NFLTR Review: Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield Dilemma

We’ve got a loaded issue of NFLTR Review today as you head into the weekend, including: 

  • How much will Baker Mayfield cost the Browns, and is he worth it? 
  • Does Cleveland have any alternatives?
  • Midseason power rankings

The Big Picture: Should The Browns Pay Baker Mayfield

All eyes were on Browns QB Baker Mayfield this week to see how he’d respond to one of the most challenging weeks of his career to this point. Odell Beckham basically took a pay cut to get away from Mayfield and out of Cleveland, a significant vote of no confidence in the former No. 1 pick. 

Like he has for most of his career, Mayfield actually looked better without Beckham. The Browns took apart the Bengals 41-16 and Mayfield had two touchdown passes in an efficient, 14-21 passing performance. One was a long bomb to Beckham’s replacement, Donovan Peoples-Jones. But the real stars of the day were Browns RB Nick Chubb and the defense, as Chubb motored to 137 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries while the defense dismantled Cincinnati’s explosive offense. 

That represents the dilemma for the Browns as they head into the back half of the season. Quarterback is the most important position on the field by far and is paid like it. As the cap has ballooned, so have quarterback salaries. But paying franchise quarterback money to a quarterback who doesn’t play like one has been a crippling mistake for some teams. 

Mayfield has easily been the best quarterback to suit up for Cleveland since Bernie Kosar. But is he capable of lifting the Browns out of the misery that’s cursed their existence for the past couple of decades, or is this situation destined to end in disappointment?

Evaluating Mayfield

What exactly do the Browns have in Mayfield? If you slipped the Browns brass truth serum, they probably would tell you they aren’t exactly sure. The fact they haven’t extended Mayfield yet says as much. 

Statistically, Mayfield has been all over the map. He was solid his rookie season, then fell off hard in his second season in the disaster that was the Freddie Kitchens Browns. He rebounded along with the rest of the team under Kevin Stefanski in 2020. Through three years, we had good, bad and somewhere in between from Mayfield. Add it all up and it equals average. 

If we look at some of the comprehensive passing stats that are out there, they paint the same picture. None of them are perfect but they offer an apples-to-apples comparison relative to the rest of the league.

  • Adjusted net yards per attempt factors touchdowns, interceptions and sacks into yards per attempt.
  • PFF grades attempt to isolate the quarterback from their supporting cast and add a subjective, film evaluation element.
  • Expected points added and completion percentage over expected measures how well quarterbacks run their offense and how good they are at completing difficult passes. It has the bonus of being relatively predictive compared to other metrics, too. 

Here’s how Mayfield stacks up: 

2018 6.77 (14th) 83.2 (11th) .089 (19th)
2019 5.29 (27th) 74.4 (17th) .049 (26th)
2020 6.96 (12th) 85.7 (8th) .139 (10th)
2021 7.24 (7th) 76.1 (19th) .108 (19th)

There have admittedly been challenges like injuries to both Mayfield and his supporting cast on offense that should be factored into the evaluation a little for 2021. But in totality, 2020 looks more like an aberration than the rule when it comes to Mayfield’s production. Statistically, he looks like an average quarterback. 

The eye test bears that out. Mayfield isn’t particularly physically gifted. His arm strength is adequate while his accuracy is generally solid, but not spectacular. He’s not that big or fast. Coming out of Oklahoma, he was compared to Brett Favre for his gunslinger’s attitude and to Russell Wilson for his size, accuracy and style. And while his confidence doesn’t lack compared to those two, his physical gifts do — and as a result, he consistently tries to write checks his body can’t cash when it comes to creating out of the structure of the play. 

Cleveland’s offense, which grows out of the Shanahan tree, is designed to make things easier for the quarterback, building around the running game and play-action off of that. It just needs a point guard and a distributor, not necessarily a gunslinger. Mayfield would be better served playing more within the system and there is a value for that in the NFL. It just might not be what he’s looking for. 

What is the market? 

Quarterback salaries have shot up in recent years thanks in large part due to all the young talent on the scene. Matt Ryan was the first quarterback to crack $30 million a year just a few years ago in 2018. Now there are nine making more than that and Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott and Josh Allen all have signed deals for $40 million+ a year. It appears $40 million is the new $30 million. 

There was never a specific figure mentioned earlier this summer in reports about negotiations between Mayfield and the Browns. But the $40 million a year range is what was tossed out most often in updates regarding the state of talks from various reporters. Allen is a natural comparison point since they entered the league at the same time in 2018, and he just signed a deal worth $43 million a year before the start of the season. 

Mayfield is nowhere near as accomplished as Allen — yet. That seems to be why he was fine entering this season without a deal and betting on himself to raise his value somewhere in the same range. We have half a season still to go, but so far that gamble has not paid off. He has eight touchdowns in eight games. Average at best. 

What does the market hold for average quarterbacks? It’s kind of a tricky situation. In a lot of ways, quarterbacks are viewed in a binary sense by teams: can we win a Super Bowl with this guy or not? There’s a lot more nuance that goes into it. Sometimes the answer is “it depends,” and sometimes the answer changes over time. But it does boil down eventually to a yes or no. 

Every quarterback who’s ever signed a massive extension is someone the team believed at the time they could win a championship with. Given how important quarterbacks are to team success, that gives players a massive amount of leverage and that tends to be borne out in the deals that are signed. For most of the past 10 years, the highest-paid quarterback hasn’t been the best quarterback, but the one who has signed their contract extension most recently. 

If we take out rookie contracts and bridge veterans, this is how the average annual salary for starting quarterbacks breaks out:

Player AAV Signed
Patrick Mahomes $45M 2020
Josh Allen $43M 2021
Dak Prescott $40M 2021
Deshaun Watson $39M 2020
Russell Wilson $35M 2019
Aaron Rodgers $33.5M 2018
Jared Goff $33.5M 2019
Kirk Cousins $33M 2020
Carson Wentz $32M 2019
Matt Ryan $30M 2018
Ryan Tannehill $29.5M 2020
Jimmy Garoppolo $27.5M 2018
Matthew Stafford $27M 2017
Derek Carr $25M 2017
Tom Brady $25M 2020
Ben Roethlisberger $14M 2021

You can see that the “middle class” of quarterbacks are largely just guys whose deals have been passed by a fast-moving market. Carr, Stafford, Ryan, Rodgers and Wilson all became the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback at the time they signed their current contracts. Guys like Goff, Wentz and Cousins slotted in just behind them. It becomes apparent why $40 million is a potential target benchmark for Mayfield then, if for nothing else than to try and get ahead of exponential salary cap growth that should be coming in the next several years. 

From Cleveland’s point of view, it’s hard to swallow giving up that much money to a quarterback who hasn’t yet shown he’s a difference-maker. For guys like Mahomes and Allen, the price is well worth it given the impact those two have shown they can have on the field, elevating their support cast and overcoming disadvantageous circumstances to will their way to victory. When a non-elite quarterback is taking up that much of the cap, though, it harms your ability to put in place a supporting cast around them that they need to be successful, effectively nuking your margin for error. 

Titans QB Ryan Tannehill is a great example of a true middle-class quarterback deal, as after his career revival with the Titans he signed a deal that at the time was about $6 million from the top of the market. Just hazarding a guess, I suspect the Browns would be content signing Mayfield to a similar deal right now. 

The average of all Mayfield’s yearly finishes in ANY/A, PFF grades and EPA/CPOE comes out to about the 15th best quarterback in the NFL. If we take the average of the top 15 quarterback salaries right now, we get about $34 million. Perhaps there’s a million or two of wiggle room, but that seems like a number the Browns would be comfortable with if Mayfield were willing to sign right now. 

Of course, this is a good time to mention again the decision for Mayfield to play out the 2021 season was mutual, meaning not only was Cleveland comfortable gathering more data points on Mayfield, he was willing to bet on himself to raise his value. If Mayfield was willing to play out this year without a deal to try and enhance his bargaining position, it stands to reason he’d do the same in 2022 under his fifth-year option. 

After that, the franchise tag comes into play, probably between $30-$35 million for the first tag in 2023. It’s hard to look much further down the road than that but at some point, one side or the other will have no choice but to compromise. Either the Browns pony up Mayfield’s asking price, he lowers his demands or the two sides part ways, either via trade or free agency. 

What are the Browns’ alternatives? 

The Browns are far from the first team to be in this position. The Ravens had questions about Joe Flacco before his excellent Super Bowl run gave them little choice but to hand them a deal that they spent most of the rest of the decade regretting. Andy Dalton never won a playoff game with the Bengals in four straight tries. The Rams paid Goff the same yearly figure as Rodgers despite questions about how much HC Sean McVay was making up for having a limited quarterback. Los Angeles had to pay an extra first-round pick to worm its way out of that deal this offseason. 

Commentators have proposed for years teams should be willing to cut ties and start over rather than resign themselves to purgatory with a quarterback who’s good enough to win games but not good enough to realistically contend for a title. The advantages of having a good starter on a rookie deal are also considerable. At the time, there were people who thought the Rams should take that tack with Goff and there’s support for the Browns doing it with Mayfield in some corners. 

No team has had the guts to do it yet because the alternative from even average quarterback play can be horrendous. Teams struggle for years to find answers at the position, and there’s a real fear of going backward at the position. Especially in Cleveland, with an infamous list of busts that stretches for decades, it would take real intestinal fortitude to walk away from the first potential franchise quarterback the city has seen in ages. 

There has to be a real alternative to pivot to. The draft is a crapshoot and there are logistical challenges with selecting high enough to have a shot at a legitimate prospect. Free agency seldom has long-term solutions at quarterback either. A trade is not out of the question with how much instability there is among established quarterbacks around the league. The Rams took that route and provide a potential, albeit expensive and somewhat lucky blueprint. 

If the Browns wanted to trade for an elite but discontented quarterback, they do have a lot of things going for them. Cleveland has an incredibly talented roster, perhaps one of the best in the entire AFC. The coaching staff is highly regarded and the system is quarterback-friendly. They should be an attractive destination for someone like Rodgers, and the upside of that kind of trade is obvious. 

But Rodgers, or some else, has to first be on the trade block. Then they have to be willing to go to Cleveland, then Cleveland has to outbid the competition. It’s certainly a scenario that’s possible but with the number of moving parts that factor into a blockbuster at that scale, it would be hard for the Browns to put all their hopes in one move. 

If we spin this forward, the Browns have the rest of 2021 and the 2022-2023 seasons with Mayfield, assuming a fifth-year option and a franchise tag. That gives them time both to continue to evaluate Mayfield and their team’s potential with him as the starter, as well as to be patient for a clear opportunity to upgrade. 

Quarterbacks like Mayfield usually are extended, but we’ve seen the NFL become far more aggressive at the position in recent years. The bar for quarterback play around the league has been raised and teams can afford to settle less than ever. Under GM Andrew Berry, the Browns have a reputation around the league for being one of the most analytical and forward-thinking front offices in the NFL. But they’ve also handed out major extensions to players at positions that analytics suggest have lower value, like Chubb and guards Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio

Will they break new ground at the quarterback position and be aggressive? Or will they continue the pattern of holding onto their own? Time will tell. 

This Week In Football

  • The Odell Beckham saga has mercifully come to a close, with the veteran receiver choosing the Rams after Los Angeles came out of seemingly nowhere. It capped a week full of drama and conflicting reports, as at various points the Seahawks, Packers, Saints, Chiefs and then the Packers again were thought to be in the lead. Even him signing with the Rams was fraught with drama, as sources close to Beckham were saying the deal was done while Beckham himself was pumping the brakes. As far as the actual move, it doesn’t move the needle that much for the Rams honestly. The third receiver spot wasn’t an issue. It’s a curious decision by Beckham, though. Other teams offered much more of a role with quarterbacks who were just as good and on teams that could also contend for a Super Bowl. The Chiefs and Packers made far more sense, in my opinion. 
  • If you had asked me on Wednesday if I thought there was any chance the Panthers would sign QB Cam Newton, I would have said not unless it’s a one-day contract to retire. The reason for that is the decision-makers for this team — HC Matt Rhule and owner David Tepper — made it abundantly clear they were turning the page in 2020. Football coaches and billionaires are some of the proudest people you’ll ever meet, Rhule and Tepper have probably not been forced to swallow their pride like this in a long, long time. That they were willing to do so says two things; Carolina’s moves at quarterback since cutting Newton have been nothing short of an abject disaster, and the two men are both desperate to start winning. 
  • Newton’s return was keyed by a broken scapula suffered by Panthers QB Sam Darnold, an injury that could keep him out as many as six weeks. Darnold’s time in Carolina was already on life support, but the injury was the final nail in the coffin. The only question now is what Carolina will do in 2022, as after inexplicably picking up Darnold’s fifth-year option they saddled themselves with $18.858 million that’s guaranteed. There aren’t really any good options for dealing with it. 
  • Seahawks QB Russell Wilson said all along he was going to recover from his dislocated and broken middle finger in time to play in Week 10 against the Packers. Other medical timelines weren’t nearly as optimistic. This week, Wilson was cleared medically to return, fulfilling his goal. Now he has to pull the Seahawks’ season out of its nosedive. 
  • The Browns were in a giving mood this week after officially giving Beckham his walking papers. On Tuesday, they signed G Wyatt Teller to a four-year, $56.8 million extension, locking him up well before March when he would have been an unrestricted free agent. The very next day, they gave fellow G Joel Bitonio a three-year deal tacked onto the current two he had left that was worth $48 million in new money. Cleveland clearly is focused on keeping the offensive line solid even if it means shelling out big bucks for interior linemen. Teller and Bitonio are both top-five guards, and Teller put on a showcase Sunday for why he’s worth the money. His average annual salary of $14.2 million is probably a little less than what he could have gotten in free agency actually. But it’s a significant payday nonetheless. For Bitonio, the Browns made it a point to reward his tenure with the team and head off any problems between pay disparities between players who play the same position. 
  • After the Rams and WR DeSean Jackson agreed to mutually part ways due to a lack of targets (remember this for another certain receiver), the speedy veteran landed with the Raiders. Jackson will provide a deep threat element to blow the top off the defense that the Raiders lost when Henry Ruggs drove himself out of the NFL. He showed in just a few games with the Rams this year that he’s still got his game-breaking speed, but at 34 he’s probably not more than a role player, and the Raiders won’t ask him to be more than that. 
  • Unfortunately for the Raiders, the string of off-the-field hits continued, as 2020 first-round CB Damon Arnette was released after he posted a video of his guns that included a threat to kill someone. It was the final straw for the Raiders, as Arnette had been quite a bit of trouble and had failed to make much of any impact on the field. So in the span of seven days, the Raiders cut both of their first-round picks from 2020 for off-field troubles. Raiders GM Mike Mayock went way out on a line to take Arnette in the first round, so this turn of events is not good for his future with the team. 
  • Wrapping up what has been as bad a stretch off the field for players in the NFL that I can remember in some time, a pending lawsuit against Vikings RB Dalvin Cook became public this week. In it, a woman named Gracelyn Trimble, who is in the Army, says that Cook is guilty of assault, battery and false imprisonment stemming from an incident last November. Cook claims that Trimble was the aggressor in the incident, however. A court will determine who is telling the truth but the photos of the injuries sustained by Trimble that have become public make it clear that Cook is facing a potentially very, very serious situation. 

Midseason Power Rankings

Week 9 was the official tipping point in the new 17-game NFL season, which means we are over the hump and headed into the second half of the regular season. It’s a good time to take stock of the NFL landscape and how things are playing out so far with some midseason power rankings. 

In the NFC, there are five clear contenders who stand out above the rest of the conference and are good enough to represent in the Super Bowl. There’s no such clarity in the AFC, as 11 out of the 16 teams have at least five wins. The next few weeks might thin the herd somewhat. 

1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2, No. 3 seed currently) 

Tom Brady is on pace for a historic season and it feels like he’s doing it kind of quietly. The defense isn’t as good as last year’s ferocious unit but they should get healthier in the secondary. When it comes down to it, it’s just hard to bet against any other team taking them down when it counts most. 

2. Green Bay Packers (7-2, No. 2 seed) 

Hopefully this situation with Aaron Rodgers is just a small speed bump. They’re a complete team on offense and defense and HC Matt LaFleur deserves to be recognized as one of the brightest ascending stars of the coaching field. 

3. Arizona Cardinals (8-1, No. 1 seed)

They look better than they did last year even if their record is similar. You just hope attrition doesn’t wear them down too much. J.J. Watt is out for the year, now Kyler Murray is hurt along with several other skill players. 

4. Los Angeles Rams (7-2, No. 5 seed)

Von Miller is a huge, huge addition to this team. Los Angeles’ pass rush isn’t struggling, the Rams lead the NFL with 25 sacks. But Miller still is a top-20 pass rusher who can impact the game, and that carries a lot of value for a team as invested in winning the Super Bowl in 2021 as any. Sunday’s setback at the hands of the Titans was disappointing, but I don’t think it revealed any structural flaws in the Rams’ offense. Spot the other team 14 points and fail to block a four-man pass rush, and anyone will be hard-pressed to win. 

5. Buffalo Bills (5-3, No. 4 seed) 

Had the Bills done what they were supposed to against the Jaguars, they would have been in my top two or three. I still think they’re definite Super Bowl contenders, they remain the No. 1 team in Football Outsider’s overall DVOA and on defense. Offensively they remain near the top of the league, but some of the same issues that have arisen with the Chiefs this year have cropped up, as teams have stayed deep to put a lid on the passing game and force Buffalo to either run the ball or stay patient underneath. The Bills haven’t been able to do the former and Allen has pressed and made too many mistakes. I think the Bills could still put things together to be firing on all cylinders later this year but they’re not right now. 

6. Dallas Cowboys (6-2, No. 4 seed)

Sunday’s obliteration at the hands of the Broncos came out of nowhere. Dallas’ potent offense was shut out until the fourth quarter. You’d expect a performance like that to be an aberration, and the Cowboys’ defense has been underrated this year, enough to fuel a deep playoff run with the offense playing like it has been. Before this, the Cowboys’ only loss had been to the Buccaneers. 

7. Baltimore Ravens (6-3, No. 2 seed)

By all rights, the Ravens should be struggling much more than they have given how many injuries they’ve had to deal with. And to be sure, they’ve needed herculean performances to escape with wins in games against the Chiefs (Odafe Oweh forced fumble), Lions (Justin Tucker NFL record field goal), and Colts (down 16 with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter). The magic ran out against the Dolphins, but Baltimore was running on fumes in the humidity after playing 98 snaps in Week 9. Lamar Jackson has been even better than he was when he won the MVP. He’s on pace to break his own rushing record and is having a breakout year as a passer. If I was picking an MVP right now, it would be him. The Ravens will go as far as Jackson can carry them. 

8. Tennessee Titans (7-2, No. 1 seed)

This might be low for a team that should be the frontrunner to hang onto the No. 1 seed in the AFC. And the Titans have certainly left a lot of doubters with egg on their face so far this season. I just don’t quite trust this team after the loss of RB Derrick Henry. They’ll have almost no choice but to pass more, which puts significantly more of a burden on Tannehill than he’s been asked to carry. They’re low on pass catchers who are both talented and healthy and have struggled in pass protection. Tannehill has been taken down 27 times, second-most of anyone in the NFL. The coaching is superb, as is the defensive line, and Kevin Byard is playing like the best safety in the NFL right now. But this pass defense has been shredded by several teams this season. There are a lot of weaknesses to exploit on this team, but looking ahead at their schedule, it’s hard to see many teams who will be able to. 

9. Los Angeles Chargers (5-3, No. 3 seed) 

After a hot start, the Chargers have faded a little, unable to resist the pull toward the middle that seems to be affecting all AFC teams this year. The defense is the worst in the NFL against the run and injuries have turned the right side of the offensive line into a turnstile. That said, QB Justin Herbert is brilliant, so that covers for a lot. 

10. Cleveland Browns (5-4)

Injuries to Mayfield and a host of other key players have really put a damper on the Browns. But they still sit at 5-4 and in theory should get healthier as the season goes along. This roster remains one of the most talented in the conference. They have a clear identity and are strong along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. I wouldn’t pick them in the Super Bowl or anything but I like their chances for a postseason bid in a crowded AFC. 

11. Cincinnati Bengals (5-4)

I think the Bengals are for real as a good team based on what we’ve seen from them so far in 2021. I think they’re also still a young and developing team, and it’s potentially fair to question the coaching after an obvious letdown the past two weeks in losses to the Jets and Browns. The defense is a top-10 unit this year, though, and there’s a ton of talent on offense. The next three games will prove if the Bengals can keep it up, with games against the Raiders, Steelers and Chargers. 

12. Las Vegas Raiders (5-3, No. 5 seed)

We stay in the AFC, as a staggering 11 of 16 teams in the conference have at least five wins. Eventually, the pack is going to separate, so it will become about who can sustain momentum into the second half of the season. The Raiders so far have done an excellent job of not letting a long list of off-field disruptions tank their season. But with an interim head coach, it’s hard to bet on that continuing forever. 

13. Kansas City Chiefs (5-4)

It feels weird seeing the Chiefs this low and yet it’s hard to rank them much higher. There’s certainly an argument to be had to put them lower. There’s been plenty said about the issues Kansas City faces in 2021, so I won’t rehash all of that. What I will say is betting on a guy like Mahomes to figure things out eventually seems wise. The defense has also improved with a few tweaks, namely getting S Daniel Sorenson off the field. 

14. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3, No. 6 seed)

Nothing is pretty about the way the Steelers are playing football right now, but they’re winning games and could not care less. The defense remains formidable, though the Bears did expose some cracks in the secondary. Offensively, it still looks at times like Ben Roethlisberger is hanging on by a thread, like when he had to wind up and double hitch into a 47-yard deep ball. 

15. Seattle Seahawks (3-5)

Getting Russell Wilson back is huge, and if the defense really has patched things up, Seattle could go on a run. The last two NFC wild card spots are wide open and Seattle is just a game back. The next two games (Packers, Cardinals) are a rough stretch to come back to, though. 

16. New Orleans Saints (5-3, No. 6 seed)

Sean Payton is a wizard, but even he can only do so much with an offense relying on Trevor Siemian, Mark Ingram, Marquez Callaway and Kenny Stills. Right? 

17. New England Patriots (5-4, No. 7 seed)

The formula is starting to come together for the Patriots. They want to play smart football, not beat themselves and bully other teams with their run game, defense and quick passing game. That’s a way of playing the game that doesn’t leave a lot of margin for error. No one will want to see New England in a game with any kind of stakes but I don’t think they have the horses to go on a consistent run this year. 

18. Indianapolis Colts (4-5)

They’re a few bad breaks from sporting a six-game winning streak. Instead, they’re 4-5. Colts HC Frank Reich has done a solid job overall coaching this team and running the offense. They’ve had injuries, but so have a lot of other teams. Indianapolis hasn’t overcome theirs. You could also make a case Wentz is holding this team back, but then again, Reich picked the quarterback. Hard to call them anything but an average team at best right now. 

19. Minnesota Vikings (3-5

Despite a 3-5 record, Minnesota remains alive for a wildcard berth in the NFC. The Vikings have been in a ton of close games, seven out of eight have been within seven points and Minnesota has a 2-5 record in those games. There could be major consequences if the Vikings miss the playoffs this year, so we’ll see if they can get it together and pull out of their slide. 

20. Denver Broncos (5-4)

Before shocking Dallas, the best team the Broncos had beaten was the 3-6 Giants. Their other wins had come against the Jets, Jaguars and Washington. If the Denver defense is going to play as well as they did Sunday without Von Miller going forward, then the Broncos can make some noise. But this seems more like a dead cat bounce coming off the Miller trade. 

21. San Francisco 49ers (3-5)

The 49ers are struggling and HC Kyle Shanahan is taking some justifiable heat for his underwhelming 32-40 record halfway through his fifth year. Shanahan is arguably the best offensive play-caller in the NFL and had the 49ers in the Super Bowl in 2019. But he might be as inflexible as any coach in the league when it comes to fitting his scheme to his players. You can see it in how they’ve struggled to develop offensive players in his tenure. It even carries over to the defense that’s been overly reliant on the front four to be dominant to work. Injuries have admittedly hit San Francisco hard in recent years. But Shanahan’s inability or refusal to adjust has exacerbated the situation. 

22. Carolina Panthers (4-5)

The arrival of Cam is a shot of intrigue to what was about to turn into a lost season in Carolina. They’re only a game out of the wildcard, so the Panthers still could make things interesting. The defense is outstanding and could get better as Stephon Gilmore acclimates. Newton will have weapons to throw to, but the offensive line will be an issue. He’s certainly taken worse teams to the playoffs, so it’s a question of how much he has left. 

23. Chicago Bears (3-6)

First-round QB Justin Fields’ performance at the end of the Steelers’ game on Monday night smeared a lot of lipstick on what’s been an ugly pig of a season for Chicago. Fields’ development is the most important part of this season and it’s up to HC Matt Nagy to prove the rest of the season he’s the guy to shepherd that development. There remain doubts about that. 

24. Philadelphia Eagles (3-6)

This season is mostly about evaluating for the Eagles as well. They’re mathematically within reach of the playoffs, though, and their upcoming schedule is tissue soft. The best team they’ll play is the Cowboys in Week 18. In between, they play the Broncos, Saints, Jets, Giants twice and Washington twice. Unfortunately, tissue soft also describes their pass defense. 

25. Atlanta Falcons (4-4, No. 7 seed)

At 4-4, the Falcons would be the No. 7 seed in the playoffs if they started today. But their four wins have come against the Jets, Giants, Dolphins and Saints with Siemian. A loss to the Panthers led by Darnold reveals their true quality I think. 

26. New York Giants (3-6)

The Giants have shown some signs of following a similar script as last year, where they started slow and became much more competitive down the stretch. They desperately need that positive momentum but it probably won’t be enough to save some jobs after a 1-5 start to the season. 

27. New York Jets (2-6)

It’s been a little disconcerting how much better the offense has looked with No. 2 overall QB Zach Wilson on the bench. You hope the time to learn and reset has a positive impact on him. Mike White has been a revelation but he also feels a little too good to be true. 

28. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-6)

The Jaguars have graduated from tire fire to just a regular rebuilding team. The win against the Bills is enormous. It’s quite a signature win for Urban Meyer to point back to when defending why he should keep his job. 

29. Washington (2-6)

One of the most disappointing teams in the NFL, Washington’s defense was supposed to contend to be one of the NFL’s best. Instead, they’ve been shredded almost weekly. Not the type of step HC Ron Rivera anticipated taking in his second season. They need a long-term solution at quarterback but that won’t matter if they can’t fix the defense. 

30. Miami Dolphins (3-7)

Beating out Washington in the pantheon of disappointment, Miami’s rebuilding project was supposed to kick into high gear this season. Instead, they entered Thursday night 2-7. Starting QB Tua Tagovailoa has been hurt, the offensive line has been the worst in the league and the defense has taken a step back from last season. Right now, nearly everyone is playing or coaching for their jobs. 

31. Houston Texans (1-8)

A loss to the Dolphins that wasn’t really as close as the final score suggests cements the Texans underneath Miami in the NFL pecking order. Houston’s right about where everybody expected them to be before the season. 

32. Detroit Lions (0-8)

I thought the Lions might be sneaky competitive this year, in the sense that they’d be a team no one wanted to play that could hit five or six wins. They’ve pushed some teams to the brink but the Lions sit at 0-8 and their roster has been absolutely riddled with injuries. They’re operating with a real talent deficit at this point. I don’t think they’ll go 0-17 but it’s hard to definitively say which of their final nine games they’ll win.

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