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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

5 NFL teams that will surprise in 2017

Marcus Mariota Titans

Although the Atlanta Falcons fell apart with a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl and went on to lose in crushing fashion, their run at the championship proved that any team is capable of a surprising season.

In 2015, the Falcons were 8-8 and missed the playoffs. Then last season they compiled an 11-5 regular season record to win their division, and they nearly came away with the Lombardi Trophy. So that begs the question: who’s next?

While nothing in the NFL is a foregone conclusion, here’s a look at five teams that could surprise in 2017, similar to the way the Falcons did last year.

5. New Orleans Saints

The Saints are coming off of three consecutive 7-9 seasons, and the NFC South is no picnic. The Falcons, as noted previously, have emerged as legitimate contenders; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are up-and-comers; and the Carolina Panthers are expected to rebound.

But New Orleans’ struggles have been largely one-dimensional. Despite their poor records, the Saints’ offense has finished in the top two in yards each of the previous three seasons. On the opposite side of the coin, their defense has finished 27th or worse over that same span.

Knowing they needed more tools on defense, the Saints went out and signed linebackers A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o during free agency, and then spent some of their draft picks on cornerback Marshon Lattimore, safety Marcus Williams, linebacker Alex Anzalone and defensive end Trey Hendrickson.

While they may end up asking a lot of their defensive rookies, the unit doesn’t have to be great in order to return the Saints to contention. They just need to be average and let Drew Brees, Adrian Peterson & Co. do the rest offensively.

4. Minnesota Vikings

Despite losing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater prior to the start of the 2016 regular season, the Minnesota Vikings looked like they were going to be a dominant team early on.

Led by quarterback Sam Bradford, who was acquired via trade, and a dominating defense, Minnesota surged to a 5-0 start. Unfortunately, that’s when things fell apart. They would go on to lose four straight, six of their next seven and eight of their final 11 games to finish 8-8.

While overcoming the departure of running back Adrian Peterson won’t be easy, there’s no denying that the Vikings have a potentially dominant defense. And strong defense wins championships.

To counter-act the loss of Peterson, Minnesota went out and signed Latavius Murray and then selected Dalvin Cook in the second-round of the NFL Draft. They also added tackles Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff, which will help boost their ailing offense.

Regardless of who starts at quarterback, Minnesota has done what’s necessary to get themselves back into contention.

3. Cincinnati Bengals

Would you believe that the Bengals have not advanced beyond the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs since 1990?

While the stat may be hard to believe, it’s entirely accurate. Even during their recent run of regular season success, the Bengals were never able to get over that hump. And in 2016, they crashed and burned to a 6-9-1 record.

There were issues all over the field: under-performing running backs, a struggling offensive line, lack of depth on defense and not enough game-changing playmakers.

In the NFL Draft, Cincinnati did well for themselves, adding wide receiver John Ross, running back Joe Mixon (his character concerns aside), defensive end Jordan Willis, edge rusher Carl Lawson and defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow, among others.

Meanwhile, the team also addressed their offensive line during free agency, bringing back tackle Andre Smith after a year away from the team.

When it comes to the Bengals, the talent is all over the field — they just need the pieces to be put together. Their 2016 season was an aberration, and they’re a safe bet to not only return to their winning ways, but perhaps to also get over that wild card playoff hump.

2. Tennessee Titans

The Titans are on the upswing after completing a 9-7 season in 2016 — their first winning season since 2011 — but that doesn’t mean they can’t still surprise. In fact, they showed all last year that they’re close to becoming legitimate contenders in the AFC.

With Mike Mularkey entering his second full season as head coach and Marcus Mariota continuing to ascend, the Titans have a very Falcon-esque feel to them. They weren’t particularly dominant on defense and didn’t light the world on fire offensively last year, but it’s clear they’re on the right path.

And now, after the offseason, the Titans have shored up several areas of weakness. They added a potential explosive playmaker in wide receiver Corey Davis, a talented cornerback in Adoree’ Jackson, and another wide receiver complement in Taywan Taylor via the NFL Draft. They also added key defensive pieces in cornerback Logan Ryan, defensive tackle Sylvester Williams and safety Johnathan Cyprien via free agency.

The Titans nearly made it to No. 1 on this list because of their all-around potential. They’re in a suspect division and could truly excel in 2017.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers started slow (1-3) and finished slow (1-2) and that’s what prevented them from winning their division. They ultimately finished 9-7 overall and missed out on the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.

But with Dirk Koetter entering his second season as the team’s head coach and quarterback Jameis Winston putting up big numbers, there certainly is a case to be made for the Buccaneers. In fact, much like the aforementioned Titans, it just feels like Tampa is getting close.

But in order to make that next leap, the Buccaneers must go from average offensively and below average defensively to above average on offense and at least average defensively.

For Winston & Co., that leap may come easy thanks to the additions of game-changing wide receiver DeSean Jackson and firth-round tight end pick, O.J. Howard. They also added wide receiver Chris Godwin in the third-round and running back Jeremy McNichols in the fifth-round, and each of those players could have a first-year impact.

Defensively, Tampa Bay added safety Justin Evans in the second-round. He is expected to assume the free safety role, while free agent addition J.J. Wilcox can come in and load the box. And if cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III continues his progression, while 32-year-old cornerback Brent Grimes continues to fight off Father Time, the Buccaneers may have all the pieces necessary to become a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

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