Surprise, surprise -- the Patriots are still the team to beat

Rick Gosselin

Editor’s note: Rick Gosselin enters his 45th season reporting on the NFL in 2017. He has covered the Lions, Giants, Chiefs and Cowboys in his career plus 34 Super Bowls. He has served on the Hall of Fame selection committee for 22 years and is a member of both the senior and contributor subcommittees. He also is one of 12 voters for the AP 32, the weekly ranking of NFL teams conducted by The Associated Press. Those polls begin in September, but here is how Gosselin has the NFL teams stacked as they head to training camps this month:

  1. New England. The Patriots went 17-2 last season on the way to their fifth Lombardi Trophy. With the additions of Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore, middle linebacker David Harris, wide receiver Brandin Cooks and tight end Dwayne Allen, New England appears to be even more formidable on paper this season.
  2. Oakland. The Raiders snapped a 13-year playoff drought last season when they finished 12-4 for an AFC wild card. With a healthy Derek Carr, plus playmakers Marshawn Lynch and Amari Cooper on offense and Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin providing the edge rush on defense, the Raiders are as talented as any team west of the Massachusetts state line.
  3. Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers is the only quarterback in NFL history with a career passer efficiency rating over 100. He’s the reason Green Bay has won five of the last six NFC North titles. And he has a new offensive toy this season in tight end Martellus Bennett to team with his incumbent playmakers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson.
  4. Atlanta. The Falcons have the reigning NFL MVP in Matt Ryan but play in the NFL’s most competitive division. Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff addressed the defensive collapse of the Falcons in the Super Bowl by signing a pair of linemen in free agency, tackle Dontari Poe and end Jack Crawford, and drafting a pair of linebackers with his first two picks in Takk McKinley and Duke Riley.
  5. Tennessee. The Titans have the best offensive line in the AFC, anchored by first-round tackles Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan, and AFC rushing champ DeMarco Murray running behind them. Free agent Eric Decker and first-round draft pick Corey Davis will upgrade the passing game and give Marcus Mariota better options.
  6. Dallas. Eight starters from their NFC semifinal playoff appearance are gone, including two offensive linemen and three defensive backs, and a ninth starter will sit the opening month of the 2017 season with an NFL suspension (DE David Irving). The Cowboys will go as far as sophomore Pro Bowlers Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott will take them. Last season, that was the top seed in the NFC.
  7. Seattle. Russell Wilson is only 28, and he’s already taken the Seahawks to two Super Bowls. But the thrust of championship contention comes from the defense, where Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor serve as the backbone of the Legion of Boom. Add jumbo rookie tackle Malik McDowell to the mix in 2017.
  8. NY Giants. Eli Manning is 35, and the Giants are going all in in 2017 in a bid to get him his third Super Bowl ring. They signed veteran Pro Bowl WR Brandon Marshall to pair with Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard on the flank and used a first-round draft pick on pass-catching tight end Evan Engram. The Giants already have a Top-10 defense.
  9. Miami. Derek Carr took the Raiders to the playoffs last season, but an injury kept him out of the post-season. The same fate befell Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins. Both teams lost in the opening round without their triggers. Like the Packers and Giants this offseason, the Dolphins gave their franchise quarterback a potential impact tight end in Julius Thomas. Miami hopes to upgrade the NFL’s 29th ranked defense with first-round pass rusher Charles Harris and free agent LB Lawrence Timmons.
  10. Detroit. There are only five quarterbacks in NFL history who passed for 5,000 yards in a single season, and Matthew Stafford is one of them. The Lions invested $76 million in protecting Stafford this season with the signings of free-agent offensive linemen Rickey Wagner and T.J. Lang. Detroit used its first two draft picks on LB Jarrad Davis and CB Teez Tabor to bolster the NFL’s 18th ranked defense.
  11. Pittsburgh. The offensive trio of QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown is among the most prolific in the NFL. Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls, Brown has won the last three receiving titles and Bell an AFC rushing title. If Roethlisberger can stay healthy, the Steelers will again be in the mix this season. But he hasn’t played a 16-game season since 2014.
  12. Kansas City. The Chiefs traded up to select QB Patrick Mahomes in the Top 10 of the 2017 draft. So how soon does coach Andy Reid put him on the field? Alex Smith quarterbacked the Chiefs to a 12-4 finish and an AFC West championship last season. KC has playmakers galore on defense with CB Marcus Peters, FS Eric Berry and pass rusher Dee Ford.
  13. Tampa Bay. With QB Jameis Winston, WR Mike Evans and TE O.J. Howard, the Buccaneers have one of the best young offensive casts in football. Free agent DeSean Jackson adds a dynamic downfield threat to the attack. If RB Doug Martin can bounce back from a sub-par 2016 campaign, Tampa Bay will be one of the more fun teams to watch this season.
  14. Houston. No coach has done more with less at quarterback these last two years than Bill O’Brien. He’s won games with six different starters and captured back-to-back AFC South crowns. He may have found his quarterback now in first-round draft pick DeShaun Watson, while the Texans have the NFL’s best defender back this season in J.J. Watt. He missed 13 games a year ago with injuries.
  15. Indianapolis. QB Andrew Luck has the arm and ability to solve problems on offense, and new GM Chris Ballard used the draft to address his team’s defensive woes. The Colts used their first three picks on defenders – safety Malik Hooker in the first round, cornerback Quincy Wilson in the second round and pass rusher Tarell Basham in the third.
  16. Arizona. Only two teams finished in the NFL’s Top 10 in both offense and defense last season. The Patriots, who won 14 games and the Super Bowl, and the Cardinals, who won just seven games and missed the playoffs. Arizona took two offseason hits with the free-agent defections of DE Calais Campbell and safety Tony Jefferson, and the Cardinals will be asking a lot of a 37-year-old quarterback (Carson Palmer) and a 34-year-old wide receiver (Larry Fitzgerald).
  17. Washington. QB Kirk Cousins rides herd on a Top-3 offense, missing by 83 yards n 2016 the chance to become only the sixth quarterback in NFL history with 5,000 yards passing in a single season. But it’s the defense that needed to be fixed. The Redskins signed Dallas run stuffer Terrell McClain in free agency and then drafted Alabama stalwarts DE Jonathan Allen and OLB Ryan Anderson with their top two draft picks last April.
  18. Minnesota. Adrian Peterson is gone, and the Vikings can replace him in the backfield with second-round draft pick Dalvin Cook or former Pro Bowler Latavius Murray. But it will again be Mike Zimmer’s defense that maximizes the Vikings as a contender. Minnesota ranked third in the NFL in defense a year ago. With DE Everson Griffen, DT Linval Joseph, OLB Anthony Barr, CB Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith, the Vikings are stacked on D.
  19. Carolina. So, were the real Carolina Panthers the 15-1 NFC champions of 2015 … or the 6-10 alsorans of 2016? It depends which Cam Newton shows up this season. He passed and ran for 45 touchdowns in his MVP season in 2015 but managed to generate only 24 such TDs in 2016.
  20. Baltimore. GM Ozzie Newsome is rebuilding the Ravens in the image of the team that won Super Bowls for Baltimore – defense first, last and always. Newsome signed safety Tony Jefferson and CB Brandon Carr in free agency and spent his first four draft picks on defense – CB Marlon Humphrey, pass rushers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams and tackle Chris Wormley.
  21. Philadelphia. Rookie QB Carson Wentz was limited in his rookie season by his weapons…or rather the lack thereof. He threw only 16 TD passes and averaged barely six yards per pass attempt. So the Eagles signed veteran Pro Bowl WR Alshon Jeffery in free agency. They also used a first-round draft pick on pass rusher Derek Barnett.
  22. New Orleans. At 38, Drew Brees continues to put up Hall-of-Fame numbers. He now ranks third all-time in both passing yards and touchdowns. But his Saints haven’t won a division title in the last five years and haven’t qualified for the playoffs in the last four. Defense (27th in the NFL in 2016) continues to hold New Orleans back.
  23. Cincinnati. Marvin Lewis has been coach of the Bengals for 14 seasons but has never won a playoff game. Andy Dalton has been quarterback of the Bengals for six seasons. He also has never won a playoff game. Cincinnati took a hit this offseason, losing two starting offensive linemen in free agency, but hopes to counter with increased offensive firepower in rookies WR John Ross and HB Joe Mixon.
  24. Denver. With instability at the quarterback position, defense will continue to carry the Broncos. They fielded the best defense in the NFL on the way to a Super Bowl championship in 2015 and remained in the Top 5 in 2016 ... but only had a 9-7 non-playoff season to show for it. Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch will again vie for the QB spot in training camp.
  25. Buffalo. The Bills have not been to the playoffs since 1999 – the longest post-season drought in the NFL. This offseason they lost their best defensive player, Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore, to the team they annually chase in the East – the Patriots. Buffalo needs Tom Brady to retire.
  26. Jacksonville. For the second consecutive offseason, the Jaguars made the biggest waves in free agency, spending $67 million on a cornerback (A.J. Bouye) and $60 million more on a pass rusher (Calais Campbell). But the best addition figures to be rookie RB Leonard Fournette, who should take the pressure off QB Blake Bortles to make all the plays on offense.
  27. San Francisco. The 49ers have a new coach (Kyle Shanahan), a new GM (John Lynch) and an overhauled roster for 2017, with hopes of erasing the stench of a 2-14 season. Newcomers include veterans QB Brian Hoyer, WR Pierre Garcon and G Jeremy Zuttah on offense and rookies DE Solomon Thomas and LB Reuben Foster on defense.
  28. LA Chargers. The Chargers have a new city (Los Angeles) and a new coach (Anthony Lynn). They also have an aging quarterback. But Philip Rivers is their only chance to be competitive in the West. The Chargers used high draft picks on two guards, Forrest Lamb and Dan Feeney, to help protect him.
  29. Cleveland. This is an unforgiving division with Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore annual playoff and Super Bowl contenders. All have veteran Pro Bowl quarterbacks in place heading into camp. The Browns do not, although they could be fun to watch on defense with rookie pass rusher Myles Garrett.
  30. Chicago. The Bears spent $45 million in the offseason to sign free agent QB Mike Glennon, then traded up for the second overall pick of the 2017 draft to claim Mitch Trubisky. The Bears finished 3-13 a year ago and will now turn the offense over to a less experienced quarterback, whoever he may be.
  31. LA Rams. Did the Rams make the right choice at the top of the 2016 draft with Jared Goff? Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott showed far more promise as rookie quarterbacks a year ago. This could be a long climb back for the Rams, who have the NFL’s youngest head coach now in Sean McVay.
  32. NY Jets. Twelve starters are gone from opening day 2016, including the household names Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall, David Harris and Nick Mangold. This will be a rebuilding year for the Jets as they get younger and, very likely, worse than the team that finished 5-11 last season.

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