The Hall of Fame Game has finally come and gone, which means ... yep, you guessed it: the first Power Rankings of the 2015 season.
This time of year continues to trick us every season. Summer football teases, with hope springing eternal for every team and general managers drinking their own Kool-Aid about the stellar performances forthcoming from their former third-string quarterbacks. Of course, that's what makes prognosticating fun -- the fact that we're all going to be wrong at some point.
As for making football fun, that's what Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith did on Monday nights for a certain 8-year-old kid in Dallas. Gifford was a soothing voice in our living room; the only downside was my mom making me go to bed after Cosell did the halftime highlights. This weekend, I spoke to many Hall of Famers about Gifford, who passed away on Sunday, with nothing but respect coming from all of them. What a loss for the football community.
The game that Gifford played at the highest level kicks into gear this week, as 30 teams make their debuts in Week 1 of the preseason -- with the Vikings and Steelers having already graced the stage in the aforementioned clash in Canton. How does everyone stack up for now? See below. As always, your take is welcome ... @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Now, let's get to it!
PREVIOUS RANKINGS: Post-draft | Post-free agency
Sticking with my spring Super Bowl pick. Before you jump all over me with soliloquies about Jimmy Graham and 20,000-word manifestos defending the Patriots, please bear in mind that I have predicted each of the last two Super Bowl combatants and outcomes. And in case you haven't noticed, the Packers have brought all their key players back and are dealing with nary a significant injury.
I still love the Seahawks, but having Kam Chancellor in camp would make matters a wee bit more comfortable. I wasn't a fan of the Jimmy Graham trade, but it will be interesting to see if he can block. Caught up with former Seahawk Michael Robinson the other day, and he swore up and down that the true MVP in Seattle last year was offensive line coach Tom Cable. Let's hope he can get Graham, the new center and a still-average offensive line to do their jobs up front. Love Cable.
The Colts are getting more powerful without even doing anything. Now that it looks like the best offensive player in the AFC South this side of Andrew Luck -- Texans running back Arian Foster -- will be out for a lengthy duration, why can't Indy secure the top overall seed in the AFC? Playing a total of six games against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and currently-Foster-free Texans, the Colts will probably go 6-0 or 5-1 in their division. As for the matchups with the other South -- Indy's NFC foes in 2015 -- the Colts should go at least 3-1.
You never want to start the defending Super Bowl champs this low. Well, unless that team will be without its best player ( Tom Brady) for the first four games; has lost arguably the best defensive back in all of football ( Darrelle Revis), a long-time leader in the middle of the defense ( Vince Wilfork) and a clutch running back who caught 11 balls in the biggest game of the year ( Shane Vereen); and just went through a whole offseason debacle that called into question the virtue of the entire organization. Other than that, everything is cool.
Everyone is so worried about the running back position on this team. What about the defense? Sure, new addition Greg Hardy and rookie Randy Gregory could make this group much better, but they're not without red flags. Still, with Tony Romo at quarterback, that offensive line and the best wide receiver in the NFC ( Dez Bryant), Dallas is legit. # Megatronblasphemy
The Cardinals were leap-frogged by the Cowboys because Dallas scooped up rookie offensive lineman La'el Collins and Arizona receiver Michael Floyd dislocated three fingers. Still, this might seem high to some folks. But quarterback Carson Palmer and running back Andre Ellington being (relatively) healthy is a big deal. The latter has taken some knocks for his 2014 campaign, which is grossly unfair, considering he played hurt for much of the year. You try playing hurt and logging 20 touches a game. At least he didn't have to do it in a tough division stacked with great defenses, right?
Seeing much discussion about whether the window is closing in Denver. Well, technically, it's darn near closed, given the general uncertainty as to whether Peyton Manning would hang 'em up this offseason. Then again, how about all the young talent on this team? Cornerback Chris Harris, receiver Demaryius Thomas, running back C.J. Anderson, linebacker Von Miller, receiver Emmanuel Sanders. And what if backup quarterback and former second-round pick Brock Osweiler can play?
Kansas City has a legit shot to win the AFC West this season, but the Chiefs must make good on the outside. That means someone opposite Jeremy Maclin is going to have to step up. No more trying to rely on the Donnie Averys and A.J. Jenkinses of the world. Maybe De'Anthony Thomas will be the man. Either way, Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce merely need someone who can stretch the field and catch 40 balls. Oh, and contributing a touchdown reception at some point during the season would be nice, too.
As with the Cardinals, slotting this team this high might make me a bit of a Positive Perry, even with running back Le'Veon Bell's two-game suspension knocking the Steelers down two spots for now. The good news: Bell is healthy, second-year pro Martavis Bryant should know what he's doing out there at receiver from Day 1 of camp and the secondary simply cannot be worse than it was last year. So there you go.
As we head into Week 1 of the preseason, everyone is going to want to know if the Bengals will be bungling yet another playoff game come January. Bear in mind, however, that Cincinnati was loaded with the walking wounded during that playoff loss to the Colts last season, much like the Chiefs in that crazy wild-card game in the 2013 playoffs. It's hard to win when Andy Dalton is throwing the ball to big-time targets like Ryan Hewitt, Kevin Brock and Rex Burkhead. On that note, methinks tight end Tyler Eifert's return to health will be a huge boost to the prospects of both Dalton and the team.
Knowing where to place the Lions is difficult. On the periphery, it appears the club is set enough at key positions to compete in the NFC. Then, as you dive in, the cracks in the dam come into view. The club made the correct move not paying Ndamukong Suh what he wanted. Nonetheless, the inconsistency of Matthew Stafford and the ineffectiveness of the run game hurt Detroit badly last year. Second-round pick Ameer Abdullah could be the great elixir here, both in and out of the backfield, but we need to see him in more than just shorts and shells.
Not sure any other coach who hasn't won a Coach of the Year award -- or, for that matter, a single playoff game -- could get as much attention as Chip Kelly. Meanwhile, the real issues get lost in the media blitz. They are, in order:
a) Will the addition of Byron Maxwell clean up the secondary play?
b) How effective will the offensive line be with new faces replacing Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans?
c) Can DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews stay healthy enough to make that O-line matter?
d) Will rookie receiver Nelson Agholor develop like Jordan Matthews did last year -- and can the latter take a step forward? (Matthews looks fantastic, by the way.)
e) Will Sam Bradford stay healthy (and is the gap between Bradford and Mark Sanchez really that wide)?
Baltimore might be the one team people are forgetting about, given that most prognosticators see the AFC North coming down to the Steelers and Bengals. Even with Haloti Ngata in Detroit, there is so much young talent on the Ravens' defense that it should be the best unit in the division. The real question lies with the youth in the passing game. How pro-ready will rookies Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams be?
Talk of Junior Seau was prevalent in Canton this past weekend, and for all the right reasons. Watching his highlight video while sitting in the press box during the
Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony, I realized I had forgotten how he always had a knack for being around the ball. And seeing his daughter answer Steve Wyche's questions in such a classy manner was emotional, to say the least.
As for the Chargers of today, they can be a 10-win team. The season could hinge on the play of rookie running back Melvin Gordon -- as well as San Diego's games against the NFC North.
Getting more excited for Panthers football every day. Well, except for the part about the team crossing its fingers that Jonathan Stewart can stay healthy again. And except for the franchise quarterback getting into hockey fights. (Who doesn't want to see Mike Tolbert get 30 carries one game, if for no other reason than to watch him flatten some dude like the steamroller in "The Naked Gun"?) NFL Media colleague Charley Casserly said rookie Devin Funchess is like Kelvin Benjamin 2.0; if he's right, that could make Carolina awfully difficult to stop in the red zone.
Coming around on the Dolphins, especially with Buffalo experiencing the kinds of quarterback woes that inevitably lead to coaching woes. Confidence in Joe Philbin, whose tenure has delivered mediocrity in spades thus far, is a central issue in Miami. That said, Ryan Tannehill and the suddenly spry receiver corps give this team the edge over the Bills and Jets -- and they could help close the gap in the AFC East. (Of course, they must beat the Pats in Miami.)
Nice to see Adrian Peterson has come back humbled after missing all that time last season -- or not. So is he a Hall of Famer right now, even if he never played another down? (@HarrisonNFL) Loved Fran Tarkenton's short, sweet speech for Mick Tingelhoff at the Hall of Fame. Liked Teddy Bridgewater's play in the accompanying game, too.
Not only does America not think the Bills have found their quarterback, but neither do, well, the Bills. After hearing much buzz about Tyrod Taylor, neither he, Matt Cassel nor EJ Manuel have impressed. In fairness to those guys, we should note they are going up against what could be the top defense in football this year. Call them confidence wreckers, Bills mafia.
Too much talk about rookie running back Todd Gurley, not enough talk about the wide receivers. Dilly-dally all day about Nick Foles playing "Words with Friends" with his new locker-room chums and the defensive line dominating, but perhaps 'ol Bernie Kosar was right a couple of years back when, while calling a Rams-Browns preseason contest, he savaged some of St. Louis' players, including some of the receivers. Brian Quick (who is still recovering from the shoulder issues that derailed his 2014 campaign), Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook and especially Stedman Bailey must step it up, or the Rams will be doing the 7-9 (or 7-8-1) thing again.
Oh does losing Arian Foster to a groin injury hurt the Texans. Defensive dynamo J.J. Watt gets all the pub, but the bottom line is, Houston has struggled without its lead tailback in the lineup. Quarterback Ryan Mallett is huge, has talent and might do wonderful things in the league ... starting with, um, fending off Brian Hoyer for the job. But he won't get far without the 1,200 yards Foster normally puts up in a season. Pumped up about Jadeveon Clowney's return.
It's always nice to have your GM pressing the pressure button while you're still practicing in shorts in early August. Twenty-eight points per game -- the bar Jerry Reese set for his team earlier this month -- might seem like a tall order for this offense, what with New York's weight-room-depleted offensive line, an oft-injured starting tailback and a key wideout coming off major knee surgery. Then you look around at the other defenses in the NFC East. "Make that 35, guys. I think we should score 35 points per game."
Sheldon Richardson's offseason issues make the wonderful luck (something Jets fans have never had, save for Vinny Testaverde playing out of his mind in 1998) of landing defensive tackle Leonard Williams in the 2015 NFL Draft more important every day. Of course, being down two key players in the secondary already (Dee Milliner and Antonio Allen) might have had fans questioning if the football gods cared about their team at all -- and that was before Geno Smith was knocked out of commission for six to 10 weeks. The Jets have now lost their top three picks of the 2013 draft class in Milliner, Richardson and Smith, two of whom (Richardson and Smith) were expected to be major contributors.
Given that these Power Rankings are coming just after Hall of Fame weekend, can we discuss the dearth of Falcons in the Hall -- and the lack of talk about them? Maybe Atlanta doesn't have any stout, shoo-in candidates, but certainly some deserve to be mentioned, starting with Mike Kenn and Tommy Nobis. Billy "White Shoes" Johnson was one of the greatest punt returners ever -- and he's never brought up. Tony Gonzalez will get in. Ditto Devin Hester. But they spent their respective primes with other teams. Am I missing anybody? (@HarrisonNFL)
We'll see if the defense comes around with new faces in new places. If a kid like rookie defensive tackle Eddie Goldman can step up and play like a vet, then this unit has a chance. Either way, the little guy who might make the biggest splash is 5-foot-10, 185-pound veteran receiver Eddie Royal. I see him catching 60 balls this year and being a sleeper in fantasy. #underrratedsigning
Speculation abounds as to whether this Saints offense is going to change its M.O. and go much more run-heavy. It would make sense, considering the inept play of the defense last season and the fact that the team's best pass rusher is now suiting up in Washington. That said, how do you not applaud coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis for cleaning up that locker room and changing the approach? By the way, Jimmy Graham was still a rising draft prospect when New Orleans won Super Bowl XLIV. We do wish rookie offensive lineman Andrus Peat looked better, or that we could see safety Jairus Byrd -- who spent most of last season on injured reserve with a torn meniscus -- at all.
Losing pass rusher Aldon Smith, who was released last week after being arrested for a hit and run, DUI and vandalism, was a rather significant development, but what was the organization to do? The Niners simply have to lean on Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks for their pass rush now. It really makes you think about how deep this linebacker corps was when former coach Jim Harbaugh was in town -- in addition to Lynch and Brooks, he had Smith, Patrick Willis, a healthy NaVorro Bowman and an unretired Chris Borland at his disposal. Feels like current coach Jim Tomsula went to the dealership to finally get that new car and came out with the metallic pea family truckster Clark Griswold didn't order.
Gotta like what those Redskins have done to shore up the defense. Terrance Knighton and Stephen Paea instantly make that front line better. Ryan Kerrigan's new running mate on the outside, Junior Galette, could make Kerrigan more effective, as long as Galette stays on the straight and narrow. Adding Chris Culliver and Dashon Goldson to the mix sure doesn't hurt. Wow, 21-on-21, this team should compete -- too bad about that 22nd guy at quarterback.
Call it wonderful to see a true Raider in receiver Tim Brown make the Hall of Fame. If fourth overall pick Amari Cooper can match Brown's work ethic at the position -- and play for as long as Brown's speech lasted -- Oakland will be in great shape. It's hard not to get excited about Raider football this season. Some of the young talent on the roster -- from Cooper to running back Latavius Murray and linebacker Khalil Mack -- is on par with that featured by any team in the league.
It's still frustrating that third overall pick Dante Fowler Jr. is out for the season, but perhaps the injury will help propel the young pass rusher's career. LaVar Arrington told me the other day that playing with an injury can cause a player -- especially, in theory, a younger player -- to focus more on the job at hand, whether that's play diagnosis, formations or wasting no steps. Here's betting that Fowler, who has a great attitude, will be a player. Can the same be said about Blake Bortles? By all accounts, the second-year pro has looked fantastic in camp. Perhaps more importantly, the quarterback has a cadre of young receivers to develop -- and develop with. Continue to love the Jared Odrick signing, too.
Funny how those league observers and fans who wrote off 21-year-old Johnny Manziel are talking him up now ... when he's 22. Maybe we should give people a chance to grow up. Meanwhile, good buddy and NFL Media colleague Marc Sessler (@MarcSesslerNFL) is at Browns camp; he let me know that first-round pick Danny Shelton is tearing it up and that coach Mike Pettine has a copy of the Warren Report. Shelton and the Warren Report. Interesting. One can probably eat three truckloads of baloney -- and the other literally is three truckloads of baloney.
Since we're all tracking interceptions by the quarterback in training camp, it would be good to know how many holes running back Bishop Sankey has missed, how many two-hand-touch tackles Titans linebackers have whiffed on and how many deer-in-the-headlights looks the Tennessee secondary has delivered while lost in coverage. Otherwise, here's hoping Marcus Mariota is as prepared as advertised. Until we find out for sure, second to last is where this team sits.
This ranking is more a reflection of last year's record (2-14) -- coupled with the reliance on receiver Mike Evans. The running game, whether Doug Martin is the starter or not, presents a huge question mark. I'm also not yet overly impressed with Jameis Winston. The development of tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins might be the key to Winston's progression -- and inherently, the Bucs' rise up this board.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.