THERE ARE SIGNS OF LIFE IN OAKLAND, TAMPA BAY AND JACKSONVILLE, WHERE THE NFL'S MOST HAPLESS FRANCHISES ARE BUILDING ON STRONG YOUNG ARMS AND THE ENCOURAGING SIGNS OF A SEASON AGO
BEFORE LAST season, NFL futility was headquartered in three cities: Oakland, Tampa and Jacksonville. The Raiders, Buccaneers and Jaguars each failed to reach a total of 20 wins over the four seasons from 2011 to '14, and they combined for a staggering 142 losses. Their average first-round draft position during those years (2012 to '15) was 5.8.
Last season, though, the downtrodden trio experienced a bit of an upturn. The Raiders (7--9) and the Bucs (6--10) both harbored playoff hopes until early December. The Jags finished a less encouraging 5--11, but for the first time in eight years, they ranked in the top half of the league in scoring.
For all three teams there's reason to believe the future is at last more formidable than forlorn. Progress must be made in each of the following areas—though in some cases the job is close to done—if they are to truly abandon their futile ways.
Getting the Signal-caller Straight
As a rookie in 2014, Derek Carr had a respectable completion percentage (58.1) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (21 to 12), but they were largely a product of Oakland's short-passing scheme. He gained just 5.46 yards per attempt, the fifth lowest ever for a rookie with 400 throws.
Last year Carr not only amped up his accuracy (61.1%), but with the addition of the No. 4 choice, Amari Cooper from Alabama, and a bounce-back year from fellow receiver Michael Crabtree, Carr also threw for 32 touchdowns and guided a passing game that was at times downright dangerous. Taken with the 36th pick out of Fresno State, Carr looks like the best QB from the 2014 class, and the combination of his strong right arm and Cooper's talent gives Oakland stability in the right places.
If there was any doubt about how vital the development of a star quarterback is to the future of an organization, Tampa Bay erased it by firing Lovie Smith last month. In Chicago, Smith's downfall was his inability to build an offensive staff that could get the most out of Jay Cutler. With the Bucs, Smith assembled an impressive group of offensive coaches, and it proved to be his undoing: When other teams began to show interest in poaching coordinator Dirk Koetter and making him their head coach, Tampa promoted Koetter into Smith's job.
Save for a Week 1 nightmare against the Titans (a 42--14 loss), Koetter's work with No. 1 pick Jameis Winston was impressive. Winston's 4,042 passing yards were the third most ever by a rookie, behind Andrew Luck (2012) and Cam Newton ('11); only Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and Luck surpassed Winston's rookie touchdown total of 22.
The strategy surrounding Blake Bortles was clear from the start. Once David Caldwell took the Central Florida quarterback with the third pick in the 2014 draft, the GM went about making sure that Bortles had enough weapons to ensure his success. Caldwell used both his second-round picks in 2014 on receivers, and wideout Allen Hurns, an undrafted free agent, has given the Jags 1,708 yards and 16 TDs over two seasons.
Bortles has still spent too much time on the turf—106 sacks in two seasons—but his maturation and the improvements in his receiving corps have ignited Jacksonville's offense. After finishing 32nd in passing DVOA (Football Outsiders' metric for efficiency) in 2014, the Jags jumped to 20th. Bortles threw 35 touchdown passes, tied for second in the league and more than three times his rookie-year total.
More Star Power
Two years ago, as a rookie, outside linebacker Khalil Mack pressured quarterbacks but was often a step shy of taking them down. There was no such gap last year, when his sack total jumped to 15 from four. Against both the run and the pass, the 6'3", 252-pound Mack is a superstar, plain and simple, and he should remain a superstar for years to come.
Add Mack's impact to what Carr and Cooper were able to do in their first year together and it's easy to understand why there's excitement in Oakland. Cooper had 10 drops as a rookie, second most in the league, but it's likely that number will, well, drop. After a series of misspent high picks dating to 2007—JaMarcus Russell, Darren McFadden, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Rolando McClain—Mack and Cooper have already shown the talent to justify their top five status.
Gerald McCoy remains one of the league's best defensive players, and the 28-year-old tackle has the six-year, $95.2 million contract to prove it. But aside from McCoy and weakside linebacker Lavonte David, Tampa Bay's D still lacks top-tier talent. Two of the Bucs' highest defensive picks from recent drafts—end Da'Quan Bowers (2011) and safety Mark Barron ('12)—failed to pan out.
On offense, wide receiver Mike Evans must return to the brilliant form he flashed as a rookie two years ago rather than his erratic 2015. Winston to Evans can be the fulcrum of Koetter's offense for years—especially if Tampa Bay can't re-sign free-agent running back Doug Martin, who finished second in the NFL in rushing (1,402 yards).
In this area, Jacksonville is a distant third behind Tampa and Oakland. Outside Bortles, the team's recent first-round picks have yielded little: Quarterback Blaine Gabbert and wideout Justin Blackmon are no longer on the roster. (Defensive end Dante Fowler, who went No. 3 in 2015, missed last year with a torn left ACL.)
The only highly drafted Jaguar to set himself apart has been Allen Robinson, a second-rounder out of Penn State in 2014. He has proved to be a true downfield threat for Bortles, earning a spot in the Pro Bowl with 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns last season.
Left guard Gabe Jackson, a third-round pick in 2014 who has started 28 games in two seasons, has been Oakland's only real find outside the top 32 (aside from Carr). The team's climb back to respectability has been mostly fueled by excellent work in the second- and third-tier free-agent market.
Cut by the Bucs in 2014, left tackle Donald Penn has been a mainstay for one of the best pass-protecting lines in the league. Center Rodney Hudson and right tackle Austin Howard also arrived via free agency, and Crabtree played so well on his short-term deal that the Raiders have handed him a four-year, $34 million extension.
Tampa Bay's two biggest steals have come at linebacker. The 58th pick in 2012, David has been a tackle machine at the Will, and Kwon Alexander made a strong case for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year as a fourth-rounder out of LSU.
Ultimately, the success of the Bucs' recent drafts will hinge on their two second-round picks from last spring. Donovan Smith struggled at left tackle, and guard Ali Marpet, coming from Division III Hobart, suffered growing pains. If they turn into solid starters, GM Jason Licht's second draft will have netted a franchise quarterback and two building blocks up front.
Telvin Smith was an undersize linebacker who fell to the fifth round despite a stellar career at Florida State. In two seasons he has made 23 starts. A torn right ACL sent Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin tumbling down draft boards in 2014, but the fourth-rounder started 15 games last year and piled up 6o tackles with four sacks.
Two of the Jags' more promising draft assets didn't see much of the field in 2015. Guard Brandon Linder, a third-round pick in '14 who excelled as a rookie, tore his left labrum and was placed on injured reserve after only three games. And before he was hurt in training camp, Fowler was supposed to be the pass rushing nightmare who could help the Jags take another step forward. He might still be that.
A Clear Plan
While Oakland needs to decide what happens with Penn, a free agent, the offense is at least on the right track. An improved running game would go a long way in making the Carr-Cooper connection even more dynamic, and there's a chance the Raiders will look for a bit of interior offensive line help in the middle rounds. But the majority of personnel upgrades need to come on the defensive side. Safety Charles Woodson has retired, and the rest of the secondary isn't exactly filled with stars.
Of the three teams, Tampa Bay is the only one that, in a way, is starting over. This will be Koetter's first season as a head coach, and former Falcons coach Mike Smith will be making a return to the sideline as his defensive coordinator.
Smith has his work cut out for him. The Bucs need upgrades at every level of their defense, especially at edge rusher and in the secondary. They can't afford many more seasons in which former undrafted free agent Jacquies Smith is their top sack-getter on the outside, and Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald aren't long-term answers at safety.
The most important factor in the Buccaneers' long-term success, though, is Winston. He will have a full off-season to work with Evans, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and his young offensive line. If he can make a similar leap to the one Andrew Luck made in his second season with the Colts, things could get really interesting for Koetter's offense.
Keeping Bortles off the ground is a good place to start, but the key question for Jacksonville is coach Gus Bradley. When he was hired in 2013, it seemed like an ideal fit: an energetic force with the unflinching optimism necessary to deal with a massive rebuilding project.
This will be Bradley's fourth season, and now he needs to show some results. The Jags have come along on the offensive side, but Bradley's expertise is on defense. After finishing 26th in scoring defense in 2014, Jacksonville slid to 31st last year. Unless that trend is reversed, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Khan family looked elsewhere for a coach to entrust with the next phase of the Jaguars' turnaround.
PROGRESS MUST BE MADE ON SEVERAL FRONTS—THOUGH IN SOME CASES THE JOB IS CLOSE TO DONE—IF THESE TEAMS ARE TO TRULY ABANDON THEIR FUTILE WAYS.
Photograph by Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
GREAT GUNS In their second seasons, Carr (4) and Bortles (5) were among the top 10 in touchdown passes, while Winston's total was fourth all-time for a rookie.
SAM GREENWOOD/GETTY IMAGES (BORTLES)
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MATT HAZLETT/GETTY IMAGES (WINSTON)
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ROB FOLDY/GETTY IMAGES
RECEPTION COMMITTEE Evans (below) needs to bounce back from an uneven year, while Robinson (15) showed ample promise for a second-round pick and Cooper (89) justified going No. 4 last April.
WESLEY HITT/GETTY IMAGES (ROBINSON)
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EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES (COOPER)
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