5 NFL Teams Set for Breakout Seasons in 2014
For as long as the NFC South has existed, the division has never had a repeat champion.
These are great testaments to the playoff parity that the NFL experiences year in and year out and don't expect things to change in 2014.
Around the NFL, teams have been filling holes and adding talent through free agency and the draft. Some have held their focus on building for the future while others are going out and spending big cash in the effort to see instant results.
Each strategy has its own merits, as teams who continuously rebuild through the draft often end up with a deep roster and low salary while teams who spend big in free agency are able to find experienced veterans whom they feel can immediately fit into their lineup and contribute to a potential Super Bowl run.
Regardless of a team's offseason mentality, they can also take a step back or step forward based on development of the players already on the roster, as well as the potential impact of coaching changes that see new schemes and philosophies introduced.
Based on these factors, read on to find out which non-playoff teams are set for breakout seasons in 2014.
2013 Record: 8-8
Last season, the Dolphins' biggest struggle was protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was sacked a league-high 58 times in his sophomore season. To remedy this, the front office went above and beyond this offseason.
Only one starter from 2013's offensive line, center Mike Pouncey, remains in the lineup for 2014. The newcomers are headlined by elite left tackle Branden Albert and the No. 19 overall pick in May's draft, right tackle Ja'Wuan James.
Besides keeping Tannehill upright, the offensive line will also pave the way for running back Knowshon Moreno, who was signed through free agency. In Denver last season, Moreno was an integral part of the most prolific scoring offense in league history and was valuable not only as a rusher, but also as a receiver and in pass protection.
On the other side of the ball, Miami loses little talent that it cannot replace in the front seven. If talented second-year rush linebacker Dion Jordan can stay healthy and produce, the Dolphins could be one of the league's finest teams at rushing the passer.
On the defense's back end, cornerback Cortland Finnegan and safety Louis Delmas were signed through free agency. Finnegan should start opposite of Brent Grimes, who had a great 2013 season. Delmas will provide a hard-hitting presence and should prove to be an excellent signing.
Miami missed the playoffs narrowly last season, and a strong offseason should be enough to push the franchise into the postseason in 2014.
Projected 2014 Record: 10-6 (AFC Wild Card)
2013 Record: 4-12
The Raiders didn't burn their budget with big-name free agents this offseason, but they did fill a number of holes with high-value veteran pickups.
Matt Schaub is the team's new quarterback, and although he won't be a long-term starter, he could fill in for a year or two while rookie Derek Carr develops.
Schaub has proven to be one of the league's more capable starters in the past, but his career has been marred by injuries lately. If he can stay healthy, this offense should be much improved in 2014.
The group should be held together by an improved offensive line that includes three new starters, headlined by left tackle Donald Penn.
Defensively, the Raiders should really get after the passer in 2014. Rookie linebacker Khalil Mack should be one of the league's finest young pass rushers and LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck have also been brought in to bolster the front seven.
The secondary is a bit more of a question mark, but you can survive in the current NFL with a suspect defensive backfield if you have a consistent pass rush.
Sadly for Oakland, they find themselves in a resurgent division that put three teams in the playoffs last season. I see them taking big strides forward, but a losing record within the division will keep them out of the playoffs in 2014.
Projected 2014 Record: 8-8 (No Playoffs)
2013 Record: 3-13
It's hard to believe the extent to which the Redskins struggled in 2013 after such an optimism-filled 2012 season, in which quarterback Robert Griffin III burst onto the scene as a rookie.
However, they struggled in nearly every facet of the game, including special teams, where they were arguably the worst in the league.
So why, then, are signs pointing up for the 'Skins? Well, that answer starts with the improved health of Robert Griffin III.
Griffin played through the pain in 2013 after tearing his ACL the previous season, but his performance dropped off considerably from his rookie season. With the offseason to make a full recovery, expect him to come back to form and lead a strong, balanced offense.
Griffin's play will benefit not only from an improved offensive line, but also from the presence of a new star receiver, DeSean Jackson.
Jackson had an ugly breakup with the Eagles, making this move a bit risky, but the potential payoff is huge, and with a strong running game already in pace, this could be just the boost the Redskins offense needs to become one of the league's best.
The defense won't be as improved as the offense, but it does have several things going for it. The signing of defensive lineman Jason Hatcher will immediately bolster an already solid defensive line, and while the 'Skins' secondary appears to be the weak point, it contains a nice mix of youth and experience.
David Amerson has all the talent to be an elite ball-hawking cornerback, but he'll have to progress quickly as he's likely to be thrown into the starting lineup from the get-go in 2014.
The NFC East has rapidly declined, so a comeback season is much more feasible than it would have been just two seasons ago. The road to the playoffs won't be easy, but I expect the 'Skins to squeeze their way in.
Projected 2014 Record: 10-6 (NFC East Champions)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2013 Record: 4-12
The Bucs were without an answer on offense last season once running back Doug Martin tore a labrum in his shoulder. Quarterback Mike Glennon was solid as a rookie, but he just wasn't ready to carry this offense without Martin behind him.
In 2014, the offense will look completely different. Tampa Bay drafted receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who will prove to be valuable weapons in combination with Vincent Jackson.
Throwing to this group of 6'5" targets will be Josh McCown, who had an impressive season with Chicago last season filling in for the injured Jay Cutler.
As is the theme with the rest of the teams on this list, Tampa Bay bolstered their offensive line by signing left tackle Anthony Collins and center Evan Dietrich-Smith. They now sport one of the league's best offensive lines.
Defensively, they're largely the same team. They've added defensive end Michael Johnson who will bring some much-needed pass rush, but otherwise, they've given a vote of confidence to a group that was very solid in 2013.
With the Panthers and Saints still among the league's most talented teams, 2014 may not be a playoff season for the Bucs, but they will come within striking distance of a Wild Card spot.
Projected 2014 Record: 9-7 (No Playoffs)
St. Louis Rams
2013 Record: 7-9
The Rams' record in 2013 wasn't particularly impressive, but when you consider that they battled it out against the toughest division in football, you can't help but give them some sympathy.
They were 5-3 outside of the NFC West in spite of the loss of quarterback Sam Bradford to a torn ACL.
The offense will obviously benefit from a healthy Bradford, but they will also receive a boost from rookie lineman Greg Robinson, who could instantly be one of the league's finest, and the signing of receiver Kenny Britt. The latter was an underrated addition who could be just the weapon this offense needs—should he stay healthy.
Defensively, the Rams have continued to stockpile talent on the defensive line. They already boasted one of the league's best front fours, but the drafting of rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald also makes their line one of the deepest.
Second-round selection Lamarcus Joyner may be counted on as a starting cornerback, given Janoris Jenkins' inconsistency. If he excels, this will be a Top 10 defense in 2014, but if the Rams fail to find a solution at the position, they could drop out of the Wild Card race.
Ultimately, I believe that they will battle it out with Carolina for the final Wild Card spot, and their playoff hopes could come down to a tiebreaker.
Projected 2014 Record: 10-6 (T-6th NFC)