NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Heading into Preseason Week 3?
It's dress rehearsal time!
Week 3 of the NFL preseason is about as close as we get to real, honest-to-goodness NFL football before Week 1. This is the game where teams will prepare for opening day. The depth charts are essentially set, and the starters will often play at least the entire first half.
However, Week 2 of the preseason did offer an extended look at many teams, including several tabbed as Super Bowl contenders entering the season. The Cincinnati Bengals and NFC champion Carolina Panthers looked in midseason form. The Seattle Seahawks looked like a team with some work to do. The defending champion Denver Broncos have the worst kind of quarterback controversy brewing.
And rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys continue to be the talk of the NFL.
As they have every week in the NFL preseason, the NFL analysts here at Bleacher Report (Brad Gagnon, Brent Sobleski, Sean Tomlinson and myself) have gathered to rank the NFL's teams based on both what we've seen so far and what we expect to see once games begin to count.
Using a scoring system that assigns 32 points to a No. 1 ranking and one point to a No. 32 ranking, here's how it all played out.
32. San Francisco 49ers (1-1)
High Ranking: 31 (Gagnon)
Low Ranking: 32 (3 rankers)
Ranking Points: 5
Last Week: 32 (4 points)
The Niners picked up a point! The Niners picked up a point!
Given the prevailing wisdom that the San Francisco 49ers are arguably the worst team in the NFL, the club needs to take good news where it can get it.
And there was good news in San Francisco's win over the Denver Broncos on Saturday.
The defense played well in the first half, forcing three turnovers. After an up-and-down first game, quarterback Blaine Gabbert was quietly efficient, completing six of nine passes for 69 yards against one of the NFL's better defenses.
According to Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz of USA Today, head coach Chip Kelly was impressed. "He's got a really good understanding of what we're doing right now," Kelly said.
Of course, whether that's good news is up for debate.
But still...the Niners picked up a point!
31. Los Angeles Rams (2-0)
High Ranking: 27 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 32 (Gagnon)
Ranking Points: 12
Last Week: 29 (15 points)
Entering the preseason, all eyes in Los Angeles were focused squarely on No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, who many expected would start for the Rams at quarterback from Day 1.
However, after Case Keenum clearly outplayed him for the second straight week, the odds of that happening have decreased to just about nil. As Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported, Rams head coach Jeff Fisher indicated the team is going to be patient with the player they mortgaged the franchise's future to get.
“What I’ve been saying since Day 1 is we’re going to be patient with him,” Fisher said. “Case [Keenum] is our starter. [Goff is] progressing; he’s getting better. As he said, he’s learning from his mistakes; he doesn’t dwell on them. ... Case is our starter right now, and, again, patience is the word. You can put it in quotes. We’re going to be patient with him.”
For his part, Keenum told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times that while he's aware of his status as a placeholder, he isn't going to let it affect how he plays.
“I’m just playing football, man,” Keenum said. “I don’t think about anything. That’s your guys’ job. You’ll go write about it and talk about it and dissect everything. For me, if I’m totally honest, the opinions that matter for me are in this locker room, that’s my teammates and coaches. I’m trying to do the best I can.”
The Rams have a talented defense and an elite running back in Todd Gurley. But with Keenum under center and possibly the worst cadre of pass-catchers in the NFL, this team isn't going anywhere in an NFC West division with two top-five teams in the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.
30. Philadelphia Eagles (2-0)
High Ranking: 28 (Davenport)
Low Ranking: 31 (Tomlinson)
Ranking Points: 14
Last Week: 28 (21 points)
This is the first ranking on this list that's sure to raise some eyebrows—not to mention the blood pressure of Eagles fans.
An easygoing bunch they ain't.
After all, the Eagles are 2-0 in the preseason. Fresh off a 17-0 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Eagles have forced nine takeaways in two games—turnovers that head coach Doug Pederson talked up while speaking to reporters.
"Takeaways can start with your defensive line and the pressure we've put on these quarterbacks can cause these interceptions," Pederson told Aaron Kasinitz of PennLive.com. "The guys are just making great plays, too. Balls are legitimately catchable balls, and our guys are in position to make plays. They're doing it."
However, there's no more misleading stat than preseason takeaways, especially when you consider that nearly all of Philly's came courtesy of players who will either be riding the pine in a month or selling it at a Home Depot.
The fact is that the Eagles defense hasn't really been tested and the offense has had trouble generating any momentum. So we dropped Philly a handful of spots in favor of teams who have shown more the past two weeks.
And I'm still the highest of the panel on the Eagles' chances this year.
29. Cleveland Browns (0-2)
High Ranking: 28 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 30 (2 rankers)
Ranking Points: 15
Last Week: 31 (12 points)
Break up the Brownies!
Yes, Cleveland is 0-2 after falling to the Atlanta Falcons last week, 24-13. Yes, the Browns are still all but certainly headed for a fourth-place finish in the AFC North.
But in that game against the Falcons there were reasons to smile for beleaguered Browns fans—one reason chief among them.
Cleveland quarterback Robert Griffin III played the best football we've seen from the 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in a long time. He threw a pair of long touchdown passes. He picked up yardage with his legs.
And as head coach Hue Jackson told ESPN.com's Pat McManamon, most importantly, Griffin was effective in the pocket.
"The reads were exactly what they needed to be," Jackson said. "I think the quality of the throws were excellent."
Throw in a second straight good game from ascending young receiver Terrelle Pryor (yes, that Terrelle Pryor), and a strange new emotion is wafting through Northeast Ohio.
Now if only the NFL-worst defense this preseason wasn't such a dumpster fire.
28. Miami Dolphins (1-1)
High Ranking: 26 (2 rankers)
Low Ranking: 28 (2 rankers)
Ranking Points: 23
Last Week: 26 (30 points)
A year ago, the Miami Dolphins spent a fortune on upgrading the defense when they acquired defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The team finished the year 25th in total defense and 28th against the run.
So it was back to the drawing board under new head coach Adam Gase. In came a host of new faces, including defensive end Mario Williams, linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell.
Through two preseason games, that revamped Dolphins defense is even worse against the run, 30th in the NFL after Alfred Morris and the Dallas Cowboys carved it up last week.
Alonso in particular has struggled. After being brought over in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, Alonso has been exposed in coverage and swallowed up at the point of attack. In limited action at middle linebacker, he has already missed two tackles and ranks outside the top 100 inside linebackers at Pro Football Focus through two games.
A week ago, Alonso told Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun Sentinel that the defense just needed some time to tighten up.
"We're practicing that every day, and we have three preseason games," Alonso said. "We just want to keep getting better. We're going full speed and thudding up [in practice]. That's as close as you get in practice. When it comes to the game, we've just got to execute."
Now they have two, and we're still waiting for an execution.
27. San Diego Chargers (1-1)
High Ranking: 25 (2 rankers)
Low Ranking: 27 (Tomlinson)
Ranking Points: 29
Last Week: 27 (24 points)
After getting carved up like a Christmas goose in the preseason opener, the San Diego Chargers defense badly needed a rebound performance.
Not only did it get one, but that performance came against one of the NFL's top offensive teams last season in the Arizona Cardinals.
After allowing nearly 300 rushing yards to the Tennessee Titans, the Bolts allowed fewer than 70 to the Redbirds. Inside linebacker Manti Te'o told Ricky Henne of the team's website it was simply a matter of improving execution.
“The biggest difference for us in the run defense is that everybody was doing their job,” Te’o said. “Everyone trusted each other, and everybody made their play. And they didn’t make it for themselves; they did it because they wanted to make it for their brother. When we stick together as a defense and we play like that, we’re going to do well.”
The Chargers aren't hurting for offensive talent. This is a team, with quarterback Philip Rivers at the helm, that will score some points.
How well the defense plays will determine how far the Chargers do or don't go in 2016. And in that regard, its showing against Arizona was a welcome sight.
26. Detroit Lions (1-1)
High Ranking: 24 (Davenport)
Low Ranking: 28 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 29
Last Week: 25 (32 points)
Two years ago, the Detroit Lions rode one of the NFL's stingiest defenses (second overall) to a playoff spot.
A year ago, that defense faltered. So did the Lions, whose season ended halfway through after it started with seven losses over their first eight games.
That defensive free fall coincided with the absence of linebacker DeAndre Levy, who missed nearly all of the 2015 season with a hip injury.
Word all along has been that Levy is healthy and will be on the field for opening day. The eighth-year veteran told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press last week that he expects "to be ready to roll Week 1."
Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell also said he wasn't worried about Levy's availability early in the season after the Lions activated him from the PUP list.
"It’s not a necessity [that Levy plays this preseason]," Caldwell said, per Birkett. "It’s not like it has to happen. But we’ll just kind of see where he is from a health standpoint. We’ll see how he does, and right now we’re just trying to get him back in the swing of things and we’ll make a decision later on."
Levy dressed for last week's loss to Cincinnati but didn't play. If he doesn't take the field at all this week against the Baltimore Ravens, it's fair to wonder...
If Levy's OK, then why isn't he out there?
25. Tennessee Titans (1-1)
High Ranking: 22 (Gagnon)
Low Ranking: 31 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 30
Last Week: 30 (13 points)
There isn't a bigger mover and shaker in this week's rankings than the Tennessee Titans, who rose five full slots and more than doubled their ranking points.
Amazing what having a quarterback can do for a team.
Through two preseason games, Marcus Mariota has thrown just one incomplete pass, and his passer rating is well over 100. And as Jim Wyatt of Titans Online reported, head coach Mike Mularkey couldn't be happier.
“He is operating this offense, both the huddle and no-huddle,’’ Mularkey said. “Everything we’re asking him to do he’s putting us...in a position to give us a chance to win. Marcus has been outstanding.”
After throwing an interception last week against the Carolina Panthers, Mariota was slightly less effusive about his performance.
“Not bad,’’ Mariota said, per Wyatt. “I wish I wouldn’t have thrown the (interception), especially toward that end of the field where we were in scoring territory, but it is something I can learn off of. I can’t get too greedy in those situations.”
With Mariota rapidly developing a rapport with rookie wide receiver Tajae Sharpe and both DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry running the ball well, the Titans have the look of a vastly improved offense this year.
Bleacher Report's Brad Gagnon is buying.
"I love the throwback running game," he said. "I love Marcus Mariota in the no-huddle, I love that they showed offensive versatility against the Panthers, and I think Tajae Sharpe is about to become a household name. They still have some glaring holes, but this is no longer a bottom-10 team."
They're still a bottom-10 team on this list, but the Titans are trending up.
24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-1)
High Ranking: 17 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 28 (Tomlinson)
Ranking Points: 41
Last Week: 23 (44 points)
In the 2016 draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did something that hasn't been seen in the NFL in a decade. They spent a second-round pick on a kicker.
In fact, the Buccaneers dealt a pair of draft picks to move up in Round 2 to select "Mr. Automatic" in Roberto Aguayo of Florida State.
Through two preseason games Aguayo has been anything but automatic. In the opener against the Eagles, he missed an extra point. Last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars he hooked a pair of field-goal attempts.
Per Scott Smith of the team's website, head coach Dirk Koetter insisted he isn't concerned about his place-kicker...much.
“Well, I don’t know if ‘concern’ is the right word, but every player on a football team has a specific role and a specific job to fill, and they’re expected to do their job," the coach said. "Roberto, in both of the first preseason games—I mean, he’s been pretty consistent in practice—but in both of the preseason games he’s missed kicks that he’s expected to make."
At this point it means little. The kicks don't count. But there's a reason the Buccaneers made the investment they did in Aguayo. And early returns have not been good.
Kicking is very much a mental pursuit. The preseason is supposed to be about getting a kicker's head in the right place—not tearing his confidence to shreds.
And right now, Aguayo's a mess.
23. New Orleans Saints (0-2)
High Ranking: 19 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 25 (Gagnon)
Ranking Points: 42
Last Week: 22 (45 points)
This is not the sort of thing you hear every day about the New Orleans Saints. In fact, this is the sort of thing you never hear about the New Orleans Saints.
In last week's loss to the Houston Texans, the New Orleans defense outplayed Drew Brees and the offense. By a mile.
Over three choppy offensive series, Brees and the offense did little except turn the ball over. Head coach Sean Payton was not amused by the effort, telling ESPN.com's Mike Triplett: "It was as bad as we've been in a while. It was across the board."
The defense was another story entirely, playing well save for one drive toward the end of the half. As Nick Underhill of the New Orleans Advocate reported, it was a showing brought hope to its head coach.
"I was encouraged by the play. We gave up a two-minute drive. But overall there were some good things we did defensively, and that's a positive," Payton said.
It's doesn't take a whole lot of mental elasticity to imagine that Brees and the offense will get on track. Moving the ball has never been an issue for the Saints.
If the team can improve on last year's 31st-ranked defense, this ranking may prove to be low.
22. Baltimore Ravens (2-0)
High Ranking: 19 (Gagnon)
Low Ranking: 25 (Tomlinson)
Ranking Points: 44
Last Week: 24 (41 points)
You would think that Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh would be a happy man as his veteran stars return to the practice field. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. have both been activated. Running back Justin Forsett and quarterback Joe Flacco are healthy and should be ready for Week 1.
However, after the defense allowed over 100 yards of total offense to Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts in two drives last week, Harbaugh wasn't feeling overly jovial.
“We’re not a four-yard-a-gain team. It’s not going to be acceptable,” Harbaugh told Garrett Downing of the team's website. “It’s not good run defense for the Ravens to give up three yards. I don’t want anybody to be cheering about that, saying that’s a good job, especially on our sideline, which I heard a few too many times. One yard, two yards, I’m pissed, even. But I can live with it. Three yards I can’t live with. Zero yards is what we’re looking for.”
It's a coach's job to never be satisfied. But the reality is the Ravens' fortunes don't rest on preseason performance. They rest on having those veterans on the field after injuries ravaged the team in 2015.
Smith told Don Markus of the Baltimore Sun he most definitely has unfinished business in 2016. “The bully’s back; that’s all I got to say,” Smith said with a laugh after practice. “Vacation’s over for the DBs.”
If there's a team ranked outside the top 20 most likely to still be playing football in mid-January, the smart money has to be on the Ravens.
If, that is, their bullies can stay on the field.
21. Chicago Bears (0-2)
High Ranking: 16 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 27 (Davenport)
Ranking Points: 45
Last Week: 21 (46 points)
I don't get it. I can't for the life of me understand why my compatriots are all higher on the Chicago Bears than I am. Why I'm the only ranker who slotted the Bears outside the top 25.
It's a conversation that Dan Wiederer and Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune recently had. A bit of good cop, bad cop.
Or in this case, bad cop, worse cop.
"Nothing I've seen to this point has changed my mind about the Bears finishing in the vicinity of six wins," Campbell said. "This always was the second year of a plan that would require at least three or four drafts to return to division championship contention. That said, it's all about the process now. The Bears deserve our leeway to continue developing."
Wiederer thinks even that six-win mark may be a stretch. "After the last four weeks of practice and two preseason losses to the Broncos and Patriots, I still see a team that is woefully low on depth, continually hampered by injuries and far from special in any area."
B/R NFL Analyst Brent Sobleski thinks the team may be better than many think, however.
"Last year," Sobleski said, "the Chicago Bears finished 6-10 under head coach John Fox. The team should continue to develop in the coach's second season and show slight improvement. The biggest concern remains [quarterback] Jay Cutler and his relationship with new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. However, the defense finished in the top half of the league last year, and the organization added linebackers Danny Trevathan, Jerrell Freeman and Leonard Floyd to better fit Vic Fangio's scheme. The Bears are not ready to challenge for a playoff spot, but they should finish in the middle of the pack."
Like I said, I don't see it.
20. Atlanta Falcons (2-0)
High Ranking: 19 (Davenport)
Low Ranking: 23 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 50
Last Week: 20 (52 points)
The Falcons weren't able to generate much first-team offense in the preseason opener, which led to some wringing of hands among the fanbase. Given their lack of proven defensive talent, if the Falcons are going to win in 2016, it's going to be 27-24, not 17-14.
Things are looking up a bit after preseason game No. 2. The Falcons breezed the length of the field on their first drive against the Cleveland Browns, leading quarterback Matt Ryan to tell D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he believes things are falling into place in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's scheme.
“It’s a process,” Ryan said. “You have to continue to work and be focused on the process during the (exhibition) season. The main goal is to get ready for the regular season and everything in front of it.
“I think I’ve had a really good approach to that the entire training camp and (exhibition) season. Now, we have two more games to go and then onto the regular season. I’ve got to keep that same approach.”
If there's a caveat, it's that scoring points against the Cleveland Browns isn't the most difficult thing ever.
The more pressing issue now as the team's dress rehearsal nears is on defense. Just as they did last year, the Falcons have struggled to get a push up front, and young linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell have been uneven in their first training camp.
Andy Benoit of TheMMQB.com expects head coach Dan Quinn to try some smoke and mirrors to cover up the defense's deficiencies.
"You’ll see the Falcons’ D substitute different personnel packages a lot this season, just like we saw last season," Benoit said. "When done properly, that’s a great way to camouflage a dearth of versatility and talent."
The question, in a division filled with high-octane offenses, is whether that will work any better than it did in 2015.
19. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-2)
High Ranking: 18 (2 rankers)
Low Ranking: 21 (Gagnon)
Ranking Points: 56
Last Week: 19 (56 points)
Through two games that don't count, there isn't a quarterback this side of Dak Prescott who has played better than Blake Bortles of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He's picked up right where he left off after a breakout 2015.
If the Jaguars are going to do any damage in 2016, though, it's the defense that's going to have to take a big step forward.
One of the team's new defensive additions saw the first game action of his NFL career against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. And while defensive back Jalen Ramsey played only two series, the fifth overall pick in April's draft made his presence felt, tallying three tackles and a tackle for a loss.
Ramsey tried to keep his debut in perspective while speaking to ESPN.com's Mike DiRocco. "I think I did pretty well," he said. "I always have to watch the film and see how I truly did. Just coming off the game, I think I did really well."
With free agents Malik Jackson and Prince Amukamara, Ramsey, Myles Jack and 2015 first-rounder Dante Fowler joining Telvin Smith, Paul Posluszny and Johnathan Cyprien, the Jaguars have more defensive talent than at any point during Gus Bradley's tenure as head coach.
If Bradley's half the defensive guru he's credited with being, that's going to make the Jaguars a dangerous team this season.
Because the offense hasn't missed a beat.
18. Buffalo Bills (1-1)
High Ranking: 14 (Tomlinson)
Low Ranking: 22 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 63
Last Week: 18 (62 points)
It was a rough week for the Buffalo Bills.
On the field, things went much better in a 21-0 whitewashing of the New York Giants.
It was the best showing in a long while from a Bills defense that went from one of the NFL's best in 2014 to one of the worst a season ago. As Chris Brown of the team's website wrote, head coach Rex Ryan was pleased that Buffalo's defensive dominance continued once the starters left the field.
"Obviously a really good performance,” Ryan said. "The effort was great. I’m really happy with the way the ‘D’ played. “We challenged the second group and the third group at halftime. We had given up 37 yards at halftime, and I said, ‘I don’t know if we can get better than that, but that’s the challenge for you.’
"The guys stepped up. I’m telling you this football team works extremely hard, and with that, there’s no guarantee of success. We understand that, but it’s good to see the hard work pay off."
It's important not to read too much into a single exhibition game, but the fact is Buffalo's defensive face-plant in 2015 is what cost them a playoff spot. Give quarterback Tyrod Taylor and the offense the sort of defensive support the Bills enjoyed two years ago, and this is a 10- or 11-win playoff team.
Now it's simply a matter of the defense playing that well consistently while the offense maintains the level of play it demonstrated against the Giants.
OK, so maybe the matter isn't all that simple.
17. New York Giants (0-2)
High Ranking: 13 (Tomlinson)
Low Ranking: 21 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 67
Last Week: 12 (73 points)
The New York Giants are this week's biggest slider, down five spots from one week ago, albeit from a more modest decrease of six ranking points.
There's something of a logjam in the middle of the pack.
The reason for the drop isn't hard to figure out. Through two games, the New York offensive line has been abysmal.
As Jordan Raanan of ESPN.com pointed out, there wasn't much the Giants did right in that capacity against the Buffalo Bills last week:
The Giants' line couldn’t open holes, couldn’t protect quarterback Eli Manning, and couldn’t stop committing penalties. It started with right guard John Jerry's false start on the opening drive. It continued with left tackle Ereck Flowers' holding penalty on the first play of the second drive. It was capped by center Weston Richburg's holding penalty on the third drive.
It isn't all doom and gloom. After ranking dead last in the NFL last year, the Giants defense looks light-years better, especially up front.
But you can't overstate just how bad the line play has been on offense. Through two weeks, Pro Football Focus has given only one team in the NFL a worse grade in pass protection.
Unless that changes, the Giants aren't going anywhere in 2016.
16. New York Jets (1-1)
High Ranking: 13 (Davenport)
Low Ranking: 18 (Gagnon)
Ranking Points: 69
Last Week: 14 (72 points)
At this point, it looks like time for Geno to go-no.
It wasn't that long ago that Geno Smith was supposed to be the answer for the New York Jets at quarterback. To say that Smith didn't live up to expectations is an understatement. And whether it's those expectations or simply that Smith isn't very good, at this point, his failures seem like they're in his head.
Smith was awful last week against the Washington Redskins. He missed open receivers, completing less than half his passes. He committed another turnover, something that's dogged him in the Big Apple. And 2015 fourth-round pick Bryce Petty clearly outplayed him.
As is usually the case, starter Ryan Fitzpatrick will play extensively in the Jets' dress rehearsal Saturday against the Giants. When Darryl Slater of NJ Advance Media asked Todd Bowles who would follow him onto the field, the head coach was noncommittal.
"All of them have got to be up to play," Bowles said. "We've got a plan for the quarterbacks that we're not revealing. Saturday, we'll play the guys that we have scheduled to play. But we do have a plan to play certain people. To be clear, we have a plan on who we're going to play that we're not going to reveal."
With rookie signal-caller Christian Hackenberg also on the roster, it's a numbers game. Either Petty or Smith is going to be the odd man out when final cuts roll around.
And a Jets team with playoff aspirations has to be praying that Fitzpatrick not get hurt this season.
15. Houston Texans (2-0)
High Ranking: 12 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 18 (Tomlinson)
Ranking Points: 72
Last Week: 16 (70 points)
With J.J. Watt in real danger of missing time in the regular season, the Houston Texans badly need some of their other pass-rushers to step in a big way.
If last week's game with the Saints is any indication, Jadeveon Clowney may finally be ready to do just that.
As Chris Wesseling and Kevin Patra of NFL.com reported, Clowney looked every bit like the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft against the New Orleans Saints.
"Clowney's bull rush was simply too powerful for the twin 6'7", 320-pound behemoths in an obvious mismatch," they said. "Still in the game late in the third quarter, he threw reserve left tackle Tony Hills like a rag doll to hit tailback Daniel Lasco four yards deep in the backfield."
Clowney's ridiculous first step made an impression on teammate Johnathan Joseph.
“I think he stepped in today and did a tremendous job,” Joseph told Drew Dougherty of the team's website. “He’s a tremendous talent. I think he came in and made some plays. A player like him needs to come in and have that type of success because he has all the ability in the world, and any time he comes in and makes those plays, it’s going to help his confidence.”
As if the thought of Clowney exploding through the line of scrimmage like that on a regular basis isn't terrifying enough for quarterbacks, imagine him doing it with Watt coming off the other side. Or with Watt in front of him and Whitney Mercilus (who had 12 sacks last year) on the other side of the field.
Nothing's guaranteed until Watt gets back and we see Clowney play like that consistently in games that matter. But all the ingredients are there for a dominant pass rush in Houston in 2016.
And the quarterbacks they did weepeth.
14. Washington Redskins (1-1)
High Ranking: 13 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 16 (Tomlinson)
Ranking Points: 73
Last Week: 15 (72 points)
Heading into the team's second preseason game, Washington Redskins tailback Matt Jones told Gabe Hiatt of the Washington Post that he wasn't concerned about his struggles in the preseason opener against Atlanta.
“There’s no pressure at all,” Jones said. “I feel like my ability is going to take me wherever I need to go.”
Unfortunately for both player and team, the only place Jones went was to the trainer's table.
Per Rich Tandler of CSN Mid-Atlantic, head coach Jay Gruden indicated that Jones is done for the preseason after spraining the AC joint in his shoulder against the Jets.
Gruden is still holding out hope, however, that Jones will be ready to go in Week 1. "He's made significant strides already, in a couple of days, so we have high hopes he'll be ready," he said.
Of course, part of that hope may be borne of Gruden's decision to roll out Jones in a game that any number of Washington starters on both sides of the ball sat out, despite the fact there's precious little on the depth chart behind him.
Gruden said he's anxious to watch rookies Keith Marshall and Robert Kelley get extended playing time over the next couple of weeks.
"It will be interesting to watch those guys," Gruden said, per Tandler. "They showed a lot of promise in training camp."
Given how the two have fared to this point in the preseason (neither averaged three yards a carry against New York), fans better hope that extended look doesn't carry over into the regular season.
13. Indianapolis Colts (1-1)
High Ranking: 8 (Gagnon)
Low Ranking: 20 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 77
Last Week: 13 (72 points)
The boy is back in town.
Last week against the Baltimore Ravens, quarterback Andrew Luck made his first appearance since becoming the highest-paid player in the NFL. It was also his first game action after a 2015 season that fell somewhere between putrid and horrific.
Against the Ravens, Luck was...well, he looked like Andrew Luck. The good one, not that guy from last year.
Luck didn't find the end zone thanks to penalties and a Dwayne Allen fumble, but he completed all eight of his passes for 71 yards. Head coach Chuck Pagano told the Associated Press (via TheIndyChannel.com) that while the results weren't optimal, Luck's performance was.
"We were efficient," Pagano said. "He ran the offense, he made great decisions, we moved the ball up and down the field, but then we shot ourselves in the foot with penalties. We should've had two touchdowns."
Pagano told Kevin Bowen of the team's website that efficiency is key in coordinator Rob Chudzinski's offense:
He is not turning down a profit, so if things aren’t there down the field, then go ahead and hit your checkdown. We’ve got some guys that can make some plays if we can get them the ball in space. You dump it off to our backs, we have some guys that can make some guys miss.
(Luck) made great decisions in that regard.
There's a long way to go between now and the end of the season, but with their sheriff back in town, the Colts are right back to being the favorites to win the AFC South.
12. Dallas Cowboys (1-1)
High Ranking: 10 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 21 (Davenport)
Ranking Points: 78
Last Week: 17 (68 points)
There isn't a team in the NFL that caused a bigger disparity in opinion among our voters than the Dallas Cowboys. One analyst slotted them inside the top 10. Another (me) ranked them outside the top 20.
I still don't trust the defense. Yes, it played well against the Miami Dolphins. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is one of the best in the business. But I don't think the Cowboys will be able to pressure the quarterback, and the linebacker corps is one inevitable Sean Lee injury away from being a disaster.
It's only fitting that the team on this list with the most hype would also have the player in the NFL with the most hype in the preseason.
And right now, Dak Prescott has more preseason buzz than every other player in the league put together.
Don't get me wrong. Prescott has been great in two games. Qualify it all you want by talking about reserve players and vanilla defenses, but Prescott has made it look easy two outings in a row. He's been accurate (22-of-27), in command of the offense and not the least bit reluctant to make things happen with his legs in a pinch (41 yards on five carries).
What he isn't is the player who should start in Week 1 against the New York Giants. Nor is he the second coming of Joe Montana meets Randall Cunningham meets Dan Marino.
Joe Marinoham, as he's called by fans with the vapors on social media.
After the Cowboys lost backup Kellen Moore to a broken right ankle, Prescott is a godsend as an insurance policy in case of a Tony Romo injury. Just as free-agent tailback Alfred Morris (who had 100 total yards against Miami) is one against a slow start from rookie Ezekiel Elliott.
But unless they play both ways, the Cowboys' biggest problem is out of their hands.
Slow your roll, Big D. And play some D.
11. Oakland Raiders (1-1)
High Ranking: 11 (3 rankers)
Low Ranking: 14 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 85
Last Week: 11 (86 points)
The Oakland Raiders were a much improved team last year. But despite having a future Hall of Famer at the back end in Charles Woodson, the Raiders ranked 26th in passing defense.
The Raiders attacked that deficiency in both free agency and the draft. And according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, no team in the league did a better job of shoring up the secondary:
Enter Pro Bowl free safety Reggie Nelson, first-round strong safety Karl Joseph and former Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith. The Smith-Amerson tag team at cornerback figures to be one of the NFL's most physically imposing. Nelson's 21 interceptions over the past five seasons are second only to Richard Sherman's total of 26 in that span. Ten months after tearing his ACL at West Virginia, Joseph started the Raiders' preseason opener opposite Nelson.
For many years, the Raiders were a deeply flawed football team. No more, at least on paper.
They have a rising young quarterback in Derek Carr, a similarly ascending tailback in Latavius Murray, plenty of receiving talent in Michael Crabtree, Amari Cooper and Clive Walford and a stout offensive line.
Defensively, Khalil Mack anchors a front seven that features a pair of former Seahawks stars in Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin. Add in that vastly improved pass defense, and a team that not long ago was all weaknesses now doesn't really have one.
If they play close to their potential, the Raiders will make the playoffs.
10. Minnesota Vikings (2-0)
High Ranking: 4 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 13 (Gagnon)
Ranking Points: 95
Last Week: 10 (96 points)
After the Cincinnati Bengals showed them up a bit in the preseason opener, the Minnesota Vikings traveled west to try to get right defensively against the team that bounced them from the postseason last year.
Mission most assuredly accomplished.
In a seven-point win against the Seattle Seahawks, the Vikings dominated the line of scrimmage, sacking quarterback Russell Wilson four times. Linebacker Anthony Barr told Chris Tomasson and Joel Badzinski of the St. Paul Pioneer Press the team wanted to send a message.
“We were a lot better than (the opener),” Barr said. “That’s good. Any time you can improve on the week before is important. We still have a long ways to go, but I think (the Seattle game) was a good step.”
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was happy with the team's effort. “I thought the defense did pretty good,” he said. “We learned from our mistakes (against the Bengals). We got to the quarterback and covered them up in the back end.”
He should have been pleased. When the Vikings play like this defensively, they're capable of beating any team in the NFL, especially once Adrian Peterson finishes his annual preseason sabbatical and gets back after it on the ground.
9. Denver Broncos (1-1)
High Ranking: 8 (2 rankers)
Low Ranking: 12 (Gagnon)
Ranking Points: 95
Last Week: 7 (105 points)
If you watched any part of last week's game between the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers, you know why the Broncos lost 10 ranking points this week.
Against San Francisco, Denver quarterbacks Trevor Siemian, Mark Sanchez and Paxton Lynch combined for four turnovers. Siemian threw a pick-six. Sanchez lost two fumbles deep in 49ers territory—in the span of a minute.
That's left many calling for Lynch to get a chance with the starters in the Broncos' dress rehearsal. A chance to show that he gives the Broncos their best chance to win. A chance to show that he should start Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers.
As Conor Orr of NFL.com wrote, head coach Gary Kubiak isn't ruling it out.
"I'm going to play the guy that I think is best for our team," Kubiak said. "We have three guys out there battling. Obviously (Lynch) is a young kid. He did some really good stuff tonight. He made some mistakes, too. I think I've continued to tell you guys that he is behind the others from a knowledge standpoint as far as running the group. Obviously we need to keep coming, keep bringing him along. We're going to keep working here, find the guy that we think is best for our football team and go from there."
For every person who thinks Lynch should get a shot, there's another (like me) who thinks that throwing Lynch to the wolves against the Panthers on opening night is a panic move.
However, the argument can be made that given how his quarterbacks played Saturday, Kubiak maybe should panic.
8. Kansas City Chiefs (0-2)
High Ranking: 5 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 9 (Gagnon)
Ranking Points: 103
Last Week: 8 (100 points)
There's a new top dog in the AFC West in this week's poll. With three teams in the top 11, our analysts see the West as arguably the toughest division in the NFL in 2016. But the Broncos have an obvious problem at quarterback. The Raiders have to show they can win the games they are supposed to.
That leaves it to the Chefs to cook up a division title.
I misspelled that intentionally, because I'm all witty and whatnot.
The Chiefs have a problem of their own, though. Their best defensive player, outside linebacker Justin Houston, had ACL surgery earlier this year. That leaves the team in uncharted waters where generating a pass rush is concerned.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton told Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star that replacing Houston's production won't be easy:
I think in pass-rush mode, you have to rely on other guys. Obviously, a guy like Dee Ford has to come along, and I think (Frank) Zombo’s had a great camp right now. Hopefully, we get Tamba back eventually, and add to that. But those are two unique rushers. You don’t just go out and grab guys and say, ‘Hey, you’re this guy.'
The thing we have to do, we tell our players all the time, the team on the field is the team. So whoever goes out there has to perform at a high level. We all know every guy has different skill levels, and things they do better than the next guy. So you move your defense that direction.
In today's NFL, if you can't get after opposing quarterbacks, you're toast. You'll be eaten alive.
How long Houston's out and how the Chiefs compensate for his absence until his return will go a long way toward determining if a promising 2016 campaign in Kansas City becomes anything more.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (1-1)
High Ranking: 5 (2 rankers)
Low Ranking: 10 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 103
Last Week: 9 (98 points)
I was one of the two rankers who slotted the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 5 after their win over Detroit.
And, frankly, I was tempted to put them even higher than that.
No first team in the NFL has looked better through two preseason games than Cincinnati. Despite losing receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu to free agency and tight end Tyler Eifert to ankle surgery, quarterback Andy Dalton and the Bengals offense have been sharp.
And against both the Vikings and the Lions, the Bengals won the battle at the point of attack on both sides of the ball, even though they lost to Minny by one.
While other teams are ironing out the kinks, the Bengals are playing like it's October.
The Bengals got even more good news this week. As Jay Morrison of the Dayton Daily News reported, Eifert's rehab is progressing well. So well that he indicated playing Sept. 11 against the Jets in Week 1 isn't out of the question.
“I’m trying,” Eifert said. “I haven’t run yet. We’re going to run today and see how it feels and go from there. I’m doing everything I can.”
The Bengals have been one-and-done five straight years, earning them the label of playoff choke artists.
They are also one of the deepest, most talented teams in the league. One capable of winning Super Bowl LI.
6. Green Bay Packers (2-0)
High Ranking: 4 (Tomlinson)
Low Ranking: 9 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 105
Last Week: 6 (106 points)
It's kind of hard to get a bead on the Green Bay Packers this preseason, given that the majority of the first-team offense hasn't been anywhere near the field.
One starter has been out there, though, and he's been impressive.
After a disappointing 2015, tailback Eddie Lacy showed up to camp in much better shape. That momentum has carried over into games.
Last year, Lacy spent most of the season in Mike McCarthy's doghouse. As Nate Gotlieb of Fox Sports Wisconsin reported, after picking up 45 yards on nine carries (with a touchdown) against the Oakland Raiders, Lacy earned the head coach's praise.
"Our run-blocking unit did a great job, giving Eddie clean looks," McCarthy said. "I thought Eddie ran very well and did a good job finishing runs."
Lacy told ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky he's on a mission to put last year's fiasco behind him. "I definitely want this year to be different than last," he said. "So far, I think I'm doing a pretty good job of it. I've just got to keep it up."
If Lacy can keep it up and wide receiver Jordy Nelson returns from his ACL tear at 100 percent, the Packers are rapidly going to make people forget last year's offensive struggles.
The other teams in the NFL North may choose to remember them, albeit wistfully.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (0-2)
High Ranking: 5 (Gagnon)
Low Ranking: 7 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 108
Last Week: 5 (108 points)
Much like the Packers, it hasn't been easy to judge the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have rested offensive stars such as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wideout Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell.
Although after watching backup quarterback Landry Jones throw four interceptions against the Eagles, there was plenty of judging going on.
However, there was good news for the Steelers last week. Per Anthony Defeo of SB Nation's Behind the Steel Curtain, the NFL reduced Bell's suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy from four games to three.
Bell took to Twitter to apologize to fans for his misstep.
"I got surgery in November of last year," Bell said (via Defeo). "They tried to test me in December and January, and I missed those tests. I couldn’t go to the facility to get tested, they couldn’t come to me and get tested, and I missed those tests, and that’s on me. I put all the blame on myself."
The presence of backup tailback DeAngelo Williams makes the Steelers uniquely qualified to withstand Bell's absence, and once he returns, there isn't a better QB-RB-WR trio in the NFL than Roethlisberger/Bell/Brown.
The Steelers can score with the best of them. If their 30th-ranked passing defense can make a few timely stops and those stars can stay healthy, the Steelers will be in the mix for a February trip to Houston.
4. Seattle Seahawks (1-1)
High Ranking: 3 (2 rankers)
Low Ranking: 6 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 116
Last Week: 4 (115 points)
Trouble is brewing in the Pacific Northwest.
If the Seattle Seahawks had an Achilles' heel in 2015, it was an offensive line that allowed 46 sacks. Judging by last week's game against the Vikings, that line isn't any better.
However, despite the fact Seattle allowed six sacks to Minnesota (including four of Russell Wilson), offensive line coach Tom Cable insisted to John Boyle of the team's website that the Seahawks are getting better up front.
“Lots of improvement,” Cable said. “We kind of took another step, fit the run game better, finished better, got our pads down better. Pass-pro was really good in so many instances, so we just have to clean up a little bit of communication.”
Head coach Pete Carroll agreed. "Pass protection-wise, we liked what happened the first week, and there’s almost a storyline for every one of the sacks that we had, that it’s pretty clear and obvious what happened," he said, per Boyle. "We’re better, and we’re going to be better."
Part of that's true. At least two of Wilson's sacks against Minnesota were because he held on to the ball too long, and for the second straight game, running back Christine Michael was successful picking up yardage on the ground (55 yards on 10 carries).
But the pass protection just hasn't been enough. Through two weeks of the preseason, Pro Football Focus hasn't given any team in the NFL a lower grade in that regard than Seattle.
The coaches can spin it however they want, and this isn't to say it's panic time in the Emerald City.
But the Seahawks lost to Carolina in the playoffs last year largely because they were beaten badly in the trenches and couldn't protect their star quarterback.
3. New England Patriots (2-0)
High Ranking: 1 (Sobleski)
Low Ranking: 4 (Davenport)
Ranking Points: 118
Last Week: 3 (118 points)
If the New England Patriots were any other NFL team, it would be wagon-circling time and then some.
Actually, it would be full-blown Chicken Little time.
Star quarterback Tom Brady will open the season serving a four-game suspension. Their best wide receiver, Julian Edelman, just recently returned to the practice field after surgery on his foot. Arguably their best pass-rusher, defensive end Rob Ninkovich, tore his triceps and will be sidelined indefinitely.
And now their starting running back has gone back under the knife.
As Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reported, tailback Dion Lewis, who tore his ACL in the middle of a breakout 2015 season, will be sidelined eight to 10 weeks after a "relatively minor" cleanup procedure on his surgically repaired knee.
And yet, when these sorts of things happen to the Patriots, everyone sort of shrugs—because they are the Patriots.
The team has utilized a revolving door at running back for years. Ninkovich told Howe he has no plans to be out any longer than necessary.
“It’s really hard,” Ninkovich said. “I haven’t had to deal with anything like this in a long time, so just trying to work as hard as I can and just try to work and do the only thing I know how to do, and that’s try to work hard to get back.”
And you can bet the rent money that when Brady returns, he'll take out every bit of his frustration over the Deflategate saga on opposing defenses.
Any other team would crumble under the injuries and controversy.
The Patriots feed on it.
2. Carolina Panthers (1-1)
High Ranking: 1 (Tomlinson)
Low Ranking: 3 (Sobleski)
Ranking Points: 124
Last Week: 2 (123 points)
For the most part, the Carolina Panthers look like a team ready to dispel the notion of a Super Bowl hangover. In last week's 26-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans, both quarterback Cam Newton and the first-team offense and linebacker Luke Kuechly and the first-team defense looked ready for opening night against the Broncos.
If anything, the offense might be even more explosive than last year's Super Bowl team. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is back on the field and healthy. Second-year pro Devin Funchess looks ready to take a big step forward in his sophomore season.
But there may be a problem brewing on defense. Star cornerback Josh Norman's departure to Washington leaves the Panthers with the prospect of two rookie starters at the position. As David Newton of ESPN.com wrote, that's been a mixed bag so far:
I’m totally sold on second-round draft pick James Bradberry as one starting corner, but third-round pick Daryl Worley appears vulnerable. He was beat in practice several times this past week on deep throws, and he didn’t come close to slowing down Titans wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, who caught six passes for 68 yards in the first half.
Worley himself, per Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review, was the first to say he didn't have a great game.
"I was very unimpressed with the way I played," Worley said. "I was playing a little bit not as aggressive as I'm used to because of some of the calls and not being able to challenge balls and routes the way I would've liked."
Head coach Ron Rivera, however, cut the youngster some slack.
"I’d like to see him—obviously based on what the call is—play the techniques a little bit better," he said, per Voth. "He had an opportunity to make a couple of plays, and he didn’t. Again, it’s one of those learning curves that he will go through as a rookie."
Young corners struggling is not unheard of. If the biggest problem the Panthers have is a young player who should improve with time, they're going to be just fine.
1. Arizona Cardinals (0-2)
High Ranking: 1 (Gagnon)
Low Ranking: 2 (2 rankers)
Ranking Points: 126
Last Week: 1 (127 points)
Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians is not a happy man.
The two-time Coach of the Year spent some time in the hospital last week with an intestinal issue, but that wasn't his biggest concern on Friday.
He watched the Cardinals fall flat against the San Diego Chargers (which probably didn't help his upset stomach).
After seeing the Chargers wax Arizona in all phases, Arians was blunt while speaking to Darren Urban of the team's website.
“I’m fine,” Arians said. “Just pissed. ... We’ll go back to work. That’s why you play the preseason. These don’t count other than you find out a lot about yourself.”
Quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw a pick-six in the game, echoed a similar refrain—shake off the stinker and get back to work.
“Every part of you says it’s the preseason because it is the preseason,” Palmer said, per Urban. “We have to continue to work. You don’t let it frustrate you. You look at the areas that are good with the areas that are bad, evaluate them, and move forward.”
One preseason game does not necessarily a problem make, even if it gives fans and sportswriters something to overreact to.
But now there's real pressure on the team to come out and show the San Diego game was a fluke Sunday against the Houston Texans.
Otherwise, next week's power rankings will likely feature a new No. 1 team.