The Atlanta Falcons and the Miami Dolphins appear to each have recovered nicely (and quickly) from disastrous 2007 seasons. Each team hired a new General Manager, head coach, and had a new quarterback.
In some cases, such as the Falcons, the house cleaning went further when they introduced long time serviceable backup Michael "the burner" Turner into the fold where he immediately excelled, given the chance.
The Dolphins turned in a solid draft anchored around All American offensive lineman Jake Long; they decided to take the Joe Thomas-to-Cleveland 2007 model by focusing on the line and turning it into a strength. It worked, but we all see what happened to the Browns this year, only a year after overachieving.
The Falcons also had a solid draft beyond first-round pick Matt Ryan, additionally picking up former USC offensive lineman Sam Baker in round two.
The Dolphins are now just one game back in the tough AFC East at 7-5, only one year removed from their misnomer of a season at 1-15. The 8-4 Falcons also look much improved after going 3-13 last year.
Much of their success can also be traced to the gradual improvement of wide receivers Michael Jenkins and Roddy "where were you when that Vick character was here" White.
So with that out of the way, this begs the question, who are the early contenders for a Cinderella season in 2009? Free agency, retirements, trades, and suspensions aside, who can repeat this same cellar-to-contender success next year?
In keeping with the two team resurgence, consider only 11 teams are as bad as the Texans (5-7) out of a 32-team league so with so much parity. It creates finding next year's Miami that much harder since most teams are so condensed around the .500 mark.
In both cases the cupboard is not bare as it clearly wasn't with the Falcons or Dolphins. It was just bad luck, outside pressure (Falcons), and lackluster effort that kept these teams down. We all know the Falcons were given a pass for their chaotic unwinnnable situation of a season ago.
What The Rams Have
The offense has good veteran QB in Bulger, a good but unmotivated All-Pro running back in Steven Jackson, 1/3 of the greatest show on turf still around in wide receiver Torry Holt, and Orlando Pace on the line.
If they were to say, draft an offensive lineman like Alabama's Andre Smith or Ole Miss' Michael Oher, who are both projected to be top-five picks, they could be on their way to a Falcons-like finish in 2009. Both linemen falls conveniently right where the Rams should finish as they are currently sitting at an I-have-a-feeling-they-aren't-really-that-bad 2-10.
On defense, which is atrocious, the Rams can only boast once-upon-a-time Pro-Bowler Leonard Little, linebacker Will Witherspoon, and emerging rookie defensive end Chris Long. With Long's bloodline, are we really that surprised? Some people you just know are winners by default and this kid learned from the best.
That means they need to completely dump their secondary and 3/4 of their line including I-could-have-told-you-he'd-be-a-bust Adam Carriker.
If I am St. Louis and I want to draft defense with my high first-round pick, the guy I have to have lead my team for the next decade is USC safety Rey "Troy Polamalu clone" Maualuga. Pair him with the once-solid Corey Chavous as mentor and you have a good match until Chavous transitions into the next phase of his life as NFL draft expert.
What The Texans Have
Good-but-not-great running back Steve Slayton leads the offense along with tremendous wide receiver Andre Johnson and solid quarterback Matt Schaub. Their O-line, much like St. Louis' secondary, needs to be completely gutted. This is where either Smith or Oher could come in.
Why not keep Texas Tech Michael Crabtree at home and pair him with one of the best in Johnson?
This team has no one on offense besides Johnson that strikes the fear of god into a defense. They lost out on Bush but recovered surprisingly nicely in Mario Williams. A Knowshon Moreno or a solve-it-once-and-for-all QB like home-stater Graham Harrell might do the trick.
If they choose to go defense, they are in much better shape with Travis Johnson, Williams, and Amobi Okoye anchoring an under-the-radar line. Underrated DeMeco Ryans leads an average linebacker corps while solid cornerbacks Fred Bennett and Jacques Reeves man the secondary.
I see tweaking and filling in the gaps here. Maybe Clemson's Michael Hamlin?
How the Texans are supposed to crack the loaded AFC South is another thing, but talent-wise I am simply suggesting they aren't that far from at least competing on a weekly basis.
Now the only question is, will the Rams and Texans clean house like the Dolphins and Falcons did in order to hope to continue this worst-to-respectability trend? Will the safe pick Jim Haslett be undeservedly brought back as head coach? Who is the next Tony Sporano?
Only the Rams and Texans can answer that.