Part of why the NFL is so great is because it’s unpredictable every week and every year. There have been just two years since divisional realignment in 2002 that at least one team did not go from worst-to-first in the division, and almost every team can have high hopes going into each NFL season. These are the squads with the best chance to go from worst to first in 2020.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars
As the favorites for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Jaguars look poised to blow things up after this season. Jay Gruden is a strong addition at offensive coordinator, and head coach Doug Marrone took Jacksonville to the AFC title game a few seasons ago, but the AFC South looks like a clear three-team race between Houston, Tennessee, and Indianapolis.
7. Carolina Panthers
I like the direction the Panthers are headed with a patient roster-building approach under impressive first-year head coach Matt Rhule, and the team might surpass expectations and hover around the .500 mark if the defense can perform well. But going from worst to first in perhaps the toughest division in football is another story. It’s just difficult to see Carolina leapfrogging all three of the teams that finished in front of them in the division standings in 2019.
6. Cincinnati Bengals
Including some veteran defensive additions, the Bengals have a roster that could be ready to take a sizable step forward this season. No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow isn’t one that’ll let the pressure get to him, and he could have early individual success spreading the ball around to Joe Mixon, A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, John Ross, and Tee Higgins. However, the Ravens and Steelers clearly look like the class of the division as the regular season approaches. Cincinnati’s ceiling is probably a wild-card spot.
5. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins finished last season with a 5-4 record over their final nine games, and the division is probably more open than it has been in years after Tom Brady’s departure for Tampa Bay. With a top-notch secondary and a defensive-minded coach in Brian Flores, it won’t be a huge surprise if Miami is squarely in the mix for a division title in 2020; but ultimately, I don’t trust the offensive line will be good enough to help Miami get past the Bills and the Patriots in the AFC East.
4. Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers are going to look much different without Philip Rivers under center for the first time in 208 games (every game since 2006), but the defense has a chance to be excellent while being complemented by a strong rushing attack and a risk-averse signal caller in Tyrod Taylor, who has a good supporting cast to work with. The bad news for Los Angeles is that Las Vegas and Denver also appear to be on the rise, and they’re all in an AFC West that has the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs bringing back almost all of the pieces from last year’s championship run.
3. Arizona Cardinals
Second-year quarterback Kyler Murray is a trendy MVP pick and his team is a trendy worst-to-first pick, but the Cardinals land at No. 3 for me. The offense can obviously be incredibly explosive after adding All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins this offseason, but the defense is flying under the radar a bit with a few blue-chip type of players. Overall, I’d say the Cardinals and Chargers are the best two teams on the list, but they are ranked No. 3 and No. 4 because of the divisions they play in.
2. Washington Football Team
The return of veteran quarterback Alex Smith is quite the story, and Washington can be a major factor in the NFC East if the quarterback play from Smith or Dwayne Haskins is consistent this season. No. 2 overall pick Chase Young can instantly wreck offensive lines and cause major headaches for opposing quarterbacks, and he helps round out a defensive line that’s had major resources put into it over the past few years. Ron Rivera is a two-time Coach of the Year, and the NFC East can typically get pretty wild, so Washington shouldn’t be counted out.
1. Detroit Lions
The Packers and Vikings might both take a step back this season, and I believe the Bears will win the NFC North—but it would not be a shocker if the Lions are contenders in 2020. There’s obvious downside if things don’t start off well as Matt Patricia enters a make-or-break year, but Detroit was able to add familiar pieces that fit within the program during the offseason, so the defense has promise. Also, after the way Matthew Stafford played last season when he was on the field, the Lions might have the best quarterback in NFC North, which probably is not the case for any other teams looking to go from worst to first in the division.