The NFL really has two seasons despite what most people think. The off-season is just as important as the regular season and each year teams have the power to completely change their fortunes around during this period. But with great power comes great responsibility. Certain teams still haven’t figured out that if you win the offseason you don’t automatically win the regular season (looking at you Cleveland Browns).
Bad drafting and/or overpaying free agent busts is a sure way to find your team repeating failures of the past (still looking at you Cleveland). However, if handled properly a team can completely change its future outlook. If you need an example just look at the Jacksonville Jaguars turnaround. Thanks to key free agent signings like Calais Campbell and drafting talent like Leonard Fournette the team went from basement dwellers to Super Bowl hopefuls.
But, let’s be clear. I’m not predicting the teams below will suddenly find themselves in contention or that they won’t fall out of it. These teams below with the best chance to win the offseason have just that. A chance. So, without further delay let’s get started.
Teams With the Best Chance To Win the 2018 NFL Off-Season
San Francisco 49ers
Needs: Linebacker, Running back, Cornerback
The San Francisco 49ers have already completed the hardest part of any NFL rebuild: finding a franchise quarterback. Now that the team has Jimmy Garoppolo locked up for the future, the team can worry about surrounding him with talent. The 49ers have nine picks in the 2018 draft and around $80 million in cap space to play with. However, where to spend most of that capital is the problem. Thankfully the team is prime position to score big in both free agency and the draft.
Spend The Capital The Right Way
First up, we have the draft. The 49ers have four picks in the top 75 of this year’s draft meaning they can really load up with as much talent as they want. However, the team should target running back and linebacker early and often. Luckily this draft just happens to be deep at both positions. The 49ers could target linebackers Roquan Smith or Tremaine Edmunds with their first pick and still get a starting caliber running back later. Nick Chubb or Sony Michel could make sense and will probably still be available on day two of the draft.
In free agency, the team can afford to spend money on positions of need like cornerback and offensive line instead of drafting young players who may not be the plug and play type. Two offensive linemen who should be on the 49ers radar are Josh Kline and Weston Richburg. Both players would fit head coach Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme and could be signed at reasonable prices. At corner, targeting Malcolm Butler and/or Trumaine Johnson are possible options. The 49ers have the cap space and team in place to attract both Butler and Johnson so the decision will come down to who they like better. However, no matter which player they sign the fact remains that the team can address all their major needs in one offseason.
Needs: Quarterback, Running Back, Cornerback,
and any other position you can think of
You may be shaking your head at this choice but it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. The Browns always seem to “win” the off-season if you go back and look at previous years. However, the team always collapses and the moves look terrible in hindsight (see 2014 offseason). But, this time might be different considering the super team the Browns have assembled in their front office. New general manager John Dorsey and company will try to immediately show that they won’t be making the same mistakes of the previous regime. Which basically means they’ll spend big on big names and actually use their draft picks.
Same Old, Same Old
The Browns have four picks in the top 35 and seven in the top 100. That’s a ridiculous number of high draft picks in a draft class full of talent. But, the Browns also have a ridiculous number of needs, so drafting the best player available should be the philosophy. However, with the number one overall pick, the team has to find a franchise quarterback. There’s no consensus best quarterback this year so the Browns will have to rely on their dream team to decide between Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, or Josh Allen.
Free Agency will likely dictate what the Browns do in the draft. The team can invest in a proven commodity like Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum or Teddy Bridgewater. Or the team could go after big names such as Le’Veon Bell, Johnson, or Butler at skill positions of need. However, I’m projecting a combination of both. The team can get a bridge quarterback that can ease their rookie into the starting spot and then draft big names at their skill positions to inject some much-needed talent into the team. If the team is able to obtain some combination of Darnold, Saquon Barkley, Keenum, and Butler they’ll easily be named winners of the offseason.
Needs: Safety, Offensive Line, Corner
I saved the best for last. The Houston Texans are the only team on this list with the opportunity to become legitimate contenders this off-season. The team has Deshaun Watson leading the way, with DeAndre Hopkins and a top five defense backing him up. However, there are still holes the team must fill in order to take down the Jacksonville Jaguars and take the AFC South crown. Luckily, the team has a good amount of cap space to make some moves happen. However, unlike other teams on this list, the Texans don’t have the draft capital to do anything but hope they strike gold in April.
The Texans won’t make their first pick in the draft, barring a trade, until the third round. However, the team still has three picks in the top 100 to add quality depth and maybe a starter if lucky. But, the team can get that and a lot more thanks to the talent of this years safety class. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James will be long gone by the time the Texans get on the clock but players like Marcus Allen, Justin Reid, and Kyzir White all have the talent to develop into starters at safety. For their other needs, the team will have to use their $67 million in cap space (sixth most in the league) to make something happen.
Watson was under duress entirely too much last season, especially up the middle. The team has to get better in the interior of their offensive line if they hope to combat the Jaguars pass rushers. Guards Andrew Norwell and Justin Pugh are going to be expensive but necessary signings for the Texans. Norwell graded out as one of the best guards in the league last season and is only 26 years old with his whole career in front of him. On the other hand, Pugh will be cheaper because of his performance last season. However, in his past four seasons he was one of the best lineman in the league. So, we’ll chalk that up to injuries. If the Texans are able to hit all their marks in free agency and the draft there’s no reason the team can’t take down the Jaguars or any other team.