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Ranking all 8 of NFL's divisional worst-to-first contenders: Who could make leap in 2020? – USA TODAY

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Even in a league known for its year-to-year volatility, parity is no longer a given in the NFL.   

From 2015-18, six teams made a worst-to-first turnaround in their division. But all eight of 2018’s cellar-dwellers failed to crack .500 last year, and half of them remained in fourth place. The dynamic might not be much different this fall, as few teams look poised to make a substantial leap in the standings. And with the novel coronavirus pandemic already cutting into teams’ in-person time with players, any organization attempting a reboot might not see their changes take hold as quickly as they did in previous campaigns. 

Yet spring and summer remain a time of hope throughout the NFL. With that in mind, here’s our ranking of all eight of last year’s divisional fourth-place finishers based on their potential to make a worst-to-first leap in 2020: 

8. Jaguars

For many of the teams on this list, hope stems from a sense that the previous season represented a bottoming out. In Jacksonville, however, an offseason defined by the shedding of more talented veterans signals an even bleaker outlook in 2020. A once-feared defense appears severely depleted after the front office casted off Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye. The loss of both veterans could take a toll on morale, as could the standoff between the organization and pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue. On offense, Gardner Minshew provided enough of a spark to convince the Jaguars to eschew a significant addition at quarterback, but tight end Tyler Eifert and second-round wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. only add so much to a unit that was held to less than 14 points in seven games last year. In a division with three playoff contenders, Jacksonville is quite far behind its competition and has little firepower to catch up. 

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7. Panthers

Nearly every move made by Carolina since Matt Rhule’s hiring seemed to be a plea for patience. The first-year coach was bound to need time to adjust, especially with two coordinators also lacking NFL experience in their roles and veterans Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen and Trai Turner no longer on board. Teddy Bridgewater has the quick trigger to put Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore and other shifty skill-position players in favorable spots in the open field, but a defense on which Carolina used all seven draft picks is short on proven entities. Most problematic of all: Every other team in the NFC South is gearing up for a playoff push while the Panthers will be hard-pressed to improve on last season’s 5-11 mark.

6. Redskins

Ron Rivera’s hiring helps put this franchise on a course toward respectability after two decades mired in turmoil. The hole it must hoist itself from, however, is quite deep. Even playing in the eminently winnable NFC East, Washington had the second-lowest point differential (-169) of any team in 2019, beating out only a Dolphins outfit that had its figure (-188) skewed by a 92-point deficit in two blowout losses in the opening weeks. A formidable pass rush bolstered by No. 2 pick Chase Young provides some hope, but opponents might not need much time to attack a shaky secondary. And though Washington resolved its Trent Williams drama by sending the seven-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle to San Francisco, an underdeveloped front threatens to throttle the development of first-round quarterback Dwayne Haskins.

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5. Bengals

Getting star wide receiver A.J. Green and left tackle Jonah Williams after missed 2019 campaigns is good. Adding No. 1 pick Joe Burrow to elevate the offense is even better. Cincinnati even broke from its typical penny-pinching ways in free agency by bringing on defensive tackle D.J. Reader and cornerback Trae Waynes. All together, though, the moves might not be enough to save the Bengals from another fourth-place finish. Maybe it would be best to evaluate Year 2 for Zac Taylor by measuring the progress the team makes on its own rather than comparing it to the likes of the Ravens and Steelers.

4. Lions

A reversal of fortune is no guarantee, but it’s hard to imagine Detroit once again being waylaid by as much bad luck as it encountered last year. Matthew Stafford is “good to go,” GM Bob Quinn said, after a broken back prematurely ended what looked to be a career year for the veteran quarterback. Should he return to form and the last-ranked pass defense improve after saying goodbye to Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay and welcoming No. 3 pick Jeff Okudah, the Lions could have a solid shot at avoiding the bottom of the NFC North for the third consecutive year. Ultimately, however, a middling roster led by a regime fighting for its livelihood will have a difficult time catching a Packers team that’s still the class of the division.

3. Dolphins

Make no mistake: While the Patriots’ decade-long stranglehold on the AFC East appears to be loosening after Tom Brady’s exit, it would be a stunning turn if the Dolphins were the team to seize grasp of the division. Miami has, however, already shown a penchant for rising to the occasion against Bill Belichick, boasting a 3-3 record against New England in the last three years. A supersized rookie class, led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, and substantial additions in free agency leave this team with a lot of new pieces looking to coalesce in a short period of time. With the Dolphins already boasting two first-round picks and two second-rounders in the 2021 draft, it’s clear this is a franchise focused on collecting cornerstones rather than reaping immediate rewards.

2. Chargers

If this were merely a matter of projecting which last-place teams would make the biggest improvements or boast the best record, the Bolts would have a strong case for the top spot. But with the defending-champion Chiefs returning 20 of 22 starters and Los Angeles having lost 11 of its last 12 matchups with Kansas City, surpassing the Broncos and Raiders might be the goals that are actually within reach. Still, this franchise is just one year removed from a 12-4 campaign, and its roster is dotted with premier talents in wide receiver Keenan Allen, safety Derwin James and defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. If Tyrod Taylor or first-round pick Justin Herbert can prove a worthy successor to Philip Rivers at quarterback, there’s reason to believe the Chargers can break in their new digs and uniforms with a winning season.

1. Cardinals

On the heels of landing Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in what appeared to be the offseason’s biggest coup. expectations are spiking in the desert. Yet the trajectory of Year 2 for Kliff Kingsbury in Arizona likely will be primarily tied to how big of a leap Kyler Murray can make in his sophomore campaign. The 2019 No. 1 pick made a strong initial showing by winning offensive rookie of the year, and the arrival of Hopkins and return of running back Kenyan Drake could help Murray fully unlock a unique playmaking streak. Between perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson being past the six-game suspension he served in 2019 and linebackers Isaiah Simmons and De’Vondre Campbell coming on to aid the woeful coverage against tight ends, the last-ranked defense seems bound to improve. What sets the Cardinals apart from their competition on this list, however, is the dynamic within their division. The Rams and Seahawks both look susceptible to slides in 2020, and the 49ers had their hands full with Arizona in two close calls last season. They’re rightfully still a long shot to conquer the NFC West, but the potential for a breakthrough is palpable. 

Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.

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