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A Combine-Week Look at NFL Teams who Could Surprise in 2010

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Now isn’t the time for 2010 football season prognostication.  It’s time to focus on baseball projections and the March Madness tournament and the NFL Draft.  Primarily.

But before the point of no return is reached, I thought this would be a good time to identify a few football teams who underachieved the expectations of their fan bases in 2009, but actually would make pretty good playoff sleepers in 2010.  The key to this exercise is to separate the twenty teams that missed the playoffs into four categories:

  1. Teams that performed poorly and don’t have very much talent in reserve (example: St. Louis)
  2. Teams that performed poorly, but have the talent to compete in the near future
  3. Teams that performed well above their actual winning percentage in 2009 (example: Washington)
  4. Teams who performed well enough to make the postseason in 2009, but lost out on tiebreakers (example: Houston)

This article is concerned primarily with teams from groups #2.  Teams from groups #2, and #3 are both going to figure to be competitive this year, but I’m trying to identify the teams who will actually make the leap forward in 2010.  Not the teams who could have been competitive in 2009 under different circumstances.  The “hot” picks for the playoffs are going to come pretty exclusively from group #4, as this is just the way that the mind of the prognosticator works.

I’ve chosen to look at just ten teams as “underachievers” from 2009.  The bottom eight teams in the NFL last year were pretty well defined by any objective system: Chicago, Tampa Bay, Seattle, Kansas City, Seattle, Oakland, St. Louis, and Detroit were the bottom eight teams rated by both Generic Win Probability and DVOA.  I have chosen to add to this list of eight teams small market Jacksonville and Buffalo, because both featured units (Buffalo – offense, Jacksonville – defense) that belonged in the same class of the other bad teams.  No team on this list managed so much as a .500 record last year, however, it is not exhaustive of the sub .500 teams.  Washington went 4-12, and Miami went 7-9, but it’s pretty much in agreement that those teams belong lumped in closer to the .500 teams (Tennessee, Cincinnati, and San Francisco types) than to the underachievers.

Denver is pretty much in it’s own category as an overachieving team that, in a large ten game sample to finish the year, did not outpace it’s 2-8 record.  They could easily be in this discussion if treated like a 2-8 team instead of an 8-8 team, but somewhere, the team that started 6-0 still remains.

The next step is to try to separate which teams have the talent, and which teams are still caught in the middle of a rebuilding project with no clear direction.  Oakland comes to mind as a team with no clear direction (or purpose…the Raiders don’t really even exist to make money).  Kansas City and St. Louis are teams where the only talent on the roster has come from the first round of the last four NFL drafts.  The talent development has been uninspired.  There’s a little bit more promise right now in Buffalo and Cleveland, but in both cases, that could be just empty promise.

The remaining five teams are the five teams I feel are best suited to make a playoff push in 2010, despite poor performance in 2009.

5.  Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville is a bit directionless right now, but they are unquestionably one of the more talented teams on this list.  David Garrard has an aging skill set, but as a proven leader and relatively consistent quarterback, he’s not a weakness, and more importantly, he has given the Jags back to back 16 start seasons.  He’s well removed from his magical 2007 season, but the Jags infused their offense with offensive tackles last season, who should help solidify his line this year.

Jacksonville’s issue has been defense ever since they drafted S Reggie Nelson, who appears a bust at this point.  But with the tenth overall pick, Jacksonville appears that they will have the option between picking a potential superstar at receiver, such as Dez Bryant, or a corner like Joe Haden, or another potential defensive superstar.  Jacksonville doesn’t pick in the second round, but the team at the heart and center of the Tebow debate might be willing to throw in their 2011 first rounder for the right to get in position to draft him.

The talent of players such as Mike Sims-Walker and Maurice Jones-Drew is pretty undeniable.  The Jacksonville offense will not be below average as long as Jones-Drew and Garrard are healthy, so once again, they’ll be competitive if they can throw a defense together.

4.  Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers sit in a really good spot to make a splash in the draft, with regard to landing an impact player, being one of three teams on this list of five who figures to have acquired their franchise quarterback last offseason.  In Josh Freeman, they might end up having the best of the bunch.  Problem is that Tampa Bay is neither productive on the lines right now, nor at the receiver position.  They’re on this list because that’s fixable.  It’s not like they’ve shunned the offensive line over past years, although Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood are a below average tackle combination, and the entire unit was lackluster.  The offensive line might need to draft an anchor, such as Russell Okung, but it wouldn’t be terribly shocking if they were a strength in front of Freeman next year.  The team could also draft another Oklahoma State player, Bryant, with the 3rd overall pick.

The defense needs to get better play from it’s safeties, but moving Jermaine Phillips back there and getting back a healthy Will Allen should do the trick.  The 3rd overall pick is also an excellent spot with regards to landing a game changing defensive tackle in this draft.

3.  Seattle Seahawks

I picked Seattle to go to the super bowl last year, but this designation is about more than just saving face.  The Seahawks are without a left tackle after Walter Jones (probably) retired, but with a left tackle, Seattle already has the bits and pieces of a very strong line.  They weren’t able to run the ball last year with any consistency, but that issue can be solved by getting a running back in the draft.  A bigger problem is that, even with protection, Matt Hasselbeck struggled to 1) stay healthy, and 2) be productive.  It’s hard to watch great players go through the part of their career where they are hurting their team, but it appears that Seattle is at that point with Hasselbeck, who is 35.  This doesn’t really appear to be a receiver issue either.  As odd as it is to say, it appears that the two largest weaknesses on the Seahawks are at left tackle and quarterback.

The defense is a lot easier to figure out.   Seattle’s front seven is as good as advertised, but the only pass rusher of the bunch is Darryl Tapp.  Seattle needs a secondary pass rushing threat, or preferably, someone who is good enough to make Tapp the secondary threat.  And also, the secondary is complete garbage.

But the remaining talent of the Seahawks is still undeniable, and at the very least, this coaching change should bring in someone who is actually interested in fixing the problems that the organization can diagnose.

2.  Chicago Bears

By acquiring Jay Cutler in a trade last offseason, the Bears made the future of the organization into the present.  And by hiring Mike Martz to run the offense, a move that I feel is inspired if not incredibly obvious, the Bears figure to have their best offense in 2010 since, maybe ever.

As bullish as I am about that offense, the defense is going to be a concern if the Bears are going to surprise their division and make the playoffs.  For the amount of resources the Bears put into their defensive line, basically a high pick every season, they’re getting very mediocre results from it.  The linebackers are quite good, and should return Brian Urlacher in the middle this year in place of Hunter Hillenmeyer, but like Seattle, there’s no consistent complementary pass rusher, and the secondary is largely garbage.

The Bears will always been competitive in cold weather, but I believe an improvement in their results on the road will make them a very dangerous team next year.

1.  Detroit Lions

This is the team that’s not like the others.  The Lions have been horrendous forever, and though they had an honorary “winning season” in 2007 (7-9 record), Detroit posted a generic win probability of 28%, which is horrendous.  Not quite as bad as their next “season“, but still awful.  The tricky thing with projecting the Lions for mass improvement in 2010 is that, I have to admit, the 2009 Lions were no better than the 2008 Lions.  Both teams had a projected 2-14 record based on both their pythagorean records and win probabilities, but only one was lucky enough to be historically bad.  The Lions may have vastly overachieved in 2007, but they haven’t been anywhere near that level since.

One trend is clear about the Lions: when they won in 2009 (the two games they did win, plus the Vikings game that they were alive in the third quarter of), Matt Stafford was successful.  To project a massive improvement in the Lions from 2009 to 2010, it goes without saying that Stafford is going to have to be successful a lot more frequently.  And, certainly, he can be.  The Lions had a surprisingly good offensive line last season, giving Stafford plenty of time to make his decisions.  In part because of Stafford’s wildness, no Lions receiver enjoyed a strong 2009 season, even after Calvin Johnson was a pro bowl alternate on the 2008 0-16 team.  Stafford is going to have to be more productive in 2010, but he can do that if his receivers help him.  There just wasn’t very much of that for the 2009 Lions.

The defense, per usual, is a concern and will prevent them from being a truly serious contender.  But the Lions will be able to outscore a lot of teams in 2010, and perhaps they can outscore opponents given just the talent that is currently there.  And that makes them different from the other bottom of the barrel finishers in 2009.  St. Louis, Kansas City, Oakland, and perhaps Cleveland and Buffalo aren’t going to be winning any shootouts against quality teams this year.  The Detroit Lions very well might.  Which makes them a controversial, but defensible surprise choice to push for the NFL playoffs in 2010.

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