Ranking NFL's worst-to-first candidates for 2023
Last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars claimed the AFC South and became the ninth team in the last eight seasons to go from worst to first in their division.
As we turn our attention to the upcoming season, we'll rank the chances of each last-place finisher from 2022 to win its division in 2023.
8. Arizona Cardinals
2022 record: 4-13
|LB Kyzir White||OT Paris Johnson Jr.|
|QB Joshua Dobbs||LB BJ Ojulari|
|WR Zach Pascal|
Leaving the NFC West's basement will be a tough task for the Cardinals, who seem destined to land the No. 1 pick in the 2024 draft. Arizona lacks star power on both sides of the ball and enters the season with the least talented roster in the league. The team will line up in Week 1 without its biggest stars from 2022: Kyler Murray remains sidelined after suffering a torn ACL in December, J.J. Watt retired, Zach Allen left in free agency, and DeAndre Hopkins was released.
Arizona also recently cut veteran quarterback Colt McCoy, who was originally expected to replace Murray. That left Dobbs, a journeyman who's 0-2 as a starter, and fifth-round rookie Clayton Tune as the club's QB1 options for Week 1. Not ideal for first-year head coach Jonathan Gannon.
Coming off a 4-13 campaign, the 2023 Cardinals don't look anything like that team that turned heads and made the playoffs in 2021. To make things worse, the NFC West features two playoff teams from 2022 - the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers - and also has a recent Super Bowl champion in the Los Angeles Rams.
7. Houston Texans
2022 record: 3-13-1
|TE Dalton Schultz||QB C.J. Stroud|
|S Jimmie Ward||LB Will Anderson|
|G Shaq Mason||C Juice Scruggs|
|WR Robert Woods||WR Tank Dell|
|RB Devin Singletary|
|LB Denzel Perryman|
The Texans are starting a new era and just landed potential franchise cornerstones in Stroud and Anderson in the top three of April's draft. Combine that with the arrival of first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans - the former 49ers defensive coordinator who's the reigning Assistant Coach of the Year - and it's easy to see Houston as one of the offseason's biggest winners. Playing in an AFC South without an established juggernaut also helps.
That said, to win the division for the first time since 2019, Houston will have to top the Tennessee Titans - a playoff team when fully healthy - and a Jaguars squad that's at least a step ahead of the Texans with Trevor Lawrence entering his third NFL season. The Indianapolis Colts are also rebuilding and have a lot of upside after drafting quarterback Anthony Richardson fourth overall.
The Texans ranked 30th in points scored and 27th in points allowed in 2022. The franchise's moves this year kicked off its rebuild nicely, but it'll take more than one solid offseason to fix this roster. Given Houston's lack of proven stars, the club likely needs more time to become a division contender.
6. Denver Broncos
2022 record: 5-12
|DL Zach Allen||WR Marvin Mims|
|OT Mike McGlinchey|
|LB Frank Clark|
|G Ben Powers|
|RB Samaje Perine|
Year 1 of the Russell Wilson era in Denver was a disaster and saw the Broncos fire coach Nathaniel Hackett before the 2022 season even ended. They finished last in the AFC West for the third straight year, and Wilson tossed 16 touchdowns - his worst career single-season mark. But the Broncos, who have Wilson under contract through the 2028 campaign, hired coach Sean Payton to help put the nine-time Pro Bowler's game back on the right track.
It's hard to imagine Wilson going back to his 40-TD form. But we should expect Denver, now coached by one of football's most respected offensive minds, to be more competitive. The Broncos are welcoming running back Javonte Williams back from injury and have an improved offensive line. The next big question is how healthy the team's receivers will be, as Jerry Jeudy is dealing with a hamstring injury, and Tim Patrick has already been ruled out for the year. Defensively, Denver boasts a talented secondary featuring Pat Surtain and Justin Simmons. A healthier Randy Gregory and the arrival of Allen and Clark can be huge for the club up front.
If the challenge of reviving Wilson's career and putting together a watchable offense wasn't tough enough, the Broncos still have to compete in an AFC West that includes the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs led by Patrick Mahomes, who's 11-0 in his career versus Denver. Kansas City has won seven consecutive division titles. Oh, and the star-studded Los Angeles Chargers also have a high ceiling with Justin Herbert. Even if Denver improves, it's very unlikely it'll win the AFC West. A more realistic scenario for the Broncos is to finish third in the division over the Las Vegas Raiders and potentially keep a wild-card berth within reach.
5. Washington Commanders
2022 record: 8-8-1
|QB Jacoby Brissett||CB Emmanuel Forbes|
|OT Andrew Wylie||CB Jartavius Martin|
|OL Nick Gates|
Washington is in a division with three playoff teams from last year, including the reigning NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles. On paper, the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, and Eagles all look better than the Commanders, who have several question marks on offense.
The biggest unknown is at quarterback, where Sam Howell is taking over after starting one game as a fifth-round rookie in 2022. Howell passed the test in his only appearance, but the jury is still out on whether he's capable of being the starter for a full season. Washington also has a new face coordinating the offense in Eric Bieniemy, who's set to call plays for the first time in his coaching career. In addition to an inexperienced QB, Bieniemy inherited an offense that featured an unimpressive run game and an unreliable offensive line. Washington added to its O-line, but are Wylie and Gates enough to fix the unit?
Finding consistency at quarterback remains the biggest challenge for Washington under head coach Ron Rivera, who's started eight different QBs in three seasons with the club. Things can get very interesting if Howell lives up to the hype, though, as the Commanders' defense should remain solid while being led by one of football's most talented defensive lines.
It'll be interesting to watch the Commanders in 2023 as they kick off a new era on and off the field. As hard as it is to imagine them winning the NFC East, keep in mind that this division hasn't had a back-to-back champion since 2003-04. Maybe it'll surprise us again this year.
4. Cleveland Browns
2022 record: 7-10
|LB Za'Darius Smith||WR Cedric Tillman|
|WR Elijah Moore|
|DT Dalvin Tomlinson|
|S Juan Thornhill|
|DL Shelby Harris|
|DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo|
The Browns addressed their biggest needs in the offseason. Smith and Okoronkwo give the team experience and depth on the edge to complement Myles Garrett. Cleveland - which named Jim Schwartz as its new defensive coordinator - particularly struggled against the run and to generate sacks in 2022, so adding Tomlinson and Harris also made a lot of sense. Offensively, with Moore and Tillman joining Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones, it's easy to get excited about Cleveland's wide receiver corps. The same can be said about the offensive line and the running back room, which lost depth but still features four-time Pro Bowler Nick Chubb.
But the Browns won't go from worst to first if quarterback Deshaun Watson doesn't put his game back on track. Watson was rusty in his return last year after missing the entire 2021 campaign and serving an 11-game suspension in 2022 following his trade from Houston to Cleveland. He posted a 79.1 passer rating while completing 58.2% of his passes in six games with the Browns. Cleveland hopes another offseason with the team will benefit the three-time Pro Bowler in what'll be his first full campaign as a starter since 2020.
Competing in the AFC North is always tough, and both the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens enter the season a step ahead of the Browns. But if Watson knocks off the rust and shows he can still play at a high level, Cleveland should have enough firepower to compete.
3. Chicago Bears
2022 record: 3-14
|WR D.J. Moore||OT Darnell Wright|
|LB Tremaine Edmunds||DL Gervon Dexter|
|LB T.J. Edwards||CB Tyrique Stevenson|
|RB D'Onta Foreman||DL Zacch Pickens|
|G Nate Davis|
|DL Yannick Ngakoue|
Chicago going from having the NFL's worst record to winning the division in one year isn't as unrealistic as it may sound, given the team's potential and the uncertainty of the competition within the NFC North.
The Bears' roster has holes, but it's significantly better than last year's. Justin Fields turned heads as a rusher in 2022 and could become one of football's most dangerous quarterbacks if he improves as a passer. The arrival of Moore gives him a legit No. 1 weapon who has three 1,000-yard campaigns under his belt. Plus, Chicago's O-line should improve with Wright and Davis. Defensively, where the pass rush will come from remains a concern. But the additions of Edmunds and Edwards and another season for a secondary that features promising defensive backs should help.
Let's not forget that the NFC North could be open for the taking. The Minnesota Vikings, who won the division in unconvincing fashion last year, still have holes on defense. The Aaron Rodgers trade to the Jets left the Green Bay Packers with the unproven Jordan Love under center. And though the Detroit Lions look more prepared to break through than Chicago, they still have a lot to prove.
Yes, there are a lot of ifs regarding the Bears. It'll be a surprise if they win the NFC North this season. But the current state of the division - and the fact that Chicago could have the most exciting quarterback in the division in a few months - leaves the door open for the Bears to go from worst to first.
2. Atlanta Falcons
2022 record: 7-10
|S Jessie Bates||RB Bijan Robinson|
|DL Calais Campbell||OT Matthew Bergeron|
|DL David Onyemata|
|CB Jeff Okudah|
|LB Bud Dupree|
|QB Taylor Heinicke|
|TE Jonnu Smith|
The Falcons are far from the strongest team on this list, but they land at No. 2 thanks to playing in the NFL's weakest division. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the NFC South last season with an 8-9 record, while Atlanta finished with the same record as the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. With Tom Brady now retired after three seasons with the Bucs, there aren't any established contenders in this division anymore.
Atlanta brought in new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, and landing Bates, Campbell, and Onyemata tackled big areas of need for a defense that's ranked 19th or worse in points and yards allowed for five straight seasons. Robinson should have an immediate impact offensively while giving the Falcons perhaps football's deepest running back room, featuring 1,000-yard rusher Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson. Add receiver Drake London and tight end Kyle Pitts to the conversation, and quarterback Desmond Ridder shouldn't complain about the weapons supporting him.
Ridder is the team's biggest question, as Atlanta decided to ride with the 2022 third-round pick for the upcoming season. The second-year passer started the final four games of his rookie campaign, completing 63.5% of his passes for 708 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. The Falcons went 2-2 in those games. The unproven 24-year-old could live up to his QB1 hype in coach Arthur Smith's play-action-heavy scheme with a stronger run game around him.
Though the Falcons may not enter the season as the favorites to win the NFC South, no one should be surprised if they top the group at the end of the campaign to win their first division title since 2016.
1. New York Jets
2022 record: 7-10
|QB Aaron Rodgers||DE Will McDonald|
|RB Dalvin Cook||C Joe Tippmann|
|WR Randall Cobb|
|WR Mecole Hardman|
|WR Allen Lazard|
|DL Al Woods|
On paper, arguably no other NFL team improved as much as the Jets, who landed Rodgers and Cook, among other starters, as part of a busy offseason. With Rodgers in town, New York has its best quarterback since Brett Favre in 2008. And the Jets, who boasted an elite defense in 2022 and roster some of the league's best young players, give the four-time MVP a solid supporting cast that includes receiver Garrett Wilson, corner Sauce Gardner, and running back Breece Hall.
The Jets likely would've made the playoffs last season if it wasn't for their quarterback struggles. They won seven games despite starting three different passers. In 2023, the team is riding with one of the greatest QBs of all time.
Not only did New York improve its roster at the most important position, but other AFC East teams have more questions now. Yes, this is a competitive division that includes potential Super Bowl contenders. However, with Von Miller still sidelined and following the Stefon Diggs drama, the Buffalo Bills don't look as strong as in previous years. The Miami Dolphins won't have star corner Jalen Ramsey until at least December, and availability has been an issue for quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who has yet to play a full season since entering the NFL. The New England Patriots enter the campaign as the group's fourth-best team, given their uncertainties offensively.
Not all teams that look solid on paper click, and a lot has to go right for the Jets to meet the sky-high expectations surrounding them. This is a team that hasn't made the playoffs in 12 consecutive seasons. But New York's offseason efforts this year tackled most of its needs and gave the team enough firepower to compete against any team - and even dream about playing in the Super Bowl again.
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