We love the National Football League for a variety of reasons. It is fact-paced, exciting, unpredictable and easily-digestible (with most games occurring on the same day of the week).
We also enjoy the NFL because the league has found a way to create a sense of parity through its use of the salary cap, free agency and the draft. Championship-caliber teams cannot always stay at the top of the mountain and bad teams can become contenders virtually overnight.
It is a parity that has forged a history that is full of quick and successful turnarounds, often in the span of a single season. Last year, for example, saw the Kansas City Chiefs rebound from a disappointing 2-14 campaign to go 11-5 and make a foray into the postseason.
Of course, while the NFL has created a world of parity, it is also largely a what-have-you-done-lately environment. The Chiefs' surprising run was ended by the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs and the majority of fans are likely more concerned with which teams might emerge as surprise contenders next season.
Of the 10 teams slotted to pick at the top of May's draft, four of them appear poised for a quick turnaround (or rebound in some cases) due to a combination of circumstance, returning roster talent and off-season acquisitions.
Atlanta Falcons (4-12 record in 2013)
Most fans probably won't be too surprised next season if the Atlanta Falcons find a way to increase their win total by as many as eight or nine games. This is due to the simple fact that the Falcons already have a franchise-caliber quarterback on their roster in Matt Ryan.
A two-time Pro Bowler, Ryan has the skills and the experience to lead Atlanta back to the postseason.
Speaking of the postseason, it's worth noting that the Falcons had reached the playoffs in four out of the five seasons prior to 2013. This suggests that last season's struggles are more of a sign of aberration than a trend.
Injuries to wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Steven Jackson had a negative impact on the Atlanta offense, while the defense (ranked 28th, allowing 379.4 yards per game) was too often a liability.
Jones and Jackson should both be ready for the 2014 season, which should restore some punch in the Atlanta offense and take a little pressure off of the defense. The Falcons also made some recent moves to shore up its leaky run defense (ranked 31st, allowing 135.8 yards per game) with the free-agent additions of nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson.
The Falcons also worked to revamp their return game in free agency, adding Devin Hester and Javier Arenas to the mix.
Atlanta will have an opportunity to add yet another playmaker with the sixth overall pick in May's draft, though the leadership and production of recently-retired tight end Tony Gonzalez will certainly be missed.
When you factor in the unpredictability of the NFC South (the division still hasn't witnessed back-to-back champions), it doesn't take too much of an imagination to see the Falcons back on top next season.
Houston Texans (2-14)
Like the Falcons, the Houston Texans have had recent success before falling flat last season.
In both 2011 and 2012, the Texans punched a ticket to the postseason and won there. Unfortunately, Houston was derailed in 2013 by a season-ending injury to star running back Arian foster and disastrous quarterback play from quarterback Matt Schaub.
Despite these setbacks, the Texans offense still managed to move the football (ranked 11th, averaging 347.3 yards per game). However, reaching the end zone was a bit of a problem. The Texans ranked 31st in the league in scoring with just 17.3 points per game.
Houston's ability to rebound in 2014 likely hinges on the health of Foster and the ability of new head coach Bill O'Brien to get consistent production out of the team's next quarterback.
Now that the team has dealt Schaub to the Oakland Raiders, there is a strong chance that a rookie quarterback is brought in to compete with Case Keenum, T.J. Yates and the recently-added Ryan Fitzpatrick at the quarterback. Houston owns the No. 1 overall pick, so the Texans will have their pick if the team does decide to select a signal-caller early.
Should a steady starter emerge from the quarterback group, the Texans should have little trouble mounting a significant turnaround and possibly even getting back to the postseason in 2014.
The defense is still playoff caliber (ranked seventh in 2013, allowing just 317.6 yards per game), and a few offensive improvements should be enough to allow the team to become a legitimate contender in the AFC South.
Cleveland Browns (4-12)
The Texans may have had an down year in 2013 because of shaky quarterback play. The Cleveland Browns have been cursed with shaky quarterback play since returning to the league in 1999.
The Browns have sent just one quarterback to the Pro Bowl since then. His name was Derek Anderson.
However, if Cleveland can find a way to stabilize its quarterback position in 2014, the team will have the talent to make a surprising turnaround and possibly a significant push toward the postseason.
Assuming the Browns retain transition-tagged center Alex Mack, the team will return five Pro Bowlers from their 2013 roster. Four of them will be on the offensive side of the football, where the team has already added running back Ben Tate and wideout Andrew Hawkins in free agency.
Cleveland was defensively solid a season ago (ranked ninth, allowing 332.4 yards per game), so an improved offense should put the Browns in position to compete within the AFC North next season. With seven picks in the first four rounds (including two first-rounders), Cleveland should be able to make additional improvements on both sides of the ball.
Of course, much of that improvement will have to come from under center. Brian Hoyer, who went 3-0 as a starter before landing on injured reserve last season, will likely have first crack at winning the job. However, the team may bring in serious competition at quarterback with its fourth or 26th overall picks.
Either way, a legitimate starter must emerge from Cleveland's quarterback group for the team to put its collection of talent to good use. If one does, the Browns may finally stop being a media punchline and start doing some of their own punching on the field.
Buffalo Bills (6-10)
Like Cleveland, the Buffalo Bills may well emerge as a surprise contender next season, provided the team can get consistent quarterback play out of its roster.
Actually, the Bills would probably settle for having one quarterback consistently under center. The team was forced to start three different quarterbacks in 2013, with first-round pick EJ Manuel only appearing in 10 contests.
The Bills were also hampered by star running back C.J. Spiller's nagging ankle injury. Yet, Buffalo still found a way to win six games and could be in store to add to that win total if the right pieces fall into place this coming year.
Buffalo returns an impressive defense (ranked 10th last season, allowing 333.4 yards per game), even with the free-agent loss of safety Jairus Byrd. The unit returns three Pro Bowlers—Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus—on the defensive line alone.
It isn't too much of a stretch to imagine the Bills defense playing at a playoff-caliber level again in 2014.
If so, even minimal offensive improvements (and a healthy quarterback) should allow Buffalo to at least challenge within the AFC East.
Battling for a playoff spot certainly isn't out of the question, though it may not take a dramatic increase in victories (the San Diego Chargers slipped in at 9-7 last season) in order to get there.
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