Barnwell: NFL teams most likely to improve — and decline — in 2017

Barnwell: NFL teams most likely to improve — and decline — in 2017

To figure out what’s likely to happen in 2017, we have to take a step back and look at what really went down in 2016. Several underlying metrics have historically been effective in projecting whether teams are likely to improve or decline in the upcoming season. The games aren’t played on paper, but the paper can tell us a lot before the games even begin.

Last year, we took a look at those predictive measures and found that the Chargers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Tennessee Titans were likely to improve, while the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers were probably going to decline. This year, we’re going to take a deeper look at the individual teams likely to see their fortunes shift in 2017 and use the numbers to explain why.

Below are the five teams most likely to improve and five teams most likely to decline in 2017, sorted by the gap between their win total and their Pythagorean expectation from a year ago. You can find a primer on many of those stats here. I’ll get into why the team is likely to improve and decline and then, at the end, address the most obvious comebacks as to why each team might defy the metrics.

Click the links below to read about each team:

Teams likely to improve
Jaguars | Chargers | Browns | Eagles | Cardinals

Teams likely to decline
Raiders | Texans | Dolphins | Giants | Cowboys

Five teams most likely to improve

1. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13)

Point differential: -82
Pythagorean expectation: 5.9 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or less: 2-8 (.200)
Strength of schedule: 0.497 (14th-easiest in NFL)

I’ll forgive you if you’re sick of hearing that the Jaguars are about to take a leap forward. The reality is that they’ve already taken two modest leaps forward. In 2015, they jumped from 3.7 expected wins to 6.4 wins, a mark they mostly maintained last season with those 5.9 Pythagorean-projected victories.

While it was a season with an ugly record, the poor results are mostly explained by that ugly 2-8 mark in games decided by one touchdown or less. You might attribute that to some element of a young Jaguars team not knowing “how to win,” but the Jaguars were a totally unremarkable 9-10 in one-score games over the previous three seasons under Gus Bradley.

Teams that are really bad in one-touchdown games often improve the following season. The Jaguars are one of 68 teams between 1989 and 2015 to post a winning percentage of .200 or below in one-score contests. Those teams were a combined 67-377-1 (.152) during their ugly season. The following season, their record in one-score games was 239-289-1 (.453). Their overall win-loss record jumped by an average of three full wins.

The popular story of the Jags in 2016 was the disappointing season from their offense, driven by the inexplicable mechanical breakdown of quarterback Blake Bortles. Indeed, while the hype machine surrounding Bortles was too loud heading into last season, the offense suffered dramatically in falling from 21st in DVOA in 2015 to 27th last season.

What’s also true, though, is that the defense got good without anybody realizing. The Jaguars improved superficially, going from 31st in points allowed to 25th, but DVOA tells a clearer story. Bradley’s defense jumped all the way from 26th in 2015 to 13th last season, the first time it has ranked in the top half of the league since 2011.

The Jaguars’ improvement wasn’t quite as obvious for reasons outside of the defense’s control. A turnover-happy offense and poor kickoff coverage left the team to face the league’s third-worst average starting field position. Paul Posluszny & Co. were left to defend an average of 69.2 yards, while the top-ranked Patriots had nearly six extra yards to work with on a typical defensive possession. Jacksonville also faced 182 meaningful possessions against a league average of 177, giving the opposition five extra trips to score.

The Jags can help their case by forcing a few turnovers. They were dead last in turnover rate on a per-possession basis in 2016 and made their way by forcing the league’s second-highest rate of three-and-outs, behind the Texans. Jacksonville should be a little luckier with fumbles; it recovered just 39 percent of fumbles last season, the second-lowest rate in football and ahead of only the Lions. It was even worse on defense, with the Jags recovering just six of 18 fumbles. That percentage is totally random and unlikely to recur next season.

The Jaguars fielded the league’s fifth-youngest defense last season, so they are likely to continue improving in 2017. Things are even more promising when you consider that Jacksonville added two of the best defensive players in free agency by signing Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye.

Campbell continued to play at a Pro Bowl level for the Cardinals last season, racking up 8.0 sacks and 21 knockdowns during his age-30 season. Bouye came out of nowhere to have a mammoth season for the Texans, moving around the defense while looking like Houston’s best corner for long stretches of the season. Not bad for a guy who was fourth on the depth chart heading into the year.

Bouye’s riskier than Campbell, but if he plays at a similar level to the guy we saw in 2016, the Jaguars are suddenly set at cornerback for years with the 25-year-old Bouye and 22-year-old Jalen Ramsey, who was an instant star as a rookie. Underrated Cowboys safety Barry Church should be an upgrade over the perennially frustrating Johnathan Cyprien. There’s a chance this defense could be great as early as this season.

Can the offense keep up? So much depends on Bortles, but there’s enough infrastructure around for the former third overall pick to succeed. The Julius Thomas experiment failed, but the Jags go three deep at wideout with Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and the surprisingly effective Marqise Lee, each of whom are still 25 or younger. They have their most promising No. 1 back since Maurice Jones-Drew in rookie No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette, who profiles to be a superstar back. The offensive line could be better by getting rid of the perennially disappointing Luke Joeckel and a less-than-100-percent Kelvin Beachum, but an offseason trade for left tackle Branden Albert didn’t work out, as the former Dolphin retired before ever playing in Jacksonville.

Bortles is still the question mark. There are glimmers of hope in his 2016 once you realize that his 2015 season was grossly overrated — his sack rate and interception rate both declined — but his time has to be about up. Among the 37 quarterbacks since 1990 who have thrown 1,000 or more passes through their first three seasons, Bortles is 33rd in era-adjusted completion percentage, yards per attempt and adjusted net yards per attempt. The guys joining Bortles at the bottom of the ANY/A+ leaderboard are almost all disappointments, with David Carr, Jake Plummer and Joey Harrington to the north, and Christian Ponder, Rick Mirer and Jeff George to the south. Bortles doesn’t even have to be good; if he can just stay out of the way, the Jaguars may have enough talent to win the South.

Comebacks: It’s Bortles, right? It’s hard to find a good reason to believe the light bulb is suddenly going to turn on for Bortles, who has barely developed or shown much more than pure athleticism during his time in the NFL. Chad Henne hasn’t done a much better job of protecting the football as a pro passer, either, so there’s not even a game-manager type to turn to on the bench if new coach Doug Marrone decides to change. Jacksonville will likely improve on its record regardless of how Bortles plays, but a mediocre quarterback would probably limit it to six wins.

2. Los Angeles Chargers (5-11)

Point differential: -13
Pythagorean expectation: 7.7 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or less: 1-8 (.111)
Strength of schedule: 0.505 (16th-toughest in NFL)

The numbers were mostly onto something last season. The one notable exception was the Chargers, who seemed likely to vault forward after a 4-12 season in 2015 in which they went 3-8 in one-score games.

While the 2016 Chargers did improve by one win, nobody could argue that they looked better in those close contests. San Diego was an incredible 1-8 in games decided by one touchdown or less. It’s one thing for the Chargers to blow a league-high five games they led at halftime. It’s another to give away four games in which they either led or were in a tie game with the ball at the two-minute warning. Some of these losses blend together, but it’s worth reiterating how many ways the Chargers blew games last season:

  • In Week 1, they lost to the Chiefs after going up 27-10 with 13 minutes to go, aided by a 17-yard punt inside the two-minute warning that set up the Chiefs with excellent field position.

  • Two weeks later, the Chargers had a two-point lead against a Colts team facing fourth-and-7 on its own 20-yard line. They allowed a conversion and a 63-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton three plays later.

  • The next week, San Diego was up 13 points on the Saints with the ball and 6:50 to go. The Chargers fumbled away the ball on each of their next two plays from scrimmage, setting up the Saints for two short touchdowns.

  • A week later, the Chargers were stuffed on third-and-2 down three points with 3:05 to go. Punter Drew Kaser subsequently muffed the hold on the ensuing 36-yard field goal attempt, costing the Chargers a shot at tying the game.

  • Three weeks later, the Chargers couldn’t punch the ball in with four chances from the 2-yard line down eight late against the Broncos.

  • With 1:13 left in a tie game against the Dolphins, the Chargers needed a few more yards to advance from the Miami 42-yard line and set up a game-winning field goal attempt. Philip Rivers threw a slant under duress to Kiko Alonso, who took it to the house for a game-winning Miami touchdown.

  • Josh Lambo missed a 45-yard field goal that would have sent the Chargers to overtime against the Browns.

  • Check that again: They lost to the Browns.

That’s an unreal string of brutal losses, with three in the first month of the season alone. There was a decent team here. Four of their five wins came against teams with winning records, including a 33-30 victory over the Falcons in Atlanta. They were 13th in DVOA at the midway point of the season before injuries caught up to them, and Mike McCoy’s team eventually finished just ahead of the Vikings and Bucs in 20th.

The Chargers are 4-16 (.200) in one-score games over the past two seasons. I understand if anybody who watched the Chargers collapse on a weekly basis in 2016 doesn’t believe they’re going to be better in close games this season. It’s hard for me to believe. It’s also extremely likely to happen.

I went ahead and looked at teams that posted particularly brutal records in seven-point games over a two-year stretch. No organization since 1989 has lost more one-score games over a two-year span than the 2015-16 Chargers. Maybe that’s the way you describe a bad team. Their .200 winning percentage in those games is the 19th-worst mark, a figure topped by the 2001 Panthers and their 1-13 (.071) record over a two-year stretch. By any measure, the Chargers have been bad at this.

And by any measure, the teams who were bad at this got better. The 29 teams who lost 12 or more one-win games over a two-year stretch were a combined 154-423 (.267) during their period in the wilderness. The following year, those same teams posted a winning record in close games, going 123-113 (.521). They improved their overall win-loss record by an average of 2.2 wins.

If you prefer winning (or losing percentage), the 35 previous teams that won 25 percent of their close games or less over a two-year stretch went 105-433 (.195) in those seven-pointers and then followed that up with a 137-135 (.504) mark the following season. The latter subset of teams improved by 3.4 wins the following season.

No matter how you slice it, two years of bad luck in close games doesn’t hold any predictive value. The 2011-12 Panthers went 2-12 in one-score games, lost their first two games in 2013 by a combined six points, and then went 15-3-1 in those same contests over the next three years. Having “learned how to win,” Carolina subsequently went 2-6 in one-score games last season.

The Chargers should be in a much better place in terms of personnel. For one, they won’t be without star pass-rusher Joey Bosa for the first four games of the season. By the time Bosa made his debut, injuries had sapped the Chargers of several key contributors. Pro Bowl cornerback Jason Verrett went down for the season after four games, while fellow starting corner Brandon Flowers missed 10 games with a pair of concussions.

The receiving corps was even further picked apart. Stevie Johnson hit injured reserve with a torn meniscus before the season even began. Star wideout Keenan Allen tore his ACL during the first half of Week 1. Receiving back Danny Woodhead suffered his own season-ending knee injury the following week. Rivers was throwing to afterthoughts like Dontrelle Inman, Tyrell Williams and Hunter Henry for most of the season.

Flowers, Johnson and Woodhead are gone, and it would be foolish to count on Verrett and Allen to play all 16 games, given that they’ve failed to do so even once across seven combined campaigns. It’s also fair to expect them to make it out of September, though, and if they can last most of the season in combination with the players who emerged in their absence, the Chargers look awful deep at several critical positions. First-round pick Mike Williams would help here, but he’s likely to miss all of training camp after injuring his back in May.

The Chargers will almost certainly be better in 2017 under new coach Anthony Lynn. Their ceiling is as high as that of any bad team from last season; it’s hardly out of the question that everything comes together and they win 11 or 12 games. More plausibly, they should top .500 and push for a playoff berth. Just what the AFC West needed: another competitive team.

Comebacks: The move to Los Angeles could impact the Chargers. It will be interesting to see how their home-field advantage is affected by the move to a 27,000-seat stadium, the smallest in the league by nearly 30,000 seats. The 1981-82 Raiders are the most recent NFL team to relocate and either post a winning record or make the playoffs, although there’s some selection bias there, as the other seven teams to skip town won an average of only 6.8 games the year before they left for greener pastures.

3. Cleveland Browns (1-15)

Point differential: -188
Pythagorean expectation: 3.5 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or less: 1-5 (.167)
Strength of schedule: 0.522 (Fifth-toughest in NFL)

I’m not going to waste your time by arguing that the Browns were secretly good last season. They weren’t. Cleveland finished with the league’s worst point differential, and only the Jets posted a worse DVOA. The Browns were bad.

I will argue, though, that they weren’t quite as bad as that 1-15 record suggests. Cleveland played a brutally tough schedule; I have them facing the fifth-toughest slate in football, while DVOA pegs it as the most difficult schedule of any team last season. FPI estimates the Browns will have a league-average schedule this season.

And while the Browns didn’t win until Week 15, they were competitive in other spots. They led the Ravens during the fourth quarter in September. They were a 46-yard field goal away from beating an eventual playoff team in Miami one week later. The Browns weren’t historically awful. They were just a run-of-the-mill terrible team. There’s a difference there, although it’s academic for last year’s team.

In part, the Browns were flummoxed by a nearly unprecedented revolving door of quarterbacks. Cleveland probably wasn’t going to look good under any circumstances, but coach Hue Jackson was down to third-string rookie Cody Kessler by the end of Week 2 after both Robert Griffin and Josh McCown suffered injuries. In the end, five different quarterbacks threw 20 passes or more for the Browns last season.

The only other time that has happened in the modern NFL without a strike being involved is in 1984, when Mike Ditka cycled through five quarterbacks for a 10-win Bears team. A year later, he narrowed down his list to two and the Bears went 15-1. That isn’t about to happen for the Browns, but the trio of Kessler, Brock Osweiler and rookie second-rounder DeShone Kizer should be able to make it through 16 games and outperform the likes of McCown and Kevin Hogan.

Unlike last season, when the Browns let go of several key free agents in an attempt to rack up compensatory picks and repeatedly traded for future draft picks, the 2017 offseason brought an influx of talent to Cleveland. The Browns spent in free agency, notably signing away the top guard on the market from Cincinnati, Kevin Zeitler. Generally useful veterans like Kenny Britt and Jason McCourty were added to the roster, although the former comes as a replacement for breakout wide receiver Terrelle Pryor.

More importantly for Cleveland’s future, it imported a huge haul in the 2017 draft class. By Chase Stuart’s chart, the Browns used 86.9 points of draft capital this April, which topped the league by a wide margin. The second-placed Saints spent 63.5 points on their picks, with the league average at 44.8 points. The analytically inclined Browns brain trust was able to pull this off while adding an additional 2018 first-round pick from the Texans. Myles Garrett & Co. might not make an enormous difference this season — and there’s no guarantee they’ll succeed at all — but ask the Falcons about how good draft classes can revitalize a defense overnight.

The Browns will be more talented. They’ll be luckier. That’s true of most 1-15 teams, who improve faster than you think. The Browns are the ninth one-win team since 1989. The previous eight squads improved dramatically overnight, winning an average of 6.6 games the following season. The 2008 Dolphins jumped from 1-15 to a division title and the playoffs. The AFC North will likely be too tough for the Browns to make that sort of leap, but remember that Miami beat out a Patriots team that had gone 16-0 the previous season for the most unlikely post-realignment division title. It took a season-ending injury to Tom Brady in the opener, but weird things happen. A five-win season might not sound like much, but it’s a reasonable target for the Browns in 2017.

Comebacks: It’s easy to make the lazy joke and say that this is Cleveland and good things don’t happen to the Browns, but things could go wrong. Garrett is already struggling through a foot injury. There’s no obviously good quarterback on the roster. The Browns shed their two best pass-catchers from last season, Pryor and Gary Barnidge. They may not be very good at developing draft picks. All of those are plausible problems, but even if they’re true, sheer randomness should be enough for the Browns to triple their win total from a year ago.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (7-9)

Point differential: +36
Pythagorean expectation: 9.0 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or less: 1-8 (.111)
Strength of schedule: 0.544 (Toughest in the NFL)

No team has a better stat-nerd case for jumping into the postseason in 2017 than the Eagles. Advanced metrics suggest Doug Pederson’s team was already playoff-caliber last season; the Eagles finished fourth in DVOA (just ahead of the Steelers) and had the sixth-best point differential in the NFC, which should have been enough to push them into a wild-card spot.

Instead, the Eagles became one of five teams in 2016 to post a losing record despite a positive point differential, which is a particularly weird feat because it hadn’t happened once in the league across either of the previous two campaigns. Philadelphia’s gap between expected wins and actual wins was the largest of those five, owing to that 1-8 record in games decided by a touchdown.

Carson Wentz & Co. had a serious shot at winning several of those games. They fumbled late with the lead while running out the clock against a Detroit team out of timeouts. They stalled in the red zone on their final drives against the Giants and Washington. Pederson chose to go for two after a late Wentz touchdown pass made it 28-27 against Baltimore and the Eagles didn’t convert. They lost in overtime to the Cowboys when Dallas won the coin toss and scored a touchdown.

Those are five good teams, and indeed, the Eagles also had a few impressive victories. They blew out the Steelers by 31 points in Week 3. Jim Schwartz’s defense shut down the league’s best offense in a 24-15 victory over the Falcons. And they beat a playoff-bound Giants team in Week 16, although their win over the Cowboys in Week 17 was over a group of backups.

Philadelphia started the season against a pair of cupcakes, Chicago and Cleveland, but its schedule from that point forward was brutally difficult. I have them with the league’s toughest schedule, while Football Outsiders pegs them for No. 2. Either way, it was rough. FPI believes the Eagles’ schedule will be right around the league average this season, which should be markedly easier.

The obvious place for general manager Howie Roseman to invest this offseason was at wide receiver, and the Eagles did just that. Buying low on Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith gives Philadelphia a pair of useful weapons who should have plenty of life in their legs. Suddenly, with Jeffery, Smith, Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz and Darren Sproles, Wentz has several viable targets. Those guys will have to stay healthy, but Wentz might never have to throw a pass to Nelson Agholor again, and that alone should satisfy Eagles fans.

Many observers are expecting a breakout sophomore campaign from Wentz, who got out to a hot start before struggling mightily after Philadelphia’s Week 4 bye. The rookie got into a distressing habit of sailing passes over the middle, leading to tipped reception attempts and easy picks. The new wideouts will help matters, if only because teams will actually be worried about Jeffery and Smith beating their cornerbacks if left one-on-one on the outside.

Another subtler factor will be the return of Lane Johnson, who missed 10 games after a PED suspension. Some of this owes to the quirks of scheduling, but Wentz was a totally different player with his star right tackle on the field. With Johnson up front, the rookie quarterback posted a 72.3 QBR and a 97.5 passer rating. While Johnson was sidelined, though, Wentz could muster only a 48.5 QBR and 70.2 passer rating. Having your best players on the field helps.

Comebacks: Wentz has gotten plenty of positive reviews for his performance as a rookie, but the numbers suggest he was pretty bad. Wentz finished with a 52.8 QBR, which was 26th in the league and below Brock Osweiler. His 5.1 ANY/A was 27th in the league, which nestled him between Blake Bortles and Case Keenum. Wentz’s average pass traveled just 7.3 yards in the air, which ranked 26th. You can get a sense of his neighborhood as a rookie. I suspect Wentz will improve in his second season, but there’s also a chance the numbers are right and Wentz is a fringe-average passer.

Furthermore, the NFC East is a tough place to make a living these days. Even if the Cowboys and Giants regress some, the East was the only division in the league to deliver four teams with a positive point differential last season.

I’d also be worried about how the Eagles match up against their rivals, given that they are as thin as any team in the league at cornerback. Philadelphia used a pair of mid-round picks on cornerbacks, but Sidney Jones is recovering from a torn Achilles and is really a selection for 2018 and beyond. The veteran trio of Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson, and Ron Brooks will end up covering players like Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham Jr., and Terrelle Pryor this season. That’s going to be a weekly mismatch.

5. Arizona Cardinals (7-8-1)

Point differential: +56
Pythagorean expectation: 9.4 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or less: 2-5-1 (.313)
Strength of schedule: 0.472 (Fourth-easiest in NFL)

This should technically be the 49ers, but I hope you’ll forgive me in discussing a team that might have slightly more relevance in terms of 2017 contention. (If you’re a Niners fan, you can watch the conversation I had about the 49ers with ESPN’s Louis Riddick on NFL Live here.)

The Cardinals are an example of why it’s dangerous to believe that some coaches or teams have an innate ability to win a disproportionately high percentage of their close games. If you include his run as interim coach of the 2012 Colts, Bruce Arians had won 78.5 percent of his one-score games as a head coach, posting a 22-6 mark over four seasons in charge of Indianapolis and Arizona. Last season, Arians and the Cardinals were 2-5-1 in those same contests, and even those wins were frantic. They needed last-second field goals to beat the 49ers and Seahawks, the latter of which included Arizona’s defense blowing a 13-point lead with four minutes to go.

It was a strange season in many ways for Arizona. The Cardinals faced one of the league’s easiest schedules and somehow fell off significantly. Not only did their record fall by 5.5 wins, but their Pythagorean expectation declined from the dominant 11.9-win heights of 2015 to 9.4 victories last season. They did this despite returning virtually everyone of note from their 2015 team. In total, they fell from third in DVOA to 16th.

So what happened? The passing offense collapsed, going from third in DVOA in 2015 to 27th. Carson Palmer came back to earth after a career year in 2015. Palmer’s sack rate rose behind an offensive line that struggled to protect him at times, as expected starters Jared Veldheer (out for eight games) and Evan Mathis (done for the year after four) missed significant time. Only one of his top three wideouts was useful (Larry Fitzgerald), as Michael Floyd was anonymous before being released after a DUI, while John Brown struggled with sickle cell issues and had a cyst removed from his spine after the season.

David Johnson picked up some of the slack in a remarkable individual effort, but the Cardinals were a totally different team throwing the football in 2016. Arians’ offense is predicated upon throwing the ball downfield, but on “deep” passes (16+ yards downfield), Palmer’s passer rating fell from 103.7 (seventh in 2015) to 68.3 (24th last season), even while the drop rate on those throws fell from 5.3 percent to 0.9 percent. If Palmer can’t effectively throw deep, the Cardinals either need to fundamentally change their offense or find a new quarterback.

If there are questions on offense, there is even more to worry about on the defensive side of the ball. Arizona’s defense continued to rank among the league’s best last season, finishing third in DVOA, despite having a blinking neon sign screaming “Throw at Me!” on the side of the field across from Patrick Peterson. The Patriots won their season opener against Arizona by exploiting debuting rookie cornerback Brandon Williams, who was benched shortly thereafter. Marcus Cooper restored some level of civility, but special-teams dynamo Justin Bethel remained a mess to the point that Arians called him a failure in progress in December.

If Cooper were still around, cornerback would be settled. He’s not, and Cooper isn’t the only one out the door. Arizona had eight players rack up 800 snaps or more on defense last season. Six of those eight players were set to hit unrestricted free agency, and general manager Steve Keim was able to bring back only (admittedly the most important) one, Chandler Jones.

The Cardinals lost six key defenders who racked up a combined 4,423 snaps last season, and their salary-cap situation precluded them from investing much into replacing them. The biggest departure was longtime star Calais Campbell, who the Cards will try to replace with 2016 first-round pick (and Arians doghouse resident) Robert Nkemdiche. The secondary lost a pair of starters in Cooper and versatile safety Tony Jefferson, and while the Cardinals will try to replace Jefferson in the short term with Antoine Bethea and the long term with Budda Baker, Jefferson had rounded into one of the league’s better safeties before leaving for Baltimore.

One has to wonder whether the Cardinals will consider changing their defensive style. They’ve lived and died by the blitz under Todd Bowles and then current defensive coordinator James Bettcher, but that philosophy came into play in part because the team had no dominant pass-rusher. They may have two now in Jones and Markus Golden, who combined for 23.5 sacks last season. Seattle was the only other defense in the league with two pass-rushers who racked up double-digit sacks.

Throw in the limping secondary and the Cardinals might need to play more coverage and trust in Jones and Golden to get after the quarterback one-on-one. Arizona will hope to get more out of Tyrann Mathieu, who was limited to free safety for stretches in 2016 while recovering from another torn ACL. If Mathieu can return to his 2015 form as a slot corner, the Cardinals can feel much more comfortable attacking the line of scrimmage. Arians runs hot and cold with rookies, so it’ll also be critical to see if he favors first-round pick Haason Reddick, who could figure as a coverage linebacker on passing downs from Week 1.

Arizona might have a wider range of outcomes than just about any team in the league, and given that franchise icon Fitzgerald is set to hit free agency after the season, it may have as much to lose in 2017 as any team. If the offense reverts back to its usual self and Arizona’s defensive stars stay healthy and play like Pro Bowlers, the Cardinals could be a juggernaut and Super Bowl contender.

Alternately, there’s a chance Palmer is toast and the defense spends half the year trying to replace the players who left town. The first six weeks of the season might be reasonably tough, and Arizona ends with the Giants and Seahawks, but between Week 7 and Week 14, there’s an easy slate. The Cardinals play the Seahawks during that period, but they otherwise get a bye, three games against the AFC South, and matchups against the Rams and 49ers. If the Cards can get to that stretch at 3-3, they’ll probably go on enough of a run to make it to the postseason.

Comebacks: While players like Palmer, Mathieu and Brown weren’t their usual selves last season, the Cardinals got excellent play from a few of their stars. Johnson might have been the best running back in the league. Fitzgerald led the league in receptions at age 33 and posted another 1,000-yard season, albeit while averaging just 9.6 yards per catch as a slot receiver. Jones and Golden were monster pass-rushers. Peterson was a shutdown corner. Each of those guys played all 16 games. It’s tough to count on them to all be stars and healthy for the entire season in 2017, and if they’re not, then it’s even harder for the Cardinals to make one final run toward a Super Bowl with this core of players.

Five teams most likely to decline

1. Oakland Raiders (12-4)

Point differential: +31
Pythagorean expectation: 8.7 wins
Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 8-1 (.889)
Strength of schedule: 0.526 (Fourth-hardest in NFL)

To put what the Raiders did last season in context, that gap of 3.3 wins between their actual win total and their expected win total is the fourth-largest since 1989. Of the 10 teams with the largest gaps between their actual win total and their Pythagorean win total between 1989 and 2015, seven declined, with three maintaining their previous record. The average drop was 3.4 wins:

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Barnwell: NFL teams most likely to improve — and decline — in 2017

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