One year ago, I predicted that 2018's last-place teams would have trouble completing the worst-to-first journey in 2019. I was right. Not a single organization (the list included the Jaguars, Giants, Jets, Raiders, Bengals, Lions, Buccaneers and Cardinals) pulled off the ultimate reversal of fortune in 2019. In fact, half of the teams stayed buried in the cellar, finishing in last place again.
Will any of those four teams -- or the four newcomers who joined them at the bottom of their respective divisions -- swing into first place by the end of 2020? Below, I've ranked the eight last-place finishers according to each's chance of ending next season on top. Teams are listed in reverse order:
8) Cincinnati Bengals (AFC North, 2-14)
Though he finished his first season as an NFL coach with a disastrous 2-14 record, Zac Taylor made some inroads over the latter half of the season, with Cincy winning two of its last five games. Andy Dalton is likely on his way out of town, but help could soon be on the way in the form of potential No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow. The quarterback will need time to grow before the Bengals can legitimately compete in a division that is home to three quality defenses in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. They must also shore up the NFL's worst run defense. The team's revival would be accelerated if Cincinnati showed an increased willingness to spend on marquee free agents, especially in the wake of some less-than-productive draft classes.
7) Carolina Panthers (NFC South, 5-11)
Though the Panthers are going into their first offseason since 2010 without Ron Rivera as head coach, there are signs of hope for Carolina, including the presence of star running back Christian McCaffrey and promising pass catchers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel. Cam Newtoncould also be a bright spot, if he returns to health and stabilizes the quarterback position. That is, unless the brass in Carolina decides to move on from the 2015 MVP, whose contract expires after the 2020 season, creating yet another question mark on this roster, with neither Kyle Allen nor Will Grier looking like long-term answers. The defense (which ranked 23rd overall and 31st in points allowed) is a major weak spot. The most realistic expectations for the Panthers is that they'll be ready to compete again in 2021.
6) Washington Redskins (NFC East, 3-13)
It isn't a stretch to say the Redskins could quickly become competitive in a division that didn't feature a single dominant team in 2019. But new coach Ron Rivera has plenty of work to do to clean up the mess left behind by a dysfunctional front office. The team must be patient with quarterback Dwayne Haskins and help him continue to develop, given that he entered the NFL with just one year under his belt as a college starter. Working in Haskins' favor is the fact that Washington boasts two pretty good rookie receivers in Terry McLaurin and Steven Sims. Getting left tackle Trent Williamsback in the fold would be huge for Haskins.
5) Los Angeles Chargers (AFC West, 5-11)
The Philip Rivers era may very well be over, and running back Melvin Gordon could be headed out the door along with the venerable quarterback. That said, the cupboard is not completely bare. The Chargers still have skill-position players to build around, including receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, and they have the makings of a top-10 defense, led by Melvin Ingram, Joey Bosa and Derwin James (who was, we should not forget, injured for most of the 2019 season). Keys to success will be unearthing a way to unseat the Chiefs, who are 27-3 vs. AFC West teams since 2015 and have claimed four straight division crowns.
4) Jacksonville Jaguars (AFC South, 6-10)
This team has some players, although the quarterback position is a glaring question mark. Sixth-round pick Gardner Minshew looks like a potential franchise QB, having supplanted Nick Foles as starter, and Minshew is expected to hold that position in 2020, though he remains relatively untested (while Foles is promised a hefty paycheck). The Jaguars don't need to overhaul their defense, but they should seek to add a run-stuffing tackle and more difference-making linebackers if they want to return to the Sacksonville heyday of 2017. The fact that none of the other teams in the AFC South finished with more than 10 wins this season reflects how close the organizations in that division are.
3) Detroit Lions (NFC North, 3-12-1)
Injuries ruined the Lions' 2019, with quarterback Matthew Stafford, felled by a back injury in November, being the biggest casualty, though the loss of running back Kerryon Johnson did also force the team to start five different players in his absence. The defense still needs a difference-making pass rusher, with high-profile 2019 free agent Trey Flowers notching just seven sacks. Run-stuffing clogger Damon Harrison will also need to be replaced if he retires. The Lions have the No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and ownership seems to feel strongly that the duo of coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn can get this team to play "meaningful" football next season. The key will be establishing a strong ground game and beefed-up defense around a healthy Stafford.
2) Arizona Cardinals (NFC West, 5-10-1)
Kyler Murray's strong rookie season, which included a not-insignificant number of inspiring wins driven by his ability to make plays with both his feet and his arm, will power a lot of optimism in Arizona. Among the offseason priorities should be improving the talent defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has to work with after that unit ranked 32nd in 2019. The Cardinals' chances of challenging the 49ers, Seahawks and Rams in the NFC West will be a lot stronger if Larry Fitzgerald returns for another year, and if running back Kenyan Drake re-signs after breaking out as an in-season trade acquisition. Kliff Kingsbury did a heckuva job in Year 1, helping Murray's career get off to a promising start.
1) Miami Dolphins (AFC East, 5-11)
Yes, the Patriots have reigned supreme in the AFC East for an unprecedented 11 straight seasons. But based on the late-season slump and uncertain future of Tom Brady, it isn't a stretch to see the Dolphins becoming legit contenders sooner rather than later. Even with the Miami front office sending loads of talent out the door this year, this was a surprisingly resilient group, thanks to the leadership of veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and the emergence of youngsters DeVante Parker, Mike Gesicki and Jerome Baker. There is plenty left to be done, but the Dolphins will have ample opportunity to improve in the offseason, with tons of cap space (per Over The Cap) and draft capital at their disposal. Brian Flores is coming off an especially impressive debut season. With Flores at the helm, I could see the Dolphins winning in 2020 even if they draft a quarterback in the first round. This team's promising regardless of whether a rookie or Fitzpatrick is under center.