One Team in Each NFL Division That Could Surprise in 2013
Every single year around the National Football League, we see certain teams surprise skeptics who said they couldn't contend.
In 2011, the San Francisco 49ers shocked the football world by winning 13 games under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. They were nowhere near the radar of skeptics and experts during the preseason, but the 49ers came an overtime loss away from winning the NFC.
In 2012, multiple teams stood up and said no to rebuilding. Instead, teams such as the Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins made surprising trips to the postseason. For the first time in the modern history of the NFL, teams that had the first and second picks in the draft made it to the playoffs.
What's in the cards for 2013? Which teams will show up and prove experts wrong?
This article will focus on one team in each division that could surprise the football world by earning a trip to the playoffs. The odds will be against some of these teams, as they're playing in the best divisions in the NFL, but their talent suggests possible contention.
Let's take a look.
AFC East: Miami Dolphins
Ryan Tannehill has the necessary weapons to improve in 2013.
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As most of my readers know, I am not a huge fan of what general manager Jeff Ireland did in free agency. I personally believe he overspent for decent role players and some nice young talent. In terms of sustainability, I am not sure this is a great long-term plan.
That being said, Miami did bring in a nice amount of talent to mix with what it already had on the roster.
Following what has to be considered a successful rookie campaign, Ryan Tannehill now has a wide array of targets to throw to in the passing game.
New additions Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson and Dustin Keller combined for 143 receptions and 15 scores for their former clubs in 2012. For what it's worth, that latter number represents three more touchdown passes than Tannehill threw to what had to be considered a lackluster Miami receiving group this past season.
All three represent upgrades from what we saw last season. Wallace immediately takes over as the No. 1 wide receiver and is the biggest receiving threat in South Beach since Brandon Marshall departed for Chicago following 2011.
Meanwhile, Brandon Gibson takes over as the No. 3 receiver and slot guy. He has been consistently good over the past three seasons with St. Louis, recording an average of 47 receptions and 580 yards during that span. Not bad numbers for a secondary target.
Before the injury bug hit him in 2012, Keller had been an under-the-radar performer for the division rival New York Jets. Keller's best season came in 2011, when he put up 815 yards and five scores. He is an immediate upgrade over Anthony Fasano at tight end.
While Miami did lose Jake Long to St. Louis in free agency and failed to make a couple of moves to replace him, Tyson Clabo was a nice, quiet signing last week.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) had Clabo graded out as the No. 14-ranked offensive tackle this past season. While Jonathan Martin did struggle in pass protection as a rookie, he should do a decent job manning the other side of the line with a year of experience and another offseason under his belt.
Defensively, Miami is in somewhat of a transitional period.
Dion Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft, brings youthful exuberance and a great raw pass-rushing repertoire with him to Miami. He joins incumbent Cameron Wake to form a solid tandem at defensive end.
While not necessarily an upgrade in the true sense of the word, Dannell Ellerbe is younger and possesses more upside than Karlos Dansby at middle linebacker. He joins fellow free-agent signing Philip Wheeler, who had a breakout 2012 campaign for Oakland, to give Miami a little more youth at linebacker.
Three of Miami's top four cornerbacks are new additions. Brent Grimes missed most of the 2012 season with injury, but he performed extremely well prior to that in Atlanta. He replaces former second-round pick Sean Smith, who failed to live up to expectations after a solid rookie campaign in 2009. Grimes represents an upgrade, but he has to be considered a bit of a question mark following his ACL injury a season ago.
I really love what Miami did in the draft as it relates to the secondary. Both Jamar Taylor and Will Davis are future starters at cornerback. They also give the Dolphins some depth this upcoming season in case Richard Marshall struggles and/or Grimes doesn't return to form.
The Dolphins are still a few steps behind New England in the AFC East. I don't think anyone can question that. But with a little bit of luck and improvement from Tannehill at quarterback, Miami could close that gap. At the very least, it is currently the second-best team in the division. That's good enough to vie for a wild-card slot.
AFC South: Tennessee Titans
Will Chris Johnson live up to his nickname "CJ2K" in 2013?
Tom Lynn/Getty Images
The Tennessee Titans will again be relying a great deal on Chris Johnson to live up to his contract and return to form. But instead of just throwing him out there and expecting enhanced results, Tennessee has actually surrounded the talented running back with the necessary tools to be successful this upcoming season.
First, Tennessee added one of the better blocking tight ends in the league in Delanie Walker. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Walker was the second-best run-blocking tight end in the league last season. He had 21 receptions for 344 yards and three touchdowns as the "backup" to Vernon Davis in San Francisco.
The addition of Andy Levitre from the Buffalo Bills to play left guard will also help Johnson a great deal. While he is stronger in pass protection than in run blocking, Levitre will team up well with first-round pick Chance Warmack to form one of the better guard tandems in the league.
If Johnson is able to return to his 2009 form, it will open up the passing game and play action for third-year quarterback Jake Locker.
The former first-round pick failed to really progress in his second season. He threw one more interception than touchdown and lost seven of his 11 starts. If he can become more consistent with a strong running game behind him, Locker won't be under as much pressure to make a questionable decision or throw into a tight window.
Defensively, the Titans will struggle. They ranked dead last in the NFL in points against and 27th in total defense this past season. Adding a questionable cover safety in Bernard Pollard to go along with one of the worst cover free safeties in Michael Griffin really isn't going to solve that.
In order for Tennessee to compete with Houston and Indianapolis in the division, it will have to score a ton of points, because its defense just isn't up to par.
This puts more pressure on Locker to get the ball down the field, but it also magnifies Johnson's importance to the team.
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
Trent Richardson will be key to Cleveland's chances of returning to relevance.
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
As I indicated in an article earlier this week, the Cleveland Browns were much more competitive last season than most people gave them credit for.
While running short on talent on the offensive side of the ball, Cleveland has built what should be considered a top-10 defense in 2013.
The additions of veterans Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant to an already talent-laden defense only enhance my belief that Cleveland will compete on a weekly basis in 2013. Bringing in talented youngsters such as Barkevious Mingo and Leon McFadden in the draft to mesh with these veterans may actually enable Cleveland to pull out the close games it lost last season.
As has been the case in the past, Cleveland's shot at success will depend greatly on consistency from the quarterback position and the ability of wide receivers to provide open throwing lanes on the outside.
Veteran Jason Campbell will vie with second-year player Brandon Weeden for the starting gig. Whoever gives new head coach Rob Chudzinski a better shot to contend in 2013 will get the job out of camp. I am not ready to conclude who that will be, but Cleveland has added necessary components to make this unit halfway decent.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Cleveland's offensive line ranked fifth overall in pass protection in 2012. Another season of experience from starting right tackle Mitchell Schwartz will only help this unit maintain its excellence in 2013.
In addition, Cleveland added Davone Bess and David Nelson to a previously lackluster receiving group. Bess has been one of the better slot guys in the league over the past few seasons, recording 61 receptions for 778 yards in Miami last season.
Nelson missed all but one game last year after suffering a torn ACL in Buffalo's season opener, but he did record 61 receptions and five scores in 2011. If he can return to form, Nelson could easily take over for the enigmatic Greg Little as a starter opposite Josh Gordon.
Speaking of Gordon, he surprised everyone with a stellar rookie campaign after being selected in the second round of the 2012 supplemental draft. The Baylor product immediately became Cleveland's biggest threat in the passing game, and he will look to build off of that performance in 2013.
That being said, Cleveland's success on offense may rely more on Trent Richardson than any one player. The former top-10 pick battled injuries throughout his rookie season, but he was still able to tally more than 1,300 total yards and 12 touchdowns.
He'll need to come in as a sophomore and take control of Cleveland's offense. This means upping his yards-per-carry average from a pedestrian 3.6 to the mid-fours and becoming a more consistent all-around running back.
If that happens, the Browns could win more close game than they lose and become the Indianapolis Colts of the 2013 season.
The issue here is that the Browns are playing in arguably the toughest division in the NFL and don't really have a clear path to winning the division. A majority of experts, myself included, are predicting Cleveland will finish in the cellar once again. It could be a story of the Browns improving a great deal on the field but failing to have it show up in the win column.
If Cleveland can somehow surpass a team like Pittsburgh, it could be looking at playoff contention into December. If the ball bounces right, meaning these youngsters step up a great deal, the Browns could really surprise in 2013.
AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs
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Let's make one thing clear here: The Kansas City Chiefs were one of the most talented two-win teams in the history of the NFL this past season. They had multiple Pro Bowl players on the defensive side of the ball and some of the best skill-position players in the league on offense.
Their two primary downfalls in 2012 were a lack of decent coaching on the sideline and horrendous play from the quarterback position.
Both have been fixed this offseason.
Andy Reid comes in after being one of the most successful regular-season head coaches in the past 20 years in the NFL. He brings the West Coast offense with him and a quarterback (Alex Smith) who understands full well how to run it.
To say that mistakes were a downfall for this team in 2012 would be an understatement. Look at it this way: Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn threw as many interceptions (20) in 474 pass attempts last season as Alex Smith has thrown in his past 1,000-plus pass attempts.
Winning on a consistent basis with those types of numbers just isn't sustainable. Say what you want about Smith, but he knows how to manage a game and avoid mistakes.
If Smith can repeat or build off of his performances from the past two seasons, Kansas City should be in a good spot. After all, the team possesses a tremendous amount of talent on defense.
A core that consists of Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, Brandon Flowers and Eric Berry isn't too bad. Adding the likes of Sean Smith, Dunta Robinson and Mike DeVito will only make this unit better.
If Kansas City can get increased production from youngsters such as Justin Houston (10 sacks in 2012) and nose tackle Dontari Poe, this unit could take the step from average to near-elite status.
The recipe for success is here. Rely on Jamaal Charles running the ball, give Smith time to find open receivers, limit mistakes and play good overall defense. If Kansas City is able to do this, there is no reason to believe it can't finish above .500 in 2013. That puts the Chiefs in prime position to contend for a playoff spot.
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
Will Tony Romo finally get some help? Protection would be nice.
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Dallas has gone down to Week 17 in each of the past two seasons with an opportunity to earn the NFC East title. It has failed miserably both times.
This only laid the foundation for more skeptics to question Tony Romo's ability to come through in the clutch and Jason Garrett's viability as a head coach.
While both of those divisive figures are not without question marks, they are talented in what they can do and could be two reasons why Dallas clears that final hurdle and wins the division in 2013.
Before we look further into what Dallas might bring to the table in 2013, let's take a gander at the division for a second. The simple fact that Dallas has been able to be contend for the division into late December seems to indicate the division itself isn't too great.
We are not looking at the NFC West or AFC North here. All four teams in this division stand a shot at winning the title. Heck, all four teams could finish in the cellar. To say that it's wide open would be an understatement.
This puts Dallas in a situation to contend for a playoff spot without being relegated to a wild-card berth.
Now on to the Cowboys for a second.
Say what you want about Romo, but he was the Cowboys' best player the past two seasons. While Romo did tie Drew Brees for the league lead in interceptions with 19, he also threw for more than 4,900 yards and 28 touchdowns behind a miserable offensive line.
Romo was sacked the sixth-most times of any quarterback in the league, but that doesn't tell the entire story. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Cowboys offensive line ranked 25th in the NFL in pass protection.
Using the same grading metric, Tyron Smith (55th) and Doug Free (59th) were among the two worst pass-blocking starting tackles in the league. That's simply not going to get it done.
The Cowboys' issues with pass protection could have been in large part due to an inability to find balance on offense. They ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing yards with less than 80 per game and averaged a pedestrian 3.6 yards per rush. Those numbers need to increase if the Cowboys are going to take the next step.
The good news is that DeMarco Murray should be healthy to start training camp, and Dallas added under-the-radar running back Joseph Randle in April's draft.
Give Romo balance on offense and he'll be able to find up-and-coming young wide receiver Dez Bryant on the outside on a more consistent basis.
The former first-round pick had a breakout campaign in 2012. He recorded more than 90 receptions for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. In the latter part of the year, however, Bryant finally started living up to expectations. He put up 47 receptions for 792 yards and nine touchdowns in his final seven games (via Pro Football Reference).
Dallas is also in the midst of making changes on the defensive side of the ball. The team is switching from a base 3-4 that we saw under former coordinator Rob Ryan to a Tampa 2 defense with Monte Kiffin at the helm.
This means DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer will be playing with their hands down at the line instead of at outside linebacker. Both should be able to take advantage of their speed off the edge and create more pressure on the quarterback.
This new scheme also plays to the Cowboys' strengths at linebacker. Sean Lee will be able to pair up with the talented Bruce Carter as a solid duo in the 4-3. It's all about getting the best personnel on the field at all times. Switching to this scheme seems to do that for Dallas.
With a season under his belt, second-year cornerback Morris Claiborne is primed for a breakout campaign and will again be joined by Brandon Carr on the outside. If those two can mask what promises to be coverage issues at safety, the Cowboys defense should be in good shape.
Some might ask what the formula here is. Protect Romo, get a consistent running game and make a seamless transition to a new defense. If Dallas is able to do this, it could very well win the division.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Having his two starting guards back will help Doug Martin improve on a stellar rookie year.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Mixing solid draft classes with great free-agent acquisitions is a new philosophy for these Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it remains to be seen just how successful they will be working under that mentality.
Due to injuries and off-field issues this past season, only one major free-agent signing from the 2012 offseason passed the test. Vincent Jackson, who was the most sought-after wide receiver in the free-agent period last April, provided Josh Freeman with that consistent outlet on the outside.
Meanwhile, Carl Nicks missed games due to injury, and Eric Wright didn't live up to expectations off the field or on the field on Sundays.
In March, Tampa Bay signed former San Francisco Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson to a large contract. He will pair up with Mark Barron to form a hard-hitting safety duo. That's fine and dandy, but both lack the necessary coverage skills to mask issues as they relate to cornerback play.
Pretty much on cue, the team then traded for the best shutdown cornerback in the form of Darrelle Revis. If healthy, Revis will do wonders in the Buccaneers' defensive backfield. He seems to fit extremely well in their scheme considering that neither Goldson nor Barron will be tasked with doubling over the top on his side. That leaves both to roam free and do what they do best.
Tampa Bay's secondary has to be stellar because the team's pass rush is going to border on horrendous. Michael Bennett, who tallied one-third (nine) of the Buccaneers' 27 sacks last season, bolted for Seattle in free agency. Da'Quan Bowers now needs to live up to high expectations and record double-digit sacks if the Buccaneers are going to have sustained success in the front seven.
Consistency will be an issue for Freeman. He needs to show up every week and play good football. This is something that just didn't happen in 2012. After putting up five consecutive games with a quarterback rating in the triple digits during the middle part of the year, Freeman threw 12 interceptions in Tampa Bay's final seven games and finished with a rating under 80 in six of those outings (via Pro Football Reference).
That's not the type of play you look for in a quarterback who has four years of experience under his belt.
With that in mind, the Buccaneers' success on offense will depend on Doug Martin and the return to health of their two starting guards. As of right now, they seem to have one of the most dynamic running games in the entire league. If this holds true, the pressure will be off of Freeman to make throws into tight windows and convert on 3rd-and-longs.
The talent is definitely here. Tampa Bay just needs to put it all together in order to contend in the ultra-competitive NFC. If it does, we could be looking at a surprise playoff run.
NFC North: Chicago Bears
As an offensive guru, new head coach Marc Trestman has a plan.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Give Jay Cutler time to pass the ball and you will be surprised what he can do on a consistent basis in the pocket. After all, there is no doubting the talent he possesses. But once pressured, Cutler looks like a chicken with his head cut off.
While some can question the additions that Chicago made along the offensive line—and trust me, I have—something needed to get done. Throwing Gabe Carimi and Chilo Rachal out there on a weekly basis wasn't going to help matters moving forward.
General manager Phil Emery and Co. fully understood this.
Jermon Bushrod might have struggled last season in New Orleans, but remember, he had a Pro Bowl campaign as the blind-side protector for Drew Brees just two seasons ago. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked him as the seventh-best left tackle in terms of pass protection back in 2011.
If Bushrod can regain 2011 form, he will be a major upgrade over what Chicago had at left tackle last season.
Kyle Long was a surprise first-round pick back in April. While he might be considered a reach, there is a nice amount of upside there. Chicago might bring him along slowly as guard, but even then, he is an upgrade over the combination of Rachal and Lance Louis.
Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall are Chicago's two playmakers on offense. They get that unit going and give Cutler the necessary weapons to succeed. If the quarterback can get increased protection up front, it will only benefit these two superstars.
Some will point to the loss of Brian Urlacher and say it will be huge for Chicago's defense. From a leadership standpoint, I get that, but he was nothing more than a marginal inside linebacker in 2012. In fact, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked Urlacher as the 44th-best inside linebacker in the NFL last season.
Even if he goes through growing pains as a rookie this season, Jonathan Bostic could be an immediate upgrade over the future Hall of Famer.
Chicago's front seven will not be fazed by a few different departures. It has the talent and depth to be successful, even in the ultra-competitive NFC North.
In reality, it's all about getting the necessary protection for Cutler and being able to count on a healthy Matt Forte every week. If that happens, Chicago will definitely be in the mix for a postseason spot come December. If not, we will be looking at another down year.
NFC West: St. Louis Rams
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No one is denying that it's going to be tough sledding for the St. Louis Rams in the NFC West this upcoming season. This division boasts the defending conference champions and an up-and-coming Seattle Seahawks team.
Both San Francisco and Seattle are expected to be among the five best teams in the entire National Football League in 2013.
Can St. Louis realistically expect to contend for the division crown?
Well, everything would have to work in the Rams' favor for this to happen. First, both Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick would have to regress as quarterbacks and struggle taking that next step toward elite status. Second, Sam Bradford would have to close the gap between himself and those two talented youngsters.
Adding Tavon Austin at wide receiver in the 2013 NFL draft will go a long way in terms of helping Bradford find weapons on the outside. The West Virginia product will be used as a Swiss Army knife of sorts. This means he'll line up in the slot, play on the outside and even line up in the offensive backfield.
New addition Jared Cook might not give Bradford a consistent tight end threat (3.4 receptions per game in 2012), but he can help Austin stretch the field (15.5 yards per catch in 2011). He'll team up with Lance Kendricks to form a solid tight end tandem.
That being said, the biggest addition to the Rams offense has to be former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long. The former Pro Bowl left tackle has been injury-riddled the past two seasons, but when healthy, he is among the best blind-side protectors in the NFL.
Considering that St. Louis had Wayne Hunter and Barry Richardson starting at tackle this past season, Long represents a major upgrade.
We can talk about the Rams offense until we are blue in the face, but the team is going to win or lose games on defense. This is a unit that has to be considered up and coming. It boasts a solid front four with Chris Long, Michael Brockers and Robert Quinn. Those three players did wonders in terms of both getting to the quarterback on the outside as well as stuffing the run inside.
Rookie first-round pick Alec Ogletree brings athleticism and raw talent with him and should be a nice complement along the weak side next to James Laurinaitis.
You also have to take into account Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins at cornerback. They played extremely well together this past season and form an above-average duo. If St. Louis can get even average play from its safeties, its defense should be strong in 2013.
Even if St. Louis finishes in third place in the NFC West, a likelihood at this point, there is no reason to believe that it can't contend for the final playoff spot.
The talent is here, head coach Jeff Fisher just needs to continue molding this young team to fit what he likes to do on the field. If this happens, watch out.
Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist here at Bleacher Report. Vincent is the head sports editor over at eDraft, co-host of Draft Sports Radio, which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m. ET, and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus.
Go ahead and give him a follow on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL.