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Rams, Browns lead worst-to-first candidates for 2015 NFL season

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Going from worst to first in the NFL is tough.

Parity might rule the day, but even teams with high draft picks and plenty of salary-cap space face slim odds when it comes to mounting complete turnarounds in one offseason. The success rate of 2013's last-place teams -- none made the playoffs, and five finished in last place again in 2014 -- bears that out.

Of course, while this season's last-place teams have a tough road ahead, each features some element that provides reason for optimism. Below is my take on 2014's cellar dwellers, ranked according to their chances of pulling off the elusive worst-to-first trick in 2015.

1) St. Louis Rams

Seeds of hope: Jeff Fisher leads a very good coaching staff. The Rams have drafted well lately, adding youth and talent at key positions. Greg Robinson (No. 2 overall in 2014) boosted the offensive line after stepping in at left tackle, and 13th overall pick Aaron Donald (nine sacks, two forced fumbles) played at a Rookie of the Year level at defensive tackle. Donald joined a defense led by end Robert Quinn that -- with fellow end Chris Long missing a big chunk of the year due to an ankle injury -- started slowly before finishing strong, racking up 40 sacks after notching just one through five games.

Seeds of doubt: Sam Bradford is the key. He must stay healthy at quarterback, or the Rams have to add someone who can carry them at the position. When Bradford is right, he's very good, a great football player and athlete who can throw a perfect spiral and boasts great recognition skills. But he's posted just two 16-game seasons since St. Louis took him with the first overall pick in 2010, missing all of 2014 with a torn ACL in his left knee after missing much of 2013 with an ACL tear in the same knee. St. Louis has built up to the point where it can compete -- but it must get strong quarterback play from someone.

Divisional outlook: The NFC West is as stacked as ever, boasting the second-best winning percentage (.583) in the NFL. Still, the Rams proved to be a tough out, beating the Seahawks and 49ers.

2) Cleveland Browns

Seeds of hope: Instead of floundering as expected, the Browns won seven of their first 11 games, hanging in the playoff race long enough to give them something to build on in 2015. First-year coach Mike Pettine, who has done a good job, and the rest of the staff should settle in and perform even better. Alex Mack, one of the best centers in the NFL, will be back after missing 11 games in 2014 with a broken fibula. Cornerback Joe Haden leads a solid defense that will also be getting some key players healthy, including Phil Taylor, Armonty Bryant and Tashaun Gipson. And on offense, there is talent to work with: tackle Joe Thomas, outstanding rookie guard Joel Bitonio, running backs Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West and receiver Josh Gordon. Plus, Cleveland will have two first-round draft picks in 2015 and should have cap space to use.

Seeds of doubt: Can Johnny Manziel make good on his promise to shape up? Poor quarterback play -- from Brian Hoyer in key losses to the Bills (in Week 13) and Colts (in Week 14) and from Manziel to close out the year -- held this squad back in 2014. I might have been too high on Manziel when he came out of college. Still, as disappointing as he's been, I think he's a talented guy. Can Gordon and rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert get back in the good graces of Pettine and the organization?

Divisional outlook: The AFC North was the NFL's best division, notching a .608 winning percentage and sending everyone but the Browns to the playoffs. Still, Cleveland -- which was in first place at one point -- showed it can compete, registering big wins over the Steelers and Bengals.

3) Washington Redskins

Seeds of hope: I expect a fully healthy Robert Griffin III to bounce back from a turbulent 2014 and really play well. Toward the end of the year, I saw him take command of the game and display increased accuracy. The way he drove Washington down the field for the winning score in the closing moments of the Redskins' Week 16 upset of the Eagles was a positive indicator of things to come. He has some great assets around him, especially in receiver DeSean Jackson and left tackle Trent Williams. Once Griffin figures out how to do what he needs to do to win, he'll be fine.

Seeds of doubt: The Redskins were outscored by a ghastly 137 points, worse than all but three teams in the NFL. Standout Ryan Kerrigan aside, they must fix their defense. Former coordinator Jim Haslett blitzed a lot; to replace him, I think they'll bring in someone who takes fewer risks.

Divisional outlook: Washington should have a shot to make noise in an NFC East that's been fairly fluid the past few years.

4) Oakland Raiders

Seeds of hope: The Raiders have their quarterback. Derek Carr played exceptionally well for a rookie starting on a bad team, avoiding a lot of the pitfalls -- like taking tons of sacks -- that usually bedevil first-year pros. Running back Latavius Murray and tight end Mychal Rivera look like up-and-comers. Fifth-overall pick Khalil Mack, meanwhile, has exceeded even my high expectations for him; at this point, he'd be my pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Interim coach Tony Sparano did a great job bucking this group up, and for the Raiders' sake, I hope they bring him back on a full-time basis. He had them in games they would have been out of by halftime in the past.

Seeds of doubt: Oakland must make up for lost time after several years of making poor player acquisitions, both via the draft (as with D.J. Hayden, the 12th overall pick in 2013) and free agency (recent pickup LaMarr Woodley). The Raiders also need to scrape together a pass rush.

Divisional outlook: Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will be 39 next season, and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is 33. Consequently, Denver and San Diego should both slip slightly in the AFC West, leaving the division a bit more open than it might seem.

5) New York Jets

Seeds of hope: New York has an excellent defensive line, led by standout Sheldon Richardson. Whenever you have a defensive front that can impact the game, you have a chance. Yes, the Jets need to shore up the secondary, but they should have the cap space to do so. Plus, I still expect rookie defensive back Calvin Pryor to develop into a good player. Receiver Eric Decker finally started producing down the stretch, accumulating 431 yards -- including 221 in the regular-season finale -- over his last four games.

Seeds of doubt: Geno Smith showed what he's capable of in Week 17, throwing for 358 yards, three scores and zero picks against a pretty good Miami Dolphins defense. Of course, that performance was easily the best of what was an otherwise up and down second pro season for Smith, and the position remains a glaring question mark. The Jets would do well to draft a quarterback if they can. Also, they must make better use of their resources than they did last offseason.

Divisional outlook: We can't expect the Patriots to relinquish their stranglehold on the AFC East anytime soon. Still, the Jets have a better shot at turning things around than the rest of the teams below.

6) Chicago Bears

Seeds of hope: Jay Cutler is enormously talented; he can make all the throws and has arm strength and athletic ability to spare. But he's struggled to turn that into on-field success, committing big mistakes -- like throwing to guys in double coverage -- that make one wonder if he has sense enough to put his skills to good use. The Bears should seriously consider hiring Mike Shanahan, who got results out of Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall in Denver, as their new coach. Cutler will be entering his 10th year in the NFL, but he should still have plenty of gas left in the tank. Shanahan could channel Cutler's ability and turn a potential "seed of doubt" into a definite "seed of hope." Plus, the coach is a Chicago person who understands this is not a finesse team, and that the Bears should pound the ball and play defense.

Seeds of doubt: The defense -- which ranked 30th in the NFL -- is a huge problem. That said, the Bears did draft two good defensive players last May in Kyle Fuller and Brock Vereen. And don't forget that Lamarr Houston should be back after tearing his ACL in October. The new regime must continue to build this unit up, but a turnaround is in sight.

Divisional outlook: Things will be tough for the Bears in the NFC North. The Packers (Aaron Rodgers) and Lions (Matthew Stafford) have excellent quarterbacks, while the Vikings are an ascending team.

7) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Seeds of hope: The Bucs have a lot of work to do, but Lovie Smith will fix the 25th-ranked defense. This season aside, he's a good coach who has a plan and knows exactly where he's going and how to get there. Smith and general manager Jason Licht will work together to significantly upgrade both this roster and the rest of the coaching staff this offseason. Plus, the Bucs have the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft -- a huge asset.

Seeds of doubt: As I said, the Bucs have a lot of work to do. First, they need to solve their quarterback situation, which -- with veteran Josh McCown and youngster Mike Glennon both failing to provide much -- really sank them in 2014. Tampa Bay must nail its evaluation of the quarterback prospects who will be available with the No. 1 selection, especially if the choice comes down to Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. Historically speaking, whenever there are two top-tier quarterbacks available, one seems to turn out much better than the other. This will be a monumental moment for the Bucs, with the potential to shape the course of their franchise for years to come. They also need an offensive coordinator who will take advantage of the pieces they have.

Divisional outlook: The NFC South figures to be wide open, based on its dismal .342 winning percentage in 2014, but well, again, the Bucs have many issues to fix.

8) Tennessee Titans

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Seeds of hope: The Titans have a serious talent deficiency, but they do have some players, like young offensive linemen Taylor Lewan and Chance Warmack, and some good receivers. Tennessee also has the second overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and should have plenty of cap space to work with.

Seeds of doubt: This is simply not a very good team. The Titans just don't have enough guys who can contribute to success. With Jake Locker having firmly and finally flamed out, Tennessee needs a quarterback. The team might see Zach Mettenberger as the answer there, but I just don't think he's athletic enough. He's good to have on the roster, but not as the starter.

Divisional outlook: Though the rest of the Colts' roster is tough to peg, Andrew Luck makes Indy exceptionally tough to bring down. Still, while Houston is on a slight uptick, the AFC South is not very imposing.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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