Parity is coming in the NFL, and this season has been a strong indication of that pending movement. The careers of Phillip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Alex Smith and Carson Palmer are in twilight, and Drew Brees and Tom Brady can’t be that far behind (right?).
The turnover at the game’s most important position will open a new era of potentially dominant NFL franchises, and the race is on to see which teams can construct the best rosters to be enduringly competitive. Here are the three NFL organizations best positioned for long-term success in the next three years.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Building for long-term success starts from the top down, and nobody has done that better than general manager Howie Roseman. He’s made some incredible moves over the past few years, none bigger than trading up to acquire Carson Wentz, and then turning the lost assets back into a first-round pick by trading away Sam Bradford. Roseman has been bold, trading for Jay Ajayi to bolster the backfield and Ronald Darby to boost a sagging secondary, while also signing free agents Alshon Jeffery and Patrick Robinson, who have made a big impact already.
He also brought in a wonderful head coach and offensive mind in Doug Pederson, and although Jim Schwartz may eventually leave for another head coaching gig, the talent on the defensive side of the ball for Philadelphia is substantial and deep. The draft has been kind to the Eagles and they’ve built up the roster at the most important positions — defensive line, offensive line, cornerback and wide receiver.
With the exception of Patrick Robinson and Nigel Bradham, all the Eagles’ starters are under contract for next season. In 2019 they’ll need to deal with Brandon Graham’s contract (he’ll be 31 then) as well as Ajayi, Darby and Jordan Hicks, but all of those players could be replaceable by then, especially if draft picks Derek Barnett, Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones continue to develop. The Eagles are poised to be good for a long time with Roseman, Pederson and Wentz at the helm, and the rest of the NFC East will have some catching up to do this offseason.
2. Los Angeles Rams
Who would have included the Rams on this list last year at this time? I honestly don’t think any NFL analyst around the country could have foreseen what has happened in Los Angeles. Jared Goff has developed into a star under head coach Sean McVay, and the Rams’ offense is suddenly one of the more explosive units in the NFL. The nucleus of Goff, Todd Gurley, Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Andrew Whitworth is under contract until at least 2020, and pieces like Gerald Everett and Josh Reynolds are still emerging as potential breakout players.
Defensively, Wade Phillips has turned a disappointing unit into the league’s eighth-best scoring defense. The Rams need to improve the linebacker position significantly, as well as find a dominant edge rusher in this year’s draft, but provided this team pays Aaron Donald, there is depth and solid complementary players all over the defensive line. The Rams just need one more difference maker to pair with the best defensive player in the NFL.
The Rams will have tough contract questions to answer with Trumaine Johnson, Lamarcus Joyner and Nickell Robey-Coleman all becoming free agents this offseason, but if they can bring one or two of those guys, Phillips will have the defense ready again next year. Los Angeles isn’t perfect yet, but under McVay’s direction and with Goff growing by leaps and bounds, it’s tough not to envision the Rams being one of the league’s brightest teams for the foreseeable future.
3. Minnesota Vikings
I know, I know. I threw my formula for team-building out the window on this one, since the Vikings still have significant quarterback questions beyond this season. But Pat Shurmur has gotten Case Keenum to play at a career-high level, and Sam Bradford looked good before that. Between those two and Teddy Bridgewater, one of these guys figures to be with the Vikings for the long run, and with the team in place around them, Minnesota can be highly successful without a true star at the game’s most important position.
The offensive line is vastly improved, and the best pieces up front — Pat Elflein, Mike Remmers, Riley Reiff — are all under contract for the next several years. Dalvin Cook is a star at running back on a rookie contract, and Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen might be the best wide receiver duo in the NFL. The defense is stacked at almost every position, with stars at the key spots of cornerback (Xavier Rhodes), edge rusher (Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter) and safety (Harrison Smith). Linval Joseph remains one of the more underrated interior defenders in the NFL, and Eric Kendricks’ versatile skill set is a perfect fit on the second level for Minnesota.
The Vikings will have some contract issues to work through in 2019 when Diggs, Hunter and Kendricks are all set to become free agents, but they will likely find a way to lock up the first two by then. Other than those three and quarterback, every other key member of the team will be under contract through 2021, with one of the more stable front office-head coach combinations in the NFL. Can the Vikings win a Super Bowl? That remains to be seen, but under the leadership of Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman, I have no doubt this franchise will be successful.