- As the draft ends and free agency winds down, most teams have a pretty good picture of their Week 1 rosters. Which teams look like Super Bowl contenders? And who has done the most this spring to improve their chances?
All 32 NFL teams will say they got better this off-season, and as much as we poke fun at that cliché this time of year, all 32 NFL teams are probably right.
Most contracts are engineered to allow teams to cut bait just as players stop adding value, as evidenced by the roster attrition that takes place just before the new league year opens. Add in the fascination with tinkering shared by fans and front offices alike, and you have talent churn en masse, usually for the better. The teams looking to climb the standings (or maintain their place at the top) know the success of their transactions only matters relative to the success of their opponents’ moves—they need to beat the curve, or else they’ll end up treading water at best.
So with free agency and the draft settled, who beat the curve this year? This off-season edition of Power Rankings sets the pecking order heading into the summer and recognizes the teams that made the most significant upgrades since the lights went down on Super Bowl LI.
Beat the curve. ... But just barely, and largely on the strength of not messing up the Myles Garrett pick at No. 1. Garrett and Swiss army knife Jabrill Peppers can fill a few different holes in the defense, but not nearly all of them. DeShone Kizer taking in the entire 2017 campaign from the sidelines would be the Browns’ best-case scenario, and in cutting ties with Gary Barnidge they’re showing faith in David Njoku’s NFL readiness that many draft analysts don’t share.
Didn’t beat the curve. Mitchell Trubisky vs. Mike Glennon is the early favorite to be this summer’s saddest quarterback competition, but the post-Alshon Jeffrey receiving corps could end up being the ball and chain that keeps this offense from making noise, especially if Kevin White again can’t stay healthy.
Didn’t beat the curve. Los Angeles has spent a total of seven draft picks on tight ends and wide receivers in the last two drafts, and last year’s crop (Pharoh Cooper, Tyler Higbee, Temarrick Hemingway and Mike Thomas) combined for 28 catches for 228 yards. Rookie wideouts Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds have the talent to pass that total in one game, but if the signing of left tackle Andrew Whitworth isn’t enough to stabilize last fall’s dreadful offensive line, Jared Goff will be too shook to get any of them the ball.
Beat the curve. That O-line could still crater Blake Bortles’s make-or-break season in Jacksonville, but by grabbing Leonard Fournette with the No. 4 pick the Jags are trying to leave no doubt their QB has been given every resource for success. Bortles may have to put the team on his shoulders anyway early on: Five of the Jaguars’ first six opponents ranked in the top half of the league in rushing yards allowed per attempt last year.
Didn’t beat the curve. After playing the Redskins to a draw in London in Week 8, the Bengals lost five games by five points or less down the stretch. That likely informed the back-to-back selections of the best playmaker available in John Ross and Joe Mixon with Cincy’s first two draft picks. Maybe there was a push from above to give the offense under Andy Dalton one more jolt before patience runs out with Marvin Lewis, who has only posted back-to-back losing seasons once in 14 years as Bengals coach.
Beat the curve. According to Philly.com, Jordan Matthews is one of just eight receivers since 2000 to top 60 catches and 700 yards in each of his first three seasons. It will be fascinating to see how many targets free-agent signees Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith siphon away from Matthews this fall, especially if he gets passed over for a contract extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal.
Didn’t beat the curve. The inches by which Antonio Brown broke the plane of the goal line on Christmas night turned a season of contention into a misleading three-game gap between Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the final standings. The Ravens had been creeping toward the bottom third of the league in sacks over the past few years, and Day 2 picks Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams can help turn that trend around immediately off the edge.
Beat the curve. Gus Bradley might have been L.A.’s best acquisition of the spring—the defense might threaten top-10 numbers under the direction of the ex-Jaguars coach. The Chargers couldn’t help themselves in the first round of the draft, grabbing Mike Williams to give Philip Rivers yet another big target, but the rest of their moves were quiet and necessary, particularly the second-day selections of interior linemen Forrest Lamp (provided his services aren’t needed at tackle) and Dan Feeney.
Didn’t beat the curve. If both stay healthy, first-rounder Marshon Lattimore and third-year pro Delvin Breaux could be New Orleans’s best cornerback tandem in a long time. Lattimore is physical enough to grow into a worthy adversary for divisional rivals like Julio Jones and Mike Evans, and Breaux has come a long way since this gif from two years ago.
Didn’t beat the curve. Christian McCaffrey is more runner than receiver, Curtis Samuel is more receiver than runner, and together they should allow Mike Shula to cook up some weird backfield combinations down the road. Undersized fifth-round pick Corn Elder and veteran Captain Munnerlyn were the only significant additions to the cornerback group, a sign of faith in the three players Dave Gettleman drafted there last year in the wake of the Josh Norman breakup.
Beat the curve. The Bills may very well be a mess, but with a strong draft in the books, Tyrod Taylor under center and new coach Sean McDermott calling the shots—both on the field and up and down the roster, at least until the team finds a replacement for ex-GM Doug Whaley—they could easily be a 9–7, playoff-contending mess. There are wins to be had on that schedule before December, when Buffalo crams in two games each against the Patriots and Dolphins.
Beat the curve. Declining Teddy Bridgewater’s fifth-year option this week is mostly just a sign of how far he still has to go in his recovery: His contract, including the option, tolls to 2018 if he spends at least the first six games of this year on the PUP list. The addition of Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook (and the subtraction of LT Matt Kalil) could make Sam Bradford’s life a little easier, to say nothing of having more than a week of preseason prep to learn the offense.
Didn’t beat the curve. By passing on a quarterback in the draft, Arizona is betting on Carson Palmer’s ability to age gracefully, although at 37 last year he posted his lowest yards per attempt (7.1) since 2012, his final season as a Raider. Speedy linebacker Haason Reddick and hyperactive safety Budda Baker are early-round coups for Arizona’s aggressive defense.
Beat the curve. The Brock Osweiler trade showed the Texans were done being passive about their standing within the upper mediocrity of the AFC, and they came out of the first three rounds with three productive college stars in Deshaun Watson, D’Onta Foreman and Zach Cunningham, all three of which should make them better immediately. If Watson wins the starting job coming out of the preseason, he should have the inside track to Rookie of the Year.
Beat the curve. Indy spent the first two days of the draft on defense, stopping ballhawking safety Malik Hooker’s slide into the middle of Round 1. On the other side of the ball, don’t sleep on Kamar Aiken, who signed a pretty modest one-year, $2.6 million deal after falling off the radar in Baltimore but could vault the crowded field vying for No. 2 duties behind T.Y. Hilton.
Didn’t beat the curve. As long as bargain signing Luke Joeckel gets back in time from knee surgery, the Seahawks could be starting a pair of tackles who played guard last season in Week 1. Probably not ideal, but it’d be an upgrade over forcing George Fant to man to blind side again while he continues to learn football on the fly.
Beat the curve. Allow me to be the only person on the internet to tell you to hold your horses on the coronation of O.J. Howard. He caught just seven touchdowns in four years at Alabama; you have to go back 10 years to find a draft where the first tight end off the board scored less often in college. On the other hand, that tight end was Greg Olsen, who found the end zone six times in three years at Miami. Either way, Tampa Bay was wise to load Jameis Winston up with options this spring outside of their athletic first-round pick.
Didn’t beat the curve. Miami was the last team in the draft to spend a pick on an offensive player (athletic guard Isaac Asiata went No. 164), a sign that the organization believes the midseason run Ryan Tannehill was on before his left knee injury (69.1% completion rate, 13 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 7–1 record—with a big, big assist from Jay Ajayi) was a glimpse of something sustainable under the direction of Adam Gase.
Beat the curve. Marcus Mariota’s season-cratering fractured fibula and the Texans’ multi-game stay in the playoffs has overshadowed the fact that the Titans were the most talented team in the AFC South by the end of last season. Nos. 1 and 15 on the FBS’s all-time receiving yards leaderboard, Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor, will be waiting for him when he returns to full health.
Didn’t beat the curve. Signing Brandon Marshall, drafting Evan Engram and handing the running game over to Paul Perkins should make New York’s offense consistently fun. But will the defense still have Dallas’s number without Johnathan Hankins in the middle? Lucky for us, NBC and the NFL have no sense of imagination when it comes to scheduling, so that question will be answered on Sunday Night Football to cap Week 1.
Didn’t beat the curve. With no major holes to fill, the Steelers paid Antonio Brown (four-year extension) and Le’Veon Bell (franchise tag), and Ben Roethlisberger put his nebulous retirement plans on hold. Their rookie class could provide the depth (at some positions they were already pretty strong in) to widen the gap in the AFC North, but will Pittsburgh’s Big Three ever all make it to January in one piece?
Didn’t beat the curve. The jury’s still out on the net effects of the Raiders’ defense-heavy spending spree from a year ago. No high-impact moves were made to beef up the front seven that failed to sack Brock Osweiler in a humbling wild-card round loss to the Texans, and first-rounder Gareon Conley’s contributions to an underwhelming cornerback group as a rookie are contingent on his avoiding charges in the wake of rape allegations the week of the draft. Whether Oakland’s relatively quiet spring was an indicator of patience or a lack of easy answers remains to be seen.
Beat the curve. Atlanta didn’t need to mess with much on the roster, but Dontari Poe and first-rounder Takk McKinley add stoutness and speed, respectively, to a defensive line that nearly made the difference in the Super Bowl. Kyle Shanahan’s departure is the big question mark, but you don’t have to go back very far to find a contender that won it all with two first-year coordinators: The Broncos won Super Bowl 50 the same year Rick Dennison and Wade Phillips were tabbed to replace Adam Gase and Jack Del Rio when they got head coaching gigs.
Didn’t beat the curve. Get ready to hear a lot about Chaz Green. After Dallas passed on drafting any O-linemen, he’s the assumed front-runner to assume starting right tackle duties from the retired Doug Free. Green was a third-round pick in 2015 but has managed just two starts and four total appearances in the two seasons since—back surgery landed him on IR in December. Free-agent pickup Byron Bell or mauling guard La’el Collins could step in if Green can’t meet that unit’s high standards.
Beat the curve. The defending champs were so aggressive addressing both sides of the ball this spring it felt like they were sending a message. In burning their first-round pick to get Brandon Cooks from the Saints, the Pats continued to make their style of play ever harder to duplicate: Cooks is 5' 10", just like New England’s top two 2016 receptions leaders Julian Edelman and James White.