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Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview Part III

Which teams are on the way up?

After spending the first half of our preview reviewing the teams we expect to decline and/or hit bottom, it’s time to start being positive. Today, the third portion of our NFL preview looks at the teams we expect will improve in 2011, even if those improvements don’t necessarily turn them into Super Bowl contenders. Tomorrow, we’ll finish up with the eight teams we expect will compete for the Lombardi Trophy this season.

As with yesterday’s look at declining teams, keep in mind that “improve” is a relative term. We expect the Falcons will decline and the Panthers will improve, but the Falcons are still likely going to be the better team. Some teams on this list have more upside than others, which we’ll spell out in their best-case scenarios at the end of each preview.

Arizona Cardinals

Odds to win the NFC West: +197

Some clichés in football actually turn out to be valid. Field position matters. Great teams build from the trenches. And quarterback is the most important position on the field. In 2010, the personnel men in the Cardinals’ front office got the quarterback position horribly wrong and sealed Arizona’s fate before the season started. And although the organization took a huge risk by expending Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a second-round pick, and $30 million in guaranteed money to acquire Kevin Kolb, the promise of competency is enough to improve the Cardinals’ fate in 2011.

Derek Anderson, Max Hall, and John Skelton combined to put up a completion percentage of just 50.8 percent, which was the lowest rate in the league. Amazingly, only three teams have seen their quarterbacks combine for a completion percentage below 51 percent over the past five years, and Anderson was on each of them. The 2008 and 2009 Browns failed to even hit 50 percent. In all, Arizona’s completion percentage fell 15.2 percentage points from the 66.0 percent mark put up by Kurt Warner and Matt Leinart in 2009. That’s the largest decline in team completion percentage from one season to the next since the NFL merged with the AFL in 1970. Completion percentage isn’t the only measure of a passing offense, but it’s easy to see how dramatic the shift in accuracy was for the Cardinals.

The problem was that Arizona found guys who looked the part of quarterbacks, even if they couldn’t play the role. Anderson and Skelton came out of the same archetype — mammoth quarterbacks (Anderson 6-foot-6 and Skelton 6-foot-1 6-foot-6) with big arms who had histories of struggling with their accuracy.

Their new quarterback doesn’t fit that mold. Kevin Kolb is listed at 6-3 and probably isn’t much more than 6-1 in real life. He spent his college career in the spread offense of the Houston Cougars, with which he completed nearly 62 percent of his passes, and then graduated to the West Coast offense run by the Philadelphia Eagles under Andy Reid. Playing in a system that demands timing and accuracy, Kolb completed 60.8 percent of the 319 passes he threw as an Eagles quarterback. He struggles to handle the pass rush and occasionally makes bad decisions, but Kolb should be a significantly more consistent quarterback than his predecessors. That should be a huge upgrade for this team.

There’s also reason to believe that the offense surrounding Kolb will be better. While star wideout Larry Fitzgerald stayed healthy last season, each of the next four receivers on the depth chart who would have started across from him got injured at one point or another. While the team let Steve Breaston go to Kansas City as a free agent, they should get healthier seasons from Early Doucet and Andre Roberts, each of whom have shown flashes of brilliance during their young careers. They made an enormous upgrade at tight end by replacing the combination of Stephen Spach and Ben Patrick with former Arizona State star Todd Heap, who should serve as a security blanket for Kolb. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has spent training camp raving about the maturing of halfback Beanie Wells, whose improvement as a pass-protector should allow him to be the full-time starter this year. And while there are still questions about the offensive line’s ability to protect Kolb, the team brought in Packers guard Daryn Colledge to upgrade the left guard vacated by the retiring Alan Faneca. There’s no guarantee that any or all of these moves will work out, but they each have some measure of promise attached to them.

Best-case scenario: Kolb rides the brilliance of Fitzgerald to a Warner-esque season, gathering him some down-ballot MVP votes. Wells has a breakout season as the lone back of any consequence in Arizona, and the team goes 6-0 within the division to claim the NFC West title.

Worst-case scenario: In a repeat of last season, Kolb gets concussed in the first half of Week 1. Unfortunately, the Cardinals don’t have Michael Vick to turn to on the bench, so they’re forced to turn back to Skelton, who promptly repeats his 47.6 percent completion percentage from 2010. Fitzgerald retires rather than play through his new contract extension.

Cam Newton

Carolina Panthers

Odds to win the NFC South: +3442

That line implies that the Panthers will win the NFC South only 2.9 percent of the time. 2.9 percent! Think about how frequently randomly bad teams have suddenly popped up and had bizarre seasons that won them a division title. The 2009 Bengals won the AFC North after going 4-11-1 the previous season. The 2008 Dolphins went from 1-15 to the AFC East title in one year. The 2007 Bucs went from 4-12 to 9-7 and the NFC South title. Would it really be that extraordinary to see the Panthers win the NFC South?

Chances are they won’t win the division, but it’s absurd to think that they’ll go 2-14 or worse again. Even Vegas thinks so — the over/under for the Panthers is set at 4.5 wins this season. Last year was a perfect storm of problems for Carolina, which was a respectable 8-8 team in 2009. Virtually every one of their above-average players got hurt at one point or another during the season. They lost star right tackle Jeff Otah and valuable linebacker Thomas Davis to season-ending injuries before Week 1 and never really replaced them. The team’s running game dissipated when both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart struggled with injuries, while wide receiver Steve Smith missed two games and hobbled around for most of the year through a high ankle sprain. Cornerback Chris Gamble, the team’s highest-paid defender at the time, missed five games with an ankle injury of his own. The coaching staff gave up on quarterback Matt Moore, and general manager Marty Hurney didn’t bother to stock a veteran backup, leaving the team in the hands of Jimmy Clausen long before the rookie quarterback would ever have been ready. By the end of the year, the only stars left standing were linebacker Jon Beason, left tackle Jordan Gross, and center Ryan Kalil. Most of the players we mentioned should be healthier in 2011, and the guys who took their place will have gained experience in the meantime.

The entire NFC South seemed to take a leap forward in 2010, and while part of that was due to feeding on Panther carcass, they were also playing over their heads. We explained the concept of the Pythagorean expectation for football in the Falcons section of Tuesday’s preview, but as a refresher, a team’s point differential does a better job of predicting its future win-loss record than its actual win-loss record from the past. When a team’s actual win-loss record surpasses what the Pythagorean expectation says its win-loss record should be, it tends to decline in the following season. Last year, each of those teams won more games than their Pythagorean expectation would have expected them to. The 13-3 Falcons were 1.8 games better than their projection, the 11-5 Saints beat theirs by 0.9 wins, and the 10-6 Bucs were 1.3 wins beyond their means.1 That means that the rest of the NFC South won’t be as strong in 2011 as it appeared to be in 2010, and it makes the idea of a competitive Panthers team far less daunting of a possibility.

With that in mind, their schedule should be a little easier in 2011. Last year, the Panthers got to play the NFC West, but they also had to suit up against the AFC North and finished up with games against the 11-5 Bears and 10-6 Giants. By virtue of being in last place, those games are against the Cardinals and Redskins this year, teams who seem unlikely to combine on a 21-11 season. While the NFC North comes to town, the Panthers should be able to compete with the rapidly weakening AFC South.

As obvious as it was to make fun of Hurney’s spending hundreds of millions of dollars to lock up the core of a 2-14 team, there is a fair amount of young talent here waiting to blossom. The Panthers will be able to slow down games and stretch leads when they get them, and the presence of Cam Newton could help turn the Carolina running game back into its previously dominant self, even if Newton struggles as a passer.

Best-case scenario: The Buccaneers implode, the Falcons collapse under injuries, and the Panthers narrowly beat the Saints in New Orleans in Week 17 to claim a shocking NFC South title. This makes some people’s happiness +3342.

Worst-case scenario: Carolina suffers another string of injuries, and the combination of Newton and Clausen struggles so much that the team finally turns to its third-string quarterback … Derek Anderson. Can we get our money back on that division title bet?

Peyton Hillis

Cleveland Browns

Odds to win the AFC North: +978

The deck was stacked against the Browns in 2010. According to Football Outsiders, they faced the fourth-hardest schedule in football, as they got the AFC East and NFC South, a game against the Chiefs, plus four games against the Steelers and Ravens. That’s nine games against playoff teams, and while they went 2-7 in those games, that included a 20-point win against the Patriots, a 13-point win over the Saints in New Orleans, an overtime loss to the Jets, and a two-point loss to the Chiefs. This year, they get to play the AFC South and the NFC West, the best set of opposing divisions a team could hope for. Their other out-of-division games are against the Dolphins and Raiders, who shouldn’t be tough competition. They also don’t play the Ravens or Steelers until December, although the Browns will play them four times in five weeks to finish out the year.

In all, the Browns were 3-7 in games decided by a touchdown or less, which itself augurs some promise for the future. We’ve noted earlier in these previews that a team’s performance in those games is mostly random from year to year, subject to lucky bounces and fortuitous timing. Seven teams since the strike year have matched the Browns’ 3-7 performance in those close games, and in the following season, those teams were a combined 26-25 in those same contests. The Browns are likely to have better results in those games, and if they get lucky and somehow go from 3-7 to 7-3, that alone could be enough to push them into the playoffs.

Cleveland is also one of the organizations likely to benefit from the new kickoff rules. While you might think of Josh Cribbs and think that the Browns had a dynamic return game, that just wasn’t the case in 2010. In fact, the Browns averaged just 17.0 yards on their kickoff returns last season, the lowest figure in the league by two full yards. Meanwhile, kicker Phil Dawson produced touchbacks on only 10.5 percent of his kickoffs last season, which was 22nd in the league. Neutering the impact of special teams should actually be a positive for the Browns in 2011.

While the Browns’ defense was a respectable 13th in points allowed last season, the 31st-ranked offense needs to take a step forward. Fortunately, they’re an extremely young unit that should improve with another year of experience. Every skill position player in the starting lineup should be 26 or younger, while dominant left tackle Joe Thomas, arguably the best lineman in football, is just 27. Unfortunately, the rest of the line is full of question marks. Left guard Eric Steinbach combined with Thomas to serve as the first point of entry for halfback Peyton Hillis last year, as 25 percent of the Browns’ runs were to the left side of the line, while only 14 percent went to the right. Steinbach won’t be around this year, though, as back surgery is likely to finish his season before it starts. The right side of the line is up in the air, as tackle Tony Pashos has struggled to stay both healthy and effective, while debuting right guard Shawn Lauvao has just 10 games under his belt. For a team that relies so heavily on Hillis and the running game, a productive offensive line is a must.

New head coach Pat Shurmur will try to take the heat off of the offensive line by installing a version of the West Coast offense, and Colt McCoy’s 61 percent completion rate from last season should help ease the transition. The only quarterbacks from the past 20 years to put up a better completion percentage with 200 or more attempts during their rookie seasons are Ben Roethlisberger, Marc Bulger, Matt Ryan, and Carson Palmer. If McCoy can drop his interception rate from the 4.1 percent figure this might turn into a good offense very quickly. And that might be enough to push the Browns above .500 for the first time in four years.

Best-case scenario: McCoy blossoms into a bona fide franchise quarterback in his second season a la Josh Freeman, the Browns get lucky in a couple of close games, and an easy schedule pushes them into first place in the AFC North as the calendar hits December. Although they slip up a bit against their rivals, they beat the Steelers at home on New Year’s Day to clinch their first division title since the Bush administration. That’s the Herbert Walker Bush administration and 1989, when they won the AFC Central, thank you very much.

Worst-case scenario: Hillis falls victim to the Madden Curse because the offensive line can’t create any push, none of the receivers do anything, and the Browns get swallowed up by the great defenses in their division for another season.

Tebow & Orton

Denver Broncos

Odds to win the AFC West: N/A

While Josh McDaniels kept the Denver offense going before he was fired, the Broncos defense collapsed under a string of injuries last season. The 2009 unit had the league’s seventh-best DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), but it also fielded a group of 11 starters, many in their 30s, who combined to miss a total of just two games all season. When star pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil went down with a torn pectoral muscle last August and went on season-ending injured reserve, it was the first sign of an impending flood. By the end of the year, the Broncos’ defensive starters had missed a combined 40 games. They fell to 30th in DVOA and allowed more points than any other team in football. It was ugly.

We can start with our reasons to be hopeful right there. Dumervil is back, which should change the entire complexion of their defense. He’s also got a buddy in second overall pick Von Miller, who had 10.5 sacks as an outside linebacker in Texas A&M’s 3-4 scheme last year. Outside linebackers in the 4-3 rarely rush the passer, so they don’t normally accrue heavy sack totals, but John Fox is reportedly going to use Miller as a defensive end in pass-rushing situations. With Dumervil on the other side, Miller should get plenty of opportunities to rush the quarterback one-on-one against an overmatched right tackle. He may not get 10.5 sacks, but he should be a credible second threat.

On the other hand, it’s hard to see where the meat of the defense is going to come from. Despite investing five high draft picks over the past five years into defensive talent, the Broncos have essentially nothing to show for it. In 2007, the Broncos used their first-round pick on Jarvis Moss and added Tim Crowder in the second round. Moss and Crowder were expected to be the team’s defensive ends of the future, but neither player remains in Denver.

McDaniels’ first draft, though, is quickly becoming a legendarily bad production. He spent the 18th pick on pass-rusher Robert Ayers, who started only for one season at Tennessee and had just nine sacks in his four-year college career. Ayers has been a washout as a pro, but at least he’s still in town! McDaniels dealt a first-round pick to move up and acquire Alphonso Smith with the 37th pick, but after Smith struggled during his rookie season, the Broncos dealt him to Detroit for practice squad tight end Dan Gronkowski. The team shipped Gronkowski out of town on Saturday and sent safety Darcel McBath, the 48th pick in that year’s draft, along with him. That’s five first- and second-round picks and one terrible pass-rusher to show for it.

It’s not much prettier on the offensive side of the ball. The Broncos used the 12th pick in that year’s draft on halfback Knowshon Moreno, who they’re convinced isn’t a full-time running back after two years of middling production. After spending the offseason staring longingly at DeAngelo Williams, they settled for Willis McGahee. The final second-round pick from that year’s draft was blocking tight end Richard Quinn, whom the team also cut this offseason. The jury’s still out on their two 2010 first-rounders, but wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has a torn Achilles and will miss the first half of the 2011 season, while Tim Tebow is currently third on the depth chart at quarterback and falling. Utility lineman Zane Beadles, the team’s lone second-rounder, might be the best draft pick McDaniels made. That’s not high praise, either.

Best-case scenario: Injuries to Orton and Brady Quinn force Tim Tebow into the lineup, and he leads the Broncos on a long winning streak that culminates in their winning the AFC West.

Worst-case scenario: The dismal draft classes of 2009 and 2010 continue to haunt the team, as a total lack of depth causes it to collapse with even a small number of injuries.

Ndamukong Suh

Detroit Lions

Odds to win the NFC North: +432

As the boss is fond of noting, the bandwagon for the 2011 Lions is awfully crowded. It’s not too hard to figure out why. In Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh, the Lions have two bona fide superstars who can single-handedly take over games at times. They have an attitude about them; they got in a half-dozen scuffles while they were dominating the Patriots in a preseason game. And they’ve had a very steady climb over the past few seasons, going from zero wins to two to six. People love conventional narratives like the steady climb.

Are the Lions going to contend for a playoff spot in 2011? I personally don’t think so, but I think there’s evidence in both directions worth discussing.

Let’s start with the positives. While the Lions finished 6-10 last season, there are reasons to think they were better than their record. Their Pythagorean expectation suggests that they were actually a 7.8-win team that had some bad luck. That’s a 1.8-win difference, which is actually pretty significant.

That’s usually linked to some bad luck in close games, something the Lions saw both ends of during the 2010 season. During their 2-10 start, the Lions were a remarkable 0-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less. During their final four games, though, the breaks started to go the Lions’ way. Aaron Rodgers’ concussion in Week 14 kept him out for the second half and helped hand the Lions a 7-3 win. They proceeded to also win each of their next three games by a touchdown or less, finishing the season 4-6 in those close games. Don’t try to convince yourself that the Lions learned how to close out games during the final four weeks of the year, because it’s a false narrative.

The other cry you’ll hear from the bandwagon is where I hop off. “Matthew Stafford will be healthy this year!” they say. Not only do we not know that Matthew Stafford will be healthy, it’s not entirely clear that a Lions bandwagon should want Matthew Stafford to be healthy.

In his 96 attempts last season, Stafford threw just six touchdowns against one interception. That’s an impressive ratio. On the other hand, he averaged only 5.6 yards per attempt, a tiny figure for a quarterback who was supposed to be dropping bombs downfield to Johnson. If we combine his rookie numbers with that sophomore campaign, there’s really not much evidence that he’s a great NFL quarterback yet. He’s completed a dismal 54.5 percent of his passes as a pro while averaging just 5.9 yards per pass attempt and throwing an interception on 4.4 percent of his passes. Among the 36 quarterbacks who have thrown 300 passes or more over the past two seasons, Stafford is 33rd in completion percentage and 35th in yards per attempt. The only other guy who’s with Stafford at the bottom of both those lists is, well, Derek Anderson. And he’s not exactly the player anybody wants Stafford to become.

That’s not to say that Stafford is going to be a professional bust. The truth is just that we don’t know yet; a full season of Stafford doesn’t guarantee an effective offense and a playoff berth. Johnson, for all his greatness, has made it through 16 games exactly once as a professional. The running game is still questionable. The secondary is still mostly theoretical. A serious injury to Johnson or Suh would sink Detroit’s hopes almost immediately. The Lions will be better, but unless Stafford breaks out into a significantly better player, it’s going to be hard for them to hit 10 wins and pick up a wild-card spot.

Best-case scenario: Detroit sweeps the AFC West and holds serve against the NFC South, which brings the division down to the Lions’ two holiday games against the Packers. The Lions finally win at home on Thanksgiving when Suh engulfs Rodgers during the game and actually takes him back to his parents’ house in his Chrysler. Like the Bears last year, they clinch the division in Week 16 and avoid the need to win in Lambeau during Week 17.

Worst-case scenario: Stafford stays healthy, but he’s terrible. The secondary can’t stop anybody for the fourth year in a row, and the team stagnates again at 6-10.

Adrian Peterson

Minnesota Vikings

Odds to win the NFC North: +1138

Hmm. None of our nerdy stat tricks really work here. The Vikings were 6-10 and their Pythagorean expectation called for them to win … 6.0 games. They were 3-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Injuries cost them valuable players such as Sidney Rice and Cedric Griffin, but they just about got full seasons from their four best players. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams, defensive end Jared Allen, and linebacker Chad Greenway all made it through the full 16-game slate, while Adrian Peterson missed only one game. By all accounts, the Vikings were a 6-10 team that deserved to go 6-10. So why are they going to improve in 2011?

Primarily, they will be better because they’ll face easier competition. The essential website pro-football-reference.com found the Vikings’ schedule to be the hardest of any NFC team last season. In addition to their own tough division, the Vikings had to face the AFC East, the NFC East, and because they won their NFC North in 2009, they had to play the Saints and Patriots. Although they somehow beat the Eagles in Philadelphia with Joe Webb at quarterback, they otherwise went 3-6 against this formidable opposition.

Things should be much easier in 2011. They have to play the NFC South, but the AFC West comes to town for four games, and their last-place finish a year ago entitles them to games against the Redskins and Cardinals.

Even if you’re down on Donovan McNabb, it’s hard to fathom that the Vikings will get less out of McNabb at quarterback than they did last season out of Brett Favre. After a career-low interception rate (simply interceptions divided by pass attempts) in 2009 that contained a foreboding number of dropped interceptions, Favre’s pick rate spiked to a career-high 5.3 percent before he was excommunicated to the Wrangler Mud Football League. Webb and Tarvaris Jackson weren’t much better, and the team ended up throwing an interception on 5.1 percent of its passes altogether. While McNabb’s interception rate was at a career high last season, that figure was a relatively calm 3.2 percent. McNabb, in fact, avoids interceptions better than just about anyone; his 2.2 percent career interception rate is the third-best figure in NFL history.

The Vikings should be a better-coached and more motivated team in 2011, as well, with a full season of Leslie Frazier running the show. You can make out the slightest bits of hope if you separate the season into Brad Childress’ 10 games and Frazier’s six. The Vikings were 3-7 under Childress and were outscored by 54 points, but they were 3-3 under Frazier and were outscored by only 13 points in those six games, one of which was the “home” game that was moved to Tuesday after the Metrodome’s roof collapsed. If the schedule really is that much easier and McNabb makes it through a full season, it’s not impossible to see the Vikings heading back to the playoffs as a wild card.

Best-case scenario: Percy Harvin does the third-year breakout thing at wide receiver, the pass rush comes back and reignites the defense, and a sleeper year from McNabb takes the Vikings all the way to the Super Bowl. They face the Patriots and Albert Haynesworth, and the resulting spiteful destruction of virtually all televisions in the greater Washington, D.C., area inspires the region out of recession.

Worst-case scenario: Winning the Hattiesburg 40-and-over flag football league was not enough. Fire up the private jet.

Jim Harbaugh

San Francisco 49ers

Odds to win the NFC West: +253

The single biggest reason why the Niners are likely to improve, of course, is that they fired Mike Singletary before the 2010 season ended. They’re already 1-0 without him around! Keeping in mind that statistics do a crummy job of measuring a coach’s impact, it’s difficult to find anything suggesting that the 49ers did anything but underachieve under Singletary. They underperformed their Pythagorean expectation by a total of 2.4 wins during Singletary’s two years with the team, routinely blowing timeouts and making ill-timed challenges. I don’t want to chalk their 5-11 record in games decided by a touchdown or less under Singletary up to his inability to manage a game as a coach, but I’m willing to believe that there’s something more than randomness behind it.

And while the defense was mostly effective under Singletary, the offense was mismanaged beyond belief. Coordinator Jimmy Raye was fired after three poor games to start the 2010 season. Left to his own devices, Singletary flipped through his three quarterbacks seemingly at will, famously castigating Alex Smith in front of a San Francisco crowd foolishly chanting “We Want [David] Carr!” Singletary claimed afterward that he wanted to see what Smith’s response would be, but it felt like a cheap bullying attempt to try to curry favor with a furious stadium full of fans. That they went out and actually hired Jim Harbaugh is just gravy.

While relying on successful college coaches is always a high-risk maneuver, Harbaugh should be able to coach up an offense that usually fit Singletary’s whims before his personnel. Smith is always going to be more comfortable in the shotgun, where he can see the field better and spread the ball to one of his many adequate-or-better receivers. His protection should be better, as right tackle Anthony Smith Davis was one of the league’s worst starters as a rookie. That should free tight end Vernon Davis up to get downfield and make plays. The 49ers lost center David Baas to the Giants, but Frank Gore returns after missing most of the second half with a hip injury.

The downside is that the defense is basically starting over. While the two stars — defensive end Justin Smith and linebacker Patrick Willis — remain, the Niners will start five new players on defense, including half of their secondary. The team gave up on second-round safety Taylor Mays after one season, sending him to the Bengals for an undisclosed late-round draft pick. The new imports are cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Donte Whitner, each of whom have inspired significant loathing from their respective fan bases in the past.

And the schedule simply can’t be much easier than it was last season. The NFC West was arguably the worst division in league history, and the Niners got to play it six times. They got four games against the AFC West, which was the second-worst division in football. On the other hand, they went 0-4 against the NFC South and had to play the Packers and Eagles by virtue of finishing in second place. This year, they get the NFC East and the AFC North, both of which should be strong, and they drew some rough matchups against other third-place teams, as they’ll play sleeper teams in Cleveland and Detroit. That’s why I think the NFC West eventually belongs to the final team on our list.

Best-case scenario: Harbaugh turns the offense into something workable, the defense stays at a high level, and a 6-0 divisional record gives them the NFC West.

Worst-case scenario: Harbaugh gives up on Smith after three games and brings in rookie Colin Kaepernick, who plays just well enough to keep the team from winning the Andrew Luck sweepstakes.

Sam Bradford

St. Louis Rams

Odds to win the NFC West: +156

The most important thing a franchise can do is develop a young quarterback into a star. The Rams have one with limitless potential in Sam Bradford, and they brought in Josh McDaniels to serve as his offensive coordinator. As dismal as McDaniels was as a head coach, he’s coming off of seasons in which he made Matt Cassel and Kyle Orton look like elite quarterbacks. The Rams will start two young tackles who should be better with a year of experience, and the team spent most of the year with its three best wide receivers positioned in the trainer’s room. What’s left at wideout is the exact mix of deep threats (Brandon Gibson, Mike Sims-Walker) and slot receivers (Danny Amendola) the McDaniels offense relies upon. You’re seeing all this, right?

Even without all those soft factors, history suggests that Bradford should take a step forward in 2011. It’s a small sample, but 11 first-round picks since 1990 have thrown 300 attempts or more during each of their first two pro seasons. In their second season, their completion percentage improved by an average of 7.7 percent, their yards per attempt went up by 2.5 percent, and their quarterback rating rose 12.7 percent. The only player in the group who declined across the board was Matt Ryan, and his third season turned out pretty well.

The defense is already better than people realize. The Rams ranked 12th in points allowed last season, and while it was against an extremely easy schedule, they were a respectable 20th in DVOA (which adjusts for strength of schedule). Steve Spagnuolo has exhibited the capacity for creative blitz packages since his days under Jim Johnson in Philadelphia, but he’s gifted with the league’s next great pass-rusher, Chris Long, who should be this year’s Tamba Hali. Long had just eight sacks last year, but according to the Football Outsiders Game Charting project, he knocked down the opposing quarterback 16 times and had a league-high 42.5 hurries that forced a quarterback out of the pocket or into an early throw. He was so great and attracted such attention from opposing offensive lines that opposite end James Hall, who had averaged just under six sacks per season as a starter, had a 10.5-sack season at age 33. About half of the Rams’ defensive snaps will come from players 26 or younger, so there’s the possibility of talented young players like James Laurinaitis and Craig Dahl taking leaps forward and becoming Pro Bowlers.

As with the 49ers, the Rams’ schedule will be harder, especially at the beginning of the year. They don’t play an NFC West team until Week 9, with their seven previous games coming against the four teams of the NFC East, the Packers, the Saints, and the Ravens. Their schedule is an absolute breeze after that, so if they can get to Week 9 at 3-4, they should be a lock to win the division. Although that scenario involves them somehow beating the Eagles or Ravens at home, I think they can do just that.

Best-case scenario: A seven-game winning streak in the middle of the season carries them to an 11-5 record and a first-round bye.

Worst-case scenario: Bradford or Long gets hurt, McDaniels’ magic touch doesn’t take, and the team starts 0-7.

(All lines courtesy pinnaclesports.com)

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.


Previously from Bill Barnwell:
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part II
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part I
Viva Las Vegas: Apartment Hunting in Sin City
Viva Las Vegas: Sabermetrics in the Wasteland
NFL Free Agency: Winners, Losers, and Who’s Left
Flash Over Substance: DeSean Jackson and the Eagles

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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