Lions, Rams lead list of five non-playoff teams that could be movin’ on up

When you take a draft prospect with one of the first two overall picks, you are committing the kind of money (even with the new rookie wage scale) that will have the player in question defining your team, for better or worse, to an enormous degree. In the 2010 draft, the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions each hit the jackpot with their draft picks in ways that leave most teams dreaming. While the Rams took Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford with the first overall pick, the Lions took Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh second overall.

One year later, both picks look like pure genius, and the two players have taken the personalities of their teams to a new level. The Rams now have an offensive efficiency dictated very much by Bradford's excellence, and the Lions' front four now has a ridiculous toughness led by Suh's efforts. That's why theirs are in our list of teams that didn't make the playoffs last year, but should do so in 2011.

The full list, and reasons for every team, below:   

Detroit Lions
The Lions went 6-10 in 2010, but they did so in a way that was very encouraging for their future. They had starting quarterback Matthew Stafford for just three games due to injury, they lost a 19-14 season-opening squeaker to the Chicago Bears on what is now known as the "Calvin Johnson Rule," Suh himself was docked for several questionable penalties in close games as the NFL clearly put a target on his back, and many of those close losses were to the NFL's elite — the Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In four games against division mates Green Bay and Chicago (the two teams that met in the NFC Championship), the Lions went 1-3, but the total point swing was seven, and none of those games were decided by more than four points.

A season later, Stafford looks healthy, Suh looks even better, the young receiver corps is developing, and there's a real buzz about football in the Motor City for the first time since Barry Sanders was in town. The Lions will have to have a lot of things go right to make the playoffs, but they're set up to do it. The problems to overcome include pass protection and a questionable secondary.

St. Louis Rams
Like the Lions, the Rams really did come out of nowhere (1-15 in 2009!) to impress against better teams. Bradford was the point man here — his stats are somewhat misleading because he was doing so much with subpar targets in relief of injured starters, and former offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur's system was constrictive, to say the least. Add free agent Mike Sims-Walker, as well as draft picks Greg Salas, Austin Pettis and Lance Kendricks, and all of a sudden, Bradford has a developing group of young players around him to run the routes and concepts dictated by new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. (And don't worry about McDaniels — if he gets mouthy with head coach Steve Spagnuolo, Spags can remind him what his Giants defense did to McDaniels' Patriots offense in Super Bowl XLII).

Beyond Bradford, the Rams are a very solid and intriguing mix of youthful talent and football acumen. The offensive line is above-average, there's a running back rotation with Jerious Norwood and Cadillac Williams around Steven Jackson, and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is one of the best young defensive players in the NFL. Factor in that the Rams are playing in the third-world NFC West, and they could win this thing going away. They took the Seattle Seahawks down to the last regular-season game last year. This year, things should be different — and not nearly as close.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There were a lot of questions last season about a seeding system in which a 7-9 "division winner" like the Seahawks could not only go to the playoffs but host a game, while the 10-win Bucs had to stay home. They paid a price for being a really good turnaround team in an absolutely brutal division, and it's fair to wonder if they'll be able to climb the NFC South ladder past the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints this year. The one thing Tampa Bay absolutely has is a great young quarterback, and that's a great place to start. In his second NFL season, Josh Freeman transcended Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez — the big names taken before him in the 2009 draft — by putting up the ninth-best touchdown-to-interception ratio (25 to 6) in NFL history.

The Bucs also have exciting players at other skill positions — rookie running back LeGarrette Blount showed all the power and speed he had at Oregon, while managing to avoid punching anyone on the field. And Mike Williams was the first rookie receiver with double-digit touchdowns since Randy Moss. GM Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris have been building something pretty interesting down at the Big Sombrero; now, it's just a matter of getting to the point of competing with the slightly digger kids in their division, and cleaning up their acts off the field.

Houston Texans
The Texans have posted just one winning record in their short history, and they have never made the playoffs. That could very well change this year, and that's about more than them winning by default because Peyton Manning most likely won't play a full season. No, the Texans have a wide berth to the AFC South (should they choose to take it) because they have a dominant offense that has developed in the "little things" (toughness, third-down conversion consistency, drive production). The challenge last year was to overcome one of the worst pass defenses of the last decade, and the Texans weren't able to do it — as some like to say, they have a 12-4 offense and a 4-12 defense, and that's why they keep going 8-8 (Note: They actually went 6-10 in 2010).

Getting cornerback Johnathan Joseph from the free-agent market was a big move, but the real advancement was in the hire of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Phillips may not be a great head coach, but he's always been an outstanding defensive mind, and his move to switch the Texans from a base vanilla 4-3 to a hybrid defense that can move around and skip gaps. Rookies Brooks Reed and J.J. Watt exceeded the expectations of most, and the Texans ranked second in passing yards allowed per game in the preseason. They also finished tied for second in the NFL in preseason sacks, behind the Philadelphia Eagles and tied with the Washington Redskins. You add a real defense to that offense, and the Texans become far more than "all hat, and no cattle…"

San Diego Chargers
In 2010, the Chargers somehow went 9-7 despite the best efforts of GM A.J. Smith to derail the team through his own hard-headed negotiation sense. Left tackle Marcus McNeill and receiver Vincent Jackson missed too much time because of holdouts, and that hurt the Chargers early in the season. Later in the year, tight end Antonio Gates — who was on pace to have perhaps the best season at his position … well, ever — was hurt and lost for the year.  The Chargers' special teams, the worst in the NFL since the Buffalo Bills' in 2000 per Football Outsiders' metrics, were directly responsible for two losses. There was the early loss to the Seahawks in which Leon Washington returned two kicks for touchdowns and almost made a third, and a loss to the Raiders in which punter Mike Scifres had two consecutive punts blocked. Still, the Chargers were in the hunt primarily because of the efforts of two players — quarterback Philip Rivers and safety Eric Weddle.

This year, Smith seems to have wised up. McNeill and Jackson are sewn up, Weddle has a new deal, and Rivers could be on pace for an MVP season. Factor in the very weak AFC West they're playing in, and the fact that 2010 division champ Kansas City seemed to be falling apart in the preseason, and the Chargers look to be as good a playoff bet as anyone.

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