CARDINALS CORNER

Will Arizona Cardinals go from non-contender to playoff squad in 2024?

Jan 31, 2024, 11:49 AM | Updated: Feb 1, 2024, 9:47 am

The Detroit Lions’ impressive season came to an end Sunday night behind a 34-31 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Not that long ago, Detroit was in the NFL basement and supported by fans wearing paper-bag masks.

With head coach Dan Campbell at the helm, the Lions have seen exponential growth. They began at 3-13-1 in 2021 and nearly made the playoffs at 9-8 last year before breaking through for an impressive playoff run to the NFC Championship at 12-5.

But the Lions weren’t the only team to turn things around for a playoff berth this season. The Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Rams all went from non-factors to postseason squads in the past two seasons.

Their achievements marked the 34th straight season where at least four NFL teams that failed to make the playoffs the year before did so the next time around.

For an Arizona Cardinals team that set a new foundation under general manager Monti Ossenfort and head coach Jonathan Gannon, that’s a promising trend to want to be a part of.

But just how realistic is it for Arizona to be among one of the handful of teams to punch their postseason ticket next year?

Let’s take a way-too-early look at the current outlook of the other 17 teams not in the playoffs before revisiting this exercise once 53-man rosters are locked in post-training camp.

NFL teams in no-man’s-land

Carolina Panthers

Bryce Young doesn’t look anywhere close to where C.J. Stroud is after Carolina traded a boatload to nab the Alabama quarterback at No. 1 overall in 2023.

The end result of Year 1 with Young was another top pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.

Too bad it’s not their selection to make anymore.

As part of the deal to move up to get Young, the Panthers gave up their No. 1 pick to the Chicago Bears, who now own Nos. 1 and 9.

And after firing former head coach Frank Reich, it’s now first-year head coach Dave Canales’ job to try to right the ship without a first-round pick and questions throughout the roster.

If a turnaround takes place, it won’t be next year. That’s just how bad of a spot the Panthers are in right now.

2023 record: 2-15

Strength of victory in 2023 (winning % of opponents they beat): .500

Better luck next year(s)

Washington Commanders

The only thing between the Commanders and Panthers in this ranking is the fact that Washington still holds its first-round pick, which is locked in at No. 2 overall.

Washington is in need of a quarterback — and should have its pick at least two of the three top signal-calling prospects in the league — and a revamp defensively after trading away multiple pieces of the unit in 2023. The Commanders did, however, just reportedly hire defensive-minded Dan Quinn as their next head coach on Thursday, so at least that box is checked for Washington.

This was one of the worst teams in the NFL on both sides of the ball and has some serious work to do.

2023 record: 4-13

Strength of victory in 2023: .338

New England Patriots

Mac Jones isn’t it. Bailey Zappe isn’t it.

The Patriots will likely add their next franchise QB in the upcoming draft with the third overall pick, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Jerod Mayo will likely bring a hardnosed, Dan Campbell-type mentality in place of former head coach Bill Belichick and should get an inspired showing from a defense that was inside the top 10 last year.

The big questions, though, continue to hang over the offense and its putrid 13.9 points per game last season (tied with Carolina for worst in the NFL).

2023 record: 4-13

Strength of victory in 2023: .529

Tennessee Titans

It’s an offseason of change for the Titans, with Mike Vrabel getting the axe and running back Derrick Henry hitting free agency.

Even if quarterback Will Levis is new head coach Brian Callahan’s guy, there are still some major holes to fill.

2023 record: 6-11

Strength of victory in 2023: .422

Flip of the coin

Atlanta Falcons

The jury is still out on Desmond Ridder, but the Falcons have some pieces to build around in running back Bijan Robinson, wide receiver Drake London, tight end Kyle Pitts and safety Jessie Bates III.

And with Arthur Smith no longer making head-scratching decisions when it comes to Robinson’s usage, it’s not out of the question by any means that the second-year pro cracks the 1,000-yard mark on the ground on top of being one of Atlanta’s main receiving threats out of the backfield.

If the Falcons can figure out what their signal-caller conundrum, they could be a team to watch with new head coach Raheem Morris expected to give his new squad a boost on the defensive end.

2023 record: 7-10

Strength of victory in 2023: .462

Chicago Bears

The Bears hold the No. 1 spot in an NFL Draft for a second straight season.

As for what they’re going to do with the pick is up for serious debate.

Do they use the top pick to land a new franchise QB and move on from incumbent Justin Fields? Or does Chicago trade out of the selection for a consecutive year and continue to pile up draft capital and/or talent?

On one side, Fields turned in his best season from a passing standpoint, completing 61.4% of his throws for 2,562 yards and 16 touchdowns to nine interceptions. He added another 657 yards and four scores on 124 carries on his way to a 5-8 mark in his 13 games played this past season.

On the other end, though, Chicago is 10-28 when Fields starts and will have a decision to make this upcoming offseason as to whether or not they want to pick up his fifth-year option or work on an extension.

The Bears clearly have confidence in head coach Matt Eberflus. Can the same be said for Fields? If they can, a potential duo of D.J. Moore and Marvin Harrison Jr. could be really scary next season if Fields continues his progression. Although most Cardinals fans wouldn’t like that move one bit.

2023 record: 7-10

Strength of victory in 2023: .370

Minnesota Vikings

There are quarterback questions afoot in Minnesota thanks to the unknown surrounding Kirk Cousins coming off an Achilles injury and what’s next for the QB entering free agency.

But the bigger factors at bay for Minnesota are the teams around them in the NFC North.

The Green Bay Packers cracked the postseason under Jordan Love and took the 49ers down to the wire in the divisional round of the playoffs.

The Lions took the division by storm and much like the Packers, took the 49ers down to the final whistle in the NFC Championship.

Even the Bears don’t seem that far off and if they play their cards right this draft could have some young cornerstone pieces to build around.

2023 record: 7-10

Strength of victory in 2023: .454

Denver Broncos

It was a weird and unsuccessful first year under Sean Payton, who appears very much in the market for a new signal caller after a one-year sample size of Russell Wilson.

But with the 12th pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, Denver will likely have to look to free agency for a solution at QB or take a flier. And having to pull an offense out of the bottom 10 in yards per game (298.4) seems like a two-year build without a legit option at QB.

Defensively, it’s not much better, with Denver allowing the sixth-most points per game (24.3).

The fact that the Broncos won nine games is pretty shocking given where they stand this offseason.

2023 record: 8-9

Strength of victory in 2023: .485

Las Vegas Raiders

Noticing a trend?

Nearly all of the teams in this tier have some major quarterback questions. The Raiders are no different.

While Aidan O’Connell looked like he took a step forward once Antonio Pierce took over interim head-coaching duties, it’s not a foregone conclusion he wins the job this training camp.

His expensive backup in Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t instill more confidence, either, after getting benched in favor of O’Connell midway through the year.

Pierce, however, should have this team playing scrappy defensively after being named permanent head coach this offseason.

The right signal caller could be the difference between this tier and the next.

2023 record: 8-9

Strength of victory in 2023: .426

New York Giants

The Giants took a major step back under Brian Daboll behind a 6-11 mark.

The big question for Big Blue is this: How will quarterback Daniel Jones respond coming off a torn ACL suffered midway through the year?

The goal is he’s back by training camp, but ACL tears are not all the same. And regardless of when he’s back fully healthy, his massive contract extension signed in March will continue to loom over the franchise.

Even if Jones manages to do any sort of football activity this training camp, the Giants would be wise to bring in another arm to at the very least give New York another option.

2023 record: 6-11

Strength of victory in 2023: .353

Seattle Seahawks

Pete Carroll is no longer running the show and Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald will reportedly take his place after the Seahawks lost six of their final 10 games to go 9-8.

There are some absolute game changers on the roster, most notably running back Kenneth Walker III, wide receiver D.K. Metcalf and safety Julian Love.

Like a lot of the others in this tier, it’s going to come down to the play of the QB. Geno Smith had one heck of a comeback season two years ago. This past year, though, he regressed a bit, going 8-7 as a starter behind 3,624 yards and 20 touchdowns to nine interceptions on 64.7%. All those numbers were about middle-of-the-road among NFL starters.

Who will Macdonald hire as the offensive coordinator?

Seattle also has quite a few decisions to make on the other side of the football with linebackers Bobby Wagner, Devin Bush and Jordyn Brooks set to hit free agency.

2023 record: 9-8

Strength of victory in 2023: .392

Indianapolis Colts

Anthony Richardson only saw four games as Indianapolis’ starter before going down with a season-ending shoulder injury.

But instead of floundering through the rest of the year, the Colts ended up stringing together a 9-8 season and narrowly missed the playoffs with Gardner Minshew leading the way with a near-top 10 offense.

Much like the Vikings, the biggest factor impacting the Colts and a playoff spot is who else resides in the AFC South. The Houston Texans are on the up and up after an impressive Year 1 under Stroud and head coach DeMeco Ryans, while the Jaguars nearly snuck into the playoffs and shouldn’t be that far off next year.

2023 record: 9-8

Strength of victory in 2023: .444

New Orleans Saints

Derek Carr should get another look as the Saints’ starting QB and wide receiver Chris Olave looks like the real deal.

With head coach Dennis Allen getting another chance, there’s some intrigue down in the Big Easy after New Orleans was middle of the road on both sides of the football and resides in an NFC South division that looks to be up for grabs.

Strength of victory in 2023: .340

The ones to watch

Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers were one of the worst teams in the league this past season behind a 5-12 mark.

Justin Herbert was lost late in the year with a broken finger, former head coach Brandon Staley was shown the door and the defense was near the bottom of the NFL. And oh yeah, do-it-all running back Austin Ekeler is an unrestricted free agent.

But this offseason, Los Angeles got its guy in head coach Jim Harbaugh fresh off his national championship with the Michigan Wolverines.

Harbaugh has been out of the NFL game since 2014 but has proven he can take a team to the highest level. From 2011-14, Harbaugh transformed an underachieving 49ers team into back-to-back NFC West champions on top of a Super Bowl berth in 2012.

Not once did he post an under-.500 record, going 44-19-1 during his tenure.

That’s the type of turnaround the Chargers are hoping to see, especially with having a legit franchise quarterback already under center.

2023 record: 5-12

Strength of victory in 2023: .388

New York Jets

The Jets were among the toughest teams from a defensive standpoint, ranking in the top three among NFL squads.

Offensively, not so much.

A lot of that had to do with Aaron Rodgers’ ruptured Achilles tendon in Week 1.

Rodgers is getting up there in age and coming off a season-ending injury but even at 40 years old should still be an upgrade over Zach Wilson.

He’ll also have at least two weapons at his disposal in running back Breece Hall and wide receiver Garrett Wilson.

The big question for the Jets this offseason is figuring out what’s next with defensive lineman Solomon Thomas.

The edge rusher is coming off his best season as a pro, racking up five sacks, seven tackles for loss and six QB hits in 17 games played. He was one of five Jets to record at least five sacks in 2023.

2023 record: 5-12

Strength of victory in 2023: .454

Jacksonville Jaguars

If not for a 1-5 finish, the Jaguars could have very well been among the teams in the playoffs.

Even with the skid, they had a chance to still break into the postseason party before a QB sneak fell short in Week 18.

Still, quarterback Trevor Lawrence went 8-8 as a starter and fought through injury to end the season, while running back Travis Etienne Jr. and wide receiver Calvin Ridley are coming off respective 1,000-yard seasons.

Tight end Evan Engram and wide receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones round out Jacksonville’s playmakers offensively.

Improving against the pass defensively is where Jacksonville needs the most help after ending up among the bottom 10 teams in passing yards allowed per game with 239.8.

2023 record: 9-8

Strength of victory in 2023: .477

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals may have seen the biggest slide down the playoff board after losing quarterback Joe Burrow 10 games into the season — even if he went 5-5 as a starter.

It wasn’t just him, though, as No. 1 receiver Ja’Marr Chase battled with his own ailments and Cincinnati as a whole just wasn’t clicking like in previous seasons. And now the team is hiring Dan Pitcher as offensive coordinator after Callahan took the Titans’ head-coaching job.

The Bengals have some major decisions to make when it comes to running back Joe Mixon and wide receiver Tee Higgins on top of having their work cut out for them in an AFC North division that saw double-digit wins from everyone but Cincinnati.

Still, given Burrow’s track record, the Bengals should be in the running for a playoff spot come next season.

2023 record: 9-8

Strength of victory in 2023: .536

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