NFL training camps are opening this week, and even teams that finished last season in last place are full of hope. Since the NFL is so volatile, this isn’t merely summer optimism. In every year this decade except one (2014), at least one team has rebounded from a last-place finish in its division the previous year and made the playoffs.
The Chicago Bears and Houston Texans did it in 2018, winning their divisions en route to the playoffs. And in 2017, three teams made the leap — most notably the Philadelphia Eagles, who won their division, won the NFC’s No. 1 seed and, ultimately, won the Super Bowl.
The Jets, Bengals, Jaguars, Raiders, Giants, Lions, Buccaneers and Cardinals finished in last place in their divisions in 2018. Who among them could rise to the challenge this season? Let’s see how Las Vegas oddsmakers expect these teams to improve based on their 2019 over/under win totals compared with actual 2018 wins.
|Team||Vegas Over/Under||Actual Prior Year Wins||Diff|
Based on these lines, the Jets and the Jaguars are the most likely candidates to emerge from this group, expected to gain 3.5 and 3.0 wins respectively. The rest of the group has less cause for optimism. Interestingly, the Jon Gruden-led Raiders, despite having one of the loudest offseasons,1 are expected to add just two wins to last year’s total of four. The Bengals are not expected to improve at all, holding at six wins, and Detroit projects to basically remain the same (an additional 0.5 wins).
Another way to look at the hopes of last year’s last-place finishes is to see what Vegas said about the next-season prospects of past cellar dwellers. Of course, teams who fail spectacularly in one season will have a rosier outlook the next season — there’s nowhere to go but up, in theory. But the last-place teams that went on to make the playoffs have tended to have stronger outlooks than the last-place teams that didn’t.
Teams since 2009 that finished in last place were projected by oddsmakers to win 2.18 more games, on average, the following season. But the teams that did go on to make the playoffs were projected for an average win increase of 3.0 games.
|Year||Team||Vegas Over/Under||Actual Prior Year Wins||Diff|
So what does this mean for last year’s dregs? The Jets and Jaguars have the most promising outlooks for total wins — and their projected changes from last year’s actual wins fall right in line with those teams that previously made the worst-to-playoff jump.
The Jets finished 2018 just marginally ahead of the Cardinals in the race to the bottom of the NFL barrel in FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings. And it was only a couple of months ago that the team fired general manager Mike Maccagnan AFTER allowing him to spend more than $100 million in salary cap room on free agents and to select the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL draft. (For what it’s worth, the team’s draft grades were generally favorable, especially for the top pick, defensive lineman Quinnen Williams.)
And the Jets recently hired Joe Douglas as GM from the Eagles, where he had a hand in taking that team from worst in the NFC East to Super Bowl champs just two seasons ago. The foundation of that plan was building around a second-year quarterback Carson Wentz on a team-friendly contract, exactly the situation he now finds himself in at the team’s Florham Park, New Jersey, headquarters.
Optimistic is not nearly a strong enough word for how the Jets new coaching staff views Sam Darnold, who led the NFL in Total QBR over the last four weeks of the season after returning from a foot injury.
Darnold doesn’t think he will have to bear this burden alone. “There’s enough talent on this roster to be a playoff contender,” Darnold said as the team opened training camp. “You definitely have expectations of making it to the playoffs, and we definitely have [the] talent to do it.”
The Jaguars own the next-highest expected win increase among the last-place finishers according to the oddsmakers; they are expected to win eight games overall. They are just two seasons removed from reaching the AFC championship and have a brand new quarterback in Nick Foles, who won the Super Bowl MVP for the 2017 Eagles. Foles is a big improvement over Blake Bortles — by about 10 points in opponent-adjusted QBR since 2017, calculated on a 100-point scale.
If that isn’t enough, the Jaguars are looking to reestablish their defense, which failed them last season. In 2018, they scored five fewer defensive touchdowns than they did in their division-winning season. If they can recapture some of that, they will be well-situated to once again climb from worst to first, as was the case from 2016 to 2017. But that’s far less likely than the improvement they can expect at quarterback, given that defensive performance is largely unreliable.
By last year’s Elo ratings, the Jaguars ranked 20th, just about even with the Browns — who are the NFL’s darlings now and the favorites to win the AFC North. Is it that much of a stretch to believe that the Jaguars — now with a Super Bowl MVP instead of Bortles — could keep pace with Cleveland in 2019?
Last year’s highest-ranked last-place team by Elo was Detroit. And actually, the Lions weren’t even the lowest-rated team in the NFC North — the Packers were. But the reviews for the Lions’ free agency additions were lukewarm at best. And a consensus ranking graded their draft class as the eighth-worst in the league. At 31 and entering his 11th NFL season, quarterback Matthew Stafford is neither new nor young, and, unlike the Jets, the Lions have a returning head coach. What appears to matter most in flipping the NFL standings isn’t where you finished, but how much you’re expected to change. For the Lions, unfortunately, the answer seems to be, “Not enough.”