Every season we tend to see around five new teams emerge during the season and make their way into the playoffs. Most of them are surprises too.
Last season the Rams and Eagles took two giant premature steps forward. I didn't expect much from either team last year but now they both have the appearance of perennial contenders. An injury to Aaron Rodgers allowed for three NFC South teams to book a playoff ticket.
A lot can happen so let's take a look at a few certain contenders along with some of those potential surprises.
Tier 1: Locked In
New Orleans Saints
Los Angeles Rams
The Saints were one Stefon Diggs touchdown away from having a real shot at winning the Super Bowl last year. No more wonders of how Adrian Peterson is going mesh with the offense. Mark Ingram will be suspended for the first four games but they have no problem making Alvin Kamara the focal point of the offense until then. Michael Thomas, Cameron Meredith, and Ted Ginn Jr. are already a solid foundation but rookie Tre'Quan Smith adds even more raw speed.
Speaking of rookies, first round DE Marcus Davenport makes his way onto a stout defense led by sophomore CB Marshon Lattimore.
The Vikings made all the way to the conference finals on the back of Case Keenum before getting embarrassed by the Eagles. They've been contenders for the past several seasons thanks to their elite defense so they have no concerns on that side of the ball. Their offense has gotten better every year and now it takes another step forward.
Replacing Keenum is Kirk Cousins, who's is a more willing runner and deep ball thrower. Dalvin Cook returns from an injury that derailed his rookie season after four games. He possesses the best traits of both Jerick McKinnon and Latavis Murray and was actually on pace to lead the league in rushing at the time of his injury.
Sean McVay was the blessing that Jared Goff and Todd Gurley needed. New life was injected into the Rams' passing game and the addition of Andrew Whitworth at left tackle gave Gurley some actual lanes to run through. Sammy Watkins was a great asset in the red zone but I think Brandin Cooks is an upgrade for the type of uptempo offense they run.
The defense lost Trumaine Johnson but added Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Sam Shields, and Ndamukong Suh so they should be all set.
Tier 2: Not Far Behind
Green Bay Packers
The only reason I have the defending Super Bowl Champion Eagles right here is because Carson Wentz and Alshon Jeffrey are currently working their way back from injuries. If they're forced to missed time then that may cost them a couple of games. Regardless, their defense alone should win them games. I'm not concerned.
The Carolina Panthers have one of the most consistently disciplined defenses in the league regardless of who they plug in there. The offense tends to be a tad on the inconsistent side but everything is currently aligning. Greg Olsen and Curtis Samuel are back and healthy. Christian McCaffrey is expected to take a big leap this year as the projected three-down back.
On top of that, first-round rookie receiver DJ Moore was viewed by many as the most talented prospect in his position's draft class. If everything clicks, they could beat anybody.
Green Bay still had a chance to make the playoffs even with all of the time that Aaron Rodgers missed. Ted Thompson is no longer the GM so now they'll actually participate in free agency going forward. Brian Gutekunst made that apparent with the signings of Muhammad Wilkerson and Jimmy Graham this offseason. Graham has surely lost a step but he'll have no problem hauling in all those red zone targets that Jordy Nelson left behind.
From a fantasy perspective, their RB situation is messy. From a real-life perspective, they have three guys (Ty Montgomery, Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams) that can start and produce on any given week. We all know their offense is a threat but their defense is sneaky good and is loaded with talent at all three levels.
The Falcons' offense looked watered down in 2017 as they transitioned from a Kyle Shanahan offense to a Steve Sarkisian-led side. Despite the step down, they still made the playoffs in a difficult division. If they can get a better grasp on Sarkisian's scheme then they have all the pieces to return to form.
Tier 3: Don't Be Surprised
New York Giants
San Francisco 49ers
In 2016 we saw the emergence of a stingy Giants defense that paved a way to the playoffs. We didn't see that same defense in 2017. The offense couldn't help them at all. The entire receiving corps was depleted with injuries and there was zero semblance of a run game. Now that 2016 team gets Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley. I'm sure they're excited about a healthy Odell Beckham too.