NFL Report Cards: Team-by-Team Grades Heading into Regular Season
Great teams sometimes look bad in the preseason. Terrible teams often look pretty good. Decent teams sometimes look awesome, sometimes ridiculous. Final scores are worse than meaningless (they are misleading), but first-quarter and halftime scores can tell you more than you think. Preseason results don’t matter, but preseason performance often does.
These preseason grades don’t actually grade the preseason; otherwise the Eagles would get an A-plus-plus-plus and everyone else would just be watching. They are grades entering the season, so the Seahawks get the benefit of the doubt that Russell Wilson won’t get sacked once per drive and the Teddy Bridgewater bandwagon doesn’t get to pull up right in front of the Super Bowl.
But these grades are informed by the preseason, and you will see some preseason statistics cited. If your favorite team’s starting defense gave up five touchdowns in 37 minutes of work or your kicker missed four field goals and an extra point in the preseason, it’s worth mentioning. You can shout that the games didn’t matter, but you know darn well that you are protesting too much.
Preseason performances are evidence, and they are worth examining.
Teams are ranked from highest to lowest grade. Teams with the same grade—like all of the B's—are also ranked from highest to lowest. The four categories are not weighted equally: Special teams count for less than offense and defense. If you have a serious question about the grade, wait a week, and it will change!
One last bit of housekeeping: Don’t ask how four B’s and a B-minus equal a B-minus or how a B, a C-minus, a D-plus and an A-minus turn into a C-plus (or whatever). Trust me: I have a degree in education and know how to assign grades. And this is the preseason. They don’t matter, remember?
1. New England Patriots: A
Offense: You know about the Hall of Fame quarterback, the All-Pro tight end and the ability to cobble together wide receivers who look like practice-squad rejects and turn them into Tom Brady’s entourage. But there’s also a deep corps of committee rushers, experienced role players at positions like backup tight end (Scott Chandler) and plenty of young interior linemen vying for the right to protect Brady for the remainder of his career. A-minus.
Defense: The front seven is fine. The secondary is stitched together from Devin McCourty, various reclamations and youngsters. Bill Belichick has been pasting secondaries together from found objects since the days of Otis Smith, but McCourty is no Ty Law. C-plus.
Special Teams: Stephen Gostkowski is incredibly reliable. The Patriots prioritize building a special teams core, so the kicking game is usually a net positive. Starting receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will probably handle return chores again, but at least the blocking in front of them will be solid. B.
Coaching/Organization: What do you think? A-plus.
Bottom Line: The Patriots are easy to love, easier to hate and harder than hell to defeat.
2. Denver Broncos: A-
Offense: It’s best to err on the side of caution when it comes to “old-and-rickety Peyton Manning” storylines. The Broncos return an impressive complement of offensive weapons and Evan Mathis’ late arrival buttresses the offensive line. And while Manning and Gary Kubiak may not be natural bedfellows, any system that makes Matt Schaub a Pro Bowler should keep Manning away from the early-bird specials for at least another year. B-plus.
Defense: Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and the defense recorded 20 preseason sacks, plus a safety. Throw in Wade Phillips and a deep secondary, and the Broncos defense is good enough to lead a team with Guido Merkens at quarterback to a .500 record. A-minus.
Special Teams: Brandon McManus won the kicking job in camp. Britton Colquitt survived an early challenge to hold on to the punting job. Omar Bolden appears to be the primary return man. Special teams don’t appear to be a net positive for the Broncos. C.
Coaching/Organization: Kubiak and Phillips have well-defined schemes and proven track records. It’s easy to imagine them putting their stamp on the post-Peyton Broncos, a team John Elway has already begun thinking about. In the short term, both are adaptive enough that we aren’t likely to see Manning taking seven-step drops from an I formation 30 times per game, or Philips asking Miller to line up at nose tackle or something. B.
Bottom Line: The last chance may not be the best chance, but it ain’t bad either.
3. Seattle Seahawks: B+
Offense: A Super Bowl backfield and tight end plus a mediocre receiving corps plus an offensive line (besides Russell Okung) that couldn’t make the Cowboys practice squad equals the 2015 Seahawks offense! C.
Defense: Despite defections, they are still recognizably the Legion of Boom. A.
Special Teams: Rookie returner Tyler Lockett (two return touchdowns) was the breakout star of an otherwise uninspiring preseason. Punter Jon Ryan and kicker Steven Hauschka are Super Bowl-tested veterans. B-plus.
Coaching/Organization: Pete Carroll and his staff are among the best at developing and motivating players, and John Schneider and the organization excel at finding great system fits and managing the cap. But the last play of the Super Bowl showed that the Seahawks are capable of outsmarting themselves, a trend that may have continued when the team entered camp with a bunch of projects and experiments along the offensive line. A-minus.
Bottom Line: Welcome to the NFL’s upper-salary tier, Russell Wilson. Hope you survive the experience.
4. Dallas Cowboys: B+
Offense: The Legion of Room offensive line will be healthy and ready for the preseason. Tony Romo and Brandon Weeden (the quarterbacks who take quasi-meaningful preseason snaps) endured just one sack, while Darren McFadden (seven carries for 41 yards) responded well to not taking many hits until he was a few yards downfield. Newcomer Christine Michael is like a younger McFadden, for whatever that’s worth. As a bonus, it has been weeks since any Dez-related dramas. A-minus.
Defense: Orlando Scandrick’s injury will test the Cowboys’ depth in the secondary. Randy Gregory’s three-sack preseason was a positive sign for a defense that will need someone to generate pressure during Greg Hardy’s suspension. C-plus.
Special Teams: Lucky Whitehead, a toolsy 165-pound undrafted rookie, will handle returns. Dan Bailey is coming off a poor playoff performance but remains a solid kicker. Opponents blocked a punt and returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the preseason; the Cowboys may miss special teams ace Dwayne Harris, who is now with the Giants. C-plus.
Coaching/Organization: The Cowboys have transitioned from an old-timey seat-of-the-pants organization to one that mixes sports science and analytics with the occasional tactical die-roll for troubled talent. Jason Garrett’s slow and steady style helps blend the old and the new. If you still think the Cowboys are run by Jerry Jones dictating orders from a bathroom stall like LBJ (or Buck Strickland), that is so 2013. B.
Bottom Line: That offensive line will cover for a lot of sins. It’s up to the Cowboys to make sure they minimize their sins.
5. Green Bay Packers: B+
Offense: The preseason ended before anyone else could get hurt. B-plus.
Defense: Most of the familiar faces are still here. Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers will spur the pass rush, and Dom Capers will call nickel packages on most downs and blitz from every direction. Don’t expect the secondary to shut anyone down without help. B.
Special Teams: Mason Crosby and Tim Masthay have been around for years; what you see is what you get. Injuries to the lineup will trickle down to the return units: The days when Randall Cobb could drop to return a punt without causing all of Wisconsin to get a lump in its throat are long gone. B.
Coaching/Organization: No one plays the street free-agent market like Ted Thompson, which is a good thing, because the Packers splurge for a real free agent like Peppers about once per decade. Mike McCarthy has been playing next man up on the offensive line for years, so doing it at wide receiver shouldn’t be a big deal. There’s always a point in the Packers' season when one of Thompson’s dumpster discoveries lets the team down in a critical moment, but it’s a testament to the organization that the critical moment often arrives deep in the playoffs. A-minus.
Bottom Line: From the Football Outsiders Almanac 2015: “It’s a quarterback league, and the Packers have the best quarterback in the NFL. The rest is just commentary.”
6. Philadelphia Eagles: B+
Offense: It’s hard to be a skeptic after the Eagles outscored the rest of the NFL by 27 points in the preseason and turned the dress rehearsal against the Packers into a fireworks display. B-plus.
Defense: The front three is tough. The linebacker corps is deep. The safeties are better than they have been in years. Byron Maxwell is a fine top cornerback. The rest of the secondary is going to get burnt like the hot dog that falls through the grill grate. B-minus.
Special Teams: Dave Fipp’s units have a knack for blocking kicks and ripping off huge returns. This would be an A-plus unit if Cody Parkey didn’t spend the preseason on the sideline and spend training camp trying to hit the press corps (we usually stand very wide right) with field-goal attempts. B-plus.
Coaching/Organization: Chip Kelly is almost impossible to evaluate because he does everything so differently. But after back-to-back 10-win seasons and a preseason of running circles around opponents, we should be well past the point of calling Kelly "just another college coach whose shtick has no place in the NFL." B.
Bottom Line: The Eagles may not be the best, but they're far from the worst and are certainly the most different.
7. Baltimore Ravens: B+
Offense: Top draft pick Breshad Perriman was hurt for most of training camp, and Steve Smith played the preseason in “extra ornery” mode. The Ravens offense looks a lot like itself right now: steady rushing, sprinkles of big-play passing and a penchant for brownouts. C-plus.
Defense: The typical post-Ray Lewis Ravens defense: Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil look feisty, the secondary is healthy again after spending last year in crisis mode, and despite another round of free-agent defections, there are enough C.J. Mosley types in the pipeline to keep the defense dangerous. B.
Special Teams: Justin Tucker is one of the NFL’s best kickers. The loss of Jacoby Jones’ return skills will be felt. B.
Organization/Coaching: The Ravens have one of the most stable organizations in the NFL. Ozzie Newsome knows what John Harbaugh needs, and Harbaugh knows what Newsome is going to acquire for him (mid-round picks from power conferences, not splashy free agents). Marc Trestman is the third offensive coordinator in three years, which would be more of a worry if the Ravens weren’t used to plodding away on offense. A-minus.
Bottom Line: Baltimore should be another 10- or 11-win team that looks better in the playoffs than it ever looked trying to get there.
8. Indianapolis Colts: B
Offense: Everything was going well until the right side of the offensive line turned into an E-ZPass lane and backup running backs Dan Herron and Vick Ballard suffered injuries in the final preseason games. The Colts may have the NFL’s best skill-position talent, but the preseason suggested they have serious fit-and-finish issues. B-plus.
Defense: This looks like a familiar Colts defense: rock solid at times but capable of leaving the field at halftime and never returning. There are a lot of good-enough defenders, but not enough great ones for what the Colts have set out to do. C-plus.
Special Teams: Adam Vinatieri and Pat McAfee are institutions, but the Colts gave up a return touchdown in the preseason, and the fact that Herron was returning kicks in the fourth preseason game gives some sense of the state of the return units. C-plus.
Coaching/Organization: Saying that the Colts succeed despite themselves because they keep winning the quarterback lottery is pushing things. But general manager Ryan Grigson has a lot riding on this free-agent crop after some spotty drafts and counterproductive spending. As for Chuck Pagano…why was an important running back returning kickoffs in the fourth preseason game again? Jim Irsay remains the only owner in the NFL who can explain both a Cover 2 defense and the Jefferson Airplane discography. C.
Bottom Line: The Colts will be better than most teams but not as good as the most important teams.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers: B
Offense: Maurkice Pouncey’s injury and the early suspensions of Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant could get the Steelers offense off to a slow start. On the plus side, Ben Roethlisberger had a great preseason, Antonio Brown is finally getting noticed as one of the NFL’s best receivers and there is enough skill-position depth to get the Steelers through the first few weeks before they kick into overdrive. B-plus.
Defense: The Steelers secondary is thin, with Shamarko Thomas expected to fill Troy Polamalu’s big shoes and little behind the not-so-big three of Cortez Allen, William Gay and Brandon Boykin at cornerback. (Rookie Senquez Golson is on injured reserve.) The pass rush will be Steelers-like as long as James Harrison plays like the quarterback has participation trophies down his pants and youngsters Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier start playing to their scouting reports. C.
Special Teams: Josh Scobee quells a kicker crisis. Dri Archer has the makings of an explosive return man now that the Steelers are finally excusing Brown from the chores. C-plus.
Coaching/Organization: For Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley, it’s all about what happens when something goes wrong. Few staffs are as good when everything is clicking, but a few key injuries or costly turnovers cause them to overreact. See last year’s playoffs, when their response to Bell’s injury was to stop pretending they would ever run the ball. A slow start could prompt the Steelers to try to solve problems that would otherwise solve themselves. B.
Bottom Line: A slow start doesn’t have to be a disaster unless the Steelers turn it into one.
10. Detroit Lions: B
Offense: Everything looks a little better. The interior offensive line has been upgraded, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick (and maybe Zach Zenner) improve a running game that settled for too many one-yard gains last season. Meanwhile, Golden Tate may be the best No. 2 receiver in the NFL, and Matthew Stafford had an exceptional preseason, thanks to all of those other factors. B.
Defense: Ndamukong Who? The Lions don’t appear to miss Suh that much, even though Haloti Ngata spent the preseason in packing peanuts. Suh’s absence will surely be felt to a degree, but the Lions are a physical, disciplined team that won’t allow many easy yards. B.
Special Teams: Matt Prater and Sam Martin are just fine at their jobs. Abdullah and Tate provide good return options, though Tate may be too valuable for the role. B-minus.
Coaching/Organization: Jim Caldwell and Teryl Austin have a buttoned-down, no-nonsense approach. The Ngata trade, the fruitful draft and even the Kyle Brindza trade at the end of the preseason (which brought in useful second tight end Tim Wright in exchange for a rookie kicker) reveal that this is not the Lions organization we used to have so much fun laughing at over the years. B.
Bottom Line: These are stealth contenders facing a tough division and a tough schedule.
11. Cincinnati Bengals: B
Offense: This is the same Bengals offense that wins 10 or 11 games and loses in the first round of the playoffs every year. B.
Defense: This is the same Bengals defense that wins 10 or 11 games and loses in the first round of the playoffs every year. B.
Special Teams: These are the same Bengals special teams that win 10 or 11 games and lose in the first round of the playoffs every year. B.
Organization/Coaching: This is the same Bengals coaching staff that wins 10 or 11 games and loses in the first round of the playoffs every year. B.
Bottom Line: You get the idea.
12. Minnesota Vikings: B
Offense: Except for the Phil Loadholt injury, it has been a hearts-and-roses preseason for the Vikings. Teddy Bridgewater completed 82.9 percent of his passes, the skill-position talent looked solid and Adrian Peterson stood on the sideline and built suspense. Even Cordarrelle Patterson looked pretty good. B.
Defense: Trae Waynes got toasted like s’mores all summer, but the Vikings aren’t expecting Waynes to cover Calvin Johnson right away. There are young players at all three levels who appear to be on the brink of breakout years. B.
Special Teams: Blair Walsh came down with a sudden case of Steve Blass Disease in the preseason, missing six makeable field goals. Marcus Sherels and Patterson are great returners, but it’s hard to give a high score to a team that might struggle with extra points. C.
Coaching/Organization: Mike Zimmer earns high marks so far, and while Norv Turner’s game plans sometimes look like he whited out “Aikman” and replaced it with “Bridgewater,” few coordinators are as good at teaching quarterbacks and receivers the details of hand placement and footwork. Rick Spielman has stocked this team with early-round picks who have been steady if not spectacular, and Peterson’s presence represents a triumph of crisis management. B.
Bottom Line: The Vikings have gone from being on the brink of the brink to being on the brink. They might even brink on through to the other side.
13. Buffalo Bills: B
Offense: The Bills built an offense any competent quarterback could look good in, then reached into the “any competent quarterback” bin and plucked out Tyrod Taylor. Taylor looked great in the preseason despite the fact that none of the players who can make the Bills offense special (LeSean McCoy, Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin) saw any real action. But an unknown quarterback and an all-new skill-position corps can only be projected so far. C-plus.
Defense: The front four is great, the back end is deep and the one thing Rex Ryan can be counted on for is a defense that plays to its billing. B-plus.
Special Teams: Dan Carpenter had a poor preseason, with kickoff specialist Jordan Gay getting a long look on field goals. Harvin should be a weapon in the return game, though the Bills auditioned other preseason options. C-plus.
Coaching/Organization: Ryan has assembled a combustible mix of personalities, and he has a history of becoming Chief Inmate if the locker room turns into an asylum. Ryan’s shtick may play better in the sticks than on Broadway, while offensive coordinator Greg Roman proved in San Francisco that he is not shy about using his quarterback’s mobility. The Bills coaches appear to have a firm handle on things for now. B.
Bottom Line: The Bills would be fashionable favorites to win many divisions, just not the one they are in.
14. Kansas City Chiefs: B
Offense: Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles and Jeremy Maclin are the Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin of gaining four to seven yards per play, no less and certainly no more. Meanwhile, Andy Reid is still playing multiple-choice with the offensive line, and Eric Fisher would stick out as a draft bust if the entire 2013 draft wasn’t turning into such a bust. C-plus.
Defense: Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and a scheme full of 2-3-6 formations and strange blitzes will take pressure off an inexperienced secondary. A lot depends on rookie Marcus Peters and sophomore Phillip Gaines, starting cornerbacks who may be great by December but will be tested in September. B.
Special Teams: Knile Davis and De’Anthony Thomas figure to be the returners. Davis is a proven weapon; Thomas a perfect fit for the role. Dustin Colquitt punts knuckleballs into tight windows. Cairo Santos is accurate on field goals if so-so on kickoffs. Special teams are usually a Reid specialty. B-plus.
Coaching/Organization: Reid is careful and methodical, often to a fault, and the Chiefs offense reflects his personality. Bob Sutton is one of the most creative defensive minds in the NFL. The Chiefs organization is stable, professional and perpetually trapped a rung below the elite franchises. B.
Bottom Line: This is a station-to-station local milk run that might reach the playoffs if you stay aboard until the final stop.
15. New Orleans Saints: B-
Offense: Jimmy Graham may be gone, but Brandin Cooks appears ready for a breakout season. The blocking will be better with Max Unger at center and Benjamin Watson seeing more work at tight end. Drew Brees and Sean Payton have been reloading this offense since the days of Reggie Bush and Jeremy Shockey. B-plus.
Defense: One step forward, at least a step-and-a-half back. Brandon Browner, Hau’oli Kikaha and Stephone Anthony upgrade the talent, but Keenan Lewis will miss the start of the season, while Jairus Byrd has been placed on the PIP (psychologically indifferent about performing) list. C-minus.
Special Teams: Zach Hocker won the kicker battle, but it wasn’t exactly a slam dunk. Cooks is too valuable for return chores, C.J. Spiller was hurt throughout camp and return specialist Jalen Saunders was traded to the Patriots. Rookie Marcus Murphy could wind up fielding both kicks and punts. So there are lots of unknowns here. C.
Coaching/Organization: Payton and Mickey Loomis have proven track records, but the jury is still out on Loomis’ recent bold moves to keep the Saints competitive despite age and a cap crunch. Rob Ryan has dozens of great tactical ideas, but he also has dozens of terrible ones and no good way of telling the difference between them. B-plus.
Bottom Line: These are not the Saints of yesteryear, but the NFC South may still bow down to meet them.
16. St. Louis Rams: B-
Offense: The first-team offense produced just one first-quarter score in three preseason games. Todd Gurley just resumed practice in late August, while Tre Mason suffered a hamstring injury in the third preseason game. The Rams are still looking for a winning offensive line combination; Rodger Saffold and rookie Jamon Brown are flipping guard positions after Saffold missed most of the preseason with a shoulder injury. So the ground-and-pound is not ready to get off the ground. At least Nick Foles is healthy. C-minus.
Defense: The front seven may be the league’s best. A-minus.
Special Teams: Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker form one of the best specialist tandems in the NFL. Tavon Austin is dangerous on returns. A-minus.
Coaching/Organization: Jeff Fisher’s teams are reliably stout, physical and professional, but they're less than dazzling on offense. This year’s team is shaping up the same way. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti is a blank slate right now, though the Rams will probably throw downfield more often than Brian Schottenheimer preferred, which was never. C-plus.
Bottom Line: The Rams’ best hope this year is for their 13-10 wins to outnumber their 12-6 losses.
17. San Diego Chargers: B-
Offense: Philip Rivers hasn’t had this much skill-position talent around him since the LaDainian Tomlinson heyday. Melvin Gordon may be taking his rookie lumps (2.3 yards per preseason carry), but Danny Woodhead is back to full speed as the all-purpose back, while Steve Johnson (four preseason catches) brings a potential mismatch headache off the bench behind Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd. The rebuilt offensive line looks better than last year’s hodge-podge. B.
Defense: The Chargers defense doles out big plays with an eyedropper, but 12 preseason sacks may be evidence that John Pagano’s unit is finally ready to provide some excitement. Melvin Ingram had two of those sacks and could finally be the playmaker the Chargers hoped for in 2012, not to mention the team’s best Melvin. C.
Special Teams: Rookie Josh Lambo defeated Nick Novak, whose kickoffs were never up to snuff, for the place-kicking job. Jacoby Jones is a weapon for a team that has gone two years without a return touchdown. B.
Coaching/Organization: The Tom Telesco/Mike McCoy Chargers have been sturdy and professional, but the team hasn’t exactly been a laboratory for outside-the-box thinking or brilliant innovation over the last few years. McCoy, Frank Reich and Pagano have not developed any breakout stars who weren’t here when they arrived (Allen isn’t really a star); at some point, the Chargers will need to look to someone besides Rivers, Antonio Gates and Eric Weddle to push them past the Broncos. C.
Bottom Line: Going 9-7 is only an accomplishment the first time you do it.
18. Miami Dolphins: C+
Offense: Ryan Tannehill had a spectacular preseason: three touchdowns, an 80.5 percent completion rate. Jarvis Landry caught 11 passes, a high total for a starter in preseason. This may be the year when the Dolphins offense finally acquires its own identity. B.
Defense: Talent at all three levels. Like the offense, the Dolphins defense must push past the “ready to burst” phase and actually burst, especially with all the money the team spent. B.
Special Teams: Matt Darr replaces former Pro Bowl punter Brandon Fields. Andrew Franks, a big-legged engineering student from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute beat Caleb Sturgis at kicker. The Dolphins suffered six blocked kicks of various types last year. That has to improve, right? D-plus.
Coaching/Organization: Joe Philbin’s late-game tactics make Rich Kotite look like Garry Kasparov, and he appeared to be out of his depth during the 2013 Degrassi Offensive Line after-school special. The Dolphins front office always features a pair of clashing ideologies or personalities (Dennis Hickey, Mike Tannenbaum) going in slightly different directions, which explains why the team so often offloads one set of expensive acquisitions just in time to pay for the next batch. C-minus.
Bottom Line: The Dolphins may finally creep up to 10-6, only to find the Bills are already there.
19. Houston Texans: C+
Offense: Until Arian Foster returns, the Texans have the worst offensive backfield of any team with real playoff aspirations. DeAndre Hopkins leads a receiving corps that will be good if someone can get the ball to it. C-minus.
Defense: Opponents scored just three first-quarter points in the preseason, and they weren’t intimidated by J.J. Watt’s baseball cap. B.
Special Teams: The team is excited about rookie return man Chandler Worthy. Randy Bullock has become reliable on field goals but still delivers too many short or line-drive kickoffs. Kick coverage has never been spectacular. C.
Coaching/Organization: Bill O’Brien and his staff are still on an extended honeymoon: As long as Watt is thwapping opposing quarterbacks with his selfie stick, no one seems to mind that the Texans have almost gone out of their way to avoid finding a starting quarterback. C.
Bottom Line: Another year of congratulating Watt for single-handedly winning nine games.
20. Arizona Cardinals: C
Offense: Carson Palmer is back but looks creaky: a 45.5 percent preseason completion rate, five sacks and two interceptions. Andre Ellington is back but looks like a pure change-up back: some nifty receptions but just 2.8 yards per carry. The offensive line lost Mike Iupati, the tight end corps several warm bodies and Michael Floyd is still coming back from a hand injury. Bruce Arians loves multi-receiver and multi-tight end sets but will have to rely on unknowns like Ifeanyi Momah and Jaron Brown in significant roles to start the season. C-minus.
Defense: Lots of injuries, lots of departures, plus the odd suspension. The Cardinals secondary is deep and talented, but you know you are in trouble when LaMarr Woodley is one of your top pass-rushers in 2015. C-plus.
Special Teams: Longtime punter-for-a-day Drew Butler replaces Dave Zastudil in a cap-conscious move (punters are facing a financial crunch that would make China feel confident). Ted Ginn Jr.’s replacements are not setting the world on fire. Numerous injuries on both sides of the ball always trickle down to the coverage teams. C-minus.
Coaching/Organization: Arians goes back so far he’s in front of us. Few coaches are better at turning 6-10 talent into a 10-6 record, though it is not clear what Arians would do with 10-6 talent. James Bettcher plans to pick up where Todd Bowles left off by running a scheme full of six-defensive back formations and nickel blitzes—the Cardinals led the league in both according to Football Outsiders Almanac—but Bowles’ unpredictability will be missed. C-plus.
Bottom Line: Too talented and resilient to write off, not talented or deep enough to project beyond .500.
21. New York Jets: C
Offense: Easy to make fun of, what with the history and the quarterback punching and all, but better on paper than some offenses for fashionable wild-card teams (hello, Texans). In significant preseason action, Ryan Fitzpatrick (two passing touchdowns), Brandon Marshall (eight catches), Chris Ivory (5.8 yards per rush) and Zac Stacy (233 all-purpose yards) all flashed the potential to be productive. Only a cynic would point out that the Jets starters really needed all of that significant preseason action. C-minus.
Defense: The defensive line and cornerback corps will be special, with Leonard Williams capably filling in during Sheldon Richardson’s suspension and Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie reprising familiar roles. The linebacker corps isn’t great, but Todd Bowles probably has some 4-0-7 personnel groupings up his sleeve. B-plus.
Special Teams: Special teams coaching guru Robert April will be an asset. Nick Folk slumped in the second half of last season and could be fading. The return game is a mystery: promising Walter Powell was waived in the final cuts, leaving Chris Owusu and Jeremy Kerley as the likely returners. C.
Coaching/Organization: Bowles is innovative and has a no-nonsense attitude, which will be a welcome change after Rex Ryan’s ringmaster routine grew stale. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey is like an outsider artist who builds Rodin’s "The Thinker" out of old beer cans. For all the optimism about the coaches, the Jets are still the most tabloid-worthy organization outside of Washington, D.C. Whether that’s a function of the organization itself or its role as a Big Apple whipping boy is irrelevant as long as nothing changes. D-plus.
Bottom Line: Tough defense, lurching offense, silly headlines: your 2015 (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011…) New York Jets!
22. Oakland Raiders: C
Offense: You can now say the Raiders have potential offensive “Triplets” in Derek Carr, Latavius Murray and Amari Cooper without bursting into uncontrollable laughter. The first-team offense enjoyed some impressive preseason drives. That said, 2016 looks more like a breakout year than this year does. C.
Defense: Khalil Mack and Mario Edwards combined for 4.5 preseason sacks, which could be a harbinger of things to come. Last year, the Raiders defense was a mish-mosh of paycheck veterans and rookies. Now, it’s a smoother blend of veteran stabilizers (newcomers Malcolm Smith and Nate Allen had productive preseasons) and ready-to-burst players like Mack and cornerback Travis Carrie. B.
Special Teams: The big preseason news is that Marquette King appears to have mastered the art of holding for field goals. King’s iffy holds led to several Sebastian Janikowski misses last year; Matt Schaub had to replace King by season’s end, and there are no scarier words in the NFL than “Matt Schaub had to replace you.” But King has been holding for Janikowski without incident throughout the preseason. Carrie will handle the returns but probably shouldn’t be asked to. C-plus.
Coaching/Organization: Jack Del Rio is enjoying a Local Hero honeymoon. He and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. are both tone-setters and experts on getting the most out of the potential superstars on the Raiders front seven. Reggie McKenzie has cycled quickly through his penny-pinching and geezer-binging stages, both of which were necessary to clean up the mess he found when he arrived but appeared to be more extreme than they needed to be. The Raiders now have NFL talent and market prices at nearly every position, which is a big deal for them. B.
Bottom Line: This is the year the Raiders finally get some traction and start moving forward.
23. Tennessee Titans: C
Offense: The ingredients for an exciting, productive offense are in place, with Marcus Mariota, Bishop Sankey, Kendall Wright and the offensive line showing preseason flashes of potential/development. Everything may also just need to simmer for another year. C.
Defense: Perrish Cox and Brian Orakpo both represent significant upgrades. Jurrell Casey and Jason McCourty were quality incumbents. Ray Horton and Dick LeBeau know how to move pieces around the chessboard, but they may not have a full set just yet. C-plus.
Special Teams: Nondescript special teams for what has been a nondescript team for many years. C.
Coaching/Organization: LeBeau and Horton bring two generations of defensive innovation to the fold. Ken Whisenhunt has meshed well with his mobile new quarterback so far: Mariota might even execute a designed run or two. The Titans have some questions at the top of the organization, but the football operations department appears to be solid and on the same page. C-plus.
Bottom Line: The Titans won’t be great right away, but they will be interesting right away, which is a welcome change.
24. Chicago Bears: C-
Offense: Jay Cutler was without his top four receivers for much of the preseason, and you know how Cutler responds to adversity: He stares into the abyss and the abyss shivers. Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal will ride to the rescue at or near the start of the season, but rookie Kevin White is out indefinitely, and the Bears were still juggling offensive linemen (it’s not clear where Kyle Long will play at press time) as the season opener approaches. D-plus.
Defense: Newcomers Pernell McPhee and Sam Acho made some big plays in the preseason, and the Bears may get something out of Lamarr Houston and second-year players like Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton this year. Of course, anything is a step up from what we have seen over the last two seasons. C.
Special Teams: The Bears could use a bigger kickoff leg than Robbie Gould and a more reliable punter than Pat O’Donnell, but when you have to rebuild a defense that blew over in a stiff wind the last two years, it makes sense to put replacing adequate veteran specialists on the back burner. C.
Organization/Coaching: The all-new Ryan Pace-John Fox brain trust brings an encouraging mix of youth in the front office and experience on the field. Fox is a methodical franchise builder who has no illusions about what he inherited in Chicago. C-plus.
Bottom Line: After last season, the Bears must prove they want to be on the field before they can prove they deserve to be on the field.
25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: C-
Offense: Doug Martin looked revitalized in the preseason, and the skill-position talent is solid. But Jameis Winston showed that his collegiate knack for trying to throw through the bellies of defenders is still there, and the offensive line may not be up to the challenges of blocking for a rookie still learning to speed up his pocket clock. D-plus.
Defense: Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David are two of the best in the league at their positions. Newcomer Kwon Alexander appears ready to contribute. Alterraun Verner and the secondary were more active and aggressive in the preseason after staying in their Cover 2 lanes like dome hockey players last year. B-plus.
Special Teams: A last-minute trade brings rookie Kyle Brindza to Tampa at place-kicker. Michael Koenen was waived for cap purposes, so Jacob Schum is the likely punter. Needless to say, the kicking game has heavy disaster potential. D-minus.
Coaching/Organization: Lovie Smith knows how to take turnover-prone teams with a handful of great defenders into the playoffs, and Dirk Koetter has a good reputation with young quarterbacks. At least the Buccaneers aren’t breaking in a new offensive coordinator just before the start of the season like Jeff Tedford’s health problems forced them to do last season. Breaking in punters and kickers is hard enough. B.
Bottom Line: The Buccaneers defense and running game will win some games if Winston’s turnovers don’t keep giving opponents the ball on the wrong side of midfield.
26. New York Giants: C-
Offense: If we ever see Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz in the same huddle, this could be a great unit. For now, it looks like the typical Giants offense: Eli Manning being Eli, a committee of pretty good (but injury-prone) running backs, a rickety offensive line and a receiving corps that never operates at full capacity. C-plus.
Defense: The Giants were so desperate at safety that they poached Stevie Brown off the Bears waiver wire after letting him walk in free agency. Brown was later released, but the entire secondary is thin and either inexperienced, injury-prone or both. Until they figure out the Jason Pierre-Paul puzzle, this is a team that won’t pressure many quarterbacks or cover the deep middle of the field very well. Dez Bryant is practically vibrating with anticipation. D-minus.
Coaching/Organization: Tom Coughlin and Jerry Reese have operated this way for years; occasionally, they scrimp and scrounge their way to a Super Bowl ring. Diminishing returns are clearly setting in, however, and three seasons of chronic injury woes have left the Giants with a roster full of projects and role players who are asked to do too much. C.
Bottom Line: The good thing about bottoming out on Fourth of July weekend is that you can spend the entire season getting better.
27. Atlanta Falcons: D+
Offense: Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are in midseason form. As for the rest of the offense...did we mention Matt Ryan and Julio Jones? But seriously, the first team looked pretty good in the preseason, and Roddy White will still be brilliant in between injuries, but the huddle is filled with youth and questions, and the Andy Levitre trade demonstrates just how much work must still be done on the offensive line. B-minus.
Defense: It will take Dan Quinn a year to sort through all the projects, prospects and suspects. There are obvious building blocks (Desmond Trufant, Vic Beasley), and if Quinn can get the defense up from “slapstick” to “mediocre,” the Falcons offense could make the team dangerous. D.
Special Teams: Devin Hester. ‘Nuff said. B-plus.
Coaching/Organization: Quinn is so old-guy cool that he can watch Straight Outta Compton and point out the factual errors. Kyle Shanahan arrived, saw a talented ultra-professional in the quarterback meeting room and thought someone slipped ecstasy in his Gatorade. Reports out of Atlanta still have that new-coach “Everything Is Awesome” smell, but everyone sounds like they are on the same page, so expect at least a short-term bump. C-plus.
Bottom Line: Rebuilding, proud of it, and talented enough to make ripples in a weak division.
28. Cleveland Browns: D+
Offense: Josh McCown combines the worst elements of a gritty journeyman (declining skills) with those of a young scrambler (turnovers, runs himself into danger). The skill-position talent is weak, though Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline give a team with no No. 1 receiver a credible No. 2 and No. 3, and Duke Johnson should provide a spark at running back once he gets healthy and acclimated. The offensive line is actually solid. D.
Defense: Talented, experienced and fairly deep at all three levels. B-plus.
Special Teams: Andy Lee is an All-Pro punter, Travis Benjamin a wonderful returner. Travis Coons won the kicking job after making exactly one field goal (on his only attempt) in the first three preseason games, so he drags down the ranking. B-minus.
Coaching/Organization: The Browns are saying all the right things, and Mike Pettine is a clever defensive strategist whom the players respect. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is an unknown with little to work with. Little things like Ray Farmer getting suspended for angry in-game texting don’t go away as quickly as the Browns are pretending they do. D-plus.
Bottom Line: The Browns will win some 17-13 games with defense and special teams, just not enough of them.
29. Carolina Panthers: D+
Offense: With Kelvin Benjamin injured, the Panthers have one of the weakest skill-position corps in the NFL for the second year in the row. Cam Newton spent the preseason waiting for Greg Olsen to get open and wondering why Corey Brown didn’t consider a career in soccer. Speaking of Brown, he’s a starting receiver right now. D-minus.
Defense: Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and A.J. Klein form the best 4-3 linebacker corps in the NFL; Klein had a great preseason. The front four is stout against the run, and Charles Tillman has enough left in the tank to stabilize a young secondary. It’s a very good defense that needs to be excellent to compensate for the offense. B.
Special Teams: Graham Gano, Brad Nortman and Ted Ginn Jr. give the Panthers capable veterans in each specialist role. B.
Coaching/Organization: Ron Rivera plays the odds wisely on fourth downs, Dave Gettleman plays the late rounds and street free-agent market well and the coordinators get the team’s cost-effective solutions ready to play. There’s an institutional stubbornness in Carolina that’s maddening, however: too much “Cam hasn’t become Tom Brady” and “Gosh, that salary cap is tight” excuse-making and not enough problem solving to make the roster better. D-plus.
Bottom Line: An organization that keeps getting in its own way while trying to turn the corner.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars: D
Offense: Blake Bortles looked ready to take at least one step forward in the preseason. Allen Robinson emerged as his go-to receiver, and the T.J. Yeldon-Toby Gerhart-Denard Robinson backfield can give opponents a lot of looks. But top tight end Julius Thomas will be out for at least a month, and left tackle Luke Joeckel still winds up flat on his own back at least once per half. C-minus.
Defense: Dante Fowler Jr. got hurt at the start of rookie camp and there has not been much to get excited about since. D-minus.
Special Teams: Jason Myers replaces Josh Scobee at kicker; Myers was just 1-of-3 from 50-plus yards in the preseason. Bryan Anger is a solid punter and, as a former third-round pick of the previous regime, a reminder that the current brain trust, while unlucky, is at least not completely outmatched. C.
Coaching/Organization: The Jaguars are the NFL team that does things the right way but gets the wrong results. C.
Bottom Line: America’s Most Lovable Underdogs.
31. San Francisco 49ers: D
Offense: Lots of subtractions, few additions. Colin Kaepernick threw for 40 preseason yards, while the offense scored just three first-quarter points in the first three preseason games. The 49ers look like one of those teams that could cause trouble by running lots of read-option but won’t because they would rather score 13 points per game than resort to some “gimmick” that, um, led them to a Super Bowl three years ago. D.
Defense: NaVorro Bowman is really going to stand out this year. Yes, that’s a backhanded compliment. B-minus.
Special Teams: Phil Dawson is reliable, and Jarryd Hayne could be a fun return man if the 49ers don’t do the boring (and wrong) thing by pretending Reggie Bush is still a dangerous returner. C-plus.
Coaching/Organization: Who are these guys? General manager Trent Baalke has an eye for talent, otherwise the 49ers would earn straight D’s and F’s after all of the offseason defections. It’s a stretch to assume that eye for talent extends to rapidly promoted coaches. D.
Bottom Line: Get ready for the rebuilding project you never thought the 49ers wanted or needed.
32. Washington Redskins: D-
Offense: Your favorite daytime scripted reality television program is back with the same old cast of characters and storylines. For now, Kirk Cousins is the answer. The question: What quarterback with a 2-7 career record and a higher career interception rate than Rex Grossman or Mark Sanchez is getting his third chance at the same starting job? D.
Defense: Sean McVay’s new system produced encouraging preseason results. The Redskins should be able to stop the run and generate a decent pass rush without having to blitz the kitchen sink. B.
Special Teams: Specialists Kai Forbath and Tress Way will be good; the returners good enough. The Redskins' bench depth should produce sound coverage units. B.
Coaching/Organization: Civil War general George B. McClellan rose from West Point to a command in the Mexican-American War—the 19th century equivalent of starting in a famous coaching family and becoming offensive coordinator of the Bengals—before President Abraham Lincoln gave him command of the Union Army. McClellan was always convinced that his army was severely outnumbered, even when he had massive advantages over the Confederates; opposing generals would march the same battalion around in circles to make it look like a dozen battalions, just to mess with his head, and it worked.
McClellan could easily have cost the Union the war. For the Redskins, he would be the best head coach since Joe Gibbs. F.
Bottom Line: You can’t rebuild when you are too busy tearing yourself apart.