Theoretically, every team is a contender until proven otherwise. However, Caesars Sportsbook does a good job of painting a picture of teams with longer odds of finding success this season. In a separate article, I laid out impact performers on new teams this season and noncontenders were generally avoided on the theory that if a tree falls in the forest but no one is around to hear it, does it make a noise?
In NFL media, teams considered to be noncontenders are underrepresented until NFL Draft season rolls around. Positives are achievable even if teams fall short of the ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl. The Browns went from worst in the division to second place in the course of one off-season. The 49ers are projected to win the NFC West after finishing in the basement last year. Fortunes, for better or worse, can turn quickly in the NFL.
Here is the best-case scenario for teams with +8000 or worse odds, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
Carolina made a substantial investment in Sam Darnold this offseason despite ongoing rumors of interest in Deshaun Watson, Matthew Stafford and others. Darnold operated in the shadows during the preseason but fans are about to learn whether the criticism in New York was warranted or a byproduct of the situation. In an ideal world, the 24-year-old will assert himself and be the franchise's quarterback of the future. There is no shortage of pass-catchers in that offense but the offensive line remains a concern. The hope is that group plays better than expectations suggest.
Defense is the biggest reason for optimism. Over the last two years, the organization has bused in young defensive talent, like Brian Burns, Derrick Brown, Jaycee Horn, Jeremy Chinn and more. If that group can mature this season and become a strength of the team entering 2022, then assets can be redirected to the offense and shoring up that offensive line.
Las Vegas has made a lot of changes this off-season. The Raiders compromised the offensive line in exchange for new talent on defense. Will that decision pay off or will it negatively impact Derek Carr? Jon Gruden is underappreciated as a head coach even though the criticism related to roster decisions is warranted.
The AFC West is one of the most balanced divisions in the league, which creates a bigger challenge. If the defense improves in a manner that matches the investment, and the offense does not regress, then the franchise could challenge for a wild card spot; an ideal outcome for the upcoming season. The AFC is significantly more balanced and talented than the NFC so making the playoffs is an accomplishment in and of itself.
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First and foremost, Jalen Hurts taking control of the team and earning confidence is imperative. A young core of skill talent, like wide receivers Jalen Reagor and DeVonta Smith and running back Miles Sanders, would allow management to address the aging offensive line and defense. From center to right tackle, the Eagles average 32 years of age. Defensive stalwarts Fletcher Cox (31 in December) and Brandon Graham (33) are on the wrong side of 30 as well. If the Eagles can reasonably put wide receiver needs behind them, it would allow them to start turning over the roster, creating a healthier salary cap structure and putting those two first-round picks to more effective use.
There is a path for the Eagles to contend this season if Hurts takes a big leap and everyone stays healthy. Those odds are potentially worse than the team's Super Bowl odds, however.
Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham is a great coach and leader. The defense should continue to come together with a healthy Xavier McKinney and Adoree' Jackson. If Azeez Ojulari can provide some much-needed juice off the edge, then the defense will be in very good shape. At that point, if the offense can climb the ranks into the top half of the league, New York should have a chance to win the NFC East or contend for a wild card berth. The team is still a year away from legitimate contention at best. Graham should be one of the league's hot head coaching candidates during the next hiring cycle.
Placing confidence in Daniel Jones and that underperforming offensive line is ambitious even for the fans looking through royal blue-tinted glasses. Ideally, Jones would genuinely confirm general manager Dave Gettleman's faith in him and show that he deserves more time. In doing so, New York could pick up Jones' fifth-year option for 2023. After acquiring a second first-round choice in the 2022 NFL Draft in a trade with the Bears, the Giants have significant resources to improve that roster.
The best-case scenario is that Urban Meyer proves his critics, including myself, wrong and Trevor Lawrence becomes the player that many expect. Lawrence has a rare size profile to go along with mobility, arm strength and decision-making in the pocket. His play should elevate those around him. The assembly of a wide receiver room that includes D.J. Chark, Laviska Shenault Jr. and Marvin Jones is more than enough for him to be successful.
The defense has a lot of young talent as well. Edge rusher Josh Allen needs to stay healthy and improve upon his outstanding rookie season. K'Lavon Chaisson and C.J. Henderson need to live up to expectations. If Jacksonville can achieve five-plus wins while identifying the core of its roster, then the future is setting up in promising fashion.
Cincinnati took a chance on a young coach in Zac Taylor. The initial coaching staff assembled was subpar and that was certainly not going to ease his transition. The first-year roster was worthy of the No. 1 overall selection and the second year was torpedoed by an injury to Joe Burrow. The third season should serve as a fair evaluation of the young coach. The best-case scenario is that Taylor and Burrow become a successful pairing fit for a decade-plus in the AFC North. The offense has some pieces with Joe Mixon, Tee Higgins, Ja'Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, and Jonah Williams.
The defense is very stars and scrubs. Safety Jessie Bates is a star but there is little else on which they can hang their hat. Solid depth has been added through the last few draft classes but they need more certified ballers. Edge rusher Carl Lawson was one of those players to be excited about but they let him walk over some outdated view on guaranteed money.
The vision is a bit more clear in the Big Apple. Head coach Robert Saleh pays great attention to detail and knows how to communicate with his players while empowering his coaches. The Jets hired the right person to turn around the franchise. It was the latest in a string of good decisions made by general manager Joe Douglas. The accumulation of Mekhi Becton, Elijah Moore and Alijah Vera-Tucker gives them building blocks on offense.
The defense needs a lot of work but there is ammunition in the chamber. The salary cap is healthy and the Jets are equipped with two first-round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft as a result of the Jamal Adams trade. If Douglas and Saleh are afforded time, New York fans should have reason to celebrate sooner rather than later. The fruits of their labor will just not be visible this season.
Jared Goff is neither a terrible nor elite quarterback. The Lions have enough talent -- D'Andre Swift, Penei Sewell, Taylor Decker, Jeff Okudah, Romeo Okwara, etc... -- scattered around to prevent them from being abysmal. There are pieces around which they can build. The hope is that Detroit buys into new head coach Dan Campbell and the new personnel staff continues bringing in difference-makers. The Lions have an extra first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft after trading Matthew Stafford.
Unfortunately, positivity has run dry. Houston has one of the oldest rosters in the league and little hope to show for it. There is zero possibility of contention this season but the moves made today will alter the course of franchise history. General manager Nick Caserio signed a bunch of players to one-year deals so perhaps those decisions were made with the hope that they could trade them to needy teams in exchange for draft capital. The biggest opportunity for improvement, if all legal hurdles are cleared, is the trade of Deshaun Watson. Watson is a premium talent that should bring substantial return in a trade. The return on investment of those picks will determine how quickly the AFC South franchise can return to relevancy.
It feels as though Houston knows this season is going to be rough. The fact that head coach David Culley has never served as a coordinator is exaggerated. The head coaching position is more about leadership, creating expectations and accountability, and empowering others. I am afraid that they hired him to absorb the brunt of this season's struggles only to rejoin the coaching market next off-season.