NFL's Most Underrated Teams Entering 2018 Training Camp
In a world where hundreds of large and small media outlets produce thousands of predictions and zillions of words of commentary, who really decides which teams are "underrated" or "overrated" anymore?
The oddsmakers; that's who. And since the Las Vegas (New Jersey, Delaware, wherever) Super Bowl odds and over/under lines are windows into the public's wagering habits, spotting an overlooked team is as easy as finding one whose odds of winning anything are longer than they should be.
The teams on this all-underrated countdown are ranked by the disparity between perception (as measured by OddsShark as of mid-July) and reality. They all remain long shots to win the Super Bowl. But all are capable of making playoff noise or at least crashing the wild-card party. And at 75-1 or even 100-1 odds, a few are worth a (legal, responsible) Super Bowl wager.
After all, the Eagles were long shots this time last year, and they made everyone who overlooked and underrated them seem silly.
6. Atlanta Falcons
Super Bowl odds: 20-1
What they are considered: A fading former contender with a big problem at offensive coordinator
What they are: A reconfigured, still-formidable contender with a big problem at offensive coordinator
Oh, let's stop teasing poor Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. In a division where Norv Turner and Dirk Koetter will design game plans, Sark could look like Bill Walsh if he can stop himself from calling jet sweeps in the red zone.
Calvin Ridley's arrival gives Sark more weapons than he knows what to do with (again: Hold your jokes, people!). Newcomer Brandon Fusco stabilizes the interior line. The young defense is still brimming with talent. And unless Terrell Owens is using contract-demand hypnosis on his latest protege, Julio Jones' holdout will be a distant memory by September.
The Falcons are the team no one is talking about, mostly because no one ever talks about the Falcons. The NFC South is tough, and hosting a home Super Bowl isn't likely, but it's not the long shot the oddsmakers would have you believe. They are also getting enticing 8-1 odds to win the NFC, so you can wager on the Falcons and clean up without worrying about the Super Bowl and those pesky 28-3 demons.
5. Washington Redskins
Super Bowl odds: 66-1
What they are considered: A "meh" team with few real strengths
What they are: A better-than-"meh" team with no real weaknesses
Washington was the NFL's most injured team last year, according to Football Outsiders. A near-.500 finish was a minor miracle for a team that rarely had five healthy starters on the offensive line, went through running backs like tissues during allergy season and spent the year playing mix-and-match across its defense. The Skins are deeper now, thanks both to new arrivals (Daron Payne, Derrius Guice, Paul Richardson, Orlando Scandrick) and the fact that so many youngsters received emergency playing time last year.
Washington is laying 7-1 odds to win the NFC East. Those are worse odds than the Cowboys and equal to the Giants, two teams with gaudy front-line talent and Swiss cheese depth charts. Washington is solid-if-unspectacular up and down the roster, and there's a little bit of spectacular lurking if guys like Trent Williams, Josh Norman and Jordan Reed can stay off injured reserve. The Eagles are prohibitive favorites to win the division, but Washington's 7-1 odds are worth a long look.
So it doesn't matter if Alex Smith is slightly better than Kirk Cousins or older and cheaper. Washington can stay in the playoff race just by staying healthy.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
Super Bowl odds: 100-1
What they are considered: The Bengals aren't really considered
What they are: Much closer to the semi-relevant 2012-15 team than the irrelevant 2016-17 team
The AFC North narrative, summarized:
- Pittsburgh Steelers: They'll win 11 or 12 games while short-changing their best players, passively aggressively sniping at each other and wall-papering some glaring weaknesses on the roster. Yes, the Steelers have been trailing the Patriots for so long that they are starting to look like them.
- Baltimore Ravens: Quarterback controversy autotext generators.
- Cleveland Browns: They may win six or seven games, so let's melt all the participation trophies we claim we aren't giving our kids anymore plus all the LeBron James statues into one giant glob of a participation trophy to award them after their third victory.
- Cincinnati Bengals: They're the Bengals. They're not allowed to have a narrative.
Cordy Glenn, Bobby Hart and rookie Billy Price upgrade the offensive line, which was the Bengals' biggest problem last year. Receiver John Ross is bigger, healthier and has his mind right after a squandered rookie season. Coordinators Teryl Austin and Bill Lazor will add fresh ideas to schemes that got a little stale after years of coaches from the Marvin Lewis pipeline. And just because the Ravens and Browns are interesting this year doesn't make them good.
The Bengals may not be Super Bowl contenders, but they're in prime position to return to the one-and-done playoff glory of three years ago. That makes them a lot better than they are expected to be.
3. Oakland Raiders
Super Bowl odds: 30-1
What they are considered: A zany football experiment that will blow up in Jon Gruden's face
What they are: A zany football experiment that won't blow up in Jon Gruden's face until 2019 or 2020
Gruden's Raiders will become a bloated, aging, overpriced sinkhole of a team—eventually. That's what happens when your roster-management philosophy can be elevator-pitched as: Grab me that guy who had the big game on Monday Night Football four years ago!
But "eventually" does not mean "in 2018." The Raiders have Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and a stout veteran line on offense and Khalil Mack and plenty of young building blocks on defense. Once all the Jordy Nelson, Martavis Bryant, Doug Martin, Shareece Wright, Marcus Gilchrist (list continues for about 200 more names of increasingly obscure NFL veterans), Frostee Rucker and Griff Whalen shopping baskets are sifted through, the Raiders will field a solid roster. Again: old and expensive, but solid.
Replace Todd Downing's helplessly overmatched game-planning with Gruden's merely outdated game-planning, and presto! The Raiders will be in the thick of the AFC West chase and could skulk away with the division crown if the Patrick Mahomes train leaves the station slowly from Kansas City, the Broncos defense steps back just as their offense steps forward and the Chargers forget how to kick field goals again or something.
So don't worry about the future, because Gruden isn't. Enjoy what's sure to be a wild ride in 2018.
2. Tennessee Titans
Super Bowl odds: 45-1
What they are considered: Typical AFC South cannon fodder
What they are: Atypical AFC South cannon fodder
Here's the formula for being underrated in the NFL:
- Play in the AFC. All AFC teams except the Patriots, Steelers and Broncos are automatically underrated, because no one can remember imagining them winning anything.
- Play in a small market. Small-market teams get less media attention, good and bad. Also: Water is wet.
- Be last year's darlings. This is critical but not obvious. NFL hype moves at the speed of high school fashion. When a team drafts an exciting rookie class, it's branded the Next Big Thing. If that class doesn't deliver three or four Super Bowls by, like, the end of its first minicamp, all the NFL hipsters move on to rave about the Browns.
The Titans roster is swarming with young talent from the 2015 through '17 drafts, including playmakers Derrick Henry and Corey Davis, who are just scratching their potential. Mike Vrabel's arrival brings the risk of another disappointing Diet Patriots experience, but off-brand Bill Belichick is a significant upgrade over the Knute Rockne tactics the Titans were shackled to on both sides of the ball last year.
The Titans aren't crossing their fingers that their best players will get healthy like the Colts and Texans or prematurely chirping after one good year like the Jaguars. They're just a young team that reached the second round of the playoffs last year. Remember that? Didn't think so. It's tough being a small-market AFC franchise whose genius draft moves are sooooo two years ago.
1. Chicago Bears
Super Bowl odds: 100-1
What they are considered: Just another rebuilding project
What they are: The next Philadelphia Eagles
The Bears' secret weapon this season will be offensive innovation. In a league that cannot wait to give Brian Schottenheimer and Norv Turner types seventh or eighth chances to prove they can produce 20th-ranked offenses, the Bears will gene-splice Doug Pederson brood mate Matt Nagy with Chip Kelly disciple Mark Helfrich to transform Mitchell Trubisky into Carson Wentz and out-Eagles the Eagles.
And it's all happening to the franchise that traditionally builds around its middle linebackers and considers quarterbacks and offensive tactics an afterthought. Go figure.
Speaking of linebackers, the Bears added Roquan Smith to a young defense and retained coordinator Vic Fangio through the coaching transition. The defense is still a pass-rusher or two away from excellence, but their offense has the potential to get really good really fast.
The secret about the Bears must be spreading, because the bookmakers are giving them 7-1 odds to win the NFC North: much better than you would expect from a 5-11 team sharing a division with Aaron Rodgers' Packers and a Vikings team that came within one game of hosting the Super Bowl. But that's the problem with these "underrated" lists: appear on too many of them and a team can graduate straight to "overrated."
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.