If you put your ear to the ground, you can hear it: Terrible Towels whipping through the autumn air, the doors of bars across Pittsburgh creaking open a little earlier on Sundays, the bitching and moaning that accompanies another failed parlay for the 'Stache...
The NFL season is upon us. Dave Wannstache is putting out his 53 man roster tonight. The picks table is making its return, as I try to defend the prize that I never even received. And as the title indicates, the Sleeper Picks are back too. To recap last year's picks, I took the Jaguars, Stache took the Lions, I Want to Fight Tom Brady took the Falcons, and Sam took the Raiders. It doesn't take much statistical analysis to figure out who ended up with the best team, though it wasn't without controversy. Last year's rules stated that the team had to go 8-8 or worse the year before in order to be a true sleeper. I readily admit that I made these rules, picked a team that wasn't really a sleeper, and ended up looking like a genius by the end of the season (ok, maybe not genius, but better than my co-writers). It also led to me joking after the Steelers' playoff loss that "atleast my sleeper team won", prompting the 'stache to threaten me with instant death.
New season, new rules. Your pick now has to have gone 5-11 or worse the season before in order to qualify, leaving the following teams: Ravens, Dolphins, Jets, Raiders, Chiefs, Falcons, Rams, 49ers (ed. note: I would have made it 6-10, but no one went 6-10). Since I "won" last year, I have decided that I will pick first, even though that doesn't really make any sense if you think about it. The Jets appear to have made the best off-season acquisitions, but I refuse to write an article about you-know-who. I simply won't do it. Can't root for the Ravens either. The Rams intrigue me, but their o-line is worse than ours. The Chiefs and Falcons epitomize rebuilding, and even though I secretly like Chad for some reason, it is hard to imagine the Dolphins going from 1-15 one season and to the playoffs the next. Smart money says take an NFC team cause somebody has to win over there, but I hate Frank Gore.
That's right, I'm sniping Sam's pick from last year and taking the Raiders. They absolutely over-spent in the off-season, and the Javon Walker signing is going to turn out to be a disaster. But nothing looks more attractive about this team than their first 12 games, where their opponents have a .395 winning percentage from last year. They're such a young team, and if they are 6-6 or so by December, imagine the type of confidence they'll have. Can't you just see it? McFadden and Jamarcus on the cover of SI surrounded by a bunch of drooling, leather-donning Raiders fans with some stupid tagline like "Scary Young, Scary Good"? Can't you?! Believe folks! Say it with me! Just win baby!
From a more analytical and less propaganda-infused perspective, this secondary is phenomenal. Nnamdi Asomugha is being talked about as the best corner in the league, and while I wouldn't necessarily want DeAngelo Hall on my team, he is going to be tough when paired with Asomugha. Gibril Wilson is going to be in the box causing chaos, allowing Michael Huff to return to free safety where he is more comfortable. These guys can cover, hit, blitz, anything.
And they are going to have to, because the run defense isn't great. But look at the quarterbacks in that division: Croyle, Cutler, and Rivers. The first one is horrible, and while the other two are supremely talented, they are young and somewhat inconsistent. If the corners can play man cover against the QBs they face, the safeties are going to be a huge lift to the run defense. For instance, imagine if the Steelers had terrific corners and Troy and Carter/Clark could just bust into the line more often without having to worry about Deshea or Ike getting burned like they do every now and again. Huff and Wilson are going to have that type of freedom, and the run defense will hopefully be improved because of it.
As for the offense, well, I'm trusting McFadden and Russell to have impressive years. Russell is going to struggle at times - that is a given. Hopefully 2nd year tight end Zach Miller, who caught 44 passes last year, will be a reliable option for him to dump off to.
As I said before, look at this schedule. Around the same time that the Steelers are battling through their Colts-Cowboys-Patriots-Chargers stretch, the Raiders get the Jets, Ravens, Falcons, Panthers, and Dolphins in consecutive weeks heading into some big divisional showdowns.
I was gonna say 9-7 for this team, but fortune favors the bold, or something like that. The Raiders will go 10-6 and be right in the hunt for the playoffs - not necessarily because they belong there, but because their schedule allows them to be in that position. Of course, if the young stars play better than expected, who knows what this team could do. I just hope that this year's sleeper doesn't knock the Steelers from the playoffs like my last one (what a self-congratulatory ending line - I can just see Sam fuming).
Ball is in your court, Sam, Stache, and Brady Fighter. Oh, and feel free to let us know your sleeper in the comments.