Unlikely But Possible Super Bowl Contenders
Everybody is talking about the top contenders for the Super Bowl, but I thought it'd be a fun idea to imagine a few of the less talked about (yet realistic) contenders for the Lombardi Trophy.
Options from the AFC:
Oakland Raiders - Oakland finished 7-9 in 2015, but a strong 7-9 if that's possible. They were tough, competitive, and even have a few upset victories under their belts (week 14's 15-12 win over the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos comes to mind).
They did a great job in free agency with signing young talent who can help them in the long haul, such as linebacker Bruce Irvin. Cornerback Sean Smith was a great pickup as well.
In the draft, first round pick Karl Joseph was seen by some (including this writer) as a bit if a reach, although he does fill a need at safety. In the third round, defensive end Shaqili Calhoun was a good pick, as this defense appears to improve.
Houston Texans - Houston has a great defense, which led them to the playoffs in 2015. The additions of quarterback Brock Osweiler, running back Lamar Miller, and wide receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller almost guarantee that this offensive unit will be better than the 19th ranked team in 2015. Their defense is still superb, and in the fifth round Houston selected safety KJ Dillon, who can make an impact early. The AFC South will be extremely interesting this year...
Jacksonville Jaguars - Now, before you laugh at me, just know the Jaguars made some of the biggest splashes in free agency on defense. Defensive end Malik Jackson, safety Tashaun Gipson, and cornerback Prince Amukamara are the defensive additions to Jacksonville. In the draft they added the likes of defensive back Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Myles Jack, and defensive tackle Sheldon Day. In addition to all of these new players, their 2015 first round pick Dante Fowler Jr. will make his NFL debut, after missing all of last season due to injury. In a struggling (albeit exciting and much improved) AFC South division, the Jaguars could surprise many and run a deep playoff run in 2016.
Which of these AFC teams is most likely to make it to the Super Bowl?
Options from the NFC:
Arizona Cardinals - I know what you're thinking, "Josh, Arizona shouldn't count!", "Josh, they just made the NFC Championship game!", "Josh, you're my idol and I love you!". Well, while the last one may be debatable, the first two are logical. The Cardinals did indeed make it to the NFC Championship game... Where they got absolutely trounced by the Carolina Panthers. Carson Palmer had the look of an Arizona quarterback (closer to John Skelton, than Kurt Warner) and that defense looked awful. Also, Seattle is likely to be the favorite in the NFC West, so winning the division is in no way a given.
Arizona has had a good offseason, however, and they made a trade with the New England Patriots to acquire pass rusher Chandler Jones. Safety Tyvon Branch will help out with depth in the secondary as well. In the draft, they added defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche and cornerback Brandon Williams. Nkemdiche should make an early impact, while the latter will likely serve as quality depth. This team should gel well together, and Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd should once again come up big for Palmer, and the Cardinals could make another deep run in the playoffs.
Minnesota Vikings - The Vikings have seemed like one of those teams who are on the borderline of wildcard team, and contender. This offseason may have given Minnesota that extra boost needed to fit in with the latter.
Through free agency, the Vikings have done a great job boosting their offensive line. The signings of Andre Smith and Alex Boone, solidifying the protection for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and the opening of running lanes for Adrian Peterson. They signed a few guys in the secondary (cornerback Melvin White and resigned veteran Terrance Newman), in addition to selecting potential stud Mackensie Alexander in the second round.
Their top pick was used on wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. He will immediately give Bridgewater a large target to throw to. Other rookies Kentrell Brothers (linebacker), and safety Jayron Kearse will likely contribute on special teams and fight for a rotational spot along the defense. This is a young team who has the look of a true contender - if they can put it all together.
Chicago Bears - Yeah I know, this is the NFC equivalent of my Jacksonville Jaguars section, but hear me out. John Fox is a very good head coach, and he has the ability to make the team better through his scheme. Chicago is building this team around quarterback Jay Cutler despite his flaws (and there are many). Matt Forte left via free agency, but young back Jeremy Langford impressed in his rookie season, giving him the right to start in 2016. They did draft a runner in the fifth round in Jordan Howard, and those two will attempt to become a two headed monster like Langford and Forte were a season ago. They also drafted guard Cody Whitehair, who was considered the best guard in this class by many. On defense is where this offseason really shined for Chicago. The signings of linebackers Danny Trevathan (who played under Fox in Denver) and Jerrell Freeman fixes the holes in the middle of this defense. Linebacker Leonard Floyd was their first round pick, who can contribute as a situational pass rusher, and a darned good one at that. In round three, defensive end Jonathan Bullard was an absolute steal. He has the potential to come in and start along the defensive line for the Bears. Rookie cornerback Deiondré Hall and safety Deon Bush look to add depth and contribute on special teams as well.
With all of this added talent, the Bears could be a dark horse for a playoff spot... Which could easily lead to a few postseason upsets if Jay Cutler plays well, and that's a BIG if.