All-Pro Khali Mack is just one reason why Raiders fans should be looking forward to next season
Every season in the NFL, there are a few teams that didn't make the playoffs the prior season that make a surprise run to the postseason. Last season, the Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins and the Minnesota Vikings crashed the playoff party after not qualifying in 2014.
The 2016 offseason will be full of questions, starting with the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Will Peyton Manning return and if he doesn't, what impact does that have on not only the AFC but the AFC West?
Related: Very Early 2016 NFL Predictions
Among the 20 teams that didn't make the playoffs, there are a few that could potentially breakthrough in 2016:
(7-9, third in AFC West)
Not much was expected from the Raiders in 2015, but the team improved their win total from three in 2014 to seven. If the Raiders continue on the same trajectory, they will have a chance to make the playoffs or even win the AFC West in 2016.
After years of not having a franchise quarterback, it seems like the Raiders have finally found one in Derek Carr. In only his second season in the league, the 24-year-old threw for 3,987 yards, 32 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions. Carr also became the first Raiders quarterback to play in a Pro Bowl since Rich Gannon in 2002.
While Carr's play will likely determine how well the Raiders will perform in 2016, the team has finally surrounded him with some talent on both sides of the ball.
Wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree along with running back Latavius Murray and center Rodney Hudson all played well in 2015. Add in All-Pro (at two different positions), pass-rushing terror Khalil Mack on defense and the most projected salary cap space in the league to work with and the Raiders could be on the verge of a landmark 2016 season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
6-10, fourth in NFC South)
After finishing 3-13 in 2014, the Buccaneers did finish in last place once again in their division just as many expected. What wasn't expected, however, was how proficient Tampa Bay’s offense was.
The young Bucs finished fifth in the league in total offense with rookie quarterback Jameis Winston and running back Doug Martin leading the way. After struggling in his first start against the Tennessee Titans, Winston played like a player that wasn't afraid of the pressures that come with being a No.1 overall pick. In his debut season, Winston threw for 4,042 yards with 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions and also made an appearance in the Pro Bowl.
After finishing with less than 500 yards rushing in 2013 and ‘14, Martin was second in the league with 1,402 last season. Martin is a pending free agent, but there’s a good chance Tampa Bay will work out an extension with the 27-year-old who was the team’s first-round draft pick in 2012.
With Tampa Bay firing Lovie Smith and promoting offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to head coach, the offense should only continue to improve. If the Buccaneers can add a playmaker or two on defense, they could potentially make a run at the playoffs in 2016.
(5-11, third in AFC South)
A lot of owners make coaching changes if their team hasn't made the playoffs in three years or less in some cases. Unlike most of his peers, Jaguars owner Shahid Khan has shown patience with head coach Gus Bradley after finishing 12-36 in his first three seasons. Next year, that patience could be tested if the Jaguars don't make the playoffs coming out of a mediocre AFC South division.
Jacksonville certainly has the signal-caller that can help the team take the next step in Blake Bortles. In 2015, Bortles more than tripled his touchdown total from the 2014 season, going from 11 to 35, which tied him for second in the league with Carson Palmer, Eli Manning and league MVP Cam Newton. Bortles finished the season with 4,428 yards passing, while picking up 310 yards (with two TDs) on the ground.
The Jaguars also have a good young receiving corps in Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee and an exciting running back in T.J. Yeldon. The weapons are there, but Jacksonville probably needs to beef up its offensive line through either free agency or the draft after Bortles was sacked a league-high 51 times last season.
The defensive picture is a little different, as the Jags finished 24 in yards allowed in 2015. Help could be on the way in the return of Dante Fowler Jr., the third overall pick last year who tore his ACL the first day or rookie minicamp.
The defense has other holes to address, but with the young talent in place and the likelihood the team will be aggressive once again in free agency, the Jaguars could be one of the more intriguing teams to watch next season.
Los Angeles Rams
(7-9, third in NFC West)
The Rams already have a lot people’s attention as the team is returning to Los Angeles. But a closer look shows this team also has just about everything you want in a football team. The Rams have a young, bell-cow running back in Todd Gurley, one of the league’s top defensive lines, and an assortment of playmakers elsewhere. The only thing Jeff Fisher’s team is missing, but it’s a rather large hole right now, is a quality quarterback.
Last season, the Rams traded former 2010 No.1 overall pick Sam Bradford to the Philadelphia Eagles for quarterback Nick Foles. After having a subpar season (2,052 yards, seven TDs, 11 INTs), Foles proved he was not the long-term solution under center. In fact, the team ended up employing three different quarterbacks in 2015, who combined for as many touchdown passes as interceptions (11), as the offense ranked last in the NFL in passing.
Los Angeles will have the No. 15 pick in this year's draft, which it could use to address the quarterback situation if it chooses. Whether it’s through the draft, free agency or via trade, if the team can find a consistent quarterback, the Rams could potentially challenge the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West in 2016.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.