The 8 NFL sleepers headed in the right direction

NFL season preview week continues, with eight teams set to surprise …

The NFL season preview has reached the sleepers, eight overlooked teams ready to take a step forward in 2018. We already ruled out the eight worst teams in the league, and we considered eight teams moving in the wrong direction. Now it’s time to get hyped about eight ready to take a leap forward in the league of parity and constant change.

Six of these eight teams finished last in the division in 2017, which means I’ve already written about them trying to find this year’s worst-to-first team. Two or three, maybe even four of them will make this year’s playoffs.

Remember, this is not a power rankings. Yesterday’s Rams and Jaguars are not worse than some of these teams, but they’re all stuck in the middle together. Looking for this year’s big sleeper? It’s one of these eight teams.

Cleveland Browns

We finally made it to the Browns, who have actual real live talent! Denzel Ward and and Myles Garrett look like defensive stars. Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb improve the run, and Jarvis Landry is a leader at WR. And the Browns finally have a real starting quarterback for the first time this century — two in fact! Tyrod Taylor has always been competent, and Baker Mayfield looks like the real deal. Cleveland’s offense ranked dead last in DVOA, but all those weapons with new OC Todd Haley should mean a massive step forward.

Of course, there are plenty of steps to take from 0–16. Cleveland was the league’s biggest underachiever with a Pythagorean wins expectation of 3.3. Take that 3.3 and add an improved offense, and there’s a real team there! Probably not a playoff team, but maybe just Bills bad instead of the usual Browns bad. That’s something!

Cleveland has a lot of talent now, but the coaching staff is incompetent and we just watched it play out on Hard Knocks. Talent still needs system and scheme. Browns fans may root for the team to look bad early just so they get rid of Hue Jackson and get Baker Mayfield out there.

Playoff contention feels like a stretch. How about just getting above .500 for the first time since November 2014? Cleveland starts with the Steelers and Saints, so that’s an 0–2 hole. The Jets and Raiders should help them get their first win since 2016 after that, and the schedule vacillates from there. I think the Browns get to 2–2, 3–4, 5–6, but never quite above .500.

Next year, Browns fans.

Over 5.5 — play

Chicago Bears

As a lifelong Vikings fan that’s lived in Chicago for 17 years, it kills me to say that I kind of really love what this Bears team is building. I was already high on Chicago with the remade receivers and coaching staff, and Khalil Mack could be the piece that puts this team over the top into real contention.

I wrote an entire piece about the Bears offense. An abysmal receiving corps hit the reset button, and I expect Trey Burton to do a pretty good Travis Kelce impression while Matt Nagy and Mark Helfrich schemes get Tarik Cohen into space a la Tyreek Hill. I’ve never been a Mitch Trubisky believer, but he could take a Goff-esque leap forward with the scheme and talent around him.

And now the Chicago story is defense, just like it’s supposed to be. Only eight teams allowed fewer points than the Bears, and they just added the league’s best pass rusher to address their only real weakness. This is a top-5 defense, and there are shades of last year’s Jaguars — a mean, high-energy defense. The Bears also had the league’s toughest schedule in 2017 and went 2–6 in one score games, so there’s some positive regression coming.

The NFC North is the toughest division in football with Khalil Mack, and they’ll have the worst QB in the division even if Trubisky improves. Chicago gets the Cards, Bucs, Jets, Bills, and Lions in the first half, so they could roar out to 6–3 or 7–2, but a brutal final seven awaits: Vikings, Thanksgiving Lions, at Giants, Rams, Packers, at 49ers, at Vikings. The defense should keep Chicago in these games, but it’s going to be a bloodbath.

If the offense improves to average and the defense is top-5, the Bears probably get to .500. If the defense leaps to 1 or 2 or the offense all the way to top-10, it’s playoff time. Either way, they may beat that 6.5 over by Thanksgiving.

Over 6.5 — LOCK

Washington Redskins

The Redskins look like what you’d get if you tried to build the most forgettable, most likely-to-finish-.500 team possible. Everywhere you look, they’re just… fine. The receivers are fine. The defense is fine. There’s literally a picture of Alex Smith next to “fine” in the football dictionary.

In the AFC, fine might contend for a Wild Card, but there’s too much talent in the NFC. Washington could sneak into division contention if the Eagles never get healthy, but it’s tough to see this roster getting to 10 wins. Every game on the schedule is winnable, but they’re also all losable. That’s what happens when you’re fine. Washington won 9, 8, and 7 games the last three years. They should finish in that range again, and that’s just fine.

Over 7 — pass

Denver Broncos

The Broncos went 5–5 with Trevor Siemian but 0–6 with Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch. Case Keenum isn’t much, but he should be at least Siemian, and we already know he can manage a game the defense keeps him in. That’s what Denver is hoping for.

The Broncos added the best defender in the draft in Bradley Chubb, and he’s going to have plenty of room opposite Von Miller, but the defense was healthy last year and dropped from 1st to 10th in DVOA anyway, and the secondary should fall off without Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. If Denver’s defense is just good but not great, the offense can’t close the gap. The Broncos had only one win against a winning team in 2017.

Denver is just good enough to not be bad, and they should hang around with a Charmin-soft schedule. They could be this year’s Cardinals, a team that somehow gets to 8 wins without ever actually being good. Royce Freeman and Courtland Sutton give this offense a future, but they might be a year or two away until they get the right coach and QB to go with them.

Over 7 — pass

New York Giants

The Giants gambled on Eli Manning, eschewing this year’s rookie quarterback class to invest in Saquon Barkley instead. Barkley is a star talent, and he’ll get plenty of looks under new coach Pat Shurmur. The Giants missed 18 games from Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard last season. In hindsight, it’s actually impressive they managed to finish 23rd in offensive DVOA. Add those receivers and actually remember to start Manning all season with Barkley and an improved line, and this offense should do some things.

But what can the Giants defense give them? That was the real fall-off last season, from #2 to an ugly 24th, and the talent just doesn’t appear to be there anymore. You see Giants and think speed and nasty pass rush, but this defense is tame. They’re going to have to win games on offense, which means this is all on Eli.

At this point, that’s a tough proposition, especially because the G-Men might have the toughest schedule in the NFL. Check out the eight-game slate heading into the bye week: Jaguars, Cowboys, Texans, Saints, Panthers, Eagles, Falcons, Redskins. Every week is a test, and they’ll still have the Niners, Bears, Titans, and another trip through the division in the second half. If Manning doesn’t turn back the clock, you the Giants could have the worse QB in 13 games. That seems bad.

The Giants placed a big bet this season on Eli Manning. Care to join them?

Over 7 — pass

Tennessee Titans

The Titans were one of my sleepers last season and they came through with 9 wins and a playoff berth, but they were never particularly good. Management must have realized the same thing because they rebuilt the coaching staff despite the winning season, bringing in Mike Vrabel to lead the charge and turning the offense over to Matt LaFleur, who worked with the league’s #1 offense the last two years under Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan.

I’ve already said plenty about the Titans offense, which should leap into the modern era. Out with smashmouth and in a spread attack with lots of motion and explosive downfield strikes. That suits Marcus Mariota, one of the best spread QBs in college history, and it should help a finally healthy Corey Davis, who could be one of this year’s breakout receivers.

The Titans should be better on defense too, with the additions of Malcolm Butler and Kenny Vaccaro turning a bad secondary into a good one. ESPN’s Mike Clay has Tennessee as one of six teams with a top-10 unit on both offense and defense, joining the Eagles, Saints, Rams, Falcons, and Patriots. Clay’s weakest ranking for the Titans comes at QB and at WR, and that’s where LaFleur could be key. If he helps Mariota and Davis step forward, these Titans could be good everywhere. Mariota could be the best QB in the division with Luck and Watson still recovering, and with a a decent Mariota leap, the Titans could have the better QB in as many as 14 games.

Last year’s Titans overachieved with 9 wins despite a 7.4 Pythagorean expectation. This year’s team should earn those 9 wins and then some if LaFleur turns Mariota into the star he was meant to be. The Titans are +350 to win the division, but they’re the only AFC South team good on both sides of the ball. They should be the favorites.

Over 8 — play

Houston Texans

The Texans are the least predictable team in the NFL. The two best players on the team are both massive question marks. Can Deshaun Watson recover from a second ACL tear, and was the six-game rookie explosion a mirage waiting to regress? Does J.J. Watt have anything left, and can he stay healthy for more than a month? If Houston gets a full season from Watson and Watt, they could be Super Bowl contenders. If both struggle or hit the injury list, they’ll be bottom ten. Watson and Watt are the difference between 4–12 and 12–4.

Houston’s defense was worst in the league, and the only real improvements are signing another injury guy Tyrann Mathieu and hoping edge rushers Watt and Whitney Mercilus get healthy again. The secondary is still rough, and the offensive line remains the worst in the league. Houston went 1–9 against teams over .500 and finished dead last in weighted DVOA. They didn’t add any big free agents, and they didn’t have first- or second-round picks. They simply ran this team back and hoped it’d stay healthy.

I don’t know what to expect from this Texans team, and neither do you. They could be this year’s Chargers, struggling early against a tough schedule but looking dangerous late, the team no one wants to play in the playoffs and doesn’t have to. The football fan in me will root for Watson and Watt to stay on the field, but the gambler will stay far away.

Under 8.5 — pass

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers are my pick as this year’s worst-to-first division winner, partly for my lack of belief in the Rams and Seahawks and partly because I love what San Francisco is building. Kyle Shanahan could turn Marquise Goodwin and Matt Breida into stars, and the team is modeling its defense after Seattle. Richard Sherman may still have something left, and his leadership on the field and in the locker room will be worth its weight in gold.

The 49ers went 1–10 under Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard but 5–0 with Jimmy Garoppolo. They lost five games by three or less, so this team was competitive all season. Six of the nine OL and DL starters are first-rounders. That’s a lot of talent ready to blossom, and the 49ers are also counting on healthier seasons from Solomon Thomas, Arik Armstead, and Reuben Foster.

The Jerick McKinnon loss hurts, and with Foster suspended early and a tough opening schedule, it may take a month to settle in. The 49ers open against the Vikings, Lions, Chiefs, Chargers, Cardinals, Packers, and Rams. That could easily be a 2–5 hole if San Francisco isn’t careful, but that Week 7 Sunday night home game against L.A. is key. If they 49ers win that game, the schedule opens up in a huge way with the Cards, Raiders, Giants, and Bucs over the next month and a get-healthy November where San Francisco plays only one game in 23 days. It’s not out of the question this team could turn a Week 7 Rams win into a 10-game win streak they ride all the way into the playoffs.

Four games against the Seahawks and Rams should tell the story of the Niners’ season, with a Week 17 trip to L.A. looming large. San Francisco sits at +300 to win the NFC West, and you have the perfect opportunity to hedge late if you’re not feeling it. They could be this year’s big sleeper.

Over 8.5 — pass

This was the most fun preview section to write because there’s so much to speculate and get excited about, but it also means these teams are tough for your wallet to believe in. Everyone but the Texans is an over, but the Skins, Broncos, Giants, and Niners are a pass. Teams like Tennessee and San Francisco, if you believe in them, are better odds to win the division and make your bet count. The Browns are a good play, as much as the Browns can be, but the Bears are the big winner. They could be ferocious.

That’s 24 teams previewed and 8 to go. Come back tomorrow for the eight Super Bowl contenders and a pick for the season opener, featuring two of those eight contenders. It’s football time!!

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