Every fan has their opinion on which NFL players need to be brought in to build a championship calibre team. We rummage through Fantasy Football Depth Charts picking out our favorite prospect, hoping they are acquired. Yet the reality of salary caps, personalities, and specific offensive or defensive schemes are far greater influences than just acquiring the big name on the market.
The “Dream Team” last season was out of character for the Philadelphia Eagles. The “buy everyone and anyone” approach has long proven to be more trouble than it’s worth. Still, the Eagles are a smart franchise with excellent coaching and were able to pull things together late into the season to end strong, winning their final 4 games. Yet, in hindsight acquiring CB Nnamdi Asomugha wasn’t really necessary, and was more about a franchise flexing their muscles in the open market than it was about adding the right piece to the puzzle. Getting the best bang for buck player has long been a proven skill of teams like New England, Philadelphia and Green Bay.
The following are 5 franchises that have drastically improved their off-season tactics, and deserve a little more credit for the rebuilding process that has allowed them to get where they are today or will be tomorrow.
5. Detroit Lions
From a franchisee that spent the earlier half of the 2000’s avoiding need and reaching on wide receiver prospects at the NFL Draft, the Detroit Lions have really come full circle. Not only have the Lions been near perfect with their last 5 NFL first round picks (Calvin Johnson, Gosder Cherilus, Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley) but they have brought in, and been patient with, head coach Jim Swartz. After a rocky start, Schwartz brought the Lions back to the playoffs after an eleven year drought, effectively “restoring the roar” and achieving ten wins in 2011.
After abandoning the concept of trying to force an identity, the Lions learned to work and build on what they had, finding niches for the roster that was in front of them. Over Schwartz’ tenure, key role players were added to fit the mold, some more successful than others, but overall the team created its own identity rather than trying to force a system or popular style onto its players.
As a team on the rise with many young blue chip players locked in long term, the Detroit Lion fan base can finally feel that sense of pride and optimism that has been missing for years. The Lions make the list at number five for their continuing pursuit of drafting the best player available and allowing their coaching staff the time it takes to get players to buy into the team.
4. Cleveland Browns
The Browns haven’t yet seen their hard off-season work spill onto the field, but it’s coming. With smart minds like Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert, and Pat Shurmur calling the shots either through player personnel or play calling, the Browns are a sleeper team on the rise. Granted, there are still a few pieces missing on the offensive side of the ball, but with the added arsenal of draft picks this year from trading with Atlanta last April, Cleveland should be able to grab whatever’s needed. The Browns enter this Aprils NFL draft with an extra 1st and 4th round pick, giving them a luxury they’re not used to having. With many play-makers that could electrify the offense instantly, Browns fans are excited with the endless possibilities.
Cleveland is building a strong team from within and has franchise players on both sides of the ball they can rely on. Players like Joe Thomas and Joe Haden will be cornerstones this team can lean on for years. With smart cap room management, extra draft picks, and a focused goal in mind, the Browns make the list as an underrated off-season team.
I expect the Cleveland Browns to take some shots in free agency and at the NFL draft this year. The building blocks are in place, the team just needs a little firepower to reach the next level.
3. San Francisco 49er’s
Addressing need and recognizing the best solution to fix the problem is a skill that many NFL teams struggle with. Making the unpopular decision is tough if it doesn’t pan out, fortunately new head coach Jim Harbaugh was correct in sticking with his quarterback Alex Smith last season. The 49er’s won the NFC West and were impressive in 2011 considering the team made hardly any changes to the make up of the roster.
Being patient with his newly acquired team, and allowing the right coaches to absorb and correct the problem was a method many first year NFL coaches struggle with throughout the early stages. Accompanied with a smart offensive mind in Greg Roman, the 49er’s worked out the kinks and improved on what they had as a team, as opposed to throwing out the baby with the bath water.
The 49er’s should also be credited with a high grade for their excellent recruiting, after drafting a beast in DE Aldon Smith. Simply put: Aldon Smith made a good NFC defense great overnight.
Now fresh off their first successful season under Jim Harbaugh, the 49er’s can re-evaluate with cap room what is needed either through the draft or free agency. The team is rumored to be after a wide receiver, and with such an excellent start to his pro coaching career, the lure of playing for a winning franchise in the bay area is an easy pitch.
2. Houston Texans
“Next Man Up” is a coaching mentality that every football fan has to admire. The Houston Texans faced an unimaginable number of key injuries during the franchise’s biggest year. The next man up did exactly that, step in and fill a roster spot. Only on a team where the players have completely bought into the system and think of themselves as one, do you get such positive results.
Coach Kubiak has worked long and hard to build such a humbled team, and fans couldn’t be happier. Players like Andre Johnson or Mario Williams, who dominate their respective positions and are league leaders amongst the competition, are after championships instead of dollar signs. Super Mario himself publicly said that he didn’t need the biggest contract in the world, a clear sign of a guy who doesn’t want to chew up the salary cap to stroke his ego. Hands down Houston is not only the most desirable free agent destination, but a team on the rise. Amazing scouting, excellent drafting, and smart coaches will keep the Texans great for years to come.
1. Cincinnati Bengals
Do you remember the “Bungals”? A franchise that got dizzy at the idea of an off-season strategy? Buying into hype, poor trading, terrible recruiting; you name it, the Cincinnati Bengals were a clumsy franchise. But that was then, now the team is tactical, decisive, and best of all patient.
The Carson Palmer trade was a classic example of the progress this club has made. Instead of butting heads with their long time veteran quarterback, the team put Palmer on the top shelf let him wait it out. They then avoided the must have first round reach-quarterbacks of last seasons NFL draft and selected the future at the wide receiver position in A.J. Green. From there the team took a chance on Andy Dalton in the second round, an underrated smart QB who would possibly take the lead of the Bengals in what many had believed was a rebuilding year. The team signed a few veteran linebackers and hoped for the best.
As it turned out, the rookies did enough to move the chains on offense whereas the defense gelled to form a stout hard fought group. The result was a winning season and brief playoff cameo. Led by a core of new players and excellent coaching staff, the Bengals reached higher expectations than most had them pegged for.
The best part of a great season that didn’t feature a long time regular at QB, was trading him to a team for a goldmine of wealth to improve this years off-season that much faster. The Bengals unloaded disgruntled QB Carson Palmer to the Raiders for a 2012 first-round pick and a conditional second-rounder in 2013 that can become another first if Oakland makes it to the AFC title game in either of the next two years.
For a team that took a while to learn all the right off-season moves, Cincinnati is dancing to the beat of what could be the fastest team rebuild in club history. Bravo!