Each season there is always a handful of fresh faces in the playoffs, often representing the schematic breakthroughs that helped define the season as a whole. Last year, the NFL playoffs featured three teams (Chicago Bears, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts) that didn’t have a winning record the year before. It will be interesting to see what happens in 2019, as so many teams are now rushing to the middle, stocking up on coaches with experience in the type of en vogue playbooks that were an outlier the previous two years. It opens up a world of possibilities. Do we learn about the depth and possibilities of these offenses, or do we learn the value of something new?
With training camps right around the corner, here’s our first shot at projecting five worst to first-type teams, who could make a splash after having a losing record in 2018.
NEW YORK GIANTS (2018 season: 5-11)
I think divisional strength (or lack thereof) is a major factor here. While the Eagles will almost certainly be better—or at least more complete—than they were in 2018, the rest of the landscape is puzzling at best. Washington could start a rookie quarterback. Dallas may take a step back. After another offseason spent loading up on offensive line help, the Giants could theoretically control the line against almost all of their opponents. Saquon Barkley is primed for a phenomenal season, leading to the possibility of a higher-end, quarterback agnostic offense with Eli Manning and Daniel Jones behind center. While this isn’t a Super Bowl winning formula, it’s a formula that could help the Giants navigate the 27th-most difficult schedule in the NFL.
CINCINNATI BENGALS (2018 season: 6-10)
A roster that is perennially talented but woefully underutilized, the Bengals now have fresh eyes in new head coach Zac Taylor. With the AFC North hitting a bit of a strange period due to a massive talent exodus in Pittsburgh and the massive import of mercurial talent in Cleveland (not to mention a seemingly rocky playbook change in Baltimore), the time might be right for the Bengals to surprise the field. The recent news that first-round offensive lineman Jonah Williams is out for the season hurts, but adding some basic functionality to an offense that has suitable pieces could surprise some teams who have enjoyed the predictability of preparing for one head coach and a handful of coordinators over the last two decades.
CLEVELAND BROWNS (2018 season: 7-8-1)
It’s hard to balance the hype with the reality of teams who expand their roster this rapidly. On one hand, you could draw parallels between John Dorsey’s roster maneuvering to that of Les Snead and Howie Roseman with their young starters still on a rookie deal. This team is good enough to be a 13-3 division winner, without question. The talent level is startling on paper. But there is so much that needs to go well for a first-year head coach, second-year quarterback and wonderfully mercurial No. 1 wide receiver that it’s difficult to dive in blindly on the Browns.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (2018 season: 5-11)
For the last two seasons we’ve been imagining this roster with more functionality at quarterback. And while I’ve pressed the pause button on Nick Foles hype multiple times this offseason, even a coordinator with a distant familiarity of his comforts, likes and dislikes is a massive improvement over a barrage of coordinators frantically trying to fix the flaws in Blake Bortles’s game. Like the Giants, Jacksonville is playing in a relatively open division and is layered with veteran talent. Unlike the Giants, so much of their offensive groove depends on a talented young running back who is far more uncertain to produce.
NEW YORK JETS (2018 season: 4-12)
Tied with the Giants for one of the easiest schedules in the NFL and armed with a talented-but-combustible new coaching staff, the Jets will be a major curiosity in 2019. Can their talented safeties negate some of the weaknesses they have in coverage? Will they get any production out of Le’Veon Bell reminiscent of his prime in Pittsburgh? Will Sam Darnold make the jump that some close to him last year thought was possible with the right coaching? The Adam Gase era is off to a strange start, but sneaking up behind the Patriots to nab a wild card spot would make fans forget quickly about the ouster of a general manager.
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