My annual power rankings are a bit late this year, largely because of studies and other obligations, but I feel that getting them done in advance of the first game will account for trades, cuts, etc. and thus will make for better accuracy in teams' analysis.
Please feel free to leave comments and thoughts. One of the best parts about these posts is the opportunity for interaction with readers!
Without further ado, my 2012 NFL Preseason Power Rankings!
1. New York Giants -- Super Bowl Contender
This spot ended up being a tossup between the defending Super Bowl champs and the NFC's No. 1 seed whom the Giants upended en route to their title. I went with the defending champs mainly because of the three All-Pro pass rushers they return. The lethal trio of Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul gives the G-Men room to be creative along the defensive line -- particularly inside pass rush -- that not even the 3-4 scheme of the Packers can offer. On the other side of the ball, Eli Manning has become as sure a bet as any quarterback when the game is on the line, and he has plenty of options at the skill positions in Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Ahmad Bradshaw and rookie David Wilson. While it's tough to repeat these days, the Giants are stacked enough at premium positions to make a run at three Super Bowls in five years.
2. Green Bay Packers -- Super Bowl Contender
The Packers might have claimed the top spot on this list if it weren't for all the question marks concerning their defense. Green Bay's stop unit ranked dead last versus the pass in 2011, which is surprising given the talent at its disposal. GM Ted Thompson responded by going defense-heavy in the 2012 draft, selecting pass rusher Nick Perry to play opposite Clay Matthews, defensive lineman Jerel Worthy to fill the hole they never filled last year after Cullen Jenkins' departure, and cornerback depth in Casey Hayward. While young, these additions could be just enough for a team with a world-beater offense. Aaron Rodgers is arguably the game's best quarterback right now, and he has an endless supply of weapons in the passing game. If the defense can be more effective slowing down opposing passers, the Packers again will be in the Super Bowl mix.
3. New England Patriots -- Super Bowl Contender
All right, here's your first AFC team. While far removed from their dynasty years, the Patriots have been the premier franchise in their conference for the last two seasons, largely because of Tom Brady's continued greatness at quarterback and the drop-off in talent around the rest of the AFC. New England itself has experienced that drop-off, particularly on defense. The Patriots reached the Super Bowl last season despite their defense's ranking 31st in the league against the pass. When you have Brady under center, protected by a tackle tandem of Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, and throwing to tight ends as good as Rob Gronkowski (NFL-record 17 touchdown catches in 2011) and Aaron Hernandez, as well as to a new deep threat in Brandon Lloyd, you can get away with having a poor defense for a while, but Bill Belichick had seen enough after the Super Bowl, trading up twice in the first round to bolster his pass rush with defensive end Chandler Jones and versatile linebacker Dont'a Hightower. If the added help at pass rushing spots is effective, New England's maligned secondary should improve as well; Devin McCourty did make the Pro Bowl his rookie season. All in all, the Patriots are in the same boat as the Packers -- if their defense improves even a bit, they'll still have a strong say in the Super Bowl convo.
4. Houston Texans -- Super Bowl Contender
This team is loaded and very well could have been ranked higher. The Texans' front office has done a remarkable job supplying the roster with elite talent, particularly on the defensive side of the ball -- says a lot when you let Mario Williams walk in free agency. J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith are ideal five-technique defensive ends, and Shaun Cody is an effective nose tackle, although he's currently dealing with a back injury. Meanwhile, the 3-4 rush linebacker spots are incredibly deep, Brian Cushing is a force at inside 'backer, and Johnathan Joseph has starred in the secondary so far. And while Houston has become well known for its firepower on offense with Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster, there are some questions as to whether they'll be as effective with the shakeups along the offensive line. The Texans lost right-side linemen Mike Briesel and Eric Winston, who are both really good. There's also the eternal question of whether Schaub, and to a lesser extent Johnson, can stay healthy late enough in the season and for the playoffs. If they can, the Texans have every piece they need for a title run.
5. Baltimore Ravens -- Super Bowl Contender
The Ravens have become a model of consistency since they last missed the playoffs in 2007-08, reaching two AFC Championship games in that span. Baltimore is a bit of a throwback club, utilizing a mammoth offensive line and a power running game along with suffocating defense. This year could be a tad different, however, as Joe Flacco continues to come into his own at quarterback. Flacco has arguably the purest throwing motion of all NFL signal callers as well as one of the strongest arms. He also has been making more big plays each year; he outperformed Tom Brady in last year's AFC Championship and did his part to put the Ravens in the Super Bowl; his receiver dropped a late go-ahead touchdown pass in the end zone during what was a brilliant drive. Baltimore should have another fine season in 2012, though an offseason injury to pass rusher Terrell Suggs, the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year, could set the defense back if rookie Courtney Upshaw isn't quite ready to shoulder the load. However, the Haloti Ngata-led defensive line and the talented secondary (featuring some guy named Ed Reed) should help offset Suggs' absence, however long it might last.
6. Dallas Cowboys -- Super Bowl Contender
This probably is the most radical classification in my rankings this year, but in reality, it's not that radical. The Cowboys have ideal talent at all the most important positions. Tony Romo is coming off his best season in terms of effectiveness and leadership in the clutch; DeMarcus Ware still ranks among the best pass rushers in the league; the skill positions (if healthy) rate as strongly as any team's; Tyron Smith, an elite physical specimen, moves over to left tackle, which will be good for both Smith (or Romo's blind side) and Doug Free, who is better suited to play on the right side. Additionally, Rob Ryan's aggressive defensive scheme now can be much more effective with the cornerback upgrades (free-agent pickup Brandon Carr and first-round pick Morris Claiborne). The question mark is the interior offensive line. If it can hold up, the Cowboys have a dynamic young running back in DeMarco Murray who can help take pressure off Romo. Don't be fooled. This team could have made a playoff run last year had it beaten the Giants in Week 17. There's an "it" factor in Dallas.
7. Chicago Bears -- Super Bowl Contender
Another aggressive pick by yours truly. Much like the Cowboys, the Bears have an "it" factor, my gut tells me. Chicago -- Jay Cutler in particular -- was playing well in 2011 until Cutler was lost for the season after undergoing thumb surgery. Cutler was showing marked improvement in terms of his decision making under center, which is a scary thought given his arm strength. The Bears traded for Cutler's ex-Broncos teammate, Brandon Marshall, who could be a solid No. 1 receiving option alongside Earl Bennett. Do-it-all running back Matt Forte returns on a new four-year deal but off a MCL sprain, though I'm sure the Bears would rather have him than not have him. The question marks for Chicago are along the offensive line -- can J'Marcus Webb block top pass rushers, and can Gabe Carimi stay healthy? -- and on defense. Julius Peppers is one of the premier defensive ends in the NFL, but much of the rest of the defensive line is shaky. Can rookie Shea McClellin flourish while Peppers commands double teams? Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are no spring chickens either. Regardless, I like this team's potential.
8. Denver Broncos -- Super Bowl Contender
The Broncos went on a magical run to the AFC Divisional round with Tim Tebow after a 1-4 start, but even so, Tebow didn't convince the Denver brass he could be a good enough passer to be the long-term solution at quarterback. With that in mind, Broncos GM John Elway jumped at the opportunity to sign Peyton Manning. Going into the preseason, I was uncertain whether Manning would ever fully recover from the nerve damage that led to his missing the entire 2011 season and his subsequent release from the Indianapolis Colts, but he has looked good so far. While Manning doesn't throw with quite as much zip, he still gets the ball to his receivers, and even a less-than-100-percent Manning is enough to make this Broncos roster a contender, especially out of the weak AFC West. The offensive line is decent -- Ryan Clady is one of the best left tackles in the game. The skill positions, led by receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, are deep, and Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller are one of the league's top pass-rushing duos. The problem with the Broncos' plan, however, is that even if healthy, Manning is 36. Their Super Bowl window with him could be quite short -- maybe just this season.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers -- Super Bowl Contender
The Steelers are one of the NFL's premier and most heralded franchises and have been among the elite AFC contenders for much of this decade. That said, I get the sense they're starting to trend downward. Their defense, while ranking first in the NFL in the overall category in 2011, is getting older. Aaron Smith has seen his long-underrated career decimated by injuries and is no longer on the team. Nose tackle Casey Hampton might lose his starting job because of injury, and the inside linebackers and defensive backs are aging and more prone to missing time. However, when Ben Roethlisberger is your quarterback and James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley rush the passer, you always are in contention. Even then, however, Roethlisberger is vulnerable to the injury bug because of his playing style, and Harrison is 34. Like I said, Big Ben and Dick LeBeau's pressure schemes will keep Pittsburgh in the hunt, but they're more susceptible nowadays, especially in the brutal AFC North.
10. Atlanta Falcons -- Super Bowl Contender
The Dirty Birds have plenty of firepower on offense. Matt Ryan has exceptional field vision -- oh yeah, and an exceptional receiving corps, namely Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. The offensive line is a talented unit, featuring a tackle tandem of Sam Baker and Tyson Clabo. Michael Turner leads an underrated running back stable. The Falcons ranked 12th in total defense last season and could be good again -- talent includes defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Akeem Dent, and cornerback Dunta Robinson -- but at the same time, defensive end John Abraham is getting up there in years, and Ray Edwards, long viewed as a No. 2 pass rusher, might have to shoulder the load. Given Atlanta's relative success on defense in 2011, it's not too much to expect the team to be fine on that side of the ball again and reclaim the NFC South while the Saints feel the aftereffects of Bountygate.
11. San Francisco 49ers -- Strong Playoff Contender
The Jim Harbaugh-led 49ers burst onto the scene in 2011 with a 13-3 record and a trip to the NFC Championship, narrowly missing on a chance at the Super Bowl in overtime. Naturally, a lot of observers expect San Francisco to take the next step this season. While the 'Niners boast supreme talent on defense, including inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, perennially underrated defensive lineman Justin Smith, and rush linebacker Aldon Smith (though depth at this spot is shaky with the loss of Parys Haralson for the season), I'm not quite sure they have enough offensively to have a realistic shot at a Super Bowl. It's true Harbaugh did a lot with quarterback Alex Smith (so many Smiths on this team) last year, and Smith was sensational against New Orleans in the divisional round, but the Smith we saw the next week against the Giants was more like the one we've been used to seeing. Given all the uncertainties surrounding the other three teams in the NFC West, I like the 'Niners to repeat as division champs, but I'm not expecting a Super Bowl push.
12. Carolina Panthers -- Strong Playoff Contender
This pick also is a bit aggressive, but I like the overall talent level of the Panthers' roster. In fact, I've liked it ever since Carolina last made the playoffs in 2008. The weak link, of course, was the quarterback position. That issue appears to be resolved with Cam Newton. The former Heisman trophy winner took the NFL by storm as a rookie in 2011, setting records left and right and, most surprisingly to me, eclipsing 4,000 passing yards. While I'm still unsure whether Newton will be great long-term, he is more than good enough for this roster to win. The Panthers' offensive line is one of the best in the business, and, by extension, so is their running game (of course it helps that both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are quite talented). Defensively, Charles Johnson has done as good a job replacing Julius Peppers as one could do, and the team's linebacking corps could be among the NFL's best with the addition of rookie Luke Kuechly. Given the state of the NFC South, especially the Saints' turmoil, Carolina could challenge for a playoff spot.
13. Philadelphia Eagles -- Strong Playoff Contender
As you can tell, I'm not quite as enamored with the Eagles as most national observers seem to be. While I admire the comeback Michael Vick has made as a human being and as a player, I'm afraid he might be declining at this stage of his career. He regressed in 2011 from 2010 and already has suffered a rib injury this preseason. The good news for Vick is that his supporting cast is quite strong; Jason Peters and Evan Mathis form a solid left side of the offensive line, and LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin all are dynamic skill-position players. The Eagles' defensive line is exceptionally deep, and DeMeco Ryans was a solid addition at middle linebacker via trade. Nnamdi Asomugha still ranks among the top corners in the game. The overall talent is there, and the Eagles indeed could prove themselves worthy of a higher ranking. I'm just not sure Vick can stay healthy or produce at the level at which Eli Manning and Tony Romo will produce.
14. Cincinnati Bengals -- Strong Playoff Contender
The Bengals quietly have assembled a talented squad. While Andy Dalton doesn't project as a particularly elite quarterback, he proved last season he can be a starter on a NFL team. Of course, it helps when you can throw to A.J. Green, who in just one year has established himself as one of the best receivers in the league. Green has a rare skill set that in many ways resembles that of Randy Moss in his prime. Tight end Jermaine Gresham is another solid option in the passing game, and the Bengals will be able to run the ball behind a serviceable offensive line. It's on defense where you look at the depth chart and say, "Wow, they have THESE players?" Geno Atkins is one of the most underrated defensive tackles in the league, and Domata Peko has been effective for a long time. Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are physical freaks rushing the passer. Rey Maualuga and Manny Lawson at linebacker. Leon Hall at cornerback. I have Cincy ranked below Baltimore and Pittsburgh, mainly because the quarterbacks of those two teams are elite, but it would not surprise me to see the Bengals make a repeat playoff trip and possibly contend for their division title.
15. Detroit Lions -- Strong Playoff Contender
Among the perennial losers of the NFL for many years, Detroit finally got the monkey off its back in 2011, making the playoffs for the first time since before the turn of the millennium. The Lions have one of the league's better offenses, led by Matthew Stafford (one of three quarterbacks to eclipse 5,000 passing yards in 2011) and Calvin "Megatron" Johnson, arguably the best receiver in the game. The question marks on offense concern the line, which has been mediocre to subpar for years, exposing Stafford to injuries and adversely affecting the Lions' ability to run the ball. Perhaps the selection of tackle Reilly Reiff will help improve this unit's performance. It also seems as though Detroit's defense should be better than it is; there's plenty of (supposed) talent on the defensive line in tackles Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, Nick Fairley and Cliff Avril, yet the Lions ranked 23rd against the run and in overall defense. Cornerback is another area of concern. I think this team is in for a step back in 2012, especially given the return of Jay Cutler to the division and the Lions' numerous off-field issues during the offseason.
16. New Orleans Saints -- Strong Playoff Contender
By now everyone is well aware that the Saints have been rocked by sanctions stemming from a bounty system run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and overseen by head coach Sean Payton. Williams, who had left before the discovery of the bounty system, has been suspended indefinitely from coaching, and Payton has been banned for the 2011 season. Further, New Orleans will need an interim interim head coach for the first six weeks while interim head coach Joe Vitt sits for his part in the ordeal. The league-imposed suspensions extended to the players, including linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who has taken his appeal of the season-long ban to the legal system. It remains to be seen whether Vilma will play in 2012. Beyond the bounty scandal, the Saints lost cornerback Tracy Porter and offensive guard Carl Nicks in free agency. Ben Grubbs should fill in where the latter left, but New Orleans' defense wasn't a world-beater even while Vilma and Porter were there. Of course, Drew Brees is among the most proficient passers in NFL history, and his presence will be paramount this season. The Saints will still move the ball on offense, but given the turmoil within the franchise and the strength of the NFC South, I could see New Orleans missing the postseason.
17. Kansas City Chiefs -- Weak Playoff Contender
If you throw out the quarterback position, the Chiefs' roster would rank among the best in the NFL. Unfortunately for Kansas City, you can't throw out the quarterback position. It's the most important position in all of sports. In all brutal honesty, Matt Cassel won't cut it in that regard. Cassel has been relatively effective at times, but he's so limited physically, particularly in terms of arm strength. The Chiefs possibly could contend for a playoff spot with Cassel, but they won't be in the Super Bowl mix, which is really sad when you look at the entirety of the roster. Tamba Hali is one of the league's premier pass rushers, and he has a dynamic young counterpart in Justin Houston. Cornerback Brandon Flowers and safety Eric Berry (coming off a lost season to injury) are great young defensive backs. Derrick Johnson is an underrated inside linebacker. The offensive line features Branden Albert, Ryan Lilja and Casey Wiegmann. Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis lead the running back stable, and Dwayne Bowe and Jon Baldwin are two huge, athletic receiving targets. Oh yeah, and they have TWO dynamic return men/utility playmakers in Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas. I don't mean to knock Cassel, but seriously! If you put a truly elite quarterback on this team, it's not just a Super Bowl contender, it's a Super Bowl favorite. As it is, Kansas City's immensely talented squad once again will have to sit at home in January watching the elite quarterback it so desperately needs.
18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- Weak Playoff Contender
The Buccaneers are one of the teams I expect to show marked improvement. They made a solid coaching hire in Greg Schiano after Raheem Morris lost the locker room in 2011. Josh Freeman struggled with decision making last season, but he's more than capable of a rebound. People forget how well he played in 2010. He'll have solid protection in left tackle Donald Penn, a nice running combo in LeGarrette Blount and rookie Doug Martin, and an upgraded receiving corps featuring free-agent acquisition Vincent Jackson. The defensive line has so much young talent that still is raw but could be great someday; ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers have much upside, and Gerald McCoy could be a good defensive tackle if he could just stay healthy. The secondary was a major problem area in 2011, and while I maintain the Bucs should have stood pat and acquired cornerback Morris Claiborne with the fifth overall pick, they still were able to select a talented defensive back in safety Mark Barron at the seventh spot. Eric Wright and Aqib Talib are good enough at corner. The Bucs are an intriguing young team, and while they're a few pieces away from contention, they'll be fun to watch.
19. San Diego Chargers -- Weak Playoff Contender
The Chargers once were among the AFC's elite, though they were perennial underachievers who ultimately choked in the playoffs. That was WITH talent. Now the Bolts have experienced a major decline in talent from earlier in the Philip Rivers era. Rivers is still good, though he had an underwhelming 2011 campaign. However, his offense is worlds different from the one with which he used to own the AFC West. Gone are LaDainian Tomlinson, Darren Sproles and Vincent Jackson. Rivers' primary option in the passing game, other than tight end Antonio Gates, figures to be Malcolm Floyd. Solid, but not exactly elite. There are many question marks along the offensive line, especially after the release and retirement of Marcus McNeill and Kris Dielman, and thus it is uncertain whether tailback Ryan Mathews will have many holes through which to run. The defense also has declined from earlier in the millennium. Shawne Merriman, Jamal Williams, Antonio Cromartie et al. are gone. Shaun Phillips is a solid pass rusher, and San Diego got a steal in the draft in Melvin Ingram, who eventually will start. End Luis Castillo is aging, and there's not much talent around the rest of the defense. The Chargers took advantage of the AFC West's lack of elite opposing quarterbacks for a long time, even while they lost talented players. While San Diego still has an easier path to the playoffs than others, now that Peyton Manning's in the division, the exposure of the Chargers' regression will be complete. GM A.J. Smith might want to start polishing that resume.
20. Buffalo Bills -- Weak Playoff Contender
The Bills had a nice start to the 2011 season, including a victory against the Patriots, before falling off later on. Buffalo's offense showed flashes of brilliance at times. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn't have elite upside, but he can be solid, especially with the supporting cast around him. Left tackle Demetrius Bell and center Eric Wood headline an underrated offensive line. Fred Jackson is a fine runner, and former first-round pick C.J. Spiller should get more carries this season. Stevie Johnson is a dynamic receiver, though he often can be showy to a fault. The Bills had great difficulty getting to opposing quarterbacks on defense, and they acknowledged as much during the early free agency period, signing Mario Williams to a mega-deal and also bringing in Mark Anderson. Both guys could flourish sandwiching talented defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison still might have something in the tank at linebacker, and the secondary appears surprisingly deep. I like the talent on this team, and while I don't think they'll contend for a playoff spot, they'll earn a solid second place in the AFC East.
21. New York Jets -- Weak Playoff Contender
Seriously, has there ever been more preseason coverage of a team so obviously bound to miss the playoffs? I think not. The offseason trade for Tim Tebow has generated so much unnecessary drama around the Jets. Of course, you might be used to unnecessary drama if Rex Ryan is your coach. At any rate, the trade also spells trouble in the locker room and on the playing field. Signs of factions favoring Tebow already have surfaced, and Ryan has said he might take incumbent starting quarterback Mark Sanchez off the field as many as 20 to 25 times per game in order to run a special package for Tebow. In short, the quarterback situation is a disaster in the making, and with receiver Santonio Holmes and tight end Dustin Keller being the only proven talents in the receiving corps, running the ball might be the only way the Jets can generate offense -- that especially will be true if Tebow ultimately takes over as the full-time starter, as certain ESPN personalities believe will happen. On the other side of the ball, much is said about Ryan's aggressive defensive scheme, and he can get away with it a bit because he has the NFL's best corner in Darrelle Revis and another strong corner in Antonio Cromartie. It still can't be fully effective, though, because the Jets sorely lack an established pass rusher. I used to think Ryan was leading the Jets in the right direction despite his boisterous personality, but with the way he's handling the quarterback situation, I'm not so sure. If the Jets miss the playoffs again in 2012 -- it's likely they will -- the higher-ups might want to evaluate Ryan.
22. Seattle Seahawks -- Not a Contender
The Seahawks have more talent than people realize, and they appear to have a young quarterback they really like in rookie Russell Wilson. The Seahawks were so impressed with the former Wisconsin star's preseason performance they named him the starter over Matt Flynn, whom they signed to a relatively expensive free-agent deal with the idea he would start. That says a lot about what coach Pete Carroll sees in Wilson. He has physical limitations -- he's less than six feet tall -- he is intelligent, accurate and a great leader. Wilson will be able to lean on running back Marshawn Lynch if the offensive line holds up, and his receiving corps features former Pro Bowlers Sidney Rice and Braylon Edwards and an up-and-comer in Golden Tate. The defense has some promise in defensive end Chris Clemons and rookie rusher Bruce Irvin, who figures to see lots of snaps in passing situations. Leroy Hill is a solid linebacker, and Earl Thomas could make noise from the free safety spot. While Arizona might have more overall talent on its roster, Seattle appears to have its quarterback position far more straightened out, and that's why I have the Seahawks as the second-best team in the NFC West.
23. Jacksonville Jaguars -- Not a Contender
This might be a bit of a surprise, but the Jaguars have some talent. Blaine Gabbert had a miserable rookie campaign in 2011, but he has shown signs of improvement under center thus far in the preseason. Gabbert now has a nice target in receiver Justin Blackmon, who can be a terrific player in the league if he can keep his head on straight. Maurice Jones-Drew's holdout won't adversely affect the Jaguars as much as people think; Rashad Jennings is plenty capable of carrying the rushing load while Jones-Drew gets up to speed. Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton are a talented tackle duo that has had trouble with injuries, but they'll keep the Jags' rushing attack churning. Defensively, Jacksonville should be performing better than it has been with the talent it has. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton has enormous potential and is a wall against the run if he gives full effort, and Tyson Alualu is a solid player beside him. Jeremy Mincey is a capable pass rusher, but he has no one opposite him to bring more pressure. The linebackers are solid, and Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox form a talented, if inconsistent, corner duo. I'll pick the Jags to finish a surprise second in the AFC South.
24. Washington Redskins -- Not a Contender
The Redskins decided this offseason they had had enough of the constant shuffling at the quarterback position, trading two future first-round picks and a second-rounder to move up from sixth to second in April's draft and select Robert Griffin III, the Heisman trophy-winning passer from Baylor. I'm not sure the NFL has seen a unique blend of talent that "RG3" offers; not only does he have track-star speed to go with a powerful arm, he also possesses a high football IQ, an accuracy to his passing and infectious charisma. He'll be an ideal fit in coach Mike Shanahan's offense, which features bootlegs and plenty of throwing on the run. Griffin might have to do that quite a bit, though, as the Redskins' offensive line draws major questions other than left tackle Trent Williams. He'll have nice receiving options in Santana Moss, Pierre Garcon and tight end Fred Davis. Defensively, Washington will be able to get to opposing quarterbacks with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. The future is bright with RG3 in the fold, but the Redskins still have plenty of work ahead of them to construct a complete roster, and that may be tough to accomplish without first-round picks the next two years.
25. Indianapolis Colts -- Not a Contender
If the 2011 season taught us anything about the Colts, it's that Peyton Manning had been THE offense since 2008. Manning's season-ending surgery on nerve damage stemming in his neck left the Colts to flail to a 2-14 record, prompting the firings of long-time club executive Bill Polian, his son Chris, and coach Jim Caldwell. It also led to Manning's release, as the Colts couldn't afford to pay their iconic but aging quarterback a $28 million bonus over four years. While the decision to cut Manning undoubtedly was tough, the chance to draft heralded quarterback Andrew Luck with the first pick was just too great a long-term opportunity to pass up. Widely considered the best quarterback prospect since Manning himself, Luck largely has been as advertised in preseason action, showing veteran-like command of the huddle and making veteran throws. Luck will have plenty of young, intriguing talent at the skill positions (plus Reggie Wayne), but he might have to use his exceptional athleticism and make plays on the run as beyond left tackle Anthony Castonzo, the Colts' offensive line is sorely lacking talent. The Colts' defense, meanwhile, is transitioning to a hybrid 3-4 scheme under new coach Chuck Pagano, the former Ravens defensive coordinator. Pro Bowl pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will play rush linebacker but still will put their hands on the ground in plenty of situations. The Colts lack much defensive depth, though, especially at inside linebacker and formerly cornerback before new GM Ryan Grigson traded two picks for former Dolphin Vontae Davis. That's a huge gamble, but if it pays off, the Colts could surprise a few of their opponents in 2012.
26. Tennessee Titans -- Not a Contender
The Titans have sent the message that the future is now, naming 2011 first-round pick Jake Locker the starter over veteran Matt Hasselbeck. That's the right move. Starting Hasselbeck would have been delaying the inevitable, and it's better for Locker, whose athleticism is tremendous, to play because he already has shown he has a better chance to maximize the offense's potential. Locker's receiving options will be limited early on with Kenny Britt's suspension, though Nate Washington, rookie Kendall Wright and tight end Jared Cook are solid playmakers. Chris Johnson should have a better campaign on the ground than he did last season after participating all preseason. There's some promising youth on defense, including defensive end Derrick Morgan and defensive tackles Sen'Derrick Marks and Jurrell Casey. Michael Griffin is a solid safety. I'm not sure, though, it can all come together. The Titans don't really have any elite or potentially elite talent like the other teams in the AFC South, with the possible exception of Wright, and that's the biggest reason I have them last in the division.
27. Minnesota Vikings -- Not a Contender
The great news for the Vikings and their fans is that the franchise will get a new stadium and will remain in Minnesota. That might have to suffice for 2012, though, as this team has a ways to go before it is competitive again. Christian Ponder had some impressive outings, including his two games with 100-plus passer ratings, as well as some poor ones, including four games in which his completion percentage fell in the 40 range. It remains to be seen how good Ponder can be, but an improved offensive line could help. First-round pick Matt Kalil is has elite upside as a left tackle, and his arrival can kill two birds with one stone as Charlie Johnson, a disappointment at left tackle last season, will slide over to guard. Ponder should have Adrian Peterson to lean on soon; Peterson has recovered brilliantly from offseason ACL surgery. The skill positions are decent, and defensive linemen Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Brian Robison are a strong unit, but there's not much talent in the back seven other than linebacker Chad Greenway. With a number of holes and extremely talented divisional foes, the Vikings might find themselves in the NFC North cellar for a while.
28. Oakland Raiders -- Not a Contender
The good news is that the Raiders organization now has some, well, organization. New GM Reggie McKenzie has a solid reputation as a talent evaluator, and new coach Dennis Allen is promising. The bad news for McKenzie and Allen is that they inherited a mess, starting with the midseason trade former coach Hue Jackson made for quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer is no longer capable of leading a team to contention; he has suffered too many injuries and is past his prime. That trade left McKenzie without a first-round pick in this year's draft and a second-rounder in next year's draft (the latter pick could become a first-rounder if Oakland makes the AFC Championship this season, but we know that isn't happening). The offense does have some nice young pieces, especially Darren McFadden, who could rank among the league's premier running backs. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore have potential at the wideout spots. Jared Veldheer is a good left tackle. The defensive line features Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly, both of whom are mixed bags at this point in their careers. There isn't much else on defense other than safety Michael Huff. I think McKenzie eventually will build a solid roster in Oakland, but it'll take him a good while. Not having those picks is detrimental to reaching that end result.
29. Cleveland Browns -- Not a Contender
I feel bad for Browns fans; they're among the most passionate fan bases in the NFL, and year after year their beloved team is one of the league's worst. Browns brass has to be hoping that can change with their two first-round draft choices now in the fold. Trent Richardson rates as an elite running back prospect. He has been dealing with a knee issue during training camp, but he should be ready to go for the opener, and if healthy, he'll be the focal point of the offense. Cleveland raised far more eyebrows with its second first-round pick, quarterback Brandon Weeden. Weeden will be 29 in October, so investing a first-rounder in him is a big gamble. The Browns know this, which is why they went ahead and forfeited a 2013 second-rounder to get athletic wideout Josh Gordon from Baylor in the supplemental draft. Add those pieces to Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and tight end Ben Watson, and the Browns could have a nice little offense behind a line spearheaded by premier left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack. On defense, the Browns have three strong links: defensive end Jabaal Sheard, middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and cornerback Joe Haden. They don't have very much else, though. The Browns' fate will rest on Weeden's shoulders for as long a window as he can manage, and it could be tough to do in the AFC North.
30. Miami Dolphins -- Not a Contender
The Dolphins -- particularly owner Stephen Ross -- do a pretty good job of talking the talk, but walking the walk? Not so much. They missed out on a big-name coach (Jeff Fisher) and quarterback (Peyton Manning and Matt Flynn afterward) after Ross vocally declared the 'Fins would make splashes in the offseason. After those misses -- they ended up hiring Joe Philbin as coach -- Miami pretty much had to select quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the first round. Tannehill, who indeed will be the Dolphins' Week 1 starter, already knows offensive coordinator Mike Sherman's system, having played under Sherman at Texas A&M, and has played well in the preseason. It could be a rough go of things for Tannehill in the regular season, though, as the offensive line is rough beyond left tackle Jake Long, and other than Reggie Bush there is nothing at the skill positions. There are a few bright spots on defense, namely pass rusher Cameron Wake and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby. The defense as a whole, though, doesn't figure to mesh, and while a second-round pick is nice value for the departed Vontae Davis, they'll lose talent in the short term. Between lack of talent and some controversial moments on HBO's Hard Knocks, including filming receiver Chad Johnson's release from the team, the Philbin era is off to a rocky start.
31. Arizona Cardinals -- Not a Contender
The days of Kurt Warner seem so long ago. Two-and-a-half years since the future Hall of Fame quarterback announced his retirement from the NFL, the Cardinals find themselves mired in a seemingly disastrous quarterback situation. Neither the highly paid Kevin Kolb nor the unheralded John Skelton has gone out and seized the starting job this preseason; Skelton essentially won it by default. Kolb seems like a nice guy, but he doesn't have the physical tools to be an effective starting quarterback in this league. Skelton, on the other hand, is fine physically and has shown flashes in previous opportunities, but he also has shown tendencies to struggle with decision making, paramount for any NFL signal caller. Skelton is nevertheless the better option, so the Cardinals can utilize Larry Fitzgerald, one of the most dynamic skill-position players in the league, as best as they'll be able to utilize him. Good thing, too, as the only other viable playmaking threat is rookie Michael Floyd. There's literally nothing on the offensive line. The interior defensive line might be what is keeping this team from the dreaded 32nd spot on my list. Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell are studs; they'll generate inside pass rush. Patrick Peterson could be a terrific cover corner and already rates among the best return men in the game. The quarterback problem, though, will be too great to overcome when all is said and done.
32. St. Louis Rams -- Not a Contender
The Rams are as sure a bet as any for the No. 1 pick next April. St. Louis actually has a tremendous opportunity in front of it these next two drafts; the Redskins traded their next two first-rounders to the Rams to acquire Robert Griffin III, and thus the Rams could have two high first-round picks -- at the current rookie wage scale, mind you -- in the 2013 and 2014 drafts. In the here and now, though, the roster is in shambles. Coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead have a massive rebuilding project on their plate. I'm not yet sure whether Sam Bradford has been held back from improving because his supporting cast is awful or because he isn't the elite talent he was made out to be coming out of Oklahoma. It's probably a combination of both, honestly. I didn't like the quarterbacks in the 2010 class. The overall roster definitely is woeful, however. Bradford has no receiving options nor does he have a good offensive line. Running back Steven Jackson is his only safety net, but a running back only gets you so far in today's NFL. The defensive line has some decent talent in Chris Long, Robert Quinn and rookie Michael Brockers, but there doesn't appear to be elite upside in this unit at the moment. James Laurinaitis is a good middle linebacker, and Janoris Jenkins has the chance to be a strong cover corner if he stays out of trouble. Even so, early returns on the secondary are quite concerning. This team will not compete in many games.