NFL Teams Ready to Break Through as Playoff Contenders in 2017

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 28, 2017

NFL Teams Ready to Break Through as Playoff Contenders in 2017

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    Jameis Winston and Mike Evans will have company in 2017.
    Jameis Winston and Mike Evans will have company in 2017.Associated Press

    Six NFL teams—the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders—made the NFL playoffs in 2016 despite not doing so in 2015. Four teams did so in 2015 despite failing to get there in 2014. 

    In fact, at least a third of the playoff field has been fresh in each of the last 10 seasons. 

    Which emerging teams are on the verge of making playoff runs despite failing to do so in recent years? Here's a breakdown of NFL squads set to solidify themselves as contenders in 2017. 

     

Los Angeles Chargers

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    Look closely. Philip Rivers and the Chargers are stacked.
    Look closely. Philip Rivers and the Chargers are stacked.Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers have a tall mountain to climb during their first season in L.A., as they reside in the NFL's strongest division. But the Bolts were far better than their 5-11 record last year, and the law of averages is on their side entering this season. 

    Football Outsiders assigns teams "Pythagorean wins," which "represent a projection of the team's expected wins based solely on points scored and allowed." Based on that metric, the Chargers should have won nearly eight games (7.7) in 2016, which makes sense considering they ranked a respectable 20th in the NFL in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). 

    In terms of adjusted games lost—a formula Football Outsiders utilizes in an attempt to quantify the impact injuries have on each team—no team in the AFC was hit harder by injuries than the Chargers last season.

    The 2016 Chargers were good enough to win at least eight games, and maybe more if they were healthier. Take that team and add...

    • Top receiver Keenan Allen, who missed virtually the entire 2016 season due to a torn ACL but is healthy now. 
    • Top corner Jason Verrett, who missed all but four games last year due to the same injury but should also be back in time for the start of the 2017 season. 
    • Former Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung, who will have a chance to revive both his own career and an offensive line that has lacked continuity and consistency in recent years. 
    • Guards Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney, who the Chargers drafted in Rounds 2 and 3, respectively, and should have opportunities to shore up that line inside. 
    • No. 7 overall pick Mike Williams, who caught 98 passes and scored 11 touchdowns last year at Clemson and has the ideal combination of size (6'4", 218 pounds), speed (he ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at his pro day) and experience to contribute as an impact player immediately.

    The Chargers should also benefit from having reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa on the practice field for an entire offseason, especially after he missed all of last year's training camp and the start of the regular season due to a contract squabble. Additionally, sophomore tight end Hunter Henry appears poised to play a much larger role after leading the team in 2016 with eight touchdowns despite essentially platooning with Antonio Gates as a rookie. 

    Yeah, we hadn't even mentioned that Gates guy. And quarterback Philip Rivers. Those two are 37 and 35, respectively, but they have 14 Pro Bowl nods between them. 

    It doesn't stop there. Melvin Gordon is a promising young running back coming off a 12-touchdown season. He and cornerback Casey Hayward made the Pro Bowl last year after Gordon rushed for 997 yards in only 13 games and Hayward led the league with seven interceptions. The Chargers also brought back high-profile free-agent linebacker Melvin Ingram, who is a vital part of that pass-rush and should continue to form a heck of a duo with Bosa. 

    This team is legit. If it can avoid Murphy's Law in 2017, a playoff run is within the realm of possibility. 

Tennessee Titans

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    Marcus Mariota could be in for a big third season.
    Marcus Mariota could be in for a big third season.Associated Press

    The Tennessee Titans are another team that likely would have improved even if left untouched this offseason. 

    After winning just five games in 2014 and 2015 combined, the Titans won nine in 2016 while falling only one victory short of the playoffs. Had sophomore sensation Marcus Mariota not broken his right fibula in a Week 16 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee could have done some damage in January. 

    Before Mariota went down, the 23-year-old former No. 2 overall pick took major steps forward under center. He had 21 touchdowns to just four interceptions and a 110.9 passer rating in October and November, and he led the Titans to victory in seven of their last 10 games before suffering that injury. 

    If Mariota can avoid setbacks and remain healthy in 2017, the Titans will be tough to stop in the AFC South—a division they haven't won since 2008. 

    Mariota's bookend tackles, recent first-round picks Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, are 25 and 22, respectively. Those two are already feisty tone-setters, and they should only get better. Ditto for hard-nosed 23-year-old running back Derrick Henry, who will ease the aging process for reigning AFC rushing yardage leader DeMarco Murray.

    The Titans already had an underrated defense featuring front-seven studs Brian Orakpo, Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan and Avery Williamson, but they provided much-needed upgrades to the secondary by adding starters Logan Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien in free agency as well as potential impact corner Adoree' Jackson with the second of their two first-round picks. 

    Tennessee used the first of those picks on wide receiver Corey Davis, who had three 1,400-yard seasons at Western Michigan and should be ready to contribute right away alongside late free-agent addition Eric Decker

    How much better do Ryan, Cyprien and Jackson make the defense? How much better do Davis and Decker make the offense? Those new arrivals should bring balance to their respective units, which could be huge for a young team trying to fill itself out. Mariota no longer has to lean almost entirely on Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker and the league's third-ranked running game, as his line and his receiving corps are much improved. That strong front seven might have more time to work now that the Titans have shored up their defensive backfield. 

    With all of that in mind, the Titans sure look like a team that can win 10-plus games in 2017. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Jameis Winston should also take off in his third season.
    Jameis Winston should also take off in his third season.Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are on a similar path to Tennessee's, except with slightly more experience. Like the Titans, they aren't skimping on weapons for their young franchise quarterback. 

    The Bucs, who increased their win total from two in 2014 to six in 2015 to nine in 2016, brought in veteran home run threat DeSean Jackson, stud rookie tight end O.J. Howard and rookie deep threat Chris Godwin for Jameis Winston this offseason. They already had traffic-specialist Mike Evans, who has gone over 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons.

    Winston, Jackson, Evans, Howard and Godwin. That's enough firepower to make you believe the Buccaneers could make a real run in 2017, even if the offensive line remains a liability. (Young left tackle Donovan Smith has to be better.) 

    It helps that the defense—led by Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy, the ageless Brent Grimes and underrated assets Robert Ayers and Keith Tandy—quietly surrendered fewer points per game than all but three other teams in the NFL during the final eight games of the 2016 regular season. They won six of those eight games, but it wasn't quite enough to make the playoffs after they lost five of their first eight. (Had the NFL's new 10-minute overtime rules been in place, Tampa Bay would have edged out the Detroit Lions for a playoff spot, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press). 

    Nothing will come easy in a division with the last two MVPs in Cam Newton and Matt Ryanboth of whom led their teams, the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, to Super Bowls in 2015 and 2016and a New Orleans Saints team captained by future Hall of Fame signal-caller Drew Brees. But Tampa Bay's defense will be good, its passing game could be out of control and the running game is showing promise with two-time 1,400-yard rusher Doug Martin lighting it up in the offseason program. 

    The trajectory in Tampa is promising, to say the least.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Leonard Fournette is the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
    Leonard Fournette is the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.Associated Press

    Last year, the Miami Dolphins became the first Florida-based NFL team to make the playoffs since 2008. This season, Miami's two Sunshine State peers could follow suit.

    Not only do the Bucs look like a playoff-caliber team, but the oft-mocked Jacksonville Jaguars are no longer worthy of mockery. 

    On paper, the Jaguars have a ton of talent. They did last year as well, but they underachieved dramatically with a three-win 2016 campaign. Football Outsiders' "Pythagorean wins" metric indicates Jacksonville should have won nearly twice as many games (5.8) as it did. Accordingly, the law of averages was likely to help the Jaguars regardless of offseason improvements.

    But Jacksonville didn't sit on its hands. A defense already loaded with young talent added top-tier free agents A.J. Bouye at cornerback and Calais Campbell at defensive end. General manager Dave Caldwell went out in the draft and added arguably the best offensive player in this class, running back Leonard Fournette, with the No. 4 overall pick. One round later, he grabbed monster Alabama offensive tackle Cam Robinson, whom many expected to be a top-15 selection. 

    Those two should immediately bolster the offense while making life easier for flawed young quarterback Blake Bortles, who continues to be a talented team's Achilles' heel. Bortles' rate-based stats regressed in his third season, even though he had three high-quality receivers—Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns—to throw to. Only one projected 2017 starter (Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers) had a lower qualified passer rating than Bortles last season, but if he figures it out with even more support on both sides of the ball in his fourth year as a pro, the Jags could find themselves above .500 in December. 

    They might still be a playoff long shot, but a lot of folks said that about the Atlanta Falcons last year.

    They ended up in the Super Bowl. 

New Orleans Saints

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    Never count Drew Brees out.
    Never count Drew Brees out.Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    Until legendary quarterback Drew Brees either begins to decline or retires, the New Orleans Saints will always have the ability to go on a run. Because the Brees-led Saints offense has been so effective, New Orleans has managed to win seven games in each of the last three years despite ranking in the bottom six in football when it comes to both defensive DVOA and points allowed. 

    The 38-year-old 10-time Pro Bowler could face more pressure than usual in 2017, with dangerous receiver Brandin Cooks now in New England and left tackle Terron Armstead and center Max Unger both fighting to recover from major injuries. But Brees has been dominant regardless of his supporting cast throughout his career, he is getting new arrival Ted Ginn Jr. as a poor man's replacement for Cooks, and the Saints defense could give him more help than usual this year. 

    That unit was already slowly improving last season. After giving up 32.5 points per game during their first six outings, they surrendered "only" 25.9 over their final 10. Defensive end Cameron Jordan excelled, and there's a lot of hope for him, second-year safety Vonn Bell and recent first-round picks Kenny Vaccaro, Stephone Anthony, Sheldon Rankins and Marshon Lattimore in 2017. 

    That's plenty of talent, even if a lot of it is unproven. New Orleans could be a dark horse while facing long odds in a tough division. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Is Carson Wentz ready to take a step forward for the Eagles?
    Is Carson Wentz ready to take a step forward for the Eagles?Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Philadelphia Eagles: It won't be easy in the competitive NFC East, but Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz could become a star if his sophomore season resembles the hot start he put together as a rookie. It helps that he'll have two new former 1,000-yard receivers in Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith

    Indianapolis Colts: They arguably "broke through" when they made the AFC Championship Game in 2014, but the Colts haven't been to the playoffs since. After back-to-back 8-8 seasons, Andrew Luck and Co. should return to the playoff picture with defensive free-agent additions Johnathan Hankins, John Simon, Margus Hunt, Barkevious Mingo, Sean Spence and Al Woods on board. 

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