The NFL’s long-running parity provides fans ebullient offseason optimism that their struggling team can swiftly transform from cellar dweller to contender.
In 18 of the past 20 seasons, at least one club has gone from worst to first, winning its division the season after finishing in last place. The Jacksonville Jaguars became the latest team to do so in 2022, swiping the AFC South with a win in Week 18.
With the 2023 NFL Draft and the bulk of free agency in the books, the majority of roster moves are in the rearview. So, as we accelerate toward the new season, let’s take a gander at the teams with the best shot at turning last year’s failures into 2023 success. Here is my ranking of the eight worst-to-first candidates.
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New York finished in the AFC East cellar for the third consecutive season and sixth time in the past seven years. The last time the Jets won the division, George W. Bush was in office — in his first term. Yup, 2002 feels like a lifetime ago. Robert Saleh’s club raced out to a hot start last season on the strength of its defense, but the struggles at quarterback ultimately crashed the Jets. Enter four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers. In his worst seasons, Rodgers is better than anyone Gang Green has employed at quarterback for over a decade. The schedule is brutal, and New York competes in perhaps the NFL’s best division in 2023, but given the upgrade at quarterback and an excellent defense on paper, the Jets are an easy choice to top this list of worst-to-first candidates. They put their eggs in Rodgers’ basket this offseason, and anything short of ending New York’s league-leading postseason drought (12 years) should be viewed as a disappointment in Florham Park.
Falcons brass convinced Calais Campbell to join their last-place club by selling the 36-year-old six-time Pro Bowler on their ability to compete for a division crown. The logic behind a swift turnaround is easy to see in May. Atlanta bolstered a struggling defense, adding the likes of Campbell, Jessie Bates, David Onyemata, Bud Dupree, Kaden Elliss and others. On paper, it’s a much more formidable group than the one that has been ripped to shreds for years. The key to ATL’s turnaround will be second-year signal-caller Desmond Ridder, who started just four games last season. The Falcons plan to be a run-heavy club with first-round pick Bijan Robinson and 1,000-yard rusher Tyler Allgeier teaming up in the backfield. The question is whether Ridder can step up in the crucible of big moments. Playing in the winnable NFC South helps boost the Falcons’ chances of a turnaround campaign.
Cleveland spent the offseason shoring up glaring holes. On defense, the Browns added Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Za’Darius Smith on the edge to complement Myles Garrett. The trio should shine in new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s scheme. Snagging Davin Tomlinson up front helped upgrade a glaring position of need on the interior D-line. On offense, swiping Elijah Moore for peanuts gives the Browns a promising WR trio, as he joins Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones. Cleveland’s ability to compete for a division title will ultimately come down to Deshaun Watson. The quarterback played subpar by his standards in six games after returning from suspension last year. The Browns believe that, with the rust knocked off, Watson will return to his Pro Bowl level. If the issues linger, however, it could be another long season on the shores of Lake Erie.
Playing in the NFC North boosts the Bears above better overall rosters on this list. As does the presence of electric Justin Fields under center. The third-year quarterback played through poor surrounding talent in his first two seasons. Now he’s throwing to DJ Moore, Darnell Mooney, Chase Claypool, Cole Kmet and Robert Tonyan. The offensive line is in a much better place than a year ago, too. So it’s on Fields to go from dynamic dual-threat to consistent performer. The Bears’ defense still has holes, particularly up front, but boasts young talent that should grow in Matt Eberflus’ second season. If everything coalesces in Chicago, the Bears could be a sneaky dark-horse team in a division up for grabs.
Sean Payton’s arrival immediately elevates Denver’s chances to compete. There is a lot to like on this roster. Justin Simmons, Patrick Surtain II, Zach Allen and Randy Gregory highlight a formidable defense under Vance Joseph. Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick bring plenty of upside at receiver — if they stay healthy. The Broncos signed Samaje Perine to pair with Javonte Williams, who could be ready at the start of training camp after last year’s season-ending knee injury. The biggest question is whether Payton’s magic will coax Russell Wilson back to his Pro Bowl ways after a disastrous 2022 campaign. But the biggest knock on Denver’s chances of going from worst to first is playing in the AFC West, where they’d have to knock off Patrick Mahomes and the back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back division-winning Chiefs.
Washington is another club facing an uphill climb in a tough division. The NFC East boasts one of the best top-to-bottom quartets in the NFL. Coming off an 8-8-1 campaign, Ron Rivera’s squad is dotted with talented players. Receivers Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson are studs. The defensive line remains a force with Daron Payne re-signing and a motivated Chase Young playing out the final year of his rookie contract. The Commanders used their top two draft picks on defensive backs Emmanuel Forbes and Jartavius Martin to help shore up the secondary. One big question is whether all the parts can come together to form a winner. The other massive question mark is at quarterback, where Sam Howell is in line to start the season. If the second-year signal-caller struggles, we could see a lot of steady veteran Jacoby Brissett.
The Texans signaled they’re all in on 2023 by trading next year’s first-round pick to snag edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. immediately after selecting quarterback C.J. Stroud at No. 2 overall in last month’s draft. There are some good young pieces in Houston. Stroud should fit well in new offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik’s scheme. Second-year running back Dameon Pierce is electric. Tight end Dalton Schultz was a solid addition. The defense — with Anderson, Jalen Pitre, Derek Stingley Jr., Christian Harris and other veterans head coach DeMeco Ryans brought in to run his scheme — could turn things around swiftly. But it remains a roster riddled with holes.
Leading a rebuilding club, if there ever was one, new coach Jonathan Gannon will have his work cut out for him in 2023. Arizona has one of the thinnest rosters in the NFL. Kyler Murray likely won’t be ready for September — if he plays at all. Veterans like DeAndre Hopkins and Zach Ertz could be moved at some point before the in-season trade deadline. The defense is paper-thin, particularly up front. Outside of a pretty deep O-line, there isn’t a unit in Arizona that doesn’t have questions. The Cardinals’ draft moves this year — stocking up for 2024 — signaled they don’t have a lot of optimism for the coming season. Seeing them leapfrog the 49ers and Seahawks to top the division feels unfathomable at this stage.
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