Which NFL Teams Are Ready to Make the Leap Next Year?
Twenty-five percent of this year's NFL division winners went from worst in 2017 to first in 2018, making it the 15th season in the last 16 years that at least one team has made that leap from the basement to the penthouse.
The Houston Texans and Chicago Bears were this year's big leapers, while two teams—the Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars—also accomplished that feat in 2017.
And those quick improvements aren't recent anomalies. The majority of this year's playoff teams weren't in last year's postseason, and according to Charean Williams of Pro Football Talk, at least four teams coming off non-playoff campaigns have made the playoffs in a ridiculous 29 consecutive seasons.
Who's next? Here are several teams that had losing records in 2018 but could be primed for breakout showings in 2019.
The Cleveland Browns were so bad two years ago that they can actually leap twice in as many seasons. They certainly leaped in 2018 by bouncing back from the third zero-win campaign in NFL history with an exciting 7-8-1 performance.
But the fashion in which the 2018 Browns season concluded could indicate that a playoff appearance awaits the team and its hungry fans in 2019.
It was a tale of two seasons—one with Hue Jackson and Todd Haley stoking a dumpster fire, and the other with running backs coach Freddie Kitchens getting the most out of a promising young offense in an interim coordinator role.
With Jackson and Haley out of the way, Kitchens and interim head coach Gregg Williams led the Browns to five wins in their final seven games. Rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield was a different player under Kitchens' tutelage, and there was a trickle-down from there.
Under Kitchens, the Browns averaged an NFL-best 6.9 yards per play and a solid 23.8 points per game. Mayfield was the league's sixth-highest-rated passer thanks to a 68.4 completion percentage and a 19-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Second-round rookie running back Nick Chubb also exploded down the stretch, while second-year first-round defenders Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers turned a corner together.
The Browns were likely to eventually turn a corner. It's almost hard not to become at least decent when you have a combined eight picks in the first two rounds of consecutive drafts.
Now they'll be a little more mature, they should be well-coached from the get-go (Kitchens has surrounded himself with a promising staff), and their division looks vulnerable.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are experiencing another tumultuous offseason, the aging Baltimore Ravens still have quarterback questions and the Cincinnati Bengals could be on the brink of a rebuild.
Typing this might cause my computer to self-destruct, but I'll give it a shot: The Browns could win the AFC North in 2019.
New York Jets
The New York Jets didn't finish 2018 as strongly as the Browns, but they did show signs of life late, and there are obvious parallels between the two 2019 AFC breakout candidates.
For starters, they both possess blue-chip quarterbacks who were top-three picks in the 2018 draft, and both have intriguing new head coaches with well-reputed offensive minds.
How much better can Sam Darnold be under the tutelage of quarterback guru Adam Gase? The 40-year-old failed to deliver in his first head coaching stint with the Miami Dolphins, but Ryan Tannehill was rarely healthy during that three-year stretch, and Darnold has a much higher ceiling.
Gase is of course heavily connected to Peyton Manning during their time in Denver, and he was the Bears' offensive coordinator during Jay Cutler's best season there (2015). It'll be fun to see what he can get out of a young stud under center, especially because Darnold performed pretty damn well after returning from a foot injury in December.
The 21-year-old USC product led an impressive fourth-quarter comeback in Buffalo in Week 14, and then he followed that up with back-to-back strong showings in close losses to the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers (he had five touchdown throws to zero interceptions and a 113.6 passer rating in those outings).
The Jets defense remained a liability right until the bitter end of the Todd Bowles era, but the addition of Gregg Williams on that side of the ball is at least compelling. And it's not as though they don't have talent there—safety Jamal Adams is quickly turning into a superstar, and Leonard Williams, Avery Williamson and Trumaine Johnson have impact-player tendencies.
Critically, general manager Mike Maccagnan will have plenty of opportunities to add support for Darnold as well as that defensive quartet, because current Spotrac projections indicate the Jets will have more salary-cap space than every team except the Indianapolis Colts.
And yeah, the New England Patriots still have the AFC East in a headlock. But what if Tom Brady wins a sixth ring next weekend and then walks away? It's not out of the realm of possibility, and a development like that would probably make the Jets an early favorite in that suddenly wide-open division.
Regardless, don't be surprised if they're a wild-card contender in 2019.
San Francisco 49ers
Everybody who pegged the San Francisco 49ers as a leap candidate in 2018—including yours truly—gets a do-over. After all, a rebuilding but promising 49ers team was ravaged by injuries in the fall, including a torn ACL suffered to young franchise centerpiece Jimmy Garoppolo just three weeks into the 27-year-old's first full season as an NFL starter.
Without Garoppolo and starting running back Jerick McKinnon, and with the Reuben Foster fiasco putting a strain on the team later on, few could have expected the 49ers to be victorious in more than the four games they managed to win in 2018.
But 49ers general manager John Lynch told SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday that Garoppolo is already throwing passes—to McKinnon!—at the team's facility, which bodes well for both of those players' chances of returning to the practice field well before the start of training camp.
The 49ers have one of the league's top offensive minds running the show, Lynch has endeared himself two years into his run as GM, and there's plenty of room for the defense to improve behind Pro Bowl focal point DeForest Buckner.
Plus, they're projected by Spotrac to enter the offseason with over $46 million to spend, and they hold the No. 2 pick in the draft.
It's easy to see it all coming together in 2019 for a squad that appears to be on the brink and probably has more potential than division rivals Seattle and Arizona.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Have the New Orleans Saints run out of gas? The league's hottest team entering the home stretch, New Orleans went cold the last eight weeks, and 40-year-old quarterback Drew Brees started to show his age.
What do the Carolina Panthers have in them? That team lost seven consecutive games after a 6-2 start, and now there are serious questions about franchise quarterback Cam Newton's balky throwing shoulder as a daunting offseason gets underway in Charlotte.
And does anyone trust the Atlanta Falcons? Matt Ryan and Julio Jones were healthy and productive all season, but Atlanta was out of contention well before December arrived and only fought back to 7-9 with three late-season wins against resigned opponents.
The NFC South just might be wide-open for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who haven't won said division since 2007 and haven't won a playoff game since doing this.
The key for a potential Bucs turnaround after a seventh last-place season in an eight-year span is that there's a lot of hype surrounding a coaching staff that might finally put a tight grip around a notoriously undisciplined team.
But new head coach Bruce Arians isn't just a no-nonsense disciplinarian. He's also a two-time Coach of the Year who got the best out of an aging Carson Palmer, helped groom Andrew Luck and oversaw some of the best years of Ben Roethlisberger's career.
Arians—who was 49-30-1 with the Cardinals and 9-3 as an interim head coach with the Colts—has won everywhere he's coached, even in Cleveland! The Browns' only playoff appearance this century came when he was the offensive coordinator there in 2002.
Could he be exactly what the doctor ordered for Jameis Winston? It's possible, and it's also a good sign that the 25-year-old supposed franchise quarterback posted a triple-digit passer rating in seven games down the stretch after reclaiming his starting job from Ryan Fitzpatrick.
It's not as though the cupboard is bare. Winston has Mike Evans, O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin to throw to, and new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles probably can't wait to get his hands on Vita Vea in support of steady veterans Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David.
The Bucs have the ingredients to turn this around quickly, especially if they hit with the No. 5 overall pick in April's draft.
If we're going to include the Jets mainly because of Sam Darnold, we should mention the Bills based on the presence of their own exciting second-year quarterback, Josh Allen.
The No. 7 overall pick made some remarkable plays with his legs as a rookie, but his passing numbers were significantly inferior to Darnold's, and he might not have as strong a supporting cast.
The Jets have a little more hope than Buffalo in the AFC East. But it could be worse. They could be the Dolphins.
Considering what they got out of rookie back Phillip Lindsay and rookie pass-rusher Bradley Chubb in support of Von Miller in 2018, it's possible the Broncos are just a quarterback away from contending.
Hell, even with a struggling Case Keenum, they looked like a potential playoff team entering December. With a revamped coaching staff, there's reason for optimism in Colorado.
Still, they're stuck in a division with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers, and that quarterback problem still exists for John Elway.
New York Giants
The Giants probably weren't as bad as their 3-13 record in 2017 or their 5-11 record in 2018, and when you've got dudes like Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr., you can never be counted out.
They also play in a traditionally wide-open division, and there's talent beyond the killer B's on both sides of the ball. Heck, they even went a respectable 4-4 in the second half of the 2018 season.
Still, does Eli Manning have it in him? Can Barkley do significantly more than he did during a five-win season? And can they rely on Beckham off the field? There are too many questions surrounding a team that is stuck in Cowboy- and Eagle-shaped shadows right now.