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Which Are the 2014 NFL Season's Most Legitimate Sleeper Teams?

Alessandro MiglioFeatured ColumnistAugust 8, 2014

Which Are the 2014 NFL Season's Most Legitimate Sleeper Teams?

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    In just about every season, the NFL has one or two surprise teams that come from nowhere to charge into a playoff spot.

    Last year it was the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs out of what was supposed to be a lackluster AFC West. Two years ago featured the Minnesota Vikings unexpectedly making the postseason, carried by unlikely MVP Adrian Peterson.

    We know who the favorites are heading into the 2014 season—San Francisco, Denver and Seattle, to name a few. We also know the contenders and those who expect to compete.

    But which teams that are off everybody's radar could make some postseason noise?

    None of these teams had a winning record last season. Indeed, the past few years—if not longer—have been mediocre or worse for them, and few expect any of these clubs to be serious. Yet due to player progression and offseason additions, among other things, the following five could take a big step. 

St. Louis Rams

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    True, the St. Louis Rams have the worst coaching staff in the league, as recently opined by yours truly. The team certainly has the talent to overcome certain coaching deficiencies, however, and Jeff Fisher and Co. could very well prove me wrong.

     

    Why They Will Compete

    Slowly but surely, the Rams have built a quality defense buoyed by a fantastic defensive front. 

    Led by the emergent Robert Quinn, St. Louis was third in the league in sacks and sack percentage last season, behind only division nemesis Seattle and the surprising Bills defense. That same defensive front is back for more in 2014, and it added pass-rushing phenom Aaron Donald to the mix at defensive tackle.

    On offense, the Rams will have their starting quarterback back in a make-or-break season. After a good start, Sam Bradford was knocked out of the 2013 campaign. He is on the final year of his massive rookie deal, and he should be hungry to prove he is worth a new contract.

    Of course, intangibles are not to be trusted. Can Bradford continue building on that 2013 start and finally deliver on that first-round promise?

    Bradford should have a solid offensive line blocking for him if Jake Long returns to form at left tackle after his torn ACL. That would mean No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson will play left guard.

    That's a whole lotta beef on the left side of the line, which will be even better for a running game featuring two young studs in Zac Stacy and rookie Tre Mason.

     

    Hurdles to Overcome

    Unfortunately for them, the Rams play in the NFL's toughest division—the NFC West. Housing the defending Super Bowl champions along with a perennial playoff powerhouse and an unpredictable wild card, the division is treacherous enough itself to overcome.

    The defensive front might be stellar in St. Louis, but the secondary could be problematic. The Rams did little to fix a woeful lot, pinning hopes of better safety play on diminutive rookie Lamarcus Joyner. 

    Bradford might have trouble lifting his team if the wide receiver situation isn't sorted out this year. Despite their best efforts to address the position in recent years, the Rams could be stuck with a starting tandem of Kenny Britt and Brian Quick with Tavon Austin in the slot.

    Those three have potential, to be sure, but they could also be major disappointments. Britt's disappointing career is a microcosm of what could happen to that wide receiver corps this season.

Miami Dolphins

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    The Miami Dolphins have been the picture of mediocrity for most of this century. Could they break loose from the specter of the average in 2014? 

    The final two games of the 2013 season left a particularly sour taste in Miami. The Dolphins were shut out against the Buffalo Bills and lost at home against the New York Jets, falling out of postseason contention in the process. 

     

    Why They Will Compete

    It all starts at quarterback, where Ryan Tannehill is set to begin a pivotal third campaign as the starter in Miami. 

    Tannehill has had some ups and downs thus far as a starter, but it's high time he cashes in on his potential. He has had issues with consistency during his NFL tenure, and part of the problem has been his supporting cast. 

    On paper, things have improved for the former Texas A&M receiver this year. 

    That seems especially true along the offensive line, which was utterly disastrous last season. Tannehill was sacked a team-record 58 times and harassed even more by opposing defenses, all of which contributed to inconsistency in the passing game.

    Miami signed left tackle Branden Albert to a massive contract, and it should pay immediate dividends if he matches his play from the past several seasons. They also drafted Billy Turner and Ja'Wuan James, who should be improvements at left guard and right tackle, respectively, if they play up to their potential even as rookies.

    Tannehill also has a nice complement of weapons at his disposal, starting with deep threat Mike Wallace. Opposing defenses are going to have to start picking their poison if the duo finally starts to connect on deep balls.

    Brian Hartline is a quality No. 2, and rookie Jarvis Landry was a nice pickup for the slot. Tight end Charles Clay has blossomed into a versatile threat as well.

    Potential is the name of the game on defense. Miami potentially has one of the best defenses in the AFC, at least on paper. 

    The defensive front is led by prodigious pass-rusher Cameron Wake, though he may be getting a bit long in the tooth at 32. He is joined by underrated Randy Starks and Olivier Vernon, and Dion Jordan has looked fantastic thus far in training camp, per ESPN.com's James Walker.

    Unfortunately for them, Jordan will be out for the first four games due to a suspension.

     

    Hurdles to Overcome

    Despite presumed improvements in needed areas, the Dolphins don't do anything great. At least not on paper.

    We can call many areas of the team "solid," but they will need to exceed expectations to go from "solid" to "great" or beyond. It is certainly doable—particularly in areas where there is young talent, including the ever-important quarterback position—but the past decade does not inspire confidence in the immediate future in Miami.

    Even the improved parts could take time to really shine. The offensive line was overhauled, but center Mike Pouncey's injury means the entire unit will be brand new in Week 1. 

    That is all not to mention areas where they may be lacking, such as running back, linebacker and parts of the secondary. Brent Grimes might be a stud at cornerback, but there are plenty of question marks behind him at the position.

Oakland Raiders

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    USA TODAY Sports

    There must be some mistake. Why would the Oakland Raiders—a team many are picking to dwell in the NFL's cellar this year—be a sleeper to contend whatsoever? 

    Head coach Dennis Allen has been hamstrung by a terrible roster, after all. The third-year head coach finally gets a chance to strut his stuff with a proper team. He could guide the Raiders to a surprising season.

     

    Why They Will Compete

    General manager Reggie McKenzie went into free agency with a sackful of cash to spend, the most in the NFL. Instead of going out and signing a few high-priced free agents, however, McKenzie spread the wealth.

    Among the signees during the roster overhaul are defensive linemen Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith, linebacker Lamarr Woodley, cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, offensive linemen Austin Howard and Donald Penn, running backs Maurice Jones-drew and Kory Sheets and wide receiver James Jones.

    Their biggest improvement might be at quarterback, where Matt Schaub should be a big upgrade over the wannabe Cerberus that was Terrelle Pryor, Matt McGloin and Matt Flynn last season. Of course, there is a decent chance Schaub is a nominal upgrade, if at all. 

    More on that below.

    It might be a case of quantity over quality, but the Raiders had a ton of holes to fill. McKenzie did a nice job of filling them with good players, even though they may not be great. If most of his moves pan out, the Raiders will have improved at several positions.

     

    Hurdles to Overcome

    Cohesiveness is key to success in a team sport, particularly in the NFL where there are 11 players on the field at any given time. All the new faces on that roster certainly improved the team on paper, but they will have to come together as a team rather quickly.

    More importantly, Oakland's new starting quarterback needs to revert to his former self.

    Among all the moves they made this offseason, the Raiders traded for Schaub, who had an abysmal 2013 season with the Houston Texans. Oakland's success or failure will largely be in Schaub's hands. Will the man who surpassed 4,000 passing yards in a run offense be back, or is the pick-six machine from a year ago here to stay?

    Then there is the small matter of getting through the AFC West, which went from awful to fantastic in a hurry last season. The Denver Broncos are a lock to win the division barring an injury to quarterback Peyton Manning, and the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers were playoff teams a year ago.

    One or both of the latter two may have been one-hit wonders, but it seems the Raiders have their work cut out for them in that tough division.

New York Jets

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The New York Jets are borderline sleepers, and they certainly shouldn't be considered anything but favorites if head coach Rex Ryan has anything to say about it.

    The bluster has returned, and so should the Jets to the postseason if the team lives up to its potential.

     

    Why They Will Compete

    Simply put, the Jets will have one of the best defenses in the NFL.

    An elite defensive front will pave the way for a dominant year on that side of the ball, and that alone should put the Jets into contention. After all, how did New York get to .500 last season with that woeful offense? 

    Led by Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson, that nasty defensive front is going to be nightmarish for opposing offensive lines. The Jets were the third-stingiest run defense in 2013, and it should only get better as that young core gets stronger.

    Offensively, the Jets have improved quite a bit on paper. They signed wide receiver Eric Decker to a five-year deal, a massive upgrade at the position. They also signed Chris Johnson, who should bolster a fledgling run game even if he is a shell of his former 2,000-yard self.

    The Jets also happen to play in a mediocre AFC East. The New England Patriots are favorites to win it, once again, but there is plenty of uncertainty with the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins. Both have promise, but New York seemingly has an easier path to contention than some potential sleepers in tougher divisions.

     

    Hurdles to Overcome

    The Jets did have a dominant run defense, but they ranked in the middle of the pack in scoring defense and 11th in total defense last season. The passing defense was problematic at times, and that unit will be relying on several youngsters like Dee Milliner and Darrin Walls at cornerback and rookie safety Calvin Pryor.

    Despite improvement on paper, the offense has a long way to go in New York.

    Geno Smith wasn't exactly Andrew Luck as a rookie, throwing for just 12 touchdowns while tossing 21 interceptions. It remains to be seen whether he can take big strides in his second year in the league, though having an improved arsenal should be a boon.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Sleeper is a relative term for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After all, they were widely considered to have a fantastic offseason, particularly in free agency. 

    The NFC is a gauntlet, however, and Tampa Bay's own division is shaping up to be just as fierce as the deadly NFC West. The Buccaneers haven't exactly been a picture of success in recent years either, which is why they head into the 2014 season under new management.

    Can that new management turn the team into an instant contender? 

     

    Why They Will Compete

    There is a ton of talent in Tampa Bay on both sides of the ball. 

    Offensively, there is no better collection of big men to catch the ball than the one on display in Tampa Bay. Standing at 6'5" or taller are starting wide receivers Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans as well as rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, assuming he can beat out veterans Brandon Myers and Luke Stocker for a staring job.

    Running back Doug Martin returns from injury as well, giving the Buccaneers some nice balance on that side of the ball if he returns to his rookie form.

    Defensively, the Buccaneers have talent all over the field.

    They signed productive defensive end Michael Johnson to bolster the pass rush, the unit's biggest weakness from a year ago. He joins a quality defensive line anchored by All-Pro Gerald McCoy. 

    They may have parted ways with elite cornerback Darrelle Revis, but the Buccaneers rebounded nicely by signing Alterraun Verner. That may not be an apples-to-apples comparison given Revis' superiority and the disparity in styles, but Verner is a quality cornerback that came at a fraction of the premium Revis price.

    There don't seem to be many holes on this roster after a productive offseason, and the Buccaneers could be instant contenders under new head coach Lovie Smith, who knows a thing or two about success.

     

    Hurdles to Overcome

    All that talent might be for naught if the quarterback situation becomes problematic.

    The Buccaneers have a 35-year-old journeyman penciled in as their starter in Josh McCown, who mainly got the job after a handful of outstanding games last season in Chicago. The rest of his career has been a smattering of appearances that have netted him a career 59.4 completion percentage.

    Mike Glennon stepped in as a rookie and performed admirably last season, and he well could take over for McCown if the veteran struggles early. Glennon wasn't exactly lights out in his inaugural season, however, completing just 59.4 percent of his passes—incidentally matching McCown's career average—while averaging a mere 6.3 yards per carry.

    The offensive line could prove problematic for Tampa Bay, particularly in the middle. Carl Nicks recently retired out of the blue, throwing the interior of that line into turmoil. 

    Tampa Bay's biggest hurdle comes in scheduling—the Buccaneers must get out of the NFC South to make the postseason.

    The New Orleans Saints are big-time contenders, as usual, and the Carolina Panthers were a playoff team from a year ago. The Atlanta Falcons were awful last season, but they have seemingly rebounded this offseason and could reclaim the NFC South crown.

    In other words, the Buccaneers are behind the eight ball with six difficult games to worry about within their own division.

     

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