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.
The AFC West looks to be one of the more intriguing divisions to follow in 2012. The reigning champs, Denver, made the biggest move of the offseason adding Peyton Madding and unloading Tim Tebow. Right on their heels are the perpetually underperforming Chargers and Raiders as well as 2010’s division champ Kansas City who might have repeated their title had they not suffered a litany of serious injuries to key players. In such a tight race, getting a big impact from your rookie class can go a long way.
Denver Broncos – Obviously getting Manning was the centerpiece of Denver’s offseason but they managed to add some nice pieces in the draft as well. After trading down, they grabbed DT Derek Wolfe far earlier than I thought he would go but he adds an interior rusher to a team badly missing that element on defense. Grabbing QB Brock Osweiler late in the 2nd seemed to be a nice gamble. He’s very raw but his upside is significant and you could do worse than learning behind Peyton Manning for 2 years. Ronnie Hillman is a nice sparkplug who could give the Broncos big-play ability from their RB position – something they haven’t had in awhile. Their pair of fourth rounders, C Philip Blake and DB Omar Bolden project to stop gap starters or quality backups and add depth at two positions of need. DT Malik Jackson might have been better off going to a 3-4 scheme, but like Wolfe could help the interior pass rush. Eric Page, Gerell Robinson and Duke Ihenacho could make the roster as undrafted players. The Broncos biggest need was adding talent to their interior line, I’m not sure they found an impact starter though both Wolfe and Jackson could fit the bill if they get better in the run game.
Kansas City Chiefs – It’s another high risk, high upside draft for Scott Pioli and company. The Chiefs ignored what could be their biggest need – QB – and came away with a collection of pieces which are tough to figure out. Obviously, Dontari Poe is an impressive physical specimen. It’s surprising that Pioli and Romeo Crennel would select a guy with questionable instincts though both – having learned under Belichick and Parcells – are disciples of the so called “Planet Theory” which could explain their attraction to Poe. Needing help at RT, the Chiefs added two potential replacements for incumbent Barry Richardson in 2nd rounder Jeff Allen and 3rd rounder Donald Stephenson. Devon Wylie in the 4th was a headscrathcer, though there were a lot of those league wide. Wylie certainly has potential as a slot receiver, but his route-running and hands aren’t particularly great and he looks to be more of an athlete than a football player. DeQuan Menzie was a nice find in the 5th round, as a possible slot CB/S tweener, though he will be badly exposed as a starter at either spot. Late rounders Junior Hemingway and Cyrus Gray could contribute but are more likely headed to the practice squad. None of the Chiefs’ undrafted additions seem like obvious candidates to make a strong run at the final 53 man roster.
San Diego Chargers – One has to wonder whether or not it matters how well the Chargers draft, if they remain committed to Norv Turner at head coach. For years, the team has underperformed in the regular season and come up small in big moments in the post season. That said, the Chargers managed to add a number of nice prospects to bolster the chances of the team winning in spite of their coach. 1st round pass rusher Melvin Ingram is a tough projection for a 3-4 scheme, even a 1-gapping aggressive scheme like the Chargers’. His lack of arm length could make it tough to succeed if he is asked to do much more than attack the QB at all times but he certainly has impressive potential as a pass-rusher. Getting Kendall Reyes in the 2nd round was a coup for GM A.J. Smith, he might have been the best overall 5-technique prospect in the draft with an excellent combination of strength and agility. Brandon Taylor should fill the departed Steve Gregory’s role, potentially starting at safety for the team though probably headed for a #3 spot on the depth chart. Ladarius Green fits the Chargers scheme well and could be a top TE in the league a few years down the road if he puts on weight and works on his blocking. Johnnie Troutman and David Molk were nice values as interior linemen late in the draft. Undrafted Logan Harrell and Christian Tupou could compete for spots along the Chargers’ DL.
Oakland Raiders – Having traded away their picks in the top 2 rounds and used their 3rd rounder in the Supplemental draft, the Raiders were left without much ammo for the draft. What picks they did have were made on questionable players, with the exception of 5th rounders DE Jack Crawford and WR Juron Criner. There is perhaps no greater reminder that Al Davis is gone than the selection of Criner – a WR whose speed is amongst the worst of the 2012 WR prospects, though he has good upside as a potential #2 possession type WR. Their first selection, Tony Bergstrom is going to have to kick inside to guard at the NFL level, as he lacks the arm length or footwork to make it as an OT. As a guard, I’m not sure he has enough upside to warrant a 3rd round pick. Miles Burris in the 4th has some good athleticism and explosiveness, but he looks lost in coverage and I’m not sure that he can translate his collegiate pass rushing success to the pros. Neither 6th rounder Christo Bilukidi nor 7th rounder Nathan Stupar were guys I thought were much more than fringe prospects though Stupar could be a quality special teams coverage guy. With limited picks, it would have been tough for the Raiders to have found impact players this year but even then I’m not sure they did as well as they could have. They did grab a trio of undrafted free agents who I had rated as 4th-5th round talents: WR Thomas Mayo, OG Lucas Nix and S Aaron Henry.
Overall, the AFC West looks much the same as it did before the draft. The Chiefs still might not be able to be a top team with Matt Cassel at the helm. The Chargers still might not be able to overcome their coach’s shortcomings. The Broncos’ fortunes are entirely tied to the health of Peyton Manning. The Raiders seem destined for another long year unless Carson Palmer can find the fountain of youth.