There’s no more optimistic time in the NFL calendar than between the draft and kickoff. Every team’s fanbase thinks that they’ve improved their roster over the past two months. Every team’s best hopes for the upcoming season are still alive.
Of course, not every team’s season will match those hopes. That doesn’t mean those hopes were more or less valid to begin with – it’s just the nature of competition. For certain teams to achieve their potential in the win-loss column, other teams have to leave wins on the table.
While some teams will disappoint (check here for Sam Smith’s predictions on who those teams will be), other teams will surprise us on a more positive note. Here are my predictions as to who five of those teams could be in 2018.
Los Angeles Chargers
If you’re the type of NFL fan who closely tracks the Chargers, you might not consider a successful season from them to be surprising. But, for one reason or another, the red-headed stepchild Los Angeles team tends to fly under the public radar.
The Chargers didn’t turn in a poor effort in 2017, finishing second in the AFC West at 9-7 and remaining in playoff contention through Week 17, all despite a 0-4 start to the season. Philip Rivers, in his 14th season as an NFL quarterback, passed for 4,515 yards and 28 touchdowns. Yet he threw only 10 interceptions (his lowest total since 2009) and was sacked on only 3.0% of his dropbacks. At 36 years old (37 in December), Rivers has snuck back into the top-tier quarterback pool in the presumptive winter of his career.
Not that he’ll have to do it himself – the Chargers have talent at every skill position and across the defense. Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, and Hunter Henry could all be elite fantasy players at their positions if they remain healthy. Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa are among the best pass-rushing tandems in the NFL. Casey Hayward‘s 2017 season as the Bolts’ top cornerback was nothing less than phenomenal.
Given that the rest of the AFC West is debuting either a new starting quarterback or a new head coach in 2018, perhaps the Chargers coming out on top shouldn’t be surprising. That being said, it’s the Chargers – some fans just won’t see them coming.
Bill O’Brien has now been the head coach in Houston for four NFL seasons. His 2017 season was the first of them to not end in a 9-7 record. Why does the idea of the Texans finishing 9-7 in 2018 sound like it would qualify as surprising?
Simply put, because their best players spent most of 2017 sidelined by injury. Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt, on a roster as top-heavy as Houston’s, were too important to lose. With Watson under center, the Texans’ deficient offensive line was almost an afterthought – without him, it was impossible to ignore. If Watson and DeAndre Hopkins stay healthy, the rest of Houston’s offense can fall into place around them.
Watt is a somewhat different story, having played a combined eight games in the past two seasons. Now 29 years old, it’s fair to question if we’ll see the same version of Watt that was a first-team All-Pro selection from 2012 to 2015. Regardless, Watt has a long way to fall before he’d no longer qualify as a blue-chip player, let alone a competitive asset. He’ll be rejoining a pass-rushing unit that also stars Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus – a duo that headlined the league’s top overall defense in 2016.
Moreover, how difficult does navigating the AFC South really figure to be? The Jaguars emerged from years of squalor as one of 2018’s best teams, but the reins of their offense still lie in the hands of Blake Bortles. The Titans snuck into the 2018 playoffs and ostensibly upgraded their head coach by hiring Mike Vrabel, but they shouldn’t be penciled in to return just yet. Both teams have a reasonable margin for regression – if either one reaches it, the Texans’ path to a 9-7 wildcard bid is clear.
It’s hard to find a team that’s easy to predict a bad year from in the NFC. The Cardinals, in the inaugural year of the Josh Rosen era with a relatively depleted roster, fit the bill. That might be where the list ends.
In the NFC East, hope abounds. The Eagles won the Super Bowl and return with another daunting roster. The Cowboys made the postseason a mere two years ago, and could easily return after missing out in 2017. The Giants, despite falling much further in their off-year, also have a solid case for returning. While the Redskins’ case isn’t being touted as loudly, I’m not sure it’s any weaker.
To be clear: I think the process that led to Alex Smith being the Redskins’ starting quarterback was poorly-planned nonsense. I don’t think the net result will reflect that. Smith will join a Redskins offensive unit that finished 2017 with Terrelle Pryor, Jordan Reed, and Chris Thompson all on injured reserve. Reed and Thompson will return to a unit also featuring Josh Doctson, Jamison Crowder, and rookie Derrius Guice. The offensive line, when healthy, isn’t exactly a pushover either – Smith has no excuses here.
Not that he’ll necessarily need any. While wins aren’t a quarterback stat, teams with Alex Smith have only missed the playoffs once since 2010. That isn’t a meaningless point.
A lot of the presentation regarding the Redskins applies here – no one’s picking a bad team in the NFC North. The Vikings asserted themselves as contenders in 2017, before swiping the Redskins’ should’ve-been franchise quarterback. The Packers, as long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy, are expected to win. The Bears, after the offseason that they’ve enjoyed, have become a darling pick to reverse their recent bad history. There’s similar optimism about the Lions out there, but it isn’t nearly as prevalent.
Perhaps it should be. The Lions are only two years removed from their last playoff appearance, and didn’t face elimination in 2017 until Week 16. This isn’t some new-kid-on-the-block team like some figure the Bears to be.
New head coach Matt Patricia comes with the credentials to justify the hype he’s received. The team firmly addressed their greatest recent issue (their ground game) this offseason. Certified starting left tackle Taylor Decker is set to return after spending much of 2017 on the sideline. And, while it’s somehow gone largely unnoticed, Matthew Stafford has ascended to the very top tier of NFL quarterbacks over the past two seasons.
The Lions aren’t a team that might succeed due to weak competition or weaving through mid-tier teams. They might just come out and blow the doors off of their opponents. They also might not, but it’ll surprise more fans than it should if they do.
San Francisco 49ers
Expectations for the ‘9ers are across the board, so the term ‘surprise’ here is more relative than usual. Some see a team already commandeered by an enviable coach-quarterback combination, while others see a rebuilding team that simply has those two critical pieces in place. I’d argue that both can be true.
In his five starts in 2017, Garoppolo led the team to five wins (after they went 1-11 without him). Garoppolo wasn’t your typical young breakout quarterback running his coach’s dog-and-pony show, diddling around with his legs to extend plays out of a contracted or changed playbook. He was running Kyle Shanahan’s offense like a grown man – and he was elevating the play of his teammates in the process. After picking it up midseason.
It took Shanahan a full year with Matt Ryan in Atlanta before he had his offense firing on all cylinders. Garoppolo might be ready to perform on that level this September. He might not have Julio Jones to work with, but the receiving unit doesn’t lack diversity. Shanahan can make something work with Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin, rookie Dante Pettis, and the rest. The strength of the Falcons’ 2016 offense was never Jones – it was how Shanahan optimized every player available to him. That’s not to take away from Jones as a player – just to say that Shanahan could’ve made do with less.
Regardless, if betting on the 49ers in 2018 comes down to betting on the Garoppolo/Shanahan offense, you’ll find my chips in the middle of the table.