Sixteen teams to watch: Each division's favorite, top contender

And just like that, after a weekend full of the madness that annually defines March in this country, the Sweet 16 is set.

But the NCAA tournament isn't the only chaotic component of this month's sports calendar. The opening wave of NFL free agency brought great change to rosters across the league. And in the wake of all the frenetic team-building activity, I'd like to identify the NFL's answer to the Sweet 16 -- the teams that have the best opportunity to make a run in the 2017 campaign.

With most of the free agency frenzy in the books and the 2017 NFL Draft on the horizon, let's identify one favorite and one top contender in each division. Sixteen NFL teams with sweet potential.


Favorite: Dallas Cowboys

Even with the departure of a bevy of defensive backs, the Cowboys' offense is too much. And conventional wisdom says both Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott should be even better as sophomores, which is incredible for Dallas, considering their iconic neophyte seasons at quarterback and running back, respectively. They now have experience and know they can dominate, yet will come back with a chip on the shoulder after losing their playoff opener. Plus, Dez Bryant is still just 28 years old -- don't be surprised when he puts up his first 1,000-yard season since 2014. And despite some attrition, the Dallas offensive line remains imposing, with a trio of first-team All-Pros (Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick) leading the way.

Top contender: New York Giants

New York has a terrific defense -- it was the second-stingiest unit in the NFL last season. And the Giants' explosive passing attack got even more dangerous with the savvy pickup of Brandon Marshall to be the wingman for Odell Beckham Jr. Eli Manning now has the best receiver tandem in the entire league -- and Sterling Shepard's certainly no slouch in the slot. The Marshall move secured the Giants as a playoff team to me, but I can't have them leap-frogging Dallas until they shore up the O-line and get a legit starting running back.


Favorite: Green Bay Packers

Truth be told, I loathe the Packers' typical offseason approach. OK, yes, general manager Ted Thompson made a great upgrade by signing Martellus Bennett to replace Jared Cook. But for the rest of free agency, he's been asleep at the wheel, as per usual. Green Bay has lost offensive linemen, defensive starters and Eddie Lacy. I don't want to turn Lacy into Jim Brown, but the guy signed a very reasonable one-year, "prove-it" deal with Seattle. Wouldn't that have made perfect sense for the Pack? Dangle a carrot (or maybe a steak, with Lacy) in front of a player who knows the system. Even with Lacy, Green Bay still would have needed more help in the backfield. Now they seriously need an influx of talent in that area. And this is why I never want to hear from the clueless "Fire Mike McCarthy" crowd during the season. Thompson doesn't give his head coach the players he needs.

Oh, right -- this is about Green Bay being the favorite. Well, Aaron Rodgers is the ultimate deodorant, covering up what stinks in Green Bay each and every year. Still, I hope Thompson remembers to address the backfield and defense at some point in the coming months ...

Top contender: Detroit Lions

The Lions have the makings of their best offensive line in years. Bob Quinn wisely addressed that area in free agency -- scooping up right tackle Ricky Wagner and right guard T.J. Lang -- knowing it's a weak O-line class in the 2017 draft. Matthew Stafford has to be thrilled with his new friends up front. Now the Lions can focus on the running back position to make the offense really hum.


Favorite: Atlanta Falcons

The reigning NFC champs will have to deal with the ultimate Super Bowl hangover after choking in historic fashion on the game's biggest stage. And they'll have to do so without the AP Assistant Coach of the Year, as offensive wiz Kyle Shanahan has taken the reins in San Francisco. But on the player side, the NFL's top scoring unit remains intact. NFL MVP Matt Ryan will have all of his favorite toys (Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman) at his disposal again in 2017. And the defense, which improved throughout the 2016 campaign, added a big piece (literally and figuratively) in 346-pound DT Dontari Poe. No huge surprise, as Falcons assistant GM Scott Pioli was the man who drafted Poe to Kansas City in the first round back in 2012.

Top contender: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa was close last year. DeSean Jackson is the perfect pickup to stretch the field, make splash plays and make the Jameis Winston-Mike Evans connection that much better. This team is ready for prime time, and better than the Saints and Panthers. But if New Orleans trades for Malcolm Butler ...


Favorite: Seattle Seahawks

Pete Carroll says Earl Thomas is "way ahead of schedule" in his rehab from a broken leg -- and that's everything. As we saw down the stretch last season, this defense just isn't the same without No. 29 patrolling center field. I liked the Eddie Lacy pickup -- he adds needed depth at running back. It's not a classic Seattle team without Marshawn Lynch and with a highly suspect O-line, but the defense is still nasty, and Russell Wilson is still great.

Top contender: Arizona Cardinals

Yes, Arizona lost Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson in free agency. But this team still oozes talent. And getting Tyrann Mathieu back from injury is gigantic. Last year was a major disappointment, but the Cardinals have improved the special teams and the core of the roster. Overall, this team is just too strong. I expect a major bounceback in 2017.


Favorite: New England Patriots

As I wrote last week, it's not too early to plan the Patriots' parade in 2018. This team is loaded. Tom Brady is going to love playing with a true No. 1 receiver and a speedster in Brandin Cooks. Not to mention, Rob Gronkowski is coming back. (Yeah, don't forget -- the Pats just won a Super Bowlwithout Gronk. Scary.) And Dwayne Allen replaces Martellus Bennett in the TE2 slot. Don't overlook Dont'a Hightower's re-signing. That guy's just a winner -- and the second-most-valuable player after Brady on the team. This wasn't a Jamie Collins situation. Lastly, Stephon Gilmore and Kony Ealy will make the defense better.

It's Bill Belichick's world, and we are just living in it.

Top contender: Buffalo Bills

Before Dolphins fans go nuts, it was close. And it's March. And I still wanna see Ryan Tannehill take the next step. But I love that Buffalo retained Tyrod Taylor. He's a good quarterback who will get even better now that he's no longer a pawn in a corrosive game between the coach, GM and owner. New head coach Sean McDermott is a gem, a buttoned-up guy who's a true workaholic. He's just the kind of guy this organization needed: the antithesis of Rex Ryan. The defense will take a major step forward. And the penalties will go down.


Favorite: Pittsburgh Steelers

Ben's not retiring. Bell got the franchise tag. Brown rightly got a new deal. The Killer Bs remain intact. And thus, the Steelers are the favorites. That said, I can't call them Super Bowl favorites until I see improvement on the defensive side of the ball.

Top contender: Baltimore Ravens

Quietly and unsurprisingly, Baltimore has enjoyed a very solid offseason thus far, with the additions of Tony Jefferson and Danny Woodhead, as well as the re-upping of Brandon Williams. The Ravens have such a fantastic front office, and a strong coach in John Harbaugh. Cincinnati, meanwhile, looks like a shell of its former self with another offseason of attrition.


Favorite: Houston Texans

J.J. Watt comes back to front a defense that just finished No. 1 in total Dwithout its three-time Defensive Player of the Year. I'd feel a bit better if Tony Romo was the starter, as opposed to Tom Savage. And that definitely could still happen. But if not? Well, at least Savage and Bill O'Brien will be on the same page, something that definitely wasn't the case with Brock Osweiler.

Top contender: Jacksonville Jaguars

I loved the signings of Calais Campbelland A.J. Bouye. The defense will be much better in 2017. And now, they actually have a real head coach in Doug Marrone.


Favorite: Oakland Raiders

Recently on my SiriusXM radio show, "Schein On Sports," Derek Carr told me he'll be 100 percent for camp. That's all I needed to know. (Getting Carr another weapon in tight end Jared Cook didn't hurt, either.)

Top contender: Kansas City Chiefs

In this file last year, I said the Broncos"could finish anywhere from first to third in the West." Well, it ended up being the latter. And I see them finishing there again in 2017. Meanwhile, the Chiefs were smart enough to keep Eric Berry and cut the cord on Jamaal Charles. Both things had to happen. And this is a solid team that should win 10-plus games again this year.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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