Tex­ans could be among teams to watch in 2018

Packer Plus - - News - Michael Mid­dle­hurst-Schwartz

Which teams could make big leaps in 2018?

May is a time for NFL teams and fans to en­ter­tain all pos­si­bil­i­ties for the up­com­ing sea­son. Even the league’s most down­trod­den fran­chises can en­vi­sion a swift rise, es­pe­cially given the ex­am­ples set by oth­ers last year.

The Philadel­phia Ea­gles be­came the first team since the 2009 New Or­leans Saints to win the Su­per Bowl af­ter fin­ish­ing in last place in their di­vi­sion the pre­vi­ous sea­son. The Jack­sonville Jaguars cap­tured the AFC South crown for the first time in fran­chise his­tory af­ter fin­ish­ing in the cel­lar in 2016. (The Carolina Pan­thers made a sim­i­lar jump, but a tiebreaker rel­e­gated them to sec­ond place last sea­son even though they shared an 11-5 record with the NFC South cham­pion Saints.)

Here’s our rank­ing of how likely last­place fin­ish­ers from 2017 are to com­plete a worst-to-first tran­si­tion:

2. 49ers 1. Tex­ans

Houston ac­tu­ally fin­ished tied with In­di­anapo­lis in the AFC South base­ment last year. But while the Colts are hold­ing out hope that An­drew Luck’s po­ten­tial re­turn can re­store them to cred­i­bil­ity, the Tex­ans have the top-end ta­lent to rise much higher. De­shaun Wat­son could make a Car­son Went­zlevel leap in Year 2 as he re­cov­ers from a torn an­te­rior cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment. Mean­while, a de­fense that ranked last in scor­ing is bound to im­prove with the re­turns of three-time de­fen­sive player of the year J.J. Watt and un­der­rated pass rusher Whit­ney Mer­cilus, as well as the ad­di­tions of Tyrann Mathieu, Aaron Colvin and rookie Justin Reid to the sec­ondary.

But Houston’s ros­ter doesn’t have much in the way of a mid­dle class, and its short­com­ings — es­pe­cially an of­fen­sive line that gave up 54 sacks — are sig­nif­i­cant. Still, there’s lit­tle ques­tion that the Tex­ans have the high­est ceil­ing of any team on this list.

If this ex­er­cise were solely based off how teams fin­ished the 2017 cam­paign, San Fran­cisco would be the clear choice for No. 1. Kyle Shana­han’s group looked well ahead of sched­ule when it closed the year 5-0 af­ter Jimmy Garop­polo took the start­ing reins. With for­mer neme­sis Richard Sher­man fill­ing a glar­ing hole at cor­ner­back, the de­fense also looks to be tak­ing shape.

Both the Sea­hawks and Car­di­nals could be headed for tran­si­tional years amid sig­nif­i­cant off-sea­son changes, but the star-stud­ded Rams re­main a ma­jor ob­sta­cle atop the di­vi­sion. Given the multi-year re­build that Shana­han and gen­eral man­ager John Lynch took on, the Nin­ers likely still need some lee­way as a young ros­ter con­tin­ues to de­velop.

3. Bron­cos

Af­ter be­ing grounded by sub­par pass­ing the last two sea­sons, Den­ver is ready to find out how far steady quar­ter­back play can take the cur­rent out­fit. Case Keenum looks ca­pa­ble of be­ing the plug-and-play op­tion the team needs to take ad­van­tage of its third-ranked de­fense. Von Miller and first-round pick Bradley Chubb need to reignite the pass rush to make up for vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties along the de­fen­sive line and in the sec­ondary, but Den­ver still has the tools to move past the mem­o­ries of last year’s eightgame los­ing streak.

The AFC West might be tightly con­tested again, but the uncer­tainty sur­round­ing the Chiefs amid Pa­trick Ma­homes’ as­cen­sion to start­ing QB leaves the door open for a new cham­pion. Gen­eral man­ager John El­way said the Charg­ers might be the team to beat, but Den­ver looks poised to right the ship in short or­der.

4. Giants

Af­ter Ezekiel El­liott and Leonard Four­nette helped re­cal­i­brate the Cow-

boys and Jaguars’ of­fenses as rook­ies en route to di­vi­sion ti­tles, the Giants are hop­ing Saquon Barkley can bring about a sim­i­lar sea change. The No. 2 pick should pro­vide a needed sense of bal­ance next to Odell Beck­ham and Eli Man­ning, who likely will have have im­proved blind side pro­tec­tion with Nate Sol­der tak­ing over. New coach Pat Shur­mur also fig­ures to be a steady­ing pres­ence in the re­set.

But re­turn­ing to the fran­chise’s seem­ingly peren­nial sta­tus as a play­off con­tender won’t be as sim­ple as dis­miss­ing any lin­ger­ing drama. The de­fense gave up an NFL-worst 32 pass­ing touch­downs last sea­son, and a pass rush that gen­er­ated just 27 sacks lost Ja­son Pierre-Paul. With the Ea­gles way out in front of the rest of the NFC East, Big Blue will be hard-pressed to cap­ture its first di­vi­sion ti­tle since 2011.

5. Bears

Tak­ing cues from the Rams’ rapid rise, Chicago hired a young, in­no­va­tive of­fen­sive mind in Matt Nagy to bring along sec­ond-year QB Mitchell Tru­bisky and re­vive a pass­ing at­tack that ranked as the NFL’s worst last sea­son. Gen­eral man­ager Ryan Pace pro­vided new tools with wide re­ceivers Allen Robin­son and Tay­lor Gabriel and tight end Trey Bur­ton. With a top 10 de­fense and room to grow for Jor­dan Howard and Tarik Co­hen in the run­ning game, the Bears could en­joy a quick turn­around.

The NFC North com­pe­ti­tion, how­ever, might tem­per Chicago’s prospects. The Bears were just one of two teams to go 0-6 in their di­vi­sion last sea­son (along with the Browns) and have nei­ther the star-stud­ded ros­ter of the Vik­ings nor the trans­for­ma­tive ta­lent that the Pack­ers boast in Aaron Rodgers.

6. Buc­ca­neers

Ja­son Licht qui­etly im­ple­mented an ag­gres­sive off-sea­son plan. Sad­dled with the league’s worst pass rush, he over­hauled the de­fen­sive line by adding Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry on the edge be­fore draft­ing Vita Vea.

The ninth-ranked of­fense was ex­plo­sive in stretches, but speedy rookie Ron­ald Jones should jolt a run­ning at­tack that had just five gains of 20 yards or more.

Yet there might be too much ground to make up in a di­vi­sion that fea­tures three re­turn­ing play­off teams, all of whom boast a quar­ter­back ca­pa­ble of el­e­vat­ing his re­spec­tive group. Un­less Jameis Win­ston can es­tab­lish him­self on that level by tak­ing a sig­nif­i­cant step in his de­vel­op­ment and curb­ing his turnovers, Tampa Bay will have a dif­fi­cult time keep­ing pace.

7. Browns

No one will ac­cuse GM John Dorsey of stand­ing pat in his first off-sea­son as he re­builds a team that’s 1-31 since 2016. A com­pletely new set of quar­ter­backs, led by Ty­rod Tay­lor and No. 1 pick Baker May­field, might be the best rep­re­sen­ta­tion of how bold Cleve­land has been in re­con­struct­ing its ros­ter. While there are still sev­eral holes, the Browns look poised to make a siz­able leap.

But even sub­stan­tial progress might not amount to much more than a hand­ful of wins. The Browns have dropped their last six games against the Steel­ers, so catch­ing up to Pitts­burgh this quickly seems like a pipe dream. Fin­ish­ing any­thing other than last in the AFC North for the first time since 2010 would mark sig­nif­i­cant progress.

8. Jets

Take so­lace, Gang Green fans: At least there are signs of progress. In Sam Darnold, the Jets ap­pear to have fi­nally found a start­ing point for their re­build. Sad­dled with a weak supporting cast, he could have a rough ride should he have a sig­nif­i­cant role as a rookie. But with the right breaks, New York could push the Dol­phins and Bills. Yet the Jets are the clear choice for the last slot on this list given the pres­ence of the Pa­tri­ots, who have claimed the AFC East a record nine con­sec­u­tive sea­sons.


With Houston quar­ter­back De­shaun Wat­son back un­der cen­ter, the Tex­ans should be much im­proved.


New York Giants rookie run­ning back Saquon Barkley throws out the first pitch at a Yan­kees game last month.

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