The margin between a successful and a disappointing season can be slim in the NFL. A major injury here, a few close losses there, and next thing you know, a team that had legitimate postseason aspirations at the beginning of the season is unraveling on its way to a last-place finish in the division. The beauty of a new season is that those hopes are renewed with a clean slate.
Last season, no teams were able to accomplish the worst-to-first feat, although the San Francisco 49ers essentially did so by taking a squad that earned the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft to a 13-3 record atop the NFC West in 2019. The 2018 season saw two teams go from the cellar of the division to the penthouse — the 12-4 Chicago Bears and the 11-5 Houston Texans. Which last-place teams will follow in their footsteps on their way to a division crown in 2020? The answer is probably none, but it’s a fun exercise nonetheless.
There’s a good chance that the Bengals will be much improved in 2020, and that will revolve heavily on whether what we saw in Joe Burrow’s final season at LSU translates to the NFL level. There are still a lot of holes to fill on this roster, though, and the Bengals don’t have the resources of a team like the Dolphins to quickly improve this offseason. There wasn’t a single facet of the game — passing, pass-blocking, run-blocking, receiving, rushing, run defense, pass rush or coverage — in which the Bengals finished the 2019 season with an above-average team PFF grade.
Asking a rookie, even one that played as well as Burrow did in the SEC, to lead a 2-14 team to the top of the AFC North is a tough ask. The Baltimore Ravens should still very much be in the conversation as one of the best teams in the NFL after what we saw from them offensively and defensively this past season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns will likely bounce back after disappointing seasons. There is next to no chance that the Bengals are able to supplant all three.
Some books have the Redskins with the longest Super Bowl odds in the NFL next season. There just isn’t a whole lot of upside with this roster as it is currently constructed. That gets even shakier when a player like Quinton Dunbar, the league’s second-highest graded cornerback, publicly demands a release or trade. Especially considering star left tackle Trent Williams just sat out a season rather than return and play for the Redskins.
Dwayne Haskins did some things well in his rookie season, but his forecast is the worst of the group of Murray, Minshew and Daniel Jones moving forward. That introduces some uncertainty next season to a team that doesn’t have a super talented roster to begin with. The NFC East isn’t the strongest division out there, but we expect the Dallas Cowboys to improve next season, and it’s hard to see a scenario where the Redskins overtake them and the Philadelphia Eagles to climb into the top spot.
The Panthers were a tough team to place on this list. On one hand, there plenty of reasons to get excited about the hirings of head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Additionally, their quarterback play can only go up after posting a league-worst passing grade as a team in 2019.
|Team||PFF Passing Grade|
|28. Washington Redskins||59.1|
|28. Denver Broncos||59.1|
|30. Cincinnati Bengals||57.5|
|31. Pittsburgh Steelers||48.6|
|32. Carolina Panthers||47.2|
On the other hand, just because quarterback play can only improve from here doesn’t mean it’s going to dramatically do so next season. There are still question marks there with Cam Newton’s future hanging in the balance. The Panthers also lost their all-world linebacker Luke Kuechly — owner of six straight seasons with overall grades higher than 85.0 — to retirement this offseason. With some of the holes that the Panthers already have in coverage, the loss of Kuechly, particularly his instinctual coverage ability, hurts all the more. There’s a lot of reason for optimism surrounding the Panthers, but it seems more likely than not that 2021 will be the year for it rather than 2020.
The Chargers were pretty comfortably the best last-place divisional team in the NFL in 2019. Given their point differential that sat at just -8, there is a strong argument that they were better than their 5-11 record would indicate, and they return a roster with talented players such as Derwin James, Casey Hayward Jr., Joey Bosa and Keenan Allen in key positions. That indicates that they should probably be higher than fifth on this list.
The main problem for the Chargers is that they have the Kansas City Chiefs sitting in an impenetrable fortress on top of the division. Barring injury, knocking off a Patrick Mahomes-led team looks like a tall task. That task becomes even taller without a quarterback in place after the announcement that Philip Rivers will not return to Los Angeles. Rivers was just the 17th highest graded quarterback in the league this past season, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that the Chargers could potentially see an upgrade next year. The uncertainty at the position, though, in addition to next year’s Super Bowl favorite being in the division keeps the Chargers down on this list.
It’s apparent that Kliff Kingsbury’s offensive scheme helped the Cardinals’ offense in his first season as the head coach. They ranked 13th in the NFL in expected points added per play just a year after finishing a comfortable last in the same measure. They still had a below-average offensive line and a lack of real playmakers at wide receiver and tight end, but they were able to overcome that through scheme and the first overall pick in the NFL draft, Kyler Murray.
The scary part is that Murray didn’t even play all that well. He ranked 25th among 32 qualifying quarterbacks in PFF grade this past season, but there were also times when the skill set that landed him as the first overall pick was on full display. There’s a chance that with a leap from Murray in his second season and the addition of a few more weapons surrounding the young signal-caller, this could be one of the better offensive teams in the entire league. If that happens and they can get improved play in coverage, the Cardinals could be dangerous in a competitive NFC West.
The Dolphins winning the AFC East just a year after many people thought they were in danger of going 0-16 early in the 2019 NFL season would be quite the storyline. It’s not as unrealistic as it appears on the surface, however. The quarterback position will continue to remain the biggest question mark in Miami, but even if it’s Ryan Fitzpatrick manning the ship again, is that really the worst thing in the world? Over the past two seasons, Fitzpatrick ranks 12th among 32 qualifying quarterbacks in PFF grade. He carried the worst roster in the NFL to a 5-11 record with strong play down the stretch, and he does things like this.
Of course, it could be someone other than Fitzmagic, with the biggest potential name being none other than Tua Tagovailoa out of Alabama. The Dolphins have a treasure trove of draft capital and the most cap space in the league to dramatically improve their roster this offseason, and the AFC East could be ripe for a new reign if Tom Brady leaves the Patriots and expected regression hits Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills. That potential weakening division and the building blocks for a swift rebuild in Miami makes the Dolphins an intriguing worst-to-first candidate.
A big part of projecting these worst-to-first teams is the level of competition. Who do they have to beat to get to the top of the division? That conversation benefits the Jaguars, as the AFC South projects to be one of the NFL's weaker divisions next season. It’s devoid of a clear-cut top team, particularly if you think that the Houston Texans are in store for some regression, as we do.
Gardner Minshew stepped in as the starting quarterback for the injured Nick Foles this past season, and he probably played well enough to earn the starting nod in 2020. There were concerns about his arm strength coming out of Washington State, but Minshew finished his rookie season as the league’s third-highest graded passer on throws 20 or more yards downfield, behind only Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson. His anticipation and touch on those passes translated to the NFL level well. If the Jaguars can get Minshew to take another step forward across the board and get bounce-back seasons from players such as A.J. Bouye and Myles Jack, there’s a chance they could come out on top in a weaker division.
Prior to Matthew Stafford’s season-ending injury, the Lions were a competitive team at worst. Through that Week 9 game against the Oakland Raiders, the Lions were 3-4-1 with one-score losses to the Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers. Stafford was a big reason for that, pushing the ball downfield and doing it well. He led the NFL with an average depth of target of 11.4 yards, and his 8.6 yards per attempt were fewer than only Ryan Tannehill among qualifiers. That all unraveled after Stafford’s injury, and the Lions proceeded to lose the rest of their games.
Matthew Stafford vs. other Lions quarterbacks in 2019
|Stafford||Driskel + Blough|
|PFF passing grade||81.4||52.9|
|Yards per attempt||8.6||6.0|
Getting a healthy Stafford back next season to get the ball into the hands of downfield playmakers Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. should be a huge boost to this offense. With a high draft slot and a decent amount of cap space to work with, there's an opportunity for the defense to improve, as well. It’s not difficult to see the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings taking a step back next season, and that opens the door for Detroit to potentially host its first home playoff game since 1993.