Of the four major American sports leagues, the NFL is generally celebrated for having the most turnover among the successful teams. 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.
We've gone through the eight teams that finished in last place in each division last season, ranked by their odds of making the postseason in 2019. These odds are based on the 2019 simulation that we ran for our new book "Football Outsiders Almanac 2019." The 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 a million times to get a wide range of possibilities that account for every team's best- 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, teams will change and develop in ways we can't foresee and sometimes take big steps forward that are unexpected. Last year when we wrote a similar article, we correctly listed Houston as the most likely team to go worst to first. But we also listed Chicago (this was before the Khalil Mack trade) seventh out of eight.
Chances of winning division: 25.5% (2nd in division)
Chances of making playoffs: 39.8% (14th in NFL)
Our most surprising preseason pick plays in what we think is the NFL's most competitive division. All four teams in the NFC North win the division in at least 22% of our simulations.
So, why the Lions? The first thing to remember is that the Lions were pretty good two years ago. They went 9-7 and finished 12th in the Football Outsiders DVOA ratings. When a team declines as much as the Lions did last season, it usually rebounds a bit the next year. Our system also likes the talent the Lions have added this offseason. On offense, they added two strong tight ends, top-10 pick T.J. Hockenson and former Steeler Jesse James. James was seventh among tight ends in receiving value last season by our metrics. Along the defensive line, they added Trey Flowers from the Patriots and Green Bay cap casualty Mike Daniels.
There are more reasons to be optimistic about the defense hidden among the numbers. The Lions are in the second year of a new scheme, and all else being equal, teams take a little step back in the first year of a new scheme and a step forward once they have more experience in it. The Lions were better in DVOA against the run (13th) than the pass (31st) last season, which tends to indicate a defense that will improve the following year. And more importantly, the Lions can expect better luck when it comes to turnovers. Detroit got a takeaway on only 7.3% of drives last year, 31st in the NFL. That's an important metric that tends to regress toward the mean heavily from year to year.
The Lions' playoff odds are helped by the fact that Football Outsiders foresees Chicago falling back to the pack. The Bears have a ton of talent on defense, but defensive performance simply isn't as consistent as offensive performance from year to year. Over the past dozen years, the top defense in our rankings has fallen to ninth place, on average, the following year. In a situation opposite to Detroit's, Chicago lapped the league last year with takeaways on 19.1% of drives. That number is likely to be significantly lower this season.