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New Contenders Enter the Arena

Last season we witnessed the Philadelphia Eagles truly enjoy a dream season. Before becoming super bowl champs, the Eagles hadn’t made the playoffs since 2014. No one saw last year’s run coming ahead of time. This team got good fast by nailing both the draft and free agency. Their season should serve as a shining example to the super trash teams that it doesn’t take long to rebuild. Fortunately, it seems the rest of the NFL is paying attention. For the past few years we’ve been seeing teams getting smarter with their offseason decisions. We’re seeing less first round busts, more stars found late in the draft, and less reckless spending in free agency.  I believe this is what’s leading to the increasing amount of parity in the league. This parity is what led to the Eagles coming out of nowhere to win the Super Bowl and this won’t be an isolated incident.

The New England dynasty is quietly coming to an end and the super bowl window for every other team is as wide as ever. As we learned last year, you can’t just look to the top teams as contenders. Nowadays a large portion of teams are capable of winning the super bowl every year. I want to put you on to a couple of teams I’m looking at as “sleeper contenders”. These are teams that didn’t even sniff the playoffs last year, but after a few offseasons of savvy moves, have the potential to copy the Eagles, surprise us all, and seize the Lombardi trophy.

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys are a team that most people aren’t expecting much from this year. They finished 9-7 last year and seem to be trending down after losing stars like Jason Witten and Dez Bryant. Things may look bleak on paper, but it looks to me like the Cowboys got better.

You may think releasing Dez was a mistake but if you had been paying attention you would’ve realized Dez has been washed for at least two years. The Cowboys did a great job replacing him in free agency by signing Allen Hurns from the Jacksonville Jaguars. At this point in their careers Allen Hurns is a better player and has more upside than Dez. Another thing to look forward too in Dallas will be the debut of linebacker Jaylon Smith. After missing his entire rookie year with an injury, the Cowboys are finally going to be rewarded for their patience. Jaylon Smith was the best player in college football before he got hurt and has the potential to immediately be an impact player upon his return to the field. The Cowboys selected another dynamic linebacker in this years draft as well in Leighton Vander-Esch out of Boise State. The best comparison I can find for Leighton is his teamate Sean Lee. He’s a little taller than Sean, but both are tackling machines that can run down ball-carriers all over the field. The Cowboys now have an entire linebacking core of dynamic players who can cover both the run and the pass. In today’s NFL where teams are constantly exploiting mismatches on linebackers the Cowboys have very little to worry about as any of these guys can keep up with most of the tight ends and running backs that will be thrown at them.

Along with shoring up their weaknesses, the Cowboys put effort into making their strengths even stronger. They selected Connor Williams in the second round to come in and play guard, improving an offensive line that has already had long stretches of dominance the past couple of years. If that’s not scary enough the Cowboys used their last pick in the draft to select running back Bo Scarbough out of Alabama. Teams already have to deal with tackling Zeke, who runs like that guy who used to play in your little league who had a full beard but everyone swore was only 13, and now whenever he goes to the sideline they’re gonna have to tackle an even bigger version of him. Even though he went in the seventh round I can easily see a scenario where Bo vultures 6 or 7 touchdowns off of goal line carries while keeping Zeke fresh and healthy for a long playoff run. We’ve learned these past two years that because Dak can’t carry an offense himself, this team will only go as far as Zeke takes them. With Bo on board keeping him fresh he could carry this team all the way to the super bowl.

Houston Texans

I’m excited to watch the Texans this year. Last year Deshaun Watson really stepped into the league like…

I was kind of skeptical when I watched him in the preseason but I knew he would be special when I saw his first real action in the regular season against the Bengals. If you remember that game it was a low scoring affair but Deshaun scored the lone touchdown in that game on a long run. You could see then he was the best athlete on the field and when the Texans finally figured out how to use him the next week he set the league on fire. I also liked that he went out of his way to build chemistry with wide receiver Will Fuller even though Will was suspended the first four games. Those workouts paid off big time and when they stepped on the field together they looked nearly unstoppable. That right there shows me Deshaun is a great leader perfectly capable of leading his team to a super bowl and with the new additions to this defense it may happen sooner than you expect.

Speaking of defensive additions, the Texans pulled off a heist when they signed Tyrann Matheiu for a discount. The more I think about Matheiu’s decision to sign with Houston the smarter it looks. He bet on himself in order to get a bigger deal next year and he chose an amazing situation to prove his worth. What better way to ensure you’ll have a big year in the secondary than to go play behind one of the best pass rushes in the league. Opposing quarterbacks are going to have a hard time trying to locate Tyrann each play while JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are bringing all the smoke. I’m expecting the Honey Badger to eclipse his career high in interceptions this year. If he can take this defense to an even higher level, and Deshaun Watson continues to put up the numbers he did last year, Houston has as good a chance as anybody to win a super bowl.

Cleveland Browns

I’m not a Brown’s fan but I’m 100% on the hype train this year. Not many teams can say they’ve had an offseason as good as the Browns have. For the first time in more than 20 years we can confidently say the Browns have solved their quarterback problem. They used the #1 pick in the draft on Baker Mayfield, who has the potential to be the quarterback of the future, but the most likely starter this year will be Tyrod Taylor. Tyrod was traded to Cleveland from the Buffalo Bills. They had to get rid of him because he was screwing up their plans to tank by playing too well. They got rid of every single one of his receivers and he still led the team to the playoffs. Now that he has a legitimate supporting cast around him we should expect his best season yet.

Tyrod’s best quality is that he doesn’t turn the ball over. After watching their quarterbacks consistently throw games away, there may be a little culture shock at first within Browns fans as this will be the first time for many of them watching a quarterback who knows how to manage a game. If Hue Jackson is really the offensive guru he’s thought to be, there is no reason this offense shouldn’t be one of the best in the league. They have an intimidating offensive line, a stable of running backs that should be able to consistently run the ball down team’s throats, and two receivers in Jarvis Landry and Josh Gordon that have proven to be uncoverable in the past. Jarvis Landry is literally always open and has been in the top 10 in receptions pretty much every year of his career. He has sure hands and is the perfect receiver for Tyrod’s style of play. Expect Jarvis to tear up defenses with underneath routes while Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman beat defenses over the top. If Tyrod can continue to be as safe with the ball as he’s known to be and the defense shows improvement from last year, the Browns can shake up the world and walk into the super bowl.

LA Chargers

The Chargers are a good team that’s been derailed by a run of bad luck and injuries. However, in the past few years they’ve replaced most of their aging veterans with younger talent. Younger and fresher bodies should help curb the injury problem and once they get the needed experience, the Chargers should start coming out on the winning sides of these close games. The deciding factor on whether or not they make a run in the playoffs this year will be their defense. They’ve been excellent against the pass but this is the year they put it all together and become one of the NFL’s best all-around defenses. Already equipped with a ferocious pass rush and corners capable of shadowing every receiver in the league, they needed some help stopping the run and they were blessed with a miracle on draft night. The best safety in the class, Derwin James, was exactly the type of in the box safety that they needed and he slid all the way to number 17 where the Chargers snagged him. That’s like going into Target for a new comforter set, seeing exactly what you want, and then looking at the price and seeing they accidentally marked it as $12.67. The Chargers then spent their second and third round picks on players in the front 7 who can stop the run. No matter what kind of offense they go up against the Chargers will have the tools to match up and slow them down. We all know defense wins championships. All that’s left now is for this defense to grow and learn and if Phillip Rivers can keep up his high level of play for long enough, they should have an opportunity to win a super bowl in the next 2-3 years.

Out the Mud

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we’re watching one of these teams win the super bowl in the next 4 years. Each one of them have built a team capable of taking out your obvious contenders such as the Patriots, Falcons, Steelers, or Rams. I haven’t been sold on the Steelers defense in years and the Patriots defense has declined as well. If there happens to be any drop-off in the level of play from Tom Brady they won’t be able to keep up with other NFL offenses.  Other teams like the Bills and Seahawks are falling back towards mediocrity while basement dwellers like the Rams and Jaguars have set themselves up for long term success.  A changing of the guard is happening in the NFL that’s going to be led by faces like Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson, Ezekiel Elliott and Leanord Fournette.  On the defensive side it’s going to be up to new stars like Khalil Mack, Jalen Ramsey, Marshon Lattimore, and Joey Bosa to stop them.  We’re in for some big lit showdowns in the near future as we transition to a new era of talent. The NFL you’re used to watching is almost over. These are the next contenders, you just don’t know it yet.

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