NFL Teams Primed to Take a Huge Leap in 2020

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistNovember 19, 2019

NFL Teams Primed to Take a Huge Leap in 2020

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers finished with sub-.500 records and combined for 10 wins last season. This year, they lead competitive divisions and may face off in the NFC Championship Game.

    The Packers and Niners can thank strong ground games, resurgent defenses and quality quarterback play for their bounce-back seasons.

    A quality starting signal-caller gives any team a decent shot at a winning season. But front offices also must stock their rosters in other areas to bolster their team's playoff chances.

    In this league, contenders can win in multiple ways: high-scoring shootouts, defensive slugfests and even by taking advantage of turnovers. 

    The following five teams are poised to vastly improve between the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Three of them still have shots at the postseason this year, but those squads could open the 2020 campaign as viable contenders because of in-house development, rising young stars and the draft or financial resources to fill roster voids.

        

Arizona Cardinals

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    Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray
    Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler MurrayMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    On paper, the Arizona Cardinals' 3-7-1 record isn't impressive. But those who've watched the team's progression under head coach Kliff Kingsbury should feel encouraged despite the roster's flaws.

    Behind an offensive line that ranks 27th in pass protection, per Football Outsiders, rookie quarterback Kyler Murray has shown flashes of development. Over the last two games, he's thrown for five touchdowns and one interception—his only pick since Week 4.

    Murray won't have 11-time Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald for much longer. He's on an expiring contract and is in his age-36 season. However, second-year receiver Christian Kirk seems ready to lead the pass-catching group. 

    Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 10, Kirk erupted with six catches for a career-high 138 yards and three touchdowns. When healthy, he's a threat going deep and after the catch. Murray's ability to extend plays and stretch the field with his arm bodes well for Kirk's productivity moving forward.

    In addition to Kirk, the Cardinals have a trio of rookie wide receivers who could blossom if Fitzgerald decides to retire this offseason. Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler (who's on injured reserve with an avulsion fracture in his finger) and KeeSean Johnson each may make strides in bigger roles as sophomores. 

    If the Cardinals keep running back Kenyan Drake, whom they acquired from the Miami Dolphins prior to the trade deadline, their backfield would feature three capable dual-threat running backs, including All-Pro talent David Johnson and Chase Edmonds.

    The Cardinals may want to use their projected $77.9 million in cap space or their draft capital to bolster positions with aging stars.

    Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, 37, will need help rushing the passer opposite Chandler Jones. Cornerback Patrick Peterson hasn't performed at a Pro Bowl level in coverage coming off a performance-enhancing drug suspension. He's logged two pass deflections, one interception and one sack in five outings. 

    If the Washington Redskins are serious about shopping seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams after the season (h/t ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio), general manager Steve Keim should pursue him to strengthen Murray's pass protection.

    In a competitive NFC West division with three potential playoff teams, it will be difficult for Arizona to move up in the standings. However, we won't be able to pencil this squad for fourth place in the division if the front office addresses the offensive line and adds playmakers to declining areas on defense.

    With a first-year pro head coach, a rookie quarterback and the league's 29th-ranked scoring defense, the Cardinals pushed the division-leading 49ers (9-1) in both of their games this season. A year's worth of progression and a few impact acquisitions would put Arizona on the watch list as a team on the rise.

Atlanta Falcons

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    Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan
    Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt RyanRusty Costanza/Associated Press

    Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn could be in preservation mode to save his job, but his team hasn't given up on the season.

    After a 1-7 start, the Falcons earned two resounding road victories over the past two weeks against the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. Although they woke up too late to make a realistic run at the playoffs, the roster is set up for a strong 2020 season regardless of the head coach in place.

    Last offseason, general manager Thomas Dimitroff made a concerted effort to protect franchise quarterback Matt Ryan by selecting interior lineman Chris Lindstrom and offensive tackle Kaleb McGary in the first round. The former started one game before landing on injured reserve with a broken foot.

    Next year, with Lindstrom healthy and McGary more experienced, the Falcons should field one of the league's top offensive lines, which also features Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and tackle Jake Matthews. Guard Jamon Brown has been a solid addition, but Atlanta might want to replace James Carpenter, who has allowed three sacks and drawn four holding penalties, per the Washington Post's STATS

    With a bolstered offensive line, Ryan will have more time to target wideouts Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley downfield. If the Falcons re-sign tight end Austin Hooper, their pass-catching group would look like a top-10 unit even without veteran receiver Mohamed Sanu, whom they traded to New England last month.

    To take a major leap, Atlanta must address its pass-rushing deficiencies to help defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Vic Beasley, who has 14 sacks since 2017, is likely on his way out after his contract expires.

    The Falcons have the least amount of projected cap space in the league next year, but a poor finish in the standings would allow them to target top defensive end prospects like Yetur Gross-Matos, A.J. Epenesa or Curtis Weaver in the draft. 

    Atlanta also has two second-round picks because of the Sanu deal. The front office can use all three of its Day 2 selections to fill gaps if it cuts starters for cap relief.

    The Falcons' financial outlook in 2020 isn't ideal, but they have a roster with proven commodities and premium draft capital to bring in high-potential rookies. They should be able to reload as opposed to rebuild next year, which should help them make their way back into the playoff hunt.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles
    Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Nick FolesJames Gilbert/11iStock/Getty Images

    At 4-6, the Jacksonville Jaguars have a competitive squad, but they're set up to become contenders for the AFC South crown next season.

    The Jaguars have one of the best quarterback situations in the league. Nick Foles, who signed a four-year, $88 million contract with Jacksonville this offseason, is expected to serve as the offensive centerpiece. He broke his collarbone in Week 1 but turned in a solid outing Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts in his return, finishing 33-of-47 for 296 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

    If Foles doesn't pan out in Jacksonville or struggles to shake the injury bug, rookie sixth-rounder Gardner Minshew II could step in and keep the offense afloat. Although he faltered in his last start against the Houston Texans in London, throwing two interceptions and losing a pair of fumbles, the young signal-caller also flashed fearless playmaking ability and moxie while leading the club to a 4-4 record as a starter. 

    Running back Leonard Fournette looks phenomenal running the ball this season. He's on pace for a career year, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and 85.4 yards on the ground per outing. He gives the offensive attack some balance. 

    The Jaguars are projected to have only $5.2 million in cap space next year, but they traded cornerback Jalen Ramsey to the Los Angeles Rams for 2020 and 2021 first-round picks. They can use those top-32 selections to acquire a replacement for the All-Pro cover man and fill any hole created by a potential cap casualty. 

    The Jaguars could emerge as a favorite to win the division in 2020 if Foles and Fournette stay healthy while the defense keeps the pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

    Even if defensive end Yannick Ngakoue signs elsewhere in free agency, Jacksonville can still wreak havoc with Calais Campbell and rookie edge-rusher Josh Allen. They have a combined 13.5 sacks, and the latter leads the team with eight.

Oakland Raiders

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    Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr
    Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek CarrThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    At 6-4, the Oakland Raiders have already made significant strides from last year's 4-12 season. Next year, they could take another step and legitimately challenge the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC West crown.

    This year, the Raiders have only one victory against a team with a winning record, the Colts. Skeptics may question their ability to compete with playoff-caliber clubs because of blowout losses to the Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.

    In 2020, quarterback Derek Carr will go into his third season in the same offensive system for the first time in his pro career. He's shown improvement this year under head coach Jon Gruden, which is drawing callbacks to his 2016 campaign.

    After trading Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears last year, the Raiders have additional first- and third-round picks. They can add a top-flight wide receiver and address weaker areas on defense early in the draft.

    A high-potential prospect like Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb or Clemson's Tee Higgins would join breakout tight end Darren Waller, who's second in catches (56) and receiving yards (588) among players at his position, and Tyrell Williams in the pass-catching group.

    If the Raiders add a No. 1 wideout to their aerial attack, their offense should finish among the top 10 in both yards and scoring next year.

    Oakland has the ninth-best ground attack thanks to Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Josh Jacobs, who is one of the NFL's most explosive ball-carriers. He's running behind a stout front line that ranks fourth in both run-blocking adjusted line yards and pass protection, per Football Outsiders.

    The Raiders can use some of their projected $71.6 million in cap space to prop up their 20th-ranked defense. They should undoubtedly acquire a few linebackers and another safety, especially if they don't re-sign Vontaze Burfict and Karl Joseph at those respective positions. 

    If interior tackles Jarran Reed or Chris Jones hit the free-agent market, the Raiders could offer them lucrative deals to take some pressure off defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby. The latter ranks third among all rookies in sacks (6.5).

    If Oakland lands a few pieces to plug holes on its defense, crank up the Raiders-Chiefs rivalry a few notches in 2020.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
    Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben RoethlisbergerGene Puskar/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers acquired safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in exchange for a first-round pick weeks before the trade deadline. Since then, he has performed like an All-Pro talent, logging 36 tackles, eight pass breakups, five interceptions and two touchdowns—one pick-six and the other on a fumble recovery.

    He's a major component to what could become a top-five defense next year, though the Steelers must sign or draft an outside linebacker if they don't keep Bud Dupree, who's on an expiring contract

    The Steelers inked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a two-year extension in April, but he went down in Week 2 with a season-ending elbow injury. Although he has flirted with retirement in the past, that doesn't seem to be a possibility at the moment, per ESPN's Jeremy Fowler

    The Steelers offense ranks 24th in scoring with quarterback Mason Rudolph filling in for Roethlisberger, but if the latter returns and picks up where he left off in 2018, Pittsburgh shouldn't have a problem putting points on the board. The 16th-year veteran recorded career highs in completions (452), yards (5,129) and touchdowns (34) last season. 

    Perhaps the Steelers will pursue another wide receiver to join JuJu Smith-Schuster and rookie third-rounder Diontae Johnson after this year's experiment with Donte Moncrief lasted only eight weeks.

    Running backs Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell Jr. could see more carries down the stretch run this season if James Conner continues to be hampered by his shoulder injury. That collection of backfield talent would complement the passing attack in 2020.

    The Steelers have continuity and a hard-nosed identity on defense that helped them win a Super Bowl in Roethlisberger's rookie season. Next year, they will have a signal-caller who can help them keep pace with the Baltimore Ravens offense and a top defense to propel them to another AFC North crown.

       

    Projected cap space for 2020 season courtesy of Spotrac.

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