Who is this year’s worst-to-first NFL team?
Which 2016 bottom feeder will win its division in 2017?
Every year it happens, and every year we are just as shocked. Some NFL team has the season from hell, loses most of its games, and grabs a top-10 draft pick. They are all but forgotten that summer and their players are avoided like the plague in fantasy football drafts —then suddenly the next season they win their division out of nowhere.
Sound familiar? It should. In 13 of the past 14 NFL seasons, at least one team that finished last in the division one season flipped the script and won it the following year. Two years ago the Washington Redskins jumped from 4–12 to 9–7 to win the NFC East. Last year it was the NFC East again as rookie Dak Prescott improved the Dallas Cowboys from 4–12 to 13–3.
The NFL wants parity, and worst-to-first is the ultimate sign of parity. No matter how bad these bottom feeders were last year, history tells us at least one will likely win the division this season. So who will it be?
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Not even a snowball’s chance
8. New York Jets (5–11)
It’s not the Jets.
The Jets are openly tanking the season. They’ve cut or traded away just about anyone talented on the team— the newest star defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson — and the roster is bare.
New York will roll out Josh McCown on Opening Day. McCowns are 20–50 as NFL starters; Josh and his brother Luke are very bad at football. Josh has won just two of his last 22 starts. The Jets are so bad that they enter Week 1 as more than a touchdown underdog against the terrible Buffalo Bills, who might actually be tanking their own season.
What would have to happen for the Jets to win their division? Tom Brady would have to tear his ACL — no, both ACLs. Bill Belichick would literally have to die, and probably take Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia with him. Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg would have to be the Jets answer at QB.
No. It’s not the Jets. It’s not happening.
If someone tells you this New York team is winning its division this year, surely they have done so in J-E-T-S JEST JEST JEST!
7. San Francisco 49ers (2–14)
One thing the 49ers have going for them is that they don’t live in Brady and Belichick’s division. But the Seahawks aren’t much more of a reward. Seattle has won double digit games five straight years with an average of 11+ wins, so the 49ers likely have to jump by eight or nine wins to even have a shot.
Everything is new in San Francisco, with one offensive genius Chip Kelly deposed and another, Kyle Shanahan, in his place. Shanahan worked wonders with the Atlanta Falcons last season with one of the greatest offenses in league history, but you’d have to imagine it helped to have former #1 pick Matt Ryan at quarterback with superstar Julio Jones at receiver and two stud running back options in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Shanahan may find the cupboard a bit barer out west. Carlos Hyde is a talented runner but can’t seem to stay on the field. Pierre Garcon has bounced around the league for a reason — he’s not going to make Shanny forget Julio Jones any time soon. Brian Hoyer “the Destroyer” may not actually be terrible, but he’s also not the defending MVP. The 49ers offensive line is still one of the worst in the league, and so is the rest of the offense. Shanahan can only do so much.
The team spent the draft addressing the defense and should see some real improvement there, but Seattle is steep mountain to climb, and the Cardinals and Rams should improve from last season too. Shanahan may turn some heads in San Francisco, but there’s just no shot at a division title.
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So you’re telling me there’s a chance …
6. Chicago Bears (3–13)
The Bears were bad last year, and they’re bad again. But they’re probably not 3-wins-bad.
Jordan Howard is a star-in-the-making at running back, and he’ll run behind one of the better interior offensive lines in the league. Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky give the Bears two rolls of the dice at quarterback. Maybe one of them can at least manage games for a season. The defense gives reason for optimism, too. Leonard Floyd looks like a stud pass rusher, and Vic Fangio always coaches his boys up. Chicago could have one of the better front sevens on defense and one of the best running attacks in the league.
So ... you never know.
But “you never know” still requires a significant Aaron Rodgers injury to clear the way. Chicago could totally see enough things bounce right to hang with Sam Bradford’s and Matt Stafford’s teams. But Rodgers is a bridge too far.
5. Cleveland Browns (1–15)
The Browns improved a ton this offseason. The rebuilding process is officially moving forward, with #1 pick Myles Garrett ready to anchor the defense. He’s the sort of franchise player that could transform an entire unit, and he’s joined by fellow first round pick Jabrill Peppers. Peppers will play safety, return punts and kicks, energize the defense, maybe even sneak in a few trick plays on offense now and then.
One thing that hasn’t changed in Cleveland is the Browns offensive line, one of the best in the league behind Hall of Fame lock Joe Thomas. Thomas is among the most valuable non-QBs in the league and this line will give Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson plenty of room to run in Hue Jackson’s offense.
But we’ve buried the lede. The Browns have a new quarterback! That should sound familiar. Cleveland has started more than one QB in 15 consecutive seasons and has put 26 different guys under center the past 17 years. On Sunday that number becomes 27 when rookie DeShone Kizer takes the field. Kizer was terrific in 2015 before leading Notre Dame to a disastrous 4–8 season last fall. He has his work cut out for him.
Still, Kizer is not Robert Griffin or Josh McCown or Jonny Manziel. And that gives the Browns something else in 2016 they haven’t had in awhile: hope.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (3–13)
The interim tag was removed from Doug Marrone’s title in January and the former offensive line coach was named head coach. He brings a smashmouth mentality and was surely a big reason the Jaguars focused on the run game in the draft, adding star LSU running back Leonard Fournette in the first round, then snatching up road grader tackle Cam Robinson next. The Jaguars should have an improved and prominent running attack.
They also feature a defense that always seems to be on the verge of breaking out without ever actually getting there. Dante Fowler and Jalen Ramsey are finally healthy, which is sort of like adding an extra pair of top-ten picks to the defense. Jacksonville could take a big step forward on both lines.
There’s just one problem: you still need a quarterback, and Blake Bortles is most definitely not that quarterback. Against all odds, Bortles opens a fourth straight season as the Jaguars starter, bringing his less than sparkling 11–34 career record with him.
The division appears to be wide open, but Bortles isn’t winning it. Can Jacksonville get to backup QB Chad Henne in time to save its season?
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The true worst-to-first contenders
3. Los Angeles Chargers (5–11)
The Chargers have some of the worst luck in the league with injuries, so bad that star receiver Keenan Allen lacerated his kidney just reading this sentence. Every year they are a sexy breakout candidate, and every year the entire team is hurt before October even rolls around.
There’s a lot to like. The coaching staff has been reworked, with former Bills offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn at the helm after doing wonders with LeSean McCoy and company last season. He brings a ton of experience with him in former head coaches Ken Whisenhunt at offensive coordinator and Gus Bradley at defensive coordinator. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram give the Chargers one of the most feared pass-rushing pairs in the league, and the offense has a ton of weapons when healthy.
But the offensive line still isn’t very good, and they’re the guys that are supposed to protect Philip Rivers and the rest of this team from all those injuries. They’ll need to be much better, and the Chargers will need to adjust to a new home and show that there’s a real home field advantage there.
There’s plenty to like about the Chargers, but there was last year too when they showed up in this column. There’s just a little bit more to like in Denver, Kansas City, and Oakland.
2. Carolina Panthers (6–10)
The Panthers should certainly be more fun this year after adding offensive weapons Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel in the draft. Those two give the offense a new look with speed and versatility out of the backfield, in the slot, and returning kicks. The Panthers also addressed the putrid offensive line this offseason and worked to improve their secondary.
But the biggest improvement should come with the return to health of Carolina’s two biggest stars, Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly. Kuechly missed the final six games last season after suffering a concussion, and the Panthers run defense was never the same without him. Newton got a concussion of his own in the season’s opening game in Denver and was never the same. Concussions can always return, and the loss of either Newton or Kuechly could cripple this team, but for now they are healthy and ready to go.
Carolina has another secret weapon: its schedule. Carolina plays each division opponent twice, but they also get four games against the AFC East, four against the NFC North, and two against San Francisco and Philadelphia. This reloaded offense will be heavy favorites against the 49ers, Bills, Lions, Bears, Dolphins, Jets, and Vikings. That’s seven likely wins, plus games against the Packers, Eagles, and Patriots and six more in the division. Even a split could mean 10 or 11 wins without even being all that good.
They’ll have plenty of competition with defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons, the steady New Orleans Saints, and forever-up-and-coming Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their path, but this Carolina team could be on the verge of a return to its great 2015 heights.
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1. Philadelphia Eagles (7–9)
There’s a rare air of optimism coming out of Philadelphia these days, and it’s on the backs of the hometown Eagles. Philadelphia should improve … just about everywhere this season.
The receivers will certainly be better. Jordan Matthews and his drops are gone, replaced by speedy deep threat Torrey Smith and sure-handed playmaker Alshon Jeffery. The running game should be improved with the addition of LeGarrette Blount, always one of the best yards-after-contact guys in the league. And the offensive line should take a step forward with the return of star tackle Lane Johnson for a full season.
The defense was already really good. The front seven was full of attacking options and just added Timmy Jernigan and Chris Long. That defensive front is deep and will be fresh and hungry, and Ronald Darby (acquired in the Matthews deal) should provide an answer at one of the cornerback positions. The secondary still isn’t a strength, but this Eagles team is good and deep and ready for a run, and they already rated as the fourth best team in football by Football Outsiders DVOA rating last year, the highest rating in history for a team with a losing record.
But the biggest reason for optimism comes from last year’s #1 pick Carson Wentz, giving the Eagles an answer at quarterback for the first time since Donovan McNabb. The North Dakota State product started 3–0 last year before some hiccups and team injuries derailed his season, but his preseason reads have looked good and he could be ready to take a big sophomore step forward. The rest of this Eagles team will go as far as he can take them.
Two straight NFC East cellar dwellers have gone from worst to first. Carson Wentz’s Eagles look ready to make it three in a row.