Ranking the Top 7 NFL Teams Most Likely to Surprise Everyone in 2020

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistAugust 15, 2020

Ranking the Top 7 NFL Teams Most Likely to Surprise Everyone in 2020

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    D. Ross Cameron/Associated Press

    Most of the time, these teams sneak up on us. Before we're ready to acknowledge that a dark horse has become a legitimate contender, that club's resume often speaks for itself. 

    Despite their 8-3 record, the Buffalo Bills went into last year's Thanksgiving Day game with question marks. Who had they beaten? Can quarterback Josh Allen sustain his style of play? Does this squad have enough star power? 

    Critics took note of Buffalo's pivotal 26-15 victory over the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Although the Bills lost three of their next four games, they had done enough to put themselves in position for a postseason berth, going from 6-10 to 10-6 in one year.

    Super Bowl projections seemed lofty for the San Francisco 49ers following a 4-12 campaign, but quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's return and a revamped defense played huge factors in their rise from the bottom of the standings to a top seed. 

    Which clubs will exceed expectations in 2020?

    We've listed and ranked seven teams that finished with non-winning records last season and have odds that favor them missing the playoffs, per Caesars Casino and Sportsbook.

    The low odds illustrate why these clubs fall into the surprise contender category, while the ranking order gives the probability of clinching a playoff berth based on offseason roster moves, recent production, coaching impact and competition within the division or conference.

7. Arizona Cardinals

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    Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray
    Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler MurrayRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Chance to Make Playoffs: No (-245), Yes (+205)

    2019 Record: 5-10-1

    The Arizona Cardinals made a couple of splashy offseason moves, acquiring wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from the Houston Texans and selecting linebacker Isaiah Simmons, arguably the most versatile defensive player in this year's draft.

    The Cardinals offense immediately lands on the radar for most improved with Hopkins, a three-time All-Pro, set to catch passes from quarterback Kyler Murray, the 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year.

    Along with Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk round out a strong wide receiver group. On the Cardinals Cover 2 podcast, Arizona correspondents Craig Grialou and Mike Jurecki also discussed tight end Dan Arnold as a 2020 breakout candidate (starting at 18:10).

    With Kenyan Drake in the backfield, Arizona may finish top 10 in yards and/or points. 

    Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph must field a decent unit to propel this club into postseason contention. The Cardinals gave up the fifth-most points in the league in 2019.

    Last season, cornerback Patrick Peterson missed the first six contests after being suspended for a performance-enhancing drugs violation. Simmons can make plays on all three levels of the defense as a pass-rusher, run-stopper, a solid matchup against tight ends and a cover defender at center field. 

    And don't overlook Devon Kennard's potential impact on the pass rush after he recorded seven sacks in both of his terms with the Detroit Lions. De'Vondre Campbell brings starting experience to the inside linebacker spot.

    Although the Cardinals upgraded at multiple positions, they play in a division with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks—two major roadblocks in their path to the playoffs.

6. Detroit Lions

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    Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
    Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew StaffordD. Ross Cameron/Associated Press

    Chance to Make Playoffs: No (-340), Yes (+280)

    2019 Record: 3-12-1

    The Detroit Lions trended in the wrong direction in the standings last season, winning just three games after going 6-10 in head coach Matt Patricia's first year with the team.

    Patricia lost quarterback Matthew Stafford after Week 9 because of back injuries, so the coach receives somewhat of a pass for finishing the season on a nine-game losing streak.

    After throwing for 2,499 yards, 19 touchdowns and just five interceptions in eight games, Stafford should pick up where he left off in 2019. Coming off a campaign with a league-leading 11 touchdown receptions, wideout Kenny Golladay can become more of a household name.

    Stafford may also have solid help on the ground if Kerryon Johnson can stay healthy and rookie second-rounder D'Andre Swift makes an immediate impact.

    Rookie first-round cornerback Jeff Okudah has the man-coverage ability to hold his own as an immediate starter, while Patricia's familiarity with defensive tackle Danny Shelton, linebacker Jamie Collins and safety Duron Harmon can pay dividends at each level of the defense.

    Within the division, the Green Bay Packers didn't add any significant upgrades on either side of the ball. Linebacker Christian Kirksey, their top free-agent acquisition, must prove he's able to avoid injury after missing 23 games over the last two terms, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers has unproven pass-catching options behind Davante Adams.

    Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings traded wide receiver Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills and lost cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander to the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency. 

    With Stafford healthy, the Lions can close the gap between themselves and the rest of the division. He's more experienced than Kyler Murray and flourished in the offense last year, elevating Detroit to No. 6 in these rankings.

5. Cleveland Browns

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    Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield
    Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker MayfieldDavid Richard/Associated Press

    Chance to Make Playoffs: No (-125), Yes (+105)

    2019 Record: 6-10

    Looking at Caesars' odds, the Cleveland Browns' chance to make the playoffs isn't as surprising in comparison to the other six teams on this list. 

    Nonetheless, the Browns would have to overcome instability. Quarterback Baker Mayfield will work with his third head coach and play-caller since being drafted first overall in 2018. Kevin Stefanski is a first-time lead skipper who takes over a team during an unusual offseason with limited time to install his scheme in live practices. 

    On the flip side, Cleveland has an offense loaded with playmakers. Mayfield goes into his second year with Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. after both wideouts eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in 2019. David Njoku, a 2017 first-rounder, comes into the season healthy after missing multiple games with a broken wrist last year, and two-time Pro Bowler Austin Hooper joins him at tight end.

    In 2019, Cleveland allowed the third-most rushing yards in the league. Across the line, defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson have to stuff the run while Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon contain on the edges.

    Perhaps a trio of young linebackers can plug leftover holes. Sione Takitaki, Mack Wilson and rookie third-rounder Jacob Phillips don't have much experience, but they bring a blend of athleticism and solid tackling to the front seven.

    It's not clear if Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will bounce back from elbow surgery, but Cleveland could sneak into second place in the AFC North and claim a wild-card spot. 

    Unlike the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions, the Browns won't be battling two playoff teams from the previous season, which makes a wild-card finish more feasible for them in 2020.

4. Chicago Bears

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    Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy
    Chicago Bears head coach Matt NagyPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    Chance to Make Playoffs: No (-175), Yes (+155)

    2019 Record: 8-8

    After winning the NFC North in 2018, the Chicago Bears dropped to 8-8 and missed the playoffs last year. Mitchell Trubisky has a Pro Bowl campaign under head coach Matt Nagy, so he's capable of a bounce-back season. Yet, the North Carolina product is a streaky passer whose completion rate slightly dipped over the last two years.

    Incoming signal-caller Nick Foles has history with Nagy, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, which potentially shortens his learning curve within the Bears' system.

    Whether it's Trubisky or Foles under center, the offense needs more from David Montgomery on the ground, which starts with a stronger commitment to the run. In 2019, Chicago ranked 20th in rush attempts. At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, Nagy alluded to a bigger workload for the second-year running back, per The Athletic's Kevin Fishbain.

    "He can do a lot of different things. We know what his strengths are and what his weaknesses are," Nagy said. "Could we have helped him last year by getting him the ball more? Yes, absolutely."

    The Bears also signed edge-rusher Robert Quinn. According to senior defensive assistant and outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino, per Patrick Finley of the Chicago Sun-Times, three-time All-Pro linebacker Khalil Mack will play with a chip on his shoulder after a somewhat disappointing campaign by his standards.

    General manager Ryan Pace's decision to swap out Leonard Floyd for Quinn, who led the Dallas Cowboys with 11.5 sacks last season, should bolster the defense's pass rush.

    Not too long ago, the Bears won their division with much of the same players on the current roster. They're a more realistic surprise team than the Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns, who have finished with losing records for at least the last two terms.

3. Los Angeles Chargers

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    Los Angeles Chargers wide receivers Keenan Allen (left) and Mike Williams (right)
    Los Angeles Chargers wide receivers Keenan Allen (left) and Mike Williams (right)Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Chance to Make Playoffs: No (-180), Yes (+160)

    2019 Record: 5-11

    Within the top three, you'll notice a common theme: continuity at key positions and familiarity between the quarterback and head coach. 

    Tyrod Taylor served as Philip Rivers' backup last season, but he's no stranger to head coach Anthony Lynn. They worked together in Buffalo for two campaigns (2015 and 2016).

    According to Gilbert Manzano of the Orange County Register, Lynn said Taylor would "probably be our Day 1 starter," which means rookie first-rounder Justin Herbert must wait his turn.

    Taylor has a solid group of pass-catchers who can attack every level of opposing defenses from short passes to 20-yard plays downfield. In 2019, Austin Ekeler hauled in 92 passes for 993 yards and eight touchdowns as arguably the best pass-catching running back behind the Carolina Panthers' Christian McCaffrey. In March, the Chargers franchise-tagged tight end Hunter Henry, who logged career highs in receptions (55) and yards (652) last season. Plus, wideout Keenan Allen has been a Pro Bowler every year since 2017.

    Taylor also talked about the benefits of playing with a 6'4", 220-pound wide receiver.

    "Tyrod Taylor says when throwing to Mike Williams it's not a 50-50 ball: 'It's more like 70-30 or 80-20,'" per Daniel Popper of The Athletic. 

    Although the Chargers should balance their offense after ranking 28th in rush attempts in 2019, Taylor could have his best showing as a passer because of his perimeter weapons.

    On the other side of the ball, the Chargers should maintain their top-five pass defense with the addition of cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and a healthy Derwin James in the secondary. Defensive tackle Linval Joseph and rookie first-round linebacker Kenneth Murray will work on shoring up a mediocre front against the run. 

    Keep in mind, Los Angeles has ranked top 10 in yards and points allowed in two out of three seasons under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. If this unit holds, the offense doesn't need to win shootouts because Taylor and the ground attack can grind out victories.

    The Bears have had recent success, but they're still unclear on their quarterback situation, while the Chargers seem to have a plan with playmakers on both sides of the ball. They're 26-22 with two winning seasons under Lynn, which provides some hope for a bounce-back year.

2. Atlanta Falcons

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    Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan
    Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt RyanJason Behnken/Associated Press

    Chance to Make Playoffs: No (-240), Yes (+200)

    2019 Record: 7-9 

    Quarterback Matt Ryan has shown a level of consistency that the Atlanta Falcons can rely on every year. With the four-time Pro Bowler under center, the offense has ranked top 10 in yards for nine out of 12 campaigns. 

    In 2019, the Falcons struggled in the red zone, ranking 25th in touchdown conversions inside the 20-yard line. If running back Todd Gurley plays through a majority of the season, he can help the offense punch in more scores in striking distance.

    Although Gurley recorded a career-low 1,064 yards from scrimmage last year, he scored all of his 14 touchdowns on plays that started inside the 14-yard line. In addition, tight end Hayden Hurst can pose a threat in the red zone with his 6'4", 260-pound frame. Now in a clear-cut starting role, the South Carolina product could blossom into a consistent playmaker. 

    Last season, the Falcons defense finished 23rd in scoring, but the unit played well in the final four weeks, ranking seventh in points allowed. During that stretch, Atlanta faced two top-three scoring offenses in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers. 

    If Keanu Neal can avoid injury after suiting up for just four games over the past two seasons, he'll boost the Falcons run support as a major help in the box. Edge-rusher Dante Fowler Jr. could make a significant impact in the pass rush, especially against Drew Brees and Tom Brady in division matchups.

    If Brady starts slow in a new system with the Buccaneers, the Falcons can push for second place in the NFC South or go further and challenge the reigning division champion New Orleans Saints, whom they beat on the road in 2019.

    The Falcons have a high-level offense featuring Ryan and Julio Jones as one of the most effective quarterback-wideout tandems in the league, which is paired with a defense that finished the previous campaign on a strong note.

    With a 43-37 record and a Super Bowl appearance, Dan Quinn is the most accomplished head coach listed up to this point, giving the Falcons a slight edge over the Los Angeles Chargers for the No. 2 spot.

1. Las Vegas Raiders

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    Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr
    Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek CarrKelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Chance to Make Playoffs: No (-240), Yes (+200)

    2019 Record: 7-9

    In quarterback Derek Carr's first two seasons under head coach Jon Gruden, one can argue he had a shortage of weapons.

    The Las Vegas Raiders didn't re-sign receiver Michael Crabtree after the 2017 campaign and traded Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys midway through the 2018 term. In 2019, Tyrell Williams struggled with plantar fasciitis for most of the year. 

    The Raiders selected two wideouts in April's draft, first-rounder Henry Ruggs III and third-rounder Bryan Edwards. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson discussed plans for the two rookies (starting at 12:49):

    "We'll start with Ruggs III in the slot and do some things with Ruggs III," Olson said. "But [Ruggs and Edwards] are very multiple in what they can do and that's the goal is to be able to move all of them around to different spots; the one, two or three positions at the wide receiver."

    Running back Josh Jacobs and tight end Darren Waller both had a productive 2019 campaign, logging 1,100-plus rushing yards and 1,100-plus receiving yards, respectively. The Raiders ranked 11th in total yards in the league last year. 

    Tight end Jason Witten scored four touchdowns with the Cowboys last year, and he should have enough in the tank to bolster the team's 22nd-ranked red-zone offense.

    Las Vegas revamped its linebacker unit, signing Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski to cover the middle of the field. Safety Damarious Randall, who has 14 interceptions in five seasons, can force turnovers on the back end, and defensive tackle Maliek Collins has the ability to provide an interior pass rush to complement Maxx Crosby on the outside.

    Although the Atlanta Falcons offense could operate like a well-oiled machine, they play in a more competitive division, facing both Tom Brady and Drew Brees on playoff-caliber rosters. They have to avoid third place for a good shot at the playoffs in the NFC.

    Behind the Kansas City Chiefs, the No. 2 spot in the AFC West is wide open. In 2019, the Raiders and Denver Broncos tied at 7-9, while the Los Angeles Chargers went 5-11. With an added seventh seed and notable roster upgrades, the Silver and Black could make it back to the playoffs as a wild-card team.