As we hit the back half of the NFL season, it's clear which teams are in the playoff hunt and which teams are hot garbage.
But not all bad teams are created equal.
Some franchises might be struggling due to a young, inconsistent team or injuries, while others are truly terrible with little-to-no hope.
But that's the key. Hope.
And just like in Star Wars, hope is the greatest thing someone can have — especially if you're a fan of one of these five awful teams with incredibly bright futures.
Coming off a 2-14 season that resulted in getting Joe Burrow, the top overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals have already equaled their win total from a year ago. Yet they're still pretty bad.
But that's OK!
The Bengals are setting themselves up for another highly valuable top-10 pick in what's looking like a loaded draft class. But that's not what Bengals fans should be banking on.
Instead, they should focus on the talented team that the Bengals have constructed. It all starts with Burrow, who has lived up to the hype and shown signs of being the best Bengals quarterback since Carson Palmer. Even though he's taken an absolute beating behind the Bengals' bad offensive line, Burrow has completed 65% of his passes for 12 touchdowns in his first nine starts. He's also shown incredible poise and feel for the game in the pocket.
He's not the only talented youngster on the team, either. Rookie Tee Higgins has come alive recently as he looks to be the franchise's future No. 1 receiver, and a perfect replacement for the aging A.J. Green. Higgins is one of the many breakout stars from this year's rookie receiver class. The Clemson product has already tallied 40 catches, 603 yards receiving and four touchdown catches despite starting the season slowly due to injuries.
With an up-and-coming defense, the biggest hole for the Bengals is their offensive line. If they can solidify that, the Bengals could be a contender in the AFC North sooner than you think.
New York Jets
It's true: the winless Jets have one of the brightest futures in the NFL.
That's mainly because they're likely to land either Clemson's Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State's Justin Fields with their upcoming first-round selection.
But having a future franchise passer isn't the only bright spot for the J-E-T-S. As I wrote in a previous article, the Jets are actually the best (realistic) landing spot for Lawrence.
That's because Lawrence will almost assuredly not have Adam Gase as their head coach. The Jets will also have the second-most cap space in the NFL in a year where plenty of good players could hit the free-agent market due to a significant drop in the salary cap along with five picks in the first three rounds of the upcoming draft. And, while it's early, the Jets general manager has proven to know what he's doing.
The Jets also have something the Bengals don't: a stud left tackle. The monstrous Mekhi Becton looks like a future All-Pro and protecting the Jets' prized possession is a huge priority.
The Jets' future is bright solely because they won't have Gase after this year. And as we've seen before, teams (and players) immediately improve when Gase is gone.
Los Angeles Chargers
But this is about the future, not today. And the Chargers' long-term outlook might be as bright as a bolt of lightning, if they can ever break their curse, that is.
But what really makes this team's future exciting is rookie quarterback Justin Herbert.
Although he was the third quarterback taken in the 2020 NFL Draft, he's the favorite to win the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award and his potential is much higher than the passers taken in front of him (Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa). Herbert has shown better-than-expected awareness and pocket presence while he's made jaw-droppingly beautiful passes in nearly every game. And while his arm is nearly at Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen levels, he only really needs better judgment when it comes to haircuts.
Like the Bengals, the key for the Bolts will be to protect Herbert. The team already has a strong run game and valuable pass catchers, but — like always — the Chargers need to solidify their offensive line.
On top of that, the Chargers could be on the hunt for a new head coach when the season is over. The ultra-conservative Anthony Lynn doesn't deserve such an aggressive young passer.
The more things change for the Chargers, the more they stay the same.
The Panthers' record might not show it, but Carolina is way better than they were a year ago. They can thank new coach Matt Rhule for that.
The former Baylor coach has completely remade the team's offense. He's turned Robby Anderson into a WR1 while finally unlocking the talents of Curtis Samuel. And even though he's had an inconsistent season, D.J. Moore is still one of the best young receivers in the game. Rhule, along with offensive coordinator Joe Brady, have been able to trot out a strong offense without their best player: Christian McCaffrey.
Carolina might've found its quarterback of the future, too. While Teddy Bridgewater might not be the sexiest quarterback to watch, he's starring as a better version of Alex Smith in the Panthers' passing attack. In 10 games this season, the former first-rounder has completed more than 72% of his passes for 13 touchdowns.
The problem for the Panthers is their defense just isn't talented enough to close out games.
They've found building blocks in Brian Burns, Jeremy Chinn, Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos, but they don't have much else on that side of the ball. But with another solid draft class, the Panthers could make the NFC South even more competitive next year.
One of the youngest teams in the NFL, the Broncos are absolutely stacked with young talent.
On defense, the Broncos have clearly missed All-Pro pass rusher Von Miller, but former first-rounder Bradley Chubb has come into his own. Coming off an ACL injury, Chubb has notched 5.5 sacks through nine games.
But the real appeal of this team is its offensive playmakers.
Just look at the laundry list of future stars in the Broncos' passing game alone: Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, KJ Hamler, and Tim Patrick represent an incredibly deep foursome with Patrick being the oldest at 26.
Although he's had some problems with drops, first-rounder Jerry Jeudy is already serving up masterclasses in route-running while KJ Hamler might be small but his impact won't be. His speed and savvy will make him a massive weapon over the middle as teams try to stop Jeudy and 2019 Pro Bowler Courtland Sutton, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. That trio along with two incredibly athletic tight ends in Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam, who is also out with a torn ACL, represents the ideal scenario for a young quarterback.
This leads us to the Broncos' big problem: Drew Lock.
While he's struggled with injuries in his short career, the former second-round pick hasn't done enough to give general manager John Elway and the Broncos the confidence to pass on such a juicy upcoming quarterback class.
It's a little ironic that despite being one of the best quarterbacks of all time, John Elway has a huge blind spot when it comes to evaluating signal-callers.
If he doesn't find one soon, he'll waste away a talented young core along with the hope of a franchise's fans who see a brighter tomorrow.
Follow Lance Cartelli on Twitter @CasuallyGinger
Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration