Analysis

Triplets rankings: Cowboys, Packers boast top groups

Football's back! And so, too, are my rankings of the NFL's best triplets. For the uninitiated, the great '90s Cowboys were headlined by QB Troy Aikman, RB Emmitt Smith and WR Michael Irvin -- a.k.a. "The Triplets." A couple years back, I was inspired to concoct a current Triplets pecking order. Now, in my fifth edition, I'm ranking the trios based on projected Week 1 starters. (Sorry, Steelers and Pats fans: Suspensions hurt.) Another thing: I've ranked the players in each position group from 1 to 32, then inverted those ranking numbers (e.g., Adrian Peterson is my No. 1 RB, so he gets 32 points). I also multiplied the QB's score by 1.5, as it's universally regarded as the most important position of the three. Adding up those point totals, I determined each trio's ranking. One last note: "Previous rank" refers to my last Triplets entry from November.

1) Dallas Cowboys: Tony Romo (No. 9 QB), Ezekiel Elliott (4) & Dez Bryant (4)

Previous rank: No. 27

At this point, Romo's health is a series-to-series concern (... as are the 80 to 90-some-odd pounds he apparently picked up over the offseason). But when he and Dez are on the field together, there are few schemes known to man capable of stopping them (even when defenses sell out to do so). What, then, will coordinators do now with a bona fide home-run hitter running behind the O-line universally considered the best in football? (Answer: They'll struggle.) I expect Zeke to lead the league in rushing in his rookie season.

2) Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers (No. 1 QB), Eddie Lacy (10) & Jordy Nelson (14)

Previous rank: No. 2

Let's start with the best QB in all the land, then throw in the receiver whose value was finally recognized thanks to his absence. Yeah, a couple of bad knees and countless doughnuts felled the Packers' trio in 2015, but look for them to collectively return to explosive form this season ... so long as Nelson starting camp on the PUP list isn't a harbinger of things to come.

3) Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger (No. 3 QB), DeAngelo Williams* (21) & Antonio Brown (1)

Previous rank: No. 8

Yeah, Steelers fans, this is getting frustrating: Between unavoidable injuries and self-inflicted drug suspensions, it feels like we might never see what the team's loaded offensive roster could do if everyone was on the field together for any extended period. As it is, though, Brown continues to produce at a historic level, while the future Hall of Famer at quarterback feels strangely underrated. (Did you know Big Ben's already 10th in all-time wins among QBs?!) With Lev Bell willfully scuttling a sizable long-term contract thanks to a nasty case of absenteeism, DeAngelo (Frank Gore's elder/"Walking Dead" zealot) Williams will have to carry the load early on in 2016 -- just as he successfully did for much of last season (10th in rushing, 40 receptions, 11 TDs).

(The Steelers would rank No. 1 with Le'Veon Bell as the starting RB.)*

4) Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer (No. 6 QB), David Johnson (5) & Larry Fitzgerald (18)

Previous rank: No. 3

Thought about putting Michael Floyd in over Fitz, but until the younger, hyper-talented pass catcher can stay on the field, we'll happily stick with one of the 10 best WRs of the Super Bowl era. (Again, though, Floyd and John Brown could -- and I'm guessing will -- both exceed Fitzgerald's production in 2016.) The David Johnson hype train is picking up plenty of steam this summer, but don't assume the Marshall-Faulk-talent-in-Franco-Harris'-body comps are mere hyperbole. The big question -- which can't be answered 'til January -- remains: Can the gunslinger Palmer get it down when it counts?

5) Buffalo Bills: Tyrod Taylor (No. 12 QB), Shady McCoy (6) & Sammy Watkins (9)

Previous rank: No. 20

In case you've forgotten, most of the experts once strongly believed Watkins, drafted fourth overall in 2014, was better at playing football than Odell Beckham Jr., who was drafted 12th overall. That said, this isn't Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in '84 (at least as long as Watkins' foot is fully healed from surgery): Watkins took a back seat to no one in the second half of 2015, thanks in part to having one of the NFL's best deep-ball passers in Taylor, who himself was equal parts dynamic and efficient in his first go-'round as a starter (99.4 passer rating, 20 TDs, 6 INTs, 568 rushing yards in 14 games). Shady is still one of the better runners around -- and among the prettiest to watch ever -- but the injuries are a drag.

6) Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton (No. 2 QB), Jonathan Stewart (16) & Greg Olsen (17)

Previous rank: No. 6

Presuming you weren't one of the few oddballs consumed to the point of distraction by Cam's celebrations, you know the 2015 MVP had a season for the ages (at least until he met Von Miller). There's a pretty good chance he'll regress statistically -- even with the return of 2014 star rookie Kelvin Benjamin giving him another prime option in the passing game to go along with the NFL's second-best TE. A healthy Stewart equals wins in Charlotte, even if the vet isn't as good a runner as his QB. 

7) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston (No. 14 QB), Doug Martin (8) & Mike Evans (10)

Previous rank: No. 24

History says that when two QBs are taken with the first two picks in a draft, only one will succeed. But one season in, Winston and Marcus Mariota are on their way to rewriting that story. That said, Winston needs to take better care of the ball in his sophomore season. Blue-chip talent Evans dropped too many passes last year but continued his knack of making Heisman-winning QBs look good with his range and playmaking ability on contested passes. (FANTASY ALERT: He's gonna have a huge 2016.) According to "Around The NFL" whiz Gregg Rosenthal, Martin was the second-best RB (behind Peterson) last year.

8) Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles (No. 11 QB), Chris Ivory (15) & Allen Robinson (13)

Previous rank: No. 25

Bortles, whom I touted as the best QB in the draft class (along with Derek Carr) back in 2014, looks to up his relatively poor completion percentage and lower his '15 league-leading INT count while continuing to take advantage of a high-end receiving corps led by Robinson. Jets transplant Chris Ivory is as physical as it gets, but that style takes its toll on the RB (as well as opposing defenders). I expect the fresher, quicker legs of T.J. Yeldon to carry the day -- and the ball -- the majority of the time by mid-October.

9) Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson (No. 4 QB), Thomas Rawls (20) & Doug Baldwin (19)

Previous rank: No. 7

For half a season -- at least -- Wilson answered critics who doubted his ability to play QB (mostly) from the pocket. That success mirrored the emergence of Baldwin as a No. 1 receiving option (not to mention Darrell Bevell's play designs, which got Baldwin the ball in space to do his thing). As 2016 unfolds, though, Tyler Lockett and/or Jimmy Graham could see more targets. Rawls showed exciting promise before breaking his ankle, but as people within the organization will tell you, O-line/asst. head coach Tom Cable deserves the real praise for his ability to turn poor individual pieces along the line into a rugged run-blocking front year after year.

10) Kansas City Chiefs: Alex Smith (No. 13 QB), Jamaal Charles (3) & Jeremy Maclin (21)

Previous rank: No. 26

As it turns out, all Smith ever needed to throw TDs to a wide receiver was an NFL-caliber wide receiver. Maclin is that at minimum; at best (as in: his last two seasons), Maclin is a legit No. 1 NFL WR. Smith's continued success with Andy Reid could peak in a wide-open AFC West, especially if the perennially underappreciated Charles (he of the all-time NFL-best career 5.5 ypc) can return to his dynamic best after a midseason knee injury.

11) New York Giants: Eli Manning (No. 10 QB), Shane Vereen (26) & Odell Beckham Jr. (3)

Previous rank: No. 9

Sorry, Chaz Barkley and the rest of you curmudgeons: If you're tired of Beckham now, just wait 'til you see what he does this season (which I suspect will be something along the lines of what Antonio Brown did last year ... with an outside shot at breaking 2,000 yards). And by the way, how 'bout some praise for Eli? He's already 11th all-time in passing yards -- and will likely be eighth before this Christmas. I could've gone with Rashad Jennings (who led the team in rushing last season and whom RB coach Craig Johnson referred to as the team's No. 1) in the RB spot, but Vereen got a few more snaps than Jennings and caught 59 balls as the Giants further embraced a pass-first identity under Ben McAdoo (61.7 percent passes in '15, 58.7 percent in '14).

12) San Diego Chargers: Philip Rivers (No. 7 QB), Melvin Gordon (25) & Keenan Allen (11)

Previous rank: No. 13

Last year's Week 8 injury derailed a season in which Allen was on pace for over 130 catches -- and in which his star QB was on pace to break the single-season record for passing yards. An improved offensive line will further boost the passing game as well as help talented 2014 first-rounder Gordon get the ground attack rolling (and if he doesn't, Danny Woodhead will once again get more snaps).

13) New York Jets: Ryan Fitzpatrick (No. 22 QB), Matt Forte (7) & Brandon Marshall (8)

Previous rank: No. 15

Sorry to rain on the Fitzy parade, Jets fans, but last season's surprising production was more likely owed to the team's exceptionally soft schedule (just four games against playoff teams) than to a magical transformation by a QB in his mid-30s. Either way, the first six matchups of 2016 look brutal for any quarterback (CIN, @BUF, @KC, SEA, @PIT, @AZ). Marshall boosted the Jets (and his Hall of Fame résumé) with his sixth season of 100-plus catches. Speaking of potential HOFers, Forte can burnish his own candidacy by providing the Jets the kind of production that established him as one of the best -- if most underappreciated -- RBs of the century.

14) Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan (No. 17 QB), Devonta Freeman (13) & Julio Jones (5)

Previous rank: No. 5

Let's not jive ourselves: At this point in his career, it's clear Ryan is a good -- not great -- passer whose greatest virtue is having one of the most gifted pass catchers of the last quarter century on his side. Freeman gives the Falcons' offense balance if the defense can turn the corner in Year 2 under Dan Quinn -- though the presence of Tevin Coleman could reduce the individual output of the RB who ranked fifth in yards from scrimmage last season.

15) New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees (No. 5 QB), Mark Ingram (14) & Brandin Cooks (22)

Previous rank: No. 12

On one hand, Brees would've blown past the 5,000-yard mark (again) had he not missed one game last season. On the other hand, he's a 37-year-old with mounting injuries. An intriguing decision is fast approaching for general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton as Brees enters the final year of his contract. Meantime, though, the NOLA hero figures to make it hard on his bosses, thanks to an enhanced receiving corps still led by third-year burner Cooks. Ingram has been very good when he's been on the field (he caught 50 passes in 12 games last year), but five years in, injuries have kept him from logging a single 1,000-yard season.

16) Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck (No. 8 QB), Frank Gore (17) & T.Y. Hilton (20)

Previous rank: No. 11

I know plenty of analysts who'd scoff at the suggestion the guy they preordained as "can't-miss" has something to prove in 2016, but going into his fifth season, Luck needs to elevate a flawed roster against much-improved competition in the AFC South if he's to deserve the boundless praise (and loot) heaped upon him. Gore finally started to slow a bit in his 11th season (3.7 ypc), while Hilton has many of the traits (if not the consistency) of a No. 1 receiver.

17) Oakland Raiders: Derek Carr (No. 18 QB), Latavius Murray (11) & Amari Cooper (12)

Previous rank: No. 14

Carr (32 TDs, 13 INTs) has taken nicely to the lead role in an East Bay ensemble that now appears ready for prime time. Cooper figures to be prominent in that growth as he builds on a star-making rookie season. Oakland's strong O-line should help Murray repeat last year's 1,000-yard campaign.

18) Houston Texans: Brock Osweiler (No. 27 QB), Lamar Miller (9) & DeAndre Hopkins (6)

Previous rank: No. 29

As I've said many times, it's hard to believe that in a world of seven billion people we can't find 32 humans to effectively play NFL QB. And it's within this reality we see a guy with seven career starts get rewarded with $18 million annually. Good news: The Texans won the 2015 AFC South with Brian Hoyer and a narcoleptic (?)Ryan Mallett under center. Better news: Osweiler likely understands his role a season after letting his team's defense do the heavy lifting. Best: He has a top-five game-breaking talent at WR in Hopkins and a do-it-all RB in Miller.

19) New England Patriots: Jimmy Garoppolo* (No. 28 QB), Dion Lewis (19) & Rob Gronkowski (2)

Previous rank: No. 1

While I think we can all agree there won't be a drop-off in handsomeness under center this September, time will tell if Jimmy G can hold the fort 'til Brady returns from his four-game suspension. The biggest factor for both QBs (and defenses trying to stop either) remains Gronk, a.k.a. The Best Tight End in NFL History. Until his injury, Lewis was a rare gem fetched from the figurative scrap heap (the place from which most of Bill Belichick's runners hail).

(The Patriots would rank No. 3 with Tom Brady at QB.)*

20) Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton (No. 20 QB), Jeremy Hill (18) & A.J. Green (7)

Previous rank: No. 4

If your glass is half full, you think Dalton's thumb injury prevented him from getting off the postseason schneid. If your glass is half empty, the injury was a stay of execution for both Dalton and Marvin (0 for 7 in the playoffs) Lewis. Green's a top-five talent who thrives in spite of having a QB who isn't able to consistently take full advantage of the WR's downfield playmaking ability. Hill and Gio Bernard combine for a very good, versatile duo running behind a great O-line. But overall, don't discount the significance of former OC Hue Jackson now living upstate.

21) Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater (No. 24 QB), Adrian Peterson (1) & Stefon Diggs (28)

Previous rank: No. 10

"All Day" is an all-timer ... but he's also fumbled away the two biggest games of his career ('15 wild card, '09 NFC championship). Teddy B and his glove should benefit from the return to a climate-controlled home field. (But shame on the Vikes -- and Lions -- for playing indoors. It's the NFC North!) Diggs is the biggest pass-catching late-round steal since Antonio Brown.

22) Chicago Bears: Jay Cutler (No. 16 QB), Jeremy Langford (31) & Alshon Jeffery (15)

Previous rank: No. 19

In his 34th year on Planet Earth, Cutler is what he is: An outsized physical talent who has produced middling results. (But if Joe Flacco can put together a post-holidays miracle, why couldn't Cutty?) Langford looked good enough in limited action that the Bears didn't fret Forte's departure, but will his intentional offseason weight gain help or hurt? Jeffery is a gem who'll have more room to roam with redshirt freshman Kevin White distracting secondaries.

23) Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff (No. 29 QB), Todd Gurley (2) & Tavon Austin (30)

Previous rank: No. 18

Whether or not Goff is the answer is TBD, but even before his arrival, the Rams were feeling sunnier about their offense (and not just 'cause of the move from indoors to SoCal). Gurley is a generational talent who ran away from professional football tacklers as easily as he did SEC Ds. Two drafts after Les Snead won the Austin sweepstakes, the lightning-fast mite finally paid dividends beyond returning punts (473 yards receiving, 434 yards rushing and nine touchdowns in 2015).

24) Washington Redskins: Kirk Cousins (No. 15 QB), Matt Jones (32) & Jordan Reed (24)

Previous rank: No. 28

Cynics won't give full credit to Cousins 'til he does it against better competition -- he didn't beat a team that ended up with a winning record last year -- but he deserves kudos for cutting down on some of the reckless throws he might've attempted in the past. Jones looked promising in limited exposure as a rookie, but the Washington brass is now all-in on the Florida product as a three-down back. That's fine ... so long as he's fixed the fumbling issue (that seems to afflict a lot of first-year guys these days). Whether he's a WR or TE, Reed is the best option in a versatile -- but injury-prone -- group of pass catchers. (Matter of fact, of all the individual rankings I've provided in this piece, Reed seems among the most likely to leave me with egg on my face for wildly underrating him.)

25) Miami Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill (No. 23 QB), Jay Ajayi (28) & Jarvis Landry (23)

Previous rank: No. 16

OK, this absolutely, positively has to be the season Tannehill takes it to another level. And if he doesn't, it's time for the Dolphins to move on. (Sorry if you're experiencing déjà vu after reading that last sentence.) Landry has been prolific (his 194 catches are the most ever in a WR's first two seasons), but his yards-per-catch figure is significantly lower than those of most of the NFL's high-end receivers. (Hence the high hopes for DeVante Parker in his second year.) Ajayi showed hints in '15 of being ready to take over as the feature back ... but the Dolphins don't seem convinced, as the additions of Kenyan Drake and Arian Foster (who Adam Gase says will continue getting first-team reps in August) suggest.

26) San Francisco 49ers: Blaine Gabbert (No. 31 QB), Carlos Hyde (12) & Torrey Smith (27)

Previous rank: No. 31

It's old news at this point, but it's still worth remembering how far Colin Kaepernick has fallen since coming within one completed pass of winning a Super Bowl just four seasons ago. Now, it looks like it'll take a flawless August to vault former punchline Gabbert, who was serviceable in a half-season's work in 2015. Assuming he can stay healthy, Hyde is a big, talented, hit-the-hole-at-60-mph runner who'll get tons of chances in Chip Kelly's offense. Smith can stretch the field but is miscast as the No. 1 WR of a crummy receiving corps.

27) Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford (No. 21 QB), Ameer Abdullah (30) & Golden Tate (25)

Previous rank: No. 21

The absence of Megatron is rightly the big story, but for what it's worth, Stafford put up a more-than-respectable 2015 (although, for a guy who completed over 67 percent of his throws, he still made some woeful decisions along the way). He won't have Calvin Johnson going forward, but at least he'll have a better line in front of him. Tate's one of the best yards-after-catch guys in the league -- but now will need Eric Ebron and Marvin Jones to help open the field up. If Abdullah and his wonky shoulder aren't ready to roll, Theo Riddick (who might be better, anyway) is ready to pick up the slack.

28) Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota (No. 25 QB), DeMarco Murray (22) & Delanie Walker (26)

Previous rank: No. 32

When I first heard the phrase "Exotic Smashmouth," I thought the '90s pop band might've updated "All Star" with a sitar. As it is, Mike Mularkey is zigging while most of the pass-happy NFL zags (as Bucky Brooks thoroughly details here). With Murray running behind a sizable O-line, the pieces seem to be in place to run a physical, downhill attack. And while Walker is an underrated producer at his position, look for gigantic talent/person Dorial Green-Beckham to become Mariota's favorite target in the QB/WR tandem's second season together.

29) Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco (No. 19 QB), Justin Forsett (27) & Steve Smith Sr. (31)

Previous rank: No. 23

Steve Smith Sr. deserves a gold jacket one day, but in the meantime, serving as an NFL team's top receiver at 37 and returning from a repaired Achilles seems ... hopeful. Then again, with Ben Watson, Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams and Dennis Pitta, the Ravens are as loaded at TE as anybody this side of Foxborough. Previously undrafted Central Florida WR Kamar Aiken will again get the chance to do what was expected of the 2015 first-round WR from Central Florida, Breshad Perriman. We know Flacco has a knack for playing his best in the postseason and/or against archrival Pittsburgh, but consistency has eluded him throughout his eight years in the league. Forsett is a nice story, but he will struggle to hold off younger challengers for carries this year.

30) Philadelphia Eagles: Sam Bradford (No. 26 QB), Ryan Mathews (23) & Jordan Matthews (29)

Previous rank: No. 22

As much as some analysts attempt to reduce football to a math equation, the game is still played by human beings. And I simply can't imagine things going well so long as Bradford is under center (while No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz watches from the sidelines). Bradford has proven to be fragile both physically and emotionally, so it seems unlikely that he's going to be a rock-solid field general in his seventh season with his replacement waiting in the wings. Speaking of injuries, Mathews has had a lot of 'em. But last year, he did look very good when on the field. The Matthews with two Ts in his surname has a knack for catching TDs, but he needs help from Nelson Agholor this year. 

31) Denver Broncos: Mark Sanchez (No. 30 QB), C.J. Anderson (29) & Demaryius Thomas (16)

Previous rank: No. 17

It's exceedingly easy to make buttfumble jokes (which is why I do it often), but as Chris Harris Jr. discussed during a recent visit to DDFP, the Broncos' recipe for success asks for the QB to hold the spice and make vanilla contributions only. Thomas' late-2015 case of the dropsies was troubling, but it can perhaps be attributed to Peyton's wobbly offerings. He needs to be the difference maker in Denver's offense going forward. Joe Morris clone C.J. Anderson is fine, but rookie Devontae Booker will be the feature back by midseason.

32) Cleveland Browns: Robert Griffin III (No. 32 QB), Duke Johnson (24) & Gary Barnidge (32)

Previous rank: No. 30

I know Hue Jackson worked wonders with Dalton & Co. in SW Ohio, but I'm skeptical the former Bengals OC can transform an organization as dysfunctional as the one at the other end of the state -- especially when two of his most prominent early moves were spending a third-round pick on largely unheralded Cody Kessler and signing RGIII after expressing outsized enthusiasm for the one-time prodigy. Those instances of "Hue-bris" notwithstanding, Jackson has invigorated other moribund offenses via the run game, which should mean good things for Johnson, a more versatile option than Isaiah Crowell. Barnidge came out of nowhere to post a 1,000-yard, nine-touchdown season, but he figures to see fewer targets with the presumed emergence of '16 first-rounder Corey Coleman and the Week 5 return of Josh Gordon (who, based on his limited, mediocre 2014, shouldn't be counted upon to repeat his magical 2013 season).

Follow Dave Dameshek on Twitter @Dameshek.

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