Just a couple more sleeps and the NFL season will finally be here. It is difficult to get an idea of how a team really is until they actually hit the field for real, but this is where I see the power laying ahead of the start of the regular season. A lot of questions will be answered and there will likely be a lot of variation between now and the first few weeks of the year.
1. New England Patriots | Previous: 1
The one team that there is an exception for the question marks and uncertainty heading into the season is the Patriots. Because they have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady leading the way, there’s almost no chance they aren’t in the postseason and in the mix for another Super Bowl. Brady’s age (41) is not a concern, as he’s shown he gets better every year. I’m anxious to see what the defense looks like with Matt Patricia gone and Brian Flores now taking on a larger role.
2. Philadelphia Eagles | Previous: 2
A close-knit culture was the driving force behind the Eagles winning their first Super Bowl title last season, and they’ll be flying high when the franchise’s first Super Bowl banner is unveiled at Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday night. They made the smart move by keeping Nick Foles this offseason, and they are making an even smarter move by not rushing Carson Wentz back from his knee injury. My concern for the Eagles is whether offseason-acquisition Michael Bennett causes any issues if things aren’t going well.
3. Atlanta Falcons | Previous: 3
I was tempted to put Atlanta in one of the top-two spots in the power rankings, and I’m leaning towards them for my Super Bowl pick from the NFC. The Falcons are a talented group with top-tier talent and depth throughout the roster, and they are led by former league MVP Matt Ryan, who is clearly one of the best quarterbacks in football. On paper, this Thursday night opening kickoff matchup against the Eagles was the best fans could ask for. The concern for the Falcons is they play in what is probably the NFL’s toughest division.
4. Green Bay Packers | Previous: 6 (+2)
Many people wanted the Packers to go and get Khalil Mack from the Raiders, but I still like where their defense is without adding Mack. Muhammad Wilkerson is one a one-year deal and will be looking to rebuild his value after just signing an $86 million deal with the Jets a couple of years ago, so he could be a major factor on the defensive line. Also, I like Green Bay’s rookie cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, who both should get solid playing time this season. If inside linebacker holds up, the defense should be solid.
5. Los Angeles Rams | Previous: 5
After their offseason acquisitions, the Rams are arguably the league’s most talented team entering 2018. Reigning Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley paces the offense with quarterback Jared Goff, who is looking to take another step forward in his third season in the league and second season in Sean McVay’s offense. Goff’s connection with Brandin Cooks will be key after he and Sammy Watkins struggled to get on the same page with the deep ball in 2017. It’s great that Aaron Donald and the team agreed to a long-term deal, ending that distraction, and he headlines the elite defensive line with Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers.
6. Minnesota Vikings | Previous: 4 (-2)
I think the Vikings had the NFL’s best defense in 2017, and I think they’ll have the best unit again this season. There’s a ton of talent at every level of the defense, and Mike Zimmer is one of the best coaches in football. Meanwhile, the offense has a ton of weapons with Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Laquon Treadwell, and Kyle Rudolph, but the offense line is a concern. And will Kirk Cousins actually be an upgrade over their previous quarterback situation?
7. New Orleans Saints | Previous: 7
Perhaps Mark Ingram’s four-game suspension will hurt New Orleans more than anticipated, but the team appears to have the beginning of the season set up nicely with home games against Tampa Bay and Cleveland. The Saints had a top-ten scoring defense last season, and they could be even better in 2018 with young players getting more experience. The pass rush, including first-round selection Marcus Davenport, will be key.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers | Previous: 8
Ben Roethlisberger says he feels as good as ever, which is a major positive as he enters his age-36 season. Roethlisberger has as good of a supporting cast as he’s ever had, though there is some uncertainty surrounding All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, who remains away from the team at the time of this publication—but Bell does keep himself in tip-top shape, at least. Inside linebacker is the position to watch on defense for the Steelers, as they appear to be solid everywhere else.
9. Carolina Panthers | Previous: 9
Cam Newton’s pairing with long-time offensive coordinator Norv Turner is one of the biggest storylines for the 2018 NFL season, as is the potential of the Panthers treating second-year back Christian McCaffrey as a workhorse, which I believe he is clearly capable of being. Newton was in the same type of offense for several seasons, so it’s possible the adjustment to Turner has some growing pains. Defensively, Carolina will always remain one of the best groups in football if Luke Kuechly is on the field.
10. Tennessee Titans | Previous: 10
Wide receiver is the position that must step up for the Titans this season, as I believe they have one of the NFL’s best rosters overall. The cornerback trio of Adoree’ Jackson, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler might be the best in the league, the entire linebacking corps is very strong, and the defensive line should play well against both the run and pass. All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin’s progress as he returns from a torn ACL is something to watch, as he helps make the Titans one of the best lines in the NFL. I’m looking forward to seeing the backfield tandem of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis in action, but I hope Henry gets the ball at least 20 times per game.
11. Los Angeles Chargers | Previous: 11
With an inexperienced quarterback in Kansas City and Khalil Mack gone from Oakland, I think the Chargers are the clear AFC West favorites entering the season. Future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates finally returned to help make up for the loss of Hunter Henry, and he’s another weapon for Philip Rivers in an offense full of firepower. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are as good as it gets as a pass-rushing tandem, so the Chargers should be able to put teams away when they get ahead in games.
12. Arizona Cardinals | Previous: 18 (+6)
I don’t mean to overreact too much to the preseason, but the Cardinals moving up six spots is based off a couple of main things: one, Sam Bradford remained healthy all summer and is ready to go for Week 1; and two, Steve Wilks seems like he’s undoubtedly going to do a great job as a head coach, particularly with his defense. Arizona’s defense caused 16 turnovers in the first three preseason games, and there’s enough talent that they could be the league’s best in 2018.
13. Jacksonville Jaguars | Previous: 14 (+1)
The Jaguars move up one spot from before the preseason, but they’re still probably the most controversial ranking for the final power rankings before the start of the regular season. I won’t be surprised if Blake Bortles plays very well and the Jags ride their powerful offensive line and elite defense to a first-round bye in the AFC, but they have a bit of a target on their backs after a breakout 2017 season—and Jalen Ramsey’s outspokenness hasn’t helped alleviate that. I just see them taking a step back from last season.
14. Kansas City Chiefs | Previous: 12 (-2)
The change to Patrick Mahomes was seemingly to go for monstrous upside at quarterback, but it might not be a seamless switch from 2017 MVP-candidate Alex Smith. The defense might have some issues, so Mahomes must take care of the ball to avoid putting that side of the ball in too many disadvantageous positions. I certainly am excited to see this offense with Mahomes, though, and I think we could see a very uncommon number of deep balls to Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Chris Conley throughout the year.
15. Oakland Raiders | Previous: 13 (-2)
I wrote a couple weeks ago about why Jon Gruden should not be counted out in his return to the sideline, and I’m pretty high on the Raiders in large part because of Gruden. It is pretty unbelievable how much the know-it-alls are criticizing Gruden, who apparently doesn’t belong in the NFL anymore according to the “experts.” Thankfully, Gruden has plenty of time to get his guys in there and right the ship in Oakland, as he has a ten-year contract. Given time, I believe he’ll build the Raiders back into an NFL power, and it’ll be funny to see the reactions of the naysayers. That said, they drop a couple of spots in the power rankings after the Khalil Mack trade.
16. Baltimore Ravens | Previous: 24 (+8)
The Ravens make the biggest jump in the power rankings, and it doesn’t have too much to do with the preseason. Basically, I was just too low on them before. Joe Flacco has a chip on his shoulder and could be at his best, which we saw is elite during his Super Bowl run. But the main reason Baltimore makes this jump is because the defense is probably going to be very difficult to score on, which is a potent combination if Flacco is near his best.
17. Houston Texans | Previous: 16 (-1)
I like Deshaun Watson as a quarterback as much as anyone, but it’ll be interesting to see if he can come close to replicating his rookie performance last season while coming off a torn ACL. When Watson was on the field last year, the Texans had the highest scoring offense in football. When he was off the field, the Texans had the lowest scoring offense in football. The returns of Watson, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus could vault Houston into the AFC’s elite.
18. San Francisco 49ers | Previous: 15 (-3)
The Niners drop a few spots in the power rankings because of the loss of Jerick McKinnon, who the team targeted with the intention of making him a huge part of their offense. Luckily, Alfred Morris was available and has had a ton of success in Kyle Shanahan’s offense during their time together in Washington; also, Matt Breida played very well as a rookie last season. Jimmy Garoppolo looks like the type of player that can carry a team to postseason contention.
19. Washington Redskins | Previous: 17 (-2)
I like the Redskins and would not be surprised if they pushed for an NFC East title in 2018, so their ranking here indicates the depth of the NFL right now. The loss of Derrius Guice hurt, but Adrian Peterson has typically been someone you don’t want to bet against—and he has one of the league’s best offensive lines in front of him. The defense is looking to get tougher against the run, which would help get the unit in better third-down situations more often. And Alex Smith simply wins games. There’s a lot to like about the Redskins.
20. Chicago Bears | Previous: 23 (+3)
There’s also a lot to like about the Bears, who just acquired superstar Khalil Mack from the Raiders in a late-summer blockbuster. The combination of Mack and third-year outside linebacker Leonard Floyd is extremely versatile and arguably the top pass-rushing duo in the NFC, if not the NFL. I want to put the Bears higher, but I am a little concerned about Mitchell Trubisky not getting many reps in the preseason, as he didn’t have much playing experience in college, either. However, Trubisky not playing a ton during the preseason could indicate that new head coach Matt Nagy is very happy with what he’s seen from the young signal-caller in practice.
21. Seattle Seahawks | Previous: 19 (-2)
I’ve said it before, but Seattle is preaching competition after jettisoning some veteran players while getting younger (and perhaps hungrier) at a few positions. This competition could lead to a ton of energy and big plays on Sundays, but they might not get back near the top of the NFC until next season. Russell Wilson is going to keep his team in nearly every game, though, even in a difficult NFC West.
22. New York Giants | Previous: 20 (-2)
Eli Apple must step up for the Giants this season if they are going to compete in the NFC East. As the team adjusts to James Bettcher’s 3-4 defense, a consistent pass rush might be difficult to come by, so the corners might need to hold up in coverage longer than ideal. Rookie Lorenzo Carter could emerge and give the team a spark as a pass rusher, which would take pressure off everyone. Offensively, the Giants have a ton of weapons, and Pat Shurmur’s presence should be great for Eli Manning.
23. Dallas Cowboys | Previous: 22 (-1)
Offensive line injury issues, paired with a revamped receiving corps, keep the Cowboys down this low in the power rankings; but again, the league might be as deep as ever in 2018. Dak Prescott should play steady football and prove people wrong after he received a lot of criticism for his play toward the end of last season, and Ezekiel Elliott’s presence should certainly help. Dallas could have one of the better defenses they’ve had for some time if things come together and guys stay healthy.
24. Detroit Lions | Previous: 21 (-3)
The Lions drop a few spots in the power rankings because the Bears got a lot better by adding Khalil Mack, which arguably makes Detroit the fourth-best team in the NFC North entering the season. Also, Matt Patricia’s squad didn’t have a good preseason, and it’s possible the team takes some time adjusting to his style of coaching. The Lions do have the talent to push Green Bay and Minnesota in the division.
25. Cincinnati Bengals | Previous: 30 (+5)
Both the offense and the defense looked excellent during the preseason, and I want to see what the offense in particular will look like during the regular season after Bill Lazor had a full offseason as the offensive coordinator. Joe Mixon is a big-time breakout candidate for Cincinnati, and his potential emergence as a great all-around weapon would make things easier on Andy Dalton and the rest of the offense. The front four on defense—particularly the interior—could wreak havoc on offensive lines. I think the Bengals will make a playoff push.
26. Indianapolis Colts | Previous: 28 (+2)
Andrew Luck is ready to go, and he’ll be back to his usual self if the preseason was any indication. Luck did not shy away from any hits in his return to the field, which indicates his shoulder is fine despite him not really airing it out during preseason action. The Colts are one of the youngest and least-experienced teams in the NFL, but Luck’s presence will help keep them competitive in 2018.
27. Buffalo Bills | Previous: 25 (-2)
The Bills are one of the toughest teams to have this low in the power rankings, as Sean McDermott has quickly proven to be a very good head coach, and I like the addition of Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator. However, the issues on the offensive line might be tough to overcome, which might cause the Bills to take a step back this season. I like Josh Allen, but I like the move to go with the more experienced Nathan Peterman to enter the season, as Peterman might be more prepared to get the ball out of his hands quicker. The defense should be very strong, so they could still be in the mix for a second straight playoff berth.
28. Miami Dolphins | Previous: 27 (-1)
Adam Gase and the Dolphins reshaped the locker room in an effort to shift the culture, and I think it’ll pay off if given time. The offense has underrated weapons at every skill position, and the offensive line has a chance to be one of the better groups in the league, which would certainly help them compete. Based on the preseason, the run defense looks like it might be a concern for Miami, but things could change when the regular season begins.
29. Denver Broncos | Previous: 26 (-3)
I think the offense led by Bill Musgrave could be pretty good with Case Keenum, Royce Freeman, Devontae Booker, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Courtland Sutton, and DaeSean Hamilton. However, the defense must take a considerable step forward in Vance Joseph’s second season as head coach. The Broncos can compete for the AFC West if the offense plays well and allows Von Miller and Bradley Chubb to make game-changing plays in close games.
30. New York Jets | Previous: 29 (-1)
It didn’t take long for Sam Darnold to take the reins at quarterback as the Jets’ franchise player, as he quickly grasped the offense and looked very poised in preseason action. I think Darnold will be really good, but he might need more help around him, especially as such as a young player (the youngest quarterback to start in Week 1 since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger) that turned the ball over a bit too much at USC. Hopefully the franchise has patience with the coaching staff.
31. Cleveland Browns | Previous: 31
If the power rankings were based on talent, but Browns would probably be an easy top-10 or top-15 team. However, the team also had talent last season, but they went 0-16. Hue Jackson is 1-31 as the team’s head coach, and HBO’s Hard Knocks didn’t make me feel any better about the situation heading into 2018. Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley might not be able to co-exist if things aren’t going well, but Haley might be able to help spark a quick turnaround if the partnership works well.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Previous: 32
Only one team has their starting quarterback suspended to start the season, and that’s the Buccaneers. Jameis Winston will miss the first three games of the season, and it’s a brutal stretch (at New Orleans, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Pittsburgh) before Winston returns for games at Chicago and at Atlanta. The defensive line added pieces to get after the quarterback, but they might not be up in enough games to get after the quarterback like they want to.