The Chiefs just made another great run… and it’s not over yet. Even if this year doesn’t end in another Lombardi, they are the King of the Castle. They are the Gold Standard (Should we change it to Red-and-Gold Standard?). Everyone measures themselves against the Chiefs. If you’re not going to make the playoffs, playing KC in the regular season is your Super Bowl. As we head towards the offseason, there are only 4 teams who might hold a candle to the boys in red. Everyone else is either clawing their way up or on their way down.
1. The Detroit Lions just had a great run, winning 12 games and reaching the NFCCG after knocking off Dallas and Tampa Bay in the playoffs. WR Josh Reynolds, and several of their edge rushers will be hitting free agency, but the overall core remains intact for next year. On top of that they’ve got $58M in cap space and a full complement of draft picks (no 4th, but 2-3rd’s). While they may have over-performed this season, GM Brad Holmes has them in position to be even better next year.
2. The Baltimore Ravens finished the regular season looking like the best team in football including double-digit wins at San Francisco and against Miami. The challenge is that they’re going to be hit hard in free agency: DT Justin Madubuike, OBJ, RG Kevin Zeitler, S Geno Stone, Edge Kyle Van Noy, etc. They currently have only $14M in cap space and a normal amount of draft capital for a team picking late each round. Odds are they will be worse talent-wise next year, but their starting point, their scouting, and their coaching are so high-level that they may very well end up near the top again.
3. The San Francisco 49ers are impressive on both sides of the ball, in large part thanks to the emergence of Mr. Not-So-Irrelevant Brock Purdy. They are going to be hit hard on defense in free agency: DE Randy Gregory, DE Chase Young, and S Tashaun Gipson. They are currently a project $3M over the cap so they’re going to have to push some money to future years. They have extra picks in every round from 3-7, giving them plenty of opportunity to build their depth.
4. The Houston Texans experienced a massive turnaround under first-year HC Demeco Ryans and presumptive OROY CJ Stroud. They come into the offseason with $70M in cap space, but they will be losing almost that exact amount of talent to free agency: Edge Jonathan Greenard, DT Sheldon Rankins, TE Dalton Schultz, LT George Fant, etc. Their various draft trades have more or less given them typical draft capital for a playoff team. Will they continue to build on a great 2024 OR will they fall back to earth?
1. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers returned to the playoffs one more time thanks to some brilliant QB play by… Baker Mayfield. Crazy, right? Both sides want a reunion. Will it be a Geno Smith-type deal ($32M/year) or more like Daniel Jones ($40M/year) or even more? They have $47M in cap space, but that’ll be almost all gone if they decide to pay both Baker and Mike Evans. They would then lose: C Ryan Jensen, LB Devin White, LB Lavonte David, and S Antoine Winfield Jr. That’s a lot of firepower, particularly on defense. They could free up another $10M cutting or trading WR Russell Gage after June 1st. They have fairly standard draft capital. The question is: Can Baker take another step or has he reached his max?
2. The Los Angeles Rams crushed the 2023 draft landing Byron Young and Kobie Turner in the 3rd (a combined 17 sacks) before nabbing the steal of the draft Puka Nacua in the 5th. Adding those 3 young guns to a healthy veteran trio of Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Aaron Donald led to a resurgence in LA. They were unable to get past Detroit in the playoffs, but if they find another diamond in the rough, they have a good shot at being even better next year. They have $28M in cap space with their biggest FA being RG Kevin Dotson.
3. The Indianapolis Colts were competing for a playoff spot in week 18 thanks to the mastery of HC Shane Steichen. They enter 2024 with $63M in cap space and a full complement of draft picks. They are set to lose some key pieces: QB Gardner Minshew, WR Michael Pittman Jr., slot CB Kenny Moore, S Julian Blackmon, and DT Grover Stewart. They will be getting #4 overall pick QB Anthony Richardson back from injury. With Houston and Jacksonville, the AFC South should be on the upswing next year.
4. The Cincinnati Bengals went from first to worst in the AFC North this year. They are still dangerous with Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase plus $59M in cap space. However, they are also set to lose some key players: WR Tee Higgins, RT Jonah Williams, CB Chidobe Awuzie, DT DJ Reader, and WR Tyler Boyd. As the first team left out of the playoffs, they do get to pick before every playoff team in every round of the draft this year plus they are projected to have 2 compensatory picks (a 5th and a 7th). IF Joe Burrow can stay healthy, they should be back in playoff contention.
5. The Jacksonville Jaguars had a disappointing finish after starting 8-3 while Trevor Lawrence dealt with an injury late in the year. They are set to lose 2 stars: DE Josh Allen and WR Calvin Ridley. They only have $14M in cap space at the moment. They are set with 9 draft picks (2 in the 4th and 6th). Can GM Trent Baalke and HC Doug Pederson get this team back on an upward trajectory?
1. The Dallas Cowboys had another disappointing finish in the playoffs after winning the NFC East. They are sitting $20M over the projected 2024 cap. They could get on the positive side in one move by cutting Dak Prescott with a post-June 1 designation, saving $34M while taking a $25M dead cap hit. I would be surprised if they go that route as Jerry Jones tends to be loyal to a fault (see: Mike McCarthy is still HC). Parsons and Diggs are terrors on the defensive side of the ball and CeeDee Lamb is one of the best pass-catchers in the NFL. They are set to lose some important pieces: RB Tony Pollard, LT Tyron Smith, CB Stephon Gilmore, C Tyler Biadasz, and Edge Dorance Armstrong Jr. If the Cowboys do keep Dak, then they’ve got some major shuffling to do for 2024.
2. The Buffalo Bills have failed for the 3rd time to beat Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs. They had a solid run game. They had a healthy Von Miller. They had Tre’Davious White. They had an emergent Dalton Kincaid. Three of four fumbles went to them. A forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage went for 16 yards on 3rd and 17 after which they converted on 4th and 1. Did not matter. They’re a projected $43M over the cap. They are set to lose All-Pro S Micah Hyde, WR Gabe Davis, Edges Leonard Floyd, AJ Epenesa, and Shaq Lawson. They simply are not set up to be better this coming season than they were last year. As it stands, the AFC East is looking like the weakest division in the AFC next year.
3. The Miami Dolphins are $52M over the cap after another disappointing ending. They stand to lose stud DL Christian Wilkins, pass-rush specialist Andrew Van Ginkel, C Connor Williams, RG Robert Hunt, WR Cedrick Wilson Jr., and NT Raekwon Davis. They can cut LB Jerome Baker for $11M in cap relief. That still leaves them $41M short before they sign their draft class or make any moves in free agency. They can compete with their weapons on offense, but they’re not in a position to get better.
4. The New York Jets are adding a HOF QB to a team that finished just under .500. However, they are also losing: LT Duane Brown, RT Mekhi Becton, C Connor McGovern, Edges Bryce Huff, Soloman Thomas, and Carl Lawson, and safeties Jordan Whitehead and Ashtyn Davis. They have a projected $5M in cap space. While they do have 7 draft picks, their 2nd rounder will go to GB as part of the Aaron Rodgers trade, leaving them with 2 in the top 100. There is a path for them to win a relatively weak AFC East, but even then barring some Rodgers heroics, they will be an easy out in the playoffs.
2 Teams That Already Imploded
1. The Los Angeles Chargers. I predicted this last offseason, and it happened. Ah well, just to get ahead of the pundits who are going to have them winning it all again this summer: The Chargers are a projected $46M over the cap. They’re losing Austin Ekeler in free agency. They have no GM. They have no HC. They are on the hook to pay aging veterans: 32-year old Khalil Mack $38M, soon-to-be 29-year old Joey Bosa $37M, 31-year old Keenan Allen $35M, soon-to-be 30-year old Mike Williams $32M. (For those keeping score at home that’s $142M.) They are also overpaying 31-year old LB Eric Kendricks to be a lesser version of Drue Tranquill. 2022 was supposed to be their year while the Chiefs were re-building. It didn’t happen. Now they are stuck paying the bill. There’s a way to turn this around, but it means sending at least 3 old guys away to get the cap right. This will take patience, and I’m not sure the Chargers owners have what it takes to see it through.
2. The Philadelphia Eagles. Again I said it would happen, and it did. Losing both their DC and OC as well as some key free agents hurt. Now they’re going to lose: All-Pro C Jason Kelce, stud DT Fletcher Cox, star RB D’Andre Swift, LB Shaq Leonard, CB Bradley Roby, and WR Julio Jones. They already fired their DC. The chemistry has been off with Hurts and AJ Brown. Looks like these guys are headed towards mediocrity, and I don’t see a clear way out. On the other hand, Howie Roseman is a genius. He's got $20M in cap space and 4 picks in the top 100. Maybe he’ll pull another rabbit out of his hat.
Cherish this time, KC. Brett Veach & Co. are continuing to win now while maintaining the possibility of future growth. This is not just hype (Dallas and LAC). This is not a one-year wonder (Philly). This is not a continual boom-bust (LAR, Baltimore). This is a dynasty. The only dynasty in football today. And it’s ours.
All salary and cap numbers as well as pending free agents were taken from OTC.