Most Underrated NFL Teams Heading into the 2019 Season
Every offseason, some NFL teams are touted, while others fall out of favor. Expectations are built upon the maneuvers an organization makes while it positions itself for another campaign. Splashy moves draw the most attention.
But as Bobby Axelrod said on Showtime's megahit Billions: "The greats never sacrifice the important for the urgent. They handle the immediate problem and still make sure to secure the future."
It's easy to overlook those who are consistently competitive. Everyone wants the next big thing instead of acknowledging what's already there. As a result, chic offseason playoff picks always develop. This year, the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers top the list.
The New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints already established themselves as the league's elite, and the Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Chargers and Chicago Bears are nipping at their heels.
The next step is deciphering the volatility found along the next tier based on the direction teams are trending.
The organizations that made the best offseason adjustments by adding to solid foundations will emerge as contenders instead of pretenders. The following six with 22-1 or worse Super Bowl odds, via Vegas Insider, qualify and should surpass their Westgate-projected win totals.
Quietly, the Buffalo Bills put together one of the league's best offseasons.
The organization didn't make any high-profile moves, but general manager Brandon Beane meticulously attacked each of the team's weaknesses. Specifically, the Bills needed to address the offensive line, skill positions and 3-technique.
Buffalo signed six blockers to free-agent deals. Some combination of Mitch Morse, Spencer Long, Quinton Spain, Jon Feliciano, LaAdrian Waddle and Ty Nsekhe will join holdovers Dion Dawkins and Wyatt Teller. Beane didn't stop there. The general manager chose Oklahoma road-grader Cody Ford in the second round of the draft despite a first-round grade from some teams.
"Long story short, Ford had a real chance to go 11th overall," The MMQB's Albert Breer reported. "He didn't. And he slid all the way into the second round, where Buffalo traded up to get him with the 38th pick."
The Bills found tremendous value with both of their top picks. They addressed the void Kyle Williams left along the defensive interior by selecting Ed Oliver with the ninth overall pick.
They added a talent infusion to the skill positions as well. The Bills signed running back Frank Gore, tight end Tyler Kroft and wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley. The team then drafted running back Devin Singletary and tight end Dawson Knox in the third round.
All of these additions will make life so much easier on second-year quarterback Josh Allen after he had to carry Buffalo's offense last season.
Plus, the defense already ranked among the league's best. The unit finished second overall in total defense last season.
The New England Patriots are still the team to be in the AFC East, but the Bills are ready to stake their claim as one of the conference's better squads.
Cam Newton's strong right arm will determine the Carolina Panthers' future.
The burly quarterback experienced shoulder problems throughout the 2018 campaign before the coaching staff shut him down with two games left to play. Newton required arthroscopic surgery in January. Now, his continued recovery is at the forefront of the franchise's fortunes.
"I'm feeling great now," Newton told ESPN.com's David Newton. "I feel like I do have full strength right now. But me telling the doctor, that is different than, you know, whatever the clearance process may be."
Naturally, the Panthers' upcoming season will hinge on Newton's health, much like what the Indianapolis Colts experienced when they awaited Andrew Luck's return. Newton's case appears less severe, but Carolina knew it had to change on both sides of the ball to help its quarterback.
Protection has been a problem for some time. To better protect the franchise signal-caller, Carolina signed center Matt Paradis, re-signed offensive tackle Daryl Williams and traded up in the second round to select offensive tackle Greg Little.
The coaching staff also wanted a more aggressive and flexible defensive approach. With Julius Peppers' retirement, general manager Marty Hurney signed Bruce Irvin and drafted Brian Burns with the 16th overall pick. Both present position flexibility as edge-rushers, who can stand up and work in space. Thus, the Panthers won't be in the same four-man front at all times. The defensive staff will shift between looks.
Carolina started 6-2 last year before Newton's shoulder started to severely impact his play and the team suffered a seven-game skid. Leaders like Peppers, Ryan Kalil and Thomas Davis are gone, but the talent core remains intact and has the potential to compete for a playoff spot—as long as the quarterback position is OK.
"But through it all I feel like I've become better," Newton said of dealing with his injury. "I feel I've become stronger, mentally and physically, throughout that whole process."
One topic dominated the Houston Texans' offseason: How will the organization better protect quarterback Deshaun Watson?
The question had to be asked over and over again because Watson endured a league-high 62 sacks last season. Houston has the rest of the pieces in place to become an elite team in the AFC. But the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and a signal-caller must remain upright to be successful.
Surprisingly, the Texans didn't make any significant free-agent moves to address the offensive front. Instead, the organization felt comfortable re-signing Seantrel Henderson and bringing in Matt Kalil after two disappointing years with the Carolina Panthers.
But a much heavier emphasis on the offensive line came during the draft when the team selected Alabama State's Tytus Howard and Northern Illinois' Max Scharping with two of its first three picks.
"We have to have guys that can be bodyguards for Deshaun Watson, man, and you're going to be that guy," Texans head coach Bill O'Brien told Howard after the team used its first-round pick on the FCS product. "Tough, smart, dependable; that's what you are and that's what you have to bring in here."
Despite the protection issues, the Texans still finished with an 11-5 record and won the AFC South last season. Yet, the Indianapolis Colts are one of the league's most talented teams, and the Jacksonville Jaguars received a significant boost on offense with the Nick Foles addition. As a result, the Texans have become somewhat of an afterthought.
The AFC South should be one of the league's most competitive divisions. Houston claims too much talent—including Watson, J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller V, Lamar Miller, Whitney Mercilus, Johnathan Joseph and Jadeveon Clowney (once he signs his franchise tag)—to be treated as anything other than a legitimate contender.
Two seasons ago, the Minnesota Vikings tied for the league's best record at 13-3. The organization followed the successful campaign with one of the most expensive free-agent signings in NFL history.
Kirk Cousins' first year in purple and yellow didn't go as planned, though. He didn't play poorly, per se, but the Vikings never found the right approach. As a result, head coach Mike Zimmer fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo midseason, and Kevin Stefanski served as his replacement.
"On game day, he's riding with all his guys and he plays aggressive," wide receiver Stefon Diggs said of the Vikings' current coordinator, per ESPN.com's Courtney Cronin. "He's not scared of anything, and he believes we can do anything, as far as running the ball well, throwing the ball well, whatever it is, he has confidence in us and we appreciate it."
A more balanced attack can be expected and not necessarily from a run-pass perspective, though the Vikings did attempt the sixth-most passes last season. How Stefanski uses the available talent is far more important. Last year, Diggs and Adam Thielen shouldered too much of the workload with a combined 302 total targets.
The coach's roots are based in the West Coast offense, which is where Cousins thrives, especially in the play-action game. Diggs and Thielen will run more timing and intermediate routes. The team's tight ends, including second-round rookie Irv Smith Jr., should be an even bigger part of the scheme. Overall, Stefanski's fingerprints should be all over the system after he had to adapt on the fly.
Plus, the Vikings fortified the offensive line by signing Josh Kline and drafting three blockers, including first-round center Garrett Bradbury.
On the other side of the ball, the Vikings remain a top-five defense. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson departed in free agency, but Minnesota made a great move by retaining linebacker Anthony Barr.
The Vikings should look more like the successful 2017 squad this fall than the 8-7-1 version that appeared last year.
The Pittsburgh Steelers offseason invokes a classic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
The NFL: "Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead."
The rest of the AFC North: "Here's one."
The Steelers: "I'm not dead. ... I feel happy. I feel happy"
Many wanted to bury Pittsburgh after it lost running back Le'Veon Bell in free agency as well as wide receiver Antonio Brown and right tackle Marcus Gilbert via trade.
The Steelers won't play dead for anyone, nor will Mike Tomlin's squad bend a knee to any division opponent, even though the Cleveland Browns are dramatically improved and the Baltimore Ravens are coming off a postseason appearance.
Ben Roethlisberger hasn't gone anywhere after leading the league in 2018 with 5,129 passing yards. James Conner played well in Bell's absence. JuJu Smith-Schuster, not Brown, led the team in receptions (111) and receiving yards (1,426).
Offensively, Pittsburgh should be just fine.
On the other side of the ball, last year's sixth-ranked unit improved its personnel with the additions of 10th overall pick Devin Bush, incoming rookie cornerback Justin Layne, veteran linebacker Mark Barron and versatile defensive back Steven Nelson.
The Steelers stumbled to a 9-6-1 record and barely missed the playoffs. The roster isn't eroding, and the remaining talent level coupled with a seasoned coaching staff will keep Pittsburgh in the postseason hunt and even Super Bowl mix.
The Washington Redskins led the NFC East with a 6-3 record going into Week 11 play last season. Then, Alex Smith's leg broke under the weight of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.
Everything went wrong from that point on.
Backup quarterback Colt McCoy started two games before getting injured and placed on injured reserve. Mark Sanchez was benched. The offensive line fell apart because of multiple injuries. And Josh Johnson finished the year behind center.
Considering the circumstances, Washington's 1-6 record down the stretch can be somewhat excused.
Smith isn't expected to play this season, but the organization addressed the game's most important position by trading for veteran Case Keenum and drafting Dwayne Haskins with this year's 15th overall pick.
"I'm excited to get to work with Haskins," Keenum said, per ESPN.com's John Keim. "I know he's a great player. I watched a lot of his college games. ... I'll come in and compete. Competition makes all of us better. I hope I make him better; I think he's going to come in and make me better. That's what helps this team."
The offense can lean on running backs Adrian Peterson and (last year's second-round pick) Derrius Guice, who is coming back from a torn ACL. The starting offensive line returns. Plus, the front office made sure to improve the unit's depth with the draft additions of Wes Martin and Ross Pierschbacher.
The defensive line will be a strength after the organization used its second first-round pick on defensive end Montez Sweat. The rookie adds to a group that already featured Ryan Kerrigan, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne.
A strong running game coupled with an exciting young quarterback and a ferocious defensive front often signal a successful campaign—if the primary contributors stay healthy.