The 2016 NFL season is right around the corner, which means it's time to assess everything we've learned over the past couple of months and take an early look at the league's pecking order as Thursday night's opener between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers approaches.
But before we break down a few of the league's most compelling clubs, here's a rundown of where all 32 stand entering Week 1 of the regular season:
|NFL Power Rankings Entering Week 1|
|2||New England Patriots|
|6||Green Bay Packers|
|7||Kansas City Chiefs|
|12||New York Jets|
|18||New Orleans Saints|
|19||New York Giants|
|24||Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|25||San Diego Chargers|
|30||Los Angeles Rams|
|32||San Francisco 49ers|
The Panthers should be favored to repeat as NFC South champions for several reasons.
First and foremost, reigning MVP Cam Newton is coming off a brilliant season that saw him complete 59.8 percent of his passes for 3,837 yards, 35 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while running for 636 yards and 10 scores.
While those numbers may not seem sustainable on the surface, Newton will be armed with a more dynamic receiving corps this season with Kelvin Benjamin back at 100 percent one year after he tore his ACL. Factor in the evolution of Devin Funchess and the steady hands of Greg Olsen, and the Panthers offense should remain plenty potent throughout 2016.
Carolina also returns key members of its front seven, which features disruptive playmakers such as Luke Kuechly, Kony Ealy, Thomas Davis, Kawann Short and Charles Johnson.
However, there has to be a degree of concern with the Panthers' shaky secondary after the team rescinded Josh Norman's franchise tag and he bolted for the Washington Redskins.
As a result, Carolina now owns the NFL's worst secondary, according to Pro Football Focus' Matt Claassen.
"Kurt Coleman and Bene Benwikere will be the only two of the team’s top five defensive backs returning from last year," he wrote. "Coleman had a career year in his first season with Carolina, but Benwikere actually fared worse than his impressive 2014 rookie season. The Panthers will also be relying on rookie James Bradberry (Samford) to play significant snaps."
The Panthers' dominant front seven should take pressure off the relatively inexperienced secondary, but opponents will try to test Carolina deep early and often.
The Oakland Raiders were on the rise last season, and a 7-9 finish offered them a nice springboard for a potentially fruitful 2016 season.
While a loaded young offensive core of quarterback Derek Carr, wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree and running back Latavius Murray will allow the Raiders to make some noise in the AFC West, a restocked offensive line could help propel them back to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
With Donald Penn at left tackle, Kelechi Osemele at left guard, Rodney Hudson at center, Gabe Jackson at right guard and Austin Howard at right tackle, the Raiders have PFF's No. 2 offensive line behind only the Dallas Cowboys.
"We’ve got a good vibe going, but the tough thing now is we’ve got to back it up, all this hype and buzz," Penn said, per Sports Illustrated's Don Banks. "But the biggest thing we’re trying to do right now is not follow the hype. I mean it feels good to have the hype, and we like it, but you have to make sure the hype doesn’t take over. If we don’t put in the work, all that hype’s going to go out the window."
If the Raiders' group of burly maulers can keep Carr upright and consistently open up running lanes for Murray, Oakland could challenge the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos for superiority in a division that's suddenly up for grabs.
The Philadelphia Eagles appeared headed for another season with Sam Bradford under center, but plans changed in the blink of an eye Saturday when they dealt him to the Minnesota Vikings for a 2017 first-round pick and 2018 fourth-round pick.
Now it's time for the Carson Wentz show to begin.
Head coach Doug Pederson announced Monday that Wentz will start in Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns, per the Eagles' Twitter account.
But while eyes will be on Wentz to see how he handles the pressure of being the new face of the franchise, Jim Schwartz's defense may dictate just how competitive the Eagles are in the wide-open NFC East.
Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Bennie Logan, Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin give the Eagles one of the NFL's most imposing defensive lines, and linebackers Jordan Hicks, Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham provide speed and stability at the second level.
Factor in a safety tandem that consists of Malcolm Jenkins and free-agent signee Rodney McLeod, and the Eagles should mask their issues at cornerback.
"A strong pass rush will also aid Philadelphia’s corners; only four defenses collectively graded better rushing the passer than the Eagles, and they return the bulk of that production in the form of Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry," Pro Football Focus' Thomas Maney noted.
Philadelphia's offense figures to struggle at first with Wentz under center and an inexperienced group of receivers by his side, but Schwartz's attacking defense has the potential to be one of the league's best if it makes good on its promise.