NFL Offseason Power Rankings: The Mini-Camp Edition
OTAs, injuries, and holdouts have begun to reshape the post-draft NFL rosters. With only two grueling months of minicamps before preseason, teams shuffle depth charts, work to install plays, build chemistry and try to get up to speed.
All are vying for the Lombardi Trophy, but only one will reach it. Here is an early assessment of who will be the contenders, the pretenders and the division punching bags.
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1. Green Bay Packers
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Other than their slip-up in Kansas City, the Packers were the dominant force of the regular season. Aaron Rodgers and his aerial assault has improved with the addition of veteran center Jeff Saturday, who formerly protected Peyton and knows a thing or two about leading a championship-caliber offensive line.
Count on seeing lots of "Discount Double Checks" and some nifty Dancing With the Stars choreographed end-zone dances.
Recognizing the Pack's soft spot on defense, GM Ted Thompson oriented their first three picks on young stars who would support Raji, Woodson, and Matthews. ESPN Insider rumors that both OLB Nick Perry (Round 1) and DE Jerel Worthy (Round 2) have already begun to work in with the first string and have a solid shot of starting come August.
Expect Green Bay to come out of the offseason ready to win. Their Week 1 match up with San Francisco will not disappoint.
2. New England Patriots
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Bill Belichick, who typically hoards his draft picks, instead traded up twice to get LB Dont'a Hightower and DE Chandler Jones to replace free-agent pass-rusher Mark Anderson. The Pats also signed safety Steve Gregory, defensive linemen Trevor Scott and Jonathan Fanene.
These moves were aimed at fixing a dysfunctional defense that couldn't even slow down a quarterback-less Miami Dolphins last year. But if all else fails, let Tom Brady just outscore the other team.
In addition to Gronk and Hernandez, the Patriots resigned Deion Branch and Brady's favorite little target, Wes Welker. But if that wasn't enough, the front office added a whole new receiving arsenal, including Dante Stallworth, Jabbar Gaffney, and their biggest offseason move, Brandon Lloyd.
In the backfield will be a healthy rotation of the new additions of Joseph Addai, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vreen. Of course, no Patriots' offseason would be complete without signing at least one semi-washed-up veteran—Al Davis's first-round RG Robert Gallery.
The Patriots released former first-rounder Anthony Gonzalez this week.
3. Denver Broncos
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If there is anyone in the league capable of transforming a team, it is Peyton Manning. YahooSports.com reports that his rehabilitation has come along great, that he is gaining arm strength and is already beginning to air the ball out at Denver's OTA.
But before you pencil the Broncos into the AFC Championship, Manning has yet to be tested physically, and one hit could be disastrous. If this Mile High free agency signing comes crashing down, backup Caleb Hanie may be used as a floatation devise.
If the Bronco defense was strong enough to carry a sub-par quarterback to the playoffs last year, then they certainly can do it again if Peyton ends up on the DL. All things are looking up in Denver.
4. San Francisco 49ers
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The league-leading San Francisco defense will be returning all of its starters, with the exception of safety Dashon "The Ball Hawk" Goldson, who, despite being tagged franchise player, has yet to accept any contract offers.
With the defense in place, GM Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh spent most of the offseason strengthening the lackluster offense. Randy Moss came out of retirement, as Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins were added to a depleted wide-receiver core.
In the backfield, Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James were added to take some of the work load off of Frank Gore. Alex Smith, who was always just good enough but never exceptional, has spent the offseason working hard to improve accuracy and mechanics. The only remaining question is, will Harbaugh let Kyle Williams return punts again?
Although the Niners return to practice with a stronger team than last year, it is unlikely they will top their 13-3 record. Their schedule is the hardest in the league as they are expected to face five playoff teams, including the Giants, the Lions, the Packers, the Saints and the Patriots.
5. Houston Texans
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The Texans withstood adversity better than any team in the NFL last year, watching their three star offensive players—Andre Johnson, Matt Schaub and Arian Foster—go down at different portions of the season.
Schaub is still tooling around on a scooter with his leg in a cast as Case Keenum and T.J. Yates take the OTA snaps. The Texans have untested receivers, a rookie kicker, and a brand new right side of their O-line.
Another concern is the offseason loss of Mario Williams. Keep an eye out for second-year player J.J. Watts, whose hard work ethic might be enough to fill the gap left by Williams.
Despite some of these questions, the Texans have a lot of talent and will be virtually uncontested in the AFC South.
6. New York Giants
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The Giants, although finishing the regular season 8-8, stormed through the playoffs and to their second Super Bowl victory over the Patriots. However, the journey for a repeat continuously gets steeper as early injuries plague the team.
Hakeem Nicks fractured his foot and is expected to miss three months, while CB David Witherspoon tore his ACL. Osi Umenyiora has yet to report to OTAs, and the Giants will have to fill the holes that Manningham and Jacobs left.
Plus, the NFC East has gotten stronger this offseason. Dallas strengthened its defense, Washington drafted RG3 and the trio of Vick, McCoy and Jackson are always a threat. The Big Apple means big expectations; Manning and company will be expected to deliver.
7. Detroit Lions
Mikel Leshoure was arrested twice this offseason
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Coming off a strong season and the re-signing of key players Calvin Johnson and Stephen Tulloch, the optimism of the Detroit Lions' potential next season has been overshadowed by off-field shenanigans.
There have already been four arrests, including Mikel Leshoure twice (pictured above), Johnny Culbreath and Nick Fairley. In addition, receiver Titus Young has been suspended after sucker-punching teammate Louis Delmas during a voluntary workout. Jim Schwartz better get control of his team before they turn into the Cincinnati Bengals.
As for on the field, the Lions are shallow at the cornerback position and need to keep injury-prone running back Jahvid Best healthy. Expect to see Stafford and Megatron connecting for many touchdowns and another playoff push.
8. Philadelphia Eagles
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The self-attributed "Dream Team" quickly unfolded into a nightmare as injuries and sloppy play plagued the Eagles.
If we were talking strictly fantasy football, the Eagles' power ranking would be through the roof with Vick, Jackson and McCoy. But we're not. Changes had to be made before the 2012 season.
They cleaned house and focused first on their O-line, retaining Todd Herremans and Demetress Bell (to replace injured Jason Peters). Keeping Vick healthy is absolutely critical, considering he has yet to play a full season in his career.
Once DeSean's contract was negotiated, Philadelphia turned to its defense, signing Trent Cole and trading for DeMeco Ryans. They drafted two new D-linemen ,Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry, and Pac-12 star linebacker Mychal Kendricks.
The Eagles better leave the swagger in the 2011-2012 season and bring their lunch pails and blue-collar attitude because the playoffs will not be an easy feat coming from the NFC East.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers
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The Steelers have found themselves in a precarious position this offseason with the addition of Todd Haley as offensive coordinator. Apparently Haley doesn't believe in the adage if it ain't broke don't fix it or he knows something that nobody else does, because upon arriving in Pittsburgh, he scrapped the entire existing playbook.
The new installations have left many of the veteran players frustrated, including Roethlisberger, who compared learning the system to Rosetta Stone (h/t USA Today). The Steelers find themselves behind the gun this season, memorizing plays as opposed to getting in rhythm.
Even worse, none of their new draftees will be available for either of their OTA sessions because of college graduations. There are also questions about Roethlisberger and Mendenhall's durability as both are coming off of injuries.
With that all said, the Steelers are still a strong team and will be competitive late in the season as always.
10. Baltimore Ravens
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As John Eisenberg put it (h/t baltimoreravens.com), "Let’s just say the Ravens aren’t out shopping for a frame to put around this offseason so they can hang it on the wall for posterity."
Up against a draft that didn't quite go their way, a devastating Achilles injury to Terrell Suggs, the loss of three starters to free agency, an aging Ray Lewis, and slow-moving contract negotiations with Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, the Ravens find themselves looking for solutions that just aren't readily available.
If things fall into place, they could put together another strong run into the playoffs. But if things don't, this could be an off year for Baltimore.
11. Cincinnati Bengals
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The Cincinnati Bengals made the biggest splash in the AFC North this offseason, acquiring veteran free agents such as BenJarvus Green-Ellis from New England, Travelle Wharton from Carolina, and Jason Allen from Houston.
They also re-signed Adam Jones and Reggie Nelson, and drafted Dre Kirkpatrick to shore up their secondary. Up front, they retained Anthony Collins and drafted guard Kevin Zeitler.
If Dalton continues to improve, and the new secondary can stand up to Roethlisberger and the Steelers, the Bengals could be the favorites to take the division.
12. Chicago Bears
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After having playoff hopes stifled by late season injuries, Chicago is looking to a healthy Matt Forte and Jay Cutler to challenge the Packers for the NFC North division title. An optimistic columnist writes, "The Bears' offense could look a lot like the Minnesota Vikings' offensive from 2002-05, when current offensive coordinator Mike Tice was the Vikings' head coach."
GM Phil Emery brought in disruptive receiver Brandon Marshall with hopes of reigniting a connection with former teammate Jay Cutler. Even though Forte's knee is still in question (he is skipping OTAs), Michael Bush is a strong second option at running back.
If the Bears' offense can click, they can make a push for the wild card. If the Packers perform anywhere in the realm of last year, winning the division is unlikely.
13. Atlanta Falcons
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The Falcons, after getting manhandled first by Drew Brees and then by the New York Giants to close out their season, needed to make some serious changes to remain competitive. Instead, the free agents they signed served mostly as safety valves for negotiating tenders i.e. Lofu Tatupu in case Curtis Lofton didn't resign.
Granted, the Falcons have some raw talent in Julio Jones, Matt Ryan and Michael Turner, but with the Saints in turmoil, the Panthers too young and the Buccaneers under a new coach, the division is practically theirs for the taking.
But without a big offseason move, they left an opening for the Saints to outplay them down the stretch once more. Their mediocre offseason suggests a mediocre finish.
14. Dallas Cowboys
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This is a make-or-break season for Tony Romo, who is beginning to feel the heat from the fans and especially the owner, Jerry Jones. Jones recently made a flippant remark about "the window closing on the Dallas Cowboys."
Local critics have already drawn a potential comparison of Romo and this upcoming season to 2003, in which Parcells permanently benched Drew Bledsoe. Ironically enough, 2003 was the year Romo got his big break and became the starting quarterback for America's Team, and nearly ten years later he's facing the guillotine too.
In other words, be prepared for lots of twists and turns in the continuous soap opera that is the Dallas Cowboys.
During early OTAs, the running back duo of DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones looked really promising. Murray is running at full speed, his broken ankle fully healed.
There seems to be an injury bug that has caught all of the rookies. Morris Claiborne is out for wrist surgery. Wideout Danny Coal broke his foot and Linebacker Kyle Wilbur broke a finger.
Staying healthy is critical for the Cowboys' success. Jones gave the secondary a much needed revamp. Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer will continue to terrorize quarterbacks, which will be important considering the quarterbacks in the East.
15. San Diego Chargers
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The Chargers did a really good job replacing everyone that they lost to free agency, such as signing Robert Meachem for Vincent Jackson, Eddie Royal for Patrick Crayton, Charlie Whitehurst for Billy Volek, Jarret Johnson for Travis LaBoy, etc.
Their disappointing finish last season wasn't due to lack of talent but lack of focus. Phillip Rivers is as good of a quarterback as anyone in the league, provided his head is in the game. He can't afford to fumble snaps late inside the two minute warning or throw the ball out of bounds on fourth and long.
Last year should have been an easy trip to the playoffs for the Chargers, but now they are up against Peyton Manning and a healthy Chiefs team. Rivers and company will just have to chalk last year up as Norv Turner's fault and pick up where they left off at the very end of the season, with an aggressive downfield passing attack and good secondary defense.
16. New York Jets
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Ryan lost the belly, dropping 90 lbs, and hopefully after his team's meltdown towards the end of last season he lost some of his mouth too. The Jets need to spend less time in the media and more time playing football, especially since the acquisition of Tim Tebow has really put them under the microscope.
A media lightning rod himself, Tebow has helped diffuse much of the attention from his teammates and allow them to focus on preparing for the season. The impending quarterback competition at OTA will either push Sanchez to play at a higher level or expose the Jets' weakness at the quarterback position.
If Tebow is used correctly, a Wildcat back like Brad Smith, New York could catch a lot of defenses on their heels.
Outside of Tebow-mania, the Jets signed LaRon Landry and Yaramiah Bell. The biggest question mark on defense is whether team leader Jim Leonhard can stay healthy and if he will remain a Jet. First-round draft pick Quinton Coples is already working in with the first team.
Coming from the Patriots division, the Jets will either need to play flawlessly or shoot for the wild card.
17. Kansas City Chiefs
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Cassel's lack of consistency in Kansas City has fans clamoring for a quarterback battle. Newly signed Brady Quinn is eager for another chance to start in the league, and with offensive weapons such as Dwayne Bowe and Jamaal Charles, there is potential for success.
Outside of quarterback, the next big concern is health. Charles is reportedly at 80 percent strength, according to KC insider Josh Looney. The running back will spend the next couple of weeks trying to regain his strength and weight before he joins the team's activities.
The Chiefs could be good, or they could finish like last year. It's always hard to tell; the AFC West is pretty much a lottery.
18. Tennessee Titans
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The Titans have found themselves somewhere between has-been Hasselbeck and up-and-coming Jake Locker.
GM Rustin Weber insists that the starting quarterback won't be selected based on stats but an overall "gut feeling" (h/t kcchiefs.com). Of course, there is plenty of time for this battle to play itself out before either quarterback will be outright declared the starter.
Chris Johnson is attending OTAs for the first time in Tennessee, after his disappointing performance last year. Johnson entered the season as the premiere back, held out for a substantial contract and then proceeded to take the rest of the season off. He will need to perform with the numbers the Titans are paying him for.
Receiver Nate Washington had a breakout year when Kenny Britt went down. The Titans will be looking for a combination of Washington Britt and rookie Kendall Wright to open things up down field for their TBD starting quarterback.
19. Seattle Seahawks
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Pete Carroll has created a three-way quarterback competition between recently signed Matt Flynn, Tavaris Jackson and rookie Russell Wilson.
Seattle also managed to retain Marshawn Lynch before free agency and without having to pull teeth. He will be the linchpin to their offense next season.
The Seahawks are in need of a tight end after John Carlson left. Carroll favors many play packages form the two tight-end set, particularly in running situations, and if that hole isn't filled, the Seahawks will have to get creative offensively.
On the injury front, receiver Golden Tate currently has his hand in a cast. O-linemen Russell Okung and John Moffit are easing their way back into the practice rotation after finishing last season on the DL.
20. Buffalo Bills
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The Mario Williams pickup was the blockbuster free agent signing this offseason. His $100 million dollar contract made him the highest paid defensive player in the league. Williams and Mark Anderson will harass quarterbacks all season long.
On the offensive side, GM Buddy Nix held on to Fred Jackson with a two-year extension and resigned Mark Anderson.
The weapons are all there for Buffalo to be a good team; the issue is Fitzpatrick's consistency. He has games where he can drop the ball in over any defense and then other days where even Tebow has a higher completion percentage.
It is also important to note that the 5-2 record they jumped out to came from several late-game heroics. Fitzpatrick and Buffalo have yet to prove they can control the tempo of a game offensively. The Bills in 2011 seemed to live and die off of momentum.
This year they should try to grind teams down with Fred Jackson, like the 49ers use Frank Gore, and let Fitzpatrick expose secondaries with play action.
21. Arizona Cardinals
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The Cardinals drafted a young receiver, Michael Floyd, 13th overall, with hopes of reestablishing the Boldin Fitzgerald-type dynamics sure to give secondaries a headache.
There is still intrigue over who will be throwing the passes. Arizona dropped $63 million for Kevin Kolb only to find out they had picked up a right-handed Matt Leinart.
Skeltor was a pleasant surprise in their 6-2 finish to the season, but they also drafted Ryan Lindley, who has gradually been working his way into the mix.
Without a true starting quarterback, and Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams on the shelf following knee surgeries, the likelihood of Arizona making a run at the division seems glib. However, they are a team who can get hot and string wins together.
One positive takeaway from this offseason was the pickup of William Gay to plug up the secondary with the electrifying Patrick Peterson.
22. Carolina Panthers
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Things are always looking up with Cam Newton under center. Newton jumped right in and provided an explosive offense for Carolina and resurrected Steve Smith's career.
The Panthers supported their young quarterback by strengthening their defense. They drafted Boston's LB Luke Kuechly, which left analysts with mixed emotions. Without a doubt Kuechly is a great linebacker, but Carolina failed to address their decrepit defensive line.
Without building up their run stoppers up front, Carolina will still struggle defensively this season. Huge holes defensively still loom, making a comparable finish to last year's 6-10 an imminent fate.
23. Washington Redskins
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Mike Shanahan needed to change things drastically if he was going to preserve his job, so he traded up and got RG3. The Skins have hopes that Griffin and Leonard Hankerson will vibe and become an unstoppable tandem for many years to come.
The real head-scratcher of the draft was Washington picking up Kirk Cousins in the fourth round. Whether Shanahan was bust-protecting or trying to ignite quarterback competition in camp is unclear. Nonetheless, RG3 looks sharp already at OTA.
Griffin will be electrifying, but the Redskins have many holes in both their offense and defense, which, coupled with a typical NFL learning curve at quarterback, will keep them from being contenders just yet.
24. St. Louis Rams
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Th Rams overhauled their coaching staff, bringing in Jeff Fischer as head coach, and Brian Schottenheimer came over from New york to fill the offensive coordinator position.
They brought in some support for Bradford by drafting Brian Quick, the big strong receiver type, and Chris Givens, the beat-him-deep wide out. Danny Amendola is a useful outlet for Bradford when he is feeling the rush, but his health is in question.
The Rams also added Cortland Finnegan and rookie Janoris Smith at corner. However, injuries have made the St. Louis secondary a real soft spot. They are several years from making a push for the playoffs, or even just a winning record.
25. Oakland Raiders
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The Raiders have two immediate weaknesses that need to be addressed. First is at quarterback. Carson Palmer needs to deliver this year. He was fairly inconsistent, most likely because when the Raiders signed him he was sitting on his couch and no longer up to NFL speed.
However, this year, with a whole offseason to prepare himself, Palmer needs to to be on point and connect with Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford and TE David Ausberry.
A second major issue is the running back position. Darren McFadden has put up solid numbers but has also consistently been plagued with injuries. With Michael Bush gone and McFadden still tender from last year, the Raiders need to sign a second back as a contingency plan.
Personally, I think Cedric Benson's running style would fit in well with the Raider offense, even though he's getting up there in age.
Without fixing either of these issues, the Raiders will never finish above .500.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Josh Freeman needs to own the role as Tampa's quarterback. He needs to take control of the game, play with some confidence, and be a leader to his team. His tentativeness at quarterback is torpedoing the offense.
If Freeman doesn't have confidence in himself, than no one will. With Vincent Jackson providing a big, sure handed target, Freeman can let it lose a little bit.
Defensively, the Bucs need to overhaul their secondary. Ronde Barber is getting up there in age and is a liability deep. On the flip side, the linebackers are too young. They need a couple more years of experience before they will truly be effective.
Tampa will find itself somewhere in the 6-10 range.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
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Th Jaguars baffled everyone by drafting a punter in the third round. Why? Who knows. It is easily the worst offseason decision other than refusing to sign Drew Brees. It was a strange choice considering all of the other holes they could have instead filled, like a pass-rusher.
I guess Jacksonville is going to forgo their offense and just play the field position game, like the 2004 San Francisco 49ers. Too bad field position doesn't get you any points.
Offensively Jacksonville is fairly solid. They added Blackmon, who will be a Calvin Johnson-like target for the young quarterback . Maurice Jones Drew is the most consistent part of the Jaguars' offense. He is illusive, strong, and will always fight for the extra yards.
Gavert will show some improvement this year. With a year under his belt he will exude more confidence and make better decisions. And if he falls victim to that fabled sophomore slump, Chad Henne will be there to pick up the pieces.
28. Cleveland Browns
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The big name in Cleveland's offseason is Trent Richardson. He is powerful and versatile and will translate well in the NFL. There are many fans in Cleveland excited to see this young man carry the ball. It will be interesting to see what kind of impact he can make right out of the gate. If he is as good as the hype, then he can really reshape this football team.
The second biggest name of the offseason is Brandon Weeden, who will be vying for a starting spot with Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace.
No longer do rookie quarterbacks have the luxury of backing up for several years, easing into the playbook, and getting acclimated to the speed of the game before they are expected to start. This is a hit-the-ground-running era, and that is exactly what Weeden will have to do if he wants the starting job.
29. Miami Dolphins
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The quarterback position was the glaring weakness in Miami for months leading up to the draft. The Dolphins tried to net Manning and then Alex Smith and finally landed David Garrard.
Tannehill will most likely be their preferred choice coming into the season.
However, Miami is a long way away from being a complete football team. There are holes in its offensive line and defense. The one bright side is that Steve Slaton will be in the backfield. Miami has a history of turning out good running backs, and a strong run game will keep this Dolphins offense afloat.
If Tannehill does start, it's important that they protect him, unlike St. Louis and Bradford's first year.
30. Indianapolis Colts
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Ditching Manning and drafting Luck may have put the Colts in the headlines, but it won't necessarily put them in the win column. Everyone may look to Luck to be the messiah, but Rome wasn't build in a day, and Manning certainly didn't build Indianapolis in a season.
Patience will be a virtue. It doesn't matter how "pro-ready" scouts claim Luck is; it will take time for him to develop, especially since any remaining talent on offense fled to free agency.
31. Minnesota Vikings
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The Vikings can be summed up in one quick sentence: "Reigning NFL sack king Jared Allen and multitalented receiver Percy Harvin are the only elite players who are healthy and in their prime" (h/t Mark Craig of AOL Sporting News).
I don't see anyone drafting him in the first round of their fantasy football league, just as I don't see him leading this team to the playoffs. Ponder will show signs of improvement, but it won't mean much for the team's win percentage.
The sole difference maker on this team is Adrian Peterson, and his future is still on pins and needles as he rehabs his torn ACL.
32. New Orleans Saints
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Hellfire and brimstone reigned down on the Super Dome when the bounty scandal broke headlines. Sean Payton was suspended for the season, Parcells refused the interim position and all else seemed to deteriorate.
Whoever is making the front office decisions for the Saints this offseason should be suspended for a season too, on the basis of pure stupidity.
First, they selected Joe Vitt as the interim coach, who by the way is suspended for the first six weeks of the season. They will have to select a second interim, someone to fill in so Vitt can eventually fill in—an interim for their interim.
Their strategy more resembles the plot of Inception than a sound strategy to minimize the impact of Payton's absence. Apparently, continuity didn't occur to them.
In his first press conference Vitt declared, "I am like a substitute teacher here," which leads me to believe he's just waiting for Payton to return while the rest of the class dicks around. It seems like the Saints are approaching this year as a filler instead of as a Super Bowl-caliber team.
But the biggest head-scratcher is why they are refusing to pay Drew Brees, who just set the single season passing yards record and brought the city of New Orleans its first and only Super Bowl title in 2009. He is as premier of a passer as there is in the NFL.
The only viable replacements for Brees would be Brady or Rodgers, and seeing that they aren't available, the Saints better wise up and pay him the money he deserves. Otherwise, the fans won't be asking "who dat say that gon' beat them Saints?" but "who dat say gon' play quarterback?"
Someone better pull in the reins on this circus and get this team in order before the 2012 season shatters into disappointment. A team without Payton and Brees will more than likely resemble the "Aints" than the Saints.