Tuesday, September 5, 2017

2017 NFL Preseason Power Rankings

By Brad Oremland

A lot changes in the seven months between the Super Bowl and the regular season. Following the NFL's expansion and realignment in 2002, only about half the playoff field from the previous year reached the postseason again the next season. But in recent years, it's more than half: 7-8 teams instead of 4-6.

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This season, I'm picking nine of the 12 playoff teams to repeat, which is a little high, but not as crazy an idea as it once was. 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.

1. New England Patriots [12-4] — The Patriots have been consistently dominant in the Wes Welker/Julian Edelman era. Will they remain dominant with Danny Amendola or Chris Hogan filling that role? I expect Brandin Cooks to have a huge season — I hope you drafted him in fantasy — but he fills a different role, more like Randy Moss in the Moss/Welker pairings of yesteryear.

Edelman notwithstanding, the Pats return largely the same team that went 14-2 last year and won the Super Bowl. Their pass rush is questionable, and they'll miss Edelman, but Cooks provides a new weapon, and Rob Gronkowski was injured for most of last season. Health is the only real question mark on a team that looks poised to repeat in February.

2. Atlanta Falcons [12-4] — I've been writing preseason power rankings for more than 15 years, and this is the first time I've ever had the defending Super Bowl teams 1-2. The Falcons took remarkably few hits in free agency: other than offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, replaced by former USC coach Steve Sarkisian, this is basically the same group that went 11-5 last season and won the NFC. They return MVP Matt Ryan, their top three rushers, top five receivers, and four of their five offensive linemen, the exception being Chris Chester. Their eight leading tacklers are back, as are their top sackers and interceptors. The Falcons are still a young team, so there's no downside to keeping the roster together, and there's every reason to forecast them as a Super Bowl contender again.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers [10-6] — They return essentially the same team that made the AFC Championship Game last season. Lawrence Timmons is gone, Martavis Bryant is back for now, a couple other little things, but it's essentially the same team. That's probably good: if something's not broken, you shouldn't try to fix it, and the Steelers were not broken last season. Their biggest concern is probably keeping everyone healthy and on the field, but they've got a terrific offensive line and explosive weapons all over the place; I think they'll repeat as division champs, for the first time since 2007-08.

4. Seattle Seahawks [12-4] — They'll probably win the NFC West, despite stupidly ignoring their greatest weakness last season, on the offensive line. They couldn't run, and they couldn't protect Russell Wilson, and it didn't matter because Wilson is so good and the defense is so good and no one can beat them in Seattle. They probably still won't rush very well, and I doubt Wilson will get enough protection, but as long as he stays healthy, the Seahawks are going to score, and there are no ifs about the defense, and they're always going to be tough at home. The Seahawks have won double-digit games five years in a row, and that trend is going to end one day — but not yet.

5. Green Bay Packers [10-6] — Martellus Bennett is an intriguing addition, and I'm interested to see how they use Ty Montgomery this year. Green Bay has made the playoffs eight years in a row, and it's hard to see anything on their roster, or elsewhere in the NFC North, that would indicate that trend stopping. Aaron Rodgers is by far the best QB in the division, and they're solid most everywhere else. Rodgers has gone through some slumps the past couple of seasons, and Green Bay has made the playoffs anyway. If he spends a whole season playing like he did last November and December, the Packers could get a first-round bye. If he's up-and-down, they're still favorites to win the division. If he's injured or struggles consistently, the NFC North could turn black and blue.

The beginning of their schedule is tougher than the end, so don't yell fire if they start 0-2.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers [10-6] — Poised to take the next step. Last year, they went 9-7. Now they've added DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, and O.J. Howard, which could make for an explosive offense once Doug Martin returns from suspension. The defense added veterans Chris Baker and T.J. Ward, plus rookie DB Justin Evans, and they cut ties with struggling kicker Roberto Aguayo. If the key pieces stay healthy, it looks like improvement across the board. It's been a decade since Tampa qualified for the playoffs, but that trend ends this year.

7. Denver Broncos [11-5] — New head coach Vance Joseph opted to replace defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. That's a curious choice for the league's best defense, which returns three first-team All-Pros. The Broncos will need their defense to hold form if they're going to compete in the tough AFC West. The offense remains helmed by Trevor Siemian, whose performance last season could be charitably described as average. Denver did upgrade its offensive line, with first-round draft choice Garett Bolles and former Cowboy Ronald Leary. If the offense can step things up a little — with a good line and good receivers, the tools are there — and the defense can play like it did under Phillips, the Broncos should factor into in the playoff race, including a shot at the AFC West title.

8. Kansas City Chiefs [10-6] — I get why people are excited about Tyreek Hill, but Jeremy Maclin is gone, Alex Smith is a game manager, and they're thin at running back. They don't have a great offense, maybe not even a good offense. They probably do have a good defense, but last year they relied heavily on turnovers, tying for the best turnover differential in the NFL, +16. Takeaways are a skill, but there's an element of randomness to them, and that kind of performance probably isn't sustainable. The Chiefs also scored eight touchdowns on defense or special teams, most in the NFL, and that's certainly not sustainable. It's hard to see how they can replicate last year's success in an increasingly competitive AFC West.

They're probably the best of the all-defense, no-offense teams; the others are Baltimore, Houston, Minnesota, the Giants, and Philly.

9. Oakland Raiders [10-6] — Like the Chiefs, they benefitted last season from an unsustainable turnover diffential. Unlike Kansas City, they can score on offense. The Chiefs generated 12.3% on their points from non-offensive touchdowns, compared to 1.4% for Oakland. The Raiders are a young team that's still getting better. I don't think they'll win 12 games again, but they should certainly compete for a playoff spot, and perhaps for their first division title since 2002.

10. Dallas Cowboys [9-7] — How much of the Cowboys' success last year was about Ezekiel Elliott? Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris give Dallas decent options if Elliott's six-game suspension is upheld, and I could probably do some decent things behind that offensive line. The defense should be unspectacular but solid, as long as Sean Lee can stay healthy. The NFC East appears to be a fairly strong division, so Dallas isn't a sure thing, but they open the season as favorites to repeat as division champs.

11. Miami Dolphins [9-7] — Last year, they were lucky to make the playoffs. This year, they'll have to earn it. Jay Cutler wasn't a great quarterback in his prime, and now he's clearly past his prime. But he played well in Adam Gase's system, and coaxing him out retirement was obviously the right choice following Ryan Tannehill's ACL injury. Cutler is a gunslinger, which may not be a good fit for a team with Jay Ajayi and what I expect to be a top-10 defense. The Dolphins added Lawrence Timmons in free agency, get Reshad Jones back from injury, and used their first three draft picks on defense — this for a unit that already had Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake, and Kiko Alonso.

Look for defense to carry Miami all season. The team hasn't made back-to-back playoff appearances since 2000-01, when Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas led a team quarterbacked by Jay Fiedler.

12. Tennessee Titans [9-7] — Continuing to move in the right direction. This offseason saw them add receiving weapons: free agent Eric Decker and draft picks Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor. The offensive line is among the best in the league, they have two good running backs, and Marcus Mariota enters his third pro season. The defense brought in former Bronco Sylvester Williams, pass rusher Erik Walden (11 sacks last season), and the Patriots' leading tackler, Logan Ryan, who replaces Jason McCourty. Rookie CB Adoree' Jackson should contribute as well. With the Colts and Jags trying to tell up from down, the AFC South is a two-team race, between Tennessee and Houston. Somewhere, Bud Adams is smiling.

13. New York Giants [8-8] — They're strong at three positions — wide receiver, defensive line, and defensive backfield — and vulnerable everywhere else. Last year, they went 4-1 in games decided by a field goal or less, 8-2 in games decided by 7 or less, and made the playoffs. That kind of luck seldom holds up two years in a row, and I see the Giants as a middle-of-the-road team. The Giants were held below 20 points in each of their last six games, and I'm skeptical that Brandon Marshall can single-handedly transform them into a decent offense.

14. Arizona Cardinals [10-6] — They're gambling that last year was a fluke, that the real Cardinals are the ones who went 11-5 in 2014 and 13-3 in 2015. They might be right. Last season, Arizona went 7-8-1, but outscored their opponents by 56 points. They led the NFL in sacks and ranked 2nd in fewest yards allowed, and they were the only team to beat the Seahawks in Seattle. They had some injuries, they lost some close games, and they still finished within half a game of .500.

However, they're competing with not only the Seahawks, but also Father Time. Carson Palmer is 37. Larry Fitzgerald is 34. They project Karlos Dansby and Antoine Bethea as starters. Bethea is 33, and Dansby will turn 36 before they come back from the bye. If you're betting that you can win with your team from two years ago, are Palmer and Fitzgerald the same players? Can 33-year-old Bethea replace 25-year-old Tony Jefferson, who signed with Baltimore? Arizona's defense lost four of its top five tacklers, and the fifth, Deone Bucannon, is still recovering from injury. That doesn't even include Calais Campbell, who moved to Jacksonville.

With the same old offense — old potentially being the operative word — and a defense down some of its top playmakers, do the Cardinals have another run in them before Palmer and Fitzgerald retire? It's hard for me to see that they do.

15. New Orleans Saints [7-9] — Three years in a row, they've led the NFL in third down percentage but finished 7-9. The Saints aggressively targeted defense in the draft, after inexplicably failing to do so last year. They've got an awfully young defense, and that's good compared to their old defense, but it's probably not a recipe for consistently shutting down opponents in 2017. The offense will do what it always does, piling up yards and losing shootouts.

The Saints have reached the NFC Championship Game twice, in 2006 and 2009. Both seasons, Drew Brees dropped back well under 600 times. Since winning Super Bowl XLIV, Brees has never taken fewer than 650 drop-backs. New Orleans has a great fantasy football offense, but would probably win more games with better balance. The Saints should be fine this season, but they're still going to win more games in fantasy than on the field.

16. Houston Texans [10-6] — Let's start with the good. J.J. Watt, who was injured last season, rejoins the league's top-ranked defense. Alongside Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, that's a terrifying pass rush. DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller should challenge defenses in the receiving game.

Now, what's not so good? Tom Savage starts at quarterback, with blindside blocker Duane Brown still holding out. Offensive line is a significant question mark, especially if Brown's holdout lasts a while. Their two best defensive backs left in free agency, and nose tackle Vince Wilfork retired. The rival Titans went 9-7 last year and continue to improve.

If Watt stays healthy, and Clowney and Mercilus play like they did last season, Houston can compete with anyone, and should be in the playoff race all year. But if the offense can't consistently put points on the board, or opponents exploit cracks in the secondary, or the Watt/Clowney tandem fails to produce, Texans fans may not like the way that playoff race turns out.

17. Carolina Panthers [7-9] — Finished under .500 in two of the last three seasons. Last year, they ranked 29th in passing yards allowed, and gave up 40 or more points three times. Without Josh Norman, the secondary fell apart last season. It's not apparent that Carolina has addressed that weakness: their only additions to the secondary were Mike Adams, Captain Munnerlyn, and a fifth-round draft choice. At least Luke Kuechly is back, after missing six games last year.

The Panthers focused their draft on offense, adding Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel, and an offensive lineman. Carolina should be better than last year, but those holes in the defensive backfield preclude a serious run in the postseason.

18. Philadelphia Eagles [8-8] — Imposing defense should give them a chance against anyone, but if they're going to make a playoff push, they need more from the offense. That's realistic: they added Alshon Jeffery and LeGarrette Blount, and everyone expects improvement from second-year QB Carson Wentz. If Jeffery stays healthy, Blount plays better than he's shown in preseason, and Wentz develops, the Eagles are probably a playoff team. If not, they're going to have a lot of 17-13 kind of games, and probably lose most of them.

19. Cincinnati Bengals [9-7] — Begin the season without their best defensive player, Vontaze Burfict, who is suspended for three games. Fellow live wire Adam Jones (the artist formerly known as Pacman) is also suspended for the opener. Last year broke their streak of five straight playoff appearances, their first year missing out since drafting A.J. Green and Andy Dalton. This is substantially the same team as they had last year, when they finished 6-9-1, and the year before, when they went 12-4. I'd guess they end up closer to 6-9-1, but a playoff berth wouldn't be surprising: I see the whole AFC North in the 6-10 to 10-6 neighborhood, which introduces an element of randomness and luck into the division title. The play of their rookies — including last year's first-round pick, cornerback William Jackson III — could be pivotal.

20. Baltimore Ravens [7-9] — The Ravens are old, and holes on defense convinced them to neglect their offense in the draft and free agency. I know they added Jeremy Maclin, but that doesn't plug the need created by two of their top three receivers (Steve Smith and Dennis Pitta) retiring. Last year's leading tackler, Zach Orr, also retired. Leading sacker Terrell Suggs turns 35 next month. Interception leader Eric Weddle is 32. The Ravens have clearly chosen to emphasize defense, using all of their early draft picks there and picking up safety Tony Jefferson in free agency. That should be enough to keep the defense good, maybe even top-10, but not good enough to win games by itself like the team once did. Joe Flacco has had one decent season in the last four; they can't count on the offense. But if there's an Ed Reed or Ray Lewis on this roster, we haven't seen him yet.

At best, the Ravens are treading water, a .500 team who lucks into a 9-7 finish and squeaks into the playoffs. I can envision scenarios where they finish last in the AFC North, behind Cleveland.

21. Detroit Lions [7-9] — Everyone's talking about Matthew Stafford's contract. There are two ways of looking at it, seemingly opposed, but they both make sense. On the one hand, Stafford is now the highest-paid player in the league, when he's clearly not one of the five best players at his own position. From that standpoint, his new contract seems like a terrible idea for the Lions. At the same time, quarterback salaries have escalated, so that Stafford's is — based on other recent contracts — reasonably consistent with his skill level. He's not making much more than Joe Flacco, and Stafford is twice the QB Flacco is.

The Lions made the playoffs last year, but that was sort of a fluke: they went 9-7, with only one of the wins by more than 7 points, against an easy schedule. They scored a coup in free agency, stealing T.J. Lang from the rival Packers, but their leading scorer, Anquan Boldin, retired, and last year Theo Riddick led the Lions with 357 rushing yards. Even in a passing era, that's not a sustainable way to win games. If the Lions are over .500 again this year, Stafford might deserve a raise.

22. Minnesota Vikings [8-8] — Spent this offseason locking up their best defensive players, with Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, and Xavier Rhodes all signed through 2022. That was probably a good idea, but the offseason focus on defense means that they're not likely to score any more points than last season, when they ranked in the bottom 10 (despite seven return TDs), and bottom five in yardage. It's hard to imagine that Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers, and Pat Elflein can cure what ails their terrible offensive line, and the stat-producing offensive positions leave a lot to be desired. If Minnesota competes for a playoff spot, it will be with great defense and ball control offense.

23. Washington [7-9] — I don't really get their offseason moves; as has been common under Daniel Snyder, it seems like they're spinning their wheels, changing personnel for no obvious reason. The offense is still loaded with talent, despite losing two 1,000-yard receivers. DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon are gone, replaced by Terrelle Pryor and 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson, who join Jamison Crowder. Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis are still around, and the running backs remain an afterthought.

If Kirk Cousins clicks with Pryor and Doctson, and the defense plays consistently, Washington could make a playoff push. But it wouldn't take a lot going wrong for this team to end up 5-11.

24. Buffalo Bills [6-10] — New head coach Sean McDermott takes over a team that has a .500 record (48-48) over the past three seasons. I see them below .500 this year, with offense a particular area of concern. Tyrod Taylor and the Bills' passing game looked troublingly inefficient in preseason, enough to be of concern in the regular season. The defense, meanwhile, lost two of its top three tacklers to free agency, and the remaining players on the roster combined for 1 interception last season.

This team was 7-7 against a tough schedule when it fired Rex Ryan last season. Now it's in rebuild mode.

25. Jacksonville Jaguars [6-10] — Finished 5-11 or worse for six years in a row. If they avoid a seventh, it will be with massive improvement from a defense addressed in free agency. They added All-Pro defensive lineman Calais Campbell and two starting defensive backs, shutdown corner A.J. Bouye and former Cowboy Barry Church. The only major addition on offense is Leonard Fournette, though, and I'm skeptical that he'll be an impact player. If Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson, and Allen Hurns play like they did in 2015, Jacksonville could compete for a playoff spot — but it seems like those players are moving in the other direction. They might break the streak of 5-11 seasons, but they won't top .500.

26. Los Angeles Chargers [4-12] — Hexed by major injuries the past few seasons. Last year, for instance, they went 4-4 with Melvin Gordon and Joey Bosa in the lineup, 1-7 otherwise. That doesn't even account for season-ending injuries to Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead, and Manti Te'o in the first three weeks. If the Chargers could stay healthy, they could surprise people. Apparently it's not going to happen. Their first two draft picks, receiver Mike Williams and lineman Forrest Lamp, are both hurt already; Lamp is out for the season. Their top receiver, Allen, is made of glass, while Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates are both 100 years old. The Chargers have talent on paper, but it doesn't seem like this is the season that they overcome their injury woes and make a playoff run.

27. Chicago Bears [5-11] — It's been four months, and I still hate their draft. Maybe Mitch Trubisky will be great a couple years from now, and the team did patch some holes in free agency. But the Bears went 3-13 last year, and they haven't had a winning record since 2012, their last year with Lovie Smith. There is some talent on the roster, so if everything gels, the Bears could be respectable. But I don't see any particular reason to believe that everything will gel.

28. Indianapolis Colts [5-11] — Andrew Luck isn't healthy: there are serious questions about how much he'll play this year, and how close to 100% he'll be when he does. Their lead running back is still Frank Gore, who's now 34. No 34-year-old has topped 750 rushing yards since John Riggins in 1983. To put that in perspective, Frank Gore was born in 1983. Since his first birthday, no RB his age has had a remotely notable season. T.Y. Hilton is their only proven weapon in the receiving game, and their offensive line is more experienced but mostly the same as last year. The defense lost its top two pass rushers, and is counting on a lot of rookies. This is one of the most uncertain teams in the NFL, but I'd be surprised if they match last year's 8-8 performance.

29. Cleveland Browns [6-10] — Rookie DeShone Kizer starts at QB, but the team has significantly upgraded the tools around him, especially on the offensive line. The defense gets rookies Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, and Caleb Brantley, all of whom should contribute in 2017. The Browns are young, obviously. They won't compete for a playoff spot this year, and perhaps not next year, either, but they are moving in the right direction. They went 1-15 last season, but they're positioned to improve quickly.

30. Los Angeles Rams [4-12] — Lost three of their last six games by at least 28 points. They brought in a new head coach, former Washington OC Sean McVay, and a new defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips. That should help: coaching was part of the problem last year, and Phillips' credentials are beyond dispute. They traded for Sammy Watkins, and if he stays healthy, he could be their best receiver since Torry Holt. The addition of Andrew Whitworth should help quarterback Jared Goff, who was a disaster last season, and running back Todd Gurley. Connor Barwin and Kayvon Webster join the defense, and both should help.

But their draft, handicapped by the moronic trade for Goff, doesn't have anyone excited, and Aaron Donald — their best player by a mile — hasn't reported as of this writing. The Rams look like they're moving in the right direction, but they're moving slowly. They're not likely to be any good this year.

31. New York Jets [4-12] — I don't think anyone would be surprised if the Jets are the worst team in the NFL this season. 38-year-old Josh McCown leads a disappointing QB rotation, and the only player on the active roster who has 50 receptions or 700 receiving yards in a season is backup running back Matt Forte. Four of their five leading tacklers from last season are gone, and that doesn't even include Sheldon Richardson, whom they traded away last week. The Jets were bad last season, and to all appearances, they've gotten worse.

I am terrible at survivor pools, so this year I'm steering into the skid. The Bills host the Jets in Week 1, and I have no faith in the Jets, plus I don't mind not being able to pick the Bills later. Buffalo is my Week 1 survivor pool selection.

32. San Francisco 49ers [4-12] — Last year, they went 0-14 against teams who weren't the Rams. They're on their fourth head coach in four years. Realistically, things can only get better.

New head coach Kyle Shanahan brought in several of his former players, including Pierre Garcon, which could upgrade the passing game. They radically overhauled the defense, including their top four tacklers, leading sacker Ahmad Brooks, and their only player who intercepted more than one pass last season. They restocked with rookies and guys who were good five years ago. Don't get me wrong, that's probably an upgrade, but it's not a recipe for an instant turnaround. This is a multi-year rebuilding project, and the Niners are nowhere near being competitive. I can't see any scenario in which they make the playoffs this season.

AFC Playoffs

Wild Card: PITTSBURGH def. Kansas City, Oakland def. HOUSTON
Divisional: NEW ENGLAND def. Oakland, DENVER def. Pittsburgh
Championship: NEW ENGLAND def. Denver

NFC Playoffs

Wild Card: GREEN BAY def. Tampa Bay, DALLAS def. Arizona
Divisional: ATLANTA def. Dallas, SEATTLE def. Green Bay
Championship: ATLANTA def. Seattle

Super Bowl LII

Patriots over Falcons, again

* * *

If those picks are too conventional for you, give Tennessee the AFC South and Miami a wild card, with the Buccaneers upsetting Green Bay and Atlanta in the playoffs. The Bucs lose at Seattle in the NFC Championship Game, and the Seahawks avenge Super Bowl XLIX in February.

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