It’s been a trend that is sometimes difficult to explain. We have continuously seen at least one last-place side from one of the NFL’s eight division titles go from the basement to the penthouse the following season. Last year, the Dallas Cowboys finished 13-3 and grabbed the NFC East. They would finish 4-12 the year prior.
We’re not here to predict which one of the cellar-dwellers will win a division title. At least not yet. It’s mid-June and there’s far more work for every NFL team to do. But we will take a crack at ranking how each of these eight clubs stack up at the moment. Let’s go from 8 to 1, shall we?
8. New York Jets: So, who’s next? Joe Namath? The list of the players that the Green and White have cut loose this season is incredibly impressive. The ledger includes wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, center Nick Mangold, cornerback Darrelle Revis and inside linebacker David Harris. The team didn’t bring back quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick or Geno Smith. It’s now up to Josh McCown, Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg to decide who will be throwing passes.
There’s decent talent on defense but the unit didn’t play that way a year ago. It’s tough to imagine this being anything but another long year for Todd Bowles and company.
7. Chicago Bears: Remember the story of The Three Bears? Here is the tale of three Chicago quarterbacks who are no longer with the organization. Jay Cutler is getting ready to do television while both Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley are members of the San Francisco 49ers. We’ve been waiting for Vic Fangio’s defense to come into its own but it’s been spotty to say the least. Wide receiver Kevin White has been a disappointment; injuries haven’t helped. But running back Jordan Howard was a major surprise, finishing second in the league in rushing yards during his rookie campaign.
And talk about shocks? The team used the second overall pick in April’s draft on quarterback Mitch Trubisky. This, after giving former Buccaneers’ signal-caller Mike Glennon decent money. Moving up in the NFC North is no easy task.
6. Cleveland Browns: Since finishing 10-6 in 2007 and just missing out on the playoffs, the Browns have lost at least 11 games in eight of the past nine years. But let’s give credit where it’s due. The organization opted not to part ways with head coach Hue Jackson following a 1-15 season. Now in a division which has always been one of the most competitive in the league, the team continues to stick to its plan of rebuilding via the draft. They selected three players in the first round, including talented defenders Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers. You get the feeling that Cody Kessler will get first crack at the quarterback job. And, keep an eye on second-year wide receiver Corey Coleman.
If the Browns can figure out the second half of games (outscored a combined 226-100 in 2016), they bear watching.
5. San Francisco 49ers: About the only thing left in San Francisco these days are Tony Bennett and the Golden Gate Bridge. The team has deteriorated steadily in recent years due to retirements, free-agent defections and salary-cap decisions. Now Kyle Shanahan becomes the team’s fourth Head Coach in as many years. New General Manager John Lynch has brought in a slew of new players in terms of veterans and rookies. The club hopes that newcomers—2017 first-round picks Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster—as well as linebackers Malcolm Smith and Elvis Dumervil—can aid the worst defense in the NFL in 2016.
The Niners may be more interesting to watch in November and December than they are likely to be early in the year.
4. Los Angeles Chargers: Not only have the Bolts gone from San Diego to Los Angeles, it’s a franchise that went from back-to-back 9-7 seasons (and a playoff berth in 2013) to a combined nine wins the past two seasons. Hence, Mike McCoy’s four-year reign as Head Coach coming to an end. Now it’s up to Anthony Lynn—recently of the Buffalo Bills—and Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley to turn things around. Quarterback Philip Rivers keeps on pitching but has to cut back on those turnovers. There’s 2016 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa, while Melvin Ingram just got paid (4 years, $66 million) after the team gave him the franchise tag in March. Plus, Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon is coming off a sensational second season.
This team feels like it’s a bit under the radar.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: It hasn’t been the year of this cat since back in 2007. Since reaching the playoffs that season, the Jaguars are a combined 42-102—losing 11 or more games in six straight seasons. Doug Marrone, who now has the full-time gig, took over as the team’s interim Head Coach in late 2016. There’s also an old/new VP of Football Operations in Tom Coughlin. Both men are hoping quarterback Blake Bortles can rebound from a turnover-prone season. You can look for more offensive balance this year as the young signal-caller will be handing off to rookie running back Leonard Fournette.
Defensively, this team made its share of strides a year ago. Whether it be through free agency (Malik Jackson and Tashaun Gipson) or the draft (Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack), they’re trying. This offseason, Jacksonville added veterans such as defensive end Calais Campbell, strong safety Barry Church and cornerback A.J. Bouye.
So is this the year that the Jaguars finally get their act together? It shouldn’t be a surprise if they are in the AFC South division title race late on.
2. Philadelphia Eagles: After a 3-0 start, the Birds won only four more times in their final 13 outings. Still, it was a good learning experience for new Head Coach Doug Pederson And, rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. The latter didn’t get a lot of support from his wide receiving corps but GM Howie Roseman brought in veterans Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to team with the ever-reliable Jordan Matthews. Running back LeGarrette Blount is in the mix with Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. And with another year of learning Jim Schwartz’s defensive system, you can expect this unit to make a few more strides forward as well.
The 7-9 Eagles were the only team in the NFC East with a losing record in ’16. They opened the year with three straight wins and closed the season with victories over the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. Look for them to figure out the middle of 2017 a little better.
1. Carolina Panthers: Yes, 2016 was a total disaster for the defending NFC champions. The Panthers had won three straight division title heading into this past season, albeit one of those was courtesy of a 7-8-1 record (2014). And the rollercoaster nature of Ron Rivera’s team is well documented. From 7-9 in 2012 to 12-4 in ’13. From seven wins in ’14 to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance one year later. And now from eight more victories to nine fewer wins one season later. Arguably the most disappointing aspect of the team’s 6-10 finish was a horrid 1-5 record versus their NFC South rivals.
Still, the team made some intriguing moves in free agency and through the draft. Carolina used the eighth overall pick on versatile running back Christian McCaffrey. They also added strong safety Mike Adams and brought back former Panthers Julius Peppers and Captain Munnerlyn. Quarterback Cam Newton is one year removed from being league MVP while linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly remain effective.
The Panthers may not supplant the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South, but they will make a big-time run at a fourth division title in five years.