- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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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.
The Panthers go from a .523 strength of schedule in 2007 to a .465 in '08. Normally, a .020 change in strength of schedule projects to a win if it's easier or a loss if it's tougher. Using that concept, the Panthers have a chance to improve by 2.9 games. They were 7-9 last season.
Jake Delhomme is back from Tommy John surgery. If he can stay healthy for 16 games, the Panthers have a great chance to make a playoff run. Before elbow problems ended his season in September, the Panthers were averaging 25 points a game, and Delhomme's quarterback rating was above 100. Without him, the Panthers finished with a dismal 16.7-point scoring average.
For personnel, the Panthers went back to John Fox's philosophy of getting big and nasty on the line, adding five 322-pound-plus blockers and running back Jonathan Stewart, a first-round pick. On paper, the Panthers have a great chance to win 10 games this season -- as long as Delhomme stays healthy.
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.
When Bulger has a healthy offense, the Rams average 23 points a game, which is slightly less than a touchdown better than their offensive production of last season. Despite the lack of offense and its own problem with injuries, the defense improved last year under defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. The 2008 schedule is slightly easier: The Rams will have a .512 strength of schedule as compared with last season's .488. The one concern for the Rams is a tough first-half schedule that includes games against the Eagles, Giants, Redskins, Cowboys and Patriots.
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.
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.
With the draft over and free agency exhausted for finding impact players, John Clayton picks five surprise teams for the 2008 season.