Ranking the NFL’s Worst-To-First Candidates: Why Jaguars Offer Most Betting Value
Getty Images. Pictured: Trevor Lawrence (left), Russell Wilson (right)
It happens almost every year.
Some NFL team has a season from hell, finishes at the bottom of its division and earns a top draft pick. Everyone spends all offseason writing them off and avoiding their players in fantasy football. The new season dawns without much hope — then, four months later, they somehow win their division and host a playoff game.
Sound familiar? It should.
In 17 of the last 19 years (89%!), at least one division bottom-feeder flipped the script and won its division the following season. In 2016, the Cowboys drafted Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott and jumped from 4-12 to 13-3. The next year, the Eagles went from 7-9 to Super Bowl champions. The Bears and Texans did it in 2018, and Washington in 2019.
Last year, the Bengals went from the bottom to the Super Bowl and nearly played another last-place team (49ers) there. Since the NFL adopted its current division format in 2002, 27 division bottom feeders have gone from worst-to-first the following season, an average of 1.3 per year. History says it will happen again.
If you want an easier winner, you can simply bet on any one of these eight teams to win their division at -225 at DraftKings. That’s an implied 69% versus the historical 89% hit rate over the past two decades. My model would put the true odds at -300 or shorter, still giving us clear value.
But I’d like a bigger win. Let’s rank last season’s bottom feeders from least to most likely to claim division titles and decide which ones are worth betting on.
Tier IV: Nope, Not Gonna Happen
When you’re looking for a sleeper, you need to consider the division first. You don’t have to be a great team — you just have to be better than the other three. In Seattle’s case, that’s bad news because the Rams, 49ers and Cardinals are expected to contend for the playoffs.
Seattle has the worst Opening Day starting quarterback in the league (Geno Smith), and the Seahawks may rank dead last at corner and edge rush. Old-school Pete Carroll loves his run game, but being bad at both passing and defending the pass does not seem like a formula for success.
I project Seattle at 4.6 wins, a full 0.75 fewer than any other team. I also project range of outcomes, and the Seahawks’ high-end result is 7.15 wins — still worse than the low-end outcomes for San Francisco and Los Angeles.
It’s not happening. I’d rather bet Seattle +750 to finish with the worst record or grab an alternate under (4.5) at +200 and root for the inevitable tank.
Verdict: Hard pass.
Tier III: So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance…
The Jets added a trio of first rounders in CB Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, WR Garrett Wilson and DE Jermaine Johnson. They added veterans on the O-line and return last year’s big free agent signing Carl Lawson from season-long injury. New York also added the draft’s best RB in Breece Hall to insert into a surprisingly effective run game thanks to offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s scheme.
The Jets are unquestionably improving. The question is how much, and it’s probably not enough yet. New York looks like one of those teams that’s a bummer to play in December, but it might be a bit early unless sophomore QB Zach Wilson makes a huge leap — and he’s not even healthy.
Still, +2800 is a really long number in a year in which Football Outsiders predicts the league’s best and worst teams are not separated by as much as usual. The Bills have a tough schedule. If you think Buffalo is more playoff contender than Super Bowl favorite, the door could be ajar.
The number implies a 3.4% chance of a Jets division title. I’d put that closer to 5%. It’s a likely loser, but might be worth a nibble if you want to fade Buffalo.
Verdict: Nibble the long number if you don’t believe in the Bills.
The Giants have a better sleeper case than you think. The new coaching staff featuring Brian Daboll and Wink Martindale should be very good, and it’s double good that they’re replacing Joe Judge and Jason Garrett. New York also added two players who could have been No. 1 picks in the 2022 NFL Draft in RT Evan Neal and DE Kayvon Thibodeaux.
All of that is a real step in the right direction, and it’s always a good idea to build from the foundation out. But it’s still not a very good team. The secondary is weak after letting James Bradberry walk and the offensive line is still a work in progress, though Neal and LT Andrew Thomas could be a strength in the future.
And, of course, there’s Daniel Jones.
Maybe Daboll can do for Jones what he did for Josh Allen, but it’s far more likely that was a once-in-a-lifetime event. You can like what the Giants are building but recognize that the talent just isn’t there, even in a poor division.
Verdict: Too short to bet, even in a soft division.
The Lions seem to be everyone’s darling sleeper, but I don’t see it. Again, it’s the difference between improving and good.
The offense is certainly improving. The offensive line is elite and raises the floor, and there are real weapons now with Amon-Ra St. Brown, D’Andre Swift, T.J. Hockenson and eventually rookie Jameson Williams. Those are nice players! But they’re not stars by any stretch, and the offense is still helmed by Jared Goff, a quarterback no one believes in.
Dan Campbell gets his guys to try hard and makes for great TV, but speeches are better at backdoor covers than wins. Detroit might have the worst defense in the NFL, clearly below average at every position. And don’t forget there are two really good teams in this division.
Like it or not, the Lions are still up against it with a poor defense, QB and probably coaching. “Hard Knocks” teams with a projected win total of 7.5 or less have missed the playoffs in six of seven attempts. Seven for eight looks likely.
Verdict: It’s a Hard Knocks life, but pass.
I want to believe in the Panthers. Christian McCaffrey is a stud and D.J. Moore is always underrated. The defense is headlined by stars-in-the-making: Brian Burns, Shaq Thompson and Jaycee Horn. The O-line is starting to come together and should take another step with LT Ikem Ekwonu in the fold.
But despite all the optimism and potential, the core itself might be rotten. If you bet on the Panthers, that’s a bet on two men above all else: Matt Rhule and Baker Mayfield.
I don’t hate a bet on Mayfield. He’s talented and fiery, and perhaps a change of scenery will help him. The numbers aren’t as bad as you think, and he’s got a long career in front of him. But I can’t bet on Rhule, who shouldn’t even have a a job in the NFL right now. It’d be genuinely shocking to see this staff in place next fall. It’s already a bit shocking.
This division is dying for a sleeper with Tom Brady’s interior offensive line banged up early. The Bucs are too heavy as favorites. But do you really want to bet on Rhule and Baker?
Verdict: Nibble a bit if you want to fade the Bucs.
Tier II: The Sleepers You’re Looking For
3. Jacksonville Jaguars +800
The Jaguars have one season with more than six wins since 2010, averaging 4.3 wins during that stretch. It’s been ugly. But even for Jacksonville, nothing was as ugly as the histrionics and shenanigans of Urban Meyer.
It’s possible Meyer’s coaching sabotaged last season before it started and made the Jaguars look much worse than they really were. Doug Pederson represents competence if nothing else — an adult in the room. It means a real offense that doesn’t put the quarterback at a deficit every drop back.
If you want to bet on Jacksonville, that’s the case: Competent coaching plus a huge sophomore leap from Trevor Lawrence. Remember, Lawrence had never lost a regular season game before last fall and was considered a generational prospect. Peyton Manning went 3-13 with 28 picks as a rookie, then won 13 games the following year.
Does Lawrence have that leap in him? There were flashes, and more than a few signs that the bad scheme and a lack of receivers were holding him back. If Lawrence does take a step, there’s a real chance that he could be the best QB in the division by the end of the season.
And that’s the other half of the case for Jacksonville: The weakest division in football. Houston is bad. Tennessee is due for regression and over reliant on an old RB coming off a major injury. Indianapolis lacks ceiling and might have invested in a near-expiration QB. It’s entirely possible nine or 10 wins takes this division. I’d make the Colts healthy AFC South favorites, somewhere around 50%. I put the Titans around half that. But that leaves 25% for the Texans and Jags.
My model gives the Jaguars an 18% chance at a division title. At +800, we’re getting an implied 11%. That’s a 62% edge in our favor, and that means that even though Jacksonville is not the most likely worst-to-first division winner, it is the one most worth betting on.
Verdict: This is the one. The Jaguars are a must-play.
The case for the Broncos starts with Russell Wilson. He’s 104-53-1 and had never missed a start or won fewer than nine games in his entire NFL career before the wheels came off last season. If Wilson still has anything left, he alone makes Denver a threat.
But it’s not just Russ. Denver was better than it looked but underperformed its Pythagorean win expectation by 1.9 wins, in part because the Broncos were unlucky in one-score games at 1-4. Wilson has been particularly good in clutch situations. Denver should also get some fumble-luck regression.
Denver’s new coaching staff and defense are swing factors. Nathaniel Hackett and his staff are unknown and untested, while the defense is talented but needs to come together. Randy Gregory and a healthy Bradley Chubb could be a fierce pass-rushing duo, and this is one of the league’s more talented secondaries.
This is a pretty good roster with no real holes, and we haven’t even mentioned the offensive weapons. Denver can contend. But the Broncos play in the league’s toughest division. As good as Wilson is, he can still be the worst QB in the division any given day. Patrick Mahomes has never won fewer than 12 games, and the Chargers might have the most complete roster in football.
Even if Denver takes a big step forward, those are still huge hurdles. The Broncos could do it, but +300 looks about right, and you can find better ways to bet the Broncos in key spots during the season.
Verdict: Bet the Broncos’ in-season spots if you believe.
Tier I: The Obvious Worst-to-First Pick
The Ravens are the most obvious worst-to-first division winner in a while, an obvious regression candidate after a year from hell in which they lost more games to injury than any team in two decades, per Football Outsiders.
Baltimore was decimated at the three positions you can’t afford: Quarterback, offensive line and secondary. Lamar Jackson dealt with COVID and injury, and struggled against increased blitz with little protection from his banged-up line. The Ravens’ defense also cratered and couldn’t stop anyone due to the injury bug.
We’re still waiting for good news on LT Ronnie Stanley and rookie C Tyler Linderbaum, and the running backs are still on the mend. The line and defense have been retooled, and the secondary should be one of the best in the league again. Baltimore always has an edge in coaching and special teams, too. A healthy version of this team can easily win 12-plus and the division.
But that doesn’t mean you should bet on it.
The Ravens are the rightful division favorite, but the Bengals are really good, too — and the Steelers and Browns are plenty talented as well. None of them can match Baltimore’s all-around balance and upside, but +145 implies over 40%. I’m high on the Ravens and still barely put them at that number, so you’ll have to find another way to back Baltimore — perhaps +1000 to be the first seed in the AFC or +2000 on Lamar Jackson to win MVP.
Baltimore is easily the most likely worst-to-first division winner in 2022 — but Jacksonville is the best bet on the board at +800.
Verdict: Too obvious and already priced accurately.