Pigskin Power Rankings

NFL POWER RANKINGS 2017 Top 10

So let’s get down to the meat of things. The 10 teams below look to me to be the legit 10+ win teams who are going to deserve to head to the NFL Play-Offs come January 2018. The way injuries are mounting after less than two weeks of Training Camp makes me more than a bit uneasy however. Oh well… nothing ventured, nothing gained!

10) NEW YORK GIANTS. The team had a very good 2016 season improving to an 11-5 record and going to the Play-Offs. The goal this season is to snatch the NFC East crown away from the Cowboys. I don’t know that I’d bet on that, but they have a chance given all the chaos in the Cowboys locker room. Expect ELI to have a better year in 2017 based in good part on the arrival of some better targets to throw to with the addition on BRANDON MARSHALL/VFA and EVAN ENGRAM/R. I don’t see a clear No.1 RB on the roster, but if healthy they have a solid group that goes 3-4 deep. The biggest issue is likely to be their OL… again, especially out at the OT slots. LT/ERECK FLOWERS has been a bit slow in developing despite his athleticism, and BOBBY HART gets the nod at RT despite seeming to lack good enough feet to hold up on the perimeter. The team seems to have a blind eye when looking at their OL. The D had a very solid year in 2016 with a rebuilt secondary that looks very talented but not very deep if the injury bug strikes. They continue to emphasize their DL, but ignore the LB corps, which looks pedestrian at best. Adding Rookies DALVIN TOMLINSON and AVERY MOSS, as well as VFA DEVIN TAYLOR/DE provides solid depth along that DL. There is a 50/50 chance the team will open the season with URFA K/ALDRICK ROSAS who had Training Camp coffee with the TITANS last year. MILE NUGENT was just added to the mix, but I wouldn’t label kicking as a strength right now. There needs to be a sense of urgency in the Big Apple, with ELI not a kid any more at age 36 and entering year 13 of his pro career.

9) TAMPA BAY BUCS Clearly the biggest plus for this franchise is JAMEIS WINSTON, who clearly appears to be a rising star at the NFL’s most important position on the field. GM JASON LICHT continues to add pieces to the roster to help WINSTON develop. VFA DESEAN JACKSON brings a proven deep threat into the equation, and the team drafted the best all-around TE coming into the pro ranks in OJ HOWARD from ‘Bama. If the team can “run-by-committee” until DOUG MARTIN comes off suspension this could be a very balanced attack in Cigar City, USA. WINSTON had 5 games in 2016 when his QBR was over 100. Look for that to increase in 2017. DC MIKE SMITH was also given some new toys to play with this upcoming season for a defense that ranked 15th in scoring Defense last season. The goal is to be in the Top 10 of that important category. Some very talented newcomers should help SMITH reach for that goal. DL/CHRIS BAKER, LB/KENDELL BECKWITH/R, S/JUSTIN EVANS/R, DT/STEVIE TU’IKOLOVATU/R, S/JJ WILCOX have all been added to a relatively young base defensive unit. In an attempt to step up the secondary play a bit, last years R4 Draftee RYAN SMITH is being moved from S to CB, with eyes on his as a potential starter. LICHT just admitted his mistake of wasting a trade-up Draft Pick in 2016 to grab FSU K/ROBERTO AGUAYO as a local boy roster addition. He was cut after the first pre-season game. I still see this as a team on the rise, but chasing the FALCONS could be frustrating in the near term.

8) KANSAS CITY CHIEFS. Over the long haul I still think the firing of GM JOHN DORSEY will haunt this team. I’m not that sold on ANDY REID being a one-man franchise savior as some seem to be. But for right now this team still looks too solid not to give the RAIDERS. a good battle for the AFC West crown. To some degree, the current roster just needs to have key vets like JUSTIN HOUSTON/ER, DERRICK JOHNSON/ILB, TAMBA HALI/ER healthy enough to provide the pass rush pressure on a weekly basis, that sets up CD BOB SUTTON’s unit as a night mare for opposing QB to face. Man-Mountain NT/DONTARI POE left via VFA, but the team added (read DORSEY) more versatile BENNIE LOGAN/VFA/Eagles to help replace him. On. Offense one of the real questions seems to be finding more ways for TYREK HILL to touch the ball, further downfield than their normal dink and dunk O style. PATRICK MAHOMES/R/QB is a big story, but for another year. Expect at least one, if not 2, more seasons with ALEX SMITH at the helm, before REID must deal with the reality of the next BRETT FAVRE as his main man. Watch for R/KAREEM HUNT to get an increased work load in the RB group. He’s too versatile and talented to ignore. Also watch for JEHU CHESSON/WR/R to evolve into the teams top possession receiver as the season wears on.

7) DALLAS COWBOYS I’m looking for this team to take a step back this year, in great part because of the poor character throughout their locker room. The team will set a record for starting the season most players on suspension of some kind, even if JERRY JONES twists enough arms around the league to get EZEKIEL ELLIOTT off that suspended list. DAK PRESCOTT has the weapons and OL to prove that his amazing Rookie performance was not an aberration last season. His poise and athleticism are legit and his receiving group has a good balance of size, speed and athleticism. As the season wears on watch for R/RYAN SWITZER to emerge as a play-making WR/RS. Despite the loss of G/RON LEARY and RT/DOUG FREE the OL is deep enough to carry on as the key to the 5th best scoring O in the NFL last season. A big target for ROD MARINELLI’s Defense in 2017 is to increase his unit’s Take-Away production from a paltry 20. Thus the massive turnover number of 4 players from their top 6 DB group. The team signed VFA ROBERT BLANTON/S and NOLAN CARROLL/CB, as well as drafting 4 DB. The team also drafted 3 DL in an attempt to provide MARINELLI with more talent to work with. Despite mu projection that the Cowboys will take a step back in 2017, please note that they are still in my Top 10, and the highest ranked NFC East team.

6) SEATTLE SEAHAWKS Despite another Play-Off appearance by their team and another 10-Win season both PETE CARROLL and GM JOHN SCHNEIDER were on the same page in regards to flipping their roster this past off-season. At last look that shake up meant that 35 of their Training Camp 90-man roster was new for 2017. A quick look at their roster clearly indicates that CARROLL’s mantra of competition every day/every practice is in full force for 2017. Despite trading out of the First Round of the Draft again this year the team added a solid, volume group of draftees with 11 players selected. A very interesting spect of their Draft class is the selection of 4 DB to compete with the position group known as the heart of their D. Keep a close watch on the Legion of Boom this year in what might the last before a break-up of their start studded, but now very expensive, trio of SHERMAN-THOMAS-CHANCELLOR. If Rookies McDOWELL and JONES come through their DL group could be frighteningly deep and talented. The RB position still needs to be sorted out on O, but talent is not the issue. Can VFA/EDDIE LACY be the next version of Beast-Mode for them? Can he stay in-shape and healthy, which he failed to do for the Packers? THOMAS RAWLS is also hoping to stay healthy, not to mention CJ PROSISE. If you see a pattern here in the RB group so do I. Lots of competition on the OL, but the actual talent level is questionable again. OL Coach TOM CABLE will be asked to make steak out of hamburg again with this group. The team has quietly assembled a very deep and talented receiving group for QB /RUSSELL WILSON. If that OL can protect him WILSON. might be able to put up some big offensive numbers in 2017. Maybe that O can actually carry the team for a change this season. If so look for a deep Play-Off run.

5) PITTSBURGH STEELERS. I look for this team to be all-in for the 2017 season and Play-Offs because it’s beginning to feel like BIG BEN may be getting ready to call it quits over concerns of long term affects of brain trauma in the NFL. And this team is nowhere near ready to win a whole lot without ROETHLISBERGER, IMO. The team is embroiled in a contract dispute with LEVEON BELL, who on the one hand is elite as an NFL runner/receiver, but by the same token he has missed serious playing time with injuries and suspensions already in his young career. How much do you pay a guy, especially one who fails to be available all the time, to earn all the guaranteed money he wants? Without him the STEELERS Offense is mediocre at best. R/JAMES CONNER showed early flashes, but has also already been nicked up in training Camp. The return of MARTAVIS BRYANT from suspension should only add to ANTONIO BROWNS stats, as teams try to figure how to cover them both. If all the parts are present and accounted for the STEELERS could be downright scary on both sides of the ball. Their secondary looks much improved with the emergence of young players like ARTIE BURNS/CB and SEAN DAVIS/SS, who both earned starting jobs as Rookies last season. JAMES HARRISON is back for one more season at OLB and will have star Rookie T.J. WATT watching his every move. WATT already looks like the real deal as a pass rushing OLB. VINCE WILLIAMS looks ready to replace TIMMONS at ILB, at least against the run game. Count this team in as a serious Super Bowl contender if all the pieces fall into place.

4) GREEN BAY PACKERS. On a relative scale TED THOMPSON blew up his roster this past off-season.THOMPSON is a huge believer in building his roster from within. Draft and sign Rookies, then develop them and keep the good ones. When Training Camp opened the team had a a record 39 newcomers on the roster of 90. That number is almost unheard of on a team that made the Play-Offs the pervious seasons with 10 Wins. The vast bulk of these new players are Rookies (32), but THOMPSON also brought in 7 vet Free Agents. The message is clear, with a star QB like AARON RODGERS (now 33) it is time to shake up the roster a bit in an attempt to be all-in for a serious Super Bowl run, sooner rather than later. The biggest rebuild is at the RB position where not one player from last years RB corps, when Training Camp opened, is currently on the roster. Of the 6 RB in Camp, 5 of them are Rookies (3 draftees) and TY MONTGOMERY was listed as a WR a year ago. It’s a bold move and only time will tell if it works out. But keep in mind that the PACK was 20th in the League in rushing last season, and AARON RODGERS ran for almost 400 yards himself. TE/JARED COOK might have been the biggest weapon lost by RODGERS, but he only totaled 30 catches last season because of continued lost time to injuries. And the biggest VFA addition was MARTELLUS BENNETT, who replaces COOK. BENNETT caught 55 balls from a guy named BRADY last season. The team also signed LANCE KENDRICKS/TE from the RAMS, who caught 50 balls with team last season. Mark TE as a big net gain for the PACK Offense. The big question is how much help has the team given their D, under creative DC DOM CAPERS. That D ranked 21st in points allowed last season. But the D did rank 11th in Takeaways, which they expect to improve upon in 2017. Key additions for the D include DAVON HOUSE/CB, RICKY JEAN-FRANCOIS/DL, R/KEVIN KING/CB, R/JOSH JONES/S/LB, R/MONTRAVIUS ADAMS/DT, R/VINCE BEIGEL/LB. Time will tell if it all adds up to a couple more wins in the post-season or not, but if the injury bug stays away watch out.

3) OAKLAND RAIDERS. There was some serious buzz about the RAIDERS going into 2016 and they lived up to it, until they were were down to their 3rd strong QB (Rookie CONNOR COOK) in the Play-Offs. CARR is back and EJ MANUEL is in the house as his back-up. The biggest addition to the team is likely to be MARSHAWN LYNCH/RB who is coming out of retirement to play for his home town team. LYNCH may not gain a 1000+-yards this season, but it’s his work in the locker room and in short yardage/red zone situations that excites people. JARED COOK, from the PACKERS, adds quality depth to their TE group and WR/RS/CORDARELLE PATTERSON, a VFA from the Vikings, bolsters the return units and receiving depth. On D better health and a few high profile Rookies could move the unit up into the top half of the League in points allowed. Some key Special Teams players were lost in VFA, so the team will be looking for some of their Rookies to step up early in that regard. Watch for GAREON CONLEY/CB, OBI MEILIFONWU/S, EDDIE VANDERDOES/DT, MARQUEL LEE/LB are the biggest names to watch for. They lack depth in places, but CARR is evolving into an elite QB, and that can carry a good team a long way.

2) ATLANTA FALCONS. I feel like a major cop-out artist ranking the FALCONS right where they finished last season, but until they slip the team has the overall talent, most of it young, to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl again. The biggest question for the team might be whether STEVE SARKISIAN will be a top notch play caller to replace KYLE SHANAHAN as the new OC. Almost the entire Offense returns from the NFL’s highest scoring unit in 2016. The FALCONS averaged 33.8 points per game last regular season. The bad news for the rest of the NFC in their attempt to overtake the Falcons is that they look to have really bolstered their defense of a year ago. With teams putting the pedal to the metal to keep up with the high scoring FALCONS Offense the D surrendered 25.4 ppg, ranking 27th in the League. HC DAN QUINN, who earned his coaching spurs as a DC wants to improve that performance, and so GM THOMAS DIMITROFF spent a lot of time and money adding defensive talent to the team. DONTARI POE/DT has arrived from KC and will team with GRADY JARRETT inside while R/TAKK McKINLEY/DE and his non-stop motor will be counted on to help create even more edge pressure on opposing QB. Rookie DUKE RILEY is expected to boost depth in the young LB corps as well as excel on Special Teams. DAMONTAE KAZEE/CB was drafted in Round 5, and specialized as an INT machine in college. The big picture says this team has been held together and reinforced for another run at the Lombardi Trophy. The odds say no way, but I would not be surprised at all to see a Super Bowl rematch next year.

1) NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS. Let me first say that I am not handing another Super Bowl ring to BRADY/BELICHICK like some. But I will also add that the organization seems to be all in about 2017, in backing up their super star QB who is basically 40-years old. In the NFL that age can mean at last one foot in the grave. But it is impressive that the team went all out to add even more vet talent to the roster. Expect about 25-33% of their roster to be fresh faces come September. The most telling aspect of their 2017 roster composition to me is that they held on to young potential stars like Malcolm Butler and Jimmy Garoppolo rather than trading them away for draft picks, just because. Yes a significant number of key players like NINKOVICH, LONG, BOUNT and BENNETT are gone. But so many new faces are in Camp who have proven their worth as pros, that none of their losses seem overwhelming. In fact, assuming good health for GRONNK (RISKY BUSINESS HERE), JULIAN EDELMAN, BRANDIN COOKS, CHRIS HOGAN, DION LEWIS, JAMES WHITE, MIKE GILLISLEE, DWAYNE ALLEN, et all, BRADY might find himself with more weapons than he knows what to do with. But trust me he’ll figure that puzzle out. The D has more new faces than the O this year, and DC MATT PATRICIA will blend them into a jigsaw puzzle of matched pieces. The train can always come off the tracks for a myriad of reasons, but overall I would say the mantra for the PATRIOTS should probably be, ‘the beat goes on.’

There you be folks. Some surprises and some expected rankings. Now on with the pre-season warmups for the real season.

Pigskin

NFL POWER RANKINGS 2017

Time to carry on with the remainder of my middle-of the pack, mediocre teams for 2017. But just an editorial note to start out. More injuries in Camps like TANNEHILL in Miami could cause some of these rankings to be altered drastically by September. And so it goes.

16) Miami DOLPHINS. Speaking of the Dolphins here there are. I have already bounced them from 14 back to 16 based on early feedback on their starting QB’s knee injury. It is true that MATT MOORE may be one of the better vet back-ups in the League, but… ADAM GASE did a great job as a Rookie HC last season leading the team to a 10-6 mark and a Play-Off appearance. Newly signed JAY CUTLER and GASE spent a successful year together in Chicago just a bit ago. Can they replicate their joint success in South Florida? And don’t forget that JAY AJAYI/RB is also sitting out right now in the concussion protocol. This team cannot afford a rash of injuries. They are not deep, or talented enough yet, to live with the injury bug hovering around their locker room. This may quickly turn into a 7-9 team which will spend the last half of the season grooming it’s solid young players for a heavier workload going forward. The 2016 Draft class looked promising last season, though bothered by multiple injuries, and the 2017 Draft class looks even more promising, at least on paper. The team’s fans don’t want to hear excuses for a possible step backward, but it is already looking like a possibility. Sorry DOLPHINS fans, these kind of scenarios get depressing pretty quickly, and the wait until next year cries ring a bit hollow. Hang in there and hope for the best from your new savior JAY CUTLER.

15) Cincinnati BENGALS. This team clearly took a step backwards in 2016, going from a perennial 10-Win team under MARVIN LEWIS to 6-9-1, also-ran status. Losing OC HUE JACKSON seemed to really hurt, as well as having WR/GREEN go down to injury that cost him almost half of the season. This was doubly bad because the team had lost SANU to VFA and no other young receiver really stepped up among the wideouts. TYLER EIFERT/TE also missed half of the season, to what is looking like a pattern of injuries on his part. VFA losses were pretty heavy this past winter, especially along the OL where the team lost starters ZITLER/G and WHITWORTH/T. I could go on but you get the picture. A goodly number of young players are going to have to step in as starters this season, and play like they belong. ANDY DLATON had his best season as a pro in many ways in 2016, but he’s still not the kind of dynamic QB who can carry an NFL team ala RODGERS, BRADY, etc. Perhaps the team has added a couple of pieces who will really crank up the O. The ultra-speedy JOHN ROSS/WR should really stretch opposing secondaries to the limit, and JOE MIXON/RB could have the same kind of impact in the League as other former Sooners like ADRIAN PETERSON/BILLY SIMS. The Defense is sound, but I would not classify them as anything special overall. If things go right this season the Bengals can contend for the AFC North title, but I really don’t see much more than a .500 team here.

14) Minnesota VIKINGS. This team is not as strong as it looked just a couple of seasons ago. But then again too many people may currently be sleeping on them based on 2016. They had more issues to deal with last year than I have space to recount here. But once again GM RICK SPIELMAN has done a really solid job reshaping the roster this offseason. The biggest job was rebuilding the OL and he appears to have done that. OT RILEY REIFF and MIKE REMMERS were both added thru VFA, and though not world beaters they are solid players. Then he added PAT ELFLEIN/C and DANNY ISIDORA/G via the Draft and both will provide competition and depth, even if they don’t win starting jobs right away. The team cut ties with ADRIAN PETERSON/RB and brought in DALVIN COOK/R and LATAVIUS MURRAY/VFA, who combined with a healthy JERICK McKINNON should provide the team with a diverse and deep backfield of full-sized options. SAM BRADFORD/QB had an outstanding 2016 season despite all the OL issues and the job is his again while TEDY BRIDGEWATER rehabs his knee for the 2018 season… he hopes. The D has lots of talent, but some of the younger guys have got to step it up on a weekly basis. Mark them down as an 8-8 team, but with the potential to break through and win double digit games if things go well overall.

13) Tennessee TITANS. Initial returns on the recovery of QB/MARCUS MARIOTA are positive, and if he takes the next step forward then he is getting very close to being a Top 10 QB in the NFL. The running game should be outstanding again and Rookies COREY DAVIS and TAYWAN TAYLOR should upgrade the receiving corps significantly. They may also be seriously better at TE with R/JOHNNU SMITH being groomed to succeed DELANIE WALKER at TE. The Defense is young and aggressive, and should be improved with VFA’s SYLVESTER WILLIAMS/NG and LOGAN RYAN/CB joining the roster. The TITANS were sadly lacking in their Special Teams play last season. So they signed two of the best Special Teamers on the RAIDERS roster in DARREN BATES and BRYNDEN TRAWICK. They also signed RS/ERIC WEEMS from the FALCONS, then drafted ADOREE’ JACKSON, who is an eventual starting CB, but likely to be an immediate contributor in the return game. The arrow is pointing upward for the TITANS, and it would not be a shock to see things come together and this team firmly take over the AFC South this season.

12) Denver BRONCOS. I still like the work JOHN ELWAY has done as GM for this organization. What makes them a contender, but not a Top 10 team, is primarily the lack of a legit Franchise QB. SIMIEN looks like the starter again at this time, but ELWAY would be glad to see PAXTON LYNCH show enough to take over the team sooner rather than later. The team may have a new set of OT by September. Newcomers GARETT BOLLES/R, RONALD LEARY/VFA and MENELIK WATSON/VFA are all in competition to start along the offensive front. The team could have a big upgrade at TE by mid-season if JAKE BUTT/R is truly recovered from his knee injury. He’s an old fashioned MIKE DITKA kind of TE and could be a big boost for whomever wins the QB job. Rookies CARLOS HENDERSON and ISAIAH McKENZIE could bring some serious speed help for EMMANUEL SANDERS at the wideout and slot positions. McKENZIE could also be a big boost in the return game, especially on punts. The D is a work in progress because WADE PHILIPS is gone as DC, with JOE WOODS taking over that slot. ELWAY set out to add a bit more size to the defensive front and looks to have done so. ZACH KERR/326#, DOMATA PEKO/318#, Rookies DeMAECUS WALKER/280# and TYRIQUE JARRETT/357# all fit that bill. The BRONCOS clearly have the best defensive secondary in the NFL with TALIB, HARRIS, WARD, STEWART, ROBY. They also have some very talented youth to back those guys up like JUSTIN SIMMONS, WILLIAM PARKS, LORENZO DOSS and more. VON MILLER leads a fast, athletic LB group. Most of the roster changes look to be positive in the Mile High City. If either QB grabs the reigns and improves significantly the team can be a serious Play-Off participant.

11) Arizona CARDINALS. The CARDS were a sub-.500 team last season at 7-8-1. They most prove that effort was a hiccup and not the start of a decline. HC BRUCE ARIANS has got to get past his aversion to Rookie mistakes and get more of his young talent out on the field, and put into positions to succeed and improve the overall roster. But I am skeptical that B.A. is comfortable with that approach. His big off-season additions (in concert with GM STEVE KEIM) were ANTOINE BETHEA/33, KARLOS DANSBY/35 and K/PHIL DAWSON/42. The team had another solid looking Draft in April, but will any young players be given the chance to really earn a spot and work through Rookie mistakes. Based on early returns the team may be in a better spot than recent years if aging QB/CARSON PALMER gets dinged up and misses a few games during the season. The team signed BALINE GABBERT as a VFA when the 49’ers purged their QB position. GABBERT has the potential to move past 33-year old career back-up DREW STANTON if given the chance during the pre-season. GABBERT may never get past the stigma of being a flop as a Top 10 QB in the 2011 Draft, but he’s still only 27-years old and has shown some flashes in recent seasons. MIKE BIDWILL and STEVE KEIM cannot allow B.A. to be the modern era GEORGE ALLEN. He and his staff have got to learn how to force-feed/develop young players on a yearly basis. If not this team will slide into mediocrity leaving the SEA HAWKS to be the only upper echelon team in the NFC West. Rookies BUDDA BAKER/DB and HASSON REDDICK/LB have too much talent not to play right away. Let’s see how they are handled. Red-shirting is not an option for any team in today’s NFL.

This concludes my middle of the pack Power Rankings for 2017. My Top 10 will feature teams I consider to be sure thing winners for 2017.

NFL Power Rankings 2017 17-24

As I start to detail the middle of the pack for the 2017 NFL season I do want to make note that I feel like there is very little separation right now between the next 12 teams coming up in my rankings list. Indeed every one of them could end up with 8-8 records. But history indicates that between injuries and other factors, some of these teams will rise up to fight for the final Play-Off spots, while others fall toward 10-Loss seasons. So with the preverbal roll of the dice here are my next 8 teams, some of which may surprise some of you.

24) Baltimore RAVENS The team slumped to 8-8 last season, and has a good chance to fall even further. GM OZZIE NEWSOME was hot as a pistol early this century when he grabbed star players like RAY LEWIS, JONATHAN OGDEN, TODD HEAP, JAMAL LEWIS, HALOTI NGATA and more. But he hasn’t had the volume of high picks in recent years nor has he hit a lot of home runs with the picks he has had nearly as often. The result is that if you take a good hard look at the RAVENS roster it is pretty mediocre. Now JOE FLACCO/QB has back issues, with no certain return date on the calendar. RB/KENNETH DIXON who had a nice rookie season last year with 382 rushing yards is lost already to knee surgery. STEVE SMITH, and his 70 catches, has retired, DENNIS PITTA/TE who led the team with 86 catches hurt his hip again in OTAs and this could be the end of the line for him. KAMAR AIKEN/WR left town as a VFA, and now CROCKETT GILMORE/TE was hurt in Week 1 of Training Camp. The team traded away OC/JEREMY ZUTTAH and TIMMY JERNIGAN/DT with no apparent starter-ready players to replace them. In fact projected OC/JOHN URSCHEL announced his retirement to pursue his math/science career opportunities. TERRELL SUGGS, their sack specialist will turn 35 in early October, and though he led the team in sacks in 2016 it was with a paltry total of 8. Despite being in a clear rebuild process the team still clings to a dozen-plus players over the age of 30. Unless a dozen, or more, young players really step up 2017 could be a very disappointing year in Baltimore on the football field. A 10-Loss season is not out of the question for this team, IMO.

23) Washington REDSKINS In this man’s opinion no one scenario may have a more negative effect on this team than the continued lack of harmony between KIRK COUSINS and the team’s management. For those who question his value to the team my quickest response is to ask what this team looks like without COUSINS at the helm?! The team has turned over the top of it’s WR group and count me as being skeptical if VFA/TERRELLE PRYOR and injured 2016 Rookie JOSH DOCTSON, are going to be an immediate upgrade over departed VFA’s DESEAN JACKSON AND PIERRE GARCON. TE/JORDAN REED is dynamic receiving option when he is healthy, but he’s hard to count on as being healthy, as he visits a toe/foot specialist as I write this piece. The OL is very solid with Pro-Bowler TRENT WILLIAMS/LT leading the way, but there is very little dynamism at the RB spot. The hope is that Rookie SAMAJE PERINE can provide a big boost wth his power and explosion between the tackles as demonstrated at Oklahoma. The team is hoping that new DC GREG MANUSKY can infuse some creativity and energy into their Defense. But for that to happen it looks like Rookies JONATHAN ALLEN/DL, RYAN ANDERSON/ER and FABIAN MOREAU/CB will all have to step in immediately as impact starters. VFA ZACH BROWN/LB may be the only significant newcomer for the defense beyond the Rookies. This looks like a team that I could see sliding below the .500 mark without using a lot of imagination. And then they will lose COUSINS in 2018 and start over at the QB slot.

22) Philadelphia EAGLES The Eagles struggled through a 6-10 season in 2016 as the team broke in new coaches and most importantly a Rookie QB in CARSON WENTZ. But look for the team to improve considerably this season after a very active off-season during which the team had a good draft effort as well as adding some meaningful vets to their roster. The biggest help to WENTZ, who showed very positive signs as a raw rookie starter, should come from the WR editions to the team; ALSHON JEFFERY and TORRY SMITH. The team also brought back NICK FOLES to back up WENTZ. Even though it is likely a short term situation, the addition of LaGARRETTE BLOUNT/RB from the PATS should provide a significant boost to the running attack especially in short yardage and red zone situations. The team looks to have also given their secondary a huge boost, though it may not be in September. Rookie draftees SIDNEY JONES and RASUL DOUGLAS both have starting potential, but JONES will miss early action as he recovers from an Achilles tear incurred during his Pro Day workout. VFA PATRICK ROBINSON/CB could be an upgrade over last season until JONES hits the field. DC JIM SCHWARTZ should have plenty of weapons with which to play with in rushing opposing QB off the edge. Vet CHRIS LONG joins the team from New England, as does first rounder DEREK BARNETT/DE/R. Even tho NT/BENNIE LOGAN is now in KC, the team has added beef to man the two DT slots in R/ELIJAH QUALLS and former Ravens TIM JERNIGAN. Also keep an eye on R/DONNEL HUMPHREY who will be groomed to take over multiple roles from Swedish Army Knife DARREN SPROLES, who is in his final NFL season. Depth will still be a concern at multiple spots on the roster, but progress is being made. I look for a likely .500 record from them this season.

21) Indianapolis COLTS. HC CHUCK PAGANO has outlasted GM RYAN GRIGSON, and the new GM CHRIS BALLARD has been very aggressive in turning over a mediocre roster. The biggest question here remains to be the health of ANDREW LUCK’s valuable right shoulder. He’s still rehabbing as Camp begins. Without a healthy LUCK at the helm this team is dead in the water. If LUCK comes back healthy he should find he’s working behind the best overall OL since he’s been a pro. BALLARD spent a lot of time and money trying to upgrade the defensive personnel and looks to have gained some ground with both the Draft and VFA. 3 Rookies may earn serous playing time in the secondary in MALIK HOOKER/S, QUINCY WILSON/CB and NATE HAIRSTON/CB. Vet help in the front-7 features DT/JON HANKINS, DE/MARGUS HUNT, JABAAL SHEARD/ER, JOHN SIMON/OB. ROOKIE ER/TARELL BASHAM could line up as an OLB or DE, but either way he may evolve into an elite pass rusher in short order. Also watch for R/MARLON MACK to have an early impact in the running game. The talent has been upgraded overall, but the health and productivity from ANDREW LUCK will determine whether the team fights to play .500 ball, or is a serious play-off contender. My vote says BALLARD will need another Draft to get the roster where it needs to be to take back the AFC South.

20) Carolina PANTHERS The PANTHERS pretty much fell off the cliff in 2016, going from a 15-1 2015 season to a 6-10 flop that ended the year with their Franchise QB struggling to overcome a throwing shoulder issue that ended with surgery in March. This situation looks a lot like that of the team above. Without a healthy NEWTON leading the Offense this team will be in dry dock just like the COLTS. Before being fired in July, GM DAVID GETTLEMAN used the Draft to add some serious speed and quickness to the offense with the selection of CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY and CURTIS SAMUEL. Expect them to play RB and WR respectively, but count on both to be primary targets for CAM, when he’s healthy. These guys represent speed that has been lacking in Carolina in recent years. Then throw in GREG OLSEN/TE, KELVIN BENJAMIN/WR, DEVIN FUNCHESS/WR and JAMES STEWART/RB and the Offense should be greatly improved this season. If LUKE KUECHLY is healthy from his late season concussion the D side of the ball should still be solid. Ex-Panthers defenders JULIUS PEPPERS/DE and CB/CAPTAIN MUNNERLYN return to bolster the Defense. Draftees CORN ELDER/CB and DAESHON HALL/DE should add speedy talent to bolster defensive depth. The PANTHERS are another team, that could go in either direction based greatly on the health of their Franchise QB.

19) Houston TEXANS BILL O’BRIEN and his staff, along with GM RICK SMITH, have done a solid job in recent seasons in getting this team into the Play-Offs. But my gut tells me that they might take a fairly big step back this year. But their past success, in the face of a conservative personnel acquisition philosophy (one that makes TED THOMPSON look like a VFA binger) may be catching up to them. SMITH prefers to find his own players coming out of college, and require the coaches to develop them. Not a terrible approach, but it can lead to a very thin roster at times. It looks like the team had a good Draft again this year, with DESHAUN WATSON/QB being the real wild card. It is possible that WATSON could do this year, what DAK did last year in Dallas, but that cannot be counted on. Both of the teams starting OT are missing as Camp begins. DEREK NEWTON is out for at least the entire 2017 season, and DUANE BROWN is a holdout, looking for one more contract extension with as much guaranteed money in it as possible. Rookie RB/D’ONTA FOREMAN is in legal limbo already, and they were counting on him to compliment LAMAR MILLER as a big, between the tackles running component. The best news for the Texans is that J.J. WATT says he is fully recovered from back surgery and ready to be his Defensive MVP, old self again. The roster is thin because of SMITH’s roster building inflexibility, and the COLTS could be returning to their old wining ways if LUCK comes back healthy. Texans fans need to be hoping for big things early from WATSON at the QB slot.

18) Detroit LIONS. When I take time to really analyze the LIONS, it occurs to me that HC JIM CALDWELL may be one of the more underrated head men in the NFL right now. A big part of his success can be attributed to his having one of the best group of assistants in the League. Both of his Coordinators, COOTER on O and AUSTIN on D, are head coaching candidates and their work with their respective units allows CALDWELL to serve as a calming, disciplined father-figure/leader overall. MATTHEW STAFFORD/QB appeared to step up big time shouldering the absence of CALVIN JOHNSON at WR. STAFFORD spread the ball around, with GOLDEN TATE emerging as a very productive No. 1 receiver with 91 catches for over 1,000 yards. GM BOB QUINN, from the Patriots tree, works the personnel side with creativity, hard work and a willingness to use any/all tools at his disposal to build a roster. When RILEY REIFF became too expensive at OT and left for Minnesota, QUINN signed VFA RICKY WAGNER, traded a late pick to the RAMS for disappointing former Top 10 draftee GREG ROBINSON, and signed VFA T.J. LANG to handle an OG slot. If TAYLOR DECKER comes back from an OTA shoulder injury to repeat his Rookie season that OL could be a team strength. QUINN/CALDWELL recognized that the D was sadly lacking at the LB slots so QUINN drafted 2 LB (including 1st Rounder JARRAD DAVIS) and signed two VFA to attempt to address the weakness. STAFFORD needs more help from his running game, and the big key there is whether AMEER ABDULLAH can come back from an ankle injury and avoid further injuries. If he can lead the RB group, they are deep in backups. LIONS fans may have to wait until the 2018 Draft for QUINN to find a big, bell-cow to solve that problem. This is still about a .500 club, unless STAFFORD reaches elite QB status, which means with a little luck they could repeat their 9-7 Wild Card season. Only time will tell.

17) New Orleans SAINTS. The SAINTS seem to be stuck on a very unsatisfying 7-9 streak. SEAN PAYTON is working very hard to create a reversal of fortune on his team. DREW BREES is still the leader in uniform and had another excellent season in 2016. BREES will be minus BRANDIN COOKS in 2017, but MICHAEL THOMAS really stepped up as a Rookie last season and looks like a clear No.1 wideout. The team also brought in TED GINN, who has his flaws, but also still has world class speed to stretch the field. WILLIE SNEAD and BRANDON COLEMAN are both more than just back-ups. The team really concentrated on beefing up their OL, although TERRON ARMSTEAD/OT will be missing for a while. But adding LARRY WARFORD/OG, KHALIF BARNES/OT and Rookie OT/RYAN RAMCZYK/T should provide a big boost along the offensive front. The running game could be strong, but who knows how the ADRIAN PETERSON signing will actually affect the RB group. DENNIS ALLEN/DC is still trying to reorganize the disastrous situation he inherited from ROB RYAN last year. The front-four is young overall, with good promise, but NICK FAIRLEY needing to sit out the season because of a heart condition hurts. Don’t be surprised if the LB group looks totally different as the season progresses. New additions A.J. KLEIN/VFA, ALEX ANZALONE/R, MANTI TE’O/VFA will all battle to replace the returning starters. And don’t forget pass-rusher HAU’OLI KIKAHA, who was basically injured all of 2016. If first rounder MARSHON LATTIMORE/CB can step up and win a starting CB job the SAINTS secondary could be the strength of the Defense, not to mention Rookie S/MARCUS WILLIAMS who may have to settle for sub-package situations behind starters BELL and VACCARO. The NFC South has become a really tough, quality division, but the SAINTS could have a chance to have a winning record and capture a Wild Card spot, especially if CAM NEWTON is not fully recovered from his shoulder injury in Carolina. If it’s another 7-9, or worse, season be prepared for the organization to hit the reset button, and for both PAYTON and BREES to look for greener pastures elsewhere. Sounds unthinkable at first, but change is inevitable in today’s NFL.

PIGSKIN

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