In sports, video games, and in life, who doesn’t like to root for the underdog? The NFL is ripe with underdog stories because of the sheer amount of turnover the league sees. Every year the NFL gives us some of the most unpredictable storylines with bottom-feeding teams that shock the world the following season.
Some of these instances include the 4-12 San Francisco 49ers reaching the Super Bowl in 2019, the last place Houston Texans and Chicago Bears winning their divisions in 2017/18, and the 2016 Eagles going from worst in their division to knocking off the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
All of this talk about uncertainty and underdogs has me going berserk to discover the next great underdog story. Here is my list of teams who have the best chance to go from worst-to-first in their respective division in 2020.
8. Carolina Panthers (5-11)
This offseason was one of complete turnover for the entire Panthers organization. They have a second year owner David Tepper, new coaching staff who came from the college ranks, and will have a minimum of six new starters on the defensive side. Internally, they need Teddy Bridgewater to turn back the clock to 2015 by becoming their franchise QB, and for their new defensive additions (drafted 4 potential starters) to dramatically outperform expectations.
Externally, they need Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady to fall off a cliff, and I mean plummet, in order to drag their respective teams below 10 wins. Although Matt Rhule and his squad may surprise some people, there is no realistic path to overtaking the Saints/Buccaneers/Falcons in 2020.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)
Currently, the Jaguars are on the path to a Top-5 selection in the 2021 NFL Draft because of the uncertainty all over their roster. They have a porous offensive line, an average second year Gardner Minshew at QB, and contract issues with players like Yannick Ngakoue and Leonard Fournette.
Their hopes of going from worst-to-first lie in the hands of a Bill O’Brien collapse with the Texans, mediocre seasons from the Titans/Colts, and a youthful Jaguars defense returning to their 2017 form.
Doug Marrone must hold this team together in a way that doesn’t result in a star player wanting out of Duval, i.e. Jalen Ramsey from 2019. The reality is that the Texans, Titans, and Colts all have solid and more reliable foundations than the Jaguars do, so we’ll be having this same discussion for the Jaguars next season.
6. Washington Redskins (3-13)
The Washington Redskins have long had cultural issues within the organization, but with the firing of longtime team president Bruce Allen and hiring of former Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera, there appears to be a massive cultural shift.
Although the Redskins seem poised to have a vastly improved defense with a dominant pass rush, thanks Chase Young/Ryan Kerrigan, their success relies heavily on how Dwayne Haskins plays behind a patchy offensive line. They also don’t have a reliable positional group on their roster besides their dominant front 7.
Even if Derrius Guice/Adrian Peterson can lead a dominant rushing attack to take the load off of Haskins, the Cowboys and Eagles look primed for major improvement after loading up on talent through the draft. The Redskins are definitely heading in the right direction with this new culture and increased talent, but this season will be one of trial and error, and it will not result in a divisional title.
5. Cincinnati Bengals (2-14)
The Bengals are arguably the most improved team of the 2020 NFL off-season, which has put them in prime position to have a breakout year. The Bengals path to success relies heavily on 1st overall pick Joe Burrow having no issues translating to the NFL, and praying that their mediocre offensive line holds up to be a middle of the road unit.
If this becomes a reality, then Burrow will have major success whether the media acknowledges it or not, because Cincinnati has surrounded him with talented weapons such as Tee Higgins, Joe Mixon, AJ Green, Auden Tate, etc. Although they seem to have the looks of a worst-to-first team, their biggest roadblock is outside of Paul Brown Stadium.
The AFC North looks to be one of the most competitive divisions in the entire NFL with the Ravens only improving off of a 14-2 season, the Browns on the rise, and the Steelers having starting QB Ben Roethlisberger returning from injury. The Bengals are going to be a much improved team, but their tough division is going to be their downfall.
4. Miami Dolphins (5-11)
Although the Dolphins splurged in free agency, added a variety of young talent through the draft, and are no longer threatened by Tom Brady, their path to a division title in 2020 seems unlikely. First they have to pray that Bill Belichick and the Patriots are tanking and that Sam Darnold/Josh Allen face major regression, which derails their team’s success.
Their internal hopes lie heavily on a talented secondary, headlined by stud cornerback trio Byron Jones, Xavier Howard, and Noah Igbinoghene, leading the defense to a top-10 finish in takeaways, which hopefully results in the pass rush ranking better than last year’s 32nd.
The dream scenario for the offense would be Ryan Fitzpatrick turning back the clock by leading an underrated supporting cast of Matt Brieda, DeVante Parker, and Preston Williams to a productive season, and have their inexperienced offensive line magically come together as a reliable unit in Year 1.
HC Brian Flores and GM Chris Grier have done a tremendous job of rebuilding the roster, but the sheer amount of new faces, along with the fact that their franchise QB Tua Tagovailoa will be redshirting his rookie season, neglects me from trusting the Dolphins to win more than 8 games.
3. Detroit Lions (3-12-1)
The Detroit Lions were a potential breakout team in 2019, and they started off the season strong at 3-4-1 before quarterback Matthew Stafford was placed on the IR in Week 9. I’m a huge believer in the Detroit offense with a healthy Matthew Stafford, second year OC Darell Bevell (former Seahawks coordinator), and weapons in the backfield/out wide. Their offense is poised for a top-10 year as they face a string of non-elite secondaries from Week 2 through Week 11 that include the Cardinals, Jaguars, Falcons, Texans, and Panthers.
Unlike some of the previously discussed teams, their division isn’t the issue because the Packers are going to face major regression after their 13-3 season, the Bears look to be mediocre again, and the Vikings defense was ravaged this off-season. The Lions biggest issue is whether Matt Patricia can have a positive presence in the locker room (former Lions CB Darius Slay said he “lost respect for his head coach”), and if he can turn around the league’s 27th ranked defense.
The Lions are in a perfect situation to go from worst-to-first with the regression of their division, and the only thing that stands in their way is a lackadaisical pass rush and a controversial head coach.
2. Arizona Cardinals (5-10-1)
The Arizona Cardinals are running the risk of becoming the 2019 Cleveland Browns because of the amount of hype that surrounds them heading into 2020, but they’re the second best option to go from zero to hero. Kyler Murray fits in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense like a ring on a finger, and now he has De’Andre Hopkins to pair with Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk, and Kenyan Drake.
Not only do they have a solid group of weapons around Murray, but they also appear confident in Kingsbury’s offensive scheme covering the flaws of their middle-of-the-road offensive line group. The Cardinals are entering Year 2 of Kingsbury’s tenure with a ton of momentum, but the reality is that they’re in the toughest division with the league’s 8th hardest schedule.
In order to win the division, their rebuilt linebacker unit with Isaiah Simmons, Devon Kennard, and De’Vondre Campbell needs to help take the pressure off of Chandler Jones who ranked 2nd in the NFL with 19 sacks last season, and improve the 32nd ranked defense from 2019.
Although the Rams are expected to struggle this season, Arizona needs San Fransisco to get hammered by the Super Bowl hangover, and the Seahawks to deal with injuries and a lackluster offensive line. If Kyler Murray has a breakout Year 2 under Kliff Kingsbury’s system, everything else should fall into place for them to have a far-more successful season than last year’s 5-10-1 record.
1. Los Angeles Chargers (5-11)
The Chargers are coming off a season where they failed to live up to Super Bowl expectations, and they now have a chance to exceed their low expectations in 2020. The Chargers possess the same talent that warranted Super Bowl expectations last season, while adding Chris Harris, Linval Joseph, and Kenneth Murray to an already star studded defense.
Their path to a division title starts with having better luck with injuries (Derwin James, Hunter Henry, Mike Williams, and Denzel Perryman were a few big names to go down), fielding a Top-5 defense, and Tyrod Taylor protecting the football. Many fans want Justin Herbert to start, but head coach Anthony Lynn has worked with Tyrod before in Buffalo and repeatedly stated that he trusts Taylor to run his offense.
Although they are in a competitive AFC West with the defending Super Bowl champs, they can hope for a slight regression in the Chiefs 12-4 record, and for the Broncos and Raiders to be a year away from contending. This along with a Top-5 defense would allow Tyrod to game manage his way to 11+ wins, and be crowned AFC West champions.
For any questions, comments, or discussions, you can follow me on Twitter @danielalameda11