NFL Power Rankings: Checking in at Start of Training Camps
Most of the time, preseason power rankings are the ugly union of last season's inertia and this year's guesswork. We take everything that happened last year, modify it slightly by what occurred in the offseason...and there you go.
The problem is, the NFL doesn't work like that.
Every season, playoff teams from the year before fail to make the postseason. Every season, hot contenders collapse. Every season, presumed nobodies rise up and challenge for division titles.
Even though we just saw the Houston Texans go 12-4 in 2012, keep that squad together and go 2-14, we still recoil against the idea that teams will suffer the same wild swings of fortune they inevitably do. That's why these rankings are a relative comparison of overall team strength.
That includes talent and production of the starters on both sides of the ball, injuries and suspensions, age of key players, strength and continuity of the coaching staff and end-of-2013 trends.
These rankings are not a prediction of each team's record in 2014; rather, they are a snapshot of each roster, how it stacks up against the rest of the league, and what the burning questions are going into training camp.
What follows might not match up with your expectations, and that's fine. Nobody truly knows what will happen when toe meets leather and helmets start cracking—and that's why we love the game!
32. Miami Dolphins
Two months ago, I put the Miami Dolphins on the bottom of the post-draft power rankings.
The Dolphins were a rolling media disaster throughout 2013, thanks to the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying scandal. They managed to eke out an 8-8 record in the mediocre AFC East, but they dropped two winnable games at the end of the season with a wild-card berth right there for the taking.
Treading water seemed to be a best-case scenario for 2014—and in the NFL, if you're not getting better, you're getting worse.
During this offseason, the Dolphins have lost Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey for "at least" three months, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. Free-agent tailback Knowshon Moreno showed up for OTAs overweight and then got his knee scoped, sidelining him for much of training camp.
Cameron Wake, the Dolphins' dominant pass-rusher, is now 32 years old and plays a position where losing a step can mean losing your effectiveness. His heir apparent, Dion Jordan, just a year removed from being selected No. 3 overall, picked up a four-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. Considering his poor performance in 2013, that doesn't bode well for his long-term prospects.
On top of all that, Pouncey is fighting allegations that he and his brother assaulted patrons at a Miami nightclub earlier this week.
Everything is trending down in Miami, and head coach Joe Philbin's uninspiring performance during the Incognito-Martin saga casts doubt on his ability to lead them out of the spiral. So, for that matter, does his choice to import former Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor to revive the offense. Philbin's expertise with quarterbacks and offense got him hired in the first place.
Dolphins fans won't like to see this ranking again, but it's where I feel they belong.
31. Tennessee Titans
Rotoworld's Evan Silva ranked the Titans dead last in his recent look at every NFL team's roster, and it's easy to see why.
The Titans have a young, talented offensive line with depth and flexibility. They have precious little else on offense, with injured, inconsistent quarterback Jake Locker their only real weapon. Perhaps second-round rookie tailback Bishop Sankey makes an impact behind Chance Warmack and that offensive line...but perhaps not.
Defensively, coordinator Ray Horton is well regarded around the league, but transitioning from a strict 4-3 to a 3-4 is a process that usually involves a year of regression. And after letting stud corner Alterraun Verner walk, regression is inevitable.
It's going to be a rough season or two for the Titans.
30. Cleveland Browns
At this time last year, the Cleveland Browns were a potential surprise team of 2013.
With Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner coaching up Brandon Weeden and a promising young crop of pass-catchers, powerful runner Trent Richardson looking to take a step forward and the hard-nosed Ray Horton whipping the defense into shape, the Browns had an opportunity to leapfrog the transitioning Ravens and Steelers.
Obviously, it didn't happen.
With the entire coaching staff swapped out, Weeden and Richardson sent packing and the franchise's future staked on a mercurial quarterback whose transition to the NFL would be tricky even if he weren't a notorious party animal, 2014 already looked like a lost cause. But that was before breakout star receiver Josh Gordon incurred a potential season-long suspension with another failed drug test and was arrested for driving while impaired.
Free-agent tailback Ben Tate is a perfect fit for new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's offense, and Johnny Manziel's talents would drop right into the offense Shanahan designed for Robert Griffin III in Washington. Jordan Cameron remains a difference-maker in the red zone. The pieces are still there for a surprise team, even though they're all different pieces than a year ago.
Yet, there have just been too many setbacks, course changes, rebuilds and revamps in the last two or three years to believe the Browns aren't at least another season away from playing winning football.
29. Buffalo Bills
It's hard not to like the Buffalo Bills' aggressiveness in moving up to get the best wideout available in the draft in Sammy Watkins, forming an explosive young receiver corps. It's hard not to like the Bills' moves to revamp the linebacker corps, adding free agents like Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers.
It's also hard not to like sophomore head coach Doug Marrone's confidence in himself to build a difference-making offense around sophomore quarterback EJ Manuel—there were even shreds of evidence in Manuel's play last year that it was happening.
Unfortunately, the free-agency departure of star safety Jairus Byrd and the season-ending ACL injury to 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up Kiko Alonso leaves the defense with holes that can't be patched.
The Bills desperately need Manuel to take big steps forward in training camp. Marrone and offensive coordinator Nate Hackett will have to get the most out of Watkins, C.J. Spiller and the other offensive weapons for Buffalo to contend.
28. Minnesota Vikings
The NFC North has been all but impossible to predict over the past few seasons. The only certainty in what used to the NFL's black-and-blue division?
There's going to be a whole lot of passing.
Rookie Teddy Bridgewater completes a quartet of first-round quarterbacks in the division, but it's an open question as to when he takes over. Veteran holdover Matt Cassel should enter training camp as the starter, per ESPN.com's Ben Goessling, but there's a reason the Vikings traded up to snag Bridgewater at the end of Round 1.
Cassel was part of one of the NFL's biggest quarterback problems in 2013. It's unlikely he's the solution.
If anyone's buying stock in "Maybe Norv Turner Will Coach Him Up," the folks selling it are Cleveland fans who thought the same about Brandon Weeden last season.
In the meantime, the Vikings will continue to lean on Adrian Peterson, even as his reliable young backup, Toby Gerhart, left in free agency. The defense added versatile interior pass-rusher Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn but let aging stars Jared Allen and Kevin Williams walk. Can 2013 first-round picks Xavier Rhodes and Sharrif Floyd step up?
New head coach Mike Zimmer is well respected around the league, and the idea that he might be able to make chicken salad with chicken droppings has merit. But the Vikings were the worst scoring defense in the NFL last season, and they'll still have those three other quarterbacks to contend with.
This is not a one-year (or one quarterback) rebuild.
27. Houston Texans
Jadeveon Clowney was a huge story all offseason, as his freakish measurables promised a sure-fire Pro Bowler and an immediate impact.
However, Clowney's training-camp debut in Houston will be one of several nail-biters. His return from sports hernia surgery will be closely watched, as will the return of fellow pass-rusher Brian Cushing, tailback Arian Foster and cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
If there's a team that can bounce back from 2-14 to playoff contention, it's the talented Texans. Their roster is quite similar to the team that was thought to be a Super Bowl contender this time last year. Yet, the complete flaming disaster of 2013, combined with an unproven head coach, casts a shadow on Houston.
Worst of all, the position that got the Texans into this mess, the starting quarterback, was addressed with a lateral move from Matt Schaub to Ryan Fitzpatrick. Unless the Texans find some quality quarterback play, perhaps with fourth-round pick Tom Savage, it's hard to see how they get much better on offense.
The hiring of defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel seemed like a bit of a head-scratcher, until Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Michael Schottey reported on the coaching job Crennel did at the East-West Shrine Game. Then it seemed like a big head-scratcher.
As I broke down after the draft, it's hard to see how Clowney and J.J. Watt fit into Crennel's usual defense—so Crennel will likely install a system unlike anything he's ever run before. That doesn't point toward a quick bounce back.
A footnote: Most of the football-watching world sympathizes with Andre Johnson's desire to move to a contender but figured he'd have accepted his situation by now. If he continues to hold out and be grumpy throughout camp, it could become a real problem.
26. Oakland Raiders
The free-agency signing—and inexplicably failed physical—of St. Louis Rams tackle Rodger Saffold put plenty of egg on the Raiders' collective face this offseason.
Still, general manager Reggie McKenzie put together a pretty impressive crop of free agents. Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley and the like will join sophomore Sio Moore and this year's No. 5 overall pick Khalil Mack in forming an extremely talented front seven. Whether the youngsters grow up fast and the vets play with fire could mean the difference between a mediocre defense and a capable one.
On offense, the overhauled offensive line and addition of running back Maurice Jones-Drew should take some pressure off the passing game—which is great, because the pressure on the passing game is immense.
Head coach Dennis Allen has been irrationally bullish on free-agent quarterback Matt Schaub and may have hitched his job to Schaub's wagon. If the 33-year-old can pull through and provide capable quarterback play, the Raiders could surprise quite a few AFC foes this fall.
Then again, there are a lot of "ifs" and "whethers" in the above few paragraphs. McKenzie, Allen and Schaub are only going to earn the NFL's respect by winning games.
25. Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys are the center of their own universe, trapped in a media fishbowl of their own construction. Yet for all the attention they get as contenders, they've gone 8-8 for three straight years and haven't mustered a winning season since 2009.
It's not for lack of talent, at least not on offense. Tony Romo is a very productive starter, Dez Bryant has developed into a beast, Jason Witten's still got it and DeMarco Murray's dangerous when healthy. Notre Dame swing lineman Zack Martin is the latest underrated addition to the offensive line. When you lay it out like that, it sounds like progress is being made in Dallas.
Yet, from the firing of former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to the hiring of his replacement, Monte Kiffin, to letting DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher become cap casualties, it's hard to see the defense going in any direction but down.
Losing playmaking linebacker Sean Lee for the season with an ACL injury in minicamp certainly didn't help matters. The bristling armada of coaching assistants hired to help offensive-minded head coach Jason Garrett instruct the offense doesn't inspire confidence, either.
This is likely Garrett's last bite at the apple before owner/general manager Jerry Jones cleans house, and it's hard to like the Cowboys' chances of getting out of the NFC East.
24. Jacksonville Jaguars
It's fashionable to put the Jaguars at the bottom of power rankings these days because, well, they're the Jaguars.
Yet, during a stretch of five meaningless games toward the end of the 2013 season, when Jacksonville was playing for nothing but pride, head coach Gus Bradley got a profoundly talentless squad to reel off four wins.
Now, with an infusion of free-agent talent on defense, No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles settling the future at quarterback, plus new tailback Toby Gerhart and two second-round wideouts (Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson) rejuvenating the offense, things could get interesting quickly.
They're also playing in the NFL's weakest division, the AFC South, which suggests the Jags might be poised to win a lot more games than most expect.
We can talk about the unexpected gift of ex-Philadelphia Eagles playmaker DeSean Jackson being available for poorly understood reasons.
We can talk about the job general manager Bruce Allen has done filling holes and addressing needs with practically no draft picks with which to work.
We can talk about the impact of new head coach Jay Gruden, and whether his staff will be an improvement after the disastrous collapse of the short-lived Shanahan era in Washington.
Whether this team is crowned NFC East champion or shoved back into the cellar depends entirely on the play of third-year quarterback Robert Griffin III.
As Gruden told Don Banks of Sports Illustrated, that won't involve heavy doses of the read-option, play-action-based offense Griffin executed so successfully in 2012. What the new-look offense, well, looks like will be one of the most intriguing stories of this training camp and preseason.
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
This is when we find out about Mike Tomlin.
Most NFL head coaches with two Super Bowl rings spend the rest of their careers with nearly unimpeachable credibility (even if one came as an assistant in Tampa). Tomlin, though, inherited one of the most stable, self-perpetuating rosters in football, and the degree to which he was responsible for those wins has been a source of debate.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still standing upright, much to his credit, but his accumulated bangs and bruises seem to be impacting his effectiveness. The end of his era may not be nigh, but it can't be too far off.
After losing several key wide receivers over the last few years, the Steelers desperately need sophomore Markus Wheaton and veteran Lance Moore to get open quickly and catch the ball reliably. The offensive line has been the recipient of a constant flow of high draft picks, but 2012 seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum currently has the honors of protecting Roethlisberger's blind side.
On defense, what seemed like an eternal succession of playmaking linebackers stalled, with highly touted rookie Jarvis Jones failing to break into the starting lineup ahead of veteran Jason Worilds. With LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison long gone, the Steelers need both Jones and 2014 first-rounder Ryan Shazier to step up.
Here's where Tomlin earns his keep: If he can coach up the young Steelers linebackers and whip the defense into shape, then Roethlisberger, the wideouts and sophomore tailback Le'Veon Bell have enough juice to make the Steelers an AFC playoff team.
If they're again middle of the pack on both sides of the ball, expect more mediocrity.
21. Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton has shown consistent, impressive progression as a passer over his first three seasons in the NFL, despite a receiver corps that seemed to be weaker every year. The Panthers defense was the second-best scoring unit in football last year. It should be stout again in 2014, despite some reshuffling in the secondary.
Even Ron Rivera, who used to look overmatched as a head coach, evolved into a smart, aggressive skipper whose late-game risks frequently paid off.
Newton, though, will feel the sting of turning over his entire receiver unit—even if it finally becomes evident his play is elevating the likes of Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, not the other way around. Unless Kelvin Benjamin steps onto the field and has a Megatron-esque impact, this looks like a retrenching year for the Panthers offense and the entire team.
It's still easy to be bullish on Newton, the defense and the medium-term potential here, but it's hard to see the 2014 Panthers winning 11 of their last 12, as they did in 2013.
20. New York Giants
There's one person on whom the Giants' 2014 season—and much of their near-term future—rests: Eli Manning.
Sure, new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo is under a ton of pressure to get the offense on track too, and first-round receiver Odell Beckham Jr. will have an impact. Free-agent tailback Rashad Jennings could play a big role as well.
Yet, Manning's playmaking and turnover control have been the difference between Super Bowl titles and losing seasons for the Giants. They neither added nor lost enough talent in the offseason to significantly move the needle.
19. Baltimore Ravens
With the retirement of Ray Lewis and the cap-busting extension of quarterback Joe Flacco, it wasn't a surprise that the Super Bowl champion Ravens retrenched in 2013. After a season when the defense didn't regress nearly as much as some feared but the offense imploded, are the Ravens trending up or down?
Whatever magic former offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell worked in 2012 backfired in 2013, and the difference in play from Flacco cost the Ravens a surprise playoff bid. The formidable tailback duo of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce fizzled, falling from 12th best in yards-per-carry average (4.3) in 2012 to a league-worst 3.1, per Pro-Football-Reference.
It seems the fastest way to get Flacco back on track would be for new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to fix the run game. Kubiak, of course, is a Mike Shanahan disciple, and the zone-blocking scheme Kubiak inherited from him has famously been effective with just about any back running the ball.
To that end, the Ravens signed former Texan Justin Forsett, who, according to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, is a contingency option in case Rice is suspended by the NFL for assaulting his then-fiancee.
Whether Rice is suspended, it will be how the running game looks and if Flacco adjusts quickly to Kubiak's scheme that will determine if the Ravens rise back up into contention or again struggle to keep their heads above water.
18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Head coach Lovie Smith has returned to his Tampa Bay roots.
With the help of two reigning first-team All-Pros in Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David, star free agents Michael Johnson and Alterraun Verner and a few well-placed ex-Chicago Bears, he's hoping to party like it's 1999—when he was the linebackers coach of one of the most feared defenses in football.
The question isn't just whether new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford will settle on surprise sophomore quarterback Mike Glennon or Bears refugee Josh McCown. It's if his offense will work in the NFL. Before Aaron Rodgers, Tedford's coaching legacy was a long list of quarterbacks who were stars in college and busts in the pros.
He'll have a deep, talented stable of running backs to work with and two towering targets in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. If Tedford can get one of his two triggermen to play at a high level, the upside here is reachable—but that could be harder than it sounds. McCown had an amazing year in 2013, but this is his eighth NFL team in 12 seasons, and he has a career passer efficiency rating of 77.5.
Glennon surprised last year too but still has a long way to go before he leads the Buccaneers to the top of the NFC South.
17. Atlanta Falcons
Is Julio Jones back?
There are a ton of questions surrounding the Atlanta Falcons, but Jones' season-ending foot injury in Week 5 helped trigger the Falcons' 2013 implosion.
Despite a concerted effort to beef up the defensive line and shore up the secondary, this team's biggest question is whether Jones and fellow wide receiver Roddy White can play up to their usual standards. If so, Matt Ryan has proven he's good enough to get them near the mountaintop—and when you're that close, sometimes luck has more to do with it than anything else.
That said, a lot of these acquisitions are going to have to pan out. If Jon Asamoah and rookie Jake Matthews can't block any better than their predecessors, running back Steven Jackson still won't have any room to run, and Ryan will still be under pressure.
16. New York Jets
Rex Ryan got a second lease on life, and Jets general manager John Idzik did his best to give Ryan an offense that can at least take some pressure off the head coach's defense.
How veteran additions like receiver Eric Decker and running back Chris Johnson look coming out of the gate will be crucial. If second-round rookie tight end Jace Amaro and 2012 second-round receiver Stephen Hill can play up to the potential of their measurables, the Jets could be legitimately dangerous as long as they can get some quality quarterback play.
Sophomore second-round pick Geno Smith will get the majority of first-team reps at the opening of training camp, according to Kimberley A. Martin of Newsday. Smith will have to improve on his disappointing rookie campaign to hold off Michael Vick, lead the Jets back to the playoffs and save his job—not to mention Ryan's.
I rated Smith highly coming out of college. He's got the physical and mental tools to pull off the turnaround; he just needs to get into a rhythm with the newest New York Jets before he's sent packing.
15. St. Louis Rams
It's hard not to love the Rams' rookie class.
With huge, potentially dominant left tackle Greg Robinson (who'll solidify the left guard position as a rookie), interior pass-rusher Aaron Donald and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, the Rams got quality players at areas of need.
Head coach Jeff Fisher is doing a wonderful job putting together a nasty defensive line, but it will take much more than that to stand out in the NFC West.
14. Arizona Cardinals
At this time last season, it was hard to see how Bruce Arians was going to replicate the success he had in Indianapolis.
Now, after Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Ellington played well in 2013 behind a patchwork offensive line and the Cardinals carved out a 10-6 record in the brutal NFC West, Arians should have earned the benefit of the doubt.
Signing former Oakland Raiders left tackle Jared Veldheer, getting last season's No. 7 overall pick, guard Jonathan Cooper, back from a broken left fibula and drafting young pass-catchers in the second (tight end Troy Niklas) and third rounds (receiver John Brown) should position the offense to turn it up in 2014.
Yet, there's a couple of problems: The free-agency departure of inside linebacker Karlos Dansby and the year-long suspension of inside linebacker Daryl Washington. Their play was at the heart of an underrated unit that finished seventh in the NFL in scoring last year.
Without either, the defense is bound to take a step back—even if first-round pick Deone Bucannon makes a quick impact at safety in partnership with Tyrann Mathieu.
Further, some of the same doubts from 2013 linger: How much longer can Carson Palmer do it? Can Arians use Ellington effectively? Was it all just lightning in a bottle?
13. Indianapolis Colts
When offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton declared, per SB Nation's Josh Wilson, that the Colts "are a power running team" leading up to the 2013 season, it sounded somewhere between aspirational and delusional.
With franchise quarterback Andrew Luck entering his second season, a deep, talented group of wideouts and a thin corps of running backs, football fans everywhere wondered just which roster Hamilton was looking at. When the Colts swung a headline-grabbing trade for 2012 No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson, though, it looked like the last piece was in place.
Richardson's performance was even more disappointing in Indianapolis than it had been in Cleveland.
If not for the resurgence of Donald Brown, it would have been much harder to average a 14th-best 24.4 points per game in 2013. Per Phillip B. Wilson of The Indianapolis Star, head coach Chuck Pagano will be "shocked" if Reggie Wayne isn't ready for training camp, but either way, Richardson is going to have to step up if the Colts are going to get to the next level.
On the other side of the ball, Pagano cobbled together a top-10 scoring defense despite lacking playmakers. Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Colts going into training camp is whether the departure of safety Antoine Bethea and addition of linebacker D'Qwell Jackson will be a successful defensive "heart transplant."
12. Detroit Lions
The excuses are over for Matthew Stafford.
With Calvin Johnson, free-agent signee Golden Tate and No. 10 overall pick tight end Eric Ebron catching passes, Joique Bell and Reggie Bush running the ball and Pro Football Focus' sixth-best pass-blocking line of 2013 returning intact (subscription required), there's absolutely no reason the 2009 No. 1 overall pick can't produce like the elite quarterback he's supposed to be.
While head coach Jim Caldwell's offensive orchestration with the Baltimore Ravens was as ineffective in 2013 as it was effective in 2012, the fact remains he's coached two different quarterbacks to the Super Bowl.
Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, imported from the New Orleans Saints, will be doing most of the orchestrating anyway. Per Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press, Lombardi will be doing a lot of personnel shuffling in an effort to maximize the Lions' matchup advantages.
Though Detroit fans went through lots of hand-wringing last season over the failure to improve the secondary, the Lions defense was 15th in the NFL in points allowed in 2013. If Stafford is executing the offense like he's capable of, the Lions' freakish defensive line should be able to pin its ears back and terrorize quarterbacks.
11. Philadelphia Eagles
Chip Kelly ought to be smiling.
Last season, after his innovative take on an old-school run-to-pass offense took the NFL by storm, his Eagles finished 10-6 and at the top of the NFC East. Now, he's got to repeat the feat—and quarterback Nick Foles will have to repeat his stunning star turn.
It'll have to be done without No. 1 wideout DeSean Jackson, whom the Eagles cut in the spring. Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and second-round rookie Jordan Matthews will be under plenty of pressure to produce. Will second-year tight end Zach Ertz help offset the Jackson loss? And will new running back Darren Sproles help LeSean McCoy or just vulture carries from him?
Even if not—and even if the rest of the NFL catches up a bit to Foles and Kelly—they'll still have a potent offense in 2014. The question is, can the Eagles defense hold up in the NFC?
With safety Malcolm Jenkins the only major addition to a defense that finished 17th in scoring, it's fair to ask. If defensive coordinator Bill Davis can't get any more from the talent he's got, it'll be tough to see the Eagles upsetting the 49ers, Seahawks, Saints or any other NFC power.
10. Kansas City Chiefs
Feared Chiefs pass-rusher Justin Houston is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he racked up both double-digit sacks and a Pro Bowl nomination.
For most of the offseason, he's been racking up some Zs.
Houston skipped mandatory minicamp as part of an ongoing battle over his contract. ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio reported that Houston is "likely" to show up for training camp, and the Chiefs defense desperately needs him back on the field.
The Chiefs' return nearly unchanged from 2013, save for some offensive line reshuffling. It's hard to find fault with an 11-5 record and a one-point playoff loss, but in the NFL standing pat is never enough (compare the Chiefs to their division rival, the Denver Broncos).
Their top draft pick was spent on pass-rusher Dee Ford, adding depth at a strength. That is fine, but the secondary needed more help than it got. You'd think allowing 35 points in the second half of a playoff game and losing by one would have inspired general manager John Dorsey to act, but apparently not.
9. San Diego Chargers
OK, finishing 9-7 and sneaking into a weak AFC playoff field shouldn't make anyone scared of the San Diego Chargers the following year.
But new head coach Mike McCoy immediately got Philip Rivers playing back at his very best, and the veteran signal-caller led the perennially disappointing Chargers to five wins in their last six games (including an overtime win against the 11-win Chiefs in Week 17).
Then, they upset the far more talented Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round and gave the eventual AFC champion Denver Broncos a scare with a late-game comeback that fell seven points short.
Swiping free-agent cornerback Brandon Flowers from the Chiefs and drafting corner Jason Verrett in the first round helps address a big need. Can Rivers keep quaffing from the fountain of youth? And can sophomore spark plug Keenan Allen keep developing into a top-flight wide receiver?
We'll find out soon.
8. New England Patriots
As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the head coach and quarterback of the New England Patriots, they'll be assumed armed and dangerous.
Though Brady took a step back in his production last season, the injuries and suspensions that impacted his receiver corps had a huge effect on that. With tight end Rob Gronkowski vowing to play all 16 games, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss, and Reiss also proclaiming that high-priced receiver Danny Amendola again looks dynamic, Brady will at least start the season with a full complement of weapons.
Other than that—and Jamie Collins' breakout making it easy for the Patriots to let Brandon Spikes leave—very little changed on a roster that cruised through the AFC to a 12-4 record in 2013.
Oh, except I guess they got some guy named Darrelle Revis?
7. Chicago Bears
The picture above is the heart of the Chicago Bears.
The relationship between head coach Marc Trestman—who jump-started the Bears offense, just as they hired him to do—and quarterback Jay Cutler is the limit for the talented Bears. With an unmatched pass-catching group of receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett, a solid offensive line and versatile tailback Matt Forte, the Bears were the No. 2 scoring offense in the NFL last season.
Problem: Many of those points were scored with since-departed backup Josh McCown at the helm of the offense. Cutler needs to get out of the interception-throwing habit and get back in the saddle, and it's on Trestman to do whatever needs to be done to make that happen.
The defense ranked 30th in the NFL in points allowed last season, with defensive coordinator Mel Tucker trying to transition an aging, banged-up defense away from Lovie Smith's long-entrenched Tampa 2. Now, with the healthy return of Charles Tillman and the addition of free-agent pass-rushers Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston, it's on Tucker to do better than that in 2014.
If Cutler plays up to his potential, though, Tucker's defense won't even need to do that much better.
6. Cincinnati Bengals
When Andy Dalton is on, the Bengals can beat anybody.
When Andy Dalton is off, the Bengals can lose to anybody.
The deepest, youngest, most talented roster in the NFL just needs "Good Andy" to show up in the postseason for one year, and the Bengals could go all the way to the top.
In the meantime, having lost top-notch defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to a head coaching position in Minnesota, the football world will be watching to see if former linebackers coach Paul Guenther, Zimmer's successor, can keep up the excellence and intensity.
One potential issue, the aging cornerbacks, could be patched over if first-round pick Darqueze Dennard steps in and excels like many think he can.
After that, it's just a matter of waiting for the postseason—and waiting to see if Dalton can finally handle the pressure.
5. Green Bay Packers
In a vacuum, Aaron Rodgers is the best player in football.
The Packers were 6-3 with him in 2013 and 2-4-1 without him.
They added Julius Peppers in free agency and drafted safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with their first-round pick, addressing two of the biggest issues on the roster last year (lack of pass rush and no playmaking from the safety spot).
All eyes should be on the defense as coordinator Dom Capers coaches for his job in 2014. This is a championship-caliber roster approaching the end of its window, and general manager Ted Thompson has fed Capers a steady diet of front-seven prospects.
If Capers can't take all these talented pieces and build a stouter defense than he did in 2013, when the Packers ranked 24th in scoring allowed, Capers should run out of second chances.
4. New Orleans Saints
The Saints have some of the same signs around them as the Dolphins do—except for the Saints, everything is pointing up.
Head coach Sean Payton, after serving a year-long suspension, came back and proved he hadn't lost anything. Coordinator Rob Ryan exceeded everyone's wildest dreams, elevating the defense from the 31st-ranked scoring unit in 2012 to fourth-best.
Now, the Saints have two of the sharpest football architects in the game working together—not to mention Drew Brees, All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham and explosive first-round pick Brandin Cooks. Ryan will also, for the first time, have the services of stud safety Jairus Byrd and aging Hall of Famer-to-be cornerback Champ Bailey.
The Saints opened 2013 with five straight wins and closed out strong by first upending the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs before losing to host Seattle in a hard-fought affair. Now, we'll see if they can pick up where they left off and go even further into January.
3. Seattle Seahawks
It's inevitable: When you win the Super Bowl, all 31 teams want to model your success. So, they hire away your coaches and sign away all of your role players.
Per NFL.com, the Seahawks lost eight significant contributors to free agency and added just a handful of bargain signings.
Make no mistake: The Seahawks are the reigning champs and will play like it until they aren't the reigning champs anymore. That said, giving the 49ers, Cardinals and Rams even the slightest wisp of breathing room in the NFC West could spell trouble.
It's a good thing quarterback Russell Wilson is entering his third year; if the game slows down even more for him, the results could be incredible.
And if Percy Harvin stays healthy, look out.
2. San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers did the least to deserve the most. They used their draft class, rich from prior trades, to stock up on quality prospects at positions of strength. Chris Borland and Shayne Skov at inside linebacker, Carlos Hyde at running back—they clearly fit head coach Jim Harbaugh's mold.
The Niners had some turnover in the secondary, as the front office let safety Donte Whitner leave before bringing in his replacement, former Colts safety Antoine Bethea. Whether Bethea is an upgrade, downgrade or wash at the position is one of the few questions marks surrounding the team.
The 49ers are also hoping Chris Cook, a cornerback signed away from Minnesota, can improve on the work done by departed corners Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
It all comes down to Colin Kaepernick. He's entering camp as the unquestioned future of the franchise, and he'll have his best receivers healthy and ready to go. If he can build off his first two seasons, he could establish himself as one of the game's very best.
If he can't? Well, Kaepernick has still proven he's good enough to get this 49ers team to within a few points of the Lombardi Trophy. He doesn't need to be that much better.
1. Denver Broncos
Yes, the Broncos got crushed by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. But look, the Broncos added Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders in free agency, then drafted corner Bradley Roby in the first round.
Yeah, the Broncos had some departures too, like corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and receiver Eric Decker, but Talib and Sanders should be fine replacements. The combination of Ware and Von Miller, though, and the addition of Ward to the back of that defense (not to mention the maturation of Sylvester Williams at the heart of the defensive line) should make a huge impact.
All told, the Broncos have the best offense in football—and it isn't close. The defense should be much improved.
Whether this translates into rings for everyone in Denver or an even bigger letdown, we won't find out until February. If it's the former, Peyton Manning might be able to hit the links this summer and actually enjoy himself.
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