If you’re anything like me, you can’t wait for football. I know that camp is here, but after years of hearing "this is a new team" or "this team has swagger" I can’t really bring myself to put a lot of stock in anything until I see competition against other teams. The position battles are telling, but besides that, it’s hard to gauge where everyone is. For example, is anyone really surprised that Kareem Jackson can’t cover Andre Johnson? There’s probably only two corners in the league that can, so why is it shocking that a rookie can’t?
Due to this, one of the hardest things to do as a football fan is judge how good or bad teams will be before the season or even preseason starts. There has been eight months of player acquisitions, losses, coaching changes and the draft since we last saw teams in action. I have taken my best stab at how the league shakes out right now. Just a warning though, I don’t necessarily believe in making preseason power rankings that just reflect how everyone finished last season. I know I’ll take flak in the comments (and I welcome it) but this is purely a an honest reflection of how I see the league right now, and some if it definitely does not follow conventional wisdom.
1. Indianapolis Colts – Picking a number one team is hard enough, especially in the preseason when no one has played a snap. The Colts face certain questions that may or may not affect them this year such as offensive line changes/deficiencies, lack of a clear cut number one running back, and a somewhat lackluster back-end on the defense. They faced much more uncertainty last year, however, and they proved to everyone that as long as Peyton Manning is taking snaps and Bill Polian is making personnel decisions, they’ll get the job done. What made them number one in my mind though, is the fact that they are the only team I feel should be favored every game they play, even against divisional rivals on the road.
2. Green Bay Packers – Dom Capers was able to produce a dominant defense last year in its first season transitioned from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Not only was the defense good, but at its core was several young players that will only get better with more experience. Coupled with a young offense that is run by one of the next generation of NFL superstar quarterbacks, and this team is scary. Even if Brett Favre changes his mind to play (again), I still think Green Bay will take this division.
3. New York Jets – This team scares me. If they had a better quarterback option, I would put them at the top. Rex Ryan bolstered the secondary with Kyle Wilson and Antonio Cromartie, which will make his crazy blitz schemes even more frequent and dangerous. Too complete the identity of a smash mouth team, the Jets have one of the best offensive lines in all of football and a talented young runner in Shonne Greene. My only question besides Sanchez is why you would cut one old runner (Thomas Jones) to sign another who appears less effective (LaDainian Tomlinson)?
4. New Orleans Saints – Obviously I don’t believe in the old adage that you’re number one until someone proves you otherwise, not for power rankings at least. No one can doubt the prolific nature of the Saints offense, but that has been so for years now. In those seasons New Orleans didn’t even always win their division, much less the Super Bowl. The difference last year was an opportunistic defense that didn’t make a habit of stopping people, rather by creating turnovers. I believe the Saints will still be a great team, but with a defense that lives by the sword, they will die by the sword as well. Add to that the fact that they now have a target on their back from the get-go, and I think they will win the division but not go as deep as last season.
5. Dallas Cowboys – The hype machine in Dallas is at it again, and many are speculating about a home field advantage for the Super Bowl. They certainly have talent all over their roster, but one playoff victory doesn’t show me that they are ready to win at least 3 games in the postseason. I believe that Tony Romo will put up huge regular season numbers, although he’ll run for his life while doing it with no clear cut answer at left tackle, the second most important position in football. They might win the division, but that type of year will take a toll on this team come January.
6. Baltimore Ravens – A few weeks ago, I would have put this team a lot higher. Ray Rice looks like he will be a star for years to come, and even though he’s only good for twelve to fourteen games a season, Anquan Boldin is a huge addition to this offense. The Achilles' heel surprisingly of this team is the defense, specifically the secondary. I’m sure they will have the same tenacity in the front seven led by Ray Lewis, but the back-end was already suspect and now they might be without a couple more starters (Ed Reed and Dominique Foxworth). All of the sudden games that looked like Ws (Cincinnati x 2, New England, Pittsburgh, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans) look like maybes because of the opposing passing attacks.
7. Minnesota Vikings – He’s going to play. Remember last year, on July 31st when it was "leaked" that Favre felt he wasn’t recovering fast enough from biceps surgery and wasn’t going to play? For conversation's sake, even without him the Vikings are good enough to take second in this division and make a run at the playoffs. People forget that Tarvaris Jackson took them there in 2008. Even with Favre though, I predict that there will be a changing of the guard and the Packers will take the North.
8. San Diego Chargers – Like the Ravens, this team would be higher if I had written this a few months ago. If A.J. Smith is stubborn enough to let Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill sit out though, this team is in trouble. Does anyone really believe that Tra Thomas can protect Phillip Rivers’ blind spot at this point in his career? Norv Turner doesn’t. Even playing in one of the weakest divisions in the NFL, the Chargers aren’t setting themselves up for success.
9. Atlanta Falcons – This is one of my favorite sleeper teams of 2010. They were 9-7 against a tough schedule with Michael Turner hurt and admittedly out of shape. Now he’s healthy and Matt Ryan is coming into the mystical third year. The defense certainly isn’t dominant, but they’re good enough to keep the offense in just about any game. I honestly think they could give the Saints a run for their money in the South.
10. Cincinnati Bengals – Terrell Owens doesn’t put this team in the Super Bowl, but it does give Carson Palmer a huge upgrade over Laveranues Coles, not to mention he finally has a pass catching tight end which will match up very well against the aforementioned Ravens secondary. Mike Zimmer will return another solid defense and this team will be just as good as they were last year.
11. New England Patriots – The Patriots are in a strange place right now. I believe Bill Belichick is "rebuilding on the fly." Rather than riding out the veterans on his squad and realizing he has no talent around Tom Brady in a few years during the twilight of his career, I think he’s accepting being a mediocre to good team now that has a puncher’s chance because he’s at the helm and still has talent in place. The offense is one year older and the defense will be just as porous as last year. To be honest, I was very tempted to put the Dolphins ahead but I gave the tie to Brady and Belichick.
12. Houston Texans – I buy into the hype that the offense will be more balanced with new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, which will allow this team to protect leads and close out games that it failed to last year. The secondary does worry me (a lot), but I think this will be the case of a team with an offense too good not to win double digit games. Unfortunately though, that’s not a good recipe for success in the playoffs, but hey, one step at a time.
13. Miami Dolphins – This team is another under-the-radar squad that might surprise some people this year. I don’t know how they managed to add pieces like Karlos Dansby and Brandon Marshall so quietly, but not a lot of people are talking about them, probably because of the division they play in. In many other divisions they would be a shoe-in to place second if not take it completely. The games between Miami, New England and New York will certainly be pivotal this season.
14. San Francisco 49ers – This is my lowest rated divisional winner. The 49ers feature a fantastic defense and what should be an improved running game with the addition of Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati through the draft. Unfortunately though, the 49ers are still paying for taking Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers. Smith might be serviceable enough to win the weakest division in the NFC, but he is not a playoff-winning quarterback.
15. New York Giants – Newly hired defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has a lot riding on his shoulders this season. The defense, which has always been the cornerstone of this team since Tom Coughlin took over, was the weakest link last year. Eli Manning has proven he can win when the defense is dominant, but unless Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck return to their dominance as pass rushers and Keith Bulluck shores up the middle, this team will struggle yet again to make the postseason.
16. Tennessee Titans – Chris Johnson is hands down the best running back in the game today. Having said that, can Vince Young lead this team they way that he did when there was nothing to lose? It’s one thing to sneak up on people who have written you off because you didn’t win a game until November, it’s another thing to do it from the beginning of the season. Keep in mind that in the period of two years they’ve lost Albert Haynesworth, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Keith Bulluck. I think they’re good enough to come up just short of the postseason.
17. Seattle Seahawks – It’s hard to consider the top spot of the bottom half of teams a pleasant surprise, but I think in the case of the Seahawks it is. Pete Carroll has sneakily put a decent amount of talent on this team without anyone noticing because they’re too busy calling him a collegiate cheater. They won’t make the playoffs, but between one of the best home field advantages in the league, playing in one of the worst divisions, and no one really expecting much out of them, I think they can beat out Arizona for second in the division.
18. Pittsburgh Steelers – Losing Ben Roethlisberger for what will probably be four games was bad enough. Now with the loss of Willie Colon and the realization that Flozell Adams will likely be the starting left tackle, this team will have issues on the offensive side of the ball. Dick LeBeau will do his job and produce another amazing defense that will win some games on its own, but they won’t look as strong as past seasons since they will spend much more time on the field. This might be the first time that the Steelers fail to make the playoffs two years in a row since the AFC North existed.
19. Oakland Raiders – Some of you will scoff at this, but I have the feeling that the Raiders could deserve a spot even higher than nineteen. What hasn’t been noticed because of JaMarcus Russell is that there is a solid defense and running game in place here. Jason Campbell won’t set any passing records, but in 52 games he’s thrown only 38 interceptions. That lack of simply giving the ball back to an opponent with better field position after a big stop by the defense will probably work wonders. They also had a solid draft this year. In the end though, I simply couldn’t bring myself to put them higher because…they’re the Raiders.
20. Chicago Bears – Mike Martz has a great track record of producing fantasy stats for quarterbacks and wide receivers, but his track record for winning since the "Greatest Show On Turf" hasn’t been that great. Brian Urlacher and the rest of the defense is one year older and is a far cry from the 2006 defense that carried Rex Grossman to the Super Bowl. It also doesn’t help that they play in what is probably the toughest division in the NFC now.
21. Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jaguars are hard to predict this season. An up-and-coming defense mixed with a healthy run game is a good way to win games, and they might be able to squeak a few out that they "shouldn’t." Nobody, however, seems to have any confidence in David Garrard, including head coach Jack Del Rio and owner Wayne Weaver, which is usually not a good sign. Outside of Maurice Jones-Drew, there really aren’t any offensive weapons. Some might consider Mike Sims-Walker in that category, but considering he averaged 39 yards on 3 receptions per game the last half of 2009, I wouldn’t. I think the Jaguars could be a spoiler team in 2010, but not a contender, especially in their division.
22. Washington Redskins – Mike Shanahan certainly knows how to make an entrance. He immediately bolstered the offensive line, which had been the team’s most glaring weakness for the last few years, by drafting Trent Williams and trading for Jammal Brown to play left tackle temporarily. He also acquired a potential Hall of Fame quarterback from a divisional rival. Then he goes and alienates Albert Haynesworth to the point that the same teammates who were denouncing the highest paid defensive player in the league are now showing sympathy to him. Shanahan will have this team winning soon, but probably not this year.
23. Arizona Cardinals – If Matt Leinart could do it, he would have done it by now. The Cardinals didn’t exactly set him up for success by trading away one of the best possession receivers in the league. The defense attempted to replace the loss of a premier safety (Antrel Rolle) and linebacker (Karlos Dansby) with… Joey Porter. I don’t see how this team wouldn’t regress on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, but with Darnell Dockett and Porter on the same team, it should still be entertaining.
24. Carolina Panthers – Jake Delhomme is gone, which leaves Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen behind, both of whom lack experience and talented wide receivers outside of Steve Smith. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are probably the best running back duo in the league, but they will constantly face eight men in the box with very few other offensive options. It also doesn’t help when you lose the most productive pass rusher in your franchise history. This will probably be the last year for John Fox in Carolina.
25. Philadelphia Eagles – Kevin Kolb looked legit last year in his two starts last year, passing for over 300 yards in both. Derek Anderson, Matt Cassel and David Garrard all looked legit for an entire season and have yet to return to form. I’m not saying Kolb won’t do well; I actually think he will be good in the Eagles’ west coast offense, but my point is that it takes quarterbacks more than a couple of starts to grasp a complex NFL system. Add on top of that this is Year Two after the loss of the two people that gave the defense an identity, Jim Johnson and Brian Dawkins, and they still haven’t found anyone to take that leadership role. They also play in what has probably been the most competitive division of the last decade.
26. Detroit Lions – Texans fans know a thing or two about completely revamping a roster devoid of talent from the ground up, so it’s easier for us to recognize when someone is doing a good job. The Lions had another solid draft. Matthew Stafford will still have growing pains but he earned the team’s respect last year by showing he’s tough and he can win. It will still take some time to completely turn it around, but they’re on the right track.
27. Kansas City Chiefs – It’s like a Patriots coaching reunion in Kansas City now, minus Bill Belichick. The only problem is that Charlie Weiss and Romeo Crennel both failed to prove that they could be successful without "The Hoody." They have made smart football moves, and this team should be one year better along their path to recovery. Jamaal Charles was a revelation last year, and the addition of veteran Thomas Jones for depth was good. The two of them should provide enough distraction to defenses to allow Matt Cassel to stay upright and get the ball out of his hands quicker.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Head coach Raheem Morris has yet to prove that he isn’t in over his head, but the strong play at the end of last season, especially from rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, gives Buc fans some hope. The Bucs were over $30 million under the cap last year and haven’t spent much since then. Gerald McCoy will provide a presence inside, but the team still lacks a pass rushing threat. It will be interesting to see if this team progresses or regresses from the end of season success from last year.
29. Cleveland Browns – Mike Holmgren was a successful coach in both Green Bay and Seattle, but his stint as a general manager for the Seahawks was not exactly successful. The Browns have a very underrated and talented offensive line and lack playmakers on offense. Giving Jake Delhomme (who hasn’t had a bounce-back game since he threw five interceptions in the playoffs two years ago) $7 million didn’t seem like the smartest move in the world. Also, despite ending last year on a winning streak, Eric Mangini looked like the worst head coach in the NFL halfway through last season.
30. Buffalo Bills – It took several weeks just to find a coach willing to come to Buffalo in the offseason. With a shift to a 3-4 defensive scheme that takes time to implement and the same vanilla offense in place, the play from this team might be as harsh and dreary as the weather in Northern New York this season. C.J. Spiller is an explosive back, but it takes more than just one player to produce, especially in six games against the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins.
31. Denver Broncos – I was tempted to put this team dead last. In one and a half years, Josh McDaniels has gotten rid of a quarterback who threw for 4,500 yards and a wide receiver coming off three straight 100 reception/1,000 yard receiving seasons. What did he replace them with? Kyle Orton, Brady Quinn, Tim Tebow and a rookie wide receiver who has never had to run the full route tree before. The only thing that carried this team to an undefeated start through six games last year was the defense, and he got rid of the man responsible, Mike Nolan. Now their sack leader from last season has a torn pectoral muscle and is likely out for the year. I have nothing against the Broncos organization and I respect their fans because of their diehard loyalty, but in my opinion this is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
32. St. Louis Rams – Every team in the NFL had at least three players who had played on a Pro Bowl last year except one--the Rams. I believe that Steve Spagnuolo will have the defense playing much better, but the offense still lacks anything besides Steven Jackson. If Sam Bradford turns out to be a bust or as brittle as he was towards the end of his college career, paying him that money will cripple this franchise for years to come. The Greatest Show On Turf seems like centuries ago now.