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Preseason NFL Power Rankings

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How high can the Denver Broncos climb? Here is a pre-training camp NFL power rankings list.

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NFL: Cleveland Browns at Denver Broncos
Can the Broncos finish number 1?
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to 2019!

We’ve officially reached the apex of the hype train, where most fanbases believe they’re two or three good breaks away from bringing home the Lombardi. You may be asking yourself how much has changed since my post-Draft power rankings? In all honesty, a few key free agents, a couple bad injuries, and a lot of dead season drama.

What’s most impacted the moves in these rankings are the time I’ve spent studying players who aren’t employed by the Denver Broncos and what I’ve gleaned about other teams in the time I’ve had to cast my eyes around the league as a whole.

The rankings are based upon both their expected finish and how likely they are to contend for the Super Bowl.

Let’s get started.

Better Luck Next Year tier

This is a mix of dumpster fires and rebuilding jobs. These are the teams you watch because they’re “sort of intriguing” or because the alternative is your spouse’s to-do list.

32. Cincinnati Bengals

I don’t get why people root for the cheapest team in football. Year after year, Mike Brown makes it apparent he isn’t serious about fielding a competitive team. They field one of, if not the smallest scouting departments in the league. All things considered, it’s remarkable Marvin Lewis finished his Bengals’ career with a 131-122-3 record.

The highlight (lowlight?) of the Bengals’ OTAs was their efforts to get Billy Hart on the field at right tackle.

Why, I have no idea.

The good (bad) news for this effort: 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams tore a labrum and looks likely to miss his first NFL season. In related first-round news, 2017 pick John Ross has swapped out his No. 15 for No. 11 in his effort to “start everything over.”

Seriously, why do people root for the Bungles?

31. New York Giants

If you’re the kind of person who tunes out the NFL after the Super Bowl, you may have missed the Giants’ Dave Gettleman becoming a bit of a laughingstock around the league since February. The OBJ trade was ridiculed for bringing back a player who could look a lot like Landon Collins if he reaches his ceiling. You know, the same Collins Gettleman allowed to leave for free to a division rival. He spent his three first-round picks on a corner I wouldn’t have touched, a quarterback I had ranked behind an undrafted free agent, and Dexter Lawrence.

If every single thing breaks right for the Giants this year, Eli Manning will serve as a perfect bridge to Daniel Jones while Saquon Barkley becomes the unquestioned No. 1 back in football. Golden Tate, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram, and former Broncos’ bust Cody Latimer or Brown’s bust Corey Coleman will blossom into a quality receiving corps. The defense will get better as the year progresses with all of the young talent starting to match up to their promise in James Betcher’s defense.

More likely, Eli Manning looks like a lame duck and winds up benched by Week 8. Daniel Jones comes in and shows a lot of the same problems that had me and so many others cool on him. The receiving corps badly misses a legitimate Hall of Fame talent and Barkley spends most of his Sundays running into stacked boxes.

You’ll notice I didn’t hammer on Betcher and the defense. I do think he did enough with the talent in Arizona to suggest he’ll be able to help that side of the ball make a small leap from the 24th in DVOA they finished a year ago. Markus Golden will be another year away from a devastating Grade 3 ACL tear, though he did produce 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in Betcher’s D while both were with the Cardinals. Lawrence may have been over-drafted, but offers an incredible amount of athleticism and burst in a 340-pound frame. Janoris Jenkins, Lorenzo Carter, and Jabril Peppers give New York some talented youngsters.

30. Miami Dolphins

All signs point to Ryan Fitzpatrick starting camp as the QB1. Now, I’ll be the first to tell you he definitively outplayed Jameis Winston in 2018, but that doesn’t mean he’s the right choice for this roster.

If Miami’s goal is to look “sort of interesting” with one of the weakest rosters in the league, Fitzmagic could steal a couple games. Long-term planning would suggest it’d be smart for the Phins to see if the former first-round pick they just nabbed for a third could be an interesting backup or even starter going forward.

At present, I fully expect a game of yo-yo to play out between the two as Miami finishes with the third or fourth worst record in the league this season. They’ll wind up missing on the 2020 QB1 and dump both quarterbacks after the year.

Dolphins’ Ryan Fitzpatrick appreciates Marino’s presence | Miami Herald

One Dolphins player said Fitzpatrick has impressed everyone as a leader and that he was clearly the best quarterback in the offseason program. So Josh Rosen will be a clear underdog to begin the season as the starter when camp opens July 25, though Fitzpatrick’s history suggests Rosen will get a chance at some point.

29. Buffalo Bills

It all comes down to second-year quarterback Josh Allen. Buffalo’s ranking this far down the board should make it perfectly clear where I think he can lead the franchise. Buffalo will be more interesting than they’ve been for most of the last decade, but “intriguing bad team” looks like their ceiling to me.

Chances are, Allen will improve some. What would help his cause is if the Buffalo offense fully embraces the evolutionary Tebow side of his game as they did down the stretch last year, and pair it with a real running game.

The Buffalo Bills unlocked Josh Allen’s playmaking ability with empty sets

The plan of attack for the offense was simple once Josh Allen returned: maximize Allen’s arm and legs to create explosive plays. One way this plan was carried out was by using empty sets.

Buffalo GM Brandon Beane added 14 free agents to a barren roster in order to chase relevancy. In order to boost a sieve of an offensive line, the Bills added 7 veterans. Of those, Mitch Morse and Ty Nsekhe are the only two that really move the needle. Morse comes over from the Chiefs, and if he can stay healthy should solve their weakness at starting center. Nsekhe is late of Washington, where he’s served as a swing guy the last four years.

The other big signings Buffalo made were to add talent to their receiving corps by nabbing Cole Beasley from the Steelers and John Brown from the Ravens. Both should help, so long as Allen can hit them. Frank Gore also came over to presumably finish out what’s been a remarkable career for a back who entered the league with significant injury questions way back in 2005.

Perhaps Allen bucks what he’s looked like thus far and vastly improves his accuracy, mechanics, and decision-making. Maybe he proves himself an exception this way.

I doubt it, but crazier things have happened.

28. Jacksonville Jaguars

I’ve long had a theory that NFL quarterback situations are kind of like NBA roster construction: you’re better off with a complete tire fire than paying top tier money to an average guy. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ 2019 season will be a true test after they handed Nick Foles Keenum-level money.

Of course, none of it may matter with the AFC South rising from the ashes around them. 2017 may have been their one chance at the sun. Now there’s a healthy Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck leading division rivals while Mike Vrabel’s doing some interesting things in Tennessee.

It’s fair to wonder if the Jaguars would be best served tearing it all down to try to seize another window. Flubbing the Blake Bortles’ extension and turning to hand $88 million dollars to Foles has them perilously close to the cap with a lot of young talent reaching an age where they’ll need new market setting deals.

Yannick Ngakoue sat out mandatory mini-camp in June because of a contract dispute. He’s only been voted by the fans as their most indispensable player after Foles and Jalen Ramsey.

27. Arizona Cardinals

Whether they’re good, bad, or just meh, the Kliff Kingsbury Cardinals do not look like they will be boring in 2019. Most football nerds are beyond fascinated to see things as seemingly benign as his final roster construction. In case you live in Bikini Bottom, the former Texas Tech Head coach is famously an Air Raid whiz kid, and the expectation is Arizona will run 10 personnel (4 receivers, 1 running back) as their base this year. That in and of itself is fascinating for a number of reasons. Detroit ran it the most last year at just 7%. By contrast, I run it about 40% of the time with my Madden team. The difference, of course, is that I can rely on my team staying ridiculously healthy year after year, and I hardly care about special teams. That isn’t the case in the real league.

Kingsbury, the Air Raid and NFL Roster Limits - Optimum Scouting

When you juxtapose those numbers to other NFL rosters, the comparisons are stark. Remember, early on this season the New England Patriots only had three wide receivers on their entire roster. If Kingsbury plans on running his 10 personnel version of the Air Raid at the NFL level, no team will have more emphasis on their fourth, fifth and sixth receivers than the Cardinals.

What that means is that they will likely have more receivers on their game day roster than anyone else in the league, taking away active players at other positions. The easy answer to this problem is to just say “the Cardinals will replace tight ends with receivers”, but that plan unravels when you consider special teams. Specifically, realizing the difference between the NFL’s rules on the punt team and college football’s rules on the punt team can paint a picture of why the NFL is so tight end heavy.

Outside of offense, the Cardinals employ former Broncos head coach Vance Joseph as their defensive coordinator. Before you snicker, consider the fact that Joseph kept Denver among the 10 best team’s in the league by Football Outsider’s Defensive DVOA metric in 2019. Keep in mind he did it while dealing with Chris Harris’ injury, rookie Isaac Yiadom playing far more snaps than he probably should have, Darian Stewart playing out a lame duck victory lap, and Bradley Roby having one of the more inconsistent corner seasons I’ve ever seen.

With Arizona he’ll have Patrick Peterson, Chandler Jones, and a whole lot of veteran flotsam. I don’t expect the D to look great, but if Kingsbury and Kyler Murray can make some magic on the other side of the ball it may be enough to catch a couple teams with their pants down.

26. New York Jets

Since last I checked in on the New York Jets, Adam Gase has pushed out Mike Maccagnan and the Allen’s have hired Joe Douglas as the new General Manager. Darron Lee was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs for pennies on the dollar, Jordan Leggett was cut, and speculation has run rampant that the new head coach was less than pleased about Le’Veon Bell coming on board.

“Discussions are had and whether or not we disagreed on anything, if it was financially, that’s a completely different story than the person and the player,” Gase said. ” And that’s where a lot of this gets misconstrued.” …

“The contract was what it was,” Gase said. “Everybody can criticize contracts all you want, but he’s here, I’m excited that he’s here. I think our players are excited that he’s here. I know our coaches are. … I’m excited to get him in the offense.”

of course, all of this could mean very little if Gase can help Sam Darnold continue the upward ascent he began to take at the tail end of 2018. Early indications are promising there, as the 2nd year QB has taken to studying Peyton Manning’s Bronco tape, as well as Jay Cutler’s time in the Gase offense. The drama is noteworthy, though, because Gase’s locker room issues made news after his firing from the Dolphins.

If 3 Things Break Right, They’re Contenders Tier

These teams have a number of questions that will probably come back to bite them in the hind end once the bullets fly. The rosters are a step above those before them, but I wouldn’t bet a dollar on any of them lifting a Lombardi this year.

25. Oakland Raiders

I’m significantly lower on the Raiders than many in the national media. It isn’t because the moves they made in the off-season were necessarily bad, either:

  • Antonio Brown was a masterstroke for what they had to give up, and so long as Jon Gruden handles things better than he did with Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell with the Bucs, things could work out beautifully.
  • Clelin Ferrell was probably the safest pure defensive end prospect in the draft, and so long as Gruden and the Raiders don’t expect a 10+ sack artist every year, he’ll be fine.
  • Tyrell Williams was a fun addition as a complimentary receiver and hurt the Chargers. So long as Gruden doesn’t expect him to produce an 84-1381-9 statline to justify the 4-year $44 million contract he just signed, the move will look great.
  • Trent Brown was expensive, but right tackles are just as important as their counterparts on the left in today’s NFL. So long as Gruden’s OL coach doesn’t mishandle Brown so badly he regresses from all the progress he made in New England, this could be a good investment.
  • So long as Lamarcus Joyner can look more like he did in 2017 than 2018, he’ll help solidify the Raiders back end.

I could keep going, but you get the picture. The Raiders made the kind of moves that win them an off-season. Most of these moves have big enough “ifs” to them that I’d bet on things exploding in entertaining fashion. This before I touched on Richie Icognito.

In 2018, the Raiders had 13 sacks. No other team had less than 30. Even if Carr and the offense improve with all of their free agent additions, there’s little reason to expect the defense to move up from dreadful to even average. When you combine that with the likelihood that Cable mishandles the line, things get ugly fast.

The Raiders’ new home in Las Vegas predicts they’ll win 6 games this year.

24. Detroit Lions

The first year of the Matt Patricia era was a 6-10 bumbler that did little to help fans in Motown forget that Jim Caldwell was canned after a 9-7 record. What is most interesting from afar is how seldom Patricia seemed to lead the whole Patriot-way shtick by example. His tenure got off to a troubling start after reports emerged of a 1996 arrest for aggravated sexual assault. He was indicted by a grand jury in Texas, but the criminal case never went to trial. The cloud of the report hung over the Lions into early August. Things rarely looked better from there. Sam Darnold threw a pick six on his first NFL snap against the Lions, but his Jets wound up stomping the Lions 48-16. The biggest bright spot was credit from Patrcia’s former mentor Bill Belichick for the defensive game plan the Patriots used to shutdown the high-octane Rams in Super Bowl LIII.

Since the season’s ended, GM Bob Quinn has gone out and tried to follow a model of relevance many a New England acolyte has tried with their new teams, but failed. The Lions brought in Trey Flowers and Danny Amendola after both were deemed unnecessary by that team in Foxboro. The former should help, but the latter will probably spend half the season in the trainer’s room.

That said, there are reasons to be optimistic about the team in Honolulu blue. In 2018, the tight end position was so poor that not one man played in more than 50% of the team’s offensive snaps. To remedy the issue, Quinn went out and heavily invested in the position this spring, and now the Lions employ T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James, and Logan Thomas. All three stand at least 6’5 and weigh in at 250 lbs or more. Kenny Golladay looks like he’s blossoming into a legitimate NFL star on the outside. He and Marvin Jones should get a lot more downfield looks in new Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell’s scheme. Kerryon Johnson was a stud when healthy last season.

Detroit needs to settle the secondary, with Darius Slay in a contract squabble and an open competition across his spot unsettled. If they can do that while keeping key contributors healthy, Flowers could boost the pass rush and make things interesting in the NFC North.

23. Washington

It’s hard to believe the last time Alex Smith suited up in an NFL game Washington was 6-3 and atop the NFC East. What’s easier to comprehend is how their 2019 season ultimately comes down to the performance of their quarterback.

There was a time prior to the Flacco trade I’d have told you how the Broncos best road forward in 2019 was to let Case Keenum serve as the bridge quarterback for a rookie. With Dwayne Haskins in the wings that’s probably the initial plan for Jay Gruden.

Beyond those two, Washington has one of the most expensive rosters in the league. The offense is counting on a return to health for Paul Richardson and Derrius Guice, as well as rookie Terry McLaurin.

The big X-factor is Trent Williams and the offensive line. The left tackle is disgruntled with how Washington has handled a serious medical situation and skipped off-season activities. When healthy, he’s among the better tackles in football, and how this plays out could have significant ramifications for a number of teams (If Houston’s smart, they’ll to be sniffing around). After Williams, Gruden’s options at left tackle are down to Christian Geron, Timon Parris, and Ereck Flowers. Woof.

On defense, Jon Bostic will need to fill the void left behind by the injured Reuben Foster. Don’t be shocked if Jimmy Moreland comes out of nowhere to make an impact as a rookie. He was a ballhawk in college and there’s been buzz out of OTAs.

The Fatal Flaw Tier

These teams look like a playoff roster if their biggest issue doesn’t sink them.

22. Houston Texans

Fatal Flaw: Offensive Line

Fun fact, since sacks became an official stat in 1982, only four quarterbacks have taken more in a single season than Deshaun Watson’s 62 of 2018. David Carr twice, Jon Kitna on the no-win Lions, and Randall Cunningham.

Part of this surely has to do with Watson’s playing style, but it’s on the Texans’ front office and coaching staff to do what they can to protect the 24-year-old franchise quarterback. To call this spring’s efforts pathetic is painting the situation with bright colors.

The only lineman brought in through free agency was Matt Kalil. Houston tried to address the position in the draft, but their need was so transparent that Philly jumped them for Andre Dillard. Undeterred (or just desperate) they grabbed Tytus Howard out of Alabama State. There’s a decent chance either could be an upgrade over incumbent Julie’n Davenport because he led all offensive tackles with 66 pressures allowed last season.

The rest of Houston’s free agency didn’t go much better. They lost Tyrann Mathieu to the Chiefs and Kareem Jackson to the Broncos. The latter was replaced by Bradley Roby, who was the epitome of inconsistency across from Chris Harris.

Houston will enter training camp with more than $40 million in cap space. They just won’t have a GM or any players to spend it on. Maybe it won’t matter because the skill position players and D are so talented.

I’m pretty skeptical. A.J. McCarron and his 136 career passes serve as the primary backup to Deshaun Watson. Remember when segments of Broncos Country favored a trade for him?

21. Carolina Panthers

Fatal Flaw: Secondary

Cam Newton’s health is obviously the biggest storyline surrounding the Panthers. and for good reason. After all, they were 6-2 heading into last November’s Thursday night tilt with the Steelers before running off a 7 game skid and winning a backup bowl to close out the year.

Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton expected back by training camp | Charlotte Observer

For months now, the Carolina Panthers have preached their recovery plan for Cam Newton as he rehabs from offseason shoulder surgery. That plan, without the team offering any specific checkpoints or milestones, instead stressed an ending point: Newton as a full participant at training camp in July.

So long as Newton can return to form, the bigger questions facing the Panthers are peppered across the defense. Eric Washington’s unit finished last season 22th in the league in DVOA and 31st in adjusted sack rate.

Only the retired Julius Peppers came within striking distance of Mario Addison’s team, leading 9 sacks. So it made sense for Carolina to snatch up Brian Burns in the first round of the NFL Draft and to give Gerald McCoy and Bruce Irvin a combined $12 million. The pass rush should improve.

This leaves the blistering sore in the secondary. Carolina finished last year as the worst team in the league against opposing WR2s. They also finished 2018 among the 6 worst teams in the league against deep passes. The only addition was Javienn Elliott from Tampa Bay, suggesting Ron Rivera and Marty Hurns have faith that Eric Reid and Donte Jackson can improve in their second years with the team.

20. Chicago Bears

Fatal Flaw: Quarterback

I’ve gotten more flak for my views on the Bears than any other team this offseason. Chicago fans seem to think Mitch Trubisky is a legitimate MVP candidate and that the Bears are certain Super Bowl contenders, so perhaps part of that is the fanciful dreaming of fanatics. Still, one of my most beloved family members roots for da Bears, so I thought it best to explain my rationale:

  • Chicago finished 2018 3rd in adjusted games lost, per Football Outsiders. They were remarkably healthy on both sides of the ball. History has shown injury luck is mostly just that, so some regression is probably coming their way.
  • Defensive performance is harder to sustain from year to year. Look no further than the 2015-2016 Broncos. Wade Phillips coordinated arguably the most dominant defense since the 2000 Ravens as Von Miller and company carried the remains of Peyton Manning to a Lombardi, then the run D slumped and the defense was merely “good” in carrying Trevor Siemian to a 9-7 record the following season. This isn’t just anecdotal, either. Look at the 2003-2004 Bucs, the 2017 Jags, or the 2012 Bears. It’s very rare for a great D to stay great.
  • Consider the fact Chicago lost Vic Fangio and replaced Adrian Amos with Chuck Pagano and HaHa Clinton-Dix, then re-read my first two points.

The Bears Defense Will Probably Regress in 2019 - Windy City Gridiron

It’s probably not going to happen. The defense is likely to see a dip in performance, and that’s even assuming that they don’t lose any important players like Adrian Amos or Bryce Callahan. When that happens, some fans are likely to blame the loss of Vic Fangio and the introduction of Chuck Pagano.

  • The defensive regression will put pressure on the offense. Fortunately Matt Nagy was a revelation a year ago, right? Well, sort of. Chicago jumped from 28th in DVOA two years ago to 20th last year. Offenses in Cincinnati, Denver, and New Jersey were more efficient. You read that right: Eli Manning led a more efficient passing offense than Mitch Trubisky did.
  • Perhaps the Bears’ 3rd year quarterback improves. I have my doubts.

Odds are the 2019 Bears will have more injuries and less success on defense. If Mitch Trubisky makes the jump, it won’t matter. If you want to take issue with da Bears ranking, I’d love to hear why you think he’ll do that.

19. Tennessee Titans

I’m torn here. On paper, there’s a few things really working in their favor:

  • Marcus Mariota should be healthier than he was in 2018, and if he isn’t, Ryan Tannehill is almost certainly a better backup than Blaine Gabbert.
  • Adam Humphries is one of the more underrated slot receivers in football.
  • Derrick Henry’s finished the final month of the season on a tear with 87 carries for 587 yards and 7 touchdowns.
  • Cameron Wake and 2nd year edge Harold Landry should provide a bump to the pass rush.
  • The offensive line was average in 2018 and added Rodger Saffold from the Rams (good move), Kevin Pamphile from the Bucs (meh), and drafted Nate Davis (I like him).

On the other hand, they just lost Matt LaFleuer to Green Bay. While conventional stats don’t do him any huge favors, it’s hard to overlook how he squeezed a near playoff berth out of an offense featuring the hobbled Mariota, Blaine Gabbert, an average line, plus a receiving corps with Corey Davis and a guy who most remember as a sneaky waiver find during the middle of the 2016 fantasy football season.

While I’ve joked about Vrabel’s commitment to the run earlier this spring, what he and Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees did with the Titans defense defies stats almost as sharply. Tennessee got all of 2 sacks out of their duo of Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo yet still finished 2018 hovering around league average in defensive DVOA. They did it with smoke, mirrors, and leading the league in sacks by defensive backs with 7, or as many as the 226 lb linebacker Jayvon Brown notched (second on the team behind legitimate stud Jurrell Casey.)

So it’s near impossible to truly pin down the Titans. They’re both the most anonymous and confounding team in the NFL.

Would Mike Vrabel cut his genitals off to win Super Bowl? “Probably” – ProFootballTalk

Lewan: Matt Neely [an assistant for the podcast] said he would cut off his d–k for a, uno, Super Bowl, and I said ‘No, I would not do that.’ Would you cut your d–k off for a Super Bowl?

Vrabel: Been married 20 years. Yeah, probably.

Lewan: You’ve got three?!

Vrabel: As a player. . . . You guys will be married for 20 years one day. You won’t need it.

18. Denver Broncos

Be sure to check out this week’s GIF Horse for an extended pre-camp preview of this year’s Bronco squad.

Few Broncos are as big an X-factor as Courtland Sutton this season.

The Musical Chairs Tier

I’ve changed the order of these teams more than any other. Math says these are the teams realistically fighting for the playoffs and, depending on the day, I’d pick any one of them to make it.

17. Pittsburgh Steelers

There are three big reasons I can’t buy into the Steelers any higher than this:

1. Injury luck is not in their favor. According to Football Outsiders Adjusted Games Lost metric, the Steelers finished 2018 among the healthiest teams in football. Only two defenses lost less starter to injuries. In 2017 they were even more healthy. More often than not, injury luck trends towards the average, so Pittsburgh is due for a few more crucial losses in 2019. Hard to bet on this alone, but it’s worth considering.

2. JuJu Smith-Schuster is now the WR1 after two years running with a Hall of Famer drawing the focus of defensive coordinators. Dismiss this if you want, but I can’t.

Keenan Allen Thinks JuJu Should Prepare For ‘Life-Changing’ 2019 Season As Steelers New No.1 WR - Steelers Depot

“Life-changing, life-changing” Allen said. “It’s gonna be hard to sleep at night trying to find ways to get open. Different routes, different coverages you’ve got to look at. Double teams, double pressures, just everything, man. The whole game changes.”

3. Culture factor: there’s been more drama coming out of Pittsburgh than any time since I’ve followed the NFL. Last year showed how professional athletes can’t just forget it all once the games start to count.

Brown’s departure should help smooth things over for Roethlisberger in the short term, but on paper, the team took a big step back in their receiving corps in hopes that the sum will be greater than the parts. With a schedule that opens at New England before the home opener against Seattle, it’s worth wondering how Tomlin can navigate another potential 0-fer start or if he’ll soon be the new scapegoat for all of Ben’s issues.

2019 NFL coach rankings: Who comes after Bill Belichick?

9. MIKE TOMLIN

There is a certain part of the football world that underrates Tomlin, but even if his defenders will admit that the Steelers have underachieved under his watch. Pittsburgh has only won three playoff games since 2010. Three! With all of the talent they have on the roster. Managing that locker has certainly been difficult — and his best players haven’t always been available for big games — but a better coach (of which there aren’t many) would have come a lot closer to winning a Super Bowl than Tomlin has over the last five years.

16. Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens are at a weird crossroads considering they just resigned their head coach and their quarterback’s entering his second season. Things can go one of two ways:

1. Lamar Jackson’s mobility aids his development as a quarterback and helps Baltimore compete as he figures it out as a passer. The offense is among the most unique in football, as it’s tailored to his talents in a way no one this side of the Panthers is. Mark Ingram and the army of tight ends helps the Ravens ram it down everyone’s throats while Marquise Brown serves as a deep threat in the DeSean Jackson vein. Even as he figures out the pro game, he’s so dangerously over the top that you pay for stacking the box.

The D is so deep that Wink Martindale weathers the losses of Mosely, Smith, and Weddle without missing a beat. Baltimore continues to employ the most deceptive coverage shells with Earl Thomas, Tony Jefferson, and a deep cornerback corps to feast on mistakes.

2. Injuries ravage the rebuilt depth chart after Baltimore finished last year with the healthiest roster in football (1st in Adjusted Games Lost last year). Jackson’s passing skills are exposed. The playoff run from a year ago looks like a fluke and the draft community starts mocking a 2020 QB to the Ravens.

The fact I have them dead set in the middle of the Power Rankings should give you an idea of how uncertain I am about this team until I can see them in live action.

15. San Francisco 49ers

I’m sipping the Kool-Aid again this year. Most film nerds will tell you Kyle Shanahan is one of, if not the best scheme guys in the league. Now, he may finally have the healthy pieces necessary to compete. Last year’s Niner squad finished with the 3rd most games lost by starters to injuries in the league. Dang near everywhere you looked, they were ravaged.

The biggest questions about the 49ers in 2019 look like Jimmy Garoppolo and the secondary. There are reasons to believe Jimmy G could look better than he did in 2018, as his biggest problems should improve with playing time and reps. Shanny’s system is one of the most QB-friendly offenses in the league, after all.

MythBusters: Is a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo the answer for the 49ers?

Based on my own film study, I think Garoppolo is smart enough and talented enough to take advantage of every schematic edge given to him, but he struggles in situations where his reads become complicated by late-breaking coverage, or situations where closed (safety) coverage in the middle of the field limits his options. It’s a fairly common issue among good quarterbacks, but the best in the business know how to transcend it.

The bigger questions for Niner Nation are how much Richard Sherman has in the tank, and who’s around to help him? Jaquiski Hart showed some promise, but around those two is a lot of bodies without any answers. Jason Verrett could be a savvy upside signing if he has anything left after playing all of 5 games over the last two years because of injuries.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I remain convinced people are sleeping on the Bucs. Maybe I’m crazy, but few coaches have shown the same gift for navigating the chaos of an NFL season quite like Bruce Arians.

Jameis Winston’s turnover problems aside, the former 1st overall pick has both the arm and the weapons to light up the league. Tampa Bay also has arguably the most talented receiving corps Arians has coached since coordinating the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2007 to ‘11. They’re also a natural fit for his scheme after flourishing in Dirk Koetter’s vertical offense.

Mike Evans is a size/speed nightmare who turns 26 in camp. Chris Godwin is on the verge of a breakout year. O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate return as arguably the most dangerous pair of tight ends in football. Breshad Perriman will fit in as a role-playing deep threat.

There are legitimate questions surrounding the offensive line. Ali Marpet is probably the best guard you’ve never heard of, but Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson are underwhelming bookends. They finished 2018 as one of the two worst run blocking lines in the league.

However, the defense isn’t nearly as bad as it looks from afar. Tampa should be considerably healthier than they were last season when starters missed a combined 92 games to injury (the worst in the league).

Ndamukong Suh for Gerald McCoy created a bit of drama during the dead period between the draft and now, but on the field, Suh looks like a cleaner fit for what Todd Bowles wants to do. According to PFF, Vita Vea generated 19 pressures over the final 6 games of 2018, a promising sign for things to come. Devin White was one of my favorite prospects in the 2019 draft and I’ve gone to bat for Shaq Barrett more than once. The secondary will need to improve to seriously contend, but the pieces are there.

13. Seattle Seahawks

Lost amid the dead season debate about Russell Wilson vs Andrew Luck and the D.K. Metcalf hype is a pretty big turd in the punch bowl:

Where is Seattle getting a pass rush in 2019?

  • The hope has to be that L.J. Collier will pick up the slack left behind by Frank Clark, since Collier was drafted with the pick Seattle received from Kansas City. I’m not quite certain, as rookie pass rushers typically need time to acclimate to the league, and Collier was nowhere near my favorite prospect.
  • Or maybe Ziggy Ansah can stay healthy and bounce back to the production he’s shown on odd-numbered years? A 1-year, $9 million deal suggests there’s belief he can do just that.
  • Perhaps Pete Carroll and John Schneider have faith that one of the younger players will step up. Jacob Martin produced 3 sacks down the stretch in 2018 despite limited snaps, after all.

My guess is there’s optimism in all three scenarios coming to fruition. There will also be an onus on Jarran Reed recreating the 10.5 sack campaign he produced a year ago. If Seattle can’t improve upon a pedestrian pass rush from a year ago, it will leave quarterbacks time to attack a shaky cornerback group. Tre Flowers and Shaquill Griffin both allowed opposing passer ratings in excess of 100 in 2018.

So basically what keeps Seattle above the other teams in this tier is Wilson’s heroics. Last year, they were enough to get Schotty ball into the playoffs. Jury’s out right now.

12. Minnesota Vikings

Despite the fact that the Vikes remain 12th on my Power Rankings, I can’t help but wonder if they’re a paper contender, and yet I really do love big chunks of this roster. Danielle Hunter already has 40 sacks 4 years in and looks like the scariest speed rusher in the league under 25. Zimmer is among the best defensive coaches in the league and Harrison Smith remains one of the best safeties.

The problems come on O, where I’m hesitant to insist the Kubiak will be enough to make up for an average quarterback situation. The more I watched Kirk Cousins’ decision-making, the more sick I felt. Consider him their glass ceiling: there’s a halfway decent chance they make a real run to the playoffs, but I can’t buy them over the real contenders. Minnesota did invest resources into the offensive line this spring in an attempt to reinforce the foundation, and I love Garrett Bradbury.

I just doubt it will be enough.

11. Dallas Cowboys

Excluding the playoffs, did you know the Cowboys finished last year 8-2 in 1-touchdown games? 6 of those games came after the Amari Cooper trade too. Rarely does that kind of luck carry over from season to season.

Dallas also finished 2018 as one of the most healthy defenses in football. Starters lost just 36 games to injury, per Football Outsiders. One look at the depth behind Robert Quinn and DeMarcus Lawrence should illuminate how big an injury to either would be for Jerry World.

There are a couple things working in their favor, however: Cooper has a whole off-season to work with Prescott and should be more integrated into the offense. The linebacker corps will ideally take another step forward in Leighton Vander Esch’s second season. Travis Frederick should return after missing all of 2018 dealing with Guillain-Barré syndrome. Ezekiel Elliot did not get suspended for knocking a security guard to the ground in Las Vegas.

10. Los Angeles Rams

This is lower than most have the Rams. The biggest reason behind it is their relative injury luck during the Sean McVay era and how perilously thin they are at some key spots on the roster with 2019 looming.

In 2018, the Rams finished with the 4th most healthy roster in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders Adjusted Games Lost. This after the best ranking in 2017. Maybe their medical staff is just miles ahead of the rest of the league, but I doubt it. Generally speaking, history has shown extreme injury luck on either side of the spectrum tends to reverse course towards the average.

In other words: the Rams are bound for some regression.

For most teams injuries are simply a part of the game. Football is a nasty sport, after all. Teams like the Patriots and Eagles handle this by constantly reinforcing their depth in order to embody the “next man up” mantra.

Then there are rosters like the early 2000’s Colts teams or McVay’s Rams where a significant portion of the cap is devoted to star contracts. There are 10 players on LA’s roster counting for $8 million or more this season, with 4 in excess of $12 million. New England has half that with 4, and only 2 over $12 million. This budget strategy leaves Belichick with more money to invest in depth.

So while Todd Gurley’s health and workload earn the majority of media attention in July and August, I’ll be keeping an eye on the health of the rest of their roster all season. So long as they can stay relatively unscathed, expect McVay to steer them into another playoff run.

2019 NFL season: Projecting the top five rookie running backs - NFL.com

With knee issues dogging Todd Gurley at the end of last season, the Rams could choose to limit his snaps in 2019 to ensure his effectiveness at crucial junctures later on in the year. This creates a potential opportunity for Henderson, a matchup nightmare. At Memphis, Henderson showed he has the quickness to hit the hole, the toughness to run through tacklers and the speed to reach the edge.

9. New Orleans Saints

How much longer can the window remain open?

If you live by the Bayou, you’re praying there’s one more year in Drew Brees’ arm after the referees stole missed a crucial call in the NFC Championship game. Minus a 2019 first round pick because of the trade for Marcus Davenport, this year’s Saints will look an awful lot like a thinner version of last year’s Saints.

They lost Mark Ingram to the Ravens, Alex Okafor to the Chiefs, Max Unger to retirement, and Sheldon Rankins to injury until at least midseason. They brought in Jared Cook, Erik McCoy, and Nick Easton to give the offense a boost, while Mario Edwards, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and Malcom Brown should beef up the D.

But the Saints will steal lean heavily on Alvin Kamara (275 touches in a 2018 time share) and Michael Thomas (125 receptions in 2018). Barring injury or significant drop off, Drew Brees will remain the straw that stirs Sean Payton’s drink.

Will it be enough?

8. Atlanta Falcons

I’m sky-high on the Falcons if the key pieces can stay healthy, a big “if” worth mentioning after the Falcons lost Devonta Freeman, Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, and two starting guards over the course of the 2018 season.

Matt Ryan returns, and a big part of this ranking is that I believe he’s vastly underrated among quarterbacks around the league. He’s also surrounded by one of the best supporting casts in football with Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, and Austin Hooper. If the recent investments into the offensive line pan out, this O will score on anyone.

The D needs to take a big step forward after they finished among the bottom three in the league last year by DVOA. However, both corners are better than the passing stats make them look, and with Allen and Neal’s return from injuries, improvement’s a near certainty.

7. Indianapolis Colts

The Colts are one of the deeper teams in the AFC one season after I fully expected them to race to the bottom of the South. What Chris Ballard has done since taking over as GM is nothing short of extraordinary. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Josh McDaniel’s spurning him to return to the dark embrace of Bill Belichick led Indy to scooping up Frank Reich.

In 2018, the Indy surprised everyone with Luck’s return to health and creative schemes on both sides of the ball that hid roster limitations. Consider this: after T.Y. Hilton’s 1270 yards and 6 touchdowns, no Colts receiver had more than 485 yards or 3 touchdowns. It’s remarkable what Luck and Reich did with mostly flotsam.

Things were little better on defense. Darius Leonard was second on the team in sacks with 7. You could make a fair argument that no team needed an older Justin Houston more than the Colts D did. Or that few could justify spending a 2nd round pick on the uber-athletic-yet-raw Horned Frog Ben Banogu like Indy could.

After playing the easiest schedule in the league in 2018, the competition can only get tougher. They won’t sneak up on people in 2019, but with minimal injuries (30th in adjusted games lost in 2018), a healthy Luck, and one of the better draft classes in the league, they shouldn’t need to.

The Contender Tier

It should be pretty clear what this tier is for. These are the teams with the best chance at hoisting the Lombardi to conclude 2019. The battle of attrition, father time, and/or off field issues could do any one of them in, but this far out I wouldn’t bet against these six.

6. New England Patriots

How mad were the Patriots that Houston and Bill O’Brien tried to snipe Nick Caserio? According to reports, not very.

Bedard: Why the Patriots are burning mad at Jack Easterby and the Texans | Boston Sports Journal

New England’s unhappiness toward Houston doesn’t have much to do with the Caserio situation. According to multiple team sources, the Patriots are irate over the departure of former Team Development Director/Character Coach Jack Easterby. And if certain people in the organization had their way, the Patriots would take it out on the Texans on Dec. 1.

Anyways, here they are. Again. A ton of proverbial ink will be spilled over Rob Gronkowski and how New England didn’t do enough to replace him, but realistically, they were never going to replace the best tight end in the history of the league.

Instead, Bill Belichick did what he’s done countless times over his reign in Foxboro: he swerved. New England signed 13 free agents from other teams around the league in an effort to stay ahead of the roster churn. The reunion tour aspect is intriguing, even if a couple other moves look far more likely to make an impact.

Ben Watson’s return got a lot of attention, but Matt LaCosse is more interesting. The former Bronco brings the kind of versatile skill set Josh McDaniels rode down the stretch last year when the Pats were bringing out 21 personnel and hammering opponents through the air with it. LaCosse spent a chunk of last year’s camp playing snaps at fullback in an effort to make an impression. He’ll compete for time while Watson serves a four-game suspension for PED usage.

Speaking of Broncos, Demaryius Thomas will play on a 1-year, $2.9 million prove-it deal if he can make it out of camp. Josh Gordon’s suspended indefinitely by the NFL, yet practiced with Tom Brady this spring. First rounder N’Keal Harry was my WR1 in this past draft. He’s a YAC monster who should torture defensive backs with an accurate passer getting him the ball in space.

Jamie Collins comes back from his Cleveland exile to fight for a spot on the roster he left behind. If he can return to his 2016 form, New England’s linebacker corps will transform into one of the most scary four-man units in the league.

Danny Shelton returns to stuff the run, while Michael Bennett comes over from Philly as Belichick aims to replace Trey Flowers’ production. Keep an eye out for Mike Pennel though, as he’s the kind of move that will win New England games late in the season. A 6’4 and 330 pounds, he was a key run stuffer for the Jets in 2018 and he counts for all of $2.1 million against the cap this year.

The secondary lost Eric Rowe to Miami, but returns Stephon Gilmore, Duron Harmon, Patrick Chung, and the McCourty’s. The Pats have been ahead of the pass rush vs. coverage debate with how they’ve treated their edge rushers over the years, and it works because Belichick has made players like Darrelle Revis and Gilmore a priority.

If I were brave, this would be the year I predicted father time catches Brady. After all, he is going to be 42 and just had a postseason where he went 85/125 for 953 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions.

He also did this:

5. Cleveland Browns

On paper, this team looks as stacked as any in the league. John Dorsey went out and added marque talent to support burgeoning star Baker Mayfield. Odell Beckham Jr. is on the short list for best receivers in the NFL, Oliver Vernon gives some more punch to the pass rush across from Myles Garrett, and Greedy Williams was tagged by many as the best pure cover man in the 2019 draft. He fell to the Dawg pound in the second.

It ain’t all roses in bloom by Lake Erie, though. They were the most healthy team in football last year, and they’ll see their depth tested far more this season. Duke Johnson wants out and the media has fallen on Baker Mayfield’s comments about it like flies on poo. There have been reports the offensive install isn’t going as smoothly as hoped. There hasn’t been legitimate Super Bowl pressure on a first-time head coach in a good while.

How Freddie Kitchens navigates the minefield and manages a locker room that includes a lot of intense personalities and Kareem Hunt will be interesting, if nothing else.

4. Green Bay Packers

Things have not gone as smoothly as someone who put the Packers number 2 post-draft would hope. First there was Matt LaFleuer’s injury, a torn Achilles while playing basketball. I guess no one told the 39-year-old how coaching ages a guy.

Beyond the courts, it seems there’s been some trouble brewing with Aaron Rodgers. No, I’m not talking about his lack of chugging power. It seems he wants more freedom at the line of scrimmage. Who can blame him after he basically called his own shots at the tail end of the McCarthy era.

Where the drama starts is how he handled airing that dirty laundry.

That said, there is reason to believe the off-season drama is completely overblown.

As I said the first time I placed the Packers this high up on my Power Rankings, their passing offense should get a serious shot in the arm from Matt LaFleuer’s scheme. It’s a descendant of Sean McVays and will do far more to help receivers get open than his predecessor’s did. It will also give Rodgers more opportunities to attack downfield out of play action, something he’s excelled at the last 3 seasons. Combine that with the fact that the 2018 Packers defense was among the most injured rosters in football (30th in adjusted games lost) and due for a swing in injury luck, and they’re likely to be right back in the Lombardi hunt.

3. Los Angeles Chargers

Broncos Country won’t like reading this, but there are a few things really working in the Chargers’ favor:

  • They finished 2018 with a 12-4 record and top 10 defense while Joey Bosa and Denzel Perryman missed a combined 18 games to injury.
  • They had a top 3 offense even while Hunter Henry was a shell of himself.
  • Former Broncos bust Michael Schofield found himself in L.A.
  • Mike Williams flashed real brilliance in his second NFL season.
  • Keenan Allen is the best receiver no one talks about.
  • If Derwin James’ rookie year is any indication, LA has a future Hall of Famer.
  • Nasir Adderly is the perfect long-term running mate for James.
  • Desmond King is the best slot corner under 25 in the league.
  • Jerry Tillery was one of my favorite 2019 Draft prospects.

Now if you’re the kind of football fan who ardently roots against the AFC West rivals, there’s a couple of big reasons L.A. could implode in 2019. The depth along the offensive line is scary thin and OTAs finished with Russell Okung sitting out due to an undisclosed injury. Behind him on the depth chart is Trey Pipkins, who’s as raw as gas station sushi.

As good as Philip Rivers is, he’s never elevated his pass protection to the same heights Tom Brady or Peyton Manning have over their careers. He needs real help up front.

The recent news about Melvin Gordon is the other story to keep up with. The Chargers #2 running back is Austin Ekeler, who is one of the better backups in football. Missing Gordon would certainly hurt, but L.A. clearly has one of the most talented rosters in football.

2. Philadelphia Eagles

Did you know the Iggles had more games lost to injury last year than everyone but Tampa Bay? According to FO’s AGL, the defense alone lost 71 games to injury. Howie Roseman went out and did all he could to combat any depth concerns this off-season.

The results are incredible. Outside of quarterback, the Eagles look deeper than just about every team in the league. There’s a pretty good chance they’ll have to cut some guys who contribute significant snaps to other teams in 2019.

All the talent would go to waste if it weren’t for stellar coaching, of course. Well, Philly has that covered with some of the league’s better schemes on both sides of the ball.

Doug Pederson runs a creative shotgun system which descended from the Andy Reid tree while also having the personnel to wreck opponents with two tight ends, Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson. I did a film study on Nelson Agholor earlier this summer for my class with the Scouting Academy and came away thinking his best fit was as a tertiary option who’d do all the little things to help his team win. Now he looks like the number 5 or 6 guy. That’s pretty remarkable.

On defense, Jim Schwartz remains one of the more underrated coaches in football. Look no further than Avonte Maddox’s play as a rookie, or how the Eagles posted an average DVOA of -22.46 on D to cement their playoff trip over the 3 games after Wentz went down. Now Schwartz will have Malik Jackson, Zach Brown, and Ronald Darby in the fold.

Everything comes down to Wentz’ health, but at least from here the Eagles look like serious contenders to make it 2 Lombardi’s in 3 years.

1. Kansas City Chiefs

If you felt sick over my thoughts on the Chargers, you may want to scroll right on to the comments, because the more homework I’ve done on the Chiefs, the better they look. Andy Reid is right up there with Kyle Shanahan in the play design department, and he’s led the NFL’s offensive evolution as more and more teams steal concepts from the college and high school games.

He also has the most talented quarterback in football.

No quarterback has ever duplicated a 50 touchdown season, so Patrick Mahomes will almost certainly regress statistically in 2019. This doesn’t mean he’ll slump, as most of the key pieces of last year’s offense all return.

Damien Williams returns after taking over for Kareem Hunt over the final part of last season. He’ll run behind a line featuring 4 of the 5 opening day starters, as only Mitch Morse departed. Mitchell Schwartz is the best right tackle in football, while Eric Fisher came on down the stretch to give KC the best pair of bookends east of L.A.

Travis Kelce is now football’s best receiving tight end. It looks increasingly likely that Tyreek Hill will avoid a suspension. Sammy Watkins finished last season with 500 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Even the untested pieces offer tantalizing promise.

At first glance, it’s easy to say Demarcus Robinson caught just 22 passes for 288 yards, but he entered the season behind the now departed Chris Conley and 13 of his receptions (and 34 of his touchdowns) came in games he played as the third receiver.

Mecole Hardman was one of my favorite receivers in the draft and brings the same kind of game breaking speed Hill does. It’s terrifying to imagine what Reid and Mahomes can do with both on the field at the same time.

There’s some reason to believe Mahomes could put up similar stats to his MVP campaign. What’s scary is that he may not need to. As much as I knocked the Steve Spagnuolo hiring back in January, he’s taking over a deceptively loaded D. People knocking last year’s Chiefs for their 6488 total yards given up can’t see the forest for the trees. The pass D was among the 12 best in football by DVOA and only improved from there.

Chris Jones and Frank Clark will be a dynamic pass rushing pair up front with a rotation of role players around them, including rookie dancing bear Khalen Saunders.

Spags’ zone heavy scheme should do more to hide Reggie Ragland and the linebackers’ athletic limitations in coverage. Darron Lee will probably unseat Anthony Hitchens and provide a real coverage player at the second level.

The secondary took a hit with Steven Nelson’s departure for Pittsburgh, but his best skills weren’t going to be maximized anymore. Kendall Fuller and Charvarius Ward both looked solid last season and should improve. Tyrann Mathieu is a ballhawk and Juan Thornhill finished his collegiate career with 13 picks, 26 passes defensed, and this insane athletic chart:

Things will change with a long season ahead. Guys will come out of nowhere as injuries and age knock down stars and studs. Every year, a team seems to creep out of the woodwork to contend, but in this moment, this is how I see the hierarchy of the NFL.

What do you think Broncos Country?