Looking for an NFL playoff sleeper pick this year? Try these two teams.
Part of what makes the NFL such an entertaining league is the annual turnover. Teams go from divisional champs to the cellar and vice versa almost every year. We all know the teams that have supposedly won the offseason and are expecting big turnarounds, such as the Cleveland Browns and the Green Bay Packers, but there are two teams - one in each conference - that have flown under the radar despite impactful roster changes. These are your sleeper playoff teams for the 2019 season:
AFC: Jacksonville Jaguars
It cannot be understated how crucial a change at quarterback can be. Although Nick Foles isn't likely to maintain his form from the Philadelphia Eagles' Super Bowl run a couple of years ago, he's an upgrade from Jacksonville's QBs from last season. The Jags quarterback group combined for a 60.9 passing grade, on Pro Football Focus' 0-to-100 scale - the seventh-worst team passing grade in the NFL.
Jacksonville defenders will be thankful for Foles' ability to avoid negative plays. Only 2.1 percent of his dropbacks over the past two seasons have resulted in turnover-worthy plays, the eighth-best in the NFL. While that will make things easier for the defense, Foles' ability to avoid sacks should please Coach Doug Marrone. Foles got sacked only 22 times out of 176 pressured dropbacks - a 12.5 percent conversion rate that was second-best in the NFL and much better than Jacksonville passers Blake Bortles (18.3 percent) and Cody Kessler (a league-worst 40.3 percent).
While Foles may not single-handedly win games for the Jaguars, he won't single-handedly lose them the way their quarterbacks have in recent years. With most of the defensive talent that led a run to the AFC championship game two years ago still on the roster, plus the No. 7 draft pick in outside linebacker Josh Allen, the Jaguars should be a contender again.
NFC: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It can be difficult to quantify coaching impact with advanced metrics, but the win-loss records say good things about former Cardinals coach and new Bucs leader Bruce Arians. He went 49-30-1 in Arizona, despite having to start the likes of Drew Stanton (13 games), Blaine Gabbert (five) and Ryan Lindley (two) for 20 gameswhen Carson Palmer was out. The year after Arians left, the bottom fell out in Arizona and the Cardinals stumbled to a 3-13 record.
Not only does Arians have a proven track record, but his offensive scheme is a perfect fit for quarterback Jameis Winston. Arians' approach as a head coach and offensive coordinator has been a straightforward running game mixed with a downfield passing attack. In Palmer's near-MVP campaign of 2015, the quarterback averaged a league-leading 11.9-yard depth of target.
In particular, Arians schemed Palmer consistent opportunities to push the ball deep over the middle, an area Winston loves to attack. In that 2015 season, 1,324 of Palmer's 4,671 yards came on throws targeted 10 or more yards downfield between the numbers - the most in the NFL. Since Winston entered the league in 2015, he ranks second on those throws, even though he made only nine starts last season. Now, Winston gets to pilot an offense that is perfectly tailored to where he wants to attack, with a receiving corps that features two players who excel at going deep and over the middle: Chris Godwin and Mike Evans.
There are no excuses for Winston in his fifth season in the league, and the pressure is on him to prove he's worth a long-term contract. Given that this situation is set up well for him, he'll have no excuses. Expect a career year out of him, and watch out for Tampa Bay as a surprise playoff contender in the competitive NFC South.