2011 NFL Preview: The Sleepers

JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 01: Quarterback Sam Bradford #8 of the St. Louis Rams attempts a pass during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on September 1, 2011 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Every year some teams emerge out of the blue and end up near the top of the league. These are my top candidates to do so in 2011.

Detroit Lions

This is the trendy sleeper pick. The defensive line is going to be one of the best in the league. They keep in tact an excellent starting unit and add immensely  Nick Fairley to develop at his own pace. Ndamukong Suh figures to get even better with a year of experience under his belt, which is terrifying. He is on pace to become the Revis of defensive tackles. They have a top five wide receiver in Calvin Johnson on the offensive side of the ball.

I think they might be a year away. Why? Matt Stafford is a question mark. He has problems staying healthy. He is also unproven. He was every bit as shaky as Mark Sanchez as a rookie in 2009 and was barely on the field last year. Their running back situation is unclear. Jahvid Best has not shown he can carry the load. Mikel Leshoure is out for the year. The back seven on defense is every bit as big a question mark as the front four looks like a slam dunk to be excellent.

With this said, I could definitely see Matt Stafford emerging as a star and the defensive line carrying the unit. If you are going to be strong anywhere, it is best up front. No fans deserve a Playoff trip more than those in Detroit.

Houston Texans

When I look at this situation close, I am not a huge fan. I am not high on the head coach-quarterback combo, which is very important in the NFL. I have seen Gary Kubiak's teams melt down in big spots far too often. Matt Schaub puts up great numbers, but he has not displayed he is on the Brady/Rivers level where he can carry a team deficient in other areas. I also have questions about a position change for the best player on defense. Yes, the Texans are going to a 3-4 scheme, but Mario Williams would have fit as a defensive end. The kind of 3-4 they are running is not one where the linemen are responsibly for tying up blockers. The linemen in this system are supposed to shoot gaps and win matchups.

Looking at it from afar, there is a lot to like. The offense figures to be near the top of the league as it has been the past few years. The problem has really been the defense. Maybe I am putting too much faith in new coordinator Wade Phillips, but I expect him to make the ship straight. He is a fantastic defensive coordinator. Why do you think he keeps getting chances to fail as a head coach?

The weak link of the defense was the secondary. It was beyond horrid last year. The Texans will likely have substantial upgrades in all four spots. Johnathan Joseph is a huge upgrade at one corner. So is Daniel Manning at one safety spot. Glover Quin moves from corner to the other safety spot. Kareem Jackson has to have improved at the other corner. He was so bad as a rookie that he could not have helped but gotten better. If not, Brandon Harris might be able to step up. They also have some potential impact rookies in J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed.

I have questions about Schaub, but he will not need to carry the load with Phillips in town. Can Kubiak blow it with a high flying offense and a competent defense? Given Peyton Manning's uncertain status, the Texans might be favorites to win the AFC South.

St. Louis Rams

They made a huge leap last year. Sam Bradford now has a year under his belt. I am buying high on the Bradford-Josh McDaniels combo. While the receiving corps is not spectacular, it has been upgraded with Mike Sims-Walker, Austin Pettis, and Lance Kendricks now in the mix. I also like some under the radar veteran additions to join what became a good pass rush anchored by Chris Long. I expect the Rams to take the NFC West and to do so with a good record.

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