Each year there are a number of teams in the NFL that defy expectations. It’s common for teams to go from worst one year to first the next. It’s also just as common for a team hyped up for the wrong reasons to not live up to the public perception.
With NFL training camps set to open in a few weeks, let’s take a look at a few statistical indicators — such as point differential and record in close games — to identify a few teams that could be better than expected for the upcoming season. We’ll look at teams that could fall below expectations later in the week.
- 2018 record: 7-9
- 2018 expected wins: 7.8
- 2019 o/u: 7.5
Carolina played to about what it should have last season with a minus-6 point differential that would hint at a slightly below .500 team. But that play also came with 14 games of a not 100 percent Cam Newton and two games without him completely. The Panthers also started the season 6-2 with a healthy Newton before shoulder pain took away his effectiveness and Carolina had to change the look of the offense to compensate. Over Carolina’s first eight games of the season, Newton had 15 touchdown passes against four interceptions with a sack rate of just 4.4 percent. Across his final six games, Newton threw as many touchdowns as interceptions (nine) and was sacked more often (7.5 percent). His rushing efficiency was also sapped after the injury with 73 rushing attempts and four touchdowns scored in the 6-2 start and only 28 rushing attempts with no touchdowns after the injury.
The hope for 2019 is that Newton will be healthy. He threw for the first time publicly at Carolina’s minicamp in June and has reworked his mechanics in an attempt to avoid future injury, though it is unclear whether those mechanics will hold up under pressure of the season.
But even with that injury, the Panthers offense finished the regular season eighth in yards per drive and 10th in points per drive. With a healthy Newton and continued development from the likes of Christian McCaffery, D.J. Moore, and Curtis Samuel, the Carolina offense could start to click immediately.
Carolina’s biggest question is the defense, which ranked 24th in yards allowed per drive and 25th in points allowed per drive. Fixing that was a focus of the Panthers’ offseason with the additions of Bruce Irvin and Gerald McCoy in free agency to go with edge rusher Brian Burns in the first round of the NFL Draft.
The Panthers also stand to benefit from some better luck in close games — a record that tends to regress to .500. Last season Carolina was 3-7 in games decided by eight points or fewer and that .300 winning percentage was better than only three other teams in 2018.
Playing in a potentially loaded NFC South doesn’t help, but the Panthers could benefit from an easier than expected schedule. Based on early 2019 win projections, Carolina has the 12th-hardest schedule in the league. But based on 2018 efficiency, that turns into the 10th-easiest.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- 2018 record: 5-11
- 2018 expected wins: 6.5
- 2019 o/u: 6.5
For years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a trendy breakout pick that was never able to put it together. They might not be to that level just yet, but they could surprise a few people in 2019. Tampa underperformed its point differential by a win and a half in 2018, better than only two teams last season, and a metric that hints at an increase in wins the following season. The Buccaneers also fell victim to the close loss, with a record of 4-7 in games decided by one score or fewer.
With Bruce Arians aboard as the new head coach, the Buccaneers will embrace the “no risk it, no biscuit” philosophy, which meshes quite well with the quarterback in place, Jameis Winston. It might surprise you to find out that Winston finished the 2018 season ranked 10th in yards per attempt and eighth in Total QBR. Winston’s ceiling was never the question, it was more about decision making on and off the field. Arians will encourage the high-risk, high-reward nature in the passing offense and the receiving corps of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and O.J. Howard could be the perfect group on the other end.
Tampa Bay’s success in 2019 hinges on what the defense will be able to provide. Last season the unit was one of the worst in the league — 22nd in yards allowed per drive and 30th in points allowed per drive. They’ll get a bump from the hiring of Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator, who for whatever faults he had as a head coach, is able to coach up a defense. Expect the blitz-happy Bowles to improve upon a 28th-ranked pressure rate from 2018. The defense is likely to be healthier in 2019 after being the most-injured defensive unit in the league last season per Adjusted Games Lost.
An NFC South schedule doesn’t help — even a fourth-place one — but the Bucs have a number of reasons to believe in improvement and if you consider they already played like a 6.5-win team last season by point differential, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them eclipse that total in 2019.
New York Jets
- 2018 record: 4-12
- 2018 expected wins: 5.4
- 2019 o/u: 7
A seven-win over/under for 2019 is already quite the expectation for a Jets team that won four games last season. But the Jets do figure to be a team set to improve in 2019. We’ll start with the numbers from last season. Despite the four wins, the Jets played more like a 5.4-win team by point differential. Part of that was their terrible luck in one-score games. No team had a worse winning percentage (.250) in those games than the Jets last season when they went 2-6.
Then there’s also potential talent upgrade on the roster during the offseason. The massive contracts given out to linebacker C.J. Mosely and running back Le’Veon Bell were reportedly points of conflict between ownership, the front office, and coaching staff — general manager Mike Maccagnan was allowed to sign free agents and run the draft, then was fired in May — but it’s hard to argue both players aren’t upgrades on what the team had in 2018.
What also makes the Jets a potential surprise team is a second-year quarterback who could take a leap. Sam Darnold had an up-and-down rookie season, but played better as the season went on and had some underlying statistics that point towards improvement. Sports Info Solutions has 138 individual seasons since 2015 in which a quarterback threw at least 20 passes 20 or more yards in the air. No quarterback had a bigger gap between on-target percentage (throws considered catchable) and actual completion percentage than Darnold’s 2018. Last season the rookie was on-target on 53.1 percent of those attempts — above the sample average of 47.6 percent — but completed just 22.4 percent. Better luck on the deep ball with improved receiver play and a potentially healthy Robby Anderson could add an element to the Jets’ passing game that was not there in 2018.
The Jets are also set to have the second-easiest schedule in the league, going by either 2018 efficiency or projected 2019 win totals. Four games against the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins certainly help, as well as a mid-season stretch of games that features the Giants, Washington, Raiders, and Bengals before the second meeting of the season with Miami.
These Jets might not be ready to challenge the Patriots just yet, but they do look to be set up as the AFC East team best positioned to make a leap in 2019.