“Any given Sunday.” That seems to be an unwritten mantra of the NFL, which teams and fans take to heart. Fans love underdogs. They love when teams work their way from the bottom of their division, sneak into the playoffs, and hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy in February. These type of teams, their players and the organizations they represent, are metaphors for the working class. You start with nothing, but work your way to become something.
Well, there exists no bigger underdogs than the teams listed below. As predicted by SportsBooks.ag, these franchises are expected to stay at the bottom, while franchises such as Seattle, Denver and the Patriots reign supreme. Yet, I wouldn’t count out these bottom dwellers. While their weaknesses are well documented, many of them could be close to having a breakout season, and maybe even a Super Bowl season.
Just two seasons ago, the Houston Texans found themselves atop the AFC South division. This offseason, the Oakland Raiders find their pockets deep with salary cap money to sign players. Yes, other teams may stay at the bottom and be forced to watch as their rivals ascend to the top. The Jets and Bills must contend with the always tough Patriots and the Vikings’ quarterback issues are well documented; however, the Jets will cut dead weight and rebuild their passing attack and the Bills will solidify their talented defense to give Brady and company fits. So, after all, the NFL’s peasants may be closer to sitting atop the thrown than we originally thought.
The offseason is the same as a restart button. Every team begins their quest for the Vince Lombardi trophy in the same spot. The question is, who has provided themselves with the proper tools to rise to the top? Maybe this is the year some of those teams "least likely" to rise will actually soar to unimagined heights. After all, anybody can win “Any Given Sunday.”
10 Houston Texans, 40/1 Odds
For a team with the number one overall pick in this year’s draft, you may assume the Texans are nothing more than a paradise turned wasteland. In some sense, I suppose you’d be correct. Before they bottomed out last year, they had won consecutive AFC South titles and were favorites to win a third. They had a talented roster that just needed to get over the hump, but their dreams quickly fell apart. The Texans fired head coach Gary Kubiak on December 6th and replaced him soon after with former Penn State head coach and Patriots’ offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
O’Brien will inject new principles and rules into the Texans’ locker room, which will likely include banning letterman jackets and its counterparts (And no, that joke will never get old.) Instead, the front office will sign players focused only on playing football. Just recently, analyst Russ Lande reported the Texans were leaning toward drafting quarterback Blake Bortles or Johnny Manziel. Texans' owner Bob McNair likes Manziel, but others believe O’Brien will go in a different direction. Because the new coach questions Manziel’s maturity and work ethic, maybe he’d prefer to trade down, acquire a stud defensive player and find his quarterback in the later rounds.
Despite their poor record last year, the Texans still played stout on defense. It’d serve them well to draft a player like defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to complement already present defensive end J.J. Watt. Of course, if they select Clowney, new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel might have to modify his 3-4 system. Would Clowney or Watt, now asked to take up space rather than make highlight reels, be willing to let linebackers make the big plays? The way I see it, when there is a playmaker available, who can adapt to many systems like Clowney, it’s best to make the selection and ask questions later.
Odds to win Super Bowl 49: 40/1
9 T8. Miami Dolphins, 50/1 Odds
Last year, the Dolphins tried to buy their way into the postseason. They signed free agent receiver Mike Wallace and defensive players Philip Wheeler, Dannell Ellerbe and Brent Grimes. They also resigned several of their own players. Now former general manager Jeff Ireland knew he was on the hot seat, so he tried to everything to propel the Dolphins to the top of the AFC East.
The Dolphins’ looked promising during the first three weeks of the regular season. Their record stood at 3-0 and they had won two road games, but things quickly turned for the worst. Miami then lost four games in a row and talks about bullying in their locker room quickly tore the team apart. They lost the last two games of the regular season, which happened to be against divisional opponents, and finished with an 8-8 record.
The Dolphins have fired offensive coordinator Mike Sherman because he failed to produce an explosive offense. Ryan Tannehill had an outstanding stable of skill players to work with in Brian Hartline, Mike Wallace, Charles Clay and Rishard Matthews, but their offense averaged a measly 20 points per game. Those points need to go up next season.
While the Dolphins entered the 2014 offseason with a projected cap space of nearly $30 million, they are slightly weighed down by the beefy contracts offered by Ireland. This offseason they must put together an offensive line that will better protect Tannehill. Doing so will allow the former first round pick enough time to find his talented skill players streaming down the field.
Odds to win Super Bowl 49: 50/1
8 T8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 50/1 Odds
With the firing of general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Greg Schiano, the Buccaneers made the statement that they want to start fresh. New head coach Lovie Smith has talent to build around, but he’ll need to fill holes and strengthen other weak points. If a quarterback slides in the draft, some reports indicate the Buccaneers could select him to compete with incumbent Mike Glennon.
Glennon played well during his rookie campaign, throwing 19 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. He earned the praises of offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford who replied, “He’s pretty smart with the football. When things aren’t there, he’s throwing it away and making good decisions.” It wasn’t overwhelming support, but Glennon should have done enough to enter training camp as the number one quarterback
If Glennon is their guy, Tampa Bay will need to surround him with more skill players, improve the offensive line, and build the running game. Because quarterbacks tend to hit a wall in their sophomore year, it's important to surround them with enough talent to win.
Originally, reports had the Buccaneers cap space between $9 and $12 million. Since then, they’ve trimmed their roster to provide even more relief and they’ll need to use that flexibility to upgrade their offensive and defensive lines. It might also help to replace troubled receiver Mike Williams. Not that the new regime will have the guts to dump the receiver, but if they want to set a positive tone for the team, maybe they should.
Odds to win Super Bowl 49: 50/1
7 Tennessee Titans, 60/1 Odds
It’s time to put up or shut up for quarterback Jake Locker, who holds a subpar career-completion percentage of 57.2%. If a quarterback falls to the Titans at the 11th overall pick, they might be enticed to pounce. However, don’t count out head coach Ken Whisenhunt’s ability to resurrect quarterbacks. The man has revived careers. As offensive coordinator for the Steelers, he worked with Ben Roethlisberger. He also helped resuscitate the careers of an aging Kurt Warner in Arizona and the sputtering Philip Rivers in San Diego.
Again, because it’s risky to draft a quarterback too early in the draft, the Titans should put faith in Whisenhunt's ability to develop Locker. More so, according to NFL analyst Bucky Brooks, the 2015 draft of signal callers appears stronger. If the Titans wait to address their quarterback situation next year, they can focus on building their new defense this year. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton is known to bring the heat and Whisenhunt covets a 3-4 defense. If this is their strategy, they’ll need to add depth to their front seven.
Last season, Titans’ linebacker Akeem Ayers played poorly in his 14 starts, totaling only 37 tackles and one sack. The remainder of the linebacker crew followed suit and failed to live up to expectations. Because the Titans plan to switch schemes this year, they need to find players who can work within that system of play. And often, it takes at least a couple of years for that unit to adjust.
Odds to win Super Bowl 49: 60/1
6 T4. New York Jets, 75/1 Odds
The Jets have questions at quarterback, but they also have major questions at wide receiver. With the 18th overall pick in this year's draft, New York likely won’t have a chance to draft one of the nation’s “top” quarterbacks, but they can take that for what it’s worth. Current quarterback Geno Smith isn’t a world-beater, but the Jets could help him by upgrading their offensive skill positions.
Reports indicate Jets' wide receiver Santonio Holmes is on his way out after a lackluster season. He recorded only 23 receptions for 456 yards and one touchdown. If New York keeps him next season, he’d earn roughly $10 million, and he isn’t worth that kind of money. The Jets could also lose some fat by dumping quarterback Mark Sanchez and cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who are scheduled to make $13 and $15 million respectively.
Head coach Rex Ryan loves building a defense, but the Jets’ major weakness under his tenure has been their offense. While their running game has always been strong, New York’s passing attack needs to down a giant energy drink. Last year, Gang Green ranked 29th in points scored per game and 25th in total yards per game. It didn’t help that they had a suspect rookie quarterback under center and a host of receivers who failed to top 50 receptions or three touchdowns.
Odds to win Super Bowl 49: 75/1
5 T4. Minnesota Vikings, 75/1 Odds
Scheduled to pick eighth in this year’s draft, the Vikings have a lot of work to do before they can stand atop the NFC North mountain. While the North was pretty average last season, the Packers, Bears and Lions are all competitive and have one thing the Vikings lack, a true franchise quarterback.
Minnesota can help itself by luring former starter Matt Cassel back to their team. He started the final month of last season and in nine games threw for 1,807 yards and 11 touchdowns. Within the past week, Cassel voided his 2014 contract to test the free-agent market. If he had stayed, he would have made $3.7 million next season. While he’s not the Vikings’ future, he’s better than most of the quarterbacks scheduled to hit free agency. Further, Cassel will give the Vikings time to develop a young quarterback.
If Cassel returns, Minnesota should rebuild their embarrassing defense. Last season the unit ranked 32nd in the league in points allowed and 31st in both total yards and passing yards surrendered. They must upgrade their secondary by first replacing Chris Cook, the four year cornerback who has yet to record an interception and then perhaps target free agent cornerback Vontae Davis. Pro Football Focus graded Davis as the number three cornerback last season, behind only Darrelle Revis and Brent Grimes. The latter could be a cheaper option than other free agent corners like Grimes.
Odds to win Super Bowl 49: 75/1
4 T4. Cleveland Browns, 75/1 Odds
Former Patriots’ cast-off quarterback Brian Hoyer gave the Browns and their fans hope last season. It was a new feeling for a franchise that has started over 18 quarterbacks since their rebirth in 1999. Yet, that light quickly burnt out during Hoyer’s third start when he went down with a season-ending knee injury.
After starting quarterback Brandon Weeden went down with a sprained thumb, they gave Hoyer the nod over veteran quarterback Jason Campbell. In his debut against the Vikings, Hoyer wowed critics. He threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns. In his three starts, Hoyer threw for over 600 yards, had five touchdowns and posted a 3-0 record.
While the 28-year old Ohio native will be ready to start next season, reports indicate the Browns might still draft a quarterback with their number four overall pick. As of early February, the Browns were high on Texas A&M’s controversial star Johnny Manziel. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan praised Manziel saying, “I haven’t sat and studied him, but who wouldn’t like him? He’s fun to watch, he makes plays, and he’s as much of a playmaker as I’ve seen on SportsCenter as anybody.”
That’s great for Browns’ fans, but I hope the team will use more than SportsCenter’s game film to study potential draft picks. In any case, Cleveland needs to establish a stable environment in both the front office and on the field. This year’s offseason drama started when they fired head coach Rob Chudzinski after only one season. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive coordinator Ray Horton also packed their bags and left town. And within the past week, the Browns announced that CEO Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi would be leaving the franchise. Brandon Weeden also informed reporters he wants a change of scenery. These drastic events often collapse the foundations of weaker franchises like the Browns.
Odds to win Super Bowl 49: 75/1
3 Buffalo Bills, 80/1 Odds
For years, AFC East teams have tried to duplicate the Patriots’ success, but failed. Since 2007, the Bills hold a 1-13 record against New England, who they’ll have to consistently beat if they are to ever make a run to the playoffs. While last season was more of the same, with the Bills capping off their ninth losing season in a row, they actually have a lot to look forward.
Last season, Buffalo added quality depth to their defensive line, which make sense because teams topple New England when they successfully attack Brady. They signed defensive tackle Alan Branch to a one year contract worth up to $3 million and resigned him recently. Also last season, the Bills traded linebacker Kelvin Sheppard to the Colts for defensive lineman Jerry Hughes. Hughes complemented an already potent defensive line led by Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Mario Williams.
If 2013 second-round pick and linebacker, Kiko Alonso, can avoid the proverbial sophomore slump and the team can resign free agent safety Jairus Byrd, their defense is poised for a breakout year. With at least $15 million in cap space, the Bills should have no problem resigning Byrd, but they’ll have to convince him that Buffalo is the best fit for his skill set.
Besides improving their defense, the Bills must also keep an eye on second-year quarterback EJ Manuel. He’s shown some promise, but some analysts question his inconsistencies. While analysts don’t expect the Bills to draft a quarterback, they may bring in a veteran to compete with Manuel.
Odds to win Super Bowl 49: 80/1
2 T1. Oakland Raiders, 150/1 Odds
For the first seven regular season games last year, it looked like the Raiders’ season could go either way. Their record stood at a surprising 3-4 and they had played competitively against some playoff-caliber teams. Before week one, prognosticators had expected the Raiders to do very little because they were still recovering from salary cap nightmares. Eventually, they stood correct when Oakland lost their last six games of the regular season.
The Black and Silver enter this offseason well rested. With their salary cap nightmares now over, they find themselves working with a pot of gold filled with $60 million to spend. As of early February, they held the most salary cap freedom of any NFL team.
The question is, have they learned from their past mistakes? Will they sign the right players to the appropriate contracts? According to general manager Reggie McKenzie, the Raiders are hunting for a franchise quarterback. They have many needs, but like other desperate teams, they can’t afford to reach for a quarterback in this year’s draft or free agency. Instead, the Raiders should build their defense early in the draft and take a quarterback later.
Last season, the Raiders’ defense surrendered close to 30 points and 363 passing yards per game. They should start by making a push to sign stud defensive end Lamarr Houston, who recorded six sacks and two forced fumbles last season and then build depth through the draft. Another important element will be getting Jared Veldheer under contract, as top level left tackles do not grow on trees.
Odds to win Super Bowl 49: 150/1
1 T1. Jacksonville Jaguars, 150/1 Odds
With a dismal 4-12 record in 2013, Jacksonville earned themselves the number three overall pick in this year’s draft. They are a leaking dam that needs some major repairs, but they’ll have the proper tools to fix their broken franchise.
Jaguars’ owner Shahid Khan made it clear he wants to draft at least one quarterback. In early February, he told the Florida Times Union, “I think there’s no mystery that we’re going to be taking a quarterback and maybe two.” If he sticks with this plan, the wealthy owner will have his pick of one of the “top” three signal callers; Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles, as listed by NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks.
To compete with a dangerous Houston Texans team and basically Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck, the Jaguars have to attract more talent. And they shouldn’t have a problem doing that. According to Spotrac.com, Jacksonville has $50 million in cap space to court any player they desire.
Odds to win Super Bowl 49: 150/1