NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Heading into Preseason Week 3?

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterAugust 17, 2014

NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Heading into Preseason Week 3?

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Two weeks of preseason play are now in the books for most teams. With the critical third preseason game approaching, it's time to take a look at what we've learned around the league.

    Each week's power rankings are adjusted from the previous week's edition—with the foundation for the rankings coming from preseason win-loss record predictions. Teams will move up or down the rankings for exceptional play, suspensions, injuries and poor play. 

    Shuffling teams in the preseason may seem foolish, but teams will only move if new information warrants such a move. For example, the Seattle Seahawks won't move down in the rankings for losing a preseason game, but they would if a major injury or suspension hurt the team.

32. Oakland Raiders

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    Why the Ranking?

    The Oakland Raiders see no movement this week, even after a win over the Detroit Lions. Preseason wins and losses are not major factors in the rankings, but injuries, suspensions and play from key performers are impactful. With the Raiders not yet showing enough to justify a move, they remain at No. 32 for another week.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Cornerback D.J. Hayden

    The No. 12 pick in the 2013 NFL draft, D.J. Hayden must start living up to expectations in his second season.

    The former Houston Cougar was injured to end his rookie season and is again struggling to stay on the field as he kicks off his sophomore season. The pressure is on Hayden, and not only because of his draft stock. The Raiders selected him expecting to get a No. 1 cornerback, and instead of relying on the youthful Hayden, they're putting Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers in position to make big contributions.

    Hayden must start to realize his potential this year, or else the "bust" label will start flying around.

31. Houston Texans

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    Why the Ranking?

    With a good showing from Jadeveon Clowney again this week, you might expect a move up the rankings. Not so much. The offense continues to struggle, and the questions about the secondary haven't been answered yet.

    In a quarterback-driven league, the Texans can't be counted on to win ballgames no matter how good the defense is.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Defensive End J.J. Watt

    This is kind of obvious, right?

    For the Texans to compete this year, they must be great on defense. The offense, especially the passing game, is unlikely to help much. J.J. Watt and his teammates have to be a Top 10 defense, and maybe even that won't be enough to get the job done. 

    But asking Watt to be great on the field is nothing. He's a legitimate MVP candidate and Defensive Player of the Year favorite heading into 2014. But he's needed on and off the field this year thanks to the addition of No. 1 overall pick Clowney.

    Watt's influence as a player, a worker and a man will be huge on Clowney. And that's exactly what people in Houston are hoping for—that Watt's work ethic rubs off on Clowney while the two terrorize AFC South quarterbacks.

30. Tennessee Titans

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    Why the Ranking?

    The Tennessee Titans make a slight move up the board this week thanks to the play of Jake Locker and Justin Hunter in Week 2 of the preseason.

    The preseason may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but if Locker and Hunter are clicking, this offense could surprise. And if that happens, the Titans defense is good enough to keep things interesting in the division.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Nose Tackle Jurrell Casey

    Expectations in Tennessee this season are all over the map, but one thing is for sure—if this team is to win games, Jurrell Casey will be a big part of the reason.

    The Titans' big defensive tackle, Casey was an All-Pro-caliber player in 2013, so it's no surprise that he would be the most important player on defense. In new defensive coordinator Ray Horton's scheme—which calls for movement up front and hybrid three- and four-man looks—Casey can be even more of a breakout performer.

29. Washington

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    Why the Ranking?

    A reshuffling at the bottom of the rankings leaves Washington moving down the list, but that's not the only reason.

    League and team sources indicated last week that coaches and players are unhappy with Robert Griffin III's grasp of the offense and treatment of his teammates. It's a situation to monitor. It could, of course, be designed to motivate the third-year quarterback, but the happy feelings in Washington seem to be dying down in the locker room.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Cornerback DeAngelo Hall

    It should be no surprise that DeAngelo Hall claimed this offseason that he's among the NFL's best cornerbacks. After all, he's never shied away from loud statements before. But now Hall must truly live up to his own proclamations, because the secondary around him is not very good.

    Hall is the player offenses will look to avoid in this group, but he must step up and produce turnovers and big plays in a secondary that lacks stars. Ryan Clark is solid, but David Amerson is very raw and Brandon Meriweather wouldn't be a starter for most teams in the game. Hall, even if he's overrating his abilities, must be the go-to guy for the Washington secondary.

28. Cleveland Browns

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    Why the Ranking?

    Movement by Washington and Jacksonville has allowed the Cleveland Browns to move up this week, but the team has earned it, too.

    The defense looks very good, and the offensive line is really taking to Kyle Shanahan's scheme. With talented running backs easy to find in Cleveland, the team could be better off than expected if it can get stable quarterback play and someone (anyone) to step up at wide receiver.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Strong Safety Donte Whitner

    The Browns want toughness on defense—that's why they brought in free agents Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner—and with a young group around him in the secondary, Whitner will be counted on to be a leader both on and off the field. No player on defense is more important to the Browns' growth this year.

    Whitner's impact as an enforcer on the field, a studier in meetings and a big brother off the field will be huge for the Browns defense. A Cleveland native, Whitner has the talent and production to step into the locker room and instantly have the respect of this teammates. That was key in his signing and is why he's the big man on campus in defensive meetings.

27. Buffalo Bills

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    Why the Ranking?

    No change for the Buffalo Bills this week, but more of the same on the field. Second-year quarterback EJ Manuel looked solid in the team's second game, but he regressed back to some bad habits in the third. 

    The Bills will only go as far as Manuel can carry them, and so far, he's carrying most of his receivers over the middle into big hits from defenders. There is no doubting that Manuel has the arm strength and athleticism to be a playmaker, but the finer details of the game must be developed, too.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Strong Safety Da'Norris Searcy

    The loss of Jairus Byrd in free agency will be felt in Buffalo, but this is a unit built to absorb the loss of its best player. Now, can it lose Byrd and linebacker Kiko Alonso? That remains to be seen now that the linebacker is out with injury. If the Bills defense is to return to Top 10 status, Da'Norris Searcy must step up quickly.

    Searcy, who enters his fourth NFL season out of North Carolina, will have big shoes to fill replacing Byrd, but with a strong pass rush and a good group around him, no one is expecting him to be an All-Pro in 2014. But still, offensive coordinators will see Searcy as the weak link in this secondary and target him early and often.

    For the Bills to win ballgames, the defense must carry them. And for that to happen, Searcy has to be good early.

26. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Why the Ranking?

    Consider this a Blake Bortles bump up the rankings.

    The No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft looked amazing in Week 2, and he was operating with the future of the team at wide receiver, too. Bortles to Marqise Lee is a beautiful thing, and the former UCF quarterback is quickly winning over people in and around the league.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Cornerback Dwayne Gratz

    There have been many words dedicated to talk of the Jaguars' plans to build a "Seattle East" under Gus Bradley and Dave Caldwell. For that to happen, or at least for that foundation to be built, the cornerback play must be good. The Seahawks win because of the talent in their defensive backfield, and the Jaguars must do the same.

    Dwayne Gratz, a second-year player from UConn, has the skills to be the Jaguars' No. 1 cornerback. He must aim to reach that goal this year for the team to compete in the AFC South. That tough, gritty, in-your-face scheme favored by Bradley needs a cornerback with toughness, and Gratz can be that player.

25. Miami Dolphins

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    Why the Ranking?

    There is no change for the Miami Dolphins this week, and really nothing major to report. 

    A 20-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers doesn't result in a rankings change—although during the regular season, that would be reason for upward mobility. The team looks as expected, with struggles on the offensive line and in the run game the major storyline.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Cornerback Brent Grimes

    If you're worried about the Dolphins secondary, it's for good reason. That's why Brent Grimes is the team's most important player on defense. The 2013 defensive star in Miami must have another big season if this team is to compete in the AFC East.

    The Dolphins have a legitimate pass rush, but questions at linebacker and now in the secondary put more emphasis on Grimes. Starting safety Reshad Jones is out for four games due to suspension, No. 2 cornerback Cortland Finnegan had a rough 2013 season in St. Louis and youngsters like Will Davis and Jamar Taylor are too unproven to count on heading into the season.

    Grimes is the only answer on paper as of now, and offenses will know that.

24. Atlanta Falcons

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    Why the Ranking?

    The loss of Sam Baker is a big blow to the Atlanta Falcons and the offensive line. It also causes a drop in the rankings this week.

    Baker was expected to hold down the left-tackle job this season while rookie Jake Matthews acclimated to the NFL on the right side. If Baker's injury is as serious as expected, Matthews will be tested early on the left side of the line.

    Losing your left tackle in today's NFL is crushing for any team, but with the Falcons offensive line already struggling in camp and the preseason, if Baker misses any regular-season games at all, this could be huge.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Cornerback Desmond Trufant

    Desmond Trufant enjoyed a fantastic rookie season in Atlanta with little help from the pass rush in front of him. He could see more of the same in terms of limited help up front this year, and the Falcons are hoping they see more of the same from No. 21 in coverage.

    Trufant has the goods to become a legitimate top-tier cornerback in the NFL this season—his speed, size and vision are on par with the greats—but he has to avoid a sophomore slump and improve his timing and awareness on the go. With the Falcons having lost Sean Weatherspoon already this season and with no help coming in at outside linebacker via the draft or free agency, Trufant must be the Falcons MVP.

23. Dallas Cowboys

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    Why the Ranking?

    A five-team drop in the rankings this week is a correction to an overly optimistic initial ranking for the Dallas Cowboys.

    My first glance at this team led to a conclusion that the offense would be good enough to win seven or eight games. After watching the defense throughout the preseason and evaluating the injuries and existing talent, that looks much more difficult.

    Knee-jerk reactions to the preseason are never good, but a total evaluation of the Dallas defense is scary.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Defensive Tackle Henry Melton

    The defense in Dallas looks to be a major question mark heading into 2014. There's not much Jerry Jones can do about that now, but what he can hope for is big play from the players acquired in the offseason. Defensive tackle Henry Melton has shown the most promise, and potential, of them all.

    Melton, who came to Dallas via Chicago, flashed big-play potential as a 3-technique tackle for the Bears. That's what the Cowboys need on the D-line after watching DeMarcus Ware leave the team and seeing second-rounder DeMarcus Lawrence go down to injury.

22. Minnesota Vikings

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    Why the Ranking?

    The Minnesota Vikings have a quarterback controversy on their hands.

    That's what happens when Teddy Bridgewater leads the team on an 83-yard game-winning drive with 1:11 left in the game against the Arizona Cardinals. Yes, Bridgewater was playing against the Cardinals backups, but he was also on the field with second- and third-team players—many of whom will not make the team. What the first-round pick did on Saturday night opened up the competition even more.

    The Vikings may not be great this year, but a strong defense, a ridiculous run game and an electric playmaker in Cordarrelle Patterson will keep things interesting.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Cornerback Xavier Rhodes

    The Vikings hired an absolute genius on the defensive side of the ball when they named Mike Zimmer head coach, and the first person to benefit from the change at the top of the organization is Xavier Rhodes. 

    The former Florida State cornerback started to come on strong at the tail end of his rookie season, but in year two, he'll be counted on as the man for the Minnesota secondary. Even with the addition of Captain Munnerlyn, it's Rhodes that offenses must come to fear and respect.

21. Carolina Panthers

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    Why the Ranking?

    No change for the Carolina Panthers as we head into Week 3 of the preseason.

    This is a team with no real unknowns right now. We know how great Cam Newton is. We know how amazing the defensive front seven is. The questions along the offensive line, at wide receiver and in the secondary are presently too great to consider a move up the rankings.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Secondary

    The Carolina Panthers return one of the NFL's best front sevens, but it's the back side of the defense that scares you. That's why the secondary is the most important aspect of the defense in 2014.

    Facing Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and the big wideouts in Tampa Bay will put plenty of pressure on the secondary in Carolina. Starting guys like Antoine Cason, Melvin White and Roman Harper, the spotlight will be on the secondary very early if they struggle.

    The pass rush, fueled by Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and Co., will help the secondary, but the players there must rise to the challenge, too.

20. St. Louis Rams

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    Why the Ranking?

    The St. Louis Rams have impressed early on, even if they did drop a 21-7 game to the Green Bay Packers in Week 2.

    The biggest reason for the move up this week is the impressive play of the young contributors on the team. Be it in the secondary, at running back, on the offensive line or at wide receiver, the young guys on this roster are buying in and producing.

    If Sam Bradford can stay healthy, the Rams could quickly prove this preseason prediction wrong.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Cornerback Janoris Jenkins

    The Rams are betting the house on Gregg Williams' ability as a defensive coordinator this year, especially when it comes to the secondary play.

    Gone is Cortland Finnegan—who did struggle in 2013 but was the team's leader in the secondary. In are youngsters Trumaine Johnson, Rodney McLeod, T.J. McDonald and Janoris Jenkins. Of those four starters, none has more than two seasons' experience in the NFL.

    Of the four, Jenkins has the most experience and the most promise, but the Rams need him to return to his rookie-season form after he took a step back in 2013. Jenkins can be forgiven for a sophomore slump, but in this rebuilt secondary, he must be the star.

19. New York Jets

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    Why the Ranking?

    It's a small move up the rankings this week for the New York Jets, but this is a good sign. The team's play in Week 2 was solid, especially that of quarterback Geno Smith. But the startling lack of talent at cornerback is still a major question mark heading into the season.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Secondary

    It's tough to pinpoint just one player in New York who must step up this year. In reality, it's the entire secondary...or at least whatever is left of it.

    The Jets are facing a year with injuries to Dee Milliner and Dexter McDougle already. While McDougle was more of a developmental prospect, losing depth hurts when the defensive backfield was already the team's weakness. Now, the pressure is on those players who remain healthy.

    Dimitri Patterson, Calvin Pryor and Antonio Allen will feel the heat this fall.

18. Detroit Lions

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    Why the Ranking?

    A 27-26 loss to the Oakland Raiders has nothing to do with the Detroit Lions' ranking this week. In fact, the team moves up after solid showings from Matthew Stafford at quarterback and the young players in the secondary.

    The Lions have talent on both sides of the ball, but it's getting everyone on the same page that will be the struggle. If that happens, they'll be a Top 10 team.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Defensive Tackle Ndamukong Suh

    Ndamukong Suh is scary enough without added motivation, but now he's playing in a contract year. A motivated Suh who feels like he's not valued? That's terrifying.

    Suh has the natural gifts to be the best defensive tackle in the entire NFL, but he must play more disciplined and with more consistent effort. A 5.5-sack season like the one he posted in 2013 should embarrass Suh, frankly. He's talented, and with good athletes surrounding him on the defensive line, he sees enough one-on-one blocks to make plays.

    For the Lions to win this year, and for Suh to be paid as one of the NFL's elite players, he needs to step up in 2014.

17. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Why the Ranking?

    A playoff team in 2013, the Kansas City Chiefs have a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, but a letdown is expected. A ranking of No. 17 overall puts them near the middle of the league, and that's where the Chiefs figure to start the year. 

    Until questions at wide receiver and in the secondary are answered, this looks like a reloading year in Kansas City.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Strong Safety Eric Berry

    The Chiefs (and their fans) look to Eric Berry as an elite-level safety. Now he needs to live up to those Pro Bowls and postseason accolades. 

    Berry is a very good player, but he must become a leader in the secondary in 2014. The Chiefs are experiencing massive turnover at cornerback and relying heavily on young players Phillip Gaines and Marcus Cooper. That puts even more pressure on Berry, especially in coverage, to step up and be The Man for this defense.

16. New York Giants

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    Why the Ranking?

    You never want to panic in the preseason, but the New York Giants look ugly on offense. And that is supposed to be the strength of the team.

    It may be the new offensive system under Ben McAdoo, or an offensive line largely assembled in the offseason, but something is off in New York right now. And until they get it fixed, it's tough to do anything but move the team down the rankings.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Defensive End Jason Pierre-Paul

    The New York Giants have a good secondary, talent at linebacker and a former superstar on the defensive line. To get back to the playoffs, they need Jason Pierre-Paul to play like his former self.

    Pierre-Paul has been plagued by injuries, playing in just 11 games during the 2013 season while only starting six. Now he's back healthy, and in training camp has looked like his 2011 or 2012 form. If he can produce consistently off the edge, and produce like the 16.5-sack season he posted in 2011, the Giants will have the pass rush they need.

    This is a good group on defense, especially in the secondary, but the pressure is on for JPP to produce.

15. Arizona Cardinals

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    Why the Ranking?

    Encouraging play from the offense and a quicker-than-expected turnaround for the injured Tyrann Mathieu have the Arizona Cardinals moving up the rankings this week.

    The front office has loaded Carson Palmer up with his best supporting cast since his days with the Cincinnati Bengals, and the results have been good thus far. The schedule is brutal in the division, but the Cardinals will be a team no one wants to play.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Cornerback Patrick Peterson

    Patrick Peterson is now paid like one of the NFL's best cornerbacks, and you can bet all eyes will be on him when the 2014 season kicks off.

    Not only will Peterson be judged against the best of the best at his position, but the Cardinals need him to be a truly elite cover man to succeed this year. With Tyrann Mathieu injured, Daryl Washington suspended and Karlos Dansby in Cleveland, the defense will rise and fall with Peterson's play.

    The Cardinals do still have Calais Campbell and a solid defensive front, but the middle of the defense has been wrecked this offseason. The spotlight is on Peterson to shut down opposing passing attacks.

14. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Why the Ranking?

    The Pittsburgh Steelers are in place to capitalize on the New York Giants moving down the rankings and see a slight bump up the board.

    The team's play has been good enough to warrant a jump, too, but this is a group that plays everything close to the vest in the preseason. After Week 1 of the regular season, we'll know for sure if the Steelers are contenders or pretenders.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Outside Linebacker Jason Worilds

    The Pittsburgh Steelers invested a second-round pick on Jason Worilds back in 2010, and each season he has posted improving sack numbers. Now, in 2014, he looks primed for a breakout performance.

    Worilds looks to reach double-digit sacks, and if the Steelers are to get back to the postseason, he must be great. With the secondary getting older (Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu, namely), the front seven must generate pressure and force quarterbacks to get the ball out of their hands faster. This isn't a defense built to last in coverage, so Worilds and the pass rush must step up.

    Worilds is good enough to make plays under pressure, and Mike Tomlin is counting on it.

13. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Why the Ranking?

    Andy Dalton's perfect 8-of-8 night against the New York Jets was impressive, but not enough to warrant a move up the rankings this week.

    Dalton and Co. did look good, but the Bengals need a truer test than the banged-up Jets secondary before they can move up the board.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Linebacker Vontaze Burfict

    The Cincinnati Bengals have a legitimate chance to win the AFC North again in 2014, but to do so, they must compete with the improving offenses in their own division. To battle the talent in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, they need Vontaze Burfict to continue playing at an All-Pro level.

    Burfict is the heart and soul of the Cincinnati defense at the weak-side-linebacker position. Given his ability to slide over and play in the middle and his lockdown skills on the edge, Burfict is quickly becoming one of the NFL's best defenders. That's why he's the Bengals' most important defensive player, and why so many offensive coordinators will queue him up first in weekly game-planning sessions when they're facing Cincinnati.

12. San Diego Chargers

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    Why the Ranking?

    The San Diego Chargers were embarrassed by the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2...but this is the preseason, after all. A crushing 41-14 loss here means little, especially when you look at how the Seahawks were playing (blitzes, full game-planning) versus the Chargers' "let's get out of here healthy" mentality.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Cornerback Brandon Flowers

    The San Diego Chargers were a surprise entry into the playoffs last season. To make it back into the postseason, the team needs a boost in the secondary.

    Drafting Jason Verrett will definitely help, but it's the addition of Brandon Flowers that will make the most difference. Flowers, jettisoned by the Chiefs after a failed experiment using him in the slot last season, will be back on the outside in San Diego. That's where he belongs and where he was successful in Kansas City.

11. Baltimore Ravens

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    Why the Ranking?

    No change for the Baltimore Ravens, even with a 37-30 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

    What did we learn about Baltimore this week? Not much. The team did play Joe Flacco into the second quarter but kept things very basic and relied heavily on the run game on offense. Flacco and Co. did beat up on the Dallas secondary, but that group was playing many second- and third-team players against the Ravens starters.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Linebacker C.J. Mosley

    You might not expect a rookie to be the most important player for the Baltimore Ravens defense in 2014, but first-rounder C.J. Mosley is expected to be an anchor for the team's front seven.

    Mosley will join veteran Daryl Smith and 2013 second-rounder Arthur Brown in the lineup, where his speed and instincts are much needed. Mosley has looked great in training camp, and given his top-level athleticism for the position, big things are expected.

    As the Baltimore secondary is still an unproven unit, the front seven will be called upon to do the heavy lifting. With Mosley's speed and range in play, they can do just that.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Why the Ranking?

    Many, in comments, emails and on Twitter, have questioned the logic of placing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 10 overall. I'll remind you that preseason (and Week 1) rankings are based purely on my win-loss predictions for each team. If the Buccaneers struggle in the regular season, they'll move down (or up if they excel). It's pretty simple.

    That said, there is no movement this week for everyone's offseason champions.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Linebacker Lavonte David

    Lavonte David was a legitimate snub for Defensive Player of the Year at the end of the 2013 season. In 2014, he should return ready to prove he was the right man for that award—and in Lovie Smith's defense, David is primed to have his best year yet.

    David has the athleticism, strength and vision every NFL scout wants in an outside linebacker, and in Tampa, he's the team's most important piece—arguably on either side of the ball. David frees the rest of the defense to make plays by drawing the attention of the offense, and in turn makes big plays himself. 

    For the Buccaneers to live up to the on-paper hype, David must have another Defensive Player of the Year-type season.

9. Green Bay Packers

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    Why the Ranking?

    If any team in the rankings has a chance to make a major move once the regular season starts, it's the Green Bay Packers. But for now, with little gained or lost throughout the preseason and training camp, there is no movement.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Defensive End/Outside Linebacker Julius Peppers

    A healthy Clay Matthews will be huge for the Packers defense in 2014, as will the return of Casey Hayward from injury last year. Drafting safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round will help, too, but one move above all others is expected to be the key for Dom Capers' defense—the addition of Julius Peppers.

    Peppers is the type of athlete the Packers have lacked in recent years opposite Matthews at outside linebacker, and now the expectation is that they'll finally have the pass rush and edge protection needed to stop the Colin Kaepernicks of the world.

    A Super Bowl win is a legitimate expectation for the Packers, and to get there, they'll need to ride the back of Peppers through the regular season and playoffs.

8. Chicago Bears

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    Why the Ranking?

    The Chicago Bears remain my preseason pick to win the NFC North, and watching their pass rush do work so far in the preseason and training camp has supported that belief. The Green Bay Packers will be very good again, but the Bears' talent on offense and the potential on defense keep them atop the talented NFC North.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Defensive End Jared Allen

    General manager Phil Emery did a complete rebuild of the defensive line in Chicago this offseason, and it is one of those new additions we'll all be watching as the team's most important defensive player in 2014.

    Jared Allen comes to the Bears by way of Minnesota, and he'll join newcomers Willie Young (Detroit), Lamarr Houston (Oakland) and draftees Will Sutton (Arizona State) and Ego Ferguson (LSU) as new players along the defensive line. Much like he did when reworking the wide-receiver corps and offensive line in previous years, Emery attacked the defensive line from the ground up.

    For the Bears to live up to their potential, Allen cannot regress in a new home. Fans in Chicago are expecting double-digit sacks, and for the team to be a playoff contender, that must happen.

7. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Why the Ranking?

    A high-scoring loss (42-35) to the New England Patriots does nothing to the Philadelphia Eagles' preseason ranking. A strong overall performance from Chip Kelly's offense is encouraging, even if the defense wasn't quite as impressive. This is the preseason, though, and coming out healthy with explosive plays on both sides of the ball is a huge victory for the Eagles.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Cornerback Brandon Boykin

    The Philadelphia Eagles were a surprise story in 2013, and Chip Kelly looks to have his offense ready to roll again this year. But for the Eagles to hold off the rest of the NFC East and start to pressure the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers in the conference, they need more from the defense this year.

    The defensive line and linebacker corps are solid here, and there are playmakers to watch, but the real key to this defense is slot cornerback Brandon Boykin.

    With more NFL teams running a three-wide-receiver personnel (11 personnel, generally, with one running back and one tight end), the slot cornerback is now essentially a starter for most teams. Boykin is not only a starter, but he's the team's best cover man.

    Keeping pace in the East won't be easy, but with one of the game's best inside cover men on the field, the Eagles defense demands respect.

6. Indianapolis Colts

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    Why the Ranking?

    The Indianapolis Colts move into Week 3 of the preseason with no change in their ranking. A 27-26 loss to the New York Giants notwithstanding, the group has played as expected. The Colts have the talent, especially at quarterback, to make a Super Bowl run. Until something happens to debunk that opinion, they'll remain a highly ranked team.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Inside Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson

    The Colts continue to make moves on defense that point to adding toughness on that side of the ball. Erik Walden and LaRon Landry were added after the 2012 season, with Arthur Jones and D'Qwell Jackson coming down from the AFC North this year. It's Jackson, playing in the middle of the defense, who must carry this team.

    With Robert Mathis missing four games due to suspension early, Jackson must emerge as the playmaker and leader of the defense. He's plenty capable, especially in the 3-4 defense the Colts favor. Jackson's athleticism and vision are unlike anything the Colts have seen at middle linebacker in decades.

5. New Orleans Saints

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    Why the Ranking?

    Don't read too much into the move down one spot for the New Orleans Saints—it's only because another team moved up one spot. The Saints are still part of a small group of NFL teams with the talent and experience needed to win a Super Bowl.

    If there is an elite tier of teams in the NFL, the Saints are in it.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Outside Linebacker Junior Galette

    The Saints found a stud pass-rusher in 2013, thanks to Junior Galette. Now, Rob Ryan's defense has the edge player needed to frustrate offensive linemen and quarterbacks—they just need Galette to do it again in 2014.

    With a strong secondary anchored by Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro, as well as a very good front three dominated by Cameron Jordan, the Saints have the first and third level of the defense covered. Where they need an impact consistently is at linebacker. Galette can give them that and help the Saints defense start to win games as often as their offense does.

4. San Francisco 49ers

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    Why the Ranking?

    In anticipation of an announcement on Aldon Smith's suspension, and with questions about injuries that are piling up in the front seven of the defense, the San Francisco 49ers move down one spot this week. 

    The 49ers are among the NFL's most talented teams, and they are a surefire Super Bowl contender (in fact, they're my pick to win it all), but when looking at preseason rankings and expectations, they're a peg below a few teams.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Inside Linebacker Patrick Willis

    With fellow inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman sidelined to start the year while recovering from injury, the job of leading the defense in San Francisco is now solely on Patrick Willis.

    The veteran linebacker is capable—he's arguably one of the best players in the NFL at any position—but he's been able to share the load with Bowman for the last three seasons. Now, Willis will be without his running mate for the first time since Bowman's rookie season (2010) and moving to fulfill more of a coverage responsibility while still maintaining his stud status against the run.

    Willis is capable of doing all of this, of course, but the spotlight will be on him early to keep this defense rolling without Bowman.

3. Denver Broncos

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    Why the Ranking?

    Strong play by the Denver Broncos defense and the return of an explosive offense give cause to move the team up this week. A closer look at the offense, the retooled offensive line and the new additions on defense warranted a move up two spots in this week's rankings.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Linebacker Von Miller

    The Broncos made a ton of changes to the roster before the 2014 season, but the most important player to their defense is a returning starter. Von Miller, now healthy after playing in just nine games last year, is the player John Elway's team is relying on most on defense.

    Miller will be teamed with DeMarcus Ware as the primary edge-rushers in Denver this season, but with Ware also coming off injury and entering an age (32) when most players slow down a step, the pressure will be on Miller to spark the Broncos defense. 

    With improvements made in the secondary, the Broncos are hoping for a Super Bowl run again this year. To get there, Miller needs to return to his 2012 style of play.

2. New England Patriots

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    Why the Ranking?

    The New England Patriots outlasted the Philadelphia Eagles, 42-35, in Week 2 of the preseason, and in that game, every quarterback for the Patriots looked like a starter. The good news is that their starter—Tom Brady—is one of the best in the game and looks ready for a big 2014.

    The Patriots have all the tools—coaching, quarterback, offensive line and defense—to be great this season. Nothing short of a Super Bowl should be accepted.

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Inside Linebacker Jerod Mayo

    The New England Patriots have rebuilt their defense in hopes of getting past the Denver Broncos in the AFC. With Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the secondary, the pressure falls to the linebacking corps to get the job done both against the run and in the passing game.

    Jerod Mayo will make the move to inside linebacker, replacing departed Brandon Spikes, and he'll need to make a seamless transition there. Coming off of injury, Mayo has a tall order ahead of him, but he's talented and athletic enough to do the job well.

    If Mayo becomes the athletic, rangy MIKE 'backer the Patriots need, this defense could be a top-10 unit.

1. Seattle Seahawks

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    Why the Ranking?

    The Seattle Seahawks made a statement with the way they came out of the gate in Week 2, putting a smackdown on the San Diego Chargers first team. Preseason results rarely mean anything or tell the whole story, but the play of the Seahawks first string should scare the rest of the NFL. 

     

    Most Important Defensive Player for 2014

    Free Safety Earl Thomas

    You could make a good argument that Earl Thomas is the best football player in the game regardless of position. And in the Seattle defense, which is built on Cover 3 principles, Thomas is the center fielder and leader of the secondary.

    For the Seahawks to maintain their No. 1 ranking and get back to the Super Bowl, Thomas must once again be great. And he can be, even with new NFL rules seemingly designed to limit the Seahawks defense.