With every new NFL season comes renewed hope for the fan bases of the 20 teams that missed last years’ playoffs that their team could get back into the playoffs this year. Whether it was a rebuilding year, untimely injuries, or complete dysfunction in the locker room, various factors can derail a teams’ season.
However with last season behind them, every team will begin 2019 anew, and the following five teams that missed out last season will look at 2019 as the year they return to football in January.
5. Carolina Panthers
Last season the Panthers were one of two notable teams that got off to a strong start but failed to qualify for the playoffs. They started the year 6-2 before going on a seven-game losing streak that saw them end the season as a 7-9 team with plenty of questions.
The number one thing heading into this season that will dictate how the season will go is Cam Newtons’ health. We saw to the tail end of the Panthers losing streak how bad the shoulder issues Cam had last year had gotten, as he threw six interceptions to only two touchdowns in the last three games he played.
What’s more unique is how the Panthers lost their games, because five of their seven losses during the streak were all by one score or less. They had games like the 12/17/18 game against the Saints were the defense only allowed 12 points but the offense only managed 9. There was also the 11/25/18 game against the Seahawks where the team scored 27 points but allowed 30.
The ultimate key will be if Newtons’ shoulder is healthy. If he’s healthy the Panthers have a chance to be one of the more intriguing offenses in the league. Third-year running back Christian McCaffrey had nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage last season and looks to take another step this season. Wide receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel add two different skill sets that help add to the offensive firepower.
The defensive side of the ball has some questions about fit and potential but they have plenty of talent.
A defensive line of Gerald McCoy, Kawann Short, and Dontari Poe can wreck a game for opponents at their best. Defensive captain Luke Kuechly is coming off yet another pro bowl season. Linebacker Shaq Thompson is looking to build on what was a career year last season and rookie Brian Burns could break out as a defensive rookie of the year candidate.
The main issue of this team lies in no true No.1 receiver or cornerback. While Devin Funchess was not a No.1 receiver, he was a big and physical receiver that the offense needs to compliment their multi-skilled players. While recent reports indicate the Panthers believe they have good contributors at cornerback, they still have yet to fill the void they’ve had since Josh Norman left the team, and this will be pivotal in division matchups against the Saints and Falcons.
While the Panthers may have more questions than most would like, the potential they have on offense and defense is too good to rule them out from returning to the playoffs.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers were the other team whose season started off so well yet ended with missing the playoffs.
The Steelers will point to the locker room that had players such as Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown reach a boiling point with the team. For Bell, he sat out the whole season to be able to hit free agency, and Brown sat out of Week 17 which led to the team trading him.
To be fair to the team locker room distractions are not easy to deal with and can derail a teams’ hopes at glory, however, Brown and Bell were not as big of a problem as the Steelers defense was.
Aside from the big plays, they let up in games against the Chargers and Saints, the inability to lockdown inferior teams like the Broncos and Raiders in losses last season contributed to them missing the playoffs. Seeing this, the Steelers took to addressing the defense again this off-season.
The Steelers retained cornerback Mike Hilton and added Justin Layne and Steven Nelson via the draft and free agency respectively. The biggest addition was trading up to draft linebacker Devin Bush with the 10th overall pick. With the uncertain future of Ryan Shazier, the Steelers needed extra help at linebacker and Bush will be trusted to take on a pivotal role right away. Aside from that, the team brings back a reliable pass rush, led by T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, and Cameron Heyward.
Despite losing Brown and Bell the Steelers have something most teams don’t when losing a No.1 running back or receiver, quality replacements. James Conner will be the lead back going into the season and JuJu Smith-Schuster will likely solidify himself as Top-10 receiver in the game by the end of the season.
Led by a veteran coach in Mike Tomlin and two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger, the team has a very realistic chance to make it back to the playoffs after last years’ collapse.
3. San Francisco 49ers
A popular pick by many a year ago to sneak into the playoffs, the 49ers hopes were dashed early when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a torn ACL.
While Garoppolos’ injury hurt the team last season, in a way it helped them to as it showed the weaknesses that the team had all around the field. Which, to their credit, they addressed during the off-season.
On offense, the team added a veteran running back in Tevin Coleman, who will look to help a backfield where Jerick McKinnon is also returning from his own season-ending injury. The team drafted Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd to add some sort of spark to a receiving core with solid but not spectacular pieces in Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin. At the moment George Kittle looks to be the best option for the team, and while it’s very helpful to have one of the best tight ends in the game, having a tight end be the definitive no.1 option is not the most ideal situation.
The defensive side of the ball is where we once again saw the 49ers go all out. With the second overall pick, they drafted Nick Bosa to help a defense that lacked reliable sack production last season, aside from DeForest Buckner, who may have had the breakthrough season the team was waiting for. They also traded for and subsequently signed Dee Ford from the Kansas City Chiefs. Fords’ 13 sacks combined with Bosas’ sky-high ceiling gives the Niners a dangerous front four. Also worth noting is the fact that the team expects players like Solomon Thomas and Ahkello Witherspoon to bounce back.
While many question the team, the confidence exuding from veteran Richard Sherman, Garoppolo, and head coach Kyle Shanahan has reportedly spread to the team. Shanahan is a long-respected offensive mind and a fully healthy team could give him the chance to put the pieces together and put the Niners back into the playoffs for the first time since the 2013 season.
2. Green Bay Packers
The firing of Mike McCarthy last season spelled an end to many things for the Green Bay Packers, chief among them being the reliance on Aaron Rodgers to lift them over all the faults that the roster had.
For years since the Super Bowl XLV victory, the Packers were favored time and again by many to eventually make it back to a Super Bowl at some point due to having Aaron Rodgers as their quarterback. However, they never made it back to the big game since that victory.
The main culprit over time has been their defense. For several seasons the Packers put out defensive units that featured several average to above-average players that looked solid on paper but could never carry its’ own weight on a consistent basis. That finally caught up to the team last season. Where even with Aaron Rodgers playing in all 16 games, the team missed the playoffs.
The hidden flaws were finally made obvious to all after last season, a year where Rodgers threw for nearly 4,500 yards and threw 25 touchdowns and only two interceptions, that the team could no longer be conservative with adding talent and waste Rodgers remaining prime years.
The Packers responded by having their most aggressive off-season in years. They committed over $150 million dollars in three new defensive starters in Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos. The team also used two first-round picks to draft two other defensive players in Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage Jr.
The infusion of new defensive talent combined with some current players like Kenny Clark, Blake Martinez, and others, the Packers showed that they are committed to making the best out of Rodgers’ prime years.
1. Cleveland Browns
The most popular pick by many pundits and analysts to win the AFC North this season is the Cleveland Browns.
Coming off a 7-8-1 season, which was their best in years, Browns’ general manager John Dorsey clearly believed the team had a chance to make an even bigger leap in 2019, and he made some big moves.
The main move is, of course, the trade for Odell Beckham Jr. While the move itself is a massive addition for the Browns, their offense as a whole is lethal. Beckham Jr. and Landry have the ability to be the best receiving duo in the league, running back, Nick Chubb looks to be the workhorse of the backfield, and tight end David Njoku is one of the promising young tight ends in the league as he fit the new mold of athletic, vertical threat tight ends.
Defensively the team has no shortage of talent either. They added Oliver Vernon in one of their two deals with the Giant and signed Sheldon Richardson to a reasonable deal. Those two will help Myles Garrett and Larry Ogunjobi form one of the best defensive lines in the game. The team also added veteran Morgan Brunett, a reliable player to help fill a safety position while drafting Greedy Williams who has the potential to form a pretty good duo with Denzel Ward.
The team is under a lot of pressure to perform well and that’s in part due to their quarterback, Baker Mayfield. A year after setting the rookie passing touchdown record, Mayfield now faces the challenge of being the first quarterback to lead the Browns to their first playoff appearance since the 2002 season.
Mayfield has accepted this challenge and has shown no wavering in his confidence that he and his teammates will bring about a new era to Cleveland Browns football. An era that the players would like to be defined by winning.