1. Green Bay Packers – Aaron Rodgers has one of the best arsenals of weapons in the league and the Packers figure to be in the top 3 in offense once again. Their defense looks to return to 2010 form, though losing quality ILB Desmond Bishop for the season could hurt. The secondary needs to rebound though I’m not sure they did enough to reinforce the talent in their defensive backfield. The Packers will need to find consistency and production in the trenches on both sides of the ball, but they look like a good bet to win the NFC North once again and it would be hard to bet against them in January.
2. New England Patriots – If Tom Brady stays healthy, the Patriots are all but guaranteed to have a top 5 offense. Adding Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney to an already dangerous passing attack should worry the rest of the AFC field. The Pats might also see more explosiveness from the RB position with 2nd year backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen replacing the plodding BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Ultimately though, the Patriots will only go as far as their defense takes them. Adding Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower looks like it will pay dividends but can their secondary improve from last year’s nightmarish season? If New England can get a good season from a few of their younger DB’s (Ras-I Dowling, Devin McCourty, Pat Chung, Tavon Wilson, Alfonzo Dennard), they will be nearly unstoppable.
3. Houston Texans – The Texans have an excellent offense and an excellent defense. Man for man, they might have the best 22 starters in the league. However, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson have durability questions and the team’s depth isn’t great. Furthermore, I don’t trust coach Gary Kubiak to win in the playoffs. The Texans should put together an excellent regular season if they can avoid injuries to their top players, but they will need to prove that they can take the next step in the post-season.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers – It seems as if many fans and experts are discounting the Steelers a bit this year and it’s tough to see why. Their defense is still loaded with talent and young players like Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward figure to play bigger roles in 2012. The offense underachieved last year for a number of reasons but the O-line should be improved and the WR corps is still amongst the game’s best if Mike Wallace reports. Even without Wallace, there is enough talent for the Steelers to put up a lot of points if they can do a better job of keeping Ben Roethlisberger upright and healthy. The Steelers are still one of the most talented and best coached teams in football and seem poised for another good year.
5. New York Giants – It’s tough to know what to make of the Giants. 2012 could see a return of the mediocre and underachieving regular-season team that they’ve been for most of Tom Coughlin’s tenure or perhaps the 2011 Super Bowl champion team of December – February will be on display for a full 16 games. If their key front 7 players are healthy, the Giants have enough talent to repeat as Champions. The big questions for New York are their CB’s, OL and running game without Brandon Jacobs. Ahmad Bradshaw hasn’t established himself as a consistent threat and I’m not a fan of 1st rounder David Wilson or backup D.J. Ware. The OL was a big problem last year and hasn’t improved much on paper though, as we saw, they can win with what they have.
6. New Orleans Saints – The Saints would be higher up in these rankings were it not for the suspension of Sean Payton. New Orleans has an incredibly talented roster, elite QB and enough young talent to think that they could improve in many of their weak spots. However, taking Sean Payton off the sideline is a huge loss. He might be the 2nd most valuable coach in the league behind Bill Belichick and it’s tough to see the Saints hoisting the Lombardi without him. Still, the Saints should be playoff-bound and Drew Brees is capable of putting the team on his back if needed. With the Super Bowl being played in New Orleans this year, it would be quite a story for the Payton-less Saints to win it all on their home turf.
7. San Francisco 49ers – Projecting the 49ers at this point in the pre-season comes down to one thing: do you think Alex Smith can repeat his 2011 season? Smith will never live up to his #1 overall status, but there’s plenty of reasons to think that he can continue to be a top third type QB under coach Jim Harbaugh who was superb at hiding Smith’s weaknesses and setting him up for success. The defense is loaded with depth and top-end talent and should remain an elite unit. Throw in a terrible division and the 49ers should be headed back to the post-season and double-digit wins.
8. Baltimore Ravens – The good news for the Ravens is that they were one or two plays away from the Super Bowl last year. The bad news is that it’s tough to see how they’ve improved enough to get themselves to the next level. Losing Terrell Suggs for the season is a huge blow and Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are at the very end of the line. As well coached as the Ravens’ D has been, a step back would not be surprising. Unfortunately for Baltimore, they probably cannot withstand a step back from the defense as their offense is simply not good enough to carry the team. Between the timid and overly conservative game plans of the coaching staff and the inconsistencies of QB Joe Flacco, the Ravens offense will be an average unit once again. Ray Rice is good enough to keep the unit from being bad, but the team will not be able to win (or even make the playoffs) without the defense playing up to the lofty standards set by the franchise over the last decade.
9. Detroit Lions – If the Lions can keep themselves out of trouble and avoid taking tons of stupid penalties, they could be a serious contender in the NFC in 2012. Of the teams in my top 10 rankings, the Lions are the team I could see as most likely to flop. Matthew Stafford is clearly an elite QB when healthy – but his ability to stay healthy needs to be proven. The defense has to improve from their 23rd overall ranking (points allowed) if the Lions are to challenge the Packers for the NFC North. While the Lions have some fairly big holes on their roster, an elite QB and disruptive pass rush can take you a long way.
10. Dallas Cowboys – The Cowboys have underperformed for awhile and it’s tough to avoid feeling that with a better coaching staff, they could be a consistent double-digit win team. Their DB corps which killed them at times last year has received a big boost in 1st rounder Morris Claiborne and prized free agent Brandon Carr. They still lack a pass-rusher to take attention away from DeMarcus Ware and Dez Bryant’s problems (both off-field and on) could really affect the offense given the lack of depth at WR. The OL – a perpetual problem in Big D – still looks shaky on paper. Still, the Cowboys have a lot of talent, a top QB and promising young players at a number of positions. The ‘Boys have a brutal opening stretch on their schedule, opening in New York against the Giants and then heading to Seattle before facing Tampa Bay and Chicago at home. After their week 5 bye, they head to Baltimore. If they’re still afloat after week 6, I like their chances for a return to post-season play and a potential Super Bowl run.
11. Atlanta Falcons – After last year, I’m highly skeptical of both coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan’s ability to win a championship. Smith looked out of his league last year with overly conservative gameplans and a bad feel for when to take chances in his playcalling. The Falcons have a ton of talent with which to work, but seem to lack the killer instinct that great teams tend to have. In many ways, they are reminiscent of the Marty Schottenheimer Chiefs teams of the mid/late 1990’s (or even his Chargers teams of the mid 2000’s). The Falcons should be a contender next year and a top regular season team, but probably not a team headed for a deep playoff run.
12. Chicago Bears – Though I’m not a fan of big contracts for RB’s, re-signing Matt Forte was a must for a team lacking consistency on offense. Adding Brandon Marshall was very smart and will give Jay Cutler a solid, if inconsistent at times, target. Drafting Alshon Jeffery could turn into a major coup though I’m skeptical of Shea McClellin’s ability to have an impact in a 4-3 – assuming he can stay concussion free. While the Bears offense should be better than in recent years, their defense is getting old and still has holes in a number of key places. The offensive line has been bad far more often than good in the last few seasons but little was done to upgrade that unit. With Green Bay still an elite team and Detroit on the rise, the Bears could face an uphill battle to return to the playoffs.
13. Cincinnati Bengals – On paper, the Bengals have a pretty stacked roster. Certainly, they’ve added a ton of big name college players over the last few years. Yet, it’s still tough to pencil them into a playoff spot. One big reason is their division,, another is the growing pains that accompany many young QB’s. Andy Dalton was adequate last year, but his 80.4 QB Rating was worse than Kevin Kolb’s and only slightly better than Mark Sanchez and Tarvaris Jackson. Adding reliable, though mediocre, BenJarvus Green-Ellis could help take pressure off Dalton, though Green-Ellis isn’t a huge upgrade over Cedric Benson. If the Bengals haul of young prospects can step up, or they can find another big-time weapon on offense to complement A.J. Green, Cincinnati could be a big surprise next year.
14. Denver Broncos – The similarities between the Broncos and late 2000’s Colts are numerous: exceptional pass rushers, weak in the trenches, shaky secondaries with some upside, mediocre running backs and a team which will rely heavily upon the right arm of Peyton Manning. If Manning stays healthy, the Broncos should win the AFC West and could win 10-12 games. However, the Colts don’t have a Dallas Clark, Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne (let alone all 3 in their prime simultaneously) and it remains to be seen how effective Manning can be playing outdoors every week. We’ve seen him have success in bad weather and with mediocre supporting casts, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he is very much the Manning of old. However, like the Manning-era Colts, the team will collapse without him and it’s not a sure thing that his neck will hold up.
15. Philadelphia Eagles – The problems with basing an offense around Michael Vick were quite apparent last year: he simply isn’t very good at times and he can’t stay healthy enough to be at his best for more than a few games. Rookie Nick Foles will probably be called upon at some point in 2012 when Vick inevitably gets hurt or benched. There’s a good amount of talent on the Eagles roster and they could contend for the NFC East title, but they will need a lot of luck with Vick’s health and performance. The Eagles’ placing in the middle of my rankings is a direct result of them most likely having to play a few games with Foles or Mike Kafka at QB and they’re probably not good enough to survive with those guys for more than a game or two.
16. Seattle Seahawks – The Seahawks are right in the middle of my rankings for one reason: I could see them being very good or really terrible. More than any other team, it’s hard to get a feel for whether or not this is an 11-5 type team or 5-11. The QB situation is one big reason why: Matt Flynn is a total unknown and neither Russell Wilson or Tarvaris Jackson strike me as guys that can take a team to the playoffs. The skill position players are a bit overrated but are capable of great things at times. Marshawn Lynch can be a top back at times, and a non-factor at others. Sidney Rice is an excellent weapon when healthy – which has been rare. Seahawks fans seem to love the non-Rice receivers led by Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Ben Obomanu but the front office seems to have a different opinion as they’ve seemingly auditioned or signed every washed up veteran imaginable. If Braylon Edwards or Terrell Owens makes the roster and can be a #1 or #2 guy, Flynn should be set up for success. The Seahawks D is steady and well-coached but their depth is questionable and might have overachieved last year. 1st rounder Bruce Irvin will be one of the most intriguing stories to watch this year.
With the first week of pre-season in the books, it’s time for the first Power Rankings of the year. Here’s the bottom half of the league as I see it currently, though these rankings are sure to change as August rolls into September. At this point of the league year it’s tough to find much separation between the 20-25 middle-road teams. Other than the truly elite and truly awful teams, pre-season rankings really amount to how much the author likes each team’s young players, coach and QB. With that said, here is the bottom half of the league from my point of view:
17. Kansas City Chiefs – Put a top QB on the Chiefs and they are arguably an elite team. Their defense was fairly stout down the stretch last season and responded well to new coach Romeo Crennel. There is a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, assuming Tony Moeaki, Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry can return to form after missing last year with injuries. Unlike AFC West rivals Oakland and San Diego, Kansas City seems more likely to exceed expectations than to disappoint. If Brian Daboll can get a good season from Cassel (questionable given the track records of both Daboll and Cassel), the Chiefs could see double-digit wins and a division championship. Even if Cassel struggles, they might be able to squeak out 9 or 10 wins if their running game can perform to 2010 levels.
18. Tennessee Titans – The Titans, like the Bills, Chiefs and a few other teams, have a lot of nice pieces but it’s hard to project them to have a ton of success – though history tells us that one or more of the middle tier teams will put it all together and make a good run. Like those other teams, I can’t put them any higher than the middle of the pack due to their QB situation. Jake Locker is the future and probably a better bet than Matt Hasselbeck to lead the team to postseason glory but can he perform at the NFL level? The talent surrounding him is intriguing though it’s easy to be down on both Chris Johnson and Kenny Britt. Their defense has a good amount of talent despite not having many household names and the Titans could be well-balanced enough to make a run at their division if Locker can step up.
19. Buffalo Bills – Their front 7 is certainly talented, despite the horrendous contract given to Mark Anderson. The rest of the team is still lacking high-end talent and they are still led by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chan Gailey. I don’t think 2012 will be the breakout year that Bills fans are hoping for, though 2nd place in the AFC East and an outside shot at the playoffs could be a possibility.
20. San Diego Chargers – With just about any other coach, the Chargers would have been higher up in my rankings. I just cannot take a Norv Turner coached team seriously. Especially a Norv Turner coached team with its worst talent level in a number of years. The Chargers are razor thin at a number of positions on both sides of the ball and are relying heavily on Ryan Mathews and Antonio Gates to stay healthy. The defense will need the plethora of recent high draft picks (Melvin Ingram, Kendall Reyes, Corey Luiget, Marcus Gilchrist et al) to step up for the Chargers to make a strong playoff run.
21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The Bucs should be better in 2012 if only because their coaching situation looks to be more stable (if not dramatically improved). It’s no secret that Raheem Morris was in over his head last year and that contributed to the team’s under-performance. They have a ton of young talent – on paper – and signing Vincent Jackson will help their offense quite a bit. Certainly, their skill positions look promising and the OL is solid enough to win. The real questions in Tampa Bay are: can Josh Freeman ever take the next step in his development and can Greg Schiano get his young talent to fulfill their promise?
22. Carolina Panthers – The Panthers offense again be a strong unit, though it’s likely the league will be better prepared for Cam Newton and the Carolina rushing attack. The OL has some question marks and the depth at WR can’t sustain a loss of Steve Smith (nor a decline in his production). That said, they should score a lot of points and be near the top of the league in yards. However, the defense – bad last year – hasn’t been improved enough to make the Panthers legitimate contenders. Adding Luke Kuechly is a nice start to rebuilding the team’s front 7 but there are still too many holes on D. The interior DL and CB spots are thin at best and the team will have to win a lot of shootouts to avoid a losing record.
23. Oakland Raiders – Carson Palmer is the epitome of a league-average QB. The Raiders are the epitome of a league average team talent-wise. Why are they so low in my power rankings? Simply put, I don’t see a lot of places for the Raiders to get unexpected production and chances are good that either Palmer implodes or Darren McFadden gets derailed by his seemingly yearly injury. They’re an 8-8 team (maybe 9-7 given their division) if everything goes right, but the guys they are relying upon have such troubling track records that it’s more likely than not that they underachieve relative to their talent level.
24. Indianapolis Colts – The Colts could be downright awful in 2012. However, their first pre-season game showed enough to think that there is also a chance that Indianapolis could be respectable this year. Forget the Andrew Luck hype and the over-the-top gushing over his first preseason game against an inept St. Louis team. What piqued my interest was the way Chuck Pagano had his defense playing. While the Rams’ OL is putrid, the key players on the Colts’ D look to have adapted to the new 3-4 look and even Jerry Hughes showed some potential as a pure rush linebacker. The young talent on offense is there and a good QB – which Luck seems poised to be right from the start – can make up for a lot of shortcomings. Luck’s biggest challenge will be surviving with a very questionable OL in front of him.
25. Arizona Cardinals – The NFL is a passing league and it’s tough to think of a team with a worse QB situation. Neither John Skelton nor Kevin Kolb seem like good enough passers to keep the Cardinals offense moving and the team’s running game simply isn’t able to compensate for their lack of a quality signal caller. Their defense, both young and promising, should help them stay in games and could keep them from a truly terrible season. Outside of a soft 4 game stretch from weeks 4-7, the Cardinals have a tough schedule. It would be surprising if they won more than 7 games and they have the potential to end up drafting top 5 in 2013.
26. New York Jets – The Jets seem like a team destined for collapse. Their defense has little depth outside of their DE spot and the offense is a mess. They fancy themselves a “ground and pound” offense but Shonn Greene is both mediocre and too soft for the style of offense Rex Ryan likes to employ. The QB situation has been much discussed, but neither Mark Sanchez nor Tim Tebow are good enough to win in the NFL without the defense carrying the team. If the Jets D stays healthy and Stephen Hill can hit the ground running, the Jets can probably hover around .500. But they are one or two injuries away from a 4-12 type of season.
27. Miami Dolphins – Ryan Tannehill looked good in his first pre-season action, but it’s hard to find a team with less talent on offense than Miami. Their WR’s, TE’s and RB’s are all in the bottom third of the league and probably in the bottom 5 at each position. Conversely, their defense is pretty solid and their schedule is somewhat favorable. 8-8 is probably their absolute upside if their defense can steal some games for them.
28. Cleveland Browns – I’m a bit more bullish on Brandon Weeden than many (though his first pre-season game didn’t really do much to inspire) but I’m not at all sold on the rest of the Browns talent on offense. Trent Richardson should help but the rest of the talent on offense is below average. Greg Little was a drop machine last year and supplemental draft pick Josh Gordon is unlikely to make a big impact early on. The defense has lost Chris Gocong from an already-thin LB grouping and Joe Haden is facing a 4 game suspension. It looks like another tough year in Cleveland.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars – Blaine Gabbert has a lot to prove this year after a horrific 2011 season. He has some decent pieces to work with on offense but a shaky OL which wasn’t improved enough in the offseason. The Jaguars D put up decent numbers last year but it is tough to see them repeating a top 10 year on that side of the ball given their tougher schedule and lack of top-end talent. 38th overall pick Andre Branch looks promising and the Jaguars have enough pieces to surprise some people if Gabbert can find his footing as a starting QB in the NFL. Mike Mularkey was a questionable choice as a coach and might not get too many years to turn around the franchise.
30. Washington Redskins – Robert Griffin III will give the Redskins something to watch every week, but the rest of the team needs more talent before the Redskins are ready to compete in the NFC East. They have enough decent players on both sides of the ball to think that they could exceed expectations with some luck. However, a rookie QB with a limited supporting cast can only do so much – especially against one of the league’s toughest schedules. The Redskins probably won’t play as poorly as their final record might suggest.
31. Minnesota Vikings – Barring a phenomenal year from Christian Ponder, it is hard to see how the Vikings can win more than 6 games. While Jared Allen and Adrian Peterson are amongst the game’s best players, the supporting cast is decidedly sub-par. They are riddled with holes on both sides of the ball and unlike many other bad teams from 2011, Minnesota didn’t do much to improve their roster. Matt Kalil should help solidify their line but it’s unlikely that the rest of their draft picks will be enough to get Minnesota out of the division’s cellar.
32. St. Louis Rams – Jeff Fisher will get his guys to play hard and compete, but there is still a significant lack of talent on the roster. The OLB and S spots are in bad shape and the team’s OL is amongst the worst in the league. There are a number of promising young players, but the Rams will lose a lot of games in 2012. They look like a team which will start to build some momentum late in the year as young players start to develop and find their footing in Fisher’s scheme.