The Free Agency Power Rankings. Consider this our opening salvo toward determining order in the NFL membership for the 2016 campaign.
Let's start that over.
With the new league year starting last week, I am putting forth the Power Rankings with no up and down arrows. This is the starting line for all 32 teams. And this just in: The Broncos are not in the pole position. You must have a driver not named Trevor Siemian or Mark Sanchez for that honor.
For analysis on every team, take a look below. And, as always, feel free to share your take: @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Let the dissension commence!
Carolina has to be No. 1, although it's close with New England. The return of a healthy Kelvin Benjamin should prevent this offense from taking a step back in 2016. Even if the Panthers did catch lightning in a bottle with offensive coordinator Mike Shula's everything-I-call-is-working play calling last season, Benjamin adds another dimension to this team. The worry is the pass rush, though re-signing Charles Johnson was nice. The veteran defensive end has long been one of the NFL's most underrated players, despite being hurt much of this past season.
Successful free agency strategies are often dependent on signing a couple of mid-tier guys who keep the team championship-viable. Receiver Chris Hogan can be that player. Had Julian Edelman not been hurt for the last seven regular-season games of 2015, New England would have likely finished with the top seed in the AFC. That would've changed everything in the postseason. Hogan, who was sneaky good for the Bills the last couple of years, is an upgrade over Brandon LaFell. Oh yeah, and I guess trading defensive end Chandler Jones to the Cardinals for Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick was kind of a big deal, too. It looks to be a win-win situation for both teams. The Chris Long signing: A little Chandler Jones fallback, with solid veteran attitude.
Like Carolina, the Cardinals needed a pass rusher. They couldn't just rely on calling Dwight Freeney -- again -- or, say, "Too Tall" Jones to come off the couch and lead the team in sacks. Enter Chandler Jones, who should form a promising duo with Markus Golden. On the other side of the ball, Carson Palmer's play in the 2015 postseason -- 59.3 percent completion rate, four TDs against six INTs and a 67.1 passer rating in two games -- must be a slight concern. Re-signing backup Drew Stanton was smart. It's those kinds of moves that earn teams a win or two. Let's not forget how 2014 played out for this group.
These could be your 2016 Super Bowl champs right here -- yes, even with the exciting-but-inconsistent Martavis Bryant suspended for the year. The key, beyond the health factor, is the secondary. How much will the organization hit that group in the draft? Thankfully, my cousin-in-law pointed out that Senquez Golson, the Steelers' second-round pick in 2015, didn't play last year. Easy to forget those rookie medical guys. With the return of Golson -- a product of Ole Miss, which also happens to be my cousin-in-law's alma mater, thus explaining the motivation for championing a backup DB -- Pittsburgh doesn't need as much help as is being put out there on the Interwebs. The defense fared better than any league observer thought it would last season ... well enough to win it at all, had the offense (which, at various points of the year, was without Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown) stayed healthy. My cousin-in-law did not want his name used for this blurb, so all I will say is that it rhymes with "Davey."
Receiver Jordy Nelson -- who missed the 2015 season with a torn ACL -- will be back healthy. Ditto Randall Cobb, who should also be twice as effective with Nelson returning. Running back Eddie Lacy should be slimmer and ready to go. Linebacker Nick Perry was re-signed. And let us not forget the return of middle linebacker Sam Barrington. As for the "Why aren't the Packers making moves??" nonsense -- why do they have to? These guys should've beaten Seattle in the 2014 NFC Championship Game. Last season, all beat to hell, they still gave the Cardinals a run for their money in the playoffs. Getting another back -- like, say, Arian Foster on the cheap -- as insurance for Lacy would be nice.
Sanchez. Stephenson. Free agency. Get excited. John Elway raised more than a few eyebrows by not convincing quarterback Brock Osweiler to stay in the mix. But look at it this way: Now the Broncos have a great chance to lead the league in interceptions two years in a row! Having the defending Super Bowl champs start at No. 6 is not ideal, obviously, but given their QB situation, as well as the departures of Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan, there was no choice. I don't blame Elway for not ponying up for Osweiler or Jackson, so don't read this ranking as an indictment of the general manager. But Trevathan?
What will Pete Carroll's team look like in 2016? The guess here is it'll probably be closer to the scoring machine we saw from Week 12 on last season than the ball control, play defense and out-physical you squad we saw from 2012 to '14. Running back Marshawn Lynch and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane -- core players on a squad that has fielded a top-five rushing attack and a top-five overall defense in each of the past four seasons -- are gone. Can second-year pro Thomas Rawls -- recovering from a fractured ankle -- be the workhorse who moves the chains enough to burn clock and let the Bobby Wagners of the world rest their legs? Maybe he won't have to, with the way Russell Wilson (2,146 passing yards, 25 passing TDs, two picks and a 124.3 passer rating over the final eight games) fared late in 2015. Losing linebacker Bruce Irvin to free agency hurt, too.
Not ready to have the Chiefs leapfrog the Seahawks just yet. As impressive as Kansas City's 11-game winning streak (including the playoffs) was last season, bear in mind that it coincided with the schedule becoming markedly easier. Love the moves the front office made in bringing back Eric Berry and long-time vets like Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali. Draft and retain, man. That said, grabbing a guy like Mitchell Schwartz to bolster the offensive line made sense.
Wow, where to put the Bengals? This is still one of the strongest teams in the AFC. Thank goodness they kept Adam Jones and let both of their free-agent wide receivers walk. So now when A.J. Green is getting blanketed every play, the cornerback can walk over and argue with the refs. We kid, we kid. Felt Cincy needed to keep either Mohamed Sanu or Marvin Jones, although Marvin Jones will make more money in Detroit ($40 million over five years, with $17 million fully guaranteed) than Cincinnati owner Mike Brown was going to pay. So let's see what seventh-round pick Mario Alford -- who can run faster than a '93 Ford Probe GT -- can do. The defection that I am really worried about: Hue Jackson.
From the national perspective, the Vikings barely made a peep in free agency. The big splash play was absent. Make no mistake, though: The organization was active. Signing Alex Boone was a nice move. Way to go get a guard. Football games are still won in the G-C-G area of the field. Moreover, letting Mike Wallace go was the right call. He was not a key piece to Minnesota repeating as NFC North champs in 2016. Love that the Vikes signed Terence Newman. You can never have enough Terence Newmans in your locker room.
How will the Redskins fare in 2016? Well, if success in modern pro football is contingent on having continuity at head coach and quarterback, Washington has that. Notice the words that begin with "con" in the previous sentence. Appropriate, as the prefix "con-" means "together," and -- perhaps because of Kirk Cousins' infectious attitude (and catchphrases) -- this team played together last season. OK, so that's Simple Simon reasoning, but playing as a team is so underrated in this era of Let's go buy a defense roster construction (SEE: Giants, New York football). Now, we should note that if the Redskins don't develop a running game, there will be plenty of consternation in D.C.
Houston immediately looks stronger on paper. The football team, not the city. The latter always seems to play second sister to Dallas, even though Nolan Ryan is from those parts. Even though it's bigger (in both population and area) than Big D. Even though the Oilers' uniforms were the coolest in NFL history. We digress. Maybe Brock Osweiler will develop into the type of player who vaults the Texans into the national football consciousness, perhaps one notch ahead of the Cowboys. If he does, it will be due in no small part to the signing of running back Lamar Miller, who couldn't buy 20 carries while stuck on the Joe Philbin-era Dolphins. Houston coach Bill O'Brien will feed him.
Hey, it's a new league year, and I can put the Raiders as high as I want. Do I think they're hovering around wild-card status right now? Yes, I do. While giving the benefit of the doubt to the participants in the 2015 postseason field for now, Oakland is as ready as any ballclub to push one of those AFC teams (say, the Texans, Bengals or Chiefs) out. New linebacker Bruce Irvin might not be a 10-sack guy annually, but have fun facing him and that (Khalil) Mack truck playing on the other side. Signing offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele made much sense. All those who were angry Oakland quarterback Derek Carr didn't make my All-Under-25 Team earlier this month, well, it was because he's going to turn 25 on March 28, which is prior to the 2016 season kickoff, which disqualified him from consideration. Still, Carr is further along than fellow 2014 draftees Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles right now.
Guessing Bills fans are upset receiver Chris Hogan won't be running around Ralph Wilson Stadium this year. Or maybe they're more upset that he will -- for the Evil Empire. Seriously, Hogan joining the AFC East-ruling Patriots would be like Chewbacca fitting his hairy pits into an XXXL stormtrooper outfit (that option cannot be unlocked in "Star Wars: Battlefront"). You know what? That's economics. Football economics -- a course I plan to teach at Adams College this summer -- dictates that teams must pay to retain their offensive lines. That's where pro football is won. If only the Browns were paying attention, say, in this instance, or this instance.
As long as Tony Romo stays upright, the Cowboys are a playoff team; It's that cut-and-dried. Under that premise, we can assume the offense will be fine. The defense is the side of the ball everyone questions, and I'm not sure why. This unit kept the cruddy law firm of Weeden, Cassel & Moore in games all season. Did league analysts expect the D to hold the fort while the offense was a three-and-out machine? The Randy Gregory suspension hurts, but re-signing Rolando McClain and adding a run-stuffer in Cedric Thornton were both good moves. Again, it's all about shaved collarbones and 35-year-old quarterbacks in Dallas.
Everyone reading this far down the rankings has probably wondered, "Where are the Giants?" Well, the Power Rankings do not equal an ode to big free agency moves. Can a front office retool a defense with a bunch of contractors? Most of the time, it doesn't work. Why doubt Big Blue's spending spree? A) These players have never played with each other, or in coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's scheme. B) There is a reason their former clubs didn't want to pony up the money the Giants did. Defensive end Olivier Vernon, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and nose tackle Damon Harrison certainly improve the talent level, but will the boost translate to the Giants' first playoff spot in five years? Think Harrison -- who, by the way, owns a heckuva last name -- will bring serious toughness to a unit that desperately needs it.
The fact that the Colts finished last season at 8-8 -- despite the quarterback carousel and coaching turmoil -- speaks to the character of the players in the locker room ... or does it? According to the recently departed Coby Fleener, some of the guys were chillin' all season. What we do know is that the caveman tight end will be missed, as will Matt Hasselbeck's veteran presence. It's not often Indy is the fourth-most-talked-about team in the AFC South, but that's been the case of late. The Colts still have Andrew Luck, though, and that keeps them above the Jaguars and Titans.
Surprised? Don't be. The Jaguars showed signs of turning the losing culture around last season via an explosive offense. Now Gus Bradley has tools to work with on defense, given the arrivals of Malik Jackson and Tashaun Gipson, among others. Offensively, Jacksonville added Chris Ivory, one of the true thumpers in pro football. He'll nicely complement T.J. Yeldon in providing a ground game for young QB Blake Bortles, who certainly doesn't need to have everything on his shoulders in Year 3. Speaking of, Jags fans were quite upset I chose Teddy Bridgewater over Bortles on my All-Under-25 Team. If I had to do it again, I might go with the latter. It was hard to get over the devastating turnovers. So many of Bortles' picks really cost his team (and undermined his productivity). Meanwhile, Bridgewater was not asked to drop back as much; rather, he had to convert third downs and let the run game and defense do much of the work. These two young field generals are just tasked with different assignments.
Better keep an eye on these Falcons. Sure, the 2-7 finish sucked. The defense couldn't hold the fort when the offense was moving, and the offense put the defense in bad positions with untimely turnovers. (The red-zone turnovers were particularly alarming.) The interesting note here is that as much as people have been concerned about Dan Quinn's D, the O was the losing side of the middling 8-8 record. Thankfully, the front office recognizes that deal, and made amends by signing Alex Mack and Mohamed Sanu.
The Bucs did themselves right by re-upping Doug Martin to a five-year deal. Yes, I know: Running backs have a short shelf life. But Martin is still a reasonable 27 years old -- and he just finished second in the league in rushing while compiling 1,673 yards from scrimmage. Young QB Jameis Winston needs that kinda support in the backfield. Also liked the signing of one Robert Ayers, who has been a solid pro. Did he have a breakout campaign in a contract year? Perhaps. But Tampa Bay needs another pass rusher to contend. It's that elementary.
We can speak of free agency until the cows come home, yet the great elixir for the Dolphins is what Adam Gase squeezes from Ryan Tannehill's evolution. It also just dawned on me that Tannehill probably has seen cows come home before. He certainly is faring better than another Texas A&M quarterback. Meanwhile, an older former Aggie QB recently won a Super Bowl with a mixture of defense and timely offense -- a blueprint that wouldn't be so bad for Gase, either, given the personnel (like, say, new addition Mario Williams). Still, the overall plan seems unclear -- agree with my colleague Gregg Rosenthal's take.
The gleam of hope after the 6-2 finish has morphed into darkness in a post-Megatron football world. But all is not lost. Picking up Marvin Jones was a master stroke, even though he is not Calvin Johnson. Re-signing Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker made much dollars and sense. On the subject of the defensive line, heard from a few fans of the Honolulu Blue in the wake of Olivier Vernon's monster deal. Detroit might have to hold a million-man raffle to re-up Ziggy Ansah when his contract runs out. Holy cow.
Puzzling free-agency period for the Ravens -- not necessarily in a bad way, just ... interesting. They lost Kelechi Osemele to a big bidder while adding veteran Benjamin Watson. Mid-30s Watson seems like an odd fit, but we'll see how he tandems with Maxx Williams. Baltimore didn't have the money to compete with the Raiders to sign the talented Osemele, but the team did carry the bucks to go out and snatch Eric Weddle, in a somewhat unforeseen move. As for the Mike Wallace signing? I'll get excited if/when it pays off. Indirectly throwing your former QB under the bus sure is an ominous start.
The Eagles got their quarterback ... or two. They also got rid of some contracts and remnants of the Chip Kelly era. Seriously, it's as though he was an Etch A Sketch that the front office was champing at the bit to shake the minute the door closed behind him. Oh, yes. Forgot our NFL.com age demographic. Here is an Etch A Sketch, everybody.
If the Jets go into the season with only Geno Smith and Bryce Petty, this is where they'll stay in the Power Rankings. As of this writing, New York was sans a postseason-ready quarterback, with no IK Enemkpali around to save their season. (If something like that did go down -- again -- we would find out real quick about Petty. Perhaps Todd Bowles and Co. are far higher on the young signal caller than we all think?) This staredown with Ryan Fitzpatrick is moving into uncomfortable territory, as otherwise, this is a 10-win football team.
John Fox's retooling process slowly begins with the arrivals of Danny Trevathan, Jerrell Freeman and Akiem Hicks on defense. Of course, one wonders if the Bears will even know how to air up the footballs at practice now that Adam Gase is gone (just a slightly sarcastic reference to the overwhelmingly glowing pub he's received this offseason). Fox wants to run the football and play defense, as shown by the front office's attempt to acquire C.J. Anderson. How about finding out how durable Jeremy Langford is without assuming he can't handle 20 carries per game?
While the move to Los Angeles still dominates the talk around this franchise, more than a few league observers are wondering about the quarterback situation. Case Keenum is No. 1 on the depth charts and in your hearts. The heart and soul of this team is the gliding stride of Todd Gurley (as seen here), which, if complemented correctly, should be married to a stout defense. That is the tough part for Los Angeles (still feels weird to type), which lost solid contributors in Chris Long, James Laurinaitis and Janoris Jenkins. Jeff Fisher has his work cut out for him to even get back to the glory days of 7-9.
More than any other organization in the NFL, the Saints are depending on the health of their quarterback and a stout draft in order to compete in 2016. New Orleans hasn't enjoyed boatloads of cap space for some time now, so there will be no band of free agents to truly fix a defense that allowed a staggering 476 points. In fact, as of this writing, the Saints have the lowest amount of cap space in the league. Maybe the Coby Fleener signing -- five years, $36 million -- gets you all hot and bothered. It signals to me that, sans a wonderful haul in the draft, Sean Payton will be trying to win games 40-38 again.
San Diego could bolt up the 405 right past Los Angeles and up these Power Rankings in a New York minute with a strong draft. Of the teams I graded after the initial wave of free agency, the Chargers were one of the few in the "A" range. Getting Travis Benjamin masks the loss of Malcom Floyd while simultaneously helping the special teams. The defensive line sorely needed a Brandon Mebane. Meanwhile, the Casey Hayward addition was one of those several-days-after-the-free-agent-musical-chairs-explosion-period signings that fly under the radar, yet win games.
So much of the banter involving the 49ers revolves around an overrated quarterback who is often frenetic in the pocket -- it's becoming increasingly difficult to remember there are more than 50 other guys on this football team. Maybe the Niners eventually will take that fourth-rounder from Big John, but they certainly are looking for a bigger offer (like, a third). There is talent on this team, from NaVorro Bowman to Aaron Lynch to Quinton Dial to developmental players like Bruce Ellington and Jaquiski Tartt. The latter sounds like something you get with an umbrella in an overpriced L.A. speakeasy, but Tartt did start as a rookie. He has some pop. I'll be here all week. Tip somebody.
This ranking might seem harsh, especially with the excitement that acquiring DeMarco Murray brings. Yet, is he the right fit for the offense? If Marcus Mariota is in the shotgun often -- see: read-option looks -- then the answer is likely no. That didn't work in Philadelphia. Murray is a north-south runner who does better in a single-back system with the QB under center. On the flip side, if Mariota takes off more, he will force defenses to respect his running ability, thus forcing defenses to play 11-on-11. Whereas, with Sam Bradford at Murray's side in Philly, all the focus was on the tailback. Bradford is less of a threat to run than Jurrell Casey. Schematically speaking, the Murray trade was the most interesting move of this offseason.
You must feel for Hue Jackson. The man has been handed a Tomsula burger. The nice element to the mass departures is that Jackson has a blank slate to start with ... as in blank stares from a bunch of rookies who can't play. The Browns say they want to draft and keep players. The question is, how do you not keep several of your own who left last week? Especially a guy like Mitchell Schwartz, who hasn't missed a start his whole career?
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.