By Kyle Brady
NFC CELLAR DWELLERS OF 2018: WHAT DOES 2019 HAVE IN STORE?
This article will take a look at each last place team in the NFC and see what went wrong last season and what to expect from them this season. Each team made some moves to improve their records but moving out of the “cellar” takes more than a few splashy signings in free agency and solid draft picks.
NFC EAST: NEW YORK GIANTS (5-11)
It seems that the New Jersey based, New York football teams share more in common with each other than they care to imagine. For starters, they both finished dead last in the East, they both have a promising, young star in the making, and they both have taken their lumps
among the league’s laughing stocks. But unlike their crosstown rivals, the Giants failed to make any significant strides forward. With a declining Eli Manning and the 6th overall pick in the draft, many Giants' fans were drooling over the thought of a Saquon Barkley/Dwayne Haskins tandem taking over the league for the next decade. But in true Giants fashion, they selected Duke QB Daniel Jones, who never threw for more than 22 touchdowns in a season for the three years he started. This selection shook the Giants’ fanbase to its core as Haskins was still available to be selected. To make matters worse, Haskins fell right into the hands of division rival, Washington Redskins.
Despite their suspect draft selections, the Giants whiffed in free agency as well. Their three big signings include the aging safety Antoine Bethea, and WRs Corey Coleman and Golden Tate. The two were considered to be reliable targets to stop defenses from keying in on Barkley. But Coleman suffered a season-ending ACL tear, and Golden Tate was hit with a four-game suspension for violating the league’s PED usage rules. With the offense still being run by Manning, it is up to Barkley to carry the Giants to as many wins as he can.
Not good. If the Giants don’t do something about Manning soon, he may doom the franchise for the next decade. Or, if Jones can step in and surprise everyone, maybe the Giants can find their way to relevancy again. As talented as Barkley is, it would be a shame for him to follow in the same career path as the great Barry Sanders. One of the best running backs the game has ever seen, wasted away with a franchise that could never surround him with the talent he deserved. Look for Barkley and TE Evan Engram to be Pro Bowl talent without many playoff appearances to show for it.
Worst Case Scenario
Since there have been only two teams that have gone winless in a 16-game season, the Giants aren’t likely to be the third. However, with their bad luck and lack of improvement it isn’t too far-fetched to see this franchise crumble in on itself. If Eli regresses and Barkley gets injured from carrying the offense, the Giants will be lucky to win a handful of games. (Record: 2-14, last place in the NFC East, no playoff berth.)
Best Case Scenario
Eli regains his 2015 form and Barkley picks up right where he left off, giving the Giants a decent offense to work with. Tate comes back from suspension and makes a name as a true number one wide-out, while the defense surprises many by shutting down mediocre offenses. The Cowboys, Eagles and Redskins all regress as well, leaving the NFC East crown up for grabs. (Record: 9-7, second place in the NFC East, wild card berth.)
The Giants suffer through another year of Eli and never get the chance to see Daniel Jones in action. Barkley needs two knee replacements and back surgery from carrying the Giants anemic offense (totally kidding, but you catch my drift)! The defense gets picked apart with no real superstar to anchor the unit and the other three teams in the NFC East take turns beating the Giants down. (Record: 4-12, last place in the NFC East, no playoff berth.)
NFC SOUTH: TAMPA BAY BUCANEERS (5-11)
The 2019 Buccaneers face a very important season coming up. Despite being in the league for four seasons, the jury is still out on whether QB Jameis Winston is a bust or the quarterback of the future. Winston has not played a full season since his sophomore year in which he threw for 28 touchdowns and over 4000 yards. The Bucs would take this performance every season if that were the case. But Winston has yet to duplicate those results, starting in 13 games in 2017 and only nine in 2018, after a suspension and the early success of Ryan Fitzpatrick. When on the field, Winston has shown flashes of brilliance and flashes of questionable decision making. Winston has been fortunate with the amount of talent the Bucs have surrounded him with. Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans has been a stud since his rookie season, OJ Howard has had two impactful seasons so far and the defense boasts the talents of DT Ndamukong Suh in addition to OLB Lavonte David. The Bucs have had talent for seasons now but have struggled to put it all together.
As mentioned earlier, the Buccaneers have talented pieces on their roster but have failed to reach the postseason in over a decade and haven’t had a winning season since 2016. Despite the signing of Suh, the Buccaneers didn’t make too many notable moves this off-season. They did draft LB Devin White from LSU with the fifth overall pick, in addition to signing LB Deone Bucannon and WR Breshad Perriman to help bolster both sides of the ball. The upside is that the Bucs have a decent amount of young talent, whether they can win with them in the near future is what remains to be seen. In a division with strong quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, Winston will need to step up his game if the Bucs have postseason aspirations.
Worst Case Scenario
Winston proves ineffective or gets injured early and the Buccaneers have to rely on the arm of Blaine Gabbert for the rest of the season. With little chemistry with Gabbert, Howard and Evans fail to make a difference as the Bucs get thumped by one of the better divisions in the league (Record: 2-14, last place in the NFC South, no playoff berth.)
Best Case Scenario
This is the season where everything comes together for the Buccaneers. Winston plays the entire season at the Pro Bowl level, throwing touchdowns to potential Pro Bowlers in Howard and Evans. The veteran defense consisting of Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul stuff the run and let the young DB core do the rest of the work. With stumbles from the rest of the division, the Bucs may find themselves in the playoff hunt. (Record: 10-6, second place in the NFC South, Wild Card berth.)
Winston plays only 12 games all season as he struggles with injuries. The offense shows signs of life with Winston on the field but struggles heavily when he’s gone. The defense floats around the middle ground in the NFL and the Buccaneers stay in the Wild Card hunt until the final weeks. (Record: 7-9, third place in the NFC South, no playoff berth.)
NFC NORTH: DETROIT LIONS (6-10)
The Lions have not had a sustained period of success since their multiple championships in the mid-1950s. Barry Sanders lead them to six playoff appearances in eight years back in the mid-to-late-90s. They lost five of those six and never advanced further than the NFC title game. Matt Stafford, with lots of help from WR Calvin Johnson, took the Lions to three
postseasons since 2011, losing all three Wild Card games they played in. The Lions haven’t outright won their division since 1992 and with the way the NFC North looks right now, the Lions aren’t going to snap their skid any time soon. In a division with the newly-revived Chicago Bears, the talented Minnesota Vikings and a Packers team lead by Aaron Rodgers, the Lions look destined to remain in the cellar for years to come. Even with drastic changes, it will take an entire overhaul to leapfrog their division rivals. The Lions hired former Patriots’ defensive coordinator as their head coach back in 2018 and he has brought some of the fire this team as been lacking. The Lions aren’t a horrible team, they just aren’t talented enough to compete in their division. Their 6-10 record last season gives them a share of the best record of any team that finished in last place.
The Lions are destined to be stuck in the 5-to-7 win bracket as they have enough talent to win games, but not enough to take down the top teams in their division. They added TE Jesse James and WR Danny Amendola to help bolster a weak Lions receiving core. Their questionable draft tactics reared its ugly head once again as Detroit took TE T.J. Hockenson with the eighth pick. If Hockenson doesn’t transform into a “Gronk-like” tight end, this will be another draft bust for the Lions, something they can’t afford if they want to keep pace with their division. However, the Lions were praised for their late-round selections of DE Austin Bryant out of Clemson and DB Amani Oruwariye out of Penn State. If these two players can become mainstays in the Detroit defense, it could start to pave a path for the Lions out of mediocrity. Add these two to an already formidable edge rusher in Trey Flowers, the Lions may be able to keep themselves in games and make a run at the Wild Card.
Worst Case Scenario
The Lions fail to win a game against their division and struggle to get any kind of momentum. Stafford starts his regression and fails to make any connections with his new receivers. With a poor rushing attack, the Lions offense in ranked as one of the worst in the league. (Record: 2-14, last place in the NFC North, no playoff berth.)
Best Case Scenario
The Lions rely heavily on their passing offense which is able to keep them in a majority of their games. The defense does its job and gives Stafford the ball after forcing turnover after turnover. After a rocky 2018, head coach Matt Patricia puts all the pieces together and makes a serious run at the NFC North crown. (Record: 10-6, second place in the AFC East, Wild Card berth.)
The Lions take steps in the right direction in all aspects of the game. Stafford thrives with his new weapons and the defense becomes one of the most underrated and overlooked in the game, much to the Lions advantage. They still struggle to make any significant progress due to their tight division. (Record: 8-8, third place in the NFC North, no playoff berth.)
NFC WEST: ARIZONA CARDINALS (3-13)
Long are the days where the Cardinals needed to rely on quarterbacks in the final years of their career with something to prove; think Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer. Lasts season they went 3-13 and earned the league’s worst record, and the first pick in the draft to go with it. With questions surrounding the future of Kyler Murray in the MLB, the Cardinals drafted the overall most talented quarterback in the draft. With his focus on football, the Cardinals have a young quarterback that some have compared to Russell Wilson. Just a year removed from drafting quarterback Josh Rosen, the Cardinals had seen enough and shipped the curmudgeon signal caller to the Dolphins. This opened the door for Murray to come in and start immediately. Add Murray to an offense run by new head coach Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals might become must-watch television.
The Cardinals are going to be fun to watch, just to see Kyler Murray in action. But this doesn’t mean they are going to be a real contender any time soon. The team only had enough talent to win three games last year, and with the moves they made in the off-season, they didn’t bring in enough talent to make any significant leap in the next few years. Kliff Kingsbury will have to prove himself as some were puzzled as to why he was given a head coach position in the NFL after being the offensive coordinator for the Texas Tech Red Raiders. The combination of Murray and Kingsbury could amount into something special, or a flop. Either way, the Cardinals need to get more talent on their roster before even imagining a serious playoff run, especially in a division with the LA Rams, Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers.
Worst Case Scenario
Murray struggles as a rookie, with multiple factors to blame. The lack of talent, the transition to the NFL and a rookie head coach all throw wrenches into the plans of the Cardinals. With David Johnson trying to regain his superstar form on offense, an aging Larry Fitzgerald doing all he can to help, and Patrick Peterson leading the porous defense, the Cardinals fail to strike fear into opponents on either side of the ball. A tough schedule also leads to a brutal record for the Cardinals. (Record: 1-15, last place in the NFC West, no playoff berth.)
Best Case Scenario
David Johnson returns from injury and shows the league he is capable of being a top-five running back in the league. Larry Fitzgerald makes life on rookie Kyler Murray much easier by hauling in over 100 catches. The defense plays well enough to keep the Cardinals in most games, but the schedule is tough, and the Cardinals will need stellar play all around to make a playoff push. (Record: 6-10, last place in the NFC West, no playoff berth.)
David Johnson plays well, but not elite enough to carry an offense. Fitzgerald and Murray form a solid connection that adds another dimension to the offense and prevents the Cardinals from being an easy win for teams facing them. Still, with a tough schedule, their record at the end of the year might not accurately represent the progress they made. (Record: 3-13, last place in the NFC West, no playoff berth.)