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NFL Draft

Which NFL Cellar Dweller Is Most Likely To Go Worst-To-First?

  • The Draft Network
  • May 9, 2020
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Zeroes to heroes.

It's one of the great subplots of any NFL season: seeing which underachieving or underperforming franchise can magically flip the switch and go from a lowly loser into a legitimate postseason contender. 

The Texans went from 4-12 and a last-place finish in the AFC South in 2017 to an 11-5 record in 2018 courtesy of the miraculous play of young quarterback Deshaun Watson, which typically points to the epicenter of any transcendent leap in the standings. You'll need a special player to make a special play in the standings.

Who are the contenders of 2020 to see themselves catapult up the standings? Which last-place finisher has the best odds of transitioning into division champions in the NFL equivalent of overnight? 

Here's my list of 2019's cellar-dwellers ranked in order of least likely to most likely to make the jump.

8. NFC South's Carolina Panthers (5-11)

Blueprint: Teddy Bridgewater finds his 2015 form, Christian McCaffrey has an MVP caliber season and Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan all collectively decide to retire ahead of the 2020 season. The Panthers are in an odd spot and in some ways were willing to take a step back before taking steps forward with their rebuild. Yet this team added Russell Okung and Robby Anderson before swinging hard on defense this year in the NFL draft.

Ultimately, coach Matt Rhule is a program builder, not a magician. Carolina isn't outpacing the star power of the NFC South in 2020.

Likelihood: Nick Saban telling Maria Taylor who outright won the 2018 quarterback competition.

7. AFC South's Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)

Blueprint: The rest of the AFC South cannibalizes their season records and Jacksonville's youthful defense rises to the occasion with game-changing plays on a weekly basis. Quarterback Gardner Minshew's free wielding style leads to explosive plays and the Jaguars grind out ugly wins all season. Jacksonville is able to smooth out lingering issues with young talents in running back Leonard Fournette and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and both return to Duval this season.

Even if the rest of the division struggles, there's star power in Indianapolis, Houston and Tennessee that Jacksonville simply isn't ready to compete with. Yet.

Likelihood: getting past Mutombo in the grocery aisle

6. AFC North's Cincinnati Bengals (2-14)

Blueprint: Joe Burrow makes a seamless transition to the pro level and is every bit as advertised as the No. 1 selection. Wide receiver A.J. Green experiences a career revival and the Bengals use the quick game as the needed extension of the running game to keep defenses on their heels and help compensate for a lackluster offensive line.

Cincinnati might give Cleveland a run, but it is hard to imagine it challenging Baltimore and Pittsburgh in 2020.

Likelihood: washing all that shampoo out of your hair

5. NFC North's Detroit Lions (3-12-1)

Blueprint: Matt Stafford is healthy for a full 16 game schedule and all of coach Matt Patricia's hand-selected defensive tools play to their full potential and help replicate the Patriots' defense in the NFC North. D'Andre Swift enjoys an Offensive Rookie of the Year type campaign to give the Lions the needed balance on offense.

Much like the Bengals, expecting the Lions to be better this season is well reasoned and should happen. But surpassing Green Bay feels like a tall task, even if the Packers regress from their highly successful 2019 season. Detroit could challenge Chicago and Minnesota to get out of the cellar but coaching feels like too big of a barrier to overcome for a first-place finish.

Likelihood: connecting on a Hail Mary

4. NFC East's Washington Redskins (3-13)

Blueprint: Coach Ron Rivera's accountability-based coaching style meshes well with his players and Washington’s front seven is transformed with the presence of Chase Young. Washington will need a big year out of 2019 rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins and keeping running back Derrius Guice healthy for a full season would be a big help. But Washington's biggest variable will be outside their own building. Can Dallas and Philadelphia flounder again despite having exponentially more talent on both sides of the ball? It's hard to envision both the Cowboys and Eagles falling flat on their faces again in 2020, which will be the biggest barrier for a worst to the first scenario. Washington will be an improved team under Rivera but this division is stacked against them.

Likelihood: Lloyd Christmas ending up with Mary Swanson.

3. AFC West's Los Angeles Chargers (5-11)

Blueprint: Tyrod Taylor fails to beat out Justin Herbert and the Chargers are able to unlock his big-play passing ability with big-bodied receivers. The team shows a firm commitment to the run game, while Derwin James stays healthy and Los Angeles’ pass rush duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram allow them to wreak havoc of AFC West quarterbacks. The team finds an extra pair of offensive tackles lying around in the attic.

There's plenty to like about this Chargers team. But you're talking about out-pacing Mahomes and the Chiefs to win this division — that's unlikely to see materialize.

Likelihood: The Chargers wearing a bad uniform combo.

2. AFC East's Miami Dolphins (5-11)

Blueprint: Tua Tagovailoa is healthy, masters the playbook and the Dolphins chemistry experiment with a brand new offensive line yields strong results in the power run game. The Dolphins' press-man defense is able to stay stick on AFC East receivers and allows coach Brian Flores to dial up a ton of schemed heat and push the opposing pocket, forcing turnovers at a higher rate in 2020. The Patriots' losses prove to be too much to overcome with plug and play replacements and Bills quarterback Josh Allen regresses in Year 3.

This one isn't completely out of the realm of possibility, but still quite unlikely when you consider all the new pieces in South Florida this season.

Likelihood: Rob Gronkowski having the angle

1. NFC West's Arizona Cardinals (5-11)

Blueprint: Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins find instant chemistry and Kenyan Drake continues to take advantage of all the added room to run in coach Kliff Kingsbury's offense. Murray takes a big step forward in Year 2, the Cardinals' defensive overhaul courtesy of the NFL draft provides impact play from linebacker/safety Isaiah Simmons and Kingsbury's aggressive coaching style continues to bud to allow for critical plays to extend possessions.

The rest of the NFC West will need to regress, but there's nothing to suggest San Francisco and Seattle may come a few games back closer to .500 and Los Angeles refused to neglect its offensive line; instead opting to largely tread water with its roster and replace outgoing expensive talent with rookies to help provide added room for the eventual extension of Jalen Ramsey. Is this result probable? No, but it's the most likely zero to hero of the group.

Likelihood: an NFL team trading its No. 1 WR for a second-round pick and David Johnson (...so about 1 in 32)

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