So it begins.
The lull of the NFL offseason bleeds into preseason festivities now that camps have fired up around the nation in the oft-sweltering heat.
Upon arrival, the period brings with it power rankings birthed from a mixture of last year's inertia, offseason maneuverings and complete, unfiltered guesswork as to how things will all come together when it matters during the regular season.
In short, the dormant sports juggernaut just got a whole lot more interesting. Here's a peek at the league hierarchy before the New York Giants encounter the Buffalo Bills Sunday in the annual Hall of Fame Game.
1. Denver Broncos
To the chagrin of many in the Pacific Northwest, the Denver Broncos remain king on paper.
Peyton Manning just shattered the record books at the age of 37 and shows no signs of slowing down. It is not like the loss of Eric Decker or Knowshon Moreno is all that crippling, either, with deep threat Emmanuel Sanders now on the roster and talented sophomore Montee Ball more than capable of toting the load on his own.
Even better, Manning won't have to break records this year, not with additions like DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and rookie corner Bradley Roby on the opposite side of the football.
2. Seattle Seahawks
The dominance coming out of Seattle won't stop anytime soon given the crafty roster-building Pete Carroll and Co. have managed over the past few seasons.
Were it any other franchise, it would sting that Marshawn Lynch is holding out for more cash (and understandably so given the horrific treatment of his position around the league), but Robert Turbin and Christine Michael can handle the responsibilities in the backfield, and the latter likely could on his own.
3. New Orleans Saints
There is a sleeping giant in the NFC South.
Drew Brees will be just fine without the likes of Darren Sproles and Lance Moore thanks to rookie Brandin Cooks and sophomore Kenny Stills, who happened to lead the league in yards-per-catch average last season and was the veteran signal-caller's favorite target, per Pro Football Focus:
That Rob Ryan defense that was quietly elite a season ago? It added safety Jairus Byrd in free agency, the No. 8 overall player in the NFL at his position a year ago, per PFF's rankings (subscription required). The No. 23 player on that same list, Kenny Vaccaro, happens to be the man next to him and headed into his second year at the pro level.
4. New England Patriots
It is all too easy to gloss over the fact Tom Brady and the New England Patriots wound up at 12-4 a season ago.
Even better, young weapons such as Aaron Dobson will only continue to improve, and there is always the chance Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola actually remain healthy.
Don't forget that Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner call Foxborough home now, too.
5. Green Bay Packers
Balance is officially an element of the Green Bay Packers offense at long last, and as long as Rodgers and Randall Cobb remain healthy, Mike McCarthy's squad is a surefire contender, even with the NFC North suddenly vastly improved in all areas—on paper.
6. San Francisco 49ers
It has been tough sledding for San Francisco this offseason, a team that by all accounts is by far the deepest in the league.
But a tumultuous offseason has a way of casting some doubt on future results. When the team's best pass-rusher is in the midst of a rocky offseason, its best linebacker is shelved after a January knee-shredding and the quarterback may or may not have what it takes to take the next step, it can be a dangerous recipe.
Really, the 49ers are too deep to not be in contention, but ripples within the organization give pause, especially when tasked with climbing the steep mountain that is the NFC West.
7. Cincinnati Bengals
It all hinges on a single man in the Queen City.
Going into his fourth season with a new contract in mind, TCU product Andy Dalton may have the reigns of the offense ripped from him thanks to a new offensive coordinator in Hue Jackson and a stable of backs highlighted by Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill.
Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com senses the shift about to get underway in Cincinnati:
New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is committed to changing it and I think he’s also committed to taking the load off Andy Dalton. A big adjustment that has to make is cutting his pass attempts from 586 to closer to Russell Wilson’s number of 407.
To heck with the short stuff. The running game should open up the deep ball and with Jackson’s experience under Al Davis you can believe they’ll be running many more vertical routes.
Backed by an elite defense, even without Mike Zimmer, it might just work.
8. Chicago Bears
There is a ton of turnover in the Windy City on the defensive side of the football, although the addition of leaders in the trenches such as Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen should help ease the transition—the former quietly ranked as the No. 13 overall 4-3 end last year, per PFF.
No, the real issue is under center. Coach Marc Trestman is a quarterback whisperer of sorts, sure, but it's disconcerting that Jay Culter has not played a full 16-game schedule since 2009. Josh McCown is gone, and the next man up is either Jordan Palmer or Jimmy Clausen.
Stay healthy, Jay.
9. Philadelphia Eagles
Nick Foles, one year removed from grabbing the proverbial bull by the horns, otherwise known as Chip Kelly's lightning-quick offense, is set to take the league by storm.
The defense is a work in progress, but the good news is that reigning rushing leader LeSean McCoy doesn't appear too banged up from the quick style of the offense, and Jeremy Maclin will be back to full strength to pair with interesting rookie Jordan Matthews.
Best of all, the NFC East is a bit of a crapshoot.
10. San Diego Chargers
Don't sleep on the San Diego Chargers.
Mike McCoy's team quietly got into the postseason last year and even scored an upset, all while he squeezed the absolute most out of the eventual Comeback Player of the Year, Philip Rivers—a man he is expecting even more out of in 2014, per NFL.com's Around the League:
On the opposite side of the football, elite rusher Melvin Ingram figures to be healthy, and additions behind him such as Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett signal an upgrade.
11. Detroit Lions
There is a growing sense that this is the year the Detroit Lions pull it all together.
Protected by last year's sixth-best pass-blocking line, per PFF, Matthew Stafford has versatile targets such as Calvin Johnson, Eric Ebron and Golden Tate. The latter dropped just two passes a season ago and was ranked No. 2 in the league with 506 yards after the catch while stuck in a quagmire of a run-first offense.
It has the look of an offense that can more than compensate for any defensive issues that may arise.
12. Arizona Cardinals
Is it fair to compare Carson Palmer to a late-career Kurt Warner?
At 34 years of age, the weapons around him can certainly produce an epic season, if not a push to the postseason.
There is, of course, Larry Fitzgerald, but more intriguing is Michael Floyd, who has all the looks of the next breakout star at wideout. Ted Ginn is there to stretch the field, and two talented, younger targets at tight end in Rob Housler and Troy Niklas provide a wealth of schematic options.
But far more important is the news that the shackles are finally off the wrists of back Andre Ellington, who led the league in yards per carry last season, per Darren Urban of the Cardinals website:
The defense is talented too, but the renovations on offense mean a veteran Palmer can finally get back to the postseason.
13. Indianapolis Colts
The AFC South seems a gimmie for Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts this season.
Good news, because the defense continues to seriously lack talent, and the offense is going to need Trent Richardson to show some sign of life.
Luck has a new target in Hakeem Nicks, an addition that has the potential to pay off in a major way as defenses focus on Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton.
A playoff berth given the state of the division seems assured, but how far the Colts can go after that will be predicated on how it all comes together on the journey.
14. Atlanta Falcons
As the transition continues, additions such as Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson quietly give the unit an upgrade. Should Desmond Trufant learn at a quick pace and be somewhat effective, it is a unit that—on paper and healthy, at least—can actually manage to not be a liability and take some of the stress off Ryan's shoulders.
15. Carolina Panthers
A returning elite defense led by Luke Kuechly is great, but a massive turnover on the offensive side of things has put a major damper on the outlook in Carolina.
Gone are Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon. In are Kelvin Benjamin, Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery, which is not a horrible mix of superb potential and sure-handed veterans, but quarterback Cam Newton is not fully 100 percent, per Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer:
Until Newton is healthy and able to get in the necessary reps with his new wideout corps, the Panthers remain in the middle of the pack.
16. St. Louis Rams
On paper, the St. Louis Rams are set to terrorize the NFL.
Not only does the elite defensive end combo of Chris Long and Robert Quinn return, but rookie tackle Aaron Donald has the best first step from a big man seen this side of Geno Atkins, meaning he has what it takes to drive passers right into their arms.
But once again, the question mark under center holds the Rams back. Sam Bradford missed nine games a year ago, and when he has played in a full 16-game season (twice in four years), he has yet to complete better than 60 percent of his passes or toss more than 21 scores.
17. Kansas City Chiefs
Standing pat in the NFL is never a good thing, and it's exactly what the Kansas City Chiefs managed to do this offseason.
Look, the addition of Dee Ford is not a horrific one, but his first-year impact is certainly up in the air. Alex Smith is criminally underrated, but unless Dwayne Bowe can regain 2011 form, the offense is going to struggle at times, especially if the defense falters.
Until Kansa City proves otherwise, the lack of positive momentum will hold the Chiefs back.
18. Baltimore Ravens
The addition of Steve Smith for Joe Flacco in Baltimore is huge, and one can't help but think that Bernard Pierce is a major breakout candidate in 2014.
It can be all too easy to forget that Pierce is just 24 years old. Add in the fact he seems to enjoy the new running scheme in place, per Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun, and his ability to keep defenses honest will work wonders for the offense.
"The running game is definitely a lot simpler than what we had the year before," Pierce said. "We actually did this in college. I definitely like the zone scheme. I'm used to it. I got a knack for this kind of offense."
The defense is in a bit of flux, but a better offense than last year's putrid unit means playoffs may be a realistic goal in Baltimore this season.
19. New York Giants
Eli Manning has a ton of pressure on his shoulders after being a turnover machine a season ago, but the New York front office once again did a great job this offseason.
This time, the folks in charge brought on two running backs in Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams to help push or outright supplant the fumble-happy David Wilson. The addition of rookie Odell Beckham Jr. gives the team a boost on special teams and in the deep-pass department.
Things are far from perfect for the Giants, but a return to form for Manning might just signal a playoff push.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers
Let's focus on the offense for Pittsburgh as well.
Ben Roethlisberger is another veteran gunslinger under the spotlight, as he was a season ago with Mike Wallace gone. His response? Antonio Brown led the NFL in receiving (Josh Gordon doesn't count), and rookie back Le'Veon Bell was given an opportunity to shine.
Now add the fact that the aforementioned Moore is in town and Markus Wheaton has another year under his belt, and things look up. Big Ben is also getting his wish in regards to the no-huddle offense, according to offensive coordinator Todd Haley, per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
We’ve been working hard at it. That’s going to be part of what we do. We don’t want to just give it lip service. We’ve put a lot of time and effort into it and we’ll continue that in minicamp. You can kind of see the guys getting comfortable and making progress. [Ben Roethlisberger’s] comfort level with them is coming along.
It all equates to a formidable attack that will help mask a transition on defense.
21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Let's flip the spotlight back to defense for a moment, because that is what it is all about for Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith.
With Gerald McCoy in the trenches and Lavonte David behind him, the Buccaneers were sure to be a force before adding an elite end in Michael Johnson and a corner of matching caliber in Alterraun Verner.
All of the above names ranked No. 13 or better at their respective positions a season ago at PFF, with David at No. 2 and McCoy at No. 1.
The point is, it does not matter who resides under center, especially if Doug Martin is back in good health and form.
Jay Gruden is sure to have Washington taking to the air more than it did a season ago under Mike Shanahan, which is nothing but a good thing.
Nobody would be as bold as to suggest Robert Griffin III will match his rookie output, but with Pierre Garcon (last year's league leader in receptions) still around to pair with recently signed DeSean Jackson, not to mention tight ends such as Jordan Reed and Logan Paulsen, things certainly look up.
23. Miami Dolphins
Ryan Tannehill does not get enough credit as all signs point to his being a superb franchise quarterback for years to come—one who may be able to elevate the talent of those around him.
Yes, the line in front of him is still a mess one season removed from his being the most-sacked quarterback in the league. But Tannehill still has the aforementioned Wallace, Brian Hartline and one of the league's matchup nightmares in Charles Clay.
The defense is still a work in progress, although signs of life from Dion Jordan would help, after he comes back from his suspension of course, per ESPN's Jams Walker:
24. Dallas Cowboys
Tony Romo remains one of the NFL's best under center and has a plethora of weapons to work with, but most encouraging about the team's fortunes next year is running back DeMarco Murray.
Murray quietly broke out last season in 14 games (admittedly the most he has played in a season over the course of three years) with 1,124 yards and nine scores on a 5.2 per-carry average. He's a beast who keeps defenses honest, and the staff in Dallas sounds committed to more rushes than ever next season.
As seemingly always, defense will once again be an issue. But with less pressure on Romo, anything is possible.
25. Minnesota Vikings
It matters not if it is Teddy Bridgewater or Matt Cassel under center next season in Minnesota, although it would be nice to see the rookie get a shot.
Really, that is a shame because the defense once again has the looks of a unit that will stumble its way through another 16 games.
26. Jacksonville Jaguars
Gus Bradley has a firm grasp on his plan and Jacksonville's current trajectory, so another year of Chad Henne appears to be in the cards.
That certainly does not equate to another year of skippable contests from the red-headed step child of Florida.
The Jaguars will be worth a watch each week because of back Toby Gerhart, everyone's favorite breakout pick (we'll see) and the trio of Cecil Shorts and rookies Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson.
The win column will not fill up, but the team will be fun to watch. That is worth something, right?
27. Houston Texans
Ryan Fitzpatrick or Case Keenum?
There is a choice fans have to be drooling over.
Houston got richer on the defensive side of the ball with a steal like Louis Nix in the draft, but the positives end there. It is going to be quite the long year in Houston.
28. New York Jets
Rex Ryan and the New York Jets seem to love their "circus" label, so it only makes sense the show goes on into 2014.
Chief among the laughable acts is the "battle" between Geno Smith and Michael Vick under center, which seems destined to once again produce special packages for the loser, who will only enter the game to disrupt the starter's momentum.
Have we not been down this path before?
29. Oakland Raiders
For the first time in a long time, things actually do not appear all that bleak in the aptly named Black Hole.
Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley will join elite 'backer Sio Moore and elite prospect Khalil Mack to give Oakland some bite on defense.
Offensively, veteran quarterback Matt Schaub will be protected by Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden, even if it sounds like a super team that has been assembled three years too late.
30. Cleveland Browns
Johnny Football or no?
While all of the attention is transfixed on Johnny Manziel, there is a very talented defense that resides in northern Ohio.
Unfortunately, stellar talents such as Desmond Bryant, Phil Taylor, Barkevious Mingo and more will continue to not get their due thanks to an incompetent offense missing its best player.
31. Tennessee Titans
It is easy to point out that Chris Johnson is gone and call it a day, but the problems run deeper than that in Tennessee.
Quarterback Jake Locker has missed 25 games in three seasons. Not only is his health no guarantee, but his completion percentage that has yet to even hit 61 percent and a touchdown tally that has squeaked into double digits once will continue to hold back the franchise.
32. Buffalo Bills
Sammy Watkins is a good enough reason to tune into the Buffalo Bills each week next season. Proper usage of C.J. Spiller would be nice as well, but fans have to take what they can get.
The interest ends there. Jairus Byrd is gone, and Kiko Alonso shredded his knee in practice. Elite tackle Marcell Dareus had trouble passing a routine conditioning test because he was so out of shape, per NFL Network's Albert Breer:
Yeah, it is going to be one of those seasons in Buffalo. God speed, EJ.