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Ranking NFL’s Eight Worst-to-First Candidates

New year, new teams? Let’s take a look at 2020’s last-place finishers in the NFL and evaluate their chances to completely turn things around in 2021. What teams have the best shot at going worst-to-first?

8. Denver Broncos

One factor that impacts a team’s chances to go worst-to-first is the strength of their divisional opponents. Unless Drew Lock takes a superhuman leap this season, I don’t see any way Denver unseats the Kansas City Chiefs – the AFC’s representative in the last two Super Bowls. The Denver Broncos definitely aren’t the worst roster on this list, but they have to contend with the league’s best team in addition to feisty teams in the Raiders and Chargers. The fact of the matter is that Drew Lock hasn’t lived up to his potential and Vic Fangio is 12-20 as the Broncos head coach. Their 2021 schedule features a number of very strong defensive teams. It’s not looking good for Denver.

7. New York Jets

The Jets have a new head coach, a new quarterback, and a much-improved roster, but you’re kidding yourself if you think they’re getting past the Bills (Buffalo or Belichick, pick your poison). One reason the Jets are above the Broncos on this list is that the Chiefs are better than the Bills. The other reason is that I think there’s a little more “X-factor” with New York where they could have a surprisingly decent season with Zach Wilson under center. That being said, I don’t see how they win the AFC East.

6. Detroit Lions

The more I think about it, the more I want to slide the Detroit Lions all the way to the bottom of the list. New offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn isn’t going to help Jared Goff as much as Sean McVay did. Not even close. The one thing working in the Lions’ favor is that the NFC North is becoming more murky every week. If Aaron Rodgers decides he wants out, that seriously limits the Packers’ ceiling. The Vikings could be pretty good, but is anyone super confident in them? And who knows what the Bears will be? If things get weird in the North, maybe the Lions ride their kneecap-biting head coach to the top. With Jared Goff though, I wouldn’t be optimistic.

5. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are within the upper tier of the teams that have almost zero chance to go worst-to-first. Joe Burrow will be back, but it’s up in the air how effective he can be coming off such a devastating injury, especially given that his offensive line is still very much a work in progress. It remains to be seen how much of a difference Ja’Marr Chase will make, but the general expectation is that the Bengals will be better than the four teams below them on this list. If you looked at their ludicrous share price on the SimBull market, you would think Cincinnati were Super Bowl favorites. Bottom line, the AFC North had three playoff teams last season. The Bengals need a lot to break their way.

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4. Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville is such a weird team to evaluate. They brought on Urban Meyer as the new head coach despite his complete lack of NFL experience. They drafted Trevor Lawrence, potentially the greatest quarterback prospect ever, with the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Then there’s this whole Tim Tebow situation. Things are getting crazy in Jacksonville, but are they crazy enough that they might work? Well, probably not, but the AFC South definitely isn’t the strongest division in the NFL. If the Titans fall off, the Carson Wentz experiment backfires, and the Texans are as bad as expected, the Jags could find themselves in the mix. The chances are slim, but Lawrence and Meyer are both winners, and maybe some of that translates right away.

3. Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles are the first team on this list that I would give an above-zero chance to win their division. Jalen Hurts might not be the answer, but he at least showed flashes of being a viable starter last season. It’s no secret that the NFC East isn’t particularly strong – the Washington Football Team finished at the top last season with 7-9 record. Considering that the NFC East hasn’t had a repeat champion in 17 seasons, there might be enough chaos in the division to give the Eagles an outside chance of winning it. Maybe, just maybe.

2. Atlanta Falcons

On paper, the Falcons offense looks like it will be absolutely nasty. If there’s anything that can get a team to go worst-to-first, it’s an offense that features Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Kyle Pitts. I think the Arthur Smith hire was fantastic move for Atlanta after his success with the Tennessee Titans. They’ll have to deal with the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the rushing attacks of the Saints and Panthers, but I’d give the Falcons a fighting chance in a shootout against a lot of teams. Atlanta’s defense will need to improve, but they’ll put points on the board.

1. San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers have the best chance to go worst-to-first, and it’s not really close. San Francisco went 6-10 in a season where their team was completely crippled by injuries on both sides of the ball. Having their roster back at full strength or close to it will keep the 49ers competitive in the strong NFC West. They have an extremely favorable schedule that includes a matchup against the Texans and five other games against 2020 last-place finishers. With Kyle Shanahan leading a healthy roster against a relatively weak schedule, the 49ers have a really good shot at completely turning things around.


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