Feature photo courtesy of Ramsey County, Minnesota.
By Callie Caplan
Breathe in. Breathe out. Congratulations – you survived another NFL offseason. It’s time for training camp.
While Super Bowl L in San Francisco is about seven months away, the excitement for the season seems to bring about the way-to-early predictions for exactly how the regular season will unfold.
Championships aren’t won based on the 90-man rosters in mid-July, so I don’t have the answers for which teams will be a threat for the Lombardi trophy. There are just too many factors – health, slumps, breakout stars, and luck – to account for.
But it’s still fun to see how teams stack up before they break out the pads again. Here are my pre-training camp power rankings, along with reasons why teams could rise and fall once the games get underway.
1. New England Patriots
Why they could rise: The only place to go from the top is down, but for the defending Super Bowl champions, a reduction in the pending four-game suspension for quarterback Tom Brady would serve as a huge boost.
Why they could fall: Trotting out Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at cornerback was a luxury the Patriots won’t have this year. Their fluid secondary lineup will put pressure on Brady (and backup Jimmy Garoppolo) to do even more on offense.
2. Seattle Seahawks
Rise: Quarterback Russell Wilson has a legitimate tight end threat in Jimmy Graham, who could be in store for a big first year in Seattle after the New Orleans Saints traded him. Graham’s presence over the middle should open up the sidelines for the Seahawks band of wide receivers.
Fall: Center Max Unger was a trade chip in the Graham deal, and left guard James Carpenter departed in free agency. Can unproven newcomers provide Wilson and running back Marshawn Lynch with the time and space they’re used to?
3. Baltimore Ravens
Rise: Six of the Ravens’ 19 players on injured reserve were members of the secondary. Restocked with a healthy Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb, along with potential nickel man Kyle Arrington, this secondary has the talent the team needed in their divisional loss last January in Foxboro.
Fall: They lost wideout Torrey Smith, and Steve Smith Sr. is another year older leading a young backup cast. If rookie first-round pick Breshad Perriman struggles to reel in passes, Joe Flacco and the offense will sputter.
4. Green Bay Packers
Rise: One botched onside kick separated the Packers from the Super Bowl last year. This team will go as far as a healthy Aaron Rodgers can carry them. That’s pretty far.
Fall: Rodgers has struggled with calf and collarbone injuries in each of the past two seasons. If the offensive line can’t keep Green Bay’s leading man upright, it doesn’t matter how talented the rest of the roster is.
5. Arizona Cardinals
Rise: The Cardinals were 9-1 with the best record in the league when quarterback Carson Palmer tore his ACL last season. The Cardinals fizzled out in the postseason behind a gaggle of third-string options under center, so Palmer’s return is an instant boost.
Fall: Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles took the Jets’ head-coaching gig, a job he earned from his excellent work with his Cardinals unit. The Cardinals defense will need to be just as menacing under in-house replacement James Bettcher to give the Seahawks a divisional threat.
6. Denver Broncos
Rise: The Broncos were the fourth most penalized team in the NFL last season, raking in 120 flags for 1,045 yards. The combination of Peyton Manning and new head coach Gary Kubiak should ensure that doesn’t happen again.
Fall: Manning has already lost left tackle Ryan Clady to an offseason injury. The offensive line needs to be superb to afford Manning extra time to operate, but that mission isn’t off to a positive start.
7. Indianapolis Colts
Rise: In each of Andrew Luck’s first three years as quarterback for the Colts, the team has improved one round further in the playoffs. Year four would spell a Super Bowl appearance if the trend continues, and Luck has what could be his most talented supporting cast yet.
Fall: The Colts didn’t draft a defensive starter early, which is precarious for a unit that allowed 177 yards rushing and 45 points to the Patriots in the season-ending defeat. Luck can’t play both ways.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
Rise: Like Luck, Ben Roethlisberger is surrounded by a bunch of young, versatile wide receivers and has a dependable Le’Veon Bell in the backfield, though he’s suspended for the first three games of the season. Year three under offensive coordinator Todd Haley has the possibility to be a career-best outing for Pittsburgh’s quarterback.
Fall: The Steelers could’ve thrown a massive retirement party for all their players who hung up their cleats on defense. With no Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Jason Worilds, etc., and with Dick Lebeau on a new team after 10 years, the Steel Curtain could face a down year.
9. Dallas Cowboys
Rise: Greg Hardy’s suspension was cut from 10 games to four, and if he can regain his 2013 form, the Cowboys will have the pass rusher they lacked a year ago.
Fall: How do you replace DeMarco Murray’s 1,845 rushing yards from 2014? The Cowboys seem to think Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle are the answer. I’m not sold.
10. Detroit Lions
Rise: A healthy Calvin Johnson will pay dividends for this offense. He commands the attention of two or three defenders every play.
Fall: Both Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley left from Detroit in free agency. The Lions’ defense was top-notch in 2014, but is the trade for Haloti Ngata enough to clog that massive hole in the defensive line?
11. Carolina Panthers
Rise: The Panthers play in NFC South, likely to be the worst division in the league for a second year in a row. Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly provide enough star power and production on their respective sides of the ball to push the Panthers to the playoffs again.
Fall: With Michael Oher manning left tackle, and a few other bargains across the line, the Panther’s offensive trench is a looming question mark. They could gel and outperform expectations, but their expectations for success are low for a reason.
12. Cincinnati Bengals
Rise: The Bengals drafted an offensive lineman with their first two picks of the draft, and sport one of the NFL’s deepest units at the position – very good news for the shifty Giovanni Bernard out of the backfield.
Fall: Andy Dalton. Period. The quarterback has been rather efficient in the regular season, but a liability come the playoffs. A fifth-straight first-round postseason exit could lead to Dalton’s exit from Cincinnati.
13. Kansas City Chiefs
Rise: No Chiefs wide receiver caught a touchdown pass in 2014. Free agent signee Jeremy Maclin should change that in 2015.
Fall: Who, outside of Maclin, can gain separation from opposing defenses? Alex Smith can’t create plays on his own.
14. Philadelphia Eagles
Rise: Chip Kelly and Sam Bradford.
Fall: Sam Bradford and Chip Kelly.
15. San Diego Chargers
Rise: The Chargers cycled through five starting centers due to injuries last season. That can’t happen again, can it?
Fall: Antonio Gates is suspended for the first four games of the season, so quarterback Philip Rivers will be without one of his favorite targets in the part of the season the Chargers failed to establish consistency last year.
16. New Orleans Saints
Rise: In an unthinkable string of events since their 2009 Super Bowl win, Sean Peyton and Drew Brees are no longer at savior status in New Orleans. That fire behind their long-term security could be what they need to rebound from a floundering 2014 campaign.
Fall: Brees took the Graham trade especially hard. We’ll soon find out whether Brees made Graham an elite tight end, or whether Graham was the focal point of the Saints’ offense.
17. Miami Dolphins
Rise: Perhaps the most telling aspect of whether the Dolphins contend for a playoff spot won’t take place in Miami. The length of Brady’s suspension, thus the weaker the Patriots are, equals a better shot for the Dolphins at the AFC East title.
Fall: Is Suh worth all that money? If he can’t capitalize on his success in Detroit, albeit with a weaker cast surrounding him in South Beach, the Dolphins’ free agency splash could prove to have been more beneficial elsewhere.
18. New York Giants
Rise: Eli Manning won two Super Bowls as quarterback of the Giants, so there’s reason to believe a second year under offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo will provide the stability and schemes to push the Giants back into the postseason.
Fall: Odell Beckham Jr. wowed the league late in 2014, but injuries kept him from developing in training camp and the opening weeks of the season. If Beckham isn’t on the field, the Giants’ prospects change drastically.
19. Houston Texans
Rise: Ryan Mallet or Brian Hoyer could grab hold of the starting job and run with it through a weak AFC South crowd.
Fall: Ryan Mallet or Brian Hoyer might not grab hold of the starting job, and the Texans could become another stepping stone for the Colts in the weak AFC South.
20. Minnesota Vikings
Rise: Teddy Bridgewater showed potential as a rookie. With Mike Wallace and Cordarrelle Patterson at his disposal, Bridgewater’s sophomore campaign could push the Vikings toward NFC North contention.
Fall: Adrian Peterson’s return could add another dimension to the Vikings’ upstart offense, but how much can we expect to see from a 30-year-old running back who hasn’t seen extended action since 2013?
21. Atlanta Falcons
Rise: Matt Ryan is a top-tier quarterback in the NFL. Paired with Roddy White and Julio Jones at wide receiver, the Falcons’ struggles in the past two seasons are all the more puzzling.
Fall: Rookie head coach Dan Quinn could work his Seattle magic in Atlanta, but the Falcons’ defense ranked last in yards allowed per game in 2014. One man can’t resurrect that debacle in a single offseason.
22. Cleveland Browns
Rise: After cycling through three coaches in three seasons, Mike Pettine returns for year two. The Browns were 7-4 before finishing the season 0-3. Having the same leader for an entire offseason and another regular season will add stability.
Fall: Can LeBron James play quarterback? Highlighted – I guess – by Johnny Manziel, the Browns have a mess of options at the position. Emphasis on mess.
23. St. Louis Rams
Rise: The Rams’ defensive line is loaded. Aaron Donald, Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Nick Fairley, Robert Quinn, and the list goes on.
Fall: Does anyone really know what to expect from Nick Foles? Franchise quarterbacks are rarely, if ever, on the trade market. And Foles was.
24. Chicago Bears
Rise: Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal form a formidable duo at wideout. With Matt Forte in the backfield, Jay Cutler has a solid base at his disposal to spark a turnaround in Chicago.
Fall: John Fox enters his newest head-coaching job as a fresh voice with a respectable track record. If he can’t fix Cutler’s shortcomings, Chicago will be looking at a high draft pick and for a new quarterback in 2016.
25. San Francisco 49ers
Rise: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick could prove last season was an anomaly and emerge from training camp with better decision-making and more accuracy downfield. Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Vernon Davis will be ready.
Fall: Jim Tomsula’s hire to replace Jim Harbaugh as head coach was one few predicted. He faces the stiff task of rebuilding a 49ers defense decimated by injury, retirement and free agency.
26. Oakland Raiders
Rise: Derek Carr quietly impressed as a rookie under center, and he appears set for another solid season. Amari Cooper at wideout could be the Raiders’ missing weapon on offense.
Fall: It’s the Raiders. They haven’t had a winning record since 2002.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
Rise: Blake Bortles is in a similar situation as a Derek Carr. Year two is the time Jacksonville management envisioned he would take off.
Fall: No. 3 pick Dante Fowler tore his ACL in OTAs. His pass-rushing presence will be sorely missed in a bare Jaguars defense.
28. Buffalo Bills
Rise: Rex Ryan and his boisterous personality made the trek upstate. He could restore swagger into the Bills and especially into one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Fall: Who wants to be quarterback? If Tyrod Taylor, Flacco’s backup in Baltimore the past four season, is the dark horse candidate, Buffalo’s in trouble.
29. Washington Redskins
Rise: Robert Griffin III plays well.
Fall: Robert Griffin III doesn’t play well (more likely).
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Rise: Famous Jameis is in town. His confidence, size and natural talent should prove fruitful in the long run. If he can build a connection with Mike Evans, the long run may come sooner than expected.
Fall: The offensive line is a work in progress. Two rookies and slew of average veterans aren’t the recipe for Winston’s immediate success.
31. New York Jets
Rise: Much like former coach Ryan’s situation up north, rookie leader Bowles could restore order around the Jets. He’s got Darrelle Revis back in town to shut down one side on defense, which instantly makes the Jets better than last season.
Fall: Could quarterback Geno Smith show some signs of improvement? Sure, I guess. Do I think Smith will show signs of improvement? Nah.
32. Tennessee Titans
Rise: Marcus Mariota could take the NFL by storm. It’s unlikely to happen in his first year as an NFL quarterback, but crazier things have happened.
Fall: If you’re the Titans and your wide receiver’s arrest and discussions of offset contract language are generating headlines entering training camp, you’re probably not in store for a fantastic season. That is, in fact, what the Titans are facing, so they’re probably not in store for a fantastic season.
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