NFL Power Rankings: Updated Post-First Week of Free Agency
Before making any claims here, let’s get right to the disclaimer.
The date is March 18 and the NFL’s 95th season doesn’t kick off until Sept. 4.
Still, in this 24/7 world of constant prognostication when it comes to every sport, why not throw out some early bits and pieces when it comes to who’s going to be good and who’s not?
Welcome to a very early edition of power rankings as we pull roll call from anticipated worst to best in 2014.
32. Washington Redskins
2013: 3-13 (4th Place, NFC East)
It’s start-over time, sort of, in the nation’s capital once again.
The Mike Shanahan Era with the Washington Redskins produced one division title (2012) and three last-place finishes in four seasons. Now it is up to first-time NFL head coach Jay Gruden to get the franchise back on track.
First things first and that’s ending the team’s current eight-game losing streak. Gruden also hopes to get quarterback Robert Griffin III back on track.
Jim Haslett’s defensive unit, which allowed 52 touchdowns in 2013, has a number of new faces in defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, linebackers Adam Hayward and Darryl Sharpton and cornerback Tracy Porter.
It's also worth noting that one year after committing an NFL-low 14 turnovers, the Redskins coughed up the football 34 times in 2013.
31. Oakland Raiders
2013: 4-12 (4th Place, AFC West)
In 2002, the Oakland Raiders finished 11-5 and went on to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII.
It seems the franchise still hasn’t recovered from that 48-21 loss in San Diego.
Dating back to 2003, the Silver and Black have failed to produce one winning season, own a horrid 53-123 record and are currently coming off a second straight 4-12 campaign.
Last offseason, general manager Reggie McKenzie rebuilt his defense via free agency, with many of that unit’s starters signing one-year contracts a year ago.
The team is at it again in terms of the defense, adding Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Smith to the front four and cornerback Tarell Brown to the secondary.
On Monday, the offense got some good news. The Raiders added former Green Bay Packers wide receiver James Jones via a three-year contract worth $11.3 million, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
Still, there are questions at quarterback and the reality that veteran running back Darren McFadden, re-signed this month, has yet to play a complete season.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
2013: 4-12 (3rd Place, AFC South)
Despite the fact that it is a long flight from the state of Washington to the state of Florida, at least Seahawks are built for the job.
All bird-brained puns aside, the Jacksonville Jaguars hope that a pair of head coach Gus Bradley’s former performers in defensive linemen Red Bryant and Chris Clemons are a positive step when it comes to fixing one of the league’s beleaguered franchises.
Since 2008, the Jaguars have lost more than twice as many games (65) as they have won (31). The club hasn’t captured a division title since 1999 (the old AFC Central) and is a combined 6-26 the last two seasons. In 2013, Bradley’s club lost its first eight games and final three contests en route to a 4-12 campaign.
Jacksonville traded quarterback Blaine Gabbert to the San Francisco 49ers and re-signed quarterback Chad Henne. And four-year pro Toby Gerhart is now the main man in the Jaguars backfield.
As for the recent additions on defense, which also includes former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood, the Jaguars look to improve on a total of 51 sacks over the past two seasons combined.
29. Minnesota Vikings
2013: 5-10-1 (4th Place, NFC North)
Mike Zimmer finally gets his chance of leading his own NFL team.
And you can bet the talented defensive mind knows he has his work cut out for him considering he inherits a team that could really use his help.
This past season, only the Dallas Cowboys gave up more total yards and no team surrendered more points than the Minnesota Vikings.
To remedy this, the team is undergoing an overhaul on the defensive side of the ball. That includes a new-look front four featuring defensive tackles Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph, the latter signed from the New York Giants. Everson Griffen takes over full time for Jared Allen at right defensive end while left end Brian Robison is the lone incumbent.
As for the Minnesota offense, Norv Turner is now calling the shots in the Twin Cities. What that means in terms of the team’s quarterback situation at this time is anyone’s guess. No doubt running back Adrian Peterson and other inquiring minds would like to know.
28. Houston Texans
2013: 2-14 (4th Place, AFC South)
Here’s some simple math.
The Houston Texans’ offseason free-agent haul in 2014 is equal to the amount of wins the team managed in its final 14 outings this past season…zero.
Now it’s up to Bill O’Brien to take the “O” out of the franchise’s recent fortunes.
The cupboard isn’t bare when it comes to this team, winners of two straight AFC South titles from 2011-12. Defensive end J.J. Watt remains a major force, wide receiver Andre Johnson is still productive, and inside linebacker Brian Cushing and running back Arian Foster are solid when healthy.
Still, the team with the first overall pick in May hasn’t decided who its No. 1 quarterback will be this upcoming season. And it’s difficult to figure just where this team could be headed until Houston rectifies that problem.
27. Miami Dolphins
2013: 8-8 (3rd Place, AFC East)
Be it free agency or the draft, the Miami Dolphins were one of the league’s most aggressive teams during the 2013 offseason.
Under new general manager Dennis Hickey, the team has picked up where it left off last spring. The additions of left tackle Branden Albert, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, cornerback Cortland Finnegan and free safety Louis Delmas loom as positives.
Still, for all of their work last season, the Dolphins failed to reach the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year.
The Albert signing has the potential to be the most intriguing. There’s no use reminding anyone what happened with the team’s offensive line last season. Allowing a league-high 58 sacks was a minor issue when compared to the saga regarding Jonathan Martin (now a member of the San Francisco 49ers), center Mike Pouncey and now former Miami Dolphins guards Richie Incognito and John Jerry.
And for now, Joe Philbin’s team remains a bit in limbo until it can properly complete the reconstruction of the offensive line, as well as the Miami locker room.
26. St. Louis Rams
2013: 7-9 (4th Place, NFC West)
A 7-9 record doesn’t buy what it used to in the NFC West.
Back in 2010, the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams both earned that mark, and the former emerged as division champions based on a tiebreaker.
This past season, the Rams were once again a seven-game winner. That put them three games out of third place in the NFC West.
This is a franchise that hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 2003 and hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2004. It’s also been a team incredibly quiet this month when it comes to free agency.
Then again, the Rams do have the second overall pick in May’s NFL draft.
For now, the jury remains out on whether they can contend for a playoff spot this fall.
25. Detroit Lions
2013: 7-9 (3rd Place, NFC North)
This past season, the Detroit Lions dropped six of their final seven games to finish 7-9. A year earlier, the team from the Motor City lost its last eight contests after a 4-4 start.
All this after the Lions finished 10-6 in 2011 and reached the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.
Under new head coach Jim Caldwell, the Lions haven’t been that busy during free agency. Still, the team managed to snare one of the better wide receivers available in Golden Tate, late of the Super Bowl XLVIII champion Seattle Seahawks.
Yes, with talented performers such as quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, Detroit has put the “P” in potential. Unfortunately, they’ve earned an “F” for fail when it comes to producing on the field.
24. Buffalo Bills
2013: 6-10 (4th Place, AFC East)
Returning to the playoffs has been a difficult task for the Buffalo Bills.
Escaping the AFC East basement is proving just as trying. They have finished dead last in the division six consecutive years.
The franchise still owns the NFL’s longest current playoff drought, having not reached the postseason since 1999.
Still, there are some things to get excited about in terms of additions. There’s new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and the arrivals of cornerback Corey Graham and linebackers Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers. Spikes’ presence means that this fall, 2013 rookie standout Kiko Alonso will switch to the outside.
Will the team miss Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd? That goes without saying.
It also goes without saying that last year’s draft, which included the arrivals of Alonso, quarterback EJ Manuel and wideout Robert Woods, may be the springboard for a surprising season for Doug Marrone’s coming club.
23. Cleveland Browns
2013: 4-12 (4th Place, AFC North)
Mike Pettine is the Cleveland Browns' eighth head coach since the team made its way back to the NFL in 1999.
The defensive-minded Pettine (along with new defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil) inherits a respectable unit that allowed the ninth-fewest yards in the league this past season. The franchise just added veteran free agents Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner to fill the shoes of inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and strong safety T.J. Ward, respectively.
It also appears that new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will inherit quarterback Brian Hoyer, which is a fairly safe assumption considering the Browns released both Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell recently.
The running game figures to be better thanks to Ben Tate, who hopes to stay healthier in Cleveland than he did in Houston.
Of course, healthy would not be the best way to describe the recent fortunes of the Browns.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2013: 4-12 (4th Place, NFC South)
Following a third straight last-place finish in the NFC South, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired their third head coach in six seasons.
Lovie Smith returns to the place where as an assistant under Jon Gruden he helped lead the franchise to a Super Bowl title in 2002.
He’s not coming alone. The Bucs haven’t stopped throughout the free-agency period, adding cornerback Alterraun Verner, defensive end Michael Johnson and offensive linemen Anthony Collins and Evan Dietrich-Smith, to name a few.
How vital were the additions of Verner and Johnson? Over the last six seasons, this team has given up a whopping 164 touchdown passes (30 in each of the last three season) while totaling only 168 sacks. That’s not the kind of balance any defensive coordinator is looking for.
What the Bucs will be looking for this season is a playoff appearance for the first time since 2007.
21. Kansas City Chiefs
2013: 11-5 (Lost AFC Wild Card Playoffs)
Last offseason, it seemed like everyone wanted to sign with the Kansas City Chiefs as head coach Andy Reid took over the team.
This month, it seems like everyone wanted out of the organization. On the first day of free agency (March 11), the Chiefs watched tackle Branden Albert, guards Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz, wide receiver Dexter McCluster and defensive end Tyson Jackson sign elsewhere.
Reid still has his share of talent. But the Chiefs have to erase the memories of last season’s sour ending. The team blew a 28-point lead to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Wild Card Round, the club’s sixth loss in its last eight outings following a 9-0 start.
And when you consider that over the last two seasons the Chiefs are a combined 0-8 versus the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers, there’s still a lot to be done by Reid and his staff.
20. Dallas Cowboys
2013: 8-8 (2nd Place, NFC East)
It bears repeating.
Jerry Jones’ much-discussed club’s three-year stretch of 8-8 finishes has epitomized the franchise’s lack of success for nearly 20 seasons.
Dating back to 1997, the Dallas Cowboys own a .500 winning percentage (136-136) and have just as many playoff losses as head coaches (six).
And because of salary cap issues, the club let go of seven-time Pro Bowl defender DeMarcus Ware and saw 2013 Pro Bowl tackle Jason Hatcher leave for the Washington Redskins.
Given the state of the Dallas defense, now being run by veteran coach Rod Marinelli and looking to rebound from a season in which it allowed the most total yards in the NFL in 2013, eight wins may be a bit of a moral victory for a team that continues to perplex.
19. Atlanta Falcons
2013: 4-12 (3rd Place, NFC South)
Last season proved to be the recent exception rather than the rule for the Atlanta Falcons.
For the first time in six seasons under general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith, the Atlanta Falcons finished with a losing record. Quarterback Matt Ryan and his club won just four games in 2013, one year after the club finished 13-3 and was the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
You don’t have to be a genius to know injuries played a big factor in Atlanta’s demise. Then again, the team’s recent philosophy has also come back to bite it in the tail feathers.
In 2013, the Falcons ran for the fewest yards in the league and allowed the second-most rushing yards in the NFL.
Hence the additions of defensive end Tyson Jackson and defensive tackle Paul Soliai on one side of the ball and guard Jon Asamoah on the other.
Can Atlanta get back to the top of the NFC South just as fast as it took to go from top to bottom in 2013? Stay tuned.
18. New York Jets
2013: 8-8 (2nd Place, AFC East)
The forecast for the Green and White prior to the 2013 NFL season was pretty blue.
When it was all said and done, the New York Jets scratched and clawed their way to an 8-8 record, winning their final two games of the season.
Now, can head coach Rex Ryan get this team back to the playoffs for the first time since reaching their second straight AFC title game in 2010?
The New England Patriots seem to have the monopoly on the AFC East, winning the division each of the last five years. Meanwhile, the Jets haven’t captured the top spot in the division since 2002.
Will recently added wide receiver Eric Decker be a reliable target for second-year quarterback Geno Smith? Is tight end Jeff Cumberland ready for a breakout season?
We do know the Jets can play some defense, led by underrated defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and 2013 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.
17. Tennessee Titans
2013: 7-9 (2nd Place, AFC South)
A 3-1 start this past season had some thinking the Tennessee Titans were headed back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Eight losses in their final dozen games not only ended that discussion, but they also led to Mike Munchak’s three-year stint as the team’s head coach ending.
Now one-time Arizona Cardinals sideline leader Ken Whisenhunt, who took that franchise to the Super Bowl in 2008, takes over a club that certainly has some talent and has been aggressive getting more. The addition of wide receiver/running back Dexter McCluster helps the team on special teams while inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard figures to be a nice fit in Ray Horton’s 3-4 defensive alignment.
Now, all the Titans have to do is find a way to keep quarterback Jake Locker healthy and also rediscover a way to compete within the division. Tennessee owns a 3-9 record versus its AFC South rivals the last two seasons combined.
16. New York Giants
2013: 7-9 (3rd Place, NFC East)
It has taken no more than 10 wins to capture the NFC East each of the last four seasons dating back to 2010.
The New York Giants know that better than anyone. In 2011, they won the division with a 9-7 record and went on to win Super Bowl XLVI.
This past season, the franchise overcame a 0-6 start to win seven of its final 10 games. And for the second straight offseason, general manager Jerry Reese has been busy on the free-agent front. New York’s growing offseason haul includes running back Rashad Jennings and offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz. The club also re-signed linebacker Jon Beason, who it obtained from the Carolina Panthers
Meanwhile, the Giants kept ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter busy on Monday. He reported that New York had agreed to terms with a pair of former Denver Broncos, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and kick returner Trindon Holliday.
Incidentally, both performers will now call MetLife Stadium home, the same venue where both were on the wrong end of a 43-8 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII in February.
These newest additions combined with the momentum of last season’s 7-3 finish could spell promising things for Tom Coughlin’s club.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers
2013: 8-8 (2nd Place, AFC North)
As the Dallas Cowboys will attest, racking up 8-8 seasons on a consistent basis doesn’t make for a lot of fun.
For the most part, it also doesn’t usually add up to playoff appearances.
Of course, one year is certainly different from the next. In 2012, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost five of their final seven games to finish at .500. This past season, Mike Tomlin’s club closed with three straight wins and a 6-2 second half after dropping six of its first eight contests.
A lot of the familiar faces remain such as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller and Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu. Wide receiver Antonio Brown comes off a monster year and the Steelers beleaguered offensive line played well down the stretch.
When you see the Steelers not ranked in the NFL’s top 10 in total defense, that’s usually an indicator of a shaky season. General manager Kevin Colbert may have found a new starting nose tackle (Cam Thomas) and free safety (Mike Mitchell) via free agency. Don’t be surprised if running back Le’Veon Bell and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones have breakout second years.
Are the Steelers a playoff team once again? We shall see. But they appear a lot closer than the team that closed 2012 and opened 2013.
14. Carolina Panthers
2013: 12-4 (Lost NFC Divisional Playoffs)
As has been well documented, no team has ever won back-to-back NFC South titles. The Carolina Panthers aim to put an end to that statistical oddity this upcoming season.
Ron Rivera’s team finished strong a year ago in securing the team’s first division crown and playoff appearance since 2008. Only the Super Bowl XLVIII champion Seattle Seahawks gave up fewer yards and fewer points in 2013. Led by Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, the Panthers led the NFL with an imposing 60 sacks this past season.
However, this offseason has seen Carolina’s receiving corps sacked per se.
Veteran Steve Smith was released after 13 seasons with Carolina, while Brandon LaFell (New England Patriots), Ted Ginn Jr. (Arizona Cardinals) and Domenik Hixon (Chicago Bears) took the free-agent highway out of town. The quartet combined for more than half (156) of quarterback Cam Newton’s 292 completions and 15 of the signal-caller’s 24 touchdown passes in 2013.
Add in the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross and the free-agent departures of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and free safety Mike Mitchell and Carolina has a lot on its mind these days.
Update: After this piece went to press early Tuesday morning, the Panthers announced that Cam Newton would be undergoing left ankle surgery on Wednesday (March 19). Jonathan Jones of CharlotteObserver.com has the details regarding Newton and his timetable for recovery. The ranking for the Panthers does remain the same as written Tuesday morning.
13. Baltimore Ravens
2013: 8-8 (3rd Place, AFC North)
When it was all said and done, there were far too many obstacles for the Baltimore Ravens to overcome when it came to repeating as Super Bowl champions.
However, will we see a repeat in 2014 of this past season, when head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco missed the playoffs for the first time in six years together with the club?
The Baltimore ground game was a disaster a season ago as only the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars gained fewer yards rushing in the league last season. Flacco threw 22 interceptions in 2013, more than double the total he managed in 20 games (10), including the playoffs, during the franchise’s recent Super Bowl season.
The good news is that veteran defenders such as linebackers Daryl Smith and Elvis Dumervil and defensive end Chris Canty, all newcomers to the team a year ago, are back this season. Speaking of new, veteran wide receiver Steve Smith comes from the Carolina Panthers and hopes to give Flacco some veteran support.
While things didn’t end well for Harbaugh and his defending champions this past season, it’s hard to believe we won’t be hearing from the Ravens nevermore.
12. Arizona Cardinals
2013: 10-6 (3rd Place, NFC West)
In the NFL, winning 10 or more games and not making the playoffs is not especially unusual.
However, it remains extremely disappointing for the team that managed that feat.
Such was the case of the 2013 Arizona Cardinals, who came up short of the postseason despite a 10-6 mark this past season under head coach Bruce Arians.
So what can we expect from these Birds in 2014. Despite the loss of inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, Arizona's defense figures to remain top notch. Led by second-year running back Andre Ellington and a bolstered offensive line featuring new left tackle Jared Veldheer, you can expect veteran quarterback Carson Palmer to benefit from a more balance attack.
The key will be how this team fares against the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. The Cards could once again post another winning record and come up short when it comes to the playoffs.
11. Chicago Bears
2013: 8-8 (2nd Place, NFC North)
Numerous factors contributed to the Chicago Bears’ latest collapse. In 2013, the club opened 3-0 only to lose eight of their last 13 games en route to missing the playoffs for a third straight year.
All the pieces appear in place on offense, led by eight-year quarterback Jay Cutler and his new contract. The strong-armed signal-caller has quite the arsenal in wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, as well as tight end Martellus Bennett. Running back Matt Forte comes off a big year in which he finished third in the NFL with 1,933 yards from scrimmage.
An improved defense will be the key if Chicago is to wind up back in the playoffs. New defensive ends Lamarr Houston (Oakland Raiders) and Willie Young (Detroit Lions) hope to bolster a pass rush that was tied for last in the NFL with 31 sacks in 2013.
A healthy Charles Tillman in the secondary also figures to go a long ways toward a bounce-back season for the Bears.
10. San Diego Chargers
2013: 9-7 (Lost AFC Divisional Playoffs)
Give credit where credit is due.
Last December, the up-and-down San Diego Chargers remained on the upswing. First-time NFL head coach Mike McCoy and the Chargers won their final four games and were rewarded with a playoff appearance.
The Bolts upended the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round before succumbing to the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round.
The Chargers have spent free agency to date adding depth to what continues to be a solid roster. Running back Donald Brown and inside linebacker Kavell Conner both come over from the Indianapolis Colts. Cornerback Brandon Ghee (Cincinnati Bengals) hopes to contribute in the secondary that took its lumps at times this past season.
Given the way they played the Broncos close all three times in 2013 (winning once), McCoy and company figure to be a major thorn in the side of the defending AFC West and conference champions.
9. Indianapolis Colts
2013: 11-5 (Lost AFC Divisional Playoffs)
This past season, the Indianapolis Colts finished 11-5 for the second consecutive year. This time around, it was good enough to win the AFC South for the first time since 2010.
The Indianapolis defense remains a problem area as evidenced in the 2013 playoffs. Chuck Pagano’s club gave up a combined 87 points in splitting with the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots. Help has arrived in the form of inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and defensive end Arthur Jones.
Meanwhile, Luck got a new toy in wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, who signed a one-year contract with the team last week. The return of veteran Reggie Wayne, who missed a large chunk of last season, helps as well.
But will the loss of that first-round pick the team gave up to get running back Trent Richardson from the Cleveland Browns last September come back to haunt the Colts?
8. Cincinnati Bengals
2013: 11-5 (Lost AFC Wild Card Playoffs)
The good news is that the Cincinnati Bengals have reached the NFL playoffs each of the past three seasons, a first for a franchise that first took the field in 1968.
The bad news is that the franchise still hasn’t won a postseason game since 1990, when the team played at since-demolished Cinergy Field and the opponent was Houston…as in the Oilers.
Now, head coach Marvin Lewis, owner of a 0-5 playoff record as the team’s head coach, just saw his contract extended through 2015 and, according to team president Mike Brown, deservedly so.
“Marvin has earned this commitment for the job he is doing,” said Brown in a news release by the team documented by Geoff Dobson of Bengals.com. “We are one of only five teams to qualify for the playoffs the last three years, and our prospects are bright looking ahead. Marvin is driven to achieve more, and we are happy to secure his leadership of our team beyond the coming season.”
The defending AFC North champions will have their work cut out for them in what is always a very competitive division. Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther are the new offensive and defensive coordinator, respectively, while the team lost defensive end Michael Johnson and tackle Anthony Collins in free agency.
Of course, keep in mind that this is a deeper team than most and should be difficult to topple from its current perch.
7. Green Bay Packers
2013: 8-7-1 (Lost NFC Wild Card Playoffs)
Are the Green Bay Packers truly the best team in the NFC North and still one of the top clubs in the NFL?
It’s hard to argue the results.
The club has captured three straight division titles despite a decline of at least three wins each of the last two seasons. Mike McCarthy’s club has also reached the playoff each of the last five seasons, tied with the New England Patriots for the longest active streak in the league.
What’s truly amazing is the fact that the Pack ranked No. 3 in the league in offense in 2013 despite using four different starting quarterbacks. That’s a tribute to the depth assembled by general manager Ted Thompson, especially at wide receiver and running back. It certainly helps when you get an Offensive Rookie of the Year performance from Eddie Lacy, who finished eighth in the NFL with 1,178 yards rushing (11 touchdowns).
What about that once-proud defense? The Packers gave up more points (428) than they scored (417) a season ago and Dom Capers’ unit finished in the bottom 10 of the league in total yards and rushing yards allowed.
The re-signings of defensive end B.J. Raji and cornerback Sam Shield and the addition of veteran defender Julius Peppers, who spent the last four seasons with the rival Chicago Bears, should help as well.
Of course, having Aaron Rodgers upright for at least 16 games is the biggest key of all.
6. Denver Broncos
2013: 13-3 (Lost Super Bowl XLVIII)
There’s no truth to the rumor that the defending AFC champion Denver Broncos will be signing LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh anytime soon.
Still, the heat may be on for John Fox’s club in 2014. Via free agency, Denver has added veteran defensive end DeMarcus Ware and a pair of 2013 Pro Bowlers in cornerback Aqib Talib and strong safety T.J. Ward.
Scoring points wasn’t a problem for the Broncos this past season. After all, the team accumulated an NFL-record 606 of them. But Fox’s team struggled to stop the opposition on a weekly basis and when it did slow down other teams, it was because quarterback Peyton Manning and company played ball-control.
With Ware opposite former Pro Bowler Von Miller, the pass rush figures to be better. However, it will be interesting to see the effects of departures such as wide receiver Eric Decker, left guard Zane Beadles, linebacker Wesley Woodyard and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie when it is all said and done.
5. Philadelphia Eagles
2013: 10-6 (Lost NFC Wild Card Playoffs)
Wasn’t it fun to watch the Philadelphia Eagles do that Chip Kelly thing this past season?
Of course, that was directed at the fans of the team from the City of Brotherly Love. No doubt opposing defensive coordinators had different emotions.
Now the Birds have added another weapon to Pro Bowl quarterback Nick Foles' arsenal in running back Darren Sproles, obtained from the New Orleans Saints last week for a fifth-round draft pick. All he does is join a backfield that includes running back LeSean McCoy, who led the NFL this past season in both rushing yards and total yards from scrimmage.
As for the Eagles’ beleaguered defense, Billy Davis’ unit played better down the stretch, especially when it came to forcing turnovers. The addition of free-agent cornerback Nolan Carroll helps a club that finished last in the NFL this past season in pass defense.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins, another former member of the Saints, looks to rebound from a shaky season as he trades some jambalaya for a few cheese steaks.
4. New Orleans Saints
2013: 11-5 (Lost NFC Divisional Playoffs)
There’s something about the franchise tag that doesn’t sit well with the New Orleans Saints.
A few seasons after the club dealt with giving quarterback Drew Brees that designation, the team was forced to use it this offseason to make sure Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, who led the NFL with 16 touchdown receptions in 2013, didn’t go anywhere soon.
Strong safety Roman Harper and wide receiver Lance Moore did go somewhere else, as both were released by the club, while running back Darren Sproles was dealt to the Philadelphia Eagles.
We all know what quarterback Drew Brees can do, and having underrated Pierre Thomas and suddenly-potent Mark Ingram in the backfield helps. Look for wide receiver Kenny Stills, who caught 32 passes (five for scores) while averaging 20 yards per reception as a rookie, to become more of a factor.
Add in a much-improved defensive unit from a year ago, now bolstered by the addition of pricey but productive ball-hawking safety Jairus Byrd from the Buffalo Bills, and Sean Payton’s club may have enough to upend the Carolina Panthers atop the NFC South.
3. New England Patriots
2013: 12-4 (Lost AFC Championship Game)
For some reason, many would prefer to bury the New England Patriots while the body is still breathing.
A total of 13 straight winning seasons and 11 consecutive years of 10 or more wins isn’t enough for some, simply because the team hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 2004.
However, the good old days appear to be on their way back to Foxborough, especially if defensive additions such as cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner (suspended the first four games of 2014) perform as expected.
Veteran quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t at his best at times last season, but he'll benefit from the time he had to work with his the receiving corps last year. The New England ground game, ranked ninth in the NFL in 2013, remains a major factor as well.
Still, the Patriots always find a way to be in the mix, hence three straight appearances in the AFC title game…and counting?
2. San Francisco 49ers
2013: 12-4 (Lost NFC Championship Game)
Speaking of three straight trips to the conference title game?
Like the New England Patriots in the previous slide, the San Francisco 49ers have become a recent mainstay when it comes to getting close to winning it all.
Jim Harbaugh and company have seen their last three seasons end with losses to the eventual NFL champion in the forms of the New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks, respectively.
How can San Francisco now do unto others as others have recently done unto them? It won’t be easy considering you can now win 12 games in the NFC West and not win a division title.
As for changes this offseason, adding Antoine Bethea to replace free-agent defector Donte Whitner at strong safety could wind up being a wash. The 49ers released cornerback Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown signed with the Oakland Raiders, but San Francisco signed free-agent cornerback Chris Cook, late of the Minnesota Vikings.
Vic Fangio’s defense remains one of the best in the business although it will be interesting to see how quickly Pro Bowl inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman rebounds from the knee injury he suffered in the NFC Championship Game.
Armed with arguably the league’s best offensive line, the prospect that wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree will play an entire season together and the continued improvement of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, this club should be right in the thick of the Super Bowl discussion for a fourth straight year.
1. Seattle Seahawks
2013: 13-3 (Won Super Bowl XLVIII)
Champions until dethroned.
It’s a mantra you hear often in the sports world and it bears noting. Simply put, don’t expect the Seattle Seahawks to go down without a fight when it comes to getting back to the Super Bowl.
It doesn’t figure to be easy and Pete Carroll’s club has its share of departures to overcome. Gone from last year’s team are defensive linemen Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, wideout Golden Tate and cornerback Walter Thurmond, to name a few.
On the plus side, quarterback Russell Wilson continues to improve, running back Marshawn Lynch continues to run over opposing defenders and Seattle boasts a defense that has allowed the fewest points in the NFL each of the last two seasons.
Still, this is a deep team that has gotten acclimated to winning. Including the postseason, Carroll’s team is an imposing 22-4 in its last 26 outings dating back to Week 13 of 2012.
Good luck to the rest of the NFL.