It’s been a while since we published an official NFL power poll. What better time than the period heading into training camp?
My methodology, as best as I can explain it...
Last season matters, but the upcoming season and the changes from last year matter more. I factor in the health, age and continuity aspects. In cases of ties, I favor the roster I would rather have on my favorite team.
The preseason power ranking:
1. New England Patriots. The reigning Super Bowl champs remain at No. 1 until another team proves on the actual field of play that they are better. Losing two of their top five overall players (Gronk and Trey Flowers) is a big hit, but I like their draft class and a couple of smart free agent additions. So long as the Brady-Belichick alliance remains in place, you’d better believe the Patriots are the favorite to win at least the AFC.
2. Los Angeles Rams. Aaron Donald is a legit MVP candidate, and adding Eric Weddle and Clay Matthews bolsters the defense with loads of Pro Bowl experience. Sean McVay is an excellent young innovator at head coach, which helps guard against any fallback from Jared Goff and the arthritic knees of Todd Gurley. Bonus points for exceptional special teams.
3. New Orleans Saints. Perhaps the most fun set of offensive triplets in the league in Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, the Saints offense can win in many ways. Their defense has a lot of talent and sometimes even plays like it. There is precious little depth anywhere on offense outside of Taysom Hill, but this starting 22 can beat anyone, anywhere...if the officiating is awake.
4. Los Angeles Chargers. Yes, they are higher than the division rival Chiefs. Here’s why: they absolutely got better this offseason, something that might not be true of Kansas City. With Philip Rivers getting Hunter Henry back and the defense returning a healthy Joey Bosa, this team is poised for a deep playoff run. Smart draft picks on defense help reinforce the biggest weakness on the team, too.
5. Kansas City Chiefs. Reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes is poised to become the face of the league, and that’s a league I want to revel in. Andy Reid smartly unchained the dynamic QB, and their speed at the skill positions is lethal. The Tyreek Hill situation looms large for a team that dumped Kareem Hunt, however. Some new additions on the defense could work out quite well but there is potential for a real fallback from a unit that was 24th in points allowed a year ago.
6. Green Bay Packers. For my money, this is the most improved team in the league. The Packers significantly upgraded the stale pass rush in both free agency (Preston and ZaDarius Smith) and the draft. Getting healthy on offense can only help, but ending the Mike McCarthy coaching era might be the best case of addition-by-subtraction around the NFL in years. It was time. This offense is still critically reliant on Aaron Rodgers being awesome, but he keeps proving he is when he’s healthy. Note that if Rodgers misses more than five snaps of any game, they will lose it with perhaps the worst backup QB situation in the league.
7. Atlanta Falcons. Health is the name of the game for the Falcons. Assuming everyone on the defense comes back close to their pre-injury selves, this team is better than advertised on that side of the ball. Pair that with the Matt Ryan-to-Julio Jones combination and Atlanta is poised for a rapid return to playoff relevance, especially if the rookie offensive linemen are ready to roll.
8. Cleveland Browns. Yeah, Cleveland. If you strip away the sordid franchise history, how would you feel about a team with Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham, Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, Damarious Randall, Sheldon Richardson, Nick Chubb, Joe Schobert, Jarvis Landry, David Njoku and Olivier Vernon? Oh yeah, the interior OL is fantastic and the team has a swagger under rookie head coach Freddie Kitchens. Change their helmets to another city and this roster would handily be considered top-5 in the league. Really. Will it work?
9. Philadelphia Eagles. An overhaul of the RB position and bringing back dynamic Desean Jackson should help Carson Wentz, who is now playing QB without the Nick Foles safety net. The defense, particularly the secondary, must stay healthy and play to its potential for the Eagles to fly higher than last season’s 9-7 record and Wild Card berth. They’re dangerously mobile in both directions from this preseason perch.
10. Dallas Cowboys. Amari Cooper made such a positive impact on Dak Prescott and the offense when he arrived, giving the team a viable passing game. I still believe Ezekiel Elliott is the NFL’s most talented RB, and he benefits from playing behind arguably the best OL. Trading for EDGE Robert Quinn helps the enigmatic defensive front, and I do like the mix in the secondary. Special teams need to step up, as does another receiver to balance Cooper.
11. Houston Texans. In Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins and rising star Justin Reid, the Texans have considerable top-end talent. I like some of the offseason decisions by now-fired GM Brian Gaine, too. If the Texans get any improvement at all from the revamped offensive line and CB positions -- both of which were arguably the worst in the NFL last year -- the reigning AFC South champs will repeat. They’re perilously close to being awful though, and could very well be headed in that direction if the Clowney contract situation festers and the rookie O-linemen aren’t up to the challenge. Hard to see this team being “average”...
12. Indianapolis Colts. Andrew Luck’s shoulder problems appear resolved, and he’s got impressive receiving weapons in TY Hilton, Eric Ebron and (horribly overpaid) newcomer Devin Funchess. Building a defense around Darius Leonard and Malik Hooker is a prudent move, but I still wonder about the Colts’ defensive front and their running offense. If guys like Denico Autry, Ebron and Marlon Mack can do it again, ranking this Colts squad 12th is going to look foolishly low come December. Upwardly mobile, but beware some regression too.
13. Seattle Seahawks. Any team that has perennial MVP candidate Russell Wilson and the crafty Pete Carroll as head coach is dangerous. It’s nice to see Bobby Wagner finally getting the respect he deserves at LB, too. Losing Doug Baldwin hurts the offense, and I’m not sold Ziggy Ansah can stay healthy long enough to replace Frank Clark on the defensive front. Much like the Packers and Rodgers, if Wilson misses even five snaps of a game the Seahawks stand little chance of staying within two TDs of anyone.
14. Chicago Bears. Last year’s pleasant surprise thrived on good health (fewest starter games lost to injury), a league-leading 36 takeaways and being really good on 3rd down and the red zone on both sides of the ball. All of those are volatile metrics. The good news for Chicago is that most of the key players are back, notably Khalil Mack. The bad news is their offseason transactions are a net loss in overall talent. If QB Mitchell Trubisky and a fun young OL continue to ascend, they’ll be just fine.
15. Pittsburgh Steelers. To think the Steelers have willingly given up on a top-3 WR in Antonio Brown and a top-3 RB in Le'Veon Bell and are still somewhat viable contenders is both impressive and frustrating. Ben Roethlisberger still has Juju Smith-Schuster to throw to, and there is young speed around him too. Can the perennially suspect secondary hold up, the OL come together, and will the special teams be an asset? If yes, this is a playoff team. If not, the Big Ben and Mike Tomlin era might be headed for an ugly end. This is the weakest overall roster on paper the Steelers have fielded in a long time. Good thing games aren’t played on paper...
16. Tennessee Titans. It’s sad the Tennessee defense doesn’t get more notoriety, because it’s a very effective unit with underrated talents (Jurrell Casey, Kevin Byard, Adoree Jackson, Jayon Brown) all over the place. Third in scoring defense, 7th in yards per game allowed, top 10 in third down and red zone; it’s a very good unit. But the national focus remains on Marcus Mariota and the underwhelming Titans passing attack. Corey Davis could help a lot here, and rookie A.J. Brown can too. If head coach Mike Vrabel learns from his first year, the Titans remain a viable playoff contender in a crowded AFC.
17. Minnesota Vikings. This was the trendy NFC champion pick a year ago. Kirk Cousins was good in his first year, but not good enough. The starting defense, which finished 4th in yards per game, 10th in points allowed and 1st in 3rd down conversions, returns almost intact. The offense basically does too. If you loved the Vikings last summer and believe their disappointing 2018 was an aberration, I won’t fault you for thinking this team can win 12 games in 2019. I’m not sure they got better anywhere, though.
18. Baltimore Ravens. The transition to the Lamar Jackson era begins in earnest. He’ll need help from a defense that saw Eric Weddle, Terrell Suggs and ZaDarius Smith all leave. Baltimore only directly replaced Weddle, doing so with injury risk Earl Thomas. I like the speed boost all over the offense, and the OL is one of the better units in the league. But if Jackson doesn’t show more as a passer, this roster caps out at 8 wins and that’s if the diminished defense overachieves. The good thing is, Jackson has the talent to quickly improve in an offense more suited to his particular set of skills.
19. Carolina Panthers. Much rides on Cam Newton’s shoulder and how well the former MVP recovers. The front office did Cam few favors, adding only ex-Patriot Chris Hogan to help a poor WR corps that lost Devin Funchess. Even so, Christian McCaffrey and a healthy Curtis Samuel is a lethal combination of weaponry. I love the attention paid to the pass rush, which got several reinforcements including first-rounder Brian Burns and Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy. The Panthers are more upwardly mobile than the handful of teams above them here, but they also have a lower floor in 2019.
20. Jacksonville Jaguars. Adding Nick Foles at QB should stabilize the offense, and the upgrade in decision-making and reliability can only help a receiving corps with some promise but a lot of questions. The pass rush looks outstanding after adding Josh Allen to pair with Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell, still a stud at 32. So does the secondary, built around standout Jalen Ramsey. There are still some serious holes (outside LB, TE, RB behind Leonard Fournette) and the Jaguars all-around depth is at least one notch lower than their peers in this range.
21. Denver Broncos. How a rookie head coach, and a defensive-minded one at that in Vic Fangio, handles the dynamic of Joe Flacco as a placeholder for Drew Lock at QB, is going to be fascinating. Flacco has not embraced this role in the past, nor has he played well in it. Their WR corps ranks near the bottom on paper, and that won’t help. I like the new-look O-line outside of center, where I think Matt Paradis will be missed more than advertised. Any defense with Von Miller and Chris Harris deserves respect. Adding Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan bolsters the back end nicely, too. How Fangio impacts the defense will be interesting to watch.
22. Buffalo Bills. The Bills devoted all kinds of attention to building up the offensive line and the results look very promising. Now if the rest of the offense can catch up...Josh Allen did great things with his legs but missed way too many throws on his way to completing 52.8% and throwing more INTs than TDs. A group of one-note receivers won’t help him much. The defense has some nice pieces, notably Tre'davious White, Matt Milano and first-rounder Ed Oliver, but lost venerable Kyle Williams. Poor special teams last year cannot carry over. I like the culture that’s brewing here around a new young core. If Allen becomes even an average NFL passer the Bills can make the playoffs. Big “if”...
23. Detroit Lions. Matt Patricia’s defense really perked up when the team traded for Damon “Snacks” Harrison. He centers arguably the best D-line in the league with premium new EDGE Trey Flowers, and Snacks made Jarrad Davis a real asset at LB behind him, too. This defense has a chance to be very good and adaptable to any situation. But it won’t matter much if Matthew Stafford doesn’t play better than he did in 2018. He got little help from a terribly thin WR and TE corps, but the 2018 Lions had the best running game and O-line Stafford has ever played with and he still had a bad year. T.J Hockenson and a healthy Kenny Golladay both must be great. There’s a very real chance for Detroit to be the surprise “worst-to-first” storyline, but the margin for error with this offense is narrow.
24. San Francisco 49ers. For a team that has spent four of its last five first-round picks on defensive linemen, the 49ers should have a dominant front. They don’t, alas, and the freakish devotion to filling the same hole has left the rest of the roster lacking. At least hits on George Kittle, Matt Breida and Fred Warner has given some life. The pressure is really on Jimmy Garoppolo to prove he can stay on the field and begin to live up to the massive contract he signed. The OL will be better and Kittle is coming off a record-setting year for a TE, so he does have some help. Can anyone on the defense make a play? Just two INTs last season with the same group doesn’t leave me optimistic.
25. Cincinnati Bengals. A new era begins with young Zac Taylor taking over at head coach. Taylor inherits A.J. Green (yay!) and Andy Dalton (meh) on offense. I’d feel a lot better about the offense if first-round pick Jonah Williams wasn’t already lost with injury and second-round blocking TE Drew Sample was a 5th-rounder instead. This franchise needs a new direction and some moves indicate a willingness to get there, but it still feels stale and predictable. The defensive front can be very good and capable of ruining an opponent or two, and Dalton is perennially good for 2-3 weeks where he looks like a legit Pro Bowler. Hope your team doesn’t face Cincinnati when everything clicks because they’re not nearly as bad as any other last-place team in the AFC and the Bengals will pull some surprises.
26. Washington. I’ll be honest here--this team has less of an identifiable vision than any other to me. There are some nice players scattered across the roster here, potential impact talents like Ryan Kerrigan, Landon Collins, DaRon Payne, Brandon Scherff and Trent Williams. And I do like the first-rounders in Dwayne Haskins and Montez Sweat. Like the Bengals just above them here, you won’t want to play this team when everyone is clicking together because Washington does have some nice pieces. It’s just hard to see it all fitting together on a weekly basis, especially with their passing offense questions.
27. New York Jets. The Jets will be better in 2019 if for no other reason than the maturity of Sam Darnold in his second season. Rolling the dice on abrasive Adam Gase at head coach is not a decision I would have made, but if it helps Darnold fix some of his rookie foibles, it’ll be worth it. The good news is the Jets added the best player in the draft in Quinnen Williams to an emerging defense that already has standouts in Leonard Williams and Jamal Adams and some quality pieces around them. Losing Pro Bowlers in return man Andre Roberts and PK Jason Myers could be a big deal for a team that looks like it will be involved in a lot of close games.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I love the Buccaneers passing offense, at least its high-end potential. I’d feel better about it if I trusted enigmatic Jameis Winston more. Bruce Arians will be aggressive as a head coach and that should suit this unit well, especially if Ronald Jones provides anything at RB. The defense is full of “oh yeah, that guy” type of players who are modestly effective but never really lived up to expectations (Vernon Hargreaves, Shaq Barrett, Justin Evans). Cairo Santos needs to step up at kicker for an offense that racked up yards (No. 2 in 2018) but not necessarily points (11th in scoring). Big year for Winston, and he’s got tools at his disposal to build something nice. Swapping Ndamukong Suh in for Gerald McCoy is an interesting experiment.
29. Oakland Raiders. The final season in Oakland will be better than Jon Gruden’s first season back at the helm if the rookie pass rushers, Clelin Farrell and Maxx Crosby, can help right away. Oakland’s 13 sacks last season were not even half of the next-worst total. Their LBs and DBs aren’t half-bad, but they cannot be expected to thrive in those conditions. At least adding Antonio Brown gives the offense some firepower to keep up with the opponent. Rookie Josh Jacobs gets a physical OL to run behind, and that will suit his skills well. Lame-duck teams seldom do well, unfortunately for Oakland fans.
30. Arizona Cardinals. A rookie head coach plucked straight from the college ranks--where he had a losing record, no less. That coach gets a woefully undersized dual-threat QB with one year of college starting experience. It’s so crazy it might work for Kliff Kingsbury, Kyler Murray and the Cardinals...but not likely for at least a year or two. Another year, another defensive scheme change (the third in as many seasons) and very few players in their athletic primes anywhere on the roster. It’s a tough sell but there is indeed some upside. If Murray is ready, the Cardinals are going to at least be entertaining.
31. New York Giants. Odell Beckham Jr., Olivier Vernon, Landon Collins, Damon Harrison--arguably four of the team’s top-5 players entering 2018--are all gone by the team’s choice. Aside from the massive talent drain, that’s a terrible message to send to the remaining players. Saquon Barkley is fantastic, and Golden Tate is a smart signing to help what’s left of Eli Manning or rookie Daniel Jones try and eke out points. The defense has some keepers to build around but “build” is the key phrase.
32. Miami Dolphins. The new regime has basically acknowledged they don’t expect immediate success under rookie head coach Brian Flores. I like the move to pick up Josh Rosen, but he’s going to experience some serious deja vu with what looks to be a terrible OL and underwhelming cast of receivers. The secondary is the strength of a defense that ranked in the bottom-3 in just about every meaningful metric last year and only added one rookie in Christian Wilkins. There’s enough here to win some games, but I’ll be stunned if they finish better than 4-12.