Barnwell: Picking the five NFL teams most likely to improve in 2019

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Monday, August 5, 2019

The NFL moves and shifts faster than you think. Since the league went to its current standings and schedule format back in 2002, an average of six teams have made repeat trips to the playoffs each season, meaning half of the playoffs turn over from season to season. Just five of the 12 teams that made it to the playoffs in 2017 made it back to the postseason in 2018, and even that was up from four the previous season.

Is the NFL just total chaos outside of the Patriots inevitably winning 11 or more games? Maybe, on the surface. It would have been difficult at this time last year to see perennial contenders like the Steelers, Vikings and Panthers taking a major step backward and missing the postseason, while struggling franchises like the Bears and Colts rode stunning streaks into the playoffs. There is a place you might have gotten tipped off about those very teams (and a handful of others) declining or improving: this very column from one year ago.

Over the past two years, I've identified 11 teams whose underlying statistics seemed to portend future improvement in this column. Nine of those 11 teams have improved, with the average team's record jumping by nearly four wins from the previous season. Let's run through the five NFL teams numbers suggest are most likely to improve their record from 2018, a list that starts out West. We'll hit the teams likely to decline on Tuesday:

Jump to a team:


San Francisco 49ers (4-12)

2018 point differential:minus-93

Pythagorean expectation: 5.8 wins

Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 3-5

FPI projected strength of schedule: 15th-easiest

This time last year, there was no trendier pick to make a leap into the postseason than the 49ers, who had started 1-10 in 2017 before winning each of Jimmy Garoppolo's first five starts as a member of the organization. The numbers didn't bear out that sort of optimism, but we didn't really get a chance to see what would have happened; Garoppolo tore an ACL during a Week 3 loss to the Chiefs, and the 49ers didn't have the horses to get by without their starting quarterback -- though they eventually stumbled onto a solid half-season from undrafted free agent Nick Mullens.

Curiously, even though Garoppolo should be ready for Week 1, San Francisco isn't getting the same sort of hype this summer. This year, the numbers and San Francisco's offseason personnel moves actually back a meaningful improvement in 2019. If they can get a healthy season -- or at least a significantly healthier season -- from Garoppolo, the Niners might very well emulate the 2018 Colts in making an unexpected trip to the playoffs.

Last year was a lost season for the 49ers, but it wasn't quite as bad as the 4-12 record seem to indicate. Their minus-93 point differential suggests they were closer to a 6-10 team, which doesn't sound great, but that's a much better starting point for negotiating this season. The 50 most similar teams in terms of underperforming their record since 1989 improved by an average of 2.7 wins the following season. That group includes the 2017 Texans, who were featured on this list a year ago after a 4-12 season and also benefited from getting their promising young quarterback on the field for an entire campaign.

The most obvious issue for the 49ers sans Garoppolo is that they couldn't hold onto leads. They tied for the league lead in losing four games that they had led at halftime, which would be bad enough. What's worse is they lost four games they had been winning in the fourth quarter:

  • In Week 4, they decided to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 in the red zone to go up 27-26 on the Chargers with 12:43 to go; the Chargers responded by kicking a 23-yard field goal to take the lead, and two subsequent 49ers drives failed to advance past their own 31-yard line.
  • On Monday Night Football two weeks later, they were up 30-23 on the Packers with the ball in their hands, 3:52 to go, and the Pack out of timeouts. The Packers not only ended up winning the game 33-30, but they won the game in regulation after C.J. Beathard, the original Jimmy G replacement,threw an interception at midfield and a Richard Sherman illegal contact call extended a Packers drive on third-and-15.
  • Two weeks after that, San Francisco kicked a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line to go up 15-3 on the lowly Cardinals with 13:37 to go. Josh Rosen proceeded to piece together what would be his finest hour in an Arizona uniform, going 12-of-18 for 150 yards with two touchdown passes and a two-point conversion to lead the Cardinals back for a victory.
  • Finally, the Niners' running game drove them into the red zone for a short field goal and a 23-20 lead over the Giants with 2:50 to go in Week 10. The defense again couldn't hold, letting Eli Manning march down the field on a 12-play, 75-yard drive that included second-and-20 and third-and-12 conversions via penalty. Sterling Shepard scored with 57 seconds left to give the Giants a 27-23 lead, and Mullens' subsequent attempt at a response stalled out at the 23-yard line.

This doesn't happen very often, even to bad teams. It's tempting to ascribe this to a young team not knowing how to close games, but that's too simplistic. Beathard was the quarterback in three of these games, and he played terribly in those key moments. Kyle Shanahan's offense sputtered in the red zone all season, finishing 30th in the NFL with 4.21 points per trip. (Don't tell Falcons fans.) The defense committed terrible penalties at exactly the wrong times when stops would have ended drives or put the opposing offense in a compromising situation.

I can find two reasons San Francisco struggled in the fourth quarter, and they should be better at both in 2019. A pass rush built around dominant interior pass-rusher DeForest Buckner fell off late in games. The 49ers ranked 13th in pressure rate through the first three quarters of games, but Robert Saleh's defense fell to 25th in the same category during fourth quarters. It's easy to picture the pass rush lasting longer into games now that the 49ers will replace Cassius Marsh and Arik Armstead on the edge with former Chiefs standout Dee Ford and second overall pick Nick Bosa.

If you take any prediction from this article to the bank, start with this second problem for last season's 49ers. Sherman & Co. intercepted a total of two passes all season. That's not a typo. Antone Exum and Jaquiski Tartt each picked off one pass. That's it. The defense had just two total takeaways during the entirety of the second half of 2018, both fumble recoveries against the Bears in a 14-9 loss in Week 16.

You probably won't be surprised when I tell you that no team in NFL history managed to intercept fewer passes in a season than the 49ers did in 2018. They also became the first team in history to rack up 11 games in a season without a takeaway, easily breaking the previous record of nine. San Francisco will intercept more than two passes in 2019 by sheer chance and randomness alone.

As you also probably suspected, a 49ers team that intercepted one pass every two months and started backup quarterbacks for most of the season also posted the league's worst turnover margin, coming in at a dismal minus-25. The Bucs were the only other team below minus-12.

Only four teams have posted a turnover margin of minus-25 or worse since 1989; one of those teams was the 2017 Browns, another one of the likely improvers on last year's list. The Browns imported Baker Mayfield, upgraded their defense, and swung their turnover margin by a whopping 35 takeaways from minus-28 in 2017 to plus-7 a year ago. They're not the only ones; teams that have finished with a turnover margin of minus-20 or worse in a season since 1989 improved their margin by an average of 24 takeaways the following year. Their records simultaneously rose by an average of more than four wins.

Adding takeaways should raise San Francisco's floor. It'll end drives on defense and give an offense that inherited the league's worst average starting field position on offense by nearly a full yard the opportunity to cash in on some short fields. The Niners' offense is unlikely to be as dismal in the red zone as it was a year ago regardless of who lines up at quarterback or running back. Unless they're forced to turn to Beathard or a quarterback not currently on the roster for significant time in 2019, they will be better than 4-12.

Their ceiling, though, might still depend on Garoppolo's health. Mullens' numbers in San Francisco are basically identical to those of Garoppolo, but most would admit that the former Patriots standout has more upside. It's likely that Garoppolo will play more than three games in 2019, but we still haven't seen the 28-year-old start more than five games at a time without getting injured. If he and a 49ers team that finished with the fourth-most adjusted games lost get healthier, they could deliver on their 2018 hype a year later.

Carolina Panthers (7-9)

2018 point differential:minus-6

Pythagorean expectation: 7.8 wins

Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 2-7

FPI projected strength of schedule: 12th-toughest

Let's continue with another team whose season was dominated by an injury to its quarterback. The Panthers, listed as likely candidates to regress on last year's list, started the season 6-2 before collapsing in the second half. With Cam Newton's shoulder ailing and the roster riddled with injuries, Carolina went just 1-7 in the second half. It became just the eighth team under the current schedule structure to start 6-2 and finish with a losing record.

It's too extreme to suggest that the Panthers were Super Bowl contenders in the first half of the year and one of the worst teams in football during the second half. Using point differential to project their record, they played more like a 5-3 team in the first half and a 3-5 team during the second half. For one, Carolina needed a pair of massive comebacks to get to 6-2, including a 63-yard game-winning field goal by Graham Gano to beat the Giants and a furious fourth-quarter comeback from 17-0 down to beat the Eagles in Philadelphia.

Having gone 9-3 in one-score games since the start of 2017, the Panthers promptly went 0-5 in one-score contests during the second half of 2018. They blew narrow fourth-quarter leads against the Seahawks, Browns and Saints. Trailing 24-17 against a brutally bad Buccaneers defense, Newton & Co. made four trips into Bucs territory in the fourth quarter and failed to score even once.

If you want evidence that the idea from the 49ers' section that a team can learn how to win close games is nonsense, you can start with the recent history of the Panthers under Ron Rivera. They've been on a wild pendulum swing from season to season, even if their overall record in close games is just about what we would expect over an eight-season stretch:

There's no reason to think that the Panthers will Saberhagen their way into a season in which they win 85% of their close games again, but they should project to win about half of their close games in 2019. That alone would be enough to push them into playoff contention based on their performance from a year ago.

Newton has looked healthy in the early days of training camp and should be ready for Week 1. That's a huge plus. He should also have a much healthier offensive line, given that Carolina got only one combined appearance from projected starting tackles Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams. The Panthers did get excellent play in 2018 from Taylor Moton, who will likely start at right tackle. Williams, who was a second-team All-Pro in 2017, will compete on the left side against second-round pick Greg Little. Carolina lost longtime center Ryan Kalil to retirement but signed Broncos standout Matt Paradis to replace him.

Carolina should also be far deeper on the defensive line after excellent offseason work from general manager Marty Hurney. With Julius Peppers retiring, the team rebuilt its edge rotation around Mario Addison by signing Bruce Irvin and drafting Brian Burns in the first round. With 2016 first-rounder Vernon Butler failing to emerge next to Kawann Short, the Panthers loaded up on interior help by signing Dontari Poe and then adding Gerald McCoy as an impact free agent from Tampa. They will throw a wider variety of defensive fronts out in 2019 to take advantage of their new weapons on defense.

As easy as it might seem to pin Carolina's second-half collapse on a spiraling Newton, the defense shoulders plenty of blame. The Panthers allowed the league's eighth-lowest QBR and were sixth in pressure rate. Over the second half, though, Carolina ranked 29th in both categories. The Panthers were impacted by injuries and inconsistent play in the secondary, but Rivera will have to hope that the deeper line rotation keeps their pass rush fresh during the final two months of the season.

If Newton doesn't return to his old form, of course, this team is in trouble. It's difficult to see the Panthers competing for the playoffs with Taylor Heinicke or rookie Will Grier starting the majority of the season's games. You might also worry about the difficulties of the NFC South, given that the Falcons will return a much healthier defense and the presence of another team on this list. The Panthers will have to hope for an easier schedule after facing what the ESPN Football Power Index deemed to be the seventh-hardest slate in football last season. In the famously topsy-turvy NFC South, though, Carolina should be more competitive over the entire season in 2019.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)

2018 point differential:minus-68

Pythagorean expectation: 6.5 wins

Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 3-6

FPI projected strength of schedule: Seventh-toughest

The Bucs? Sure, I'll understand if you're not excited. This is a team that has just one winning season in the past eight years. Tampa's 42-86 record over that time frame is the third worst in football, topping only the Jaguars and Browns. I just mentioned how the NFC South is topsy-turvy, but the Bucs have finished last in the division seven out of eight seasons over that span.

That's all true, and Tampa might very well finish last again. There's enough evidence, though, to suggest that Tampa will post six or more wins in 2019. And my reasoning involves a coach who has managed to defy the numbers before.

Tampa's 2018 season, at least by point differential, wasn't all that much different from its 2017 season. The 2017 Bucs went 5-11 while getting outscored by 47 points, which usually projects to about 6.8 wins. They narrowly missed making it onto my list of most likely teams to improve a year ago, in part because of the uncertainty surrounding Jameis Winston when I was putting together the column. The 2018 Bucs went 5-11 while getting outscored by 68 points, which is a 6.5-win pace. In 2017, they went 3-7 in one-score games, which is unlikely to recur, but not impossible: The 2018 Bucs went 3-6 in those same games.

Enter Bruce Arians. Tampa's new coach spent 12 games as the interim coach in Indianapolis while Chuck Pagano was being treated for leukemia before leading the Cardinals from 2013-2017. Over that five-year span, Arians was an impressive 58-33-1. What's even more notable for the purposes of this column is that the grizzled veteran coach went 28-12-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer, winning more than 68% of the time in a situation in which we would typically expect coaches to go 50-50.

Is that 41-game sample enough to say that Arians has a special skill with regards to pulling out the close ones? I'm skeptical. Setting the lone tie aside, the binomial distribution suggests that a coach who won 28 of 40 coin flips would happen by chance just 0.8% of the time, but Arians' success rate is more likely a product of the Wyatt Earp effect than indicative of what would be a remarkably valuable skill. I wouldn't expect the Buccaneers to win nearly 70% of their close games in 2019, but at the very least, I expect them to have a fighting shot at winning half of their one-score contests under Arians. That alone would be progress.

It's easy to chalk up middling performance in close games to some sort of Bucs stink, but that's the same thing people said about the Chargers as they slowly made their way up the ranks in recent years. It was also pretty clearly tied to kicking. The Chargers had dismal kicking between 2015-17 and went 7-20 in one-score games. In 2018, once they stumbled onto competent kicking from Mike Badgley, Los Angeles went 5-1 in one-score games and actually outperformed its Pythagorean expectation.

The Bucs have been even worse at kicking than the Chargers, ranking 31st or 32nd in Football Outsiders' scoring statistics for place-kickers in each of the past four seasons. General manager Jason Licht has haplessly cycled through both rookie kickers (Kyle Brindza, second-round pick Roberto Aguayo) and free-agent acquisitions (Nick Folk, Chandler Catanzaro) alike without solving his team's woes. Tampa has hit on just 72.7% of its field goal tries over the past four years, which is horrific in a league in which the average kicker has hit 84.4% of their tries and no other team has been below 78%. The Bucs have been nearly three standard deviations below the mean in this category over the past four years.

Tampa will come to camp this year with Cairo Santos and fifth-round pick Matt Gay. Santos struggled last season but was excellent under better coaching in Kansas City, while Gay hit 86.2% of his attempts over two years at Utah. I don't have faith in Licht drafting the right guy, but let's hope that new special teams coach Keith Alexander's success over a decade with Matt Bryant in Atlanta will carry over to his new charges. It's also just difficult for any team to be as bad at anything as the Bucs have been at kicking over the past four years.

I'm less confident about the Buccaneers improving dramatically upon a defense thatranked last in DVOA in both 2017 and 2018. They allowed a 110.9 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks last year, meaning that the average quarterback played roughly as well against the Bucs last season as Russell Wilson did all year. It was the second-worst passer rating allowed for a team in NFL history, trailing the 2015 Saints. You know a defense is bad when it can drag Drew Brees down to 7-9.

Tampa may have upgraded by swapping out Gerald McCoy for Ndamukong Suh and Kwon Alexander for first-round pick Devin White, but it was already thin at defensive end before losing Jason Pierre-Paul, who is expected to miss most of the season with a neck injury. Few teams in the league are weaker on the edge than Tampa, which will need to depend on Suh and Todd Bowles' track record of creating pressure with blitzes to generate a steady pass rush. Tampa has seven defensive backs on rookie deals who were taken in one of the first three rounds of the draft, and Bowles will need to develop them into worthwhile contributors.

I have question marks about the talent, but there are two reasons to think the Bucs might at least approach mediocrity on defense in 2019. One is health; last year's Bucsposted the most adjusted games lost on defense of any team in the statistic's history. JPP was the only defender who started all 16 games,but history tells us that it's virtually impossible the Bucs will be as banged-up, even as they're already working from behind after losing their star defensive end for a chunk of the year.

Tampa is also likely going to be better in the red zone than it was a year ago. By my count, the Bucs allowed 5.91 points per red zone possession in 2018. That's the second-worst mark for any team in any season since 2001, and while it came in a season teams allowed more points per red zone trip (4.97) than ever before, it's a dreadful number. It's natural to assume that a bad defense outside the 20s would also be bad in the red zone, but that isn't really the case; the second-worst defense in the red zone by points per trip last season was Buffalo, which finished second in defensive DVOA by rarely allowing offenses to get inside the 20. Houston was third-worst.

I would still expect the Bucs to allow plenty of trips to the red zone, but there's no way they can be this bad inside their own 20 again. When you take a look at the 30 worst red zone defenses since 2001, you'll see clear evidence of regression toward the mean. Those defenses averaged 5.54 points per red zone trip in their ugly campaigns, but the following year, those same defenses allowed an average of 4.70 points per trip. Their records improved by an average of 1.8 wins the following season.

To go this far without mentioning the offense is strange given that the Bucs clearly hired Arians to get the most out of Winston (or his possible replacement), but the offense hasn't been the problem in Tampa. Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick turned the ball over too frequently in 2018, which helped drive Tampa to the league's second-worst turnover margin, but the Bucs ranked 12th in offensive DVOA after an 11th-place mark in 2017. Arians' success with a written-off Carson Palmer in Arizona suggests he can make hay with Winston if the embattled former first overall pick can stay on the field, but Tampa's chances of improving in 2019 have less to do with the offense and more to do with what happens when their offense is on the sidelines.

New York Jets (4-12)

2018 point differential:minus-108

Pythagorean expectation: 5.4 wins

Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 1-5

FPI projected strength of schedule: Second-easiest

If low expectations for the Bucs are par for the course, projecting doom and gloom for the Jets is a cottage industry. Like the Bucs, the Jets have just one winning season in their past eight tries, including a 14-34 mark over the past three seasons under Bowles. The Jets fired Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan, although they curiously let Maccagnan hand out several huge contracts in free agency and handle the draft before removing him in May. New York will move forward with GM Joe Douglas and coach Adam Gase, with the latter hired to help develop second-year quarterback Sam Darnold.

Am I optimistic about the Jets' long-term future? Not really, unless Darnold is a transcendent quarterback who carries them to 10 wins every season. After years of dismal drafts, the team has just three players drafted by the organization before 2015 left on the roster in Bilal Powell, Brian Wintersand Quincy Enunwa. They have attempted to cover up holes by throwing gobs of money at free agents, a strategy the Giants tried in 2016 ahead of Ben McAdoo's first season as coach.

For a year, that strategy worked. The imports stayed healthy and played at a high level, and a Giants team that went 3-8 in games decided by seven points or fewer in Tom Coughlin's final season went 8-3 in McAdoo's first. They jumped from 6-10 to 11-5, and everything was great for a few months. The plan (and the record in close games) was unsustainable, and the contracts were generally bad ideas, but adding talent to a roster with missing pieces helps in the short term.

The Jets pursued a similar strategy with one year of success in 2015 after acquiring the likes of Darrelle Revis, and it would hardly be a surprise to see a short-term turnaround for the Jets in 2019. The contracts Maccagnan handed out to Le'Veon Bell, C.J. Mosley and Jamison Crowder probably won't age well, but this team is unquestionably better right now for making those moves.

Darnold will have more help than he did a year ago from a running game that ranked 30th in offensive DVOA. Bell is a massive upgrade on the trio of Isaiah Crowell, Elijah McGuireand Trenton Cannon. The latter two each averaged 3.0 yards per carry, and while Crowell's 4.8 yards per carry average seems more promising, it was the product of three long runs on 143 carries. Crowell ranked 46th out of 47 qualifying backs in success rate, while McGuire posted the worst rushing DVOA in the league for any back with more than 30 carries.

It's too much to expect Bell to be the runner he was in Pittsburgh behind a less-imposing offensive line, but the Jets' running game should be significantly more efficient in 2019, especially after adding former All-Pro guard Kelechi Osemeleon a salary dump from the Raiders and coaxing former Panthers stalwart Ryan Kalil out of of retirement to play center. That will help Darnold and the Jets, who faced the league's third-longest average distance on second downs a year ago.

Darnold's rookie season was uneven, as is often the case for highly drafted quarterbacks. The hope for New York is that the guy we saw in a three-game stretch from Weeks 14-16 is the quarterback the Jets can count on in 2019. He came back from a foot injury and proceeded to post a league-best 82.0 Total QBR over a three-game span, completing 66% of his passes while throwing six touchdown passes against one interception before a season-ending blowout loss to the Patriots. It's unfair to cherry-pick one small sample as proof that a quarterback will grow in Year 2, but it was a promising stretch of play from the No. 3 overall pick.

It's also telling that the Jets had the best quarterback in football for three weeks ... and lost two of those games. Over a four-week span, they blew three fourth-quarter leads, including a nine-point lead over the Titans, a 22-19 lead over the Texans with five minutes to go, and a 15-point lead over the Packers. When the NFL's other 31 teams held a lead of two possessions or more entering the fourth quarter last season, they were 121-8-2. The Jets were 3-2. No team in NFL history has ever lost two games it had led by nine points or more entering the fourth quarter in a season and repeated that feat the following year. The Jets probably won't be the first.

Even if Darnold does take a step forward, the Jets will need to get more out of their defense to really shock observers. There's unquestionable top-level talent here, with Mosley and rookie third overall pickQuinnen Williams joining Maccagnan's two most productive draft picks in first-rounders Leonard Williams and Jamal Adams. Trumaine Johnson had a brutal debut season in New York, but he's one year removed from a very good season with the Rams.

Gase's team also will get help from a friendly schedule. While the Jets are stuck in a division with the Patriots, who severely limit Gang Green's chances at a division title, they'll face what Football Power Index projects to be the second-easiest slate in football. In addition to four games against the Bills and Dolphins, a Jets team that finished last in the East will get to play the Jaguars and Raiders, along with eight games against the NFC East and AFC North.

Gase's first year in Miami saw the Dolphins ride a streak of close wins over bad teams into the postseason. We can't count on the close wins (even given that Gase went 20-6 in one-score games with the Dolphins), but the ceiling for the Jets in 2019 is probably as a surprise wild-card contender.

New York Giants (5-11)

2018 point differential:minus-43

Pythagorean expectation: 7.0 wins

Record in games decided by seven points or fewer: 4-8

FPI projected strength of schedule: Fifth-easiest

I can hear you laughing. I can't blame you. The Giants are a punching bag after trading awayOdell Beckham Jr.GM Dave Gettleman passed on a handful of quarterbacks in 2018 to take a running back with the second overall pick, talked up a crumbling Eli Manning, then drafted a guy who wasn't very good in college to take over as the team's quarterback of the future this past April. The Giants bandwagon is bare and empty right now, and with good reason. Nobody should be excited about this team.

At the same time, there's reason to think the Giants were better than their 5-11 record in 2018. They finished 16th in the league with a perfectly average 0.0% DVOA, which was actually the best mark for any of the four NFC East teams. By point differential, the Giants played like a seven-win team, and the two-win gap between their win total and expected win total was the largest in the league. The argument here is that things that were out of their control might go their way in 2019, and that a less talented Giants team might still be likely to improve on their record from a year ago.

The numbers may be naive, but they're optimistic. When you look at the 50 teams since 1989 with the most similar gap between wins and expected wins to last year's Giants and see how they did the following year, 42 of the 50 teams improved. The 50-team subset improved by an average of 2.7 wins over their previous season's record. Teams with this large of a gap between their implied performance and actual performance almost always produce a better record the following season.

It's also fair to point out that zero of those 50 teams lost their best offensive and defensive players between campaigns. I felt more confident that the Giants would be able to cobble together a useful wide receiving corps in Beckham's absence before the first week of training camp. Sterling Shepard, signed to an extension this offseason, broke his thumb. Golden Tate, signed after the OBJ trade, announced that he was appealing a four-game PED suspension as a result of taking fertility medication. I didn't have any faith Corey Coleman was going to make a difference, but even the former Browns first-rounder tore his ACL. Tate and Shepard should be a useful pair around Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram as the season goes along, but the Giants could feasibly start Cody Latimer as their top wide receiver in Week 1 if Shepard isn't ready to go. That's scary.

Could the offense be better in 2019 without Beckham? Given that the Giants ranked 13th in offensive DVOA last season -- better than the likes of the Eagles, Browns, Vikings and Bears -- it's extremely unlikely. Could the offense fall somewhere in the same range? That's more plausible, although it'll be a different sort of offense.

For whatever criticisms you want to lob toward Gettleman, he has unquestionably upgraded the offensive line. Will Hernandez was a passable starter as a rookie, and he's joined now at guard by Browns import Kevin Zeitler, who has been consistently above-average as a run-blocker. Nate Solder was a mess in his first year away from New England, with Stats LLC crediting him for eight sacks allowed, but the former Pats star was still an upgrade on Ereck Flowers. (A low bar, to be fair.) His broader body of work suggests Solder will be better in 2019. Right tackle is still a question mark even after Gettleman signed former Panthers tackle Mike Remmers, but this should be the best offensive line the Giants have fielded in years. If you're a team that wants to run the ball with your star back, it's probably better not to have an offensive line that ranked 29th in Football Outsiders' run-blocking stats.

The Giants will rely even more heavily upon Barkley, of course, but they might also hope to upgrade at quarterback. There are major question marks about No. 6 overall pickDaniel Jones and with good reason, but it's hardly as though he's Aaron Rodgers replacing Brett Favre. Manning has been running on fumes for the better part of two years now, and even given Jones' apparent lack of upside, it's not out of the question that the rookie is better than the 38-year-old Manning this season. (It's also entirely possible Jones is worse, which would be a serious problem.)

The offensive shift unsurprisingly got all the press this offseason, but it's the defense that really needs to improve for New York to get better in 2019. I'm not particularly optimistic. Gettleman traded Olivier Vernon to acquire Zeitler and didn't really replace the team's only known quantity at edge rusher. Lorenzo Carter made the occasional splash as a rookie pass-rusher in 2018, but the former third-round pick is now written in ink as a starter on the edge, with former Cardinals rusher Markus Golden the favorite to start on the other side. The Giants should be deeper at cornerback after drafting Deandre Baker in the first round and getting back supplemental draftee Sam Bealfrom a shoulder injury, but it's hard to see this pass defense impressing in 2019.

So, the Giants might be worse on offense and probably won't be better as a pass defense. I understand if you're not exactly seeing a strong case for them to improve. Again, let's run to the numbers. The Giants went 4-8 in games decided by one score or less. There are "close" games where a team scores late to make a contest look more competitive than it really was, and the Giants had games like that against the Cowboys, Falcons and Washington last season. They also lost on a late field goal against the Eagles and on a 63-yarder by Graham Gano and the Panthers in a game they led by two points. They were up six on the Colts in Week 16 and lost when Andrew Luck threw a touchdown pass with 55 seconds left, and then when they were up by seven against the Cowboys at the two-minute warning and allowed Dak Prescott to complete a fourth-and-15 pass for a touchdown and a subsequent two-pointer.

The flip side of that argument is that New York also won exactly one game against a starting quarterback, which came when it topped Deshaun Watson and the Texans in Week 3. The team's four other wins came in games started by C.J. Beathard, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chase Danieland Mark Sanchez, and while they blew out Sanchez and Washington, the other three wins were by a combined 10 points. Point differential is a better stat for predicting future performance, but it's not a perfect one, and the Giants might be more misleading than most.

Other elements of the game won't go against them. The Giants ranked 31st in Football Outsiders'"hidden" special teams statistic, which incorporates elements out of a team's control, such as opposing field goal kickers. Opponents were 31-of-35 against the Giants last season, including a 6-of-7 performance from 50-plus yards. That includes the 63-yard Gano winner and a 56-yarder from Giorgio Tavecchiothat put the Falcons game out of reach. The Giants recovered just 40% of the fumbles in their games, the fifth-worst rate in football. That's total randomness.

The most important element in the Giants' favor is one of the easiest schedules in football. They'll get four games against the AFC East, and while you can probably safely pencil in the Patriots for a victory in New England on Oct. 10, that's one of the weakest divisions in football. New York's own division isn't particularly scary given that Washington is a mess at quarterback and the Cowboys are likely to decline. As the last-place team in the East, the Giants get games against the Cardinals and Buccaneers.

I don't think the Giants are going to be very good this season. This isn't a column predicting whether teams will be good, though; it's merely about whether a team's record will improve from the prior season. They have been aggressively stupid in public for most of the past two years. They brag about ignoring positional scarcity and appear set on chasing an offensive game plan that most of the league has tossed aside because it's not as effective at scoring points.

They are blessed to face low expectations in two ways. One is that they play in the same market as the Knicks and can't possibly be run worse. The other is that they need to get to only six wins to improve on their record from a year ago. The Giants can get there.

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