Who Can Be This Seasons 49rs?
Which team can be not only sneaky good, but be a Super Bowl team that nobody expects.
Last season the San Francisco 49ers had the number two selection in the NFL Draft and were coming off a disappointing season which saw Jimmy Garopolo suffer a season ending A.C.L. injury. The 49ers weren’t expected to do well by many and even when they were winning early in the year, many didn’t think they were serious Super Bowl contenders. Rex Ryan was one of the first to believe that the Niners were legitimate claiming that they had the defense to win (as a former defensive-minded head coach, it makes sense for Ryan to stake this claim). The 49ers went on to finish 13-3 and play in the Super Bowl after going 4-12.
While it may seem like an outlier that the 49ers represented the NFC in the Super Bowl, we must think of the constant turnover that has happened in the conference over the past few years. The Eagles in 2016 went 7-9 and the following season finished with the best record in the NFC and went on to win the Super Bowl. In fact, 4 of the past 5 teams that represented the NFC in the Super Bowl had a .500 or worse record the season before. With that in mind, I want to look at three teams that had terrible seasons but can emerge as contenders next season and sneak up on the competition like the 49ers did the year before.
Personally, I think head coach Matt Patricia is on his last life-line with the Lions. Patricia has proven that he isn’t capable of being a head coach and the players on his team (or former players like Darius Slay) agree. The roster has drastically changed over the past few seasons and their franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford might be showing a decline in production. That being said, the Lions have a few things going their way that could boost them from bottom of the division to potential Super Bowl contenders.
The first reason for a potential rebound is their draft class. They didn’t have an incredible class but they landed a few key players that can make an immediate impact on the roster. Their number three selection was cornerback from Ohio State Jeffery Okudah, if he can live up to the hype and be the shutdown corner that many think he will be then the Lions defense will immediately improve and possibly become one of the best in the league. The Lions also drafted a running back from Georgia D’andre Swift to pair with established rushing threat Kerryon Johnson. While running back wasn’t a need per se, if the Lions want to become a run-first team (something that the 49ers were this year and the Rams were last year) they now have the depth at the position and can possibly have one of the best rushing attacks.
Another thing the Lions have going for them is the way last season turned out. While it looked like a disaster, it’s easy to forget that the season didn’t start that way. The Lions looked competitive early on going 2-0-1 in their first three games. The team suddenly collapsed after the Monday night football game against the Packers where a few calls cost them the game. After that game the Lions almost mentally couldn’t win and matters got worse when Matthew Stafford got injured and missed the second half of the season. The Lions looked like contenders in that first month and if they are able to avoid mental blocks like the one they were hit with on that Monday night then they can be contenders this upcoming season.
This team has been a mess for years and probably will be until Dan Snyder sells the team. Free agents don’t want to sign with the team, drafted players view the team like college (four years and out) and head coaches look like they are hoping to be fired. This might all change with the hiring of Ron Rivera. Rivera showed in Carolina that his teams are going to be competitive and built with strong defense and a powerful running game to take the pressure off the quarterback (whoever that may be). Rivera is a good coach but it might take him time to change the culture that was left over and possibly bring in his own players (or players that fit his vision).
The first player that Rivera selected in his tenure at Washington can make just that impact. Chase Young was unblockable last season at Ohio State and the defensive end can make an instant impact boosting the pass rush and overall defense. We saw Nick Bosa’s impact on the 49ers defense, even though the 49ers didn’t need a defensive lineman in last year's draft they took the best player available and that player made the defense one of the best in the league. The same can happen with Chase Young, Young is one of the best pass rushers we have seen out of college in awhile and Young alone can turn a bad defense into one of the best in the NFL.
Washington doesn’t have a quarterback at the moment that would give anyone confidence as Dwyane Haskins was clearly not ready in his rookie season for the NFL. Haskins should get the benefit of the doubt since last season was a complete disaster for the entire team and Haskins wasn’t expected to do well (it’s hard to say if anyone would have done well in that system last year) but this season he can turn heads and become the quarterback that picked apart defenses in college. It should also be noted that you can reach the Super Bowl with a great defense, a strong running game and a quarterback that doesn’t turn over the ball. We saw the 49ers this past season (great defense, great running game and a quarterback that threw 8 passes in the NFC championship) prove this point. Washington might have the same formula and if things fall in place, they can be a surprise Super Bowl contender (albeit a real surprise).
I’m actually surprised that not many people have listed the Panthers as a sleeper in the NFC. I know that they play in a division with Drew Brees and now Tom Brady. I also know that the Panthers nearly cleared house this off-season including replacing head coach Ron Rivera with a first year college coach from Baylor in Matt Rhule. I also know that the Panthers had glaring needs in every position besides for running back and just lost the best defender the franchise has seen (Luke Keuchly). The Panthers are still sleepers and there are a few things to keep in mind when thinking why they can shock us this season.
The Panthers went all in on defense in this draft. With Keuchly gone and the defense already looking like a mess, it was a great strategy to completely address the defensive side of the ball. Defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos can anchor a front that can be one of the best in the NFL (joining established lineman like Brian Burns and Kawann Short) and like the 49ers of last season showed us, a dominant D-Line can create a dominant defense. While they didn’t try to fill the void that Keuchly left them at linebacker, the Panthers used three picks in the first five rounds to help the secondary, when added with a stacked defensive line can still give Carolina a complete defense.
Carolina can also make some noise with newly acquired passer Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater has had a tough road back since his injury in 2016 but he was given a chance last year in New Orleans and he delivered. After going undefeated filling in for Drew Brees last season when Brees was recovering, Bridgewater was signed to a one year deal with the Panthers. Teddy Bridgewater isn’t going to shock anybody with his arm but he is incredibly accurate and smart with the ball. Bridgewater also doesn’t have to worry about throwing too many times in a game as the Panthers are likely to rely on Christian McCaffrey as their primary weapon. If the Panthers can have a balanced attack, then the offense will be good enough to compete, even in their tough division.