"Rebuild" is a dirty word in sports, though it shouldn't be treated as such.
Smart organizations know when their team isn't constructed properly and should be prepared to restart the process upon failure, which can be defined as anything less than consistent competitiveness at the highest level. If you can't compete for a championship, something has gone wrong along the way.
The worst place a team can reside is in professional sports limbo (i.e. mediocrity). Yes, short-term losing is difficult to endure, but constant disappointment after building expectations is even worse.
Franchises with near-.500 records and low-level playoff squads are fooling themselves. They're not good enough to topple the best teams yet not bad enough to accumulate the number of assets needed to make a difference.
It doesn't need to be a strip-it-to-the studs rebuild like the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins underwent in recent years. However, the goal is to obtain as much draft and financial capital as possible.
"If you don't think I have to build something long term, if you don't think it takes time to build something great, if you think something great gets built in one second, then that's wrong," Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper told reporters after Matt Rhule's introduction as head coach.
The following five teams are stuck in a rut. Each needs to shed bloated contracts. None has been competitive at the highest level for at least two seasons. And each is closer to a reset than league relevance.
2019 Record: 5-11
2020 Projected Salary-Cap Space: $32.21 million (22nd)
2020 Draft Picks: 7th, 38th, 69th (fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks)
All signs are present for a rebuild.
"We have a shared vision," owner David Tepper told reporters after introducing Matt Rhule as head coach. "We know it's not going to be a fast process. We're willing to build something for the long term."
Now is the perfect time to start said process.
Rhule was a well-known program-builder at the collegiate level. The 45-year-old turned Temple from a 2-10 squad in his first year to back-to-back 10-win seasons. He also pulled the Baylor Bears out of their worst period of the program's history and molded them into an 11-win squad.
"With Rhule and [offensive coordinator Joe] Brady, we got people who really develop talent, OK?" Tepper said, per Max Henson of the team's official site. "... When you look at Matt and what he's done at other places, I think with this staff now we have some of the best developers of talent in the league."
Everything starts with Cam Newton.
The Panthers have a legitimate trade chip in the 2015 MVP, and a potential move helps on two fronts. First, Newton will likely garner a decent return in draft capital. Second, a Newton release or trade will save the team $18.6 to 21.1 million against the 2020 salary cap. Carolina still has Kyle Allen and Will Grier, and Tepper said he doesn't know exactly how healthy Newton is after last year's mostly lost season because of a foot injury.
The quarterback decision will create a cascading effect throughout the organization that technically started with Luke Kuechly's abrupt retirement and Greg Olsen's departure. A team without difference-makers, aside from Christian McCaffrey, must continue to build and develop instead of trying to patch multiple holes.
2019 Record: 2-14
2020 Projected Salary-Cap Space: $47.64 million (16th)
2020 Draft Picks: 1st, 33rd, 65th (fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks)
The Cincinnati Bengals already seem like they've started a rebuild after a woeful 2019 effort under first-year head coach Zac Taylor, but they have yet to consider a full-scale rebuild.
"We are not trying to get better by losing our best players," director of player personnel Duke Tobin said last week, per ESPN's Ben Baby. "In our opinion, that's not the path forward. Lose your best players, how do you get better by doing that?"
Cincinnati often operated under a warped sense of reality in the past. Owner Mike Brown's influence can be felt throughout the organization with the league's smallest scouting department, an unwillingness to splurge in free agency and an often misguided approach to character and talent acquisition.
The Bengals are already the worst team in the NFL. They're not going to get significantly better with their current crop of aging stars.
The following players formed the team's core during Marvin Lewis' tenure. Those guys are followed by their ages during the 2020 campaign and how much the Bengals save by outright releasing them this offseason:
- quarterback Andy Dalton, 33, $17.7 million
- wide receiver A.J. Green, 32, unrestricted free agent
- defensive tackle Geno Atkins, 32, $6.4 million
- defensive end Carlos Dunlap, 31, $6.48 million
- cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, 31, $8.29 million
Now throw offensive tackle Cordy Glenn, 31, into the mix since his release would create $9.5 million in salary-cap relief.
The team's foundation is busted and cracking. Those previously named players didn't help the Bengals win much in 2019. Granted, injuries played a part, but the franchise shouldn't believe it'll make a significant leap in 2020 with the majority of those players back and a rookie quarterback behind center.
2019 Record: 6-10
2020 Projected Salary-Cap Space: $63.26 million (sixth)
2020 Draft Picks: 9th, 20th, 42nd, 74th (fourth-, fifth-, two sixth-, seventh-round picks)
Executive Vice President of Football Operations Tom Coughlin failed the Jacksonville Jaguars, and owner Shahid Khan wasn't afraid to say it.
"Tom was in charge, and the last two years were not where we want to be," Khan said when asked about Coughlin's dismissal, per Sports Illustrated's John Shipley. "That's where you have to start."
Coughlin set the tone for the organization and served as its most influential voice. Why Khan didn't go any further with changes is perplexing, though.
Both general manager David Caldwell and head coach Doug Marrone deserved their share of blame. Yet both were retained, which sends a mixed message and makes the team's next steps more difficult to discern.
The Jaguars will want to win at a high level in the short term without realizing they're not built to do so.
The team's quarterback situation is a mess. Coughlin stressed a hard-nosed, run-first offense built around Leonard Fournette without adequately addressing the skill positions. And the once-fearsome defense is a shell of itself.
Someone punch the reset button.
Jacksonville has the financial flexibility to remain intact, but should the franchise continue with its roster as currently constructed? Absolutely not, as the team is bogged down by multiple failed acquisitions.
The Jaguars are stuck with quarterback Nick Foles for another season before his contract becomes manageable. However, significant salary-cap space ($20 million) can be added by releasing defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.
Jacksonville can't stop there, though.
First, the organization must prioritize defensive end Yannick Ngakoue's re-signing, because he will demand top dollar on the open market. Whereas, cornerback A.J. Bouye, guard Andrew Norwell, wide receiver Marqise Lee, linebacker Jake Ryan and center Brandon Linder could all be released since their recent performances aren't commensurate with their compensation.
Los Angeles Chargers
2019 Record: 5-11
2020 Projected Salary-Cap Space: $51.75 million (13th)
2020 Draft Picks: 6th, 37th, 71st (fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks)
An already seismic shift occurred when the franchise announced it officially parted ways with longtime quarterback Philip Rivers.
"After stepping back a bit from last season, we reconnected with Philip and his representatives to look at how 2019 played out, assess our future goals, evaluate the current state of the roster and see if there was a path forward that made sense for both parties," general manager Tom Telesco said, per ESPN's Eric D. Williams. "As we talked through various scenarios, it became apparent that it would be best for Philip and the Chargers to turn the page on what has truly been a remarkable run."
The above comment signals the start of a potential rebuild. Yes, Tyrod Taylor remains under contract, but he's a bridge to whomever the Chargers acquire to become their next face of the franchise.
Telesco added: "We agreed that making this decision well before free agency would allow everyone to put themselves in the best position for success in 2020."
Los Angeles' GM is right regarding Rivers, but he's wrong about his team's best-case scenario. Rivers became expendable because the Chargers own this year's sixth overall pick, but rookie quarterbacks don't usually position teams for short-term success.
The Chargers have fantastic building blocks in defensive end Joey Bosa and wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. At the same time, they could possibly lose Melvin Gordon and Hunter Henry in free agency. Melvin Ingram III and Casey Hayward are now on the wrong side of 30 too.
This team is much closer to sweeping change than building upon what's already in place.
2019 Record: 10-6
2020 Projected Salary-Cap Space: minus-$12.33 million (32nd)
2020 Draft Picks: 25th, 58th, 89th (fourth-, sixth- and two seventh-round picks)
This is an opportunity to jump-start the inevitable.
The team is already in financial crisis, inasmuch as an organization can be in today's game. Multiple moves must be made just to get enough salary-cap space to sign the Vikings' eventual draft class, let alone do anything in free agency.
Some of those moves seem obvious.
For example, Everson Griffen's release by itself will get the Vikings back into the black, but barely. Xavier Rhodes is another possible cap casualty. Yes, the cornerback made another Pro Bowl in 2019, but his status was mainly built on reputation. Rhodes' performance declined the last two seasons, and Minnesota can save another $8.1 million with his release.
Would those moves be enough to sign the incoming rookie class and re-sign a free agent or two? No.
Kicker Dan Bailey, punter Britton Colquitt, fullback C.J. Ham (restricted) and defensive backs Anthony Harris, Jayron Kearse, Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes are all pending free agents.
Maybe the team looks to move on from left tackle Riley Reiff or defensive tackle Linval Joseph. The front office could trade Stefon Diggs for a significant return after last year's contentious relationship.
But these issues run deeper than poor cash flow.
Everything is pointing toward a potential blowup in 2021. Kirk Cousins' contract ends after the upcoming season. Both general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer are on the last years of their deals.
Furthermore, the Vikings aren't one of the NFC's elite teams and of course have the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears in the same division.
By now, the Vikings' championship window appears to have closed.