The Premier League is always destined to spring a surprise or two on the league table by year's end.
Who foresaw Liverpool's title challenge or Everton pushing for a top-four spot? Southampton were also a welcome addition to the top half. Crystal Palace went from possible relegation to 11th place under Tony Pulis.
The 2014/15 season will be no different. Some clubs will perform well under expectations, and others will end up much higher than anybody expected them to.
The three clubs below won't exactly have a major say in the title race, but they should defy expectations a bit in a positive way.
I'll admit that I'm a bit hesitant to put Sunderland on this list. It felt like the Black Cats would've been on this list last year after adding Jozy Altidore, Vito Mannone, Emanuele Giaccherini and Andrea Dossena.
Then many of their summer signings struggled, which was only made worse by Paolo Di Canio's unpredictable and demanding demeanor.
Now Sunderland have a capable manager in Gus Poyet, reasonable expectations and a few summer signings who should help out the club. Jordi Gomez and Costel Pantilimon aren't going to move the needle much, but they provide both depth and experience.
The crown jewel is Jack Rodwell. The 23-year-old is a bit of a gamble, given his injury history and terrible stint at Manchester City. But he's the kind of high-risk, high-reward player who can help vault Sunderland into the top half.
One of the club's biggest problems last season was the lack of a midfielder who could facilitate the attack and get forward. The Northern Echo's Scott Wilson believes that Rodwell could fill that void nicely:
Still 0-0, but noticeable how many breaks Rodwell is making into opposition box. Suspect that'll be a big part of #SAFC's play this season.— Scott Wilson (@Scottwilsonecho) August 7, 2014
The summer could get even better if the Black Cats lure Fabio Borini away from Liverpool. Poyet spoke about the club's attempts to sign the Italian striker, per Sky Sports News:
The idea was to have the deal done a few weeks ago, but for different reasons it was impossible, but we are confident that maybe in the next few days we can do something about Fabio. I'm always thinking that we can add quality players, especially the ones we know, and let's hope that confidence I am trying to bring to the club is confirmed with the signing of Borini.
Put Borini on this squad, and you're looking at ninth or even eighth place.
Newcastle almost defy prognostication in that they don't seem to follow any sort of natural trajectory as a club. The Magpies are mid-table one year and relegated the next. They flirt with Champions League in 2011-12 and flirt with the drop in 2012-13.
The club's biggest issue last year is that it did nothing to replace Yohan Cabaye once he left in January. That's largely been the feeling during Mike Ashley's tenure. He's content to keep Newcastle good enough to remain in the Premier League and collect the television revenue rather than reinvest and push on to win a title.
This summer, Newcastle have done some great business, though. Siem de Jong, Remy Cabella and Emmanuel Riviere are all impact signings, and they arrived for a combined £24 million, according to TransferLeague.co.uk.
Mathieu Debuchy's the biggest loss so far, and the club did well to replace him with Daryl Janmaat. The Dutchman is a capable defender who can get forward. He may not be as good as Debuchy right away, but his transition shouldn't take long.
A top-half finish should be the minimum expectation, and they may even flirt with the top four through to the winter before falling back to seventh or eighth.
Of course, as good as Newcastle look on paper, would anybody be surprised if they tanked to start the year and found themselves in a relegation fight?
Queens Park Rangers
Queens Park Rangers made the mistake of relying too heavily on overpriced veterans, and they paid dearly for it. This summer, QPR are taking a more muted approach to the transfer market, and it should prove much more successful.
Mauricio Isla is an immensely talented wing-back/midfielder who could be one of the signings of the summer. The additions of Rio Ferdinand and Steven Caulker should also strengthen the center of defense.
The fact that Ferdinand played at Manchester United only exacerbated his decline. He couldn't afford to simply be a good defender. He needed to be the Rio Ferdinand of four or five years ago who was one of the best centre-backs in the world.
At QPR, the demand to perform will be slightly lessened.
They’ve brought in Steven Caulker and Rio Ferdinand and, if Rio remains fit, those two are going to form a great centre-back pairing. Obviously they’ll be looking to Charlie Austin for the vital goals at the other end of the field, but Rio will play a key role in them trying to retain their Premier League status. He’s a top player and he’ll help the younger players adapt to the top flight. With the small pitch at Loftus Road he shouldn’t have to move around too much, and he has so much know how.
Goals might be hard to come by if Loic Remy leaves. Crystal Palace showed last year that a resolute defense and timely goals can not only save a club from relegation but also secure a comfortable finish at the end of the year.