With two weeks of preseason action in the books, things are starting to take shape in the NFL – positive for some and rather ominous for others.
Every year, a few teams seemingly come out of nowhere and are forced into relevance. Meanwhile, it is not uncommon to see pioneers slip and fall short of expectations.
This year the figures will be no different. Already, many people around the league believe teams like the Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles have a chance to make strides after making big-name acquisitions in the offseason. And in the meantime, there is a degree of concern that the departure of Tyreek Hill, and the simultaneous improvement of their AFC West rivals, could threaten the Kansas City Chiefs’ six-year reign at the top of their division.
But every year seems to offer a few surprises. A few smart moves and a few strokes of luck put a team or two in this 2021 Cincinnati Bengals race. Meanwhile, bad luck could derail expected contenders.
Here’s a look at three teams that seemingly have a chance to become surprise threats and three others that could be destined for unexpectedly disappointing campaigns.
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NFL teams that could make amazing raises
Matt Rhule needs this to happen in the worst way, and Baker Mayfield is doing just as well with his start in Carolina after the Cleveland Browns split with the 2018 No. 1 pick after landing Deshaun Watson. Mayfield has always had a chip on his shoulder, but his motivation seems to be as strong as ever. He wants to prove the Browns wrong and, now that he’s healthy, he can help a team contend.
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In addition to improved confidence and decision-making at quarterback, he could bring an edge the Panthers need. Carolina certainly has the weapons on offense (Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, Robbie Anderson, Terrace Marshall Jr.), but the unit needs to stay healthy and have the right coordinator to give it a chance. With the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints each starting at quarterback and navigating uncertain territory at head coach (Atlanta’s Arthur Smith is still finding his way into Year 2 and former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen replaces Sean Payton in New Orleans), the door is open for Carolina to chase a wild-card bid after three straight double-digit losing seasons.
Things can’t get much worse than last year’s dysfunctional 3-14 campaign under Urban Meyer. And after hiring Doug Pederson as head coach and an offseason dedicated to building a much more complete team through free agency and the draft, Jacksonville’s prospects for a dramatic leap forward look good.
Pederson and quarterbacks coach Mike McCoy should be very helpful to 2021 top pick Trevor Lawrence, who often looked lost last season in a 12-touchdown, 17-interception campaign. An upgraded line should also help the quarterback’s comfort level. As members of the AFC South – where the Titans are rebuilding to an extent, the Colts are still trying to put it all together and the Texans seem destined for one of the top picks in the 2023 draft – the Jaguars have a sunny outlook.
After a controversial end to the Brian Flores era, Dolphins officials have gone the way of the young, creative offensive coordinator, naming former San Francisco 49ers assistant offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel as head coach. The Dolphins are hoping that right-hander Kyle Shanahan can save Tua Tagovailoa’s career by taking the quarterback in the top five of the 2020 draft.
McDaniel runs a quarterback-friendly system, and investing in Tagovailoa’s supporting cast will also make life easier for the young quarterback. If the Dolphins can put together a productive offense that matches an already talented defense, Miami could be in the thick of things during the season. The Dolphins, of course, have two formidable AFC East foes (the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots) to worry about. But a suspect offensive staff in New England could lead to struggles in year two for McJones, setting the Dolphins up for that surprise bid.
NFL teams that could disappoint
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Brady’s absence midway through camp was strange, but it’s far from the most worrisome aspect of the preseason for Tampa Bay. That would be breaking up the offensive line. Between the offseason departures of guards Ali Marpet (retirement) and Alex Capa (free agency) and the rash of injuries to Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen, starting offensive guard Aaron Stinnie and All-Pro offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs , the Bucs should be on red alert. Brady, who turned 45 earlier this month, is known for his quick release and presence in the pocket, but a patchwork line means he could be under the most pressure he’s experienced in some time. and another run to a Super Bowl could prove impossible for Tampa Bay.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers resolved the lingering uncertainty surrounding their union with Aaron Rodgers, but after making their quarterback the NFL’s highest-paid player, they lost top targets Davante Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The revamped and young receiving unit has largely struggled this preseason and has even drawn public criticism from Rodgers.
The Packers dominated in three regular seasons under Matt FlaFleur (going 39-10 and winning the division each year), but have fallen short in each postseason. But they could face some offensive struggles with a lack of proven and reliable targets. A lack of continuity and consistency during this year of potential growing pains could prove costly, particularly late in the season and into the postseason, as Rodgers and Co. they spent the last 12 seasons trying in vain to get back to the Super Bowl.
Did the Titans’ best shot at a Super Bowl appearance slip through their fingers with last winter’s divisional round loss to Cincinnati? This could certainly be the case. Gone is Ryan Tannehill’s best offensive weapon in wide receiver AJ Brown. Julio Jones, another top wideout, is also gone this season. The salary cap constraints made it difficult for the Titans to reload. Workhorse running back Derrick Henry returns but missed nine games last season after breaking a bone in his foot, and it’s hard not to wonder when all those mileage will catch up to him.
After two consecutive AFC South titles and three straight playoff appearances, the Titans must brace themselves for improvement from Jacksonville and Indianapolis. It’s a long season, but it looks like the Titans’ window of opportunity could be closing.
Follow Mike Jones of USA TODAY Sports on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL surprise teams: Could Dolphins, Panthers defy odds in 2022?