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Six hottest up-and-coming NFL teams for 2017

The final four teams competing for a championship following the 2016 NFL season all feature top veteran quarterbacks and a seasoned supporting cast. But there are some tremendous teams on their way up to that level that are poised to make big moves in 2017.

Among them are a couple teams that looked ready to take that next step this past season but ultimately ran into roadblocks for one reason or another. We’ll also be looking at teams that were on the cusp of making the playoffs but fell just short.

These are the hottest up-and-coming NFL teams for the 2017 season and beyond.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Winning nine games this past season was quite an accomplishment for the young Bucs. They pushed the Atlanta Falcons hard until the end when they stumbled with two losses in their final three games and are certainly on an upward trajectory.

The connection we see developing between quarterback Jameis Winston and receiver Mike Evans is quickly becoming one of the best in the NFL. Since Winston joined the league as the No. 1 overall pick in 2015, the two have combined on 170 catches for 2,527 yards with 15 touchdowns, 12 of which occurred this past year. Additionally, the development of tight end Cameron Brate bodes well for the future of this offense.

Finding consistency at running back and up front on the offensive line will bey key going forward, but there is plenty to be excited about offensively here.

Retaining defensive coordinator Mike Smith was a huge positive for Tampa Bay. He had the defense playing exceptionally well for a large portion of the 2016 campaign, and the Bucs finished No. 15 in scoring defense while producing 29 takeaways, good for third-best in the NFL.

Continuing to bring in talented players via the draft will be critical to further developing the young nucleus of talent in Tampa Bay. But with a quarterback in tow and a head coach who meshes well with said quarterback, we expect more good things in the future.

2. Tennessee Titans

While many teams consistently struggle to find good quarterbacks, the Titans and Bucs both landed gems in the first two picks of the 2015 NFL Draft. Marcus Mariota took tremendous strides towards establishing himself as the long-term answer in his second year for Tennessee before his season was cut short in Week 16 with a fractured fibula.

And like we’ve seen many times with good teams in the NFL’s past, the Titans have bolstered their young passer with a strong rushing attack and burly offensive line. The combination of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry produced¬†prolific¬†results, with the two backs combining on 2,291 yards from scrimmage and 17 total touchdowns.

The addition of receivers Tajae Sharpe and Rishard Matthews gave the Titans just enough firepower in the passing game to test opposing defensive secondaries, not to mention tight end Delanie Walker. Add a legitimate No. 1 receiver and the offense will be extremely dangerous.

Another thing this team has going for it is the draft currency it landed when the Los Angeles Rams gave up the farm last April to move up to No. 1 and take Jared Goff (more on that here). Using some of that currency to improve the defense will help the Titans emerge as favorite to win the AFC South in 2017.

3. Philadelphia Eagles

There are some missing pieces to Philadelphia’s roster that must be addressed before the Eagles will become a legitimate contender in the NFC. That being said, there is a lot to like about the young team on both sides of the ball, starting with first-year quarterback Carson Wentz, who wowed us early in the season.

The troubles that bogged Wentz down after his brilliant¬†first three games are fixable. He didn’t have a lot of help from his receivers, and the suspension of Lane Johnson was a huge blow.

With a defense that features one of the best defensive linemen in football — Fletcher Cox — and nice complement of players around him in the front seven, adding a couple more impact players would help the Eagles feature a top-10 defense in 2017. In particular, adding an edge rusher and a top cornerback would make a huge difference in the team’s ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

We anticipate the continued development of receiver Dorial Green-Beckham in the coming years as he and Wentz develop more chemistry. But Philly must do a better job providing the young passer with more help at the receiver position and at running back. Do that and suddenly you’re looking at a team that has the pieces in place to threaten the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants in the NFC East.

4. Miami Dolphins

We can’t say enough good things about the job rookie head coach Adam Gase did in Miami this past season. After the Dolphins lost four of their first five games, we figured the season was already lost. Then they won nine of their last 11 games to make it into the playoffs as an AFC Wild Card team.

And if not for the injury to Ryan Tannehill near the end of the regular season, it’s not crazy to wonder if they’d still be playing right now.

A huge decision is upcoming for the front office regarding receiver Kenny Britt, who emerged as a go-to receiver for Tannehill this year. He caught nine touchdowns and was one of the NFL’s premier deep threats, averaging 17.3 yards per reception. He’s going to cost a pretty penny to keep from hitting the open market, but the Dolphins would be wise to lay down the cash. Combined with the tough-running Jarvis Landry and up-and-coming star, DeVante Parker, Miami has quite the trio at receiver.

Throw in an offensive line that improved throughout the season and a running back with the potential to take games over in Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins have a tremendous young offense going right now.

The big issue facing this team is its defense, which features some big-name stars who struggle to work together. Depth and talent must be acquired on the back end, and the front seven must find a way to play with more discipline on a regular basis. Allowing 6,122 yards this past season, Miami was No. 29 in the NFL in total defense.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the team addresses this deficiency in 2017, especially in light of defensive coordinator Vance Joseph departing to coach the Denver Broncos.

5. Dallas Cowboys

Going one-and-done in the playoffs after earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC was a brutal result for a team that had almost everything it needed to contend for a Super Bowl. A team that nearly pulled out of a 21-3 hole against the Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers, no less. A team that will be better in the long run for having experienced this agony.

And remarkably, the Cowboys did what they did this year despite featuring a defense vulnerable to getting burned through the air (No. 26 in the NFL against the pass). Because Jerry Jones has been so willing to put money down on risky players like Randy Gregory and Greg Hardy the past couple of years, Dallas’ pass rush had to get creative, which left the secondary vulnerable. Add in the fact that the ‘Boys intercepted just nine passes all year and there is a ton of room for improvement.

And believe it or not, there is plenty of improvement offensively as well.

For starters, Prescott was actually pretty darn conservative for much of the season, partly because he was letting the game come to him and partly because the Cowboys don’t have a glut of receiving options after Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley. With more experience, the game that comes to Prescott will get deeper, wider and more nuanced. And if the ‘Boys do a good job bringing in some young receiver who can stretch the field and actually catch the ball, then that development will be accentuated.

Thanks to some already tremendous drafting up front, Dallas has the best offensive line in football. If Ezekiel Elliott can avoid injury in the next few years, he’ll continue to challenge for the league lead in rushing to provide much-needed offensive balance.

There isn’t a heck of a lot to not like about where the Cowboys are headed. Now if only Jason Garrett would stop taking lessons from Andy Reid in clock management, this team is going to be golden.

6. Oakland Raiders

Until Derek Carr went down with a season-ending broken fibula, it sure looked like the Raiders were destined to challenge the New England Patriots for the AFC title.

Then we all got to see what the Raiders are made of without their star quarterback, exposing some serious flaws. That harrowing view gave us an indication of the work that’s left for general manager Reggie McKenzie to turn Oakland into a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

For starters, the defense was a hot mess all year, despite some big spending in free agency. Entering the Wild Card round with the NFL’s worst pass defense and No. 23-ranked running defense, the Raiders allowed none other than Brock Osweiler to look like a competent NFL passer — something as far from the truth as the east is from the west.

Some of McKenzie’s draft picks, especially in the secondary, haven’t panned out. He also struck out by giving Sean Smith a huge free-agency contract. On top of that, exasperating the lack of talent on the back end, there wasn’t much in the way of a pass rush aside from the efforts of Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, leading Oakland to feature less sacks than any team in the league.

Clearly the Raiders have some serious work to do if they have any hope of containing the top offenses in the AFC playoffs.

But with Carr coming back next year as a player still on the rise, Oakland is going to be a contender for many years to come.