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The NFL’s Most Likely Surprise Contenders

Who will be this year’s Rams or Jaguars? Every year an unknown team breaks out—here are three teams you shouldn’t sleep on.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Who do we believe in? Who believes in themselves? Who’s going to take the leap? And are we seriously going to talk ourselves into the Chargers again? Welcome to Place Your Bets Week!

Every season, a handful of NFL teams emerge from the shadows and rise to surprise contender status. At around this time last September, one online sportsbook set the Rams’ win total over/under at 5.5. L.A. went on to win 11 games, lead the NFL in scoring, and win the NFC West. The Jaguars’ win total was set at 6.5; that squad finished 10-6, won the AFC South, and came up just short of a Super Bowl berth. After a fourth-place finish in the NFC East the year before, the Eagles went into last year with its win total set at eight—lower than 18 other teams. Philly ended up winning 13 games, and ... well, you know the rest.

So, who will be this year’s out-of-nowhere playoff squad? A few months ago, the Texans or 49ers probably would’ve made the list, but no one’s sleeping on those teams anymore—there’s too much hype around the return of Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt in Houston and the upcoming Jimmy Garoppolo show in San Francisco. No, we’ve got to dig a little deeper to find the real surprise contenders. Here are a few bolder options for teams that could drastically outplay expectations in 2018.

Cincinnati Bengals

Bovada over/under: 6.5 wins
Warren Sharp’s 2018 Football Preview projection: 7 wins
Football Outsiders Almanac mean projection: 7.4 wins

Look, I know it’s tough to get too excited about a team that’s (a) quarterbacked by Andy Dalton, (b) has averaged 6.5 wins over the past two years, and (c) finished third in its division twice in a row. But with an influx of key personnel, a little luck in the injury department, and strong performances from a couple of young players, Cincy could make a big jump this season.

Offensively, much of the Bengals’ struggles over the past couple of seasons can be attributed to poor performance from their formerly strong offensive line. That unit’s swift downfall was brought on by the team’s refusal to shell out the money to retain top-tier left tackle Andrew Whitworth (now with the Rams) or right guard Kevin Zeitler (now in Cleveland) and its inability to turn former high draft picks Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher into quality starters. However, the Bengals did make a few moves this offseason to address that weakness, trading for Bills left tackle Cordy Glenn, adding former Giants right tackle Bobby Hart in free agency, and drafting first-round interior lineman Billy Price, who’s slated as the starter at center after a strong preseason showing as a pass blocker. There’s still question marks at both guard spots, but the Bengals, under new offensive line coach Frank Pollack (who coached the Cowboys’ elite unit the past three seasons), have the chance to improve substantially up front.

Any jump there could pay enormous dividends for Dalton, who’s struggled passing under pressure for most of his career. Last year the Bengals were forced to design plays that got the ball out of Dalton’s hands quickly, and he finished with the third-shortest average time to throw last year among all regular starters (2.48 seconds). If the new-look offensive line can give Dalton an extra beat or two with which to operate, that could unlock the Bengals’ deep-passing attack: Dalton’s a strong vertical passer and has an elite pass catcher in A.J. Green to throw to downfield. And if second-year pro John Ross can stay healthy and earn himself a spot opposite Green, it’d make Cincinnati pretty daunting to match up with deep. Dalton and Ross have already had one promising connection this preseason:

Ross’s emergence would open up passing lanes in the intermediate areas and could provide a boost to the run game.

Speaking of the ground game, Joe Mixon will have a chance to make a sophomore jump as a runner (he’s been used split out wide as a receiver in the preseason, too), while Gio Bernard remains an elusive and explosive change-of-pace option. In the red zone, getting Tyler Eifert back into action could be a little bit like finding a $20 bill in your couch cushions. The big, athletic tight end hasn’t been able to stay on the field much the past few years, but did score 18 touchdowns during a 21-game stretch back in 2015 and 2016—and even if he’s playing a limited role, he’d provide Dalton with a mismatch threat in the red zone that the Bengals have been desperately missing.

Last season, Cincy’s offense ran a league-low 927 plays, fewer even than the glacially-paced Bears. This year, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, whose interim label was removed after the season, wants to speed things up. A former assistant under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, Lazor’s new, faster scheme could put more stress on opposing defenses and keep them on their heels. It doesn’t hurt either that Cincy will face the eighth-easiest slate of pass defenses this year, per Warren Sharp’s 2018 Football Preview.

Cincinnati has the pieces to improve on defense, too. Geno Atkins is the best interior rusher in the NFL not named Aaron Donald. Carlos Dunlap is a reliable veteran off the edge. And don’t be surprised if you hear the name Carl Lawson an awful lot this year. Lawson racked up 8.5 sacks as a rookie last year while collecting 59 pressures (eighth among all 3-4 linebackers, per PFF), and looks poised for a big breakout this season. Add in Michael Johnson, Jordan Willis, and rookie Sam Hubbard, and Cincy’s got an underratedly deep defensive line.

In the secondary, William Jackson III looks poised to emerge as the NFL’s next shutdown corner (he gave up a 41.6 passer rating in coverage last year, second only to A.J. Bouye, and held some of the league’s best receivers in check). He’s bolstered by a pair of former first-rounders in Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard. That group will have to do more to create takeaways in 2018, as the Bengals finished with just 14 on the year, second-worst, but the talent’s there.

Cincinnati will have to get past the Steelers and Ravens, of course, but after two forgettable years, the Bengals could finally factor in to the playoff race in the AFC North.

Denver Broncos

Bovada over/under total: 7 wins
Warren Sharp’s 2018 Football Preview projection: 7 wins
Football Outsiders Almanac mean projection: 7.0 wins

The Broncos defense had a relative down year in 2018, but relative is certainly the operative term. After ending 2016 ranked first in Football Outsiders DVOA, Denver dropped to 10th in that metric last season—hardly a terrible performance—finishing tied for third in yards per play allowed (4.9—behind only Jacksonville and Minnesota), fourth in pass yards allowed (3,210), and first in yards per carry allowed (3.3).

Losing a Pro Bowl–caliber corner like Aqib Talib (traded to the Rams over the offseason) won’t help the vaunted Broncos’ “No Fly Zone” return to its former glory (in fact, it’s probably time to retire that name). But Denver still has some depth at the cornerback position: Chris Harris will bump to the outside opposite Bradley Roby on base downs, and the team has a few options in nickel situations, with recently signed veterans Tramaine Brock, Adam “Pacman” Jones (who played under Denver head coach Vance Joseph back in 2014 and 2015), and rookie Isaac Yiadom all set to vie for snaps, along with safety Su’a Cravens (acquired in a trade), who could help in “big-nickel,” three-safety situations. More important, the boost the team could get in its pass rush from rookie Bradley Chubb—who bolsters a group that already features Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray—could be more than enough to offset the loss of talent in the back end.

So why does it feel like the defense was such a disappointment last season? The Broncos did give up 23.8 points per game (24th) and surrender 29 passing touchdowns (28th)—but some of the blame there goes to a turnover-prone offense, whose 34 giveaways (second-worst) helped give their defense far, far too many short fields to defend. Put it this way: The Broncos defense ranked second in yards allowed per drive and three-and-outs forced per drive—but with the worst average starting field position of any defense in the league, finished 14th in points surrendered per drive.

So while veteran journeyman Case Keenum may not be the sexiest signing ever, he could be absolutely crucial to the team’s resurgence in 2018. Keenum doesn’t need to light it up and throw the ball all over the field; he just needs to take care of the football like he did last year for Minnesota. The former Viking threw 22 scores and just seven picks in a breakout performance, leading all quarterbacks in DVOA while registering a 1.5 percent interception rate, tied for fourth in the NFL behind Tyrod Taylor, Alex Smith, and Tom Brady (he didn’t fumble, either). Compare that to the three-headed monster Denver had at quarterback: Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, and Paxton Lynch combined to throw 19 touchdowns and 22 interceptions, a turnover bonanza that hamstrung the entire team. Simply cutting down on turnovers could be worth an extra win or three.

Of course, Keenum had a great support system in Minnesota and played for a smart coordinator in Pat Shurmur, who designed a passing game that took advantage of the contested-pass talents of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Denver’s offense isn’t as complete—the offensive line remains a concern—but Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are both big-time playmakers, and Sanders in particular could be in for a bounce-back year after struggling through a high ankle sprain for most of 2017. It would help Keenum too if Denver can make a jump in the run game under rookie Royce Freeman and Devontae Booker; Freeman has looked explosive in the preseason, an element that the offense missed last year (with just eight rushes of 20-plus yards).

Bill Musgrave, now officially the offensive coordinator after finishing last year in an interim role, would do well to implement many of the same concepts Shurmur leaned on to help Keenum to a career year in 2017: run-pass balance, personnel and formational diversity, plenty of play-action, and some college offense concepts. Musgrave has a proven history of designing schemes that play to his quarterbacks’ best strengths; in Oakland, he incorporated spread concepts, run-pass options (some of which he picked up under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia), and plenty of deep shots to help Derek Carr post break-out seasons in 2015 and 2016. Helping matters is that, per Sharp, Denver will face the seventh-easiest schedule of opposing pass defenses this year.

Chris Harris, for one, is a believer in what the team’s new play-caller can do. “We used to hate going against him,” he said. “We used to call him ‘Mad Scientist’ when he was in Oakland, so [we] have a great offense. It fits Case well.”

Washington Redskins

Bovada over/under total: 7 wins
Warren Sharp’s 2018 Football Preview projection: 7 wins
Football Outsiders Almanac mean projection: 7.8 wins

Most people probably assume that Alex Smith is going to fall back to earth after putting together a career year for the Chiefs in 2017, posting 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions, averaging 8.0 yards per attempt, and registering a league-best 104.7 passer rating. But a regression is anything but a given. It’s going to take a smart plan from head coach and play-caller Jay Gruden—they may borrow a few concepts from the Chiefs’ scheme—and Smith will need mismatch tight end Jordan Reed to play most of the year, but the wily veteran passer proved last year he has the upside of a top-10 quarterback, throwing with the type of aggressiveness and confidence he lacked earlier in his career.

Smith had elite playmakers around him in Kansas City, but it’s not like he’s going to a talent-barren scheme in Washington. In addition to Reed, Smith will be throwing to one of the most dynamic slot receivers in the game in Jamison Crowder, a field-stretching contested-ball specialist in Paul Richardson, an elusive open-field missile in running back Chris Thompson, and, if he can finally break out in Year 3, a jump-ball red zone threat in Josh Doctson. He’ll be playing behind a very talented line (which should improve in 2018 after being racked by injury last year). And while the loss of rookie running back Derrius Guice to an ACL tear certainly doesn’t help, Smith will be handing off to a slimmed-down Rob Kelley and a 33-year-old Adrian Peterson, who sure looked like he’s got some gas left in the tank in last week’s preseason action.

One changeup for Smith this year, though, is that he might have the luxury of leaning on a strong defense too. Washington’s quietly built what could be the most underrated defensive line in the game: On the inside, they’ve got Jonathan Allen, Matt Ioannidis, Stacy McGee, and rookies Daron Payne and Tim Settle; and off the edge, we see Ryan Kerrigan (13.0 sacks, three forced fumbles, one pick last year), Preston Smith (8.0 sacks), Anthony Lanier (5.0 sacks), Ryan Anderson (who may play a little bit inside), and Pernell McPhee. That group is promising, and will have a little insurance downfield in shutdown corner Josh Norman. Washington finished last season 11th in defensive DVOA, and with more pressure and improved run defense up front, they could make a jump to the league’s elite.

One issue for Washington is a very tough schedule. The Redskins draw the ninth-toughest slate, per Sharp, with home matchups against the Packers, Panthers, Falcons, Texans, and division-rival Eagles, and road tilts against the Saints, Jags, and Titans. It’s anything but an easy road, but Washington’s got the pieces to surprise some people.