Not every NFL team is a natural to ace the regular season and wind up in the playoffs. For some clubs it is quite the struggle just to accomplish a 50-percent success record or even win a small handful of games.
This is why moves made during the NFL offseason and draft are critical. Bigger than that sometimes, new head coaches and front offices end up sparking even more success.
With that in mind, we’re looking at some teams that could shockingly rise from the basement and actually wind up in the playoffs. After all, all 32 teams are in a tie for first place right now. Who are we to count them out of the playoff race this early?
So which struggling teams are primed to rise to the top?
1. San Francisco 49ers
Last season marked rock-bottom low for the Bay Area 49ers. The franchise managed just two wins, which was something that fans have not seen since 2004.
But a major rebuild could be the key to getting San Francisco back on top in 2017. The team moved on from head coach Chip Kelly in 2016, hiring Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan orchestrated a beautiful balanced attack coordinating last season’s highest-scoring offense with the Atlanta Falcons. Under Shanahan, the Falcons averaged 33.8 points per game during the regular season.
They also achieved their first postseason run since 2012.
Besides this, the 49ers will be starting fresh with a new quarterback. For now, the team is rolling with Brian Hoyer. They could also draft a rookie or somehow orchestrate a trade for Kirk Cousins. This is very far fetched, but it would be exciting.
As for the 49ers’ divisional competition, the Los Angeles Rams don’t look to be anywhere near seeing a postseason. The Arizona Cardinals also took several steps back in 2016 with an aging Carson Palmer under center. Also keep in mind, the 49ers play the AFC South in 2017, which is one of the weakest divisions in the league.
If the 49ers can stay competitive, they might just surprise.
2. New Orleans Saints
It is past time for the Saints to get back to the playoffs. Quarterback Drew Brees is showing no signs of slowing down. He passed for a league-high 5,208 yards 37 touchdowns in 2016. It made for his fifth season passing for at least 5,000 yards.
Even without wide receiver Brandin Cooks, Brees has one of the best young group of pass-catchers in the league. The goal obviously is for the Saints to win more than they lose, which has not happened since 2013.
This offseason, the Saints made some great additions to their defense, which finished 27th overall last season. Notably, linebackers Alex Okafor, Manti Te’o and A.J. Klein should bolster the team’s front seven in a major way. The team also retained defensive tackle Nick Fairley and corner Sterling Moore.
General manager Mickey Loomis weighed in on the team’s offseason progress and upcoming draft.
“We’re not done with free agency yet, and yet the bulk of that has happened, said Loomis per Larry Holder of the Times Picayune. “We’ve got the draft we’re preparing for. We’ve got five picks in the first three rounds in what we perceive is a pretty deep draft.”
As for opponents they’ll face this season, the Saints have some favorable matchups against the like of the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears.
Head coach Sean Payton will be under tremendous pressure to coach his Saints out of their funk. It might just happen if all of the puzzle pieces align properly this fall.
3. Buffalo Bills
We mentioned the Bills as an opponent the Saints could easily beat. But we will look closely at the other side of the coin and examine some reasons the Western New York football team could surprise with a playoff run.
The Bills cleaned house and rid themselves of former head coach Rex Ryan. Sean McDermott was hired and is already working on an all-business approach during the offseason. McDermott arrives in Buffalo after spending six years as the defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers. His past experience should help boost a Buffalo defense that finished 19th in 2016.
Besides hiring McDermott, the Bills disposed of all other coaching staff other than special team coordinator Danny Grossman.
As for the team’s quarterback situation, the Bills wisely chose to commit to Tyrod Taylor for 2017. Taylor is developing nicely, scoring 47 touchdowns compared to just 12 interceptions in his his two seasons as Buffalo’s starter. If Sammy Watkins can stay healthy, then all the better. Taylor’s efforts compliment a rushing offense that finished as the best the NFL had to offer last year.
Buffalo will likely have to outperform the Miami Dolphins to make a run at the playoffs. As things stand, that does not seem too much out of the realm of possibility, does it?
4. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers’ stellar 2015 Super Bowl season is old, stale news. They were severely outplayed by their NFC South opponents last year, tanking to last place after managing just six wins.
After their Super Bowl hangover reality check, the Panthers need to buck up. That is, if are going to have any chance at outperforming the up and coming Tampa Bay Buccaneers and red-hot Atlanta Falcons, anyway.
This year, the Panthers should be a humble crew, starting from scratch. This is a good thing.
They have also made several defensive offseason moves including re-signing future Hall of Fame linebacker Julius Peppers. Peppers was responsible for 7.5 sacks in 2016. Also back on the Panthers roster is cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, originally drafted by Carolina in 2009.
As for the star of the team himself, quarterback Cam Newton appears to be recovering nicely from a shoulder surgery he underwent earlier in March.
Cam Newton is slated to have surgery on March 30 to repair the partially torn rotator cuff suffered in Week 14. pic.twitter.com/BUnucGIKPb
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) March 27, 2017
The Panthers also pick eighth in the upcoming draft. It would be prudent to select a top running back prospect, which would be an ace-in-the-hole move.
With that said, there is much for head coach Ron Rivera’s crew to accomplish to get back into the playoffs in 2017.
5. Baltimore Ravens
Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens have made the playoffs in six-of-nine seasons. The last two years however, they took some steps back. A positive here is Baltimore improved on its measly five wins in 2015 to eight in 2016
But, matching that number is not going to get them back into the postseason. Fortunately, the franchise will play its usual four games against the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. Both of those teams, right off the bat, do not look to pose a huge threat after scraping up just seven wins combined in 2016.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will be the team to beat in the division. But outside of the Steelers, the team with the most wins the Ravens will face in 2017 is the Oakland Raiders. Baltimore has the pleasure of playing the AFC South as well as the Bears and Lions.
The Ravens could be a lock for the playoffs based merely on their ease of schedule. Additionally, their defense ranked seventh-overall best in 2016. The offseason acquisitions of safety Tony Jefferson, and cornerback Brandon Carr only enhance this unit all the more.
On offense, pass-catching running back Danny Woodhead was a sound addition as well.
For now, it looks like the Ravens are going to sit tight until after the draft while holding onto pick No. 16.
Caught up with Ravens president Dick Cass. He's pleased w/team's roster additions but says team likely done in FA until after draft.
— Jeff Zrebiec (@jeffzrebiecsun) March 27, 2017
6. Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles have not been to the playoffs since 2013. But there was enough of a spark created by head coach Doug Pederson and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz last year that things could play out differently in 2017.
Worth noting is the Eagles beat both the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys in Weeks 16 and 17 last year. Philly managed a total of 51 points in that stretch.
Wentz put forth a commendable effort in his rookie year as well. Lacking a competent receiving crew, Wentz still completed 62.4 percent of his passes and threw for 3,782 yards. One of the players who benefited most in free agency, Wentz inherited wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith.
That is going to do wonders for Wentz’s development in his sophomore season. He also began to develop a nice rapport with tight end Zach Ertz, who caught 73.6 percent of his targets for 816 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games.
Adding a veteran running back such as Adrian Peterson would be a snazzy move on offense as well. Are you listening, Eagles?
Defensively, the Eagles finished in the top half in 2016. They allowed only 20.7 points on average from their opponents. But, securing depth at cornerback in the upcoming draft should be a priority.
If everything meshes together, the Eagles might just surprise their fans with some postseason fun early next year.