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Eight NFL teams poised to take huge leaps in 2018

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and receiver Will Fuller

Things can change fast for NFL teams. This may be hard to remember with the New England Patriots set to play in their 10th Super Bowl and eighth since 2001 (and will get even harder if they win), but it’s true. Eight of the 12 teams that qualified for the playoffs in 2017 missed in 2016. So, even if your team suffered through a down year in 2017, there is reason to believe next year can be better.

With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at the teams that have the most reason for optimism.

Since it’s reasonable to assume that they would have made the playoffs in 2017 with a healthy Aaron Rodgers, we couldn’t include the Green Bay Packers. They’re just too obvious. Their oldest rival, however, certainly qualifies. Additionally, two other teams that made the playoffs in 2016 should be expected to make a return trip in 2018.

Another franchise got its starting quarterback at the end of 2017 and finished on a tear. That team must be taken seriously next season. Others, meanwhile, have talent in place, but need to find a quarterback. Fortunately, they’re in position to do just that.

The reasons are different. But these eight teams were all mediocre (at best) in 2017, and are all viable threats to take a big step forward in 2018.

Houston Texans

The bad news for the Houston Texans is that they finished 4-12 in 2017 and don’t even have a first-round pick to show for it. That’s rough, until we remember two things.

First of all, Houston lacks a first-round pick because of a trade it made in 2017 to select quarterback Deshaun Watson. Secondly, the Texans were ravaged by injuries in 2017. Those injured players, including Watson, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus, are all slated to be back next season.

Now, it’s easy to look at the AFC South and see it as something of a gauntlet. The Indianapolis Colts are coming off of a down year (more on them later), but the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans each made the playoffs in 2017. But while Jacksonville looks like a force to be reckoned with, Tennessee is hardly a juggernaut. Additionally, unless the conference improves significantly, then making the playoffs as an AFC Wild Card team certainly seems doable.

The Texans are primed for a strong bounce-back season in 2018.

San Francisco 49ers

This is a team that we’ll be hearing a lot of buzz about when the 2018 season rolls around. It starts with the fact that the 6-10 49ers finished the year 6-1 and won all five games started by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Now, it may be natural to pour some cold water on this by pointing out that the 49ers were long out of playoff contention at that point. That’s undeniable. Plenty of teams have won some relatively meaningless late season games one year, received a lot of hype for the next, and then fizzled. But it’s also important to remember that in Weeks 2-6, San Francisco started Brian Hoyer at quarterback and lost the five games by a combined 13 points. So, the idea that this team was just a quarterback away wasn’t baseless.

It’s also important to remember that the 49ers have ample cap space and will have a Top-10 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Throw in that the Seattle Seahawks figure to look much different and the Arizona Cardinals now look like a very old team, and the NFC West doesn’t seem so daunting.

John Lynch needs to oversee an effective offseason. But San Francisco is well on its way to being a team that must be taken seriously.

New York Jets

While they finished their seasons in dramatically different fashion, the Jets are similar to the 49ers. New York had a 5-11 mark in 2017 but lost six of those games by eight points or fewer. In 2016, New York was also 5-11, but had only three such losses. So, steps are being made in the right direction.

In and of itself, 5-11 with a half dozen close losses isn’t enough of a reason for great optimism. But it’s important to remember that New York has ample cap space coming into the year. It also has the sixth overall pick and three picks in the first two rounds. So, if the recently extended Mike Maccagnan does well in the offseason, this team can have a strong influx of new talent.

The Jets should also have a franchise quarterback. That could come via free agency with someone like Kirk Cousins, or it could come via the draft. But either way, New York should be more settled under center than it has been in recent years.

Chicago Bears

Not unlike the Jets, the Bears contending depends very much on the seemingly never-ending quest to find a franchise quarterback. But unlike New York, Chicago has the potential franchise signal caller on the roster. It’s just important for Mitchell Trubisky to take a big step forward in his second year.

The Bears have capable running backs in place with Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. That’s a tremendous ally for any quarterback — especially a young one — to have. The receiver position, however, must be improved upon. Kendall Wright led Chicago with a rather paltry 614 receiving yards in 2017, and he was the only Bear to top 400.

So, the receivers need to be upgraded. But if they are, it’s important to remember that, while he’s far from a finished product, Trubisky looked better as a rookie than Jared Goff did. We saw how much of an influence Sean McVay had over Goff in Year 2. Who’s to say that Matt Nagy can’t do that for Trubisky? Should that happen, the Bears will have taken a big step towards becoming a formidable team.

Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck

When it comes to Indianapolis, we’re looking at three big things.

One is general manager Chris Ballard. He needs to do a better job building a team than Ryan Grigson did. Indianapolis needs not only a better offensive line, but also a defense and a more complete running game. Frank Gore led the Colts in rushing during 2017, but he will be 35 in May and is a pending free agent. The defense, meanwhile, checked in at 30th in both points and yards allowed.

Two is Josh McDaniels. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the presumptive coach. But there’s reason for pessimism, as well. McDaniels once manned the Denver Broncos’ sideline, and that was nothing short of a disaster. It’s important that he learns from his mistakes this time around.

Now, that doesn’t paint an especially bright picture. But that leads us to our third element, Andrew Luck.

Luck missed all of 2017 with a shoulder injury. He needs to come back fully healthy. If he does, then the picture is fairly bright in Indianapolis. Remember, a poorly constructed Colts’ team went 8-8 in 2016 with Luck playing at less than 100 percent. If his shoulder really is better, Ballard and McDaniels should be enough of an improvement over their predecessors to get this team moving towards contention again.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa is unlike our previous teams. No coaching change is forthcoming, and while the Bucs do have the seventh overall pick in the draft, there’s nothing to signal that any big personnel changes are coming at a key position like quarterback.

But here, we just have to wonder if Tampa can have a 2018 season similar to what Jacksonville had in 2016. Remember, the Jaguars had a great deal of buzz entering the 2016 season, only to go 3-13. The Bucs were similar in 2017. Everything seem pointed towards a young, talented team taking a step forward and making the playoffs. It just didn’t happen. Tampa went 5-11 and finished 2017 as one of the year’s most disappointing teams.

Jacksonville made the leap a year later. So, a young team generating some buzz one year, fizzling, and looking strong the next isn’t exactly unprecedented. That’s the script Tampa needs to follow. With young talent like Jameis Winston and Mike Evans, the talent is there, especially if Winston can develop a better chemistry with DeSean Jackson (presuming he’s brought back).

Now, the Jaguars did it in 2017. That, in and of itself, doesn’t mean that the Buccaneers will in 2018. But the template does exist.

Denver Broncos

The man who sells you your morning coffee and newspaper every day may be a fine person. But that doesn’t mean he’s cut out to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. It’s apparent now that we can say the same thing about Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler. Also, while he has a smaller sample size, throwing Paxton Lynch into that group isn’t exactly outrageous. If the 2017 season didn’t tell that to John Elway and the rest of the Denver front office, nothing will.

That’s the bad news for the Broncos. The good news is that there’s still a great deal of talent on this team. It starts with a defense that ranked third in the NFL in total yardage in 2017, trailing only Jacksonville and the Minnesota Vikings.

It extends to offensive weapons like Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and C.J. Anderson, who all performed respectably in 2017 despite a less than ideal situation under center. Thomas caught 83 passes for 949 yards. Sanders caught 47 passes for 555 yards in only 12 games, while Anderson topped 1,000 yards on the ground.

There’s work to be done in the offseason, sure. It starts at the quarterback position. Like the Jets, that could come in free agency with someone like Cousins or conceivably Alex Smith. It could also come in the draft, where Denver is picking fifth overall (we think Baker Mayfield is a great fit). Either way, if that position is stabilized, the Broncos have the talent needed to at least compete for a playoff spot next season.

New York Giants

Things change fast in the NFL. In 2016, the Giants were a playoff team. They entered the 2017 season with genuine Super Bowl buzz. But to call what happened in 2017 a disaster would be a flat out insult to disasters everywhere. Things can change that fast in the NFL. But if they can change that fast in a bad way, why can’t the same happen in a good way?

It’s not as if no pieces are in places in New York. Odell Beckham Jr. will be back from injury. His presence only figures to open the field up more for one of the Giants’ few bright spots in 2017, Evan Engram. The defense took a big step back in 2017. But led by Landon Collins, there’s still unquestioned talent on that unit.

The quarterback position does give us some doubt. We don’t know if Eli Manning will be back (though the team wants him). If he does return, his play will need to get better. But that doubt doesn’t override a lot of the positives working in the Giants’ favor, especially when we remember that the always entertaining but rarely effective Ben McAdoo is gone (with Pat Shurmur replacing him).

That promises to be a sizable upgrade and gives us reason to take New York seriously in 2017.

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