This is a common scenario as of late in the NFL: a team finishes last, or close to it one year and the next year they win the division and make a playoff run. Free agency and increased salary caps (along with some solid drafting for some teams) allow teams to fill deficiencies immediately and go from pretender to contender overnight.
With that in mind, this year, the three teams that are most poised to bounce back from down years are the San Francisco 49ers, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens.
San Francisco 49ers
After a 5-11 finish under one-and-done head coach Jim Tomsula, the 49ers are poised to make a push towards the top of the NFC West for several reasons. First, new head coach Chip Kelly is bringing his up-tempo, high-octane offense to the bay area. Additionally, while he struggled to find a quarterback to run his offense in Philly, he may have the perfect option in the hopefully rejuvenated Colin Kaepernick. The defense should also be improved with the re-signing of Navorro Bowman (3rd in the league in solo tackles since 2011 with 433, even with missing the entire 2014 season due to injury) and the expected improved play from linebacker Eli Harold, who is one of the reasons the 49ers are considered by many to be stocked with good young talent.
Another team poised to make a division title run is the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags were in a tough spot from the jump, starting the season against the Panthers and the Patriots, eventually finishing 5-11. This year, the Jags’ leap into contention will start with their defense, which is no surprise considering defensive-minded Gus Bradley is running the show. Jacksonville scored big in the 2016 NFL draft by grabbing blue chip talent in defensive back Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack with their first two picks, but it is the return of last year’s top pick, Donte Fowler, that could be the real difference maker. The Jags offense is also poised to keep pace with continued improvements from quarterback Blake Bortles and receiver Allen Robinson, who is ready to explode after a breakout season last year.
Finally, the Baltimore Ravens, another 5-11 team from 2015, should return to contention in the AFC North thanks to the return of key players on offense and a couple of new additions across the board. While they weren’t playing great with quarterback Joe Flacco under center, losing him to a season-ending knee injury in late November didn’t help things. Flacco is back and showing unexpected improvements. A new and improved Flacco will be supplied with better receiving talent thanks to the return of Steve Smith and the addition of speedster Mike Wallace. But it is the additions of safety Eric Weddle and secondary coach Leslie Frazier that could have the most impact. Weddle could be the type of team leader the Ravens haven’t had since the retirement of Ray Lewis, and Frazier’s ability to teach the fundamentals of football and life, without berating players in the process, has had a calming effect on the team.
It’s August, everyone has high hopes for the upcoming season and a lot can change between now and the end of the year, but the 49ers, Jaguars and Ravens have done all they can to position themselves to potentially turn 5-11 into 11-5.
Photo: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images