Sheldon Richardson

Six overlooked NFL teams that could be contenders in 2014

There is no league in which parity is more prevalent than in the NFL. Preseason predictions are often rendered useless by Week 6 with many popular favorites crippled by injuries or poor execution on the gridiron.

The top Super Bowl picks this year are clear: Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots. The same teams we saw in the NFL’s “final four” last season. But there are a number of teams in the NFL who could prove to be big surprises in 2014.

Let’s take a look at six of them.

New York Jets

The Jets have been a bit of a circus act since head coach Rex Ryan arrived in 2009. But this year, they’ve gone about their business a bit more silently. Albeit, with a few classic Rex Ryan moments here and there.

Perhaps that focus will translate into improved play on the field in 2014. The Jets could certainly use a turn of success, having not made the playoffs for three consecutive seasons.

Gang Green’s break from mediocrity will happen only if the offense can prosper despite still having second-rate talent at skill positions and a young, blossoming quarterback in Geno Smith.

The defense is going to be there, that’s understood with a Rex Ryan team. The scary thing is that they’re getting even better.

The addition of Louisville safety Calvin Pryor gives the Jets a well-rounded athlete in the defensive backfield who can cover well and hit like a Mack Truck.

Opposing offenses will have their hands full trying to overcome young standouts like Pryor, Muhammad Wilkerson and Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson.

Even a mildly better offensive campaign could boost the Jets up the standings a few games and into the playoffs. It’s just a matter of Smith and company executing the plays doled out by offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. The presence of veteran running back Chris Johnson should alleviate some of the stress on Smith to get the passing game going.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The recent news about running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount both being arrested while in possession of 20 grams of marijuana could really hurt the Steelers’ running game, but they could still be able to overcome the losses pending potential charges and suspensions.

As good as the AFC North is, it’s not entirely out of the question that the Steelers may have a good shot to regain the division crown. When healthy, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is among the best in the league and he’s been able to succeed regardless of the talent around him.

That could prove beneficial should the Steelers be without their main two players in the backfield for awhile. Meanwhile, Antonio Brown should be a major factor following a breakout 1,499-yard campaign in 2013. And don’t sleep on Markus Wheaton, who could be poised for a breakout year of his own in place of Broncos wideout Emmanuel Sanders.

The Steelers defense is a shell of the great unit they once were. Age and injuries have begun to catch up to safety Troy Polamalu and they’ve been attempting to rebuild the linebacker corps through the draft.

Slowly but surely, they’ve moved away from the aging veterans who once made them great in favor of young studs like nose tackle Steve McLendon. McLendon replaced longtime Steeler Casey Hampton last season and delivered with a grade of +2.7 against the run on Pro Football Focus.

Reliable veterans Larry Foote and Ryan Clark have also been shipped out of town in favor of high-potential players like Cameron Heyward, Ryan Shazier and Shamarko Thomas.

Speaking of Heyward, the fourth-year defensive end is coming off the best season of his NFL career in which he notched the second-best pass rushing grade on the Steelers roster. Pittsburgh will need the former Ohio State Buckeye to build upon his performance in 2013, stabilizing the reconstructed foundation of the Steelers defense for the future. It could start with a surprising campaign in 2014.

Minnesota Vikings

In the competitive NFC North, it’s hard to imagine the Vikings getting out alive. For awhile, that will certainly appear to be the case.

However, the implementation of rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater could turn the franchise upside down. He can provide the offense with a major boost they’ll need in the passing game that incumbent starter Matt Cassel simply cannot.

That’s not an indictment of Cassel but rather praise for Bridgewater, who has looked outstanding through the first two games of preseason. He has thrived in situations where most young gunslingers usually struggle, as Pro Football Focus’ Ben Stockwell notes, completing short passes and throws over the middle with ease.

The biggest concerns lie on defense, however, which has been the Vikings’ Achilles heel over the last few seasons. A young crop of athletes that includes defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, defensive end Everson Griffen and linebacker Anthony Barr are forming a solid foundation for Minnesota to build upon. When free-agent acquisition Linval Joseph heels from a gunshot wound suffered in early August, his presence should solidify the front seven.

If the Vikings are to survive the NFC North, they’ll need the secondary to step up their game. Opposing quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler have all had a lot of success against Minnesota in the past, and all the Vikings’ strengths won’t stop them from doing it again if the pass coverage is not up to par.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams’ backs are against the wall. They must find a way to compete with the NFC’s last two defending champions (one of which is the defending Super Bowl champion) and a young, talented Arizona Cardinals team that was one of the hottest in the NFL by season’s end in 2013.

Their defensive prowess is well documented. The defensive line, which includes Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and dynamic rookie Aaron Donald, could be one of the most formidable groups in the league. Quinn, Long and Brockers combined for 33 sacks last season.

With linebackers James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree behind them, the front seven is clearly the strength of this team.

Their success, however, will rely heavily on an efficientand healthyperformance from quarterback Sam Bradford. Bradford’s health is a huge concern, but he’s shown flashes of brilliance throughout his four-year career.

Despite lackluster offensive weapons, the gunslinger was on pace for a 32-touchdown campaign. An improved offense that includes Zac Stacy, Tavon Austin and the formerly-dynamic Kenny Britt could finally give St. Louis the balance they need on both sides of the ball to be a legitimate threat in the NFC West.

Buffalo Bills

On paper, heading into the season, the Bills often seem like a team that is on the fringe of being successful. Heading into the 2014 season, that appears to once again be the case.

Yes, there are an abundance of concerns about them offensively. Can quarterback E.J. Manuel live up to his first-round selection in last year’s draft? Has the front office done enough to build around Manuel, providing him with a sturdy offensive line and dependable weapons?

Those questions will be answered this season. For Buffalo fans, much of their hope is being placed in rookie wideout Sammy Watkins’ hands. All indications are that is a wise move.

But it’s Buffalo’s defense that will be relied on to guide the franchise back to the postseason for the first time this century (last appearing in 1999).

The Bills’ defense has developed into one of the league’s better groups. Boasting a lethal pass rusher led by former No. 1 pick Mario Williams and protected deep by safety Aaron Williams, if Buffalo is going to be a surprise contender in 2014, it will be because of their ability to shut down high-profile offenses like that of the divisional foe New England Patriots.

The defensive line fields three Pro Bowlers with Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes combining for 41 sacks (three players with double-digit sacks). Three of those four men are former first-round picks, with Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus being taken within the top three picks of their respective drafts.

The departure of Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd is a devastating blow on paper, but the Bills have more than enough talent on the defensive side of the football to make up for it. On paper, the Bills don’t look like they’ll be able to realistically challenge the Patriots for the AFC East crown, but they do have the talent to reign supreme over the other two members of the division and vie for a wild card spot.

Washington Redskins

The ‘Skins are widely regarded as the NFC East’s bottom dweller. That may be a fair assessment when considering how poorly they performed in 2013. However, they have talent in the right places to be a legitimate contender within their often inconsistent division.

Offensively, there’s cause for concern thus far. Robert Griffin III and the Redskins have not looked particularly spectacular on that side of the football. Still, the receiving tandem of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, along with tight end Jordan Reed, provide RG3 with some serious firepower through the air.

Like many teams, the Redskins’ greatest weakness is in the secondary. A bevy of unproven athletes will need to buckle down and lock up opposing receivers in hopes of taking away the passing game. Luckily for them, the NFC East does not feature a dominant No. 1 receiver, outside of Dez Bryant.

Washington should benefit from defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, whom Coach Jay Gruden retained from Mike Shanahan’s staff. Gruden has apparently given Haslett full control of the defense, according to Athlon Sports, unlike Shanahan who often overruled the 58-year-old coach.

Haslett taking the reins should equate to a much-improved pass rush for the Redskins, led by linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. The duo combined for 18.5 sacks last season despite being used less aggressively.

With the NFC East being decided in Week 17 just about every year now and often only a 9-7 record needed to get the job done, the Redskins have as good a chance as their divisional foes to slide into the playoffs on a well-timed hot streak.

Lou Musto

About Lou Musto

Lou Musto is a staff writer here at The Sports Daily. You can follow him on Twitter @LouisMusto.