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Searching for Sleepers

Fan commentator Swerb continues his terrific work this weekend, offering his thoughts on possible sleeper teams for the 2003 season. Every season, it seems, has a surprise team... talk to Swerb about who you think it will be on the <A HREF="">Bernies Insiders Forums</A>.

Before Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl last season after opening at 8-1 odds, the last three Super Bowls had been won by long shots.  We had the Patriots win it all after the '01 season after opening at 35-1, the Ravens the previous year at 45-1, and the Rams at a whopping 60-1 when they shocked the world and rose from obscurity to defeat the Titans in one of the most exciting Super Bowls in history.  It got me to thinking…who could this year's sleepers be?

Indianapolis Colts

Based on their 10-6 season and playoff appearance last year, the Colts would hardly be considered a sleeper by some.  But a 41-0 first round spanking at the hands of the Jets, their five straight playoff losses, and one of the leagues toughest schedules this season have the Colts at 18-1 odds to win it all as we head to training camp, and at the top of my list of sleeper teams to watch this season.

Tony Dungy had an immediate impact on the Colt defense, which had been amongst the leagues worst in the final years under Jim Mora.  The Colt defense rose from 29th in the league in '01 to 8th last season, and the Colts also had the 7th best scoring defense in the NFL last year, allowing 10.8 fewer points than they did in 2001. 

The stats were a tad misleading though.  The Colts still had some trouble against the run, which was clearly illustrated in the playoff debacle against the Jets.  And the team made very few big plays on the defensive side of the ball, intercepting only ten passes the entire season.  However, Dungy continued to add players this off-season that are suited for his Cover 2 scheme.  His first two drafts in Indy have resulted in the selection of twelve defensive players and just four on the offensive side of the ball.  Safety Mike Doss and Donald Strickland were added in the 2nd and 3rd rounds of this latest draft, and Rich Coady was signed as a free agent.  The Colts did lose LB Mike Peterson in free agency, but were very encouraged by the play of last year's 4th round selection, David Thornton, who will take over for Peterson

To finally win a playoff game, the Colts are going to have to stop the run better this season.  Rob Morris continues to improve at inside linebacker, and the Colts could have one of the league's deepest defensive lines this season.  In addition to '01 draft picks Dwight Freeney and Larry Triplett, both of who had excellent rookie seasons, Indy has a pair of solid veteran players on the left side of the line in Chad Bratzke and Brad Scioli.  Monte Reagor was signed away from Denver to help provide depth inside, along with promising youngsters David Pugh and Josh Mallard ('01 draftees) as well as Josh Williams and their 5th round pick this year, Robert Mathis.

In addition to stopping the run, the Colts must run the ball better themselves.  Last season, an ailing Edgerrin James and weak play from the offensive line hampered their running game.  James has been impressive so far in minicamps (which he usually does not attend), and is running pain free.  Tarik Glenn is solid as they come at left tackle, and Adam Meadows is determined to bounce back from a less than stellar '01 season at right tackle.  Center Jeff Saturday was signed to a long-term extension, and young guards Ryan Diem and Rick DeMulling have both had impressive off-seasons.  Steve Sciullo was drafted to add depth, and Rob Murphy will be pushing for a starting job as well.  Peyton Manning has yet to miss an NFL game, and the team has added Brandon Stokley and Dallas Clark to his stable of options this season.  Marvin Harrison is a dominant force, and the team expects big things from Reggie Wayne this year as well.

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks are a popular sleeper choice this season, and for good reason.  They finished the '02 season 7-3, and lit up the scoreboards in the process.  Matt Hasselback seemed to establish himself as a legitimate starting QB.  They made some moves in the off-season to repair their league worst run defense.  And they finally stopped letting Mike Holmgren draft.

Seattle has wallowed in mediocrity under Holmgren.  They've gone 9-7, 6-10, 9-7, and 7-9 in his first four seasons with the team.  This is a make or break season for him, as well as this franchise.  If they do not make the playoffs, chances are that Holmgren will be coaching elsewhere next season. 

Provided the team gets Walter Jones signed before the season opener, the offense figures to be amongst the best in football this season.  Hasselback has finally evolved into the player Seattle thought he would be when they traded a 1st round selection for him.  The offensive line goes seven deep and Jones and Steve Hutchinson may comprise the best left side in football with solid veterans manning the middle and right side of the line.  Shaun Alexander has blossomed into a Pro Bowl runner, and Koren Robinson, Darrell Jackson, and Jerramy Stephens are all young and exciting receivers that can make things happen when Hasselback puts the ball in their hands.  Last year's Seahawks offense set an all-time team record in total net yards gained and only figures to be better this season with the aforementioned young offensive weapons having an additional season under their belts.

The defense is another story.  The run defense was the worst in the league by far last year, surrendering 153 yards per game on the ground.  The Seahawks will not be able to contend this season unless dramatic improvements are made in this area.

They added Ray Rhodes to coach the defense and went out and signed MLB Randall Godfrey, cut from Tennessee for cap purposes, to man the middle.  Every defense Godfrey has been a part of thus far in his career has been solid against the run.  They dealt a draft pick to New Orleans for the mammoth Norman Hand, who will figure in the mix at defensive tackle with Chad Eaton, Rocky Barnard, and John RandleChike Okeafor and Damien Robinson were signed to help fill holes at defensive end and free safety.  And the team used their first two draft selections on CB Marcus Trufaunt and S Ken Hamlin.  Trufaunt has impressed the team early, and should help inspire bounce back seasons from the talented but erratic cornerback duo of Shawn Springs and Ken Lucas.

Provided the team gets the consistent QB play they enjoyed in the 2nd half last season, there's no doubt they will have one of the top young offenses in the NFL this season.  The new additions defensively figure to dramatically improve their 28th ranked defense and league worst run defense from a year ago.  This team will go as far as their revamped defense will let them, and it would not surprise me to see Ray Rhodes inspire the unit, and lead the team to a ten or eleven win season.

Minnesota Vikings

The likely loss of Michael Bennett and early season suspension of Byron Chamberlain has many people writing the Vikings off in 2003, but I'm not one of them.  This is a team that was the #1 rushing team in all of football last season, and still has several talented runners in the mix.  This is a team that had one of the best offensive lines in all of football a year ago, even with Mount McKinnie holding out for the first half of the season.  And this is a team that added several significant pieces on the defensive side of the ball this off-season. 

Offensively, even without Bennett, the Vikes figure to put up some points this year.  Matt Birk and Bryant McKinnie are two of the top linemen in all of football, and the team added solid tackle Mike Rosenthal from the Giants via free agency.  And David Dixon and Chris Liwienksi are a more than capable pair of guards.  The team still has Doug Chapman and Moe Williams to run the ball, and drafted the very talented Onterrio Smith out of Oregon.  Gus Frerrote was brought in to back up Daunte Culpepper, who was given a long term contract extension this winter.  And the team drafted Keenan Howry and Nate Burleson, two incredibly productive college receivers, to push DeWayne Bates and Derrick Alexander for the receiver spot opposite Randy Moss.

The Vikings have ranked 26th, 28th, 27th, and 26th in the NFL in total defense over the past four seasons.  Any chance the team has of winning ten games and advancing in the playoffs is completely dependent on them being able to keep the opposing team out of the end zone.  That being said, the Viking defense has been addressed and upgraded more aggressively this season than at any point in recent history. 

The team's much publicized first round selection ended up resulting in Kevin Williams, a very athletic hybrid end/tackle that will join Chris Hovan and Kenny Mixon to give Minnesota three legitimate players on it's defensive front.  Chris Claiborne was signed as a free agent out of Detroit, and E.J. Henderson and Mike Nattiel were drafted at the linebacker position.  This trio of newcomers will combine with Greg Biekert, Henri Crockett, and last year's 2nd round pick Raonall Smith to give the team several options at that position.  And cornerbacks Denard Walker and Ken Irvin were brought in to help out the depth in the secondary.

The Vikings are a team flying low under the radar right now, but that could surprise a lot of people by seasons end if they can finally come up with some answers on the defensive side of the ball.

Cleveland Browns

In all honesty, even if I were not a lifelong diehard fan of the Cleveland Browns, this is a team that I'd be targeting as a prime sleeper candidate for the upcoming football season.  And just six months ago, few would have even considered this team as a sleeper candidate coming off the heels of a 9-7 playoff season.  Then came the salary cap related purge of the team's entire starting linebacker corps (Dwayne Rudd, Earl Holmes, and Darren Hambrick), the retirement of Jamir Miller, and the release of cornerback Corey Fuller.

So will the Browns defense play well enough for the team to make a return to the playoffs?  Logic would say no, but there are several factors at play that may cause the national pundits, nearly all of whom have predicted the Browns will digress to a 3rd or 4th place AFC North finish, to eat their words. 

First off, Dave Campo was brought in to run the defense.  In addition to having a high comfort level with Butch Davis, who he worked with in Dallas, Campo has always had or run quick and aggressive defensive units that display great sideline-to-sideline speed, make big plays, and create turnovers.  Campo is already on record as being impressed with the speed and athleticism of Andra Davis, Ben Taylor, and Kevin Bentley, the trio of linebackers selected by Butch in last year's draft.  Add in 2nd round pick Chaun Thompson, and veterans Barry Gardner, and Brant Boyer…and the Browns may have a unit much more suited to play Campo's style of defense than the slow footed trio of veterans from last season.  Also, two of the team's most talented defensive players, DT Gerard Warren and S Robert Griffith, are both coming off highly sub par seasons, and have vowed to return to form in '03.  And lastly, it will be nearly impossible for the Browns to apply less pressure on the quarterback than they did last season, which put serious strain on the teams secondary.  The team blitzed less than any other team in the league last season due to injuries to Courtney Brown and Jamir Miller and the lack of a linebacker that could rush off the edge.   

Offensively, the Browns should be even better than they were in the second half of last season, when they really came together behind improved line play and a hard charging William Green, who averaged over 100 yards per game over the final seven games of the season.  They have two viable options at quarterback, and resigned Jamel White, one of the leagues best 3rd down backs, and a capable starter if called upon.  The line was upgraded further when Dave Wohlabaugh, who was very weak in the running game, was jettisoned and Jeff Faine was selected with the Browns first draft pick.  In addition, tackles Ryan Tucker and Ross Verba both had phenomenal off-seasons as they both enter the primes of their careers.  And lastly, there may not be a team in the entire league with a better quartet of receivers than the Browns.  Kevin Johnson is a classic possession receiver with excellent hands, and Quincy Morgan is a blossoming star.  Dennis Northcutt and Andre Davis are two incredibly dangerous young weapons that would start for many NFL teams, and are also both threats in the return game.

Butch Davis has a penchant for putting this team in a position to win just about every week of the season.  Like many of the teams I've listed in this column, they will go as far as their defense will take them.

Carolina Panthers

I wanted to include one super sleeper in this lot, and at 65-1 to win the Super Bowl and 35-1 to win the NFC, the Panthers were a no-brainer.  This is a team that won seven games last season, has a solid young head coach in John Fox, and returns everyone back from a defensive unit that was second only to Tampa Bay in total defense.

As good as the Panther defense was, their offense was that bad.  Their offensive line was brutal, and injuries to DeShaun Foster and Lamar Smith crippled any shot of them being able to successfully run the football.  Rodney Peete took over as the starting QB for much of the season, and did a good job avoiding mistakes…but clearly struggled to move the team through the air.

The team seriously addressed their offensive shortcomings this off-season, signing QB Jake Delhomme away from New Orleans to compete with Peete, Chris Weinke, and Randy Fasani.  RB Stephen Davis, just a year removed from the Pro Bowl was signed to carry the load on the ground.  Ricky Proehl and Kevin Dyson (since lost for year due to injury) were brought in and Walter Young was drafted to help out Mushin Muhammad and Steve Smith at wideout.  Mike Seidman was drafted as the heir apparent to Kris Mangum at tight end.  And the line was seriously upgraded with the early draft selections of tackle Jordan Gross and center Bruce Nelson as well as the free agent acquisition of Doug Brzezinski from Philadelphia.

The Panther defense should once again be lethal.  Their defensive line of Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker, Brenston Buckner, and Kris Jenkins is one of the best in football.  Dan Morgan is back and healthy to man the middle, with Mark Fields and Will Witherspoon back as his wingmen at outside linebacker.  Mike Minter and Deon Grant are a solid pair of safeties.  About the only question mark is at cornerback, where they feature Reggie Howard and Terry Cousin.  But the fierce Panther pass rush takes a lot of pressure off the team's defensive backs.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Carolina to overcome will be their division.  Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and New Orleans all figure to be playoff caliber teams, and will make the road to the playoffs very tough for this young and improving team.

Current Las Vegas Odds To Win Super Bowl

Tampa Bay Buccaneers:  4-1
Philadelphia Eagles:  9-2
St. Louis Rams:  7-1
Miami Dolphins:  7-1
Pittsburgh Steelers:  8-1
Oakland Raiders:  9-1
New York Jets:  9-1
Atlanta Falcons:  10-1
Green Bay Packers:  10-1
Denver Broncos:  12-1
Tennessee Titans:  13-1
New England Patriots:  15-1
New York Giants:  15-1
San Francisco 49ers: 15-1
Indianapolis Colts:  18-1
Kansas City Chiefs:  20-1
Baltimore Ravens:  25-1
Buffalo Bills:  25-1
Minnesota Vikings:  25-1
New Orleans Saints:  25-1
Washington Redskins:  25-1
Cleveland Browns:  30-1
Seattle Seahawks:  30-1
San Diego Chargers:  35-1
Dallas Cowboys:  35-1
Chicago Bears:  40-1
Carolina Panthers:  65-1
Jacksonville Jaguars:  75-1
Detroit Lions:  125-1
Arizona Cardinals:  175-1
Cincinnati Bengals:  175-1
Houston Texans:  175-1

Current Las Vegas over/unders:  Total Wins

Tampa Bay Buccaneers:  10 ½
Philadelphia Eagles:  10 ½
Green Bay Packers:  10
St. Louis Rams:  9 ½
Miami Dolphins:  9 ½
Pittsburgh Steelers:  9 ½
Oakland Raiders:  9 ½
New York Jets:  9 ½
Atlanta Falcons:  9 ½
Denver Broncos:  9 ½
Tennessee Titans:  9 ½
San Francisco 49ers:  9 ½
New York Giants:  9
Kansas City Chiefs:  9
New England Patriots:  8 ½
Indianapolis Colts:  8 ½
Cleveland Browns:  8 ½
Buffalo Bills:  8 ½
San Diego Chargers:  8 ½
Minnesota Vikings:  8
Seattle Seahawks:  8
New Orleans Saints:  8
Baltimore Ravens:  7 ½
Washington Redskins:  7 ½
Dallas Cowboys:  7 ½
Chicago Bears:  7 ½
Carolina Panthers:  7 ½
Jacksonville Jaguars:  6 ½
Detroit Lions:  6
Cincinnati Bengals:  5 ½
Arizona Cardinals:  5
Houston Texans: 5

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