Barnwell: Let’s predict the five NFL teams most likely to improve this season

    Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

It’s time to hit an annual tradition and go out on a limb, using numbers and history to try to predict which NFL teams are most likely to improve in the upcoming season. (I’ll get to the teams likely to decline next week.) This is the fourth year I’ve written a column picking teams like this, and over that time span, 15 of the 20 teams I’ve named have improved, doing so by an average of 2.9 wins in the process.

I went 3-1 a year ago, but it was more solid singles than home runs. The Bengals jumped by 2.5 wins (two wins and a tie) despite losing rookie No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow for nearly half the season. The Chargers had Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert all season and rode an impressive second half (and even a tiny bit of luck) to jump by two wins. The Lions fired Matt Patricia and still improved by 1.5 games, but the Cowboys failed to make it back to 8-8. I could blame that in part on Dak Prescott missing most of the season, but given how bad their defense was even before Prescott suffered a serious ankle injury, I don’t think they were making it to nine wins.

We’re coming back with five candidates to improve in 2021, including three teams with new head coaches. As always, the movement in their win-loss record is one thing, but what’s more interesting (hopefully) is understanding why these teams are likely to improve and seeing whether that actually comes true once the meaningful games start getting played. I wrote a primer on many of the numbers I’ll mention here back in 2017. I’ll try to contextualize these numbers and how they’ve historically driven team improvements in the sections below.

Naturally, it’ll be a little easier than before for teams to exceed their win totals from 2020 this season, given that each team is adding an extra game to the slate. And when I write my column next week on the teams most likely to decline in 2021, those teams will have an extra opportunity to hold on to their win totals from the prior season with an extra contest.

Let’s start with a textbook case for a team likely to improve based on how it performed in 2020, although its fans might be too shell-shocked to believe it before actually seeing it happen:

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