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After the Philadelphia Eagles went from consecutive losing seasons to Super Bowl champions, struggling NFL franchises might have more hope than usual for a rapid rise this offseason.
But rarely does a non-playoff team have a quarterback like Carson Wentz and the makings of a championship-caliber defense already at its disposal.
Yet while there are many different routes to a title, the Eagles might have provided something of a blueprint for a group on the outside of the postseason picture. Strong coaching and talent throughout the roster provided the foundation for Philadelphia, but the championship run was also keyed by an emergent quarterback, strong play along both the lines and shrewd additions in free agency.
Keeping in mind those factors, here are four non-playoff teams that could experience a similar ascension next season:
What’s working for them: From a broad perspective, the Bolts might be the group best poised to follow the Eagles’ jump. With five of its seven losses coming by eight points or fewer, Los Angeles looked more threatening than multiple postseason teams. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram (23 sacks total) constitute the NFL’s best pass rushing tandem for a defense that finished No. 3 in scoring. The offense should remain electric with Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon and Keenan Allen all returning. If the kicking affliction (four different players combined to miss a league-worst 10 of 30 attempts) is ironed out, coach Anthony Lynn could enjoy a second-year rise analogous to the one Doug Pederson experienced.
What isn’t: One of the hallmarks of Philadelphia was its NFL-best run defense, and the Chargers ranked second to last in yards given up on the ground (131.1 yards per game). Los Angeles also ranked 28th in red-zone efficiency, and there might not be any easy avenues for immediate improvement given that their options for free agency reinforcements are limited. The offensive line allowed the fewest sacks of Philip Rivers’ career (18), but this group is a far cry from Philadelphia’s front, especially given its struggles with run blocking.
What’s working for them: Jimmy Garoppolo. San Francisco rides into the second season of Kyle Shanahan’s reign having confidently answered their quarterback question after the former Patriots backup led the team on a 5-0 run to close 2017. Garoppolo proved to be a transformational figure, as San Francisco averaged 28.8 points per game in his starts, almost a dozen more than the Niners produced before he got onto the field. The defense is still gestating but is building a foundation with pieces like defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, linebacker Reuben Foster and cornerback Akhello Witherspoon. And with sizable cap space even after doling out Garoppolo’s record contract, the 49ers can follow the Eagles’ plan by possibly reshaping their receiving corps, running game and secondary.
What isn’t: Several dubious drafts have left this roster thin at some key spots. Even with an aggressive approach in free agency and another deft class of rookies, there are too many holes to address sufficiently in one offseason. And despite the justified enthusiasm surrounding Garoppolo, the franchise has still turned over the keys to a quarterback with seven career starts. Can he continue his ascension when teams have more tape with which to prepare for him?
What’s working for them: Deshaun Watson could be headed for a Wentz-level sophomore campaign after electrifying the league in a record-setting rookie run cut short by a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and running back Lamar Miller round out an impressive young trio of skill-position players. With three-time defensive player of the year J.J. Watt and standout linebacker Whitney Mercilus returning from injury to join Jadeveon Clowney, the pass rush could be among the league’s most fearsome.
What isn’t: The offensive line is a significant liability after giving up 54 sacks last season. Even with key pieces returning from injury, a defense that ranked last in scoring won’t be repaired overnight, particularly a secondary that was shredded for 30 touchdowns through the air. With no picks in the first or second round, Houston will have to patch its most significant holes in free agency.
What’s working for them: In hiring Matt Nagy, formerly Pederson’s successor as the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, the Bears hope to strike the right pairing of quarterback and offensive-minded coach — although the model might be closer to that of the Rams with Sean McVay than the Eagles. Mitchell Trubisky, last year’s No. 2 overall pick, showed enough promise to inspire hope he can become the franchise quarterback Chicago has long needed. In the meantime, Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen power a running game that could be among the league’s best with more creativity and help from the aerial attack. Retaining Vic Fangio as coordinator for an overlooked defense was a win for the new staff, and the unit could take a significant leap next season. With 16 players finishing last year on injured reserve, Chicago could improve in 2018 simply through some better fortune.
What isn’t: Though many might like to pin Nagy as the next Pederson or McVay, he’s still something of an unknown, especially given that his play calling experience amounts to half a season. Trubisky is still a mystery after a season in which he had more lows than highs, and he’s far behind Wentz at this early stage in his development. Getting wideout Cameron Meredith back from injury will help the passing game, but the receiver options are still inadequate.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz
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