We are officially 50 days out from the start of the 2016 NFL Season. It has come that quickly. The offseason threw us a retirement party for an all-time great. A bong video taking over the draft. And the final end (for all intents and purposes) to Deflategate, a nice 544-days after it started. Yet for all that madness, all the twists and turns and never-ending sense of ‘I don’t care’, we all get a chance to now realize that indeed we do care. The NFL is almost back. Training camps will start this weekend. The Hall of Fame Game will be played in 16 days. This is happening, all over again. And for that, it is time to take stock of all that happened and where I think the 32 teams lie as we begin this journey for the 51st time.
Tier I – The Clear Worst
32.) Cleveland Browns
I don’t think there is really any other choice for 32nd place. The Browns hired a coach I like, and the strength of their coaching staff may pull them into a handful of wins, but the talent is so minimal. They lost key pieces in the offseason, from Geoff Schwartz to recently Desmond Bryant to injury. They are going back to the Josh McCown well. Hopefully they do like the team that used to employ Hue Jackson (Cincinnati) and give the new coach some time, because it will take a while to build up to something good. Hue could probably get them there, but they need the patience to make it happen.
Tier II – Low-Floor Bottom-Feeders
31.) Tennessee Titans
If Marcus Mariota turns into a star, this is going to look silly, because a good QB can cure a lot of things. That said, the Titans match a lack of talent with seemingly absurd coaching decisions / tactics. The Titans seem to be a team lost in time, including benching top WRs, claiming to want to run out of 2-RB sets all the time. Playing a defense that has no real structure apart from ‘being physical.’ Mike Mularkey made his bones coordinating the Steelers when they had Kordell Stewart. He was also there when they had Tommy Maddox and decided to throw the ball all over the place. Sadly, he seems to remember or think of the Stewart days as a lot more successful than the actual.
30.) San Francisco 49ers
I am openly not a huge Chip Kelly fan, but this is less about Chip Kelly and more about to team. It is hard to think so highly of a team that has lost just so many starters over the past two years. The 49ers truly are a shell of themselves, and while seeing Kelly play around with Colin Kaepernick may have a high ceiling, the fact that he has not clearly beat out Blaine Gabbert is a really bad indicator of how he’s doing adapting to the Kelly offense. The defense is not built the way Kelly likes it, and needs an incredibly overhaul. Apart from Navorro Bowman, every other member of their Super Bowl front-7 is gone. Stunning.
29.) Philadelphia Eagles
The team Kelly left is not far behind. I’ll give the Eagles credit for this: they proactively cleaned house of ridding themselves of Kelly. They took steps to remove every piece of Kelly’s personnel mismanagement – of course apart from the QB. Their hydra-monster of QBs in Sam Bradford, Chase Daniel and rookie Carson Wentz is such a peculiar way to manage that part of the roster. It is hard to grasp what even the best case scenario is there. The roster has to depend on some major 2nd year pushes to have anything resembling a passable offense, and their defense, while good, is also really thin and injuries could really ruin them quickly. Brighter days are ahead – of course fewer than one would have hoped given how much draft capital they had to give up to trade up to get Wentz.
28.) Detroit Lions
This may be too low, but we are in the part of the NFL calendar where taking the optimistic approach to all teams is so much easier than the pessimistic approach. And because of that, major negative changes to personnel, such as losing Hall of Fame quality players that are still heavy contributors, really stand out. Calvin Johnson’s surprise retirement will hopefully not set the Lions off into a death spiral like the last time they lost a superstar to a sudden retirement. And I don’t think it will because the nucleus of the team is much stronger than it was in 1999-2000. Still, replacing Calvin is nearly impossible, and the Lions don’t really have the pieces to just pick up his 100 catches and 1,200 yards.
Tier III(a) – The Soft Underbelly of the AFC
27.) Miami Dolphins
Speaking of negative indicators, I guess we’re just going to keep on thinking Ryan Tannehill is good, huh? Adam Gase is a very high pedigree QB guru, but we have to see if that translates as well when he’s a head coach and not an Offensive Coordinator as he was for Manning and Cutler. The defense is still talented, and they buffeted that side of the ball with the additions of Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell, overpriced to be sure, but also still effective when healthy. Still, the offense is just so uninspiring, and in perfect Dolphins fashion they seem intent on getting as many 2010 NFL Pro-Bowlers as possible (Arian Foster), instead of actually trying to build around Tannehill for the future.
26.) San Diego Chargers
On the one hand, they have Philip Rivers, who is finally gaining the acceptance from the general NFL viewing public as a scientist of the position years after his play warranted such respect. On the other hand, the roster is finally so bad that even a good, healthy Philip Rivers may lose 10+ games – just like what happened last year. The Chargers offense will still rely on a mix of aging veterans and mercurial young guys (and good ol’ Antonio Gates). The defense is still entirely undermanned outside of Jason Verrett. The team may get better in their win-loss record because it is hard to do worse than 4-12, and because the division is slightly worse this year, but I can’t see the team really doing more than approaching .500 if everything goes right.
25.) Jacksonville Jaguars
One of these years, the Jaguars will break out. You can’t keep drafting at the top of the draft every year and have that not happen. The offense seems set with a young Bortles and two great receivers, but behind Bortles’ nice stats lies a lot of bad tape against average to good teams. The defense has a bunch of young talent, but for the second straight year their Top-5 defensive pick got injured in the offseason. This time not for the season hopefully, but Jalen Ramsey’s injury is going to hurt in the short term. The team will break out, but I don’t think it is this year, and I don’t know if it will be with Gus Bradley attached.
Tier III(a) – The Soft Underbelly of the NFC
24.) Chicago Bears
There is a sense of optimism around the Bears this year but with losing Adam Gase, should there be? It is hard to have it both ways. The direction and calmness he gave to that Bears offense is now going to Miami. Cutler himself has some interesting weapons to throw too, but I think that team is still a few pieces away on both ends from seriously competing. Long term, they are in a dangerous spot with Cutler’s window being now and going for another 2-3 years in all likelihood. The team as a whole is probably in a further away window.
23.) New Orleans Saints
The NFC South has four teams that you can probably make some sort of case for finishing in all three spots. The Saints, to me, are now the team with the worst chance to end up in 1st place – though probably not the highest chance to end up in last. Drew Brees can get you so far, even if he did see some signs of regression last year even if his overall numbers stayed about where they always are. The defense is still an absolute mess, and now the schedule gets slightly harder as well. Also, I have to wonder if they have just peaked or lost interest with Sean Payton at this point. He himself seemed a bit detached and ready to leave at the end of last season anyway. Overall, it is hard to trust a team with a 38-year old QB and coming off back-to-back 7-9 seasons in a bad division.
22.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Conversely we have the Buccaneers, and while I question the firing of Lovie Smith which seemed really rushed, there is a lot of optimism abound. Jameis Winston really settled down in the second half and his the pieces around him to make it all work. I am not a huge fan of the Dirk Koetter hire, but he did a good job with a young Matt Ryan (then again, so did Mike Mularkey). He has receivers to throw to and a decent o-line. The defense is more of a worry. They were building towards something with Lovie Smith, and while they’ve retained some of his principles, it does seem likely that there may be a stunted growth on that side of the ball. The talent is there, but slightly aging, which is bad given the youth on the offense. Honestly, when writing this I’m reconsidering putting them this high.
21.) Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons had a very quiet offseason, where they basically did nothing to address their biggest weakness (pass rush), other than get a few rotational guys. They re-addressed the secondary, which wasn’t a huge issue, in the draft. I’m not really sure what their improvement path is, but they were already a .500 team. Out of the mess that is Spots #2-4 in the NFC South, the Falcons to me are the team with the lowest ceiling, but probably the lowest floor as well.
20.) Washington Redskins
There is a good reason why the Redskins have avoided signing Kirk Cousins long term, a very good one: he isn’t that good. Or at least there is no clear evidence that he is that good. 7 great games does not make a great QB – Washington has recent evidence of this as well given what happened with RGIII. I like the approach they took, and the quiet offseason they had. I am a little skeptical of Josh Norman outside of Carolina, but it fills a need. My largest issue with not trusting Washington more is I don’t think Cousins was nearly as good as he showed late last season, and the Redskins roster with an average cousins is an average team.
Tier V – High Ceiling Potential Threats
19.) St. Louis Rams
Had the Rams been in any other division, they would have had a clear path to the playoffs. It isn’t an easy path, but it is a clear one. They run the ball with Todd Gurley, sprinkle in some Tavon Austin plays, and hope their young defense takes another step forward and dominates to an even greater degree. If they can mix Jared Goff in there and have him not screw up, a really bright future would emerge. There are a few issues with this logic, of course. First, is this is a bit archaic way of playing football. Second, they still have Jeff Fisher as head coach, a man who knows how easy it is to keep on being employed at 7-9 or 8-8. And third, and most important, they have two of the league’s best teams in their division. None of that helps.
18.) New York Giants
I just know come opening day I’m going to trick myself into picking the Giants to win the NFC East like I always do. There is a chance it happens, because the NFC East will likely not have a 12-4 Champion, but I’m not buying the Giants because I’m not buying the defense even after the upgrades with guys like Jenkins, Harrison and Vernon. Call me a disbeliever in adding three good but not great players to an awful defense and thinking that will result in something more than an average defense. Eli Manning has found a comfort level in that offense, and of course Odell Beckham is still a monster, but I don’t know if they’ll win enough 30-27 games to make a serious push. They could… I’ll convince myself they will… but they likely won’t.
17.) Baltimore Ravens
I think I picked them to go 12-4 and go to the Super Bowl last year. Well, I have been wrong before. I don’t know if I have ever been that wrong. But I have been wrong. The Ravens were rarely blown out last year, and were often actually quite competitive, but they never really blew anyone out in their 5 wins either. Other than their guys getting healthy again, I don’t see much reason for optimism beyond just natural progression towards their true talent level. I like the Mike Wallace signing, but continuing belief in him seems as pointless as my belief in the Giants. The o-line used to be the strength of the team, and through retirement and attrition that even looks like a weakness. I can’t picture the Ravens ever having a sustained period of mediocrity with Harbaugh, but we may be close to that point.
16.) Houston Texans
This ranking was made before I learned of JJ Watt’s injury that could keep him out of the first few weeks of the regular season. An injury like that really changes the perspective outlook of the team. Anyway, this is a selection based on the idea that Brock Osweiler could be good, but he most likely is not that good – his 7-game show in Denver was really iffy looking back at things. The rest of the team has a few holes, like secondary receivers, a competent o-line, and a defense with a suspect back-seven. The Texans took advantage of the opportunity that presented itself after Luck was injured and sat for the year, and while there is an opportunity for them to reclaim their title, things will be slightly tougher this year.
Tier VI – Half the Ball is All That Matters, Right?
15.) New York Jets
This goes up if they sign Ryan Fitzpatrick (I still plan on doing actual predictions at some point before September 7th), but at this point it seems the stalemate is real. While I like a lot of parts of this team, I definitely do not like Geno Smith having anything to do with the 2016 offense (I like the idea of Christian Hackenburg or Bryce Petty even less). Still, I think on offense the 2015 Jets was a high-watermark. It is unlikely that Fitz even if he is back matches that level, and I have to think Brandon Marshall begins to decline at some point. The defense is still really good, however, and makes the Jets a contender to nab a Wild Card spot, or even steal the division if the Jimmy G era goes poorly.
14.) Buffalo Bills
I think with a year’s worth of tape on Tyrod Taylor his effectiveness will be slightly stunted in 2016. Of course, with a year of play under his belt maybe it goes the other way, but to me there is a reason why he was a backup for 4-5 years before getting this shot. I do, however, think the defense improves. There is no evidence of Rex Ryan being a bad defensive coordinator. He took over a Top-5 defense and made them a #15 type unit. I have to think that was an aberration, both with the personnel learning his scheme and the now-axed Mario Williams not trying. I think the defense returns to form and compensates for any potential slippage in Tyrod Taylor’s play.
13.) Indianapolis Colts
Here’s the thing I don’t understand about all the people that hated on Colts management, on Ryan Grigson, on Chuck Pagano, and on their players. Despite not having Andrew Luck for 9 games, and going just 2-5 when he played injured, the team finished 8-8. If any other team went 8-8 with their backup QB (and bad play from their normal QB when he was healthy), they would likely be commended. If anything, it showed that there are some bright spots to the Colts roster, and that team plays really hard for Chuck Pagano. They still have serious talent deficiencies at crucial spots (Get a damn pass rusher already), but having a healthy Andrew Luck can paper over those a lot. People forget how good Luck was in 2014 – and I think he matches that this year which makes them still the clear favorite in the AFC South.
12.) Dallas Cowboys
This has very little to do with Ezekiel Elliott, who may indeed have a monster rookie season and is probably the safest bet for Offensive Rookie of the Year. No, this is more to do with Tony Romo returning from injury. The primary difference between a 12-4 season in 2014 and a 4-12 season in 2015 was Romo (and to a lesser extent, Dez). That’s about it. The Cowboys still have a ton of talent on offense, an O-Line that should protect him, and coaches on defense that can make that unit somewhat passable. Somewhat passable is likely all they’ll need to be a better version of the Giants (offense-heavy), and win the NFC East again.
The VII – The New Guard
11.) Oakland Raiders
Yes, this is somewhat a homer pick. It’s actually a fully homer pick. I am actually quite terrified of how many people are trying to make the case for the Raiders being a team on the rise. The pieces are there, from a QB who played really well for ~12 games last year before failing down the stretch to better teams, to a WR who if he cures his drops could be a Top-5 WR given his brilliant route running, to a OLB in Khalil Mack who is already shaping up to be the next Von Miller. The team nicely augmented to this with the money that they contractually had to spend, and have built competence around the roster, and Jack Del Rio, for his ills, is a purely competent head coach. They can win a division with Manning out of the picture. Will they though? The next team may have something to say about that.
10.) Kansas City Chiefs
The team that ended the season on a 10-game win streak is probably the most primed to jump on the AFC West with Manning out of the way (of course, Manning didn’t really have anything to do with the Broncos 12-4 season last year). The Chiefs will be getting Jamaal Charles back – though you have to wonder about the effectiveness of an older RB who has gone through multiple serious injuries. The Chiefs will be without Justin Houston as well for some portion of the season. They have drafted and developed nicely to fill his (and Tamba Hali’s) shoes, but I don’t know if they wanted to test that out so quickly. The Chiefs are a really talented team, but the ceiling of any team with Alex Smith is probably limited. I can see them pulling a 2011 49ers and going like 12-4, but I can also see this slipping back to 9-7 for a 2nd time in three years.
9.) Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings went 11-5 last year. They started 7-2. They won the division in Week 17 by going into Green Bay and winning 20-13 (it should be known it was hard to tell if either team wanted to win that game, as hosting Seattle was probably worse than going to Washington). The Vikings were already good. Now they get a year more of seasoning for Bridgewater, they give him a few more weapons to deploy, and give that defense another year to fortify further. My only issue with them is the move indoors could hamper that defense slightly, as they seemed to love playing in the outdoor cold of Minnesota. We’ll see how that goes (it’s not like there haven’t been dominant indoor / warm-weather defenses before). The Vikings are still on the upswing and are already good. That’s pretty good.
Tier VIII – The Old Guard
8.) Green Bay Packers
That said, I still think the team they beat for the division is better. With Jordy Nelson back, and a full 12-months removed from the injury, the offense should return to the machine it was, rather than whatever the hell that imitation was the last half of last season. The defense is still good, and the Packers smartly locked up Mike Daniels who is a rising star. The Packers with a healthy Nelson and Rodgers are still the best team in that division, even if strange cracks showed up in that foundation last year when Jordy went down.
7.) Pittsburgh Steelers
I still don’t trust that defense to be anything better than a #10-#12 type unit that will struggle against good teams with good passing attacks. I do, however, trust that offense to be a #1-#3 type unit that will not struggle against anyone (apart from the odd 4-5 times a year some lesser team gets pressure on Ben and gives them fits). Even without Martavis Bryant, the Steelers still have more than enough weapons, including a seemingly healthy Le’Veon Bell returning to the lineup. They went 10-6 with one of the best offenses in the league last year starting Michael Vick / Landry Jones for 5 games. They can do better with Ben for hopefully more than 11 this time around.
6.) New England Patriots
I didn’t drop them too much with Brady out for 4 games, as I think they go at worst 1-3, and more likely 2-2 in that stretch. Honestly, they probably go 3-1 with Brady, so 1 loss is not going to kill them. What matters a whole lot more is their ability to get the #1 seed, as the Patriots have shown a clear inability to win road playoff games – although maybe it is just an inability to win playoff games in Denver (0-3 there). The offense will still be great, but they didn’t do much to upgrade the O-Line apart from getting their guys healthy. The defense traded away their best pass rusher, and while the linebackers are great, they alone won’t make this a Top-5 defense. Of course, it doesn’t need to be Top-5, just Top-15 good, which it definitely is.
5.) Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks have in the last four years won 11, 13, 12, and 10 games, but have consistently been great each year – topping the league in Football Outsiders DVOA each time. Their best team won the Super Bowl. Their two hottest teams entering the playoffs won the least amount of games, and lost in the Divisional Round after falling way behind early to an NFC South team. This year’s iteration has the same strengths and weaknesses of every other Seahawks team – bad o-line, great defense, Russell Wilson. The only change is really the loss of Marshawn Lynch who was already being phased out. They’ll be really good again, and it will, much like New England, come down to if they can nab the #1 seed and make sure they don’t have to play any 1PM EST Playoff Games.
Tier IX – The New Normal
4.) Cincinnati Bengals
For a few years there, everyone said the Bengals had the best roster in the league outside of the QB position. Suddenly, last year, they had the QB too. Andy Dalton was a Top-3 QB last year by any measure before that freak thumb injury that careened the Bengals season away from glory. The Bengals, had Dalton stayed healthy, probably get the #1 seed (they lost it due to an OT loss in Denver when AJ McCarron could not outplay Osweiler). The Bengals lost some of that talent this year, including their latest coordinator to leave for a Head Coach gig, but if Dalton’s 2015 level was not a mirage, they can more than compensate for that. The defense is really good, the offense has a monster in AJ Green, a great in Tyler Eifert, and a top o-line. There are no real weaknesses now that the QB has matched his team’s level of play.
3.) Carolina Panthers
The Panthers outlook comes down to two things: how good were they actually last year given that 15-1 was probably better than their real talent level, and is it a net positive or negative to lose Josh Norman but get back Kelvin Benjamin. Personally, I think they were very good last year. They were an uninspiring 8-0 team, but they were a dominant force 9-1 team that finished the season off, winning most of those 9 games by 20+ points, including playing three of the most dominant halves in recent playoff history (1st half vs Seattle and the whole NFC Championship Game). I have seen them cycle through secondary players and remain a very good to great defense and have full faith in Gettleman / Rivera / McDermott to do the same to make up for the loss of Norman. Benjamin coming back really should help that offense. The Panthers have built something special, and there is no clear end in sight right now.
2.) Arizona Cardinals
Yes, I have the team that lost to Carolina 15-49 one spot ahead, for a few reasons. It was clear that Carson Palmer’s finger really effected him in those playoffs. It was also clear how badly they missed Tyrann Mathieu, and it was clear what their biggest weakness as a team was: their pass rush. They had to blitz more than most teams – and while they did it very effectively on the whole, it got exposed in the Carolina game when the o-line held up really well. The Cardinals addressed that weakness by drafting Robert Nkemdiche, trading for Chandler Jones, and hopefully coaching up Markus Golden even more. If they get a pass rush, this is pretty close to a perfect team here. I expect Carson Palmer to remain really good, Larry Fitzgerald to remain dynamic in the slot, and David Johnson to be better in Year #2. The Cardinals are a great roster, with a great coach, and those two inputs usually return a really great team as an output.
Tier X – Well, The Champs are the Champs
1.) Denver Broncos
Of course, in my rules, the Defending Champs are #1 until they lose – which I suspect could be as early as Week #1. They are probably in that range right with Oakland / Kansas City / Minnesota, but for now they get the spoils of wearing the belt. The Broncos will live and die by their defense carrying a Mark Sanchez offense – but we have seen evidence of that formula resulting in trips (plural) to the AFC Championship Game. The defense will have to compensate for the loss of Malik Jackson and Danny Trevethan, and while the linebacker can be replaced, there is no natural replacement for Jackson’s supreme talent. Still, that is a Top-5 defense, and if Sanchez can replicate Osweiler’s performance from last year they can challenge for the division quite easily.