NFL playoffs 2013: A deeper look at the fallen

Patrick McDermott

A fraction of the league is poised to enjoy the postseason, but 2013 was too fleeting for these teams looking to build (or rebuild) in 2014.

The NFL regular season is either too short, or far too long -- stratified depending on how your team did in 2013. Those part of the paint-by-numbers playoff picture are relishing their victories, while teams biding their time until the draft felt like the four-month season would never end.

Didn't stand a chance

Houston Texans

What happened?

Injuries, largely. It's easy to peg the Texans' problems on Matt Schaub's newfound unreliability, but losing Brian Cushing and Danieal Manning before Halloween hurt the team's chances. This was compounded two weeks later when Arian Foster joined them on injured reserve.

It became apparent the organization was a delicately balanced house of cards. Talented and pretty from afar, but poised for collapse. Houston remained strong defensively, but opposing teams didn't respect Ben Tate the way they did Foster. A lot of pressure was put on the quarterback position, which is a bad combination when the offensive line allows 41 sacks.

Most important player

Andre Johnson, 109 receptions, 1,407 yards, five touchdowns

Ideal draft target

This is the easiest pick of the bunch. The Texans have a talented defense, the offensive weapons in place and the team is in dire need of a franchise quarterback. Teddy Bridgewater out of Louisville is the right move, but in order for him to have sustained success, Houston needs to overhaul its offensive line.

2014 Outlook

Everything hinges on who is hired as the third head coach in team history. Both Dom Capers and Gary Kubiak were battle-tested NFL minds, but the time could be right to get a young, aggressive coach to inject the offense with some new thinking. Alienating veterans is a risk, but one worth taking in order to form a strong handcuff between DeAndre Hopkins and a new quarterback.

Washington Redskins

What happened?

Where do we begin with this one? The 2013 Washington Redskins season was the kind of thing made for a future ESPN 30 for 30 documentary. There have been rumors, "sources" and hand-wringing throughout the seemingly unhappy marriage of Robert Griffin III and Mike Shanahan, but only those two men know what happened.

RGIII was uncomfortable, on the field and off it --  that much is clear. The second-year quarterback did what he could behind a mediocre offensive line and without a reliable host of weapons, but it became obvious that the Redskins were built as a team wholly reliant on its quarterback. When Griffin III failed, the team failed.

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Most important player

Pierre Garcon, 113 receptions, 1,346 yards, five touchdowns

Ideal draft target

Luck, and no we're not talking about "Andrew." The Redskins continue to repay St. Louis from the RGIII trade, and hoping for an offensive lineman to fall is the best hope they have. It's too early to single out a sliding player, but allowing 40 sacks can't happen again.

2014 Outlook

It's like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel here.

Will Mike Shanahan be back? Yes, turn to page 72. No, turn to 111. If the Redskins decide to keep their coach, it's hard to imagine this relationship getting back on track. There appears to be a deep level of mistrust permeating throughout the organization, and numerous people believing too much in "their way." Sometimes nobody is wrong and personalities just don't mesh.

If the front office finds a new coach, there's a lot of hope here. No cap penalties this year will help the front office add some talent along the offensive line, the secondary or any number of places where it's needed.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

What happened?

The 2013 season became about development as soon as Josh Freeman was released. Daggers were driven too deep to bounce back from, and thankfully there were enough flashes from Mike Glennon to justify giving the rookie quarterback another chance.

Perhaps it's passé to blame the schedule, but the Buccaneers were a sub-.500 team in 2012 facing .500 opponents. Doug Martin's injury was too much to mitigate with a solid defense and rookie quarterback, which sunk the organization.

Most important player

Vincent Jackson, 78 receptions, 1,224  yards, seven touchdowns

Ideal draft target

The correct move for Tampa Bay is to remain in a holding pattern for the draft. It's too soon to cast aside Glennon, and there's enough offensive line talent to wait another year. Getting another wide receiver isn't the biggest need, but Sammy Watkins out of Clemson is a player who will jell with any quarterback. It's a chance to hedge the team's bets with Mike Williams coming back from injury, prepare for an aging Jackson and fully evaluate the quarterback in 2014.

2014 Outlook

The Buccaneers moved from laughing stock, to giggle-worthy and finally to somewhat fearsome. This remains one of the hardest teams to figure out moving forward. A lot depends on whether Greg Schiano returns as head coach.

It's hard to project the talent ceiling of the roster as created. Management spent big in free agency in 2012, and made the bold move to acquire Darrelle Revis -- but the Bucs are still well on the outside looking in. The 2014 season might be another year of evaluation to determine whether a full rebuild is needed.

Oakland Raiders

What happened?

A lack of points happened. It's an oversimplification, but things don't always need to be complicated. The Raiders are 18th in the league in offensive yards, but there was an inability to convert these into points -- scoring 20.5 per game.

Much of this falls on costly turnovers. Oakland's quarterbacks threw a total of 20 interceptions, while the team fumbled 24 times, losing 10 of them. Those circumstances derailed drives and didn't allow the offense to get in a position to punch the ball in with the team's running backs.

Most important player

Nick Roach, 111 tackles, 5.5 sacks, four forced fumbles

Ideal draft target

The Raiders defense was solid against the run, and has some nice pieces -- but there are big problems when your middle linebacker leads the team in sacks. Getting pressure is vital in the quarterback-stacked AFC West, and to this end, UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr would bring some much-needed pass rushing to Oakland.

2014 Outlook

It's difficult to envision this team taking the next step in 2014. There are nice pieces, but a lack of quarterback, pass protection and wide receivers can't be solved in one draft. Some blockers will return from injury, but the offensive problems are deep.

The best bet is to keep building the defense, hoping it's enough to keep games close in the AFC West.

Jacksonville Jaguars

What happened?

This was expected. No losing team was more understanding of its position than the Jacksonville Jaguars. There were no knee-jerk moves, or hasty decisions -- just solid and controlled team building.

The lack of passing doomed this team, paired with an inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. First-year head coach Gus Bradley elected not to make a rushed decision in the draft, spending the year to evaluate the talent on the roster to better set the Jags up in 2014.

Most important player

Cecil Shorts III, 66 receptions, 777 yards, three touchdowns

Ideal draft target

The Jaguars' two biggest needs fall in line with the most important problems every NFL team looks to solve -- passing and rushing the passer. It's tempting to say Jadeveon Clowney would be the ideal, but quarterback Blake Bortles is the best plan here. Getting a quarterback in quickly is the best plan, then looking for defensive players in later rounds.

2014 Outlook

Leave your "moving to London" quips at the door, because this team is poised to take huge strides in 2014. There's a lot to be said for a coach who can maximize the struggling talent on his roster and install a culture of winning.

A new quarterback will breathe life into Jacksonville and turn Shorts into a legitimate 1,000-yard receiver. Pair that with the return of Justin Blackmon, and there's a lot to be hopeful for.

Cleveland Browns

What happened?

The Browns were a strange mix of building, rebuilding and competing all rolled into one. As a result, they went nowhere and are selecting at the top of the draft once again. Trading Trent Richardson was a master stroke in hindsight, giving the team plenty to build with -- but quarterback issues plagued Cleveland throughout the year.

Running the ball was difficult before trading Richardson, impossible after it. The result was a pass-heavy scheme with unreliable passers.

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Most important player

Josh Gordon, 87 receptions, 1,646 yards, nine touchdowns

Ideal draft target

Trading Richardson, acquiring draft picks -- everything is set for an obvious move to find a franchise quarterback.  It might take a trade, but Derek Carr is the answer. Some will be scared off by older brother David, but finding a player to complement Gordon is a must in 2014.

2014 Outlook

Who knows anymore? The Browns change things to rapidly that the cement hasn't dried on the foundation before everything is torn up again.

Picking the correct head coach is of vital importance, but which quality coach is going to trust a front office that fired his predecessor after 11 months? It's a brutal situation with no positive end in sight.

Atlanta Falcons

What happened?

I'm sure a lot of Falcons fans are asking the same question. This was supposed to be the year the team took the next step and made a Super Bowl run. Steven Jackson was poised to rejuvenate the running offense, while a retooled defense was supposed to balance a talented defense.

Injuries hit the offense and losing Julio Jones was a death knell. Now the Falcons need to decide if a full defensive rebuild is required, and how they'll move on without Tony Gonzalez, who's set to retire.

Most important player

Matt Ryan, 4,515 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, 17 interceptions

Ideal draft target

Atlanta has to find a replacement for Gonzalez, but this team struggled largely due to a lack of pass rush. Landing Jadeveon Clowney is perfect in order to pressure Cam Newton and Drew Brees, quickly getting the Falcons back in the hunt. It's unclear if Clowney will be available at their pick, but he's the ideal.

2014 Outlook

The Falcons are balancing on a knife edge. Make the correct offseason decisions and they're back in the hunt atop the NFC South. Fail to add pass rush and they're stuck again. They will naturally take steps forward once their players return from injury, but there's a lot of uncertainty whether this veteran team has enough to keep going.

Atlanta is well-coached enough that it won't be a sub-.500 team next year, but this is a definitive moment in the tenure of head coach Mike Smith.

Minnesota Vikings

What happened?

The 2013 Minnesota Vikings are a lesson in why having an elite quarterback is more important in the NFL than ever before. Adrian Peterson is arguably the league's best running back (rivaled only by LeSean McCoy) and he wasn't able to make a dent in returning this team to the playoffs.

Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel were both mediocre, and made it abundantly clear that this team has talent -- but nobody to use it.

Most important player

Adrian Peterson, 279 attempts, 1,266 yards, 10 touchdowns

Ideal draft target

It's time to swing for the fences in Minnesota. The Vikings went for the safe, game-managing quarterback in 2011 and Ponder blew up in their faces. Now the team needs a difference-maker, a spark and a weapon to take pressure off Peterson. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is the pick here, and a gutsy one that will raise eyebrows on draft day. There are plenty of overwrought concerns about his maturity, but the dual-threat quarterback has a place in the NFL and will bring diversity to Minnesota's offense. Moreover, he ushers in a new stadium with a spark -- an underrated but savvy motivating factor.

2014 Outlook

Minnesota will likely look to hire a new head coach, and that will shape much of its season. It's a question of whether the team retains its nucleus or pushes for a full-scale rebuild. There's enough talent on both sides of the ball that the Vikings aren't far off, but they need to find that passer first.

Mired in mediocrity

Tennessee Titans

What happened?

Jake Locker falling to injury happened. It's been an all-too-familiar sight since the quarterback was drafted in 2011, and it killed the Titans' chances. He was 4-3 as a starter, including an impressive win over San Diego. Ryan Fitzpatrick filled in well, but he's not a playmaker at the quarterback position and throws too many interceptions.

The team collapsed on offense and Chris Johnson didn't run well enough to turn the tide. It was a recipe for disappointment in a weak AFC South.

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Most important player

Kendall Wright, 94 receptions, 1,079 yards, two touchdowns

Ideal draft target

Barring a huge ideological shift, the Titans will continue to run a 4-3 defense, and in order to do this they are in dire need of a strong middle linebacker to anchor the system. C.J. Mosley from Alabama should be available when the Titans pick, offering a vital piece to their puzzle moving forward.

2014 Outlook

This team finds itself in an unenviable position. Not bad enough to get one of the draft's top players, nor good enough to make the playoffs. This is the death kneel for positive growth, making it hard to project this team in 2014. If Locker can return to his early-season form (and most importantly stay healthy), the Titans can make an impact next year, but that's not a lot of reliability at a critical position.

New York Giants

What happened?

It feels like the Giants hit their tipping point in 2013. This team has been the NFL's perennial "skin of their teeth" playoff team with enough veteran talent to surprise younger teams in the playoffs. Everything collapsed in 2013 when Eli Manning threw interceptions and injuries compounded the situation.

The lack of a reliable run game made the offense one-dimensional, and it didn't help that Jason Pierre-Paul was a non-factor in 2013. A team known for its ground game and defensive line play had neither, and its season was dead.

Most important player

Victor Cruz, 73 receptions, 998 yards, four touchdowns

Ideal draft target

New York made a great midseason pickup when the front office acquired Jon Beason from the Carolina Panthers. He helped secure the middle linebacker spot, but now the Giants need another linebacker to ensure this team doesn't live or die by its line. Help isn't far away. Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack is built to be part of the league's new breed of linebacker -- able to rush the passer and support the run. He is exactly what this defense needs.

2014 Outlook

The Giants have a tough decision to make on Hakeem Nicks in order to bounce back in 2014. Keeping Manning's top targets could be the smart move in ensuring this year was an anomaly. There's enough veteran talent and coaching to get New York back to the playoffs, but there is a delicate balance it needs to maintain in order to stay strong.

Buffalo Bills

What happened?

Much of this was to be expected. First-year head coach, rookie starting quarterback -- it's a recipe for a middling season (at best). That said, there were other factors that helped make this a disappointing year. C.J. Spiller wasn't able to build off his impressive 2012 season, E.J. Manuel was struck by injury and the secondary collapsed.

The biggest problem was a lack of offensive playmakers, across the board.

Most important player

Mario Williams, 38 tackles, 13.0 sacks

Ideal draft target

The Bills have a quarterback they believe in, a young wide receiver and a solid defensive front. Now it's time to get some protection. Offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio out of Alabama would go a long way to ensuring Manuel stays upright, and more importantly, uninjured in 2014. It's unclear if he'll be available at their pick, but this is the dream scenario.

2014 Outlook

Fans are going to need some patience here. There are pieces in place for Buffalo to build on in 2014, but it's not there yet. The secondary needs a large influx of talent, and the teams needs an upgrade at tight end. Fred Jackson isn't getting any younger either, which will need to be addressed soon.

This team can take big strides if Manuel has a breakout sophomore campaign, but how often does that happen?

St. Louis Rams

What happened?

Lack of offensive creativity and an injury to quarterback Sam Bradford formed a two-pronged assault on the Rams' season. It left the team without a spark, and lacking an ability to tip close games in their favor.

Bradford played like he finally turned the corner. He threw for 1,600 yards and 14 touchdowns in seven games, leading the Rams to a 3-4 start, but also facing the toughest stretch in the team's schedule.

Most important player

Robert Quinn, 57 tackles, 19.0 sacks, seven forced fumbles

Ideal draft target

The Rams find themselves in a perfect position with Washington owing its first-round pick as part of the Robert Griffin III trade. It leaves St. Louis in a position where it can get an elite player to bolster its offense, without needing to make any moves. Offensive tackle Jake Matthews would be the perfect addition to shore up the line, and give Bradford more tools when he returns from injury.

2014 Outlook

Head coach Jeff Fisher has the Rams positioned for a rebound in 2014, and with Bradford back, they have a good chance. The key next season is better using Tavon Austin in space, which should add a much-needed dynamism to the offense. Robert Quinn was one of the NFL's best defensive players, and that side of the ball should be set.

New York Jets

What happened?

The Jets learned a valuable lesson about relying too much on a rookie quarterback. There wasn't much of an option once Mark Sanchez was lost to injury, but the result was a middling offensive team without reliable receivers -- leaning on Geno Smith to make plays he wasn't ready for.

Defensively the team was solid, but that's a small comfort on a team unable to score 18 points per game.

Most important player

Muhammad Wilkerson, 64 tackles, 10.5 sacks, two forced fumbles

Ideal draft target

New York has to get a reliable weapon for Geno Smith. It's a case of not only needing to strengthen an offense, but allowing a young player to regain his confidence. North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron gives the team a weapon at tight end who can stretch the field, and perhaps more importantly, a safety net. Creating a handcuff will be key to rebounding quickly.

2014 Outlook

It depends how desperate the Jets get. The team made the correct move to give Smith a full season to succeed and fail, but pressure to win quickly could force New York into a series of hasty offensive decisions. Building a successful unit won't happen overnight, but the defense is good enough to allow a step forward if Smith throws fewer interceptions.

Missed it by that much

Detroit Lions

What happened?

Detroit got cold at the wrong moment. Quarterback Matthew Stafford became unreliable for a short stretch in a tight division, while Reggie Bush got banged up and took away the team's rushing attack. This wasn't a bad team, it was just bad timing.

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Most important player

Calvin Johnson, 84 receptions, 1,492 yards, 12 touchdowns

Ideal draft target

There is one last glaring problem the Lions: their woeful secondary. Failing to find a meaningful upgrade at cornerback has plagued the team over the last five years, and Darqueze Dennard out of Michigan State would be an ideal option. This is the key to competing in a division stacked with quality wide receivers.

2014 Outlook

There's no reason to believe Detroit can't get back in the hunt in 2014. The offense is talented, the defensive line remains one of the league's best and Reggie Bush has quickly become the unlikely glue that holds the ship together. This team was just on the outside, disappointing for fans, but close.

Dallas Cowboys

What happened?

The Cowboys key problem has remained the same for the better part of five years: A systematic inability to realistically evaluate their weaknesses. It's irrelevant whether this problem stems from owner Jerry Jones playing general manager, and speaks more to a lack of organizational awareness.

Parting ways with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was a foolish move that doomed the Cowboys' season before it began. Rather than meeting strength with strength the team turned to passivity, rarely a good idea in the NFL. Instead of attacking on defense Dallas chose to play "bend-not-break" and put the pressure back on Tony Romo.

Most important player

Tony Romo, 3,828 yards, 31 touchdowns, 10 interceptions

Ideal draft target

Romo is blamed for the team's issues, because he always is. The problem in 2013 was a lack of reliable players in the secondary. Ha'sean Clinton-Dix would be an excellent young safety to help prevent big plays and get Dallas out of these seemingly endless stream of opportunities for Romo to be forced into winning a late-game situation.

2014 Outlook

Much depends on how the team's coaching situation is handled in the offseason. Jason Garrett is almost certainly returning, and it's a sign the team believes it can make one more push as constructed. Now the key is reworking a broken defense and making some key changes to the staff around him.

Pittsburgh Steelers

What happened?

Offensive line injuries paired with jettisoning veterans created a situation where the Steelers were in a transition year, and lost several reliable players. Head coach Mike Tomlin motivated his team to play hard, and almost had them in playoff contention -- but it wasn't enough.

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Most important player

Ben Roethlisberger, 4,261 yards, 28 touchdowns, 14 interceptions

Ideal draft target

The Pittsburgh offense is getting old, and several players are pending free agents. Bolstering the line is the key to returning to the right side of .500, and Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III would fill their needs twofold. He's athletic for his size, and a perfect plug-and-play defensive lineman in a 3-4.

2014 Outlook

Veteran teams don't tend to stay down long, and with some offensive line help the Steelers will return to the picture quickly. Ben Roethlisberger remains a top-tier quarterback, while the offense found a way to be successful without Mike Wallace.

If Le'Veon Bell can take further strides in his second year there's no reason to believe the Steelers' struggles will continue.

Miami Dolphins

What happened?

The NFL rewards consistency, and the Dolphins were too unreliable. Miami managed to put together two three-game win streaks in 2013, but surrounded them with costly losses -- including the death kneel, back-to-back losses to Buffalo and the New York Jets.

Most important player

Ryan Tannehill, 3,913 yards, 24 touchdowns, 17 interceptions

Ideal draft target

Everyone is aware of the team's struggled on the offensive line -- on and off the field. It's unclear how everything will shake out in the league's investigation of bullying allegations, but either way the Dolphins need help. Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan would be the perfect player to plug in the line and start from day one. If the Dolphins are serious about taking the next step they need to keep Tannehill upright.

2014 Outlook

Miami sit at a delicate crossroad and need to support its quarterback. Tannehill has the ability to be a true franchise passer, but that's lost without a reliable running game and no suitable blocking. Fixing those problems need to be of paramount concern, hoping with a little luck the right draft pick can fall in their laps.

There's no reason to believe the Dolphins can't be a playoff team in 2014, but it all depends on what level of reworking they do.

Chicago Bears

What happened?

Defense happened, or more-aptly -- it didn't. Chicago boasted one of the league's most potent offenses in 2013, but was completely let down by a defense that couldn't pressure opposing quarterbacks enough and allowed almost 30 points per game.

Defensive end Julius Peppers is being paid like of the top five defensive ends in the league and managed 7.5 sacks this year. This is an example of the defense as a whole, and why the Bears are at home now.

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Most important player

Matt Forte, 1,933 all-pupose yards, 12 total touchdowns

Ideal draft target

Chicago is in a division with Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford, and need to get pressure. Stephon Tuitt from Notre Dame would be an excellent addition to the defense that could potentially change the team's fortunes. He has outstanding size, and would be the perfect power rusher to pair with Peppers.

2014 Outlook

The Bears could look very different at quarterback in 2014, and that will define where the team goes.  There have been varying reports indicating Jay Cutler could be released due to his cap figure, but that leaves the Bears in a lurch -- too far back in the draft to find an immediate quarterback and too close to being good to salt the earth.

There aren't a lot of changes that need to be made. If Marc Trestman can improve the pass rush this team will improve drastically.

Baltimore Ravens

What happened?

The Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2012, but it didn't feel like it this season. It was a year or retooling and reworking, and a testament to the veteran talent on the roster that Baltimore was able to compete in spite of struggling in all three phases.

Joe Flacco was the $120 million elephant in the room, having not just a a bad season by his standards -- but one of the worst seasons in the NFL. It was too much for the team to overcome, and two losses to close out the year broke them.

Most important player

Terrell Suggs, 80 tackles, 10.0 sacks

Ideal draft target

Baltimore needs a weapon to pair with Torrey Smith. They have one legitimate receiver for Flacco, and Mike Evans out of Texas A&M offers the size the Ravens sorely missed when they traded away Anquan Boldin before the 2013 season.

2014 Outlook

The Ravens are very talented and should rebound, but the front office needs to decode what went wrong. Flacco and running back Ray Rice had terrible years, but a lack of other threats paired with a poor offensive line ensured neither to perform.

Baltimore can easily make the playoffs in 2014, but it will take a little Ozzie Newsome wizardry to fix the team's problems.

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