2012 NFL Power Rankings Now That Free Agency Is Over
Summer is a season of optimism in the NFL.
Every draft pick is a hit, every new free agent is a bargain and anyone who left was a bum anyway. Injuries are months away, and everyone looks great in shorts.
For all of you optimists out there, here is an early summer power ranking, which features your favorite team ranked much lower than it should be.
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32. Minnesota Vikings
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Yes, that is correct; the worst team in the NFL resides in Minnesota.
To me, this spot is between either Indianapolis or Minnesota, and since the Colts will presumably have the better quarterback next year, I gave Indy the slight edge.
The problems in Minnesota go beyond the quarterback position; even after drafting Matt Kalil, they still will have offensive line issues. They have few targets outside of Percy Harvin. Their secondary, particularly their safety play, is atrocious, and they may not have Adrian Peterson (at 100 percent) to start the season.
The best things the Vikings have going for them are that Christian Ponder is still young and they lost a lot of close games last year. Even though they may win more games in 2012, I do not see this roster as a much-improved version of its 2011 counterpart.
31. Indianapolis Cols
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How the Colts perform in 2012 will depend on if Andrew Luck's rookie year is reminiscent of Peyton Manning's or Cam Newton's rookie campaign.
Outside of quarterback, there is a lot of uncertainty at almost every position on the team. The offensive line still has questions, and the running back situation is in flux.
The defense will be making the transition to a 3-4, where its two best defenders, Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, will be forced to learn how to play outside linebacker in the latter part of their careers.
For the Colts, this season is less about winning games and more about defining what kind of team they will be for the next decade.
30. Miami Dolphins
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For being ranked near the bottom of the NFL in these power rankings, the Dolphins have a solid amount of talent to feature on this year's season of Hard Knocks.
To me, outside of the quarterback controversy, the Dolphins are simply lacking in passing weapons. After dealing Brandon Marshall, the Dolphins are forced to rely on Chad Ochocinco, Legedu Naanee and Davone Bess to be their top receivers.
It will also be interesting to see what they do on defense as they make a transition to a 4-3. They also lost last year's top tackler, Yeremiah Bell, in free agency to the Jets.
While the Dolphins have enough talent to win more games than most would expect, it is going to be difficult for them to compete in a tough division, especially if Ryan Tannehill is the starter on opening day.
29. Cleveland Browns
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Call me crazy, but I think the Browns are a much-improved team since the season ended. Not only do they have a new stud running back in Trent Richardson, but a new quarterback in Brandon Weeden could also give them a much-needed jolt on the offensive side of the ball.
Cleveland's defense is also one of the more underrated units in the league; the problem is, it is on the field for too long, as the Browns struggle to sustain offense. But between guys like Joe Haden and D'Qwell Jackson, the Browns have a lot of young talent to work with.
The Browns are not going to compete in the AFC North for at least another year, but the arrow is pointing up for this long-dormant franchise.
28. Arizona Cardinals
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The Cardinals, despite their issues at quarterback, managed to finish with an 8-8 record in 2011.
While the offensive skill positions will get an upgrade with the addition of Michael Floyd and Ryan Williams coming back from injury, they could easily have the worst offensive line in football next year.
While Levi Brown greatly improved down the stretch last year, I have a tough time trusting him to be a long-term left tackle. Even if rookie Bobby Massie holds down the fort on the right side, all three interior spots are a mess.
The defense could also see an improvement as Patrick Peterson gets a full offseason to take the next step to stardom, but I don't see them competing in their division given their issues at quarterback and on the offensive line.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
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Defensively, this unit has the makings of a top-five group. If Andre Branch can be as good as he has been in OTAs, the Jaguars could be one of the best defenses in football.
The issues arise on the offensive side as they try to figure out the best way to go about developing Blaine Gabbert, who was incredibly underwhelming in his rookie season. Even with bringing in several new receivers, from Laurent Robinson to Justin Blackmon, Gabbert needs to get over his tendency to flinch in the pocket.
If Chad Henne starts to outplay Gabbert in training camp, the Jags will have a whole new set of problems on their hands if the locker room starts to divide over two mediocre passers.
26. St. Louis Rams
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One of the best under-the-radar signings of the offseason was the Rams' acquisition of former Packer Scott Wells.
Few teams have invested more into a unit that has so grossly underperformed as the Rams have done with their offensive line, but Wells could be the veteran presence they need to help take some of the mental work away from Sam Bradford.
I like the Rams to be much better on defense next year, as they replenished their injury-plagued corner position with Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins. Combine their new cover guys with the pass-rushing skills of Robert Quinn and Chris Long, and the Rams could make a big leap on the defensive side.
25. Tennessee Titans
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I may have the Titans a bit low, but they simply did not make enough improvements this offseason to think that they can make a playoff run.
After missing out in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes, the Titans found themselves without two of their best defenders from last year, Cortland Finnegan and Jason Jones.
While they did add Kamerion Wimbley and Steve Hutchinson, Hutchinson is more of a name than he is a mauler in the run game anymore.
This season is going to be more about getting Jake Locker into the starting lineup than contending for championships, even if the Titans benefit from being in a weak division.
24. Oakland Raiders
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Given the Raiders' horrendous cap situation and lack of draft picks, it is hard to imagine new GM Reggie McKenzie doing a better job working with his limited resources.
While letting go of players like Stanford Routt and Kamerion Wimbley diluted the talent of the team, the moves were necessary to put the Raiders in a position to make some serious moves next year.
While the Raiders have enough talent to at least be relevant in the AFC West, 2012 will be a season of evaluating who McKenzie wants in his organization in the long term.
23. Washington Redskins
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No matter what way you spin it, whether the Redskins compete for the division this year depends on whether Robert Griffin III can have a Cam Newton-esque rookie season.
Given the fact that Newton had one of the most impressive rookie seasons for a quarterback in NFL history, that proposition seems unlikely. Griffin, however, has all of the talent necessary to give the Redskins a chance in every game.
Another concern about the Redskins that has gone unnoticed is the safety position; both starters from last year, LaRon Landry and O.J. Atogwe, have left the team in free agency. In a division with Tony Romo, Michael Vick and Eli Manning, their holes in the secondary could be exposed.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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There is no question that the Bucs will undergo a major character adjustment this summer with Greg Schiano calling the shots.
Just by looking at their first two draft picks, Mark Barron and Doug Martin, it is obvious that the Bucs want to get back to playing sound, disciplined football.
Even with some big free agents, such as Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks, coming into the fold, their defense has too many holes to think that they can turn their fortunes around in just one year. Cornerback and linebacker continue to be positions in flux that can hold this team back from competing in the ultra-competitive NFC South.
21. San Diego Chargers
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The Chargers are always accused of underperforming because they are perceived to be such a talented team.
Guess what—the Chargers really are not that talented.
Outside of Philip Rivers, San Diego has taken a big step back in terms of overall team talent. It lost Vincent Jackson and Mike Tolbert to free agency, and guard Kris Dielman retired due to health concerns.
On defense, they did add Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram at outside linebacker, but Quentin Jammer is showing his age.
More than ever, the Chargers will have to rely on Rivers to recapture his 2010 form and avoid his classic fourth-quarter "derp" moments that have plagued the Chargers.
20. Seattle Seahawks
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On paper, Seattle's defense has the makings of an elite unit. Despite losing David Hawthorne to the Saints, they added a glut of talent, from Bruce Irvin to Jason Jones, that will give this unit massive improvements in its pass defense.
Despite having an otherwise solid roster, the pesky quarterback spot could hole them back. Odds are that Matt Flynn will be the starter on opening day, but we will find out soon whether Flynn is actually a franchise player or Kevin Kolb in disguise.
19. Buffalo Bills
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While the Bills have made some massive improvements, particularly on the defensive side, I still cannot buy into Ryan Fitzpatrick being able to usurp the Jets and Patriots for control of the AFC East.
Even if Fitzpatrick improves from his second half of 2011, the Bills have their share of issues to deal with.
For all of the improvements they made to the pass rush, the Bills will need a complete overhaul in their system to get better at defending the run; adding a bunch of free agents to solve a problem that requires a mindset and consistency does not necessarily erase all concerns. In addition, offensive tackle is still a question mark now that Demetress Bell is in Philadelphia.
The Bills will want to win the division this year, but they may have to settle for competing with the Jets for second place for now.
18. Atlanta Falcons
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Even though they are looking to take the next step and finally win a playoff game this year, I see the arrow pointing down for the Falcons.
At this point, Matt Ryan has just about reached his peak and can only get so much better each year; the onus is on the rest of the team to get them over the hump.
Their offensive line is in flux with changes at the guard (and possibly center) position. Michael Turner is not quite the player he once was, despite his numbers. They lost Curtis Lofton to free agency, and players like Tony Gonzalez and John Abraham are not getting any younger.
While I do think the addition of Asante Samuel will help out the secondary in more ways than one because it moves Dunta Robinson to the slot position, the Falcons seem to be treading water right now rather than making improvements.
17. Kansas City Chiefs
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With the return of Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles from season-ending injuries, the Chiefs are one of the most complete teams in football.
The only thing holding the Chiefs back from being Super Bowl contenders is the consistent mediocrity of Matt Cassel. He has a decent arm and can win games, but can he go into New England and out-sling Tom Brady in the AFC championship game? Doubt it.
Still, the Chiefs have their two best players coming back, Dwayne Bowe in a contract year and finally have found a right tackle.
Even with Cassel at the helm, the Chiefs will be right in the thick of things come playoff time, assuming they can avoid the injury bug that ended their 2011 season before it began.
16. Baltimore Ravens
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I can guarantee you that if you scan the Internet for 2012 power rankings, you will never find a list with the Ravens this low on it.
Now, before you get all "Internet tough guy" on me in the comments, listen to my reasoning.
The Ravens had the worst offseason out of any team in the NFL. Free agency was not kind to Baltimore, as the Ravens have lost three starters in Ben Grubbs, Cory Redding and Jarret Johnson, as well as backup safeties Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura.
Their best player, Terrell Suggs, will probably not return for the 2012 season after getting hurt playing basketball (allegedly). Ray Rice may not report to camp on time, and we have seen what that can do to star running backs.
What else do the Ravens have? Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are getting old (especially Ed Reed). Haloti Ngata is still a stud, but can he produce at the same level without Suggs around?
Worst of all, Cam Cameron is still the offensive coordinator.
Joe Flacco is going to have to work some magic in order for the Ravens to get back to where they were a year ago.
15. Carolina Panthers
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There is a lot to like about what is happening in Carolina. Cam Newton is going to be among the best players in the NFL sooner than later, the offensive line is among the best in football and the defense added a few pieces to improve from a subpar 2011.
However, defensive tackle is still a massive concern. The Panthers had a chance to take Fletcher Cox in the draft but elected to solidify the linebacking corps with the addition of Luke Kuechly.
While it would not surprise me in the least if the Panthers went ahead and won the division, they may be another year away from contending for championships.
14. New York Jets
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There is a lot of negativity surrounding the Jets, and rightfully so. The team failed to make the playoffs, and issues in the locker room began to see the light of day. Throw Tim Tebow into the mix, and it is hard not to dismiss the Jets as nothing but back-page material.
However, the Jets are still quite a talented team. Adding Quinton Coples, LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell to the Jets' already talented defense could put them back atop the league.
The addition of Tony Sparano as offensive coordinator could do a lot in terms of getting Mark Sanchez back on track. Not only are the Jets going to run the ball a lot more, but Sparano also puts a heavy emphasis on tempo in his offense, which is great news for a quarterback like Sanchez, who has been very good in the two-minute drill.
Call me crazy, but the Jets, for all of their flaws, are a better team than they are being made out to be.
13. Denver Broncos
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Even if Peyton Manning is back to his former self in terms of throwing ability, it will take some time for the Broncos to get the timing down in their offense.
As good as Manning is, he did run the same offense for about a decade, which gave the Colts an edge in terms of developing timing and rhythm that other teams could not replicate.
The faster the Broncos can work out the kinks in their offense, the faster they can set Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil loose as they get big leads on opponents.
12. Cincinnati Bengals
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Coming into the offseason, the Bengals had a lot of resources at their disposal in terms of draft picks and salary cap space, and they capitalized.
While I thought they would have made a bigger splash in free agency, they were still able to add some valuable pieces in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and a small army of veteran corners. They addressed their needs in the draft while still getting good value with each pick.
They still have a few holes in the secondary, but as long as Andy Dalton can avoid a sophomore slump, the Bengals are in great position to build on what they accomplished last year and make a run at the AFC North title.
11. Chicago Bears
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Two things need to happen in order for the Bears to get back into the playoffs and challenge the Packers for divisional supremacy: Matt Forte needs to get under contract, and the offensive line needs to overachieve.
Jay Cutler is a good enough quarterback to overcome erratic offensive line play, but he cannot last an entire season behind a line as bad as the Bears' every year.
Now that Mike Tice is running the offense, the Bears will probably run an offense that is a bit more run-heavy, which takes pressure off the line in pass protection, which is where they really struggle.
Outside of those two issues, the Bears have enough offensive weapons and talent on defense to contend in 2012.
10. Dallas Cowboys
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Personally, I am intrigued to see the kind of jump the Cowboys make on the defensive side of the ball.
Last year, the secondary was a huge problem, but in just a few short months, the Cowboys have essentially bought themselves a brand-new secondary, complete with two new starting corners by drafting Morris Claiborne and signing Brandon Carr, along with adding depth at safety with the signing of Brodney Pool.
The key to Dallas' season is how quickly all of these new pieces can get familiarized with each other and the playbook.
On paper, the Cowboys look like the best team they have had since 2009 and should be in contention for NFC East supremacy.
9. Detroit Lions
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After their first successful season in about a decade, can the Lions finally turn the corner and become a familiar face in January?
The question lies within the locker room. Over the past few years, Martin Mayhew has brought in talented players that other teams have overlooked because of character concerns in Bengals-like fashion.
At the time, the strategy made sense; the Lions were so starved for talent at the end of 2008 that they had to take some chances, and it seemed to be working during the season.
However, after a string of arrests this offseason, the character questions the Lions overlooked in some of their players are coming back to haunt them. How they respond to this negative vibe around the franchise will go a long way in determining if they are mature enough to handle the little success they had last year.
8. Houston Texans
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At the start of the offseason, it was hard not to like the Texans' chances at a Super Bowl run. They were three wins away from a championship a year ago despite the fact that they were playing with a third-string quarterback.
Now that Matt Schaub is back in the fold, what is there not to like about the Texans?
Right tackle, that's what.
The Texans abruptly released Eric Winston in an effort to save some money against the cap. Not only is Winston arguably the best right tackle in the game, but right tackles are also becoming more and more difficult to find every year.
For a team that is so heavily reliant on outstanding offensive line play, particularly in the run game, losing a player like Winston could be devastating.
They still have enough talent on offense to still have a strong, balanced attack, but they will not be able to get as far as they did a year ago if Schaub goes down again.
7. New Orleans Saints
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Based solely on their roster, the Saints have every reason to believe that they can compete for the Super Bowl. They retained most of their free agents and brought in Curtis Lofton to be an upgrade over the suspended Jonathan Vilma.
Obviously, the Saints are dealing with more issues than most teams with the Bountygate scandal and the fact that their franchise player, Drew Brees, is still not under contract at a time where his presence is needed more than ever.
Without Brees in the building to help offset the loss of their head coach and play-caller for the entire season, the Saints are going to be a bit behind their opponents heading into training camp, making it that much harder to overcome all of the negativity surrounding the organization.
6. San Francisco 49ers
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The 49ers are returning all 11 starters on defense and made many significant upgrades to their weakest position, wide receiver. They have also added more explosive players at running back to give Alex Smith as many weapons as possible.
So, what is there not to like about the Niners' chances of making it back to the NFC championship game?
In 2011, the 49ers led the league in turnover ratio, which led to them winning a lot of close games. While creating turnovers can be taught to a certain extent, sometimes they just come down to which direction the ball bounces.
While the 49ers will still have a good defense next year, I would not count on them having the same kind of turnover luck they did a year ago, which could come back to hurt them in the playoffs.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
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The most interesting storyline in Pittsburgh is how Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley will interact with each other.
Ben would obviously prefer the pass-heavy offense he became comfortable in under Bruce Arians, but there are benefits to Haley's run-heavy system as well.
Running the ball behind an improved offensive line will help make the Steelers even more explosive and will keep their not-so-young defense on the bench a bit longer.
It remains uncertain how the Steelers offense will perform under this new approach, but we do know that the 2012 Steelers will look much different than their 2011 counterpart.
4. New York Giants
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While the Giants certainly deserve all of the credit they get for winning the Super Bowl, they were still a 9-7 team that was a blocked kick away from missing the playoffs and underachieved for stretches of the season.
Assuming Hakeem Nicks is back from his injury in time, the offense should pick up right where it left off, except it replaced Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs with Rueben Randle and David Wilson, respectively.
The offensive line still has many question marks, particularly at right tackle, but Eli Manning has shown that he can win with subpar line play.
The defensive side of the ball is where the Giants will make the biggest jump statistically. Justin Tuck will back to his former self after being injured for most of 2012, and Prince Amukamara will have a full offseason to make a big jump in year two.
3. Green Bay Packers
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As long as the Packers have Aaron Rodgers, they are going to be in contention, especially with the glut of weapons they have at wide receiver.
However, if their defense fails to make significant improvements, it could be another early exit from the postseason for the Packers.
They will be heavily reliant on their first- and second-round picks, Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy respectively, to make a big impact on a Packer defense that was ranked dead last in 2011.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
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I may be higher on the Eagles than most, but looking at their roster, it is difficult to find many weaknesses on this team.
Last year, their biggest issues were at linebacker and slot cornerback. With the additions of Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans, their linebacking corps is much more suited to stop the run.
They also may have found their slot corner in Brandon Boykin. With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie back in his natural position at outside corner, the Eagles will be able to use more man-coverage concepts, which suits the skills of Nnamdi Asomugha.
There still is the question of how Demetress Bell will fill in for Jason Peters, and Michael Vick's health is always a lingering issue, but it is hard not to like the Eagles' chances this year.
1. New England Patriots
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Picking the best team, particularly at this time of year, is really just splitting hairs. All of the top teams have elite or close to elite quarterbacks who give their teams a chance to win a Super Bowl every year.
However, I gave the edge to the Patriots for two main reasons.
For one, I believe the addition of Brandon Lloyd will make their offense virtually unstoppable. As we saw late in the playoffs, the way to beat the Patriots is to not waste resources dealing with a deep threat. With Lloyd in the fold, using that strategy is asking for trouble.
Also, I believe the addition of Chandler Jones will do wonders for a Patriots defense that has fallen off in recent years. While I still believe the defense will still wind up being ranked somewhere in the 20s, it will be improved enough to win them games when their offense is not running on all cylinders.