Acquiring the best player in NFL history has its benefits, as the Buccaneers discovered in 2020. They went from a 7-9 middle team with a good coaching staff and strong defensive core to an 11-5 playoff favorite and eventual Super Bowl champion. It’s impossible to rule out teams with a losing record from one year to the next, although we often fall into the trap of recent bias. That’s why we’re here, to take a look at the NFL’s bottom rung in 2020 and decide if any team is good enough to get off the junk heap.
When projecting the “worst to first” type of candidates this year, there are some more obvious than others. The quarterbacks are coming back from injuries. New coaches with reasonable business plans are being installed on rosters already set up for success. This, plus a second year of extended playoffs and a (hopefully) more representative NFC East, should give us parity this year, as well as a more diverse field of playoff newcomers.
1. San Francisco 49ers
2020 record: 6-10
Major offseason changes: Drafted No. 3 Trey Lance; signed wide receiver Mohamed Sanu.
Why they’ll make the playoffs: The 49ers are a good team who, even at their worst, are still capable of analyzing a carelessly planned opponent. We’ve seen it throughout Kyle Shanahan’s tenure, even if it’s been a run thus far that has resulted in a playoff (and Super Bowl) appearance. Still, it’s hard to imagine such a deep roster, which swept the NFC with a mid-high-level quarterback just two years ago, spiraling. The loss of Robert Saleh and a platoon of Shanahan’s key assistants should not be overlooked. Offensive line coach John Benton joined the Jets with Saleh and former aerial games coordinator Mike LaFleur. Still, Shanahan was able to retain some talent, including former quarterback coach Rich Scangarello and offensive line coach Chris Foerster. With Lance presumably taking over at some point this season, we’ll see how the scheme can diversify with mobility at the center. Because Shanahan is already one step ahead of the rest of the NFL, he will now be even further ahead.
2. New England Patriots
2020 record: 7-9
Major offseason changes: Draft No. 15 Mac Jones; signed tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, and outside linebacker Matt Judon.
Why they’ll make the playoffs: The Patriots won seven games last year, despite some of their biggest players opting out due to COVID-19 and Tom Brady leaving in free agency. They improvised an offense with a still limited Cam Newton and managed to beat some teams that shouldn’t have. Now, Bill Belichick, amid premature whispers of his demise, has a promising young quarterback, plus a healthier Newton in the fold, along with the most aggressive free agent class in his tenure. Some have pointed this out as a sign of their desperation. Others might venture that Belichick simply has a deep understanding of the economics of soccer. This was a depressed market, and while he still spent generously (and possibly irresponsibly) at wide receiver, he achieved good value elsewhere.
3. Los Angeles Chargers
2020 record: 7-9
Major offseason changes: Hired head coach Brandon Staley; signed center Corey Linsley, tackle Matt Feiler and tight end Jared Cook; Selected tackle Rashawn Slater No. 13.
Why They’ll Make the Playoffs: When the history of this Chargers team is written, Anthony Lynn and Pep Hamilton will be largely eliminated. It is important to note that Justin Herbert made this job desirable because of the work that Lynn was able to do with him, which included having him ready enough in seconds to get into an NFL game when the suspected starter’s lung was punctured by a doctor from the team. professional. And play well at it! In a perfect world, Lynn would be running an offense with Staley running a defense, but unfortunately that’s not the way a coaching carousel works.
That said, Staley comes with an impeccable reputation on the defensive end and a history as a quarterback, making him attractive on both sides of the ball. For a time last year, Staley’s Rams were giving up the fewest second-half points in NFL history, cementing their ability to make adjustments to the game, a critical component of the head coaching job. Staley enters a well-stocked roster by general manager Tom Telesco, with Pro Bowl-caliber talent at nearly every position. This will not be heavy lifting.
4. Dallas Cowboys
2020 record: 6-10
Major offseason changes: extended Dak Prescott, returning from a broken ankle; hired Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator; draft linebacker Micah Parsons No. 12; signed safeties Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee, and outside linebacker Tarell Basham.
Why they’ll make the playoffs: Prescott was on his way to becoming the most efficient quarterback in the NFL last year before a devastating ankle injury took away nearly an entire season. It was obvious that the Mike McCarthy-Kellen Moore hybrid scheme wasn’t enough to lead an Andy Dalton-led club to the playoffs, which only increased Prescott’s value. It was also obvious that the Cowboys were on offense before Prescott was injured, scoring 40, 31 and 38 in his first three games before the injury occurred. This, plus a second year of experience (and a full offseason) for CeeDee Lamb, should ensure a competitive roster that can make up for his porous defense. The defense, simply by virtue of adding Quinn, should also be better, even if it isn’t dominant enough to take Dallas on a long journey through the postseason.
5. Denver Broncos
2020 record: 5–11
Major offseason changes: cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kendall Fuller signed; traded for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater; selected No. 9 cornerback Patrick Surtain II.
Why they will reach the playoffs: I would put a Vic Fangio defense this charged against any offense in the NFL, even if the Broncos are middle at best on offense. Stylistically, it will be the team of a defensive-minded classic coach, requiring ball control on offense and a strong offensive line. The Broncos added Javonte Williams in the second round, pairing him with Melvin Gordon as a running back. They also selected D-III star and nature buff Quinn Meinerz in the third round. We often credit stellar draft teams based on how well they’ve met perceived needs, and while it’s a simplistic scoring rubric, the Broncos have managed to stand out thus far. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Bridgewater move to the front of the group quickly, as he’s the most promising for offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur in fulfilling something similar to what he had with Case Keenum in Minnesota, for a coach with similar expectations.
6. New York Giants
2020 record: 6-10
Major offseason changes: wide receivers Kenny Golladay, John Ross and Dante Pettis signed; signed cornerback Adoree ‘Jackson and defensive tackle Danny Shelton; they drafted No. 19 wide receiver Kadarius Toney.
Why they’ll make the playoffs: The Giants are well-trained and have a rising star defensive coordinator in Patrick Graham who, while there, could have a top-seven or top-eight defense this year if his best players stay healthy. Saquon Barkley is back, yes, although our optimism about the Giants is mainly due to an increase in overall optimism around Daniel Jones. While it’s hard to predict a star rise based on his particular movie, Jones is seen by some in the league as a diamond in the rough who will benefit from stability in the coordinator position and a beefed-up weapon set. Will Jones be good as Offensive Player of the Year? Probably not. Could it be Garoppolo-plus in 2021? Absolutely.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.