There will almost surely be a team this season that goes from having a top-10 NFL Draft pick to making the playoffs. It happens almost every year. In 2012, the Kansas City Chiefs went 2-14. In 2013, they went 11-5 and made the playoffs. Likewise, in 2013 the Houston Texans went 2-14, and in 2014 they rebounded to go 9-7. During the salary-cap era of the NFL, the parity level of the most popular professional sports league in America has reached an all-time high.
One of the biggest factors in a team turning things around from season to season is strength of schedule. Earlier this offseason, we compiled the strength of schedule for every team in the NFL based on the combined 2014 winning percentages of each team’s 2015 opponents. This isn’t always a totally accurate indicator of actual strength of schedule due to the aforementioned parity of the NFL, but it is one of the only data-driven methods of determining who has the most difficult slate of games in the upcoming season. Other factors considered in determining these potential turnaround candidates include free agency additions, returning personnel, and performance during the second half of the 2014 season.
With that, here is a look at the top three potential turnaround teams in the NFL for the 2015 season.
1. Atlanta Falcons
2014 record: 6-10
2015 strength of schedule: 32nd
Combined 2014 winning percentage of 2015 opponents: .409
It wasn’t long ago that the Falcons were among the best teams in the NFL and perennial contenders in the NFC playoffs. The last two seasons have been nothing short of disastrous for the Falcons, but a coaching change and a favorable schedule this season have everyone associated with the franchise optimistic that the Dirty Birds will return to prominence in 2015.
Dan Quinn, the architect of the dominant defense that led the Seattle Seahawks to the last two NFC championships, is taking over for Mike Smith as the team’s head coach in 2015. He will be looking to revamp the defensive culture of a team that has been one of the worst in the league during the last two seasons. If Quinn is successful, the Falcons will likely be one of the top contenders in the NFC South this season. He is inheriting an offense that brings back an established franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan and a dynamic wide receiver duo made up of Julio Jones and Roddy White. Based on the combined 2014 winning percentages of their 2015 opponents, the Falcons have the easiest schedule in the league this year. All of this adds up to a potentially dramatic turnaround in the win-loss record for the 2015 Atlanta Falcons.
2. New York Giants
2014 record: 6-10
2015 strength of schedule: 21st
Combined 2014 winning percentage of 2015 opponents: .478
The Giants looked like two different teams during the 2014 season. At the beginning of the year, they looked like a team destined to be picking in the top five in the 2015 NFL Draft. By the end of the season, something clicked and the Giants were competitive in every game they played.
A large part of the Giants’ late-season success can be credited to the emergence of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. In their last nine games of the season, Beckham caught 81 passes for 1,199 yards and nine touchdowns. With an entire offseason of work with quarterback Eli Manning, Beckham could be even better in 2015. The team will be out to improve their offensive line, running game, and rushing defense through the upcoming NFL Draft. If they can add the right pieces, the Giants will be a force to be reckoned with this season.
The Giants also have the added benefit of playing a relatively easy schedule in 2015. Based on the combined 2014 winning percentages of their 2015 opponents, their 2015 strength of schedule ranks 21st in the league.
3. St. Louis Rams
2014 record: 6-10
2015 strength of schedule: 6th
Combined 2014 winning percentage of 2015 opponents: .553
The Rams play in a tough division, but as they proved on numerous occasions in 2014, they are talented enough to beat any team in the league. They will again have one of the best defenses in the league in 2015, and thanks to an offseason trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, they may finally have their franchise quarterback in Nick Foles. While Foles has a lot to prove before we can truly call him a franchise quarterback, he should at the very least bring the Rams some stability at the position. The Rams will be looking to add a playmaking wide receiver on the outside, and an impact offensive lineman to help improve their running game through the Draft. If they do so, they will undoubtedly be a team to watch out for in 2015.
All statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.