Thursday, September 08, 2011

NFL Power Poll Rankings of the 32 Best NFL Teams In The Land: Week Zero, part 2

And now, part two of my preseason power rankings...


20. Chicago Bears
The Bears offensive personnel finally fits the mold of a Mike Martz offense, but think San Francisco or Detroit Martz, not St. Louis Martz.  Tight end Greg Olsen has been jettisoned to Carolina, eliminating a talented target at a position that Martz has never seen the value in including in his game plans (for evidence of how badly Martz neglects his tight ends, look up Vernon Davis's stats during Martz's reign with the 49ers and then after Martz was let go).  The receiving corps is deep but lacks top shelf talent, while the offensive line will be porous once again, leaving Jay Cutler exposed in a system that feels no need to keep any backs around in the backfield to pick up blitzes.  Last year's 7th round pick, Marcus Webb, is the starting left tackle, which means Bears fans may be seeing Caleb Hanie featured prominently at quarterback.  Matt Forte has yet to live up to the massive promise he showed as a rookie, but, again, his offensive line isn't doing him any favors.  The defense should again be very solid, but Brian Urlacher seems due for an injury after making it through last year relatively unscathed.  Oh, and Lance Briggs wants a trade.  The Bears were out-gained in four of their wins last year, and they also were gifted that absurd opener when Calvin Johnson's game-winning touchdown was taken away due to the worst interpretation of a rule ever.  The luck runs out this year, and the Bears will find themselves in last place in their division for the first time since 2007.

19. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks will be starting either Tavaris Jackson or Charlie Whitehurst as their quarterback for the majority of this season, and yet I still feel like they are the class of the NFC West (and I use the word "class" lightly).  Their offensive line should be improved with Russell Okung's return to health, Robert Gallery's arrival from Oakland, and the drafting of RT James Carpenter (even if it was an overdraft).  Both Carpenter and Gallery are maulers, which should be good news for running backs and Cal chums Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett.  The passing game added serious weapons in tight end Zach Miller and Sidney Rice, even if Jackson and/or Whitehurst struggle to get the ball to them more than 50% of the time they attempt a pass.  The defensive line added some beef in the form of the underachieving Alan Branch, who will try to finally harness some of the potential that had some thinking he would go in the top 14 of the 2007 NFL draft (I had him going #10 to Houston in the first of my many frighteningly prescient mock drafts).  The key to the defense, though, will be if Aaron Curry can finally become the game-changing linebacker he was projected to be coming out of Wake Forest.  Don't get me wrong, the Seahawks will stink.  I just think they will stink less than the rest of the NFC West (for one more season, at least).    

18. Denver Broncos
I know Von Miller is supposed to be a monstrous beast, but I can't help but feel that he may be headed down a similar career path as recent colossal busts Vernon Gholston and Aaron Maybin.  Miller played defensive end at Texas A&M, but now will be at linebacker, albeit in a 4-3 and not a 3-4, as Maybin and Gholston were.  There are success stories of college ends becoming linebackers (Kamerion Wimbley and Brian Orakpo are two that spring to mind), but number two overall in the draft is too high for me to take such a risk.  The rest of the defense should be better regardless if Miller is Gholston or Orakpo, with Ty Warren and Broderick Bunkley brought it to help stuff the run up front and Champ Bailey back for perhaps his last season of Pro Bowl play at corner (he will likely be making the switch to free safety sooner rather than later).  The offense got a big boost when the front office decided not to trade Kyle Orton, which should mean another solid year out of the NFL's leading receiver last year, Brandon Lloyd.  Knowshon Moreno has failed to produce as the 12th overall pick should, and Willis McGahee was brought in to push the former Georgia Bulldog.  The running game may be further stymied by an offensive line in flux, and Tim Tebow may be making starts in Denver even after all of the Orton-trade bait drama, as a unit that gave up 40 sacks last year may be even more of a question mark this year.  The Broncos' defense can't help but be better than last year's dead last NFL ranking, and Orton should be healthy enough long enough to help the Broncos avoid 10 losses.  

17. Detroit Lions
The Lions are a chic pick to be a playoff sleeper this year, and there are good reasons to suspect that they will be much improved.  The defensive line will be one of the best in the league even without rookie Nick Fairley for the beginning of the year.  Ndamukong Suh is already the most disruptive force in the NFL, and ends Cliff Avril and Kyle Vander Bosch gleefully exploit the chaos Suh creates in the middle of the line to get  essentially clean looks at opposing quarterbacks around the edge.  The linebacking corps is non-descript--especially when compared to the D-line--but should be solid with the additions of Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant.  The secondary is a question mark, with above-average free safety Louis Delmas calling the shots and Browns cast-off Eric Wright trying to redeem himself from a disastrous 2010 at cornerback.

The position that gains the most attention when people talk about the Lions--quarterback--most likely will be the deciding factor in whether the Lions make the leap to playoff contender or go the way of the Houston Texans of recent vintage.  However, Detroit's success goes beyond whether Matthew Stafford is healthy or not, as has been the common narrative regarding the Lions, but also whether he is actually a good quarterback or not, as well.  As Bill Barnwell pointed out in his excellent NFL preview series on Grantland, Matthew Stafford hasn't done much when he has played, even going so far as to compare Stafford to Derek Anderson (which I also did in this 2009 NFC North preview).  In 13 career games (yes, that is all he has played), Stafford has completed 54.2% of his passes for 2802 yards, 19 TDs, and 21 INT, with a 5.9 yards per attempt average.  Extrapolating those numbers over a full 16-game season, Stafford has put up the rough equivalent to a 3448-yard, 23-touchdown, 26-interception year.  So basically he has been Jay Cutler.  HOWEVER, if we take out the 38-37 classic against the Browns from his rookie season, Stafford's career numbers fall to a 53.9% completion rate, 2380 yards, 14 touchdowns, 19 interceptions, and a 5.5 yards per attempt average, which would have bested only Jimmy Clausen's 5.2 Y/A among qualified passers last season.  These new numbers extrapolate out to  2929 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions.  Even Jay Cutler would be disappointed by those numbers, and so will Lions fans if they come to pass once Stafford finally stays healthy.

16. Tennessee Titans
For 16.5 seasons, Jeff Fisher manned the sidelines for the Titans/Oilers, and for most of the last 12 of those seasons, he was one of the most respected coaches in the NFL.  However, signs began flaring over the past two seasons that Fisher's time had passed in Nashville, beginning with the 59-0 turd in the snow in Foxboro in 2009, and culminating in the Rusty Smith/Randy Moss era last season.  In comes new head coach Mike Munchak, and he takes the helm of a roster in transition.  Matt Hasselbeck was signed to take over starting QB duties from Smith/Kerry Collins/Vince Young, while Hasselbeck's future replacement--Jake Locker--was taken with the 9th overall pick.  Chris Johnson was awarded with a mega-contract, which while earned is still a foolish investment to make.  Kenny Britt returns from a wild lockout to resume his role as the most talented headcase in the league, while long-time safety valve Justin Gage was shown the door.  The one area of the offense that has seen little drama or upheaval this season is the offensive line, which should again be excellent.  The defensive line, however, will be a weakness for the first time in a long time, with Jason Babin and his 12.5 sacks departed for Philadelphia, Jacob Ford released ,and the endlessly-trash-talking/ seldomly-producing Shaun Smith being counted on to start at tackle.  The linebacking corps is a mix of stopgap veterans who have seen better days (Barrett Rudd, Will Witherspoon) and unproven youngsters (rookie Akeem Ayers and Gerald McRath).  The secondary should still be solid, with Cortland Finnegan instigating at his corner spot and safeties Chris Hope and Michael Griffin adding solid support.  Tennessee won't make the playoffs, but they should be able to stay in the weak AFC South race for most of the season.
15. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings are strikingly similar to the Titans, as the Vikes find themselves as a recent contender reduced to the middle-tier of the NFL by age and attrition.  Both Tennessee and Minnesota feature elite running backs, but while Tennessee revolves nearly 100% of its offense around Chris Johnson, the Vikes seem to forget how awesome Adrian Peterson is at times.  This philosophy will hopefully change now that Brad Childress isn't around trying to prove how smart he is, and actually will probably HAVE to change now that the passing game will consist of Donovan McNabb throwing to Percy Harvin on the 8 weeks Harvin doesn't have a migraine this year.  McNabb, like the Titans' Matt Hasselbeck, will serve as a placeholder until the heir apparent, Chris Ponder, is ready to take over.  Ponder is actually my favorite prospect of this past draft classes QBs, but from what I briefly saw of the former Seminole's play during the preseason, he would be best served by sitting and watching this season.  Pat Williams retired to avoid his Starcaps suspension, and Ray Edwards left for Atlanta, but Kevin Williams and Jared Allen are back to anchor the defensive frontline.  Chad Greenway just signed an extension that will keep him in Minneapolis through the rest of his productive years, and the brothers Henderson--E.J. and Erin--will join him in the linebacker ranks.  The secondary is led by the ageless Antoine Winfield, but probably needed an upgrade over this past offseason.  If McNabb's blah 2010 season can be attributed to the malaise in Washington and not the beginning of his decline, and the defense can maintain its top-8 form of last year (or even better, get back to it's top-6 form of two years ago), then Minnesota could be a sleeper to steal the last NFC wild card.  If McNabb is washed up or goes down, though, Ponder could end up leading the Vikings to their highest draft pick since they selected Peterson #7 overall in 2007.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If you have read any other NFL preview (and if you haven't, I'm flattered that I'm your first), you know that the Bucs are considered a team brimming with young talent, but primed to fail to match last season's 10 wins due largely to their most difficult schedule.  While the schedule does get more difficult, I don't see the Bucs completely crashing to earth, mostly due to my faith in Josh Freeman.  While it's entirely possible he's the next David Garrard, I like to believe that he's more the next Ben Roethlisberger, a beast of a man who somehow always finds a way to win.  To me, the more pressing question concerning the Bucs is their health, not their schedule.  By the end of last season, Arrelious Benn, Jeff Faine, Gerald McCoy, Quincy Black, Aqib Talib, Cody Grimm, Davin Joseph, Brian Price, Kareem Huggins, Jon Alston, and Demar Dotson were all on injured reserve, and their two projected starting defensive ends--Da'Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn--both slipped in the draft due to serious injury concerns.  A lot of the young talent that has people so optimistic about the future in Tampa appeared in the previous sentence, but I feel like last year was just one of those weird fluke years for the Bucs, and that they will come back stronger this year.  Still, I, too, see them struggling to match last year's win total.

13. Indianapolis Colts
This ranking is assuming that Peyton Manning at least plays 12 games this year, which is looking less and less likely by the day.  Without Manning in the fold, it is nearly impossible to forecast how well the Colts will fare since their QB is such a dominating presence in everything they do.  The offense is obviously dictated by Manning, but even the defense is structured based on the premise that opposing offenses will need to be passing to try to match the outpour of points Peyton and company are putting up on the other side of the ball.  Honestly, I cannot even begin to analyze this team sans #18, since every single player on offense derives their perceived value from their quarterback, including obvious talents such as Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark.  If the Colts are struggling to score with Kerry Collins or--perish the thought--Curtis Painter under center, then the undersized defense will be exposed by teams unafraid to pound away with the running game, comfortable in the knowledge that the Indy offense won't run away with the game if their opponent is forced to punt a few times.  No Manning will mean a very, very long year in Indianapolis.

12. Dallas Cowboys
The beginning of 2010 was a disaster for the Cowboys, as Wade Phillips was brought back even after it was clear that his team needed a change following the 2009 season.  Saddled with a 1-7 start and the loss of Tony Romo for the year, Dallas rallied around new coach Jason Garrett, going 5-3 down the stretch.  With Garrett in charge from Game 1, and Romo back and healthy, the Cowboys should return to their winning ways.  Miles Austin and Dez Bryant form a terrifying young receiving duo for Romo to target deep, while Jason Witten remains one of the most reliable targets underneath in the NFL.  Felix Jones will finally get his shot at being a bonafide #1 back (a chance he didn't even get in college, since he shared a backfield with Darren McFadden and Peyton Hillis), and if he does falter or get hurt, Tashard Choice and rookie DeMarco Murray provide capable depth.  The offensive line is a concern, but Tyron Smith was drafted #9 overall to alleviate some of that concern.  The defense will be the most talented coordinator Rob Ryan will have worked with in his career, and I am personally excited to see how the different ways he employs DeMarcus Ware.  The Cowboys remain a talented team, but injury concerns abound at quarterback, running back, receiver, and in the defensive backfield.  I foresee a winning season, but a return to the playoffs will have to wait.

11. Houston Texans
Look at what the weak AFC South and Peyton Manning's neck have reduced me to: picking the Texans to make the playoffs.  The offense should be as potent as ever, with Andre Johnson healthy and Arian Foster established as a top running back in the league.  Matt Schaub is capable of big numbers if slightly overrated, and a third straight full season from him would go a long way towards securing the Texans first playoff berth.  The real questions are on defense, where Wade Phillips takes over as coordinator and brings with him his 3-4.  I have trouble envisioning the 6'6" Mario Williams at outside linebacker, but I have faith in Phillips the coordinator (if not Phillips the head coach).  More pressure on opposing QBs is a must, especially considering the historically bad secondary behind the Texans front seven.  Jonathan Joseph was singed away from Cincinnati, and while he will certainly help, his presence on one side of the field will almost certainly mean more targets in the direction of Kareem Jackson, who was a disaster last season.  If Jackson can find the talent and promise that made him a first round pick out of Alabama, the Texans may finally be playing in the postseason.  

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