It’s difficult, but not impossible, to go from worst to first in your division in the NFL. Who is most likely to pull it off this year?
The NFL, for better or worse, is a tumultuous league from season to season. There are always teams who leap from third or fourth in their division to topping their divisions and making deep runs in the playoffs. It’s difficult to identify teams that could pull this off, as one of the prerequisites is having a bad season the year before. But nevertheless, I persist.
The way to identify teams that could make the leap is to look first for teams who maybe finished last in their division with a 6-10 or 7-9 record, teams with a point differential for the season close to or greater than 0, teams in divisions that are more competitive (i.e. not the AFC East), teams who had good offseasons (free agency and draft), and many other factors.
First up, we head to the NFC South.
Carolina Panthers (2016 Record: 6-10, 4th in NFC South)
The Carolina Panthers, prior to their plunge to the cellar last season, had won the NFC South three seasons in a row. This includes a 2015 season that saw them go 15-1, make it to the Super Bowl (they lost), and saw quarterback Cam Newton take home an MVP trophy. The Panthers’ struggles last season were well noted, however, limping to a 6-10 finish after going 1-5 in the games played within their division.
But things are looking up in Charlotte, with Carolina putting in one of the NFL’s best offseasons. The acquisitions of Julius Peppers and Captain Munnerlyn add strong veteran depth to a defense that was already very solid, especially after locking up Kawann Short with a contract extension.
The biggest concern on the Panthers’ defense may not be personnel, but rather coaching, as the Panthers lost their excellent defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to the Head Coach job in Buffalo. A new system for the defense could be just what they need to have an even better season, or they could struggle to adjust. Only time will tell, but this is a solid veteran group, so my money’s on them being able to adjust to a new system under Steve Wilks, who worked on the Panthers’ defensive staff under McDermott.
Carolina also made strong additions on offense, adding veteran tackle Matt Kalil to help out Cam Newton’s protection, which was mediocre at best last season. The Panthers also added two very talented skill players with their first and second round draft picks, adding running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Curtis Samuel, which turns the previously thin skill group on Carolina’s offense into one of the deepest in the division.
Projecting the rest of the division is tough, but I think when it all shakes out, Carolina has a good chance to vault into the lead in the NFC South. There is no denying that the Atlanta Falcons are a great football team, winning the NFC Championship last season and almost winning the Super Bowl. But, as we saw with the Panthers last season, the Super Bowl hangover is very real, so if for no other reason than the fact that they lost the Super Bowl last season, I expect the Falcons to take a step back. The Buccaneers are interesting with their additions on offense (DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard), but I question if Jameis Winston is ready to lead a team past MVP Cam Newton. And don’t worry about the Saints. The addition of Adrian Peterson will help their offense, but their defense is still bottom-5 in the NFL.
Long story short, the Panthers were never truly bad enough to be a 6-10 team last season, and their offseason additions along with their recovery from their Super Bowl hangover of last season gives them a very good shot to flip the script on the NFC South.
Philadelphia Eagles (2016 Record: 7-9, 4th in NFC East)
The Eagles are an obvious candidate for worst to first, with the best record of any team who finished last in their division, and being the only team who finished last in their division who scored more points than they gave up last season. In fact, the Eagles had a better point differential (+36) than two other teams in their division, Washington (+13) and the Giants (+26).
While there are no obvious stats that jump out and indicate the Eagles were particularly strong on either side of the ball, a dive into my favorite stat, Defense-adjusted Value over Average (or DVOA) shows that the Eagles had the fourth-most efficient defense in the NFL last season, and were fifth overall in efficiency in the entire NFL across offense, defense, and special teams. The next highest team in terms of efficiency to finish the season without a winning record was the Cincinnati Bengals at 13th.
What held the Eagles back from being even higher in overall efficiency was their poor offensive efficiency, which was 20th in the NFL last season. The Eagles’ offensive struggles last season were to be expected with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback out of Division 1-AA who, until two weeks before the season started, was the third-string quarterback. Carson Wentz, for all the talent and poise he demonstrated in his rookie season, did have a lot of ups and downs throughout the season, and that can be partially attributed to a lack of weapons and protection. But, Carson Wentz should continue his progression, which he should with a full offseason as the starter and with major upgrades at skill positions.
There was no true number one receiver and no true workhorse running back, both of which the Eagles went out and acquired this offseason. The additions of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith will vastly improve their WR core, allowing Wentz bigger, faster, and more reliable targets, while also allowing younger receivers like Nelson Agholor and Jordan Matthews to not have to deal with the pressure of being the top receiver. The Eagles also added last season’s NFL leader in rushing touchdowns, LeGarrette Blount, in free agency to get a workhorse running back, and added the NCAA’s all-time rushing leader Donnel Pumphrey in the draft to join Darren Sproles to make a very talented running back triumvirate.
In terms of protection issues, the Eagles did not really need to make personnel moves to improve, but rather the Eagles simply need to avoid suspensions - specifically, Lane Johnson, who was suspended for 10 games last season for his second PED violation. When Lane Johnson was eligible and starting at right tackle, the Eagles were 5-1. While Johnson was out, the Eagles were 2-8. That is a truly stunning contrast and while it may be partially coincidence, it is undoubtedly true that Johnson’s dominant presence anchoring the right side of the line had a huge impact on the offense.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Eagles made some upgrades in the draft, picking Derek Barnett in the first round and getting great value on the injured Sidney Jones in the second round after desperately hoping (pre-injury) he would fall to the Eagles at 14 overall. The cornerback position continues to be a weakness for the Eagles while Jones rehabs his torn Achilles, but with one of the best front sevens in the NFL (third, according to PFF), a very solid safety duo, and one of the best defensive coordinators in the game (Jim Schwartz), the good outweighs the bad here for an Eagles team that was fourth in defensive efficiency last season and only upgraded their personnel.
Is going worst to first likely for the Eagles? I don’t know. The Eagles will absolutely be better this season than they were last season, having had one of the best offseasons in the NFL and with a (hopefully) not-suspended Lane Johnson for 16 games, their 7-9 record from last season will likely turn into at least a 9-7 record, if not 10-6. If the Cowboys and Giants each take a step back from last season, which could very well happen if Zeke Elliot is suspended, Dak Prescott regresses, or Eli Manning finally shows his age, the Eagles may very well win the division. If not, however, they will certainly challenge for a Wild Card spot.
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