One Realistic Goal for Each of the NFL’s Last-Place Teams
It’s not every year that there’s an anomaly like the 2018 Bears. The team went 8-24 over the course of the 2016 and ’17 seasons, with each ending in last place in the NFC North. But last year, with Khalil Mack leading a monstrous defensive unit and sophomore signal-caller Mitchell Trubisky at the controls of the offense, Chicago emerged from the cellar en route to a 12-4 campaign and the No. 3 seed in the NFC.
This year, there isn’t an obvious candidate for a similar turnaround—each of the last-place teams from 2018 face a tough road to even just make the postseason.
That said, there are certainly realistic objectives for those eight teams as new head coaches, rookie quarterbacks and big-money free agents will look to inject some life into their new sides. Here’s one goal for each of those teams as we head into the 2019 season:
AFC East: New York Jets (last season: 4–12)
Develop a top-10 defense that can anchor the franchise for the long haul.
Head coach Adam Gase doesn’t exactly scream defense—since starting his NFL coaching career in 2005 as a Lions assistant, he’s exclusively been on the offensive side of the ball. But new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is one of the better defensive coaches out there, and he’s going to have plenty to work with—from No. 3 overall draft pick Quinnen Williams and Jamal Adams, a stud in the back, to Leonard Williams, who’s in a contract year, and C.J. Mosley, who got a massive five-year, $85 million deal in March. To round it out, Trumaine Johnson and Avery Williamson will give this unit a ton of depth.
Is this combination of players the answer to the Jets’ defensive woes? No. And as long as Tom Brady is still quarterbacking the Patriots, it’s hard to imagine any other team winning the AFC East. That said, a defensive evolution would be a big step in the right direction for the Jets.
AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals (last season: 6–10)
Stay healthy enough to establish some chemistry on the offensive side of the ball.
Here’s a list of regular starters that missed at least four games last season for the Bengals: QB Andy Dalton, WR A.J. Green, TE Tyler Eifert, C Billy Price, LB Vontaze Burfict. Add in a pair of missed games for both RB Joe Mixon and WR John Ross, and you’ve got an incredibly banged-up group. Per Football Outsiders, Cincy ranked fifth among all teams in adjusted games lost, which measures how much a team is impacted by injuries.
Dalton’s contract runs through the 2020 season, and owner Mike Brown made it clear that the team will not consider an extension before this season. But they didn’t really invest in the position this year, only drafting Ryan Finley in the fourth round. Green and Eifert, however, could make this a much better year for Dalton as he tries to hearken back to the days of 2015 and ’16.
AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars (last season: 5–11)
Hand the keys to Nick Foles and let him ride.
Maybe you thought Cleveland was quarterback purgatory, but it hasn’t been much prettier in Jacksonville. Since 2004, there have been 10 players to start under center for the Jags: Byron Leftwich, David Garrard, Quinn Gray, Todd Bouman, Trent Edwards, Luke McCown, Blaine Gabbert, Chad Henne, Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler. Theoretically, things should go much better for Foles, the Super Bowl LII MVP, than it did for any of those guys in the last decade and a half.
The Jacksonville offense isn’t about to be some juggernaut, but Foles has some above-average targets at wideout and a former consensus All-American in Leonard Fournette in his backfield. The former Eagle has done a lot with little in the past. Can he can succeed in Duval?
AFC West: Oakland Raiders (last season: 4–12)
Take the next step as a passing offense with Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams.
Since Derek Carr entered the NFL in 2014 as the Raiders’ second-round draft pick, Oakland’s passing game hasn’t necessarily been bad. But maxing out at an average of 253.2 yards per game, good for 13th in the league in 2016, Carr and the Raider air attack has not really lived up to expectations. The quarterback’s contract runs through the 2022 season, but his cap hit is just $7.5 million after this season, making him easy to cut.
If there were ever a time for Carr to have a career year, it would be in 2019 as he’ll play alongside Brown (who’s dealing with some foot injuries as training camp gets underway), who Oakland acquired via trade with the Steelers, and Williams, who signed a four-year, $44 million deal in free agency. With the Raiders moving to Las Vegas next season, this year is an inflection point as the league continues its trend toward more pass-heavy offenses.
NFC East: New York Giants (last season: 5–11)
Allow Saquon Barkley to take the burden off the quarterback.
Barkley’s Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign last year was exceptional. In the Super Bowl era, just four first-year running backs have logged more all-purpose yards than the Penn State product, whose 2,028 even topped Adrian Peterson’s 2,021 from 2007. It’s not unreasonable to make the claim that Barkley is the best tailback in the league right now.
Eli Manning is clearly declining. Daniel Jones is a rookie that still has a lot of development ahead. There are no real other threats on the Giants’ offense. Barkley will have no choice but to shoulder an even bigger load as a sophomore. Head coach Pat Shurmur needs to allow that to happen if his team is going to have any chance of competing with two of the better scoring offenses in the NFL (Eagles and Cowboys) that play in the same division.
NFC North: Detroit Lions (last season: 6–10)
Find an identity under second-year head coach Matt Patricia.
When the Jim Caldwell era began in Detroit five years ago, it didn’t take long for Lions to reap the benefits of a new coach—they went 11–5 in Caldwell's first season, making the playoffs for just the second time since 1999. It was not nearly as an auspicious start to Matt Patricia’s time in Detroit, as the Lions ended 2018 with a worse record (6–10) and worse divisional finish (last) than in any year of Caldwell's tenure.
When Patricia was New England’s defensive coordinator from 2012-17, his units always ranked in the top 10 of the NFL in yards allowed per game. In 2018, the Lions defense finished 17th, plus QB Matt Stafford turned in one of the worst seasons of his 10-year career. It’s very unclear in what direction Detroit is headed, so just getting back to .500 would be a positive—especially given how competitive their division will be this season.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (last season: 5–11)
Continue to light up the scoreboard.
The Bucs put up 396 points during the regular season in 2018, ending the year in 12th. For a team that won just five games, that’s pretty good—and it’s further illustrated by the fact that six of their 11 losses were by five points or fewer. Furthermore, the NFC South was the only division that had three teams in the top 12 of scoring offense (the Panthers weren’t far behind at 14th).
Whether or not Jameis Winston is the Bucs’ true future under center, they’ve got a load of offensive talent with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate as well as Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones. Bruce Arians has already established himself as one of the best offensive coaches in the NFL and first-time offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich should bring some ingenuity to Tampa Bay. If the Bucs can keep up the scoring, their defense should eventually catch up.
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals (last season: 3–13)
Give Kyler Murray the best chance to succeed.
This one is simple and requires little explanation. The Cardinals threw all their eggs into one basket by drafting Murray first overall this spring and trading away last year’s first-round choice, Josh Rosen, to the Dolphins. It doesn’t matter what else happens in Arizona this year—they need Murray to be their franchise quarterback for the next decade.
Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson are both veterans. But their future depends on Murray. The same goes for first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Everything circles back to the 5' 10" rookie. Whatever the Cardinals have to do to make Murray the best quarterback possible, that absolutely has to be their priority over the course of the next five months.
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