Tuesday, September 2, 2014
2014 NFL Preseason Power Rankings
A lot changes in the seven months between the Super Bowl and the regular season. Since the NFL's expansion and realignment in 2002, only half the playoff field from the previous year reaches the postseason again. Recently, however, we've seen more teams returning to the playoffs.
This season, I'm picking nine playoff teams to repeat, which is high, but in line with what we've seen the last few years. You'll notice I have a lot of teams close to .500. Some of last year's bad teams have made significant moves and real progress, mostly by poaching free agents from the good teams. That happens every year, but more than normal this season.
The numbered 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. However, the brackets show predicted regular-season record, and you'll find postseason predictions at the bottom. For more detailed thoughts on Week 1, please refer to my earlier article on the Week 1 odds; not too much has changed since I wrote that.
1. Seattle Seahawks [11-5] — Over the last decade, we haven't really had any dynasties in the NFL. The Seahawks look like a real candidate. They're well-coached, they're young, and they are awfully good. The greatest impediment to dynasties, though, hasn't been lack of talent, it's been lack of health. The Seahawks played 19 meaningful games last season, and they had a short offseason. No team has appeared in back-to-back Super Bowls in a decade.
When Percy Harvin gets injured, will Russell Wilson have anyone to throw to? If Wilson gets hurt, do you have faith in Tarvaris Jackson to lead the offense? If Richard Sherman or Earl Thomas has to miss time, will this look like a pretty average defense? Seattle lost three defensive starters (two linemen and cornerback Brandon Browner) in the offseason. Take away one more big name, and it's not going to be elite. If the Seahawks stay healthy, they'll be a very good team. No one stays healthy two years in a row.
2. Denver Broncos [12-4] — I wrote about fantasy football last week, and there's something I didn't make clear: I don't think Peyton Manning is the top QB this year, on the field or in fantasy. The Broncos lost Eric Decker, Knowshon Moreno, and Zane Beadles in the offseason. The team has taken steps to replace all of them, but there's bound to be a downgrade. Last year was a charmed run, breaking numerous records, and no one repeats a season like that. Most worrisome, questions emerged in the postseason about Manning's arm strength and his capacity to throw downfield. I'm a huge Peyton Manning fan; I think he is the greatest quarterback to ever live. I'm confident he'll be a great quarterback this year, but I'd rather draft Drew Brees.
The Broncos made real upgrades to their defensive backfield this offseason, a smart priority that should pay off in both the regular season and playoffs. Denver has a tough opening schedule, so don't give up if the team goes into its bye week 1-2.
3. New Orleans Saints [11-5] — Rebuilding their defense, without familiar faces like Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith. The focus was on pass defense, with free agent safety Jairus Byrd the most significant addition. If the Saints can add a little oomph to their explosive offense, they can challenge any team in the NFL. It will be interesting to see how much they miss Darren Sproles. Week 1, at Atlanta, should provide an early glimpse of the competition in the NFC South.
4. New England Patriots [12-4] — Last year, I began the section on New England, "The story is their depleted receiving corps." That shallow group of receivers haunted the Patriots all season and led to Tom Brady's weakest performance in years. New England made some big moves on defense this offseason, but I've already written about those. Has the team addressed last year's problem on offense? Well, they brought in Brandon LaFell and Tim Wright. That's not nothing, but it's hardly a major upgrade. Maybe all Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins needed was some time to get into sync with Brady, and one or both will have a breakout season. Right now the most obvious difference between this year's offense and last year's is the absence of all-pro guard Logan Mankins.
5. Green Bay Packers [9-7] — Last year, Aaron Rodgers missed half the season, Randall Cobb missed half the season, Clay Matthews missed five games, and they still won the NFC North. The Packers have an explosive passing game, and Eddie Lacy may be the runner they've been missing since Ahman Green. They need to stay healthy, and the defense needs to come together, but they should repeat as division champs. Interior defensive line is a possible area of concern. I'm curious to see how they use Julius Peppers.
6. Cincinnati Bengals [10-6] — Bad offseason in the Queen City. The return of a healthy Geno Atkins is offset by the loss of Michael Johnson in free agency, and the team didn't patch any holes in free agency or the draft. Perhaps most worrisome, the media picked Andy Dalton. Every year, we choose a quarterback whose career to ruin. Last season, it was Matt Schaub. A couple years before that, it was Kyle Orton. We've chosen Tony Romo more than once, but he's the only one it won't stick to. Dalton was awful in last year's playoff loss, but he's led Cincinnati to a better record each year, with three straight postseason appearances. No one was chanting for Josh Johnson, but with Jason Campbell and A.J. McCarron on the roster, impatient fans might turn on Dalton if he has a bad game or two. And unless Tyler Eifert makes an unexpected leap, there's still not a real secondary target to take pressure off A.J. Green. The Bengals should be good in 2014. But the Texans should have been good in 2013, and they went 2-14.
7. San Francisco 49ers [10-6] — They've made three straight NFC Championship Games. The Niners begin the season without two of their best linebackers, NaVorro Bowman (Physically Unable to Perform) and Aldon Smith (suspension). Assuming both return at 100%, the defense should be great in the second half of the season. The first half of the season, though, I'll be curious to see if it's still an effective unit. The offense has some exciting weapons, but will sink or swim with third-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. His play last year was good but uneven. If Kaep can establish himself as a top-10 QB, the Niners should be dangerous in the playoffs.
8. San Diego Chargers [9-7] — Last year they made the second round of the playoffs despite a pass defense that ranked 29th (4,139 yards, 96.4 passer rating). They'll open 2014 with two important additions: Pro Bowl CB Brandon Flowers and first-round draft pick Jason Verrett. Don't sleep on this team. The offense could be even better with the continued development of Keenan Allen and Ladarius Green, and the defense has plugged its biggest hole. Donald Brown and Danny Woodhead can fill in at RB if Ryan Mathews gets hurt. The Chargers have a killer schedule, but I believe they're a good team and a real threat in the AFC.
9. Philadelphia Eagles [9-7] — Nick Foles can't possibly repeat last year's 27-TD, 2-INT, 119.2-rating miracle. But he does look like a capable leader on an offense stacked with talent. Zach Ertz, Darren Sproles, and Jeremy Maclin stand to catch the balls DeSean Jackson won't. The Eagles, 11-point favorites at home against the Jaguars in Week 1, are the appropriate opening selection in survivor pools. Don't overthink this.
10. Indianapolis Colts [10-6] — Made the playoffs twice in a row, and Andrew Luck is developing the way they hoped. They play in an easy division and are favorites to repeat as AFC South champs. But they don't have explosive playmakers on offense, and their best defensive player is 33 and begins the season on suspension. Their run defense got embarrassed in last year's playoffs and they did little to improve it in the offseason. The Colts should be fine, but they're not serious contenders yet.
11. Atlanta Falcons [9-7] — They went 4-12 last year. But the season before, they were 13-3 and made the playoffs for the third year in a row. If Julio Jones and Roddy White stay healthy, we should expect good things from the Falcons. They don't have Tony Gonzalez, but they took some steps to upgrade their defensive line in free agency. Atlanta's talent level is closer to what we saw in 2012 than in 2013.
12. St. Louis Rams [8-8] — Let's start with the bad news. Their best cornerback left in free agency, and starting QB Sam Bradford is out for the year, replaced by journeyman Shaun Hill, who joined the team five months ago. The good news is that last year, the Rams went 7-9 in the toughest division in football. The team is loaded with young talent, including two more top-15 draft picks. The offensive line is stacked, they feel good about RB Zac Stacy, and the receiving corps is unproven but explosive. But the real gem in St. Louis is the defense. The front seven could be the best in the league, led by DEs Robert Quinn and Chris Long. I think they're still a year or two away, but with the right breaks, the Rams could make a serious run in 2014.
13. Baltimore Ravens [9-7] — The Ravens had a relatively quiet offseason, so what you expect this year depends on where you thought the team was at the end of last season. Did you see a Super Bowl champion who stumbled because of factors not likely to repeat, or did you see a team who put everything into one last run for 2012, and had to rebuild? This is basically the same team as last year. There are some good players, and there are some holes. Their draft focused on defense; I think that was smart. I don't see Baltimore as a powerhouse, but if the Bengals stumble, look for the Ravens to win their division. Three of their first four games are at home, so if they don't start 3-1 or 4-0, you can write them off.
14. Miami Dolphins [8-8] — Ryan Tannehill showed progress last season. There's a solid defense in place, so if the offense clicks, they could challenge the Patriots in the AFC East. The running game was mediocre last year, and whether it's Lamar Miller, Knowshon Moreno, Daniel Thomas, or some combination, that needs to improve in 2014. But the biggest issue is the deep ball. Last season, speedy WR Mike Wallace was wasted in Miami's horizontal passing attack. They acquired one of the premier vertical threats in the game, and couldn't use him because Tannehill kept getting sacked or dumping it off underneath. The Dolphins don't need to change anything dramatic, they just need to take advantage of the weapons they have.
15. Chicago Bears [8-8] — A lot of turnover from last season. Julius Peppers and Henry Melton are gone. Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston are in. Devin Hester and Earl Bennett are gone; Santonio Holmes is in. Josh McCown, Michael Bush, Major Wright — a lot of familiar faces won't be in Chicago this season. The Bears' offense became a powerhouse last season, with Marc Trestman's scheme, Matt Forte healthy, and Alshon Jeffery emerging to give the team a devastating pair of receivers. The defense is trending in the other direction, with stars like Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman aging. The team targeted defense in the draft, but that may take a year or two to pay off.
16. Detroit Lions [8-8] — For the second year in a row, they bombed at the end of the season. The Lions lost their last four in a row, and six of the last seven. That got head coach Jim Schwarz fired, replaced by somnolent former Colts HC Jim Caldwell. The offense is built around the passing game. Matthew Stafford has a ton of weapons: running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Eric Ebron. Stafford needs to raise him game to the next level, and at this point really has no excuse not to. Even if Stafford rises to expectations, a questionable defense could hold the Lions back. They're a playoff contender, but probably not a Super Bowl contender.
17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [8-8] — Nice offseason. They brought in Josh McCown at QB, Logan Mankins to protect him, and Mike Evans for him to throw to. Doug Martin is healthy and adds an explosive element to the offense. The defense, already stocked with talent like Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, and Dashon Goldson, added free agents Michael Johnson and Alterraun Verner. Both were Pro Bowl-quality players in 2013. If McCown plays the way he did last year in Chicago, the Bucs will make the playoffs.
18. Houston Texans [10-6] — After back-to-back division titles and playoff wins in 2011-12, they went 2-14 last season. That involved a lot of bad luck; there are still some awfully good players here. However, a lot of familiar faces are gone. Most obviously, Matt Schaub gives way to Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB. Also gone are longtime TE Owen Daniels, defensive lineman Antonio Smith, and safety Danieal Manning. Despite the losses of Smith and Manning, the Texans expect a great year from their defense, based on the return of Brian Cushing and the pairing of superstar J.J. Watt with number one overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney. If Arian Foster can recapture a little of his old magic, Fitzpatrick synches with Andre Johnson, and the big names on defense stay healthy, Houston will probably win the AFC South. Lots of ifs, but don't underestimate the potential here.
19. Washington [8-8] — Every year, Washington makes waves in free agency. This season, the team acquired a lot of talent, but mostly without the hype. You heard about DeSean Jackson, of course, pairing with Pierre Garçon to give Robert Griffin III a potent 1-2 punch at receiver. But the team also quietly acquired Jason Hatcher, Tracy Porter, and a pair of safeties, Ryan Clark and Duke Ihenacho, to address the weak secondary. The offense hinges on RG3, whose weak preseason worried fans, but who should rebound without his knee brace and his hatred of Mike Shanahan. Defensively, the concern is lack of depth. If anyone gets hurt, they're going to have problems.
20. Dallas Cowboys [7-9] — Everyone expects the defense to be terrible. But there doesn't appear to be a dominant team in the NFC East, and if the Cowboy offenses produces the way people expect, Dallas could contend for a division title. Tony Romo suffered a serious back injury at the end of last season, so his health is a concern. DeMarco Murray's had trouble staying on the field; his health is a concern, too. Dez Bryant needs to take the next step on the field, and make fewer headlines off it. Young receiver Terrance Williams looks to take the next step, and Jason Witten must defy the ravages of age. The offensive line should be among the best in the league if everyone stays healthy.
21. New York Jets [7-9] — Five years ago, they had the NFL's best defense. They still have a strong defensive line, led by Muhammad Wilkerson and Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson, but the rest of the unit doesn't look like anything special. Offensively, the team made two big-name free agent acquisitions: backup QB Michael Vick and starting WR Eric Decker. Vick gives the team options if Geno Smith struggles. Chris Johnson isn't a big name at this point, but he's rushed for at least 1,000 yards every year of his career. He's not a downgrade from Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell (who are still around), but he boasts an upside they don't, the memory of what he was from 2008-10.
22. Kansas City Chiefs [7-9] — Four defensive starters left in free agency. The front seven still looks pretty good, but the secondary is unproven, in a division with Denver and San Diego. Offensively, it's unclear that they have any weapons outside of Jamaal Charles. He's a great weapon, but the receiving corps appears decidedly lackluster. The only KC receivers who generated any real interest in fantasy leagues were suspended WR Dwayne Bowe and backup TE Travis Kelce. Look for Kansas City to take a big step back this season.
23. Carolina Panthers [6-10] — Looked great in 2013, but they had the worst offseason of any team in the NFL. Carolina's top four WRs from 2013 are all gone, including Steve Smith. Both starting safeties left in free agency, as did starting CB Captain Munnerlyn and nickel back Drayton Florence. Offensive linemen Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton both retired. That's a lot of holes to patch, and I think the Panthers struggle this season.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers [6-10] — The Steelers need to rebuild, but they haven't accepted that yet. Troy Polamalu is 33 and has visibly lost a step. Ike Taylor is 34 and coming off his worst season. Brett Keisel is about to turn 36. He hasn't been in Pittsburgh for a couple years, but isn't the news of James Harrison's retirement a pretty clear message that the old Super Bowl defense needs to be rebuilt? Ryan Shazier is a great start, but this project will be bigger than any one player. The Steelers look like the third-best team in the AFC North.
25. Oakland Raiders [5-11] — Signed a lot of older free agents, most of whom are a couple years past their primes, but not to the point they aren't valuable: the Raiders added guys who can play. Matt Schaub seems to have lost the QB battle to Derek Carr, but the team has options and either one should be an upgrade from last year. Maurice Jones-Drew pairs with Darren McFadden at RB, and at least one of them should still have the legs to make plays. The receiving options are a little underwhelming.
The real moves came on defense. The defensive line has three new starters, all of whom have made a Pro Bowl in the last five seasons: Antonio Smith, Justin Tuck, and LaMarr Woodley. None can play the way they did three years ago, but they're upgrades to the existing roster. First-round draft pick Khalil Mack, a linebacker from Buffalo, is widely viewed as a can't-miss NFL talent. The secondary stole both starting cornerbacks from across the Bay, former 49ers Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. All these moves don't turn a 4-12 team into a contender, but they might turn it into a .500 team. The schedule is tough, so I've got them a couple games below that.
26. Arizona Cardinals [5-11] — Barely missed the playoffs last year, and were easily the best team not to make it. They don't have to worry about that in 2014. This sensational defense has been torn apart. Darnell Dockett is on injured reserve. Daryl Washington is suspended for the year. Karlos Dansby and Yeremiah Bell left in free agency. The Cardinals do have an imposing defensive backfield: Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Antonio Cromartie, and first-round draft choice Deone Bucannon. Andre Ellington averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season, and there's hope that Larry Fitzgerald will rebound. But you can't make the playoffs just on an excellent secondary, and I don't think the rest of the team is there right now. The NFC West is a brutal division, and it's probably not realistic to expect another winning season.
27. Tennessee Titans [6-10] — The same team that went 7-9 last year. Alterraun Verner is gone, Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard are in. First-round pick Taylor Lewan is listed as a backup. Jake Locker looked to be making progress last year, but he has to stay healthy and I'm not sure who he's going to throw to. I like their offensive line a lot, but the rest of the team does not look strong.
28. New York Giants [6-10] — Eli Manning had a disastrous 2013. He passed for 18 TDs, 27 INTs, and a 69.4 passer rating, with a career-high 39 sacks. Ben McAdoo comes over from Green Bay as the new offensive coordinator, promising to improve Manning's accuracy. He'll do so with a revamped offensive line, no longer featuring Chris Snee or David Diehl, both of whom retired. The running game also moves in a different direction, with former Jacksonville backup Rashad Jennings in the starting role. The defense has gotten an overhaul, too; the biggest name missing is Justin Tuck. It's hard not to see this as a rebuilding year for the Giants.
29. Buffalo Bills [6-10] — The Bills have gone 6-10 in each of the last three seasons. They haven't had a winning record since 2004, and they've had four head coaches in the last five years. Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd left in free agency. Former Patriot Brandon Spikes is their new middle linebacker; he's a hell of a player. But this team wasn't good last season, and it didn't do much to upgrade. The Dolphins and Jets both appear to be on the way up, and New England is up already. Buffalo finishes last in the AFC East, for the sixth year in a row.
30. Minnesota Vikings [6-10] — Their glorious defensive line has finally disintegrated. Both Jared Allen and Kevin Williams left in free agency, Allen to the rival Bears. Rookie Teddy Bridgewater is pushing Matt Cassel at QB, but it's rare for rookie QBs to succeed the way recent players like Cam Newton and Russell Wilson have, so Viking fans shouldn't expect the stars in 2014. I wrote in depth about Adrian Peterson recently — he's got a lot of mileage. Cordarrelle Patterson appears poised for a breakout year, but I don't believe Minnesota is ready to bring its young players into a cohesive team that competes for a division title.
31. Cleveland Browns [6-10] — Treading water. They lost T.J. Ward, but brought in Donte Whitner and Jim Leonhard. They lost D'Qwell Jackson, added Karlos Dansby. They had a nice draft and they'll have an extra first-round draft pick next year, probably a good one. But as the team tries to develop a pair of young quarterbacks, the loss WR Josh Gordon — suspended and out for the year — is tough to look past. The Browns are on the right track — or will be if they ever let a coach last more than two years — but they're in the early stages of a rebuild and fans shouldn't expect success this season.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars [4-12] — Everyone's ranking them last, and I wanted to be the guy who doesn't. They made a nice move in free agency, signing former Seahawks Red Bryant and Chris Clemons as their new defensive ends. They drafted two wide receivers in the second round to address their punchless offense. They have some young talent from other early draft picks. But they're still starting Chad Henne at QB, I don't believe Toby Gerhart is the true successor to Maurice Jones-Drew, Justin Blackmon probably won't play this year, and their defensive backfield is badly subpar. They're probably moving in the right direction, but they're getting there slowly.
Wild Card: HOUSTON def. Baltimore, CINCINNATI def. Indianapolis
Divisional: NEW ENGLAND def. Cincinnati, DENVER def. Houston
Championship: NEW ENGLAND def. Denver
Wild Card: GREEN BAY def. Atlanta, San Francisco def. PHILADELPHIA
Divisional: NEW ORLEANS def. San Francisco, SEATTLE def. Green Bay
Championship: NEW ORLEANS def. Seattle
Super Bowl XLIX
Patriots over Saints