Every single season around the NFL there are a number of surprises. This past year saw the Dallas Cowboys shock the football world en route to a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Over in the AFC, the Oakland Raiders proved to be Super Bowl contenders before Derek Carr went down with a season-ending injury.
The question heading into 2017 is not whether there will be teams that prove to be better than we think. Rather, the question is who these teams might be.
In Western New York, the Buffalo Bills decided to hang on to Tyrod Taylor under center. He’s been tremendous over the past two seasons and has a solid supporting cast on offense. Will that lead to the Bills’ first playoff appearance since 1999?
Over in the NFC, the Minnesota Vikings finally moved on from Adrian Peterson. They did so while replacing him with a potentially dynamic duo. Add in an elite-level defense and the Vikings could contend in the NFC North this season. These are among the six NFL teams that are better than you think.
Some wonder why Buffalo even considered moving on from Tyrod Taylor during the spring. And for good reason. Despite team-wide mediocrity, Taylor has more than proven himself to be starter-caliber in his two seasons in Western New York.
Taylor has compiled 47 total touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions. He’s also put up 7,200-plus total yards in 29 starts during that span. If Taylor is indeed the solution under center, Buffalo has what it takes to compete for a playoff spot this upcoming season.
LeSean McCoy put up over 1,600 total yards and 14 touchdowns last season. That’s a tremendous one-two punch to work with on offense. Add in Sammy Watkins being at 100 percent in 2017, and there’s a lot to look forward to from this unit.
We also must look at the addition of new head coach Sean McDermott and how he should improve Buffalo’s defense. Here’s a guy with eight years of defensive coordinator experience in the NFL, including the past six with the Carolina Panthers. He’s led some of the strongest units in the NFL. Hopefully for the Bills, this means improvement off last season’s No. 19 ranking.
The pieces are in place on defense to do just this. Marcell Dareus, Shaq Lawson, Jerry Hughes and Kyle Williams form a solid defensive line. Meanwhile, 2016 breakout star Lorenzo Alexander returns after recording a career-high 12.5 sacks this past season. Add in the presence of rookie Tre’Davious White to team up with free agent addition Micah Hyde in the secondary and there’s a lot to like there.
Buffalo likely won’t be competing with New England atop the AFC East in 2017. Though, there’s a good chance this team could make up some ground with Miami. If so, a playoff appearance for the first time since 1999 isn’t completely out of the question.
New York Giants
Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall and Sterling Shepard. All three elite-level pass catchers on the receiving end of tosses from future Hall of Famer Eli Manning. The three combined for nearly 3,000 receiving yards last season. And that was with Marshall having a down season as a member of the New York Jets. That definitely has a nice ring to it.
If the Giants can somehow find a consistent running game to go with what their air attack, this offense could end up becoming elite in 2017. That onus will likely land on the legs of second-year running back Paul Perkins, who put up over 600 total yards and averaged 4.1 yards per rush last season.
It’s also important to note that New York’s defense stepped up big time during an 11-win 2016 campaign. Landon Collins and Janoris Jenkins both put up Pro Bowl seasons in the secondary. For his part, Collins recorded 125 tackles, five interceptions, 13 passes defended and four sacks en route to earning All Pro honors. It’s this part of the defense that will make the engine run for New York in 2017.
We’re not too sure if Dallas will regress after a surprising run to the NFC East title in 2107. But the Giants will definitely be there to give them a run for their money.
It wasn’t just injuries that held the Ravens back last season. They were just too inconsistent on both sides of the ball to be considered legitimate playoff contenders. Baltimore couldn’t find much on the ground with Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon heading a bottom-five rushing attack. Meanwhile, Joe Flacco put up a three-year high 15 interceptions en route to leading a 21st-ranked scoring offense.
On defense, the talent remained alive. Baltimore finished in the top 10 in points allowed and seventh in total yards allowed. This unit received a major jolt in the offseason with the signing of Pro Bowl caliber safety Tony Jefferson (more on that here).
The selections of cornerback Marlon Humphrey as well as edge rushers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams in the draft should also help out big time. In reality, Baltimore has an opportunity to put up a top-five defense in 2017.
The Ravens’ ability to contend in the AFC North will be dependent on second-year receiver Breshad Perriman excelling opposite free agent acquisition Jeremy Maclin. That’s only magnified with the retirement of future Hall of Famer Steve Smith. If those two, along with Mike Wallace, provide consistency for Flacco, Baltimore will be in a great position to contend with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the AFC North.
At this point, all indications are that Sam Bradford will be under center for Minnesota this season. Teddy Bridgewater seems to be improving after suffering a devastating knee injury last season. That’s fine. But the Vikings are surely going to be relying on Bradford to help the team rebound after a disappointing 2016 campaign.
Bradford is coming off a career-best season that saw him lead the NFL with a 72 percent completion mark while throwing just five interceptions. He’s also going to have a lot more help than we saw last season.
After moving on from the injury-plagued Adrian Peterson, Minnesota added Pro Bowl running back Latavius Murray in free agency. It then doubled down with Dalvin Cook in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. That has the potential to lead to a dynamic ground game.
Minnesota also made sure to address a major weakness on the offensive line by picking up Riley Reiff from the division rival Detroit Lions to man the left tackle position. It also picked up a solid veteran in Mike Remmers to play right tackle. This should stabilize what was a disastrous offensive line last season.
Defensively, we know Minnesota has one of the most talented groups in the NFL. If its offense can improve off what we saw last season, there’s no reason to believe Mike Zimmer and Co. can’t contend for the NFC North crown in 2017.
New Orleans Saints
New Orleans made the calculated decision to trade talented receiver Brandin Cooks back in March. Some may question the trade, but this team had enough talent at receiver to make a deal of that ilk possible.
As a rookie last season, former Ohio State pass catcher Michael Thomas surprised the masses. He tallied an absurd 92 receptions to go with 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Add in the consistency of Willie Snead as a No. 2 receiver and future Hall of Famer Drew Brees has a tremendous receiving group to throw to.
What should help New Orleans contend in a wide open NFC South is the presence of Adrian Peterson at running back. We don’t really know how the future Hall of Famer will respond after suffering through an injury-plagued 2016 campaign, but all reports coming from Saints camp on that front seem to be glowingly positive (more on that here).
If Brees is able to find balance on offense, the Saints offense should be among the best in the game. And despite lingering issues on defense, that could be enough to contend in the NFC South. There’s definitely a lot to like about this team in 2017.
We’re calling it. This is the season an ultra talented Jaguars team will overcome recent struggles to contend for a playoff spot in the AFC. Sure most of the focus is going to be on Blake Bortles and his inability to progress as a young quarterback. But Jacksonville has given him everything possible to succeed on offense.
It starts with rookie top-five pick Leonard Fournette at running back. He immediately takes over as the team’s primary ball carrier after Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon struggled in a committee situation last season.
That balance should help Bortles overcome the turnover issues that have plagued him in the past. Add in Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns at receiver, and this could very well be a dominant unit in 2017.
We also have to look at a defense that improved leaps and bounds last season. Jalen Ramsey put up a Pro Bowl caliber performance at corner as a rookie. He also let everyone know just how confident he is in his game. That’s absolutely huge for a Jags team that has been missing attitude on defense.
More so than even Bortles’ performance under center, the ability of Jacksonville’s defense to take the next step will dictate the team’s success in 2017. That includes a talented Myles Jack proving himself at linebacker.
It also includes free-agent signing Calais Campbell teaming up with fellow veteran Malik Jackson to form a consistent pass rush with youngster Dante Fowler Jr. Should it all come together in 2017, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the Jaguars contend for the AFC South title. The time is now. It’s all about putting this talent together and excelling on the field.