NFL Power Rankings: Patriots, Saints Top B/R's Initial Preseason Rankings

NFL StaffContributor IAugust 6, 2019

NFL Power Rankings: Patriots, Saints Top B/R's Initial Preseason Rankings

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    Bill Feig/Associated Press

    The 2019 NFL season is underway!

    OK, so the preseason is underway—barely. And to be brutally honest, last week's Hall of Fame Game between the Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos looked more AAF than NFL. 

    At least the uniforms weren't hideous.

    OK. That was a little mean.

    With training camps in full swing and the first full slate of exhibition games just a couple of days away, fanbases are brimming with hope and excitement. The thing is, for some, that optimism is genuine. For others, it's wishful thinking.

    You know who you are.

    Just as they will every week from now until Super Bowl LIV in Miami, Bleacher Report NFL Analysts Gary Davenport, Brad Gagnon and Brent Sobleski have gathered to rank all 32 teams, from tomato cans to titans, as the preseason ramps up.

    Here's their initial look at how the hierarchy shakes out.

         

32. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Frank Victores/Associated Press

    High: 31

    Low: 32

    Things haven't gone according to plan for first-year head coach Zac Taylor in Cincinnati.

    First, plans to retool an offensive line that struggled last season fell apart before the first preseason game. Rookie Jonah Williams, the No. 11 overall pick who was slated to start at left tackle, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Then left guard Clint Boling surprisingly announced his retirement.

    By itself, that would be a significant problem. But then star wide receiver A.J. Green suffered an ankle injury on a shoddy practice surface and required surgery. The 31-year-old could be sidelined for two months.

    So, now a Bengals team with a bad offensive line last year looks to have a bad offensive line in 2019. The team's best wide receiver is out. And that's without even mentioning a papier-mache defense that finished the 2018 campaign dead last in total defense.

    It's fixing to be a long season in the Queen City.

31. Miami Dolphins

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    High: 31

    Low: 32

    The bad news for the Miami Dolphins is that they are not going to be good in 2019. As Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman wrote recently, "Repeatedly, I've heard teams describe them as the least talented squad in football."

    The good news is that the Dolphins already knew this. In March, team owner Stephen Ross told ESPN's Cameron Wolfe that while Miami isn't tanking in 2019, it is playing the long game.

    "If it takes a year or so, two years, three years, we're going to be there," Ross said. "... We're not trying to tank or lose every game. We're trying to build it right and see how it plays out."

    Brian Flores is a highly respected disciple of Bill Belichick, and the players appear to have bought in to the franchise's new no-nonsense head coach..

    But the reality is those players aren't that good, as evidenced by the least impressive QB battle in the league between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen.

    And that long-game patience may not last once losses start piling up.

30. New York Giants

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    High: 29

    Low: 30

    It's fair to wonder whether someone at New York Giants headquarters broke a mirror…with an umbrella opened inside…while walking under a ladder.

    In the span of just a few days, a wideout corps that already lost Odell Beckham Jr. via trade was shredded by injuries and a suspension. First, Sterling Shepard broke his thumb. Then Corey Coleman tore his ACL. And Golden Tate (who was signed to replace Beckham) drew a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy.

    Davenport noted that it's just the latest mess in an offseason filled with them.

    "Giants general manager Dave Gettleman dealt both the team's best edge-rusher (Olivier Vernon) and wide receiver (OBJ) to Cleveland. The return he got for Beckham was a 1-technique nose tackle (No. 17 overall selection Dexter Lawrence), a 2017 first-round safety (Jabrill Peppers) who hasn't come close to living up to his draft slot and a raw pass-rusher (third-rounder Oshane Ximines)," he wrote.

    "He spent the sixth overall pick on a quarterback he's in love with (Daniel Jones), but the rookie won't play because the GM is the only person on Earth who thinks Eli Manning is still a viable starter. And now the wideouts are a smoking pile of rubble. Other than that, though, everything's fine. Well, except for the O-line. And the defense. And just about everything except running back Saquon Barkley."

29. Arizona Cardinals

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    High: 29

    Low: 30

    No team among the bottom feeders from a year ago has more excitement surrounding it than the Arizona Cardinals. That excitement has a name.

    Kyler Murray.

    There's been an avalanche of hype surrounding Murray from the moment the team drafted him No. 1 overall, but the 2018 Heisman Trophy winner told Josh Weinfuss of ESPN that he isn't about to get plowed under by it.

    "I got to go out and play well," Murray said. "And if I don't, then people are gonna be mad, I'm gonna be mad, everybody's gonna be mad. So, my focus is play well. I don't feel pressure."

    Murray may one day be a star. But he's yet to play a game in the pros. New head coach Kliff Kingsbury has yet to coach an NFL game. And the Redbirds have questions galore on both sides of the ball.

    Arizona may be headed in the right direction.

    But it still has a long way to go.

28. Washington Redskins

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    High: 26

    Low: 28

    Just past the halfway point of the 2018 season, the Washington Redskins were a 6-3 team in first place in the NFC East.

    How times have changed.

    With Alex Smith's NFL future in serious doubt after last year's gruesome leg injury, the Redskins will choose between veteran Case Keenum and rookie Dwayne Haskins as the starting quarterback in 2019. Whoever that is may find himself on the run with regularity—a contract impasse with left tackle Trent Williams doesn't appear to be headed for a conclusion anytime soon.

    There's also the matter of skill-position talent that's questionable at best. Washington's best offensive player may be a tailback (34-year-old Adrian Peterson) whose best days are a good half-decade behind him.

    Washington's front seven has had a rough offseason too. Inside linebacker Reuben Foster is out for the year with an ACL tear, and the team released veteran Mason Foster before camp began.

    Long story short—Washington has a lot more weaknesses than strengths.

27. New York Jets

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    High: 24

    Low: 27

    The New York Jets are one of the hardest teams in the league to peg—at least until we see how they perform in a game that counts.

    There were positives in the offseason to be sure. The Jets were as aggressive as any team in free agency, adding impact players on both sides of the ball, including inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and tailback Le'Veon Bell. They bolstered the offensive line with guard Kelechi Osemele and center Ryan Kalil.

    But they aren't a team without looming issues. Bell hasn't played since 2017. The New York pass rush is a major unknown after ranking in the middle of the pack a year ago. And while quarterback Sam Darnold had his moments as a rookie, but he had his struggles as well.

    "It may be that we're sleeping on the Jets a little—and that's coming from the analyst who slotted the team the highest," Davenport said. "They're more talented than they were a year ago and could surprise if Darnold takes a step forward in 2019. But it's the Jets—so any improvements need to be seen to be believed."

26. Oakland Raiders

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    High: 24

    Low: 26

    After a 4-12 season in Jon Gruden's first year back at the helm, the Oakland Raiders took aggressive steps to get better in 2019. The offense now features a superstar wide receiver in Antonio Brown and a first-round rookie tailback in Josh Jacobs.

    The team retooled the linebacker corps with the addition of veterans Brandon Marshall and Vontaze Burfict, and the defense sports a top-five draft pick in former Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell.

    But according to The Athletic's Vic Tafur (h/t Bryan DeArdo of CBS Sports), Brown has been sidelined in camp by a foot injury serious enough that he's seeing a specialist. And Ferrell may be an excellent player one day, but he's not going to single-handedly turn around a pass rush that managed a league-low 13 sacks last year.

    The Raiders may be a better team in 2019. Perhaps significantly better.

    But they are no challenge to the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers in the AFC West, and it will take more than a little improvement just for them to beat out the Denver Broncos for third place.

25. Detroit Lions

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    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    High: 23

    Low: 27

    The first year of the Matt Patricia era in the Motor City was a 6-10 disappointment. And given this ranking, the analysts at Bleacher Report don't expect much to be different in 2019.

    This isn't to say that the Lions didn't make any changes in the offseason. The team spent big on edge-rusher Trey Flowers in free agency and landed a late addition when the Green Bay Packers released defensive lineman Mike Daniels. Detroit spent its first-round pick on the draft class' most NFL-ready tight end in Iowa's T.J. Hockenson.

    Detroit was a respectable 10th in total defense last year, but the offense struggled mightily, ranking 24th in yardage per game and 25th in scoring. 

    In an NFC North that includes a Super Bowl contender in the Chicago Bears and the Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers, the Lions have the look of a clear-cut No. 4 team.

    That's not so good in a four-team division.

24. Denver Broncos

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    High: 22

    Low: 28

    Last year, the Denver Broncos lost double-digit games for the second straight season. It was the first time that had happened since the 1960s, and Vance Joseph got the boot as head coach.

    The team brought in veteran defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to replace Joseph, and the game of musical chairs at quarterback continued. Now, 12th-year pro Joe Flacco will try to lead the Broncos back to the postseason.

    Sobleski isn't overflowing with confidence that will happen.

    "The Denver Broncos' ceiling and floor are one and the same this season: They're the third-best team in the AFC West," he said. "The Chiefs and Chargers are Super Bowl contenders, while the Broncos are pinning their hopes on Flacco.

    "The Broncos will be highly competitive because they should feature an outstanding defense under Fangio's supervision, and Mike Munchak will help solve their offensive line problems. But Denver just doesn't have enough to compete with the explosive offenses found within its division."

23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    High: 17

    Low: 28

    The 2019 season will be pivotal for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Quarterback Jameis Winston is heading into his option year, and the fact that he's yet to receive an extension says all you need to know about the first four seasons of his career.

    Tampa has a new head coach in Bruce Arians, and Gagnon believes that the success Arians enjoyed in Indianapolis and Arizona offers the Buccaneers reason for optimism.

    "I believe in two-time Coach of the Year Bruce Arians, who should be able to help Winston take the next step in an offense that should be downright explosive," he wrote. "Tampa Bay might again have some defensive issues, but the talent is there on both sides of the ball."

    Tampa's offense isn't short on talent, and there are some real players on the defensive side. But after the team finished 27th in total defense in 2018, new coordinator Todd Bowles has his work cut out for him.

    Playing in the NFC South, which features three signal-callers who have either won a Super Bowl or an MVP award, isn't going to make that job any easier.

22. Tennessee Titans

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    High: 21

    Low: 23

    The Tennessee Titans aren't a bad football team. Had they pulled off a Week 17 win against the Indianapolis Colts, they would have made the playoffs.

    They lost that game, though. It was partly because quarterback Marcus Mariota was out with an injury—again. But also, while the Titans aren't a bad football team, they aren't an especially good one.

    Like Winston, Mariota is headed into a make-or-break fifth season. With Winston, the issue has been consistency. With Mariota, it's been availability. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft has missed time in all of his four seasons.

    Derrick Henry broke out with a 1,000-yard campaign in 2018, but Tennessee's passing-game talent remains a question mark. So is a pass rush that finished in the middle of the pack a year ago.

    The AFC South is wide-open in 2019. But the odds aren't good that the Titans will be a factor.

21. Buffalo Bills

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    High: 20

    Low: 23

    It might seem a bit odd to call a 6-10 football team a pleasant surprise, but the Buffalo Bills were in 2018. They were more competitive than most expected, going 4-3 over the last seven weeks.

    There's reason to believe they could be even better this year. The Bills revamped both the running back corps and the wide receivers unit—including Cole Beasley and speedster John Brown—in free agency. The defense added a disruptive interior lineman in the first round in Houston's Ed Oliver.

    Still, any step forward will hinge mainly on how much improvement the team sees from second-year quarterback Josh Allen. Allen was a threat with his legs as a rookie, but the accuracy issues that plagued him at Wyoming followed him to Western New York.

    "The good news is that the Bills may be the second-best team in the AFC East," Davenport said. "The bad news is that said division includes the New England Patriots. Buffalo may be better this year, but the postseason is most assuredly a long shot."

20. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    High: 19

    Low: 20

    The Jacksonville Jaguars entered the 2018 season as a Super Bowl contender in the eyes of some. They ended it as one of the league's bigger disappointments at 5-11.

    Many of those struggles stemmed from poor quarterback play, including from 2014 third overall pick Blake Bortles, and the Jags took a big step toward rectifying that problem in the offseason, signing Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles to a four-year, $88 million contract.

    While the Jaguars should be better under center, Sobleski pointed out the team has other issues.

    "Foles solved the Jaguars' biggest problem, but improved quarterback play only goes so far," he said. "The Jaguars still feature some of the league's worst skill positions, particularly in the passing game. Leonard Fournette's commitment remains in question. The defense is talented but not the same unit that led the team to the AFC Championship Game in 2017, especially after Telvin Smith's unexpected season-long sabbatical.

    "Furthermore, Foles may be an upgrade over Bortles, but inconsistency has plagued his career, even last year, when he played poorly to start the season only to come on strong during the Philadelphia Eagles' playoff run."

19. Baltimore Ravens

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    High: 15

    Low: 24

    This ranking is undoubtedly going to raise some eyebrows. After all, the Baltimore Ravens are the defending champions of the AFC North.

    They have more than a few things working in their favor. They added a proven tailback in free agency in Mark Ingram II and an impact defender in safety Earl Thomas. Lamar Jackson scrambled his way to a 6-1 record as a starter down the stretch, and head coach John Harbaugh indicated that the team plans to unveil an offense that will turn the NFL on its ear.

    The Ravens are capable (in theory) of contending for a playoff spot in 2019.

    But they have problems as well. They watched their two best edge-rushers (Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith) and top inside linebacker (C.J. Mosley) leave in free agency. And for all Jackson's talents as a runner, his inconsistencies as a passer limited what the team could do offensively last year.

    If that new-look offense doesn't feature improvement from Jackson as a thrower, then the Ravens' ceiling will be limited.

18. Seattle Seahawks

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    High: 14

    Low: 21

    The Seattle Seahawks are another playoff team from 2018 that many fans will think is underrated.

    They possess one of the best ground games in football. They have one of the best quarterbacks in Russell Wilson. And they have a defense led by arguably the NFL's best "Mike" linebacker in Bobby Wagner.

    But they have one glaring problem.

    There's no telling where the pass rush will come from.

    Frank Clark was traded to the Chiefs.

    Jarran Reed was suspended for the first six games of the season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. In 2017, a woman reported to police that Reed had assaulted her in late April. Prosecutors declined to press charges, and the reason for the decision is redacted in the police report, per Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times.

    Rookie first-round pick L.J. Collier has a badly sprained ankle that puts his Week 1 availability in doubt. And free-agent acquisition Ezekiel Ansah has had all kinds of trouble staying healthy of late.

    The Seahawks are a good team, but they're going to be hard-pressed to catch the Los Angeles Rams (or contend with the NFC's other top teams) if opposing quarterbacks have all day to survey the field.

17. Minnesota Vikings

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    High: 16

    Low: 18

    Heading into the 2018 season, the Minnesota Vikings were the No. 1 team in these power rankings.

    In related news, um, oops.

    Despite a roster that featured talent galore on both sides of the ball, the Vikings missed the playoffs—in no small part because quarterback Kirk Cousins consistently came up short in big-pressure moments despite having a good year statistically.

    That talented roster will be back in 2019. The Vikings have a loaded defense at all three levels and maybe the best one-two punch at wideout in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Talented young tailback Dalvin Cook is healthy again after an injury-marred 2018 campaign.

    But Gagnon's not falling for the Vikings again—because of Cousins.

    "I'm done trusting Kirk Cousins," Gagnon said. "He's a fourth-round quarterback who has experienced some nice moments but has generally boosted his numbers against bad opponents. He's allergic to clutch situations, and in 2019, even an expensive and talented defense can't compensate for that."

16. San Francisco 49ers

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    High: 13

    Low: 19

    The San Francisco 49ers were one of the more hyped teams in the league at this point a year ago. There was no shortage of talk regarding the Niners as a dark-horse playoff contender.

    Then the team was eviscerated by injuries. Tailback Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL in the preseason. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo did the same three weeks into the season. And the 49ers wound up with the second-worst record in the league.

    That faceplant landed the 49ers Nick Bosa. Thanks to him and fellow newcomer Dee Ford, their defensive line now features a ridiculous five first-round picks. San Francisco also added off-ball linebacker Kwon Alexander and tailback Tevin Coleman in free agency.

    On paper, this is a team that should be talented enough to give the Seahawks a serious run for their money for the title of No. 2 team in the NFC West. It may even give the Los Angeles Rams a run for their money.

    Games aren't played on paper, though, leaving San Francisco as one of the league's more enigmatic franchises at this point.

15. Atlanta Falcons

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    High: 15

    Low: 16

    Much like the 49ers, the Atlanta Falcons are a rather tough team to figure out. After they made a trip to the Super Bowl in 2016 and earned another playoff berth two years ago, injuries ravaged the Atlanta defense last season and were a big factor in missing the playoffs.

    The Falcons will have linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal back on the field this year. They also spent substantial draft capital upgrading the offensive line. And their skill-position talent is as good (if not better) than any team in the NFC South.

    As Davenport wrote: 

    "The Falcons have the potential to be real contenders in the NFC South in 2019. In fact, Atlanta's roster is every bit as good as the team that lost Super Bowl LI to the Patriots. However, the Falcons aren't without weaknesses, and there's not much margin for error in a division that includes the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. A break here or there could mean the difference between another 7-9 season or 11 wins and a playoff berth."

    Losing rookie tackle Kaleb McGary indefinitely to a "minimally invasive" heart procedure wasn't a good start.

14. Carolina Panthers

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    High: 14

    Low: 17

    The Carolina Panthers share more than a few similarities with the Atlanta Falcons. Not that long ago, the Panthers were the NFC's representative in the Super Bowl. The team is led by an MVP quarterback in Cam Newton.

    And just like the Falcons, injuries derailed the Panthers in 2018. After a 6-2 start to the season, Cam Newton's troublesome shoulder was the impetus for a 1-7 second-half tailspin.

    Newton's shoulder rehab is "a work in progress," but head coach Ron Rivera stated that the quarterback "appears to be 100 percent to him." The team has some rising young skill-position talent for a healthy Newton to utilize in wideout DJ Moore and tailback Christian McCaffrey. Plus, the defense is led by one of the best off-ball linebackers of the last decade in Luke Kuechly and the newly acquired Gerald McCoy.

    But the Panthers' passing game is a question mark, and the defense is switching to a scheme that features more three-man fronts in base sets.

    So just like the Falcons, the Panthers could easily finish in third place in the division or make it back into the postseason tournament.

13. Houston Texans

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    High: 12

    Low: 13

    The Houston Texans are the defending champions of the AFC South—a team that won 11 of 13 regular-season games after an 0-3 start. They have no shortage of star power on both sides of the ball, whether it's Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins on offense or J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney on defense.

    And yet, the Texans are a distant No. 2 in the AFC South here.

    The biggest reason is Houston's offensive line—or lack thereof. No team surrendered more sacks last year than the 62 the Texans allowed. And while Houston added O-line help in this year's draft, Tytus Howard and Max Scharping aren't exactly NFL-ready talents.

    Like most of the teams slotted in this section of the rankings, the Texans are absolutely capable of making it to the postseason for the fourth time in five seasons.

    But that porous offensive line could just as easily be their undoing if Watson can't hold up throughout another season of punishment.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    High: 11

    Low: 14

    An argument can be made that the Pittsburgh Steelers are actually overrated here. After all, they missed the postseason a year ago and lost two of the league's most dangerous offensive players in tailback Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown.

    But the Steelers have replacements in hand for both players. Tailback James Conner averaged 4.5 yards per carry last year and scored 12 touchdowns. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 111 passes and came up just shy of 1,500 receiving yards.

    The Steelers also have a future Hall of Famer under center in Ben Roethlisberger, addressed their biggest defensive need by trading up for linebacker Devin Bush and are one of the most consistently successful franchises in the league. Since 2001, they have missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons just once (2012 and 2013).

    The 2019 iteration of the Steelers isn't without flaws. The secondary and the receivers outside Smith-Schuster are question marks.

    But it can't be dismissed, either. Not by a longshot. 

11. Dallas Cowboys

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    High: 9

    Low: 10

    The Dallas Cowboys rode a 7-1 second half last year to a division title, as the midseason addition of wide receiver Amari Cooper gave the passing game a huge boost. The Dallas defense is loaded with young talent, whether it's end Demarcus Lawrence, linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch or defensive back Byron Jones.

    However, there could be storm clouds brewing.

    Both Cooper and quarterback Dak Prescott are in the final seasons of their contracts. Both will command massive extensions. But even they aren't the team's most pressing problem.

    After pacing the NFL in rushing for the second time in his three professional seasons, Ezekiel Elliott has yet to report to training camp as he seeks a new contract of his own. The running back position may not have the value it once did. But if ever there were an exception to that rule, it's Elliott.

    It's hard to imagine the Cowboys making a deep postseason run in 2019 without him.

10. Cleveland Browns

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    Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

    High: 7

    Low: 11

    If the San Francisco 49ers were the hype kings of 2018, it's the Cleveland Browns who have claimed that title one year later.

    The biggest cause is the blockbuster trade that brought Odell Beckham Jr. to Cleveland. But Beckham wasn't the only big-name addition. The Browns added a Pro Bowl edge-rusher in Olivier Vernon via another trade and signed 2017 rushing king Kareem Hunt.

    There's also the momentum the team built in rebounding from 0-16 to win seven games last year. Baker Mayfield broke the NFL record for passing touchdowns by a rookie and appears headed for superstardom.

    However, as Sobleski wrote, all the new pieces (and a new coach) add quite a bit of uncertainty:

    "The Cleveland Browns ooze potential. They're clearly a top-10 team based on talent alone. But will everything come together smoothly? Offseason additions of Odell Beckham Jr., Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, Kareem Hunt (for half a season) and Greedy Williams look great on paper. However, the team is still quite young and is being led by a first-time head coach. How Freddie Kitchens and Co. handle all the talent they've been handed by general manager John Dorsey will determine how successful the Browns can be this year. If everything goes right, they'll compete for a Super Bowl. If not, they might be a fringe playoff team at best."

9. Green Bay Packers

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    High: 5

    Low: 12

    The Green Bay Packers will kick off the 2019 season against the Chicago Bears in the Thursday night season opener. The team no doubt hopes that this time goes a bit better than last year's Week 1 tilt with the Bears in Green Bay.

    The Packers won that game 24-23, but the victory came at the expense of an Aaron Rodgers injury that hounded the team for much of the season. Rodgers didn't miss time, but his 25 touchdown passes were a career low in a 16-game season, and the Packers watched the postseason from home for the second year in a row.

    That disappointing season got Mike McCarthy the boot as head coach. Green Bay turned things over to Matt LaFleur, who inherits a team that spent a ton of cash upgrading the defensive front seven in the offseason.

    That defense is a nice plus, but Gagnon thinks it still all comes back to No. 12: "Green Bay's defense has undergone an exciting transformation. That unit now has the talent and experience to be a top-10 unit. And let's not forget that Aaron Rodgers is the highest-rated passer in NFL history. Rodgers should be fired up and ready to send a message in an innovative new offense."

8. Chicago Bears

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    High: 6

    Low: 8

    For the most part, the Chicago Bears had a successful 2018 season. Up until the end, at least.

    Buoyed by the league's best defense, the Bears went worst to first in the NFC North, winning 12 games. That defense lost a couple of pieces in 2019. While replacing Adrian Amos with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is at least a lateral move, going from Bryce Callahan to Buster Skrine in the slot is a step down.

    This isn't to say the Bears aren't still going to be a formidable defensive team. They'll be one of the best in the NFL, as a matter of fact. But if they're going to take the next step this year, it will take improvement from quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and the offense.

    That offense will look different in 2019 with David Montgomery replacing Jordan Howard at tailback. But Montgomery's passing-game chops should make the rookie a better fit for head coach Matt Nagy's offense, so the argument can be made that Trubisky's weaponry is better this season.

    Now the third-year pro just has to take advantage of it.

7. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    High: 4

    Low: 11

    The Kansas City Chiefs were an offensive powerhouse last season en route to a berth in the AFC Championship game. Led by MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes (who became just the second quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in a season), they led the league in total offense and scoring offense, averaging over 35 points per game.

    However, while the Chiefs sported the best offense in the league, they also had one of the NFL's worst defenses. 

    That defense was eventually their undoing, but it underwent a major overhaul in the offseason. There's a new coordinator in Steve Spagnuolo, who brings along a new 4-3 scheme, and a shakeup on the edge. Dee Ford and Justin Houston are both gone, replaced by Frank Clark.

    Gagnon has his doubts about that new-look defense and is concerned that the offense may regress in 2019: "The rest of the league at least knows what to expect from Patrick Mahomes this year. After a full offseason of preparation, look for defenses to do a better job limiting Mahomes. The Kansas City offense will still get theirs, but I'm not sure a bad defense got any better in a weird offseason."

6. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    High: 4

    Low: 8

    The Philadelphia Eagles were Super Bowl champions two years ago and won a playoff game as a wild card last year despite not having starting quarterback Carson Wentz for either postseason run.

    The team won't have that luxury in 2019—not with Nick Foles throwing passes and cashing big checks in Jacksonville.

    However, if Wentz can stay healthy and come close to recapturing his 2017 form, the Eagles could be a real threat for a second Super Bowl title in three years.

    The offense features a stout line and no shortage of skill-position talent—including a running back corps that added both veteran Jordan Howard and rookie Miles Sanders in the offseason. The defense lost Jordan Hicks and Michael Bennett but added Malik Jackson and Zach Brown.

    There's talent galore on both sides of the ball, as well as one of the league's better head coaches in Doug Pederson.

    But it all comes down to Wentz staying on the field.

5. Los Angeles Rams

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    High: 3

    Low: 9

    The Los Angeles Rams are the reigning champions of the NFC, and yet they barely cracked the top five in these rankings.

    Maybe it's that a Rams offense that spent most of the 2018 season as one of the most prolific in the league slowed down during the stretch run and then fell completely apart in their Super Bowl LIII loss. Maybe it's the arthritic knee of tailback Todd Gurley—an injury that could further complicate things by placing that much more pressure on Jared Goff and the passing game.

    However, while a measure of reluctance may be justified, this is still a team loaded with skill-position talent on offense and featuring a defense anchored by the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year in Aaron Donald.

    Davenport, who ranked the Rams highest of B/R's analysts, cautioned that we shouldn't sell this team short: "Even if Todd Gurley's knee flares up, the Rams bought a measure of insurance by drafting Darrell Henderson, and Eric Weddle was a quality veteran addition on defense. The Rams are the class of the NFC West and a legitimate contender to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl for a second consecutive season."

4. Los Angeles Chargers

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    High: 4

    Low: 6

    To be brutally honest, this feels a bit like tempting fate. It's all but an annual exercise for the Chargers to come into a season filled with promise and the look of a legitimate contender. Then things go terribly wrong, and fans of the team are left wondering what happened.

    There's already been at least one dark cloud in Southern California, and it's a big one. Melvin Gordon III has refused to report to camp until he receives a new contract, and the Chargers' offers have, to date, been rebuffed.

    The Chargers have some depth behind Gordon in Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson, and this is a roster that lacks an obvious weakness. Skill-position talent. Both lines. The secondary. You name it, and the Chargers have it—including a proven veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers.

    The Bolts are (in theory) a substantially more balanced team than their rivals in Kansas City.

    The question is whether or not the Chargers can, for once, keep it together and realize their potential.

3. Indianapolis Colts

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    High: 1

    Low: 5

    At the six-week mark of the 2018 season, it looked like Frank Reich's tenure as head coach would be a short one. Indianapolis was a 1-5 last-place team barreling toward the AFC South basement.

    Now, the Colts are Sobleski's top-ranked team in 2019 after they became just the third squad to make the playoffs following a 1-5 start and cemented their climb with a successful offseason: 

    "The Indianapolis Colts are being built the right way by general manager Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich. A year ago, the team placed an emphasis on the offensive line. The additions of left guard Quenton Nelson and right tackle Braden Smith solidified the unit and gave Indianapolis arguably the best offensive front in football. Defensively, coordinator Matt Eberflus took a motley crew of castoffs and rookie sensation Darius Leonard and formed one of the league's most disciplined and athletic units. This offseason, the addition of Devin Funchess and Parris Campbell should make the passing game more dynamic. Quarterback Andrew Luck just needs to stay healthy for Indianapolis to be considered a Super Bowl favorite."

    However, as promising as the Colts look, the nagging calf injury of quarterback Andrew Luck could shake this ranking up if it continues to drag on.

2. New England Patriots

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    High: 1

    Low: 3

    Stop us if you've heard this one before: The New England Patriots are the reigning champions of the NFL. 

    By putting the clamps on the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII, they won their sixth championship of the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era. If there was any question before, it's been answered. These Patriots are the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever known.

    With that said, they also have a number of questions hanging over them in 2019. Brady just turned 42. The receiving corps lost Chris Hogan to free agency and Rob Gronkowski to retirement. New England's starting left tackle and best edge-rusher both signed lucrative contracts elsewhere in the offseason.

    And none of that interested Davenport even a little:

    "Much like watching the Golden Boy and Darth Hoodie hug while confetti rains down on them, we've seen this movie before. The Patriots are the masters of weathering the storm. Of compensating for personnel losses. They demonstrated that (again) this year by swinging a deal for veteran defensive end Michael Bennett when it became clear Trey Flowers was a goner. I don't care what they lost between February and now. The Patriots are the best team in the NFL until someone knocks them off that perch. Good luck with that."

1. New Orleans Saints

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    High: 1

    Low: 2

    It's been lost a bit in how their season ended and the impact that had on the rulebook (pass interference reviews are going to be a disaster), but the New Orleans Saints were the best team in the NFL for most of the 2018 season. That Drew Brees and Co. were the No. 1 overall seed in the postseason wasn't an accident—or a fluke.

    And the 2019 Saints have the look of an equally dangerous team.

    Yes, New Orleans lost Mark Ingram II in free agency. But while Latavius Murray may not be the talent Ingram is, he's a capable between-the-tackles grinder who should be able to step into Ingram's role as a complement to Alvin Kamara.

    Similarly, Max Unger's retirement was a blow, but New Orleans softened it with the selection of Erik McCoy in Round 2 of the 2019 draft. The addition of veteran tight end Jared Cook offers a reliable secondary target the Saints lacked in 2018 behind the newly extended Michael Thomas. And with an NFL campaign under his belt, a healthy Marcus Davenport could be set for a big Year 2 leap.

    Then there's that Brees fellow at quarterback. Rumor has it he's pretty good, too.

    The Saints have everything they need to erase last year's unfortunate end to the season and make it to the Super Bowl.

    But in a deep NFC South, it won't be especially easy.