Offseason is the time for expectations to run amok throughout the NFL.
With the release of the regular-season schedule and team OTAs ramping up, fans and teams begin mapping out their playoff paths. But parity can be something of a mirage, many of the league’s most outmatched squads struggling to lift themselves from the bottom of the standings. The Washington Football Team was the only franchise to complete a worst-to-first transformation within its division in 2020, and it required a wacky, down-to-the-wire NFC East race to do so.
Yet this portion of the calendar inevitably renews hope. And with teams not bogged down by the same COVID-19 restrictions they had to navigate last offseason, there could be more room for some more upheaval in the standings.
Here’s how all eight fourth-place finishers rank in their ability to go from worst to first in 2021:
What’s working for them: The strongest candidates for a quick turnaround are often teams waylaid by injuries the previous year, and no team was hit quite like Kyle Shanahan’s crew. Thirty-two players spent time on injured reserve for San Francisco, with 16 finishing the season there.
The 49ers still have most of the cornerstones from their run to Super Bowl 54 – along with helpful additions in left tackle Trent Williams, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw – and they can stand up against the conference’s best with the likes of Nick Bosa, George Kittle and Deebo Samuel on the comeback trail. Jimmy Garoppolo is also back in the fold after missing 10 games last season, but the 49ers went all in with a trade up to take North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance with the No. 3 pick in the draft. Shanahan has stood by Garoppolo as his starter, and the veteran’s hold on that role might serve the long-term benefit of Lance’s development. But if the rookie shows enough in training camp to seize the job, he could unlock new dimensions for Shanahan and a playoff-caliber roster. The NFC West is arguably the NFL’s most competitive grouping top to bottom, the 49ers’ 3-3 mark within the division last year representing the best among the league’s last-place finishers. With some better fortune in 2021, San Francisco looks poised to contend in a division in which no one team has a stranglehold.
What’s working against them: While the 49ers reclaiming the NFC West crown wouldn’t qualify as a surprise to many, another fourth-place finish is hardly out of the question.
As neither a rebuilding team nor a group built strictly to capitalize on a closing window to contend, San Francisco is in an odd place with its unresolved quarterback mystery. Garoppolo’s limitations are readily evident and seemingly pointed Shanahan and John Lynch toward Lance. Yet entrusting this offense to a 21-year-old with just 17 starts at the Football Championship Subdivision level could be a dangerous move if executed hastily, so it’s unclear just how quickly Lance can provide an upgrade.
While a mere regression to the mean on injuries would be a boon for San Francisco, it’s unrealistic to expect a fully clean bill of health, especially for a secondary with a long history of ailments. If the back end of the defense breaks down, and the Bosa-led front four doesn’t return to a form closer to its 2019 level, DeMeco Ryans – the youngest defensive coordinator in the NFL – could be in for a difficult time. With the division’s three other teams in line to rejoin the playoff hunt, any missteps within the division would be costly for the Niners.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
What’s working for them: Urban Meyer didn’t take this job merely for the opportunity to make the leap to the NFL. Jacksonville offered rare positioning as a franchise poised to make a rapid surge to contention thanks to the arrival of a franchise quarterback and an immediate talent infusion via free agency and the draft.
Beyond his superlative physical abilities, Trevor Lawrence displays the poise, timing and decision-making to be the rare passer to thrive as a rookie. He should have solid support thanks to a promising crew of skill-position players and an adequate if uninspiring offensive line. The defense, though uneven, is dotted with key playmakers in Josh Allen, Myles Jack and C.J. Henderson, among others. With the Texans in disarray and the Colts and Titans each facing questions in important areas, there’s room for this group to compete in the AFC South.
What’s working against them: Even if Lawrence proves to be a singular talent right away, how far can he reasonably take this roster in his professional debut? Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers might serve as a relevant comparison case, as the 2020 offensive rookie of the year’s record-setting campaign yielded just a 6-9 record in games he started.
When the losses inevitably mount, it will be unfamiliar territory for both Lawrence – he never suffered a regular-season defeat in high school or at Clemson – and Meyer, who dropped just nine games in seven years at Ohio State. Both will need to be resilient, as even the quickest turnaround will entail its share of bumps. Meyer especially will be under pressure to prove himself at the pro level, and his poor handling of director of sports performance Chris Doyle’s hiring and subsequent split from the organization suggest he’ll have to adjust to a different balance of power than the one to which he’s accustomed. While the long-term outlook is promising, the roster might not be ready for a playoff push.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
What’s working for them: If there’s any division ripe for this kind of turnaround, it’s once again this one. Just three wins separated the Eagles (4-11-1 in 2020) – they weren’t eliminated from contention until Week 16 – from the NFC East champion WFT. With no powerhouse among this foursome, there’s plenty of potential for more odd outcomes in 2021.
Even though new Philadelphia coach Nick Sirianni has refused to commit to Jalen Hurts as his starting quarterback, the second-year passer provided a spark at times last year when the offense flatlined under since-traded Carson Wentz. Hurts can team with Miles Sanders and a deep collection of running backs to fuel a potentially formidable rushing attack, and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith finally provides Philadelphia with the go-to target it has lacked for some time. The offensive line looks to be in much better shape with the return of multiple starters – right tackle Lane Johnson, right guard Brandon Brooks and left tackle Andre Dillard – who missed most or all of last season.
What’s working against them: It’s not easy to compete during a “transition period,” as center Jason Kelce contended Philadelphia could. And given the Eagles stockpiled 2022 draft picks during their teardown process, that could be when the rebuild begins in earnest.
Though he still has ample opportunity to grow as a passer and build on his playmaking streak, Hurts has yet to look the part of a reliable starter, completing just 52% of his attempts in 2020 while looking largely out of sorts in the pocket. And for all of the focus on offense, first-year coordinator Jonathan Gannon has his work cut out for him with an under-resourced defense. The division, meanwhile, might not be as friendly as it seems, with the Cowboys and Giants boosted by the returns of Dak Prescott and Saquon Barkley, respectively, and Washington still riding a second-ranked defense that could grow even more imposing as its young core matures. And with every other coach in the division entering Year 2 at the helm, Sirianni will be at a disadvantage when it comes to continuity.
4. Denver Broncos
What’s working for them: A year ago, Denver was a trendy pick to break through as a playoff team in the AFC West. Though the hype proved premature, the collection of talent still should spark a sense of optimism.
While the offense might only go as far as Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater can take it, neither passer will be lacking in support. Receivers Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy and tight end Noah Fant headline a stellar group of pass catchers, and Garett Bolles emerged as a surprising cornerstone at left tackle. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb combined for 26½ sacks when they last played a full season together in 2018, so Miller’s return should prove meaningful. The rebuilt secondary already has Miller touting the group as “No Fly Zone 2.0.” That might be a lofty title for newcomers Kyle Fuller, Patrick Surtain II and Ronald Darby to live up to, but the defense could recapture its place among the league’s best. If the group lives up to Vic Fangio’s vision and the offense avoids mistakes while taking advantage of skill-position talent, Denver could be a difficult matchup for the rest of the division.
What’s working against them: New GM George Paton was intent on adding competition for Lock, but he brought in Bridgewater rather than use his top draft selection (No. 9) on a passer. That move might prove to be a half-measure that leaves Denver in quarterback purgatory.
Whatever good will Lock had with the staff entering last season might have been eradicated by a 15-interception season in which he played far too recklessly. The third-year passer now will split training camp reps “50-50” with Bridgewater, Fangio said. Yet if Bridgewater is handed the reins, he’ll have to prove his low-risk, low-reward style of play is sufficient after the Carolina Panthers parted with him after just one year. Ultimately, neither quarterback seems a likely candidate to vault the Broncos past the Kansas City Chiefs, who have won their last 11 meetings against Denver and represented the AFC in the past two Super Bowls. For a franchise that has suffered four consecutive losing seasons after not enduring back-to-back sub-.500 years since 1971-72, getting to nine wins might be the more realistic goal.
5. Atlanta Falcons
What’s working for them: Stability at quarterback is seldom seen among rebuilding teams, but the Falcons are fortunate to have Matt Ryan. Even at 36, he has maintained a level of consistency that augurs well for Arthur Smith to be competitive in his inaugural season as head coach.
If Atlanta manages to return Julio Jones despite the perennial Pro Bowl receiver’s insistence that he’s “out of there,” the passing attack should be among the league’s most imposing as it adds tight end and No. 4 overall pick Kyle Pitts alongside Calvin Ridley. Though the defense’s reinforcements were modest, the development of young cornerbacks A.J. Terrell and Kendall Sheffield along with the additions of safeties Duron Harmon and Richie Grant should buoy a secondary that yielded a league-worst 293.6 yards per game last year. Given that they were just 2-9 in games decided by eight points or fewer last season and finished with a mere minus-18 point differential, the Falcons could be well-positioned for a sharp turnaround. And with the Panthers and New Orleans Saints both facing uncertain outlooks at quarterback, Atlanta has a good chance to climb out of the cellar.
What’s working against them: In bypassing a top quarterback in the draft to select Pitts, the Falcons sent a clear message about their intent to compete right away. Those plans could fall by the wayside if the team undercuts its greatest strength by moving Jones. Ridley, Pitts and Hayden Hurst can keep the passing attack afloat, but any deal to send away Jones would undoubtedly be cause for celebration elsewhere in the NFC South.
The Falcons will likely need to establish a torrid scoring pace in order to compensate for a defense that figures to be spotty at best. Grady Jarrett and Dante Fowler will need to provide a consistent pass rush for an otherwise underwhelming group. And even if everything breaks right for Atlanta, it’s unreasonable to expect this team to somehow surpass the defending champion Buccaneers, who return all 22 starters in 2021.
6. New York Jets
What’s working for them: Cohesion has been in short supply for the Jets throughout the last decade, but GM Joe Douglas seems to have finally lined up the various facets of this franchise. Between Robert Saleh’s hiring and Zach Wilson’s anointment as the No. 2 draft pick and quarterback of both the future and the present, the Jets finally appear to have a positive direction after pulling up from the nosedive of Adam Gase’s two-year run as coach.
Gang Green’s roster got a needed facelift at several spots beyond quarterback. Adding Corey Davis in free agency and Elijah Moore in the draft gives Wilson the makings of a promising receiving corps, and the left side of the offensive line looks to be in good hands with tackle Mekhi Becton and rookie guard Alijah Vera-Tucker. Carl Lawson’s signing should rejuvenate a humdrum pass rush, and keeping Marcus Maye via the franchise tag should help stabilize a shaky secondary.
What’s working against them: For as much good as Douglas has done by charting a course and taking the first steps toward setting Wilson up for success, there’s only so much ground he can make up in one offseason. The Jets were the only team to go winless in their division last year, and their minus-214 point differential was by far the worst in the NFL.
Last year’s offense ranked last by a healthy margin in both yards (279.9) and points (15.8) per game. Given that Wilson was seldom subjected to consistent pressure at BYU, a substantial leap for the unit in Year 1 seems far-fetched. And if the audacious passer doesn’t become more discerning, he could be plagued by the turnover and timing issues that plagued predecessor Sam Darnold. The defense also provides a significant challenge for Saleh, who will be tasked with masking several deficiencies, particularly against the pass. Surpassing the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots in a single year is almost unfathomable given the work left to be done in New York.
7. Cincinnati Bengals
What’s working for them: Joe Burrow is back. The No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft participated in Day 1 of the team’s organized team activities after suffering torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments last November. Burrow estimated he’s “80-85%” recovered, leaving him plenty of time to get to full strength by Week 1.
Expectations remain lofty, with wide receiver Tyler Boyd declaring Burrow would “lead us to the promised land.” Cincinnati is intent on helping him rediscover the record-setting form he achieved as a Heisman Trophy winner at LSU, linking him up with former Tiger target Ja’Marr Chase. Even though Chase is an explosive downfield threat, the Bengals have acknowledged that Burrow might be best off attacking defenses with quick throws in the short-to-intermediate range. Getting the ball out quickly – thereby neutralizing opposing pass rushes – and letting Chase, Boyd and Tee Higgins rack up yards after the catch could be a fruitful formula for an attack that registered a league-low 35 completions of 20 or more yards. Joe Mixon also could be in line to do significant damage as both a runner and receiver given how committed coach Zac Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan are to giving him a robust workload.
What’s working against them: Cincinnati enters Year 3 under Taylor needing Burrow to ignite the offense despite a haphazard protection plan. Bringing on right tackle Riley Reiff and rookie guard Jackson Carman still leaves the burden on the second-year signal-caller to deploy a quick trigger. When Burrow does need to push the ball downfield, divisional pass rushers T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett and Calais Campbell, among others, will be in line to dole out punishment. An occasional deep connection will be necessary to keep defenses honest.
Even if Burrow has a breakout campaign, the Bengals might have to post gaudy point totals to compensate for a decrepit defense that looks worse for the wear after subbing in Trey Hendrickson and Chidobe Awuzie for Lawson and William Jackson III. And with the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers all returning playoff-caliber groups, Cincinnati will be hard-pressed to merely avoid its fourth consecutive fourth-place finish.
8. Detroit Lions
What’s working for them: Less than a year after succeeding her mother as principal owner, Sheila Ford Hamp gave the organization an overdue reset by dismissing coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn last November. Dan Campbell was tabbed as coach and Brad Holmes appointed GM, and the efforts to build a more cohesive culture within the team should make this franchise more competitively viable in the long term.
Campbell and Holmes appear prepared to make the best of the hand they were dealt. As the team shifts into a post-Matthew Stafford future, Detroit will lean on its up-and-coming offensive line to lead a hard-charging rushing attack. Jared Goff might not be an exciting replacement at quarterback, but the former Rams passer at least offers a stopgap solution for a team that otherwise would have been putting a rookie into an unfavorable situation. Meanwhile, there’s not much lower for the defense to go after it allowed an NFL-worst 419.8 yards and 32.4 points per game last season.
What’s working against them: Stoking the Lions’ competitive fire appears to be Campbell’s primary focus. Attaining meaningful progress in the standings, however, seems like a pipedream.
Goff has been a passable starter almost exclusively when things operate on schedule, but he can’t expect to replicate those conditions with a receiving corps cobbled together from castoffs. The ground-and-pound approach might help aid the defense in small stretches, but there’s no way to hide a unit this overmatched. Even if Jeff Okudah develops after a rocky rookie season, the secondary still looks to be among the NFL’s worst. Detroit has chosen to run against the grain of the league as a whole with a style focused on physicality above all else, and the early returns could be ugly.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL worst-to-first candidates: 49ers, Jaguars, Eagles could make jump