Almost there ...
Two words down, two days to go.
The start of the regular season means no more Aaron Donald contract chatter. No more Andrew Luck speculation. No more preseason games with zero starters.
This past offseason truly comes to a close Thursday night in Philadelphia, when the defending champs tee it up versus the pesky -- and quite talented -- Falcons. All the off-field stories from the past six months not only take a back seat but stay there. We've had the overblown (Jimmy Graham to the Packers), oversold (strife within the Patriots' house), overpaid (Khalil Mack ... or Jon Gruden?) and a whole lot more that we can toss into the background once on-field activities begin at Lincoln Financial Field. And what a good matchup, too -- one that came down to a riveting goal-to-go series in the Divisional Round this past January. Atlanta-Philly 2.0 should be thisclose again.
The dawn of another season also means renewed hope for all fan bases. Everybody is undefeated, with a strong suit of this particular sports league on full display come Week 1: Teams can turn it around, from cellar to penthouse, in one year's time. Like ...
Thanks for checking in from Mexico, Martino. The Bears might not end up in first, but they are easily the biggest risers down below.
Take a gander at the full league pecking order. The up/down arrows reflect changes from the Preseason Power Rankings, which I provide every year on the Tuesday after Hall of Fame weekend. On that note, your Hall-worthy take is welcome: @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Let the dissension commence!
PROGRAMMING NOTE: For more in-depth analysis on the updated league pecking order, tune in to NFL Network every Tuesday night at 6 p.m. ET for the "NFL Power Rankings" show. Want to add YOUR voice? Provide your thoughts in a tweet to @HarrisonNFL, and your comments could be featured on air.
So the man who stunned us all last February will be under center for the Kickoff Game. The new/old-car smell on Nick Foles has felt more like what you'd find on an '89 Topaz this preseason, as the QB's play fluttered back to Earth like one of his August tosses. All of which would mean very little if Carson Wentz were ready to go. Alas, he still hasn't been cleared as he makes his way back from a torn ACL. Even so, with all -- er, almost all -- of the starters returning from the team that won Super Bowl LII, no other squad feels more contender-ish than this group. I can poke holes in all of 'em, in fact. Like, take the ...
With the news that Aaron Donald and team brass finalized a long-term contract extension, Los Angeles became the top threat to ruin Doug Pederson's Super Bowl reunion tour. Donald could be a smidge rusty, but there is nothing rustic about these Rams. They're young! The lack of experience only highlights the fact we saw no highlights from any of their burgeoning stars this preseason. A little work would've been nice for Jared Goff, who took a major step forward last year. Can he repeat the results of a prolific sophomore campaign with no warm-up? We'll all find out together Monday night in Oakland.
The Saints climb the ladder. The tall, athletic rookie out of UTSA only helps matters. If Marcus Davenport fares even a fraction as well as Marcus Williams did last year as a rookie ... or Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore ... or Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara ... look out. The only flicker in the Saints' bright future is the short-term absence of suspended running back Mark Ingram, without much other depth in the backfield behind Kamara. That's it.
Everyone -- or, at least, every Vikings fan of the variety that obsesses over things like centers and guards -- is freaking out about Minnesota's offensive line. The front didn't look too bad in the preseason, although trying to accurately assess O-line quality in August is like trying to tell the difference between pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie without touching. The preseason has devolved to the point where teams are afraid to have their starters even perform a hamstring stretch. What we can glean is the strength of Mike Zimmer's personnel. The defense carries more oomph than the Patriots' D at all three levels. (The acquisition of former Bengals safety George Iloka only added to Minnesota's enviable defensive depth.) The wide receivers are superior to New England's, and the backfield is even. That's why the top AFC team sits where it does for now, with the Vikings at the cleanup spot.
Even Tom Brady needs someone to throw to, despite the popular myth that he can work with anybody. Brandin Cooks (now with the Rams) caught a lot of those intermediate chunk balls last year. Danny Amendola (now with the Dolphins) caught just about everything. Dion Lewis (now with the Titans) was no chump, either. At this point, sans Julian Edelman (suspended for four games), it might be a bumpy ride for the smoothest passer in the game. There is pressure on the defense, specifically those corners.
Yep, sizeable drop. Teams only move four clicks downward in this rarefied air when there are appropriate reasons, of course. For Jacksonville, that starts with losing the top wideout on the roster for the year. Doug Marrone will once again feature a tough defense that can control the engagement, although opponents with strong ground games can move the football on the Jags, who ranked 21st against the run in 2017. In order for this squad to win big, Jacksonville's running game must dominate. Look for Leonard Fournette to end up in the 1,200-1,300-yard range rather handily.
For most of the offseason, the worry in Sixburgh revolved around the defense and the precise number of millions running back Le'Veon Bell was coveting. My physical therapist -- a giant Steelers honk -- told me fans are growing weary of Bell's act. Each time he mentioned it, he grinded his bony thumb into my IT band a little harder. I digress. I like the Jon Bostic move a lot. It's one of those under-the-radar, DeAngelo Williams-esque signings that might help Pittsburgh steal a win. The defensive line, methinks, looks legit. Oh, who is the returner? Ryan Switzer?
Who knows how good the Falcons can be? There are those who think they are a Super Bowl contender, with other pundits considering them the odd team out in the postseason. Generally, it's the Panthers or the upstart Giants (or, perhaps, the Saints if they don't win the NFC South) removing Atlanta from the picture. Where the offense -- and, specifically, Matt Ryan -- falls is the question. In Year 2 of the Steve Sarkisian era, will Ryan be closer to the MVP-winning 2016 version of himself (38 TDs, 7 INTs, 117.1 passer rating) or what we saw from him last year (20 TDs, 12 INTs, 91.4 passer rating)? My guess: somewhere in the middle. Either way, with that offensive line, running back group and receiver corps, there are no excuses.
The Packers appear set for a playoff run, although linebacker has been a concern thus far. With third-round pick Oren Burks the latest to go down (though not for the entire season, unlike less-fortunate LB Jake Ryan), the organization has had to scramble. Too bad, because I remember when Burks was making plays in camp and going yard at Coors Field with Dante Bichette and Andres Galarraga. Oh. Wrong Burks. Another note: A roster review mixed with analytics will tell you the Vikes take the NFC North. Be mindful that, as awesome as analytics can be in terms of providing context, the NFL regular season is too short for a numbers-based prediction to be extremely accurate. In the NBA, the 82-game slate allows for trends to surface and have meaning. Shorter point: If Aaron Rodgers gets streaky good in December, it's over.
Solid power-up into the top 10 for the Chargers, who are the favorites to win their division. Don't see any AFC West teams leapfrogging Anthony Lynn's group, although losing Jason Verrett (torn Achilles) and Hunter Henry (torn ACL) hurt, and depth is an issue. This just in: When your starters play well and you lose 36-7 in the preseason, it's clear you've got some cracks and splinters on your bench. Derwin James sure excited a few of the fellas, huh? The Chargers are a playoff team.
Are the Panthers a Super Bowl team? That is the question. There are three major determinants here:
**A)** Can their pass-rush-by-committee be as successful as it was in 2017? Dontari Poe is now on board, but this team still must blitz to get after the QB, as the top edge rusher is about 50 years old. Gotta love Julius Peppers, whose sack-per-play ratio last year was out of sight.
**B)** Cam Newton owns new toys outside ( Torrey Smith, D.J. Moore) and a new OC in Norv Turner. Thinking Carolina needs the thumper inside the 10 to be C.J. Anderson, not the QB1.
**C)** This talented group is part of an even more talented group: the NFC South. It's gonna be a difficult road. </content:power-ranking>
The running game remains a question mark, as does the offensive line. D'Onta Foreman coming back at midseason would mean much to an otherwise-middling ground attack. The DeAndre Hopkins-led receiver group is the exact opposite. Bill O'Brien can't play everybody. Bruce Ellington and Sammie Coates made hay in the preseason, which was encouraging. Keke Coutee, which sounds like Forever 21's makeup spinoff store and now is one of my favorite football names, looks to replace the departed Braxton Miller. It's not hard to replace that fourth preseason game, however. Run a "Bonanza" marathon or something -- anything other than Week 4 of the practice games.
I'm a little bit higher on the Titans' helmets than their prospects as a team at the moment. It's hard to decipher where Mike Vrabel's squad is right now. Then again, I can't really justify bouncing any of the groups below over Tennessee -- other than the Giants or maybe the Bears. Like Big Blue, the boys in baby blue are sporting a new head coach, a new running back and a new-ish defensive scheme. I like the Giants' wideouts better, but the Titans get the nod at offensive line. Will any of it matter enough for Tennessee to secure a wild-card berth?
Nice growth spurt for the once-woebegone Giants, who climb into the top half of the Power Rankings for the first time in a looong time. What gives? There's a new stud tailback in place, one side of the offensive line has been fixed and Odell Beckham Jr. is back. With enough goblets of money to get a lifetime pass to Medieval Times and Raging Waters.
This is not a simple reaction to the Khalil Mack blockbuster -- it's merely a simple reaction to the Khalil Mack blockbuster. What a move by general manager Ryan Pace, who swashbuckled his way across the front-office universe like Captain James T. Kirk and dealt a blow to the Klingons, Romulans and Gorn ... er, the Vikings, Lions and Packers with the addition of a top-five defensive player. Couple Mack with an already stable defense (much better than the one in Oakland), then further take into account a solid offensive line, a steady RB1 and an ascending franchise quarterback, and it's clear Chicagoans have themselves a squad.
Perhaps more than any other team (save for maybe the Cowboys), the Ravens must run the football successfully. Get Joe Flacco going off play-action or first-down throws and provide air time (oxygen) for a defense that is trending in the right direction but is not yet dominant. Thus, Alex Collins' growth as an RB1 might be a playoff decider.
So, you might have heard that the offense is going to be high-flyin' and the defense is going to suck. I am not here to dispel that notion. The secondary needed more time to play together in the preseason. Maybe not in the Bears game, though. Whoa, that was ugly. Nothing about Patrick Mahomes is. He will suffer through a few hiccups, but these Chiefs should move the ball like the Green-Priest-Gonzalez group from the early 2000s.
The Lions are a decent football team with more answers than questions on offense and more questions than answers on defense. There are a few sources of anxiety at all three levels of the D. The pass rush is middling -- at best. At linebacker, some folks are wondering if 2017 first-rounder Jarrad Davis was a missed pick. When it comes to the other kind of pick, who knows how many the corners will get? Darius Slay, who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions in 2017 with eight, is a fine player, while the rest of that grab-bag bears watching. Or not.
Kyle Shanahan has everyone's respect. Niner fans are all riding the Jimmy G train. No amount of training camp rustiness and/or gossip-inducing date nights will change that. In related matters, HBO nixed its late-night adult programming. You're welcome for that update. The fantasy studs (can't call 'em geeks anymore) were jumping out of their Magic The Gathering game nights to draft Jerick McKinnon in the second round. Then McKinnon went down with a torn ACL. Now afterthought-signee Alfred Morris will carry the load. The defense? Stinks. Especially with Reuben Foster suspended for two games.
The Broncos have a viable quarterback (we think), a viable defense (we're pretty sure) and a new RB1 to grind clock time and yards (we hope). Speculation sprouted when Devontae Booker was listed atop Denver's depth chart. We were left anticipating when rookie Royce Freeman would displace Booker, like we were waiting for those Fixodent commercials that air late nights on the History Channel. Actually, I'm partial to the spots for Thompson's WaterSeal (for your outdoor deck). Unsurprisingly, Freeman sealed up the starter job before Week 1 even kicked off.
The Bengals aren't as bad as you think. With Cordy Glenn, Tyler Eifert and John Ross healthy, the offense should make some noise. On to a bit of house-cleaning: Last time out, I upset Cincy fans by suggesting this group has no dominant defensive players that scare offensive coordinators. I meant there's no top-10-level guy like Von Miller, Aaron Donald or Harrison Smith. Didn't mean to imply the defense doesn't boast some damn-good players. Geno Atkins is the best of the bunch and -- along with Carlos Dunlap -- is carrying around a fat wallet these days. Didn't like the George Iloka departure, but the Bengals should still feature a top-15 defense.
This is as high as we can go for a Cowboys team that is built to win whilst running the ball but suddenly has defective parts. Tyron Smith's back has always been a concern, although he's fine for now. Zack Martin has a small knee issue. La'el Collins got banged up. And now Travis Frederick is out indefinitely. That's four-fifths of the offensive line to fret over -- and three former first-team All-Pros, if you're scoring at home. We haven't even gotten to the wide receiver corps yet. That's more depressing than seeing Ray Liotta in Chantix commercials.
The Dolphins are slowly creeping up the big board here, which hopefully means they won't be using their big board to pick in the top 10 next spring. Miami's ascendancy, however modest, emanates from the modest showings of a now-healthy Ryan Tannehill, easily the most important player on the team. Not just because he's the quarterback, but because this organization is at a crossroads, from the front office down. The Dolphins must be competitive in a weak AFC East. Looking forward to the Kenyan Drake- Frank Gore RB combo.
Perhaps we should have all seen the Khalil Mack trade -- or at least the possibility of it -- coming when Jon Gruden pointed out how lousy the Raiders defense was with Mack. Considering the salary cap steadily goes up every year, and considering Oakland's relative dearth of stars, I'm not sure why the organization didn't pay its best player. If you feel the Bears paid too much for a top-two pass rusher, you will get no argument here. Then again, can you argue that the Raiders are any better today than they were at the end of last season? Because Chicago sure is looking prettier.
Starting to like these Cardinals more, even if the arrow in this section reflects a merely-modest jump. Arizona positively throttled the Cowboys in Week 3 of the preseason, and while media in Dallas downplayed the shellacking because of the lack of Cowboy starters involved, the game still raised a few eyebrows in both locales. Apparently, Patrick Peterson still has it -- as in, the ability to morph his job at the corner post into instant offense. A major issue for the Cardinals is getting someone to play at a high level opposite Peterson. That CB2 spot has been a black hole for this franchise. Even worse than the movie "The Black Hole."
The 26 spot is probably a bit low for the Redskins, but Derrius Guice's torn ACL threw a wrench in their plans. Plan B? Adrian Peterson. Pundits have claimed it's time for Peterson to call it a day, while the erstwhile 33-year-old former All-Pro feels he can lead the league in rushing again. Stopping the run was a huge issue for this football team last year -- Washington ranked 32nd in run defense. That's why major draft capital was spent in the nation's capital on No. 13 overall pick Daron Payne. Will he be enough? The Redskins have the links in the chain, but that chain hasn't seen action yet. If Peterson and Chris Thompson produce, and if the defensive line prevents opposing runners from doing the same, this arrow will go up quick.
Where to place the Seahawks amongst their league peers? 2018 looks to be a transition year in Seattle, barring a few surprises. If Pete Carroll's guys are to actually contend in the NFC West, running back Chris Carson will be a huge reason why. As will a new-look defense missing notable pieces, especially when it comes to generating pass rush. If defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. can't make up for that deficiency, the secondary will flounder. I know a safety who could really help out in this area. I'm talking about this guy, if you're wondering.
Buried amidst all the Khalil Mack news was a quote from Bucs GM Jason Licht on Jameis Winston's starting status that was quite interesting. Licht said he isn't just going to hand the conn of the pirate ship (well, in so many words) back to his one-time franchise quarterback after Winston's three-game suspension is over. Ryan Fitzpatrick, for all of his shortcomings, can be quite streaky. Say he starts fast, and Tampa is sitting at 2-1 when Winston is eligible to return. Are the Bucs supposed to just give Winston the starting gig? Meanwhile, the defense has been reworked, starting up front. The team will need Gerald McCoy to ball out, because that aforementioned three-game set features the Saints, Eagles and Steelers. Yikes.
Rampant enthusiasm abounds for Sam Darnold, who flashed (repeatedly) in the preseason. If Darnold can perform immediately, and if new running back Isaiah Crowell is effective, this group might surprise in the AFC East. Those are ifs. Here is what we know: Whether or not Darnold becomes a star, he will not be the first great quarterback in Jets history. I was asked to make a video claiming such for our YouTube channel, but I politely refused, explaining that Joe Namath was indeed a great (not just good) player. People have no idea how to evaluate quarterback stats from the 1960s and '70s. Namath threw for more than 4,000 yards back when 2,600 was considered a fantastic season, becoming the only QB to do so until Dan Fouts accomplished the feat 11 years later (and with the benefit of a longer schedule). Namath also was the premier player on a Super Bowl team that pulled off the biggest upset in NFL history -- and he called his own plays doing it, to boot. He was even voted AFL Player of the Year two years in a row. Maybe football wasn't always Namath's priority, and maybe he was hurt an awful lot, but haters shouldn't tarnish his legacy because they are excited about Darnold's. Rant over.
Baker Mayfield appears to be the genuine article. He might be a rare talent, but surely was the rare important player to participate in Week 4 of the preseason, which generally features guys who could be working at a Renaissance Festival next month. On that note, the first-string defense looked to be as strong as those groups that helped Cleveland to three conference championship games in the late 1980s. Positive vibes aside, can't go higher than 30 on a team that has lost 31 games the last two years. Not until they win one, anyway. </content:power-ranking>
With Nate Peterman starting Week 1, an offensive line that darn near got Josh Allen killed and a receiving corps that recently checked in at the very bottom of Pro Football Focus' position-group rankings, the Bills plummet. Buffalo's defense certainly will have its say, but keep in mind that the unit lived off turnovers last year. Those ebb and flow, and the offense is not in a place -- at least not today -- where it can mitigate any shortcoming on the other side of the ball. Spoke with a few of my colleagues around the office, and no one took issue with placing the Bills in this slot. Well, no one except for Reggie Wayne -- but if you take a peek just below, you can figure that one out.
Obviously, the Colts can gallop right past some of the bottom-feeders if Andrew Luck reprises his old self. With what we know now, heading into Week 1: It's challenging to place Indy above any team. The defense is bottom-tier, at least on paper. Which puts much pressure on the offensive line and running backs to grind out yards, thus slowing down the action and taking heat off that defensive group, as well as allowing Luck to settle in without putting the whole game on his shoulders.