Power Rankings: can 49ers come back strong?

February 6, 2020

 

 

With another NFL season in the books, let’s look back and spin forward with a final edition of the Power Rankings. No. 1 was an easy call.

Thanks to everyone for reading in what was my first year on the PR beat. You’ll get your next edition later this spring, when 2020 rosters start to take shape. Until then, know that you’re all No. 1 in my heart. Well, except for your cousin. You gotta get that dude off Twitter.

Week 1

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2

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3

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4

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5

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6

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7

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8

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9

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10

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11

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12

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13

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14

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15

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16

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17

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WC

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Divisional

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Championship Sunday

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Post

NOTE: Records reflect the entirety of postseason play.

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1

CHIEFS (15-4)

The Chiefs are on top of the pro football world after — spoiler alert — winning Super Bowl LIV on Sunday night. Kansas City ended its season on a nine-game winning streak, and Patrick Mahomes has won a league MVP award and a Super Bowl MVP across two seasons as a starter. Yes, these are the good days. Best of all for the Chiefs: They will retain their nucleus of dynamic talent around their superstar QB for the coming title defense in 2020. Here’s an insane stat, courtesy of NFL Media Research: Mahomes was 5-0 this season (including playoffs) when trailing by 10-plus points at any point in the game. The Chiefs are the first team to win the Super Bowl after trailing by 10-plus points in every one of their playoff games … and they won all three games by more than 10 points. Special, special stuff.

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2

49ERS (15-4)

The 49ers‘ defense played the game of its life for 53 minutes in Super Bowl LIV. Niners fans will be thinking about those final seven minutes of the fourth quarter for years to come. The game shifted on Tyreek Hill’s 44-yard catch on third-and-15 in the fourth quarter, the first of several coverage breakdowns that doomed San Francisco. The blame isn’t all on the defense, however. Kyle Shanahan’s offense had opportunities to close out Kansas City in the fourth quarter — but Jimmy Garoppolo and Co. simply weren’t up to the task. Jimmy G’s reputation will surely take a hit for how this game ended, but he remains a solid quarterback with substantial upside. The Niners should be back in the mix come next January … but nothing is promised.

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3

RAVENS (14-3)

It’s still hard to believe the Ravens‘ 2019 campaign — one that seemed destined for immortality after a 14-2 regular season — ended with an unceremonious one-and-done exit in January. Football, man. One of the biggest offseason decisions will center around defensive end Matt Judon, a free-agent-to-be who reportedly could be a franchise-tag-and-trade candidate. Judon stepped up with a career-best season when Baltimore’s front seven was in a vulnerable time of transition, but he is also the type of player who — like Dee Ford and Frank Clark in similar situations last year — could fetch a substantial return on the trade market. A trade of Judon would give the Ravens increased financial flexibility and another influx of young talent through the draft. Feels like a move that would make sense for a forward-thinking franchise.

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4

SAINTS (13-4)

The Drew Brees Watch is on in New Orleans. The 41-year-old quarterback said last week that he’ll take “a month or so” before deciding whether or not to return for a 20th season. The uncertainty spawns some uneasy times in the Big Easy, but a reunion between player and team makes too much sense not to happen. Brees continued to play at a high level in 2019, setting a career high in passer rating while bouncing back strong from a thumb injury that cost him several weeks in September and October. The Patriots are right to ponder internally whether they want to stay in business with a clearly-declining Tom Brady — the Saints shouldn’t be facing the same dilemma. Unless, of course, they believe Taysom Hill is the Steve Young to Brees’ Joe Montana.

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5

PACKERS (14-4)

Aaron Rodgers will turn 37 in December. It’s now-or-never time for the Packers and their legendary QB, and this offseason should be all about helping No. 12. Brian Gutekunst was roundly praised for his upgrades to the defense last offseason — now, common sense demands the general manager add firepower on offense. Wide receiver and tight end are the two obvious areas of need; Amari CooperA.J. GreenHunter HenryRobby Anderson and Emmanuel Sanders are all currently slated for free agency. Green Bay is in the bottom third of the league in terms of available cap space, per Over the Cap, so a combination of free agency and the draft (this year’s class is loaded with pass-catching talent) is the most likely road here. Get to work, Gutie!

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6

TITANS (11-8)

Our unsolicited advice to the Titans: Don’t overthink it! Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry are both slated for free agency, and you could make the case that it would be wise to avoid a big-money investment in either veteran. The logic: Tannehill’s sample size in Nashville is small, and he never blossomed into a true franchise passer in seven years with the Dolphins. Henry had a gargantuan workload in 2019, and recent investments at running back have been hit-or-miss, to put it charitably. But, again, let’s not overthink it. The Titans hit on something with Tannehill and Henry, and finding a way to bring both back for a 2020 encore — perhaps via a long-term deal for one player and the franchise tag for the other — just feels like the smart move.

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7

SEAHAWKS (12-6)

What is the Seahawks‘ regular-season record if you swap out Russell Wilson for a replacement-level quarterback in 2019? You could probably flip that 11-5 to 5-11. Wilson was Superman for Seattle, but now it’s on GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll to build a more complete team around their star quarterback. The most obvious area of need is on the defensive line, where Jadeveon Clowney and Jarran Reed are scheduled to hit free agency. There’s a general feeling that bringing back Clowney is a no-brainer, but given the former No. 1 overall pick’s injury history, pedestrian statistical production and massive price tag, you can make a very strong case for spreading the money earmarked for Clowney over multiple players instead. In retrospect, Schneider should have just paid Frank Clark, who was Aaron Donald-level dominant for the Chiefs in the season’s second half.

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8

PATRIOTS (12-5)

Tom Brady (probably) doesn’t want to leave the Patriots. Robert Kraft doesn’t want Tom Brady to leave the Patriots. Even Joe Montana doesn’t want Tom Brady to leave the Patriots. Everything seems to be pointing to the legendary quarterback re-upping with his forever team for a final year or two, but you know who we haven’t heard from? Yep, Bill Belichick — who certainly has a loud voice in the room on this matter. Belichick is famous for his lack of sentimentality when it comes to roster churn, and he’s always more likely to part ways with a decorated veteran a year too early rather than a year too late. Brady is an outlier, however, and even a coach as forward-thinking as The Hooded One would probably think twice about messing with the long-term relationship between the Patriots and the greatest quarterback who’s ever lived.

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9

TEXANS (11-7)

Bill O’Brien’s aggressive land grab became official last week, when Texans chairman and CEO Cal McNair announced that the head coach has been formally installed as the general manager, as well. O’Brien had been acting in that capacity since the firing of Brian Gaine last June, but the official decree puts the coach in a special class when it comes to organizational sway. It’s essentially BOB’s show now, and any success or failure will point directly back to him. He’ll have to be creative as a roster builder this offseason: Quarterback Deshaun Watson and left tackle Laremy Tunsil will soon require new deals that could set the market at two marquee positions. That will gobble up cap space and could lead to salary-cap casualties and frugal spending on the free-agent market. The draft will present challenges, as well, after theTexans sent premium picks to Miami to land Tunsil last summer. Good luck, BOB.

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10

BILLS (10-7)

Josh Allen came apart in the Bills‘ crushing playoff loss to the Texans, but that shouldn’t obscure what was a promising Year 2 for the former first-round pick. He improved on nearly all facets of his game, and the Bills are right to remain completely committed to Allen in the pivotal Year 3. With a loaded defense, a promising young running back in Devin Singletary and a rising offensive line, it makes sense for the Bills to add more weapons around their young quarterback this spring. Wide receiver John Brown was an excellent acquisition by GM Brandon Beane last year. The signing of Cole Beasley, the slot man and Allen security blanket, also worked out. Now Beane must complete his wideout rebuild with an upgrade who will line up across from Brown.

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11

VIKINGS (11-7)

The Vikings‘ offense ended its season on a horrible note, producing just seven first downs in a lopsided loss to the eventual NFC champion 49ers. Though the unit battled to be consistent — the offense laid another hideous egg in a Week 16 matchup against the Packers — Minnesota’s attack was strong overall, and Mike Zimmer made a smart move by sliding Gary Kubiak, who served as an assistant head coach and offensive advisor in 2019, into the offensive coordinator rolevacated by Kevin Stefanski. Kubiak is one of the best veteran minds in the game, and his well-known scheme, one that relies heavily on play action, should be a perfect fit for Kirk Cousins and Co. The Vikings are on their fifth offensive coordinator in as many years, but Zimmer told reporters last month that Kubiak will run the “same system” in 2020. The continuity is a net positive.

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12

EAGLES (9-8)

Carson Wentz needs help. The concussion that ended his playoff debut was beyond unfortunate, but that shouldn’t obscure what the former first-round pick was able to do in leading the Eagles to an improbable playoff berth. Wentz is a star, and he can be an MVP with the right supporting cast. Taking Zach Ertz out of the conversation, Philly’s playmakers were old and slow in 2019, and it’s unwise to assume healthy returns from Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson will jump-start what was one of football’s most deliberate attacks in 2019. The Eagles need to import fresh legs and allow Wentz to do what he does best — attack defenses with his downfield passing ability.

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13

COWBOYS (8-8)

Good on Mike McCarthy and the Cowboys‘ front office for keeping Kellen Moore in the fold. McCarthy is a high-profile veteran coach with an offensive pedigree, and typically a hire like McCarthy’s would spell doom for the incumbent play-caller. But Moore had an excellent 2019 season, and it would behoove McCarthy to give his OC space and let Moore and Dak Prescott continue to build on that familiarity. That offense won’t perform well if Dallas doesn’t find a way to hold on to Amari Cooper, the No. 1 wideout currently slated for free agency. The Cowboys should side with chemistry again on this one: Prescott and Cooper have shown they produce on a star level together — re-signing the wide receiver for the balance of his prime years makes too much sense not to happen.

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14

RAMS (9-7)

The Rams said goodbye to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and special teams coordinator John Fassel after the season and added an offensive coordinator in Kevin O’Connell, signs that point to a time of transition within the organization. Changes will extend beyond the coaching staff. Los Angeles has a handful of notable free agents — a list that includes left tackle Andrew Whitworth, defensive end Michael Brockers, linebackers Dante Fowler and Cory Littleton and kicker Greg Zuerlein — but L.A. sits in the bottom third of the league in terms of available cap space, per Over the Cap. Multiple starters could leave, and it will be on general manager Les Snead to find their replacements via value buys in free agency, through the draft and on the existing roster. The Rams exist as a curiosity as we look toward 2020 — it’s hard to see where they fit in the NFL landscape right now.

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15

FALCONS (7-9)

A strong finish to the 2019 season saved Dan Quinn’s job, but it’s likely playoffs-or-bust for the head coach in 2020. Atlanta has significant needs on the defensive side of the ball, both on the line and in the secondary. With several huge contracts eating up cap space, the Falcons will have to be smart in their offseason spending. The best free agent the team could sign might already be on the roster: Tight end Austin Hooper set career highs in catches (75), receiving yards (787) and touchdowns (6) last season, and he can be an impossible cover when defenses have to contend with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley on the outside. Keeping these three playmakers together would be a huge win for offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and quarterback Matt Ryan.

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16

STEELERS (8-8)

The Steelers have now gone two straight seasons without a playoff berth, an eternity for a franchise that has been a model of consistency in the Big Ben and Mike Tomlin era. Getting Roethlisberger back from the elbow injury that torpedoed his 2019 season is obviously the No. 1 path to improvement for Pittsburgh. There’s still some uncertainty around the quarterback, but consider it a surprise if Roethlisberger isn’t taking the field with his teammates in Week 1. The biggest free agent priority? Retaining former first-round pick Bud Dupree, who broke out this season with 16 tackles for loss and a career-high 11.5 sacks. Dupree and T.J. Watt formed a fearsome twosome on the edges — the cap-strappedSteelers may have to make some tough decisions if they want to bring back Dupree on a long-term deal.

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17

BEARS (8-8)

Yeah, yeah, general manager Ryan Pace said the Bearswill move forward with Mitch Trubisky as their starting quarterback in 2020, but now is where it gets interesting. There are several notable free agent quarterbacks set to hit the open market, and Chicago would be very wise to copy the Titans‘ strategy of last offseason: buy low on a faded name brand — conceivable options include Andy DaltonPhilip Rivers or Jameis Winston — and let the competition begin. Ryan Tannehill saved the day in Nashville when the Titans‘ own former first-round pick, Marcus Mariota, couldn’t get the job done. Pace needs to build up the offense in several areas, but the No. 1 priority is giving head coach Matt Nagy another choice behind center. “Blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed.” And with that, I just became the 10 millionth sportswriter to quote Bruce Springsteen.

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18

BRONCOS (7-9)

The Broncos have now missed the playoffs in four consecutive years, that dry run coming directly off the heels of a stretch in which Denver qualified for the playoffs five straight times and won a Super Bowl. In 2020, the pressure will be on to get this one-time model of consistency back on track. Enter John Elway, the general manager who will have a lot of holes to fill but an estimated 12 draft picks and plenty of cap space with which to do it. (Consider the Broncos an early favorite to “win the offseason” come this spring.) One internal roster decision yet to be made: Should the Broncos dole out big money to keep cornerback Chris Harris? The former All-Pro is entering his age-31 season, but he’s head and shoulders above every other cover man in the Denver secondary.

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19

BUCCANEERS (7-9)

Let’s not talk about Jameis Winston here. Yes, the future of the quarterback is the most high-profile decision facing Tampa Bay, but it’s not the only big free-agent situation. Cut to: Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who signed a one-year contract with the Bucs last spring and proceeded to deliver the best “prove it” performance since Joe Flacco‘s Super Bowl run with theRavens. Barrett’s monster season — in which he broke the single-season franchise sack record with 19.5 — is going to lead to a massive payday, whether it’s from the Bucs or another team in need of a dominant pass rusher (that’s everyone). Bruce Arians said Barrett, 27, “ain’t going anywhere”… but now the Bucs and GM Jason Licht have to close the deal.

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20

COLTS (7-9)

In retrospect, it feels like the Colts were trying to convince themselves that Jacoby Brissett was their locked-and-loaded replacement for Andrew Luck. The latter’s sudden retirement last summer had the potential to throw the organization into tumult, and the move to re-do Brissett’s contract shortly after Luck’s exit brought with it a sense of continuity. Unfortunately for Indy, Brissett floundered in the back half of the season, bringing into question whether they really have The Guy. General manager Chris Ballard certainly seemed unsure at his end-of-season press conference, telling the assembled media “anytime we have a chance to acquire a player that makes us better, at any position, we’re going to do it.” Translation: Brissett is about to have new company in his QB room — and he may not like it. The Coltsarmed with as much cap space as any team in the league, are ready to make a splash.

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21

JETS (7-9)

The Jets have an obvious need along their offensive line, which requires something close to a complete rebuild after a rocky 2019 season. It’s the all-important Year 3 in the development of quarterback Sam Darnold, and putting capable blockers in front of him is, by far, the most consequential offseason priority for general manager Joe Douglas. The Jets have enough cap space to address their big-man problem through both free agency and the draft. Still, don’t assume New York grabs an offensive lineman with its first pick — 11th overall. The Jets will also have a glaring need at wide receiver, especially if they allow Robby Anderson to walk in free agency (a very real possibility). If a potential star playmaker is on the board at 11, Douglas would be wise to accept that gift from the Football Gods. The Jets don’t get many of those.

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22

RAIDERS (7-9)

Jon Gruden is known to have a wandering eye when it comes to his starting quarterback, so perhaps Derek Carr should hold off on buying property in the Las Vegas area at this time. Carr set career highs in passing yards (4,054) and completion percentage (70.4) in his second season under Gruden, but his sometimes conservative nature can test a coach’s patience. What kind of move would help Carr (or whomever is under center come September)? Finding a true No. 1 wide receiver. The Raiders made big gains on offense in 2019 — are we talking about one of the best attacks in football if Antonio Brown would have been able to keep it together? Would we even be debating Carr’s future? If Gruden stays the course at QB, he should do Carr a solid and give him a playmaker he can make magic with on the outside.

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23

BROWNS (6-10)

Baker Mayfield looked like a franchise savior at this time last year. After a truly lost campaign that saw the former No. 1 overall pick put up one of the worst statistical seasons in the league, Cleveland needs to do everything in its power to get the kid back on track. A lot of that will fall on new head coach Kevin Stefanski, who produced big numbers with Kirk Cousins as offensive coordinator in Minnesota. But this roster needs reinforcement, especially on an offensive line that allowed Mayfield to be sacked 40 times in 16 games. Picking at No. 10 overall, consider it a huge surprise if the new Browns braintrust doesn’t add a premium pass blocker — even if they have to move up higher in the first round to get their guy. Fix the line, fix Mayfield and optimism will return in a hurry in Believeland.

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24

DOLPHINS (5-11)

It’s all been building to this offseason. The organic tank is complete, and even if this season’s surprising 5-11 finish didn’t net the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Miami is still flush, possessing a ton of cap spaceand 14 projected draft picks,including a whopping three first-rounders. The Dolphins have been looking for a quarterback since Dan Marino shut it down 20 years ago, and it will be very surprising if Miami doesn’t come out of the first round with their new hope behind center. Will that be Tua Tagovailoa? There’s a solid chance the Alabama star, currently recovering from a serious hip injury, will be on the board at No. 5. Any rookie joining the quarterback room will have a quality teammate in Ryan Fitzpatrickwho announced last week he’ll return in 2020. It would behoove the Dolphins to keep the Amish Rifle in the building.

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25

CHARGERS (5-11)

Officially, the Chargers have not decided as to whether Philip Rivers will be back with the team, but all signs point to the end of this marriage. If the Bolts do indeed decide to move on, they’ll have to do better than Tyrod Taylor (a perfectly serviceable backup, mind you) if they hope to contend and spark the imagination of the Los Angeles area as they move into vast SoFi Stadium this fall. We’re seeing more and more how a mobile quarterback can tilt the field for offenses. After a few years of Philip Rivers‘ statue-in-the-pocket routine, you could see why Anthony Lynn might view Tua Tagovailoa as a tantalizing option with the No. 6 overall pick. The problem, of course, is the team just ahead of the Bolts, both in the draft order and these power rankings. Could general manager Tom Telesco make an aggressive move up the draft board to jump in front of the Fins? Let the games begin.

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26

CARDINALS (5-10-1)

Congratulations are in order for Kyler Murray, the No. 1 overall pick who capped his rookie season with the Offensive Rookie Of The Year award. Murray’s surprise win follows a season in which he — somewhat quietly — put together one of the best rookie campaigns from a quarterback. Murray is the sixth player overall, and the second rookie since Cam Newton, to throw for more than 3,500 yards and run for more than 500 yards in a season. Murray will be a buzzy pick to make a huge Year 2 leap (also known as The Lamar), and that bodes extremely well for Arizona’s chances of breaking a postseason drought that has now stretched over four seasons. It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals attack the offseason from a personnel standpoint on offense — the team took three wideouts in last year’s draft, but didn’t see much return on investment in 2020.

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27

GIANTS (4-12)

Eli Manning is officially retired, Joe Judge leads an overhauled coaching staff and the Giants are finally ready for a fresh start in the Meadowlands. New York would be smart to focus heavily this offseason on the trenches. Improvement is necessary by everyone on the offensive line not named Kevin Zeitler — there could be two or three new starters by September. Then there’s the defensive front, the heart-and-soul positional group of champion Giants teams of the past. GM Dave Gettleman said after the season that “everyone east of the Pacific” knows the Giants need pass-rush help, so don’t be surprised if Big Blue opens up its wallet and spends big on one of the impact pass rushers on the market (Jadeveon Clowney is a particularly attractive option if the Seahawks can’t keep him in-house).

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28

JAGUARS (6-10)

Another offseason, another year talking about uncertainty at the quarterback position in Jacksonville. Nick Foles was supposed to end such discussions, but his 2019 was a lost cause wrecked by injury and inconsistency before a late-season benching. Gardner Minshew made the Jags a somewhat compelling watch in spurts, but is Doug Marrone willing to tie his fate (it’s playoffs or bust for Doug in 2020, for real this time) to the former sixth-round pick? The Jags can protect themselves by keeping both Foles and Minshew on the roster, though Jacksonville might want to see what Foles could fetch on the trade market. All that said, it really doesn’t matter who’s playing quarterback if the Jags can’t improve their offensive line. An overhaul is necessary.

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29

PANTHERS (5-11)

It’s a time of transition for the Panthers, who could look like a completely different team by Week 1. Matt Rhule has replaced Ron Rivera. Luke Kuechly is retired. Cam Newton is … ? Ian Rapoport reported in December that Carolina would put its star quarterback on the trade block this offseason. Last week, it was reported the Panthers wanted to see Newton in a workout before deciding what comes next. “They want to at least give him a shot, see where he’s at,” a team source told ESPN. “Then we’ll see what happens.” That doesn’t exactly sound like a team excited about the possibility of keeping the former MVP in the building. The question: Will the Panthersattempt to patch up their deficiencies this offseason … or are they the next team to strip it down to the studs in service of a brighter tomorrow?

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30

REDSKINS (3-13)

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Let’s start with left tackle Trent Williams, who missed all of last season, first as a holdout and then on the non-football injury list, and who still has one year left on his deal. The Redskins cleaned house in their front office and medical staff after the season — could that set the stage for a reconciliation? On defense, two veterans jump out: Ryan Kerrigan looms as a salary-cap casualty, especially with Ohio State defensive end Chase Young likely staring in Washington’s face with the No. 2 overall pick. Then there’s Josh Norman, the big-money cornerback who was benched after a run of ineffective play late last season. It would make financial sense for Washington to part ways with him, but the arrival of Ron Rivera — Norman’s former coach in Carolina — presents a potential lifeline.

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31

BENGALS (2-14)

The Bengals laugh at your organic tanking. Cincinnati “earned” the No. 1 pick the old-fashioned way, and now the reward is a quarterback who can change the franchise’s trajectory overnight. Joe Burrow could be to the organization what Carson Palmer was 17 years ago. The first step, of course, is actually picking the kid with the No. 1 overall pick, which most expect to happen. The impending arrival of a phenom under center makes keeping A.J. Green in the building an easy call if the playmaking wideout wants to stick around. (Publicly, he’s saying he does.) Green could be to (probably) Joe Burrow what Larry Fitzgerald was to Kyler Murray as a rookie.

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32

LIONS (3-12-1)

The Lions‘ defense was a mess in 2019. Couldn’t tackle. Couldn’t get to the quarterback. Couldn’t cover. Couldn’t make a stop. None of this was a good look for defensive-minded head coach Matt Patricia, but Detroit brass opted to go the route of preserving continuity rather than making a change in the big chair. So now what? Picking No. 3 overall, Lions fans should start praying right now that a team trades ahead of them for a quarterback, allowing Chase Young to fall to Detroit. If Young isn’t an option, the Lions could look at adding another difference-maker in the secondary alongside Darius Slay. Upgrading the talent on defense and getting Matthew Stafford healthy could turn things around quickly in Motown.

SOURCE: nfl.com

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