If the Cleveland Browns can finally emerge from the muck and bog of the NFL, then there is hope for all. A year ago, despite the presence of "head coach" Hue Jackson, the Browns seemed primed to shed their perpetual second-division status and actually make a lead forward to respectability.
And it happened. They were no longer an afterthought and now enter 2019 the darlings of the NFL, with a bevy of primetime games and a nationwide hype train (that I am totally on board with, by the way). That's how it goes in this league. Rise and fall. Regression and advancement. Ebb and flow.
Earlier this week I chronicled the teams I expect to fall way back to the pack in the upcoming season. There were five division winners from 2018 who seem primed to regress from the heights they reached last season for myriad reasons. So if they are falling off, then someone else must be leaping up the standings ahead of them, right? Of course. These are the three teams I believe will take the most significant jump in their win totals.
I am excluding the Browns from this exercise as they already leapt from zero wins to seven a year ago, and it's going to be impossible to maintain that pace unless they end up flirting with a perfect season. This is more about teams that have been struggling to even attain the relative mediocrity of a seven-win season, and will become far more competitive and productive in 2019.
2018 record: 4-12
No team was more beat down by the football gods a year ago than San Francisco. The rampant injury crises swept across Kyle Shanahan's skill positions and Jimmy Garoppolo's knee tear ended more than just his season; it ended the meaningful portion of 2018 49ers football. But there are too many toys for Shanahan to play with on that side of the ball this season for the 49ers not to make major strides, and that defense was already better than most gave it credit for a year ago. You add the ability to play with the lead and push the football all over the field, and the addition of real edge pass rush help from Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, and I am buying in. Big time. The defensive line should be a strength of the team and we saw what Shanahan did in his second season with a quality QB in his last stop in Atlanta. He has speed and quick-twitch athletes all over the place now. A quick glance at their depth chart reveals 8-10 guys right off the bat who could each catch 55 balls or more if things fall in their direction. Shanahan is a wizard with this stuff and this team will double its win total at the very least.
2018 record: 4-12
Once they dealt Khalil Mack and stumbled into a rebuild, it became clear 2018 was going to be a nadir for the Jon Gruden era 2.0. He had yet to clean house in the front office and bring in his own guys, he was meandering back into coaching after over a decade as a broadcaster and the biggest pains from their tear down were the most immediate. It will be impossible for them to be that bad, again on defense and fail to post even 16 sacks as a team. That won't happen again. And while the LB group still scares the heck out of me and I don't see enough natural pass rushers, this secondary might actually be damn good and deep, finally. The emotional weight of the team's eventual move to Las Vegas is behind them as well and the offense has been totally transformed with the addition of true No. 1 WR Antonio Brown and a very legit No. 2 in Tyrell Williams, along with the best every-down back in the draft in Josh Jacobs and in landing the best tackle available in free agency (Trent Brown) as well. This is a markedly better football team. I don't like all the 1 p.m. ET kickoffs looming in the first half of the season, but I expect the Raiders to make strides on the back end. They won't be a playoff team, but they won't be an easy mark anymore, either. Bay Area football will finally be fun again. Promise.
2018 record: 4-12
Yeah there is chaos, as usual, at team headquarters and ownership is acting as bizarre as ever. Power struggles tend not to bring out the best in football teams. I get all of that. But I also see this as an emerging roster that has been fortified and has a second-year QB in Sam Darnold who isn't going to give a damn who the GM finally becomes and what Adam Gase is doing during meetings with scouts. He will take a major step forward under Gase, Robbie Anderson is the kind of WR Gase will crush it with, Le'Veon Bell has always brought it on Sundays (which is all that matters) and could catch 100 balls, and Jamison Crowder is a great fit in the slot. I don't love the tackles, but the rest of this offense is ready to do damage ASAP. No one is going to run the ball on this defensive line, the pass rush has nowhere to go but up (I think rookie Jachai Polite makes an immediate impact) and C.J. Mosley will bring London Fletcher-esque tackling acumen and leadership to Gregg Williams' defense, where the MLB is uber important. Would I be shocked if they stumble in to nine wins? Nope. The real question will be, over time, can ownership/coaching/front office build steadily to become a real winner? I have my doubts, but as a one-year improvement play, the Jets leap out at me. They get the NFC East as the out-of-conference division, which is pretty weak and keeps the travel light. The only flights I see of more than an hour come in successive trips to Florida (Miami and Jacksonville) in the middle of the season (when the heat should subside) and from Week 9 on they could easily complete the rest of their schedule by bus. Couldn't ask for more in terms of a schedule.