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The Jacksonville Jaguars went from worst to first in their division last year; the Chicago Bears accomplished the same feat in the NFC North this season. BUt who’s the next team to go from the basement to the penthouse?
We’ve witnessed NFL teams change their short-term outlooks with the right transactions during the offseason. At times, a division opponent’s poor decisions or misfortunes factor into a rise to the top. A year from now, we could see another club claim a division title or playoff spot after going through a lost season in 2018.
Here, we’ll take a look at five teams with the best chance at a bounce-back year. All selections have non-winning records this season, primarily because of injuries, inexperience or subpar coaching. However, cap space, player development, talent availability and draft status should help them contend for the postseason in 2019.
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Current Record: 4-11
After leading the San Francisco 49ers to a perfect record last December, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo created a palpable buzz around the organization. To some, this club should’ve been competing for a playoff spot this year. In Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs, the 27-year-old signal-caller tore his ACL, which derailed postseason hopes in San Francisco.
We have no idea what the 49ers would’ve been with Garoppolo healthy, but it’s fair to believe they’d have a better record at this point in the season. On a brighter note, San Francisco will have a projected $58.9 million to spend in the offseason, per Spotrac, and it currently holds the No. 3 overall pick in the draft.
The available cap space and draft placement will allow general manager John Lynch to acquire a pass-rushing defensive end, replace linebacker Reuben Foster and add a dynamic wide receiver to join Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis.
Garoppolo’s return alone will add tallies to the win column next season. If Lynch uses his money and draft capital wisely, the 49ers should have a loaded roster primed to challenge the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks for the NFC West title.
Projected 2019 record: 10-6
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Current Record: 6-9
It’s easy to point to injuries as the culprit of the Atlanta Falcons’ downfall this year. They lost their starting safeties, Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) after the first three weeks. Linebacker Deion Jones, who’s an elite cover defender in the middle of the field, missed 10 games with a foot injury. Running back Devonta Freeman went down with season-ending foot and groin ailments during Week 5.
Anyone can understand that a team without multiple key playmakers will struggle to contend for a playoff spot. However, the Falcons may explore big-picture changes, potentially replacing offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and defensive play-caller Marquand Manuel, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.
The defensive group needs to stay healthy. Offensively, the Falcons rank 11th in scoring, eighth in yardage and improved on last year’s red-zone woes, jumping from 50.0 to a 63.0 percent touchdown success rate inside the 20-yard line.
Two years removed from a Super Bowl run, the Falcons’ playoff window hasn’t closed yet.
Projected 2019 record: 11-5
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Current Record: 6-8-1
It’s hard to imagine Aaron Rodgers missing out on the postseason for a third consecutive year. He sustained a broken collarbone and missed nine games during the 2017 campaign, then battled through a knee ailment in the early portion of this year.
Injuries aren’t excuses for the Packers’ subpar play over the last two terms, but it’s a factor because of Rodgers’ role in the team’s success. Most clubs don’t have a viable backup quarterback capable of leading his squad to a Super Bowl victory like the Philadelphia Eagles, who trotted out Nick Foles last year.
Green Bay must hire Mike McCarthy’s replacement and a suitable match for an elite talent at quarterback. The new head coach will still have Rodgers in his peak years—able to move freely in the pocket and create plays from improvisation. It’s important to allow his natural football instincts take over as opposed to bogging him down with structure. A fresh, innovative voice in his ear should help accentuate those qualities.
And he will have another year to grow with three current first-year wideouts, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and J’Mon Moore. Running back Aaron Jones emerged as a lead ball-carrier before spraining his MCL in Week 15. Green Bay ranks 11th in passing defense with rookie cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson combining for 20 pass breakups.
The rookies have all flashed upside at various times this year. They’ll have another offseason to hone their skills and become consistent contributors next season. The potential overall growth among the youth on the roster with a top-tier signal-caller makes the Packers an easy choice to transition from playoff spectators to contenders.
Projected 2019 record: 11-5
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Current Record: 5-10
In some ways, the Buffalo Bills surprised critics this season. They knocked off the Minnesota Vikings on the road for their best win of the year during Week 3. Despite scoring fewer than 10 points in five outings, they’ve been a competitive group down the stretch, courtesy of a top-two defense in yards allowed.
If that group stays in tact and quarterback Josh Allen continues to grow within the offense under play-caller Brian Daboll, the team could be fine. It seems as though Allen has found a reliable target in undrafted rookie wideout Robert Foster, who’s racked up 490 yards and two touchdowns in the last six contests.
The Bills would probably like to see Allen’s accuracy rise (51.7 percent), but his ability to scramble and create yards out of dead plays keeps drives alive. Based on a natural progression as a passer, the rookie signal-caller’s big arm will frequently challenge opponents next term. The front office will likely add a couple assets on the offensive line, a running back and wide receiver to surround him with talent.
The Bills may not dethrone the New England Patriots for the AFC East crown, but they could sneak into the postseason as a wild-card squad in 2019.
Projected 2019 record: 9-7
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David Richard/Associated Press
Current Record: 7-7-1
Opposing teams can no longer look at the Cleveland Browns as a probable victory on the schedule. After going 1-31 over the last two years, this club’s 7-7-1 record indicates there’s a full turnaround on the horizon. Pending the result of Week 17, the franchise could finish with its first winning season since the 2007 campaign.
For now, Cleveland has an even .500 record, although it has one tie, which qualifies this squad as one with plenty of room for improvement next season. The Browns could legitimately push for a playoff spot in 2019. They’ve won five of their last six games and found their quarterback of the future in Baker Mayfield. And he can hand off to a featured ball-carrier in Nick Chubb, who’s logged four 100-yard rushing performances.
The Browns have even been able to protect Mayfield in the second half of the season. He’s taken just three sacks in the last six outings. General manager John Dorsey will have a projected $80.6 million in cap space and a top-20 pick to add a dynamic wide receiver and an asset on each level of the defense. If he addresses those needs, the Browns should be a playoff contender at this time next year.
Projected 2019 record: 10-6