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NFL worst-to-first candidates: Which teams could make big leaps in 2018?  5 Days ago

Source:   USA Today  

May is a time for NFL teams and fans to entertain all possibilities for the upcoming season. Even the league's most downtrodden franchises can envision a swift rise, especially given the examples set by others last year.

The Philadelphia Eagles became the first team since the 2009 New Orleans Saints to win the Super Bowl after finishing in last place in their division the previous season. The Jacksonville Jaguars captured the AFC South crown for the first time in franchise history after finishing in the cellar in 2016. (The Carolina Panthers made a similar jump, but a tiebreaker relegated them to second place last season even though they shared an 11-5 record with the NFC South champion Saints.)

Here's our ranking of how likely last-place finishers from 2017 are to complete a worst-to-first transition:

Houston actually finished tied with Indianapolis in the AFC South basement last year. But while the Colts are holding out hope that Andrew Luck's potential return can restore them to credibility, the Texans have the top-end talent to rise much higher. Deshaun Watson could make a Carson Wentz-level leap in Year 2 as he recovers from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Meanwhile, a defense that ranked last in scoring is bound to improve with the returns of three-time defensive player of the year J.J. Watt and underrated pass rusher Whitney Mercilus, as well as the additions of Tyrann Mathieu, Aaron Colvin and rookie Justin Reid to the secondary.

But Houston's roster doesn't have much in the way of a middle class, and its shortcomings — especially an offensive line that gave up 54 sacks — are significant. Still, there's little question that the Texans have the highest ceiling of any team on this list.

If this exercise were solely based off how teams finished the 2017 campaign, San Francisco would be the clear choice for No. 1. Kyle Shanahan's group looked well ahead of schedule when it closed the year 5-0 after Jimmy Garoppolo took the starting reins. With former nemesis Richard Sherman filling a glaring hole at cornerback, the defense also looks to be taking shape.

Both the Seahawks and Cardinals could be headed for transitional years amid significant offseason changes, but the star-studded Rams remain a major obstacle atop the division. Given the multiyear rebuild that Shanahan and general manager John Lynch took on, the Niners likely still need some leeway as a young roster continues to develop.

After being grounded by subpar passing the last two seasons, Denver is ready to find out how far steady quarterback play can take the current outfit. Case Keenum looks capable of being the plug-and-play option the team needs to take advantage of its third-ranked defense. Von Miller and first-round pick Bradley Chubb need to reignite the pass rush to make up for vulnerabilities along the defensive line and in the secondary, but Denver still has the tools to move past the memories of last year's eight-game losing streak.

The AFC West might be tightly contested again, but the uncertainty surrounding the Chiefs amid Patrick Mahomes' ascension to starting QB leaves the door open for a new champion. General manager John Elway said the Chargers might be the team to beat, but Denver looks poised to right the ship in short order.

After Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette helped recalibrate the Cowboys and Jaguars' offenses as rookies en route to division titles, the Giants are hoping Saquon Barkley can bring about a similar sea change. The No. 2 pick should provide a needed sense of balance next to Odell Beckham and Eli Manning, who likely will have have improved blind side protection with Nate Solder taking over. New coach Pat Shurmur also figures to be a steadying presence in the reset. 

But returning to the franchise's seemingly perennial status as a playoff contender won't be as simple as dismissing any lingering drama. The defense gave up an NFL-worst 32 passing touchdowns last season, and a pass rush that generated just 27 sacks lost Jason Pierre-Paul. With the Eagles way out in front of the rest of the NFC East, Big Blue will be hard-pressed to capture its first division title since 2011. 

Taking cues from the Rams' rapid rise, Chicago hired a young, innovative offensive mind in Matt Nagy to bring along second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and revive a passing attack that ranked as the NFL's worst last season. General manager Ryan Pace provided new tools with wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel and tight end Trey Burton. With a top 10 defense and room to grow for Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen in the running game, the Bears could enjoy a quick turnaround. 

The NFC North competition, however, might temper Chicago's prospects. The Bears were just one of two teams to go 0-6 in their division last season (along with the Browns) and have neither the star-studded roster of the Vikings nor the transformative talent that the Packers boast in Aaron Rodgers. 

Jason Licht quietly implemented an aggressive offseason plan. Saddled with the league's worst pass rush, he overhauled the defensive line by adding Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry on the edge before drafting Vita Vea. The ninth-ranked offense was explosive in stretches, but speedy rookie Ronald Jones should jolt a running attack that had just five gains of 20 yards or more.

Yet there might be too much ground to make up in a division that features three returning playoff teams, all of whom boast a quarterback capable of elevating his respective group. Unless Jameis Winston can establish himself on that level by taking a significant step in his development and curbing his turnovers, Tampa Bay will have a difficult time keeping pace.

No one will accuse general manager John Dorsey of standing pat in his first offseason as he rebuilds a team that's 1-31 since 2016. A completely new set of quarterbacks, led by Tyrod Taylor and No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield, might be the best representation of how bold Cleveland has been in reconstructing its roster. While there are still several holes, the Browns look poised to make a sizable leap.

But even substantial progress might not amount to much more than a handful of wins. The Browns have dropped their last six games against the Steelers, so catching up to Pittsburgh this quickly seems like a pipe dream. Finishing anything other than last in the AFC North for the first time since 2010 would mark significant progress.

Take solace, Gang Green fans: At least there are signs of progress. In Sam Darnold, the Jets appear to have finally found a starting point for their rebuild. Saddled with a weak supporting cast, he could have a rough ride should he have a significant role as a rookie. But with the right breaks, New York could push the Dolphins and Bills.

Yet the Jets are the clear choice for the last slot on this list given the presence of the Patriots, who have claimed the AFC East a record nine consecutive seasons.

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