NFL Teams Ready to Take Huge Leaps in 2020

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistAugust 9, 2020

NFL Teams Ready to Take Huge Leaps in 2020

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Look at last year's projections: How many NFL forecasters penciled in 13 victories for the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers? While the latter had a track record for winning before back-to-back losing seasons, San Francisco went to the Super Bowl after five consecutive years at or below .500.

    Which squads can make similar jumps in 2020?

    Sometimes, you see a major leap coming because of a blockbuster trade, a quarterback's return from injury or potential impact free-agent signings. Choosing from teams that finished with sub-.500 records, we've selected five that will make the biggest leaps in the win column from 2019 to 2020. In all cases, the projections estimate an increase of at least three wins.

    In an offseason with fewer live practices, expect veteran quarterbacks to have an advantage over less experienced and rookie signal-callers in elevating their teams.

Cleveland Browns

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    Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield
    Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker MayfieldAssociated Press

    2019 record: 6-10

    With the spotlight on quarterback Baker Mayfield following his disappointing second season, the Cleveland Browns strengthened the team and coaching staff.

    Like former lead skipper Freddie Kitchens in 2019, Kevin Stefanski will take on an NFL head-coaching role for the first time.

    Unlike his predecessor, Stefanski had called plays for a full season and led a top-10 scoring offense before getting the job.

    If the former Vikings coordinator brings some of his offensive concepts from Minnesota, Mayfield will have a complementary rushing offense capable of controlling games at the line of scrimmage. The QB is also set up to roll out on bootlegs against defenses that overcommit to stopping the ground attack. 

    He'll have running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who can do everything Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison did for Stefanski in 2019 as ball-carriers and pass-catchers out of the backfield. 

    Hunt has been tuned into the wide receiver meetings this offseason, per Scott Petrak of the Chronicle-Telegram. He can mimic the ground attack in the short passing game to help Chubb when the Browns face stout defensive fronts.

    Cleveland revamped its offensive line, in part by drafting Jedrick Wills Jr. at No. 10 in April. He's an athletic tackle who's fluid in motion and uses his hands to seal blocks with the power to put defenders on the ground.

    The Alabama product will clear space for ball-carriers and give Mayfield ample time to find Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry (when he returns from a hip injury), new tight end Austin Hooper and David Njoku downfield.

    On the opposite side of the line, free-agent acquisition Jack Conklin is a quality run-blocking tackle who can spring running backs in the open field. He did a good job of creating lanes for 2019 rushing champion Derrick Henry while with the Tennessee Titans.

    Defensive coordinator Joe Woods' unit just needs a decent year to support the offense. Cleveland finished with seventh-ranked pass defense in 2019. If Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon tighten up in the trenches to improve the team's 30th-ranked run defense, the Browns will have a case for a 10-win season.

Detroit Lions

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    Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
    Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew StaffordAssociated Press

    2019 record: 3-12-1

    Matt Patricia's two-year, 9-22-1 head coaching record doesn't inspire optimism.

    But on a positive note, quarterback Matthew Stafford will play a second year in coordinator Darrell Bevell's system, which flourished with the 32-year-old on the field.

    Before back and hip injuries derailed Stafford's season, he was second in touchdown passes (19) and fourth in passing yards (2,499) through Week 9.

    With his experience and the addition of rookie dual-threat running back D'Andre Swift, Detroit's offense poses a bigger threat. 

    The Lions traded cornerback Darius Slay but replaced him with No. 3 pick Jeff Okudah. He has exceptional footwork, change of direction and ability to lock up wide receivers in one-on-one man coverage.

    Patricia will coach a few more familiar faces from his days in New England in defensive tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker Jamie Collins and safety Duron Harmon.

    Last season, Detroit ranked 26th in scoring defense and allowed the second-most yards. Shelton can plug some holes on the interior of the defensive line, while Collins will strengthen the pass rush and cover the middle of the field. In 2019, he recorded a career-high seven sacks to go with seven pass breakups and three interceptions. Harmon has the range to help Okudah deep downfield if needed.

    The Lions finished 2019 on a nine-game losing streak and didn't win a contest without Stafford. His return alone should help Detroit double its victories from 2019.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich
    Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank ReichAssociated Press

    2019 record: 7-9

    Philip Rivers' final chapter with the Los Angeles Chargers ended on a sour note. He threw for 4,615 yards and 23 touchdowns but also 20 interceptions last year. The 38-year-old also showed a sharp decline in decision-making—many times putting the ball in play against double coverage. 

    Still, Rivers signed with a team that can extend his career. He won't have to log 591 pass attempts or take risks through the air with the Indianapolis Colts. Last season, they fielded the seventh-best ground attack. They're returning their entire starting offensive line and added rookie second-rounder Jonathan Taylor to pair with Marlon Mack on the ground.

    Rivers can pick his spots more efficiently than Jacoby Brissett, who completed 60.9 percent of his passes last year. For comparison, the former Chargers signal-caller still connected on 66.0 percent of his attempts in 2019. 

    Indianapolis' aerial attack won't finish near the bottom of the rankings if wideout T.Y. Hilton stays healthy and rookie second-rounder Michael Pittman Jr. wins some of his one-on-one matchups as the X receiver. Head coach Frank Reich thinks tight end Trey Burton will bounce back from an injury-riddled season for a "really productive year," per Stephen Holder of The Athletic. 

    General manager Chris Ballard built the Colts defense to win from the inside out. He traded the 13th pick to the San Francisco 49ers for Pro Bowler defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. He'll complement edge-rusher Justin Houston, who's coming off an 11-sack campaign.

    Behind them, linebacker Darius Leonard fills voids on the ground and in pass coverage. He's logged at least 121 tackles in each of his two terms and posted 15 pass breakups, seven interceptions and 12 sacks in total. The South Carolina State product has the skill set to finish plays on all three downs and is a rising star. 

    If safety Malik Hooker plays through most of the season, he'll solidify the secondary with his ball-hawking tendencies. Cornerback Kenny Moore II has to remain steady while Rock Ya-Sin continues to grow into his slot position. Regardless, the Colts defensive backs should look better thanks to a strong front seven. 

    Even though the Titans and Houston Texans went to the postseason last year, watch out for Indianapolis as a challenger to win the AFC South with a 10-6 record.

Los Angeles Chargers

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    Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Tyrod Taylor
    Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Tyrod TaylorKelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    2019 record: 5-11

    Rivers' time with the Los Angeles Chargers had run its course. He turned the ball over far too frequently, and the offense didn't have much balance, finishing 28th in rushing attempts. 

    According to The Athletic's Daniel Popper, the Chargers' offensive imbalance and reliance on Rivers stemmed from an unsettled front line:

    "You can chalk the drop-off primarily to injuries along the offensive line. They were missing their two best offensive linemen, center Mike Pouncey and left tackle Russell Okung, for most of the season. The two were actually never on the field together at any point in 2019. Pouncey's injury was particularly impactful in the run game. … [Head coach Anthony] Lynn wants to run the football. And there are many reasons to believe the Chargers will be successful in doing so this season."

    They have the personnel to run a more balanced, efficient attack in 2020. L.A. acquired five-time Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner from the Carolina Panthers and signed tackle Bryan Bulaga, and Pouncey's doctors cleared him to play following neck surgery, per Popper.

    Furthermore, Los Angeles drafted running back Joshua Kelley, who will share the workload with Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson as a solid committee. 

    Under center, quarterback Tyrod Taylor doesn't commit many turnovers. In three campaigns as a full-time starter, he hasn't thrown more than six interceptions in a season. The 10th-year veteran won't need to take chances with an offense that can run the ball, but Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Hunter Henry can move the chains in the passing game. 

    General manager Tom Telesco added rookie first-rounder Kenneth Murray, four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive tackle Linval Joseph to a stingy defense that ranked sixth in yards allowed last season. With All-Pro safety Derwin James back after he missed 11 games with a stress fracture in his foot, this unit could rank within the top 10 in scoring as well.

    Los Angeles isn't going to win in blowout fashion with a more conservative offense and a stout defense, but this club should flip 5-11 into 9-7 and a potential wild-card berth if Taylor holds his starting role over rookie first-rounder Justin Herbert.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce AriansChris O'Meara/Associated Press

    2019 record: 7-9

    In New England, quarterback Tom Brady finished every season with a winning record. That won't change with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    The 43-year-old joins an offense that will help him bounce back from an average campaign that saw him post 4,057 passing yards, 24 touchdowns and a 60.8 percent completion rate.

    In three-wide receiver sets, Brady can look to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, arguably two of the top 15 players at the position. Head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich could roll out tight ends Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate to exploit mismatches against smaller defensive backs.

    The Buccaneers shouldn't have any issues finishing drives with their group of pass-catchers.

    Tampa Bay can also use multiple tailbacks, including Ronald Jones II, LeSean McCoy, Dare Ogunbowale and rookie third-rounder Ke'Shawn Vaughn, assuming he eventually comes off the reserve/COVID-19 list. Each can run and catch out of the backfield. 

    Lost in all the talk about Brady, Tampa Bay's defense has significant potential. The unit allowed the fewest rushing yards last season, and two rookie cornerbacks had productive years. Sean Murphy-Bunting led the club in interceptions (three), while Jamel Dean finished with 17 pass breakups.

    Don't forget the defense features 2019 sack champion Shaquil Barrett (19.5) and Jason Pierre-Paul, who has amassed 21 sacks over the last two campaigns.

    Brady will attract all the attention. He'll operate more efficiently than Jameis Winston, who threw 30 interceptions last year. But don't overlook the Buccaneers' upstart defense, which should help this squad finish with 11 wins.