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.
There are few things more amusing in football than the seemingly obsessive need draft followers and football fans have to assign draft classes a grade right after the draft. Between now and the time these guys’ rookie contracts expire (2015 and 2016), things will change significantly from the way they appear now. Most such grades come from this thought process:
1. What did I feel was the team’s biggest need or 2
2. Did they fill those needs via the early or mid parts of the draft? If no, the team gets a bad grade. If yes, see #3
3. Did they fill those needs with players I like based on scouting reports (either personal, or taken from websites/”experts”)
4. If yes, team gets an A or B. If not, team gets a B- or C
5. Did team take a guy I personally liked or had as a “sleeper”. If yes, increase grade one half-grade.
6. Did team take a guy I personally disliked, viewed as a likely bust or considered overrated? If yes, decrease grade one half-grade
How many websites and analysts gave the Cardinals a good grade after snagging Matt Leinart in 2006? Or the Browns an “A” after maneuvering to get not only Joe Thomas, but Brady Quinn in 2007? In 2004, Mel Kiper had this to say about the Minnesota Vikings draft, which he graded as an “A”:
Kenechi Udeze, Dontarrious Thomas and Darrion Scott will help immensely for a team that needed speed on defense, particularly speed outside off the edge. Nat Dorsey and Mewelde Moore were my top two players available on Day 2 and the Vikings got them both. Rod Davis will also help the front seven and Deandre Iland is a versatile defensive back, while Jeff Dugan is a strong blocker at the tight end spot.
Needless to say, not even the biggest Vikings fan could give their 2004 class a grade better than a C- in retrospect.
So while I don’t partake in grading drafts, I do have plenty of thoughts on what transpired over the last few days. Starting in the AFC East:
New York Jets – I’m surprised that the Jets passed on the edge rushers who slid down the board, especially Chandler Jones and Melvin Ingram. Mike Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan swung for the proverbial fences with their draft strategy this year, using their first two picks on big upside/big risk players. If Quinton Coples and Stephen Hill can realize their potential, the Jets will look brilliant. The problem is, they’re not in an environment conducive to doing so. Coples is a guy with a questionable motor and attitude, coming into a locker room which was toxic by a lot of reports.As for Hill, I’m not a fan of receivers with iffy hands and an inability to run routes and it will be interesting to see how he fits in with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow lobbing him the ball on 9-routes. The Jets needed a RB badly to back up (or supplant) Shonn Greene but waited until snagging Terrance Ganaway in the 6th. However, Ganaway fits the Jets scheme pretty well, and he could be starting by year’s end. Demario Davis, Antonio Allen and Jordan White are a trio of later picks wh0 could really help. It wouldn’t surprise me if the best players from the Jets’ draft end up being from their assortment of day 3 picks. Undrafted players Donnie Fletcher, Ryan Steed and Brian Linthicum were prospects I felt could have been drafted. The Jets failure to add a RT was almost as surprising as passing on an edge rusher. That’s a decision that could come back and haunt them.
Buffalo Bills – I’m not a big fan of Stephon Gilmore, at least not at #10 overall. He’s got the talent to be a star, but will need a lot of work and coaching to realize his upside. Cordy Glenn was a surprising draft-day slider, but he could really struggle at LT if that’s where the Bills try him. On the right side of the line, he could be an excellent player though so we’ll have to see how that plays out. T.J. Graham was a bit of a wacky pick in a draft full of them, his speed is impressive but he might not be able to get off the line against physical DB’s. The Bills Day 3 haul netted them some bigger name players in Ron Brooks, Nigel Bradham, Tank Carder. At the very least, they upgraded their special teams units with those guys though I think one or two could help out on defense (Brooks especially). Zebrie Sanders slid into their laps, but I’m not sure he has a place in the NFL. Undrafted Aaron Corp could turn into something, though he’s probably a practice squadder in 2012.
Miami Dolphins – I’ve bashed the Dolphins in the past for failing to get a franchise QB, so I can’t fault them for taking Ryan Tannehill. The rest of their draft underwhelmed me. Jonathan Martin, overrated to begin with, was drafted to play RT, a position he might not have the strength for. Lamar Miller was a surprising slider on draft day (due to rumored medical concerns) but where does he fit? I wasn’t a fan of Daniel Thomas last year and he didn’t do much to ally my doubts about him, but taking Miller (on top of having Reggie Bush) was a bit odd. I’m a big believer in taking the best guy on your board, but this is a team that traded away their #1 WR and failed to replace him. That they waited until the 6th round (B.J. Cunningham) in a WR-deep class to address the position was one of the most baffling decisions of the weekend. Perhaps they envision 3rd rounder Michael Egnew as guy who they can split out a lot of the time. I like Olivier Vernon, though he has big question marks. J0sh Kaddu is probably a special teams guy at best in the NFL. Like any draft class with a 1st round QB, the 2012 Dolphins draft will ultimately be judged on Tannehill’s success. If he flops, it will be difficult for this class to look good 3-4 years from now. If he realizes his (significant) upside, the rest of these picks don’t really matter. Myron Johnson, Kelcie McCray, Jeff Fuller, Jacquies Smith and Jonas Gray are undrafted guys who could stick.
New England Patriots – Just when you think you’ve figured out Bill Belichick, he goes and trades up (not down) twice in the first round. This after several drafts where he was criticized for trading down and missing on top defensive talent. Chandler Jones and 3rd rounder Jake Bequette are not only guys who should help improve the Pats pass-rush, but also have great upside as run-defenders. That helps a defense which had way too many 1-dimensional and situational type players last year, which ultimately killed them in the Super Bowl. Dont’a Hightower is the type of LB who would have fit well with the Patriots dynasty teams, a hard-hitter with a knack for big plays at big moments. 2nd rounder Tavon Wilson was the first of many strange picks league-wide in the 2nd-4th round. Many (most? all?) draft websites and analysts had Wilson as a late round or undrafted type talent and it was a shock to see him go so early. That it was so bizarre (not merely a 1 round reach by conventional scouting), tells me that Bill Belichick sees something very specific in Wilson that projects well to the Patriots’ scheme. While he’s missed plenty on defensive players in the draft (like any long-time GM), 8 Super Bowl appearances and 5 Super Bowl wins as a coach/coordinator buys you a lot of leeway. Especially when he is known for trading down and getting better value instead of reaching on players. That he stayed put and selected Wilson says a lot about how highly the Illinois CB/S was ranked on the Patriots board. The Pats didn’t have many other picks, but snagging Alfonzo Dennard in the 7th is a brilliant move. Even with his off-field issues, Dennard probably should have gone 100 picks earlier. Not grabbing an interior DL (4-3 DT or 3-4 DE) was a surprise, and could be indicative of the Pats running even more sub-packages than they did last year (about 60% of the time). Undrafted OL Jeremiah Warren was a guy I had as a mid-round sleeper and Markus Zusevics could have been a mid-rounder had he not torn his pectoral at the combine.
Overall, I don’t think we saw a power shift in the AFC East. The Patriots 2012 season will be defined as much by their young DB’s (Pat Chung, Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling) as their 2012 draftees. The Dolphins didn’t do much which makes them obviously better for next season, as Tannehill is probably headed for the bench behind David Garrard/Matt Moore. The Bills have had a solid off-season overall, and their rookie class should give them quality depth if not big contributors next year. The Jets haven’t done much this offseason to fix their biggest problems from 2012 and it’s unclear where they expect to get internal upgrades from, though a DL of Coples-Pouha-Wilkerson could be an imposing unit.