The NFL draft has passed, free agency is largely in the books and teams are soon to return to the field for OTA's and eventually training camp.
What does it all mean?
It means, of course, that it's time for an all-too-early power rankings list—one that is subject to change and likely to change before even a preseason game is played.
I've sifted through rosters and schedules, pondered player development and tried to account for variables that one might not consider upon first blush.
The end result?
My first edition of the 2012 NFL power rankings.
There's plenty that NFL executives disagree on, but no one will dispute the notion that football is a game won with steady quarterback play.
Sorry, Jaguars fans. I just don't see an answer on the roster.
I'm not a believer in Blaine Gabbert, and I certainly don't see Chad Henne as a franchise savior. This team should be improved around the roster elsewhere, but ineffective quarterback play is a quick way to find yourself on the wrong side of the scoreboard. Over and over.
2012 could be a long first year for new head coach Mike Mularkey.
Man, what to make of a team that seems to perpetually find ways to take one step forward and two steps back?
The Browns were considered by many a sleeper team to surprise in 2011 and promptly showcased a dismal offense and something far short of an inspired start to the season.
This year, expectations will be tempered, as the Browns are the clear No. 4 team in the division, but at least there is hope.
Cleveland has its quarterback of the future and new offensive machine (Trent Richardson), and that's a good start for a team that looked allergic to points in 2011.
Minnesota made the right call in taking Matt Kalil with the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, and I see him starring for the team for the next decade.
Here's the trouble with the Vikes: They play in a loaded division and could be without their best player to start the season, as Adrian Peterson continues to recover from a late 2011 knee injury.
All that being said, the future is bright for the team, as they've secured roster cornerstones at the two most pivotal offensive positions (quarterback and left tackle) and have a chance to be sufficient once again on defense in 2012.
St. Louis used the draft and free agency to rapidly acquire a cast of newcomers that figure to play an integral role in the team's immediate and long-term future, but it's a third-year player that I'll have my eyes fixated on this season, and that's left tackle Rodger Saffold.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and St. Louis has a terrific prospect there in Sam Bradford. However, his effectiveness would be undoubtedly mitigated by sketchy protection. That means Saffold, who will anchor Bradford's blindside, has to be really good next season.
Defensively, the Rams are a sleeper team in my eyes to be better than most expect. They'll be aggressive up front and physical in the backend, and a new trio of corners (Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson) brings promise.
Things can't get any worse, right?
The Colts are officially beyond the Peyton Manning era and hope to soon put seasons with single-digit win totals in their rear view mirror as well.
But it won't be easy in 2012, especially with a defense so devoid of talent across the board. Getting after the passer might be the only thing Indianapolis does effectively on defense next season, but even that could be in jeopardy if Dwight Freeney is eventually traded or released.
As for Luck, count me in as part of the mass that believed him to be the best prospect in this draft by a long ways. Soon enough, I think he'll prove us right.
Never fear, Redskins faithful. Long seasons stuck in the NFC East's basement will soon be a distant memory.
At least that's the hope with Robert Griffin III in the mix, and I suspect this kid will continue to prove he is the real deal.
But for now, we must ask what to make of the offensive line in front of him? He's elusive enough to make defenders miss with some regularity, but no quarterback can entirely account for a porous offensive line.
Safe to say the 'Skins five layers of protection will be under the microscope this season.
It's been a rough go of it this offseason for Miami, but the acquisition of Ryan Tannehill seems to have softened the blow, at least a little bit.
Tannehill brings a glimmer of optimism and hope for a franchise that was otherwise fairly short on it; now it's a matter of finding out what the kid is made of.
Here's the question I'd love to ask Dolphins fans: What are your realistic expectations for Tannehill as a rookie? Is starting 16 games a good first step? Winning half of the games he starts? What would qualify as a successful season for the 23-year old?
The phrase I continue to use in describing new Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie's efforts thus far is "making the best of a bad situation," because he was dealt quite the unenviable hand.
After trimming roster fat and restructuring the deals of many, McKenzie is continuing to work to keep Oakland in solid standings with the salary cap, and there is a little bit of a talent dearth in several key parts of the roster.
Ultimately, the Raiders will have to ride their handful of horses, which starts with running back Darren McFadden, who missed much of 2011 due to injury. Can he re-assume his primary back form in 2012?
If Tampa Bay struggles in 2012, it won't be as a result of their efforts this offseason, because the team has hit a grand slam on several levels.
I loved the hire of Greg Schiano—a tough, disciplined, competitive coach who will immediately transform the culture in Tampa Bay—and adding Vincent Jackson to an already promising receiving core could prove tantalizing to opposing defenses.
The secondary got a much-needed boost with the addition of safety Mark Barron in the first round of the draft, but Tampa Bay could really use Aqib Talib to be focused and active for all 16 games next season. He's currently in the middle of some legal woes and was previously the subject of trade rumors.
To borrow a line from last year's Super Bowl champs, the Buffalo Bills are seemingly all-in.
At least that was the message conveyed by the $100 million thrown at defensive end Mario Williams during free agency, followed by another $28 million more to former Patriots end Mark Anderson. So getting to the passer likely won't be an issue for Buffalo in 2012, but protecting their own quarterback and depth might be.
If second-round pick Cordy Glenn can handle the left tackle post—and that's asking a lot—Buffalo may be able to piece it together on the line. Otherwise, watch out.
If there's a more thrilling player in the NFL to watch than Cam Newton, I'd sure love to know who it is.
But thrills and excitement don't always add up to wins, and I think Newton's defensive teammates aren't ready to push this team past the .500 mark in 2012.
Adding linebacker Luke Kuechly in the draft helped, and so too will another year of Ron Rivera being able to work with the group during training camp. Problem is, in a division loaded with such prolific passing attacks, will the Panthers' secondary be able to stop anybody?
The Titans have a chance to test the Texans for the division in the AFC South next year, but it won't happen without strong showings from Derrick Morgan on defense and Chris Johnson on offense.
Somehow Johnson managed to virtually disappear in 2011, and that was simply unacceptable given the amount he was paid last offseason. CJ bargained to become the top-paid back in the league, and after getting his wish, it's time to put up.
Although I wouldn't discount the possibility of Jake Locker starting some games in 2012, I still think Matt Hasselbeck will deservedly hold the keys to the offense next season.
For as successful as he was during his first two seasons with Gang Green, it's conceivable that a down year could cost head coach Rex Ryan his job. Crazy? Perhaps, but such is life in the NFL.
And as for Tebow, what else can be said now that hasn't been already? I'll weigh in with my thoughts: By week 10 he will have started at least one game for the Jets. Why? Heck, who knows, but the NFL is a whacky world, and Tebow has an undeniable set of "intangibles" that can't be encapsulated by words.
Arizona played well down the stretch in 2011, and there's reason to believe they could carry that momentum into 2012.
Like so many teams in the NFL, the Cardinals' fortunes will be dictated by their quarterback, Kevin Kolb. Or John Skelton. Or whoever starts next season.
Whoever it is, he will have no shortage of weapons to throw to, as Larry Fitzgerald will be joined by first-round pick Michael Floyd in the receiving core. That duo alone makes the Cardinals worth watching.
Seattle has a chance to be exceptional on defense in 2012, but this team's success will boil down to the play of new quarterback Matt Flynn.
The team paid Flynn starter money to be the man in Seattle, but his limited experience remains a cause for concern in the eyes of some. Are Flynn's two productive starts a sign of things to come or aberrations?
Finally, I'm less enthused by Seattle's receivers than most. That group needs to be more dynamic for this team to thrive.
It strains me to put a team with as much potential as Cincinnati in the bottom half of this list, but the Bengals are just not quite there yet in my book.
Why not, you say? Well, it's matter of experience and improvement elsewhere in the AFC.
The Bengals jumped way ahead of the curve in 2011, and although they faced a lot and gained invaluable experience making it to the playoffs, they remain in an uber-competitive division and will have to deal with increased expectations in 2012. That's a lot for what is still a young team.
Consider 2012 a make or break year for many within the San Diego organization, not the least of which includes head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith. The two are seemingly working for a new contract and opportunity to stay in San Diego, and another playoff miss will likely spell doom for each.
Here's the question: Will San Diego's offseason acquisitions make up for the firepower lost with Vincent Jackson? And, perhaps more importantly, will the line hold up to protect Philip Rivers?
The Chargers may be the team with the most range in terms of potential outcomes for 2012, as neither a third-place nor first-place finish in the AFC West would truly surprise me.
The way I see it, four very good teams could finish third in their divisions in 2012, and one of them is Philadelphia.
Don't discount the psychological edge the Eagles will have next season without having to deal with "Dream Team" aspirations. Question is: Will that be enough to push Philly back into the playoff fold?
Give the Cowboys this: hey aren't afraid to go big to address an area of need.
That much became clear with the team's acquisitions of both Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, who figure to star as cornerbacks for the next several years together.
As is always the case with Dallas, or at least in recent seasons, Tony Romo will be the focus of many. Is 2012 the year that he is able to carry his team to the next level of success and finally win a playoff game?
For now, I'll refer to the Broncos as the "Great Unknown." Peyton Manning is transcendent. World-class.
He's also coming off of multiple neck procedures and no one—no one—knows how well he can hold up in a league filled with rushers bigger, faster and stronger than ever before.
Can he stay healthy? If so, is the roster around him—specifically the defense opposite of him—enough to piece together a successful campaign?
Too much uncertainty surrounds this team for me to peg them as the favorites in the AFC West, especially with a question mark at running back, in my opinion. Willis McGahee isn't the prototypical back to play in a Manning-led offense.
Not to oversimplify the matter, but Chicago's success in 2012 hinges on the same thing that brought it down in 2011—health.
If Jay Cutler and Matt Forte play 16 games in 2012, Chicago has a legitimate shot at 10 wins. Why the relatively modest total for a team ranked within the top 12? The division. The NFC North should be loaded in 2012, and the Bears may prove to be the odd team out based simply on a numbers game.
Even with all of his frills, I still think the pickup of Brandon Marshall will prove massively beneficial next season.
If you're a believer in Matt Cassel, and I am, then you can make the argument that Kansas City should be even higher on this list.
General manager Scott Pioli has built a roster that now stacks up both from players 1-22 and 23-53 as well. New head coach Romeo Crennel made comments earlier in the offseason that the team didn't need to draft for a need, although the move to draft Dontari Poe at No. 11 made a ton of sense to me.
With a healthy set of offensive weapons and a defense that could both get after the passer and cause turnovers more effectively than it ever has during Pioli's tenure, I see this team as the favorite in the AFC West heading into the season. Yes, even ahead of Peyton's gang.
It seems like we declare every year to be the year for Atlanta to break through, so I'm going to learn from the past and curtail my expectations slightly.
Nonetheless, I still expect Atlanta to challenge for the NFC South division crown, especially if the turmoil in New Orleans carries over to the early part of the season for the Saints.
I loved the trade by Atlanta to pick up cornerback Asante Samuel, and I truly believe he could become a difference-making player in their secondary, like he has been in every other stop during his NFL career.
Ultimately, this season for the Falcons will be dictated by the play of one man: quarterback Matt Ryan. Is he elite, or is he just a solidly-above average NFL starter?
I debated placing Houston further up these rankings, but for now they fit into the ninth slot.
The Texans made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history a season ago and did so without their starting quarterback down the stretch. They figure to be improved with a healthy Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster, although the team will need to find a way to replace right tackle Eric Winston.
Defensively, the Texans will be without a pair of long-time standouts, DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams, which calls for youngsters to step up. Brooks Reed was amongst those who filled in admirably for Williams last season (he missed much of the year with an injury), and adding Whitney Mercilus in the first round will further boost the pass rush.
Things ended all too soon for the Steelers in 2011, as Tim Tebow dusted his final puff of magic in Denver on Pittsburgh during the AFC Wild Card round.
That didn't sit well with the team, and it's reasonable to assume they're prepared to make amends in 2012.
Veterans are gone and the Mike Wallace contract situation needs to be resolved, but with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, a scary-good defense and what looks to be an improved offensive line, the Steelers are poised to win early and often in 2012.
There may not be a more compelling team to follow early on in the season than the Saints, who have the talent of a Super Bowl contender but are undeniably short on stability right now.
That being said, this is a league driven by quarterback play and execution by players on Sundays. The Saints have one of the best out there under center in Drew Brees, and the roster is peppered with players capable of performing at a high level.
What the Saints are able to accomplish in the first six weeks of the season (during which they'll have to appoint an interim-interim coach), will likely tell their story for 2012.
Few teams are more exciting to watch than the 49ers, especially on the defensive side of the football.
And while the offense wasn't quite up to snuff a year ago, the Niners made sure finding additional weapons for QB Alex Smith was a priority this offseason, landing receivers Mario Manningham, first-round draft choice A.J. Jenkins, talented scat-back LaMichael James in the second round and taking fliers on both Randy Moss and Brandon Jacobs.
If those investments pay off like San Francisco hopes, watch out.
Look at the upward trajectory head coach Jim Schwartz has had his team on since taking over the Lions. After winning 10 games in 2011, I see the Lions continuing the upswing and challenging Green Bay for the division this season.
The biggest crutch to Detroit's success would be the inability of Jahvid Best to return to the field and the secondary being unable to make up for the lost of Eric Wright. Call it a leap of faith, but I see the secondary performing just fine and Best coming back to make an impact.
The Ravens went toe-to-toe with New England in the 2011 AFC Championship Game and nearly walked away victorious. Although a crushing defeat, the play of quarterback Joe Flacco was tremendous reason for optimism.
Flacco may not have the ideal set of weapons around him in Baltimore, but this team—as long as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata are around—will be catalyzed by defense. Those three, plus some nice additions via the draft, figure to make Baltimore one of the toughest teams to move the chains against in 2012 and a candidate to play for the ultimate prize.
Lest we forget how sensational the Packers were during the 2011 regular season. In fact, had it not been for an inspired effort from the Chiefs late in the year, the Packers would have had a chance at history and an undefeated season.
2012 figures to be similarly successful, particularly if the Packers can reload on defense after a shoddy performance in 2011. Adding Nick Perry in the first round of the draft is a promising start, as a complementary rusher to play opposite Clay Matthews makes the Green Bay defense downright scary.
Oh yeah, Aaron Rodgers. He's good.
The Patriots were darn close to capturing yet another Super Bowl in 2011 and did so with a defense no one would confuse for elite.
The team has taken to upgrading the unit this offseason and had one of the finest first rounds in all of football in adding two players, Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, who have major potential for Bill Belichick's team.
Bringing Tom Brady and his elite offensive core back never hurts, and the Patriots enter the season as the class of what should be an improved AFC.
On principal alone, I'd be hard-pressed to justify a team other than the defending champs to sit atop an offseason power rankings list, but couple that with the fact that I loved the Giants' draft and much of what they've done this offseason, and this team is the cream of the NFL's current crop.
The Giants won't have it easy in 2012, as teams will be gunning for Big Blue each week, and they'll take the best shots from their opponents throughout the season. That being said, far be it for anyone to question the resolve of a team that so admirably performed with their backs against the wall down the stretch last season and into the playoffs.
Also in the Giants favor? They have an elite quarterback.