Of the four major American sports leagues, the NFL is generally celebrated for having the most turnover among teams at the top. Every fan can go into the season with some hope because every team starts with a chance to win. That's even true for the teams that were in last place a year ago. Since the NFL realigned to eight four-team divisions in 2002, 22 teams have gone from worst to first. There has been at least one of these teams in every season except 2014 and 2019. (Although San Francisco went from 4-12 to first place, the 49ers weren't in last place in 2018 because Arizona was 3-13.)
We've gone through the eight teams that finished in last place in each division last season, ranked by their odds of winning their division in 2020. Instead of just using the simulation from our book Football Outsiders Almanac 2020, we've done a new simulation that accounts for player opt-outs due to COVID-19. Our system predicts each team's DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average, explained here) on offense, defense, and special teams using a number of variables, including performance over the past three years, coaching experience, and personnel changes. Then we simulate the season 25,000 times to get a wide range of possibilities that account for every team's best-case and worst-case scenario.
There are clear indicators that help guide us as to which teams are most likely to go worst to first. But remember that sometimes, teams will change and develop in ways we can't foresee and take a big step forward that is unexpected. This is probably even more of an issue in 2020 because of the unknown consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's safe to assume that the random loss of players due to infection during the season will even out talent across the league and make it more likely that a team can go from worst to first in one year.
Odds of winning the NFC North: 27.5% (1st in division)
Odds of making playoffs: 42.9% (17th in NFL)
Here we go again. Detroit was our choice for the most likely team to go worst to first a year ago. They didn't manage to do it -- none of the 2018 last-place teams did -- and they didn't even come close. The Lions finished at 3-12-1. So why do we now list them not only as the most likely team to go worst to first in 2020 but also -- shockingly -- as the most likely team to win the NFC North overall?
There's two parts to this: The Lions on one hand, and their competition on the other. First, let's talk about the Lions. Detroit was two different teams last year: with and without Matthew Stafford at quarterback. In the eight games Stafford started, the Lions finished 3-4-1. In the eight games after Stafford was lost for the season with a back injury, the Lions were 0-8. It's reasonable to assume that the Lions will be closer to that first team with Stafford back in 2020. And Stafford ranked sixth in the league in Total QBR last year when he was healthy. Our projection system also likes the Detroit defense to improve after the unit ranked 28th in DVOA last season. The Lions added a good amount of free-agent talent, much of it from the No. 1 New England Patriots defense. They made up for trading away veteran cornerback Darius Slay by selecting the talented Jeff Okudah third overall in the draft. Combine the talent influx with a low turnover rate (something that strongly regresses towards the mean) and the Lions should be better on defense in 2020.
This doesn't mean we're projecting a great season from the Lions. Our mean projection for the Lions has them as a very average team. We're high on the Lions because our mean projections have every team in the NFC North as a very average team. All four teams win the division somewhere between 23% and 27% of our simulations. Green Bay wasn't as good as its 13-3 record last year and didn't do much to fill holes over the offseason. We also expect some regression from a defense that improved dramatically last season. Minnesota was hit by a number of important personnel losses, including Stefon Diggs, Everson Griffen, and most of their cornerbacks. Chicago doesn't look to be much different than it was a year ago. Someone is going to come out of this muddle with a division title, and we feel the Lions have as good a chance as anyone.