I know what you're thinking. "Beeks (no, that's not how you pronounce my name), why isn't this in this fanpost. Well, really, because this is too long and I´m not really working with his definition of surprise. He's looking more for teams that'll flip-flop their standings, which happens every season and it's great fun to predict who it'll be. I'm looking to go over who pundits are rating highly that I think won't score quite as highly as that.
Totally non-Seahawks, so y'know, just a side-fanpost (that Danny frontpaged! - DK), but I thought it'd be a fun mental exercise. I'm really going to go off PFT rankings here because they tend to be the most ridiculous (hah, they actually did a pretty good job I think, useless as these kind of rankings are) and I can't be bothered to do a proper journalist's day's work and look up an average of multiple lists. Yeah, this isn't frontpage material (Yes it is! - DK). Ok fine, you can also check out the SBNation Power Rankings, they're nearly identical to PFT's.
From the PFT preseason power rankings, there are four teams that stand out to me: the Bucs at 26 (25th per SBN), the Panthers at 17 (18th per SBN), the Broncos at 10 (9th per SBN) and finally the 49ers at 4 (same on SBN). Let's do them in order...
The Bucs were wretched last year, no mistake about it. However, one thing they were not is talent deficient. They were undercoached and by the end of the year simply gave up, and clearly suffered from a lack of pre-season and a deficiency of experience at key positions. They addressed their major concerns, replacing Raheem Morris with his opposite in Greg Schiano and adding experienced talent at key positions (Eric Wright, Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks) and killing it in the draft (Mark Barron (perhaps overdrafted), Doug Martin and Lavonte David are instant starters).
They have a bizarelly talent-stocked team, the above-named players joined by Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn, Da'Quan Bowers, Aqib Talib, Mike Williams, LaGarette Blount, Davin Joseph, Donald Penn and - most importantly - Josh Freeman. Their coaching may have failed but it's hard to think up many NFL teams that can match the combination of youth and talent level the Bucs posses. The problems last year for players looked more injury-related (for the DL, specifically) and not very structural (for Freeman and Williams), things that - with some luck - won't occur again.
PFT does justly point out the obvious weakness in the plan: they do play in the NFC South and that is a pain in the ass to play in. Or is it? The Atlanta Falcons are badly overrated, accruing wins by consistently beating bad teams every year and have nowhere to go but down right now. The New Orleans could be a trainwreck or at the very least will be dinged up. Both teams sold out the future recently in draft picks, and are going to pay the price sooner rather than later. The Saints at least have Drew Brees, so that doesn't make it easy on the Bucs, but really, the threat of the NFC South is...
I wouldn't disagree so much with their listing at 17 if it didn't put them so far below the Saints (9) and the permanently overrated Falcons (12). The real thing here, of course, is that Cam Newton looks 100% legit. Not legit like Vick did, an interesting player who changed facets of the game, but a legit pocket passer who also happens to add a significant running threat. More like late-career Vick than young Vick. That's really the beginning and the end of their story. It is pretty much impossible to gameplan against, and because QBs like these are the exception rather than the rule DCs have a hard time adapting defenses to them. Don't underestimate this factor, it is a big deal, no defense can specialize to stop Cam Newton (maybe their divisional rivals to an extent), they can only adjust "on the fly" to him and the Panthers' high-level rungame attack. With good receivers, good running backs and a good offensive line, the Newton factor becomes huge. I had very little faith in him when he was picked, by the way, but I'm more often wrong on these things than not. Happy to be wrong in this case, he's a lot of fun to watch.
Yes, their defense isn't very good. Raise your hand if you honestly think that'll matter. The Falcons should have invested in their defense because their quarterback is a solid, boring specimen who in no way looks like a gamechanger. The Panthers don´t really need that much from their defense. Charles Johnson is their only player worth noting on the DL, and that is significant, but it's not so significant when most of their opponents will be playing from behind most of the game, which is all Chris Gamble needs. They do need more investment in their secondary and/or pass rush to really raise themselves to elite, but this can easily be a playoff team without it, especially if their special teams place at a closer-to-league-average level.
Well. I really don't like the Broncos and their GM, Mr Ed. Still, they have one of the best QBs to ever play the game, interesting offensive weapons in place, and an elite front 7 on defense. What's not to like?
Their offense lacks strength. Their RBs are old (Willis McGahee) and painfully mediocre (Knowshon Moreno). Their offensive line is a mess, the interior pass protection being a turnstyle and Ryan Clady - while good - not playing at an elite level to sustain protection.
Do I really want to see Peyton Manning play behind a weak line with a lack of rungame allowing the other side to sell out on the pass rush, with no blitz pickup specialist on the roster right now? It will be very painful to watch, and I honestly just don't expect him to last long. I hope he does, because I like him as a player and hope he goes out with dignity after a few more years playing at a high level. But I seriously doubt it. I simply do not understand why he opted to go to the Broncos when a much better team in the 49ers was clamoring for his services.
Their defense is very good. Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller, DJ Williams and more make for one of the best front sevens in the NFL. However, by this point Champ Bailey is in the stage of his career where he is more reputation than ability and they don't have much else going on for them back there. A good defense, yes. One capable of carrying the offense when the inevitable happens? They did it last year, stifling offenses to allow Tebow to win games, but that was a more possession-driven offense, and this year's offense won't be ready for that. Things don't look so good for the Broncos, though that defense will keep them from falling down to awful.
This is the most bizarre listing, to me. Everyone with an inkling knows the 49ers were and are desperate for QB help, which is why they threw themselves into the Manning race with no real care about insulting Alex Smith. Why? Because Alex Smith is bad. And that's what they have. Honest-to-God one of the bottom-10 quarterback situations in the league, and they're listed 4th. 4th! Maybe predicated on Josh Johnson's ability to bail them out. One can dream, I guess. I have to go down to the Jets at 18 and the Chiefs at 21 to find a similarly bad QB situation. The 49ers are a big anomaly in the top-10.
I don't know how far the 49ers will collapse but that they will is pretty much guaranteed. 13-3 teams don't repeat 13 wins (or more), it is a huge anomaly when they do, and the 49ers aren't built to. Don't get me wrong, that defense is awesome and will be fine. But defenses carrying you to double-digit wins is the exception, not the rule of the NFL.
Their offense desperately needed help and they did address that to an extent. Moss gets all the hype, but adding a WR who has been out of football for a year doesn't tend to work out. And besides that, even if he was in his prime, what is he going to do, run deep and not be targeted? Mario Manningham is a good addition as he fits Smith's skillset better and A.J. Jenkins is a good investment for the future, but this is not an intimidating WR group. A good group, yes, especially factor in Vernon Davis, and their investments are significant. They're also sadly largely irrelevant. Thanks to Alex Smith.
I would argue that a drop in performance by the 49ers would not be surprising, them maintaining as they did would be an absolute shock. Because their performance was predicated almost purely on a bizarre turnover ratio of +28. This is not sustainable. I don't care how good your defense is and how disciplined your offense, a TO ratio of +28 is not sustainable. Will they end with a positive turnover ratio? Sure. But with an inconsistent secondary, an addition of WRs pointing to an increase of passing, with a continually weak pass-blocking unit... it won't be anywhere close to last year's number. And that means everything. The 49ers had four dominant, blowout wins last season (Bucs, Cards, Rams, Steelers), only one of which came against a good team. Any decent-to-good team they played against played them close, and they were highly dependent on winning the possession game to pull the game out.
If the 49ers pull out a 9-7 season, they should count their blessing and be glad to be heading to the playoffs (it's the NFC West, of course 9-7 gets you to the playoffs). Anything better than 9-10 wins would be an upset. Superbowl team? Not on your life.