Sports writers Hannah Greaves, Henry Schweber, and AJ Traub make their picks for which teams will surprisingly do well (sleeper), which teams will fall short of expectations (bust), and which teams they think are most likely to win the Super Bowl.
Sleeper: Philadelphia Eagles | Bust: Miami Dolphins | Super Bowl: Green Bay Packers
Over this last offseason, the Eagles have truly stacked their deck. Alshon Jeffery has taken over the No. 1 receiver role. Torrey Smith is going to be able to focus on being a burner. Zach Ertz looked great at the end of last season with 78 receptions. Assuming he picks up where he left off, all these factors, including Carson Wentz’s adjustment to being the big man, will lead this team into a great 2017-2018 season.
It hurts my heart to say this, but I don’t see a bright season ahead of the Miami Dolphins. Hurricane Irma has really put a strain on the team. They have a really young offensive line. There are multiple unnamed starting positions, and their season opener is September 10th. Dolphin fans had their hopes raised when we made it to the playoffs last season, but after losing in the Wild Card Round, I would be pleasantly surprised if the Dolphins didn’t bust this season.
Each season the expectations are high for the Green Bay Packers. But I don’t doubt that the Packers will exceed everyone’s expectations. After their tough loss to the Falcons in the semifinals last year, Aaron Rodgers is ready to lead his team to a championship. Rodgers is healthy, and has a good team behind him with tight end Martellus Bennett, wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams, and a collection of great athletes behind them, I’m sure the Green Bay Packers will win the championship this year.
Sleeper: Los Angeles Chargers | Bust: Oakland Raiders | Super Bowl: Pittsburgh Steelers
After a disappointing 2015 season that saw some horrendous injury luck, many expected the Chargers to bounce back last year. Unfortunately they were struck by the injury bug again, losing their star tailback Melvin Gordon for a handful of games, stud wideout Keenan Allen before the season started, and their top corner Jason Verrett. With everyone back and healthy (for now), and the ever-solid Philip Rivers commanding the offense, the Chargers appear to be absolutely loaded on the offensive front. With a strong secondary manned by two of the top cornerbacks in the league, L.A. just needs to generate enough of a pass rush to take their defense to the next level. If so, they can shake up the playoff picture in the AFC.
I’m not expecting a downright collapse from the Raiders, a popular Super Bowl pick, but I do see them falling shy of expectations. The Raiders took advantage of one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, producing a 12-win season. However, there’s reason to think they may have overachieved. While Khalil Mack is a powerful force on defensive end, the rest of the defense is lacking. With one of the worst secondaries in the league, Oakland gave up great yardage and had difficulties maintaining leads. While their offensive line is one of the league’s best, it remains to be seen how formerly retired, 31-year-old Marshawn Lynch will perform in his first season as a Raider. Additionally, the conservative coaching of Jack Del Rio leaves much to be desired for one of the league’s most talented offenses. I’m still expecting a playoff appearance, but at that point simplistic coaching and bad defense will not get you very far.
The Steelers always seem to have a fantastic roster year in year out, but there’s been something missing for the last decade. A team previously known for its “Steel Curtain” defense, Pittsburgh’s new calling card is on the offensive side of the ball. With arguably the best skill position players in the league, manned by the trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers look to once again have one of the best offenses in the league. Additionally, they get back Martavis Bryant from suspension, with his immense touchdown-scoring ability. Le’veon Bell returns, someone they sorely missed last postseason, and he will also help them push through the gauntlet of the AFC. The run defense has always been strong, and Pittsburgh signed Joe Haden, former star cornerback for the Browns, to strengthen their pass defense. If they piece together all their talent–watch out.
Sleeper: Tennessee Titans | Bust: Seattle Seahawks | Super Bowl: New England Patriots
After losing out on the division title in 2016, the Titans will look to fight their way into the playoffs in 2017. The division is up for grabs, but quarterback Marcus Mariota is poised to break out in his third year of pro football. Eric Decker should bring a reliable target for him and give offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie more options on offense. The rest of the division is depleted with Andrew Luck unable to start week one for the Colts and the Texans taking a leap of faith with Tom Savage at QB.
There’s nothing wrong with the Seahawks, but they’re just no longer built for the playoffs. They possess an outstanding defense, but last year’s playoffs were all about the offenses. The Falcons had a historic offense that Seattle could not match and Green Bay trampled them toward the end of the season. This is not to say that Seattle will not win the division, but they shouldn’t get their hopes up about making it back to the Super Bowl.
Julian Edelman may be out for the season, but Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, and Chris Hogan should make a fine group of wide receivers for the Patriots. Rob Gronkowski will join them as tight end in the field, and Tom Brady will be throwing the ball, with five-time Super Bowl champion Bill Belichick at head coach. Their schedule is as easy at it has been with the state of the AFC East, so expect them to make it into the playoffs with few hurdles to pass and a fresh group of players ready to go after a first-round bye week.