The start of the NFL preseason is a time for optimism, but not every team can be improved from the year before. Just as some teams "win" the offseason, so also some teams "lose." More importantly, teams that make a lot of noise in the offseason don't necessarily do so when the actual games start.
Every year, the storylines are the same. "This is the year!" is shouted from 32 different fanbases as beat writers convince the NFL at large that every player looks bigger, faster and stronger than the year before. Everyone is focused on the upcoming season and ready to put the past behind them. Every coach has the perfect game plan, and every general manager is happy with where his roster is at.
We know differently, though. Some teams aren't going to be good next season. Some are going to be bad; some are going to be even worse.
So, where does each team stand as we enter the preseason?
New England Patriots—Stock Up
After playing in the Super Bowl, the Patriots spent a lot of NFL Draft capital improving their defense and brought in Brandon Lloyd to immediately help the offense. This is going to be a very good team in 2012 with an outside shot at recreating the magic of 2007.
Buffalo Bills—Stock Up
The harsh clime of Buffalo has never made it easy on quarterbacks, but this season will truly be cloudy with a chance of butt-kicking at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
With Mario Williams, Mark Anderson and Shawne Merriman coming from every angle, as well as Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams plugging up the middle, the Bills will finally have the stout defense they've been looking for.
New York Jets—Stock Down
Tebow, Tebow, Tebow! Mark Sanchez may not be feeling like Jan Brady quite yet, but he already knows who the New York media is pulling for and, once he hits his inevitable slump, the fans and team will as well.
The Jets have way more question marks than fans want to admit, and the QB position is just the most visible.
Miami Dolphins—Stock Down
Speaking of question marks, the Dolphins are staging a three-way battle at quarterback. The winner there gets the honor of throwing to a bunch of nobodies and handing the ball off to Reggie Bush a thousand times a game.
The defense is better than people think, but keeping pace in the AFC East is going to be an impossible mission.
New York Giants—Stock Up
Any thoughts of a Super Bowl hangover for the Giants need to check themselves at the door, because this team has gotten even better during the offseason.
Like the Packers last year, the Giants return a host of players (including most of their defense, which was poor last year) off the injured reserve. The NFC East is a difficult division, but 13-plus wins isn't out of the question.
Dallas Cowboys—Stock Up
The Cowboys are the team version of Tim Tebow: Everyone has an opinion on Tony Romo's crew, and no one has a reasonable one—they're either the best team on the planet (Cowboys fans) or the most overrated (everyone else).
In reality, the Dallas defense and offensive line that have gotten better since 2011 and the team is ready to get back into the playoffs in a tough NFC.
Philadelphia Eagles—Stock Up
Frankly, it would be near-impossible for the stock to be down from last year. Mike Vick just has to be better, and that defense has nowhere to go but up. Kudos to the Eagles front office for solidifying the front seven into a seriously fearsome unit. This is going to be a very close race, and the Eagles have a very good chance to be in the thick of it.
Washington Redskins—Stock Up
Yes, the entire division is even better than last year. Like the Eagles, the Redskins simply have to be.
Robert Griffin III will take some time, but RGIII at his worst is still markedly better than Rex Grossman. The Skins have a young, but improving defense and a young, but improving offense. However, fans who expect an immediate return on recent investments will be disappointed. The Skins are better, yes, but aren't ready for primetime just yet.
Baltimore Ravens—Stock Up
The Ravens are still my pick to win the AFC North this year. In the toughest division in football, Baltimore has more ways to beat teams than anyone else. Joe Flacco and Torrey Smith are a perfect fit for one another, and Ray Rice is the best running back in the NFL. Oh, and the defense is still one of the best in the NFL.
Pittsburgh Steelers—Stock Down
Steelers fans may not like that last statement about the Ravens, but do not fret, because the Steelers' defense has a chance to be even better. Pittsburgh will be relying on a bunch of average players to plug recently created gaps, but this is a team and a culture that has always shown it can reload rather than rebuild.
Cincinnati Bengals—Stock Up
While ranked third right now, the Bengals are a young, deep team that will take advantage of any opening the Ravens or Steelers give them. Andy Dalton expects to be even better in 2012, and A.J. Green could end up as the best receiver not named "Johnson."
Cleveland Browns—Stock Down
Like with Redskins fans, it's easy to understand why Browns fans are excited for the upcoming season. Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon and Mitchell Schwartz all step onto an impotent offense and should immediately improve it.
Patience, Browns fans: Your time should be coming sooner rather than later, but this team has too many (young) moving parts to make much noise in 2012.
Green Bay Packers—Stock Up
Like the Patriots, mission No. 1 was improving the defense this offseason, and it's mission accomplished after bringing on Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy. The pass rush should be a lot better in 2012, and Charles Woodson will have that many more chances to take advantage.
Oh, Aaron Rodgers is still the MVP, and this offense is still the league's best.
Detroit Lions—Stock Down
Much has been made about the Lions' lack of talent in the defensive backfield and running back stable, but the Lions had those same problems last year (to a greater extent) and still made the playoffs. Matthew Stafford is the best young quarterback in the league and Calvin Johnson is still the most dominant non-quarterback in football.
Only reason stock is down is an offseason full of drama and negative headlines. It will be interesting to see how the Lions respond on the field.
Chicago Bears—Stock Up
Don't think of the Bears as third in the division as much as they're 2b. If the Lions misstep, at all, the Bears will be right there to boot them out of the playoff race. Jay Cutler returns and has more weapons than ever before. The defense is clearly aging but still has a few good years left in it.
Minnesota Vikings—Stock Down
The Vikings are still in the process of churning the bottom half of their depth chart, trying to find more and more guys who can help this team rebuild. Adrian Peterson is still a fantastic running back, and Christian Ponder has a lot of promise, but it's hard to look at the talent on this team and realistically foresee anything but a long season.
Houston Texans—Stock Down
Stock down? Yes. As much as the Houston Texans still look like the class of the AFC South, there are some serious question marks at any roster position not manned by Arian Foster or Brian Cushing. Texans fans finally have a winner to be proud of, but the view at the top is more tenuous than they'd like to admit.
Tennessee Titans—Stock Up
If Chris Johnson returns to his past glory, at all, this could be a very good Titans team. Having Kendall Wright means they don't need to rely on Kenny Britt, and everything the latter provides is a bonus. The defense is underrated heading into the season, and Kamerion Wimbley should have a fantastic year.
Indianapolis Colts—Stock Down
Again, simply too many moving parts for a rebuilding team to succeed in year one, but it's easy to get excited for Chuck Pagano as a head coach and Andrew Luck as a franchise quarterback. Buy in early to the Luck-to-Wayne connection as the veteran wideout is the most talented target Luck has ever had.
Jacksonville Jaguars—Stock Down
Fantastic defense, depressing offense. This team settled for Mike Mularkey at head coach and is more interested in propping up Blaine Gabbert than building a winning team. Gene Smith has become heir apparent to the Matt Millen crown, which is sad because this passionate fanbase (however small) deserves better.
New Orleans Saints—Stock Up
It is a huge credit to this team that it has gotten past all of the offseason drama and has actually improved this offseason. Yes, Jonathan Vilma is gone, but the additions of Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne will make fans quickly forget about him.
Drew Brees is back and has one of the most well-rounded and talented collections offensive he's ever worked with.
Carolina Panthers—Stock Up
If Cam Newton takes any sort of step forward in his sophomore season, and he should, this team is going to make the playoffs. The defense will be better in year two under Ron Rivera, especially with the addition of Luke Kuechly. Newton got all the headlines last year, but the Panthers should start matching his talent in 2012.
Atlanta Falcons—Stock Down
This will be a defining year for Matt Ryan. Either he will take the next step and command the high-octane offense Atlanta has built around him, or he will show that he's just good enough to not bring that talent down. The defense has a gaping whole at middle linebacker with Lofton as a Saint and Tatupu out.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers—Stock Up
The Buccaneers won the offseason, but everyone knows that's not what matters in the NFL. It will be important for all those new pieces to gel under new head coach Greg Schiano, and for Josh Freeman to take another step forward after seemingly taking 10 steps back last season.
This can be a very dangerous team, but it has to show that its winning ways will continue into the actual season.
Kansas City Chiefs—Stock Up
The Chiefs finished 2011 dead last in the AFC West, but it's important to remember that they were only one game out of a three-way tie for first place at 8-8. This is a wide-open division, and Kansas City had a tremendous offseason paired with numerous talented players coming off injured reserve.
San Diego Chargers—Stock Up
The Chargers' stock was way down last year, but they have done as much as almost anyone to improve in the offseason. Philip Rivers looks to bounce back with a healthy Antonio Gates and a bunch of new receivers. The defense is going to get a serious boost from both Jarret Johnson and rookie Melvin Ingram.
Denver Broncos—Stock Up
Subtract Tim Tebow from a playoff team and add Peyton Manning ...equals a Super Bowl contender, right? Wrong.
This team wasn't built for Manning, and it is going to take a while until his new targets have the familiarity that guys like Dallas Clark and Marvin Harrison once did. John Fox and Jack Del Rio hope to have the defense clicking on all cylinders again, but the loss of Brodrick Bunkley is going to have a bigger impact than some believe.
Oakland Raiders—Stock Down
The Raiders are built on a core that was built by a former architect and, while there is certainly talent on the roster, there is also much more work to be done by the new regime. Carson Palmer is not the quarterback of the future, nor is he that great of a quarterback for the present. If this team stays healthy, and if other teams falter, the Raiders could be in the mix for a playoff spot, but they are clearly the fourth best team in the AFC West heading into the season.
San Francisco 49ers—Stock Up
The 49ers defense returns as the NFL's most formidable unit, and the offense has added an incredible amount of talent during the offseason. Even if this team gets absolutely nothing from its new faces, it is a playoff contender.
Alex Smith doesn't have to be great for this team to win games, but he has a chance to put together the best season of his career.
Seattle Seahawks—Stock Down
The Seahawks have a huge question mark at the quarterback position, where Matt Flynn is earning starter's money, but Russell Wilson looks like the quarterback of the future.
Outside of Marshawn Lynch, the rest of the offense is an odd assortment of talent that is hoping to get something, anything, out of guys like Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow Jr. and Terrell Owens. The defense is legit, though, and could carry this team to the playoffs all by itself.
St. Louis Rams—Stock Up
Jeff Fisher inherited a team that was bereft of talent and immediately took steps forward by bringing in Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, Isaiah Pead, Michael Brockers and others to bring it up to speed in the NFC West.
This is a young, talented team that should benefit from Fisher's coaching. There's still more work to do, but the Rams look like a competitor again.
Arizona Cardinals—Stock Down
It's important not to read too much into the Hall of Fame game, but it's difficult not to be down on the Cardinals' performance, especially from the QB position. John Skelton looks like the position is his to lose (especially after Kevin Kolb's injury), but he didn't exactly showcase great decision-making either. The offensive line and defense are still full of holes.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."