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The Schein Nine

Redskins, Raiders, Rams among potential playoff sleeper teams

Every season in the NFL, a few teams seemingly come out of the blue and shock you.

This time around, I want you to be prepared.

The beauty in this league is that everyone has hope -- especially at this time of year. In late July, everyone envisions the season extending into January. That's because every season there are surprise teams spinning Horatio Alger tales of rags to riches.

For this installment of The Schein Nine, I've spotlighted a series of clubs to keep an eye on. Am I actually planning on picking these teams to make the playoffs? Well, maybe not. But that doesn't mean I don't see the potential upside. And you shouldn't ignore it, either, as you prepare to watch battles unfold in training camp, where teams form an identity for the coming campaign.

Which squads might stun everyone this fall? Who are the potential dark horses? I have a few franchises in mind -- but I'm also realistic about their respective prospects.

Let's take a look at nine postseason sleepers for 2015, viewing each through the fantastical lens of hope ... and the cold, hard prism of reality. And this file spans the entire league landscape because, as you'll notice, the following teams cover all eight divisions. Like I said before: In the NFL, during the dog days of summer, idealism abounds!

1) Washington Redskins

The case for hope! This past week on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," CBS' Phil Simms and ESPN's Mark Dominik both listed Washington as their sleeper team in the NFC. Here's what I think: Scot McCloughan is a capable general manager with a great eye for talent, something Washington has lacked for a long time. Terrance Knighton was a fantastic pickup for the middle of Washington's defensive front. And that D, which gave up the third-most points in the NFL, should be improved in 2015. DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Alfred Morris are legit weapons on offense. Jay Gruden is a superb X's-and-O's mind. (Despite all of the drama at quarterback and beyond in Gruden's first year on the job, Washington still finished 13th in total offense. Not horrible.) The NFC East is relatively underwhelming at the top, and I think whichever team finishes last will win seven games.

Having said that ... I don't trust Robert Griffin III as a quarterback or leader. I don't trust him to stay healthy. And after last year, I think it's pretty clear that Gruden agrees with me. Still, RGIII's success is crucial to this team's overall prosperity. And therein lies the problem. At the end of the day, my gut says the 'Skins hang around all year ... but finish at 7-9.

2) Oakland Raiders

The case for hope! Oakland has a real quarterback in Derek Carr, who is going to further his development in Year 2. Rookie wideout Amari Cooper will aid Carr in a major way; the Alabama product will step in and produce, putting himself right in the mix for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Jack Del Rio is a big-time coaching upgrade over Dennis Allen. The defense will improve under Del Rio, with Khalil Mack -- a budding star in this league -- leading the way.

Having said that ... Realistically, I think Oakland has the ability to go 7-9. While that would represent a vast improvement -- and count as the team's highest win total since 2011 -- it would still leave the Raiders in last place in a competitive AFC West.

3) New York Jets

The case for hope! With Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie back in the fold -- and draft darling Leonard Williams joining the party -- the Jets should have a top-five defense this year. New coach Todd Bowles is the right guy with the right demeanor to replace the cartoon character Rex Ryan had become in New York. Trade acquisition Brandon Marshall is just what the doctor ordered at receiver. He should really help Geno Smith. So should new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. And rookie wideout Devin Smith could take the top off the defense. Pretty nice setup for the team's young quarterback.

Having said that ... I thought Geno was ready to even out his play last season. That didn't happen. The offensive line and backfield could be better. And on defense, emerging stud Sheldon Richardson has been suspended the first four games of the year. When all is said and done, I think the Jets will be in the eight-win range, and this will prove to be a building-block season.

4) Atlanta Falcons

The case for hope! The NFC South is the weakest division in the NFL. Atlanta needed a culture shift, a jolt -- that's exactly what Dan Quinn brings to the table, providing a refreshing change of pace from Mike Smith. And, of course, the Falcons can still score in bunches with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones fueling the aerial attack.

Having said that ... Quinn's a defensive master, but he isn't a magician. Atlanta still needs to upgrade its talent on that side of the ball. I think the Falcons could win seven -- meaning they'd be in contention come December -- but they'd need to show me something in the trenches (and all over the defense) to return to the postseason.

5) Tennessee Titans

The case for hope! Rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota adds sizzle and credibility -- two things this franchise has sorely lacked of late. The Titans have a solid O-line to protect the franchise's new investment. Defensively, Tennessee has nowhere to go but up, having finished last season ranked 27th in total D and 29th in points allowed. And there's one big reason to believe the unit will rise: Dick LeBeau. Adding the iconic coach to this staff was huge. Oh, in case you forgot, Ken Whisenhunt did take a long-downtrodden franchise to the Super Bowl at his last head-coaching stop.

Having said that ... I'm very interested in watching Mariota and the Titans this preseason, but by and large, this nondescript roster still lacks overall talent. While I think Tennessee will significantly increase its win total from last season, that starting point is still just two.

6) St. Louis Rams

The case for hope! The defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Pro Bowler Robert Quinn, reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and even offseason addition Nick Fairley. Good luck blocking that group of maulers. Overall, this defense should be a major strength. On the other side of the ball, I loved the Todd Gurley selection. When the running back returns to the field, Gurley will join Tre Mason to give the Rams a very enticing young backfield. And Nick Foles actually exists, unlike Sam Bradford, whom I have dubbed "Big Foot" because the oft-injured quarterback seems more like an urban legend than a franchise player.

Having said that ... The NFC West has two of the conference's three best teams in the Seahawks and Cardinals. And beyond these familiar foes, the Rams draw the AFC North and NFC North -- two highly competitive divisions. That's a tough row to hoe. And while the defensive line is superb, the O-line is littered with holes.

7) Cleveland Browns

The case for hope! Mike Pettine's defense has incredible talent and can do it all. Pettine is a fantastic defensive mind, and he should maximize the pieces at his disposal. Meanwhile, the run game has plenty of promise, with rookie Duke Johnson joining capable second-year pros Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West. At quarterback, Cleveland should be better than it was in 2014. Johnny Manziel will be, if nothing else, in a more focused place and in a better position to succeed. Josh McCown offers more than what we saw from Brian Hoyer down the stretch last year.

Having said that ... Cleveland is still woefully short in the passing attack: The receiving corps is headlined by Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline. The AFC North is tough, per usual -- 7-9 equals last place.

8) Chicago Bears

The case for hope! John Fox is the perfect antidote to Marc Trestman after a disastrous season; Fox revs up his teams and instills energy and hope. The Bears seemingly rolled over and played dead in many games last fall. Fox won't let that happen again. Adam Gase is a bright young coordinator who can help an offense that inexplicably finished outside the top 20 in 2014.

Having said that ... It's tough to truly pump up a team when your quarterback is "Debbie Downer", when he consistently looks like he lost his puppy and would rather be elsewhere. I don't think Chicago can truly wake up from this slumber until Jay Cutler follows Trestman out of town.

9) Jacksonville Jaguars

The case for hope! I love Gus Bradley. He's the Energizer Bunny. Blake Bortles has a year under his belt, and mismatch nightmare Julius Thomas will help the young quarterback grow in his sophomore campaign.

Having said that ... No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler Jr. tore up his knee during Jacksonville's first rookie minicamp session and is done for the year. What a painful offseason gut punch. But watch these Jags win some games you don't expect them to. Bradley is that good.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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