Eight NFL teams set to exceed expectations in 2019

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On an annual basis, NFL teams that are expected to tank end up making a playoff push, while hyped teams fall by the wayside.

It’s this first group we’re focusing on here.

Not all the teams we’re about to discuss are necessarily expected to compete for the top draft pick next April. But all of them are seen as teams that could either be among the worst the league has to offer, or take a big step back.

These eight teams have a great chance to exceed those dire expectations.

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals are not expected to win many games this season with a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback.

Kliff Kingsbury isn’t the first innovative offensive mind to take the big leap from college to the pros, and many before have failed miserably. A big reason to believe Kingsbury could buck the trend is that he has a quarterback in Kyler Murray who fits his modified “Air Raid” offense to perfection.

Murray, in fact, has been receiving high praise from everyone within the Arizona organization for his firm grasp of the offense, along with possessing an arm that’s being compared to that of Patrick Mahomes.

If the Arizona defense can withstand the early suspension of Patrick Peterson and if Murray can stay healthy, the Cardinals have a shot at winning half their games in 2019.

Miami Dolphins

Former Bill Belichick assistants don’t have a strong track record of replicating his success when they get their own gigs. Brian Flores is hoping to flip the script in Miami, but it’s clear he has a big job ahead of him. The Dolphins haven’t won a playoff game since the 2000 postseason and, of course, are in the same division as the Pats.

Dolphins fans have reason to hope this year, however. Veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick wowed on a nearly-daily basis during offseason workouts, and so did receiver DeVante Parker — a player who’s never been able to live up to high expectations. If both of them have big seasons, then the offense should be just fine.

Rookie defensive tackle Christian Wilkins should give the Miami defense a huge boost. The secondary is already stacked with young talent — Minkah Fitzpatrick and Xavien Howard leading the charge.

There is talent to be found on this roster. It’s just a matter of getting these players pointed in the right direction. If Flores is able to do that, then the Dolphins have a shot to surprise a lot of people in 2019.

Detroit Lions

Second-year head coach Matt Patricia has been an easy target for criticism, and his first year at the helm in Detroit was certainly rough. The Lions aren’t seen as legitimate contenders in 2019, either — especially given how tough the NFC North is.

That narrative can quickly be put to rest, however, if Detroit’s defense shapes up the way the front office envisions.

Adding former Patriots star Trey Flowers should pay immediate dividends. Rookies Austin Bryant and Will Harris could contribute at a high level. As long as Darius Slay and Damon Harrison don’t hold out into the season, this unit could be downright dominant.

The offense will either thrive or struggle based on how well the offensive line performs. It was a bad unit last year, despite significant investments both through the draft and free agency. The emergence of Kerryon Johnson as a lead back is promising, however. Matthew Stafford remains one of the most-dynamic pure passers in the league, and the addition of rookie tight end T.J .Hockenson should ignite the passing game.

Baltimore Ravens

Many in the NFL community expect the Ravens to struggle this coming season due to high turnover on defense because Lamar Jackson is still so raw, and because the AFC North is very tough.

Jackson is in a fantastic place to thrive, however. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has previously had success working with Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor. He’s crafting a brand new offense “from the ground up” in Baltimore that should suit Jackson’s game to a T. The Ravens also have a phenomenal trio of running backs, some incredible speed at the receiver position, and two excellent tight ends.

Defensively, Baltimore replaced Eric Weddle with Earl Thomas, who is among the best at his position. Third-round rookie Jaylon Ferguson could be one of the biggest steals from Day 2 in the draft. The secondary is also still loaded with cornerback talent.

John Harbaugh and Co. should have this young team in great shape for another playoff run.

Buffalo Bills

Third-year head coach Ryan McDermott saw his squad take a step back last season (6-10) after making the playoffs in 2018 for the first time in nearly two decades. Thanks to a very strong offseason, however, we expect the Bills to be a surprise playoff team once more in 2019.

It all starts with second-year quarterback Josh Allen. He’s still so raw, and accuracy may never be his forte. Yet it’s impossible to deny his ability to make big plays with his rocket arm and with his legs. Late last season, he was one of the top fantasy quarterbacks in the NFL. He should be a top option again in 2019.

Buffalo bolstered its offensive line this spring, which will benefit Allen. The Bills also brought in some sure-handed receivers, veteran running back Frank Gore, and landed one of the top defenders in the draft, Ed Oliver.

This team is going places, and fast.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs are in a period of serious transition. Obviously, they moved on from Dirk Koetter and hired Bruce Arians, who represents a big-time upgrade. They also released a franchise leader, Gerald McCoy, and saw two top players leave in free agency — receiver Adam Humphries and linebacker Kwon Alexander.

Jameis Winston is the biggest key to whether the Buccaneers have a winning season or end up in the tank once again.

He has a bad habit of turning the ball over at the worst possible time, and perhaps no coach can cure him of that. If anyone can, though, it’s Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich.

Defensively, Tampa Bay has some enticing talent that starts with rookie linebacker Devin White out of LSU, who is already earning rave reviews. Adding Ndamukong Suh in free agency gives the front line some serious oomph. If the team’s rookie defensive backs prove to be quick studies, then the Bucs could have one of the most improved defenses in the NFL.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos are seen by many as the third- or fourth-best team in the AFC West. Certainly, the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers have had more recent success. Yet this team could surprise big time in 2019.

Denver’s decision to trade for Joe Flacco may not have been sexy, but the things the Broncos have done since then to give the veteran a shot at succeeding are noteworthy. The Broncos drafted dynamic tight end Noah Fant in the first round, then added offensive lineman Dalton Risner in the second round. Both will immediately contribute in meaningful ways.

Selecting Dre’Mont Jones in the third round was another strong move in the draft that should make Denver’s defense much more dynamic up front. Adding him to a unit that features Von Miller and Bradley Chubb is downright scary for opposing offenses. On the back end, veteran Kareem Jackson was one of the most underrated free agency signings of the offseason.

Pittsburgh Steelers

You’d be hard pressed to find many who expect the Steelers to fall off a cliff in 2019. Yet there is a general sentiment that the losses of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell will be keenly felt, and that Pittsburgh is due to take a big step back. We’re not so convinced that will happen.

An underrated signing that could go a long way toward negating the loss of Brown is Donte Moncrief. His ability to make plays deep should open up things for young star JuJu Smith-Schuster. Additionally, rookie Diontae Johnson is already creating buzz as a dynamic weapon for Ben Roethlisberger.

Rookie running back Benny Snell has star qualities. He joins an already talented running back corps that’s led by James Conner and is fueled by one of the NFL’s top offensive lines.

Pittsburgh’s already staunch defense added a potential star in Michigan linebacker Devin Bush Jr., and third-round cornerback Justin Layne could be an immediate contributor as well.

Long story short, don’t go handing the Cleveland Browns the AFC North crown just yet.