Bright spots for the 16 NFL teams out of the playoff picture

For 16 of the league's 32 teams, the 2018 season is essentially over. Thirteen teams are already eliminated from the postseason. The Browns would need to win both of their games, have the Colts, Titans, Ravens, Bengals and Dolphins lose in Week 16 and then have the Colts and Titans tie in Week 17 to make the postseason. (We're all doomed if that happens.) The Panthers (1.0 percent) and Dolphins (3.5 percent) would need modest miracles by comparison to make the playoffs. ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) gives each of the other 16 teams a minimum of a 10 percent shot of making the postseason.

The good news for the 16 lesser teams -- beyond the fact that they're two weeks away from a warm vacation and Sundays off for a few months -- is that they each have a bright spot or two to take away from the 2018 season. Some teams had young players contribute at a high level from day one. Others improved as the season went along, even after they had been written off as mediocre. Even if their teams weren't great, some players and units grew into stars despite playing in relative obscurity.

I'm going to go team by team through those 16 organizations -- eight in the AFC, and eight in the NFC -- and identify those bright spots from the 2018 season. In doing so, I'm going to try to avoid the obvious cases of breakouts you've already noticed, even if you're not a fan of the team. If you play fantasy football, you know George Kittle has had a monster year. Xavien Howard is tied for the league lead in interceptions. Baker Mayfield has been wildly impressive down the stretch. We don't need to talk about them. Let's run through the less prominent promising takeaways from 2018 for each team, starting with a resurgent defense in Western New York:

Jump to a team:


Buffalo Bills (5-9)

Bright spot: Young defensive talent

Things got off to a rough start for the Bills' defense, which gave up 47 points to the Ravens in Week 1 and 31 to the Chargers a week later, with the latter game including Sean McDermott taking over playcalling duties and cornerback Vontae Davis retiring -- in the middle of the game. Already undergoing an offensive rebuild, it looked as if Buffalo might be the favorites to finish with the first overall pick.

What has happened since? Quietly, the Bills have been among the best defenses in football. From Week 3 on, Buffalo ranks fourth in defensive win probability added, behind only the Bears, Vikings and Texans. The Bills are giving up the fewest yards per opposing drive, and opposing offenses are turning just 65.8 percent of their first downs into another first down or a touchdown, the second-best rate in the league.

McDermott and Leslie Frazier have brought along a wildly promising crop of young talent to build around. The star is 23-year-old cornerback Tre'Davious White, who deserved a Pro Bowl nod and didn't get one. The Bills had allowed only two 100-yard receivers before the Lions' Kenny Golladay went off for 146 yards in a loss Sunday, and one of them was Adam Thielen, who required 14 targets to get there. White has helped slow down stars such as Davante Adams (81 yards on 13 targets), DeAndre Hopkins (63 yards on six targets) and T.Y. Hilton (25 yards on four targets) this season.

Beyond White, the Bills have racked up more than 3,500 defensive snaps from players on rookie deals, including 20-year-old Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Tremaine Edmunds and 2017 Perfect 53-Man Roster member Matt Milano, who combined to give McDermott the rangy linebackers he built the Carolina defense around before Milano was put on injured reserve earlier this month. Rookie nickelback Taron Johnson, who battled through a shoulder injury before hitting IR himself, also looks to be a keeper. The Bills can afford to spend the offseason investing in badly needed help around rookie quarterback Josh Allen.

Miami Dolphins (7-7)

Bright spot: The running game

Although the Dolphins have had success running the football under Adam Gase, it has usually taken them a while to figure out their plan. In 2016, they nearly signed C.J. Anderson and actually did sign Arian Foster before turning things over to Jay Ajayi, who excelled. In 2017, they started Ajayi before trading him to the Eagles and promoting Kenyan Drake, who averaged nearly 5.0 yards per carry. It was curious when they signed Frank Gore to split time with Drake this offseason, but it seemed plausible that Gore would give way to a larger role for Drake as the season went along.

Instead, Gore stuck around as the primary back and was generally effective before going down because of a sprained foot this past week. The future Hall of Famer averaged 4.6 yards per carry and was successful on 50 percent of his runs, good for 16th in the league. Gore shouldered 60 percent of the rushing workload between him and Drake, with the latter producing nine touchdowns on plays of 20 yards or more, most notably by finishing off the Miracle in Miami against the Patriots. Rookie Kalen Ballage filled in for Gore against the Vikings last week and announced his emergence on the scene with a 75-yard touchdown run. Fantasy managers who have Drake might not be thrilled, but with the ninth-best rushing offense in the league by DVOA, Gase has to be pleased with his running game.

New York Jets (4-10)

Bright spot: Special teams

Did you know the Jets have had the best special teams in football this season? It's a stunning turnaround for coordinator Brant Boyer, whose special teams ranked 32nd and 25th in DVOA over his first two seasons in charge.

Most of the value for the special teams comes from two players, each of whom were recognized with Pro Bowl nods. Jason Myers has been the most productive kicker in the league on scoring plays, going 31-of-33 on field goal attempts for a Jets offense that needed all the help it could get. Myers made it to Orlando ahead of Justin Tucker, where he'll be joined by return man Andre Roberts. The former Cardinals wideout leads the league in average yards per punt return (14.9) and is third in average yards per kickoff return (26.8). He also has fielded every punt and all non-squib kickoffs for the Jets, which is rare in a league that often assigns different players to fill those roles. The Jets will need to use their ample cap space to bring back both players in 2019.

Cleveland Browns (6-7-1)

Bright spot: A complete pass defense

I wrote plenty of glowing things about Baker Mayfield last week, so let me transition to the other side of the ball and focus on Cleveland's pass defense, which is sixth in the NFL in DVOA through 15 weeks. The Bears are the only team allowing a lower passer rating than the Browns at 82.1, which Gregg Williams' defense has hit while playing the second-toughest slate of opposing passing attacks in the NFL, per DVOA.

What's scary is how the Browns suddenly seem to have found every piece teams would want for a top-level pass defense in the matter of a year. The superstar edge rusher? Cleveland has built around former first overall pick Myles Garrett, who was playing at a Pro Bowl level when healthy last season and kept it up in 2018. On 500 snaps as a rookie, he racked up seven sacks and 18 knockdowns. Prorate that to the 857 snaps Garrett has played on defense so far this season and you would project Garrett to post 12 sacks and 31 knockdowns. Through 14 games, he's at 12.5 sacks and 27 knockdowns. He was great, and now he's healthy.

Alongside Garrett, teams would want a devastating interior disruptor, and the Browns have a guy who is on that track in Larry Ogunjobi. The 2018 third-round pick has slowed down in the second half, but he's still at 4.5 sacks and 14 knockdowns, which is essentially what Sheldon Richardson has done in 2018. The Browns have a pair of rangy linebackers in Joe Schobert and the injured Christian Kirksey (and an expensive third in Jamie Collins), and a No. 1 cornerback in rookie Denzel Ward. Damarious Randall has settled in as a solid free safety. Outside of upgrading at cornerback across from Ward, this defense is scary. The Browns aren't going anywhere.

Cincinnati Bengals (6-8)

Bright spot: Safety Jessie Bates

Although fantasy players know about the stunning ascension of wide receiver Tyler Boyd, a more subtle story has taken place at safety. The Bengals are generally conservative with giving their draft picks playing time as rookies, which is why it was shocking to see Marvin Lewis cut veteran George Iloka during training camp to hand the job to Bates, the 54th selection in the 2018 class.

Bates has been one of the few healthy, stabilizing forces on a team whose season was ripped to shreds by injuries. The 21-year-old has three interceptions, including a pick-six of Jameis Winston, and has helped lock down the center of the field for the Bengals. Cincinnati ranks ninth in DVOA on throws to the middle of the field but no better than 21st on throws to either side of the hash marks. Iloka, meanwhile, wasn't even the first one off the bench to replace Andrew Sendejo in Minnesota after the starter went down because of a groin injury, as special-teamer Anthony Harris has taken over the strong safety role and excelled. Bengals fans don't have a lot to get excited about with Hue Jackson potentially looming in their future, but Bates is a promising player.

Jacksonville Jaguars (4-10)

Bright spot: Pass defense

It feels like a lost year for the Jaguars, but even as their offense has sunk to new lows, Jalen Ramsey & Co. have managed to keep up their play. The Jags are allowing the league's fourth-lowest passer rating (84.0) to opposing quarterbacks, and while they're not picking off passes at the same rate, only the Ravens are allowing other teams to complete passes less frequently than the Jaguars at 61.5 percent.

Yannick Ngakoue has also quietly had another monster season. Although his forced fumbles have fallen from six to zero, Ngakoue has 27 quarterback knockdowns, tied for the fifth most in the league. All of this is for naught given how bad quarterbacks Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler have been, but if the Jags ever find a competent quarterback, their pass defense will be ready to go.

Oakland Raiders (3-11)

Bright spot: Cornerback Gareon Conley

As tempting as it is to point to the end of the season as a bright spot for a bleak Raiders campaign, there are some positives to take into 2019. One is the development of Conley, whom former general manager Reggie McKenzie drafted with his last first-round pick in 2017 before Jon Gruden took power last offseason. Conley missed most of his rookie season because of a shin injury and then struggled through the first half of the 2018 campaign before being benched altogether against the Seahawks before the Raiders' Week 7 bye.

After the bye, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther stopped giving snaps to veteran stopgaps such as Leon Hall and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and returned Conley to the starting lineup, and the Ohio State product has impressed. He played the biggest role in limiting Antonio Brown to five catches for 35 yards in Oakland's upset victory over Pittsburgh in Week 14. Although Conley still has his missteps, few corners in the league can match his combination of size and speed. Conley's closest physical comp is Kyle Fuller, who struggled with consistency for years before the light came on in Year 4. Conley might get there even earlier.

Denver Broncos (6-8)

Bright spot: The rookie class

It has been years since general manager John Elway found two above-average starters in a draft class. The last time he pulled off that feat might very well be 2014, when the Hall of Fame quarterback used his first-round pick on Bradley Roby before nabbing future star center Matt Paradis in the sixth round. First-rounders like pass-rusher Shane Ray and quarterback Paxton Lynch haven't lived up to expectations, and 2017 first-round pick Garett Bolles has been inconsistent at left tackle.

Elway might have hit a home run in the 2018 class. The Broncos have viable rookie of the year candidates on both sides of the ball in edge rusher Bradley Chubb and running back Phillip Lindsay, the latter of whom became the first undrafted offensive rookie to make the Pro Bowl. Chubb narrowly missed out despite racking up 12 sacks and 20 knockdowns in his first 14 games. The Broncos might have a third starter in fourth-round linebacker Josey Jewell, who stole Brandon Marshall's job after the veteran went down injured and should take over as the full-time starter in 2019. The Broncos don't have their quarterback of the future, but in a league in which edge rushers cost more than any non-quarterbacks, getting Chubb for the next three years at a total of just over $22.3 million is a huge coup.


New York Giants (5-9)

Bright spot: Running back Saquon Barkley

I'll make an exception and go for the obvious answer here. Barkley has managed to prove both sides of the Barkley debate right in Year 1. He hasn't been enough to single-handedly prop up Eli Manning or build a running game; the Giants rank 22nd in rush offense DVOA, and Barkley has busted enough that his success rate is only 34th among 42 qualified backs.

Barkley is 18th in individual DVOA, though, and that should tell you what happens when he does break open a play. The spell he seems to place on the first guy who tries to tackle him never seems to wear off, and he has been a viable safety valve in an offense that lines up multiple leaky faucets along its line each week. Should the Giants have drafted Bradley Chubb or a quarterback with their No. 2 overall pick in April's draft? Probably. Will they be enjoying their mistake for the next five years? Absolutely.

Detroit Lions (5-9)

Bright spot: Edge rushers

If I told you before the season that the Lions would be sixth in sack rate entering Week 16, you probably would have assumed Ezekiel Ansah enjoyed a huge contract year. Not exactly. Ansah missed seven games and recorded just four sacks before hitting injured reserve, which could bring his Lions career to a close.

Instead, they have managed to piece together an effective pass rush by committee. The standouts are a pair of ex-Giants in free-agent addition Devon Kennard and waiver-wire pickup Romeo Okwara, who have combined for 13 sacks and 26 knockdowns this season. Damon Harrison, acquired in midseason from those same Giants for a draft pick, adds 3.5 sacks and seven knockdowns to the pile. I wouldn't think to head to the 2017 Giants for pass-rushing help, but Matt Patricia has molded unlikely pieces into a viable weapon for his defense.

Green Bay Packers (5-8-1)

Bright spot: Cornerback Jaire Alexander

In a season in which virtually every member of the Packers' defensive backfield has gone down injured, Green Bay's first-round pick is one of the few members left standing. Alexander missed two games earlier in the season with a groin injury, only to knock away five Jared Goff passes in his return to the starting lineup against the Rams. The Louisville product is the only defensive back to break up five pass plays in a game this season. When you consider that competency is a struggle for rookies -- even for first-round cornerbacks -- the fact that Alexander has excelled during stretches of play in his debut season should tell the Packers that they've found a No. 1 corner.

Atlanta Falcons (5-9)

Bright spot: Defensive back Damontae Kazee

Filling in for the injured Keanu Neal at safety, Kazee had one of the weirdest seasons in recent memory. The second-year defensive back racked up six interceptions for a struggling Falcons team over the past 12 weeks, which is impressive when you consider that the rest of the defense combined for just three over the same span.

If you're like me and you think that interceptions are a quarterback stat and not a defensive back stat, you might note that Kazee happened to be in the right place at the right time. There were some truly awful throws from Ben Roethlisberger and Jameis Winston, who do that sort of thing. There were passes off of a receiver's fingertips, deflections going Kazee's way, and an ill-advised throw by a Browns backup halfback.

At the same time, how many guys can say they picked off Roethlisberger and Drew Brees in their career, let alone in the same season? This might be something like Stevie Brown's 2012 season, but the Falcons might have landed a useful safety with ball skills. Given how bad the rest of their defense was in 2018, that would be a welcome present.

Carolina Panthers (6-8)

Bright spot: Offensive tackle Taylor Moton

The Panthers' offensive line was a mess even heading into the season, with All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell leaving for the Jaguars and both tackles going down with knee injuries. Left tackle Matt Kalil went on injured reserve and never came off, while right tackle Daryl Williams suffered a dislocated kneecap in the preseason, came back in Week 1, and then reinjured the knee. Few offenses are going to look competent under those circumstances.

The Panthers struggled during the second half, but one of the reasons they got off to such a hot start was the play of Moton, who started the season at left tackle before settling in on the right side. The 2017 second-rounder has allowed just 1.5 sacks all season, per Stats LLC. It's pretty impressive for a player who was expected to compete for Norwell's spot at guard before the season. With Williams hitting free agency, the Panthers might let the former second-team All-Pro move on and go forward with Moton as their right tackle of the future.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-9)

Bright spot: Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul

The quietest 11.5-sack season in the league belongs to JPP, as the former Giants star took down opposing quarterbacks in nine out of 11 games from Weeks 2-13. It's the most sacks Pierre-Paul has racked up in a season since 2014, and the attention JPP has gathered has helped free up waiver-wire addition Carl Nassib to generate 6.5 sacks of his own.

Evaluating the Bucs' defense is an annual exercise in frustration. They have stars -- genuine stars other teams would kill to have around -- in Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. Pierre-Paul is tied for 12th in the league in sacks. Nassib looks like a useful second banana. Vita Vea has flashed over the past few weeks. Over the past month, Tampa ranks seventh in QBR allowed after previously ranking 32nd in the same category. It feels like an annual exercise in frustrating futility, but if the Buccaneers just can keep that up going into 2019 ...

Arizona Cardinals (3-11)

Bright spot: Linebacker Zeke Turner

The Cardinals sent rookie safety Budda Baker to the Pro Bowl for his work on special teams last season. This season, they might feel as if Turner was snubbed in favor of Rams linebacker Cory Littleton. The rookie undrafted free agent has 15 tackles on special teams, three more than any other NFC player. Those tackles tie him for the league lead with Adrian Phillips of the Chargers, who made the Pro Bowl as the AFC's representative. And if you're looking for a player on offense or defense, the aforementioned Baker has stood out at safety.

San Francisco 49ers (4-10)

Bright spot: Defensive end DeForest Buckner

The former Oregon star actually broke out in 2017, but the sack numbers didn't reflect his impact. Buckner recorded 22 knockdowns, which would typically generate 10 sacks, but he finished the year with just three sacks. In a classic case of sack regression toward the mean, Buckner has 19 knockdowns in 14 games, leaving him on pace to hit 22 by the end of the year. This time around, though, Buckner has 11 sacks, including two during Sunday's upset victory over the Seahawks.

A young core is starting to form here. Obviously, you already know about George Kittle, and rookie wideout Dante Pettis ranks ninth in receiving yards in the NFL over the past month. Mike McGlinchey has established himself as a solid right tackle in his debut season. Matt Breida has been an above-average running back, even while playing through an ankle injury. Fred Warner has come on as a run defender. Jaquiski Tartt hasn't been able to stay healthy, but he continues to show promise when he's on the field. The Jimmy Garoppolo injury sank the 49ers in 2018, but if they can keep their quarterback on the field in 2019, they might make the leap quicker than most people expect.