NFL Power Rankings: Post-draft edition
"We are like all other teams in this league," Atlanta head coach Mike Smith said back in February. "This is the time of the year that you recalibrate your roster, you recalibrate your football team. Whether you are a 4-12 team or a 13-3 team, you’re going to go through this process."
The adjustment, those little roster tweaks, will continue on through eternity. Most of the critical moves that will impact the 2014 season, however, already have been made. The draft: over. Free agency: mostly done, save for a few recognizable names and some bottom-of-the-roster moves.
Where do all the teams stand with full training camps two months away?
Pete Carroll, the NFL's own Benjamin Button, will turn 63 in September. Last season, he became the third-oldest coach in league history to win a Super Bowl; he could jump Dick Vermeil on that list with a repeat title in 2014 -- only Vermeil (63 when the Rams won it all) and Tom Coughlin (65 during the Giants' last championship) currently sit above Carroll.
And good luck trying to dethrone this team. The Seahawks did take a couple of free-agent hits, like losing Golden Tate to Detroit and Chris Clemons to Jacksonville. They also managed to keep DE Michael Bennett, added rookie WRs Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood, and reeled in some high-upside young defenders. Last season's 13-3 record may be tough to match in the brutal NFC West, but anything shy of a playoff berth would be shocking.
Maybe 2014 will be Peyton Manning's last season. Or maybe he will hang around until he's 50. "I think as soon as I stop enjoying it," Manning said during Super Bowl week of when he would consider retirement, "if I can’t produce, if I can’t help a team, that’s when I will stop playing."
We are not privy to Manning's football-enjoyment level, but that whole production thing? The Broncos scored 606 points last season with Manning at QB, and they may not even notice that Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno are playing elsewhere with Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer joining Montee Ball on offense.
3. San Francisco
If you have ever watched the show Shark Tank, you no doubt have had that "Why didn't I think of that?!" moment as someone strikes a $250,000 deal for a company that produces glow-in-the-dark deodorant or beer-flavored water. Some NFL front offices probably feel your pain tracking 49ers GM Trent Baalke. Stevie Johnson for a conditional fourth-round pick ... Carlos Hyde late in Round 2 ... Chris Borland in Round 4 ... Shayne Skov as an undrafted free agent. The list of savvy moves goes on and on and on.
4. Green Bay
Let's not forget that the Packers went 8-7-1 and won the NFC North in 2013 with Matt Flynn and a duct-taped-together Aaron Rodgers splitting QB duties. They then entered this offseason needing upgrades at a pass-rusher spot, safety, tight end, wide receiver and defensive end. Put five check marks on the board, especially if Julius Peppers thrives as a newcomer off the edge and talented but troubled TE Colt Lyerla takes advantage of his second chance.
5. New England
"Well, I feel like we improved our team today," Bill Belichick said to open his post-draft press conference. "We'll see how it all goes."
Nonchalant but apropos given the Patriots' draft strategy, which fell somewhere between speculative and fruitless. A star or two may emerge -- Dominique Easley being the leader in the clubhouse. For now, though, the Patriots will go to battle with a roster that's one Darrelle Revis-for-Aqib Talib switcheroo from looking almost identical to the 2013 version. Of course, that team came within one win of a Super Bowl berth.
6. New Orleans
The spring game remains a phenomenon of college football, but Rob Ryan's defense versus Sean Payton's and Drew Brees' offense would be worth the price of admission should the Saints ever allow such an event to transpire. Saints fans will have to settle for dreaming about a Super Bowl resurgence, carried by this thought: Ryan's defense can more than hold its own paired with the Payton-Brees attack.
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Dismiss the 2013 Cardinals as a smoke-and-mirrors job at your own peril. Head coach Bruce Arians believes the 6-2 closing stretch -- and, in particular, how his offense improved during that run -- may be a sign of things to come.
"I thought the last eight games we were real close," Arians said at the combine. "We were playing the way we wanted to play the second half of the season."
The fate of this year's team rests with QB Carson Palmer. Because of the Cardinals' top-10 defense, Palmer does not need to win games by his lonesome; last year, with 22 interceptions to just 24 touchdowns, he did too much to hold Arizona back.
Among the most amazing stats from the 2013 season: Philadelphia third-string QB Matt Barkley threw twice as many interceptions (four) as starter Nick Foles (two), despite attempting 268 fewer passes. Barkley obviously will leave that tidbit off his resume, but Foles' performance is perhaps the main reason for continued Eagles optimism. Well, Foles' performance and a talented offense that has added Darren Sproles and Jordan Matthews.
Someone, somewhere has made the Andy Dalton-is-Timothy Dalton leap, right? Sure, Licence to Kill is watchable because James Bond flicks are entertaining and that title is brilliant and there's a conveyor belt that pulverizes cocaine, but the movie probably would have been so much better with a different actor playing 007.
Similar tale in Cincinnati for the quarterbacking Dalton, who has made the playoffs in all three of his NFL seasons and definitely is at least a middle-of-the-road NFL starter. Yet, until Dalton proves otherwise, there will be the lingering feeling that he's holding this team back from greatness.
The Bears ranked 30th in total defense and dead last against the run last season, so changes were inevitable up front. Out are Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton and Henry Melton (who missed 13 games to injury); arriving are Jared Allen, Willie Young, rookies Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson, and the wholly underappreciated Lamarr Houston. Will the changes work? Hey, it can't be worse.
A full-scale meltdown in Weeks 16 and 17 kept the Ravens from a playoff berth last season -- they committed a combined seven turnovers and allowed an average of 37.5 points while losing to New England and Cincinnati. Somewhere, Ray Lewis snapped a tree in half just thinking about that defensive slump. Don't bank on a repeat, not with the arrivals of WR Steve Smith, LB C.J. Mosley and S Terrence Brooks.
Granted, this is low for a team with back-to-back 11-win seasons and a superstar at quarterback. But aside from wide receiver and maybe an inside linebacker spot, where have the Colts improved? If the answer proves to be "nowhere," it will become increasingly difficult for Indianapolis to maintain the current gap between itself and the rest of the AFC South.
Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller and Troy Polamalu have seemingly been playing together since this franchise was known as the Pirates and played at Forbes Field. The inevitable roster turnover that occurred in 2012 and '13 led to more frustration than the Steelers have come to know recently. There's finally a light at the end of the tunnel again, with as much effort being spent on building up the depth chart as tiptoeing around the cap -- good news given that Roethlisberger's championship window is closing steadily.
This ranking makes Carolina fans the leader in the clubhouse as Angriest Power Rankings Readers (at least until Kansas City comes on the board). Counter-point to the forthcoming expletives: At No. 14, Carolina is among those teams expected to contend for a playoff spot, led by its dynamite front seven and Cam Newton. The positioning is down a few notches from 2013 because the line and WR corps remain mysteries.
15. San Diego
The Chargers' Round 1 selection of Jason Verrett was swept away a bit between the Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater hoopla, but there may not have been a better fit of team need-to-player within the entire draft. Now, if San Diego can just keep Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney healthy and find anyone to help Keenan Allen at WR (lookin' your way, Malcom Floyd), this team might be in business.
16. New York Jets
Good news: Rex Ryan confirmed during the NFL meetings in March that he still had that Mark Sanchez tattoo on his right arm. Better news, for the Jets and Ryan: Sanchez's spot on the depth chart now belong to Michael Vick, who might elevate this team to the playoffs if he can surpass Geno Smith.
17. Kansas City
Last we saw the Chiefs, they were busy bumbling away a 28-point lead en route to a playoff loss at Indianapolis. On that outcome alone, I'm going to request that they win us all over again as contenders, even more so after their O-line was depleted this offseason. Fair? Maybe not, but I don't make the power rankings rules. (I totally make the rules. Rule No. 1: Do not talk about Write Club, which is what I call professional journalism.)
Best of luck, Teryl Austin. Detroit's new defensive coordinator has to deal with questions about the futures of Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh; a lack of depth at defensive end; an unproven -- and much-maligned -- secondary; and facing the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler multiple times a season. On the flip side, Austin might only need to hold opponents under 40 if the Lions' Arena Football League offense shines.
19. New York Giants
Eli Manning was sacked more times last season (39) than in any other season in his career, threw more interceptions last season (27) than in any other season in his career, then required ankle surgery last month. Either that was a Murphy's Law stretch -- anything that can go wrong will -- or the Giants had best start planning for life after Manning.
20. St. Louis
Not going to sit here and tell the Rams how to run their offense, but ... well, handing off to Tre Mason and letting him run behind Greg Robinson worked out pretty well for Auburn last season. Handing off to Zac Stacy and letting him run behind Greg Robinson is another option. Or giving it to Tavon Austin behind Greg Robinson. I guess the main point here is that Greg Robinson can block.
The Falcons' 2013 season was like watching an 8-year-old try to win "Oregon Trail" as the farmer -- you knew something would go wrong but the entertainment was in seeing what it might be. By Week 12, after the wagon had tipped over in a river and Julio Jones died of dysentery (I think that's what happened), there was nothing left for Atlanta to do but wait for 2014. The offense will bounce back, if everyone stays healthy. How well will the defense adjust under its new 3-4 scheme?
The Dolphins have finished 6-8, 7-9 or 8-8 in each of the past five seasons, with the lone .500 mark landing last season. Here's a prediction: Miami will not be stuck in average-team purgatory this year. Whether that means a 10-win season and postseason breakthrough or a slip down the charts spurred by O-line issues remains to be seen.
All those Johnny Manziel draft rumors felt positively Jerry Jones-esque. What happened instead was a far more prudent tactic for the Cowboys: seven of nine picks (including all five in Round 7) spent on defense, plus a pass on Manziel for G/T Zack Martin. Three straight 8-8 seasons speak to this team's middling status. Getting back to the basics is not an awful idea.
More or less everything here is pointing in the right direction -- new head coach, potential new franchise quarterback, solid foundation on offense and defense. The NFC North is not on par with the NFC West, but the Vikings are facing a similar challenge to the Rams in that they have dipped behind their rivals in a competitive division. St. Louis does not have Teddy Bridgewater.
25. Tampa Bay
Hopefully, everyone scored their tickets to the Lovie Smith Bandwagon before it filled up, because there is a chance Tampa Bay is this season's Kansas City. Expecting an overnight fix to all that ailed the Buccaneers is asking a lot, however. And that's mainly because despite an all-offense draft, the QB competition still will pit Josh McCown and Mike Glennon. Neither stands out as a Pro Bowler.
Took a casual Twitter poll this week of which team should be ranked No. 32 following the draft. Tennessee received more votes than every team but Oakland and Jacksonville. I'm not sure the situation is quite that dire, but with a cloudy future surrounding Jake Locker; Chris Johnson and Alterraun Verner exiting and some debatable fits for the team's new 3-4 defense, there certainly is cause for concern.
The impulse will be to expect a Johnny Manziel-led surge to the playoffs. Let's all breathe for a second. Manziel first has to wrestle the QB job from Brian Hoyer (he will), but the Browns also have to break in a new coaching staff and find someone -- anyone -- to play wide receiver. There is hope for 2014 ... and great potential for 2015.
This is starting to get difficult because there appear to be several teams in the five-to-seven win range, none standing out as a potential 2-14 club like Houston was last season. The Jaguars, stockpiled with a bunch of newcomers for Gus Bradley's defensive front, could push the upper portion of that win range. That is if Chad Henne or Blake Bortles takes the offense and runs with it, and if either Marqise Lee or Allen Robinson emerges as a rookie star.
The trade for Sammy Watkins gives off the impression that the Bills view themselves as far closer to contention than most outside of Buffalo do. Keep in mind that this is still an extremely youthful team and that many key positions -- QB EJ Manuel and defensive leader Kiko Alonso were 2013 draft picks -- were filled in the past three years. Can the pieces click quickly enough to make this season interesting?
Again, what I was getting at in the Jacksonville write-up: Do any teams stand out as truly bad right now? Washington has enough in place, with RGIII entering Season III and DeSean Jackson joining him, to be competitive in the NFC East. The Redskins are buried down here, though, because they rolled out the 30th-ranked defense last season and did very little to upgrade that unit.
The Black Hole is going to loooooooove Khalil Mack, a hard-nosed defender with a massive chip on his shoulder. Raiders fans should be digging GM Reggie McKenzie a lot more these days too, on the heels of what's been a productive offseason. McKenzie's moves should give Oakland a shot to compete this year and, more importantly, provide the building blocks for a better future. This is not a one-year fix. McKenzie seems to grasp that.
32. HoustonHouston might have been at least a five- or six-win team last season with more competent QB play. And it honestly could be a playoff contender in 2014 ... except that it still is searching for competent QB play. Bill O'Brien has a great track record of work with the quarterback position, but O'Brien whispering "I believe in you" into Case Keenum's ear will not magically turn Keenum into Tom Brady.