- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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By ESPN.com's James Walker and Matt Williamson
Every season there is a sleeper team that comes out of nowhere and does major damage in the NFL. For the most recent example, look no further than the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, who were moments away from winning Super Bowl XLIII.
But picking this year's underdog in May could be a very difficult task.
That is why we recruited ESPN.com AFC North blogger James Walker and Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. to provide their sleeper picks for 2009 -- the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks, respectively -- who could most resemble last year's Cardinals.
What makes the Bengals and Seahawks sleeper candidates for 2009?
James Walker: First of all, a sleeper is a team that very few people feel has a chance -- and the Bengals are certainly in that category. With one winning season since 1990, the Bengals have fallen off just about everyone's radar.
But when examining the Bengals closely, you notice they have two things that make for a dangerous club: a great quarterback and an improving defense.
Carson Palmer is still one of the league's top quarterbacks when healthy. In 2008, a season-ending elbow injury cut his campaign short and the Bengals quickly went in the tank with an 0-8 start and a 4-11-1 finish. Before that, he threw for more than 8,000 yards combined the two previous seasons.
Also, Cincinnati's defense is sneaky good. The Bengals finished No. 12 in the NFL defensively in 2008 during a season when the offense couldn't stay on the field or score points. Consider new additions such as defensive tackle Tank Johnson, rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga and veteran safety Roy Williams, and Cincinnati's D has the potential to crack the top 10 for the first time since 2001.
A No. 22-ranked strength-of-schedule doesn't hurt the Bengals, either.
Matt Williamson: Few teams were crushed by injuries like the Seahawks in 2008. The Seahawks won't be snakebitten like that in 2009. Also, overtaking Arizona to win the NFC West doesn't seem all that daunting a task. But, probably most importantly, I think that the Seahawks' passing game and defense should be vastly improved.
The Seahawks had just 35 sacks last season, but I expect that number to increase dramatically in 2009. It's possible the Seattle defense could record at least 45 sacks, as it did in 2007. The reason why is simple: This is a much-improved front seven. With the drafting of Aaron Curry, Seattle nabbed someone who is quite possibly the best and most NFL-ready defensive player from this past class. Now, there are few sets of starting linebackers in Seattle's class. But the Seahawks had a talented group of linebackers a year ago.
Where they are most improved is on the defensive line. Cory Redding is an up-and-down player, but he is versatile and could thrive in his new environment, especially in a rotational role. Colin Cole is more of a plugger in the middle than Redding, but that was an aspect that Seattle was lacking last year. It is imperative in allowing middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu to stay protected and attack ball carriers more freely.
Also in the middle, Brandon Mebane very well could take another step forward and another space eater, Red Bryant, could emerge in his second season. The defensive end situation also should be vastly improved. Lawrence Jackson, a 2008 first-round selection, could take a substantial step forward. His presence should help prevent Daryll Tapp from wearing down. Keeping with the theme of the Seahawks returning to health, defensive end Patrick Kerney also should log more playing time in 2009. He missed the last nine games of the 2008 season.
While all of these projected leaps might not occur, all the Seahawks need is a few of them to materialize. The linebackers are exceptional and an improved front four will decrease the pressure on the secondary and allow the linebackers to make plenty of big plays.
How stable is the quarterback situation for each team?
Matt Williamson: Matt Hasselbeck missed quite a bit of time last year with a back injury. By all accounts, including from Hasselbeck himself, his back is doing very well. He is expected to be at full strength when the season arrives. However, the back ailment is worrisome and Hasselbeck's age doesn't help alleviate concerns. With the fourth overall selection in the draft, Seattle passed on a chance to pick USC quarterback Mark Sanchez in favor of selecting Curry. Clearly, the Seahawks are in win-now mode and also feel confident that Hasselbeck's back will not be a problem this season.
The Seahawks seem much better set at the most important position on the field now. No offense to Seneca Wallace -- who substituted for Hasselbeck much of last season -- but there isn't a quarterback of the future presently on the roster and the backup situation is tenuous at best.
The Seahawks will go as far as Hasselbeck can take them and needless to say, in my opinion, that is much further than they went last season. He is surrounded with a now-exceptional group of pass catchers. The signing of T.J. Houshmandzadeh should be a steadying force in this regard and will open room up for Seattle's other receivers. Houshmandzadeh has caught at least 90 passe
s in each of the last three seasons. As a rookie, tight end John Carlson was the Seahawks' best pass catcher and should only improve in his second season -- especially with Houshmandzadeh in the fold. The chance that Deion Branch and Nate Burleson face as many injury problems in 2009 is slim, but still possible, given their history. But drafting Deon Butler looks like a prudent move; he's a dangerous slot option with rare speed. Hasselbeck could have a big season passing.
James Walker: Similar to Hasselbeck, Cincinnati's quarterback situation is as stable as Palmer's throwing elbow. So it is certainly a topic for debate.
Palmer, who didn't have off-season surgery, says he feels 100 percent. Yet the team has him on a pitch count during off-season workouts, which means there is at least some level of concern and caution internally from the team's perspective.
Throwing is fine, Palmer says, but his elbow will not be tested truly until it gets hit a few times. I doubt even Palmer knows for sure how well his arm will respond to the physical punishment from defensive linemen and linebackers.
Similar to last season, if Palmer goes down Cincinnati's season is over. But this is why the Bengals' offensive line is so important.
They drafted offensive tackle Andre Smith No. 6 overall to make sure Palmer doesn't have another season-ending injury. Talent-wise, Smith is one of the best players in this year's draft. But it will be important for the coaching staff to push Smith and get the best out of him. Cincinnati is going to pay Smith a contract in the range of $50 million, most likely to protect Palmer's blind side.
What problem areas could hold these teams back in 2009?
James Walker: Besides staying healthy, playing in the AFC North could be Cincinnati's biggest obstacle. The Bengals were 1-5 against the division in 2008 -- including 0-4 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens -- because they weren't physical enough on either side of the football.
The Bengals added pieces like Smith on offense and Williams and Maualuga on defense to help in those areas. But is that enough to topple the Steelers and Ravens, who both recently competed in the AFC title game?
Cincinnati's success or lack of success against Baltimore and Pittsburgh could be the difference between a below-average season and a breakthrough campaign.
Another all-or-nothing scenario not many people considered involves No. 1 receiver Chad Ocho Cinco. The 31-year-old had one of his worst seasons in 2008, and he's also battled shoulder and ankle injuries in recent campaigns.
Is Ocho Cinco past his prime or can he return to his Pro Bowl form? Will he be motivated to play hard for the Bengals in 2009, where he's been unhappy the past couple of seasons?
As usual, there are a lot of questions surrounding Ocho Cinco. But Cincinnati desperately needs him, because he has the ability to bring the deep ball back to its offense.
Matt Williamson: Obviously some of the Seahawks' key contributors are up in age and have struggled with injury issues. Walter Jones and Matt Hasselbeck would obviously be the two who worry me most in this instance. It could be another long season for Seattle if Hasselbeck were to miss a substantial amount of time, as the backup quarterback situation isn't favorable. I don't believe that Wallace can orchestrate this precision passing game nearly to the level of Hasselbeck. The offensive line depth isn't as worrisome. Sean Locklear might be serviceable on the left side and Ray Willis can fill in at right tackle. Plus, rookie Max Unger has great position flexibility -- although I am expecting him to fortify the line up the middle more so than at tackle.
The weakest area of the Seahawks' roster to me is at running back. I don't trust this team to put away its opponents late in games on the ground or to score points consistently with its rushing attack. Julius Jones is a No. 2 back in my eyes and T.J. Duckett is very far from a personal favorite of mine. I expect the Seahawks' passing attack to be dangerous and in turn, it should open up a fair amount of room on the ground. Still, I am not going to pretend to like who Seattle has carrying the ball.
Lastly, I think there will be a drop off at head coach. Mike Holmgren is one of the best head coaches and offensive minds of this era and replacing him will not be an easy task for Jim Mora Jr. With Mora -- a defensive-minded head coach -- at the helm, the Seahawks' offense could suffer. But with such a veteran presence like Hasselbeck behind center, that surely should help the coaching transition. Still, Mora coached the secondary last season and few defenses were worse on the back end in coverage. Adding Ken Lucas should help from a size and experience perspective, but this can't be overlooked considering it should have been Mora's main focus.
Of the Bengals and Seahawks, which sleeper team has the better season?
Matt Williamson: Not surprisingly, I am going with the Seahawks. First, this is a team that was recently in the Super Bowl and is very used to winning. That certainly cannot be said for the Bengals. Seattle has an exceptional blend of veteran leadership and fantastic young talent, while player leadership in Cincinnati is always hard to find. That brings me to my next point: Character. The Seahawks are loaded with high-character individuals and well, there are some questions in this department with the Bengals. I will leave it at that. When the going gets tough, as it always does at some point during an NFL season, how will the locker room react in each respective city? Exactly.
Also, it wouldn't be a stretch at all to say that the Bengals are just the third-best team in their division behind Pittsburgh and Baltimore. It is a smidge early to start predicting regular season games, but I am penciling in Cincinnati as 1-3 versus these two teams -- at best. Can the Bengals go 7-5 (or 8-4) in games not involving the Ravens or Steelers just to reach the .500 mark? The Bengals don't appear to face an especially frightening slate of games,
but it isn't a walk in the park, either.
Meanwhile, Seattle plays in the NFC West. Although Arizona won the division and was within minutes of a Super Bowl victory, I am not sold that the Cardinals are light years beyond the Seahawks right now. I also put Seattle ahead of the San Francisco 49ers, who could be improved, and of course, the St. Louis Rams, who very well could be the worst team in the league next year. With a great home-field advantage, the Seahawks should be able to finish 4-2 or even 5-1 in their division.
James Walker: Sorry, Matt. But I'm taking the Bengals on this one.
At least Cincinnati had one side of the football figured out last year with its defense. The Seahawks were awful in every facet of the game in 2008, and despite several changes, I don't see them magically improving the No. 28-ranked offense and No. 30-ranked defense all in one season -- especially with a new head coach.
The easier division does help, but I think Arizona is going to be more consistent in the regular season than it was a year ago when it finished 9-7. That should make Seattle's jump even more difficult.
But I agree, Matt, that both teams have a shot to surprise. I just like Cincinnati's quarterback and defense giving the Bengals a better chance to succeed.