Who Are the NFL's Legitimate Sleeper Teams for 2018?

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistAugust 31, 2018

Who Are the NFL's Legitimate Sleeper Teams for 2018?

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    Modest win-loss record predictions usually cause a stir within NFL fanbases.

    Fans want to know why their teams' offseason improvements haven't been taken into account. The additions should result in a better record than the previous year, right?

    Welcome to the sleeper category. 

    Last September, Las Vegas oddsmakers (via OddsShark) set an over-under line of 5.5 wins for the Los Angeles Rams and 6.5 for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Both teams wound up winning 10 or more games and ran away with their respective divisions.

    Vegas isn't the be-all and end-all in offseason forecasts. Here, we'll look at five teams with projected win totals below eight and delve into why you should take the over on that line.

    Who isn't getting enough respect ahead of the 2018 season? The teams below have legitimate gripes.


Cincinnati Bengals

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    Vegas 2018 Projected Win Total: 6.5

    The Cincinnati Bengals could emerge as a surprise sleeper in the AFC North.

    How does a head coach who hasn't won a playoff game during his 15-year tenure get off the hot seat? Much like the Jaguars last season, he should lean upon a stout defense. 

    The Bengals have four viable pass-rushers in Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson and Carl Lawson. They also signed a solid middle linebacker in Preston Brown, who tied for the league lead in tackles last season. The pressure up front should help a talented secondary, which features an emerging playmaker on the boundary in William Jackson and 2014 first-rounder Darqueze Dennard, who is showing improvement in the slot.

    The Bengals beefed up their offensive line during the offseason, trading for left tackle Cordy Glenn and selecting center Billy Price in the first round of April's draft. As a result, quarterback Andy Dalton should have better pass protection. Meanwhile, second-year running back Joe Mixon could have a breakout campaign after he logged 913 yards from scrimmage in 2017.

    Laugh at the Bengals now, but they're only three years removed from a division title. If John Ross or Tyler Boyd fill the void opposite A.J. Green, Cincinnati has the roster balance to become a playoff contender.

Detroit Lions

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    Vegas 2018 Projected Win Total: 7.5

    The Detroit Lions play in the tough NFC North, but they boast enough offensive talent to finish with 10 or more wins. They finished sixth in passing yards last season, and they could be even better this go-round.

    Over the offseason, Detroit added veteran running back LeGarrette Blount, rookie interior offensive lineman Frank Ragnow and first-year tailback Kerryon Johnson to upgrade the league's worst ground attack. The balance should help to take pressure off quarterback Matthew Stafford.

    New head coach Matt Patricia spent the past six seasons serving as a defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, and each of his units over that span finished among the top 10 leaguewide in points allowed. In Detroit, he has an All-Pro cornerback in Darius Slay, and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah is coming off a 12-sack campaign. 

    If Patricia helps to develop Jarrad Davis into a complete middle linebacker with more range in coverage and molds one of his cornerbacks into a starter opposite Slay, the Lions defense should be vastly improved. Based on Patricia's track record in New England, that seems likely.

    This will be Patricia's first year as a head coach, but the Lions won't take a step back after consecutive 9-7 seasons.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Vegas 2018 Projected Win Total: 6.5

    A 6.5-win projection seems way too low with a healthy Andrew Luck under center. He's currently dealing with a minor foot injury, but head coach Frank Reich deemed it as "no big deal," per Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star.

    Despite offensive line issues in the past, Luck led the Colts to three consecutive 11-5 seasons from 2012 through 2014. The team finished 8-7 with him starting under center for 15 contests in 2016 as well.

    Unless Vegas anticipates another injury-riddled season for Luck, it's absurd to think the Colts will finish below .500, even in a tougher division. The three-time Pro Bowler has propelled rosters with bottom-half scoring defenses to the playoffs. He should be able to do it again in 2018. 

    The Colts defense went through a schematic makeover, transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base alignment under new coordinator Matt Eberflus. It may take some time to iron out the wrinkles before the group jells.

    Nonetheless, Luck returns to a unit with familiar targets in wideout T.Y. Hilton and tight end Jack Doyle, both of whom can become instrumental in outscoring opponents. With left tackle Anthony Castonzo healthy and guard Quenton Nelson on the same side, Indy's running backs should have wider rushing lanes as well.

    Assuming Luck avoids any serious injuries, the Colts should vie for a playoff spot in a bounce-back campaign.

Miami Dolphins

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    Vegas 2018 Projected Win Total: 6.5

    Similar to the Colts, the Miami Dolphins welcome back their starting quarterback under center.

    The last time Ryan Tannehill played a majority of the season, this team went to the playoffs as a wild card. There's more to like about the Dolphins than the lack of Jay Cutler, though.

    Between 14th-year veteran Frank Gore and emerging tailback Kenyan Drake, Miami has a solid one-two punch in its backfield. In 2017, Gore logged 1,206 yards from scrimmage with the Colts. Drake, meanwhile, led the league in rushing yards (444) between Weeks 13 and 17, averaging 4.88 yards per carry in that span. 

    Though the Dolphins traded wideout Jarvis Landry to the Cleveland Browns, both Gore and Drake can help fill his void as pass-catchers. Miami also added Danny Amendola, Albert Wilson and rookie tight end Mike Gesicki, who flashed his pass-catching ability at Penn State with 57 receptions for 563 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior.

    The Dolphins may also have a third-round gem in Jerome Baker, who usurped Stephone Anthony for a starting role at linebacker. Rookie defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick's versatility will allow the secondary to show different looks, too.  

    Miami should have an opportunity to challenge the Patriots for a division title. It sounds strange considering New England's nine-year run as AFC East champions, but the Dolphins have the talent to pull off a shocker.

New York Giants

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Vegas 2018 Projected Win Total: 7

    The New York Giants finished a woeful 3-13 last season, and some questioned whether the players quit on head coach Ben McAdoo, which likely prompted his departure. Pat Shurmur replaces him after working wonders on quarterback Case Keenum with the Minnesota Vikings in 2017.

    Shurmur will have a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback in Eli Manning, a star wideout in Odell Beckham Jr. and the 2018 No. 2 overall pick, running back Saquon Barkley, to help fuel what could become an explosive offense. 

    Wideout Sterling Shepard and tight end Evan Engram shouldered most of the receiving load last season after Beckham went down with a fractured ankle. The former led the team in receiving yards (731), and the latter accumulated the most receiving touchdowns (six) for the club. Both pass-catchers should face more one-on-one matchups this season with Beckham back in the fold.

    Although the overall run-defense statistics don't show it, interior defenders Damon Harrison and Dalvin Tomlinson fared well against opposing rushers last year, having combined for 81 solo tackles. Rookie third-rounder B.J. Hill could complete an impenetrable front in James Bettcher's defense. 

    Before cornerback Eli Apple's subpar sophomore campaign, he flashed signs of being a starting-caliber player during his rookie year. Safety Landon Collins is fresh off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons in which he's routinely made plays in coverage, which was considered his weakness coming out of Alabama. 

    Assuming pass-rusher Olivier Vernon shakes off an ankle injury he recently suffered at practice, the defense shouldn't rank as one of the worst in the league. Consequently, a high-powered offense should lead the Giants to more than seven wins.   


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