Turnarounds in the NFL often don’t take long. Unlike Major League Baseball, where prospects usually face a minimum promotion time of two years, new NFL players can make an impact during their respective rookie season. With more teams embracing the use of free agency and trades as avenues of player acquisition, it’s possible to improve a club year-over-year.
Worst-to-playoffs revamps happen nearly every season, and 2017 was no exception. Most famously, the Eagles used the progression of sophomore quarterback Carson Wentz and a few deft free agent signings to navigate a Super Bowl campaign only a year after finishing last in the NFC East. The Panthers, too, rebounded from a down 2016 to earn a postseason berth last season, and the Jaguars improved from 3-13 in 2016 to AFC runners-up in 2017.
So, which last place team from 2017 will make the leap into a playoff team during the upcoming season? Let’s take a look at the candidates:
New York Jets
While the Jets certainly look poised to contend in the future after adding quarterback Sam Darnold with the third overall pick, it seems unlikely they’ll come anywhere near first place in the AFC East in 2018. The Patriots, as ever, are considered the far-and-away favorites, and it’s not clear New York can even compete with the Dolphins for second place in the division. General manager Mike Maccagnan added a long-term building block in cornerback Trumaine Johnson, and solidified the Jets’ backfield signing both Isaiah Crowell and Thomas Rawls, but contention in 2018 probably isn’t in the cards.
Going from a winless season to a postseason berth would certainly make for an excellent story, and some analysts have pegged Cleveland as a dark-horse candidate for a wild card spot in 2018. The Browns are dealing with new faces at nearly every level of their offense and defense, and players such as Tyrod Taylor, Baker Mayfield, Carlos Hyde, Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry, and Chris Hubbard should help on offense while linebacker Mychal Kendricks and defensive backs Denzel Ward, T.J. Carrie, E.J. Gaines, and Terrance Mitchell are fresh on defense. Still, the AFC North should be a tough division once again, making a Browns 2018 postseason run unlikely.
Is there a more difficult division to figure out than the AFC South? The Jaguars return much of their core after reaching the AFC Championship Game in 2017, the Titans will add a new offensive philosophy to a roster than earned a Wild Card berth last season, and the Colts (fingers crossed) will see the return of Andrew Luck. The Texans could be the best team, however, especially if quarterback Deshaun Watson and defensive lineman J.J. Watt can stay healthy for the entire year. The major worry for Houston? It’s offensive line, which again looks to be one of the worst in the NFL.
The Broncos won the Super Bowl 29 months ago, but their title seems much farther in the rear-view mirror. Following Peyton Manning‘s retirement, Denver has failed to launch on offense while deploying quarterbacks Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, and Brock Osweiler. Case Keenum is now under center and will try to replicate his outstanding 2017 performance, but he won’t have the benefit of C.J. Anderson in the backfield. The Broncos’ defense is still their strength, but the club is now without corner Aqib Talib, who was traded to the Rams during the offseason.
New York Giants
Instead of opting for a rebuild, the Giants appear to be going all-in for one more run with Eli Manning at quarterback. New York could’ve used the second overall selection on a franchise quarterback, but instead opted for running back Saquon Barkley that may not have set up the club for the long haul (even if it does pay dividends in 2017). Additionally, the Giants are shifting to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator James Bettcher, and with three other strong teams residing in the NFC East, it’s unclear if New York is a serious contender.
The Bears already seem to be everyone’s favorite 2018 sleeper, and they certainly have an exciting roster. Chicago is just the latest team to leverage a rookie quarterback contract, taking the savings on Mitch Trubisky‘s below-market deal to add weapons such as Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, and Taylor Gabriel. Plus, the Bears’ defense remains underrated under longtime DC Vic Fangio. But the NFC North remains one of the NFL’s stronger divisions, and even an improvement from Chicago could keep them in the cellar behind Minnesota, Green Bay, and Detroit.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After opting for continuity by surprisingly retaining head coach Dirk Koetter, the Buccaneers are already facing an early-season challenge after learning starting quarterback Jameis Winston will be suspended three games following the results of a sexual assault investigation. Tampa Bay certainly improved parts of its roster this offseason (its defensive line added Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, Beau Allen, and Vita Vea), but as we’ve noted for other clubs above, even a robust free agent period won’t help if the team’s divisional opponents are difficult. The NFC South is perhaps the league’s most talented division, and it’s hard to see the Bucs placing above the Saints, Panthers, or Falcons.
San Francisco 49ers
Jimmy Garoppolo has yet to lose a game during his NFL career, but we’ll hold on off on projecting a 16-0 record for the 49ers. Still, San Francisco looks poised to compete for at least a Wild Card spot after inking free agents like Jerick McKinnon, Weston Richburg, and Richard Sherman, plus a draft class that included Mike McGlinchey and Dante Pettis. The Seahawks are no longer the force they once were, while the Cardinals are entering a mini-rebuild, so the Rams are the clear hurdle for the 49ers in the NFC West.
So what do you think? Which of these last place teams is likeliest to earn a postseason berth — either as a division winner or a wild card club — in 2018?