Which teams could make a surprise run next season?
The NFL Draft has come and gone, and organized team activities are beginning. With a lull in the NFL calendar until training camps start in July, let’s look ahead to pick out a few teams that could make an unexpected run at a championship ring. The Super Bowl odds referenced below are courtesy of the Westgate LV SuperBook.
Odds to win Super Bowl 52: 25/1
The Panthers were one of the NFL’s biggest surprises last season, but for all the wrong reasons. After a 2015 campaign in which the team finished 15-1 and led the league in point differential en route to a Super Bowl berth, Carolina plummeted to a last-place finish in the NFC South at 6-10. Issues on both sides of the ball led the Panthers to a 1-5 start that they were never able to recover from.
Offensively, the team struggled to protect Cam Newton, causing him to play through injury before ultimately undergoing offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder. He fell to career lows in multiple categories, including quarterback rating, completion percentage, and yards per attempt.
Fortunately for Newton, help is on the way. All-Pro center Ryan Kalil will be back healthy after ending his season on I.R. and having offseason shoulder surgery. In addition, the team signed Kalil’s younger brother Matt to a five-year deal this offseason, providing a proven veteran to protect Newton’s blindside after the offense suffered from lackluster tackle play last year. While the move received some criticism, Panthers GM Dave Gettelman expressed his confidence in Kalil’s abilities:
“He can play with power and aggressiveness, and he has the toughness and competitiveness we expect from our offensive linemen. He will work with a great duo of offensive line coaches in John Matsko and Ray Brown who I know will maximize his talents. We’re just really excited about being able to add him.”
Furthermore, Carolina added offensive lineman Taylor Moton in the second round of this year’s draft. Moton did not allow a single sack over 467 attempts in his final season at Western Michigan and should be able to contribute immediately at guard. These pieces ensure Newton won’t take the kind of beating he took last season.
Aside from the offensive line, Carolina added new skill position players to make Newton’s job easier. The team used their first round pick on Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, who offers rare versatility. With the ability to run, catch, and pass protect with some of the best, McCaffrey gives the offense a dynamic weapon to alleviate pressure on Newton.
Pass blocking grades for our top RBs— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) April 25, 2017
Leonard Fournette: 80.4
Christian McCaffrey: 78.4
Dalvin Cook: 66.4 pic.twitter.com/SiynM9LFlW
On the defensive side of the ball, there are several reasons to believe Carolina will improve after finishing 21st in yards allowed last season. First and foremost is the return of Luke Kuechly, who suffered a terrifying concussion in Week 11 against the Saints. Prior to his injury, the Panthers run defense had allowed just 81.8 rushing yards per game, but that figure rose to 107.8 in his absence. The return of the perennial All-Pro will immediately strengthen the front seven.
Carolina’s pass defense was embarrassed several times in the 2016 season, which can largely be attributed to the fact they were starting two rookie cornerbacks in James Bradberry and Daryl Worley. Both players showed encouraging improvement as the year went on and should only get better with experience. The team also signed veteran safety and two-time Pro Bowler Mike Adams to help shore up the back end. Lastly, Carolina brought back ageless wonder Julius Peppers after stints in Chicago and Green Bay. He gives juice to the pass rush and will help the secondary by pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
Overall, the Panthers had one of the best offseasons in the league. With key players returning and new additions coming in, the team has a great chance to return to their 2015 form and contend once again.
Odds to win Super Bowl 52: 40/1
The 2016 Titans season saw Marcus Mariota take a step forward in his development, aided by elite offensive line play and a running game to match. Ultimately, Mariota broke his ankle in Week 16 and the team fell just short of a postseason berth at 9-7.
Entering his third season as a pro, look for Mariota to build on last year’s performance when he finished eighth in the league in touchdown-to-interception ratio among qualifying QBs. Tennessee’s offensive line is returning all five starters from a unit ranked first in the league by PFF, and with an additional year to gel, could perform at an even higher level in 2017.
Another bright spot was the team’s rushing attack, which finished third in the NFL with 136.7 yards per game. Starting RB DeMarco Murray
gained 1,287 yards on the ground and proved his failures as an Eagle were due to scheme fit more than anything else.
The Titans addressed their subpar receiver group, grabbing Corey Davis with the fifth overall pick in the draft. Davis is a physical player with excellent ball skills and the ability to excel in the red zone. He will give the pass game a boost and could quickly become Mariota’s favorite target.
Tennessee’s run defense was a strong spot last season, so the front office focused on adding talent in the secondary after the unit finished 30th in the league in passing yards allowed. The team acquired Johnathan Cyprien in free agency, who will bolster both the run and pass defense, having finished 2016 as the top safety against the run and the seventh best overall, per PFF. At the CB spot, the team signed a reliable veteran in Logan Ryan and drafted Adoree’ Jackson, a freaky-athletic prospect who can contribute from day one. Tennessee’s defense could be awfully scary if all the pieces come together.
In addition to their improved personnel, the Titans have the second easiest schedule in the NFL, which could help propel them to the playoffs. Last year, of the teams with the five easiest schedules, four of them qualified for postseason play.
The AFC South is up for grabs. Tennessee’s run offense and run defense proved they could play at a high level last year. If Mariota continues to progress and the secondary plays up to its capabilities, the Titans could steal the division and make a Super Bowl run, as their smashmouth style of play translates well in the postseason.
Los Angeles Chargers
Odds to win Super Bowl 52: 80/1
The Chargers’ final season in San Diego was one to forget. Like the Panthers, the Chargers started slow and never bounced back. The season was characterized by excruciating last minute losses and it seemed like the team found new ways to lose each week. However, there is reason for optimism leading up to the Chargers’ first season in Los Angeles.
Last year, Philip Rivers set a career-high mark in interceptions (21) and was constantly under pressure behind a line that surrendered a whopping 238 total QB pressures and had the second-worst pass blocking efficiency in the league. As a result, the team parted ways with underachievers D.J. Fluker and King Dunlap, bringing in Russell Okung to protect Rivers’ blindside. In addition, the team drafted Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney, two offensive linemen who were highly rated and will provide an infusion of talent on a line that desperately needs it.
With better line play and more time to make throws, Rivers will be able to spread the ball around to an array of weapons. Target monster Keenan Allen will be back, though nobody knows how long he can stay on the field. His health will be imperative to the offense’s success. Outside of Allen, the Chargers added WR Mike Williams with their first round pick, providing Rivers with a big, talented target that will be useful in the red zone. Besides Rivers and Antonio Gates, the offense is full of young players. If they can take a step forward, we should see the big offensive numbers the Chargers used to be known for.
The team played much better defense towards the end of the season. Before the bye in Week 11, the defense allowed 274.5 passing yards per game. After the bye, it surrendered just 207 yards per game through the air, which would’ve been good for third in the league had it been that way all season.
|13||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||268|
|17||Kansas City Chiefs||262|
Defensive end Joey Bosa should continue to showcase his talent after lighting up the league for 10.5 sacks in just 12 games over his rookie campaign. The defense still features other known commodities in Melvin Ingram and Casey Hayward, who led the NFL in interceptions last season. The defensive unit has plenty of talent—it just needs to be consistent for the team to make the next step.
There are a few reasons the Chargers’ Super Bowl odds are as slim as they are. They are coming off a down season, seem to always be plagued with injuries, and play in arguably the most competitive division in football. Nevertheless, they are a dangerous team on paper and could shock the league with a deep playoff run if their pivotal players can remain healthy.
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