1. Seahawks - I usually get all kinds of flack for not putting the previous year’s Superbowl contenders in the top 2 positions for the the following year’s pre-season power rankings but this year is the first year that I actually agree that the reigning champs are the best team going into the upcoming season. Sure the Seahawks lost Golden Tate and Brandon Browner but as long as the Marshawn Lynch situation is rectified before the opener, I have no reason to believe this team won’t be considered for a repeat.
2. Patriots - New England gained quite a bit of talent this summer just from players recovering from injury but add to that Darelle Revis and Brandon Browner tightening up the backfield and Brandon LaFell providing some much needed depth to the thin Patriot receiving corps and I think New England might be gearing up for one last run at the Superbowl. Much like Duncan, Popavich and the Spurs; Brady, Belechic and the Patriots are ready to had some more hardware to their trophy cases before its time to ride off into the sunset. And if it comes at the expense of Peyton Manning losing more big postseason games to New England, even better.
3. Broncos - No matter which side you were pulling for in last year’s Superbowl, I don’t think anyone could have predicted a final score that one sided. The team’s swapped out Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno for Emmanuel Sanders and Latimer which should give Peyton even more firepower at his disposal but the biggest question mark for me with Denver is the defense. Adding aging stars like Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware seems like the easy way out of addressing this team’s fundamental flaws in pass protection. But hey, look at some of the defenses Manning drug with him into the playoffs in Indianapolis…
4. 49ers - I’m a huge believer in Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers but making the NFC title game three years in a row with only a Superbowl loss to show for it makes me think that maybe this team’s window might be starting to close. The behind the scenes rumors about the San Fran front office butting heads with their head coach and their best defensive player tied up in another alcohol induced arrest…This team’s got the talent and made a lot of great moves in the offseason including a sneaky addition of Stevie Johnson to the receiving corps and completely re-tooling the secondary with some top notch veteran guys but I wouldn’t be shocked if this team has a fall from grace this year. But looking at their roster, I just don’t see how.
5. Saints - Rob Ryan is doing a hell of a job whipping this New Orleans defense into shape and rewarding him with free agent Jarius Byrd means they’ll only be more dangerous this coming season. Losing both Sproles and Moore may leave the offense a little shorthanded but I have a feeling 1st round draft pick Brandin Cooks will fit in perfectly as new go to receiver for Brees.
6. Bears - The Bears became an offense first team last year for the first time in….ever? The bad news was it came at the expense of their defense looking as bad as it has….ever? Okay, maybe both of those are a bit of a stretch but if the additions they’ve made in the offseason can get the defensive unit playing at least half as good as the offense, I think this team is about to take the unsuspecting NFC North by storm. Hell, they were one hail mary away from winning the division last year without Jay Cutler for most the season and their defense as bad as it was.
7. Eagles - Regardless of the reason, Desean Jackson is out of Philadelphia but it isn’t the offense I’m worried about with the Eagles, it’s the defense. However, signing Malcolm Jenkins and drafting a powerhouse defensive tackle should help but I suppose we’ll have to wait and see. I still think Foles running Chip Kelly’s offense should run the rest of the sorry NFC East ragged but I’m not sure what to expect from this team beyond that.
8. Steelers - After nearly sneaking into last year’s playoffs despite an 0-4 start, Pittsburgh has made some phenomenal moves in the offseason to put them right back at the top of the AFC North this year. Giving the offense dependable veterans like Lance Moore, LeGarrette Blount, and Darius Heyward-Bay was good enough for me but Shazier (their first round draft pick) looks like he could be the new blood this Steeler defense has been in need of for quite some time. Add to that a healthy Le’Veon Bell and I think Pittsburgh should have a fairly easy time floating to the top of the competitive AFC north this year.
9. Rams - St. Louis’ front office has absolutely dominated the offseason for the past couple of years now. With all the draft picks forfeited by Washington to secure RG3, the Rams have built one of the best defenses in football. They just suffer from the same disadvantage as the Cardinals in playing in the same division as the two best. If, and I know this seems like a huge if at this point, Sam Bradford can stay healthy this season, I think the Rams are poised to be a dark horse contender in the NFC. That is, if they can survive the gauntlet of the NFC Best (see what I did there)
10. Cardinals - And while San Francisco and Seattle may get all the national attention, I think Arizona may have the best defense in the league. And they just signed Antonio Cromartie. So yeah. But again, playing in the stacked NFC West may hinder this team to another playoff-free January. But all of that depends on which Carson Palmer shows up this year. And I realize it probably looks pretty absurd listing an entire division in the top 10 teams of the entire NFL but I really do believe this division is that far ahead of the rest of the league. With the division this stacked, I could really see any one of these four teams rising as NFC favorites as the season unwinds.
11. Colts - Indianapolis, like they have almost every year for the better part of a dozen seasons, should win the AFC South by default once again. Luck is carrying this team and it’s lackluster offensive line with abilities to make plays on his feet and compensate for the lack of any consistency running the ball as well. The defense is coming around but much like Peyton’s regime Indy, this team will only go as far as it’s quarterback can take them. Giving him Hakeem Nicks should help though.
12. Packers - Getting a healthy Aaron Rogers should be all the Packers need to compete in the underachieving NFC North but adding Julius Peppers and rookie cornerback Clinton-Dix doesn’t hurt either. I still expect the Bears to float to the top of the North but the Pack should be viable wildcard contenders…
13. Lions - …as should the Lions, but the same can be said about this team last year. Hiring a jellyfish of a coach like Jim Caldwell doesn’t seem like it will eradicate any of the toxicity infested into the Lions locker room by Jim Schwartz. The team did make some great personnel changes in the offseason adding some explosive new targets for Stafford in Golden Tate and rookie tight end Ebron but this team’s had a great offense for some time now. What they really need to compete is some discipline and leadership in the locker room and consistency from the defense.
14. Browns - I know this may look like a huge knee jerk reaction or fanboy gulping down the media frenzy spiked kook-aid on Johnny Manziel but I think this team was on the verge of breaking through last year. The defensive and offensive lines are amongst the best in football and adding their new first round corner to the backfield should make them one of the premier defenses in the league. Oh yeah, and they added Donte Whitner, Karlos Dansby and Ben Tate to the roster. The team was even leading the AFC North at one point last season before Hoyer was injured (I know it was early but still…). Wether Manziel or Hoyer starts this season, I still think this team will be in the playoff conversation because of how solid they are everywhere else on the field, regardless of what they get out of their quarterback.
15. Bengals - Marvin Lewis is going to have his hands full making up for the loss of both Gruden and Zimmer on his coaching staff but maybe even more scrutinized will be the perseverance quarterback Andy Dalton. With AJ McCarron riding the bench, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bengals patience with Dalton all but runs out if this team can’t make it any further than the first round of the playoffs yet again, which I don’t see them doing. It’s just a question of who will take the blame for it, Lewis or Dalton.
16. Buccs - Tampa Bay underwent a huge transformation this offseason hiring Lovie Smith and taking on some phenomenal veteran talent in Alterraun Verner and Josh McCown. And adding Mike Evans to this receiving corps means this team may have overthrown Atlanta as the best receiving corps in the NFC South. It’s just a matter of how much fuel McCown has left after his remarkable year filling in for the Bears last season.
17. Falcons - Speaking of the Falcons, the team will be much better than last year with the added help to the offensive line and a healthy Julio Jones alone. But none of that effects their underwhelming defense. And last season’s big addition, Stephen Jackson, has only proven to be a giant step sideways for their flailing running attack. They’ll be much more competitive but nothing more than a runner up at best.
18. Jets - New York reached a surprising 8-8 record last season and giving the team some offensive weapons like Vick, CJ2K, and Eric Dekker, should make the team even more viable this year. But still not enough reliability offensively to pencil them into a wildcard spot in the incredibly competitive AFC.
19. Chiefs - The Chiefs defense should be even better with Dee Ford joining the d-line but I’m not sure Alex Smith can pull off another season like last year, even with Andy Reid calling the shots. If Charles goes down with an injury, which he almost always seems to do, this team’s offense will flounder almost entirely. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Aaron Murray taking snaps by the end of the year.
20. Giants - Hanging onto Coughlin was the right move for the Giants. And now with Rashad Jennings running the ball for the G-Men, Eli should finally have a stable ground game to bail him out the way Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw used to. Rookie Odell Beckham should provide a fantastic new weapon for the struggling New York passing game as well, so New York has plenty of reasons for optimism in the atrocious NFC East.
21. Texans - This Houston pass rush is about to run rampant on the NFL but that doesn’t solve any of the questions about this team’s offense. Arian Foster can only do so much so Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to have to do more than jam the ball into his midsection if this team wants to even come close to the playoff contender they were just two seasons ago. Sadly, I think this team’s window has already closed before it really ever opened.
22. Ravens - Drafting Mosely as the new Ray Lewis should help to solidify the defense but that side of the ball has never really been a problem for Baltimore. Their problem is their overpaid offense that did next to nothing last season after cashing in on a Superbowl run the year prior. Flacco’s always been inconsistent but the real underachiever on this Ravens squad is Ray Rice. Pairing that with his off the field blow ups this summer, I think Baltimore’s offense is in for an even tougher season this year.
23. Panthers - Carolina’s defense carried them pretty far last season but taking away all of the team’s starting receivers and expecting Cam Newton to carry this offense on his own is asinine. And the running game has been so spotty that you really can’t expect them to produce at the level they did last year. I see this team regressing harder than any of last year’s playoff teams, falling into the bottom spot of the ever competitive NFC South.
24. Bills - Buffalo’s a team on the verge of a wildcard berth but they still don’t have enough competency on the offensive side of the ball to make me buy into the Bills. Sammy Watkins is a fine addition but losing Stevie Johnson virtually negates it in my book. The defense will still be the shining glory for the Bills but unless EJ Manuel steps up in a major way in year 2, I think we’re in for another year with the same old 6-10 Bills.
25. Dolphins - Miami grabbed more headlines for their off the field antics this past year than anything they did on the field, which is much more troubling. This team had no business coughing up that final wildcard spot but their atrocious offensive line gave away game after game as Ryan Tannehill became the most sacked QB in the league. And when he wasn’t being dropped, his passes were. Until Tannehill gets some help, Miami’s got no reason to think anything’s getting any better this season.
26. Chargers - I know the Chargers made the playoffs last season but outside of Philip Rivers, this team is still nowhere near a postseason caliber team. I was definitely glad to see Rivers get his career back on track but San Diego’s still got issues in nearly every other aspect of their game. Their postseason birth a season ago was merely a statement on how weak the AFC competition was, not a revitalization of the Chargers.
27. Vikings - Minnesota’s got two seasons outdoors while their stadium’s being built and the roster itself is under a bit of rebuilding as well. The Vikings offense hasn’t been the same since Favre’s near Superbowl run with the squad in 09 but last year’s defense was the worst we’ve seen out of the Purple People Eaters in nearly a decade. A new head coach in Mike Zimmer, veteran defensive leaders in Captain Munnerlyn and Linval Joseph, and a slew of promising rookie talent lead by Teddy Bridgewater and Anthony Barr have the Vikings in for a whole lot of changes this season. But that’s a whole lot of uncertainty as well…
28. Cowboys - After a historically bad run by their defense, Jerry Jones retained his defensive coordinator seemingly based on nothing more than spite. Tony Romo coming off of a back surgery should be enough reason for concern if you’re a Cowboys fan but if you really expect this team to compete running the same defense as they did last year without their two best players (DeMarcus Ware joining Denver and Shaun Lee on IR), you’re in some serious Jerry Jones-sized denial.
29. Raiders - Oakland made a lot of veteran signings this offseason which have them as a dark horse contender in the AFC West with a lot of people but for me they just look like a third place fantasy football team from 2008. All the luck in the world to Matt Schaub but I don’t think he’s in any position to revitalize his career in Oakland.
30. Redskins - Bringing in some new targets and an ego inflating coach should help RG3 fans regain some of their optimism in Washington but this team’s defense is the real concern. And if RG3 doesn’t rebound from an underwhelming sophomore year, who’s he got to blame it on now?
31. Jaguars - It’s great that Jacksonville is sticking to their plan of sitting Blake Bortles and all but another year in the Chad Henne regime means another year as the worst team in the worst division in football. And even if Henne isn’t benched for performance, the dude gets injured A LOT, so to come out and make such a definitive statement about keeping Bortles off the field before the season’s even begun seems asinine.
32. Titans - Did I say Jacksonville was the worst team in the worst division in football? Because I totally forgot about the Titans. Which is really easy to do. Unless you’re compiling a list of the most mediocre franchises in pro sports. Losing Chris Johnson isn’t a problem but not replacing him is, especially if the team is buying into another year of Jake Locker running the offense.