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Which NFL Basement Dweller Will Win Their Division This Year?

In 2017, the Eagles jumped from last place in the NFC East to division winners and Super Bowl champs. Will we see another breakthrough like that in 2018?

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The NFL has always prided itself on parity, and due to a confluence of factors—from ballooning quarterback salaries to the rookie-wage scale to the CBA-mandated limit on full-pads practice—the proverbial playing field’s never been more level for cellar-dwelling teams hoping to get back into the playoffs. Just ask the Philadelphia Eagles, who, a year after finishing last in the NFC East, won their division—and the damn Super Bowl—in 2017.

The Eagles’ rapid ascension to the ranks of the league’s elite should serve as inspiration for last year’s eight last-place finishers, each of whom made significant changes to either their coaching staffs, rosters, or schemes over the offseason—or all of the above. But it’s not going to be easy for any of the Jets, Browns, Texans, Broncos, Giants, Bears, Bucs, and Niners to unseat established division leaders. So, looking at a few key variables, let’s rank each squad’s chances of going from worst-to-first in 2018.

8. New York Jets

Key Player Additions

The Jets signed corner Trumaine Johnson to a five-year, $72.5 million deal, capping the team’s makeover in the defensive secondary (which includes the recently re-signed Morris Claiborne and their two top picks from 2017, safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye). They also added free-agent linebackers Avery Williamson and Kevin Minter, running backs Isaiah Crowell and Thomas Rawls, center Spencer Long, and receiver Terrelle Pryor while trading for former Colts defensive end Henry Anderson. Plus, they get pass catcher Quincy Enunwa back from a neck injury that caused him to miss all of last year.

More importantly, New York signed free agent Teddy Bridgewater and selected USC’s Sam Darnold with the third overall pick. Bridgewater impressed at offseason minicamps and provides some competition for 39-year-old incumbent Josh McCown, and Darnold offers tantalizing upside and could start over over both Bridgewater and McCown from day one.

Coaching or Scheme Changes

Offensive coordinator John Morton is out; Jeremy Bates is in. Bates brings plenty of experience working with quarterbacks—but past that, it’s tough to know what to expect from a guy who last coordinated an offense in 2010 (Pete Carroll fired him from his Seahawks staff after just one year) and spent four of the last five years away from football (part of which he spent hiking the Continental Divide). Bates is expected to install a West Coast passing game with a zone-blocking rush attack. That’s about all we know.

Strength of Schedule

The first six weeks of the Jets’ schedule looks relatively light, with matchups against the Lions, Dolphins, Browns, Broncos, and Colts punctuated by a tough Week 4 tilt against the Jags. The various strength-of-schedule models all imply New York’s set to face one of the easier schedules in the league this year: Using the last year’s win/loss records, the Jets schedule is tied for 25th-toughest (i.e., eighth-easiest); per Chase Stuart’s analysis, which is based on initial Vegas point spreads and implied SRS ratings, it ranks 21st; and per Warren Sharp’s juice-adjusted Vegas win totals model, it’s just the 27th-hardest slate.

The Bottom Line

New York won five games in 2017 to finish slightly below their Adjusted Pythagorean expectation (5.65 wins), which implies marginal improvement in 2018. However, the team relatively lucky from an injury point of view last year, too, finishing 10th in adjusted games lost, so there is potential for regression there. Vegas currently has the Jets win total over/under set at six, and that feels about right.

The X-factor, of course, is what happens under center: It’s possible one of Darnold or Bridgewater takes the reins of Bates’s new offense and sparks an offensive explosion. But there’s still the question of where a defense that finished 28th in sacks and 18th in pressure rate last year is going to get its pass-rush. And ultimately, the Patriots still stand in the way. New England’s finished first in the AFC East in 14 of the last 15 seasons, including the last nine, and unless Tom Brady gets hurt, it’s hard to see this being the year that the Jets unseat them.

7. Cleveland Browns

Key Player Additions

It hurts that future Hall of Fame left tackle Joe Thomas retired. But past that, the Browns have used free agency and the draft to upgrade on both sides of the ball. At quarterback, Tyrod Taylor and rookie top pick Baker Mayfield are set to replace DeShone Kizer. Receivers Jarvis Landry (trade) and Antonio Callaway (draft) should help boost the passing attack, and running backs Carlos Hyde (free agent) and Nick Chubb (draft), along with rookie offensive lineman Austin Corbett, will bolster the run game. Defensively, the team added defensive back Damarious Randall (trade), cornerbacks E.J. Gaines and T.J. Carrie and linebacker Mychal Kendricks (all free agents), plus rookie Denzel Ward, a talent spike that eases the losses of Jamar Taylor, Jason McCourty, and defensive tackle Danny Shelton.

Coaching or Scheme Changes

The Browns’ offense could look a lot different this year as it transitions from Hue Jackson’s play-calling to that of former Steelers OC Todd Haley. I’d like to imagine a Pittsburghesque style emerging, with Landry playing the role of all-around playmaker Antonio Brown; Josh Gordon the deep-threat, à la Martavis Bryant; and Duke Johnson the Le’Veon Bell–style pass-catching threat out of the backfield.

Strength of Schedule

The Browns got a tough opening draw, hosting the Steelers in Week 1 before hitting the road to play the Saints in Week 2. Overall, Cleveland’s schedule ranks among the 10 toughest by several metrics: Using last year’s win/loss records, it’s tied for fifth-toughest; per initial Vegas point spreads, it’s seventh hardest; and per the juice-adjusted Vegas win totals, it ranks eighth toughest.

The Bottom Line

The Browns weren’t as bad as their zero-win performance last year, falling well short of their Adjusted Pythagorean expectation of 2.92 wins. And per Football Outsiders, “Historically, teams … that underperform by two or more wins improve by an average of 3.2 wins” the next year—meaning even if everything else were equal, we could expect Cleveland to actually win a few games in 2018. Vegas has the Browns’ initial over/under set at 5.5 wins, but accounting for major personnel changes, especially at the quarterback position, I’m taking the over. Even with their tough schedule, it’s not all that tough to picture a six- or seven-win team, especially if Taylor or Mayfield helps Cleveland cut down on the crippling (and league-worst) 41 turnovers the team committed last year.

That said, I just don’t see Cleveland moving past Pittsburgh or Baltimore in the AFC North.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key Player Additions

The Bucs added some much-needed juice to its league-worst pass rush over the offseason, trading for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and inking free-agent pass-rusher Vinny Curry. Add rookie nose tackle Vita Vea and cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis to the mix, plus the return of third-year pass-rusher Noah Spence from a shoulder injury, and the defense could make a jump. Offensively, Tampa Bay signed veteran offensive lineman Ryan Jensen and took USC running back Ronald Jones II in the second round.

Coaching or Scheme Changes

None.

Strength of Schedule

The Bucs could have a tough early stretch, and draw the Saints (in New Orleans), Eagles, and Steelers (both at home) while Jameis Winston serves his three-game suspension to start the year. It doesn’t ease up much from that brutal opening slate, either: Last year’s win/loss totals give the Bucs the fourth-toughest schedule, Tampa Bay has the eighth-toughest schedule per the Vegas-line based model from Football Perspective, and Sharp’s juice-adjusted Vegas win total method gives them the second-hardest schedule—including the toughest slate of pass defenses in the league.

The Bottom Line

The Buccaneers underperformed last year, finishing 5-11 while falling well short of their Adjusted Pythagorean expectation (6.51 wins), partly due to a 3-7 record in one-score games. Taken in combination with the key changes the team made on defense, Tampa Bay has a chance to improve in 2018—even despite Winston’s suspension—and could get itself out of the cellar. But the Bucs will face one of the toughest schedules in the NFL and play in probably the best division in the league. I just can’t see Tampa Bay moving past the Saints, Falcons, and Panthers to win the NFC South.

5. Chicago Bears

Key Player Additions

The Bears revamped their offensive skill-position corps, signing receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel and tight end Trey Burton while drafting receiver Anthony Miller. Defensively, rookie linebacker Roquan Smith looks like an instant impact player, while free-agent outside linebacker Aaron Lynch could provide pass-rush help.

Coaching or Scheme Changes

Chicago ranks near the top of the list of teams I’m looking forward to watching next year, particularly because of the aggressive offensive scheme new head coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich plan to install. Expect some variation of the Chiefs’ West Coast/college spread hybrid, with a healthy dose of play-action passes downfield and plenty of RPOs. It’s going to be fun to watch and should be the perfect fit for second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

Strength of Schedule

Using the traditional win/loss method to calculate strength of schedule, Chicago is tied for eighth-toughest late in 2018. But per Football Perspective’s Vegas-line method, it ranks 11th, and per Sharp’s Superior Strength Of Schedule tack, it ranks middle of the road at 16th toughest.

The Bottom Line

In finishing 5-11 last year, Chicago underperformed their Adjusted Pythagorean expectation (6.23) by 1.23 wins, suggesting improvement on that total in 2018. That’s especially true if the team finally gets some luck in the injury department: Chicago’s finished 32nd and 31st in the past two years in Adjusted Games Lost—they have nowhere to go but up on that front.

I like the team’s chance for a big jump on offense, and the defense under Vic Fangio is underrated. The main problem the Bears will face in going from worst-to-first is that they’re in one of the toughest divisions in football. Green Bay gets Aaron Rodgers back, while Minnesota—already one of the best, most complete teams in the league—just added Kirk Cousins. The Lions aren’t an easy out, either, and with Matt Stafford throwing passes to Golden Tate and Marvin Jones Jr., Detroit could challenge in the NFC North. The Bears are going in the right direction, but a division title likely isn’t in the cards this year.

4. New York Giants

Key Player Additions

The Giants’ offense will get a major infusion of talent this year after adding running back Saquon Barkley, offensive tackle Nate Solder, and rookie guard Will Hernandez. Oh, and they get Odell Beckham Jr. back from injury, too. On the other side of the ball, the team adds defensive end Kareem Martin, linebacker Alec Ogletree, and safety Michael Thomas while losing Pierre-Paul, linebackers Jonathan Casillas and Devon Kennard, and corners Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Ross Cockrell.

Coaching or Scheme Changes

New head coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Mike Shula could design a pretty fun new scheme, mixing Shurmur’s West Coast passing roots with the versatile power-run game Shula deployed in Carolina. And expect new defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s aggressive system to be blitz-heavy.

Strength of Schedule

It’s tough sledding on the schedule front for New York, no matter how you slice it. Based on last year’s win-loss records, the Giants head into 2018 tied for the eighth-toughest slate. Per Chase Stuart’s Vegas-line-based projection, New York’s schedule ranks sixth-toughest. And Sharp has the Giants facing the fourth-toughest schedule in the league—including the hardest slate in Weeks 1-7, and the second-toughest lineup of pass defenses.

The Bottom Line

The Giants fell short of their 4.35-win Adjusted Pythagorean expectation last year, winning just three games, and they had plenty of bad injury luck, too, finishing 25th in the NFL in Adjusted Games Lost. Both variables suggest positive regression in 2018, and the additions the team made on offense (plus Beckham’s return) bring the potential for a major turnaround on that side of the ball. But much depends on what Shurmur and company get out of 37-year-old Eli Manning. In that realm, I’m cautiously optimistic … but only to a point. That unit will have to transform into one of the league’s best or hope for a huge jump from the defense, to give this team a shot at the division title. It’s a stretch to imagine either scenario.

No team has won the NFC East crown twice in a row since 2004, so the Eagles aren’t exactly a lock to defend their division title, but they’re far and away the deepest and most talented team from top to bottom. While the Giants are almost sure to improve (Vegas has their win total over/under pegged at 6.5), projecting them to finish above Philly is a bridge too far.

3. Denver Broncos

Key Player Additions

The Broncos made some key additions to their offense, trading for tackle Jared Veldheer and drafting running back Royce Freeman and receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton. Defensively, Bradley Chubb should be a day-one impact starter whose pass-rush chops opposite Von Miller could create enough chaos to cover up the loss of corner Aqib Talib. Most crucially, though, Denver’s finally found a starting-caliber quarterback in Case Keenum.

Coaching or Scheme Changes

Bill Musgrave replaced Mike McCoy and took over as interim offensive coordinator last November, and he was given the full-time role after the season. Musgrave should be a good fit with Keenum, and his offense could, as it did in Oakland in 2015 and 2016, incorporate a bevy of spread concepts, RPOs (some of which he picked up under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia), and deep shots.

Strength of Schedule

Denver’s schedule is middle of the road per most metrics. It ranks tied for 25th-toughest per the traditional win/loss method and 18th per Football Perspective’s initial Vegas-lines, and it’s the 13th-most-difficult per Sharp.

The Bottom Line

Keenum was better last year than just about anyone could’ve imagined, and even if he regresses some in 2018, he still represents a substantial upgrade over Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, and Paxton Lynch. His presence alone has the potential to make a profound impact on the offense, which, despite featuring Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, finished 31st in Football Outsiders DVOA.

I expect that Denver’s defense will continue to play at a relatively high level (despite declining slightly in 2017, they still finished 10th in defensive DVOA) and that the Broncos will take a jump forward in 2018. However, it’s going to be tough to get past both the Chargers and Chiefs.

2. San Francisco 49ers

Key Player Changes

The Niners looked to boost their offense around Jimmy Garoppolo over the offseason, adding center Weston Richburg and running back Jerick McKinnon in free agency and tackle Mike McGlinchey and receiver Dante Pettis in the draft. Plus, they get Pierre Garçon back from a neck injury. On defense, the team added corner Richard Sherman, pass rusher Jeremiah Attaochu, linebacker Korey Toomer, and third-round rookie linebacker Fred Warner in addition to getting Malcolm Smith back from injury.

Coaching or Scheme Changes

None.

Strength of Schedule

San Francisco could benefit from a middle-of-the-road strength of schedule this year, tying for the 15th-toughest slate per last year’s win/loss records and facing the 19th-ranked schedule per Football Perspective and the 23rd-ranked schedule based on Sharp’s juice-adjusted Vegas win totals.

Overall Outlook

Kyle Shanahan’s offense boasts sky-high potential under Garoppolo, and a full offseason of immersion into his playbook should only help the fifth-year pro build on a promising final five games of 2017 (in which the 49ers went 5-0 as he completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,542 yards with six touchdowns, five interceptions, and a 94.0 rating on 8.7 yards per attempt). The team has a ways to go on defense after finishing 26th in DVOA last year, and Sherman’s a big wild card. If the former Seahawk returns to his All-Pro form, that unit could make a jump. If not, the offense may need to carry a heavy load. In either case, the Niners are a team on the rise—and the NFC West is pretty wide open, with Vegas setting Seattle’s win total over/under at 8, San Francisco’s at 8.5, and L.A.’s at 9.5.

The Rams remain the team to beat, especially after adding Marcus Peters, Talib, Brandin Cooks, and Ndamukong Suh. Super-teams don’t always work as we might expect, though, and the Niners look primed to challenge for divisional supremacy.

1. Houston Texans

Key Player Changes

On paper, the Texans’ new additions are modest: Safety Tyrann Mathieu brings potential to help the team’s pass defense, and a pair of rookies in safety Justin Reid and receiver Keke Coutee could make an impact in year one. In reality, though, the “additions” of quarterback Deshaun Watson, defensive end J.J. Watt, and pass rusher Whitney Mercilus, all set to return from injury, give Houston a fighting chance to go from worst to first.

Significant Coaching Changes

With Mike Vrabel off to coach the Titans, longtime Houston coach Romeo Crennel (who coordinated the defense from 2014 to 2016 before transitioning to assistant head coach last year) takes back the reins of the defense. It should be a seamless transition.

Strength of Schedule

Houston’s set to benefit from the luck of the league’s schedule-making system. Per last year’s win/loss totals, Stuart’s Vegas-lines method, and Sharp’s Vegas win-totals tack, the Texans have the easiest schedule of any team in the NFL.

The Bottom Line

The Texans underachieved last year, winning four games to fall short of their 5.71-win Adjusted Pythagorean expectation. They were extraordinarily unlucky with injuries, too, losing Watson and Watt to finish 29th in Football Outsiders Adjusted Games Lost metric. By both measures, Houston is a strong candidate for a bounce-back in 2018, and that’s before factoring in the team’s easy schedule.

Watson will need to prove that last year’s passing explosion was no fluke, and Watt will need to show he can stay healthy and resemble the Defensive Player of the Year he was before recent injuries slowed him. But that duo alone gives Houston the potential to quickly become a force in the AFC. The Jaguars, with their elite defense and intimidating run game, are going to have something to say about all that, of course. But Houston’s got a real shot at the division.