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Ranking the NFL's worst-to-first candidates in 2021: 49ers, Falcons, Broncos ready to rise?

The beauty of the NFL is the competitive balance and parity. When the season kicks off, everyone has a chance -- even the most recent cellar dwellers.

Since divisional realignment back in 2002, we've only experienced two seasons in which at least one team didn't go from worst to first (2014 and '19). The Washington Football Team pulled off the feat this past season. Who'll follow suit in 2021?

There's no clear-cut favorite at the moment. I perform this exercise every offseason, and frankly, this is the toughest year yet.

Remember: This is NOT a power ranking of the following eight teams. It's a rundown of who is most (and least) likely to win a division title in 2021. Obviously, competitiveness within each division varies from year to year -- that's the X-factor that makes this annual undertaking so interesting.

Alright, enough preamble. Let's get down to business. Here are my worst-to-first rankings, from most to least likely:

San Francisco 49ers
NFC West · 2020 record: 6-10

Just how hard is this exercise this year? Well, my top worst-to-first candidate is San Francisco -- a team I'd currently predict to finish third in its division, behind the Rams and Cardinals. That's not a slight to the 49ers, but rather a reflection of the NFC West's status as the best quartet in the NFL bar none. Shoot, I have the Seahawks, who've logged double-digit wins in eight of the past nine seasons, finishing last. This division's going to be spectacularly competitive. And despite my current forecast, there are plenty of reasons to believe San Francisco will win the West.

First of all, the 49ers get a clean bill of health. No team suffered a worse spate of injuries than San Francisco in 2020. The return of Nick Bosa, in particular, changes everything for the defense. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year tore his ACL in Week 2 of last season. In a related note, the Niners finished the season 22nd in sacks. With Bosa, the 49ers' front gets its bite back. On the offensive side of the ball, Kyle Shanahan is one of the best minds in the game today, and I love the weaponry at his disposal. Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle provide enticing diversity and dynamism in the passing game, while the committee backfield is full of one-cut runners who excel in Shanahan's system, with rookie third-rounder Trey Sermon fitting the bill. The offensive line -- headlined by Trent Williams, the best left tackle in the NFL right now -- remains stout. But there is one rather large offensive question mark ...

I still don't love the mix at quarterback. Is Trey Lance ready to rock? He only started 17 games at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, and just turned 21 last month. Is Jimmy Garoppolo truly still the QB1 for 2021? This kind of feels like an old-school episode of Days of Our Lives where Roman just refuses to die. The quarterback situations in Los Angeles, Arizona and Seattle appear vastly superior. But with Shanahan running the offense, you never say never.

Atlanta Falcons
NFC South · 2020 record: 4-12

It's an Artie party in Atlanta, with Arthur Smith taking the reins of Arthur Blank's team. The Falcons desperately needed a new head coach with new energy. Ever since the 28-3 catastrophe, Atlanta carried a loser's lament under Dan Quinn. Anything that could go wrong would go wrong. Smith flips the script, coming from a healthy culture in Tennessee that turned around the Titans in recent years. Look what Smith got out of Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown over the past couple seasons. And he inherits some juicy offensive talent in Atlanta.

It appears Julio Jones could be on his way out, but the Falcons have other horses. At age 36, Matt Ryan still has plenty of gas left in the tank. Calvin Ridley's one of the best route-runners in the NFL, and he proved his WR1 chops when Julio was injured last season. Rookie Kyle Pitts is a certified freak, and Smith knows how to use tight ends. This unit is going to put points on the board.

Now, if only Atlanta could petition the league to transfer Tampa Bay to another division ...

Denver Broncos
AFC West · 2020 record: 5-11

To be clear, I'd still pick Patrick Mahomes' Chiefs to win the AFC West over Aaron Rodgers' Broncos, if that hypothetical trade were to occur. But I really dig a lot of the Broncos' offseason activity thus far, specifically the cornerback additions of free agent Kyle Fuller and first-round pick Patrick Surtain II. The former already has excelled under Vic Fangio (when the two worked together in Chicago) and the latter has the refined game to shine under the coach in Year 1. I love the gobs of young talent at the offensive skill positions, too. Courtland Sutton's healthy return to a receiving corps that includes Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler and Tim Patrick provides explosive potential in the passing game, and second-round pick Javonte Williams' addition to the Melvin Gordon-led backfield is quite promising, too. But back to the quarterback position ...

If it's Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater, the Broncos easily have the worst quarterback in a division that includes Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr. In fact, they might have the worst QB1 situation in the league. Rodgers makes Denver a Super Bowl contender. Without him? Also-ran status.

Cincinnati Bengals
AFC North · 2020 record: 4-11-1

My bold prediction of Cincinnati winning more games than Pittsburgh is on the record. And it's all about Joe Burrow being a star, throwing darts to Ja'Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins while do-everything back Joe Mixon bounces back with a terrific age-25 season. The defense has experienced a bunch of key losses and signings this offseason, so it's hard to know what to expect out of Lou Anarumo's unit. If this franchise is to snap a five-year playoff drought, it will be because Zac Taylor's offense finally delivers the goods.

I do think we could see Cincy split with the Browns and Ravens this season. Beating them out for the division crown is a different story. But the Bengals' schedule is soft early. They could get hot and build confidence. Yes, the Bengals. Seriously.

Jacksonville Jaguars
AFC South · 2020 record: 1-15

I hope the Tim Tebow circus -- and the media obsession it spawns -- doesn't stall this train before it gets chuggin', because I am extremely high on the Urban Meyer-Trevor Lawrence combination. It's dreamy. Lawrence is going to be special right away. And I loved Jacksonville's follow-up selection of Lawrence's college teammate, Travis Etienne. Run with him. Split him out wide. Do whatever you can to get the ball in his hands, because this rookie's a true home run hitter. And incumbent RB1 James Robinson is no slouch, either, having just finished fifth in the league in rushing with 1,070 yards as a rookie. Also, on Day 2 of the draft, the Jags added three more intriguing prospects: CB Tyson Campbell, OT Walker Little and S Andre Cisco.

This is a team on the rise! And Meyer will make everyone accountable. Can he make Jacksonville better than Indy and/or Tennessee in Year 1? That's a herculean task. Remember: This is the only team in the NFL that didn't win multiple games last season. Rome wasn't built in a day.

Philadelphia Eagles
NFC East · 2020 record: 4-11-1

I don't think the Eagles are very good, but the NFC East is objectively bad. So maybe I have Philly a little low on this list -- especially considering I'm more of a believer in Jalen Hurts than many other folks in this industry. I love DeVonta Smith, too, and think he will be a star right away. So, what's the problem?

Well, I'm concerned about ... um ... everything else. From a snake-bitten offensive line to a defense riddled with holes in the back seven. I know new coach Nick Sirianni loves rock-paper-scissors, but don't know much about his potential as a head man.

Detroit Lions
NFC North · 2020 record: 5-11

If the Packers do indeed trade Aaron Rodgers, we can seriously revisit this. I love the new regime of general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell. They put together a fantastic coaching staff, from top to bottom. That matters. The toughness and accountability will be there. Jared Goff is a man on a mission -- and certainly not as bad as he played last season. I think D'Andre Swift is going to enjoy a breakout Year 2. Penei Sewell was a perfect first-round pick. Detroit is headed in the right direction ... eventually.

Yes, this is going to take some time. The Lions are going through a legit rebuild right now, and rightfully so. While the team actually looks pretty darn stout in the trenches -- Detroit could have a top-five offensive line this season -- the roster still has plenty of room for improvement.

New York Jets
AFC East · 2020 record: 2-14

The Robert Saleh hire was a slam dunk. And I love how Saleh brought Mike LaFleur along to run the offense. Joe Douglas drafted well, snagging Zach Wilson and then immediately supporting the new franchise quarterback with a blocker (Alijah Vera-Tucker), receiver (Elijah Moore) and backfield mate (Michael Carter).

But let's be honest: The Jets are clearly the fourth-best team in the AFC East. The Bills, Patriots and Dolphins should all win double-digit games. That said, New York won't be a pushover for four quarters. Adam Gase isn't walking through that door. Saleh and Co. will point this ship in the right direction, but it's not gonna happen overnight. Wait until 2022.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter.

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