The truth is, there isn’t a perfect formula to making accurate NFL predictions, but there are certain trends that teams follow year after year. On average, there are at least four teams that see major improvement in the win/loss column every season. This study focuses on how to predict which teams will improve their record by four or more wins.
In 2019, the NFL had four teams that improved their record by four or more games. The 49ers improved by nine, the Packers by seven, and both the Ravens and the Bills by four. Each of these teams experienced major improvement due to a variety of factors from injuries to young talent to coaching changes.
Without much further ado, let’s take a look at the keys to accurately predicting the most improved NFL Teams.
Quarterbacks Coming Off of Injuries
Every year, teams are labeled disappointments due to their season being derailed by major quarterback injuries. In 2018, both Jimmy Garoppolo and Aaron Rodgers sustained major injuries. In 2017, Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson, and in 2016, Teddy Bridgewater and Carson Wentz. The common trend between these instances is the fact that each of their teams experienced major success in the following season.
The 2018 49ers, for example, had high expectations placed on them, but a single injury to their quarterback crumpled their hopes. The 49ers had a solid foundation in the run game and defensive line, but their season was doomed as soon as Garroppolo went down for the year.
Their 4-12 record painted the picture that they were a ways away from contending, but this wasn’t the case. The 49ers already had their foundation, and by simply reloading on a few skill positions, along with a healthy quarterback, turned them into a 13-3 division champion.
In 2020, there are two candidates that can follow this trend. Ben Roethlisberger missed practically the entire 2019 season due to an elbow injury, and Matthew Stafford missed 8 games due to a back injury. These quarterbacks figure to immediately provide a boost to their offense regardless of the impact the injury may have on them. This isn’t to say that Ben Roethlisberger won’t face a decline in performance, but it’s simply looking at the alternative of Duck Hodges and Jeff Driskel.
While a quarterback returning from injury may be an obvious observation, it’s truly an important factor to consider.
The 2nd Year Quarterback Trend
This is easily the most attention grabbing trend that fans love to latch onto. The recent run of 2nd year MVPs has sent every fan on a wild goose chase to find the next Lamar or Mahomes.
The reason that second year quarterbacks tend to see a jump in success is because the organization has time to build around their talent. The QB’s organization is able to surround their quarterback with a scheme and talent that matches their playstyle.
The 2019 Ravens are a perfect example of this because they built their offense to perfectly complement Lamar Jackson’s playstyle. They retained their sturdy offensive line while adding two stud running backs in Mark Ingram and rookie Justice Hill. By merely undergoing another offseason, the team familiarized themselves with their run heavy offense which lead to a prolific 14-2 season.
In 2017, the Eagles improved by six wins because they built an offense around the uber-talented Carson Wentz. In Wentz’s rookie season, head coach Doug Pederson coddled him with basic reads in an attempt to limit the mistakes the rookie made. In Wentz’s 2nd season, he was given the full reins with a top 5 rushing attack behind LeGarrette Blount, and an improved receiving core with Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith.
The reason a 2nd year quarterback typically struggles is when his organization is dysfunctional, has a bottom tier offensive line, and the weapons aren’t adequate. One example of a failed year two is Baker Mayfield and the 2019 Browns.
Mayfield performed great as a rookie by leading his team to seven wins and winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. His rookie season led many to believe that the Browns would explode the following year, but he wasn’t surrounded with the necessary tools. Sure he had talent at receiver and running back, but a putrid offensive line and a poor team culture was enough to have a disappointing season.
The key to predicting the 2nd year quarterbacks is focusing on the talent that the organization is surrounding them with. This offseason, the Cardinals and Broncos have surrounded 2nd year quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Drew Lock with much improved supporting castes.
They both added talent at receiver, DeAndre Hopkins for Murray, and Jerry Jeudy/KJ Hamler for Lock. I truly wish I could say the same about Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, and Gardner Minshew, but their teams have a ways to go before being competitive. This isn’t to say that they won’t be productive quarterbacks, but their teams won’t see major improvement in the win/loss column.
Games Are Won in the Trenches
The saying, “games are won in the trenches” is true now more than ever. Although the NFL now has a bias towards throwing the ball more, the run game sets the tone for successful offenses. In addition to running the ball, successful teams also tend to have a defense that excels at rushing the passer.
Out of the twenty teams that improved by four or more games in the past four seasons, only five had an offensive line ranked below 16th. In 2016, three of the four most improved teams had an offensive line that ranked in the top five of the league. In addition to beefing up the offensive line, teams have found major success when they add talent to their running back rooms.
In 2016, the Cowboys drafted Ezekiel Elliott who had a major role with his 1,600 rushing yards as a rookie. Also in 2016, the Titans added Demarco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry who combined for more than 1700 rushing yards. In 2017, the Vikings added Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook to replace an aging Adrian Peterson. All three of these teams emphasized the importance of a ground game in the offseason and it paid dividends.
On the other side of the ball, having a productive pass rush pays dividends as well. Many surprise teams have emerged because of their defensive prowess such as the 2017 Jaguars and the 2018 Bears. Both of these teams had prolific defenses that dominated opposing offenses which covered the flaws of mediocre offenses. While many of these examples already had defensive talent on their roster, they were often aided by more additions in the offseason.
Big Time Defensive Additions
The only defensive signings that truly move the needle are the ones that join a solid foundation of players. The 2019 49ers and the 2017 Jaguars are the best examples of adding to an already top ten defense.
The 49ers added rookies Nick Bosa and Fred Warner along with Dee Ford to complete the most dominant front seven in the league. The 2017 Jaguars added three big pieces in Calais Campbell, Barry Church, and AJ Bouye to take the number five defense from the previous year to the top at number one.
The 2019 Packers went on a splurge in free agency to address a lack of star power on the defense. They added dominant pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith alongside safety Adrian Amos to give the defense much needed firepower.
In 2020, there are two teams that could follow suit, and they are the Eagles and the Chargers. The Eagles currently possess a top three defensive line and are now joined by run stuffer Javon Hargrave and top ten cornerback Darius Slay. The Chargers seem to have the worst luck with the injury bug, but they are now adding star cornerback Chris Harris and rookie Kenneth Murray.
1st Year Head Coaches
Oftentimes, an organization gets too complacent and realizes they need a spark, and that spark has shown to be a new head coach. Many times the spark doesn’t come from the new coach himself, whereas it comes from getting rid of the previous one. Every year since 2015, a first year head coach has led his team to four or more wins in his first season.
The most obvious example of this was in 2017 when the Rams replaced Jeff Fisher with the youngest head coach in NFL history, Sean McVay. Fisher was doing a terrible job with rookie quarterback Jared Goff, and then like the flick of a switch, they became a legit playoff contender under McVay.
In 2019, the Packers replaced Mike McCarthy with Matt LaFleur after internal struggles with Aaron Rodgers. The Packers saw a massive improvement from six to thirteen wins in his first season as head coach.
Out of the five 1st year head coaches in 2020, two really catch my eye as potential leaders of mass improvement. Mike McCarthy has to be salivating over the opportunity to take the talented Cowboys roster deep into the playoffs, which is something Jason Garrett never managed to do. Kevin Stefanski is inheriting an ultra talented Browns team that has the makings of a major playoff team.
There will never be a perfect model for predictions in the NFL, but these are the trends to follow when predicting the most improved teams. The teams that disappointed fans in the previous season always seem to be the ones that improve the following year. Keep your eyes peeled for the next surprise team, and I wish you the best of luck in finding that team.
If you would like to check out my other content, feel free to reach me on Twitter @danielalameda11
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