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Butch Dill/Associated Press
Every NFL team would love to play in the Super Bowl. But in reality, only a handful of teams have a shot at a championship in any given season.
While teams won’t publicly admit as much, many have goals well short of a Lombardi Trophy in 2019.
Teams like the Oakland Raiders, New York Giants and the Arizona Cardinals know Super Bowl LIV isn’t in the cards. They do have other important objectives, though—whether that’s identifying and developing a franchise quarterback, getting back to a respectable record or building a foundation for the future.
While each team should have specific goals in 2019, they also have certain worst-case scenarios they must avoid at all cost. We’ll examine one for each team here, along with how it could derail a team’s 2019 campaign, its long-term plans or both.
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Brad Tollefson/Associated Press
Regardless of who the Cardinals have under center in 2019, they need to embrace the uniqueness and innovation of new head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.
“This isn’t a ‘find the next [Sean] McVay’ thing; it’s a ‘find a coach who is out in front of the evolution currently transforming the NFL’ thing, where coaches who prioritize ‘establishing the run’ and ‘just getting to third-and-manageable’ are dying out,” Steven Ruiz of For The Win wrote after the Cardinals hired Kingsbury.
Arizona must allow Kingsbury to have control to see whether his system can be the next big thing in the NFL.
As such, general manager Steve Keim needs to focus on getting Kingsbury the proper talent for his offense in the draft. Meanwhile, ownership and other front office personnel can’t ask him to be conservative and lean on David Johnson and the run, even if that may lead to the most immediate success.
The Cardinals have to evaluate Kingsbury with a big-picture focus in mind.
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Jason Behnken/Associated Press
The Atlanta Falcons have the talent to get back to the playoffs in 2019, especially on offense.
However, they need to continue bolstering their defense, particularly the pass rush.
To challenge for the NFC South title, the Falcons can’t ignore their pass-rush needs. Not only must they focus on adding edge-rushers in the draft, but they also should pursue trades before the Oct. 31 deadline if their offseason moves don’t pay dividends.
Atlanta can’t sit back and hope that guys such as Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley suddenly emerge as elite pass-rushers.
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Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
By trading longtime starting quarterback Joe Flacco to the Denver Broncos, the Baltimore Ravens went all-in on rising second-year signal-caller Lamar Jackson.
When a hip injury sidelined Flacco in early November, the Ravens turned to Jackson under center. They installed a run-first offense and rode him to an AFC North title, which effectively spelled the end of Flacco’s time in Baltimore.
The Ravens may feel pressure to keep their run-first approach in place this season since it’s difficult to defend and players to Jackson’s strengths. However, they can’t lean on the run to the degree that it prevents Jackson from growing as a passer.
To get the most out of Jackson, Baltimore needs him to become a true dual-threat signal-caller. The Ravens can’t let him become the next Michael Vick when he has the potential to become the next Russell Wilson.
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Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen showed some tremendous potential as a rookie in 2018. He regularly flashed his arm strength and was lethal as a runner, particularly late in the season.
However, he often appeared to be the Bills’ only offensive weapon.
Buffalo can’t afford to have that same scenario play out in 2019.
The Bills added weapons for Allen in free agency—namely Cole Beasley, John Brown and Tyler Kroft—and they also signed ageless wonder Frank Gore to round out their backfield depth chart. While Gore and fellow running back LeSean McCoy are both on the wrong side of 30, Buffalo must lean on them when the opportunity presents itself.
If Allen has to carry the Bills offense as both a runner and a passer, he’s going to open himself up to big hits. That’s an enormous risk for a franchise quarterback, even one who stands 6’5″ and 237 pounds.
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Mike McCarn/Associated Press
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton dealt with shoulder issues for much of 2018 before the team shut him down for the season. He struggled as a downfield passer because of the injury and underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason.
“At this persona that we play, you can’t show no signs of weakness,” Newton said of the injury in a YouTube video. “But I was weak, and I felt so vulnerable.”
The Panthers must avoid another injury to Newton’s shoulder at all costs.
If that means sitting him for part of the 2019 season or retooling the offense to prevent wear and tear on his throwing arm, so be it. Another significant injury to Newton’s shoulder potentially could put an end to his time as Carolina’s franchise quarterback.
The Panthers undoubtedly want to get back to the postseason in 2019, but Newton’s long-term health must be a bigger priority.
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Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky isn’t known as a running quarterback. Head coach Matt Nagy likely doesn’t want him to be a run-first signal-caller, either.
However, Chicago must resist the urge to limit Trubisky’s freedom to make plays with his legs.
Trubisky had some freedom to ad-lib in 2018, and he wound up rushing for 421 yards and three touchdowns while averaging an impressive 6.2 yards per carry. It also kept opposing defenses off-balance.
Trubisky needs to continue his development as a pocket passer, but the Bears shouldn’t take away one of his biggest weapons in the meantime.
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John Minchillo/Associated Press
After parting ways with longtime head coach Marvin Lewis at the end of the 2018 season, the Cincinnati Bengals hired Los Angeles Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor to replace him.
However, both the organization and the Bengals fanbase must acknowledge things might not go as hoped in Taylor’s first season.
The Bengals have a number of talented players—including Joe Mixon, A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard—which should spare them from a total teardown and rebuild. Some of those players may not be part of Cincinnati’s future, though.
Bengals owner Mike Brown must give Taylor the 2019 season to evaluate the talent at his disposal. Even if the season goes south early, the team can’t make drastic decisions or personnel changes because of short-term pressure to win.
Otherwise, Taylor won’t have a clear idea of which players are worth building around moving forward.
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Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield wasn’t only successful as a rookie because of his talent. The 2018 No. 1 overall pick also had belief in himself and his teammates, and interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens was willing to turn him loose.
If Mayfield loses confidence in himself for any reason in 2019, he isn’t likely to be the same dangerous player.
If the Browns weather a losing streak, internal discord, issues with Kitchens in his first year as head coach or even struggles from Mayfield himself, keeping the quarterback’s confidence intact has to be the organization’s top priority.
The Browns have ruined plenty of quarterbacks over the years. They cannot afford to ruin Mayfield.
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Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press
Amari Cooper is a tremendous receiver. He’s a great fit for the Dallas Cowboys offense, too.
In only nine regular-season games with Dallas in 2018, he amassed 725 yards and six touchdowns on 53 catches. He also had 13 catches for 171 yards and a touchdown in two playoff games.
Cooper is going to be Dak Prescott’s No. 1 target in 2019, but the Cowboys have to avoid running the entire passing attack through him. Doing so would make an already simplistic offense even easier to defend.
Opponents can limit receivers by double- or triple-teaming them. That opens things up for other pass-catchers, but if Dallas doesn’t have other consistent options—or doesn’t utilize them—it won’t matter.
Cooper has also led the league in drop rate twice, according to Scott Barrett of Pro Football Focus. If that issue rears its ugly head again, focusing on Cooper too much could become a major problem.
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D. Ross Cameron/Associated Press
The Denver Broncos appear to have a franchise running back in Phillip Lindsay. After signing with Denver as an undrafted free agent, Lindsay rushed for 1,037 yards and nine touchdowns, caught 35 passes for 241 yards and one touchdown and was named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2018.
Unfortunately, Lindsay also ended the season on injured reserve with a wrist injury.
To continue reaping the benefits of having an inexpensive, talented young running back on their roster, the Broncos need to avoid rushing Lindsay back into action or overworking him in 2019. While Denver may feel as though it has a shot at the playoffs with Flacco under center, it’ll be difficult to get past the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers in the AFC West even with a healthy Lindsay.
Risking his long-term potential for the sake of short-term competitiveness isn’t worth it.
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Darron Cummings/Associated Press
Matt Patricia’s first year as Detroit Lions head coach didn’t go as hoped. The defensive-minded coach oversaw a team that ranked 16th in points allowed in 2018 (22.5 per game), and the Lions finished 6-10.
Detroit needs to exercise patience with Patricia, though.
The Lions added some quality players on both sides of the ball in free agency, including Danny Amendola, Trey Flowers and Justin Coleman. They should be better equipped to implement Patricia’s defense and to compete in 2019.
If the Lions struggle early on, they have to avoid undermining Patricia. Putting him on the hot seat or even firing him midseason would likely only waste another year of franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford‘s career.
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Michael Conroy/Associated Press
New Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur has worked with a variety of quarterbacks over the years, including Robert Griffin III, Matt Ryan and Marcus Mariota. He’ll now get to work with arguably the most talented player ever to play the position, Aaron Rodgers.
LaFleur cannot be afraid to push Rodgers out of his comfort zone or to continue taking Green Bay’s offense into the 21st century.
The Packers were often too conservative on offense under former head coach Mike McCarthy, which explains why Rodgers only has one Super Bowl ring. If LaFleur installs a wide-open offense like the ones Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff have been thriving in, Rodgers could set the NFL record book ablaze.
Putting Rodgers in such a system would help the Packers can squeeze more out of him.
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Phelan Ebenhack/Associated Press
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was a Pro Bowler in 2018 after passing for 4,165 yards, rushing for 551 and scoring 31 total touchdowns.
He was also sacked a league-high 62 times, which is unacceptable—especially for a quarterback coming off a torn ACL, as Watson was.
The Texans cannot allow Watson to lead the league in sacks again. Not only must they strengthen their offensive line, but they also must convince Watson to stop taking unnecessary sacks.
Holding on to the ball too long has been one of his few flaws to date.
If Watson keeps getting sacked roughly four times a game, Houston can’t realistically expect him to stay upright for the entire 2019 season.
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
If Andrew Luck suffers another serious injury in 2019, it’d be a death knell for the Indianapolis Colts.
While no team wants its franchise quarterback to go down for an extended period of time, another serious injury could be career-threatening for Luck, especially if it’s to his surgically repaired shoulder.
Luck was sacked only 18 times last season, but the Colts also must protect him from himself. While he is a stout 6’4″ and 240 pounds, his refusal to avoid contact at all costs is problematic.
“He’s the type of quarterback that just thinks that every play, he’s got to find a way to get a positive yard,” former Colts receiver Reggie Wayne told SiriusXM radio.
The Colts may need to break Luck out of that mentality.
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David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone will be under pressure to win in 2019. He’s two years removed from an appearance in the AFC Championship Game, and Jacksonville upgraded at quarterback by signing Nick Foles to a four-year deal.
But if Jaguars fail to meet early expectations in 2019, firing Marrone wouldn’t do them any good.
Foles will need time to adapt to Jacksonville’s personnel, and that personnel will need to adapt to new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. The Jaguars defense also has to recover from the departures of former Pro Bowl defenders Malik Jackson and Tashaun Gipson.
If Jacksonville decides to move on from Marrone after the 2019 season, that’s one thing. But prematurely pulling the plug in the middle of the season may erode the confidence of a team that struggled in 2018.
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Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
The Kansas City Chiefs cannot rely on their offense being as unstoppable in 2019 as it was this past season. They still have reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes, but with running back Kareem Hunt now in Cleveland and Tyreek Hill possibly facing a suspension, the offense could take a major step back.
If it does, the Chiefs could also take a step back.
Their defense was a liability for much of 2018—it allowed 405.5 yards per game, second-most in the NFL—and pass-rushers Dee Ford and Justin Houston have since left the team. Those two combined for 22.0 sacks last season.
Kansas City still has Chris Jones, who had a team-high 15.5 sacks last season, and it added Alex Okafor in free agency. However, the Chiefs need to continue bolstering their pass rush by whatever means necessary to help compensate for any downtick in offensive production in 2019.
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Gail Burton/Associated Press
Running back Melvin Gordon is a critical piece of the Los Angeles Chargers offense. He’s also due for a new contract after the season.
“We’ve got him and a number of other guys that we’ll look at extending at some point,” general manager Tom Telesco said, per Jeff Miller of the Los Angeles Times.
The Chargers must avoid overvaluing Gordon when it comes time to strike a deal, no matter how well he plays in 2019.
Gordon is a great running back, but he isn’t irreplaceable. The offense was fine when he missed time last season and L.A. instead relied on Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson.
Giving Gordon a Le’Veon Bell-sized deal wouldn’t make sense because he isn’t that type of player. In fact, he’s had only one 1,000-yard campaign in his four-year NFL career.
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Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley is one of the NFL’s most dangerous offensive weapons when healthy. He wasn’t healthy at the end of last season, though.
A left knee injury sidelined Gurley for the Rams’ final two regular-season games, and backup C.J. Anderson handled a majority of the running back duties even after Gurley returned in the playoffs. The 2017 Offensive Player of the Year also might have arthritis in that knee, according to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe.
No matter how good Gurley is or how much the Rams are paying him—he has a $9.2 million cap hit in 2019—they can’t be afraid to sit him if he isn’t fully healthy.
Resting Gurley for an extended stretch would hurt L.A.’s playoff chances in 2019, but it also might extend his career well past the coming season.
Further damaging Gurley’s knee when the Rams still owe him nearly $35 million in dead money would be a potentially franchise-altering disaster.
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Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
The Miami Dolphins have officially turned the page on the Ryan Tannehill era.
After trading Tannehill and a 2019 sixth-round pick to the Tennessee Titans for a 2019 seventh-round pick and a 2020 fourth-rounder, the Dolphins signed journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick to a two-year deal to hold down the starting quarterback job for the time being.
But no matter how well Fitzpatrick plays, Miami can’t buy into him as a long-term answer.
At every recent stop, Fitzpatrick has uncorked enough magic to make his teams consider whether to install him as a permanent starter. That could be dangerous for Miami regardless of whether it selects a quarterback in the upcoming draft.
If Miami does draft a quarterback in April, it can’t hesitate to give him playing time just because Fitzpatrick is playing well enough to win some games. If it doesn’t and Fitzpatrick miraculously leads the Dolphins to a playoff berth, that shouldn’t dissuade them from drafting a signal-caller in 2020 regardless.
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Jim Mone/Associated Press
After signing quarterback Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract last offseason, the Minnesota Vikings entered win-now mode. However, they fell well short of expectations and missed the playoffs, which may have head coach Mike Zimmer feeling pressure heading into 2019.
The Vikings have missed the playoffs in three of Zimmer’s five seasons at the helm, and they’ve won only one playoff game in his tenure. However, the team gave him a vote of confidence in late February by exercising a contractual option that keeps him in place through 2020.
“I don’t think, from ownership through our entire organization, that we don’t believe in Coach Zimmer,” general manager Rick Spielman said, via the team’s official website. “He is the right head coach to lead us going forward.”
Minnesota must avoid reversing course and placing pressure on Zimmer if the team endures a slow start or a rough stretch. If he embraces a conservative coaching approach in fear of losing his job, that won’t be conducive to a possible playoff run.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
The New England Patriots are notorious for switching up their offensive and defensive schemes to better suit their personnel.
It would thus be surprising if the Patriots stick with the same offensive philosophies that helped them win a sixth Lombardi Trophy in 2018, but they must avoid that temptation nevertheless.
While quarterback Tom Brady remains in place, offensive tackle Trent Brown, Swiss army knife Cordarrelle Patterson and star tight end Rob Gronkowski are now gone. The Patriots were a strong running team in 2018—they ranked fifth leaguewide with an average of 127.3 yards per game—but they need to lean even more heavily on the run this year.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels cannot expect a 42-year-old Brady to drop back 570 times without an established left tackle or legitimate No. 1 pass-catcher. Doing so could result in a spectacular fall for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
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John Bazemore/Associated Press
When you have a future Hall of Fame quarterback like Drew Brees, it’s tempting to lean heavily on the pass. In 2016, for instance, he attempted a career-high 673 pass attempts during his age-37 season.
But over the past two seasons, the New Orleans Saints have relied upon a more balanced strategy. The tremendous rushing tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara helped them establish a lethal ground attack.
Ingram left the Saints in free agency to sign with the Ravens, while the Saints signed former Vikings running back Latavius Murray in his place. If Murray struggles to replace Ingram and the Saints run game takes a step back, New Orleans may feel pressure to let Brees carry the offense.
The Saints have to resist that temptation. Brees is still elite, but the 40-year-old often struggles away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, much as he did late in the 2018 season.
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Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
When the Giants traded away star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., they effectively admitted they’re entering a full-on rebuild. Eli Manning isn’t the future at quarterback, so New York figures to start developing a younger signal-caller soon.
To be competitive once their next quarterback is up to speed, the Giants have to ensure running back Saquon Barkley is still in his prime. He’s a special talent, and he’s now their biggest weapon on offense by far.
There’s a real risk of wearing Barkley down. He had 261 carries and 91 receptions as a rookie, and he’s going to face even more defensive attention with Beckham now out of town.
Riding Barkley may be the best way to wear down opposing defenses and grind out wins, but those wins won’t matter nearly as much as Barkley’s future with the team.
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Doug Benc/Associated Press
The New York Jets gave star running back Le’Veon Bell a massive four-year, $52.5 million deal in free agency to help take pressure off quarterback Sam Darnold.
While the Giants should worry about Barkley’s long-term health, the Jets shouldn’t be as concerned with overworking Bell. They’re going to pay out all but $4 million in dead money within his first two seasons.
If they run him into the ground during that span, they can move on and save roughly $10 million per season in salary-cap space.
Bell will be 29 after the 2020 season, so he won’t be a piece of the Jets’ long-term plans the way Barkley will be at 24.
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Ed Zurga/Associated Press
Quarterback Derek Carr may or may not be part of Jon Gruden’s long-term plans for the Oakland Raiders. Even if he isn’t, Gruden should do his best to keep him confident and productive throughout the 2019 season.
The Raiders need to show progress in 2019 after last year’s disappointing 4-12 campaign. They also need to maximize Carr’s potential trade value should they decide to move on from him at some point.
Breaking Carr’s confidence or throwing him under the bus will be a detriment to both of those goals.
The Raiders have brought in some weapons for him this offseason such as Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams, so he’ll be under pressure to perform well. But even if he struggles, Oakland must continue supporting him for at least one more season.
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Matt Rourke/Associated Press
The Philadelphia Eagles don’t want quarterback Carson Wentz to miss time as he has in each of the past two seasons. It’d be even worse if he goes down and they don’t have a good backup plan in place.
The Eagles are seemingly confident in fourth-year quarterback Nate Sudfeld. However, he has only 25 regular-season attempts under his belt, making him a huge unknown.
Nick Foles is gone, and the free-agent pool of veteran signal-callers is dwindling. Guys like Josh McCown and Brock Osweiler are available, though, and they could win a game or two if needed.
It would behoove Philadelphia to add an experienced quarterback before the start of the season. Otherwise, Wentz missing a handful of games could keep the Eagles out of the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
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Ben Margot/Associated Press
The Pittsburgh Steelers experienced their fair share of in-house drama in 2018, from Le’Veon Bell’s holdout to the Antonio Brown saga.
To get back to the postseason in 2019, they cannot afford more locker room issues to emerge.
“Ben being the unquestioned leader, I have no problem with that situation other than the fact that no one is beyond unquestioned,” former Steelers linebacker James Harrison told NFL Network’s Willie McGinest. “…I start off at this same thing with Tomlin. The head guy has to be the one that takes charge.”
While Tomlin has won one Super Bowl with the Steelers, he hasn’t made the most of the talent at his disposal. If he can’t control his team this season, he could end up on the hot seat, which wouldn’t be good for Pittsburgh either short term or long term.
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Ed Zurga/Associated Press
The San Francisco 49ers view Jimmy Garoppolo as their franchise quarterback, despite his relatively limited resume of just 10 starts.
The 49ers need to focus on protecting Garoppolo at all costs, especially as he recovers from a torn ACL suffered in Week 3 of last season. While he will have had close to a year of recovery by Week 1, rushing him back helps no one.
San Francisco got some good play out of Nick Mullens down the stretch in 2018, so there really isn’t any reason to risk re-injuring Garoppolo. The 49ers aren’t likely to compete for a Super Bowl in 2019, after all.
Armed with a loaded backfield—now featuring Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon and Raheem Mostert—there won’t be any reason to lean too heavily on Garoppolo even when he is on the field.
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Gregory Payan/Associated Press
The Seattle Seahawks have an elite quarterback and a perennial Pro Bowler in Russell Wilson. There’s no reason the team shouldn’t keep him for the remainder of his career if possible. Waiting to lock him up, though, would be a mistake.
Wilson is entering the final year of his contract. The longer Seattle waits to get a new deal done, the more it is likely to cost the franchise. This is especially true if Seattle waits until next offseason or applies the franchise tag before entering serious negotiations.
Just consider that Nick Foles got more than $50 million guaranteed on his four-year deal with the Jaguars this offseason. Guys like Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota could be free agents next offseason. If one of them gets $60-70 million guaranteed, then what will Wilson be worth?
Getting a deal done sooner rather than later would save the franchise money while also allowing Wilson to focus on the season at hand.
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Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Can Jameis Winston really be a franchise quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? That’s a question that still doesn’t have a clear answer, as Thomas Bassinger of the Tampa Bay Times recently pointed out.
“All you know is that you don’t know,” Bassinger wrote. “It’s not that Winston’s a bad quarterback. But we can’t say he’s a good quarterback, either. What he is, especially if you’re a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan, is the most frustrating quarterback in the NFL.”
With Winston in the final year of his rookie contract, the Buccaneers need to figure out if he’s worth investing in over the long haul. This means the new regime led by Bruce Arians must give him a full 16-game evaluation.
Yanking Winston out of the starting lineup when he struggles—as was done in 2018—will not help Tampa decide if Winston should be a part of its future.
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Mark Zaleski/Associated Press
Like the Buccaneers, the Tennessee Titans are still evaluating the first-round quarterback they drafted in 2015. Unlike Winston, though, a decreasing patience isn’t as big a risk as an injury would be for Marcus Mariota.
Mariota has shown promise throughout his brief career, but he’s also struggled to develop as a consistent downfield passer and has dealt with numerous injuries. A broken leg ended his 2016 season, and a nagging elbow issue hampered him in 2018.
If the Titans are going to get a good read on Mariota’s development in the final season of his rookie deal, they must ensure he stays healthy. If this means inserting the recently acquired Ryan Tannehill into the lineup when Mariota is taking a beating, so be it.
Tennessee can’t afford to approach Mariota’s next contract with no clarity on his health and development.
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Steven Senne/Associated Press
While it isn’t clear who the Washington Redskins’ next franchise quarterback will be, 2018 second-round pick Derrius Guice does appear to be their next franchise runner.
However, the Redskins don’t know how to best use Guice, as he suffered a torn ACL during the preseason last year and never played a regular-season snap.
While Guice will have had a full year of recovery by the start of the 2019 season, Washington must avoid rushing him back or giving him an overwhelming workload. That could ruin him.
Not every player can get back to 100 percent a year after tearing an ACL, though players like Adrian Peterson have made it look easy. Peterson, by the way, will be back on a two-year deal and is one reason the Redskins shouldn’t have to overwork Guice. He rushed for 1,042 yards and 4.2 yards per carry last season.
All contract information via Spotrac.