With the discharge of the regular-season schedule and staff OTAs ramping up, followers and teams begin mapping out their playoff paths. But parity can be something of a mirage, most of the league’s most outmatched squads struggling to carry themselves from the bottom of the standings. The Washington Football Team was the one franchise to finish a worst-to-first transformation within its division in 2020, and it required a wacky, down-to-the-wire NFC East race to do so.
Yet this portion of the calendar inevitably renews hope. And with groups not slowed down by the identical COVID-19 restrictions they needed to navigate final offseason, there could be more room for some more upheaval in the standings.
Here’s how all eight fourth-place finishers rank in their ability to go from worst to first in 2021:
1. San Francisco 49ers
What’s working for them: The strongest candidates for a fast turnaround are often teams waylaid by injuries the previous year, and no team was hit quite like Kyle Shanahan’s crew. Thirty-two gamers spent time on injured reserve for San Francisco, with 16 ending the season there.
The 49ers nonetheless have most of the cornerstones from their run to Super Bowl 54 – along with useful additions in left tackle Trent Williams, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and defensive deal with Javon Kinlaw – and so they can get up in opposition to the conference’s best with the likes of Nick Bosa, George Kittle and Deebo Samuel on the comeback trail. Jimmy Garoppolo can be back in the fold after lacking 10 games final season, however the 49ers went all in with a commerce up to take North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance with the No. 3 pick in the draft. Shanahan has stood by Garoppolo as his starter, and the veteran’s maintain on that function might serve the long-term advantage of Lance’s improvement. But if the rookie reveals enough in training camp to grab the job, he might unlock new dimensions for Shanahan and a playoff-caliber roster. The NFC West is arguably the NFL’s best grouping high to bottom, the 49ers’ 3-3 mark within the division final yr representing one of the best among the many league’s last-place finishers. With some higher fortune in 2021, San Francisco seems poised to contend in a division in which nobody group has a stranglehold.
What’s working towards them: While the 49ers reclaiming the NFC West crown would not qualify as a shock to many, one other fourth-place finish is hardly out of the question.
As neither a rebuilding staff nor a group constructed strictly to capitalize on a closing window to contend, San Francisco is in an odd place with its unresolved quarterback thriller. Garoppolo’s limitations are readily evident and seemingly pointed Shanahan and John Lynch toward Lance. Yet entrusting this offense to a 21-year-old with just 17 starts on the Football Championship Subdivision stage might be a dangerous move if executed swiftly, so it’s unclear simply how shortly Lance can provide an improve.
While a mere regression to the imply on accidents could be a boon for San Francisco, it is unrealistic to expect a completely clean invoice of health, particularly for a secondary with a long history of illnesses. If the back finish of the protection breaks down, and the Bosa-led front 4 would not return to a form closer to its 2019 degree, DeMeco Ryans – the youngest defensive coordinator within the NFL – could possibly be in for a troublesome time. With the division’s three different groups in line to rejoin the playoff hunt, any missteps within the division could be pricey for the Niners.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
What’s working for them: Urban Meyer did not take this job merely for the chance to make the leap to the NFL. Jacksonville offered uncommon positioning as a franchise poised to make a speedy surge to competition because of the arrival of a franchise quarterback and an instantaneous expertise infusion via free company and the draft.
Beyond his superlative physical skills, Trevor Lawrence displays the poise, timing and decision-making to be the rare passer to thrive as a rookie. He ought to have strong help thanks to a promising crew of skill-position players and an enough if uninspiring offensive line. The protection, though uneven, is dotted with key playmakers in Josh Allen, Myles Jack and C.J. Henderson, amongst others. With the Texans in disarray and the Colts and Titans every going through questions in important areas, there’s room for this group to compete in the AFC South.
What’s working in opposition to them: Even if Lawrence proves to be a singular expertise instantly, how far can he fairly take this roster in his skilled debut? Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers might serve as a relevant comparison case, because the 2020 offensive rookie of the yr’s record-setting marketing campaign yielded only a 6-9 report in video games he began.
When the losses inevitably mount, will in all probability be unfamiliar territory for both Lawrence – he never suffered a regular-season defeat in highschool or at Clemson – and Meyer, who dropped simply 9 games in seven years at Ohio State. Both will must be resilient, as even the quickest turnaround will entail its share of bumps. Meyer especially shall be beneath stress to show himself at the pro level, and his poor handling of director of sports activities efficiency Chris Doyle’s hiring and subsequent cut up from the group recommend he’ll have to adjust to a special balance of energy than the one to which he’s accustomed. While the long-term outlook is promising, the roster might not be ready for a playoff push.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
What’s working for them: If there’s any division ripe for this sort of turnaround, it’s as soon as again this one. Just three wins separated the Eagles (4-11-1 in 2020) – they weren’t eliminated from competition till Week 16 – from the NFC East champion WFT. With no powerhouse among this foursome, there’s plenty of potential for more unusual outcomes in 2021.
Even although new Philadelphia coach Nick Sirianni has refused to commit to Jalen Hurts as his starting quarterback, the second-year passer offered a spark at occasions final year when the offense flatlined beneath since-traded Carson Wentz. Hurts can team with Miles Sanders and a deep collection of working backs to fuel a probably formidable rushing assault, and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith lastly offers Philadelphia with the go-to goal it has lacked for some time. The offensive line seems to be in a lot better shape with the return of a quantity of starters – proper tackle Lane Johnson, right guard Brandon Brooks and left tackle Andre Dillard – who missed most or all of final season.
What’s working towards them: It’s not easy to compete during a “transition period,” as heart Jason Kelce contended Philadelphia might. And given the Eagles stockpiled 2022 draft picks during their teardown process, that might be when the rebuild begins in earnest.
Though he nonetheless has ample opportunity to develop as a passer and build on his playmaking streak, Hurts has but to look the part of a dependable starter, completing just 52% of his attempts in 2020 whereas looking largely out of sorts within the pocket. And for all of the give consideration to offense, first-year coordinator Jonathan Gannon has his work cut out for him with an under-resourced defense. The division, meanwhile, won’t be as friendly as it seems, with the Cowboys and Giants boosted by the returns of Dak Prescott and Saquon Barkley, respectively, and Washington still driving a second-ranked protection that would develop even more imposing as its younger core matures. And with each other coach within the division getting into Year 2 on the helm, Sirianni might be at a drawback in relation to continuity.
4. Denver Broncos
What’s working for them: A year ago, Denver was a classy pick to interrupt by way of as a playoff team in the AFC West. Though the hype proved untimely, the gathering of talent nonetheless should spark a way of optimism.
While the offense may only go as far as Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater can take it, neither passer shall be missing in help. Receivers Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy and tight finish Noah Fant headline a stellar group of pass catchers, and Garett Bolles emerged as a surprising cornerstone at left deal with. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb mixed for 26½ sacks once they final played a full season together in 2018, so Miller’s return ought to show significant. The rebuilt secondary already has Miller touting the group as “No Fly Zone 2.zero.” That could be a lofty title for newcomers Kyle Fuller, Patrick Surtain II and Ronald Darby to reside as much as, however the protection might recapture its place among the league’s finest. If the group lives as much as Vic Fangio’s vision and the offense avoids mistakes whereas profiting from skill-position talent, Denver might be a troublesome matchup for the relaxation of the division.
What’s working in opposition to them: New GM George Paton was intent on adding competitors for Lock, however he introduced in Bridgewater rather than use his high draft choice (No. 9) on a passer. That move would possibly prove to be a half-measure that leaves Denver in quarterback purgatory.
Whatever good will Lock had with the employees getting into final season may need been eradicated by a 15-interception season during which he played far too recklessly. The third-year passer now will cut up coaching camp reps “50-50” with Bridgewater, Fangio stated. Yet if Bridgewater is handed the reins, he’ll need to show his low-risk, low-reward fashion of play is sufficient after the Carolina Panthers parted with him after only one yr. Ultimately, neither quarterback seems a possible candidate to vault the Broncos past the Kansas City Chiefs, who’ve gained their final eleven meetings against Denver and represented the AFC up to now two Super Bowls. For a franchise that has suffered 4 consecutive losing seasons after not enduring back-to-back sub-.500 years since 1971-72, attending to 9 wins might be the extra sensible aim.
5. Atlanta Falcons
What’s working for them: Stability at quarterback is seldom seen amongst rebuilding teams, however the Falcons are fortunate to have Matt Ryan. Even at 36, he has maintained a degree of consistency that augurs well for Arthur Smith to be competitive in his inaugural season as head coach.
If Atlanta manages to return Julio Jones despite the perennial Pro Bowl receiver’s insistence that he’s “out of there,” the passing assault must be among the many league’s most imposing as it adds tight finish and No. four general decide Kyle Pitts alongside Calvin Ridley. Though the defense’s reinforcements were modest, the development of young cornerbacks A.J. Terrell and Kendall Sheffield together with the additions of safeties Duron Harmon and Richie Grant should buoy a secondary that yielded a league-worst 293.6 yards per game last 12 months. Given that they had been just 2-9 in games decided by eight factors or fewer last season and completed with a mere minus-18 level differential, the Falcons could be well-positioned for a sharp turnaround. And with the Panthers and New Orleans Saints both facing uncertain outlooks at quarterback, Atlanta has an excellent probability to climb out of the cellar.
What’s working towards them: In bypassing a prime quarterback in the draft to pick out Pitts, the Falcons despatched a clear message about their intent to compete right away. Those plans may fall by the wayside if the group undercuts its best energy by shifting Jones. Ridley, Pitts and Hayden Hurst can keep the passing assault afloat, but any deal to send away Jones would undoubtedly be trigger for celebration elsewhere in the NFC South.
The Falcons will likely want to establish a torrid scoring tempo to be able to compensate for a defense that figures to be spotty at finest. Grady Jarrett and Dante Fowler might want to present a constant cross rush for an otherwise underwhelming group. And even when every little thing breaks proper for Atlanta, it is unreasonable to expect this group to by some means surpass the defending champion Buccaneers, who return all 22 starters in 2021.
6. New York Jets
What’s working for them: Cohesion has been in brief supply for the Jets throughout the final decade, but GM Joe Douglas seems to have lastly lined up the varied aspects of this franchise. Between Robert Saleh’s hiring and Zach Wilson’s anointment because the No. 2 draft choose and quarterback of both the longer term and the current, the Jets finally seem to have a positive path after pulling up from the nosedive of Adam Gase’s two-year run as coach.
Gang Green’s roster got a needed facelift at a quantity of spots past quarterback. Adding Corey Davis in free agency and Elijah Moore within the draft gives Wilson the makings of a promising receiving corps, and the left side of the offensive line appears to be in good hands with deal with Mekhi Becton and rookie guard Alijah Vera-Tucker. Carl Lawson’s signing should rejuvenate a humdrum move rush, and keeping Marcus Maye by way of the franchise tag should assist stabilize a shaky secondary.
What’s working against them: For as much good as Douglas has accomplished by charting a course and taking the first steps toward setting Wilson up for success, there’s solely so much ground he can make up in one offseason. The Jets were the one team to go winless in their division final year, and their minus-214 point differential was by far the worst in the NFL.
Last year’s offense ranked final by a healthy margin in both yards (279.9) and factors (15.8) per recreation. Given that Wilson was seldom subjected to consistent pressure at BYU, a substantial leap for the unit in Year 1 appears far-fetched. And if the audacious passer would not turn into extra discerning, he might be affected by the turnover and timing points that plagued predecessor Sam Darnold. The defense additionally offers a significant challenge for Saleh, who might be tasked with masking a number of deficiencies, particularly against the move. Surpassing the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots in a single 12 months is nearly unfathomable given the work left to be accomplished in New York.
7. Cincinnati Bengals
What’s working for them: Joe Burrow is again. The No. 1 choose within the 2020 draft participated in Day 1 of the group’s organized staff activities after struggling torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments final November. Burrow estimated he’s “80-85%” recovered, leaving him plenty of time to get to full energy by Week 1.
Expectations stay lofty, with wide receiver Tyler Boyd declaring Burrow would “lead us to the promised land.” Cincinnati is intent on serving to him rediscover the record-setting kind he achieved as a Heisman Trophy winner at LSU, linking him up with former Tiger target Ja’Marr Chase. Even although Chase is an explosive downfield risk, the Bengals have acknowledged that Burrow might be best off attacking defenses with quick throws in the short-to-intermediate vary. Getting the ball out rapidly – thereby neutralizing opposing cross rushes – and letting Chase, Boyd and Tee Higgins rack up yards after the catch could probably be a fruitful formulation for an attack that registered a league-low 35 completions of 20 or extra yards. Joe Mixon also might be in line to do vital harm as both a runner and receiver given how committed coach Zac Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan are to giving him a strong workload.
What’s working in opposition to them: Cincinnati enters Year 3 underneath Taylor needing Burrow to ignite the offense despite a haphazard safety plan. Bringing on proper deal with Riley Reiff and rookie guard Jackson Carman nonetheless leaves the burden on the second-year signal-caller to deploy a fast set off. When Burrow does must push the ball downfield, divisional pass rushers T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett and Calais Campbell, amongst others, will be in line to dole out punishment. An occasional deep connection will be essential to keep defenses sincere.
Even if Burrow has a breakout marketing campaign, the Bengals might need to publish gaudy level totals to compensate for a decrepit defense that appears worse for the wear and tear after subbing in Trey Hendrickson and Chidobe Awuzie for Lawson and William Jackson III. And with the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers all returning playoff-caliber groups, Cincinnati shall be hard-pressed to merely keep away from its fourth consecutive fourth-place finish.
8. Detroit Lions
What’s working for them: Less than a year after succeeding her mother as principal proprietor, Sheila Ford Hamp gave the group an overdue reset by dismissing coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn final November. Dan Campbell was tabbed as coach and Brad Holmes appointed GM, and the efforts to construct a extra cohesive culture within the team should make this franchise extra competitively viable in the lengthy run.
Campbell and Holmes appear prepared to make one of the best of the hand they had been dealt. As the group shifts right into a post-Matthew Stafford future, Detroit will lean on its up-and-coming offensive line to guide a hard-charging dashing assault. Jared Goff may not be an thrilling replacement at quarterback, but the former Rams passer no less than offers a stopgap resolution for a staff that in any other case would have been putting a rookie into an unfavorable situation. Meanwhile, there’s not much decrease for the protection to go after it allowed an NFL-worst 419.8 yards and 32.four factors per sport last season.
What’s working in opposition to them: Stoking the Lions’ competitive fire appears to be Campbell’s primary focus. Attaining significant progress within the standings, nonetheless, seems like a pipedream.
Goff has been a satisfactory starter virtually solely when issues operate on schedule, but he can’t count on to copy these conditions with a receiving corps cobbled collectively from castoffs. The ground-and-pound method might assist assist the protection in small stretches, however there isn’t any approach to cover a unit this overmatched. Even if Jeff Okudah develops after a rocky rookie season, the secondary still seems to be among the NFL’s worst. Detroit has chosen to run towards the grain of the league as a whole with a style centered on physicality above all else, and the early returns could be ugly.