Predicting NFL's Breakout Teams of 2018
Few things in the NFL are predictable from year to year, but parity is one of them.
Every season, a few teams that struggled the year before inevitably break out.
Last year, the Philadelphia Eagles improved on an 7-9 season in 2016 to win 13 regular-season games and the Super Bowl. The Jacksonville Jaguars won the AFC South and advanced to the AFC Championship Game after a 3-13 record in 2016, while the Los Angeles Rams took home the NFC West crown and won 11 games under first-year head coach Sean McVay following a 4-12 season in 2016.
Which NFL teams will break out in 2018? Let's take a look.
Just Missed the Cut
The return of Andrew Luck and an improved offensive line should help the Colts improve on their 4-12 finish in 2017, but the roster is still short on talent outside of Luck and receiver T.Y. Hilton.
The defense should be one of the NFL's best. If Case Keenum can build on his breakout 2017 season, the Broncos should easily surpass their five wins from last year.
Can the return of head coach Jon Gruden and the addition of several veterans help the Raiders recover from a disappointing 6-10 season? Most of the biggest pieces remain from the 12-4 team in 2016.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs addressed the biggest weakness from last year's 5-11 team by adding pass rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry. Second-round running back Ronald Jones should also provide instant impact as a runner and receiver.
New quarterback Alex Smith has enough weapons around him, and Washington added some beef against the run by taking defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne in the first round. Washington could make a run at a playoff spot after finishing 7-9 in 2017.
The Bears could be the 2018 version of the 2017 Rams.
Second-year quarterback? Check. The Bears hope Mitchell Trubisky can take the same kind of second-year jump that Jared Goff did last season, when he threw 28 touchdown passes and posted a passer rating of 100.5 after a shaky rookie year. A similar jump from Trubisky would likely mean the Bears are contending for the playoffs.
A first-year head coach with an offensive background? Check. The Bears dumped John Fox for Matt Nagy, the young offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs. He'll bring an innovative scheme that developed under Andy Reid, one which Doug Pederson used in Philadelphia last season. Nagy could help develop Trubisky and energize the roster, much like Sean McVay did with the Rams in 2017.
Stockpiling weapons around the quarterback? Check. The Rams signed Robert Woods, drafted Cooper Kupp and traded for Sammy Watkins, surrounding Goff with pass-catchers for 2017. The Bears have done the same with Trubisky, signing Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel and drafting Anthony Miller. Of the two teams, Chicago added perhaps even more talent.
After winning four games in 2016, the Rams improved to 11-5 in 2017. The Bears might not get to 11 wins in 2018, especially with the Vikings and Packers in the NFC North, but it wouldn't be surprising if Nagy, Trubisky and an improved offense powered the Bears into playoff contention.
San Francisco 49ers
A shiny new quarterback and five straight wins to finish the 2017 regular season have the 49ers positioned as one of the NFL's most popular picks to be a breakout team in 2018.
Many of the pieces are in place. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and head coach Kyle Shanahan provide the two biggest pieces of the puzzle, but the 49ers also added plenty of talent this offseason, including two starters along the offensive line (center Weston Richburg and right tackle Mike McGlinchey), a versatile running back (Jerick McKinnon) and a veteran cornerback with something to prove (Richard Sherman).
The additions could help push forward the momentum from beating three straight playoff teams to finish last year.
The 49ers face a tough schedule in 2018, especially on the road, but with Garoppolo entering his second season in Shanahan's offense and more talent in place on defense, San Francisco figures to be competitive regardless of the competition or setting. The 49ers could be a playoff team if Garoppolo's magic to end 2017 continues and the 49ers defense improves after giving up the eighth-most points in the NFL last season.
The return of quarterback Deshaun Watson and defensive lineman J.J. Watt should give the Texans the star power they need to recover from a 4-12 season and compete for a playoff spot in the AFC South in 2018.
When Watson went down with a season-ending knee injury last year, he had 21 total touchdowns and the Texans were 3-4. Houston proceeded to finish 1-8 without him.
A dual threat who looked unstoppable at times during his first seven NFL games, Watson could be one of the breakout stars of the 2018 season if he's able to stay healthy.
Watt, meanwhile, played in only five games before a leg injury ended his 2017 season. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year will return to a defense featuring Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, plus newcomers Aaron Colvin and Tyrann Mathieu. Houston's defense could be among the NFL's best this season.
Watson and Watt are the keys to the revival. If they bounce back and avoid injuries in 2018, the Texans could be one of the best teams in the AFC.
Los Angeles Chargers
Could 2018 be the year it all comes together for the Chargers?
A 9-7 team from 2017 looks primed to make a serious run at the AFC West crown this season.
On offense, Los Angeles added center Maurkice Pouncey and will get receiver Mike Williams (herniated disk) and offensive lineman Forrest Lamp (torn ACL) back from debilitating injuries as rookies. A talented defense that finished third in points allowed in 2017 got one of the steals of the draft in safety Derwin James, who could be a difference-maker as a roving defensive back in Gus Bradley's defense.
And while the 49ers' five-game winning streak to end 2017 remains a buzzy storyline, the Chargers finished by winning six of their last seven games, including four by double digits.
The Chargers have a veteran quarterback (Philip Rivers), loads of talent on offense and defense and momentum from last season's finish. They have the tools to unseat the Kansas City Chiefs as the AFC West champions, especially if they can avoid the ugly starts that have plagued them for the last three seasons.
The Cleveland Browns genuinely might compete for a playoff spot in 2018 if they get consistent production at quarterback. That's an amazing thing to say about a team that lost all 16 games in 2017.
The Browns got aggressive and reshaped their quarterback depth chart this offseason, trading for Tyrod Taylor and using the first overall pick on Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield. If Taylor can avoid turnovers and provide some consistency or Mayfield can win the job and make a Russell Wilson-like impact as a rookie, the Browns will finally have the makings of the last but most important piece of the winning puzzle.
The rest of their roster looks set. The Browns have plenty of skill-position talent on offense and are filled to the brim with high picks at every level of the defense. Talent shouldn't be an issue for Hue Jackson's team.
It'll be up to Taylor or Mayfield to tie the entire package together. If they can, the Browns could go from 0-16 to playoff contention in the span of one season.