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WEEI NFL Power Rankings: Training camp edition

07.26.12 at 7:13 am ET
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Training camps are underway across the NFL and it’s just 45 days until the Cowboys kick off the season against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants on Sept. 5. The offseason was filled with news of free agent signings, suspensions, player arrests and comeback kids. Now it’s time to see where all 32 teams rank before the preseason and injuries begin.

The two teams that dominated the regular season in 2011 find themselves at the top. Powered by their high flying offenses, the Packers and Patriots will start the season as two of the elite teams in the league. The Giants are at No. 3 coming off their second Super Bowl victory in five years.

The Saints (7) and Broncos (10) are two notable teams in the top 10. The anticipation is building by the day to see if Peyton Manning has something left in the tank and if the Saints can overcome “Bountygate.”

And now, since football is officially in the air, here is the first edition of WEEI’s 2012 NFL Power Rankings.

Audio: Click here to listen to Mut and Merloni discuss the NFL Power Rankings.

1. Packers (15-1) ‘€” Coming off a 15-1 season, the Packers addressed their defense in the offseason. Their first six draft picks were dedicated to the defensive side of the ball, and rightfully so. Green Bay’s defense was one of the worst in the NFL in 2011. With that said, the Packers still won 15 games. There’s no doubt, the Packers have a great shot at winning their second Super Bowl in three years.

2. Patriots (13-3) ‘€” The Patriots offense, once again led by Tom Brady, speaks for itself. The addition of Brandon Lloyd adds an outside threat to the arsenal. Bill Belichick will undoubtedly focus on improving the defense during training camp, and the team brought in the personnel to ensure that it’s not the 31st-ranked defense for a second year in a row. First-round draft picks Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower are expected to make an immediate impact. Both add a tremendous amount of athleticism to a defensive squad that struggled to defend the pass and get off the field on third down.

3. Giants (9-7) ‘€” The defending Super Bowl champs are No. 1 in another category, most difficult schedule. The Giants will face six teams that made the postseason in 2011, and don’t forget, that doesn’t include the Eagles or Cowboys. If any team is up to the challenge, it’s the G-Men. Eli Manning has proven he is indeed an elite QB in the NFL, and you can ask the Packers and Patriots about New York’s relentless pass-rushing defense.

4. 49ers (13-3) ‘€” Down to his final out, Alex Smith resurrected his career in San Francisco. It was obvious new coach Jim Harbaugh made a major impact in improving the former first overall pick. If Smith can improve on third down and in the red zone, the 49ers can once again compete for a Super Bowl. The offense finally has weapons on the outside to go along with the run game, and Vernon Davis. Randy Moss and Mario Manningham will help the Niners put points on the board.

5. Ravens (12-4) ‘€” Ray Lewis and the Ravens were so close to the Super Bowl they could taste it. They’ll once again be one of the elite teams in the NFL vying for a chance to play for the Lombardi Trophy. Joe Flacco is the biggest X-factor. In the AFC championship, he proved he can play in big games. He’ll have to be more consistent in 2012. The Ravens should once again have their signature shutdown D, even with Terrell Suggs out until November. Rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw will be relied upon to fill in for “T-Sizzle.”

6. Steelers (12-4) ‘€” Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 40 times last year. It was obvious that the Steelers offensive line was one of the main reasons Pittsburgh was one and done in the playoffs. In response, the front office drafted offensive linemen with its first two picks. The Steelers hope guard David Decastro and tackle Mike Adams can bolster that line and keep Big Ben upright. Remember, it was in Week 14 when Roethlisberger went down with a severe left leg injury. After that, it was obvious the Steelers QB was not the same for the rest of the year.

7. Saints (13-3) ‘€” It’s been one hell of an off season for the Saints, and there’s been no precedent to give us an idea on how this team will react to losing so many key players and coaches to suspensions. What we do know is the Saints have won 11 or more games in their last three seasons, have a top-three quarterback, and own a Lombardi Trophy. The defense is an area of concern; we all saw Alex Smith light up the Saints secondary in the playoffs. With Jonathan Vilma out for the year and Will Smith out for four games, the secondary will be under even more pressure.

8. Texans (10-6) ‘€” Who knows what the Texans were capable of in 2011 if they stayed healthy? This offense is littered with talent. Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson headline an offensive unit that can do serious damage if all three can consistently stay on the field. On defense, the improvement from 2010 to 2011 was remarkable. There were only three teams in the NFL that allowed fewer points per game than the Texans. Yes, Mario Williams is gone, but he only played in five games last year before he suffered a season-ending injury. It’s players like J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing that will ensure Houston remains one of the most well-balanced teams in the league.

9. Falcons (10-6) ‘€” So many teams are chasing that elusive playoff win, and the Falcons are front and center. Matt Ryan has led his team to the playoffs three of the last four years, and all three times the Falcons lost. To cut the former Boston College star some slack, all three of those losses have come against teams that went on to play in the Super Bowl. Atlanta is a talented team on both sides of the ball and certainly capable of playing deep into the playoffs.

10. Broncos (8-8) ‘€” Starting the season on the right foot is key for the Broncos. Peyton Manning will play five of his first seven games against the Steelers, Falcons, Texans, Patriots and Saints. The other two games are against two AFC West teams, the Raiders and Chargers. Overall, the Broncos roster shows a lot of promise. Willis McGahee is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing year, DeMaryius Thomas is a solid weapon on the outside, and young defensive stars Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller are two of the best players in the league at rushing the passer.

11. Eagles (8-8) ‘€” There were many reasons why the Eagles missed the playoffs last year. Michael Vick struggled to stay healthy, he made poor decisions with the football, the defense couldn’t stop the run, and the secondary allowed big play after big play. How the 32 year-old Vick will perform is yet to be seen, but the defense looks to be improved. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans and first-round draft pick Fletcher Cox were added to bolster the front seven.

12. Bears (8-8) ‘€” Jay Cutler and the Bears were cruising last year until he went down with an injury in Week 11 that ultimately killed the Bears’ season. Even the team’s infamous offensive line was improving. One of the team’s biggest weakness was downfield targets. The addition of Brandon Marshall makes the offense drastically more dangerous.

13. Lions (10-6) ‘€” No team in the NFL has had more problems with the law than the Lions. Five Lions players have combined for seven arrests this offseason. This was also a very undisciplined team during the season; the Lions were one of the most-penalized teams in the league. If Jim Schwartz can get his players to be smart on and off the field, the team will have a chance to win its first playoff game since 1991.

14. Cowboys (8-8) ‘€” This is a make-or-break year for Tony Romo. The Cowboys QB must win at least one playoff game in 2012 or Dallas fans and owner Jerry Jones might call for a change. Romo’s contract is up in 2013, but he’s entering his eighth year with just one playoff victory in Dallas. Last year, the Cowboys were in the driver’s seat to win their division but lost their final two games against the Eagles and Giants. In their eight losses, Jason Garrett‘s Cowboys were outscored 83-45 in the fourth quarter. This team has the reputation of not being able to win the big game and excel under pressure. Rightfully so.

15. Chargers (8-8) ‘€” Philip Rivers‘ career-high 20 interceptions put the Chargers in a tough spot to make the playoffs. Seventeen of those 20 picks were thrown in his first 10 games. In that stretch, San Diego was 4-6. Poor decision-making and accuracy haunted Rivers. The Chargers lost No. 1 receiver Vincent Jackson to free agency in the offseason, which will only make things harder on the Chargers QB. He’ll now be forced to get comfortable with new targets Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem. On defense, the Chargers are vulnerable at the cornerback position. In a division that just added Peyton Manning, defensive backs Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason will have to step up even more.

16. Bengals (9-7) ‘€” Andy Dalton and A.J. Green brought hope and a playoff appearance to an organization that looked to be in disarray before the start of the 2011 season. If Dalton wants to bring his team back to the postseason he’s going to need his running backs to balance the offense. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott will be the running backs-by-committee when the season starts. Whether they can match Cedric Benson‘s production from last year remains to be seen.

17. Jets (8-8) ‘€” Call me crazy, but I actually think Tim Tebow will be beneficial to the Jets offense. Pretty much anything would be better than what we saw from this offense last season. Putting Tebow in the game in a third-and-short situation or while the team is in the red zone will add a different element to a lackluster offense. We’ve seen it before, defenses have trouble defending new and different packages. Eventually, a team figures out a game plan, but for the time being, Tebow might be the solution to the Jets’ dreadful third-down stats (a 34 percent conversion rate). New offensive coordinator Tony Sparano (the former Dolphins head coach) is a good person to have in charge of fixing this offense.

18. Bills (6-10) ‘€” Give the Bills credit for aggressively addressing their defense during the offseason. Mario Williams, Mark Anderson and first-round draft pick Stephon Gilmore are the key additions the Bills made. On offense, a healthy Fred Jackson will return, but question marks surround quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick followed a spectacular first half with a horrendous second half and finished the season with 23 interceptions.

19. Titans (9-7) ‘€” Matt Hasselbeck gives the Titans the best chance to win games. His best receiver, Kenny Britt, went down with a season-ending injury early in the season and the team’s elite running back, Chris Johnson, had the worst year of his career. Still, Hasselbeck managed to have his best season since 2007. The return of Britt and a motivated Johnson could really bolster the Titans offense.

20. Panthers (6-10) ‘€” Expectations are so high for second-year quarterback Cam Newton that his center, Ryan Kalil, is predicting a championship in July. Newton had a spectacular year despite having limited time to work with the coaching staff and adjust to the NFL. With a full year and offseason under his belt, the former first overall pick is poised to have another stellar season. That doesn’t mean the Panthers will win the Super Bowl. They are in a tough division and an even tougher conference. Eight or nine wins won’t put the Panthers in the playoffs.

21. Chiefs (7-9) ‘€” One of the teams that is flying under the radar is the Chiefs. In a division that’s so unpredictable, it’s not out of the question that Kansas City is capable of winning the AFC West. Marquee players Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles and Tony Moeaki all are returning to a very talented offense that also includes Dwayne Bowe and Jon Baldwin. New offensive coordinator and former Patriots wide receivers coach Brian Daboll certainly will implement a New England-style offense.

22. Redskins (5-11) ‘€” After watching what Carolina’s Cam Newton did in his rookie campaign, Redskins fans have high hopes for second overall pick Robert Griffin III (who Osi Umenyiora calls “Bob Griffin”). The team added free agents Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan to go along with Santana Moss as weapons for RG3. On defense, the Redskins have a solid squad led by two of the best young linebackers in the game with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan.

23. Seahawks (7-9) ‘€” There should be no quarterback controversy in Seattle. Matt Flynn deserves to be and will be the starter when the regular season kicks off. The Seahawks are most vulnerable at the wide receiver position. Sidney Rice and Golden Tate have the potential to be serious threats, but Rice is coming off two concussions and a torn labrum while Tate has struggled to live up to expectations in his first two seasons.

24. Raiders (8-8) ‘€” The Raiders have had eight head coaches since the turn of the century. Now it will be Dennis Allen‘s job to fix the most penalized and undisciplined team in the NFL. With a full offseason and training camp, the Raiders are hoping to see a little return in their investment for Carson Palmer. The former Bengals QB tossed 16 interceptions in 10 games.

25. Buccaneers (4-12) ‘€” Tampa Bay’s 2011 season concluded with and ugly 10-game losing streak. Josh Freeman was by far the most disappointing. Freeman went from throwing 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions in his sophomore year to 16 touchdowns and an alarming 22 interceptions in his third year. Freeman was certainly effected by a sub-par running game and poor receiver corps. The addition of Vincent Jackson and first-round draft pick Doug Martin will give us another opportunity to see if Freeman can turn into a franchise QB.

26. Dolphins (6-10) ‘€” The Dolphins are in the rebuilding stage with rookie QB Ryan Tannehill slotted to be the future of the team. David Garrard or Matt Moore will more than likely start the season behind center. None of the current three quarterbacks on the roster have the talent to bring the Dolphins to the playoffs. Reggie Bush recorded his first 1,000-yard rushing season and will be a key to any success for the offense. The most notable offensive moves were the trading of Brandon Marshall and the signing of Chad “Don’t call me Ochocinco” Johnson.

27. Cardinals (8-8) ‘€” The Cardinals have paid Kevin Kolb approximately $19 million since trading for the former Eagles backup QB. In return, Kolb has played in nine games and thrown nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. He is now competing against a former fifth-round draft pick for the starting job. Whether it’s Kolb or John Skelton, the starting QB will have to deal with a poor offensive line and an inconsistent running game.

28. Jaguars (5-11) ‘€” The biggest news coming from Jaguars training camp is the fact that the team’s best player, Maurice Jones-Drew, might not report. Aside from that distraction, new coach Mike Mularkey will do his best to develop Blaine Gabbert into a solid NFL quarterback, similar to what he did with Matt Ryan in Atlanta. Heading into the season, the team’s main goal and focus will be to elevate the playing level of Gabbert.

29. Rams (2-14) ‘€” In just 10 games, Sam Bradford was sacked 36 times. A young QB needs a strong offensive line, and the Rams simply don’t have that. They didn’t address the offensive line in the draft until the fifth round. They signed Pro Bowl center Scott Wells but still have weaknesses on both sides.

30. Vikings (3-13) ‘€” A bad team in 2011, the Vikings could be worse in 2012. Minnesota has a terrible defense in a division with offensive heavyweights. Jared Allen can get to the quarterback, but it’s the secondary that is a major weakness. Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler should all be drooling at the opportunity to face the Vikes twice.

31. Browns (4-12) ‘€” Let the Brandon Weeden era begin. The Browns didn’t draft a soon-to-be 29-year-old quarterback in the first round to sit on the bench. Weeden will play and attempt to improve one of the worst offenses in the league. Cleveland is slowly but surely moving in the right direction. The Browns added young talent at running back with Trent Richardson and second-year receiver Greg Little. But they still have a long way to go and didn’t do much this offseason to improve their 30th-ranked run defense.

32. Colts (2-14) ‘€” All eyes will be on Andrew Luck as the Colts try to put the Peyton Manning era behind them, but the losing is just getting started. With a sub-par rushing attack (hey, Joseph Addai is available), a shaky offensive line, and a lack of weapons, the rookie QB might be wishing for better luck by Week 5. The Colts will once again be battling for that coveted first overall pick.

Which NFL teams are in your top 10? Leave your opinions/comments below or e-mail them to powerrankings@weei.com. You also can send comments via Twitter to @JoeytheFishWEEI.

Read More: Eli Manning, NFL Power Rankings, Peyton Manning, Rex Ryan
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