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Which of last year’s surprising NFL teams can contend again in 2018?

SB Nation logo SB Nation 5/17/2018 Christian D'Andrea
a close up of a baseball player holding a glove © Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

The Eagles rallied from a sub-.500 season to win the Super Bowl a year later. What’s next?

Each year, a handful of new teams fight their way into the NFL playoffs, exceeding expectations to shift the league’s power balance. In 2017, the Jaguars escaped from a nigh-perpetual state of awfulness to rally to the AFC title game, while the Eagles evolved from the periphery of the postseason to a Super Bowl title. The season before, the Cowboys went from 4-12 to 13-3 behind the rookie combination of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.

That leads to an obvious question: What’s next? While the NFL’s salary cap makes it easier to engineer a sudden turnaround than in any other major American sport, the tough part is sustaining it. Even as teams like the Patriots and Steelers have remained postseason mainstays, the ones that earn surprising playoff berths each year come at the expense of former contenders.

So how are 2017’s emerging franchises built for 2018? Can they build on the foundation they laid? Or will they backslide to a top-10 spot in next year’s draft, like the Raiders did?

Here’s a look at last year’s surprising teams — teams with sub-.500 records that made it to the playoffs (and also the Titans) — and what’s in store for their upcoming NFL seasons.

In good shape for 2018

These are the teams primed to turn last year’s playoff performance into a 2018 repeat.

Philadelphia Eagles

2016 finish: 7-9, fourth place in NFC East

2017 finish: 13-3, Super Bowl winners

Philadelphia gets Carson Wentz back from a torn ACL this fall, and he’ll look to reclaim the MVP hype that accompanied his pre-injury run in 2017. Any hiccups he might go through won’t be a major issue, either — Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles remains on the roster as his backup.

Although the Eagles lost a few contributors from last year’s team, nearly all of their stars will be back. Fletcher Cox returns as the anchor of the defensive line with Malcolm Jenkins leading the secondary behind him. While LeGarrette Blount is now with the Lions, Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, and a returning, healthy Darren Sproles remain the foundation for a tailback platoon that ranked third in the league in rushing offense. Rookie Dallas Goedert will provide help for a tight end depth chart that lost Trey Burton and Brent Celek this spring.

More importantly, Philadelphia won’t have to worry about much regression due to age. Most of the team’s starting skill players will be 28 or younger in 2018, though heady veterans like Malcolm Jenkins, Michael Bennett, and Chris Long are on the roster and should be significant contributors. They’ll support a youthful core that comes back with Super Bowl experience. That’s scary for the rest of the NFC.

Jacksonville Jaguars

2016 finish: 3-13, fourth place in AFC South

2017 finish: 10-6, lost in AFC Championship

Jacksonville lacks a true franchise quarterback, but general manager David Caldwell has constructed a roster that can win in spite of that flaw. The Jaguars fielded one of the league’s most ferocious defenses behind a pass rush led by Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue alongside a lockdown secondary where Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye set the tone.

Though useful corner Aaron Colvin left in free agency, there’s enough returning talent to believe the club won’t just replicate last year’s elite performance, but build on it. No team in the league allowed fewer yards per play than Jacksonville, and although a tougher 2018 schedule may lead to a dip in team stats, this year’s defense could be even better than last year’s.

The question that splits the line between AFC South contender and Super Bowl contender is whether or not Blake Bortles can repeat the competence that carried the Jags through their last two playoff games. The embattled quarterback rebounded from an awful Wild Card showing against the Bills to provide his team with a useful, turnover-averse passer (albeit one who also failed to make big plays) against the Steelers and Patriots. That was enough to convince the team to extend his contract through 2020, and he’ll just have to be a league-average QB to helm a a championship-caliber squad this season.

If he returns to his pre-playoff form — the kind of player who throws pick-sixes at an alarming rate and does his best work while trailing by 24 — Jacksonville can cut him loose after 2019 while eating just $5 million in dead cap space.

New Orleans Saints

2016 finish: 7-9, third place in NFC South

2017 finish: 11-5, lost in Divisional Round

The Saints’ rise in the mid-2000s had been defined by their passing offense, but last season’s NFC South-winning campaign was built around a recharged, young defense and a pair of tailbacks who took some of the impetus from Drew Brees’ shoulders. Cameron Jordan leveled up to become a first-team All-Pro selection at defensive end, while Alvin Kamara and Marcus Lattimore were named the league’s offensive and defensive rookies of the year, respectively.

Though Mark Ingram will miss four games next season thanks to a PED suspension and the team’s receiver and tight end corps are thin behind Pro Bowler Michael Thomas, there’s a lot to like in Louisiana. New Orleans beat five playoff teams last season, including three games against the Panthers. Five of its six losses came against teams that qualified for the postseason. And the Saints’ 2017 campaign ended in the Divisional Round thanks to a miracle play from the Vikings.

New Orleans’ willingness to send the Packers two first-round picks in order to draft UTSA defensive end Marcus Davenport at No. 14 was a signal the team is in win-now mode, even if Davenport is a developmental smaller-school prospect. Despite defensive improvements in 2017, the Saints were still lacking in many defensive categories and ranked just 22nd in the league in yards allowed per play and 27th in opponent third-down conversion rate. Davenport will help, but so will free agent additions like Demario Davis, Kurt Coleman, and Patrick Robinson.

The Saints have found a way to win that doesn’t require a superhuman effort from their 39-year-old quarterback. That’s sustainable for 2018, even in a pressure cooker division like the NFC South.

Los Angeles Rams

2016 finish: 4-12, third place in NFC West

2017 finish: 11-5, lost in Wild Card Round

Like the Eagles and Wentz, the rise of a second-year quarterback paced a revival for the Rams. Jared Goff went from overwhelmed rookie to Pro Bowl passer after Los Angeles surrounded him with talent, creating the league’s top-ranked scoring offense (29.9 points per game) in the process. They’ll return in 2018 every key member of that unit but Sammy Watkins, and while losing the touchdown-scoring wideout hurts, he had just 39 receptions last season.

There are issues with the LA defense, though general manager Les Snead has taken steps to mitigate that risk. Stars Ndamukong Suh and Marcus Peters joined the roster this offseason, and their presence should help cover a depleted linebacker corps. They’ll be counted on to bolster a middling unit (19th in yards allowed, 12th in points allowed) that will face a much tougher schedule after winning the NFC West in 2017. There may not be much help from this year’s draft class, either; the Rams didn’t have a pick this year until No. 89.

Even so, Los Angeles has a lot of star power on which to rely. Reigning defensive player of the year Aaron Donald is still there to terrorize quarterbacks, and 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year Todd Gurley is back on track after 2016’s disappointing sophomore campaign. With the Seahawks and Cardinals trending downward and the 49ers potentially still a year away from contention, the odds of the Rams’ return to the playoffs are solid.

It could go either way

These teams have the talent to return to the postseason, but some glaring weaknesses and tougher schedules will make it difficult.

Tennessee Titans

2016 finish: 9-7, second place in AFC South

2017 finish: 9-7, lost in Divisional Round

2017 marked a breakthrough in Nashville, even if the club didn’t win any more regular season games than it had the year prior. Marcus Mariota’s regression failed to keep the Titans from their first playoff berth since 2008 as the Titans upset the Chiefs in the Wild Card Round before falling to the Patriots the following week.

A limited cache of offensive playmakers meant Tennessee had to rely on its defense, which allowed 300 total yards or fewer six times in 2017. That unit will be even better in 2018 after adding former All-Pro Malcolm Butler from the Patriots, defensive tackle Bennie Logan (coming off arguably his best year as a pro) from the Chiefs, and Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry in the draft. Those four players have the talent to make an immediate impact and, except for Logan who is signed only for 2018, in years to come.

There are still concerns that need to be ironed out. One is whether new head coach Mike Vrabel’s decision to co-opt the Patriot Way will pan out — we’ve seen coaches with New England ties struggle once promoted to the big chair. The other is an offense that will count on another former Patriot, Dion Lewis, to add some extra scoring punch. Vrabel’s approach to rebuilding Mariota appears to be to rely on pass catchers at tight end and tailback while hoping young prospects like Corey Davis (last year’s No. 5 overall pick), Taywan Taylor, and a returning Tajae Sharpe pan out. It’s risky — but the Titans may have a solid enough defense to return to the postseason even if Mariota’s struggles continue.

Carolina Panthers

2016 finish: 6-10, fourth place in NFC South

2017 finish: 11-5, lost in Wild Card Round

The Panthers rebounded to the upper tier of the NFC with an 11-win season, recording wins over the Patriots and Vikings in the process. Though a potent defense faded down the stretch as Carolina finished the year on a 3-3 run, a solid effort led by veteran bookends Julius Peppers and Mario Addison up front (22 combined sacks) and perennial Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly gave the club the weaponry needed to make a Super Bowl return feasible.

One problem Carolina faces is Cam Newton failed to live up to his MVP standard, in part thanks to a lack of weapons. While Christian McCaffrey lived up to expectations as a rookie multi-tool out of the backfield, Devin Funchess was the only returning wideout to record more than 17 catches in 2017. Newton’s favorite (and newly extended) tight end Greg Olsen is 33 and could be due for a downturn as his athleticism wanes. While rookies D.J. Moore and Ian Thomas will help bolster the depth chart, concerns remain about the Panthers’ offense.

Speaking of age, Addison and Peppers will be a combined 69 years old this season. Linebacker Thomas Davis is 35 and is set to sit out the first four games of the season due to a league suspension. Free agent signing Dontari Poe will work to occupy blockers and give them more room to operate, but it may be unrealistic to expect growth from an aging Panthers’ defense.

Newton thrived despite a shortage of big names at the skill positions in 2015, and he could again this year. However, his interception rate spiked last season, which is concerning. His team went 0-4 in games where he threw multiple picks. A similar performance in 2018 could sink Carolina’s hopes of a return to the postseason.

In need of some help and/or luck

The Bills needed the Ravens to fall apart just to make the playoffs last season and jettisoned their starting quarterback this spring. Buffalo’s going to need some explosive growth to make it two postseason trips in a row.

Buffalo Bills

2016 finish: 7-9, third place in AFC East

2017 finish: 9-7, lost in Wild Card Round

The Bills ended the NFL’s longest playoff drought behind last season’s 9-7 record, but they’ll need a major leap from one of their young quarterbacks to turn that from an aberration into a streak. Buffalo unloaded two-time Pro Bowl passer Tyrod Taylor to the Browns for a third-round pick this offseason, leaving the team with Bengals castoff AJ McCarron, 2017 rookie disaster Nathan Peterman, and first-round pick Josh Allen at the position.

The Bills went 8-6 in Taylor’s starts last season thanks in part to his accuracy (62.6 completion percentage) and reluctance to turn the ball over (four interceptions and a league-leading one percent INT rate). McCarron completed 50 percent of his passes last year and has thrown just 14 passes in his last two seasons. Peterman threw five interceptions over the course of his first 14 NFL passes. Allen was good for a 56.2 percent completion rate in three years against Mountain West competition in college. Quarterback might take a while to figure out.

Then there’s not much receiving talent after Kelvin Benjamin, LeSean McCoy’s advancing age, and a pass rush ranked 30th in the league in 2017, and there are a lot of negatives holding back Buffalo’s rise. Young players like Tre’Davious White, Zay Jones, and Tremaine Edmunds will have to make major strides if the Bills are going to compete for an AFC East crown this fall.

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