NFL Preseason Power Rankings, Start of Training Camps Edition
Does the sun seem to be shining a little brighter today? Does your morning coffee taste better? Are the birds singing sweetly in your ear, bringing a smile to your face and a spring to your step?
If so, it's because Mother Nature is just as excited that football is back as you are.
NFL training camps are starting this week, and while every team's fanbase scours the wires for news about the new free-agent signings and top draft picks, coaches are telling their players that "everyone's undefeated."
That's technically true, but it doesn't mean the slate is really wiped clean.
Free agency and the draft shake rosters up quite a bit, and the head coaching ranks are swelling with new blood after a shocking seven heads rolled this winter. Even so, most NFL teams aren't all that different from where they ended the season in February.
So, just how dramatically have the comings and goings changed all 32 rosters? How will the coaching moves change the way these teams use their talent? How do they stack up against each other?
I power ranked all 32 NFL teams, just in time for the sun to rise high over training camp fields everywhere.
No. 32: Buffalo Bills
New Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone is, if you ask knowledgeable NFL folks, the right man for the job.
New Bills franchise quarterback EJ Manuel is, if you ask those same folks, not.
Marrone and the Bills have at least given Manuel plenty of weapons. Rookie receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin join veteran tailback C.J. Spiller and receiver Stevie Johnson. And journeyman quarterback Kevin Kolb is a nice fallback option if Manuel isn't ready.
Given the kinds of offenses Marrone has built in the past, the Bills should at least be fun to watch.
Defensively, they're transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4, which usually dooms a unit to a year of regression and roster churn before it has enough players that fit the system.
This year, then, is likely that year of regression. The Bills will probably get "worse" before they get better, even if conventional wisdom is right about Marrone. And they definitely will, if it's right about Manuel.
No. 31: Jacksonville Jaguars
After years of floundering without leadership, the Jacksonville Jaguars have a sharp, driven new owner, a smart general manager who's built talented rosters and a hard-nosed new head coach.
If only they had a quarterback.
The Jaguars might have cleaned house and scored some snazzy new threads this offseason, but when it comes to winning and losing, it's about the talent on the field. The Jaguars drafted well (look for second-round safety Jonathan Cyprien to make an immediate impact), but they lost as much as they gained in free agency.
Jacksonville has made a lot of smart moves, but it won't see the benefits of them this season.
No. 30: Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals cleaned house in the offseason, completely overhauling their quarterback and running back positions and adding talent to one of the NFL's worst offensive lines.
It's easy to get excited about new head coach Bruce Arians being the NFL's reigning Coach of the Year. However, keeping it together for cancer-stricken Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was Arians' first head-coaching experience at any level.
Arians' track record before that is spotty (he was not a fan favorite during his time with the Pittsburgh Steelers). On film, it's apparent that both Andrew Luck and Lady Luck provided major assistance during his tenure with the Colts.
Arians and the Cardinals have generally made good personnel moves, and they appear to be headed in the right direction. That said, they'll be lucky to get a single divisional win this season.
No. 29: Oakland Raiders
It almost seems unfair to be hard on the Oakland Raiders, as Raider Nation has spent most of the last decade taking punch after punch in the gut.
For what feels like a decade, though, this team has lacked any kind of direction, plan or cohesiveness. Last season, the Raiders ranked 26th in scoring offense and 28th in scoring defense. This offseason, they traded away the only legitimate NFL quarterback on the roster.
On the bright side, their draft was full of gems, like first-round cornerback D.J. Hayden and third-round linebacker Sio Moore. These players aren't enough to lift the Raiders out of their perennial doldrums, though—at least, not yet.
No. 28: Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles will be one of the most interesting stories of 2013. They have the best quarterback battle, the streakiest skill-position players, the most intriguing new head coach and the most exciting offensive system.
Unfortunately, they also have a bunch of systemic misfits on the offensive line and in the defense, which is the same problem they had last season.
Additionally, the Eagles replaced every starting member of the secondary with free agents. It's hard to see them jelling into an improved unit in one training camp.
Coach Chip Kelly has a long leash, and deservedly so, but the wave of hype will crash down hard this season.
No. 27: New York Jets
Firing practically everyone involved in the New York Jets football operations was the right thing for owner Woody Johnson to do.
Keeping head coach Rex Ryan, who's proven he knows how to put a defense together, was also the right thing to do.
Ryan's job this season is to reward Johnson's loyalty by wringing more wins out of what might be Ryan's least talented Jets team ever. Can he do it? Can he do it without his best player, traded-away cornerback Darrelle Revis?
Rookie cornerback Dee Milliner is going to have to step in and make up for the loss of Revis, and rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson will have to make the immediate impact Quinton Coples didn't.
Also, Ryan is going to have to let offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg do his thing, which includes benching Mark Sanchez for rookie Geno Smith as soon as possible.
No. 26: San Diego Chargers
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The San Diego Chargers got it right when they hired former Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to run their franchise.
As is the case with the Bills, though, just because a team made a good head-coaching hire doesn't mean its problems are over.
Philip Rivers regressed mightily in 2012—a strange thing for a quarterback over 30 to do. But regress he did, and questions must now be asked.
A lot of weight also rides on the shoulders of new offensive lineman D.J. Fluker, what with guard Louis Vasquez off to Denver.
If Rivers can recover his form and McCoy can work his magic, the Chargers should be competitive in the AFC West, but nothing more than that.
No. 25: Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts fans aren't going to like this placement. But their storybook 11-5 run last season was just that: storybook.
The Colts played way over their skis in 2012 and won several games they had no business winning. Most famously, they beat the Detroit Lions despite facing a win probability of about one percent. That means an average NFL team down by 12 points with 3:16 left and facing 3rd-and-5 from an average opponent's 49-yard line wins one out of 100 times.
The Colts made a big splash by throwing around huge free-agent money, but they did so on head-scratching mid-tier players like linebacker Erik Walden and right tackle Gosder Cherilus. They drafted OK, but it's hard to see them doing much more than shaving a loss or two off of what will likely be a massive regression to the mean.
The Colts have the right coach and the right quarterback, but this season will not be their season.
No. 24: Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers are one of the hardest NFL teams to pin down. Are they a talented team about to take a meteoric rise, led by superstars Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly? Or are they treading sub-.500 water, doomed by overhyped youngsters who can't elevate the play of the veterans around them?
Most of the Panthers' fortunes lie in Newton's hands. He has a never-before-seen combination of size and tools, and it's translated into dynamic, dominant play...sometimes.
Newton can be listless and ineffective sometimes, and he has struggled mightily with being the face of the franchise. Bleacher Report's own Josh Zerkle chided Newton for his foot-in-mouth disease with his latest "Let Me Get This Straight" video.
The Panthers largely stood pat in free agency, and their small but solid draft class bolstered the defensive line. Were they in any other division, they'd be an easy pick for a winning season and playoff contention. Instead, they're in the cutthroat NFC South, and they'll have to scrap for every win they get.
No. 23: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It's hard to make heads or tails of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Head coach Greg Schiano's hiring was met with confusion and derision around the league, yet he whipped his motley crew of pirates into shape and started the season 6-4. It looked like Schiano's authoritarian approach had answered a lot of questions about the future of the Buccaneers.
Then it all fell apart.
Five straight losses turned the answers back into questions again, as ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio quoted an anonymous Buc who asked, "Can we send these coaches back to college?"
If Schiano can't get consistently good play from quarterback Josh Freeman and second-round pick Johnthan Banks can't make up for the colossal bust of last season's big-money signing, cornerback Eric Wright, the captain could be forced to walk the plank.
No. 22: Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs have been the most aggressive team in the NFL this offseason. They cleaned house, got the offseason's Most Eligible Coach Bachelor in Andy Reid, traded for a new quarterback, splashed big cash in free agency and added a lot of talent in the draft.
Further, Reid hired pistol offense innovator Chris Ault to be an offensive consultant to the team. Presumably, he'll help the Chiefs build their new-look offense around new quarterback Alex Smith's mobility.
That's great. The Chiefs should have no trouble improving on their league-worst scoring offense last season. That said, they will also need their defense—ranked 25th in points allowed in 2012—to improve massively if they're going to get close to playoff contention.
Given new defenders like Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson, that might be easier than most think.
No. 21: Miami Dolphins
It's sorely tempting to be high on the Dolphins. They had an offseason plan, they executed it and they're both younger and more talented in 2013 than they were in 2012.
I've gone on record to say their biggest free-agent singing, wide receiver Mike Wallace, will be this season's biggest bust. And some of the Dolphins' other free-agent moves (like allowing franchise left tackle Jake Long to leave) were head-scratchers.
But head coach Joe Philbin has the respect of people around the NFL, and second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill showed enough in his first season to get people excited about his second and third.
Overall, though, I'll believe this Dolphins team is a contender when it's contending.
No. 20: Dallas Cowboys
If you need a little inspiration for the day, watch this speech by Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, via Sports Illustrated. Not only does it give a glimpse into the mindset of the coach (and the team) at the beginning of training camp, but it should fire up nearly anyone who watches it.
That said, Garrett's right: The NFL is hard.
Garrett's Cowboys have gone 8-8 in each of his two seasons so far, and that's not good enough in The Big D. While owner and general manager Jerry Jones has rightly rewarded quarterback Tony Romo for a job well done, Garrett had his play-calling duties stripped and handed to offensive coordinator Bill Callahan.
The Cowboys are an interesting mix of young and old, and they certainly have the offensive talent to get it done. As with the Bills, though, a base defense alignment change (in this case, from an aggressive, blitzing 3-4 to defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's 4-3 Tampa 2) usually makes a defense weaker for a season.
The Cowboys have the horses to make a playoff run, but do they have the right, uh, cowboys to ride them?
No. 19: Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Munchak is a Hall of Fame offensive guard. Offensive line coach Bruce Matthews is also a Hall of Fame offensive guard.
So when the Titans built their offseason around signing young standout guard Andy Levitre and drafting stud guard prospect Chance Warmack with the No. 10 overall pick, it made a certain amount of sense.
There's a reason teams generally don't build around guards, though: They have a hard time making a big impact on the bottom line.
With two new starting safeties and another year of development for quarterback Jake Locker, the Titans should be better in 2013 than they were in 2012, but not by much.
No. 18: Baltimore Ravens
The Baltimore Ravens are the reigning Super Bowl champions, and general manager Ozzie Newsome did a great job of addressing needs through the draft and free agency.
After securing their offensive future by paying quarterback Joe Flacco a record-breaking deal, the Ravens beefed up their defensive line with sensibly priced veterans like Chris Canty. They also swooped in for sudden free agent Elvis Dumervil when he and the Denver Broncos couldn't agree to terms quickly enough.
Finally, the Ravens tried to offset the losses of Ravens legends Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in the draft. With the addition of first-round safety Matt Elam and second-round linebacker Arthur Brown, the team began the next generation of its stalwart defense.
That said, the losses of Dannell Ellerbe, Lewis' presumed successor, and cornerback Cary Williams still sting. Further, the losses of Lewis and Reed put most of the leadership burden on Flacco's shoulders, and it remains to be seen if he can play and lead well enough to justify that contract.
I'll believe the Ravens don't miss Lewis and Reed when I see it.
No. 17: Cleveland Browns
Maybe it's the homecoming of new head coach Rob Chudzinski. Maybe it's the way Chudzinski fearlessly assembled an experienced staff of coaches with better resumes than his own or spent big money to give those coaches the weapons they need to succeed.
Maybe it's the few flashes quarterback Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson showed in their 2012 rookie seasons.
Whatever it is, I'm unusually high on the Browns this year and like them to take a lot of teams by surprise. Recent scandals involving owner Jimmy Haslam and wide receiver Josh Gordon have been distractions, but if the team can come together in training camp, it has the talent to win.
No. 16: Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions, as pointed out by Chase Stuart of FootballPerspective.com, lost more close games than any other team last season. Just like the Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings of 2011, the Lions lost a ton of one-score games in 2012 and are therefore statistically likely to bounce back.
The Lions' Pythagorean wins (roughly, a projection of record based on the difference between the points they scored and the points their opponents scored) show that, for all their faults in 2012, the Lions should still have been expected to win 6.4 games, not the four they actually did.
In still better news for the Lions, they finally have a legitimately scary backfield threat in free-agent signing Reggie Bush. In the 22 games that the Lions had recently released tailback Jahvid Best, they went 11-11. Since, they're 9-18. If Bush can make defenses respect the running game and restore balance to the Lions offense, they'll be potent indeed.
Unfortunately, the Lions have suffered heavy losses along the offensive and defensive lines (left tackle Jeff Backus, right tackle Gosder Cherilus, ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Lawrence Jackson). They'll be relying heavily on rookies like No. 5 overall pick Ezekiel Ansah to play major roles.
Overall, the Lions have a lot of standout talent, record-breaking receiver Calvin Johnson, quarterback Matthew Stafford and defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. That should show up in the win column more clearly in 2013 than it did in 2012.
No. 15: New York Giants
The New York Giants had one of the tightest salary-cap situations in the NFL.
Though they suffered fairly heavy losses in free agency, they made smart additions at need positions, like defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins. The Giants also earned an "A-" draft grade from me by addressing need with value across the board.
As always, this team revolves around head coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning. If Manning plays as well as he did last season, the Giants will win seven or eight games at least.
If some of the rookies and new veterans step up, the Giants may even be able to keep their heads above water in the flooded NFC East.
No. 14: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers were barely recognizable in 2012. They went 8-8, increasingly abandoned the run to press passes downfield and saw Ben Roethlisberger's physical style begin to catch up with him.
In free agency, the Steelers' hands were tied by aging players and a restrictive budget, but they took care of dead wood and brought in a lot of talent through the draft. Jarvis Jones is built to play rush linebacker for the Steelers, and Le'Veon Bell is a classic do-everything back who immediately upgrades the team's ability to run.
Though the Steelers lost free agents they'd presumably liked to have kept (such as cornerback Keenan Lewis), with the additions they've made, they still have more than enough pieces to play the game the way they do.
No. 13: Minnesota Vikings
Not content with a shocking playoff berth in 2012, the Minnesota Vikings did everything they could to try and keep up with the postseason Joneses.
They dropped $47 million to lure receiver Greg Jennings away from the rival Green Bay Packers, and then they wheeled and dealed to snag three first-round picks. When the Vikings spent those first-rounders on receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, they added youth and talent at three positions in desperate need of both.
Still, even with reigning NFL MVP Adrian Peterson toting the rock, the Vikings are bound to the game of Christian Ponder. They went 10-6 despite him in 2012; he'll need to be much better to stay in the NFC North race. He has to take a big step forward in his second year; otherwise, the Vikings will blow this window of opportunity.
No. 12: St. Louis Rams
It's too bad about the St. Louis Rams.
Head coach Jeff Fisher did incredible work his first year in St. Louis and made improvements throughout the offseason. With the addition of left tackle Jake Long, flashy receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey and linebacker Alec Ogletree, the Rams might have become one of the NFL's trendiest contender picks.
However, I can't pretend losses like running back Steven Jackson and wide receiver Danny Amendola—the Rams' top two offensive weapons—didn't happen.
Further, two of the NFL's best teams are looking down at the Rams from atop the NFC West. The Rams will be a little better this year—and a lot more exciting to watch—but they won't make big strides against their divisional competition.
No. 11: New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints went 7-9 last season, which was just shy of miraculous given the punitive damage inflicted by the league office.
With head coach Sean Payton back on the job, it's easy to think the offense will get better. Then again, the Saints had the third-most prolific scoring offense in the NFL last season, so they couldn't get a whole lot better.
The question is, can new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan pump up a unit that ranked 31st in the NFL in points allowed? Can he get the most out of talented rookies like safety Kenny Vaccaro and tackle John Jenkins or free-agent signings like Keenan Lewis?
I'm betting he can, but in the impossibly tight NFC South, it's will be hard for the Saints to improve on their record from last season.
No. 10: Chicago Bears
When a team fires its head coach of the last nine seasons—a coach who brought it three division titles and a Super Bowl appearance—on the heels of a 10-6 season, expectations are intensely high.
Replacing that coach, Lovie Smith, with a man who's been coaching in Canada for a decade? With a franchise quarterback in a contract year?
This is something that almost never happens in the absurdly risk-averse world of the NFL, an aggressive move with the highest of stakes and no safety net.
If Marc Trestman can't re-acclimate himself to the NFL world and wring a much better performance out of Jay Cutler, the Bears could plummet all the way to the bottom of the NFC North.
If the offensive line moves work out, Alshon Jeffery is 100 percent healthy and Matt Forte can still be effective, the Bears will have one of the most talented offenses in football, regardless of Trestman's ability to get the most out of them.
If none of those things are true and the aging defense tails off...well, it's a long way to the bottom.
As it stands, I'm bullish on both the Trestman hire and the Bears this season.
No. 9: Cincinnati Bengals
Football is a complicated game, and the NFL is a complicated league. Taking account of the additions and subtractions of an offseason doesn't always tell you how strong a team will be in the coming year.
The Cincinnati Bengals managed to retain all the free agents they wanted to, and they had a solid draft that gave quarterback Andy Dalton even more young weapons with which to work. Addition without subtraction always means improvement, right?
Well, not always.
The Bengals played very well last season, but it's hard to see them winning more than 10 games in the AFC North. A.J. Green is so good he could hardly get any better, and Andy Dalton is already playing at or near what seems to be his ceiling.
There's no reason to think the Bengals offense won't be at least a little better with the addition of tailback Giovani Bernard, and the defense will surely be as stout as always.
The Bengals should return to the playoffs, but they're unlikely to make noise once they get there.
No. 8: Washington Redskins
The Washington Redskins had one glaring, obvious need going into the offseason: a healthy Robert Griffin III.
Besides Griffin's health, they needed a huge infusion of youth and talent in the defensive secondary. They got one with second-round cornerback David Amerson, fourth-round safety Phillip Thomas and sixth-round safety Bacarri Rambo.
If the new pieces can integrate quickly into the defense, the Redskins should be able to defend their NFC East title.
Even if Griffin is 100 percent when the season starts, though, his targets are not difference-makers. Further, it's hard to buy into Alfred Morris as a plus player for 2013 when Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan has made a career out of making whatever back he has on hand look unstoppable.
The Redskins might be looking down at the NFC East, but they're still looking up at the likes of the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.
No. 7: New England Patriots
The New England Patriots are, by far, the hardest team to rank.
As long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are in New England, they can't be credibly ranked outside the top 10. As tempting as it is to brush off the NFL's biggest offseason circus, I did the same with the Detroit Lions last season and was badly burned.
Even if Aaron Hernandez's murder case doesn't cause an ongoing distraction, his loss will be felt on the field. Despite liking Danny Amendola's game, the loss of Wes Welker hurts too. It remains to be seen if second-round rookie Aaron Dobson can find the immediate success that eludes most rookie receivers.
Ultimately, we must refer to the rule above: As long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are in New England, they can't be credibly ranked outside the top 10.
No. 6: Houston Texans
The Houston Texans boast a deep, strong, balanced roster with impact players all over the field. Many scribes (including this one) picked the Texans to represent the AFC in last season's Super Bowl.
Though they rolled to a 12-4 regular season, their playoff performances left a lot to be desired. Quarterback Matt Schaub rightly took a lot of the blame for his shaky showings.
The Texans took an odd approach to free agency, letting young veterans like Connor Barwin and Glover Quin leave, and the only significant addition was an elderly Ed Reed.
The draft went much better for the Texans, though, and first-round receiver DeAndre Hopkins has the chance to make a big impact quickly. Consensus Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt will be hard-pressed to repeat his 2012 numbers, but he should be every bit as dominant in 2013.
No. 5: Green Bay Packers
Since winning the Super Bowl in 2010, the Packers have been consistent contenders. As long as they have Aaron Rodgers—as good as any quarterback in the NFL—and head coach Mike McCarthy, they'll keep being contenders.
After the Pack had another ho-hum regular season of being very good and winning one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers rudely savaged them in the playoffs.
After a free-agency period hallmarked mostly by losing receiver Greg Jennings to the division-rival Vikings, Green Bay had an excellent draft. Rookie defensive end Datone Jones should make an impact, and rookie tailbacks Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin will definitely do just that.
All told, the Packers should again be favorites to win the NFC North. Will they be able to beat the 49ers and win the NFC?
No. 4: Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons were less than a touchdown away from the Super Bowl last season. They're not only just as strong now; they might even be stronger.
Longtime St. Louis Rams workhorse back Steven Jackson will replace the slowing Michael Turner. If Jackson can hold off Father Time for just this one season, the Falcons will have the best offense in the NFL.
Though veterans like cornerback Brent Grimes and defensive end John Abraham are gone, the Falcons drafted corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the first two rounds and lured end Osi Umenyiora from New York.
The NFC South might be the most cutthroat division in the NFL this season, but the Falcons might have the strongest, most balanced roster.
No. 3: Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos, last year's top AFC seed, lost one of the wildest playoff games in recent memory last season. Following a sudden-death overtime 47-yard field goal, the No. 1-seed Broncos fell victim to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
Since the playoffs ended, Denver has done almost nothing but get deeper and stronger. Despite losing pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil to those same Ravens, it's hard to see any AFC team standing between the Broncos and a second straight No. 1 seed.
Can Manning, new top target Wes Welker and the Broncos seize home-field advantage this season? That remains to be seen, but going into the season, they are unquestionably one of the NFL's best teams.
No. 2: Seattle Seahawks
There's no question that the Seattle Seahawks are among the very best teams in the NFL right now. It's too bad for them that one of the others is in the same division.
Both the Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers boast young, dynamic quarterbacks who proved they could play at the very highest levels in their first years as starters. They both have power run games and plenty of talent on defense. And both had great offseasons where they got significantly better.
Perhaps no team got better over the offseason than Seattle, who followed up a trade for scintillating receiver Percy Harvin with a rich crop of veteran pass-rushers and rookie skill-position players like tailback Christine Michael.
Quarterback Russell Wilson and the Seahawks would run away with almost any division in the NFL, and they would have to be considered favorites to secure home-field advantage in the NFC if it weren't for the 49ers.
Then again, as good as the 49ers are, the Seahawks might still be good enough to win their division and clinch home-field advantage in the NFC.
No. 1: San Francisco 49ers
What more can be said about the San Francisco 49ers? They fell just short of winning the Super Bowl in 2012 and got significantly better throughout the offseason. They had a great free-agency period, landing proven contributors like receiver Anquan Boldin and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
The 49ers were also laden with draft picks, and with a combination of clever moves and great drafting, they added a bunch of talent on both sides of the ball, starting with hard-nosed two-way safety Eric Reid and defensive end Tank Carradine.
Though the 49ers will have to hold off a very, very strong challenge from the Seattle Seahawks, I give the 49ers the slightest of edges.