NFL Power Rankings: Who Has the Brightest Young Core of Players?

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIIJuly 11, 2012

NFL Power Rankings: Who Has the Brightest Young Core of Players?

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    Not every NFL front office decision seems to be the brightest move, but the 2012 draft was muddled in the sense that every team seemed to choose wisely.

    However, some teams have been more consistent in recent years, and thus have developed exceptional young rosters.

    Looking at offensive and defensive standouts, and the current states of each franchise's foundation, here is how all 32 teams stack up in the fight for future Super Bowl glory.

32. Minnesota Vikings

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    Offense: RB Adrian Peterson, WR Percy Harvin, TE Kyle Rudolph, QB Christian Ponder, OT Matt Kalil, RB Toby Gerhart, WR Jarius Wright

    Defense: FS Harrison Smith, LB Erin Henderson

    Assessment of current foundation: The Williams brothers and Jared Allen formed a good defensive line–but what will happen in the future?

    Allen is coming off of a monster, 22-sack season, but how much does he have left in the tank?

    Beyond that issue, the defense doesn't have much working in its favor, as All-Pro cornerback Antoine Winfield has been slowed by injuries and age. No one else is very good.

    On top of that, the offense isn't in great shape, either.

    Already a partial liability due to nagging migraines, Harvin isn't happy with his situation in Minnesota and allegedly demanded a trade. However, it appears he will now report to Vikings camp.

    Second-year quarterback Ponder must love to hear that. While he will have plenty of weapons to throw to in the future, it's difficult to determine what he'll get out of the franchise's most important player.

    The past two big developments about Peterson are that he blew out his knee in a meaningless Week 16 game and was charged with resisting arrest at a nightclub.

    Needs: WR, DE, LB, CB

31. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Offense: RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR Mike Thomas, QB Blaine Gabbert, WR Justin Blackmon, WR Laurent Robinson, TE Marcedes Lewis

    Defense: DT Tyson Alualu, LB Paul Posluszny, DE Andre Branch, CB Aaron Ross

    Assessment of current foundation: Despite having the leading rusher behind him and a defense that ranked in or near the Top 10 in most major categories, Gabbert struggled mightily as a rookie.

    A steep learning curve was expected to an extent, as Gabbert transitioned from a college spread offense to a pro-style system.

    Gabbert's yards per attempt average (5.36) and 50.8 percent completion percentage is substandard even for a first-year player if he's meant to be the franchise quarterback.

    The Jaguars have revamped the group of receivers for the second-year QB, though. No. 5 overall pick Blackmon should start in Week 1 if he can get his behavior outside the lines in check.

    It will be interesting to see how Robinson handles the new situation in Jacksonville. After a breakout year in Dallas, he will be asked to be "the man" of sorts.

    Defensively, the Jaguars had a stellar year last season and upgraded the secondary with the acquisition of Ross. Branch is also expected to provide an instant presence on the defensive line.

    The league starts and ends at quarterback these days. A lot of the Jaguars' development depends on continually solid defense and an elite rushing attack led by Jones-Drew until Gabbert finds his form.

    This isn't an easy second chance at being an NFL head coach for Mike Mularkey, that's for sure.

    Needs: OL, LB, S

30. Miami Dolphins

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    Offense: RB Reggie Bush, QB Ryan Tannehill, OT Jake Long, C Mike Pouncey, WR Brian Hartline, WR Devone Bess, RB Daniel Thomas

    Defense: CB Vontae Davis, LB Karlos Dansby, CB Sean Smith,  DE Cameron Wake

    Assessment of current foundation: Who is the face of the Dolphins' franchise right now? Is anyone sold on Ryan Tannehill?

    The eighth overall pick out of Texas A&M isn't in the running to start against the hot-cold Matt Moore and David Garrard, who didn't play football last year.

    With that said, QB-savvy head coach Joe Philbin can't hurt Tannehill's cause. Neither could Mike Sherman, who will call the shots for Miami and was Tannehill's offensive coordinator in college.

    Reggie Bush had his best year ever last season, and at age 27 still has something in the tank. That's especially true considering last year was the first time he was a true every-down back.

    There are some nice anchors on the offensive line, but the Dolphins desperately lack playmakers on the outside.

    Chad Ochocinco may provide help mentoring the younger receivers. Late-round 2012 pick B.J Cunningham is under the radar, but has a chance to make an impact.

    On defense, Wake is a beast, and Davis and Smith form a stellar corner combo. Dansby, though, is already 30.

    Beyond that, what is there to like about this Dolphins nucleus?

    Needs: S, LB, DT, WR

29. St. Louis Rams

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    Offense: Sam Bradford, Brian Quick, Stephen Jackson, Isaiah Pead

    Defense: Janoris Jenkins, Cortland Finnegan, Chris Long, Robert Quinn, James Laurinaitis

    Assessment of current foundation: Much of the Rams core depended on April's draft, so it's more of a wait-and-see in this instance.

    Quick has great size at 6'4", 220 lbs and will hopefully become a dependable No. 1 receiver for Bradford, who hasn't had much to work with to start his career.

    Pead will hopefully provide a nice change of pace from Jackson, who won't have to endure such punishment as the workhorse back.

    New defensive-minded head coach Jeff Fisher has some nice pieces to work with on his area of expertise.

    Since Fisher played cornerback in the league, he will look to help talented but troubled rookie, Janoris Jenkins, harness his abilities and become an exceptional player.

    Cortland Finnegan, who played for Fisher in Tennessee, should only help matters.

    The Rams still have a lot of holes, but they acquired tons of future picks in the big trade the Washington Redskins swung to land QB Robert Griffin III.

    Needs: WR, OL, DT, LB

28. Cleveland Browns

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    Offense: OT Joe Thomas, C Alex Mack, WR Josh Cribbs, RB Trent Richardson, QB Brandon Weeden, WR Greg Little, WR Travis Benjamin

    Defense: Joe Haden, TJ Ward, D'Qwell Jackson, Dimitri Patterson, Buster Skrine, James-Michael Johnson

    Assessment of current foundation: The offensive side of the ball in particular depends on the most recent draft heavily, so it's difficult to move the Browns very far from where they left off in 2011. That of course, isn't very good.

    Hope can be found in the secondary, which is bursting with potential.

    Haden looks to be future Pro-Bowler, and Ward has that same sort of ability. Veteran Sheldon Brown is providing sage advice to the youngsters, no doubt.

    While Jackson had a fantastic season, leading the AFC in tackles with 158, the Browns have little depth behind him at linebacker.

    The offensive line is definitely the strength of the offense, but Richardson has to be the home run back the Browns thought he was when they drafted him No. 3 overall.

    A lot of pressure falls on Weeden, who will be the latest to take a crack at grabbing the quarterback job in Cleveland for the long haul. All since the merger have failed before him.

    It's going to be at least another season before it can be determined if the franchise is truly building something special.

    Needs: WR, DL, LB

27. Oakland Raiders

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    Offense: RB Darren McFadden, WRs Denarius Moore, Jacoby Ford, and Darrius Heyward-Bey, QB Terrelle Pryor,

    Defense: LB Rolando McClain, SS Tyvon Branch, S Mike Mitchell, DE Lamarr Houston

    Assessment of current foundation: Incumbent quarterback Carson Palmer isn't exactly young, but showed he definitely has some game left at age 32.

    The Raiders have quietly built an exciting, explosive receiving corps with Moore, Ford, and Heyward-Bey.

    Ford is also dynamic in the return game, and the Raiders have had great kicking specialists in punter Shane Lechler and kicker Sebastian Janikowski for years.

    The problem is, the other two phases haven't been very consistent.

    Particularly important is the health of Darren McFadden, who is one of the best running backs in the league when he's right physically.

    Although he appealed, Rolando McClain was sentenced to 180 days in jail back in May. He got into a physical altercation with a man and held a gun to his head, as the story goes.

    The potential anchor of the Raiders' defense has to be smarter than that if this defense is to put up any sort of a fight this season.

    Besides veteran defensive lineman Richard Seymour, McClain's all the Raiders really have. That's a scary thought if you like the Silver and Black.

    Needs: RB, TE, DT, LB, CB

26. Denver Broncos

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    Offense: WR Demaryius Thomas, WR Eric Decker, QB Brock Osweiler, TE Jacob Tamme, OT Ryan Clady, C JD Walton,

    Defense: LB Von Miller, DT Derek Wolfe, CB Tracy Porter, S Rahim Moore, FS Mike Adams

    Assessment of current foundation: Sure, the Broncos will contend for the playoffs and maybe even the Super Bowl in the next few years.

    This is all thanks to Peyton Manning, assuming he's healthy of course.

    What about after that?

    Backup quarterback Brock Osweiler better be taking diligent notes and working his tail off, because he will have some huge shoes to fill should Manning go down.

    Former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno has been beyond disappointing in Denver, and had a season-ending knee injury last year.

    The likely featured running back is Willis McGahee, who had a great season in 2011 but is–GASP–on the wrong side of 30.

    On defense, the Broncos will benefit heavily from Adams filling in for the void left by Brian Dawkins.

    The second-round pick Wolfe, though, is being asked to hold the fort down as a defensive tackle in Denver's 4-3 scheme. That's asking quite a lot considering the porous defense of last year.

    In the short-term, the Broncos are fine. In the long-term though, the next few drafts need to be spot on.

    Needs: LB, SS

25. Buffalo Bills

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    Offense: RB C.J. Spiller, WRs Stevie Johnson, TJ Graham and David Nelson, C Eric Wood,

    Defense: DE Mario Williams, DT Marcell Dareus, NT Kyle Williams CB Stephon Gilmore, CB Leodis McKelvin, FS Jarius Byrd

    Assessment of current foundation: My, that defensive front is frightening!

    The new Williams Wall–albeit slightly different than the famous one of the Minnesota Vikings–will wreak havoc on opposing QBs.

    Gilmore was drafted to be the lockdown corner opposite McKelvin, and if he can provide that, the ball-hawking Byrd can do what he does best and make plays.

    The offensive side of the ball has a lot of speed and explosiveness, but the man at the controls is Ryan Fitzpatrick. Oops! Locked in for six years, it seems.

    Perhaps Vince Young will have a career revival and take over. Maybe he'll spark the Bills on a shocking run this season.

    I think that's more likely than Fitzpatrick taking the franchise to the promised land at any point in the next six years.

    Needs: QB, WR, TE, LB

24. Tennessee Titans

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    Offense: WR Kenny Britt, QB Jake Locker, RB Chris Johnson, WR Kendall Wright, TE Jared Cook

    Defense: S Michael Griffin, LB Kamerion Wimbley, LB Akeem Ayers, DT Jurrell Casey, LB Zach Brown

    Assessment of current foundation: When Britt is healthy, he is sensational.

    Locker showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie season, enough to the point where I'd feel comfortable projecting him as a successful franchise QB.

    With Locker's cannon arm and Britt's ball skills, they could be connecting on deep balls for years to come.

    First-round pick Kendall Wright also adds a huge weapon to the passing game, along with emerging tight end Jared Cook.

    Locker's ridiculous speed also may bring more creativity to the offense, and could contribute to freeing lanes for Chris Johnson to bounce back from a largely disappointing 2011.

    Michael Griffin is a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and will provide leadership to a suspect secondary.

    Needs: DE, CB

23. Indianapolis Colts

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    Offense: QB Andrew Luck, TE Coby Fleener, TE Dwayne Allen, WR Austin Collie, RB Donald Brown

    Defense: LB Pat Angerer, CB Jerraud Powers, S Antoine Bethea, DE/OLB Jerry Hughes

    Assessment of current foundation: It's incredible what a quarterback can do for a franchise. With Luck in Indianapolis, this case should be no exception.

    There isn't much depth anywhere for the Colts, but the pass rushing services of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis should be around for a couple more years.

    That should be just enough time for the team to accumulate depth through future drafts.

    On top of that, Luck has his college roommate as a favorite target in Fleener, and another dynamic receiving tight end in Allen.

    Jerry Hughes has been considered a bust, but may be a better fit as a pass-rushing linebacker in the 3-4 scheme the Colts are adopting.

    Reggie Wayne proved last year that he can produce no matter who is throwing him the ball, so signing him up for 1,000 yards wouldn't be the most outlandish bet in the world.

    Suddenly, the Colts don't look so bad. They have a long way to go before approaching the success of the Peyton Manning Era, but they're headed in the right direction with Luck and Co.

    Needs: LB, CB, WR, RB

22. Chicago Bears

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    Offense: RB Matt Forte, QB Jay Cutler, WRs Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey, and Johnny Knox, RB Michael Bush

    Defense: DE Shea McClellin, S Brandon Hardin, SS Major Wright, CB D.J. Moore

    Assessment of current foundation: I'm not really sure what to make of Cutler, but I know he has his favorite target back in Marshall. He also has two other viable receivers that form the best set of weapons he's had in his career.

    Uncertainty lurks for the future of stud running back Forte due to a contract dispute.Should it be resolved, the Bears have a seemingly bright future on offense.

    Defense is a different story, with Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, and Julius Peppers all into their 30s.

    McLellin should help right away as a first-round pick out of Boise State, benefiting from Peppers taking on double teams. The secondary is also strong.

    Needs: RB, OL, DT

21. Atlanta Falcons

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    Offense: WR Roddy White, WR Julio Jones, QB Matt Ryan, RB Jacquizz Rodgers, RB Jason Snelling, RB Michael Turner, TE Tony Gonzalez

    Defense: LB Sean Weatherspoon, DE Ray Edwards, FS Thomas DeCoud, SS William Moore

    Assessment of current foundation: The Falcons are built to win now, but what about after this run?

    Roddy White, running back Michael Turner, and big-splash corner Dunta Robinson are all 30 years old. This is likely legendary tight end Tony Gozalez's last year.

    Talent riddles this roster, but not a ton of young talent.

    Ryan is entering his fifth season. He has put up fairly impressive regular season numbers, but has been one-and-done in each of his three trips to the postseason.

    It seems the championship window is closing for a lot of players on this current roster.

    The loss of linebacker Curtis Lofton to the Saints is also a huge blow to the defense. Lofton's presumed replacement is Lofa Tatupu, who didn't even play in the NFL in 2011.

    Needs: CB, LB, TE

20. Baltimore Ravens

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    Offense: QB Joe Flacco, RB Ray Rice, WR Torrey Smith, WR Tandon Doss, OT Michael Oher

    Defense: DL Haloti Ngata, LB Courtney Upshaw, DT Terrence Cody, CB Lardarius Webb, CB Jimmy Smith, SS Bernard Pollard

    Assessment of current foundation: Future Hall of Famers Ed Reed and Ray Lewis are on their last legs. Terrell Suggs will turn 30 this season but will likely miss all of it with a torn Achilles.

    Where to the Ravens go from there?

    Ngata is amazing and is only 28, and Cody is young as well. Beyond that, Upshaw and the yet to play Sergio Kindle have some work to do at linebacker.

    Reed, one of the best free safeties ever, may not even play this year.

    Here is where I insert my rare personal opinion based on only what I've seen: Joe Flacco is not an elite NFL quarterback. He can't win you a Super Bowl.

    For some odd reason, the Ravens' front office seems to have all the confidence in the world in Flacco, and want to sign him to a gigantic extension.

    That would be a grave mistake. If the franchise goes through with it–and it looks like they will–this team will not win a Super Bowl until Flacco leaves town.

    Considering the rebuilding project on defense, the impending departure of center Matt Birk, and a discontent Ray Rice, not many things are working in the organization's favor for the future.

    GM Ozzie Newsome should put his genius drafting strategy to good use...and select a different quarterback.

    Needs: LB, WR, QB, FS, CB

19. Seattle Seahawks

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    Offense: QB Matt Flynn, QB Russell Wilson, RB Marshawn Lynch, WRs Sidney Rice, Doug Baldwin, and Golden Tate, OT Russell Okung

    Defense: CB Richard Sherman, FS Earl Thomas, SS Kam Chancellor, DE Bruce Irvin, LB Barrett Ruud, LB Bobby Wagner

    Assessment of current foundation: It's clear the Seahawks have a lot of talent, and sport one of the best young secondaries in the NFL.

    Kam Chancellor is a massive strong safety capable of laying the boom, and Thomas playing center field is capable of making the big play at any time.

    The big surprise is Richard Sherman. He could develop into an All-Pro corner, with excellent press coverage and ball skills. He was a receiver for the majority of his college career at Stanford.

    As for offense, Sidney Rice is still young at age 25, but has been injury-prone. When healthy, he's a proven top receiver.

    On the brighter side, "Beast Mode" Marshawn Lynch just signed an extension in March for four years. The biggest question is quarterback.

    Head coach Pete Carroll has loved what he's seen of Russell Wilson so far, but the Seahawks invested in Matt Flynn in free agency to be the guy. Well, at least with a three-year contract in case he's not.

    This is going to be one of the most exciting teams to watch in 2012 and beyond.

18. Washington Redskins

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    Offense: QB Robert Griffin III, WR Pierre Garcon, TE Fred Davis, TE Chris Cooley, RB Tim Hightower, OT Trent Williams

    Defense: LB Ryan Kerrigan, LB Brian Orakpo, FS Tanard Jackson, CB Josh Wilson

    Assessment of current foundation: I would be jumping for joy if I were a Redskins fan.

    RG3 may not revolutionize the NFL, but there will have never been anything like him.

    He is so fast, has such a rocket arm, and is very accurate, especially with the deep ball. There's a reason the Redskins gave up so many assets to trade up four spots to get Griffin.

    As for the supporting cast, Hightower is back from injury and is a solid all-around back. That may not matter the way head coach Mike Shanahan shuffles backs in and out, though.

    The biggest free agent acquisition has to be Pierre Garcon. This gives Griffin a threat to stretch the field with and should open up opportunities for Josh Morgan, Santana Moss, Cooley, and Davis.

    Defensively, Kerrigan and Orakpo are a handful as the two outside linebackers in the 3-4 scheme. The unit suffered from being on the field too long last season due to an inept offense.

    Both sides of the ball should be drastically better for the Skins in 2012.

    Needs: DL, OL, CB, SS

17. Dallas Cowboys

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    Offense: QB Tony Romo, RB, DeMarco Murray, WR Dez Bryant, WR Miles Austin, TE Jason Witten, OT Tyron Smith

    Defense: LB DeMarcus Ware, CB Morris Claiborne, DE Anthony Spencer, LB Sean Lee

    Assessment of current foundation: Help has been desperately needed in the secondary for a while, and Morris Claiborne is just the cure for the Cowboys' ills in that area.

    That alone should improve the scheme run by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

    The time is now for Tony Romo, who has a solid running game, two great receivers, and one of the NFL's most consistently productive tight ends in Jason Witten.

    Something always seems to be missing for the Cowboys, and it feels like they are another year away or so from contending for a Super Bowl.

    They're heading in the right direction, but how great can the Cowboys be?

    The NFC East is especially competitive, and division rivals seem to be doing just as good or better than the 'Boys in building for the future.

    Needs: DL, FS, SS

16. New York Jets

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    Offense: QB Mark Sanchez, WR Santonio Holmes, TE Dustin Keller, C Nick Mangold, WR Stephen Hill, QB Tim Tebow, RB Shonne Greene

    Defense: CB Darrelle Revis, DL Muhammad Wilkerson, DE Quinton Coples, CB Antonio Cromartie, CB Kyle Wilson, SS LaRon Landry

    Assessment of current foundation: After two straight AFC Championship Game appearances, head coach Rex Ryan admitted he lost the pulse of the team during last year's disappointing 8-8 showing.

    It was no secret that Santonio Holmes was upset with his role in the offense, and even when things were going well, he never seemed satisfied.

    Still, Sanchez is locked into a long-term deal, and Holmes is too talented to turn away without something catastrophic.

    Hopefully Holmes can provide a better example for the talented rookie Stephen Hill to look up to.

    Ryan is a defensive genius, and his secondary is full of playmakers. Unfortunately, free safety Jim Leonhard has had serious injuries the past two seasons.

    It's unclear whether he'll be brought back, or if he'll be nearly as effective as he once was. Leonhard, of course, is indicating rehab is going well and he wants to re-sign.

    Still, insurance at the position wouldn't be a bad thing.

    The Jets need to get that swagger they had in their first two years under Ryan back.

    If that can be done, the talented rookies and newcomers will fall in line, and the Jets will show that last year's performance was a blip rather than a discouraging trend.

    Needs: LB, FS,

15. San Diego Chargers

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    Offense: QB Philip Rivers, RB Ryan Mathews, WR Vincent Brown, OG Louis Vasquez, WR Robert Meachem, TE Ladarius Green

    Defense: DE/LB Melvin Ingram, FS Eric Weddle, DT Kendall Reyes, SS Brandon Taylor, CB Antoine Cason

    Assessment of current foundation: A slight downgrade at wide receiver from Vincent Jackson to the combination of Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem might hamper the Chargers offense in 2012.

    Phillip Rivers is coming off of a horrible year in which he threw a career-high 20 INTs. Once again, the Chargers found a way to fall short of the playoffs, finishing 8-8.

    The defense had a down year, but will be bolstered by the arrival of Melvin Ingram, most notably.

    The first-round pick out of South Carolina will allow for flexibility in blitz packages due to his versatility to rush and drop in coverage.

    Kendall Reyes will learn the ropes from veteran Luis Castillo, who played only one game in 2011 due to injury. The two interior defensive linemen will improve on last year's 22nd-ranked showing against the run.

    Needs: WR, CB, LB

14. New Orleans Saints

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    Offense: QB Drew Brees, TE Jimmy Graham, RB Mark Ingram, WR Marques Colston,

    Defense: DE Will Smith, MLB Curtis Lofton, CB Patrick Robinson, DB Malcolm Jenkins

    Assessment of current foundation: Drew Brees should be inked to a new deal by the end of the week. Mark Ingram was a first round investment and should emerge as the clear starter in year two.

    Jimmy Graham has been one of the most pleasant surprises for the organization, emerging as an elite tight end.

    The addition of Curtis Lofton covers the void left by Jonathan Vilma at middle linebacker during his year-long suspension and beyond.

    Will Smith anchoring the pass rush should take pressure off of the talented studs in the defensive backfield.

    Needs: LB, DT, WR

13. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Offense: QB Ben Roethlisberger, C Maurkice Pouncey, WRs Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders, OG David DeCastro, RB Rashard Mendenhall

    Defense: LB Lawrence Timmons, LB LaMarr Woodley,  DE Cameron Heyward, DT Alameda Ta'amu

    Assessment of current foundation: Every year for a while now, it seems like the Steelers are too old to compete anymore.

    Every year that turns out to be wrong.

    No matter what, the Steelers manage to compete. How good are safeties Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu?

    The Steelers had the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL last year. Other than Ike Taylor, I know no one who plays corner for that team. That's incredible.

    What is concerning for the Steelers moving forward is how long Big Ben can hold up. He's 30-years-old, but he is an old 30 that has taken a ton of punishment.

    His penchant for extending plays and bouncing off tacklers has led to more hits. Suspect protection also hasn't helped the past couple of years.

    This is arguably the best franchise in the NFL, and until they begin to flame out on a consistent basis, it's hard to make a case that they aren't well-built at the core.

    Needs: OL, CB

12. Arizona Cardinals

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    Offense: WR Larry Fitzgerald, QB Kevin Kolb, RB Beanie Wells, RB Ryan Williams, WR Michael Floyd 

    Defense: CB Patrick Peterson, LB Daryl Washington, LB Sam Acho, DT Calais Campbell

    Assessment of current foundation: A gruesome ruptured patella tendon injury ended Williams's rookie season before it even started, but him and Wells should give the running game a boost.

    Whoever is quarterback will need to lean on that running game. Amazingly, John Skelton led the Cards to a 6-2 record over the last eight games of the 2011 season.

    However, Kolb is the quarterback the franchise invested in, and they must give him a fair shake with a full offseason of work as the No. 1.

    It remains to be seen whether that happens or not, as it's a presumed quarterback controversy.

    If the Cardinals can get stability at the game's most important position, they have some wonderful pieces to build around, particularly Patrick Peterson.

    Entering his second year, Peterson is already establishing himself as not only a top corner but a top returner. He returned four punts for touchdowns last year.

    Needs: FS, OL

11. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Offense: QB Andy Dalton, WR A.J. Green, TE Jermaine Gresham, WR Jordan Shipley, OG Kevin Zeitler

    Defense: CB Leon Hall, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, DE Carlos Dunlap, MLB Rey Maualuga, DT Domata Peko

    Assessment of current foundation: Entering 2011 with very low expectations placed on them by outsiders, the Bengals stunned everyone by reaching the playoffs.

    Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's West Coast system clicked despite a shortened offseason. Dalton grasped it quickly while also being helped by Green's incredibly polished game.

    Had Hall not torn his Achilles late last season, the Bengals may have made a run as far as the AFC Championship Game.

    First-round pick Kirkpatrick should form one of the league's best corner tandems assuming Hall comes back well from his serious injury.

    One thing the Bengals definitely have on defense is speed, something the other three teams in the AFC North can't say so much. Huge advantage.

    Needs: S, LB, CB

10. Carolina Panthers

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    Offense: QB Cam Newton, C Ryan Kalil, RB DeAngelo Williams, RB Jonathan Stewart, WR Brandon LaFell, WR Joe Adams, TE Greg Olsen

    Defense: ILB Luke Kuechly, MLB Jonathan Beason, LB James Anderson, CB Josh Norman

    Assessment of current foundation: Coming off a sensational rookie season, Newton has proven he can be devastating in the NFL.

    The offense should only continue to improve and benefit from another year or two of Steve Smith.

    Adams and LaFell should also learn a lot from Smith, but Newton could use another viable receiving target moving forward.

    Kuechly was a wonderful pickup in the draft, and pairing him alongside Beason should create serious problems for opposing quarterbacks.

    The Panthers are also expecting a lot from Norman. Chris Gamble has been the only consistent cornerback over the past two seasons, and depth is still a big concern here.

    Upgrading the quality of pass coverage should help a lackluster Panthers pass rush.

    Needs: CB, WR, DL

9. Detroit Lions

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    Offense: WR Calvin Johnson, QB Matt Stafford, RB Jahvid Best, WR Titus Young, WR Ryan Broyles, OT Riley Reiff

    Defense: DT Ndamokong Suh, DT Nick Fairley, S Louis Delmas, CB Dwight Bentley

    Assessment of current foundation: The combination of Stafford-to-Johnson is emerging as the most exciting dynamic duo in the league.

    All the other offensive core players–along with blocking help from Reiff–will keep the passing game productive and hopefully bring a more balanced attack.

    Aside from Suh, the defense remains a huge question mark that the Lions didn't really assess through the draft. Even Suh has had his share of tantrums on the field, and Fairley's off-field struggles are multiple.

    Letting CB Eric Wright walk was smart, but the Lions had no one better behind him. That's saying something.

    Hopefully 2012 third-round pick Dwight Bentley provides something at the position, or else the Lions will have another bad year on that side of the ball.

    Needs: OG, LB, CB

8. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Offense: QB Michael Vick, RB LeSean McCoy, WR DeSean Jackson, WR Jeremy Maclin, TE Brent Celek

    Defense: DT Fletcher Cox, MLB Demeco Ryans, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, LB Mychael Kendricks, FS Nate Allen, SS Kurt Coleman

    Assessment of current foundation: The real Shady McCoy stood up in 2011, leading the NFL with 20 total touchdowns.

    Unfortunately, the rest of the team performed in an underwhelming fashion. This was defined especially by embattled first-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.

    The addition of Demeco Ryans at middle linebacker will help immensely. Jamar Chaney and Casey Matthews weren't quite cutting it.

    Although Chaney put up decent numbers, Ryans is an indisputable upgrade.

    While the Eagles of last year underachieved, expect a bounce-back in the form of grabbing a playoff spot for the next few seasons. The offense has two dynamic receivers in Maclin and Jackson and an explosive running game.

    Once this team learns how to win and properly harness the talents of the electrifying Vick, the Eagles will be hard to beat week in and week out.

    Needs: CB, LB

7. New York Giants

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    Offense: QB Eli Manning, RB David Wilson, WRs Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, and Rueben Randle

    Defense: DE Jason Pierre- Paul, CB Prince Amukamara, DT Marvin Austin, FS Kenny Phillips

    Assessment of current foundation: The defending Super Bowl champions have the most clutch quarterback in football, and arguably the best 1-2 punch at receiver in the league.

    Wilson should help the shoddy running game of a year ago.

    JPP is a terror off the edge, and has clearly learned a lot from veterans Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck.

    Both Amukamara and Austin missed their rookie seasons due to injury, and should improve the defense immediately. Phillips is still young and is one of the NFL's premier free safeties.

    Needs: OL, LB, CB

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Offense: QB Josh Freeman, OG Carl Nicks, RB LeGarrette Blount, RB Doug Martin, WR Vincent Jackson, WR Mike Williams,

    Defense: CB Aquib Talib DT Gerald McCoy, S Mark Barron, DE Adrian Clayborn, OLB Lavonte David

    Assessment of current foundation: Freeman may bounce back after a down 2011 campaign thanks to the arrival of first-round pick Martin. A new, true No. 1 target in Jackson won't hurt the cause either.

    The defense should benefit from a strong past two drafts despite the injury-proneness of defensive end Da'Quan Bowers.

    David should start from Week 1, as should Barron. Talib needs to keep his off-field issues in check, as it likely won't be tolerated under new coach Greg Schiano.

    Both Brian Price and the more highly touted McCoy have been frequently injured, hurting the run defense the past two years. if both can consistently stay on the field, expect a much improved unit in 2012.

    Needs: LB, CB, OT

5. Green Bay Packers

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    Offense: QB Aaron Rodgers, WRs Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, and Randall Cobb, TE Jermichael Finley, RB James Starks, OT Bryan Bulaga

    Defense: LB Clay Mathews, DT BJ Raji, CB Tramon Williams, CB Sam Shields, DE Nick Perry

    Assessment of current foundation: The best younger QB in the NFL along with arguably the deepest wide receiver corps spells continued success for the Pack offense.

    What was strange about the 15-1 season the Packers just had is that the defense was so awful.

    Dom Capers must make sure his side of the ball isn't dead last in total yards allowed again, no matter how many points the offense scores.

    Safety play must improve, and with Charles Woodson aging, he may slide over to help that area of the secondary.

    It's difficult to poke holes in the young roster, and the Packers are clearly making few mistakes in evaluating personnel. A consistent No. 1 runner and additional pass rusher may make them untouchable.

    Needs: RB, DE

4. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Offense: RB Jamaal Charles, QB Matt Cassel TE Tony Moeaki, WR Dwayne Bowe, WR Jonathan Baldwin, RB/WR Dexter McCluster

    Defense: S Eric Berry, DE Tamba Hali, DE Tyson Jackson, DT Glenn Dorsey, DT Dontari Poe, CB Brandon Flowers, CB Javier Arenas

    Assessment of current foundation: Arrowhead Stadium's traditionally hostile environment may be as rowdy as ever in the coming years.

    This may be the best-looking young roster in the NFL, save for the quarterback position.

    Saddled with a tough schedule and injuries to key pieces such as Charles, Moeaki, and Berry, the Chiefs had a down year in 2011.

    With all the aforementioned players returning and the addition of the freakishly athletic Poe, the Chiefs hsould bounce back.

    Romeo Crennel brings a more laid-back, player-friendly atmosphere to the table as head coach, and should continue to improve the defense.

    If Cassel can return to the career-best form he flashed in 2010, watch out for this team.

    Needs: QB

3. New England Patriots

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    Offense: TE Rob Gronkowski, TE Aaron Hernandez, OT Nate Solder, RB Stevan Ridley

    Defense: MLB Jerod Mayo, DE Chandler Jones, LB Dont’a Hightower, LB Brandon Spikes, CB Devin McCourty, FS Tavon Wilson, DB Patrick Chung

    Assessment of current foundation: Opponents should continue to get GRONK'D, and Hernandez may be the first tight end ever to take handoffs and break them for big gains.

    This unprecedentedly athletic tight end tandem will be staples of the offense for the next decade if they both stay around.

    Bill Belichick decided to finally revamp the defense through the draft, and he did a stellar job. The defensive line, linebacker corps, and secondary are all upgraded.

    Due to what looks to be an easy 2012 schedule, the Patriots may make it back to the Super Bowl this season, and should contend for the next few years.

    The big question, of course, is what happens at quarterback after Tom Brady leaves?

    Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett wait in the wings, and both looked impressive in the preseason last year. Then again, that was the preseason.

    Then again, Matt Cassel got himself a big contract stepping in for Brady in 2009, but the long-term answer for the franchise is the only true question mark moving forward.

    Another underrated asset is Zoltan Mesko, who is one of the best punters in the NFL.

    Needs: QB, WR

2. San Francisco 49ers

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    Offense: TE Vernon Davis, RB Kendall Hunter, WR Michael Crabtree, WR A.J. Jenkins, QB Alex Smith, RB LaMichael James, OT Joe Staley, OG Mike Iupati, WR Mario Manningham

    Defense: MLB Patrick Willis, LB NaVorro Bowman, DE/LB Aldon Smith, S Donte Whitner

    Assessment of current foundation: Quarterback Alex Smith did sign an extension, proving he is the near-future answer.

    Even if he falls off, though, Colin Kaepernick is waiting in the wings and being mentored by QB guru Jim Harbaugh.

    Whoever is the quarterback of the future will have a wealth of weapons to throw to.

    You may notice Frank Gore isn't on the above list. That's because he's had a history of injuries, and has hit the 30-year-old threshold.

    As for the defense, the Niners have the best linebackers in the league, and many would argue Aldon Smith should have won Defensive Rookie of the Year over Denver's Von Miller.

    The secondary seems a little suspect, but Carlos Rogers should give the team another good two to three seasons.

    The impact Harbaugh had on this team last season was incredible, and the emphasis on offense in the draft should only help a unit that struggled in the red zone last year.

    Not to mention, all the receivers seem to be taking advantage of the presence of the newly acquired Randy Moss, who Harbaugh is raving about already.

    Needs: CB, S

1. Houston Texans

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    Offense: WR Andre Johnson, QB Matt Schaub, RB Arian Foster, RB Ben Tate, C Chris Myers

    Defense: CB Jonathan Joseph, S Glover Quin, DE J.J. Watt, LB Brian Cushing, LB Brooks Reed, DE Whitney Mercilus, LB Connor Barwin, CB Kareem Jackson

    Assessment of current foundation: This is the most loaded team on both sides of the ball with at least some track record of proof.

    Rookie QB T.J. Yates even stepped in for an injured Schaub last year and won a playoff game.

    Foster and Tate are complete backs that form a dream combination in the backfield, and Johnson is one of elite receivers in the league when healthy.

    Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips probably can't wait to get back to work with a ridiculously deep front seven. Not to mention, he has lockdown corner Joseph on the back end.

    As long as Schaub, Johnson, and one of the running backs stay healthy, the Texans should be a perennial Super Bowl contender moving forward.

    Needs: OL, DT