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Texans, 49ers, Buccaneers head 2018's worst-to-first candidates

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A year ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars were coming off a three-win campaign that landed them at the bottom of the AFC South for the fourth time in nine seasons.

Now, Jacksonville is preparing to play the Steelers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs -- after completing a classic worst-to-first turnaround.

Which of 2017's last-place finishers has the best chance to follow in the footsteps of this season's Jaguars and Eagles (who, incidentally, were the two top-ranked teams on last year's list)? Below, I've ranked each of the eight last-place teams in the NFL according to their chances of going from worst to first in 2018:

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this file, the 4-12 Colts were listed as the AFC South's last-place team. But although Indianapolis picks higher in the 2018 NFL Draft, the 4-12 Texans officially finished in last place, due to their head-to-head record (the Colts swept the Texans).

1) Houston Texans (AFC South, 4-12)

The Texans' path to redemption will be forged by star talents returning from injury on defense and offense. Adding J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus -- who were both lost for the season in October -- back to the fold should return the defense, which ranked first in 2016 but dropped to 20th in 2017, to dominance. In his last game before a torn ACL in practice brought a premature end to a dazzling debut campaign, quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for 402 yards and four touchdowns while running for another 67 yards -- and I expect him to pick up right where he left off. Houston has a plus-receiver (to put it mildly) in DeAndre Hopkins and another strong asset in Will Fuller, while Lamar Miller is a good running back. I don't see another obvious bully in the division, which sets the Texans up nicely on this list.

2) San Francisco 49ers (NFC West, 6-10)

A word of advice: If you're ever asked to make a list of cellar-dwellers who could immediately and completely reverse their fortunes, start with teams that have great starting quarterback. I just like everything about Jimmy Garoppolo, from his attitude to his accuracy. Head coach Kyle Shanahan, meanwhile, is like a young version of his dad, Mike -- he and general manager John Lynch have stabilized this organization. The defensive front seven is strong. With a well-assembled scouting department and plenty of projected cap space, the 49ers are poised to fill holes at receiver and on the offensive line. With the Seahawks and Cardinals both likely to move backward in 2018, the NFC West should come down to a fight between the Niners and Rams -- and I like San Francisco's chances.

3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFC South, 5-11)

Jameis Winston is primed for a breakthrough 2018 season. His yards-per-attempt mark of 7.93 ranked fourth in the NFL in 2017, ahead of players like Tom Brady (fifth, 7.88) and Carson Wentz (11th, 7.49), while his completion rate (63.8 percent) ranked 12th. The offensive line needs to stay healthier -- by the end of the season, the unit was relying on backup-types. The 32nd-ranked defense was a weakness, and with the team compiling a league-low sack total (22), it's clear that pass rusher is a big need. Yes, the NFC South includes three other formidable teams. Still, this is a well-coached group, and if Winston can continue to learn to incorporate coaching going forward, he can be a factor and make Tampa Bay truly dangerous.

4) New York Giants (NFC East, 3-13)

When you lose a player like Odell Beckham Jr. in early October, it is hard to win. Getting Beckham back in 2018 should help in a big way, with Sterling Shepard and promising tight end Evan Engram also there to anchor the passing game. The running backs were OK; O-line help is what's really needed to solidify the ground attack. The defense, which finished 10th overall in 2016, endured a vexing drop to 31st in 2017, but I think the core players are all still talented and should help the group bounce back. Dave Gettleman was the right hire for the general manager position; now, the Giants just need to find the right head coach, likely a defensive-minded person.

Mostly, though, this ranking is predicated on Eli Manning returning for another go-around at quarterback. He might be close to hitting the wall, but he's still got it for now -- he's also more athletic than most think. This will be a tough division, with Carson Wentz and the Eagles likely to start the season as front-runners, but the Giants should be a much tougher team.

5) Denver Broncos (AFC West, 5-11)

The Broncos have a playoff-caliber defense, but serious help is needed on offense, especially at quarterback. Of the three QBs who played in 2017 -- Paxton Lynch, Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler -- I'm not sure any one of them is good enough to be a starter. Working in the Broncos' favor is the unstable nature of the division, which does not currently feature any truly dominant teams. Without knowing what they'll do at quarterback, though, it's hard to say if Denver will be able to capitalize. If I were the Broncos, I'd consider going after someone like Kirk Cousins, should the Redskins let him hit free agency -- pair a QB like that with this defense, and you're golden. I'm sure John Elway has a plan; we'll just have to wait to see how it plays out.

6) Cleveland Browns (AFC North, 0-16)

In 2013, John Dorsey's first year as GM in Kansas City, he helped turn the Chiefs from a two-win team into an 11-5 playoff participant. Will he work similar magic in his first year in Cleveland? As with all things, it comes down to whether he can find the right quarterback. DeShone Kizer disappointed overall, but he did show some signs and provided a little excitement along the way -- can he continue to develop? Will Dorsey look to the draft? Will he try to sign a veteran, a la Alex Smith with the Chiefs in 2013? (Might he even bring Smith to Cleveland?) Cleveland has a solid nucleus in place, with a roster that is probably better than 50 percent of the rosters in the NFL, and a defense that performed relatively well (ranking 14th) in 2017. And the Browns have a slew of early draft picks with which to further buttress that roster. In terms of the rest of the division, the Ravens are an aging team with an aging quarterback, and I'm not sure about the Bengals, which leaves one squad -- the Steelers -- for Cleveland to leapfrog. The Browns just need to find a quarterback.

7) New York Jets (AFC East, 5-11)

The Jets played much better than expected. Coach Todd Bowles is pretty good, and I think they possess some talented defensive players in Jamal Adams, Marcus Maye and Leonard Williams who are also solid character types. Second-year pro Robby Anderson, meanwhile, has proven to be a find at wide receiver. The question for the Jets is, who will play quarterback? Josh McCown is 38 and headed for free agency, and while there's a slim chance Bryce Petty could turn into something, it doesn't seem like Christian Hackenberg ever will. Still, New York is pretty much on par with Buffalo and Miami. It's an extremely safe bet that the Patriots will once again win the AFC East in 2018, meaning the Jets have almost no chance to go worst to first -- but they have a better chance than the team ranked below, which simply faces more in-division obstacles.

8) Chicago Bears (NFC North, 5-11)

The Bears look like they can become a Jaguars-type ascending team, especially if quarterback Mitchell Trubisky works out. Trubisky finished his rookie season with a TD-to-INT ratio of 7:7 in 12 games, but he seemed to improve toward the end of the year, posting a passer rating of 100-plus in consecutive games for the first time in his career in Weeks 13 and 14. Getting receivers Cam Meredith and Kevin White healthy and back on the field would be helpful, as would retaining defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, whose 10th-ranked unit was pretty good. The biggest factor limiting the Bears' worst-to-first ranking is the division, where the Vikings, Packers and Lions loom.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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