The Top 2017 Worst-to-First Candidates

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2017

The Top 2017 Worst-to-First Candidates

0 of 8

    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    It's easy to sit back and laugh at the optimism shared by fans of some of the sporting world's worst teams.

    But every year, examples of those bottom-feeding teams shooting right up to the top of the standings persists. Though small in number, it helps explain why fans of even the most downtrodden franchises hit offseasons and subsequent seasons with a rekindled sense of hope.

    The NFL served up a good example this season—the rest of the NFC East probably got a hearty chuckle out of the Dallas Cowboys' last-place finish at 4-12 in 2015. One year later, the Cowboys own the division at 13-3.

    It's one example of how things have to get worse before they can get better. So though some struggling teams look lost in a purgatory of sorts, remember a turnaround could happen almost without notice.

    America loves nothing more than a good underdog and a comeback story. The following eight teams provide both this year and beyond.

Carolina Panthers

1 of 8

    Phelan Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers can only hope the return to prominence happens as fast as the fall.

    In one season, Cam Newton and the Panthers went from appearing in the Super Bowl to finishing 6-10 while the rest of the NFC South passed them by.

    It's not too difficult to see where things went wrong. The Panthers had to deal with a wealth of injuries in 2016, including losing Luke Kuechly for an extended period and Newton at times.

    Of course, before the season, there was that whole Josh Norman thing, when the Panthers let arguably the best cornerback in football walk.

    Still, if Carolina addresses needs on defense properly and Newton adapts his game, helping him take fewer hits than usual, the Panthers will be back in business in the NFC South. The Panthers still ranked sixth in the NFL against the rush, permitting 91.6 yards per game, so shoring up the pass defense will have the unit fully back to its former productive self.

    The NFC South was great in 2016, but not so great a healthy Newton can't have his team back on top, especially with a potentially easy schedule after finishing fourth.

Atlanta Braves

2 of 8

    David Goldman/Associated Press

    It seems like just a matter of time before the Atlanta Braves climb back into National League East contention.

    The hardest part is over—the simple admission of a rebuild. Atlanta won the division in 2013 and has faded since, finishing tied for second, fourth and finally fifth this past year at 68-93.

    But over the ugly stretch, the Braves made some future-minded moves like shipping away Jason Heyward and shoring up one of the most important positions of all with shortstop Dansby Swanson.

    Atlanta has a smooth, multi-faceted thing going here. It keeps drafting high-upside arms for the future, but it also can contend now thanks to veteran starters such as R.A. Dickey. The Braves ranked seventh in the National League as a whole last year as opponents averaged .256 against its pitchers, so veteran upgrades here mean things only look better in the short term.

    Maybe the Braves are still a few years out. But the addition of veterans signals the team's desire to start winning games again while future talent develops. Given the current construction of the roster, getting back into divisional contention is certainly worth monitoring.

Edmonton Oilers

3 of 8

    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Don't look now, but the Edmonton Oilers are smack in the middle of the worst-to-first process.

    It has been a long, long journey for the Oilers and their fans, the playoff drought stretching back to 2005-06 and a last-place finish in the Pacific a season ago at 31-43-8.

    This year, though, the Oilers have stormed to 22 victories after Thursday's overtime win over the New Jersey Devils, seating them a few games out of first place, chasing the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks.

    Connor McDavid has been an absolute stud during this process, boasting a team-high 50 points. Scratch that—he leads the NHL in scoring, above names such as Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. New arrival Milan Lucic has dominated on the frontline and has 27 points. This offensive prowess, as planned, has the Oilers thinking division title.

    Having already collected a win against Anaheim and having played San Jose close, it's clear the Oilers are here to stay. A division crown isn't as clear, but it wouldn't be much of a surprise, either.

    Finally, right?

Jacksonville Jaguars

4 of 8

    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Tired of seeing the Jacksonville Jaguars on a list like this each year?

    Good—odds are they won't qualify much longer.

    Yes, the Jaguars haven't posted a better record than 8-8 since 2007. But team owner Shahid Khan and general manager David Caldwell have finally decided to mix things up, hiring new head coach Doug Marrone.

    More importantly, the franchise brought on Tom Coughlin to act as executive vice president of football operations. Coughlin, meaning the guy who coached the organization as an expansion team before joining the New York Giants and competing for titles.

    Coughlin will have full control of the 53-man roster, which is nothing but good news. There is some good young talent in Jacksonville and even during a three-win season last year, the team split the season series with both the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans. The defense usually comes under fire, but keep in mind the unit ranked fifth this year against the pass, allowing just 215.3 yards per game while intercepting seven passes and recording 33 sacks.

    That might be the biggest point here—the AFC South is miserable, an open door for a team with a new disciplinarian in control ready to charge through.

Miami Heat

5 of 8

    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    In Pat Riley the Miami Heat trust.

    The Heat aren't competing for a title this year, that much is clear. It's January and the team hardly has double-digit wins going for it.

    Still, one has to understand how Riley operates. He's not a rebuilding kind of guy, hence the quick reload after LeBron James went home. But he's not a guy who can plan for something as unexpected as the medical situation around Chris Bosh, either.

    Miami remains a top-tier destination for free agents. If the team sheds Goran Dragic's contract and puts Bosh behind it for good, one or two quality free agents around a Hassan Whiteside core will have the Heat right back in the Southeast Division conversation.

    Whiteside is his usual self at averages of 17.5 points, 14.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. But future-looking assets look good, too. Dion Waiters averages 12.8 points per game and Justise Winslow, the No. 10 pick in 2015, was averaging 10.9 points, 3.7 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game before a torn labrum ended his season.

    This isn't as hard as it sounds, either, not with middling Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards teams looking like the biggest threats in the division moving forward.

    Miami is currently on track to finish last, but it's going to be a quick rebound.

Chicago Bears

6 of 8

    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    With one week left in the season, the Chicago Bears had a silly 19 players sitting on injured reserve.

    They weren't just space fillers, either. We're talking starting quarterback Jay Cutler. Elite guard Kyle Long. Starting nose tackle Eddie Goldman. Starting linebacker Danny Trevathan. Wideout Kevin White. Tight end Zach Miller. Wideout Eddie Royal. Quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Brian Hoyer.

    One can begin to see why the Bears only won three games.

    Yet, should the Bears get and stay healthy, it's not hard to see the team competing for the NFC North next year. The hobbled roster beat the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings once and almost upset the Green Bay Packers.

    Other than the injured names returning, Chicago has some quality building blocks. Fifth-round pick Jordan Howard shattered the team's rookie rushing record held by Matt Forte, rushing for 1,313 yards and six scores. The defense, though playing without many injured names, had young starters like Cre'Von LeBlanc playing well as the unit ranked seventh against the pass at just 224.9 yards allowed per game.

    Of course, Chicago has some serious work to do this offseason. Quarterback might need to be addressed and the defensive secondary needs some work. But the Bears were arguably the most talented team to finish last in a division in 2016, making them a safer-than-usual bet as a worst-to-first candidate.

Minnesota Timberwolves

7 of 8

    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Look, everyone is tired of hearing about how talented the Minnesota Timberwolves are by now.

    Fair enough. Ricky Rubio and Kris Dunn aren't working out together. Zach LaVine is doing what he can. Ditto for Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

    Despite the obvious talent, the Timberwolves keep flirting with or outright sitting in last place in the Northwest this year. Such a status, at this pace, doesn't seem like it will change at all for the remainder of the season.

    On paper, there is a simple process for fixing the flailing Timberwolves—add a quality rim protector at power forward, coach up the defensive side of things and stick to consistent lineups.

    Case in point, according to ESPN.com, the young, offensive-minded Timberwolves rank tied for 15th in the NBA in adjusted field-goal percentage at .506. On the other end of the court, the team ranks 27th, surrendering an adjusted field-goal percentage of .528.

    This process with new head coach Tom Thibodeau won't happen overnight. But the Timberwolves have tradable assets and other avenues to address the weak areas. If the coaching is right alongside quality moves, the Oklahoma City Thunder's weakened grip on the division will have the Timberwolves finally competing for the top spot.

    It's a lot of "ifs" around the team once again, but the sheer talent to go worst to first remains yet again.

Cleveland Browns

8 of 8

    Aaron Josefczyk/Associated Press

    Stop laughing.

    Yes, the Cleveland Browns haven't won more than seven games in a season since 2007. Yes, the franchise only has two winning seasons since coming back into existence in 1999.

    But this new regime, led by head coach Hue Jackson, feels different. This isn't a chew-up-and-spit-out Eric Mangini regime—it's a disciplined, actually modern professional rebuild committed to the plan.

    Cleveland has holes, no doubt. But there is talent on offense such as Joe Thomas, Isaiah Crowell and Terrelle Pryor Sr., with guys like Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton on defense. Crowell rushed for 952 yards and seven scores on a 4.8 per-carry average behind a struggling line. Pryor posted 1,007 yards and four scores despite catching passes from five different quarterbacks. The building blocks are certainly there.

    Led by Jackson, a culture change will lead to better talent acquisitions in free agency. In that same vein, impact rookies at No. 1 and No. 12 overall in the 2017 NFL draft could have the Browns jumping up the boards in a hurry.

    It's not like the AFC North has been impressive. The Cincinnati Bengals fell off a cliff, the Baltimore Ravens are a middling team and the Pittsburgh Steelers aren't immune to a fall (remember the back-to-back 8-8 campaigns in 2012 and 2013?).

    Anything can happen in the gritty AFC North, which is why there has been only two back-to-back divisional winners since 2002. With a few smart moves, it might finally be Cleveland's turn.