Dark-Horse NFL Teams That Could Make a Playoff Run in 2019
The NFL offseason, particularly around the NFL draft, is high-optimism time for all 32 fanbases.
Understandably so, as the league supports the idea of parity—not only in a promotional sense, but features of the league such as the salary cap and draft are structured around this idea. In other words, even dark-horse teams have a realistic shot at the playoffs each year.
The dark horses for the 2019 season aren't expected to win more than eight games based on odds and expected win totals. But the right mixture of added talent, coaching changes, players returning from injury and surrounding divisional outlook makes the following teams serious surprise contenders.
The Washington Redskins could end up being a bigger threat than most realize.
It's easy to forget last year's 7-9 Redskins were right in the playoff race in the NFC East when Alex Smith got hurt. They boasted a 6-3 mark at one point in November before things fell apart.
After the Redskins lost Smith, they worked through three additional quarterbacks to finish the season and slapped 20-plus players on injured reserve. An elite defense before injury had kept the Redskins afloat, considering Smith wasn't anything special (10 touchdowns, five interceptions) during the hot streak as he got accustomed to his new surroundings. No Redskins receivers finished with more than two touchdowns, and it took 1,000 rushing yards from a 34-year-old Adrian Peterson to keep things predictable.
That elite defense, especially up front with Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, is back. It upgraded at safety with $84 million man Landon Collins. On the other side of the ball, if the Redskins can at least get game manager-type play from first-round pick Dwayne Haskins, returning players who didn't even play a snap last year, such as second-round pick Derrius Guice, could balance out the attack.
And the NFC East is always up for grabs. The Redskins were in it last year, and in 2019, the New York Giants are down; the Philadelphia Eagles have to worry about health under center; and the Dallas Cowboys, while looking good, still split with Washington last year.
Jon Gruden's plan is so outlandish it might just work.
The Oakland Raiders only managed four wins last year but aren't too far removed from the shocking 12-win performance in 2016. Things could get back to that level quickly if the plan works out.
Said plan doesn't feature Khalil Mack or Amari Cooper as centerpieces, but it does have Antonio Brown—a weapon in the middle of his prime, with 1,200-plus yards and eight or more touchdowns in every season dating back to 2013.
He's going to open up a passing attack that still got 4,000-plus yards from Derek Carr last year, though he only mustered 19 touchdowns. That should change because of Brown and smart additions like Tyrell Williams. Keep in mind the potential offensive line upgrade with the free-agent get of Trent Brown.
It should help that the Raiders won't be relying on a hodgepodge of names like Doug Martin and Marshawn Lynch again in the backfield. First-round pick Josh Jacobs should come in and balance things out.
Defensively, Mack's production isn't walking back through that door. But a slew of veteran linebacker adds and the combo of a free-agent splash like Lamarcus Joyner with first-round pick Johnathan Abram should upgrade the secondary.
Granted, the AFC West is brutal. However, producing three playoff teams wouldn't come as a shock, and there is always a regression candidate lurking somewhere. The Raiders have made enough gains in smart areas to be considered a playoff contender.
Quiet doesn't mean ineffective.
One could argue the Cincinnati Bengals chased a Sean McVay-esque trend with the hiring of his understudy, Zac Taylor, as head coach. But any change is good for a team that refused to move on from Marvin Lewis for 16 years.
Taylor is an offensive mind who inherited an incredible crop of talent. A year ago, behind a bad offensive line, Joe Mixon led the AFC in rushing with 1,168 yards and eight scores over 14 games. A.J. Green missed time but is back, and Tyler Boyd had a breakout season with 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns.
Linebacker is a weak point for the Bengals, but that's about it. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap head up a lethal pass rush only deepened with names like Carl Lawson and Sam Hubbard. The secondary still has elite outside corner shutdown potential with William Jackson, and we'd be talking about Jessie Bates as the best rookie safety from the 2018 class were it not for Derwin James. Keep in mind that while the unit was on pace to be historically bad last year, the Bengals fired a coordinator in the middle of the season and started to get back on track.
The Bengals hit the offseason, got their key free agents back (Tyler Eifert, Darqueze Dennard) and upgraded the offensive line with guard John Miller. They did the same in the first round with offensive tackle Jonah Williams.
It helps that the AFC North is a bit of a mess. Cleveland is hyped but unproven. Baltimore could regress if Lamar Jackson doesn't progress, and Pittsburgh lost a slew of talent. If the run-first approach works and the defense's play matches its talent level, Cincinnati could be headed back to the playoffs.
The hype levels never seemed to match the solid moves the Detroit Lions made this offseason to secure a playoff-contending setup around Matthew Stafford.
Stafford is at least partially to blame after a ho-hum season in which he threw for 3,777 yards and just 21 touchdowns. But he took 40 sacks, and the running game was uninspiring for the majority of the season.
The good news? Stafford's surrounding cast should see a significant bump with Danny Amendola now helping to time the offense and keep the chains moving. First-round pick T.J. Hockenson was the draft's most well-rounded tight end and should make up for the Eric Ebron gaffe. Going into his second year, Kerryon Johnson could morph into an outright star if he's allowed to handle the load after posting 641 yards and three scores on a 5.4 per-carry average over 10 games.
On the defensive side, Matt Patricia swapped out the randomness of Ezekiel Ansah for former Foxborough friend Trey Flowers, a disruptive but dominant all-around force who should change the complexion of his unit. The Lions should have one of the most dominant front sevens in all of football with Flowers, Damon Harrison, A'Shawn Robinson and Da'Shawn Hand, especially if 2017 first-round linebacker Jarrad Davis keeps improving.
After taking a quality-over-quantity approach, the Lions should be able to elbow for room with a Green Bay team breaking in a new head coach and a Minnesota team coping with all that money thrown at Kirk Cousins. Chicago could still be great, but another 12 wins aren't guaranteed either.
San Francisco 49ers
It's easy to forget Jimmy Garoppolo, who should be able to put up some fantastic numbers with Kyle Shanahan if he can stay on the field.
Garoppolo only suited up for three games last year, though, so it is understandable if most feel uninspired by an offense that featured Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard under center.
But that offense returns Jerick McKinnon, who was also lost to injury. He'll team up with Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida, which should make for one of the NFL's deeper on-paper rotational backfields. Keep in mind that Garoppolo will get to spam the ball to Gronkowski-lite George Kittle, who put up 88 catches for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns without his starting passer last year. Rookie wideouts Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd deepen an underappreciated depth chart there too.
Even then, arguably the bigger gains came on the other side of the ball. Kwon Alexander has had health issues lately, but he's a viable Reuben Foster replacement. Dee Ford arrives after a 13-sack season and will pair with No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa to form what could be one of the NFL's best pressure-creating tandems.
Topping it off is the NFC West, which has a rebuilding Arizona team, a Seattle team that keeps losing key contributors around Russell Wilson and a Los Angeles team that just had its coaching staff plucked of talent. All of this could yield a massive upgrade for the 49ers.
It all comes down to Cam Newton, though for the Carolina Panthers, the savvy offseason moves sure don't hurt.
Newton's 2018 campaign was marred by a nerve issue in his shoulder. He still completed 67.9 percent of his passes with 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, so positive vibes surrounding the issue are a good sign.
The Panthers went all-in around the idea of keeping him protected, too. Matt Paradis was a quiet free-agent win considering he's one of the top centers when healthy. Getting Daryl Williams back secures a tackle spot. Drafting Greg Little at the other tackle spot enabled the Panthers to move on from the Matt Kalil problem.
Newton's weapons should only progress, too. It isn't hyperbolic to suggest Christian McCaffrey's all-around game should have him in MVP chatter—he had 1,000 yards and seven scores last year and led the team in receiving with 107 catches. DJ Moore, the first-round pick in 2018, should keep progressing, as should Curtis Samuel.
This year's first-round pick, Brian Burns, should make a strong pass rush featuring Mario Addison and Kawann Short all the more dangerous. An improved pressure rate will be pivotal in the pass-happy NFC South, though keep in mind Carolina started 6-2 last season before things went off the rails. With better injury luck, Newton and Co. could be on a similar trajectory in 2019.