Every NFL Team's Biggest Reason for Optimism Heading into Training Camp

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJuly 19, 2017

Every NFL Team's Biggest Reason for Optimism Heading into Training Camp

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    J.J. Watt is back.
    J.J. Watt is back.Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    It's July, which is Optimism Month in the National Football League. Every free-agent signing has a chance to pan out, every draft pick has an opportunity to succeed and every roster is healthier now than ever. 

    That'll all change fairly soon, and the majority of fans will be disappointed before winter arrives.

    When that happens, we'll provide gloomy analysis.

    But because it's July and everybody is hopeful, let's take an opportunity to examine 32 half-full NFL glasses. 

AFC East

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    Ryan Tannehill could be in for a big season.
    Ryan Tannehill could be in for a big season.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Buffalo Bills: Rex Ryan is no longer the head coach

    Let's face it: Ryan wasn't a good head coach. Not in Buffalo, where he went 15-16 in less than two full seasons with a relatively talented team, or in New York, where he and the Jets missed the playoffs while failing to post a winning record in each of his final four seasons there.

    Ryan posted a double-digit win total in just one of his eight seasons as a head coach, and he's a "defensive guru" who hasn't coached a team with a defense that ranked in the top 14 in terms of points allowed since the Jets ranked sixth in that category in 2010. The Bills had the league's fourth-ranked D the year before Ryan took over, but they ranked 19th in both of his seasons in charge.

    How does that happen? Especially with guys like Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Lorenzo Alexander, Jerry Hughes, Zach Brown, Stephon Gilmore and Mario Williams? 

    Nobody knows whether new head coach Sean McDermott will help the Bills get to the playoffs for the first time this century, but at least he's a fresh name and face with a strong reputation. 


    Miami Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill is on the cusp

    Not as popular as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III and not as immediately successful as Russell Wilson, Tannehill has often been an overlooked success story coming out of the 2012 draft. But the 28-year-old quarterback was enjoying the hottest stretch of his five-year career before a knee injury cost him the final three games of the 2016 season. 

    The former No. 8 overall pick still had a career-best completion percentage of 67.1, yards-per-attempt average of 7.7 and passer rating of 93.5, but he was heating up as the season progressed. In Tannehill's final five games, he completed 71.0 percent of his passes and posted a 103.4 rating while leading the Dolphins to a 4-1 record. 

    His young, deep and underrated receiving corps remains intact, as does an improving offensive line and a strong running game led by 2016 Pro Bowler Jay Ajayi.

    Tannehill could be in for a huge year, which could mean big things for a Dolphins team looking to build off a 10-win 2016 campaign. 


    New England Patriots: They're the New England Patriots

    One might argue being a defending Super Bowl champion isn't reason for optimism these days. Parity, blah blah blah, target on their back, blah blah blah. They'll tell you it's been over a decade since an NFL team last successfully defended its title. 

    But that team was the Patriots, who were led by the same quarterback (Tom Brady) and head coach (Bill Belichick) who lead them now. And the Pats, who won 14 of their 15 regular-season and playoff games with Brady under center last season, should be far better in 2017 than they were in 2016.

    For starters, Brady won't be suspended for a quarter of the regular season. Superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski is also returning after back issues cost him the majority of his 2016 season. Throw in newbies Brandin Cooks at wide receiver, Gilmore at corner, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead at running back and Kony Ealy at defensive end, and you have a team that could make a real run at 19-0 in 2017. 


    New York Jets: The football season is short

    But seriously. The Jets, who weren't good to begin with before parting ways with key veteran contributors Ryan Fitzpatrick, Nick Mangold, Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall, David Harris, Eric Decker and Calvin Pryor, will be lucky to win more than a game or two in 2017. 

    We know it. They know it. This is a tank-job. The silver lining is that the Jets recognize they aren't a contender and are clearly trying to rectify that. Luckily, the NFL season spans only four months. 

    Imagine having to watch this team for 30-plus weeks. You're always better off cheering for the worst team in football than the worst team in baseball. 

AFC North

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    Tony Jefferson could take off in Baltimore.
    Tony Jefferson could take off in Baltimore.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Baltimore Ravens: New arrival Tony Jefferson could be their next great safety

    The Ravens made Jefferson the NFL's 10th-highest-paid safety with a four-year, $34 million contract in March, which might have come as a surprise considering that the 25-year-old former undrafted free agent has just two career interceptions and was more of a role player before breaking out in his first season as a starter with the Arizona Cardinals in 2016. 

    But Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome knows what he's doing, and Jefferson could be on the verge of stardom after dominating in run defense while working as a jack-of-all-trades last season. 

    "He was just all over the field," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said of Jefferson back in March, per Ryan Mink of the team's official website. "When a guy can line up here (points to one side of the room) and show a blitz and run over there (points to other side of the room) and get into coverage and come back down from deep and run a blitz and penetrate and make a play in the backfield, you know he knows what he is doing."

    And he's only gained steam this offseason.

    "My impressions would be A-plus in every area," Harbaugh said of Jefferson after seeing him at organized team activities, according to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley. "I see him in the weight room, I see him in the conditioning, and I see him in the meeting room. I see his knowledge of the defense already."

    The Ravens will have to fight to get back into the playoff picture in 2017, but there's little doubt that with Jefferson and Eric Weddle, they'll have one of the best safety duos in the league. 


    Cincinnati Bengals: Their top three draft picks could play major roles

    The Bengals won just six games last season and they hardly showed up for free agency, losing two starting offensive linemen in the process. But there's a chance they redeemed themselves in the draft, as they used their top three picks on high-profile stars who could contribute significantly right off the bat.

    First-round wide receiver John Ross broke the NFL combine record with a 4.22-second 40-yard dash after putting up 1,150 yards and scoring 17 touchdowns in his final season at Washington. Second-round running back Joe Mixon likely would have been a first-rounder if not for off-the-field concerns after averaging 6.8 yards per carry and compiling 1,812 yards from scrimmage during his final season at Oklahoma. And third-round defensive end Jordan Willis registered 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss as a senior in the at Kansas State last season.

    Ross is recovering from shoulder surgery and had some injury concerns entering the draft, Mixon is a walking red flag after running into serious trouble in college and Willis dropped to the third round for a reason. While nothing is guaranteed, those three give Bengals fans more to look forward to in 2017. 


    Cleveland Browns: They have several somewhat viable options at quarterback

    The Browns are widely mocked for having used a ridiculous 26 starting quarterbacks since 1999, which is by far the highest total in that span. Their team passer rating since the turn of the century (73.2) ranks dead last in the NFL, a full 3.1 points back of the 31st-place Chicago Bears.

    But for the first time in years, the Browns appear to have several half-decent options under center.

    Just a year ago, Brock Osweiler was the prince of the free-agent market before signing a four-year, $72 million deal with the Houston Texans. He had a horrible first season there, but the Browns had more than enough cap space to take a talented, physically promising 26-year-old off Houston's hands. They also drafted enticing quarterback prospect DeShone Kizer in Round 2, and 2016 third-round pick Cody Kessler had a surprisingly strong rookie campaign. 

    Those three should participate in a grueling competition at camp, which bodes well for the Browns' chances of getting consistently strong performances at that position come September. 


    Pittsburgh Steelers: The Killer B's appear to be healthy

    At this time last year, superstar Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell was facing an early-season suspension. At the end of the year, Bell was sidelined by a groin injury. And a knee injury interrupted quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's season in October. 

    It feels as though Roethlisberger, Bell and stud wide receiver Antonio Brown are rarely healthy (or not suspended) together for extended stretches.

    And all three experienced odd, roller-coaster offseasons.

    The oft-banged-up Roethlisberger seemingly flirted with retirement before finally confirming his return in April. Pittsburgh slapped Bell with the franchise tag while he recovered from groin surgery. And Brown was called out by Big Ben while being criticized for his antics before signing a massive contract extension. 

    But they're all coming back, and Bell was seen playing basketball in June, so his groin should be OK. 

    Breathe, Steelers fans. 

AFC South

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    Leornard Fournette is the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
    Leornard Fournette is the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.John Raoux/Associated Press

    Houston Texans: J.J. Watt is back

    The Texans hope they can build on a playoff campaign by getting more out of their quarterbacks in 2017, but defensive end J.J. Watt's return could be the key for Houston to advance beyond the divisional round for the first time in franchise history.

    Even with the three-time Defensive Player of the Year sidelined for the vast majority of last season, the Texans finished with the league's top-ranked defense. After undergoing multiple procedures on his back, Watt is now fully healthy entering camp.

    "I feel great," Watt said in June, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. "I'm very happy with the way it responded. Obviously with the amount of time we took this time to make sure it responded properly, I would hope that it would respond the way it did. It feels great."

    The Texans can only pray he continues to feel that way. 


    Indianapolis Colts: The defense is deep 

    While head coach Chuck Pagano is a defensive guru, the Colts have ranked in the bottom 10 defensively in each of the last two seasons. To address that, new general manager Chris Ballard spent much of his first offseason in Indianpolis adding strong defenders to the roster. 

    The Colts brought in veteran free agents Jabaal Sheard, Johnathan Hankins, John Simon, Margus Hunt, Barkevious Mingo, Sean Spence and Al Woods to spruce up the front seven, while also selecting defensive backs Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson in the first two rounds of the draft. 

    A lot of those guys will start, and all of them should play key roles. 

    "It's exciting," Pagano said in May, per Kevin Bowen of Colts.com. "I know our coaches are excited. I know the players are excited."

    With so many talented and/or experienced new arrivals, it's hard to imagine the Colts defense not improving under Pagano in 2017. 


    Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette is special

    The first-year running back is a heavy favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. In fact, after averaging 6.5 yards per carry during each of his final two seasons at LSU, Fournette looks poised to explode right off the bat in Ezekiel Elliott fashion.

    That has to be encouraging for a Jaguars team with plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, as it must continue to make life as easy as possible for struggling fourth-year quarterback Blake Bortles. 

    Bortles did more harm than good in his third season as his statistics declined, and getting little out of backs T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory didn't help. The offensive line and receiving corps both look strong, though. If Fournette lives up to expectations as well, Bortles and Co. could have a chance to deliver in the wide-open AFC South. 


    Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota has new toys 

    The Jaguars aren't the only AFC South team that added more support for its young quarterback during the offseason. With rookie No. 5 overall pick Corey Davis and three-time 1,000-yard receiver Eric Decker joining the receiving corps, the Titans are giving their franchise quarterback, Mariota, a strong chance to build off a huge sophomore season.

    The 23-year-old Mariota was the league's 10th-highest-rated passer while throwing 26 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions in 15 games last season, but tight end Delanie Walker was his only accomplished pass-catcher. Now he has a strong Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate in Davis and a seven-year veteran starter in Decker along with Walker and last year's top two receivers, Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe. 

    So long as there are no lingering issues from the broken leg that ended Mariota's 2016 season in Week 16, he should be in for a huge third year. 

AFC West

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    Tyreek Hill is expected to play a huge role in Kansas City.
    Tyreek Hill is expected to play a huge role in Kansas City.Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    Denver Broncos: They probably still have the best defense in the NFL

    The Broncos still have unanswered questions at quarterback, running back and offensive tackle, but they can take solace in knowing those positions also troubled them in their Super Bowl-winning 2015 season. 

    It didn't matter, because the Broncos had the best defense in football that year. Two seasons later, not much has changed. 

    Pass-rusher Von Miller is coming off yet another All-Pro campaign, while Aqib Talib and Chris Harris make up arguably the best 1-2 cornerback punch in football. Denver also has plenty of peripheral weapons like T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart at safety and Brandon Marshall, Derek Wolfe, Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray in the front seven. 

    That unit ranked first league-wide in terms of Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) last season, and it should continue to carry the Broncos regardless of what the offense does in 2017. 


    Kansas City Chiefs: Tyreek Hill is really, really, really fast

    I won't blame Chiefs fans for being stressed out. Their team won the AFC West last season, but repeating won't be easy. Quarterback Alex Smith has his limitations, the Chiefs suddenly released veteran receiver Jeremy Maclin in June, and a few weeks, later they shocked the football world by abruptly firing general manager John Dorsey. 

    But none of that is likely to matter if Hill can turn into a superstar in his second season. 

    A fifth-round pick after sliding in the draft (in part due to character issues), Hill became the first player in NFL history to score three-plus touchdowns as a receiver, a runner and a return man in one season, earning a Pro Bowl nod in the process. 

    Eight of Hill's 12 touchdowns came during the final six weeks of the year, with his role on offense increasing rather significantly during that late-season run. If he can pick up where he left off, the 23-year-old has a chance to dominate in 2017. 


    Los Angeles Chargers: The law of averages owes them a favor

    The Chargers were 5-11 last season, but they were far better than that record would suggest.

    Football Outsiders assigns teams "Pythagorean wins," which, as the site explains it, "represent a projection of the team's expected wins based solely on points scored and allowed." Using that criteria, the 2016 Chargers underachieved dramatically. They should have won 7.7 games, which makes sense considering they ranked a respectable 20th league-wide in DVOA.

    When it comes to adjusted games lost—a formula Football Outsiders utilizes in an attempt to quantify the impact injuries have on each team—the Chargers were the fourth-most injured team in the league last season on both offense and defense. Across the board, no team in the AFC was hit harder by injuries than San Diego. 

    They also lost several early-season games in extremely improbable fashion. As Michael Salfino of the Wall Street Journal detailed in October, during the first five weeks of the 2016 season, the Chargers lost two games in which they had a 99.9 percent chance to win. Over that same stretch, they lost two other games in which they had a win probability of 75 percent or higher. 

    "If you ran a computer simulation of these games from these points 30 million times, the Chargers would lose all four just once," financial analyst Seth Bienstock told Salfino.

    There's also plenty of evidence that fumble recoveries are generally luck-based. Football Outsiders calls this "fumble luck," and teams with particularly lucky or unlucky seasons typically regress or progress to the mean in ensuing seasons. Sure enough, the Bolts had the lowest percentage of recovered fumbles on offense in the AFC last season. 

    That likely won't happen again, and injury rates vary greatly from year to year. The Chargers can't get any less lucky in either of those areas and should enjoy better fortunes in those respects, based purely on statistical likelihood.


    Oakland Raiders: Derek Carr is healthy 

    The Raiders were the league's chic breakout team last season, with young quarterback Derek Carr performing at an MVP level for much of his third NFL campaign. We'll never know how far they might have gone if Carr hadn't suffered a broken fibula in Week 16, but all that matters now is the 26-year-old is fully recovered and was able to participate in organized team activities. 

    There are no concerns about Carr. Otherwise, the Raiders presumably wouldn't have made him the highest-paid player in NFL history this earlier this summer. 

    It won't surprise anybody if Carr becomes even more dominant in 2017, especially now that he has a new weapon in veteran tight end Jared Cook. 

NFC East

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    Paul Perkins averaged 4.8 yards per carry during the final three weeks of his rookie season.
    Paul Perkins averaged 4.8 yards per carry during the final three weeks of his rookie season.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Dallas Cowboys: 2016

    That's right, last year is Dallas' reason to be optimistic about this year. Quarterback Dak Prescott posted the highest qualified rookie passer rating in NFL history, while rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing by a 318-yard margin. 

    The Cowboys were too cash-strapped to do much in free agency, and because they went on a deep playoff run, they didn't have a high draft pick. They suffered some major losses in the secondary and face questions on defense. But Prescott and Elliott are back, and they still have one of the best offensive lines and pass-catching corps in the NFL. 

    Pessimists will point to those offseason losses and wonder about sophomore slumps, as well as the fact ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that Elliott could be facing a short suspension. Optimists can just keep thinking about the magic that was 2016. 


    New York Giants: Paul Perkins might be capable of giving them balance

    The Giants had the league's 29th-ranked running game last season, and only the Los Angeles Rams and Minnesota Vikings averaged fewer yards per carry (3.5). That lack of balance made life tougher on veteran quarterback Eli Manning and an offense that was forced to rely too heavily on superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr. 

    But rookie fifth-round pick Paul Perkins seemed to find a groove as his role in the offense increased late in the season. The UCLA product averaged a solid 4.5 yards per carry during the final five games of the year and 4.8 during the final three. 

    Giants head coach Ben McAdoo has already declared Perkins will be the starter entering the season, according to Paul Schwartz of the New York Post. And running backs coach Craig Johnson suggested to ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan last month that the 22-year-old could be a three-down back. 

    There's a chance they found an answer at running back deep in the 2016 draft, which has to excite Giants fans. 


    Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz has weapons 

    Wentz's rookie season in Philly was a roller-coaster ride, partly because he was thrown into a starting role as a somewhat raw product out of North Dakota State but also because he didn't get much help from his receiving corps. 

    The Eagles addressed that weakness in the offseason, adding former 1,000-yard receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency while also bringing in 2016 AFC touchdown leader LeGarrette Blount to bolster the running game. Wentz won't use Blount much as a receiver, but his presence alone should help the 24-year-old to find Jeffery and Smith, as well as the still-promising Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor. 

    It's easy envision Wentz excelling under those circumstances in 2017. 


    Washington Redskins: Kirk Cousins is back

    Cousins takes far too much heat in D.C., and there were doubts he'd be back with either the franchise tag or a new contract heading into the 2017 season. Washington could still trade him in the next month-and-a-half, but it looks right now as though he'll be the Redskins' starting quarterback in Week 1. 

    That shouldn't scare Redskins fans. 

    During his first two full seasons as a starter, the 28-year-old has been the sixth-highest-rated qualified passer in the NFL, behind only Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott (who's only played a single year). In that span, only three quarterbacks (Brees, Ryan and Philip Rivers) have passed for more yards than Cousins' 9,083, yet 12 have thrown more interceptions. And his 7.9 yards-per-attempt average ranks fifth, behind only Ryan, Wilson, Prescott and Ben Roethlisberger. 

    With Cousins under center, the Redskins bounced back from a four-win 2014 season by winning the NFC East in 2015. The next year, he again led them to a winning campaign. In both seasons, the Redskins ranked 28th in the league on defense. 

    He led the NFL with a 69.8 completion percentage in 2015 and made the Pro Bowl with the NFL's third-highest yards-per-attempt average (8.1) in 2016. Only Brees and Ryan had more 20-plus-yard completions last year, and nobody completed more 50-plus-yard passes.

    Regardless of his reputation, Cousins is above-average. And he's the best quarterback option the Redskins have, which is all that should matter for a team trying to contend for a championship. 

NFC North

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    Ameer Abdullah could be in for a breakout season.
    Ameer Abdullah could be in for a breakout season.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Chicago Bears: They have two options at quarterback

    The Bears are clearly rebuilding, which may be torturous for impatient fans dreaming of the mid-1980s. But the key to a rebuild is finding a franchise quarterback, and the Bears are entering 2017 with two new signal-callers who have a chance to eventually get there.

    In free agency, they signed 27-year-old Mike Glennon, who had a 19-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a rookie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013 but hasn't done anything of import since. They then traded up to the No. 2 overall pick to draft 22-year-old rookie Mitchell Trubisky, who showed in 2016 and during the predraft process that he can make every throw. He often looks poised beyond his experience in the pocket, but he's likely a long-term project after starting only one season at North Carolina.

    Trubisky, who threw 30 touchdown passes to only six interceptions for the Tar Heels last year, has the higher ceiling. But Glennon is being paid starter money in 2017, and he'll have the first shot at the job. It bears watching what he does with it. 


    Detroit Lions: Ameer Abdullah is ready

    Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had to lead so many comebacks last season in part because the team's running game ranked 30th league-wide. But Detroit didn't have Abdullah—a 2015 second-round pick who looked good as a rookie—for the lion's share of the season. 

    Abdullah, who averaged 5.6 yards per carry on just 18 attempts in two games before a foot injury sent him to injured reserve, has already been named the starting running back, according to ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein. And after watching him perform at OTAs, Tim Twentyman of the team's official website noted "the Lions are a different offense with [Abdullah] in the backfield."

    If he can stay healthy, that's promising. 


    Green Bay Packers: Momentum 

    Whatever role momentum plays in sports is open for debate, but if you believe in momentum, you have to believe in a Packers team that finished 2016 strong after a rough start. 

    While dealing with a slew of injuries and a strange lack of offensive chemistry, the Packers lost six of their first 10 games. But then quarterback Aaron Rodgers got dangerously hot, his supporting cast shouldered more of a load and the defense became a little healthier. And from Week 12 forward, Green Bay won eight consecutive games en route to a surprise appearance in the NFC Championship Game. 

    During that stretch, they averaged a silly 32.1 points per game. 

    The Packers ran out of gas against Atlanta, but after an offseason of refueling, they should come back just as strong in 2017. 


    Minnesota Vikings: They addressed their two biggest weaknesses 

    The Vikings failed to make the playoffs in 2016, partly because they did two things worse than almost every other team in the league. Their running game averaged a league-low 3.2 yards per carry and 75.3 yards per game, while the offensive line was a mess throughout the year. 

    It's hard to win when you can't run or block, and efficient-but-unflashy quarterback Sam Bradford couldn't do enough to compensate for those problems. 

    Vikings general manager Rick Spielman attempted to fix that this offseason, adding offensive tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers in free agency as well as running backs Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray in the draft and free agency, respectively. 

    There's no guarantee any of those four provide boosts in 2017, but the Vikings needed fresh blood in both spots. That's reason enough to be optimistic. 

NFC South

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    High-motor pass-rusher Takkarist McKinley was Atlanta's first-round pick.
    High-motor pass-rusher Takkarist McKinley was Atlanta's first-round pick.David Goldman/Associated Press

    Atlanta Falcons: Dontari Poe and Takk McKinley will bolster the defense

    The Falcons are all about that offense, but the young Atlanta defense came on in a major way as the team sprinted to Super Bowl LI last year. After surrendering more points than all but three teams in the league during the first 13 weeks of the 2016 season, they gave up just 19.3 points per game en route to the Super Bowl, recording 13 takeaways and posting a 6-0 record during that span.

    During the offseason, they reinforced that front seven with two exciting additions—two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dontari Poe and high-motor first-round pass-rusher Takkarist McKinley—both of whom should play large roles on the defensive line. 

    The Falcons will have to fight in 2017 to avoid a Super Bowl hangover, especially considering how traumatic that loss to New England was. But Poe and McKinley should make that mission slightly easier.


    Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton has two shiny new weapons 

    The Panthers entered the offseason in desperate need of an offensive boost after a season in which quarterback Cam Newton often had to put on a one-man show. They might get just that from the promising rookie duo they selected in the first two rounds of the draft. 

    No. 8 overall pick Christian McCaffrey has the pedigree and versatility to play a large role right off the bat, while Swiss army knife second-rounder Curtis Samuel should play a dynamic role as well.

    Expect to see both all over the place in 2017, giving the Panthers offense an element it lacked in 2016. 


    New Orleans Saints: The defense might no longer be a punchline 

    The Saints gave up a league-high 29.8 points per game in 2015 and ranked 31st in the NFL with 28.4 points per game allowed in 2016, but that unit was already slowly improving as last season wore on.

    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. Expect that D to perform half-decently this year, giving future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and his offense slightly more margin for error. 


    Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston has several new toys 

    Winston improved slightly on paper as the Bucs made a strong but ultimately unsuccessful playoff charge last season, but look for the 2015 No. 1 overall pick to make a huge leap in his third season. 

    That's because Winston, who already had one of the best young receivers in the game in Mike Evans, will have a chance to work with three-time Pro Bowl wideout DeSean Jackson, absurdly talented first-round rookie tight end O.J. Howard and promising third-round rookie receiver Chris Godwin, all of whom general manager Jason Licht added in the offseason. 

    Jackson, who led the league with a 17.9 yards-per-catch average last season, is an ideal deep-threat companion for Evans. Howard is 6'6", able to block and unfathomably athletic coming out of Alabama. And per ESPN.com's Jenna Laine, Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter has already compared Godwin to Roddy White.

    That's somewhat encouraging. 

NFC West

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    Can Todd Gurley bounce back in 2017?
    Can Todd Gurley bounce back in 2017?Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Arizona Cardinals: They still have playmakers 

    The Cardinals suffered several major losses in the offseason, with key defenders Calais Campbell, Tony Jefferson, D.J. Swearinger and Kevin Minter all departing in free agency. But the Arizona roster is still loaded with guys who can make big plays. 

    Some of them—2015 MVP runner-up Carson Palmer and star safety Tyrann Mathieu, for example—weren't themselves last season. Others—stud cornerback Patrick Peterson, Pro Bowl running back David Johnson, reigning NFL receptions leader Larry Fitzgerald and sack artist Chandler Jones—were as good as ever. 

    If those four can remain on track and Palmer and/or Mathieu can bounce back, the Cards will do damage regardless of those offseason losses in 2017. 


    Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff and Todd Gurley have high ceilings 

    Neither Goff nor Gurley—L.A.'s last two first-round picks—had promising 2016 campaigns.

    It took Goff half of his rookie season to earn a chance to play, and he was horrible when he did so. The 2016 No. 1 overall pick lost all seven of his starts, completing just 54.6 percent of his passes while posting a horrific 63.6 passer rating. And Gurley followed a dazzling rookie season with a 2016 campaign in which he ranked 41st among 42 qualified backs with a dismal 3.2 yards-per-attempt average.

    But Gurley was amazing as a rook, leading the league with five 40-yard runs despite starting just 12 games, and he's still just 22 years old. Ditto for Goff, who was a No. 1 overall pick for a reason. It's too early to give up on either, which is reason to remain optimistic about the 2017 Rams and their two Gs. 


    San Francisco 49ers: John Lynch is doing it right 

    The 49ers raised a lot of eyebrows when they hired Lynch as their new general manager, but thus far, the safety-turned-analyst-turned-executive has impressed.

    Lynch spruced up the offense by bringing in Pierre Garcon, Kyle Juszczyk and Marquise Goodwin in free agency, and then he pulled off a coup near the top of the draft. 

    Although the 49ers may have taken Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas with the No. 2 overall pick, Lynch convinced the Bears to give him two third-round picks (this year's and next year's) and a 2017 fourth-round pick to move up just one spot. San Francisco still landed Thomas with the third selection and then jumped back into the bottom of Round 1 for a potential steal in linebacker Reuben Foster. 

    It was a sign the rebuilding 49ers are on the right track. 


    Seattle Seahawks: They're in the NFC West

    The 49ers are indeed still rebuilding, as are the Rams. While the Cardinals' playmakers could give them a shot, they undeniably took some blows after winning just seven games last season. Los Angeles and San Francisco recently fired their head coaches after winning a combined six games in 2016, and Arizona has the oldest quarterback-No. 1 receiver battery in the NFL.

    In other words, this is the worst division in football. That works out well for a Seahawks team heavily favored to win said division despite having serious questions regarding its offensive line, its running game, its depth at receiver and even a defense that is no longer as scary as it once was. 

    Fortunately, it won't take much to beat out Arizona, L.A. and San Francisco. Once you've done that, you have a shot. 


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