Every year, eight teams endeavor to go from worst to first, transforming themselves from bottom feeders to division champs in the space of one season. In 2020, only one team made it — via the improbable path of winning just four more games. Yes, the Washington Football Team was helped by the chaos that enveloped the NFC East, but they once again showed that it is possible for teams to flip their fates in the NFL in the blink of an eye.
Who will follow Washington’s example in 2021? Below, I’ve ranked all eight last-place teams from 2020, according to their chances of going from worst to first in the coming season.
Extenuating circumstances — including a rash of injuries that led to the Niners being among the league leaders in terms of talent committed to IR, as well as their temporary displacement to Arizona because of COVID-19 protocols in California — torpedoed San Francisco’s chances of defending its NFC title in 2020. It follows, then, that fully healthy campaigns from Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Dee Ford, all of whom missed serious time last season, would make this team a bona fide contender, even in this relatively strong division.
One area where the Niners could make a change is at the quarterback position. It will be interesting to see if Kyle Shanahan sticks with Jimmy Garoppolo, who is returning from his own injury-hampered season, or pursues someone he thinks can run his offense more effectively. Personally, I don’t think Garoppolo is all-world — he does limit what San Francisco can do, to a degree — but he’s still an above-average starter. Frankly, when the Niners’ run game is operating at full capacity, it can make any QB look better.
Encouragingly for the Falcons, when I talked with people who worked for teams searching for head coaches, they said Arthur Smith jumped out at them in terms of his charisma and ability to excite people. There is no question Smith has offensive talent to work with in Atlanta. Even if the Falcons select a quarterback fourth overall in the draft, Matt Ryan isn’t going anywhere in the short term, and neither is receiver Julio Jones. The key for that unit will be fielding a strong rushing attack, which is something Atlanta has lacked ever since Kyle Shanahan left the offensive coordinator position to take over San Francisco after the 2016 season. The defense still needs work personnel-wise and will no doubt be high on new GM Terry Fontenot’s to-do list, but coordinator Dean Pees has a strong track record of success. And while the division is home to the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, New Orleans could be vulnerable, presuming Drew Brees retires, while Carolina is in the midst of its own rebuild.
The Eagles’ ranking here has as much to do with the weakness of the NFC East as it does with the state of Philadelphia’s franchise heading into Nick Sirianni’s first year at the helm. Remember: The division hasn’t had a repeat winner for a league-high 17 straight seasons. And none of the other teams look like runaway favorites at the moment, coming off a year in which Washington won the crown with a sub-.500 record.
Sirianni and Co. have plenty of work ahead of them, starting with mapping out a post-Carson Wentz quarterback strategy. I thought Jalen Hurts looked pretty good in his limited time as a rookie starter in 2020. That said, there are reasons to think his status as Philly’s next QB1 is not exactly rock solid yet, including Sirianni’s comments about evaluating “every position” and Albert Breer’s report that the Eagles thought about taking Jeremy Chinn or J.K. Dobbins instead of Hurts in the second round last year; if the organization thought for sure Hurts was starter material, there would have been no question about drafting him. Philly will also have to figure out how to manage a projected cap overage of $47.4 million (per Over The Cap). Still, the NFC East looks open enough to merit the Eagles’ position in the top half of this list.
The Chiefs, who have defeated Denver 11 straight times, remain the biggest hurdle to AFC West contention for the Broncos. Injuries to key players (like Courtland Sutton and Jurrell Casey) and erratic quarterback play by second-year pro Drew Lock helped push Denver’s playoff drought to five seasons, which is tied for the franchise’s longest such dry spell since the 1970s.
New general manager George Paton must rectify some of the mistakes made by John Elway, starting with the quarterback position. Lock is an interesting player who occasionally provided strong play, but he’s not consistent enough to allow this otherwise solid roster — including a capable defense that ranked 16th against the pass even without Von Miller, whose future is up in the air, and an offense featuring talented young pieces like Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay — to shine. If Paton can solve the QB issue, Denver could surprise some folks in 2021.
The Bengals have spent three straight seasons in the AFC North cellar, and the rest of the division looks strong, depending on what the Steelers do at quarterback. However, presuming Joe Burrow returns to full health after tearing his ACL in 2020, the presence of Burrow at QB and quality supporting pieces like running back Joe Mixon and receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins give Cincinnati a real sense of hope. Still, for the Bengals to truly become a contender, they must upgrade both the offensive line and the NFL’s 26th-ranked defense.
The Lions haven’t won a division title since 1993 (27 seasons), the second-longest such streak in the NFL. Can they finally snap that skid in 2021? Much will depend on whether head coach Dan Campbell and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn can help new quarterback Jared Goff curtail the turnovers that helped pave the way for his departure from the Rams. I think Goff is good enough to get Detroit to 8-8, but for the Lions to compete with the likes of the Packers, Bears and Vikings, GM Brad Holmes and Co. will have to really rejuvenate a defense that ranked 32nd last season and 31st the year before.
I could give a better forecast about the Jets’ chances if I knew whether or not Sam Darnold was going to remain the starting quarterback in 2021. Darnold struggles with consistency, but I happen to think he can win if the team can surround him with some productive football players. However, there is much more ahead of GM Joe Douglas and new head coach Robert Saleh beyond forming a plan under center. Regardless of whether or not they keep Darnold or move on and select another QB with the No. 2 overall draft pick, this team really needs better personnel across the board, especially in the secondary and at the skill positions. There is talent on this roster, as evidenced by the fight the Jets showed in their two wins in 2020. But they have a ways to go before they can make serious noise in the AFC East.
There’s plenty to be excited about in Jacksonville, including the imminent arrival of a franchise quarterback (Trevor Lawrence) with the No. 1 overall pick. I also like some other pieces on the offense, including running back James Robinson and receiver D.J. Chark. The focus must be on patching the NFL’s 31st-ranked defense. Another question: How will Urban Meyer do transitioning from the college level to the pros? Rather than going from worst to first in 2021, a more reasonable goal for the Jaguars would be leapfrogging the Texans to finish out of last place.
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