Every NFL Division's Most Unpredictable Team for 2019
Every year in the NFL, we should expect the unexpected.
Teams climb from the bottom to the top of divisions. New head coaches can change a losing culture to a winning brand. After Week 17, the standings don't often match offseason projections.
While the New England Patriots are likely to keep their top spot in the AFC East, despite an aging Tom Brady, it's fair to point out an AFC East competitor capable of closing the gap this season.
And though the Cleveland Browns hope to finally wave goodbye to their 16-year playoff drought after a couple of splashy offseason moves, they must go through a battle-tested defending AFC North champion first—or do they?
We'll take a well-rounded look at quotes from league executives, up-to-date win totals, the most recent NFL.com power rankings and offseason moves to highlight the most unpredictable teams in each division.
Typically, these clubs can finish with a losing record or emerge as contenders for playoff spots. That wide perception gap in season outlook along with notable changes on either side of the ball groups the following eight enigmatic squads together on one list.
AFC East: New York Jets
The New York Jets went through an offseason transformation and loaded both sides of the ball with a mix of young and established talent. Head coach Adam Gase will attempt to steer Gang Green in the right direction after the club went 14-34 over the last three seasons under former lead skipper Todd Bowles.
The Jets' head-coaching hire separates them from the Buffalo Bills, who have continuity with Sean McDermott leading the team. With quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick starting and left tackle Laremy Tunsil's departure to Houston via trade, the Miami Dolphins aren't expected to win many games.
Gang Green has major uncertainty.
Gase won 10 games in his first year with the Dolphins, directing an offense with Texas A&M wide receiver-turned-quarterback Ryan Tannehill. What could he do with Sam Darnold, who was a coveted prospect coming out of USC last year? Peyton Manning thinks highly of the Jets' head coach, per NFL Network's Jeff Darlington; the two worked together for three years in Denver (2012-14).
Former general manager Mike Maccagnan signed Le'Veon Bell, arguably a top-five running back, and linebacker C.J. Mosley. He selected interior defensive lineman Quinnen Williams with the No. 3 overall pick in this year's draft and traded for offensive guard Kelechi Osemele.
All the aforementioned acquisitions could help the Jets push the Patriots for a division crown, but how does general manager Joe Douglas feel about them? The answer may affect their roles in the upcoming season, which can hinder or help Gang Green's push for a playoff spot.
New York has the talent to reach the postseason for the first time since the 2010-11 campaign. This squad can also falter if the new parts can't come together and Douglas ponders midseason moves to erase Maccagnan's offseason transactions.
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens
The Browns head into the season as a trendy pick to reach the playoffs. Points Bet via Action Network lists their win total at nine victories, and they haven't won more than eight games since the 2007 campaign.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield's solid rookie campaign and Odell Beckham Jr.s arrival have clearly heightened expectations in Cleveland. Nonetheless, it's difficult to project what we'll see from the Baltimore Ravens, for many reasons. An anonymous league executive pinpointed some of those uncertainties with The Athletic's Mike Sando.
"They are just not going to be the same defense as what they were last year. There's a transition in leadership. Who is going to be the voice on defense? If things go sideways, is Earl Thomas going to throw a fit? They lost their No. 1 linebacker (C.J. Mosley). Terrell Suggs was always the mainstay and voice. They are an intriguing team, but one I could see going backwards."
Offensively, we don't know what to expect from quarterback Lamar Jackson, who threw the ball fewer than 25 times in all but one regular-season game last year. He'll also take play calls from a new offensive coordinator in Greg Roman, who replaced Marty Mornhinweg.
The Ravens have an 8.5 win total, and NFL.com's Dan Hanzus listed the club 11th in his most recent power rankings. Perhaps the analyst sees a little more in Jackson and Baltimore's defense without Mosley and Suggs than the oddsmakers.
AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars
Former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck retired, which is undoubtedly a huge blow to their season considering he was a four-time Pro Bowler and 2018 Comeback Player of the Year. No disrespect to Jacoby Brissett, but he's not on Luck's level of performance...yet.
The Tennessee Titans have a physical identity on both sides of the ball with a stingy defense and 6'3", 247-pound lead running back Derrick Henry. The Houston Texans have a budding passing attack with quarterback Deshaun Watson and wideout DeAndre Hopkins developing into one of the top tandems in the league.
What's the Jaguars' offensive strength?
The Jacksonville Jaguars have an outlook that's hard to pinpoint because of the undefined identity of their new offense.
Jacksonville acquired quarterback Nick Foles to bolster its aerial attack. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo quickly developed a reputation as a pass-heavy play-caller, which may have led to his ouster in Minnesota. The Vikings ranked sixth in pass attempts with him calling the offense through Week 14.
DeFilippo can't show that level of imbalance in Jacksonville. Although running back Leonard Fournette missed 11 contests with quad, ankle, foot and hamstring injuries, the LSU product could become the focal point in the offense, according to the Jaguars play-caller. "Leonard Fournette needs to be a big part of this offense," he said.
We'll see how DeFilippo changes his style to accommodate Fournette. The Jaguars could be a decent offense away from a playoff spot because of their stout defense, which has ranked top five in points and yards allowed over the last two years.
Without offensive chemistry, Jacksonville could mirror last year's results, finishing with one of the best defensive units and a losing record.
AFC West: Oakland Raiders
In his power rankings, Hanzus listed the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers within the top 10. The teams have win totals of 10.5 and 9.5, respectively. There are high expectations for both clubs as playoff contenders.
The Denver Broncos have a little more uncertainty with lead skipper Vic Fangio taking over the helm, but he's a defensive-minded head coach who should help this squad improve on that side of the ball.
The Oakland Raiders have a fireworks show that could lead to sparks on the field or implode before their season starts Monday against the Broncos.
An executive voiced an uneasy feeling about the Raiders' off-field matters concerning Brown's dispute with the league on a helmet disagreement and how it could affect quarterback Derek Carr as well as team chemistry, per Sando.
"My concern is just veteran drama around the receiver, the quarterback’s future, a guy like Vontaze Burfict," the executive said. "How does that all work with their young guys and just building a team?"
Hanzus ranked the Silver and Black 25th in his rankings. In a contrasting outlook, ESPN's Louis Riddick has a different perspective of this year's Raiders squad.
"Raiders are going to surprise a lot of people," Riddick said. "... There's no reason why I believe that Oakland can't be at least an 8-8, 9-7 type of football team if not more."
UPDATE (September 7, noon ET): The Raiders have released Antonio Brown, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
NFC East: Washington Redskins
The Philadelphia Eagles will go as far as quarterback Carson Wentz carries them. The Dallas Cowboys signed running back Ezekiel Elliott because they know he's the engine to the offense, leading the NFL in rushing yards (4,048) since entering the league in 2016. The Giants are in the middle of a rebuild, with head coach Pat Shurmur going into his second season.
The Washington Redskins have a head coach who needs to win now. Jay Gruden has a 35-44-1 record in five seasons with the team.
An executive suggested that Gruden is a quality coach under an ineffective general manager, per Sando. "If I were another team, I'd consider hiring Jay Gruden as a head coach and pairing him with a really good GM," said the front-office official.
Gruden named Case Keenum the starter in a likely attempt to compete early in the season. He's been a backup signal-caller or low-tier starter for six of seven years, with the 2017 campaign in Minnesota as the exception. The 31-year-old completed 67.6 percent of his passes, threw for 22 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in that term.
Similar to last year's primary starter, Alex Smith, Keenum isn't a big-arm passer, but he can move the pocket and thrive with a strong ground attack. The Vikings fielded the seventh-ranked rushing offense with him under center in 2017.
In 2018, running back Adrian Peterson turned back the clock and ran for 1,042 yards on 251 carries. He could pair with Derrius Guice in the backfield to form a viable tandem. Furthermore, the Redskins have a defense that listed seventh in sacks (46) last year.
Perhaps Gruden's coaching acumen shines with Keenum under center for a playoff run. If not, we'll see Dwayne Haskins on the field with a new head coach likely on the way in 2020.
NFC North: Green Bay Packers
Unlike the other three teams in the division, the Green Bay Packers hired a new head coach in the offseason. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers always saw Mike McCarthy on the sidelines until the team fired him in December.
Now, Rodgers will work with the second full-time head coach in his career. On top of that, Matt LaFleur is a first-time lead skipper who's only been an offensive coordinator for two seasons and a lead play-caller once—with the Titans last year.
One front-office official pointed out a potential issue between Rodgers and his head coach in Sando's report.
"My biggest worry is Lafleur and Rodgers don't see eye to eye, and Rodgers runs him out of the building in two years. When they first were doing installs, Rodgers is like, 'Yeah, he is showing all these Atlanta and L.A. Rams highlights, but what happens when there is a breakdown on this play? What is our No. 2 option?' …Rodgers is, in his mind, the smartest guy on the offense and I think he will make it known to the head coach/offensive coordinator."
Rodgers' work relationship with McCarthy went sour in its latter years, so analysts will dissect his rapport with LaFleur in many different ways. On the field, he has to adjust to the new offensive scheme, which may click right away or take several games. The same concept applies to the defense with four new starters who played for different teams last year: Preston Smith, Za'Darius Smith, Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos.
Although their defense looked stout, giving up three points, the Packers offense recorded 213 offensive yards and one touchdown drive against the Chicago Bears on Thursday. While we can't project a full season on that small sample size, it's worth noting Green Bay averaged just 3.7 yards per play.
Rodgers' talent along with a strong defense may carry Green Bay to a winning season and a playoff spot, but transition on both sides of the ball could sink the Packers' 2019 season.
NFC South: Carolina Panthers
The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons have continuity in the head coach and quarterback positions. Lead skipper Dan Quinn will call plays for the Falcons, but he's not a new voice on the sideline. Like last year, both clubs should finish the season with top-10 scoring offenses because their key players are still in place.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired head coach Bruce Arians, which brings much-needed change, but the expectations remain low. Action Network lists a 6.5-win total. Hanzus ranked the team 28th in his power rankings.
Under head coach Ron Rivera, the Carolina Panthers have alternated winning and losing seasons since 2012. If you follow the pattern, they're due for a record above .500 this year, but the outlook seems more complex.
The Panthers will go through significant changes on defense. First, Rivera will take over play-calling duties. Secondly, he'll add 3-4 looks to the front seven, moving the defensive ends to the edge. One league executive questioned that decision, per Sando.
"They went to a 30 base defense, which takes time and money," said the front-office administrator. "Doesn't feel great."
Assuming quarterback Cam Newton plays through a full season, the offense will have its bright spots. He completed a career-high 67.9 percent of his pass attempts last season. Nonetheless, with him under center for eights campaigns, the Panthers have fielded a top-10 scoring offense just twice.
We could see a similar version of 2015 MVP Newton or improvements from last season in year two under offensive coordinator Norv Turner. If not, a sluggish offense will place immense pressure on a defense operating out of a new scheme.
NFC West: San Francisco 49ers
The Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks have established signal-callers. Jared Goff and Russell Wilson signed lucrative contract extensions in the offseason.
The Arizona Cardinals selected quarterback Kyler Murray with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, and he's paired with a rookie head coach in Kliff Kingsbury. Needless to say, this club goes into the 2019 campaign with low expectations. Action Network lists them at five wins, and Hanzus ranked them 31st.
The San Francisco 49ers have an unusual situation at quarterback. Jimmy Garoppolo signed an extension during the 2018 offseason—a year before Goff and Wilson—but he's only started 10 games. The club has a high-paid signal-caller who's projected as the franchise centerpiece based on potential rather than production.
In glimpses, Garoppolo has performed at the level of a starting-caliber player, but he's coming off a torn ACL and has yet to suit up for even half of a season. If the 27-year-old plays up to his projected outlook, the 49ers have a shot to push for a playoff spot. Then again, he may not possess the tools to lead an offense through a full season. Perhaps general manager John Lynch invested big money into a good backup.
The 49ers have an eight-win total, which puts them at the cusp of a potential NFC wild-card berth. Hanzus has little confidence in San Francisco, listing the club 24th in his power rankings.
If San Francisco's offense goes through some rough patches, new defensive ends Dee Ford and Nick Bosa must apply constant pocket pressure to limit opponent scoring opportunities and mask a vulnerable pass defense that gave up the second-most touchdowns (35) last year.
Without a push up front, the 49ers may struggle to reach a .500 record in today's passing league. In that scenario, Garoppolo, who's inexperienced, would face a ton of pressure to put up points in scoring battles. But if he's as good as his five-year, $137.5 million contract suggests, Garoppolo should fare well in some of those matchups.
NFL Power Rankings provided by NFL.com.
Vegas odds courtesy of Action Network.
League executive quotes provided by The Athletic's Mike Sando.