The NFL’s off-season slate is pretty much behind us. Teams around the league have the core of their rosters set heading into the summer program. It started with free agency in March and culminated with what was an intriguing draft in Philadelphia last month.
Some teams did well in both aspects, while others focused more on building up their talent level in the draft itself. No matter where each of the following six teams stand in terms of philosophy, once thing is clear. They are all set to crush it in 2017.
From two young teams in Florida looking to bring their franchises back to relevance to another young squad in Northern California set to make a championship push, here are six NFL teams that will crush it this upcoming season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay has improved in each of the past two seasons. That’s primarily due to the presence of Jameis Winston as a borderline elite signal caller. The former No. 1 overall pick put up nearly 4,100 yards with 28 touchdowns and 18 interceptions as a sophomore last season.
Though, there’s a lot more to look at here than Winston’s progression under center. After starting out the season yielding an average of 30 points per game in their first four outings, the Buccaneers’ defense improved a great deal. Kwon Alexander proved to be a star young linebacker in the middle. Gerald McCoy continued to do his thing at defensive tackle. And rookie Vernon Hargreaves gave the team’s secondary some stability at cornerback.
After finishing last season with nine wins and narrowly missing out on the playoffs, Tampa Bay set forth to improve a loaded young roster with veteran reinforcements. The addition of speedster DeSean Jackson was among the best free-agent signings in the NFL. He will team up with No. 1 receiver Mike Evans to form a tremendous duo for Winston in the passing game.
Then, in the draft, Tampa Bay absolutely crushed it with both need and value. It started with consensus No. 1 tight end prospect O.J. Howard in the first round. Here’s yet another dominant tool for Winston to use, especially in the red zone. Howard stands at 6-foot-6 and weighs 251 pounds. He’s a mountain of a man and flashes tremendous athletic ability. Talk about creating mismatches on top of mismatches.
Add in the presence of fellow tight end Cameron Brate, who broke out to the tune of eight touchdowns last season, and Winston has everything he needs to succeed.
There’s very little reason to believe the Buccaneers won’t be able to give the Atlanta Falcons a run in the NFC South in 2017. This team is loaded from top to bottom.
New York Giants
New York may have drafted Eli Manning’s replacement in Davis Webb last month, but the team is going all in with Manning over he short term. This was apparent when New York signed former Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall away from their co-tenant New York Jets.
Sure Marshall struggled to do much last season but that was primarily due to the Jets’ absolutely disastrous quarterback situation. Remember, here’s a dude that is one season removed from putting up over 1,500 yards and a league-leading 14 touchdowns with Ryan Fitzpatrick tossing him the rock. He surely has something left in the tank.
If signing Marshall to team up with superstar Odell Beckham Jr. wasn’t enough, New York added former Mississippi tight end Evan Engram in the first round of the draft. Engram is an interesting case-study in that he can play both the in-line tight end role and move to the slot. Too fast for linebackers to cover and too physical for most slot corners, Engram presents a tremendous mismatch.
These two additions were sorely needed after New York regressed on offense in Ben McAdoo’s first season as the team’s head coach. Overall, this unit ranked 25th in yards after finishing in the top 10 the previous season. Despite an improved defense and an 11-5 record, upgrading on offense was a necessity.
Defensively, the Giants have done a tremendous job mixing young talent with established veterans. Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon combined for 15.5 sacks along the defensive line. High-priced free-agent addition Janoris Jenkins performed much better as a No. 1 corner than most anticipated he would. Meanwhile, Landon Collins proved to be the ball-hawking safety some believed he would never be.
With Dallas set for potential regression after last season’s surprise performance, it would not be a surprise to see the Giants leap them in the NFC East standings. Clearly, the Giants are also better than both Philadelphia and Washington. Look for big things from this team in 2017.
Things are definitely trending upwards for the men of South Beach. After starting last season with four losses in its first five games, Miami would finish the regular year winning nine of its final 11 games. This enabled the Dolphins to play meaningful January football in Adam Gase’s first season as their head coach. It was also just the second time since 2002 that Miami earned a postseason spot.
There’s a lot that went right here. Some of it seems sustainable moving forward, especially with Miami’s young core. Prior to going down with a season-ending injury that cost him his first playoff appearance, Ryan Tannehill put up the best performance of his career. He completed over 67 percent of his passes while showing a major progression in terms of accuracy.
Meanwhile, young running back Jay Ajayi replaced the departed Lamar Miller as Miami’s top back. He responded by putting up over 1,400 total yards and eight touchdowns en route to a Pro Bowl performance.
The great news here for Miami is that neither of these players have plateaued. The expectation has to be that they will be even better next season. The same can be said for wide receivers DeVante Parker and Jarvis Landry, who form a tremendous wide receiver tandem.
Defensively, the likes of Byron Maxwell and Tony Lippett stepped up at cornerback to help Miami improve a great deal against the pass. With that position almost settled, Miami’s focus during the draft was building up its front seven.
The team drafted former Missouri pass rusher Charles Harris in the first round while doubling down in the box with Ohio State alum Raekwon McMillan in the second round. While Harris might be a situational pass rusher out of the gate, it would not be a surprise to see McMillan start over Neville Hewitt at weak-side linebacker.
There’s a ton to like about Miami heading into the 2017 season. And while contending for a division title with the mighty Patriots seems far-fetched, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team improve off its 10-6 mark from last season. There’s just too much good talent here for regression.
Quarterback. Quarterback. Quarterback. Sure it cost Houston a second-round pick next year to rid itself of Brock Osweiler’s absurd contract, but the team’s situation under center is what held it back from true contention last year. In an otherwise competitive AFC Divisional Playoff loss to New England, Osweiler showed his true colors. He threw three interceptions, two of which were downright ugly.
So in order for the Texans to take that next step, they decided to invest a whole heck of a lot on quarterback Deshaun Watson. They dealt away a first-round pick next year to Cleveland in order to move up to the 11th spot for the reigning national championship quarterback.
The idea here is to build up the quarterback position to go with an otherwise stacked roster. In his first season with Houston, Lamar Miller provided a ton in the backfield. He put up 1,261 total yards en route to creating the balance that will be needed should Watson earn first-team reps as a rookie. DeAndre Hopkins fell on hard times at receiver, but that was primarily due to the lackluster play of Osweiler under center. If it is indeed Watson at quarterback, that should change.
Though, the primary reason we believe Houston could be looking at Super Bowl contention this upcoming season is its defense. Even without three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt for all but three games, Houston found away to rank in the top 11 in the league in points allowed and the top 10 in total defense.
Jadeveon Clowney finally came into his own, earning a Pro Bowl spot while teaming up with Whitney Mercilus to form a solid pass-rushing tandem. With Watt back healthy, this could be the best pass-rushing defensive front in the entire NFL.
In an AFC South that remains the worst division in football, Houston should be considered odds-on favorites to come out on top again. Surely Tennessee and Indianapolis will be improved. But the Texans being able to fix their quarterback situation changes the landscape here. It could also potentially lead to conference championship contention.
The Adrian Peterson era is over in Minnesota. Instead of the future Hall of Famer acting as the face of the franchise, it’s all going to be about collective effort from the Vikings moving forward. That’s a good thing. The talent is there. The potential for domination on defense is there. The coaching is there. And yes, Sam Bradford provides stability at quarterback.
Remember, Minnesota started last season winning its first five games before ultimately finishing the year at .500. The team’s downward trajectory was primarily due to what had to be considered a historically bad rushing attack.
Sans an injured Peterson, Minnesota finished dead last in the league in rushing at 75.3 yards per game. All said, this unit put up less than 100 yards on the ground in all but two games.
This won’t be an issue in 2017. Not only did the Vikings sign Pro Bowl running back Latavius Murray from Oakland, they doubled down with stud youngster Dalvin Cook in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. That’s a mighty nice tandem to help create balance for Bradford in the passing game.
GM Rick Spielman and Co. surely didn’t stop there. They signed former Arizona Cardinals first-round pick Michael Floyd to a dirt-cheap one-year contract. Floyd might have off-field issues he’s dealing with after a DUI arrest last year, but he’s going to act as a tremendous possession receiver for Bradford. It’s pretty much the perfect complement to go with rising youngster Stefon Diggs.
What makes Minnesota’s offense a bit more scary than last season is the fact that it retooled a disastrous line. The team will have two new starting tackles in Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. That’s a dramatic upgrade over the likes of Matt Kalil and T.J. Clemmings.
But as with Houston, it all starts on defense here. Minnesota is absolutely stacked with young talent ready to break through. Defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter (20.5 sacks combined in 2016) are already there. Linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr will be Pro Bowler performers here soon.
And in the defensive secondary, the talent is absolutely off the charts. Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith have already proven themselves to be All-Pro caliber players. Add in Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes, and there’s a lot to like there.
We fully expect Minnesota to challenge Aaron Rodgers and the Packers for the NFC North title. In fact, it would not be a surprise to see Mike Zimmer’s squad leapfrog its bitter divisional rival. That’s how good the Vikings will be in 2017.
We really have no idea how far the Raiders would have gone in the playoffs last season if Derek Carr had not suffered a season-ending injury. Remember, Oakland posted a 12-3 record in Carr’s 15 starts as the former second-round pick proved himself to be elite.
All Carr did in his third season was put up nearly 4,000 passing yards with 28 touchdowns and just six interceptions. It was a continuation of a young career that has seen the former Fresno State standout tally some absurd passing numbers.
He was aided by starting receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, who both put up 80-plus receptions for north of 1,000 yards. Add in the league’s second-best offensive line, and the Raiders’ offense was absolutely top notch.
What helped Oakland improve leaps and bounds from the previous season was a defense that progressed at an alarming clip for opposing AFC East teams. Khalil Mack earned NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. David Amerson, Reggie Nelson and rookie Karl Joseph solidified what was still a pedestrian secondary.
Though, that’s where GM Reggie McKenzie and Co. focused on during the draft. Despite some major off-field concerns with assault allegations being thrown his way, former Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley could be a Day 1 starter.
He already boasts pro-level skills and could immediately become the Raiders’ top cover guy. That’s dependent on how his off-field situation plays out, but it was a risk the Raiders were willing to take. Oakland then doubled down in the secondary with safety Obi Melifonwu in the second round. While he’s similar to Joseph in terms of skill-set, the talent was too much for the Raiders to pass up on in the second round.
Should Oakland’s defense continue to improve in 2017, we could be looking at championship contention here. That’s only magnified by the fact that this squad added even more reinforcements on offense.
Obviously, it starts with former Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, who came out of retirement to join his home-town team. Lynch might not be the same player that dominated the league years back for the Seahawks, but he should be refreshed after taking a year off. If nothing else, he’s a marked upgrade over Latavius Murray in the backfield.
Speaking of upgrades, Oakland also added tight end Jared Cook and all-everything receiver Cordarrelle Patterson to the mix. Each will provide a new dimension to the Raiders’ offense. Simply put, the Raiders are now legitimate Super Bowl contenders. That much isn’t even in question.