Should we expect that pecking order to remain in place in 2019, considering many of the same teams dotted this list last offseason? Not so fast.
New England waved goodbye to playoff hero and future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski, Pittsburgh was forced to trade the uncoverable Antonio Brown and superstar playmaker Tyreek Hillmay have played his last down in Kansas City. The Rams' Super Bowl LIII hangover includes questions about quarterback Jared Goff's postseason woes and Todd Gurley's troublesome knee, as well as turnover on the offensive line. Although the Saints top the list below, they aren't immune to doubts after watching their 40-year-old quarterback's arm strength dwindle in the season's most important clashes.
The Chargers gain tight end Hunter Henry (healthy after missing the 2018 regular season with a torn ACL) but lose deep threat Tyrell Williams (now a Raider). The Seahawks are bracing for the abrupt retirement of No. 1 receiver Doug Baldwin. The Panthers have a quarterback recovering from yet another shoulder surgery. The Packers are counting on a coaching change rather than an infusion of offensive talent. Whatever boost the Bucs receive from quarterback whisperer Bruce Arians may be offset by the departures of speed demon DeSean Jackson and underrated slot receiver Adam Humphries.
This is the year the Browns crash the party, adding uber-talented game-breaker Odell Beckham to an offense that finished eighth in weighted DVOA (a metric which reflects how the team was playing later in the season) and ninth in Pro Football Focus' offensive rating. They are joined in the new top 10 by the Super Bowl LII champion Eagles, an outfit that added multiple impact players at running back and receiver while bolstering the offensive-line depth.
Now that free agency and the draft are giving way to OTAs and minicamps, let's examine the hierarchy of NFL offenses.
THE TOP FIVE
1) New Orleans Saints
Neck-and-neck with Kansas City's sophomore sensation Patrick Mahomes in the MVP race through Thanksgiving, Brees suffered through one of the bleakest slumps of his Saints career in December and January. The 40-year-old was particularly ineffective on intermediate and deep throws, leaving onlookers to wonder if he was suffering through a nagging injury or -- worse -- losing what was left of his fastball. If his arm strength does return to 2017 form, he might take home his first career MVP award after all. In the meantime, Swiss Army knife Taysom Hill looms as an intriguing change-up to keep opposing defensive coordinators on their toes.
Former Vikings power back Latavius Murray represents a downgrade from the well-rounded Mark Ingram (who signed with Baltimore in free agency), but it's hard to quibble with any backfield led by Kamara. Arguably the most complete back in the game, Kamara combines obvious mismatch potential in the passing game with surprising power as a runner. With 2017 Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley facing questions about a lingering knee injury, Kamara has emerged as the gold standard at the position.
Speaking of gold standard, Thomas is vying with Houston's DeAndre Hopkins as the league's preeminent strong-handed possession receiver. He's complemented by Cook, who played at a Pro Bowl level as Derek Carr's most reliable target with the Raiders last season. Depth is a question mark, with Ginn, Smith, Meredith and Kirkwood failing to emerge as consistent threats behind Thomas.
Much like Brees, New Orleans' offensive line was cruising through the season as a top-notch unit for three months, only to contribute to the late-season malaise amid a string of injuries. Veteran center Max Unger retired this offseason, leaving McCoy, a second-round pick, to do battle with former Vikings lineman Nick Easton for the starting job. The rest of the line returns healthier and happier.
2) Indianapolis Colts
Perhaps the league's biggest mystery entering the season, Luck shrugged off early questions about his arm strength, finishing second only to Mahomes with 39 touchdowns while collecting Comeback Player of the Year honors. Just four months from his 30th birthday, the former No. 1 overall draft pick is a different quarterback under play-caller supreme Frank Reich, showing a quicker release time, superior ball placement and a command of the pocket.
From Week 7 through Indianapolis' victory over the Texans in the Wild Card Round, Marlon Mackled all running backs in rushing first downs (51) and ranked second in carries (197), rushing yards (933) and rushing touchdowns (10). Can he stay healthy, run between the tackles and match that level of production across 16 games and a postseason run? Receiving specialist Nyheim Hines caught 63 passes as a rookie, showcasing the ability to beat linebackers and safeties on third downs. Versatile former Chiefs back Spencer Ware was recently signed for insurance.
Luck is going to love throwing to big-bodied former Panthers wideout Devin Funchess and rookie playmaker Parris Campbell after leaning heavily on undrafted projects (Rogers, Pascal, Alie-Cox, Erik Swoope) and journeymen free agents (Ryan Grant, Dontrelle Inman) for significant portions of the 2018 season. Throw in a healthy version of Doyle, and this figures to be one of the most improved position groups in the division.
Prior to Reich's arrival, the Colts couldn't run the ball or protect Luck. With rookie All-Pro Quenton Nelson setting a bone-jarring tone, both of those problems vanished by midseason. The offensive line went from long-running punchline to head of the class, paving the way for nine 100-yard rushing performances (including the postseason) while leading the NFL in stingiest sack rate (2.8%). The starting line returns intact for 2019.
3) Philadelphia Eagles
Backup QB extraordinaire Nick Foles may have thrown a better deep ball and shown a proclivity for hitting the open receiver in his progressions, but Wentz's raw talent is undeniable. If he returns to the form that placed him in the driver's seat for MVP honors in 2017, the Eagles might just boast the most improved offense in the league. Considering he's still working his way through the back injury that ended his 2018 season prematurely, that's far from a given.
Sanders was rated by some evaluators as the best back in the 2019 draft class. Saquon Barkley's understudy at Penn State, the second-round rookie is a more versatile playmaker compared to bull-dozing power back Jordan Howard, who came over from Chicago in a pre-draft trade. A position that loomed as a liability throughout the 2017 season is suddenly flush with depth -- even if free agent Darren Sproles opts against returning for another year.
The most sure-handed tight end in football, Ertz hauled in 66 first downs as Philly's primary chain-mover last season. He's joined by an upgraded rotation that now includes premier deep threat DeSean Jackson, jumpball specialist J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, resurrected AAF star Charles Johnson and second-year tight end Dallas Goedert. Much like the backfield, the Eagles' receiving corps has graduated from question mark to exclamation point.
Vaitai held his own at times but was too often exploited as the stand-in for a declining Peters or absent Johnson over the past two years. Trading up for Dillard should ensure not only a smooth transition at left tackle in the future, but will also provide premium depth until Peters retires to begin his five-year wait for Canton.
4) Atlanta Falcons
Ryan was let down by his coaching and surrounding talent last season. Even with the backfield in tatters and the offensive line too often losing the battle up front, the Falcons finished as a top-six offense in yards per drive, points per drive and drive success rate. With Steve Sarkisian taking the fall for bouts of inconsistency, Ryan is reunited with former Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter, who called the plays in Atlanta from 2012 to 2014.
Briefly the NFL's highest-paid running back two years ago, Freeman has a lot to prove this year after groin and foot injuries limited him to 91 total yards in two games in 2018. Smith showed flashes of potential as a rookie but managed just 3.5 yards per carry behind a porous offensive line.
Ridley was an instant-impact player, recording 821 yards and 10 touchdowns on 64 receptions as a rookie. If he takes another leap in his second season, Ryan might have the luxury of throwing to the NFC's most unstoppable receiving corps. Sanu has been a model of reliability since leaving Cincinnati, while Hooper emerged as a dangerous outlet receiver in his third season.
The Falcons thought they had their blocking woes solved with Ryan Schraeder entrenched at right tackle, Brandon Fusco signed away from San Francisco and Andy Levitre holding down the other guard spot. All three are gone, replaced by rookies Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary as well as free-agent acquisitions James Carpenter and Jamon Brown. Buoyed by the investment of a pair of first-round picks, this unit should stand a much better chance of keeping Ryan upright in 2019.
5) Los Angeles Rams
Goff unfurled some of the league's most beautiful passes in the season's first three months, only to backslide following Cooper Kupp's season-ending injury and Los Angeles' thrilling 54-51 victory over Kansas City in mid-November. If his disturbing Super Bowl LIII performance raises doubts about the upcoming season, the presence of play-calling savant Sean McVay should allay the darkest fears of Rams fans.
The 2017 Offensive Player of the Year found himself back in the MVP discussion early last season, operating as the game-breaking focal point for McVay's attack. Neither Gurley nor the Rams' offense was ever the same, however, after a knee injury he suffered in Week 1 flared up in the final month of the season. Now he's facing whispers about a potential arthritic condition, a decreased workload and more two-back formations going forward. Even with third-round draft pick Darrell Henderson around for insurance, Gurley's durability and explosiveness are two of the biggest question marks in the Rams' quest for another NFC title.
While Cooks is a dangerous deep threat, Woods has developed into one of the finest all-around receivers in football. As productive as that tandem was in 2018, Kupp's November ACL injury left Goff without a safety blanket in key situations. McVay's quarterback averaged roughly 330 yards with Kupp in the lineup, compared to 256 yards without benefit of the chain-moving slot receiver.
Similar to New Orleans, the Rams' offensive line was dominant for three months before springing leaks once the weather took a turn for the worse. Veteran guard Rodger Saffold priced himself out of Los Angeles, while 33-year-old center John Sullivan was put out to pasture. That savvy duo is expected to be replaced by 2018 draft picks Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen, offering younger legs but little NFL experience. This unit could go either way in 2019.