Tuesday, September 7, 2010
NFL 2010 Preseason Power Rankings
The NFL is talking again, probably more seriously than ever, about an 18-game regular season schedule. It's a terrible idea. Several teams actually play 18 games each season — those that win at least once in the playoffs. These teams usually regress the following season. Part of that is probably just regression to the mean: a team that got a lot of breaks one year, won a lot of close games, probably won't be as lucky the next time around. Part of it is the NFL's scheduling system, which makes it unlikely that teams play a soft schedule two years in a row. And part of it, maybe the biggest part, is injuries.
People talk about a "Super Bowl curse." Yeah, it's called playing 19-20 games and your whole team gets beat up. That's why teams so seldom repeat as champs, even as conference champs. In the rankings below, you'll find that I worry about the prospects of teams that played deep into the postseason last year, and many contenders are already missing at least one key player. If we go to an 18-game schedule, I believe you'll see more injuries and shorter careers for star players, and consequently a lower level of play. More games would be good for the owners, good for the television networks. It's bad for players, coaches, and fans. The rich get richer, and everyone else loses. No thanks.
The rankings below are for right now, beginning-of-season strength, and not necessarily a forecast of each team's success over the course of the whole year. Brackets show predicted regular-season record.
1. Indianapolis Colts [12-4] — How long can they keep it up? How many years in a row can they be one of the best teams in the league? Until Peyton Manning retires? The Colts lost some players this offseason. I think the offensive line and the corners are real question marks. But I bet against them last year, and I won't do it twice. Anthony Gonzalez returns to a very crowded receiving corps.
2. Dallas Cowboys [10-6] — It's a mystery to me why this team isn't getting more credit as a serious contender in the wide-open NFC. The team hasn't lost anyone of consequence — Flozell Adams is gone, but the team cut him — and this year enters the season without having to pretend Roy Williams is its top wide receiver. The Cowboys are dealing with injuries as the season opens, particularly in the trenches, but nothing that looks like it should affect the whole season. How many other teams have three starting running backs? Seriously, Tashard Choice should be getting 20 carries a game for someone.
3. Tennessee Titans [10-6] — This is an interesting team. The Titans went 8-2 in their last 10 games, losing only to the Colts and Chargers. Vince Young posted an 82.8 passer rating, which is 16 points higher than in his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign of 2006 (66.7), and rushed for 281 yards in little more than half a season. Cortland Finnegan is also healthy again. In 2008, Finnegan was an all-pro. In 2009, he missed three games. In his absence, the Titans went 0-3, were outscored 127-26, and allowed opponents 337 passing yards per game with a 134.5 passer rating. With Finnegan in the lineup, Tennessee was 8-5, outscored opponents 328-275, and allowed opponents 258 passing yards per game with an 80.6 passer rating. The team lost some veteran leadership this offseason with the departures of Kevin Mawae, Keith Bulluck, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and Craig Hentrich. Those men will be missed more in the locker room than on the field, but those are respected players who won't be around this year. Chris Johnson is the best RB in the NFL, but I hope Jeff Fisher will be careful with his workload. I'd hate to see Johnson burn away like Eddie George did.
4. New York Jets [11-5] — Maybe the most interesting team in the league as we enter Week 1, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Darrelle Revis finally signed, and that's good. But the Jets had a lot of turnover this offseason, which is unusual for teams that are already good. Gone are RBs Thomas Jones and Leon Washington; in are second-year man Shonn Greene and future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson. Alan Faneca is gone, Antonio Cromartie replaces Lito Sheppard, and Santonio Holmes could be playing alongside Braylon Edwards after his four-game suspension is over. In all of this, the biggest question may actually be second-year QB Mark Sanchez, whose inconsistent play nearly kept New York out of the playoffs last season. If everyone stays healthy, the defense is sensational.
5. New Orleans Saints [10-6] — Injuries are an issue. Last year, Darren Sharper set a single-season record interception return yards. This year, he'll miss at least six weeks because of knee surgery. Linebackers Jonathan Vilma (day-to-day), Clint Ingram (PUP), and Jonathan Casillas (IR) are all hurt. The corners are also suspect, with Malcolm Jenkins filling in for Sharper at free safety. That's not to say the Saints won't be a good team — I'd be surprised if they aren't — but it's a big part of why repeating as Super Bowl champ is so hard to do in today's NFL, and it's also part of why I oppose the idea of an 18-game regular season. Too many guys get hurt when they play 18 games.
6. Minnesota Vikings [9-7] — Basically the same team as last year, the same team that made it to the NFC Championship Game and had a good chance to win it. The roster is very similar this year, with no key losses in free agency. But I think there's potential for a major backslide. The team is counting on some really old players, and not just at quarterback. Pat Williams turns 38 next month, Antoine Winfield is 33 and coming off of injury, and several other key players are on the wrong side of 30. The Vikings were incredibly lucky with injuries last season; Winfield was the only major asset who missed a substantial amount of time. That doesn't happen two years in a row, especially not to teams that play 18 games (including postseason). Already, top receiver Sidney Rice is out for at least six weeks. Minnesota also faces a substantial boost in strength of schedule this season. I expect the Vikings to be good, but they won't be great. I do like their offensive line and LB corps. Story to watch in '10: how big a problem is Adrian Peterson's fumbling?
7. Pittsburgh Steelers [10-6] — While he is serving his suspension, Ben Roethlisberger doesn't count against the team's 53-man roster. This is a mistake on the league's part, an uncalled-for kindness to a player suspended for wrongdoing. Backup QB Byron Leftwich is also out (due to injury), and Dennis Dixon is expected to start until Roethlisberger and/or Leftwich return. The Steelers were devastated by injuries last season, and I would look for them to be a very serious threat in the AFC this year. The early schedule is not forgiving, but if Pittsburgh can start 2-2, I would look for the Steelers to win their division.
8. San Diego Chargers [11-5] — Basically the same team as last year, and once again a strong favorite to win the AFC West. Vincent Jackson is suspended, and starting LT Marcus McNeill is still holding out, but the biggest loss might actually be special teams standout Kassim Osgood, who left for Jacksonville in free agency. Nose tackle Jamal Williams is also gone (to Denver) and Shawne Merriman's health is shaky again, but that's no different than '09, when the Chargers went 13-3. Ultimately, this team's success revolves around two key players. Quarterback Philip Rivers is as good as anyone in the game, and Antonio Gates is an unparalleled weapon at tight end. Rookie RB Ryan Mathews has generated a lot of buzz as the heir apparent to LaDainian Tomlinson. San Diego has gotten off to a shaky start each of the last two seasons (2-3 both years), but it would be pretty stunning if the Bolts don't capture their fifth straight AFC West title.
9. Green Bay Packers [10-6] — The defense could be a little shaky this year. Gigantic defensive lineman Johnny Jolly (he's listed at 6'3", 325, but looks more like 6'7", 1050) was suspended for the season, and pass rusher Aaron Kampmann is now a Jaguar. Perhaps most worrisome is that starting DBs Al Harris and Atari Bigby both begin the year on the Physically Unable to Perform list, which means they can't play for at least six weeks. On the bright side, Aaron Rodgers has noticeably improved his tendency to take unnecessary sacks, and the blocking problems that exacerbated the issue have hopefully been addressed by re-inserting longtime OTs Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher.
10. Baltimore Ravens [10-6] — Ed Reed begins the season on the sidelines with a hip injury, and the team will miss him a great deal. You can't replace a player like that. New wideout Anquan Boldin has generated a lot of excitement, but I find myself mostly curious as to how he'll do. It seems like Boldin's best days are behind him, and Baltimore is a much different pass-catching environment than Arizona was. Dynamic RB Ray Rice will be key, though Willis McGahee should continue to see carries both as a change of pace and to moderate Rice's workload. The Ravens' biggest problem could be their very tough schedule.
11. Miami Dolphins [10-6] — Had a great offseason. They brought in Brandon Marshall, who's likely to cause both headaches and handstands. Marshall is an extraordinary talent. They have three rookies starting, but I really don't think that's going to be a problem; in fact, I think the Dolphins have upgraded their team by getting young talent into the lineup. Ronnie Brown returns from injury and former Cardinal Karlos Dansby is an impact player at LB. Second-year QBs often regress a little bit, but if Chad Henne can step forward, the Dolphins are a very, very serious sleeper. They'll miss CB Will Allen, who's on injured reserve.
12. Cincinnati Bengals [8-8] — I liked their offseason until they signed Terrell Owens. Sideshow Chad and Owens on the same team? Why don't you mix explosives and fire? How these two are going to co-exist, I can't imagine. The Bengals have a young, talented defense. The questions are on offense. How will Carson Palmer play, and can he stay healthy? Was Cedric Benson's 2009 renaissance for real, and can he stay healthy? How will the offensive line hold up against Baltimore and Pittsburgh? Who will go crazy first, Chad or T.O.? The Bengals started last year hot (7-2) and then limped to the finish line. Right now, I see them a close third in the competitive AFC North.
13. San Francisco 49ers [9-7] — Quarterback is the question mark. It still feels weird to say that about a team with incredible historical success at QB, from Frankie Albert, Y.A. Tittle, and John Brodie to Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Jeff Garcia. Alex Smith looked okay at the end of last season, and David Carr and Troy Smith could be effective backups, but if this team has serious postseason aspirations, it needs solid play — not spectacular, just solid — at the QB position. It would also help if Frank Gore stays healthy, Michael Crabtree takes the next step, and Vernon Davis plays the way he did last season. The defense should be fine, barring injury. San Francisco only has seven home games this season.
14. New York Giants [9-7] — The ups and downs haven't changed in the last six months. The offensive line is very good, but lacks depth. The defense, under new coordinator Perry Fewell, will rely on consistent pressure from the front four. If it gets that pressure, the defense will be great; if it doesn't, the defense will be poor. Veterans Antonio Pierce and Jeff Feagles both retired in the offseason, but their losses are at least partly offset by the additions of Keith Bulluck and Antrel Rolle in free agency.
15. Atlanta Falcons [9-7] — The offense should be great if everyone can stay healthy. Matt Ryan is a year older, playing behind a young, promising offensive line; Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood are a fine RB tandem, Roddy White is an elite wide receiver, and Tony Gonzalez was still an elite TE last season. The defense, though, is shaky. Last season, the Falcons allowed the worst third-down percentage in the league (45.3%), and there's a real dearth of playmakers, which is problematic when you play the Saints' offense twice a year.
16. New England Patriots [9-7] — Injuries are already an issue. Most notably, DE Ty Warren is on IR, OL Nick Kaczur is likely to join him, CB Leigh Bodden is on IR, WR Wes Welker is returning from a serious knee injury, and all-pro guard Logan Mankins still hasn't reported because of a contract dispute. That's a lot of missing talent, and it could create real problems for a team that already is long in the tooth and unlikely to last all 16 games. If there's a positive to point to, Tom Brady is one more year removed from his knee problems, and probably will play even better in 2010 than he did last season.
17. Arizona Cardinals [9-7] — Sometimes Hall of Fame voting can turn on factors outside a player's control. Terrell Davis was an elite running back. Everybody who saw him play agrees on this. He rushed for 2,000 yards in a season, 20 TDs in a season, had three different years when he might have been the best running back in football, and is quite possibly the finest postseason player in history at his position. Davis has been on the Hall of Fame ballot for several years now, and he's never even been a Finalist. The obvious reason for that is his injury-shortened career, but a secondary reason is that people got the idea, after Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson and Clinton Portis were all successful in the same system, that any running back could put up big numbers in Denver. But none of those players did what Davis did. You could watch him running a sweep, a simple run to the outside, and no one in the game ran it the way Davis did. His combination of speed, strength, and vision, his knack for finding the hole and knowing when to break, really were unique.
Kurt Warner was a great player. He had some really historic seasons. But I wonder if his legacy won't be affected by how well Derek Anderson does in Arizona this season. Warner put up big numbers the last two years, led the Cardinals to four postseason victories. But he was benched for portions of five straight seasons (2003-07), and his success came throwing to some of the greatest receivers in history. If Anderson puts up the same kind of stats Warner did last year — which is a big if, but not entirely out of the question — does that diminish Warner's HOF candidacy at all? I don't see how it wouldn't.
I've tried to resist the idea that the Cardinals are going to suffer a massive regression this season, but there are a lot of question marks. Anderson had better play a whole lot better than he did the last two years (56.9 passer rating), because there's no depth behind him. The offensive line is also shallow if any starters go down, and a couple of key contributors on defense are gone. Joey Porter, at this stage in his career, does not represent an upgrade over Karlos Dansby. The one move I'm not terribly concerned about is the loss of Boldin. He was a good player for them, but Steve Breaston is also a good player, and Early Doucet is a legit third option.
18. Philadelphia Eagles [9-7] — I hated their offseason. There were a couple of nice moves; I like the trade for Reggie Wells to solidify their offensive line. Trading Donovan McNabb may be a good move in the long run, but it constitutes a major risk entering 2010. Philadelphia is a perennial playoff team, a team with legitimate reason to believe it was the proverbial "one player away" from being a serious championship contender, and instead of loading up for one more run, the team unloaded players like McNabb and CB Sheldon Brown. I don't put much stock in preseason performance, and I like Kevin Kolb, but I doubt he'll perform as well as McNabb did. Brown's place will be filled by former Patriot Ellis Hobbs. I don't think the Eagles are a bad team now. I just don't see any reason to believe they're going to be better than last season.
19. Houston Texans [7-9] — Lost key offensive assistants Alex Gibbs (offensive line) and Kyle Shanahan (offensive coordinator) in the offseason. Brian Cushing, whom I think was the best linebacker in the NFL last season, is out for the first four games after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and that's a major loss, as well. Every season, it seems like the Texans are ready to take it to the next level and become a playoff team, and every year they seem to fall a little bit short.
20. Chicago Bears [7-9] — This is the last season for GM Jerry Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith. The Bears probably need to make the playoffs for either man to keep his job. Already, star LBs Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher are nursing injuries, though both are likely to play in Week 1. Urlacher's return and the acquisition of Julius Peppers should upgrade the defense, while former Rams HC Mike Martz has been handed the keys to the offense. I hate to be that guy, but I really think this team's fortunes will ultimately depend on the play of its starting QB and RB. Jay Cutler led the NFL in interceptions last season, while Matt Forte averaged 3.6 yards per carry and fumbled six times. If they do that again, the Bears are in big trouble. If both play like they did in 2008, and Devin Hester continues to evolve as a wide receiver, Chicago could win the NFC North.
21. Kansas City Chiefs [7-9] — How good is their scouting department? That's the question. If the young guys can take a step forward, Kansas City could really surprise people. With Ryan Lilja joining Brian Waters, third-year tackle Branden Albert could help solidify an above-average offensive line. If former top-five picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson can play well enough to justify their draft status, the KC defensive line could be scary. If Derrick Johnson can re-capture his rookie form, if Brandon Flowers can continue to improve, if Eric Berry plays at a high level, the defense could be one of the league's best. If Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones play like they did last season, if Dwayne Bowe and Matt Cassel play like they did two years ago, the offense could be really good. Too many ifs, but this should be a team on the way up.
22. Cleveland Browns [7-9] — The Browns were terrible last season. They'll be better in 2010, maybe a lot better. Cleveland ended last season on a four-game winning streak and had a sensational offseason. Are they a playoff team? Fine, probably not. Could they go .500? I believe that's a reasonable projection. The QB stable has been cleaned out completely, with Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, and Colt McCoy replacing Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. My faith in Delhomme is extremely limited, but he's probably an upgrade over last season, and he's got at least one quality backup. The young offensive line has potential, and Jerome Harrison played well at the end of last season. Sheldon Brown, Chris Gocong, Scott Fujita, and Joe Haden should all help solidify the defense, and if Shaun Rogers can stay healthy, the Browns could really surprise people.
23. Oakland Raiders [6-10] — Tom Cable has the best winning percentage (.321) of the last four Raider HCs, and the Raiders have actually shown progress under his direction. Jason Campbell is not a great QB, not even a particularly good QB, but he is a massive upgrade over JaMarcus Russell, and gives Oakland some reason for optimism this year.
24. Washington Redskins [7-9] — It seems like people get over-excited about this team every offseason. Look, I love Donovan McNabb. He's a clear upgrade over Campbell, and I think the team will be better because of him. Mike Shanahan is no miracle worker, but he and his staff probably do represent an upgrade over last year's group. The offensive line should be much improved, and the switch to a 3-4 defensive alignment has the potential to turn the defense from "solid" to "high-impact". But the team's impact players on offense are getting old (Santana Moss), coming off major injury (Chris Cooley), or both (Clinton Portis). I'll be shocked if Washington doesn't better last year's 4-12 record, but I'll be surprised if they make it to .500, too. The secondary is a real concern.
25. Denver Broncos [5-11] — Last season, Elvis Dumervil led the NFL in sacks. This year, he won't play, sidelined for the whole season by a torn pectoral muscle. Both starting offensive tackles are gimpy, though their injuries are far less serious. The bigger concern is wide receiver, where Brandon Marshall is being replaced by Brandon Lloyd and Brandon Stokley is on the injured list. That's a lot of Brandons, and a pretty big problem for a team already relying on the unexciting Kyle Orton at QB. The defense will probably be pretty good, and it will have to. The team enters 2010 minus its best offensive and best defensive player from '09.
26. Carolina Panthers [6-10] — Julius Peppers is gone, but so is Jake Delhomme. The Panthers have probably the best one-two RB combo in the NFL with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, so they'll look to keep things on the ground as much as possible. Honestly, I don't have high hopes for this team. The preseason offense was a major bummer, QB remains a huge question mark, the defensive line and defensive backfield don't scare anyone except Panther fans, and a lot of veterans left in the offseason. A .500 season would be a major achievement.
27. Detroit Lions [6-10] — New-look defensive line gives the team some hope of improving its dreadful defense. Ndamukong Suh was a special player in college, and I believe he'll be an impact player at the pro level, too. Former Titan Kyle Vanden Bosch is coming off a disappointing season, but he's had two double-digit sack seasons and provides a pass-rushing threat opponents need to respect. Offensively, it's all about the young talent. Put a good offensive line in front of Matthew Stafford, Jahvid Best, and Calvin Johnson, and good things could happen. I don't think they're there yet, but this team finally seems to be moving in the right direction.
28. Buffalo Bills [4-12] — Trent Edwards apparently will get the first shot at quarterback, and I think that's the right call, but with so little talent to work with, I'm skeptical that he'll hold the job down all season. I like Lee Evans, and the team has a talented stable of running backs, but the offensive line leaves a lot to be desired, and apart from a fine secondary, the defense is suspect. Chan Gailey was a less than inspired choice as head coach, and I didn't like their draft.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars [5-11] — Added Aaron Kampman to address their league-worst pass defense, but I just don't see how the offense or the defense is going to be very good this year. I hope they'll be careful with Maurice Jones-Drew's workload. Last year he carried the ball 24 times or more in six different games, and he's already nursing a jacked knee. They have a brutal schedule the first few weeks.
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [4-12] — There are some good young players on the defense: Barrett Ruud, Aqib Talib, Tanard Jackson, maybe a couple of the rookies. Actually, those rookies had better be good — Gerald McCoy and Brian Price are listed as the starting DTs, the middle of the defense, the guys who will keep blockers off of Ruud. On the other side of the ball, however, there's little reason for optimism. I'll be very surprised if the Bucs don't finish at the bottom of the NFC South again.
31. Seattle Seahawks [6-10] — Offensive line coach Alex Gibbs abruptly quit last week, another headache for a team that always seems to find new problems. Seattle was one of seven teams outscored by over 100 points last season. They have some nice players, but no real superstars; a lot of things need to come together for the team to be successful. I worry about the defensive line and Matt Hasselbeck.
32. St. Louis Rams [4-12] — The worst team in the NFL last season, they're obviously not going to be great this year. If Sam Bradford plays well and Steven Jackson stays healthy, they should win a few games. Fred Robbins is a good pickup on the defensive front. But there are just so many holes in the lineup here, I think the rebuilding process is far from complete. I'm sorry, Rams fans. An easy schedule, especially toward the beginning of the season, could mask their badness.
Wild Card: NEW YORK JETS def. Miami, PITTSBURGH def. Tennessee
Divisional: Pittsburgh def. INDIANAPOLIS , SAN DIEGO def. New York Jets
Championship: Pittsburgh def. SAN DIEGO
Wild Card: New York Giants def. SAN FRANCISCO, GREEN BAY def. Atlanta
Divisional: DALLAS def. New York Giants, NEW ORLEANS def. Green Bay
Championship: DALLAS def. New Orleans
Super Bowl XLV: Dallas Cowboys def. Pittsburgh Steelers