Fixing the NFL's most disappointing teams: Jets, Chargers, Patriots

Aaron Rodgers and the Jets are officially out of the 2023 playoff race, but the 40-year-old quarterback is likely to be medically cleared to play soon, league sources told ESPN. Photo by Rich Storry/Getty Images

Week 15 felt like the end for three of the AFC's most disappointing teams in 2023. On Thursday night, the Chargers gave up 63 points to the Raiders and fired coach Brandon Staley and general manager Tom Telesco on Friday morning. The Jets were blown out by the Dolphins and eliminated from playoff contention. And amid rumors about Bill Belichick's future in New England, a 27-17 loss to the Chiefs confirmed that the Patriots will lose 11 games for the first time since 2000, Belichick's first season with the franchise.

While acknowledging that there are more NFL teams frustrated by their performance this season, these are three of the most disappointing franchises in the league. The Chargers already confirmed they'll make major changes, and they're not alone. The Jets and Patriots could also make coaching moves this offseason. These franchises could look very different in 2024.

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After their Week 15 losses, I'm going to help them along the way. I'll lay out a blueprint for what each of these teams should do over the next nine months to be back in contention by September. Obviously, a lot will depend on factors that are outside of what we know at this point, like who's available in the first two rounds of the 2024 draft, but we can outline general ideas for what they need to address and who is likely to be available in free agency.

Let's start with the Chargers, who we already know will be in the market for a new coach and GM. We'll start there and work our way through the roster:

Jump to a team:
Chargers | Jets | Patriots

Los Angeles Chargers

1. Hire away Mike Macdonald from the Ravens. The Chargers tried to hire a young program-builder with a defensive background when they poached Staley from Sean McVay's staff after one season in Los Angeles. It didn't work. Staley's defense never seemed to come together, with the Raiders and Jaguars tormenting him in games that ended his seasons. This team's weakness, as it has been for the Justin Herbert era, is on the defensive side of the ball.

Hiring Macdonald could be seen as more of the same, given that he's a 36-year-old with just two years of experience as a defensive coordinator. The big difference between Macdonald and Staley comes down to what they've done as coordinators. Staley was excellent in his lone season with the Rams, but he inherited a good defense with future Hall of Fame defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who helped make his gap-and-a-half scheme work along the line of scrimmage.

Macdonald doesn't have any Hall of Famers, but he has routinely and consistently made the players on his defense better than they were before he arrived. Young Baltimore players such as Justin Madubuike and Kyle Hamilton have developed into superstars this season. Known imports Jadeveon Clowney and Roquan Smith have improved after arriving, but it's not just them. Journeymen such as Kyle Van Noy and Arthur Maulet don't just look passable in this defense; they've been standouts. Macdonald's defense ranks second in the league in points allowed per drive over the past two seasons.

Hiring Macdonald would allow the Chargers to keep offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who was regarded as one of the most exciting coordinators in the league when he took the Chargers job in January. The offense didn't go as planned in 2023, but they're still an above-average unit by points per possession, even while enduring injuries and an abysmal drop rate at receiver.

Most teams prefer to hire offensive head coaches, both to develop their quarterbacks and out of fear they won't be able to keep their offensive coordinator from getting hired elsewhere. If that's true, though, the defensive coaches available on the market are likely to be better than the offensive options, given that the offensive guys are more likely to be hired. The Texans were better off hiring DeMeco Ryans this offseason, as an example, than they were Thomas Brown or Mike Kafka. I don't think the Chargers will struggle to find useful coordinators on the offensive side of the ball given the possibility of working with Herbert.

They would still need a general manager, but going after one of Eric DeCosta's lieutenants in Baltimore to come along with Macdonald would make sense. If the Macdonald move doesn't work and/or they want an offensive mind, perhaps the play would be for Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, who would have the opportunity to both coach a superstar quarterback and pick up some personnel control after losing that battle with Trent Baalke in San Francisco.

2. Get cap compliant. The Chargers are $45 million over the projected cap for 2024. Teams can get compliant by handing out new contracts to players with large cap figures, but that's going to be difficult given the players at the top of their cap sheet. Khalil Mack has a whopping $38.5 million cap hold in the final year of his deal, but even coming off of a monster season, do they really want to make a huge commitment to him after his age-33 season next year? Is it a good idea to sign Keenan Allen when he'll be 32 next year? Those players were very productive this season, but even so, we just saw how L.A. wasn't able to win.

So, let's get creative. Restructuring Derwin James' deal with void years clears out $10 million in room. Adding void years to Mack's deal clears out $14 million, even if that's just pushing dead money into the future. Doing the same thing for Joey Bosa gets another $17 million off the books. Releasing Sebastian Joseph-Day and Eric Kendricks frees up another $14 million. Those five moves would get the Chargers $10 million under the cap, which is a fine starting point.

3. Explore the trade market for wide receivers. As poorly as it has gone in Year 1, the Chargers drafted Quentin Johnston in the first round as a replacement for either Allen or Mike Williams. Both Allen and Williams will be entering the final years of their respective deals in 2024. They will have the two largest cap hits for any wide receivers in football next year, with Allen at $34.8 million and Williams at $32.5 million, respectively.

Trading one of the two and likely re-signing the other would make the most sense for cap purposes. Neither player is going to have enormous trade value, given Allen's age and Williams' recent injury history, most notably the torn ACL that cost him most of 2023. In a league in which teams are desperate for wide receiver talent, though, it's tough to believe the Chargers wouldn't be able to land a Day 2 pick for one of their veterans.

If the Chargers trade Williams, they would free up $20 million in cap space. Moving forward with Johnston and Joshua Palmer across from Allen would be nerve-wracking, but tough choices have to be made here. They need to build a more complete roster and have to cut back somewhere; Johnston needs to have a strong offseason to try to erase what happened during his rookie campaign.

Rodgers tells McAfee he doesn't expect 2024 to be his final season

Aaron Rodgers tells Pat McAfee that he expects at least a couple more seasons with the Jets and that he believes in the franchise.

4. Let Austin Ekeler leave (unless the price is reasonable). One of the other positions is running back, where Ekeler is a free agent after playing out what has been a team-friendly deal. After asking to be traded during the offseason and not finding a team willing to hand out a new deal, Ekeler is coming off his worst season as a starter, leading the Chargers to reduce his role in recent weeks.

It's tough to find many running backs who sign significant third deals in free agency, which might make his return more realistic. Given his aptitude as a receiver, he could age better than most backs and could return to form in L.A. in 2024. There's a price where that makes sense, but it's probably in line with the $6 million or so he earned on his last deal.

Whether it's to replace Ekeler or supplement the undersized back, the Chargers need another back in the mix here. Joshua Kelley and Isaiah Spiller weren't those players. This would be a position to target on Day 3 of the draft or with a possible cap casualty in free agency, where plenty of backs will be available. Tony Pollard, whom Moore worked with in Dallas, could be an Ekeler replacement at a roughly similar price.

5. Add players on the defensive side of the ball. While the hope was that Staley had fixed the defense after years of spending on that side of the ball in free agency, the defense didn't coalesce. If they make the moves above and don't bring anybody notable back in free agency, the Chargers would be returning Bosa, Mack, James, Asante Samuel Jr. and Tuli Tuipulotu as starters. They would need two defensive tackles, two linebackers, two cornerbacks and a safety to play alongside James.

I would trust Macdonald's plan for how to build here. Simply adding Ravens players wholesale won't work, but I wonder if they would go over the top for Madubuike, who is having a career year and would give Los Angeles a much-needed disruptor on the interior. It has had seven first- or second-round picks on defense over the past four years and used just two of them on defensive players. As one of the 10 oldest defenses in football in 2023, that's just not sustainable when the defense isn't any good. The roster-building philosophy has to change in 2024.

New York Jets

1. Rule Aaron Rodgers out for the rest of the season. I'll start with an in-season decision. As much as Rodgers might want to prove he defied the skeptics in recovering from a torn Achilles in a matter of months, putting a 40-year-old quarterback working his way back from a major injury behind this Jets offensive line would be malpractice.

Let Rodgers throw passes on the field to some local kids at halftime to show off his recovery. Putting him in front of a live pass rush and having him reinjure the Achilles is the only thing that could make this New York season worse.

2. Retain Robert Saleh, but move on from Nathaniel Hackett. The next question is what to do with the staff. Given that the Jets are all-in to win a title in 2024 with Rodgers, they have to try to build the best possible staff to compete for a championship. Saleh's handling of Zach Wilson has left much to be desired, but there's no doubting his defensive bona fides. The Jets rank third in the NFL in expected points added (EPA) per play allowed and fifth in points allowed per possession. Replacing Saleh would likely mean hiring an inferior defensive coach, which would set the defense backward in a season in which they have to be dominant.

Replacing Hackett, however, is simply a necessity. He was brought in to help convince Rodgers to accept a trade to the Jets, but he has not been an effective offensive playcaller. Even in Rodgers' brief stint as a starter this season, he reportedly didn't like the cut-block quick game calls Hackett made for two of Rodgers' pass attempts, the second of which led to the Achilles injury. (Rodgers has since come out and defended Hackett and the offense.) Making Hackett an offensive adviser or giving him a murky role so he can hang out at the facility with Rodgers is fine, but he can't be the chief offensive architect and playcaller for an offense with championship aspirations.

Who would take Hackett's place? Ironically, given Rodgers' success with Matt LaFleur, one logical candidate would be Mike LaFleur, who was fired by the Jets after last season. If the Bears move on from Luke Getsy, the Jets could import him as another former Rodgers confidant in Green Bay. Eric Bieniemy could be one-and-done in Washington because of Ron Rivera's impending departure, while Ken Dorsey was better than many believed while building a top-10 offense with the Bills over the past two seasons. Unless the Jets believe Rodgers is going to retire if Hackett is not in charge, they need to have a more robust offensive brain trust in place.

As for Rodgers' other friends in New York, the choices might decide themselves. Randall Cobb and Billy Turner are free agents and unlikely to return. Allen Lazard disappointed and was made a healthy scratch in November, but his $10 million base salary in 2024 is guaranteed. The Jets won't be able to cut Lazard. I would suggest they should keep him around as a token of support to Rodgers, but I wonder if there's a way to both satisfy Rodgers' desire for old pals and upgrade at receiver ...

3. Trade Lazard and a 2025 first-round pick to the Raiders for Davante Adams. If the Jets are going to bring in some of Rodgers' old friends, they had might as well go after the good ones. Adams turns 31 on Christmas Eve and has seen his numbers drop this season, but it seems fair to assign at least some of the blame to a Raiders offense impacted by both quarterback and coaching changes. If the Jets are going to take a risk on anybody, they had might as well go after the best receiver Rodgers has ever had.

Adams is under contract for $17.5 million in 2024 before his contract rises dramatically in 2025, meaning he might be a one-year rental. I wouldn't typically suggest trading a first-round pick for a receiver on the wrong side of 30 under those circumstances, but the Jets are incentivized to win now and would also unload Lazard's $10 million salary on the Raiders. They would also get to keep their 2024 first-round pick, which they'll need to address next season's roster.

If they are hesitant to spend that much on a rental wide receiver, I can understand bringing back Lazard, hoping he looks renewed with Rodgers in the fold and using the 2025 first-rounder to address next year's team in other ways. I don't think they can find a match on trading that 2025 pick for a veteran offensive tackle, but they could use it to get a pick in the bottom third of the first round in 2024 and add a player up front who can help immediately.

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Adam Schefter explains the thought process behind the Chargers' firing of coach Brandon Staley.

4. Try to bring back Bryce Huff. The Jets have a handful of pending free agents on defense, with Jordan Whitehead and Quinton Jefferson as notable other options, but Huff has to be their top priority. The former undrafted free agent racked up his eighth sack of the season Sunday, continuing a career season for a player who ranks sixth in the NFL in pass rush win rate.

Huff will have serious interest in free agency, which will make this tough. The Jets already have John Franklin-Myers and Jermaine Johnson on the edge and will want to carve out a bigger role for 2023 first-rounder Will McDonald IV, who has been buried on the depth chart as a rookie. Even with Carl Lawson leaving, there's a universe in which New York isn't willing or able to match what other teams are willing to pay for a guy who is still a rotation end in this defense.

General manager Joe Douglas comes from Philadelphia, though, and it's pretty clear his roster-building philosophy on defense is aligned with the deep defensive line rotation Howie Roseman has focused on there. Roseman has repeatedly found ways to bring back veterans Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox, even while paying Haason Reddick and Josh Sweat significant money. Unless Huff gets something north of $20 million per year, the Jets should stay competitive on the player who might be their best edge rusher.

5. Rebuild the offensive line. You knew it was coming. I talked all offseason about how the offensive line was an obvious flaw, but even I couldn't have anticipated how bad the injuries and play have been for New York. It was always naive to expect Duane Brown and Mekhi Becton to be superstars given their respective situations, but the Jets simply couldn't block the Dolphins up Sunday, leading to Wilson suffering a first-half concussion.

Some of these moves are already on the books. Brown's contract voids after the season. Turner and Connor McGovern are pending free agents. So is Becton, who has played 13 games but struggled for consistency at left tackle. He gave up 3.5 sacks Sunday, and given his injury history, they can't count on him as their left tackle in an all-in season. Bringing him back as anything more than a swing tackle would be asking for trouble.

Laken Tomlinson is a possible post-June 1 cap casualty, which would leave the Jets with something close to a blank slate up front. Joe Tippmann would be in at center. Alijah Vera-Tucker, who tore an Achilles earlier this season, would be back at some point in 2024, preferably at left guard. Wes Schweitzer and Max Mitchell are under contract next season and could serve as backups.

The Jets would need two new tackles, a guard and one more depth lineman who can step in immediately if Vera-Tucker is unable to start the season. Those holes need to be their offseason priority. Adding veteran David Bakhtiari sounds great on paper, but he has missed most of 2021 and 2023 while recovering from injuries. At the right price, sure, but New York can't come into 2024 with the same obvious question marks about health up front that it did this past offseason.

Without their second-round pick from the Rodgers deal, the Jets should both use their 2024 first-round pick and be willing to borrow from their future to add more picks in April's draft. Starting three or four rookies wouldn't be ideal, but a mix of veterans and younger talent could work. I'd look at Jonah Williams and Yosh Nijman, who are in their primes and have experience at left tackle. They won't be cheap, but the Jets need to win those negotiations if they want Rodgers to survive the first quarter and make a deep playoff run next season.

New England Patriots

1. Keep Bill Belichick (but add personnel help.) While I wrote at length last month about the choices the Patriots have made over the past eight years and why they've fallen to the bottom of the league, I'm not sure firing their legendary coach solves those problems. The widely revered defensive guru has managed to turn around the defense, even without stars Matthew Judon and Christian Gonzalez; the Pats rank second in the league in points allowed per possession over the past six games. Losing Belichick will likely cause the New England defense to take a step backward, even if the offense improves.

I'd also keep Bill O'Brien, even if the former Texans coach hasn't been able to inspire much improvement from the offense this season. Firing the coordinator would be an easy scapegoat, but who would the Patriots hope to land? O'Brien has playcalling experience at a high level for successful college and pro teams, including a stretch with Alabama, which runs one of the most cutting-edge offenses in football. I suppose Belichick could choose to reunite with former assistant Josh McDaniels, who was fired as coach of the Raiders, although I'm not sure the longtime New England offensive coordinator is better than O'Brien.

The biggest reason not to fire Belichick is one I laid out on my podcast after writing about potential job openings for next season: There are too many openings and not enough good coaches. In a league that might fire as many as 10 coaches this offseason, are the Patriots really going to be able to attract a better candidate than Belichick? Is firing him for, say, the seventh-best candidate in this coaching class really a good idea (unless the Krafts have a deal with a highly regarded replacement)?

I would push for Belichick to accept that changes need to be made on the personnel side, where years of subpar drafts and questionable free agent signings have left the roster in shambles. If that's a trip wire for him, he might need to go, at which point I would urge the Patriots to see if they can land something for Belichick via trade. I wonder if they would look toward a new GM with Thomas Dimitroff, who served as the director of college scouting for the franchise from 2003 to 2007 before leaving to take over the Falcons. Given Belichick's desire to work with familiar faces, Dimitroff might be an amenable addition.

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Aaron Rodgers updates Pat McAfee on his progress to return to the field.

2. Re-sign Mike Onwenu and Kyle Dugger. Belichick generally has a relaxed attitude toward letting all but the most essential of his players hit free agency, trusting he'll be able to bring back the ones he wants to keep at the right price. That played well during the Tom Brady era, but the potential of playing for a losing Patriots team might not be quite as exciting in 2024 and beyond.

Two of the best draft picks Belichick has made over the past five years need to return. Onwenu has often been this team's best lineman over the past two seasons, but he's probably best as a full-time right guard as opposed to shifting between guard and tackle. The Pats might play him at tackle out of necessity with Trent Brown and Riley Reiff both hitting free agency, but leaving him in one spot would be ideal.

Dugger, 27, has rounded into form and become a complete safety over the past two seasons; his range and physicality makes him an essential piece of this defense, especially as it retools at cornerback. One way to free up cap space for these moves will be cutting J.C. Jackson, whose $14.4 million cap hit for 2024 isn't tenable.

With nearly $90 million in cap space after releasing Jackson, the Patriots can afford to bring back whoever they want. I would think a reunion with Hunter Henry would make sense at the right price, which would probably be a pay cut from the $12.5 million the tight end was making on his last deal. Anfernee Jennings has come on and played a larger role as the season has gone along, although edge rusher Josh Uche is likely to leave after failing to build on his impressive 2022 campaign.

3. Add an explosive starting receiver on offense. The Patriots have to be faster in 2024. Several of their roster spots are already spoken for. Running back Rhamondre Stevenson will return. JuJu Smith-Schuster and DeVante Parker have guaranteed salaries, although Parker's is only $3.1 million. Pop Douglas has impressed when healthy, and they will probably give Tyquan Thornton a chance to make the team.

This team needs receivers who can win against man coverage. There are actually quite a few of them in free agency, although none are a perfect fit outside of Tee Higgins, who is likely to receive the franchise tag. Mike Evans, Calvin Ridley and Michael Pittman Jr. are the No. 1 wideouts with the potential to hit the market. Gabe Davis or Darnell Mooney wouldn't be that same caliber of target, but they would offer much-needed field-stretching ability for an offense that doesn't scare teams deep.

There should be a robust market if the Bengals try to trade Higgins after tagging him this offseason. He has endured his worst season amid injuries, but he'll be 25 in January and put up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons before 2023. I would be surprised if the Bengals settled for anything short of a first-round pick in a Higgins deal, which probably would price out New England, given that their first-rounder will be too valuable to trade away in a Higgins swap.

There will also be cap casualties the Patriots should explore. Hunter Renfrow would make sense for a team that needs easy solutions out of the slot. Curtis Samuel's contract will void in Washington. Russell Gage will become a free agent. Those moves aren't necessarily exciting, but the Pats also need to take more shots on reasonably-priced options and see if they can beat out the incumbents.

This could also be a position the Patriots address in the draft, although that depends on where their first-round pick lands. Right now, they have just over a 52% chance of landing one of the top two picks in Round 1. If they don't land one of those selections and aren't in position to draft Caleb Williams (USC) or Drake Maye (North Carolina), they should be looking toward a wide receiver, with Marvin Harrison Jr. (Ohio State) as the most obvious candidate. A left tackle could also make sense and might align more closely with Belichick's sensibilities, but offensive help is essential.

4. Make changes at quarterback. If the Patriots land one of those top two picks, this section is easy. They're going to draft Maye or Williams and figure out the rest accordingly. As tempting as it is to trade down and add tons of draft picks, they don't have a solution at quarterback. Until they land that guy, they have to take the potential franchise passer at one or two.

If not, well, things get trickier. The Pats aren't likely to fall out of the top five, which would leave them in position to grab an offensive cornerstone. Based on where things stand right now, the Patriots could either draft one of three quarterbacks (Maye, Williams, or Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels), one of three pass-catchers (Harrison, Malik Nabers or Brock Bowers) or one of two left tackles (Joe Alt or Olu Fashanu). Options such as quarterback J.J. McCarthy (Michigan) or wideout Rome Odunze (Washington) seem to be in a tier just below, although there's still a ton of time to figure all that out between now and draft day.

Once they get past the top two, there's a question about possibly trading down, although that would likely be with a team moving up for Daniels at No. 3. Landing in the bottom half of the top 10 would likely net them another first-round pick and still put them in position to land one of those offensive difference-makers, albeit without being able to ensure that they get a particular player as part of the process. If the Falcons want to move up from No. 10 to No. 3 for Daniels, for example, would Belichick be willing to move down if he can land Kyle Pitts and another offensive player at 10?

If the Patriots don't expect to draft a quarterback, adding one in free agency is going to be essential. They will need to decline Mac Jones' fifth-year option for 2025 this spring, and Bailey Zappe hasn't been much better since taking over for the embattled 2021 first-round pick. Bringing one of these two back as a backup is one thing, but they can't return in 2024 with this same one-two punch, even if they add more help at receiver.

There will be options in free agency, albeit with flaws. Kirk Cousins is coming off a torn Achilles and should have lots of interest. Ryan Tannehill was benched by the Titans and is 35 years old. Jacoby Brissett had barely played this season before excelling in garbage time against the Rams on Sunday. Baker Mayfield and Gardner Minshew are starters with limited upside who could re-sign with their existing teams. Jimmy Garoppolo would make more sense given his history with the Pats, but he's under contract with the Raiders, and a new regime could choose to keep him. Garoppolo isn't exactly a guaranteed upgrade given his lengthy injury issues and the fact he was benched by Vegas this season.

The most obvious trade candidate is Justin Fields, but the Patriots wouldn't send their first-rounder to the Bears for him, and there might be teams willing to send more than a second-round selection. Derek Carr has a no-trade clause in New Orleans, and Kyler Murray seems likely to stay in Arizona. Anything's possible, but the veteran trade market doesn't seem like a logical fit for New England

If the Patriots can add someone, getting Jones a fresh start somewhere else would make sense. He is owed $2.8 million in base salary in the final year of his deal next season, so he would be a low-cost backup for a team that either needs a bridge starter or likes its chances of molding something out of a player who looked like he was on pace to become a franchise quarterback as a rookie. Kyle Shanahan's long-standing interest in Jones would make sense with Sam Darnold becoming a free agent, although Jones wouldn't be pushing potential league MVP Brock Purdy for the starting job in San Francisco.

5. Fix the special teams. Perhaps the most unnerving and surprising element of New England's fall from grace has been its collapse on special teams. It was almost taken for granted during the glory days that the Patriots would outplay the opposition on special teams, but things have gone south quickly. They led the league in special teams DVOA in 2020, but they fell to 18th in 2021, were dead last in 2022,and are 31st this season.

Some of the moves are obvious. Rookie kicker Chad Ryland, a fourth-round pick, has missed seven of his 20 field goal attempts, including a 35-yarder that would have tied the game and forced overtime against the Giants. Ryland missed a 41-yarder against the Chiefs on Sunday. Teams can be too aggressive in either falling in or out of love with a kicker based on a small sample, but Ryland has been the league's worst kicker. They shouldn't be attached to him in 2024.

Rookie punter Bryce Baringer has been above average by Puntalytics' model, but the Patriots need to address their return units, which again seem haunted by a lack of speed. They rank 24th in average kickoff return and 31st in average punt return distance. Ty Montgomery had been the primary kick returner -- he was cut earlier this month -- after spending three years in New Orleans not handling that role, while four different players have returned punts. Landing an explosive returner this offseason would be a way for them to improve on the margins, even if their offseason will be determined by the moves they make with the most important roles in the franchise.