The 2019 NFL season will be shaped by twists of fate and fluctuations of luck -- a bad bounce of the ball here, a non-contact injury there. Before the vagaries of live football crash into the pristine dreams that spring forth every summer, I wanted to take a look at which teams loom largest heading into the season from a pure talent standpoint.
Below is my ranking -- presented in reverse order -- of the 10 most talented teams in the NFL.
10) Indianapolis Colts
General manager Chris Ballard was a worthy and deserving choice as the PFWA Executive of the Year in 2018. Ballard's second draft on the job was a brilliant one, netting two load-bearing offensive linemen (Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith), a diamond-in-the-rough defensive stud (Darius Leonard, the Defensive Rookie of the Year) and a productive fourth-round running back (Nyheim Hines, who contributed 739 scrimmage yards and four total touchdowns). But it's not just about the draft: The Colts have added veterans wisely, landing contributors like cornerback Pierre Desir, linebacker Margus Hunt, defensive end Denico Autry and tight end Eric Ebron, who all enjoyed career years in Indianapolis last season. That also speaks well of the job done by coach Frank Reich and his staff.
As for this year's additions, Justin Houston could provide a pass-rushing boost to a defense that ranked 11th overall and 16th against the pass in 2018, while Devin Funchess and rookie Parris Campbell should help make veteran receiver T.Y. Hilton even more effective. And, of course, it's impossible to overstate the impact of having Andrew Luck playing at an elite level again after shoulder issues cost him the 2017 season.
9) Cleveland Browns
The Browns are receiving a lot of offseason hype -- but there is a legitimate reason for it. On paper, this is the most talented team Cleveland has fielded since returning to the NFL in 1999. The trade that netted star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and pass rusher Olivier Vernon was just one headline-grabbing highlight of a broader team-building project that included drafting youngsters like Baker Mayfield, Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward and Nick Chubb and acquiring veterans like Jarvis Landry, Damarious Randall, Kareem Hunt and Sheldon Richardson. The question, talent-wise, is along the offensive line. Can left tackle Greg Robinson continue to build off a surprisingly strong 2018 season? Will 2018 second-round pick Austin Corbett be able to fill the shoes of Kevin Zeitler, traded to the Giants as part of the OBJ deal? The defensive tackle rotation is shaky beyond Richardson and rising talent Larry Ogunjobi. Is the hype coming one year too soon? It's hard to say, but the roster is strong.
8) New Orleans Saints
The Saints have made sure to furnish quarterback Drew Brees with plenty of support in the latter stages of his career, securing elite playmakers for him to work with, like receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara. 2019 newcomer Jared Cook provides the type of pass-catching threat at tight end that New Orleans hasn't seen since Jimmy Graham's heyday. Mark Ingram is in Baltimore, but signee Latavius Murray should serve as an effective complement to Kamara. As for the defense, don't sleep on a unit that includes four-time Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan and 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore. Punter Thomas Morstead and kicker Wil Lutz make for an outstanding special teams duo, as well. There are two factors to watch: 1) A second receiver must emerge alongside Thomas, and 2) the defense must weather the storm until Sheldon Rankins is ready to return from the torn Achilles he suffered in the playoffs.
7) Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes' meteoric ascent shows no signs of slowing entering his second year as the Chiefs' starting quarterback. The question of whether receiver Tyreek Hill will face discipline from the NFL stemming from a child-abuse investigation is still unanswered (though a criminal investigation is no longer active). Even setting Hill aside for the moment, however, Mahomes' supporting cast includes tight end Travis Kelce (who has made four straight Pro Bowls) and receivers Sammy Watkins (a former first-round pick) and Mecole Hardman (a promising rookie). New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was given pieces to work with that will fit his 4-3 system, including pass rusher Frank Clark, defensive end Alex Okafor, cornerback Bashaud Breeland and safeties Tyrann Mathieu and rookie Juan Thornhill. Kansas City must resolve the contract-related standoff with defensive tackle Chris Jones, who is seeking a new deal following a monster 2018 campaign (15.5 sacks).
6) Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers were well regarded by Pro Bowl voters last season, with players from across the roster -- safety Derwin James, receiver Keenan Allen, running back Melvin Gordon, defensive end Melvin Ingram, special teams player Adrian Phillips, center Mike Pouncey and quarterback Philip Rivers -- earning a nod. And that list doesn't even include defensive end Joey Bosa, who is arguably the best player on the team. Having Bosa healthy after he missed much of 2018 will give L.A. a huge boost. The same can be said for tight end Hunter Henry, who is back after being sidelined by a torn ACL last season. The big question on this roster: Did the Chargers adequately address the interior of the defense? Rookie defensive tackle Jerry Tillery could be very special -- or he could be very average. Beyond that, general manager Tom Telesco is gambling that linebacker Denzel Perryman can stay healthy and that veteran Thomas Davis still has something in the tank at age 36.
5) New England Patriots
There is no question that Bill Belichick and his staff do an excellent job making players look better than they are, covering up flaws and not putting them in position to fail. That said, New England's success can't be attributed only to game-planning. Stephon Gilmore has become arguably one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL since adjusting to the Patriots' scheme, while Dont'a Hightower has proven himself to be a versatile linebacker and Devin McCourty is one of the better safeties around. There are few better slot receivers than Julian Edelman, while the backfield features Sony Michel, who is coming off a strong rookie season, and James White, an elite pass-catching back. Oh, and the quarterback isn't too bad, either.
4) Los Angeles Rams
Arguably no team in the NFL has better long-term personnel vision than the Rams. As an example: Seeing that the 2019 draft and free-agent classes would be light in receiver and cornerback prospects, they moved aggressively on the trade market in 2018, acquiring receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. Using trades rather than free agency to address these needs also allowed L.A. to collect extra compensatory picks this year. Of course, the Rams have done well in the draft (the collection of homegrown talent includes Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Jared Goff, Cooper Kupp, Rob Havenstein, Joseph Noteboom, Brian Allen and Michael Brockers) and in free agency (the signings of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and receiver Robert Woods couldn't have gone much better than they did). The ability of GM Les Snead to work in lockstep with the coaching staff on roster building has helped the team balance salary-cap concerns in such a way that the Rams were able to extend the contracts of stars like Donald and Gurley without hindering their ability to procure talent where needed. And they've added (signing pass rusher Clay Matthews and safety Eric Weddle and retaining defensive end Dante Fowler) and subtracted (clearing cap space by moving on from linebacker Alec Ogletree last year and linebacker Mark Barron this year) smartly; consider that linebackers are not as critical to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' scheme as pass rushers and press corners.
3) Chicago Bears
Don't let the drama at kicker distract you. When your biggest problem is at that position, you know you've got a solid team on your hands. GM Ryan Pace has shown he's not afraid to make bold moves, orchestrating trades to land QB Mitchell Trubisky in the 2017 NFL Draft and pass rusher Khalil Mack last September. Not too long ago, it felt like Chicago's roster was littered with first-round busts. Now, it feels like it's bursting with first-round starters, like Trubisky, cornerback Kyle Fuller, right guard Kyle Long and linebackers Leonard Floyd and Roquan Smith, peppered with mid-round steals like running back Tarik Cohen and safety Eddie Jackson. The state of the Bears' talent base also shows how far Pace has come since the first phase of his tenure in Chicago, when he was working with then-head coach John Fox. That era was marked with forgettable acquisitions like Pernell McPhee, Antrel Rolle and Eddie Royal. Since Pace's first year, the Bears have fared much better, adding players like defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, right tackle Bobby Massie and cornerback Prince Amukamara. Either Pace has learned well, or new coach Matt Nagy has the players playing the way Pace visualized.
2) Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys' personnel department -- fronted by Stephen Jones and Will McClay -- should take a bow for building the foundation of a strong roster through the draft, headlined by running back Ezekiel Elliott, left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin, quarterback Dak Prescott, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith and cornerback Byron Jones, among others. They've also made crucial additions in the past eight months, trading for players like receiver Amari Cooper in October and defensive end Robert Quinn in March and signing players like receiver Randall Cobb and safety George Iloka. Now, the question is, how will Dallas sort out the extensions due to Elliott, Prescott and Cooper? The Cowboys already solved one part of the puzzle by inking Lawrence to a new deal in April, and I can see them working something out with Prescott before camp.
1) Philadelphia Eagles
What puts the Eagles in the top spot isn't just the roster assembled by GM Howie Roseman -- it's the fact that so much core talent is locked into contracts through at least 2021. That core includes several who are considered among the best at their respective positions, like quarterback Carson Wentz (signed through 2024), defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (2022), tight end Zach Ertz (2021) and center Jason Kelce (2021). The Eagles are also at the point where the NFL draft can be used to build for the future rather than being relied upon as a source of players who can provide an immediate impact. For example, Philly was able to snag offensive tackle prospect Andre Dillard, who can essentially redshirt for a year while being groomed to replace Jason Peters next season, in this year's draft.