There are some years when a handful of last-place teams jump out as strong candidates to finish in first place the following season. This is not one of those years.
Two Januarys ago, I pegged the Eagles (7-9 in the NFC East in 2016), Jaguars (3-13 in the AFC South) and Panthers (6-10 in the NFC South) as the three last-place teams most likely to finish first in 2017. They obliged, with Philadelphia and Jacksonville winning their divisions and the Panthers finishing in second only by virtue of a tiebreaker. (And, of course, the Eagles won Super Bowl LII.) Last year, I ranked the Texans as having the best worst-to-first potential, and they went on to win the AFC South in 2018. From 2014 to ’18, five of the 15 teams ranked in the top three of my annual worst-to-first assessment have gone on to finish first the year after the ranking. This year, we’ll be lucky to get one.
Of course, the odds are against most last-place teams, at least based on the past five seasons: 19 of the 40 last-place teams that I’ve assessed since January of 2014 went on to finish in last place again, while just six managed to claim a division title.
Below is my ranking of the eight last-place teams of 2018, according to their chances of finishing first in 2019 (with the rankings presented in reverse order this year, for a twist):
8) Arizona Cardinals (NFC West, 3-13)
The Cardinals will enter 2019 with their third coach in three seasons, which does not reflect the kind of stability a team needs to succeed. They have two things working in their favor: They racked up 49 sacks (tied for fifth most in the NFL) and they have a franchise quarterback in Josh Rosen. But Arizona also finished 32nd on offense. Aside from David Johnson (who wasn’t able to do much in 2018) and veteran Larry Fitzgerald (who might be retiring), the Cardinals just don’t have much to work with on offense. And they’re stuck in a division with two playoff teams (the Rams and Seahawks) and a third team (the 49ers) that could become a playoff team when Jimmy Garoppolo returns to health.
7) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFC South, 5-11)
Turnovers helped lead to Dirk Koetter’s demise. He’s a very good offensive coach, but it’s tough to win in the NFL with a turnover differential of minus-18 (a league-high 35 turnovers against 17 takeaways). The defense needs help and must make more impact plays in 2019 — Jason Pierre-Paul had 12.5 sacks in his first year with the Bucs, but no one else approached double-digits. And Jameis Winston must consistently perform like a playoff-caliber QB, cutting way down on the turnovers (19:14 TD-to-INT ratio, with seven fumbles, three lost). The Saints ruled the division this season, but they’re not a lock to dominate again in 2019, and while the Falcons should be better, the Panthers appear to be a descending team. If Winston can put together the kind of season he seemed to be capable of when Tampa took him first overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, the Bucs could potentially make some noise.
6) Detroit Lions (NFC North, 6-10)
The Lions took a significant step backward in 2018, winning just one game (vs. New England in Week 3) against an opponent that finished the year with a winning record. Their top priority — whether it’s addressed via schematic adjustments enacted by whoever replaces Jim Bob Cooter at offensive coordinator or personnel changes, or both — is to fix the issues that led Matthew Stafford to throw for less than 200 yards per game (with four TDs and three INTs) over Detroit’s final six games. The offensive line is in fairly good shape, and Stafford should have plenty of years of production left, given that he’ll still only be 31 when the 2019 season starts. With additional time to implement his vision, Matt Patricia’s defense — which ranked 10th in 2018 — should theoretically be better. Detroit has tended to draft well in recent years. If some useful pieces can be added to the offense, and if the offense is also reinvigorated by the new coordinator, the Lions could get back on track in a division where the Packers and Vikings are also in flux to some degree.
5) Cincinnati Bengals (AFC North, 6-10)
There won’t be a clear-cut favorite in the AFC North heading into next season. The Ravens, who are aging on defense and face questions about the long-term sustainability of their offensive attack, could be peaking in 2018. The Steelers missed the playoffs and appear to be in danger of being enveloped by offseason drama. Cleveland should take the next step in 2019, but there are no guarantees in a new head coach’s first year. Of course, the Bengals will also be hiring a new coach. And they were one of the weakest defensive teams, yardage-wise, in NFL history, ranking fifth all-time in total yards allowed. But I think that issue can be alleviated somewhat by the coaching change. There is also more than enough talent on offense, which should be built around running back Joe Mixon going forward, with a complementary passing game featuring a serviceable Andy Dalton throwing to A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Giovani Bernard and (should he re-sign) Tyler Eifert. There is enough unpredictability around the division that I could easily see the Bengals rising above the fray next season — or finishing last once again.
4) Oakland Raiders (AFC West, 4-12)
I might be a season early on the Raiders, but my optimism around this team stems from the strong play of quarterback Derek Carr, who finished with career highs in passing yards (4,049) and completion percentage (68.9). Oakland was definitely an improved team down the stretch, with the exception of a Week 17 blowout loss to the Chiefs. Both sides of the ball require personnel upgrades, and I think that’s where new general manager Mike Mayock will help coach Jon Gruden, who exudes great enthusiasm and really knows how to coach football but has not always picked well in the draft. I think the Raiders will be better in Year 2 under Gruden, who has a quarterback-friendly offense, and I think they’ll win more games next year, though I think they’re still not quite ready to threaten the Chiefs or Chargers.
3) New York Jets (AFC East, 4-12)
I know the Patriots have won the AFC East in 16 of the last 18 seasons. But they can’t win forever, can they? When the fall comes, there will be an open competition between the Bills, Jets and Dolphins to fill the power vacuum. If the Jets hire the right coach, why can’t Sam Darnold follow in the footsteps of Mitch Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, who won division titles in their second NFL seasons? Darnold has shown every earmark of becoming a legit franchise quarterback this season despite working with a lesser supporting cast. As someone who entered the NFL without a ton of experience as a starting quarterback, he had to work through some ups and downs, including a stretch from Week 7 to Week 9 when he completed 47.3 percent of his passes with a 2:7 TD-to-INT ratio and a passer rating of 43.3, and a foot injury that cost him three games. But he finished strong (931 yards, six TDs, one pick and a 99.1 passer rating in his last four games) and looked like a much more confident quarterback at the end of the season. The roster needs a lot of work, but the Jets are projected to have plenty of salary-cap space, according to OverTheCap, and there’s every reason to believe in Darnold in 2019.
2) New York Giants (NFC East, 5-11)
While the Giants seriously underachieved in 2018, they’re closer to contending in 2019 than some people think. After all, they lost an NFL-high eight games by seven points or less, and they became the first team in league history to lose each of their final two games by a single point. Rookie running back Saquon Barkley was everything they were hoping he’d be when they drafted him No. 2 overall, while receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — even with his penchant for generating off-field attention — became one of just seven players to post four or more 1,000-yard seasons in the last five years. The keys for New York will be upgrading the pass rush after finishing tied for 30th in sacks and fortifying the offensive line to give Eli Manning time to throw.
As for Manning, I think he’s got two good seasons left in him. He didn’t play especially poorly in 2018. The offense ranked a decent 17th, and he completed a career-best 66.0 percent of his passes for 4,299 yards (fourth best in his career) and a passer rating of 92.4 (also fourth best). I would think about drafting a quarterback to develop behind Manning, but at this point, the Giants‘ best option is probably finding some extra talent to put around the 37-year-old.
1) Jacksonville Jaguars (AFC South, 5-11)
No 2017 playoff team fell further this season than the Jaguars. And no last-place team is in a better place to rebound, thanks to a talented defense that still finished fifth in the NFL — provided a few significant issues are addressed on offense. Really good coaches seem to be harder to find every day, with seemingly everybody in the NFL looking for innovative, creative offensive coordinators who have a total understanding of what opposing defenses do. But Jacksonville must find the right offensive coordinator to resurrect an attack that dropped from sixth in yards and fifth in scoring in 2017 to 27th and 31st in 2018. The Jags also need to straighten out Leonard Fournette, who put up a dud of a year in which he was hurt, suspended and — by his own admission — in suboptimal shape, although a healthier O-line should help in that regard. And then we come to the quarterback position.
Personally, I think Nick Foles would be an attractive fit in Jacksonville, among the options that figure to be up for grabs. There seems to be a little bit of magic to him, and that’s definitely something the Jags could use at QB. His overall record as a starter (26-18) might not wow you, but you can’t argue with a Super Bowl MVP award. He’s like the sales rep who might not be the slickest guy on the team but is able to land the accounts that matter. I’d also like Ryan Tannehill here should he become available. But even if you put the names of Foles, Tannehill, Joe Flacco and Teddy Bridgewater in a hat and pulled one out, whoever you chose would be an upgrade over Blake Bortles, who had one of the worst seasons of his career in Year 5.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.