Every year, last place teams from the NFL season prior make runs at division crowns. The math says that at least half of the playoff teams will be different from the previous year, and yet projections consistently side with status quo. As such, we are taking that math and applying it exclusively to the eight last place teams from 2018.
These teams are ranked below in descending order based on their likelihood to take the leap all the way to the top of their division. The rankings come down to whose circumstances have changed, who has optimism of player development or who might simply be a good team coming off a down year.
8. New York Giants
This may seem like piling on after a questionable draft, but look at the last seven months. The Giants have let three All-Pros go over that stretch, and did not upgrade at any of those positions. They have some optimism for the future of the defense with Dexter Lawrence and Deandre Baker. But their big draft pick this year is scheduled to be a backup quarterback in 2019. It seems the Giants are planning to be a run-first team again, and once again with a pedestrian line. Plus, the Giants have not won a division since 2011, while all three division rivals have built solid rosters and have playoff hopes in 2019. Even Washington could make a run for playoff spot, if Dwayne Haskins makes a jump in year one. Frankly, the Giants are the preeminent outside-looking-in team this year.
7. New York Jets
The phrase “optimism of player development” applies most strongly to the Jets as far as this list goes. They have the quarterback with a lot of upside and some fancy new toys for him to work with. They have the young defense with hopeful play makers. Granted, their “new” coach is a bit of a retread, but he is a new face in the building with a history of offensive success. So what places the Jets so low on this list? Simply put, it is one team in front of them. New England has won 10 consecutive division titles, and is coming off a Super Bowl year, and had a strong draft, and again retained offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. If this list was about best shot at making a massive improvement in the standings, the Jets would rank much higher. But as a worst-to-first candidate, there is one monolithic barrier keeping them from consideration.
6. Oakland Raiders
Like the Jets, there is a lot to like about Oakland’s future. Also like the Jets, there are some outside factors keeping them from the top half of this list. Most problematic is that they have two of the best teams in football in their division in the Chiefs and Chargers. Beyond that, there is also the major question of Derek Carr. Is he the franchise, or is he just an albatross on the books? This year will be the defining year for Carr’s future in Oakland. He has a true ace receiver in Antonio Brown. He has some good running backs to lean on. For the first time in the Jon Gruden Era, it seems Oakland has a real plan. The question is whether or not Carr remains a part of that plan.
5. Arizona Cardinals
There is a legitimate chance Arizona becomes one of the most exciting offensive teams this season. There is an equal chance this whole Kliff Kingsbury experiment flames out spectacularly. The Cardinals put some pieces in place for number one pick Kyler Murray to excel, but they also neglected one major one: the offensive line. Murray’s smaller frame makes it all the more troublesome that the Cardinals did little to address one of the worst units in football. That said, if Murray and Kingsbury are great, the Cardinals could push for the top spot. After all, while the Rams are the defending NFC champs, they also gave opponents nine weeks of vulnerable tape to exploit and their perch could be a little shaky.
More than any other place on this list, the Cardinals are the prime boom-or-bust team.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati is a milquetoast squad with a largely unproven coach surrounded by a barrage of hype around their division. Pittsburgh will always have optimism with Ben Roethlisberger there, even though they took some significant hits this offseason. Baltimore and Cleveland are both headstrong into new quarterback eras, while also boasting strong, play-making defenses. Most of the division expectations are pointing towards those teams and away from Cincinnati.
But here is where the Bengals have some hope: Pittsburgh missed the playoffs with Antonio Brown, and have not replaced him this offseason. Cleveland is banking heavily on Baker Mayfield matching his incredible 2019, while keeping a new arsenal of receiving options satisfied. Baltimore is riding their defense, and hoping the NFL has not yet figured out their more gimmicky offense. All those expectations have holes that the Bengals could slip into under the radar. They will have to get more out of their 32nd-ranked defense and 26th-ranked offense, but they have some play-makers on both sides of the ball and are only three years removed from a 12-4 season.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
One addition is all the Buccaneers needed to make a push up these rankings: Bruce Arians. Tampa Bay’s inability to mesh hype and production has cost two coaches their jobs now. Jameis Winston appears to be in his prove-it year. Well, who better than Arians to take a load of talent nestled in an irresponsible body, and bring greatness out of it? He did it with a young Andrew Luck. He reignited the career of Carson Palmer. In both stops, Arians made playoff teams from a dearth of expectations. And while the NFC South can be a gauntlet, that also means the top spot may be up for grabs. Can Tampa Bay’s hit-or-miss offense be enough to carry a lackluster defense? We have seen enough explosion from Winston and the Bucs’ offense to know they can be a juggernaut. The question is whether Arians can reduce Winston’s mistakes, and if the small additions to the defense can bring it out of the bottom of the barrel.
2. Detroit Lions
The NFC North cannot decide who its long-term elite team is. It has been a revolving door of division winners the last five years, with Green Bay and Minnesota each winning twice and the Bears taking it this past season. The Bears and Vikings were both big surprises when they emerged as elite teams, so it is not out of the realm of possibility to predict the Lions to make a leap this year. Yes, the Lions probably have the fewest expectations of the four. But would anyone be shocked if the Bears took a massive step back? Or if Green Bay and Minnesota stayed as pack-middle as they were in 2018? The Lions have a few pieces in place to have a strong offense, most notably Kenny Golladay in year three and rookie T.J. Hockenson. Plus, with the additions of Trey Flowers and a full year of Damon Harrison, their defensive line could be much-improved. But with this one, it is more about the division around them, and less about the major changes the Lions have made.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
The AFC South is a division packed with young, exciting teams. Houston and Indianapolis generally have most of the focus, given both made massive steps forward in 2018 en route to the postseason. Plus, Tennessee has made some strong additions, while Jacksonville is going to bat with Nick Foles. Thus, it seems the Jaguars are largely being counted out. Oh, how quickly people forget.
Just a lone season ago, Jacksonville made a run to the AFC Championship Game with a mediocre-at-best quarterback, a modicum of offensive firepower and an absolutely suffocating defense. With the addition of Josh Allen to the defense and the upgrade of Foles at quarterback, who is to say the Jaguars do not return to some semblance of that 2017 team? They still lack the offensive weapons, but their top receiver in 2017 was Keelan Cole and they still came out with the sixth-ranked offense and the division title. The expectations of the Colts and Texans will draw the attention in this division, but people may be sleeping too much on Jacksonville.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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