The 2017 NFL season is getting closer and closer. The draft concluded weeks ago, while rookie minicamps are well underway. As the preseason unfolds, we will know more and more about each team heading into September. While there’s still a ton of time between now and the regular season, I want to take a look at three teams who will improve after disappointing years in 2016.
The Carolina Panthers
After losing the 2015 Super Bowl with then-MVP Cam Newton at the helm, the Panthers took a major step back in 2016. Call it a Super Bowl hangover if you want, but going from 15-1 in 2015 to 6-10 last year is simply inexcusable. The “hangover” excuse is no longer valid for the Panthers in 2017; I expect them to bounce back and return to the postseason this year.
For one, the Panthers lost three games by three points or fewer in 2016. They weren’t that far away from competing for a playoff spot despite their 6-10 final record. One reason for their lack of success was Cam Newton’s supporting cast; he simply didn’t have enough weapons around him, and the Panthers’ offensive line struggled to protect the franchise quarterback.
This offseason, the Panthers addressed these blatant needs. They signed veteran Matt Kalil and drafted Taylor Moton to help the bleeding on their offensive line, while also adding two multi-skilled playmakers in rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. Those two alone make the Panthers passing and rushing attack much more dangerous than it was last year, and their speed should help cause headaches for defensive units on the other side of the ball. In addition to that, Kelvin Benjamin is coming off a fully healthy offseason. If he can get right, this offense could be even better than the one that led the Panthers to 15 regular season wins in 2015.
The Indianapolis Colts
It’s been a really disappointing two years for the Colts. After going 11-5 in each of Quarterback Andrew Luck’s first three seasons, they’re now coming off two straight 8-8 seasons in which their franchise quarterback was beaten down constantly. In 2017, there’s valid reason for hope that the Colts rebound. It starts with the fact that the Colts hired Chris Ballard as their General Manager, who made a strong impression in the 2017 NFL draft by taking two studs in the first two rounds who will immediately help their ailing secondary. Their disastrous 2015 and 2016 seasons had a lot to do with the relationship of then-GM Ryan Grigson and the rest of the Colts’ staff, and ridding of Grigson should immediately help the Colts on and off the field.
Beyond that, the Colts have drafted five offensive lineman in the last two years in hopes of protecting Luck, four of which came in the 2016 draft. Another year together should help build chemistry, and this is a unit that should be much improved in 2017. In addition to their presumably improved offense, the Colts should be significantly better on defense, too. Adding Johnathon Hankins and Jabaal Sheard should help their pass rush, which in turn should help their young additions in the secondary adjust to the NFL. The Colts will be better in 2017, and I think they have a great shot of returning to the postseason.
The Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers had a nightmare season in 2016. Despite losing key players like Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead, and Melvin Gordon to season-ending injuries, they still managed to win five games. Five wins is obviously less than ideal in an NFL season, but consider this: 10 of their 11 losses came by eight points or less.
I think the new-look Los Angeles Chargers, under new Head coach Anthony Lynn, will stay healthier at key positions and win a few of the games they absolutely should have won in 2016. They added Clemson Wide Receiver Mike Williams in the first round of the 2017 draft, who should immediately provide Philip Rivers a legit #1 receiver on a weekly basis. Take into account their additions to their weak offensive line, and the Chargers have a dangerous offensive attack on the ground and through the air.
The AFC West is a brutal division, but I think the Chargers are poised to compete and win in 2017 in what could be one of Philip River’s last years in the NFL. They will certainly win more than five games, and they have a chance to make the postseason if they can steal a couple of close ones within their own division.