NFL Power Rankings: Ranking Each Individual Unit for 2012 Regular Season
The New York Giants have been crowned the kings of the 2011 NFL calendar year.
But the greatest thing about sports is that success has to be repeatedly earned. Living in the past doesn't get you anywhere but fired in the NFL. The Giants may have rings from last year, but that doesn't mean that they have an advantage entering this year. In fact, it normally works the other way.
This year plenty of teams are capable of winning the Super Bowl after an intriguing draft and active free-agent market. Some teams have progressed, while others have regressed.
It's not really fair to label teams good or bad as each team has its strengths and weaknesses. Admittedly, some teams have a lot more strengths than others, while some have weaknesses that are fatal regardless of what other strengths they boast.
For that reason, I've decided to dig deeper with my power rankings and rank each of the 64 units in the league.
Who has the best offense? Who has the best defense? Whose offense is worth more than its defense? Who has the best balance between the two?
It's time to find out!
64. Indianapolis Colts Defense
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The Colts are transitioning from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 this offseason under new head coach Chuck Pagano. Pagano was the defensive coordinator in Baltimore prior to landing in Indianapolis where he ran a hybrid defense.
In Indianapolis the team's main defensive players are Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and Antoine Bethea. Bethea won't be drastically affected by the change, but Freeney and Mathis must both now change their roles completely.
Josh Chapman will be asked to be the nose tackle from day one in all likelihood, while Cory Redding was brought in from Baltimore to play defensive end. The Colts are focusing more on development for the long-term on both sides of the ball rather than short-term success, however.
Pagano brought in three ex-Ravens—Redding, Brandon McKinney and Tom Zbikowski—to help the transition, but there was nowhere near enough turnover to substantially improve on last year's defense.
63. Miami Dolphins Offense
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Whether it be Ryan Tannehill, David Garrard or Matt Moore, the quarterback in Miami for the Dolphins is in for a tough year. The Dolphins may have their long-term left tackle and center in place, with a good running back, but there is little else to be optimistic about on the offense.
Joe Philbin needs to work some serious magic if the Dolphins are going to run any sort of balanced offense without quality at receiver or a respectable offensive line.
It may be better to focus on Ryan Tannehill's development in Mike Sherman's offense this year over anything else. I'm not sure if that is best done from the sidelines or on the field though. You don't want another David Carr situation.
62. Oakland Raiders Defense
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This defense has taken hit after hit in recent years without adding much. Nnamdi Asomugha left last year while his expected replacement, Stanford Routt, was released after not living up to his massive deal. The Raiders arguably have the worst cornerbacks in the NFL with Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer expected to start.
Rolando McClain may be suspended, but with the way he plays that won't be a major loss. If the Raiders are to have any success, it will be on the backs of Tommy Kelly, Richard Seymour and Lamarr Houston on the defensive line.
Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch may be decent safeties on their day, but playing behind Aaron Curry and Philip Wheeler is asking a lot of them. In a passing league, the Raiders are in a lot of trouble.
61. New Orleans Saints Defense
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Losing Jonathan Vilma for the season doesn't really hurt the Saints at all, as the combination of Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne should produce a vast improvement at the middle linebacker position. Lofton is a two down player which should see Lofton shift inside on third down.
Will Smith is suspended again for the start of the season while Cameron Jordan is under pressure again to perform without much help upfront. Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis should be stout run defenders on the interior of the defensive line, but neither player is capable of a consistent pass rush.
Losing Tracy Porter hurts but Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson are talented, if less proven, cornerbacks to come in and start. Without a high-powered offense playing across from them, the Saints defense would be exposed on a weekly basis.
60. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defense
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It has not been a good offseason for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive linemen. DaQuan Bowers is lost for the season with a torn Achilles. Big things were expected of Bowers this year after a relatively quiet rookie campaign.
More importantly, Brian Price was recently hospitalized after the death of his sister. Price has been traumatized by multiple bereavements in his life over the past year or two. How he responds could be much worse than any physical injury.
Price has been the team's best defensive lineman over the past two years for the Buccaneers. Gerald McCoy has yet to live up to his draft status and has struggled mightily with injuries during his short career. Adrian Clayborn is a promising football player but can't carry the torch on his own with Michael Bennett.
Lavonte David was a nice addition to the linebacking corps, but Mason Foster needs to show more as a second year player if the group is to even be average.
The secondary will be the team's strength. Eric Wright is an overpaid cornerback, but he is still an average football player. He and Aqib Talib should be a good cornerback pairing while Mark Barron and Ronde Barber should be a solid safety pairing.
59. New England Patriots Defense
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Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones should provide a boost to the Patriots' front seven, but the real difference makers will have to come on the back-end. Tavon Wilson and Steve Gregory were brought in this offseason while Ras-I Dowling will return at cornerback after missing most of his rookie year.
Dowling will be the key as his physical size at cornerback is what the team was lacking last year. Kyle Arrington brought a physical style of cornerback play last year, but he doesn't have the size of Dowling while Devin McCourty has size but is too soft.
With improvements on the back end, the Patriots have some pieces to make plays up front, but this defense is still some distance away from competing without an elite offense carrying it.
58. Carolina Panthers Defense
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One of two things happened this offseason. Either Luke Kuechly was seen as too good of a player for the Panthers to pass up, or Jon Beason's health remains a question mark entering this season. Kuechly was not a need pick when the Panthers selected him.
Even if they believe in their defensive tackles from last year, it would have made more sense for the team to bring in a cornerback like Stephon Gilmore to help replace the departed Richard Marshall. Instead, the Panthers will either have Kuechly playing MLB or OLB with Beason at MLB this year.
Either way, unless Sione Fua and Terrell McClain step up at defensive tackle, this defense will struggle again this season.
57. Minnesota Vikings Offense
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No matter how many drills Adrian Peterson shows the public this offseason, there is nothing to say that he will be back at 100 percent on opening day—or that he can sustain it through a whole season. Peterson suffered a major knee issue, and considering how violently he ran in the past, it is very unlikely that he is anywhere near as effective next year.
Without Peterson, Christian Ponder will be asked to carry the offense with Toby Gerhart shoring up the running back position. Ponder has an excellent tight end in Kyle Rudolph and the dynamic Percy Harvin outside. Harvin and Rudolph don't have a huge amount of help, however, as Jerome Simpson and John Carlson aren't stellar additions.
Matt Kalil is a stellar addition though and should dramatically improve the team's offensive line.
56. New York Jets Offense
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The New York Jets have done nothing to improve their offseason this year. Wayne Hunter remains at right tackle. Tim Tebow brings a quarterback controversy waiting to happen. Chaz Schilens couldn't catch on with the Raiders, and it's a lot to ask of Stephen Hill to step straight into a starting role. Shonn Greene is entering a make-or-break year while Joe McKnight spent his offseason eating McDonalds and getting out of shape.
Mark Sanchez is the unluckiest quarterback in the NFL. He actually has a lot of talent but hasn't been fairly treated the past two offseasons. It won't surprise me at all when he ends up succeeding elsewhere under a proper head coach in a proper situation.
Mike Tannenbaum has been avoiding criticism for quite some time, but his fingerprints are all over the mess in New York.
55. Seattle Seahawks Offense
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Marshawn Lynch is a beast who can put up yards against any defense. His only worry is the offensive line in front of him. Lynch was hindered last year when the line was underperforming but broke out once the line came together.
Whether the quarterback is Matt Flynn or Tarvaris Jackson, the Seahawks need Sidney Rice to stay healthy. The reality is, though, that Rice simply doesn't. The big knock on him before he moved to Seattle was that he hadn't put a string of quality seasons together. If the Seahawks are to explode offensively this year, they need Rice to be on the field.
The Seahawks have some very good receivers in Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate and Ben Obomanu, but they need a leading receiver. Without Rice, they don't have anyone to pull coverage and free the rest of the group.
The defense in Seattle will be asked to lead them to the division title; the offense will have to just play it safe and not lose games.
54. Cleveland Browns Offense
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Replacing Colt McCoy with Brandon Weeden made little sense when the Browns' biggest issues on offense came around the quarterback. At the very least Weeden will have Richardson to hand the ball to and Greg Little entering his second season.
Little had a good rookie year despite struggling with drops. His abilities may not be shown off next year, however, as he continues to play with an offense devout of talent. I suspect Trent Richardson may be in the 300-plus carries club next year.
That is, presuming he makes it through 16 starts.
53. Cleveland Browns Defense
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Losing Phil Taylor is a major setback for the Browns entering this year. Without Taylor, the Browns lack a presence inside who can affect both aspects of the game. Jabaal Sheard is a very talented defensive lineman, but playing across from Frostee Rucker without Taylor inside will severely hamper his play this year.
If certain statistics are to be believed, the Browns have a great pass defense. They gave up the second least number of passing yards per game last year, but the truth is teams simply didn't throw the ball very often against the Browns because they never needed to.
Joe Haden is a star, T.J. Ward is good and D'Qwell Jackson is an inspirational leader. The Browns' problem is that their role players aren't good enough to support their stars. Playing in a very tough division, the Browns could really struggle next year.
52. Miami Dolphins Defense
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The Dolphins entered this offseason looking to transition to a hybrid defense. They then confused everyone by re-signing Paul Soliai and not adding a pass rusher to replace Jason Taylor. Olivier Vernon will compete with Koa Misi across from Cameron Wake while the pressure will be on Jared Odrick and Randy Starks to perform consistently at a high level.
Richard Marshall is an excellent addition who should slot in at safety. Marshall played both safety and corner in Carolina, and the Dolphins already have Sean Smith and Vontae Davis at cornerback.
Kevin Burnett, Karlos Dansby and Gary Guyton figure to be the three starting linebackers in a 3-4 formation while Dansby and Burnett will move inside together in a 4-3. The versatility, or depth of personnel, simply isn't there for the Dolphins to properly run a hybrid defense.
Their 4-3 defense was well set to build upon, but that is irrelevant now.
51. Indianapolis Colts Offense
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Bruce Arians' offense is a tight end heavy scheme, so it is no surprise that the Colts made a heavy investment in the position this offseason. The effort will obviously also make Andrew Luck's transition to the NFL much easier. It won't, however, make the Colts offense one of the more explosive in the NFL.
The Colts will likely still rely heavily on the hard running of Donald Brown and focus on developing Luck rather than anything else. Luck may be the better prospect than Cam Newton, but Newton was the exception rather than the rule.
Luck will be fortunate to have a decent rookie season. He has to overcome a weak offensive line without the greatest weapons in the league. Having Coby Fleener, his old college tight end, will help Luck an awful lot.
50. Arizona Cardinals Offense
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The Cardinals have unintentionally tipped their hand this offseason in the quarterback competition between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton. Neither quarterback is a star, or star in the making seemingly, but both have different strengths.
Skelton's greatest strength is his physical arm strength and velocity with which he throws the ball. His accuracy is inconsistent, however, and the drafting of Michael Floyd should really help him if he is indeed the starter.
Having two bigger receivers like Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald outside makes the Cardinals' passing attack quite dangerous even if the running game is going to struggle. Neither Ryan Williams or Chris Wells are certainties to be 100 percent throughout next year while the offensive line hasn't improved dramatically since last year, even with the addition of Adam Snyder from the 49ers.
49. Jacksonville Jaguars Offense
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If Chad Henne starts for the Jaguars, this offense has the potential to be even higher on this list next year. Henne may not be a superstar, but he would be in a better position than he was in Miami. Henne has talent but never really got the chance to develop in Miami.
With a healthier offensive line in 2012, Maurice Jones-Drew should have an even better year this year. If Jones-Drew can have a good year, that will set up the passing game as Lee Evans and Laurent Robinson look to go deep.
With Evans and Robinson stretching the field, that will leave plenty of opportunities for Justin Blackmon to work the underneath and rack up the receptions. Marcedes Lewis surely won't struggle as much as he did last year, but it all hinges on the quality of quarterback play they can get.
48. Oakland Raiders Offense
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Darren McFadden's health will be the catalyst for the Raiders offense this year as he needs to play 16 games for them to play to their potential. McFadden is an elite back who can break open games through the air or on the ground.
The chances of McFadden staying fully healthy for a full year are low. Outside of McFadden, Carson Palmer will look to set Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore free with Jacoby Ford also stretching the field.
Stefen Wisniewski and Jared Veldheer are both outstanding young cornerstones for the offensive line who can dominate now and in the future.
The Raiders have decent weapons, but they need McFadden to stay healthy and Palmer to repay their investment in him.
47. Minnesota Vikings Defense
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The Vikings addressed their defensive needs well this offseason by investing heavily in their secondary. Chris Carr and Zackary Bowman are proven professionals who can instantly start if needed in Minnesota, but Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook remain in place.
Either of those players may be moved to safety, or the Vikings will face the prospect of starting two rookie safeties this year. Robert Blanton and Harrison Smith may be unproven and inexperienced, but they have talent and can't be much worse than what the Vikings endured last year on the back end of their defense.
An improved secondary would really aid Kevin Williams, Brian Robison and, in particular, Jared Allen as they pursue the quarterback.
Re-signing Erin Henderson this offseason was one of the more understated moves made by any franchise, but it was also one of the best. Henderson is an incredibly talented young player who is already performing at a high level.
46. Detroit Lions Defense
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The Detroit Lions have a lot of reputation and attitude on defense, but not much else. There is an abundance of talent up front, but there is also a supreme lack of discipline. Ndamukong Suh's discipline has been talked about in the media a lot, but it is his scheme discipline that really costs his team. Suh either doesn't have any gap responsibility or simply ignores his responsibilities to allow running backs free release through the middle of the field.
He may get sacks, but he's not anywhere near as good as advertised.
With Cliff Avril franchise tagged, the Lions brought back their most important pass rusher as Kyle Vanden Bosch ages and Nick Fairley's offseason didn't go so well in anticipation of his second season.
Stephen Tulloch is also back after a good first season in Detroit, but the secondary remains a question mark.
45. Atlanta Falcons Offense
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Fresh off a zero in the playoffs, the Atlanta Falcons offense is in trouble entering this season. Matt Ryan doesn't appear capable of carrying an offense at this point in his career, and Michael Turner has hit the running back wall.
Turner needs to be replaced in the starting lineup by Jason Snelling with Jacquizz Rodgers coming in on third downs. Unless that happens, the Falcons running game is going to be in a lot of trouble this year.
If the Falcons can't run the ball, Julio Jones and Roddy White won't be factors in the offense either while Tony Gonzalez is no longer the dominant tight end he once was despite a good season last year.
44. St. Louis Rams Defense
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The Rams have found a good blend of youth and experience on defense this year.
Jeff Fisher has challenged his defense to lead the league in sacks this year. With Robert Quinn moving into the starting lineup and Kendall Langford also coming over from the Dolphins, the Rams have a new-look starting front four. Quinn is an exceptionally talented pass rusher but needs to develop an all-around game.
While Fisher has encouraged his team to chase down the quarterback, he also brought in Michael Brockers to consume running backs at the line of scrimmage. Along with Brockers, James Laurinaitis will be looking to dominate the middle of the field once again this year with better outside linebackers playing alongside him: Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan.
After suffering more injuries than anyone else in the secondary last year, the Rams added three new faces to the group. The most notable is veteran Cortland Finnegan, who arrives through free agency, while Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins were drafted.
Fisher will be looking to Finnegan and Quintin Mikell to lead the youngsters and help them adapt to the NFL as quickly as possible.
Losing Gregg Williams shouldn't impact the defense in St. Louis that much because he was never there in the first place.
43. Green Bay Packers Defense
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Ted Thompson couldn't have had a better draft unless he dreamed it the night before. The Packers, with an offense already set for now and the future, invested heavily in their defense through the draft, twice trading up for defensive pieces.
In the first round they think that they have finally found their bookend pass rusher for Clay Matthews with Nick Perry out of USC. Perry will likely start from day one as Erik Walden proved to be ineffective last year and has had off-the-field issues that led to a team suspension.
Jerel Worthy will be asked to contribute instantly on the defensive line as Mike Neal is suspended for the first four games but should be a piece of the rotation for most of the year. With an improved front seven, the Packers' secondary shouldn't be as bad as it was last season.
Losing Nick Collins is a massive blow but not totally unexpected. Charles Woodson should see a lot of time at safety while rookie Casey Heyward gives the team extra depth at cornerback to cover the move.
42. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Offense
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The Buccaneers invested heavily in a pair of superstar players to improve their offense this year. Carl Nicks is the most overpaid guard in the league, but he is also the best guard in the league. Nicks is being paid like an elite tackle when he can't affect the game like one.
Still, Josh Freeman will be delighted to have an improved offensive line with rookie Doug Martin in the background to take the pressure off of him. Martin may be a rookie, but it is widely expected that he will be the starter in Week 1 as LeGarrette Blount looks to have fallen out of favor after last year.
If Freeman can be kept upright, then he has the big play receiver on the outside to break games open now. Vincent Jackson finally received the big deal he has craved for so long in San Diego. In Tampa, he will be the leading receiver with Mike Williams as the second option.
The most important thing for this offense is for the attitude to change. They essentially mailed in last season on Raheem Morris and need some leadership either from Freeman or the new veterans.
41. Buffalo Bills Offense
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It will be vital for the Bills this year to get Andy Levitre, Eric Wood and Fred Jackson healthy ahead of this season. With those players on the field, the Bills can look to run a more balanced offense. With Wood, Levitre and Kraig Urbik, the Bills would have a strong interior line to graft defenders out of Jackson's way.
Jackson should be a big part of the offense after signing a new deal, but expect to see C.J. Spiller on the field a lot. Spiller could see a lot of time at receiver or in the backfield as Chan Gailey tries to help Ryan Fitzpatrick in as many ways as possible.
Stevie Johnson signing a new deal was vital for Fitzpatrick as he will now be expected to kick on and prove that he is a leading receiver. The Bills will be hoping that Cordy Glenn can replace Demetress Bell at left tackle sooner rather than later.
40. Washington Redskins Offense
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You never really know what to expect from a rookie quarterback, but Robert Griffin III is landing in a great spot in Washington. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has a beautifully designed offense that will allow Griffin to get in rhythm quickly throwing off of play action and to his quality tight end, Fred Davis.
Expect a lot of quick passes for Pierre Garcon to turn into big plays in order not to expose Griffin too much early in the year. Griffin throws a vicious deep ball, but how that translates as he tries to break down defenses as a professional is unclear.
Re-signing Tim Hightower suggests that the Redskins will want to use both Hightower and Roy Helu to set the tone and consistently pound the football. The Redskins have a good defense, so they don't have to force the game on offense.
They did enough of that with RG1.
39. New York Jets Defense
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Muhammad Wilkerson, Sione Pouha and rookie Quinton Coples should create a very good defensive line for the Jets. While the defensive line will be stout and the secondary should be solid, the team's linebackers are going to let them down big time this year.
It's possible that Bart Scott won't even be a starter by the end of the season as Demario Davis possibly takes over inside. Scott and David Harris together are too slow to be effective in a passing league. Aaron Maybin is the only player with any kind of speed in the group and he is solely a situational pass rusher.
Darrelle Revis should have another great season, but the rest of the secondary doesn't look to be as stellar as it once was. Antonio Cromartie is a hit-or-miss commodity at this stage while the new safety pairing of Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry has a similar issue.
Bell is only an average football player while Landry will be lucky to stay on the field for six games this year judging by his recent injury history. One must also wonder about Landry's ability to cover considering how swollen he has become this offseason.
The Jets finished 20th in points allowed last year; this year they have done very little to improve and have lost a key member of the defense in Jim Leonhard.
38. St. Louis Rams Offense
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Keeping Sam Bradford healthy will be key for the Rams this year. Despite not improving the offensive line significantly—Scott Wells is the only notable addition—the Rams have built an offense to help Bradford through scheme.
Brian Quick is going to be the x-factor for the receiving corps. Quick is a big receiver with the ability to get downfield and cause matchup problems. He is exactly what the Rams offense has been missing in recent seasons.
With Quick going deep, the Rams will want to pull the defense in by establishing the running game with Steven Jackson and Isaiah Pead, while also hitting quick throws to Danny Amendola and Steve Smith. Pead coming out of the backfield could have a Darren Sproles' type of impact also.
37. Tennessee Titans Defense
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Adding defensive end Kamerion Wimbley should have a big impact on this defense. Wimbley will provide production and veteran leadership for a young defensive line in Tennessee. Derrick Morgan will start across from him with Sen'Derrick Marks, Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug playing inside.
There is a similar dynamic at linebacker with Will Witherspoon being the veteran leader for Colin McCarthy and Akeem Ayers. Ayers and McCarthy have a lot of talent, but they need to find more consistency and refine their performances on the field. Zach Brown could eventually find his way onto the field also.
Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner will need to step up their play together at cornerback to replace the departed Cortland Finnegan. They will be helped by the return of Michael Griffin at safety, as his partnership with Jordan Babineaux continues from last season.
36. Denver Broncos Offense
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Who knows how healthy Peyton Manning is, but it's clear for everyone to see that the Broncos offense isn't set up to make his life easy when he does get back on the field. Knowshon Moreno is supposedly having a good offseason, but that needs to carry over into a full, 16-game regular season. Ronnie Hillman is a rookie expecting to replace him.
Willis McGahee will likely see a lot of the football early on to protect Manning. In Indianapolis, Manning was so good that he hid many of the offense's flaws. In Denver he will have to do the same with one very similar aspect of the offense: the line.
The Broncos' offensive line isn't very good. Its limitations were covered last year by Tim Tebow and the run-heavy scheme the Broncos utilized. Asking them to pass protect for 25-30 plays per game is a unrealistic. Ryan Clady may be a very talented left tackle, but even he has question marks while the rest of the group is average at best.
Bringing in Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen should give Manning some better protection. Manning is essentially being treated like a rookie as the Broncos give him a strong running game and two tight ends to ease him back into the NFL.
At receiver, the Broncos have a lot of talent, but very little of that talent is proven. Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas proved last year that they could catch the deep ball, but the consistency in running the full route tree wasn't there. Antoine Caldwell was brought in to be a more well-rounded receiver, but he isn't really an impact player. Caldwell was the third option in Cincinnati behind Jerome Simpson and A.J. Green.
35. Jacksonville Jaguars Defense
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Andre Branch can really help this defense vaunt itself further up these rankings with a good rookie season. The Jaguars have a very underrated defense that has only been lacking a quality pass rusher over the last year or two.
Aaron Kampman didn't work out, but adding Branch to Jeremy Mincey on the opposite side could be a real positive for the Jaguars. Kampman is still on the roster, but it is asking a lot for him to even be part of the rotation at defensive end. Instead the Jaguars will look for help for their ends from Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton from the defensive tackle position. Both are very talented tackles.
Daryl Smith may be one of the most underrated linebackers in the NFL, not only because he plays in Jacksonville but also because he is a 4-3 outside linebacker. Smith, Paul Posluszny and Clint Session aren't the greatest group of backers, but they are all capable players who fit well in the team's overall defensive philosophy.
Rashean Mathis was rewarded with a new contract this offseason to keep a good secondary intact. Mathis and Derek Cox are good starters with new addition Aaron Ross coming in for depth. Dawan Landry is the leader of the group with the versatile, and very talented, Dwight Lowery as his safety partner.
34. Denver Broncos Defense
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The most important thing for the Broncos on defense for this coming year is 16 full games at 100 percent for Von Miller. Miller struggled with injuries in his rookie season but not much else. He was phenomenal on the field and should only improve as he continues his development.
Brodrick Bunkley is a huge loss as Justin Bannan and rookie Derek Wolfe look to replace him. The Broncos need to establish their interior linemen because Miller (switching between defensive end and linebacker), Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers are all capable of getting to the quarterback.
It will be important to find out just how good Joe Mays is after a fine rookie season as the Broncos must overcome the early-season suspension of D.J. Williams. In fact, the spine of the Broncos defense this year is somewhat ambiguous as Brian Dawkins has also retired.
Dawkins' level of play had dropped off a bit, but his leadership was always evident. Youngster Rahim Moore may feel aggrieved if he loses his place to Mike Adams. Adams has signed on from Cleveland with a reputation that is inflated by statistics rather than curtailed by his actual performance.
The Broncos do have a lot of talent at cornerback, however. Champ Bailey showed last year that age is no issue to him, while Tracy Porter is a definite improvement over Andre Goodman, and Drayton Florence could excel as the nickel back.
33. Washington Redskins Defense
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Save for the safety position, the Redskins defense has the potential to be as good as any other in the whole league. With Stephen Bowen, Jarvis Jenkins, Adam Carriker and Barry Cofield combining to create the defensive line rotation, more often than not the Redskins win in the trenches.
Once that happens, Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are relentless outside rushers who don't give up much in the running game either. Orakpo and Kerrigan are two players that Redskins fans are just waiting on to break out into superstars.
London Fletcher returns for another year, but Perry Riley should be the leading inside backer next year, as he looks to continue his development.
DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson aren't superstars, but they are both above-average cornerbacks who play physical football. Adding Leigh Torrence and Cedric Griffin gives the Redskins decent depth at an important position.
The problem for the Redskins comes with Tanard Jackson and Brandon Meriweather. Jackson specializes in missing tackles while Meriweather is a lone wolf who gives little consideration to his responsibilities on the field. You can't win with individuals on defense; that's why BIll Belichick got rid of him before last season.
32. Atlanta Falcons Defense
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It may be a lot to ask, but John Abraham needs to have another outstanding year as he did last year. The Falcons surely must understand why so many of us slated the Ray Edwards deal last year. He may have the excuse of being injured in training camp, but he simply isn't an impact player either way.
The return of Jonathan Babineaux should really help with the pass rush, but losing Curtis Lofton behind him will hurt the running game. Akeem Dent will step into the starting role and provide a more versatile middle linebacker, but undoubtedly a less impactful one on first and second down.
Sean Weatherspoon will be asked to step up and become a leader in the team's front seven.
The one massive step forward the Falcons have taken this offseason is in coverage. Moving Dunta Robinson out of the starting lineup to pair Brent Grimes with Asante Samuel is a great move. Samuel and Grimes are both excellent cornerbacks without the penalty risk of Robinson.
Their play outside should complement Thomas DeCoud and William Moore very well.
31. Baltimore Ravens Defense
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If the Ravens had to lose one player for the whole season this year, Terrell Suggs would be the last name on that list. Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed may still remain, but Suggs was the defensive player of the year last year. Much more important than the award he carries is the disruption he caused to opposing offenses.
To compound Suggs' injury, Jarret Johnson is also gone, which will force the Ravens to use more of rookie Courtney Upshaw than they intended. Upshaw, Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger will all be asked to replace Suggs, who played both defensive end and outside linebacker for the Ravens.
Last year, Ray Lewis was found out in the playoffs as he simply lacks the speed to keep up with receivers in the passing game. The NFL is a passing league now, and Lewis' leadership is worthless if he can't be effective on the field.
The secondary is the Ravens' biggest strength this year. Lardarius Webb is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL while Ed Reed remains a star safety. Bernard Pollard is a perfect partner for Reed with his physical style of play. If Jimmy Smith can live up to his potential, this secondary has a chance to be the best in the league.
30. San Francisco 49ers Offense
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If the 49ers had added Peyton Manning, this group would receive an A+ grade. The 49ers made all the right moves this offseason to get the ball in the end zone more often. Scoring touchdowns was a major point of contention for the 49ers last year. Even though they won games, David Akers had to kick too many field goals.
Alex Smith played well last year, but how he reacts to the events of this offseason and whether he can adjust to the new talent around him remain unclear. If Smith can be effective, the combination of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, with first-round pick A.J. Jenkins, will be an explosive receiving corps.
The 49ers have a good mix of finesse and physicality with Brandon Jacobs joining Frank Gore in the backfield. Gore and Jacobs will be able to pound the ball repeatedly if Smith cannot get it done throwing the ball.
Jim Harbaugh will be hoping that teams forget about Vernon Davis among all the new toys he has brought in this offseason. If they do, Davis could elevate his play to that of Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski.
29. San Diego Chargers Defense
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If Larry English steps up, actually even if he doesn't, the Chargers likely have the best group of outside linebackers in the NFL. Shaun Phillips and Jarret Johnson will start, with rookie Melvin Ingram and veteran pass rusher Antwan Barnes coming in to rush the passer. Throw in Larry English, and the Chargers could have some seriously difficult blitz packages to handle next year.
It's a long shot expecting English to be healthy, but the Chargers have enough talent around the field not to need him. Corey Liuget, Antonio Garay, Vaughn Martin, Cam Thomas and Kendall Reyes, with Jacques Cesaire and Luis Castillo, comprise probably the deepest 3-4 defensive line in football. Donald Butler is an emerging star playing inside with veteran Takeo Spikes.
The front seven will lead this unit, but the Chargers have to get more consistency from the cornerback position, whether it be Quentin Jammer, Antoine Cason or Marcus Gilchrist in the starting lineup. Adding Atari Bigby to Eric Weddle is an intelligent move that should get the best out of both players.
28. Cincinnati Bengals Offense
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Andy Dalton has to take on even more responsibility this year. Dalton did a lot as a rookie, but if the Bengals are to take the next step in the playoffs, he needs to impose himself on the better defenses in the league.
Three rookies are being asked to fill the second wide receiver spot across from A.J. Green. Armon Binns, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones are all looking to beat each other out for the starting job, while Jordan Shipley is trying to oust Andrew Hawkins from the slot receiver role.
Mike Brown may not have made a big splash on a new receiver, but he did bring in a second tight end. Orson Charles and Jermaine Gresham should become staples of the Bengals offense this year as they look to mimic the New England Patriots' design.
Cedric Benson didn't fit in that style of offense so the Bengals went out and grabbed a back who did, coincidentally one from New England. BenJarvus Green-Ellis arrives to provide the Bengals with a back who can not only run well but also block and be a receiver. That is something the offense was lacking last year.
Signing Travelle Wharton and drafting Kevin Zeitler give the offense more flexibility also at the guard position. Both players should be improvements in both the running and passing game.
27. Kansas City Chiefs Offense
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Once again, the Chiefs offense will hinge on Matt Cassel.
The offensive line has been reinforced with two rookie additions—Jeff Allen and Donald Stephenson—and free agent addition Eric Winston. Winston is the best right tackle in the NFL and will instantly improve the Chiefs' pass protection and run blocking.
Kevin Boss provides excellent insurance for Tony Moeaki while Peyton Hillis is the perfect partner for Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster in the backfield. Because of his style of play and the amount of time he has spent rehabbing, Jamaal Charles should be able to bounce back from his torn ACL injury. A torn ACL shouldn't affect a player's straight line speed as much as it does cutting and turning. Charles should still be able to get away from defenders with ease in the open field.
Jonathan Baldwin showed a lot of flashes as a rookie despite the difficult year the offense was going through. Across from him, Dwayne Bowe still managed 81 receptions so there is no reason for him to slow down this year.
It all comes back to Cassel, however. He has to prove that the Chiefs didn't make a mistake not bringing back Kyle Orton.
26. Cincinnati Bengals Defense
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The Bengals added a lot of talent on both sides of the ball this offseason after an excellent draft. Defensively Mike Zimmer is an outstanding coordinator who generally gets the best out of the talent afforded to him. This year he will be expecting the Bengals to crack the top 10 in defense.
Dre Kirkpatrick will have to force Nate Clements out of the starting lineup if he wants to play across from Leon Hall. Whether Kirkpatrick does or not, the Bengals have good corner depth with Terence Newman, Jason Allen, Adam Jones and Brandon Ghee not even being considered as starters.
Keith Rivers was traded to the New York Giants as the Bengals look to move forward with Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard as their outside linebackers. Howard, Lawson and Rey Maualuga are talented linebackers but will need to rely on the secondary and defensive line to lead the way.
Jamaal Anderson and Brandon Thompson should give the Bengals good depth this year, but Devon Still will be trying to force his way into the starting four. Still will be competing with Domata Peko to try to play alongside Geno Atkins. Atkins is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. He has the rare ability to rush the passer even when double-teamed.
With Carlos Dunlap, Robert Geathers and Michael Johnson playing ahead of Anderson at defensive end, the Bengals' front should be very disruptive again next year. The Bengals just need their secondary to take advantage of that pressure.
The cornerbacks are good enough, as I already attested, but the safeties need to prove themselves as difference makers. George Iloka could beat out Taylor Mays before the start of the season to form a dynamic pairing with Reggie Nelson.
25. Carolina Panthers Offense
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For the past two seasons now, the Panthers have made some very questionable decisions regarding their offense. Outside of drafting Cam Newton, which was a home run in anyone's judgment, the Panthers have invested heavily in running backs.
Considering Newton is essentially a running back on his own, it didn't make much sense to bring in Mike Tolbert from the Chargers this offseason with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson on the roster. Goodson may have been out of favor and Stewart may only have one year left on his deal, but it still baffles me that they didn't look for a second tight end or another receiver instead of a fullback.
Greg Olsen should have no issues picking up the slack after Jeremy Shockey wasn't re-signed. Olsen should feature a lot for Newton in his second year while Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell will be starting outside again.
With Newton at the helm, this offense should be very explosive again next year. However, do not expect him to be breaking records again. Teams now have 16 full games of tape, and plenty of time with it, to use against Newton.
He no longer has the element of surprise working for him.
24. Baltimore Ravens Offense
Joe Flacco really stepped up last year. One dropped pass prevented him from leading his team to the Super Bowl. Flacco may not be a superstar, but the potential is there and the Ravens should definitely give him his new deal.
Of course, re-signing Ray Rice is still a greater priority. Rice is the focal point of the offense and will be so long as he and Vonta Leach are in the backfield. Even with Ben Grubbs being replaced by Jah Reid at guard, Rice should still be in for a big year this year.
The Ravens' biggest worry right now is the weight of Bryant McKinnie. McKinnie is only a Raven because he was released from the VIkings for being out of shape. This offseason, that issue has reared its head again. He may be struggling to stay in shape, but the Ravens need McKinnie as Michael Oher proved in the past he can't play left tackle.
Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta should continue to be more involved in the offense this year despite the new additions at receiver. Tommy Streeter and Jacoby Jones could contribute, but Tandon Doss is the dark horse. Doss has a lot of talent but didn't get much time on the field as a rookie. It would not be a surprise if he was the third choice receiver behind Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin this year.
23. Arizona Cardinals Defense
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Recently, I wrote that the Arizona Cardinals defense would break out into an elite unit this year. With young stars like Calais Campbell, Sam Acho and Daryl Washington emerging in the front seven, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.
Acho, Campbell and Washington have all already produced despite being very young. Last year, the Cardinals had one of the best defenses in the league over the second half of the season. As they continue to grow, they should only get better while some astute additions from defensive coordinator Ray Horton can only help.
William Gay will come in to solidify the starting spot across from Patrick Peterson at cornerback, while Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson will expect to have better seasons this year after suffering injuries last year.
22. Tennessee Titans Offense
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Jake Locker can't get on the field quick enough if you are a Tennessee Titans fan. Matt Hasselbeck may be a very good veteran quarterback, but the offense is built perfectly for Locker moving forward.
Adding Kendall Wright to the receiving corps seems unfair considering they already have Kenny Britt and Nate Washington. Washington, Britt and Wright all excel at going deep and beating defenders to the football while Jared Cook is one of the quicker tight ends in the league.
Throw into the mix a better-prepared Chris Johnson and one of the best offensive lines in football, and the Titans should be making waves in the AFC South next year.
If Locker starts, there may be some growing pains, but Chris Johnson's running should take the pressure off of him, while the offense would flatter his arm strength.
21. Seattle Seahawks Defense
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The Seattle Seahawks defense has good reason to feel disrespected. Very few people are talking about the Seahawks defense, instead focusing on the quarterback competition taking place on the other side of the ball. Regardless of who wins that competition, the Seahawks will again be led by their defense this year.
An outstanding young secondary will be complemented by a front seven with some very dynamic and versatile pieces in it. Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, Jason Jones and K.J. Wright should have big years for the Seahawks as they look to rip the NFC West crown from the 49ers' clutches.
If you don't know anything about the Seahawks' defense, read my breakdown here.
20. Philadelphia Eagles Offense
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Last year, the health of Michael Vick curtailed the success of the Eagles offense. This year, the loss of Jason Peters has hurt them before the season has even begun. Peters was easily the best left tackle in the NFL last year and was vital to the success of both the run and the pass.
Demetress Bell replaced him but will not be able to do everything that Peters did in the offensive scheme. Bell, prior to last season, wasn't considered among the better tackles in the league. He is well-respected for his performances last year but is still nowhere near the best tackles in the league.
At the very leas,t the Eagles brought back one of the best guards in the league with Evan Mathis this offseason.
LeSean McCoy should be delighted to be back on the field after earning his new deal last year. McCoy will be hurt by losing Peters but has enough talent to succeed in spite of that loss. If Michael Vick can stay healthy, it will prevent teams from zoning in on him also.
DeSean Jackson should be much more determined and focused on the field this year after being somewhat distant last year. Jackson has to be the home run hitter in order to provide more space for Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek to work.
19. Houston Texans Offense
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The Texans offense survived last year with T.J. Yates at quarterback and Andre Johnson struggling to stay healthy. Johnson should be 100 percent this year while Matt Schaub will be back under center. Schaub's impact on this offense will be massive as Ben Tate and Arian Foster continue to dominate running the ball.
It will hurt to lose Eric Winston, but the team still has one of the best left tackles in the league, Duane Brown, and center Chris Myers as part of an excellent run-blocking scheme. Establishing the run will be key, and James Casey will likely see more time at fullback.
Losing Joel Dreessen will hurt, but a lot of Dressen's yardage last year came on play-action when he was wide open from scheme rather than his own ability. Dreessen should be easily replaced, and it was more important to keep Owen Daniels.
Daniels is the team's second best receiver behind Johnson, but they may have an improved receiving corps this year. If DeVier Posey can beat out Kevin Walter to become a play making receiver across from Andre Johnson, the Texans offense would really diversify.
Getting Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub back is the most important move for the Texans this year. Keeping them healthy is even more important.
18. Houston Texans Defense
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Just like the San Francisco 49ers, I am somewhat wary of trusting the Houston Texans defense entering next year. Having one good season is impressive, but repeating that is often even more difficult than breaking through in the first place.
Wade Phillips is undoubtedly a fantastic defensive coordinator with plenty of experience, but the defense on the field has lost leaders this offseason. Demeco Ryans may not have been that important on the field, but he was important in the locker room. Ryans and Mario Williams leave behind them a relatively young front seven.
Brian Cushing will be looked to to lead the group while Darryl Sharpton will step into Ryans' role on the field. Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin should start on the outside again despite the addition of Whitney Mercilus in the first round of the draft. Mercilus will likely allow the Texans to use some creative packages on passing downs.
J.J. Watt has to continue on from his rookie year which isn't always easy when the bar is set so high, but I wouldn't bet against him. Shaun Cody and Antonio Smith return as starters after excellent years last year as well.
While the Texans' front is lacking experience, the back end certainly has enough. Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning are long-time veterans while Glover Quin and Kareem Jackson are no longer young players either.
17. Philadelphia Eagles Defense
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I wasn't optimistic about the Eagles before last season, but this year I expect them to be largely improved on both sides of the football. The biggest reason is that the Eagles have actually taken the running game into account on defense this year.
Bringing in Fletcher Cox should solidify the run defense and maybe even cover the fact that Jason Babin adds nothing when teams run the ball. With Trent Cole, Cox and Cullen Jenkins up front, the Eagles have three legitimately dominant defensive linemen against both the run and the pass.
With Babin, Brandon Graham and Mike Patterson also involved, the Eagles will once again be able to swallow up quarterbacks and running backs with their defensive line alone. This year they won't need to, however.
Bringing in Demeco Ryans may be bringing in a one-dimensional football player, but it is the one dimension the Eagles were desperate for last year. Ryans is a two-down player at this stage, unless he dramatically improves over last year. He will be the physical presence that the Eagles need to prevent teams running down their throats.
Rookie Mychal Kendricks and impressive second year player Brian Rolle should dramatically improve that area of the defense as a whole.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Nnamdi Asomugha and Joselio Hanson should be a lot better this year at cornerback, but the key for the Eagles secondary is at safety. Nate Allen needs to step up as a playmaker while Jaiquawn Jarrett should push Kurt Coleman for his starting spot.
16. Buffalo Bills Defense
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The Bills have really made some waves with their defensive additions this offseason. However, their defensive success will rely on some faces who are already pretty familiar in Buffalo.
Defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus should create the best defensive tackle pairing in the NFL next year as the team transitions to a 4-3 defense. Dareus and Williams can both take over games as pass rushers but also shut down running games.
Dealing with those two inside becomes even harder when they are flanked by free-agent additions Mark Anderson and Mario Williams. Williams and Anderson should be able to get plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks off the edges next year that will need to be capitalized on by the secondary.
Adding Stephon Gilmore to the secondary appears to be a reaction to the New England Patriots' pairing at tight end. Gilmore is added to a very opportunistic secondary that should lead the league in turnovers next year if all goes to plan.
The Bills will worry about their group of linebackers, though, as it is difficult to see Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison being effective as outside backers in a 4-3.
15. Dallas Cowboys Defense
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The Cowboys defense had one major problem last year: the secondary. This offseason has had a clear theme to it as Rob Ryan was given a few new toys to play with.
Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne will be major players for the Cowboys' success at cornerback, while Brodney Pool comes over from the New York Jets to give the team a viable starting safety. Carr is an excellent man-cover corner who will need to help Claiborne adjust to the NFL as quickly as possible. Mike Jenkins could excel with a lesser role if he is not cut.
It is still possible that either Jenkins or Orlando Scandrick are moved to free safety over Gerald Sensabzugh, but they would need to prove their steel as tacklers. A more underrated addition the Cowboys made is Dan Connor, who should also improve the coverage on the back end.
Connor will pair with impressive young inside linebacker Sean Lee. Lee is a tackling machine while Connor has been desperate for an opportunity to start playing behind Jon Beason in recent times. Connor does have to adjust to a new scheme, but that shouldn't be an issue come the start of the season.
All of those improvements on the back end should have major ramifications up front. Anthony Spencer returns to play outside linebacker across from DeMarcus Ware while the defensive line remains intact from last year.
This year is going to be particularly intriguing for Ware. He had a great year last year, as he seemingly always does, but could be looking to chase down Michael Strahan's sack record with the improvements in the secondary this year.
14. Chicago Bears Defense
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Shea McClellin should be a massive addition to the Bears' front seven. McClellin will likely be moved around the defense the way Von Miller was in Denver last year as Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers look to rush the passer.
Peppers and Idonije will receive a lot less attention from offenses if McClellin can establish himself as a pass-rushing threat. Life in the front seven is exactly what the Bears need as the aging group will look to Matt Toeaina, Henry Melton and Stephen Paea, who will be joined by John McCargo at defensive tackle.
Geno Hayes will provide good backup at linebacker and could be used in certain packages because of his different skill set, but Lance Briggs' new deal will prove to be the biggest deal for the Bears defense. If Briggs is happy and focused on football, he should return to being an All-Pro caliber player.
Bringing back Tim Jennings was vital after a huge 2012 season while adding Kelvin Hayden to compete to be the nickel corner should improve the secondary. The Bears defense suddenly doesn't seem as old as it is portrayed, but Brian Urlacher certainly needs to fight off father time if they are to have success this year.
13. New York Giants Offense
The Giants had some level of retooling to do on their offense this offseason without touching the offensive line. Considering their position in the draft, they managed to get excellent playmakers to replace lost pieces.
Rueben Randle should be a good receiver on the outside to replace Mario Manningham, but he doesn't have the same physical skills. Manningham was a great fit for the Giants because both he and Hakeem Nicks created matchup issues outside that afforded space for Victor Cruz to work inside.
How Cruz performs in his second prominent year in the NFL will be crucial for this offense as teams will now be game-planning for him. Bill Belichick was able to completely take him out of the Super Bowl last year when Manningham stepped up; whether Randle will be able to do that is another thing.
Jerrel Jernigan could also be an option at receiver.
David Wilson was brought in to replace Brandon Jacobs and should be an upgrade over the temperamental veteran. Wilson will be running with Ahmad Bradshaw while Martellus Bennett was brought in through free agency to help the running game more than the passing game.
This offense will once again rely on Eli Manning's toughness and intelligence to overcome the limitations of the offensive line. That isn't asking too much of the Super Bowl MVP.
12. Chicago Bears Offense
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Mike Martz may be an offensive guru, but he did not do enough to protect Jay Cutler in Chicago. Martz is now gone to be replaced by former offensive line coach Mike Tice. Tice should dramatically change the identity of the Bears offense.
Adding Michael Bush to the backfield and retaining Matt Forte should allow the Bears to pound the ball inside and establish the run to slow the pass rush. With the return of right tackle Gabe Carimi, the Bears will have a big body mauler to run behind next year.
A strong running game should help the development of an improving, but still below average, offensive line. Even though he is the offensive coordinator now, Tice will be desperate to focus on the development of guys like Carimi and J'Marcus Webb.
Jay Cutler could be a dark horse for the MVP this year with Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall added to his receiving corps. His relationship with Marshall is well-known as the two excelled together with the Denver Broncos previously. Having Jeffery play across from him will make it impossible for opposing defenses to match up to Cutler or try to blitz him often.
With those two drawing coverage outside, Earl Bennett may be in for a massive season while Devin Hester will be trying to sneak behind safeties.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers Offense
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Mike Wallace will have no option but to suit up for the Steelers this year as the CBA doesn't allow for holdouts anymore. With Wallace back, the Steelers have a very deep receiving corps once again this year. He and Antonio Brown will be the starters while Jerricho Cotchery returns as the third receiver, but Emmanuel Sanders is expecting a breakout year.
With Todd Haley as the offensive coordinator, the Steelers' receivers should be in for a huge year. The passing game as a whole is what the Steelers will rely on this year as Ben Roethlisberger looks to escape the limitations of Bruce Arians' offense and play with even greater freedom.
Adding two new offensive linemen this year will really help keep Roethlisberger healthy and help him into his 30s. Both Mike Adams and David DeCastro are slated to start for the moment, but Max Starks may return at left tackle.
With Adams and DeCastro in the lineup, the Steelers have their most talented offensive line since the 2005 season. Marcus Gilbert and Maurkice Pouncey were also recent high draft picks while the return of Willie Colon, and subsequent shift to guard, will really improve the unit.
Rashard Mendenhall doesn't figure to be much of a factor this year, but a committee of Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and, in particular, rookie Chris Rainey should be able to complement the passing game effectively.
Bruce Arians, a tight end aficionado, may be gone, but Heath Miller should continue to be a vital offensive piece as a cornerstone for both the pass and running attack.
10. New York Giants Defense
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Dave Tollefson is the biggest loss to this defense this offseason. Most of you won't even know who he is. Tollefson is one of the backup pass rushers who served in the rotation. Considering the Giants are losing him and keeping the rest of their Super Bowl winning defense in tact, things are looking good in New York, at least for the Giants.
While Tollefson leaves, Osi Umenyiora is still on the roster with Shaun Rogers and Marvin Austin being added to replace him in the pass rush. Rogers and Austin may be defensive tackles, but the Giants will likely use Rogers as creatively as possible.
Bringing Keith Rivers in also affords the Giants enough flexibility to move Mathias Kiwanuka to defensive end in certain packages. Rivers is a talented linebacker who simply struggled to produce in Cincinnati. A change of scenery could get the best out of him.
The Giants' secondary returns a key piece this year with Terrell Thomas coming back. Thomas and Corey Webster are too of the most under-appreciated players in the league who could have massive years with Jason Pierre-Paul and company going wild up front.
9. Kansas City Chiefs Defense
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With key players returning from injury on both sides of the ball, the Chiefs have an excellent chance of shocking everyone in the NFL next year with a deep playoff run. If that is to happen, it will be the team's defense that leads them there.
Eric Berry's health will be key as he returns from a torn ACL. Berry has a better chance at returning to 100-percent performance instantly than most because his injury occurred at the very start of last season. Berry's absence last year did allow Kendrick Lewis to step up as a leader at the other safety position. They would have started together last year anyway, but Berry's absence saw Lewis take on more responsibility on the field.
Brandon Carr may be gone, but Stanford Routt coming in as a second starter should be a more than capable replacement. Routt struggled last year with the Raiders when Nnamdi Asomugha left but had a great season previously as the No. 2 guy.
The Chiefs' front seven is where the real improvement has come, however. Justin Houston stepped up towards the end of last season and should be a good foil for Tamba Hali next year. Both players have excellent pass-rushing abilities.
With Houston and Hali coming off the edges, Dontari Poe inside will allow the Chiefs to collapse the whole pocket on opposing quarterbacks this year. Poe will be protected in the running game by two of the biggest and most effective run stuffing defensive ends in the NFL—Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson.
8. New Orleans Saints Offense
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Presuming that Drew Brees eventually returns to the Saints, the offense should still be elite even without Sean Payton. Payton's presence will be missed as he is too good a coach to simply not be there and have no ill effects.
On the field, the Saints have made some good moves to keep their offense on track. Losing Carl Nicks hurt initially, but replacing him with Ben Grubbs was a great move. Grubbs isn't the best guard in the NFL, but he's one of the better players at the position and fits perfectly in the Saints' balanced philosophy.
Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles should be the primary options for Brees again this year, but don't overlook the return of Marques Colston. Colston is a good receiver, if not one of the best in the NFL. He will be asked to pick up some of the slack from the loss of Robert Meachem but shouldn't have a problem with that.
Lance Moore and Devery Henderson still remain while Graham and Sproles are essentially receivers anyway.
Running the ball may not be as easy this year as Mark Ingram is having health issues this offseason. It may end up being nothing, but it has to be a worry for fans as he already had some, albeit minor, question marks over his knee coming out of college.
Of course, the key is Brees.
7. San Diego Chargers Offense
Philip Rivers had a horrible year last year, but if you actually watched the Chargers play, you would understand that not all of it was his doing. The Chargers' offensive line really let Rivers down in protection, and many of his mistakes were forced throws as a result.
With Jared Gaither as his starting left tackle, Rivers should continue the hot streak he finished on last year. Jeromey Clary's presence at right tackle is still worrisome, but Rivers should be able to handle some pressure providing he gets some level of help.
Ryan Mathews will be looking to push on after breaking out last year at running back. His partner in the backfield, Mike Tolbert, may have found a new home in Carolina, but Le'Ron McClain is a dynamic presence to fill his role.
Losing Vincent Jackson shouldn't hurt as much as it would initially seem. Second-year player Vincent Brown should break out while Robert Meachem and Malcolm Floyd are fine outside receivers to go with Eddie Royal in the slot.
Rivers has proven in the past that he can get the very best out of his receiving corps regardless of who lines up outside. Prolonging Antonio Gates' career and keeping Rivers upright are the two primary question marks hanging over this offense's head.
6. Dallas Cowboys Offense
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Tony Romo had a bad year last year, right? He played behind a confused offensive line dealing with his own injuries and injuries to players around him and finished the year with 31 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 4,184 yards and a 66-percent completion rating...yeah, terrible.
With Tyron Smith looking to switch to the left side and the offensive line as a whole gelling together, the Cowboys shouldn't struggle as much upfront this year. Smith has all the tools to be an elite left tackle while Doug Free will be happier on the right side. Nate Livings isn't a star but should help inside with Phil Costa at center and Mackenzy Bernadeau also coming in from Carolina.
Keeping Romo upright will be the only task as he still has his dominant tight end, Jason Witten, to catch passes with Dez Bryant and Miles Austin once again leading the wide receiver corps.
The Cowboys should have excellent balance next year if running back DeMarco Murray can stay healthy. It's difficult to judge Murray's durability after just one season in the NFL, but you'd have to be blind not to see his talent on the field last year.
Murray showed every sign you want from a player looking to be a feature back. He ran hard, was explosive, intelligent and was a threat coming out of the backfield in the passing game. Murray also had only one fumble in 190 total touches.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers Defense
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The Steelers defense really struggled last years with injuries. When LaMarr Woodley was fully healthy and on the field, he was dominant, notching nine sacks in 10 games. That feat is even more impressive when you consider that James Harrison was missing for many of those games.
With Harrison and Woodley fully healthy for 16 games again next year, the Steelers already-stellar defense should improve vastly.
Replacing James Farrior with Larry Foote will actually improve the team as Farrior should have been replaced prior to last year. However, there is no replacement for Casey Hampton. Steve McLendon is a stout backup nose tackle who gave the team good minutes last year, but he and rookie Alameda Ta'Amu have a tough task on their hands without long-time backup Chris Hoke to help either.
Aaron Smith has retired, but Evander Hood and Cameron Heyward were drafted in anticipation of that while Brett Keisel should be recovered from his groin injury in time for training camp. Scarily for the rest of the AFC, the Steelers have a better secondary than they have had in years.
Ryan Clark is coming off possibly his best year ever in coverage for the Steelers while Troy Polamalu should finally be fully healthy again. The real difference comes at cornerback, however, as the team's new young corners add a new dynamic to the group.
Gone are Deshea Townsend, Bryant McFadden and William Gay to be replaced by a new prototype of cornerback. The Steelers now have rangy cornerbacks capable of playing man coverage opposed to previous years when they relied on smaller players who were often taken advantage of.
Keenan Lewis and Ike Taylor will be starters while Cortez Allen comes in as the new nickel back. Allen is a second-year player who had a very promising rookie season, including a magnificent performance against Rob Gronkowski in single coverage.
4. Detroit Lions Offense
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The Detroit Lions are clearly looking to build their offense in the mold of the Green Bay Packers. Instead of drafting a guard like David DeCastro in the first round, the Lions went out and grabbed tackle Riley Reiff.
Despite already having Jeff Backus as their starting left tackle, Reiff's pass-protecting skills were too attractive to the Lions as they look to compensate for a lesser running game with a dominant passing attack.
You cannot blame the Lions for trying to protect Matthew Stafford, as he proved last year that he is on the verge of being an elite quarterback. Stafford needs to sustain his success and continue to grow despite putting up huge numbers last year. He is already a very good quarterback, though.
If Kevin Smith, Jahvid Best or Mikel LeShoure can revive the running game next year, this offense is going to be unstoppable. Unstoppable is exactly the word to describe wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew, Nate Burleson, Tony Scheffler and Titus Young are joined on the outside by second-round pick Ryan Broyles.
Just like the Packers, the Lions are willing to invest in weapons to help their quarterback even when it isn't an obvious need.
3. San Francisco 49ers Defense
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The 49ers defense has only one question mark hanging over their cumulative head this year. From a talent perspective, the 49ers have no issues. They are a near-perfect Xs and Os defense. Mentally they need to understand consistency and how to react to success.
Sustainability is not easily attained in the NFL. Just like Victor Cruz needs to prove himself over more than one season, the 49ers' whole defense must rebound from a historic campaign. While there is nothing certain with any team from year to year, there is a certain pedigree that the 49ers need to establish before I can completely trust them.
The talent speaks for itself. Led by Justin Smith on the defensive line, the 49ers have a cripplingly good front seven that sets the tone and allows their back four to have success. NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis should get better as they grow as a partnership, but there are some question marks over star pass rusher Aldon Smith entering next year.
Unlike Von Miller in Denver, Smith didn't play every down as a rookie. The fact he was a situational pass rusher for most of the season is often used in his favor to praise how good his pass-rushing skills are, but it does make you wonder about his abilities against the run.
Generally, the more exposure a player gets, the more his flaws become apparent. This could very easily happen with Smith in San Francisco. I'm not expecting it, but neither am I ruling it out.
2. Green Bay Packers Offense
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The Packers just miss out on top spot here, but I really mean just. With reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers not likely to slow down next year, the Packers have my favorite to win the award again this year on their roster. Rodgers is simply phenomenal, but you don't need me to tell you that.
While I suspect the offense to have another huge year, and still gave them the grade I did, one must worry about the offensive line and running game. The simple fact is if Rodgers wasn't the quarterback in Green Bay, the offense would be around a B/B- if an average player replaced him.
James Starks needs to learn how to run hard, and in the right direction, while Brandon Saine has potential but is unproven. John Kuhn will be another big factor for the Packers this year coming out of the backfield, while I wouldn't be shocked if Ryan Grant returned at some point.
Marshall Newhouse is not an overly impressive left tackle, but he is capable, while Bryan Bulaga had an excellent year last year. The line is solid overall and should improve with the addition of veteran Jeff Saturday inside. Saturday could be the perfect addition for the Packers in the locker room as he is likely to be desperate to win this year after struggling so much with the Colts.
That said, the Packers still have seriously scary receiving weapons.
Jermichael Finley can only improve after a down year last year while Randall Cobb and James Jones will likely be asked to feature more if Donald Driver struggles. There is no slowing down in Greg Jennings or Jordy Nelson, though. Both should continue to dominate their opposition, catching passes from the best quarterback in football.
1. New England Patriots Offense
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The Patriots added the perfect finishing touch to their offensive arsenal this offseason for Tom Brady to attack the record books (again) this year. Brandon Lloyd may not be the biggest name in the business, but his skill-set perfectly fits the Patriots offense.
With an offense based on mismatches and catching the defense off balance, adding a speedster like Lloyd, who can also run a full route tree opposed to just being a deep threat, gives the Patriots a dimension that wasn't there last season.
If teams try to double team Rob Gronkowski this year, they expose themselves not only to Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker, but also Lloyd now. With that kind of attack on the outside and an elite quarterback in the backfield, the Patriots will be able to light up the scoreboard on a weekly basis.
The one struggle this team will potentially have to endure this year is on the offensive line. Losing Matt Light will hurt as Nate Solder may be talented, but he is unproven as a long-term left tackle. It is not always easy to adjust to a starting role, especially in a key position such as left tackle.
Logan Mankins' health is undoubtedly a worry entering the year after dealing with a torn ACL last year while Brian Waters may or may not have one more season in him. Robert Gallery provides good cover, but the Seattle Seahawks weren't exactly delighted with him last year while the center position has plenty of options but no clear starter.
Even though starting running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is now a Cincinnati Bengal, the Patriots actually become more dynamic in the backfield with Stevan Ridley stepping up. Expect the Patriots' running game to be manned by committee once again.
The return of Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator cannot be understated and should provide a boost to everyone.