NFL Power Rankings: 10 Teams Poised for Super Bowl Run as Training Camp Begins
The free agency and trade boom of the last two weeks has practically every NFL team seeing the upcoming 2011 season ending with a Super Bowl appearance—well, almost every team.
And while it's going to take a good portion of the regular season to separate the contenders from the pretenders, it's never too early to guess.
Now, some clubs have entered the discussion for a Super Bowl berth based on recent moves in the offseason, but it's rare that one or two players can turn mediocre or downright bad clubs into winners.
So, your best bets are familiar faces from recent postseasons—but don't count out a Cinderella or two.
No. 10: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Key Additions: Adrian Clayborn (DE), Da'Quan Bowers (DE), Luke Stocker (TE), Michael Koenen (P)
Key Losses: Barrett Ruud (LB)
Season Hinges On: Secondary play
Compared to their NFC South counterparts, the Bucs have been fairly quiet this offseason. They paid a ton for a new punter.
But they managed to retain guard Davin Joseph and linebacker Quincy Black, so with their great draft choices they have a real shot at the division crown or at least a Wild Card spot, which has proven to be enough to land a berth in the Super Bowl.
If Aqib Talib can overcome his legal issues and the secondary can survive the Falcons' addition of Julio Jones, they have a real shot.
No. 9: Kansas City Chiefs
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Key Additions: Steve Breaston (WR), Jon Baldwin (WR), Justin Houston (LB), Allen Bailey (DL)
Key Losses: Ron Edwards (DT), Shaun Smith (DT)
Season Hinges On: Taking pressure off Dwayne Bowe
The Chiefs took a huge step forward last year and even though they fell flat in their opening playoff game, they are built for the long haul on both sides of the ball.
There will be some changes with Charlie Weis leaving, but the Jamaal Charles/Thomas Jones duo is in place for another year and Dwayne Bowe is a bona fide deep threat.
But teams will focus more intently on him this year and they have to find a way to get the ball into the hands of the second and third options. Whether it's Breaston or Baldwin or Dexter McCluster, someone has to get open when teams lock up Bowe.
No. 8: San Diego Chargers
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Key Additions: Corey Liuget (DT), Takeo Spikes (LB), Jordan Todman (RB)
Key Losses: Kevin Burnett (LB), Brandon Siler (LB), Darren Sproles (RB)
Season Hinges On: Antonio Gates' health
Although they've made some nice improvements on defense this offseason—enough to overshadow the loss of defensive coordinator Ron Rivera—the Chargers still have questions remaining about their receiving corps, and for once it's not Vincent Jackson.
The rest of the offense is in tact, with Ryan Matthews, Mike Tolbert and Todman being nice replacements for Darren Sproles.
But Antonio Gates is already on the PUP list and was hampered last year by that foot injury; Phillip Rivers' production will drop significantly if Gates is out of the lineup.
No. 7: Baltimore Ravens
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Key Additions: Vonta Leach (FB), Jimmy Smith (CB), Torrey Smith (WR)
Key Losses: Chris Chester (G), Dawan Landry (S), Todd Heap (TE), Josh Wilson (CB), Fabian Washington (CB)
Season Hinges On: Secondary
Despite the high-profile cap casualties of Todd Heap, Willis McGahee and Derrick Mason, the secondary has undergone a handful of major changes that will determine if Baltimore can reclaim the AFC North for the first time since 2006.
They added an incredible talent in Jimmy Smith, but that might not be enough to offset losing two corners who played key snaps (Washington and Wilson) and Landry, who was one of the more highly underrated safeties in the game.
No. 6: Green Bay Packers
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Key Additions: Randall Cobb (WR), Alexander Green (RB)
Key Losses: Nick Barnett (LB), Cullen Jenkins (DE), Daryn Colledge (G)
Season Hinges On: Running game
Everyone is going to be gunning for the Super Bowl champions, but because they have so many players returning from injury—players who weren't even suited up in the postseason—they have the depth and reinforcements to remain a legitimate threat in the NFC North.
The loss of Cullen Jenkins is a big deal, however, since they'll also be with Johnny Jolly and they didn't acquire another pass rusher to complement Clay Matthews III, but Dom Capers will have no problem getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
But if some combination of Ryan Grant, James Starks and Alexander Green can take even a little bit of pressure off Aaron Rogers, they'll again be one of the NFL's scariest offenses.
No. 5: Pittsburgh Steelers
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Key Additions: Cameron Heyward (DE)
Key Losses: Max Starks (OT), Flozell Adams (OT)
Season Hinges On: Offensive line
Now that they were able to bring back Ike Taylor, the only real question for the Steelers is a familiar one: How will their offensive line play?
Re-signing Jonathan Scott and Willie Colon gives them capable book-end tackles, and with Maurkice Pouncey and Chris Kemoeatu emerging as one of the better duos in the NFL, they should be able to protect Ben Roethlisberger and open holes for Rashard Mendenhall.
But even one injury will reveal a major lack of depth—something that is no longer an issue on the defensive line now that they have Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood.
No. 4: Atlanta Falcons
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Key Additions: Ray Edwards (DE), Julio Jones (WR)
Key Losses: Michael Koenen (P), Harvey Dahl
Season Hinges On: Pass rush
The trade for Julio Jones made big news and he'll make a serious contribution to that offense, but adding Ray Edwards is the move that just might put them in the Super Bowl.
They have a solid corps of linebackers and a decent collection in the secondary, but after John Abraham—who is now 33 years old—they had a serious need for another pass rusher. Just look at what happened in the playoff loss to Green Bay, when Aaron Rogers picked them apart.
Even if Edwards doesn't become a double-digit sack artist, teaming him with Abraham and Kroy Bierrman gives them a great rotation and a much improved defense.
No. 3: New England Patriots
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Key Additions: Albert Haynesworth (DT), Chad Ochocinco (WR)
Key Losses: Tully Banta-Cain (LB)
Season Hinges On: Front seven
The Pats had another great draft and the gambles over Ochocinco and Haynesworth will be fun to watch, but it's still all about the defense.
Their secondary took huge strides last year and Devin McCourtey can become a real star, but they've let Tullu Banta-Cain go and Vince Wilfork is another year older.
If they can get just enough pressure from Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham along with their offense, they'll have enough to win at least 12 games.
No. 2: Philadelphia Eagles
Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Key Additions: Nnamdi Asmougha (CB), Cullen Jenkins (DE), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (CB), Jason Babin (DE), Vince Young (QB)
Key Losses: Kevin Kolb (QB), Quintin Mikell (CB), David Akers (K)
Season Hinges On: Michael Vick
It's always risky to throw a bunch of stars and big-name free agents together and assume that a club is Super Bowl bound. But the Eagles' additions were to spots that had needs—needs that slowed Philly down the stretch and kept the NFC East champions from advancing during the postseason.
They had a need for a pass rusher; they went out and landed very good defensive ends in Babin and Jenkins. And they had a major need for help in the secondary; they went out and landed one prize corner in Asomugha and another very talented one in Rodgers-Cromartie.
Now, moving Kolb was the right decision, but if Vick can't stay healthy or if he struggles at any point, Mike Kafka and Vince Young are a tough sell to lead this team to the Super Bowl.
No. 1: New York Jets
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Key Additions: Plaxico Burress (WR)
Key Losses: Brad Smith (WR/KR), Steve Weatherford (P)
Season Hinges On: Mark Sanchez' consistency
Curiously enough, the Jets were not terribly active this offseason, but they've earned the status of being a clear-cut Super Bowl favorite.
Consecutive AFC championship games (without a home game, mind you) are a main reason why, but it's more about the beating they delivered the Patriots in the playoffs last year. Doing that at Gillette Stadium gives them a huge boost in confidence when they face Brady's Pats next year—and now that they've retained two significant pieces of that puzzle (Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie) they can do so again.
Sanchez had an up-and-down campaign again in 2010, but if he plays even slightly more stable, limiting turnovers, the Jets should be able to steal the AFC East crown from New England and finally earn a home playoff game or two.