It seems like every NFL season includes a couple of teams that surprise experts and fans with unexpected improvement that either catapults them into the playoffs or at the very least energizes the fan base with a late season run. These "dark horses" are what the draft and salary cap are there for, and what also makes the NFL great. This gives every fan in the league a little hope and provides more than a fair share of crow for many of these so called experts to eat.
Last season, the Buffalo Bills almost made it to the playoffs after finishing 6-10 the previous year. The Baltimore Ravens came back from an 8-8 season in 2013 to make it to the playoffs last season with a record of 10-6 and gave the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots a scare in the Divisional round. Consider the Detroit Lions who had a losing record (7-9) in 2013, only to start realizing their potential with a playoff berth and 11-5 record in 2014. Those improvements paled in comparison to the Houston Texans' season in which they went from 2-14 in 2013 to coming close enough to sniff the playoffs by finishing 9-7 in 2014. Even the mighty Dallas Cowboys went from an average 8-8 team in 2013 to a 12-4 powerhouse in 2014. The NFL has these kind of success stories happen in the NFL every single year. The harder part is trying to forecast which teams will rise from the dark to be the next big story this coming year.
The following list is the top 10 teams who have a great chance of becoming dark horses in 2015. They all might not make the playoffs, but there is a good chance that these teams could improve. With a little luck, one of these teams might even make it to the Super Bowl. That is the beauty of the NFL.
10 Jacksonville Jaguars
They might be considered the darkest of all these horses, but it shouldn't come as a big surprise if the Jaguars take a big step forward in 2015. The Blake Bortles era has begun, and his success will depend on how some other high draft choices perform. Will Luke Joeckel recover from injury and be able to protect Bortles' blind side? Bortles will also need second round draft choices Marquise Lee, T.J. Yeldon and Allen Robinson to make significant contributions for the Jaguars to succeed. The defense also needs to improve. Opponents were able to convert 330 first downs while averaging 5.5 yards per play and 7.7 yards per pass attempt. The defensive line only managed 45 sacks and the secondary was only able to intercept the ball only six times. The Jaguars are hoping the 2014 additions of Red Bryant, Ziggy Hood and Chris Clemons, along with first round draft choice Dante Fowler will show some progress in 2015.
If Bortles and the offense can hold onto the ball longer, the defense should improve. Opponents held onto the ball an average of over 5 minutes longer each game since the Jags only converted on 31.9% of their third down plays. The Jags have made progress acquiring new players the last few years, giving them plenty of reason to improve.
9 San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers might seem like they have a better chance of moving backward after all the players they have lost, but they still have Colin Kaepernick with a new deep ball threat in Torrey Smith. Carlos Hyde will get his chance to step in for the departed Frank Gore at running back and Reggie Bush was added to give the offense a change up if Kendall Hunter can't come back to form. The offense could be more dynamic if Kaepernick can improve, but the greater concern is on the other side of the ball. Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Justin Smith are gone from the base defense, while Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox have departed from the secondary as well. The 49ers have added Shareece Wright to help at cornerback and have many young players who will need to step up on the defensive side of the ball this year. Although the departures will sting, the cupboard is not necessarily so bare.
The offense will need the line to gel, but Marcus Martin could easily become a star at center and Joe Staley is still an All-Pro tackle. At this stage, Hyde might be an upgrade at running back and Torrey Smith should help stretch defenses better than Stevie Johnson did. If the offense improves like it should, the 49ers still have enough weapons to surprise a mourning fan base and experts too.
8 Oakland Raiders
Despite all the negative press surrounding their potential move to Los Angeles, many die hard Raiders fans are still excited about seeing what the addition of wide receiver Amari Cooper will do for Derek Carr. Carr proved he could play in the NFL, following a season in which he passed for 3,270 yards with 21 touchdowns and only 12 picks. Latavius Murray, Roy Helu and Trent Richardson will try to provide some support at running back, but it really should only be window dressing for the Derek Carr show. The Raiders defense has some promising young players in D.J. Hayden and Khalil Mack, but must get production from Justin Tuck and newcomer Dan Williams in order to prevent Mack from seeing more double teams. The defense will need to do much better in 2015, where it had just 22 quarterback sacks while also surrendering 7.4 yards per pass attempt.
Derek Carr has two of his most productive targets coming back in Andre Holmes and Mychal Rivera at wide receiver and tight end. In addition to drafting Amari Cooper, the Raiders also took a chance on veteran Michael Crabtree who will be out to prove that his 1,105 yard 2012 season was not a fluke. If Carr continues to develop and the Raiders can get just a little bit more from their ground game, they have enough talent to easily improve in the won-loss column.
7 Cleveland Browns
Brian Hoyer's departure from the Browns might leave them with more questions than answers, but the Browns did go out and sign veteran Josh McCown. McCown struggled last season with the Buccaneers and does have only 11,033 yards of passing in his 12-year NFL career. The door is definitely open for Johnny Manziel, as Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline were also brought in to add premier receivers to the mix. Isaiah Crowell managed to amass 607 yards on the ground in only four starts, but look for third round draft pick Duke Johnson to make a push for the starting running back job. Jordan Cameron is gone at tight end, but at least the offensive line is more or less intact. The defense is still the strong point of the team, with Danny Shelton, Nate Orchard and Xavier Cooper looking for playing time after coming to the Browns via the 2015 NFL Draft. There is more depth and more promise on the defensive side of the ball, so offense will again be the major concern.
The offense will still need to score points after scoring only 299 points with Brian Hoyer last year. The running game will need to average more than 3.6 yards per attempt and defensively they will need to do better than give up 2,265 yards on the ground. Look for that part of the defense to improve, but the quarterback position will be more of a focal point. Don't be surprised if Manziel gets a second chance and actually shows that he is worth all of last season's hype.
6 Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons were a once proud organization looking to make a Super Bowl run just a couple of short years ago at the end of 2012. After a disastrous 4-12 season in 2013 and 6-10 debacle in 2014, the Falcons have plenty of room to improve. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White are back to ensure the offense will be able to move the ball through the air. Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers are gone, handing the running duties over to Devonta Freeman, Antone Smith and new draftee, Tevin Coleman. Jacob Tamme was added at tight end and more will be expected from Jake Matthews at tackle in 2015. The defense underwent many changes with Vic Beasley, Jalen Collins and Grady Jarrett added through the draft, and Brooks Reed, Justin Durant, and Adrian Clayborn also being added to the defensive side of the ball. The coaching staff is also new as Dan Quinn has taken over from Mike Smith to become the Falcons' 16th head coach. The Falcons still have one of the NFL's best return specialists in Devin Hester, joining Jones as two of the NFL's elite big play makers.
The Falcons should have few issues with being able to move the ball downfield, considering Ryan passed for 4,694 yards in 2014. The running game and defense will need to improve for the Falcons to get out of their two-year rut. There is too much talent on the offensive side of the ball to not be able to improve on a 6-10 season.
5 St. Louis Rams
The quarterback situation prevented the Rams from being one of the NFC's top teams in 2014. The Rams decided to change course and take a chance with Nick Foles after only getting seven starts in the last two seasons from Sam Bradford. Foles battled injuries himself, but has played in enough games to pass for over 5,000 yards in his last 21 games. The Rams also drafted three offensive tackles, running back Todd Gurley, and another quarterback, Sean Mannion, to add more firepower and depth to their offensive attack. Tre Mason has established himself at running back but Gurley figures to get his chance to get more carries.
The defense will benefit from the offense holding onto the ball longer and scoring more points so Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald and Chris Long can pin their ears back and wreck havoc on opposing quarterbacks trying to play catch up. Long was injured for most of 2014 and his return to form makes the unit that much stronger. The secondary and linebackers, led by Janoris Jenkins, James Laurinaitis and T.J. McDonald, are both pretty solid, especially when given a good push up front.
Much of the Rams success will depend on Foles and how he plays outside of Chip Kelly's system. He will have two terrific running backs and several young receivers to work with. The defense carried them last year and a little more offense could easily put them over the top.
4 New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints do have Drew Brees and that in itself is saying a lot. Mark Ingram managed to almost gain 1,000 yards on the ground last year, while managing to score nine touchdowns. Brees might have lost Jimmy Graham but has a bevy of speedy young receivers to provide more space for Marques Colston to operate in the middle to help fill Graham's void. Ingram is joined in the backfield by acquisitions Tim Hightower and C.J. Spiller, and Khiry Robinson will be back for his third season with the Saints. Tackle Andrus Peat was drafted in the first round and center Max Unger was brought in from Seattle as part of the Jimmy Graham trade.
The defense was bolstered by six of the Saints' nine draft choices, and veterans Dannell Ellerbe and Brandon Browner were brought in as well. The defense gave up 6,144 yards, 345 first downs, and 384.0 yards per game last year, while also allowing 424 total points. The Saints are looking for Ellerbe, Browner and a few of those draft choices to help right away.
The offense is still in good hands with Drew Brees, who passed for 4,952 yards with 33 touchdowns last year. Ingram, Spiller, Hightower and Robinson will offer more options at running back and Brandin Cooks is ready to do even more. Their success will depend on the defense that should show some improvement if they can get more of a push up front. A big turnaround is entirely possible in the Big Easy.
3 Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins have been one or two games away from being a playoff team for two straight seasons now. Ryan Tannehill came through with 4,045 yards of passing and 27 touchdown passes in 2014 and Lamar Miller actually gained over 1,000 yards on the ground (1,099). The receiving corps is solid with Greg Jennings, Kenny Stills, Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker and Jordan Cameron forming a quite formidable group. The running game should be just as good with Miller, draftee Jay Ajayi, Damien Williams and even LaMichael James. The Dolphins have a back for any down and occasion.
The defense was able to add Ndamukong Suh to a group that already held opponents to just under 357 yards per game. The Dolphins gave up 1,937 yards on the ground and 121.1 yards per game, but the addition of Suh should help reduce those figures. The Dolphins defensive front also has Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon on the edges and Earl Mitchell on the inside. Louis Delmas is back in the secondary and the Dolphins added three new players in the draft to this group.
Tannehill has taken a step forward every year and can make his biggest yet. With the addition of Suh to the defense and the other impact players on the offensive side of the ball, the Dolphins should be able to get into the playoffs and actually make a run. The biggest takeaway from this offseason is the talent of the players who came in far outweighs the talent of those who are out.
2 Minnesota Vikings
Things have seemingly fallen into place for the Minnesota Vikings to make a run at respectability in 2015. Adrian Peterson is looking to make yet another comeback, Teddy Bridgewater has been handed the keys to the offense, and the Vikings had a pretty solid draft earlier this year. In 13 games, Bridgewater passed for 2,919 yards, completing 64.4% of his passes for an average of 7.26 yards per attempt. He showed glimpses of being the best quarterback of the 2014 draft class. The Vikings added Mike Wallace to fill the void left by the release of Greg Jennings and also have Jarius Wright and Cordarrelle Patterson looking to improve. The defense was bolstered by the drafting of Trae Waynes at cornerback and Eric Kendricks who was a tackling machine at UCLA. They might also get some help with the addition of Casey Matthews and Terence Newman. The pieces are in place for Minnesota to make some noise in what has become a very competitive NFC North Division.
Bridgewater's development should be enhanced by the addition of Adrian Peterson coming back with something to prove. The Vikings have added so much more than they have lost over the offseason, making their prospects for making the playoffs very bright for 2015. A little improvement in the rushing game should be expected with Peterson leading the way, and a defense that is a little more stout against the run, is all they will probably need.
1 New York Giants
With Eli Manning at the helm, it is always difficult to count the Giants out. This coming season, Manning will be playing for a new contract and is looking to have the services of Victor Cruz to add to last year's rookie sensation Odell Beckham at the start of the year. Shane Vereen was brought in to compete with Rashad Jennings for the starting running back job, but both should see plenty of game time. Ereck Flowers was added with the ninth pick of the 2015 NFL Draft to help bolster the offensive line. The defense will need to improve and Jon Beason's return will offer immediate help. Landon Collins and Mykkele Thompson were added to help in the secondary, but that was not the area that needs to improve most. The Giants defense allowed opponents to gain 2,162 yards on the ground with an average of 4.9 yards per carry. Although Beason will help, the defensive line will need to play much better in order to stop giving up 135 rushing yards per game.
The Giants still have one of the best quarterbacks in the league with weapons at his disposal. If Beason remains healthy, he will easily add over 100 tackles per game and instantly improve the Giants defense against the run with his aggressive play and proven leadership skills. The Giants could easily make a run for the Super Bowl in a division where the off season has provided more questions than answers.