Five surprise teams to watch in 2008
Surprise teams are the byproducts of good luck and good play.
With the draft over and free agency exhausted for finding impact players, it's time to pick some surprise teams for the 2008 season. Arguably, these are paper tigers because no one has had the benefit of training camp to gain chemistry and show conditioning and execution.
To be a surprise team, you need to have improved quarterback play from the previous season, an easier schedule and a positive offseason of player acquisition.
Here the are the early surprise teams for 2008:
Using the same standards that allowed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win the NFC South last season, the Panthers should be the top surprise team. That status should give them a chance to win the division. A year ago, the Bucs best fit the surprise formula. They brought in Jeff Garcia to run an offense void of quality play at quarterback in 2006. They had one of the league's best turnaround schedules, one that went from tough to easy in 2007.[+] EnlargeRex Brown/Getty ImagesThe Panthers need a healthy Jake Delhomme to complement their promising running game.
Everything crashed in September when 80 percent of the Rams' starting offensive line went down with injuries. Marc Bulger lacks mobility, so he didn't have a chance to get off his passes without being hit, and the running game had no chance to get going. The Rams can't be as unlucky with injuries this year, so they have a chance to be at least four games better than their 3-13 disaster in 2007.
JaMarcus Russell is the wild card here. No one knows whether he's ready to be a winning starter. Last season, Lane Kiffin wisely kept him on the sidelines until late December, giving him a chance to learn without failing. Now it's time for him to prove himself. Al Davis had the most aggressive offseason. He invested $182 million in contracts for Javon Walker, Drew Carter, Kwame Harris, DeAngelo Hall and Gibril Wilson. He spent $62 million more to keep defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and halfback Justin Fargas. And he drafted running back Darren McFadden with the No. 4 overall pick in this year's draft. But the biggest reason for hope for the Raiders is the schedule. They go from having a .516 strength of schedule to a projected .438, giving them optimism for a four-game improvement. The only team with a 2007 winning record that the Raiders will play in the first 12 games is the Chargers, in a Sept. 28 home game. Until December, they play a .395 strength of schedule. How can they not "Just win, baby"? They should have a winning record going into their final four games.[+] EnlargeGreg Trott/Getty ImagesAfter spending most of 2007 on the sidelines, JaMarcus Russell will get his chance to lead the Raiders.
Dick Jauron showed progress last season, even though it was the second of back-to-back 7-9 seasons. The Bills won seven in 2006 with an easy schedule, a .438 laugher. They went 7-9 last year with a .516 schedule and finished with a rookie quarterback, Trent Edwards. On paper, 2008 offers a relatively easy .449 schedule, although the Jets and Dolphins should have better records, which could push the strength of schedule closer to .470 or .480.Regardless, the Bills are ready to show whether they are a playoff team. Edwards finally has a big passing target, second-round pick James Hardy. The starting offensive line comes back together for a second season, and Marcus Stroud, Spencer Johnson and Kawika Mitchell should improve a defense that allowed 22.1 points a game last year, a field goal worse than 2006.
The Jets really don't know what they have with Kellen Clemens at quarterback, but they are operating like a team trying to make a big move. Management put out $142.5 million in contracts for linebacker Calvin Pace, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, guard Alan Faneca and right tackle Damien Woody. They hired Bill Callahan to coordinate the running offense. The schedule, using the .020 formula, is 3.3 games easier, going from a .523 to .457. The biggest hope for the Jets rides with the running offense and the defense. The Jets went 4-12 last year despite an 1,119-yard season from Thomas Jones.If the Jets find a way to get into the top 10 in rushing, they have a chance for a three-game improvement. They finished 19th in rushing last year, averaging 106.3 yards a game on the ground. Top 10 rushing teams usually fall into that seven- to nine-win projection. Eric Mangini also hopes that Pace, Vernon Gholston and Jenkins can pull the Jets' defense out of the bottom four in football.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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