past issues could be chalked up to a porous offensive line, Jacksonville's protection has improved this season. He has left multiple long touchdowns on the field in back-to-back games and shows little sign of improving. With Jacksonville likely to fire Bradley after this season, the Jaguars either need to hire a coach with experience molding quarterbacks into stars (like Norv Turner) or go after a quarterback who can get the most out of Allen Robinson & Co. Could they be a landing spot for Tony Romo? A franchise that hasn't topped five wins since 2010 has work to do to achieve even that total in 2016.

Los Angeles Rams

It's unfair to make blanket statements about Jared Goff, of course, given that the first overall pick is only going to make his NFL debut this weekend. It's also telling that the Rams waited this long to push an ineffective Case Keenum out of the lineup for Goff, who was underwhelming during the preseason and cost the Rams a staggering amount of draft capital as part of the trade up to No. 1. The Rams have no first- or third-round pick in 2017 as a result of the Goff trade. They also have gotten little out of Todd Gurley, who doesn't have a single run longer than 18 yards this season while averaging 3.1 yards per carry. The three most important assets for a franchise are a quarterback, draft picks and a head coach. The Rams may not have any of those three figured out right now.

Slightly worse

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers were exceedingly likely to decline this season after a 15-1 2015, and they've shown signs of life in winning three of their past four games, but there are definite cracks in the "Just trust Rivera and Gettleman" foundation. The offensive line and secondary, pieced together for pennies in years past, have been major problems. Star defensive tackle Kawann Short remains unsigned in advance of free agency, while franchise icon Luke Kuechly appeared to suffer another concussion during Thursday night's win over New Orleans and left the field in tears. The Panthers still have Cam Newton, which can take them a long way, but the invulnerability surrounding this team last season isn't there right now.

Cleveland Browns

At 0-10, it's easy to pick on the Browns, but remember that expectations for this team weren't exactly very high. The Browns are planning on rebuilding through the draft, and indeed, they have an 87.5 percent chance of coming away with the first overall pick in 2017, according to ESPN's Football Power Index. Trading punter Andy Lee to the Panthers for a fourth-rounder looks like found money, especially with Cleveland having added Britton Colquitt shortly thereafter for nothing. They've also stumbled upon a pair of useful offensive weapons in Isaiah Crowell and Terrelle Pryor, although the Cleveland brain trust will have to ask itself whether it's willing to pay Pryor the $10 million or so per year he would get in free agency if the Browns let him hit the market this offseason.

At the same time, though, 0-10 is 0-10. Even bad teams want to win a couple of games. An 0-16 season would shave time off what the Browns intend to be a lengthy rebuilding project, forcing them to try to compete earlier, even if it means lowering their ceiling in the process. The first-round pick they took from Philly in the Carson Wentz trade probably will fall in the middle of the round, which is disappointing. Their young players on defense have mostly been injured or ineffective, and the flier they took on Robert Griffin didn't appear to work out. Cody Kessler has shown some promise, but Hue Jackson still thought it was better to bench his rookie third-rounder last week for Josh McCown, which is telling. The Browns weren't supposed to have all of the answers by now, but it's unclear whether they have very many at all.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers' chances of making the playoffs, per ESPN's Football Power Index, are down to 35.1 percent. In the short term, they're way below expectations. In the long term, there are reasonable concerns about the viability of their franchise model to a greater extent than we've seen previously during the Mike McCarthy-Ted Thompson- Aaron Rodgers era. McCarthy had to come out this week and remind the media that he is "... a highly successful NFL coach," which is the sort of thing you say when you're trying to remind yourself of something. The offense continues to look flat, and a defense ravaged by injuries to key contributors such as? Clay Matthews and Sam Shields hasn't been able to hold up.

The Packers have made minor changes in the past by reassigning play-calling duties or changing coordinators, but it looks more and more like they need to make a major change to get back to their previous heights. Rodgers isn't going anywhere, and his presence leaves the Packers with a perennially high floor, but it also seems clear that their ceiling isn't what it looked to be as recently as September 2015.

New Orleans Saints

While the Saints have lost a few heartbreakers and are better than their 4-6 record, their long-term picture is still getting cloudier. Their 2015 draft, which was supposed to restock the organization, looks to be a mess. First-rounder Andrus Peat, drafted to play tackle, has been downgraded into a guard. Fellow first-rounder Stephone Anthony fell out of the defensive rotation and had played just 55 defensive snaps all season before Thursday night. Hau'oli Kikaha and P.J. Williams are both on injured reserve, and third-rounder Garrett Grayson was cut after just one season behind Drew Brees. Their latest free-agent class also has been disappointing: tight end Coby Fleener is on pace for 643 receiving yards and five touchdowns, while middle linebacker James Laurinaitis already has been released.

Slightly better

Buffalo Bills

Left for dead after an 0-2 start led Rex Ryan to fire offensive coordinator Greg Roman, the Bills have been an above-average football team since. The foot injury suffered by Sammy Watkins is troubling for his long-term future, but Tyrod Taylor has been effective in his second season as the starter, even without his No. 1 wideout for most of the season. That was a question mark heading into the season.

The Bills also have managed to coax excellent seasons on defense out of the likes of Lorenzo Alexander and Zach Brown, castoffs who were injury replacements for Buffalo's first two 2016 draft picks, Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland. The Bills are still on the outside looking in this year, given that FPI leaves them with a 20.3 percent shot at making the postseason, but Taylor reupping his credentials as a starter and Ryan reminding us of his defensive bona fides augurs some hope for the future.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins have been hit by short-term injuries to players such as? Reshad Jones, but after an ugly loss on national television to the Bengals, they've gone 4-1, including wins over the Steelers and Bills. They're sixth in DVOA after beating the Chargers last week, although FPI has them at 19th. Adam Gase hasn't made huge inroads into fixing Ryan Tannehill as of yet, with the perennially-on-the-cusp starter mixing good games with ugly ones, but the offensive line has improved dramatically with the addition of Laremy Tunsil in the first round. And after flirting with C.J. Anderson and signing Arian Foster this offseason, the Dolphins have stumbled on a No. 1 back in Jay Ajayi, which gives an offense that has been pass-happy under different coordinators for years some semblance of balance.

New York Giants

The Giants remain incredibly unbalanced and have one of the worst running games in football, but with Odell Beckham Jr. catching six touchdown passes in five games, it doesn't really seem to matter. (Remember when he went four games without scoring and people were blaming him for the Giants' problems? Almost like that was a random fluke!) It's no surprise that the defense is better after an enormous offseason spending spree, but the Giants are up to eighth in DVOA with the Bears and Browns on the schedule over the next two weeks, and it's not just the big-ticket free agents who are producing. Jason Pierre-Paul is not generating a ton of sacks, but he has six knockdowns and five pass deflections in four games. Even better, second-year safety Landon Collins has turned into a star, leading the team in tackles, interceptions, and (in a tie) sacks.


Kirk Cousins is playing just well enough for Washington to bring him back on a long-term deal, which is a reasonable achievement given that it was hardly out of the question to think he might regress to his prior self this year. More so than Cousins, really, Washington is piecing together a deep roster under Scot McCloughan. Players such as Jamison Crowder and Robert Kelley are in meaningful roles, in part by excelling thanks to injuries elsewhere. The offensive line is coming together. They suddenly have a deep pass rush, with Trent Murphy up to seven sacks and Preston Smith adding 3.5 sacks over the past four games to complement Ryan Kerrigan. This is a team in transition, but there's a lot of promise for the future.

Dramatically better

Atlanta Falcons

The Matt Ryan resurgence is one thing. It's another to see the rest of this team begin to blossom around him. They have a pass rush now! Vic Beasley had one sack through the first four weeks, then broke out with 3.5 sacks in Week 5. He's up to 8.5 in his past six games now, although his ratio of sacks to knockdowns (9.5 to 10) suggest that he has been a little lucky. And the addition of Alex Mack at center has both put Ryan at ease and helped create a running game; Kyle Shanahan's offense is seventh in rushing DVOA and leads the league in overall offensive DVOA, which isn't bad for a guy who was probably on the hot seat heading into the season. Now, it might be tougher for the Falcons to keep him in town altogether.

Dallas Cowboys

I probably don't need to explain this one, right? Dak Prescott didn't just save the Cowboys this season; he fundamentally changes their next decade. Dallas was going to need to seriously try to find a replacement for Tony Romo as soon as this upcoming offseason. Now, they don't have to use a first-round pick on a quarterback and can instead apply that to upgrade a perennially overachieving defensive line. With Prescott due to make a total of just under $2.2 million over the next three seasons, the Cowboys also can trade Romo and create a modest amount of cap space next year before freeing things up dramatically in 2018 and 2019, a move that will allow them to re-sign their own talent or go after top-level contributors in free agency for the first time in years. Finding a franchise quarterback in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft cures a lot of ills very quickly. The last two teams to do it were the Seahawks with Russell Wilson and the Patriots with Tom Brady. Worked out well for those teams, right?

Philadelphia Eagles

Only some of this is chalked up to Carson Wentz, who has been mediocre since his sizzling 3-0 start. Wentz is now down to 30th in opponent-adjusted QBR, below Osweiler, and is 22nd in adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A). To be fair, Wentz is also getting precious little help from his receivers, who are dropping 6.1 percent of his passes. Only the two 49ers quarterbacks and Matthew Stafford (a league-high 7.5 percent) are suffering from higher drop rates.

This is really more about the defense, which was supposed to be better and has instead been excellent from the jump. Philadelphia leads the league in defensive DVOA despite starting the likes of Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin regularly at cornerback. The Eagles win by giving those corners help and getting pressure with their front four, which has finally unlocked Brandon Graham's career-year mode. The Eagles are fourth in the league in both pressure rate and sack rate despite the fact that they blitz just 19.2 percent of the time, the sixth-lowest rate in football. As is the case in Atlanta, the concern now might be holding onto defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who rebuilt Philly's defense on the fly.

Tennessee Titans

Mike Mularkey's group is coming off the single best performance of the season; the Football Power Index gave the Titans a game score of 100 for their blowout win over the Packers last week in Nashville. For all the grief Mularkey took for building his "exotic smashmouth" offense (including from me), the Titans have an attack that works for them. They have two useful running backs in Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray, who is having a resurgent season. They may have one of the best pairs of tackles in football at the moment in Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, which has helped steer open space for Murray & Co.

The jury is still out on developing Marcus Mariota -- Mularkey's offense doesn't need Mariota to make big plays weekly, but the former Oregon star still struggles under center. Mariota's QBR is 29th in the league when he takes a snap under center, but when he moves to the shotgun (or pistol), it leaps to sixth. The defense also has fallen to just 27th in DVOA after an impressive start, but they can fix that in the offseason by moving on from sub-replacement talent like Perrish Cox at corner. At the very least, there appears to be stability with some hope of promise here for the first time in years. That alone is a plus.