With free agency and the draft behind us, Chris Burke checks in on all 32 teams with some way-too-early NFL power rankings as 2016 OTAs kick off.
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The wait for football through the dog days of summer can feel interminable. Fear not. There are a mere 74 days remaining until the Hall of Fame Game between the Packers and Colts kicks off the preseason.
With the draft in the rearview and OTAs underway, now is as good a time as any to check out how all 32 teams stack up. Here’s our first set of 2016 Power Rankings.
The Panthers dropped one of the surprises of the off-season when they told Josh Norman they’d like to see other people (been there, Josh). Norman was in the Defensive Player of the Year mix for most of last season, but the defending NFC champs can overcome his absence thanks to a deep group of DTs, a remarkably athletic linebacking corps and an offense that could be even better than it was in racking up a league-best 500 points last season.
Denver produced two 1,000-yard receivers last season, so it’s not like the defending champs punted on first down and waited for the defense to score. But the Peyton Manning/Brock Osweiler combo did come with obvious limitations. Will a Mark Sanchez/Paxton Lynch 1-2 punch put even more pressure on the defense?
The Bengals have produced four straight double-digit win seasons and have won two of three AFC North titles. It is almost a foregone conclusion that they will be steady in the regular season again. Anyone feel like guaranteeing anything beyond that? Doubt it, given this team’s playoff history.
A question that will require some thought to answer: Were the Chiefs on the upswing last year (11 wins, divisional round trip) or was that the peak with their current corps? For now, they will be a popular pick to swipe the AFC West out from under Denver.
Even with first-rounder Germain Ifedi arriving, the offensive line still projects to be a mess—it’s the reason why Seattle’s expectations are tempered here. The Seahawks drafted RBs C.J. Prosise, Alex Collins and Zac Brooks, plus signed QB Trevone Boykin. I’m not going to tell Pete Carroll how to do his job, but I’m also not going to stop him if he wants to eliminate his line altogether for a two-QB, five-RB scheme.
Bill O’Brien milked nine wins and a division title out of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden, which is like getting a platinum record out of the non-Justin Timberlake members of ’N Sync. Brock Osweiler is being paid to provide more than a moderate improvement, but even if he barely tops the 2015 quartet, the Texans remain a threat in the AFC South.
Ezekiel Elliott can match the hype. The 1,300 yards from scrimmage and 10 TDs Todd Gurley accumulated in an abbreviated rookie season should be attainable, and then some. So, if Tony Romo’s Mr. Potato Head arm can stay attached, the Cowboys’ offense will be explosive. Pairing it with a halfway-decent defense would tip the NFC East scales.
Blaming all of last season on Andrew Luck’s injury ignores the Colts’ other problems and how mediocre they were when he did play. Getting Luck back to 100% gives Indianapolis a chance each week, but it still won’t be easy sailing. The schedule is littered with difficult stretches, too.
Starting next off-season, Jay Cutler’s $126 million contract becomes very expendable—Chicago could save $14 million of a $16 million cap hit by cutting Cutler ahead of the 2017 season. Cutler can give the organization pause by building on last year, and doing so alongside a vastly improved roster.
By just about all accounts, embattled GM Jerry Reese upgraded his team at a number of key spots: defensive end, defensive tackle, wide receiver (Sterling Shepard will be a stud). If the O-line cannot find its footing, though, Reese could be looking for a new gig within a few months.
Weird few days for the Bills. GM Doug Whaley said that “personally, I don’t think humans are supposed to play” football; the Bills’ PR staff put the kibosh on any media reports from OTAs; and the team revealed that first-round pick Shaq Lawson would be out several months with a shoulder issue. That last note is a huge one, because the Bills are once again short a pass rusher to team with Jerry Hughes.
In light of the past two summers, the Jaguars might want to consider holding their OTAs and mini-camps in one of those bouncy castles or a giant ball pit. But assuming Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Dante Fowler all are a go this season, the Jacksonville defense might finally be competitive enough for a real team turnaround
The Jets were anything but a fluky 10-6 last season. They ranked top 10 on offense and defense, with wins over playoff-bound Washington and New England. They also, as of now, would be starting Geno Smith or Christian Hackenberg on opening day. Hit pause on their outlook until Ryan Fitzpatrick re-signs.
Was Jared Goff the missing piece for the consistently near-.500 Rams? In time, he very well might be, and Todd Gurley already is an elite running back. In year one? Gonna be a stretch. Outside of the quarterback spot, it’s hard to see where this 7-9 club got any better.
The Lions’ 6-2 close to the 2015 season just so happened to coincide with Jim Bob Cooter’s promotion to offensive coordinator, thus giving everyone carte blanche to say the name ”Jim Bob Cooter” as much as possible. All Cooter has to do now that he has the permanent gig is craft a creative scheme around a Megatron-less depth chart.
A 7-9 record actually is not all that poor when your general strategy seems to be “just have the ball last.” The law of averages says that the Saints’ defense has to improve one of these years, but you’re in sparsely populated territory if you want to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Have you seen the Falcons’ schedule? After a home opener with Tampa Bay, they play four of five on the road (Oakland, New Orleans, Denver, Seattle) plus a home date vs. Carolina. If Atlanta repeats last season’s 6-1 start, push Dan Quinn atop the Coach of the Year list.
The Dolphins should be several spots higher than this—they have a loaded front four on defense and a ton of weapons in the passing game. Realistically, however, their 2016 chances hinge almost entirely on if Adam Gase can elevate Ryan Tannehill out of the Land of Very Average.
The O-line injury problems were so surreal last season that by Week 17 the protection for Philip Rivers essentially was Joe Barksdale standing there saying “Hodor” over and over again. The pieces, when healthy, are not bad ... but this is still the fourth best team in the AFC West right now.
Chip Kelly’s arrival should be great news for RB Carlos Hyde, who could see a bump from 470 yards rushing last season to 1,000-plus this year. It might be good news for Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick. It is a horrendous development for the 49ers’ defense, which kept this team far more competitive than it should have been last season.
The Titans have their quarterback, Marcus Mariota, and also put together many of the elements they need for a power-run attack. How well those two pieces mesh remains to be seen. This rebuild is just beginning to show signs of completion.
We’ll need a couple years before any determinations on the new Cleveland regime can be made. Vehemently hitting the reset button is not the worst of things, though, so long as the front office commits in full to a patient track. And so long as owner Jimmy Haslam allows that.