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Bucs, Dolphins among most competitive last-place teams

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When the 2016 season ended, the Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers were mired in last place in their respective divisions. Through five weeks of the 2017 season, each team has risen to first.

This matches my January assessment of which teams had the best chances of going from worst to first this year (I had the Eagles, Jaguars and Panthers on top). It's also reflective of a volatile league picture in which a few missed field-goal tries can make the difference between contending for the playoffs and being stuck in the cellar.

Given how much is yet to be determined this season, I thought I'd take a look at the eight teams currently in last place in their divisions -- in those divisions with a tie at the bottom, I focused on the last-place team according to NFL.com's standings -- and project when each current bottom-feeder will next contend. Some are actually still in contention, with a realistic chance to fight for 2017; some are in great position for 2018; and some should be looking, well, far beyond that.

STILL IN THE MIX

1) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-2 in the NFC South)

Running back Doug Martin's return last week should only boost an offense that is playing well (ranked sixth in the NFL) behind Jameis Winston. The defense is currently ranked 30th overall, but coordinator Mike Smith is too good a coach for that unit -- which is also dealing with the absences of linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David -- not to improve. In short, the Bucs can compete now, provided newly signed kicker Patrick Murray can settle a position that has seriously hampered Tampa's start. The NFC South is stacked, but if Martin can shorten the game on offense and a few more field-goal and extra-point tries go their way, the Bucs should make real noise in the wild-card race.

2) Miami Dolphins (2-2 in the AFC East)

The Dolphins miss Ryan Tannehill. Any fan who ever called for Miami to move on from the young quarterback in the past surely understands how good Tannehill is now, after watching Jay Cutler (3:3 TD-to-INT ratio, 74.8 passer rating) lead the NFL's 32nd-ranked offense in Tannehill's stead. Still, Cutler is a talented guy who should get better each week (remember, he didn't join the team until August) -- he gives Miami a better chance to win than backup Matt Moore. The eighth-ranked defense is playing well, and when you play good defense, you have a chance to compete in every game. I think coach Adam Gase is one of the best in the league at handling adversity, which is key this year, given Tannehill's season-ending knee injury and the hurricane-induced headaches of the early portion of the schedule. I think they're capable of making a push for a wild-card spot. But even if they fall short, the Dolphins are destined to make the playoffs next year.

3) Indianapolis Colts (2-3 in the AFC South)

Indianapolis' defense (ranked 31st) is playing poorly and the offense (25th) is treading water. The Colts' relatively high ranking here is driven by two things: the potential that Andrew Luck will return in time to make a difference and the fact that, at 2-3 in the relatively weak AFC South, they control their own destiny. Houston and Tennessee look vulnerable, and while the Jaguars have a great defense, they don't have much going for them at quarterback. Indy has all six divisional games ahead of it still, meaning a division title is theoretically within reach -- depending, of course, on when Luck gets back. (Notably, he won't be back for this week's showdown with the Titans.)

Right now, the players are probably playing a bit over their heads in anticipation of Luck's return. If he takes too long to come back, the air will come out of Indy's balloon. Looking beyond 2017, I think the Colts should have a very good chance to compete in 2018. A healthy Luck makes them capable of beating anyone, while general manager Chris Ballard -- who has the magic touch -- will continue upgrading this roster.

EYES ON '18

4) Los Angeles Chargers (1-4 in the AFC West)

The Chargers could easily be 4-1, with three of their losses this season coming by a total of seven combined points. If they were in a less-stacked division, they'd be a shoo-in for the playoffs. Unfortunately for them, it will be nearly impossible to catch up to Kansas City (5-0) and Denver (3-1) in the AFC West. Looking to 2018, however, Los Angeles has the personnel in place to make some serious noise. Most teams are dying to find just one elite pass rusher, but the Bolts have two (Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram) helping to fuel their fourth-ranked pass defense. Quarterback Philip Rivers (35) hasn't had the smoothest of seasons, but I don't think he's a descending player just yet -- it looks to me like he still has his fastball. I'm confident Rivers has a solid two to three years of top-level play in him, and that, combined with the young talent on the rest of the roster (such as Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Hunter Henry and Mike Williams), should have this team sitting pretty.

5) Chicago Bears (1-4 in the NFC North)

The sixth-ranked defense is playing at a playoff level now -- if only Chicago had an offense (27th). Rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has a lot of potential and will continue to improve as the season progresses. Give him a year of experience and some healthy receivers, and the Bears could make something happen in 2018. In fact, Chicago is positioned to play an interesting spoiler role in the second half of this season, with six of the team's final eight games coming against likely contenders (the Packers, Lions twice, Vikings, Eagles and Bengals). It'll be an encouraging sign if the Bears can become a thorn in the side of any of those teams. Chicago's window will definitely be open in two years, if not next year.

6) San Francisco 49ers (0-5 in the NFC West)

The Niners have the makings of a very good front seven on defense, with four former first-rounders all playing well, and they've improved on both sides of the ball. But they're also still paying for a series of poor drafts that put them in a difficult hole in the NFC West, where the Rams and Seahawks have a decided talent advantage. Coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch will run this organization more efficiently than it had been run lately. If they can find a quarterback this offseason -- Kirk Cousins could be available to sign, but in terms of the draft, I don't currently see a Carson Wentz- or Jared Goff-type prospect -- they'll have a chance to potentially compete in 2018. If not, I'd expect contention in 2019.

THE WAITING GAME

7) New York Giants (0-5 in the NFC East)

To get back to relevance, the Giants need to get their 26th-ranked defense in shape. They also need to find a running back (which is doable) and offensive line help (which is harder to do). And they need to find some answers at quarterback. Eli Manning is a talented guy who gives you everything he has, and he doesn't look like he's lost velocity. But he's 36 and just not playing as well as he did two years ago. I expect him to be the Giants' quarterback through at least next season, but looking long-term, is rookie Davis Webb the answer? I thought Webb was just as good coming out of Cal in 2017 as Jared Goff was in 2016. But only the insiders know where Webb stands now. If Webb isn't the guy the Giants need him to be, they're in for a potentially long rebuilding process while they try to find another signal-caller.

8) Cleveland Browns (0-5 in the AFC North)

One thing sticks in the back of my mind when thinking about the Browns: They passed up on a franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz. Yes, the Browns have accumulated a ton of future picks -- but future picks don't win you games. They've drafted well, but even so, it's tough to succeed in the short term with a squad as young as Cleveland's. Some youngsters will exceed expectations, but the majority will make mistakes. The defense (ranked fifth) has definitely improved, and it remains to be seen what all that draft capital turns into. But this is a quarterback-driven league, and almost every win these days comes down to quarterback play. A solid starter could emerge between DeShone Kizer and Kevin Hogan -- of the two, I still like Kizer's long-term potential and think he has much more upside than Hogan -- but until Cleveland has that position locked down, the playoffs will remain out of reach.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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