NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Heading into Preseason Week 1?
We frittered through free agency. Dawdled through the draft. Endured through OTAs and meandered through minicamps. But now, with training camps underway, only one more task remains.
Persevering through the preseason.
That preseason began this past Sunday, when the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts met in a thrilling Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.
Well, thrilling if you like train wrecks. The game was cancelled over problems with congealing field paint. Seriously.
Given that the game didn't happen, it didn't change any opinions where the teams are concerned. The Colts and Packers went into the weekend considered playoff contenders and left the same way.
But what of the NFL's other's teams? Who's at the top of the proverbial heap as we begin a journey that will end in Houston at Super Bowl LI? Who is at the bottom?
That's the question we posed to the NFL Analysts here at Bleacher Report. Using a scoring system that assigns 32 points to a No. 1 ranking and one point to a No. 32 ranking, NFL Analysts Brent Sobleski, Brad Gagnon, Sean Tomlinson and myself slotted the NFL's clubs as the preseason begins.
And from No. 32 to No. 1, here's what we had to say.
32. San Francisco 49ers
High Ranking: 32 (4 Rankers)
Low Ranking: 32 (4 Rankers)
Ranking Points: 4
The San Francisco 49ers are one of the most successful franchises in NFL history. The team has played in six Super Bowls, winning five.
I mention that because if I didn't, given the state of the team, you might never believe it happened.
The past two years have been disastrous in the Bay Area. First came the falling out between the organization and head coach Jim Harbaugh, followed by a single miserable year with Jim Tomsula at the wheel.
Now, after a 5-11 2015 and with the Niners on their third head coach in as many seasons, San Francisco has turned to a man who had his own falling out last season—Chip Kelly.
Despite Kelly's face-plant last year with the Philadelphia Eagles, Niners general manager Trent Baalke told Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area that he's confident he's found the right man to turn the team around:
He’s the same guy every day. He’s on point. He’s a very good communicator. He’s very concise in his communication with the players. They know exactly what he’s looking for, as does his staff. He’s demanding without being demanding, if that makes sense.
I can’t talk about what happened in Philly. I can just tell you from my standpoint, communication has been natural and easy ... There’ve been no issues with lines of communications or thoughts or organizational structure.
It may be all smiles in San Francisco right now, but the good times aren't apt to last.
For starters, the 49ers still have no idea who their starting quarterback will be. Given that it's a choice between Blaine Gabbert and the reeling Colin Kaepernick, it may not matter. Regardless, Kelly told Joe Fann of the team's website he's in no real hurry to pick a starter:
Both of those guys have been really competitive. Again, they’re still growing. We’re new to them. They’re new to us. There’s a learning process going on and that’s the big thing for us as a coaching staff is just kind of seeing how they acclimate themselves to what we’re doing.
It isn't as though that's the team's only problem, either. The 49ers are as bereft of skill-position talent on offense as any team in the NFL. Given that and Kelly's frenetic offensive pace, the defense is primed to spend most of the season between a rock and a hard place—on the field an untenable amount of time.
To be blunt, it's going to be a long season in San Francisco.
31. Cleveland Browns
High Ranking: 29 (2 Rankers)
Low Ranking: 31 (2 Rankers)
Ranking Points: 12
Nowhere in the National Football League does the phrase "hope springs eternal" carry more weight than in Cleveland, where the Browns have been hoping to field a competitive football team since 1999 or so.
Those hopes usually last until the first week of September.
Despite a three-win season in 2015, that hope is back is Northern Ohio this summer. Much of it lies on the right arm of Robert Griffin III, who the team signed in free agency in the hopes (there's that word again) he could recapture the form that won him NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2012.
Even though 2015 starter Josh McCown showed more skill throwing from the pocket and reading defenses early in OTAs, per ESPN.com's Pat McManamon, it's Griffin whom head coach Hue Jackson named the team's starter, per Conor Orr of NFL.com.
Griffin told McManamon he's not letting the pressure of expectations get to him:
I just think you gotta have fun. This is a kid's game that you get to play for a king's ransom. At the end of the day, you know what you're doing. You've done your studying. You'll continue to do your studying.
You've worked hard. You've run, you've lifted and all those things. Now you got to come out and have fun. I think that's the beauty of the game. The more fun you have, the easier it is for you to play freely and go out and make plays.
It doesn't hurt Griffin's chances for success that the Browns got some good news for once when the league announced wide receiver Josh Gordon would be eligible to play after serving a four-game suspension to enter the season.
Gordon told McManamon he's eager to get his career back on track and show that he's learned from his mistakes:
I definitely think I'm a different person. If you haven't changed over a period of time, that's a bad thing. I think me standing here is a testament to that. Most people might not see it that way. That just comes with the territory of me being who I am, considering my past.
It would be the feel-good story of the year to see Griffin make it back from the brink. A movie of the week if Gordon is able to rise from the ashes alongside him. Given Jackson's offensive acumen, they seem to be the sort of pieces he could make some hay with.
The problems are legion, though. Gordon hasn't played professionally in more than a year and is expected to miss at least two weeks of training camp after suffering a quad injury, per Andrew Gribble of the team's official website. Griffin hasn't been Griffin since tearing his ACL at the end of that magical rookie season.
Additionally, the offensive line lost two starters to free agency in right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and center Alex Mack. The defense from front to back is one unproven youngster tasked with a big role after another, with Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden coming off the PUP list.
It's those young defensive starters, such as safeties Jordan Poyer and Ibraheim Campbell, who are the faces to watch as the preseason gets underway. Griffin likely won't play much in the opener, and with Jackson running the offense, the Browns should be much improved in that regard this season.
But if the Browns can't improve on last year's 27th-ranked defense, it won't matter.
30. Tennessee Titans
High Ranking: 29 (Davenport)
Low Ranking: 31 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 12
Vice President Joe Biden recently earned more than a few style points across America for successfully working "malarkey" into his speech at the Democratic National Convention.
The Titans are hopeful they can enjoy some successful Mularkey of their own in 2016.
It's Mike Mularkey the team settled on as its new head coach. He faces a tall task—the Titans had the NFL's worst record in 2015 and the second-worst the year before.
Mularkey, who took over for Ken Whisenhunt during the 2015 season, inherited a team that's long on young offensive talent but short on proven producers. Still, he told the Associated Press (via Fox 17 in Nashville) he's liked what he's seen so far from his players:
I'm happy with what's going on here. There's a lot of good things that are different than any of the previous two places I've been a head coach, and I'm excited.
I'm a little bit different in the sense that if there's anything I'm trying to have a little more fun with the players, that they enjoy coming into work every day. We work hard, we work really hard, but we also are going to have fun doing it.
The Titans have (they hope) their franchise quarterback in second-year pro Marcus Mariota. They added a pair of running backs in the offseason in 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and 2014 NFL rushing king DeMarco Murray. After trading the No. 1 pick in this year's draft to the Los Angeles Rams, the Titans had a bevy of draft picks to use to add complementary pieces around Mariota.
However, questions abound. Will any of the team's young wide receivers step up and become the vertical threat the team needs? Will an offensive line loaded with first-round picks play up to its potential? Can a defense that ranked a surprising 12th in the NFL in 2015 back that season up?
The Titans, by all appearances, are getting better. But they're still a ways away from contending for a playoff spot.
29. Los Angeles Rams
High Ranking: 23 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 31 (Tomlinson)
Ranking Points: 19
The Rams are back in La-La Land, returning to Los Angeles after spending the past two decades in St. Louis.
As they make their return to the Left Coast, the Rams bring with them more than a little young talent. Running back Todd Gurley was the 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald was the runner-up last year in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
But as the Rams, this year's featured team on HBO's Hard Knocks, prepare for the 2016 campaign, all eyes are on a player who has yet to take his first professional snap.
The Rams mortgaged their future to trade up in April's NFL draft. With the first overall pick they selected Cal quarterback Jared Goff, hopeful he can become the team's first true franchise quarterback since Kurt Warner left the organization.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Marc Bulger. I said true franchise quarterback.
Rams general manager Les Snead told Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times that he's been impressed with Goff's development to date: "You can see it, especially when you go back and hit rewind a few times on the film. I always give the quarterback credit because he’s actually doing it without rewind, in real time. In OTAs, he was memorizing the vocabulary words; now he’s applying them."
Goff may well be the real deal. After a phenomenal rookie season, Gurley certainly appears to be. And there's zero doubt Donald is. He's a legitimate superstar in the making who anchors a stout young Rams defense.
However, we're still talking about a rookie quarterback who isn't swimming in quality targets in the passing game. Goff also gets to learn his trade in an NFC West that's become arguably the most top-heavy division in football.
The Rams should start Goff from Day 1—Case Keenum? Pass, despite the report from Joe Curley of the Ventura County Star—but the team will have growing pains in 2016.
Let's just hope they aren't too bad. After all, that isn't going to do L.A. a bit of good in the 2017 draft.
28. San Diego Chargers
High Ranking: 24 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 28 (2 Rankers)
Ranking Points: 24
After an injury-filled, 4-12 mess of a 2015 season, the most important offseason task the San Diego Chargers had was to avoid drama and problems.
For a time, everything went according to script. The Bolts made one of the best value signings of free agency with the addition of speedy wideout Travis Benjamin (4.36-second 40-yard dash). The Chargers bolstered their pass rush in a big way with the selection of Ohio State's Joey Bosa with the No. 3 pick in the 2016 draft.
Or at least they appeared to.
As of now, one first-round pick remains unsigned—Bosa, who is locked in a stalemate with the team over offset language in his contract and his signing bonus.
Head coach Mike McCoy tried his best to be diplomatic about the situation while speaking with Eric Williams of ESPN.com:
We want everybody here. His teammates want him here. We all understand the type of player he is but I’m very excited and pleased with where our team is today.
There’s a lot of good and bad in every practice, but the way they’re working, there’s a lot good things going on. Joey’s just going to make us that much better when he gets here. I’m ready for him to be here today.
It's uncharted waters for both player and team. The collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011 was supposed to put an end to rookie holdouts. But with the Chargers refusing to compromise on either issue and Bosa holding his ground, there's a real possibility this drags on into the regular season.
As Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote, Bosa's mother didn't hide her feelings on the subject. "It bums me out for him so much," she wrote on Facebook. "Wish we pulled an Eli Manning on draft day."
Manning, of course, famously refused to play for the Chargers, working a trade to the New York Giants.
Simply put, it's a distraction the Chargers don't need. Not in a division with two 2015 playoff teams, a rising club in the Oakland Raiders and the defending champion Denver Broncos.
Not only do the Chargers look like a last-place team, but right now, they're acting like one.
27. Philadelphia Eagles
High Ranking: 22 (Davenport)
Low Ranking: 30 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 26
There may not be a team in the NFL that underwent more changes in the offseason than the Philadelphia Eagles—and I'll admit that I'm higher on this Eagles team than my compatriots.
There's a new head coach in Doug Pederson. A new defensive scheme, as defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is changing the Eagles from the 3-4 to his Wide 9 4-3. General manager Howie Roseman purged most of the players former head coach Chip Kelly added the year before and then traded up in the 2016 NFL draft to select quarterback Carson Wentz No. 2 overall.
That wheeling and dealing under center didn't sit well with incumbent signal-caller Sam Bradford, who the Eagles re-upped just before adding Wentz.
However, Bradford has since gotten over it (at least publicly), and he told Michael Marcantonini of CSN Philadelphia that he's enjoying Pederson's more traditional offense after running Kelly's uptempo system in 2015:
It’s definitely easier to come to the side and talk about plays, just because you do have more time, and then when we huddle, obviously you can hit guys with key points on certain plays. It is nice to be able to come together in the huddle, to have the time after you have a [second] to talk to people and really kind of get on the same page.
Schwartz has the pieces up front defensively to implement a scheme that fielded dominant defenses in Buffalo and Detroit.
If Bradford buys into Pederson's scheme and tailback Ryan Mathews can stay healthy, the Eagles are going to be involved in a lot of close games this year.
If it gets a break or two along the way, Philly could be this year's Washington Redskins—the NFC East contender no one expects.
Or Bradford could get hurt again, a suspect secondary could get exposed and the Eagles could be awful.
26. Miami Dolphins
High Ranking: 26 (2 Rankers)
Low Ranking: 27 (2 Rankers)
Ranking Points: 26
Last year, the Miami Dolphins spent a fortune in free agency (mainly on defense) and entered the season as a dark-horse playoff team on many preseason prediction lists.
That defense fell apart; the Dolphins fired head coach Joe Philbin midseason; quarterback Ryan Tannehill regressed after signing a contract extension; and those lists, like the Dolphins, went up in flames.
The Dolphins turned to Adam Gase to right the ship and fix their quarterback. Gase, who was the offensive coordinator in Chicago in 2015, is a first-time head coach. But as center Mike Pouncey told Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, he hasn't acted like it:
It's been very impressive to see. There's a lot of excitement around here and I really feel like the team has embraced what coach Gase and his staff have brought with them. Everything is very competitive and there is a competitive edge to everything they do. Just to see how he is competing with his coordinators, and the approach the coaches take to each practice, that rubs off on us, too.
They are very high energy. Very efficient. He really gets what players need to be successful and he has a proven track record with his offense. Everybody around here feels energized.
Gase is a keen offensive mind, and the success he displayed in coaxing a solid season from Bears signal-caller Jay Cutler last year no doubt appealed to Miami after Tannehill's down 2015. With no shortage of passing-game options, the Dolphins are going to be able to move the ball through the air.
On the ground is another story, though. With Lamar Miller now in Houston, the Dolphins have placed their running-game fortunes in the hands of unproven youngster Jay Ajayi and injury-prone veteran Arian Foster.
It's a similar story on defense. Olivier Vernon departed in free agency, spurring the Dolphins to add players such as linebacker Kiko Alonso and Mario Williams, who both disappointed in 2015.
Even if all the new faces play to their potential and Tannehill takes a step forward, it may not be enough—not in an AFC East where every team but Miami was .500 or better last year.
Miami might be the best last-place team in the league. But it does have the look of a last-place team.
25. Detroit Lions
High Ranking: 23 (Tomlinson)
Low Ranking: 28 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 32
With Calvin Johnson deciding to retire, the Detroit Lions were left with the unenviable task of attempting to replace a Hall of Fame-caliber pass-catcher this offseason.
The addition of Marvin Jones doesn't solve that problem, but with Johnson banged up much of last season, the Lions were a sneaky-good offense after Jim Bob Cooter replaced Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator.
Yes, Jim Bob Cooter. He of the NFL's most awesome name.
Per Albert Breer of The MMQB, Cooter said he's been proud of the progress the Lions (and especially quarterback Matthew Stafford) have toward making the offensive whole greater than the sum of its parts:
I think the next step for him, and you probably saw a little bit of it tonight, is taking more and more and more ownership of the offense, making it his own.
The more we run the plays, the more he runs the same plays over and over, the better feel he gets for what he likes and what he doesn’t like. He’s increasing his ownership of the offense and I’d like to keep that going.
For his part, Stafford insisted that last year's 1-7 start had more to do with poor execution than a lack of firepower in the Motor City:
We lost seven of our first eight because of execution and turnovers, it wasn’t effort or talent. It was our own doing. We did a great job in the second half of the season turning those negatives into positives. It’s hard to say it’s gonna carry over, that’s difficult, but you know what it feels like to play at that level. It’s on us to get back to that, and play that way consistently for 16 games, not just eight.
To be fair, the Lions are a team that can make some noise in 2016—if Stafford cuts down the turnovers. And if 23-year-old tailback Ameer Abdullah can carry the load on the ground. And if Jones and Anquan Boldin can offset the loss of Johnson and injured tight end Eric Ebron. And if linebacker DeAndre Levy can return to Pro Bowl form and anchor a defense that backslid in a big way in 2015.
That's a lot of ifs, though.
24. Baltimore Ravens
High Ranking: 19 (Davenport)
Low Ranking: 27 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 41
To say everything that could go wrong did for the Baltimore Ravens in 2015 is an understatement-and-a-half.
Quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Justin Forsett, wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs are just some of the key contributors Baltimore lost to season-ending injuries. Eight opening-day starters in all went down for the year at some point.
Throw in a staggering run of bad breaks in close games, and the Ravens were clearly the NFL's unluckiest team a year ago. The team finished with a losing record for the first time since John Harbaugh took over as head coach in 2008.
As Lorenzo Reyes of USA Today reported, Harbaugh believes that a return to health for all those players could mean a playoff berth for the Ravens in 2016: "I was optimistic last year when nobody else was, and I guess I was wrong. But our guys kept fighting, and obviously I'm optimistic that we can be a championship football team this year with the guys we've got."
As the panelist who ranked the Ravens highest, I'm buying what Harbaugh's selling—to a point. The Ravens just aren't a team that stays bad for long. They also aren't a 5-11 football team—at least when they're healthy.
However, that rebound season isn't guaranteed. Flacco tore his ACL last November, and while he's practicing at the start of camp, per Clifton Brown of CSN Mid-Atlantic, that's a disquietingly quick turnaround. Smith, on the other hand, isn't close to returning yet, and given the severity of his Achilles tear, he may never be the same.
The Ravens still haven't gotten a single down of action from 2015 first-rounder Breshad Perriman. They signed Mike Wallace as an insurance policy of sorts at wide receiver, but it's been years since the 30-year-old was an effective player.
Simply put, the Ravens have gotten old—and they are now clearly the No. 3 team in the AFC North.
23. New Orleans Saints
High Ranking: 19 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 24 (Gagnon)
Ranking Points: 44
It's been a long time since head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees led the Saints to the NFL mountaintop. As Albert Breer of The MMQB pointed out, only three Saints (Brees, Zach Strief and Thomas Morstead) remain from that 2009 Super Bowl team. In fact, New Orleans hasn't advanced to the playoffs since 2013.
Still, despite grumblings that maybe it's time for the Saints to begin a full-on rebuild, Payton told Breer he's entering 2016 in a better place than he's been in some time:
There are just certain things that you begin to focus on a little more clearly, and the others you have less control over, you don’t let those derail from working towards the main goal. It’s hard to evaluate that. Obviously, the consistency we’ve had from our ownership to general manager to head coach, to having the same quarterback throughout that timeframe, that’s something you appreciate.
I’m excited about this team.
As has been the case so often during the pair's time together, Brees is on the same page as his coach: "The best way to put it is he has a plan. He has a plan for, even going back to a year ago, how we’re gonna build this team back to being all about character and toughness. … I don’t wanna call it relaxed, I don’t wanna call it content. It’s purposeful."
Make no mistake—with additions like tight end Coby Fleener and rookie wide receiver Michael Thomas, the Saints will once again pile up the points. Brees is a good bet to top 5,000 passing yards a record fifth time.
The problem in New Orleans, as it usually does, lies on defense. The Saints are switching up the defense in 2016 under coordinator Dennis Allen, but it would take a massive improvement over last year's 31st-ranked squad for them to be any kind of legitimate contender in the NFC.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
High Ranking: 17 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 25 (Tomlinson)
Ranking Points: 46
The story of the 2016 Tampa Bay Buccaneers is all about youth.
Whether it's second-year quarterback Jameis Winston, third-year wideout Mike Evans or first-year head coach Dirk Koetter, the Buccaneers are hopeful that what they lack in experience they'll make up for with exuberance.
Koetter, who was Tampa's offensive coordinator last year, got the big chair in large part because of the progress Winston made as a rookie.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy may be one of the team's elder statesmen, but the 28-year-old highlighted the obvious while speaking to Martin Fennelly of the Tampa Bay Times.
This is Winston's team now:
I just referred to him as the face of the franchise because he is. When they show commercials of the Bucs, they're not showing Gerald. They're showing Jameis. That's one reason I'm happy about that. Because if your quarterback is the face of your franchise, usually that tags to winning.
A look at the Buccaneers roster shows more than a little talent. Winston, Evans and running back Doug Martin (who was second in the NFL in rushing in 2015 with 1,402 yards) provide a solid core on offense. McCoy, linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander and free-agent acquisition Robert Ayers do the same on defense.
The key in 2016 will be the play of both lines. The Buccaneers need McCoy and Ayers to goose the pass rush and prevent a so-so secondary from being picked apart by a division filled with big-name quarterbacks.
Likewise, if Winston is going to join Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Cam Newton as high-end NFL starters, he'll need better play from an offensive front that ranked 14th in the NFL in pass blocking last year, per Football Outsiders.
Do those things, and the Buccaneers could surprise some people in 2016.
21. Chicago Bears
High Ranking: 16 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 25 (Davenport)
Ranking Points: 49
After an up-and-down 2015 season, the Bears are a hard team to figure out. It's evidenced by our rankers, who varied a full 10 slots in their assessment of the team.
Quarterback Jay Cutler, who may be the most maligned player at his position in the NFL, quietly had one of the better seasons of his career in 2015, despite the team's 6-10 finish. This year the Chicago offense will get a boost in the form of second-year wide receiver Kevin White, who told Ben Baskin of Sports Illustrated he doesn't understand why Cutler catches so much flak:
We need to clean Jay's name up. He has a bad rep for no reason and I don't like it. I came in and everyone was telling me, 'Jay's an a--hole, you're going to hate Cutler.' I was like, I want to get to know this dude first. And it's just not true at all. None of it.
In White, Alshon Jeffery and tight end Zach Miller, Cutler has the weapons he needs in the passing game. The question then becomes whether young tailbacks Jeremy Langford and Jordan Howard can pick up the ground-game slack the departure of star tailback Matt Forte created.
There are even bigger questions on defense. Inside linebacker was a glaring weakness for the team in 2015—a weakness the team aggressively attacked by adding veterans Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman in free agency.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune the difference has been startling. "We have accomplished inside linebackers who have played in the NFL," Fangio said, "whereas last year we were playing with guys who really never had played that position in the NFL before."
The Bears showed some signs last year they were trending in the right direction. Continuing that progress on offense and tightening up the middle of the defense are keys if the Bears want to be more than a 7-9 also-ran in 2016.
20. Atlanta Falcons
High Ranking: 17 (Davenport)
Low Ranking: 25 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 51
The Atlanta Falcons were a Jekyll and Hyde football team in 2015. When they were good, such as during their white-hot start and in their Week 16 win over the Carolina Panthers, they looked every bit like a playoff team.
But when they were bad—when the offense sputtered, the defense struggled and QB Matt Ryan picked the worst possible time to turn the ball over—they looked like a tomato can.
Ryan told Brandon Sudge of the Macon Telegraph that he's made better decision-making with the football a priority in 2016:
I’m currently working on accuracy. Last season, I struggled with that, and if I’m able to hit my receivers in important situations, it’ll make our team better this season.
As an NFL quarterback, there’s a lot that you have to deal with. I always go out there and work as hard as I can, and then whatever happens, is going to happen. Knowing that releases all of that pressure that comes with leading a team. I feel like I’m able to lead and play effectively by giving my all.
Head coach Dan Quinn likes what he's seen from his 31-year-old signal-caller over the summer:
Matt is a huge part of our team and how we play. He’s been on point for a long time, and we’re aiming to be really good at the end of halves and games, so we’re spending a lot of time on that. I’m not sure if I’d call him a game manager, but someone who’s on point at the end of games is someone that’s very integral to our team.
The Falcons spent big money on Mohamed Sanu as a complement to wide receiver Julio Jones in the passing game, and tailback Devonta Freeman is one of the best in the NFL at catching the ball out of the backfield.
The bigger question marks lie on defense. Since Quinn's arrival, the Falcons have infused significant youth into a defense that was lacking in talent, whether it was edge-rusher Vic Beasley last year or linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal in 2016.
The biggest key for the Falcons in 2016? Consistency, whether it's from the quarterback or the defense. Take a step forward in that regard, and the Falcons could be in the hunt for a wild-card spot.
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
High Ranking: 18 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 20 (2 Rankers)
Ranking Points: 55
This summer, something strange is happening on Florida's Atlantic coast.
After a career year from quarterback Blake Bortles in 2015, a free-agent spending spree and one of the best hauls of the 2016 draft, fans and pundits alike are looking at the Jaguars and wondering aloud what was once considered ridiculous.
Are the Jaguars a playoff team?
Even owner Shad Khan got in on the act, telling USA Today (via Gene Frenette of the Florida Times-Union) that fans “should have some expectations that we’re going to be a sustainable, winning organization.”
One thing can't be disputed. There wasn't a more aggressive team in the NFL this offseason than the Jaguars. First the team spent big money on the likes of defensive end Malik Jackson, running back Chris Ivory and offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum in free agency.
That wasn't all. The Jaguars went hard at the defense in the draft, adding a pair of players who should start from Day 1 in defensive back Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack.
Add it all together, and Frenette is cautiously optimistic:
The undeniable truth is every unit on the Jaguars — secondary, offensive line, special teams, etc. — should be improved to varying degrees. Plus, Bortles is in his second year with Greg Olson’s play-calling system and the makeover on defense might be the greatest upgrade in team history.
And let’s not forget, NFL turnarounds often happen quickly. Since 2010, eight teams have won division titles after posting records of 6-10 or worse the previous year, including Houston in 2011.
Steven Ruiz of USA Today pumped the brakes, however—both on the Jaguars' playoff chances and Bortles' ascension:
The volume stats paint Bortles as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the league. He topped the 4,000-yard mark through the air and finished second in touchdown passes with 35. His rate stats tell another story, however. He finished below league-average in passer rating, completion percentage and interception percentage and right on the league average for yards-per-attempt. I’m going to stay away from the lazy “he only produced in garbage time” argument, but consistency is a big issue for him and it’s evident in the numbers.
On one hand, you look at the talent the Jags have added and the offensive firepower in Bortles and wideouts Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, and this looks like a team that should be able to do some damage in a winnable AFC South.
But the Jaguars are also a team that hasn't won even six games since 2010. If they're going to push for the postseason in 2016, it's going to take one heck of a leap.
18. Dallas Cowboys
High Ranking: 11 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 26 (Davenport)
Ranking Points: 56
The Dallas Cowboys have to be eager for the regular season to get underway.
Because the offseason has been one bad break after another.
Still, despite the fact that three Dallas defensive starters will open the season with a suspension and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott (the No. 4 overall pick in the 2016 draft) is laid up with a pulled hamstring, there's hope galore in Big D.
That hope has a name...Antonio Ramiro "Tony" Romo.
With both Romo and star receiver Dez Bryant on the shelf for much of last season, the Cowboys lurched their way through a 4-12 nightmare of a season. But the belief among fans is that as goes Romo, so goes the team—that a healthy Romo could spur the quickest of turnarounds.
Romo, for his part, appears to know better. He knows the Cowboys are going to need to bang away with Elliott like they did with DeMarco Murray two years ago. Control the tempo of the game and keep their short-handed defense off the field.
And as Todd Archer of ESPN.com reported, for Romo that means getting in the young back's ear and showing him the ropes:
Believe me, I'm in his ear enough. I think at this point he tries to stay away a little bit. It's good for him to hear about a lot of the little intricate stuff that is going to come up at some point. You don't want to overload him too much right away. At the same time, he's got to hear it and go through it. He'll make mistakes, but every rookie does. The good ones learn from it, come back and don't make it again.
For the young guys, rookies, it's always difficult. I think the easy part is to just communicate with them about football. They want to be great at football. Passing on your knowledge and communicating with them. That's the number one way to start. And then they earn your trust along the way and the coaches'. And then you start to let them really be a part of the group, if that makes sense
Elliott may well become a star. From all indications he has the talent to do so right out of the gate. And he'll be running behind arguably the best offensive line in football.
But the simple fact Elliott is being looked on as the foundation for the Cowboys' success as a rookie shows how out of whack things have gotten in Dallas.
The reality is the Cowboys are going to have trouble generating any pass rush on defense. That, in turn, is going to expose a so-so secondary. And that is going to put pressure on the offense to win lots of 27-24 games.
Do Romo and Bryant have the talent to do that? Yes. But Romo is also a 36-year-old quarterback with a chronically bad back who broke his collarbone last year. Twice.
And with Kellen Moore likely out for the season after suffering an ankle injury, the Cowboys' backup quarterback situation somehow got worse than last year's disaster.
The Cowboys enter every season with big expectations.
They just may not have the horses to fulfill them in 2016.
17. Buffalo Bills
High Ranking: 15 (Tomlinson)
Low Ranking: 21 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 62
After watching their supposedly stout defense fall flat on its face in 2015, the Bills hit that side of the ball early and often in the 2016 NFL draft.
They've been getting hit back ever since.
First it was No. 19 overall pick Shaq Lawson, who will be sidelined indefinitely after shoulder surgery. Last week, second-round pick Reggie Ragland joined Lawson on the shelf with a partially torn ACL suffered in practice.
I mean, I think, we have our guys — they feel comfortable in the positions that [they're] in and I think that's a big thing. You know we have a lot of defenses in. But, I think the work, the preparation, that the players have put have been key also. I think that shouldn't be understated. It's the players that, I mean they want to be great. And we want to be, and like I said I'm confident we'll be much better than we were last year.
The problem is that the injuries haven't just hit the Bills on defense. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who has been nursing a broken foot, was only recently activated off the PUP list. Watkins told Chris Brown of the team's website that he isn't 100 percent, although he expects to be a full-go by Week 1.
"As far as sprinting and stuff I’m moving and doing that 100 percent," Watkins said. "Gassers, 100s, everything in the workout room. Any explosiveness I’m doing that. I’m doing the cuts, but certain things are full speed, and certain things aren’t."
The Bills were in the playoff hunt for most of last year, only to come up just short at the end. If Buffalo is going to end the NFL's longest playoff drought in 2016, it can't afford any more injuries to front-line players.
16. New York Jets
High Ranking: 15 (2 Rankers)
Low Ranking: 18 (Gagnon)
Ranking Points: 68
Relax, Jets fans. Barring an injury, that picture is about as close as Geno Smith will get to the starting lineup for the New York Jets.
Coming off a 10-win season, loaded with veteran talent, the Jets spent most of the summer with one huge question mark hanging over the team—the contract status of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Despite sitting out OTAs, the 33-year-old Fitzpatrick told Darryl Slater of NJ.com he's ready to pick up where he left off in a career-best season in 2015:
My arm, surprisingly, or at least it's been surprising to me, has felt great the whole time. No residual soreness or anything. The way training camp is now, with basically one practice a day, as opposed to how it used to be, with two, is a lot easier, I think, physically for the guys — and the quarterbacks for their arms, too.
That's music to the ears of Gang Green. Because in the Big Apple, the future is now.
The Jets are a veteran team. Fitzpatrick, tailback Matt Forte, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, center Nick Mangold, inside linebacker David Harris and cornerback Darrelle Revis are the backbone of the team on both sides of the ball.
Every one of those players is on the wrong side of 30.
The Jets are (barring a big injury) going to be a good football team in 2016. Maybe not dethrone-the-Patriots-in-the-AFC East good, but certainly contend-for-a-playoff-spot good.
But there's also little margin for error. Just as with last season, there could easily be a 10-6 team in the AFC that misses the playoffs altogether.
15. Washington Redskins
High Ranking: 13 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 17 (Tomlinson)
Ranking Points: 71
Not even Nostradamus himself could have predicted that the Washington Redskins would win the NFC East in 2015. Picked to finish last in the division by more pundits than not, the Redskins rode a white-hot second half from quarterback Kirk Cousins to a 9-7 finish and a playoff spot.
Cousins, who will play the 2016 season under the franchise tag, told Mike Jones of the Washington Post a lack of personnel turnover on that side of the ball has the team well ahead of where it was last year at this point:
Every aspect of our offense, whether it be protections, route combinations, hand signals, code words, blitz pickups, chemistry between players, we’ve done it for a number of years. There’s not a lot of attrition. If you look at the five guys up front, they played significantly, their backups played significantly. Our receivers have played significantly, and their backups played a lot, tight ends and running backs very similarly. So, you’re not plugging in a lot of new guys that haven’t played football. As a result, when you’ve been there, done that, you can play at a higher level.
The Redskins also made arguably the biggest splash signing on defense in free agency, upgrading the secondary with the addition of Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman.
So what's the problem? Why are the Redskins just barely inside the top 15 here?
Well, as Charley Casserly of NFL Network told the Washington Post's Scott Allen, part of the issue is that Cousins' hot half-season was just that—half a season:
I think the Redskins, I think they improved the secondary at the expense of improving the defensive line. They probably couldn’t do both; they certainly did one. They’re counting on the young offensive linemen taking another step and obviously the running game coming along. And Cousins, that’ll be the discussion all year long. Is he playing at the high level he played at last year when he was good, or is he playing at the level he played at when he wasn’t good? So they’re gonna be there in December contending.
If the Redskins play well in the trenches and young tailback Matt Jones improves, Washington might be headed back to the playoffs. But if the line and running game falters and Cousins has to carry the team...
Well, he'll earn every cent he gets. One way or the other.
14. Houston Texans
High Ranking: 12 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 18 (Tomlinson)
Ranking Points: 72
There are more question marks surrounding the Houston Texans in 2016 than on the Riddler's costume.
After making a surprising run to the AFC South title in 2015 (a run that ended unceremoniously in a beating at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs), the Texans were one of free agency's most aggressive teams, dropping over $100 million on a new quarterback in Brock Osweiler and a new tailback in Lamar Miller.
As training camp got underway in Houston, Osweiler told Ben DuBose of ESPN.com he's settling in well in his new home:
Whenever you are in a new system, and you go on summer break and come back for training camp Day 1, you don’t know how much is really going to stick. I felt extremely comfortable out there calling the plays, hearing the plays in the helmet. We audibled a few times at the line of scrimmage. I think most importantly our communication, whether that be in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage today, was really good.
The same held true for Miller. As Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle reported, Miller is looking forward to a featured back role after four seasons as part of a rotation in Miami:
Every day I step on the field, I'm just taking full advantage of my opportunity. A lot of people don't get this opportunity, so I've just got to take full advantage of it. I'm just coming in here every day to just put in the work and compete with my teammates. It's a good opportunity to be in the game. You just have to go out there and help this team win. In my part, I just have to do my assignment, just be a good teammate and just make good plays.
The offensive upgrades should help, but just like last year, the Texans are a team that will go as far as the defense takes them. And in that respect, an even bigger question hangs like a dark cloud over Houston.
Reigning Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt recently underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back, leaving his Week 1 status in doubt. Watt revealed to DuBose that he's unsure when he'll return:
We took a whole bunch of junk out of my back, so now I feel good. For the first two weeks, [the doctor] told me to just walk and lay down. That's my rehab. That's all I've been doing. But they said as soon as the two weeks are up, I can ramp up quickly.
The fact that we're getting it taken care of now and I'm going to be healthy for the season -- that's what matters most.
As I said, many questions and much uncertainty surround the Texans. That uncertainty is reflected in the team's position on this list.
13. Indianapolis Colts
High Ranking: 12 (2 Rankers)
Low Ranking: 20 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 74
The 2015 season didn't go at all according to plan for the Indianapolis Colts. The team entered the year as a Super Bowl contender and left it an 8-8 disappointment, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Many of those disappointments can be laid at the feet of Andrew Luck, who struggled through a shoulder injury and uncharacteristically poor play before seeing his season cut short by a lacerated kidney.
Luck's struggles didn't stop the team from making him the highest-paid player in NFL history, complements of a six-year, $140 million contract. But there is a new brain trust helping Luck in 2016 in offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and position coach Brian Schottenheimer.
Schottenheimer and Luck have worked on his mechanics and his footwork for much of the offseason, and the quarterbacks coach told Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star that hard work is already paying off: "It’s been a ball. He challenges you every day because he’s so smart, he’s such a hard worker. You can’t just step into a meeting without being prepared. If you don’t have a plan, he’s going to call you on it."
Luck told Josh Wilson of SB Nation's Stampede Blue that he expects to bounce back in a big way in 2016:
It’s a refinement of a lot of things. The fundamentals of dropping back, by and large are the same. It’s a refinement. For example, it’s mirroring your feet to a certain play. You talked about a different playbook, it’s learning what sort of sequence of drop marries with this play versus that coverage. That goes for every play.
I could sit here and tell you that getting some semblance of a ground game from veteran running back Frank Gore is important. Or that either Nate Irving or Sio Moore will have to step up and replace Jerrell Freeman at inside linebacker. I could go on about how the team's anemic pass rush has to get better or how the offensive line has to protect Luck better.
But the fact is, just as has been the case the past few years, this team will go as far as No. 12 takes it.
12. New York Giants
High Ranking: 10 (Tomlinson)
Low Ranking: 22 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 74
The New York Giants were not good on defense in 2015.
Actually, not good is being kind. The Giants ranked dead last in the NFL in total defense, allowing a staggering 420.3 yards per game.
Yeah, that ain't good even a little bit.
That ungoodness (what, in this election year I can't make up words?) didn't escape the notice of general manager Jerry Reese, who hit the defensive side of the ball early and often. In free agency, the G-Men handed huge contracts to defensive end Olivier Vernon, tackle Damon Harrison and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. They doubled down by spending the team's first-round pick on cornerback Eli Apple.
Despite last year's struggles and the hiring of a new head coach in Ben McAdoo, the Giants retained defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who told Steve Serby of the New York Post that he's eyeing a big-time bounce back in 2016:
It hurt in a lot of ways (last year). … I felt like I let Tom [Coughlin] down, let the organization down. Every time I look at a game, I said, ‘We shoulda done better,’ and I always look back and look at the mirror first, ‘What could we call better? What could we have done better?’ It’ll always hurt me. Now the only way to fix it is to have another game, which we don’t have until September, but that’s the plan.
But look, we gotta go out there and be a unit on the field that takes no crap, wins games for us at the end of the game, and physically moves people around. And when teams get done playing us, say, ‘Wow! That’s a physical football team.’
We’re gonna be better. We’re gonna be better because of players. We’re gonna be better because of better coaching, less mistakes. We’re gonna be better because it’s the second year in the system. Everything we went through last year is over and done. We’re moving on.
The Giants were eighth in the NFL offensively last year, in a division where nine wins brought Washington the NFC East crown. If the team can get better defensively, Big Blue could easily be right back in the thick of things.
How quickly all those new pieces can come together will go a long way toward determining if that happens.
11. Oakland Raiders
High Ranking: 9 (Gagnon)
Low Ranking: 14 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 86
It's been a while since the Oakland Raiders were in the playoffs. Quite a while.
Actually, it's been well over a decade since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the Raiders behind the woodshed in Super Bowl XXXVII. Since then, there's been frustration and disappointment in all shapes and sizes, including in the case of former quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft.
Well, fret not, Raiders fans. General manager Reggie McKenzie has assembled a young core of talent that has the team ready to compete for a playoff spot.
It starts with quarterback Derek Carr, who took a big step forward in 2015. Carr has a talented young tailback in Latavius Murray to hand off to, a pair of solid receivers in second-year pro Amari Cooper and veteran Michael Crabtree, and with the addition of guard Kelechi Osemele, the Raiders have quietly assembled a good offensive line.
The defense is spearheaded by edge-rusher Khalil Mack, he of the 15 sacks in 2015. If there's a defensive player in the NFL with a realistic shot at unseating J.J. Watt as the league's top defender, it's Mack.
As ESPN.com's Mike Clay pointed out, even the scheduling gods appear to have aligned in the Raiders' favor in 2016:
Divisional games aside, Oakland has a relatively light schedule. The road slate includes trips to New Orleans, Tennessee, Baltimore, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay. The Raiders' home games are tougher, as they will host Atlanta, Houston, Carolina and Buffalo (with a bye week mixed in) during a rare four-game homestand near midseason. PFF's Nathan Jahnke has the Raiders projected for 11 wins, which is certainly on the optimistic side, but, for the first time in a long time, that's a legitimate goal for this franchise.
The last time the Raiders won 11 games? That would be their Super Bowl season in 2002. I wouldn't go making travel plans for Houston, but by all indications, the Silver and Black are a punchline no more.
10. Minnesota Vikings
High Ranking: 6 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 11 (2 Rankers)
Ranking Points: 94
In 2015, the Vikings were a trendy pick as the "next step" team—an also-ran prepared to make a run at the playoffs.
Sure enough, the Vikings held up their end of the deal. Not only did Minnesota capture the NFC North, but the team came a missed chip-shot field goal from knocking NFC power Seattle from the postseason tournament.
Of course, with increased success comes increased expectations. Now the Vikings aren't just expected to be good or even just expected to make the playoffs.
Now fans in the Twin Cities are talking Super Bowl.
The Vikings won in 2015 by running the ball with Adrian Peterson and playing defense. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's job wasn't to win games—it was to not lose them.
That will have to change if the Vikings are to continue ascending in the NFC, and Bridgewater told Lindsey Young of the team's website that attacking defenses vertically has been a point of emphasis for Minnesota in training camp.
"Our guys know that once the ball’s in the air, it belongs to the Vikings,” Bridgewater said. “That’s our mindset going into this season, and I think we’ve been doing a much better job just pushing the ball down the field.”
The Vikings spent their first-round pick on a big-bodied receiver for Bridgewater in Laquon Treadwell (6'2", 215 lbs). Now it's up to the young signal-caller to take advantage of him.
To be honest, the Vikings, while a legitimate playoff threat, would have to be considered something of a long shot to make the Super Bowl. But if the team's a year away, that might not be such a bad thing.
Super Bowl LII in 2018 is in Minneapolis.
9. Kansas City Chiefs
High Ranking: 5 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 10 (Gagnon)
Ranking Points: 99
Of all last year's playoff teams, the Kansas City Chiefs may be the hardest to figure out.
The positives are many. The Chiefs were an 11-win team in 2015. They have offensive skill talent galore in tailback Jamaal Charles, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce, one of the NFL's best pass-rushers in Justin Houston and the league's defending Defensive Rookie of the Year in cornerback Marcus Peters.
Never mind quarterback Alex Smith, who offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said is having the best camp of his career, according to Adam Teicher of ESPN.com: "If there's anybody that understands where we want to go with this offense and stretching people downfield, Alex gets it. He's also going to be smart with his decisions. He has a proven track record for that but we're going to continue to keep using time in practice to take those downfield shots."
That's right. Alex Smith can throw the ball downfield. I know. It's a shock.
This is a team that won its last 10 regular-season games in 2015, a Chiefs squad that pounded the Houston Texans 30-0 in the Wild Card Round.
But—you knew there was a "but," right?—there are concerns.
Charles is returning from an ACL tear. No one is certain when Houston will be back on the field following offseason knee surgery. Sure, the team has some depth at outside linebacker in Tamba Hali and youngster Dee Ford, but if Houston misses substantial time, the Chiefs could be in trouble.
Remember, this is a team that had to win 10 straight last year to offset a 1-5 start to the season. If Kansas City comes out of the gate slow again this year in an AFC West that's shaping up to be a dogfight, it could easily wind up watching the playoffs from home.
8. Cincinnati Bengals
High Ranking: 7 (2 Rankers)
Low Ranking: 10 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 100
Over the past five seasons, there have been a couple of constants where the Cincinnati Bengals are concerned.
First, the team will make the playoffs. The Bengals have done so in each of the past five years, and in 2015, they did it with 12 wins and an AFC North championship.
Second, the Bengals will then turn around and get bounced on the first weekend of the postseason. That has also happened in each of the last five seasons, including a devastating choke job in the Wild Card Round against the Pittsburgh Steelers in January.
There have been other constants as well. This marks the sixth straight season together for quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green, who entered the NFL at the beginning of the Bengals' run of...consistent futility? Depressive dominance?
Do they have a word for this?
As Eric Prisbell of USA Today wrote, Dalton said all that time together is a large part of the reason he and Green are arguably the most prolific pitch-and-catch duo in the NFL: "It's been fun to go through our career together. The understanding of what we are trying to do, how to run routes, where I'm going to put the ball, it's all second nature to us now. We've been doing this for a while."
The Bengals' talent goes well beyond quarterback and wide receiver. Even with the loss of veterans such as wideout Marvin Jones and safety Reggie Nelson, Cincinnati remains one of the deepest 1-to-53 teams in the league. There isn't a team in the NFL the Bengals can't beat—in every month except January.
And until the team can show it can win a playoff game, this is where it'll be ranked—among the second-tier contenders.
7. Denver Broncos
High Ranking: 7 (Tomlinson)
Low Ranking: 8 (3 Rankers)
Ranking Points: 101
The Denver Broncos are the defending Super Bowl champions.
I repeat, the Denver Broncos are the Super Bowl champions.
That point needs to be reinforced, because given where the panel ranked the Broncos, if I didn't remind you, you wouldn't know.
Of course, it isn't hard to see why the Broncos are ranked lower than you would expect for a defending champ. Back in February, it was Peyton Manning (or at least what was left of him) under center in Super Bowl 50.
When Denver kicks off the preseason Thursday in Chicago, it will be either Mark Sanchez or second-year pro Trevor Siemian leading the offense.
It's Sanchez, who twice guided the New York Jets to the AFC Championship Game early in his career, who has received the lion's share of the work with the first team early in camp. But despite an up-and-down competition, former Broncos great Terrell Davis told Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com he thinks Sanchez will open the regular season as the team's starter.
Still, Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post cautioned that we shouldn't count out Siemian just yet, despite Sanchez's big edge in experience:
The powers that be at Dove Valley do have a real affinity for Siemian. If coach Gary Kubiak didn’t already have three sons, I think he might adopt Siemian. Kubiak has stated the requirements for his QB in 2016: Understand the system, get the ball in the hands of playmakers and don’t make mistakes that put a stellar defense in tough situations. Siemian can check those boxes.
There's little question that the dominant storyline this preseason in the Mile High City is the competition at quarterback. But as Davis pointed out, less than stellar play at the position last year didn't stop the Broncos from winning it all:
I don’t think [Kubiak] gets enough credit for what he did last year. It wasn’t even a true system. It was kind of a hybrid. And each week, you’re trying to figure out: What do we do? How do we make the quarterback comfortable? How do we make the backs comfortable? How do we do this? And you figure it out ... and go ahead and win the Super Bowl. Man, they don’t get enough credit for that.
The Broncos have one of the NFL's best defenses—maybe the best—and no shortage of talent at the offensive skill positions. If the quarterback play stabilizes, this is a ranking that will all but surely trend upward.
6. Green Bay Packers
High Ranking: 4 (Tomlinson)
Low Ranking: 9 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 107
You know that expectations are high when double-digit wins and a playoff trip are a letdown.
That was the fate of the Green Bay Packers in 2015. After coming up just short against the Seahawks in the 2014 NFC title game, the Packers lost wide receiver Jordy Nelson before last season even got underway. The offense never recovered, and while the Packers made the postseason, they just weren't the offensive powerhouse we've come to expect with Aaron Rodgers under center.
Nelson gave the Packers a scare by tweaking his good knee just before camp opened, but despite opening camp on the PUP list, he told AP Wire Service and Katie DeLong of Fox6Now.com that he expects to be 100 percent for Week 1.
“It was the other leg, and we’re not worried about it. And we’re going to work through it inside and progress. And we’ll be ready to go at some point in time during camp. Definitely before the season,” Nelson said.
For his part, Rodgers said it will be great to have his top target in the passing game back in the fold:
He’s a special guy. We are going to need a little time — not necessarily game reps, but just some reps in practice and he’s going to need to feel press coverage again and getting off of that and running and making plays and catches — but I’m confident he will get to a point where he’s ready play when we need him.
It isn't just having Nelson back, either. Randall Cobb shone two years ago as a complementary receiver but struggled as the go-to guy in 2015. In addition to the team's depth at wideout, the Packers added athletic tight end Jared Cook in free agency.
Throw in an in-shape Eddie Lacy at running back, and the Green Bay offense isn't apt to finish in the bottom half of the NFL again this season.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
High Ranking: 3 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 5 (3 Rankers)
Ranking Points: 114
They are hearing it right from me, and I'm telling them exactly what I want and how I want it. Coaches can tell them to run a route like this, but it's what I need, it's what I want. You talk to [QB backups] Bruce [Gradkowski] or Landry [Jones], they will even tell guys, you better ask Ben what he wants because that's what matters most.
And what a show it has the potential to be.
It isn't just that Roethlisberger is an elite quarterback. He has the NFL's best wide receiver (with apologies to Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr.) at his disposal in Antonio Brown and arguably the league's most dangerous tailback behind him in Le'Veon Bell.
Even personnel losses don't seem to affect the Steelers' offensive juggernaut. Lose Bell and Martavis Bryant to suspensions? No problem! DeAngelo Williams had his best season in years filling in for Bell last season. Young wideout Sammie Coates can more than fill Bryant's shoes.
When veteran tight end Heath Miller called it a career, the Steelers went out and signed Ladarius Green, a big (6'6", 240 lbs), athletic target who might make the Steelers more dangerous offensively.
Roethlisberger's protection should be better in 2016 as well. In addition to the return of center Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers added a capable veteran tackle in Ryan Harris.
The Pittsburgh Steelers built a dynasty in the 1970s around playing defense and running the football.
These are not those Steelers. This is Madden come to life. A life-sized video game. So just sit back and watch the scoreboard light up.
Because the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers are going to score a lot.
4. Seattle Seahawks
High Ranking: 3 (2 Rankers)
Low Ranking: 7 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 115
You would be hard-pressed to find a quarterback in NFL history who has enjoyed more success over his first four NFL seasons than Russell Wilson. In that time, Wilson has made four playoff trips and played in back-to-back Super Bowls, winning his first and falling just short in the second.
The 5'11" Wilson has gone from undersized third-round pick to NFL megastar.
And yet, 2016 brings something new—and not just because of his new wife.
Previous incarnations of the Wilson Seahawks were built around the power running of Marshawn Lynch and the defense of the Legion of Boom. Wilson was hardly a game manager, but Seattle didn't expect him to carry the offense either.
That's changed. Lynch has retired, and while Thomas Rawls was impressive filling in for Lynch a year ago, a severe ankle injury raises questions about his early-season availability. Behind Rawls it's a collection of options who are either unproven or proven to not be the guy you want carrying the ball 20 times a game.
Head coach Pete Carroll told Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today he has no doubt Wilson is up to the task of being the offensive focal point:
This is year five. It has taken all of this time to get to this point, and he'll still improve, but you can really see him as a real true vet now. I think coming off of last year, with the great success of the second half of the season, he has taken it right in the offseason, and here we go. It's been our best offseason, and I think it's an indication of the development of our guys.
If this ranking is any indication, the NFL Analysts here at Bleacher Report aren't worried about Wilson either.
3. New England Patriots
High Ranking: 1 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 4 (Davenport)
Ranking Points: 118
OK, before anyone gets out the tar and feathers, I was the low ranker of the Presidents for Life of the AFC East.
That ranking isn't unfair, either. The New England Patriots have a few genuine areas of concern entering 2016.
As electric as tailback Dion Lewis was for the team last year, he remains on the PUP list with no real timetable for his return. In fact, Ben Volin of the Boston Globe recently told CSN New England it's possible Lewis' torn ACL will keep him on the PUP list into the regular season.
New England's top wide receiver, Julian Edelman, had offseason foot surgery and only just recently made it back onto the practice field, per the Providence Journal's Mark Daniels.
The team's best pass-rusher in 2015, Chandler Jones, is now in Arizona, traded by a New England front office that apparently didn't see re-signing him as a priority.
And there's something going on about Tom Brady, but danged if I can remember what it is. Something about Deflategate?
And yet, all four of our experts ranked the Patriots the highest of any AFC team. Do you know why?
Because they're the Patriots, that's why. They will be fine.
You could tell me New England will lose all four games while Brady is in timeout, the Jets will start the season 4-0, Lewis will miss the first six games and Edelman will be limited by his flipper, and I still would predict they will win the AFC East.
Because they are the Patriots, and that is what they do. Win.
Besides, when Brady gets back in Week 5, he is no doubt going to be in full "eff you" mode. He'll throw five touchdown passes in that first game back out of spite.
Against Cleveland. Because God hates Cleveland.
2. Carolina Panthers
High Ranking: 2 (3 Rankers)
Low Ranking: 4 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 122
So close and yet so far.
By most measurements, the 2015 season was wildly successful for the Carolina Panthers. The team came one loss in Atlanta away from a perfect regular season. Quarterback Cam Newton was a runaway choice as the NFL's Most Valuable Player. The Panthers annihilated the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game.
But in the end, the Panthers came up short, falling to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
For his part, Newton told David Newton of ESPN.com he's all about looking forward at this point:
I gain nothing [by] going back. We have passed that bridge, and I have learned from it. Now it’s about making the most of this team.
I couldn’t wait, knowing that I could have all of my focus on [training camp] and the Carolina Panthers. ... Focusing and honing in on my craft. I have been counting the days just to get back with the guys.
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen agreed that the team's focus is on the future while speaking to Newton (David, not Cam):
This is too hard to come out half-assed and find ourselves 1-4 and wonder what’s going on. We’re not going to allow that to be the problem.
Everything starts now. This is the next step. We’re not going to win the Super Bowl today, but we’re going to do all the right things to lead up to the first preseason game. That leads to our first regular-season [game], and so on and so forth.
For the most part, this is the same team that won 15 games a year ago—with one glaring exception. The Panthers rescinded the franchise tag on Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman, who signed a huge free-agent contract in Washington.
In addition to potential problems in the secondary, the Panthers are also battling history. It's been well over 20 years since a Super Bowl loser (the Buffalo Bills in 1993) made it back to the game the following season.
Still, it's hard to view the Panthers as anything other than a heavy favorite in the NFC South.
1. Arizona Cardinals
High Ranking: 1 (3 rankers)
Low Ranking: 2 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 127
The Arizona Cardinals had a wildly successful 2015—right up until they didn't.
Arizona won 13 games and secured a first-round playoff bye for the first time in franchise history. For much of the season, the Cardinals looked like the class of the NFL.
However, that all came crashing down during the NFC Championship Game. Quarterback Carson Palmer's career season turned into a nightmare game against the Panthers—a six-turnover meltdown in a 49-15 waxing.
Palmer told Shane Dale of KNXV-TV that smackdown has the team more motivated than ever to take the next step in 2016:
Last year wasn't good enough. The guys that were here know that. The guys that have come in -- we don't have any guys coming off a Super Bowl team other than (guard Evan Mathis). We've got a guy that knows what it's like, but most of the guys are just hungry because they didn't get it last year.
The Cardinals certainly didn't hurt themselves in the offseason. In addition to adding Mathis, the Redbirds added a Pro Bowl pass-rusher in Chandler Jones, who came over via a trade with the New England Patriots.
General manager Steve Keim also did what he could to remove as much contract-year drama as possible, giving extensions to Palmer, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and safety Tyrann Mathieu.
Assuming Palmer can shake off that horrific postseason performance, the Cardinals will field one of the league's most prolific offenses in 2016. The addition of Jones and rookie end Robert Nkemdiche should boost a defense that finished 2015 ranked fifth in the NFL.
Toss in one of the NFL's best head coaches in Bruce Arians, and the table appears set for another deep playoff run.