Who will win the battle for the top overall pick in 2019? The answer to that will likely be determined by a combination of (bad) luck, injuries, some flaws in roster construction, and maybe some players expected to perform who fall apart or don’t live up to expectations.
Looking back over the last twenty years of history to see who ended up with the worst record, some patterns emerge. Not all of them should surprise. Teams that are the best from the year before don’t typically fall all the way to the bottom of the league. A fair number of the worst teams were bad the season before, though because of draft positioning, free agency, and regression, the true dregs aren’t really that much more likely than the merely meh from the previous season.
The average “worst team” had a record of 6-10 the season before. They tended to be worse offensively than defensively, with an average of 302 points scored the season before (so less than 20 a game) while allowing 368 points. They tended to have quarterback turnover, either by having a new rookie starter or by having a new veteran–usually over 30 years old–take over. Tampa Bay adding Josh McCown, Miami going out and getting an aging Trent Green, and the Raiders turning things over to Aaron Brooks are recent examples of that. For teams that didn’t replace the starting QB, they fell into two groups, mediocre veterans in decline as they enter their early 30’s, and teams with busts at QB entering years 2-3.
Let’s get to this year’s candidates:
#1 Buffalo Bills. The Buffalo Bills finally broke their playoff drought and reached the postseason for the first time this century. But this year feels like a rebuild and makeover on offense, and there are bound to be growing pains. Over the last 20 years, the team that finished with the worst overall record averaged 302 points scored and 368 points allowed the year before. Well, Buffalo is right on those marks last season, so it’s not unreasonable that they would fall to the bottom of the league.
The quarterback position is in flux. It’s either going to be the raw but physically talented Josh Allen (who plenty of people said would need time to learn) or guys that don’t look like regular starters in AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman. Add in that their best offensive weapon is a 30-year-old running back with lots of off-field concerns, to go with the quarterback battle that is still uncertain, and there are plenty of ingredients for a big drop in 2018.
#10 Oakland Raiders
The return of Jon Gruden to coaching has been filled with some head scratchers. The team is in a lame duck year in Oakland. They’ve managed to build the oldest roster in the NFL, and are coming off a losing season. Now, a bad defense doesn’t have the one great player on it. A disastrous last year in Oakland would not be a total surprise.
#11 Indianapolis Colts
The Colts were in contention for worst record last year. They have one of the weakest rosters in the NFL. Andrew Luck is back, and the expectation is that he can elevate this team out of the basement, but if his shoulder is not fully healthy and he struggles or gets hurt again, a trip to the bottom could be in order.
#12 Chicago Bears
If you have a short memory, you can easily envision a Rams-like turnaround with some base similarities. A new offensive-minded young coach in Matt Nagy. A highly drafted QB who struggled as a rookie. Adding new weapons at receiver to a pretty poor unit. I expect the Bears to improve in 2018, and the big move for Khalil Mack makes that even more likely. But there is offensive uncertainty, and no guarantee that Mitch Trubisky has anything close to the turnaround that Jared Goff had. If Trubisky is more Joey Harrington or Rick Mirer, that leap won’t happen.
#2 Arizona Cardinals. Many of the same ingredients as Buffalo are present in Arizona, and they also have what looks like a tougher schedule playing in the NFC in general and NFC West directly. The team will try to replace Carson Palmer with some combination of veteran Sam Bradford and rookie Josh Rosen, and the Cardinals weren’t a great offense a year ago.
They are going to a new coach in Steve Wilks. David Johnson is a great weapon (who missed all of last year to injury) but the best receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, will be 35. The rest of the offense is a big question mark, and there has been plenty of veteran turnover on defense in recent years.
#3 Cleveland Browns
Look, the Browns should be better, and the offensive skill positions and quarterback spot have been upgraded. But this is a team that has gone 1-31 over the last few years, and Hue Jackson is still the coach. They are gonna lose close games when Gregg Williams calls an all-out blitz to give up a late TD, and when Jackson blows leads with coaching decisions. If things go south, this could be another dysfunctional year. I’m buying stock in Cleveland 2019 but my faith in this year is lessened.
#4 Miami Dolphins
Two years ago, it was Miami who made the playoffs with a so-so point differential, like Buffalo last year. Ryan Tannehill is the quarterback, but he’s coming back from a knee injury that cost him all of last year. He strikes me as the type of QB (like Marc Bulger or Matt Cassel) who presided over a collapse of a roster. Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh are gone. If injuries creep up, Miami could be the one in position to make a franchise changing pick. You could make an argument that it might not be the worst thing for them longterm. (Miami has had between 6 and 8 wins in 8 of the last 9 years).
#5 Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have been in steady decline in recent years. Marvin Lewis has defied all odds and continued to coach one franchise for 15 years without ever winning a playoff game. Andy Dalton is about to turn 31 and we know what he is, and if anything, he’s already peaked. A.J. Green’s prime seems to have been wasted. If the wrong injuries occur, the Bengals could take a major step back in 2018.
#6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Jameis Winston situation looms over this franchise. Ryan Fitzpatrick at age 36 will be the starter to open, and he fits the profile of the kind of veteran who could earn a top pick on his way out of the league. Maybe Winston comes back and everything is perfect after September, there are no chemistry issues, and Dirk Koetter can turn the corner. Maybe.
#7 New York Jets
I expect the Jets to be better. But the skill positions still look shaky and turning to Sam Darnold could result in growing pains in year one.
#8 Washington Redskins
We’ve already seen Derrius Guice go out with an ACL tear, and I think he would have been a difference maker on offense. Now, we’ve got Adrian Peterson in town. The receiving corp has been turned over, and that could go both ways. Alex Smith had a career year last season, but if he gets hurt or doesn’t gel in a new system at age 34, Washington is an outsider for a sneaky bad season.
#9 New York Giants
What if Eli Manning is done? He’s 37 and will turn 38 at the end of the season, and dropped to 6.1 yards per pass attempt last year with Odell out. We expect a turnaround with adding both Barkley and getting Odell back, but an injury to one of those two could result in 2017 reincarnated, except maybe worse on offense.