We're getting closer each day to the start of NFL Training camp and the regular season. We're seeing and hearing more and more news everyday on the performance of players in practice as the media keeps fans excited and involved in the league. Certain teams are clear contenders, while others are rebuilding. Regardless of where their roster is now, all front offices are looking to build towards the future and create a winning team for years to come, not just this year. However, some General Managers have more work cut out for them than others when building up their franchise. Thus being said, I've highlighted five teams that I believe will have a dark future in the NFL and why I believe the future isn't in their favor. This list is in no specific order or ranking system, just five teams that came to my mind when considering the teams who I believe will have the darkest future.
1) Houston Texans
Houston is slowly, but surely taking Cleveland’s place as the laughing stock of the NFL based on their performance and front office moves across the last few seasons. The rapid downfall of the Texans took off in March of 2020, when then General Manager and Head Coach, Bill O’Brien traded All-Pro receiver Deandre Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round draft pick to Arizona for running back David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick, and a 2021 fourth-round pick. The move was shocking to say the least, as the Texans were coming off of back-to-back AFC South titles and playoff appearances. Hopkins was arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL at the time and the Texans gave him away for what felt like almost nothing in return. O’Brien then tried to re-boost the receiving core by signing Randall Cobb and trading for Brandin Cooks. However, the damage had already been done to the roster, locker room, and the fan base. The Texans’ 2020 season began horribly and after an 0-4 start, O’Brien was fired and Romeo Crennel became the interim Head Coach. Houston continued to struggle during the season and finished with a record of 4-12. Although, if there was a bright spot to point to in such a disappointing season, it was Quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson posted career-highs in passing yards and passing touchdowns all while throwing only seven interceptions. Watson had an incredible year, but the relationship between Watson and the Texans, as well as former defensive player of the year, J.J. Watt, would not be so incredible. The Texans and Watt agreed to part ways, as Watt desired to play for a Super Bowl contender going forward. As a result, the Texans released the three-time defensive player of the year and Watt signed with the Cardinals. This was just the beginning of the Texans’ eventual fallout with Deshaun Watson. Going into the offseason, the Texans needed a new General Manager and Head Coach, and Watson stated many times whom he preferred to fill those positions. Unfortunately for Watson, the Texans fell on deaf ears. Watson was never informed of the hires made by the Texans before they were official, which strained the relationship even more. After years of Watson being failed by his organization, he finally requested a trade. However, newly hired General Manager Nick Caserio is determined that Watson will not be traded and that the Texans will be able to revive their relationship with Watson. The news surrounding Watson was quiet, until twenty-two women sued Watson, alleging that they were sexually assaulted by Deshaun Watson. The disturbing allegations against the Texans Quarterback have since then caused an investigation by the NFL and the Houston Police Department. Since the allegations and the start of the investigation, trade talks have slowed down and will most likely remain slow. Nobody knows what the next step is for Houston, as trying to keep up-to-date with news regarding the team is almost like a bad episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians. Thus said, the Texans easily have the darkest future of all thirty-two teams.
2) Detroit Lions
The Lions franchise took a huge blow this offseason with the trade of long-time QB, Matthew Stafford. After three consecutive losing seasons in which Stafford suffered a plethora of injuries, the former Pro-Bowl QB decided that leaving Detroit was the best thing for his career. In return, Detroit received two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and Quarterback Jared Goff, emphasizing their new desire to rebuild. However, Stafford exiting Detroit wasn’t the only change for the Lions. During the 2020 season, the Lions fired Head Coach Matt Patricia and General Manager Bob Quinn, a move that current and former Lions players publicly expressed their love for. The Lions replaced the two with General Manager Brad Holmes and the energetic Dan Campbell as their next Head Coach. But, the roster changes don’t stop there. Detroit lost multiple key players in free agency, including two of their top pass catchers, the most notable being Kenny Golladay who’s shown flashes of his potential to be a Pro-Bowl receiver when healthy. Detroit finished the 2020 season with a 5-11 record and held the number seven overall pick in the draft. There was much speculation on which direction they would go with this pick, but due to the lack of defensive talent in this class, most believed that the Lions would use their pick on one of the top receivers in the draft. Instead, the Lions chose the best offensive lineman in the draft with Oregon’s Penei Sewell. A selection that former QB Matthew Stafford would’ve loved even more than current QB Jared Goff. Sewell will make an instant impact for an offensive line that allowed an average of 2.6 sacks allowed per game a season ago (TeamRankings.com) Although the Lions boosted their offensive line in the draft, their receiving corps is still one of the weakest in the NFL, their offense will have to rely heavily on Tight End T.J. Hockenson and running back D’andre Swift this upcoming season. Detroit was awful defensively a season ago and looking at the team’s roster, it could be another season of defensive struggles for the team that allowed the most points per game in the NFL in 2020 (32.4). The Lions made no real improvements to the defensive side of the ball in the off-season, and if anything, they got worse. Losing former starting safety Duron Harmon hurts what is already a weak secondary and the lack of pass rush for Detroit also will be an issue. To make matters worse, former number three overall pick Jeff Okudah hasn’t had the impact just yet that the Lions have wished for. Although, Okudah is extremely talented and no doubt can be a shutdown corner in the league. The Lions and Head Coach Dan Campbell have their hands full when it comes to this rebuild. This roster has so many holes in it, that this rebuild period could last much, much longer than expected.
3) Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons had one of the most abysmal offseasons of any team in the NFL, centering around the trade of future hall-of-fame receiver and franchise cornerstone, Julio Jones, But, even if Julio Jones wasn’t traded, the Falcons still would make this list. Atlanta decided to retain former Head Coach Dan Quinn and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff after a strong 6-2 finish to the 2019 season. Well, that move was one that owner Arthur Blank probably regrets, as both Quinn and Dimitroff were fired after an 0-5 start to 2020. Atlanta struggled mightily all season long, and their defense was one of the worst in the league and once again squandered multiple double-digit leads in the regular season. Atlanta’s defense probably couldn’t have stopped a middle school team from scoring against them a season ago, which is in large part why they finished 4-12 in 2020. The Falcons hired one of the better offensive-minded Head Coach candidates this offseason in Arthur Smith and chose former Saints assistant General Manager Terry Fontenot to be their next General Manager. The plan going forward was made very clear by Fontenot and Smith, they were rolling with Matt Ryan and a win-now attitude. However, the offseason wasn’t very kind to Atlanta, or their plans to “win-now.” Atlanta has one of the most troubling cap-space situations in the entire league and this was reflected in the multiple players that departed in free agency. The Falcons had several “cap space casualties,” as they released safeties Ricardo Allen, Damontae Kazee, and chose not to re-sign former first-round pick and safety Keanu Neal, leaving the Falcons decimated at the safety position. Offensively, Atlanta was forced to let Pro-Bowl center Alex Mack sign elsewhere, a huge blow to an already struggling offensive line. Although free agency wasn’t a success for Atlanta, the draft was. Atlanta used the number four overall pick on generational talent Kyle Pitts, securing some receiving help for Matt Ryan and providing a long-term reliable target for whoever will be Ryan’s successor. General Manager Terry Fontenot did an incredible job in his first draft for the Falcons, but Atlanta will now be dependent upon some of their early draft picks to make an instant impact for them to win games. Which is honestly a recipe for disaster. Atlanta is an interesting team as they have a balance of young players and veterans. The issue, however, is that QB Matt Ryan is now thirty-six and on top of that, the Falcons just traded his best receiver and long-time go-to guy for next to nothing, and the Falcons still do not have a productive running game or quality defense to support Matt Ryan. Atlanta ranked twenty-eight in rush yards per game a season ago as they didn’t even average one-hundred rush yards per game. Furthermore, Atlanta was thirty-first in yards per attempt with 3.7, absolutely dreadful numbers from their rushing attack. Atlanta’s strength has always been its offense, but in 2021 that could change. This team is one of the more confusing teams in the NFL, and although they have a “win-now” attitude, this team probably won’t win many games in 2021 or in the years after that. Atlanta’s front office doesn’t want to admit it, but a rebuild for this team is just around the corner.
4) Pittsburgh Steelers
It may be a surprise to see a team who started the season 11-0 and finished with a 12-4 record appear on this list, but here the Steelers are. Pittsburgh was led last year by an incredible defense that allowed just over twenty points per game (21.2) and forced 1.6 turnovers per game, which ranked third in the NFL. Although the Steelers were forced to let the emerging pass rusher Bud Dupree sign elsewhere in free agency along with corner Mike Hilton, their defense brings back all their other key pieces, including defensive player of the year snub T.J. Watt. Defensively the Steelers could be great for a long time and will certainly continue to cause issues for opposing offenses this season. However, the defense isn’t the reason that Pittsburgh makes this list, it’s because of their offense. Although the Steelers averaged 26.6 points per game in 2020, the majority of their production and scoring came through the air. Pittsburgh has some extreme talent at receiver and arguably has the best receiving corps in the NFL, but their rushing attack didn’t have nearly the same production. The Steelers ranked dead last in the league a season ago in both rushing yards per game (82.5) and yards per carry (3.6) causing their offense to become one-dimensional. The Steelers allowed running back James Conner to sign elsewhere in free agency, and drafted Alabama running back, Najee Harris, in hopes to rejuvenate their running game. Unfortunately for the Steelers though, they lost multiple offensive linemen in the offseason, hurting not only the running game but the passing attack as well. Most notably was the retirement of long-time Steeler Maurkice Pouncey, who’s been a Pro-Bowler and leader on the offensive line for Pittsburgh for over a decade. The next issue for the Steelers is that they seem to have no plan for when QB Ben Roethlisberger retires. Big Ben signed a one-year deal this offseason, and everyone is under the assumption that the 2021-22 season will be his last. Roethlisberger has had a prolific career with Pittsburgh, but he’s now thirty-nine years old and is not the Big Ben of the past. If Roethlisberger does retire after this season, nobody is certain as to who his successor will be. It doesn’t seem as if the next franchise QB for Pittsburgh is currently on the roster, leaving the Steelers with plenty of potential questions to answer leading up to the 2022-23 season. Lastly, several key pieces for the Steelers are scheduled to be free agents after this upcoming season. These players include Joe Haden, T.J. Watt, David Decastro, and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Even though the cap space will be closer to normal come the time to re-sign these players, Pittsburgh likely won’t be able to retain them all and will have to make some tough free agency decisions. This Steelers team could look completely different two seasons from now, especially if Big Ben hangs up his cleats after this season.
5) Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders haven’t recovered as a team or a franchise since trading Khalil Mack after hiring Jon Gruden in 2018. Since the trade, the Raiders have used a top-five pick on a defensive end, and have signed a plethora of pass rushers to try and replicate Mack’s production. The most recent being Yannick Ngakoue. The current issue with the trade for Khalil Mack is seeing if the draft selections pan out for Vegas. Currently, the only draft selection that the Raiders used with the Bears’ draft picks that has made an instant impact, is running back Josh Jacobs. The other selections have had a minimal impact, to say the least since joining the Raiders, which further shows how awful of a trade this was for the Raiders. The pass rush for the Raiders hasn’t been the only issue though, the defense as a whole has been poor, especially a season ago. In 2020, the Las Vegas Raiders allowed just under thirty points per game (29.9) which ranked thirtieth in the NFL and allowed around three-hundred and ninety yards per game to opposing offenses (389.1) which ranked twenty-fifth in the NFL. The defense is where the problems for this team begin, but do not end. Offensively the Raiders were very good in 2020, as they were top ten in points per game (27.1) and passing yards per game (263.6). Unfortunately for the Raiders though, their free agency losses will make it extremely hard to repeat this production in 2021. The Raiders' offensive line was completely decimated this past offseason as they lost three of their five starters upfront. On top of that, the Raiders also lost their number two receiver, Nelson Aghlor. The changes to the offensive line will give the Raiders issues without a doubt, as they lost Pro-Bowlers at Right Tackle in Trent Brown, and Center in Rodney Hudson. For years the offensive line has been the most consistent and dominant unit of this team, but after losing the entire right side of the offensive line and a long-time starter at Center, this unit now has more question marks surrounding it than exclamation points. The Raiders are depending on the first-round pick Alex Leatherwood to come in and be the stalwart that Trent Brown was for so many years. If the Raiders and their incoming rookie class continue to struggle, Head Coach Jon Gruden and General Manager Mike Mayock could be on the hot seat earlier than their long-term contracts anticipated them to be.
*All stats used were found using ESPN Stats & Info. Department and TeamRankings.com