Updated NFL Division-by-Division Rankings After First Week of Free Agency

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMarch 19, 2018

Updated NFL Division-by-Division Rankings After First Week of Free Agency

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    Quarterback Kirk Cousins (left) and general manager Rick Spielman of the Minnesota Vikings
    Quarterback Kirk Cousins (left) and general manager Rick Spielman of the Minnesota VikingsAssociated Press

    The NFL offseason is rooted in power. Teams grab for power, try to maintain it and work to position themselves to have power for the first time in a while.

    The 2018 offseason and free-agency period haven't been unique in that sense. But one of the paths available in that fight for power was dramatically different.

    Typically the quarterback cupboard when the market opens is beyond bare—it's dangling from the wall and ready to crash. Please recall the rush to give Mike Glennon $18.5 million guaranteed in 2017.

    But in 2018 the free-agency stars aligned to put several options out there, and each was at minimum viable as an immediate starting quarterback.

    In the case of Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings, a recently signed quarterback can be the last piece to push a team to the Super Bowl. Others like Case Keenum and Sam Bradford, who signed with the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals respectively, may not be on Cousins' level, but they can bring stability at a position where it's desperately needed.

    During a typical year, someone like AJ McCarron would probably be the quarterback gem of free agency. Now he's a fine consolation prize at the right price (only $10 million over two years).

    The quarterback shuffling has highlighted the offseason power struggle so far. But that's just the beginning of how the outlook of each division has changed, a process set to continue as smaller free-agency signings trickle in and the draft kicks off at the end of April.

    For now, let's take a breath as free agency calms down a bit and project how each division stands based on the signings and trades over the first week.

NFC South

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    New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees
    New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew BreesAssociated Press

    1. New Orleans Saints

    The Saints flirted with a hint of danger by letting quarterback Drew Brees become a free agent, at least during the unofficial opening of free agency (also known as the legal tampering period). But Brees returns on a slightly below-market deal that averages $25 million annually, tied for fourth-highest among QBs. He'll continue to be supported by a backfield with two running backs who each logged 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage in 2017. The Saints have a brief window to win more championships before Brees fades off, which includes the 2018 season.


    2. Carolina Panthers

    The Panthers retained ageless defensive end Julius Peppers, who incredibly recorded 11 sacks during his age-37 season. They added Dontari Poe to reinforce the defensive front after the departure of fellow tackle Star Lotulelei. Poe will make sure the Panthers' front seven remains fierce after his rebound season with the Atlanta Falcons in 2017, highlighted by 37 pressures and 23 defensive stops, according to Pro Football Focus. Just as they did in 2017, the Panthers could push the Saints for the division title.


    3. Atlanta Falcons

    Losing Poe stings for a mid-tier Falcons pass rush (ranked 13th in sacks) that still leans heavily on defensive end Vic Beasley. However, 2017 first-round pick Takkarist McKinley is ready to step into a larger role, especially with fellow defensive end Adrian Clayborn gone too. The NFC South produced three teams with double-digit wins in 2017, and that might not change in 2018.


    4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    The Buccaneers made sure to retain core veterans like cornerback Brent Grimes and tight end Cameron Brate, who finished with 591 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2017. They also added defensive tackle Beau Allen to bolster their 23rd-ranked rushing defense and defensive end Vinny Curry to help out an inconsistent pass rush. But a rushing offense that averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in 2017 hasn't improved, though there could be some addition by subtraction with Doug Martin gone. The Bucs may face another difficult season if they don't get more immediate solutions to their problems in the draft.

NFC North

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    Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins
    Vikings quarterback Kirk CousinsAssociated Press

    1. Minnesota Vikings

    Kirk Cousins has thrown 25-plus touchdown passes in each of the past three seasons while never hitting the 15-interception mark. Now he'll join an offense with one of the NFL's best wide receiver tandems after Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen combined for 2,125 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in 2017. The Vikings are NFC title contenders again entering 2018.


    2. Green Bay Packers

    When quarterback Aaron Rodgers returns from injury in 2018, he'll get tight end Jimmy Graham as his new massive target. Graham may be losing a step at the age of 31, but he's still an effective red-zone weapon after scoring 10 touchdowns in 2017 to lead all tight ends. The Packers' fate could once again rest with Rodgers' health. If he stays upright, they can challenge Minnesota for the division title.


    3. Detroit Lions

    There's still little hope the Lions will field anything resembling a passable rushing offense. They averaged a league-low 3.4 yards per carry in 2017 and spent free agency chasing aging running backs far past their primes like Frank Gore, Jonathan Stewart and DeMarco Murray. They finally signed LeGarrette Blount, but he's better suited as a short-yardage and goal-line back after averaging only 47.9 rushing yards per game in 2017. Detroit may have to overachieve to push for a playoff spot.


    4. Chicago Bears

    The Bears took some important strides forward early in the offseason, and their improvement should make the NFC North one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. The most important addition was wide receiver Allen Robinson. He comes with some risk while recovering from an ACL tear but is overflowing with athleticism and can give young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky the deep weapon he desperately needs. The Bears likely won't be playoff contenders, but they now have the pieces in place to make meaningful progress in 2018 under new head coach Matt Nagy.

NFC West

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    San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo
    San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy GaroppoloSean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    1. Los Angeles Rams

    The Rams are going to push the Jacksonville Jaguars for the unofficial crown of best cornerback tandem in the league after adding Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. Toss in retaining underrated slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman, and a secondary that allowed only 6.8 yards per pass attempt in 2017 is about to take another significant leap. The Rams aren't going anywhere for a while at the top of the NFC.


    2. San Francisco 49ers

    The 49ers could soar surprisingly high in 2018, mostly because of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. But not even a golden-armed hero like Garoppolo can do everything by himself, so the 49ers improved the supporting cast around him through free agency. Cornerback Richard Sherman can give the secondary a jolt of energy if he returns at full health. An offensive line that gave up 43 sacks in 2017 should take a step forward with the addition of center Weston Richburg. And signing Jerick McKinnon brings in a versatile running back fresh off a single-season career-high 991 yards from scrimmage.


    3. Seattle Seahawks

    One of the most dominant defenses in football history has been dismantled. Sherman is gone, and defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Sheldon Richardson will be chasing quarterbacks elsewhere. The playing futures of safety Kam Chancellor and defensive end Cliff Avril are unclear due to severe injuries, with the latter much more likely to retire. The Seahawks are set to take a major step back in 2018.


    4. Arizona Cardinals

    The Cardinals found a short-term solution at quarterback in Sam Bradford, but his knee might be held together with thumbtacks. A lack of support will continue to be a problem for any Cardinals quarterback unless that issue is addressed early and often in the draft. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is still effective despite his age. But there's little beyond him on the depth chart, and both John Brown and Jaron Brown left in free agency. Steve Wilks has by far the toughest situation of any new head coach.

NFC East

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    Washington quarterback Alex Smith (left) and team executive Doug Williams
    Washington quarterback Alex Smith (left) and team executive Doug WilliamsAssociated Press

    1. Philadelphia Eagles

    An already ferocious and deep pass rush added veteran defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and defensive end Michael Bennett. They're both aging but still able to make valuable contributors in rotational roles, especially Bennett after his 8.5 sacks in 2017. The Eagles are in fine position to defend their title as those two join a defense that allowed only 6.5 yards per pass attempt (tied for third in 2017).


    2. Dallas Cowboys

    The cap-crunched Cowboys have done little so far in the offseason aside from the critical move to keep defensive end Demarcus Lawrence with a franchise tag. But they can address areas of need early during the draft, and just getting a full season out of running back Ezekiel Elliott, assuming he stays healthy, should keep them near the top of the NFC East and in playoff contention. Elliott missed time in 2017 due to suspension but is only a year removed from recording 1,994 yards from scrimmage.


    3. Washington Redskins

    The Redskins' fate both in 2018 and going forward rests largely with which version of Alex Smith they get. If the quarterback who was in the MVP conversation for a while in 2017 shows up, they could finish much higher than this ranking and even give the Eagles a scare in the division. But a regression seems likely now that he's away from the comfort of an Andy Reid offense. There's a much larger sample size of Smith as a fine quarterback, though far less than spectacular. That includes as recently as 2016 when he threw just 15 touchdown passes.


    4. New York Giants

    It's cautiously conservative to slot the Giants here and keep them in the NFC East basement. They're collecting the tools for a quick bounce-back, highlighted by finally addressing a long-standing linebacker void with the trade for Alec Ogletree. Signing tackle Nate Solder should improve the rickety offensive line in front of veteran quarterback Eli Manning too. The next step to vault up the division? Drafting running back Saquon Barkley.

AFC North

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    Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell
    Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon BellKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    1. Pittsburgh Steelers

    Is there a comfy middle ground between what running back Le'Veon Bell wants to be paid and what the Steelers are willing to give their 26-year-old three-time Pro Bowler? Finding that soft landing spot is the main objective in the coming months after Bell was franchise-tagged again following back-to-back seasons with 1,800-plus yards from scrimmage. Either way, the Steelers will be championship contenders in 2018.


    2. Baltimore Ravens

    The Ravens sent off one limited speed merchant (Mike Wallace, who became a free agent) and then signed a younger version of the same player (John Brown) along with Michael Crabtree, whose prime may be behind him as he gets set to turn 31 in September. Unless they get several immediate-impact offensive players in the draft, the Ravens are destined to hover around the .500 mark again in 2018, which will feel like an accomplishment and be fueled by their defense. They're on a path to flounder offensively because Joe Flacco, who averaged only 5.7 yards per attempt in 2017, is among the worst quarterbacks in the league yet somehow is a starter.


    3. Cleveland Browns

    Yes, that's right. The Cleveland Browns are in a position that isn't last. We've been here before with the Browns, as this is the part of the offseason when it feels safe to embrace a shred of optimism in Cleveland. But the Browns look like a team that can win, say, five games after trading for wide receiver Jarvis Landry and finding a high-upside bridge quarterback in Tyrod Taylor. Progress at last! (Maybe.)


    4. Cincinnati Bengals

    The Bengals traded for tackle Cordy Glenn to improve a struggling offensive line that left quarterback Andy Dalton exposed too often in 2017, leading to 40 sacks. But they're left with what feels like an eternal problem: finding an adequate complementary option alongside wide receiver A.J. Green. The move to re-sign Tyler Eifert is the closest they've come to a solution. However, he needs to be handled with care and has missed 22 games since the beginning of 2016. Like the Ravens, the Bengals can stay afloat because of their defense, but the offense will eventually undermine those efforts.

AFC South

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    Tennessee Titans running back Dion Lewis
    Tennessee Titans running back Dion LewisMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    1. Jacksonville Jaguars

    The pain from the gut punch when wide receiver Allen Robinson left as a free agent didn't last long. The Jaguars have a deep receiving corps and made sure to keep it that way by re-signing Marqise Lee and adding Donte Moncrief. Guard Andrew Norwell will also be a key addition and a run-blocking upgrade for an offense set to lean heavily on running back Leonard Fournette again. But the Jaguars will keep winning with defense first, which is how they'll remain Super Bowl contenders.


    2. Tennessee Titans

    Dion Lewis adds elusiveness to the Titans backfield. Lewis finished 2017 with 1,110 yards from scrimmage, and he's not the only former Patriot who's headed to Tennessee. The Titans also signed cornerback Malcolm Butler, whose addition will push Logan Ryan to slot corner, where he's a more natural fit. The Titans could wiggle into the playoffs again as a wild-card team.


    3. Houston Texans

    The Texans could spring to the top of not only their division, but also the AFC, if both quarterback Deshaun Watson and defensive end J.J. Watt return healthy. More questions hover around Watt, who's been the soul of Houston's defense for a while now but has played just eight games since the beginning of 2016. That's why the Texans are difficult to project, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. However, reinforcing the secondary by signing cornerback Aaron Colvin will help regardless of Watt's status. Since 2014, Colvin ranks first in cover snaps per touchdown allowed, per PFF.


    4. Indianapolis Colts

    The Colts' fate in 2018 hinges on the health of quarterback Andrew Luck. They seem aware of that and have done little in free agency aside from lose Moncrief. They scooped up defensive end Denico Autry, who recorded a career-high five sacks in 2017 and will boost the league's 31st-ranked pass rush. As for Luck, the latest update came from NFL Network's Ian Rapoport in late February, who reported that he's throwing weighted balls and is progressing well.

AFC East

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    Buffalo Bills quarterback AJ McCarron
    Buffalo Bills quarterback AJ McCarronFrank Victores/Associated Press

    1. New England Patriots

    The Patriots lost Lewis, Butler, Solder and wide receiver Danny Amendola. But they retained running back Rex Burkhead, who scored eight touchdowns in 2017 on just 94 touches. As always, the Patriots can keep flying high atop their division and conference as long as quarterback Tom Brady doesn't crash into an age wall.


    2. Buffalo Bills

    The Bills had to improve a run defense that ranked 29th in the league, so they threw money at defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, whose play has fallen off recently. He received a grade of just 49.5 in 2017 from PFF. Trent Murphy, the outside linebacker who missed 2017 with a torn ACL but recorded nine sacks in 2016, will inject life into a 29th-ranked pass rush. The Bills still have the defense and rushing offense to challenge for a playoff spot, assuming new quarterback AJ McCarron is competent.


    3. New York Jets

    By signing both Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater, the Jets have a steady veteran quarterback and a lottery ticket on their depth chart. Now they can target a long-term answer at the position in the draft and avoid rushing the development of that prospect. With stability at quarterback and cornerback Trumaine Johnson added to an already solid defense, the Jets should keep marching toward respectability in 2018.


    4. Miami Dolphins

    The Miami Dolphins released Ndamukong Suh, their best defensive player, for cap-saving purposes. But they were crunched in part because they traded for defensive end Robert Quinn, who hasn't recorded double-digit sacks since 2014 but will still soak up a cap hit of $11.4 million. And they wouldn't commit to wide receiver Jarvis Landry, instead trading him away and signing Amendola, who is seven years older and has never logged a season with even 700-plus receiving yards. They're building a great team for 2013, not 2018, and the results won't be pretty.

AFC West

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    Denver Broncos quarterback Case Keenum
    Denver Broncos quarterback Case KeenumDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

    1. Los Angeles Chargers

    The Chargers signed cornerback Casey Hayward to a three-year contract extension worth $36 million, a well-deserved payday after his 11 interceptions since the beginning of 2016. With Hayward locked up, wide receiver Mike Williams set to play a full season and defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram poised to lead a formidable pass rush, the Chargers could take hold of the AFC West if they avoid tripping over themselves again.


    2. Kansas City Chiefs

    The Chiefs offense is going to be a fireworks factory. They elevated Patrick Mahomes to the top of their quarterback depth chart and then signed Sammy Watkins to be yet another deep threat in an offense filled with them. Watkins joins a unit that features wide receiver Tyreek Hill (1,183 receiving yards in 2017), tight end Travis Kelce (1,038 receiving yards in 2017) and running back Kareem Hunt (1,782 yards from scrimmage as a rookie). The Chiefs may be rebuilding, but they can do it while remaining in playoff contention.


    3. Denver Broncos

    Case Keenum is a fine consolation prize for the Denver Broncos during a rare free-agency period with several viable options at quarterback. However, to land him the Broncos needed to create cap space by trading Aqib Talib, the 32-year-old cornerback who's still playing at a high level and allowed just 250 yards in coverage during the 2017 season, per PFF. The move will be worth it if Keenum can rekindle his 2017 magic outside Minnesota and push the Broncos into the wild-card conversation. That may be a tough ask for a quarterback who was previously a journeyman.


    4. Oakland Raiders

    It's unclear what Jon Gruden is doing during his second stint with the Raiders, other than actually trying to send football back to 1998. Running back Doug Martin and wide receiver Jordy Nelson, the Raiders' primary additions so far, are both aging and fading—especially Martin, who averaged 2.9 yards per carry in 2017. There's more work to be done, but the Raiders face an uphill battle in their division.