NFL Teams Ready to Make a Huge Leap in 2019
Right now, as the first week of the NFL preseason unfolds, every team (and its fanbase) has hopes of taking a major leap in 2019.
But there are only so many leaps to be made in a season. It not only requires a strong strategy but also a team stumbling to leave a void.
The nature of a leap can vary, of course. For some teams, it is going from a purgatory-esque state into the playoffs. For others, getting out of the first round of the postseason and into true Super Bowl contention is the next step. And for those scraping the bottom of the barrel, upping the win total by five or six is a sign a rebuild is going swimmingly.
Based on their bodies of work since last season and a simple projection, these are the teams poised to make the biggest leaps.
It has to be stressful to be a fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars given the way they seem to yo-yo between contention and the NFL cellar.
In the span of one year, they went from sparring with Tom Brady in the AFC title game to finishing 14th in the AFC with just five wins and a single victory in the AFC South.
But the Jaguars got a big win by landing Nick Foles in free agency. Maybe the 30-year-old quarterback hasn't always played like his playoff-caliber self, but the offense has interesting pieces like wide receiver Dede Westbrook and should move more reliably now. Foles, besides his level of experience now, has the benefit of getting all the starter reps in camp and brings more consistency than the Blake Bortles era.
And the defense—which finished top-five in 2018—will only improve with the addition of pass-rusher Josh Allen, this year's seventh overall selection.
Given the already strong base defense, the addition of underrated players such as second-round offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor and the upgrade at the most important position, the Jaguars shouldn't have a problem leaping out of the five-win hole and sparring for a division title.
San Francisco 49ers
Everything seems to be coming together for the San Francisco 49ers.
Jimmy Garoppolo is back under center after recovering from a torn ACL, which sure beats the tar out of the Nick Mullens-C.J. Beathard combo that led to a 4-12 finish last year and just a single win in the competitive NFC West.
Garoppolo could have a slow transition back or not live up to the delayed hype, but even so, the rest of the happenings should propel the team beyond .500.
Jerick McKinnon, who missed last year with an ACL injury, has returned. He is part of a loaded backfield with Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida, who form a solid pass-catching stable to complement players like rookie wideout Deebo Samuel and flirting-with-elite tight end George Kittle.
Defensively, the 49ers will make a leap with second overall pick Nick Bosa. He is joining DeForest Buckner, who led the team with 12 sacks in 2018, as well as Pro Bowl defensive end Dee Ford, who came over in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs. Kwon Alexander solidifies the middle of the linebacker unit.
Last year, the Niners took down the Seattle Seahawks in Week 15 and then lost to the Chicago Bears by just five points. A big upswing wouldn't be a shocker given the above.
It isn't just about Cam Newton, though it's good news the 2015 MVP didn't start the year on the PUP list.
But when it comes to making a leap from last year's sluggish 7-9 record—with just two of those wins coming in the NFC South—everything else is important too.
The Carolina Panthers have addressed the offensive line by adding center Matt Paradis, retaining Daryl Williams and drafting Greg Little in the second round. Sixteenth overall pick Brian Burns boosts what was already a strong on-paper pass-rushing rotation—as does Gerald McCoy, who signed with the Panthers in June. The presence of two new faces should only help unearth the unit's overall potential.
Christian McCaffrey broke out in his sophomore campaign for 1,098 rushing yards and seven touchdowns as well as 867 yards and six scores through the air. He will again be an offensive centerpiece around a rebuilt offensive line. If the defense gets nastier in terms of disruption, the Panthers should be punching well above the .500 line.
The Baltimore Ravens made the playoffs last year, and it is easy to see that as the beginning of something bigger.
Lamar Jackson stunned the NFL, stepping in for Joe Flacco at quarterback and running for 695 yards and five touchdowns and then tossing two scores and running for 54 yards in a playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
All the Ravens have done since is mold their offense around Jackson. Flacco is gone (traded to the Denver Broncos). Robert Griffin III is returning as the mentor. Running back Mark Ingram Jr. arrived in free agency as the sledgehammer for the backfield. First-round wide receiver Marquise Brown is a top target. And despite some defensive losses, Earl Thomas boosts the secondary.
Of course, none of it matters if Jackson doesn't stay ahead of the curve as defenses get accustomed to his acumen as a runner. The Ravens have changed the playbook, and Jackson seems improved as a passer. He connected on four of his six passing attempts and tossed a touchdown in Week 1's preseason game against the Jaguars on Thursday.
"I think the guys are all rallying around seeing how much improvement he's made," Griffin said, according to ESPN's Jamison Hensley.
With Jackson clearly throwing well and a new cast of weapons leading the charge, much more than last year's wild card should be an achievable goal. It doesn't hurt that the Pittsburgh Steelers could end up stumbling without a talent like Antonio Brown on the field, too.
Sometimes ridiculous-seeming hype is justified.
That seems to be the case with the Cleveland Browns. Baker Mayfield was a stud as a rookie, especially after a change at head coach from Hue Jackson to interim boss Gregg Williams, and he finished his season with 27 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. He's flanked by one of the deepest backfields in the NFL, even after the trade of Duke Johnson, per Tom Pelissero of NFL Network.
Don't forget about Odell Beckham Jr., who got as much as he could out of Eli Manning in New York last year, accumulating 1,052 receiving yards and six scores while averaging 13.7 yards per catch over 12 games.
Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon only bring more disruption to a solid front seven and value picks like second-round cornerback Greedy Williams and fifth-round linebacker Mack Wilson are starting to produce.
Even without some of these offseason acquisitions, Cleveland won three of its last four to close 2018. The next leap seems to be a postseason berth.