The NFL labor dispute is stealing offseason headlines, but I'm optimistic that a lockout won't last into the regular season.
While the NFL and player representatives work on the business side of things, fans are eagerly waiting the 2011 NFL Draft. Although the draft's results certainly have the potential to shake things up, this year's draft will be very different than most.
With that in mind, I present to you my 2011 pre-draft NFL power rankings!
New Head Coach Ron Rivera has one heck of a rebuilding project ahead of him.
Given the current state of the NFL, the Panthers cannot sign a QB via free agency. Jimmy Claussen did nothing to prove his worth last season (three TDs, nine INTs, 58.4 QB rating in 13 games), meaning the team will almost certainly enter 2011 with a rookie offensive signal-caller.
The Panthers did re-sign center Ryan Kalil, and Jonathan Stewart should help fill the void left when free-agent DeAngelo Williams eventually signs elsewhere.
The defensive line, however, needs work, as last year's unit recorded just 30 sacks (tied for 20th in the NFL) and allowed the 10th most rushing yards per game (123.8). As a whole, the Carolina defense yielded a whopping 25.5 points per game last season, seventh worst among the league's 32 teams.
After losing eight of their last nine games in 2010, the Titans are clearly light-years removed from their 2008 form. The team "parted ways" with long-time head coach Jeff Fisher, then announced former-franchise QB Vince Young wouldn't return in 2011.
New head coach Mike Munchak will be forced to rebuild a team that ranked 26th on defense (367.7 yards per game) and 27th on offense (302.1 yards per game) last season.
Quarterback is a glaring need for Ken Whisenhunt's team, which finished next to last in offense (269.3 yards per game) last season. The Cardinals have explosive players on offense (see Larry Fitzgerald and Beanie Wells), but the possible retirement of Alan Faneca and pending free-agent Deuce Lutui could leave two giants holes on the Arizona offensive line.
On defense, the Cardinals need to address their linebacking core, which allowed the third-most rushing yards (145.2 per game) last season.
New coach plus new QB equals another rebuilding season in San Francisco.
Jim Harbaugh is expected to at least get the 49ers back on track, but Alex Smith is not the long-term answer at QB. A rookie signal-caller certainly wont help the 49ers offense in 2011, which finished 24th in yards per game (313.3) last season.
The rush defense is solid thanks to Patrick Willis, but the pass defense (231.1 yards per game in 2010, ninth-worst) needs some help.
There's nowhere to go but up for the Denver Broncos, a team who's experienced a lot of turmoil in the last season and a half.
New head coach John Fox and VP of Football Operations John Elway apparently aren't sold on Tim Tebow. Perhaps this means they'll draft a new QB, despite the fact that the Denver ranked 13th in total offense (348.9 yards per game) last season.
The Broncos re-signed Champ Bailey, but the defense (front seven, in particular) is in need of several upgrades. After finishing dead last in total defense (390.8 yards per game) last season, Denver has giant holes to fill at defensive tackle, defensive end and inside linebacker.
The Buffalo Bills had to be pleasantly surprised by the performance they received from Ryan Fitzpatrick (23 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 81.8 QB rating) last season. If they feel confident enough in him moving forward, the team may opt to address another need with the No. 3 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
The Bills' rush defense finished dead last in 2010, allowing 169.6 yards on the ground per game, including eight 200-yard rushing games. The team's thin defensive line and injury-riddled linebacking core needs a serious upgrade.
Right tackle is also a need.
The Washington Redskins may be wishing for a mulligan on the Donovan McNabb trade after his career worst 2010 campaign, but are forced to stick with him until the labor dispute is resolved. The Skins could still opt to draft a QB in the first round, but they have other needs that should be addressed as well. Most notably, every position except tight end.
Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Phillip Buchanon are both free-agents. Losing one or even both of them certainly wouldn't help their pass defense, which ranked next to last in 2010, allowing 261.7 yards per game.
Brian Orakpo emerged as a premier pass-rusher last season, but nobody else on the team recorded more than 2.5 sacks.
Whether Albert Haynesworth returns or not, the Redskins need to address their nose tackle position. The team ranked 26th in rush defense last season (127.6 yards per game).
Running back is also a need.
If Carson Palmer follows through will his "trade me or I'll retire" demand, the Bengals could be in serious trouble. Assuming both Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens don't return, Cincinnati's young receiving core (Andre Caldwell, Jerome Simpson and Jordan Shipley) should shine. Of course, this will be very difficult to do without a quarterback to throw them the ball.
The Bengals may need to address their secondary in the draft, but overall, their defense ranked 15th (332 yards per game) last season.
If Carson Palmer returns, the Bengals would shoot up the power rankings. For now, however, the team faces serious questions heading into the 2011 NFL Draft.
The Cleveland Browns' defense recorded just 29 sacks in 2010, eighth-worst in the NFL. A pass-rushing defensive linemen to fit their new 4-3 scheme should be a top priority this offseason.
While team President Mike Holmgren is confident in Colt McCoy, the Browns must address their 29th-ranked pass offense (186.8 yards per game) from last season. Wide receiver is a glaring need, as is right tackle.
The Seattle Seahawks may have won a playoff game last year, but it wasn't because they were a good team. They have desperate needs at quarterback, offensive line, defensive line and cornerback.
Consider the following:
Seattle's rush defense (118.9 yards per game) was 21st in the NFL last season. Their pass defense (249.6 yards per game) was even worse, checking in at 27th best. If that wasn't enough, the Seahawks allowed the third-most TD passes (31) last season.
The offense has major issues, too. 35-year-old Matt Hasselbeck hasn't thrown more TDs than INTs in a single season since 2007. He and Charlie Whitehurst combined for just 14 TD passes last season, fourth fewest in the NFL. Likewise, their combined QB rating was a paltry 72.1, also fourth worst in the NFL.
Marshawn Lynch may have had one of the greatest postseason runs of all-time, but for the season, Seattle rushers ranked next to last in rushing (89 yards per game).
The Jacksonville Jaguars were 8-5 with three weeks remaining last season, but choked away their division title hopes with three straight losses.
Looking forward to 2011, they have several weaknesses across the board on defense. Jacksonville's pass defense ranked 27th last season (249.6 yards per game), while opposing QBs compiled a whopping 98.5 rating against them, second-worst in the NFL. This draft isn't particularly deep with safeties, but the Jaguars need to address this position.
The Jaguars rush defense ranked 22nd last year, allowing 121.6 yards per game. Opposing rushers scored 19 times in 2010, tied for the third most in the NFL. The Jaguars will be forced to replace linebackers Kirk Morrison and Justin Durant, both of whom they will likely lose to free agency.
Jacksonville should also look to add some pass-catching weapons, as their pass offense ranked 27th (191.6 yards per game) last season.
The Oakland Raiders topped five wins for the first time since 2002 last year, so naturally, they fired head coach Tom Cable.
The Raiders' pass defense was especially tough in 2010, but the likely loss of free-agent Nnamdi Asomugha will set them back in 2011.
Their rush defense was awful last year, allowing 133.6 rushing yards per game (fourth-most in the NFL).
Oakland's running game appears to be a bright spot, but they'll likely have to replace free-agents Robert Gallery and Samson Satele on the offensive line.
Neither Jason Campbell nor Kyle Boller are the answer at QB, so the Raiders will have to find another signal-caller whose career they can ruin if they hope to replicate their 8-8 record from 2010.
The Detroit Lions finally have a solid foundation of young, promising players in place, especially on offense.
On defense, however, the Lions allowed 124.9 rushing yards per game last season, ninth-worst in the NFL. Their pass defense was actually respectable (16th), but tendered cornerback Chris Houston may still be lost to free agency once the whole labor mess is worked out.
They'll need to add at least one (perhaps two) outside linebackers that can play in a 4-3 scheme.
Otherwise, the Lions are inching closer and closer to their first winning season since 2000.
The lack of production from safety James Butler and loss of Oshiomogho Atogwe to free agency makes secondary help a glaring need for the St. Louis Rams this offseason.
The Rams' passing offense finished just 21st (204.2 yards per game) last year under rookie QB Sam Bradford, but the addition of new Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels should help turn this into a productive unit. The return of an injury-depleated receiving core should help as well.
Like Detroit, St. Louis has a young core of players intact. With few holes, this Rams team could push for their first winning season since 2003.
The Miami Dolphins' pass and rush defenses ranked eighth and seventh, respectively in 2010. They have few (if any) glaring needs on defense.
The offense, however, is a different story, as running backs Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams and Patrick Cobbs are all free agents. The Dolphins also need to upgrade the offensive line outside of Jake Long and Richie Incognito.
Miami had the 16th best pass offense (220.4 yards per game) last season, but Chad Henne and Tyler Thigpen combined for a lowly 74.8 QB rating, fifth worst in the NFL. The Dolphins struggled to score points as well, averaging just 17.1 per game, third-worst in the league. A long-term solution at QB (Henne is 13-14 as a starter) is one of the team's glaring needs.
The Houston Texans have a division-winning offense, as made evident by their third-ranked offensive attack (386.6 yards per game) last season. They also ranked ninth in scoring, with 24.4 points per game.
Unfortunately, the Texans allowed the fourth-most points (26.7 per game) last season, and their 30th-ranked defense (373.6 yards per game) is in the processes of a massive overhaul.
New Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips is employing a new 3-4 scheme.
Linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing will solidify the interior positions, but they need a weak side pass-rushing linebacker to play opposite of Connor Barwin on the strong-side.
Strong safety Bernard Pollard—the team's leading tackler last season—wasn't tendered, creating an opening in the secondary. Phillips hopes to move cornerback Glover Quin to free safety, but the team still has gaping holes at strong safety and corner. The Texans will likely address this need in the draft, and Phillips will surely improve their horrific defense in 2011.
The Minnesota Vikings would be a division winning-caliber team—if they had a quarterback.
Their defense was solid last season, allowing 312.6 yards per game (15th in the NFL). The team is aging, but looking forward to 2011, there aren't any immediate needs to fill on defense.
The rushing offensive is obviously solid (121.4 yards per game, 10th in NFL), but the passing offense was surprisingly poor (193.6 yards per game, 26th in NFL) in 2010, even with Brett Favre.
Once the labor situation is worked out, the Vikings will likely pursue a short-term QB in an attempt to make another Super Bowl run before their window closes.
Sidney Rice is a free agent, but is expected to re-sign with the Vikings. Assuming he does just that, if the Vikings can get league-average QB play this season, they should compete for the NFC North title in 2011.
The return of Tony Romo will certainly make the Dallas Cowboys a contender in 2011. Upgrading their offensive line, however, will be key in helping the Cowboys' offense to elite status.
On defense, the Cowboys have several questions to answer. Who will replace Marcus Spears on the defensive line? Who will replace safety Gerald Sensabaugh? Who will play cornerback?
Even with these players, the Cowboys' pass defense ranked 26th last season, allowing 243.3 yards per game and the most passing TDs (33) in the league. Thus, not surprisingly, the Cowboys allowed the second-most points per game (27.2) in 2010.
These defensive woes must be addressed this offseason, whether it be in the draft or free agency. Otherwise, the Cowboys will find themselves losing many high-scoring games again in 2011.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of the big surprises in 2010, thanks in large part to the eighth-best rushing attack (125.1 yards per game) and fifth-best turnover margin (plus nine). Quarterback Josh Freeman made significant strides last season, leading a young and exciting offensive unit.
Starting Pro-Bowl guard Davin Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood are both free-agents, so the Bucs will need to lock these two up or replace them to ensure the development of their offense.
The Bucs' defense is much further behind. While the secondary (ninth-best pass defense in the league) will return almost entirely intact, the Bucs must improve their next to last pass-rush (26 sacks) and fifth-worst rush defense.
In addition to adding a pass-rushing defensive end, the Bucs may be forced to replace free agent linebackers Barrett Ruud and Quincy Black.
The Kansas City Chiefs (like the aforementioned Bucs) shocked the NFL in 2010 with the league's best rushing attack (164.2 yards per game), and tied for the fifth-best turnover rate at plus nine.
The offensive line improved over its 2009 performance, but upgrading the right tackle position will be a focus in the 2011 draft.
A No. 2 receiver to start opposite of Dwayne Bowe would go a long way in helping to solidify the Chiefs' dynamic offense and will also likely be addressed in the draft.
On defense, the Chiefs need a stud nose tackle to anchor their 3-4 scheme. Tamba Hali emerged as an elite pass-rusher last season, but the Chiefs will need to re-sign the free agent in order to remain a contender in 2011.
After eight games in 2010, the New York Giants were 6-2 and appeared to be the class of the NFC East. They went 4-4 in the second half, however, failing to make the playoffs.
Despite this, there are reasons to be optimistic about the Giants this season. In 2010, they were one of only four teams to boast a top-10 offense and defense.
Center is probably a need, as Shaun O'Hara, 33, had a second surgery on his ailing Achilles and ankle this spring.
The Giants will likely add some linebacker depth in the coming draft, and safety could become a dire need if free-agents Deon Grant and Michael Johnson don't return.
Despite Mike Martz and Jay Cutler's best efforts, the Chicago Bears' 2010 offense wasn't what fans had expected. The Bears passing attack ranked 28th (188.4 yards per game), while their rushing offense ranked just 22nd (101.0 yards per game).
Jay Cutler did cut down on his turnovers (27 in '09 to 22 in '10), but the Bears' defense made the difference with the league's 11th-best turnover margin (plus four).
The Bears' run defense was especially good (90.1 yards per game, second in the NFL), but the loss of Tommy Harris and perhaps Anthony Adams at defensive tackle opens up a hole that must be filled.
The Bears will need to add depth to their linebacking core as well. And as always, wide receiver is a position of need.
Curious to see how the Jay Cutler trade panned out for both Chicago and Denver? Here's a breakdown.
The Philadelphia Eagles boasted one of the leagues most explosive offenses last season, gaining 389.4 yards per game (second in the NFL).
On their surface, their defense wasn't bad (327.2 yards per game, 12th in the NFL). If you dig a bit deeper, however, you'll find that the Eagles surrendered a franchise-high 31 TD passes last season and recorded just 15 sacks in their last eight games.
Cornerback Ellis Hobbs suffered a career-threatening neck injury last season, so the Eagles will have to find someone else to play corner opposite Asante Samuel.
Defensive end is also a need, despite the fact that they drafted ends with their first and third-round picks in 2010. Last year's first-rounder Brandon Graham, who they traded up to get, tore his ACL last season and will likely miss a substantial chunk of 2011.
Right tackle is also in need of an upgrade to protect Michael Vick's blind side.
The 2010 San Diego Chargers were an enigma.
They led the league in total offense (395.6 yards per game) and ranked second in points scored (27.6 per game). The Bolts also led the league in defense (271.6 yards per game), allowing the 10th fewest points per game (20.1).
So how did the team with the league's best offense and best defense win only nine games, failing to make the playoffs?
The Chargers had the ninth-worst turnover margin in the league last season, at minus-six.
Inside linebackers Stephen Cooper and Kevin Burnett are free agents, and the Chargers likely won't be able to re-sign both of them, creating a hole which needs to be filled. Defensive end and right tackle could be upgraded as well, but neither are in desperate need of an immediate fix.
Like the aforementioned Giants and Chargers, the Saints boasted a top-10 offense (372.5 yards per game) and defense (306.2 yards per game) in 2010. And like San Diego, New Orleans finished with a minus six turnover margin, ninth worst in the NFL.
Assuming the Saints re-sign Reggie Bush, they have little, if any, needs on offense.
On the defensive side of the ball, New Orleans could use another pass rusher, as they finished tied for 18th in the NFL last season with 33 sacks.
Losing linebacker Scott Fujita last year and possibly Scott Shanle this year to free agency may create a need that the Saints will be forced to address in the draft. Depth at safety is also a priority.
The Indianapolis Colts still had one of the best offenses (380.8 yards per game in 2010, fourth in the NFL), despite the fact that they can't—or at least won't—run the ball (29th-ranked rushing attack).
On defense, the Colts ranked 20th in 2010 (341.6 yards per game) and allowed the 10th-most points (24.2 per game). Despite having Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the Colts tied for 23rd in sacks last season, with 30. They may want to draft a young pass rusher this year and may need to find a strong safety now that Bob Sanders signed with San Diego and Melvin Bullitt may not be back.
The most pressing need, however, is finding at least one offensive tackle. Peyton Manning was sacked just 16 times last season, tied for the least amount in the NFL. If the Colts' offense is going to remain elite, however, they must continue to protect the franchise(d) QB.
New York Jets' coach Rex Ryan has instilled a formula that is conducive to winning games in the NFL: play tough defense and run the ball.
The Jets did both of those things in 2010, finishing the season with the third-ranked defense (291.5 yards per game), and fourth-best rushing attack (148.4 yards per game).
New York has released Kris Jenkins, Jason Taylor and Damien Woody this offseason, and Shaun Ellis likely won't return either. The Jets will use the draft to fill holes at offensive tackle and defensive end. Linebacker is also a need, as Vernon Ghloston has proven to be one of the biggest draft busts in recent memory.
The Baltimore Ravens boasted the fifth-best run defense last season (93.9 yards per game) and allowed just 16.9 points per contest (third-best in the NFL).
Their pass defense wasn't nearly as good, however, ranking 21st in the league (224.9 yards per game). Baltimore's 27 sacks in 2010 ranked 27th in the league and was the lowest output in team history. Their 2010 first-rounder Sergio Kindle was supposed to help create QB pressure, but he missed the entire season with a fractured skull.
Both of Baltimore's starting cornerbacks—Chris Carr and Josh Wilson—could become unrestricted free-agents. 2009 starter Domonique Foxworth is coming off an ACL injury, so corner is an obvious need.
The Ravens do possess a reliable receiving core in Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but they could use a set of young, fresh legs to stretch the field. This position could be addressed in the draft as well.
The New England Patriots won 14 games in 2010 with inferior talent. Their Tom Brady-led offense led the league with a whopping 32.4 points per game, nearly five points per better than the next best team. This likely had a lot to do with a league-best plus-28 turnover margin, which created short fields for Brady to navigate.
The Patriots ranked 30th in pass defense, allowing 258.5 yards per game through the air. Their pass-rush was mediocre, tying for 14th-best with 36 sacks.
New England will likely pursue a pass-rusher in the draft that can fit their 3-4 scheme. Wide receiver should also be a priority.
Their biggest concern, however, should be offensive line, as Matt Light is a free-agent and Stephen Neal has retired. Nick Kaczur missed all of 2010 with a back injury, so his future is somewhat questionable.
The Atlanta Falcons were the only team in 2010 to finish in the top five in points scored (25.9 per game) and points allowed (18.0 per game). They thrived on the 12th-ranked rushing attack (118.2 yards per game), opening up an efficient passing game.
The Falcons offensive line—which has been together for three years—could be facing a breakup given that Tyson Clabo, Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl are all potential free-agents. The team has solid depth on the offensive line, but they may be tempted to address this potential need early in the draft.
On defense, the Falcons will look to draft a pass-rushing defensive end or linebacker to help improve their 22nd-ranked pass defense from last season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers boasted an extremely impressive defense in 2010, ranking first in sacks (48) and points allowed (14.5 per game), while ranking second in overall defense (276.8 yards per game).
Their only real weakness is at corner, as Ike Taylor is an unrestricted free-agent. Even if he does return, the Steelers need to add someone to play opposite of him.
On offense, the Steelers feature a balanced attack (11th-ranked rushing offense, 14th-ranked passing).
The defending AFC Champions could use some depth on the aging offensive and defensive lines, but neither are a priority for 2011.
The Super Bowl Champs have very few pressing needs heading into 2011.
Their ninth-ranked offense from last season will receive a boost with the return of Ryan Grant. The Packers may look for an offensive tackle in the draft, but it's not an immediate need.
The Packers boasted the fifth-best defense in 2010 and allowed just 15.0 points per game, second-best in the NFL. They did this by creating pressure (47 sacks, second-best) and forcing turnovers (plus-10 margin, fourth-best).
The only need the Packers will have to address this offseason is defensive end, as starter Cullen Jenkins is a free-agent and Johnny Jolly is facing a prison sentence after his second drug charge.