The new NFL season kicks off Thursday! It’s the beginning of a wild new year of NFL action that is sure to be filled with entertainment, drama and surprises. It is nearly impossible to predict what is going to happen this season at this point, but that isn’t going to stop me from trying to do just that.
The Week 1 power rankings are dominated by a strong force of NFC teams at the top, and while AFC teams begin to fill in eventually, the two conferences look as far apart as ever at the moment. It will take a few weeks to truly know who are the real contenders this season, but for now let’s take a look at where the teams seem to stand entering the season.
As much as it pains me to say this, the Vikings are looking like the strongest team in the NFL at the moment. A team that played in the NFC championship last season got a huge upgrade at quarterback in Kirk Cousins. They will get second-year running back Dalvin Cook back from an ACL tear as well, and he joins receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen to form an elite skill position group on offense. The Vikings offense has all the talent needed to put together a great fantasy team but their offensive line is a huge concern. They looked like a mess during preseason and with a quarterback like Cousins—who looks like a deer in the headlights when under pressure—in the backfield it could be a recipe for disaster. Their defense is incredible. They have stars at all 11 starting positions and the additions of George Iloka and Sheldon Richardson make and already elite unit overloaded with talent.
The defending Super Bowl champions look like they may be ready for another run, but there are a few huge questions marks entering the season. Carson Wentz may miss the first few weeks due to the ACL tear he suffered last December, and the team really isn’t as good when Nick Foles is under center. Receiver Alshon Jeffery is also set to miss the opening weeks of the season as well, but he has a replaceable role within the offense. Nelson Agholor is one of the best slot receivers in the NFL and tight end Zach Ertz provides a consistent, reliable, target. The offensive line should be even better than last season as they return Jason Peters from a devastating knee injury.
On defense, their elite front seven led by defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and linebacker Jordan Hicks should give opposing offenses nightmares. Their secondary will be a concern, though. Ronald Darby is the best corner on the roster but whoever they end up playing across from him will be a liability. Rasul Douglas and Jalen Mills both struggled last season, and it is hard to depend on Sidney Jones to be the elite corner they need him to be in his first NFL action. At strong safety they have a star in Malcolm Jenkins, but free safety Rodney McLeod might be the worst starting free safety in the league. As strong as the Eagles look all over the roster they need the secondary to step up if they want to repeat as champions.
The Rams shocked the NFL last season. Jared Goff and Todd Gurley carried what was one of the NFL’s best offenses and Aaron Donald was a game wrecker on defense. The perennial 7-9, third place in the NFC West team took the league by storm. They won their division, earned the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, and Gurley even earned himself MVP consideration.
Los Angeles got even better this season and they look scary. The elite offense added Brandin Cooks and a defense that struggled last season added Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. They’re edge rush may be a concern though, as their GM didn’t bother to add any edge defenders to their roster, but with Donald and Suh penetrating on the interior do you even need to rush from the edge?
It feels odd ranking the Patriots this low. It’s even odder that I feel like putting a team at No. 4 might be underselling them. We all know how good the Patriots are. They’ve been to three of the past four Super Bowls—winning two. They have had a stranglehold over the AFC and as long as they have Tom Brady there is no reason to think that will change.
The roster itself may be worse than its previous iterations, though. Defense cost them a Super Bowl last season and it’s a huge concern for them once again. Their front seven doesn’t have any quality players of note outside of note not named Dont’a Hightower. On offense, their receiving corps never replaced the loss of Brandon Cooks and there aren’t many great players for Brady to throw to. They will attempt to replace the departure of Dion Lewis with rookie Sony Michel, but Michel already suffered an injury that caused him to miss preseason and a string of knee injuries in college are already putting his health in concern. The Patriots are a very flawed team heading into 2018, but do you really want to bet against Brady?
New Orleans finally got their defense put together last season and they took the league by storm. Rookie Marshon Lattimore burst onto the scene as an elite corner, joining a front seven that features one of the league’s best defensive players in Cam Jordan.
They do have some issues up front, though. Their linebacking crew leaves much to be desired and they will need rookie Marcus Davenport to step up at defensive end in year one in order for this defensive front to be where it needs to be this season. On offense you can almost guarantee that Drew Brees will put up ridiculous passing stats once again. Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara will see the biggest shares of Brees targets but beyond those two there is not much else to look forward to from the skill positions. Ted Ginn Jr. and Benjamin Watson are both seeing their careers wind down and they may struggle early in the season without Michael Ingram for the first couple of weeks. New Orleans has the top level talent to succeed, but is it enough to make up for their rosters deficiencies?
If the Los Angeles Chargers can stay healthy (and that is a HUGE if) then there is no reason why they shouldn’t believe they belong in the Super Bowl. Philip Rivers is still a great quarterback. Keenan Allen is one of the best receivers around. Their offensive line has some issues, but they shouldn’t be bad enough to derail their season. Los Angeles’ defense features two pass rushing studs in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Derwin James joins Casey Hayward in a stacked secondary that can cause hell for opposing quarterbacks. Los Angeles has put together one of the best rosters in football, it’s just a matter of keeping the team healthy and not losing games by making dumb mistakes.
The Atlanta Falcons are one of the most well-rounded teams in the NFL. 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan got a new weapon to throw to in Calvin Ridley this offseason, joining the already incredible duo of Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. They have a top-tier offensive line anchored by stand out center Alex Mack. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are still one of the NFL’s best running back pairings.
On defense, Grady Jarrett is quietly a great interior pass perpetrator and second-year player Takkarist McKinley should be ready to take the next step to help out on the edge. Linebacker Vic Beasley had an awful 2017 season after looking like one of the best defenders in the league in 2016. They will need him to find his form this season, and if he does the Falcons pass rush can be devastating for their opposition. Their secondary may not have the stars that the front seven does but they have a great collection of talent on the back end as well. Atlanta may not stand out in the way that some of the “super teams” above them in the NFC do but it’s hard to beat a team with no real weaknesses.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are like the Detroit Lions if the Detroit Lions were actually a good team. They have a stand out quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger), an elite receiving duo (Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster) and they have invested a lot in their offensive line (but they have had better results than Detroit so far). They also have a defense that likes to play like they have no idea what they are doing sometimes (sounds familiar). Oh, and they have Le’Veon Bell (kinda).
Pittsburgh is going to be heavily reliant on their offense once again this year. The secondary still needs help and the front seven was never the same after they lost Ryan Shazier to a devastating injury last season. Lucky for them the offense is incredible. Ben, Bell and Brown all return (maybe), for possibly the final time, and with no weak spots on offense there is no reason to believe that they can’t run teams out of the stadium this season. But unless their defense can stop the likes of Blake Bortles from putting 40 points on them it’s hard to see this being the year they finally get over the hump and make the Super Bowl.
Welp. Brett Hundley was so bad last season that the Packers finally realized that signing free agents is a good idea. They added Jimmy Graham in free agency giving Aaron Rodgers the best receiving option he’s had since Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson weren’t washed in 2014. David Bakhtiari is still one of the league’s best left tackles and while the running game still has concerns, any offense that features Rodgers is going to find a way to beat you.
What’s truly scary is how good they quietly got on defense. Their front seven added Muhammad Wilkerson to infuse a bit of talent into a group that has had it’s issues the past few seasons. They drafted Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson in the first two rounds, possibly setting themselves at the cornerback position for the near future. The Packers were always successful as a team with Rodgers and little else around him. Now that there is some actual talent in Green Bay they’ll be Super Bowl contenders once again.
10. Tennessee Titans
The Tennessee Titans were being coached by baboons in 2017 and still nearly won their division, made the playoffs and even won a playoff game. Now that they might actually have real coaches, the sky is the limit. Lions fans may be able to sympathize with the Titans. They’re our “Patriots Jr.” AFC counterpart, hiring Matt Vrabel as their new head coach.
They have lifted the 2016 Patriots cornerback duo of Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler to be their own and grabbed Dion Lewis in free agency this season. They gave former Michigan Wolverine Taylor Lewan a huge deal to continue being one of the best left tackles in football. Marcus Mariota took a noticeable step back last season but with stable coaching this season there is no reason to believe he can not return to form. Their defense is underrated as well. Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro join Ryan and Butler to form a strong secondary. Jurrell Casey is one of the league’s most overlooked elite defensive linemen and Brian Orakpo is still getting work done as a great edge rusher. Tennessee has the talent needed to compete in the AFC this year, but they need Mariota and Vrabel to step up and take the team the distance.
The Jacksonville Jaguars may have been the biggest surprise in the NFL in a 2017 season packed with them. While many (including myself) predicted them to compete for a wild card spot next season on the back of their elite defense, winning their division and taking the New England Patriots to the brink in the AFC Championship never seemed possible for a team led by Blake Bortles. While they did receive some help from the aforementioned team being coached by baboons, the Jaguars run last season was special. Things may not as easy for them this time around, though.
Their defense is still packed with talent. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye might be the two best corners in the NFL and Calais Campbell is the star in an elite pass rushing unit. The offense is a mess, though. Bortles is still Bortles and there is not much talent around him. The receiving corps features a who’s who of players you don’t care about. Leonard Fournette is not the elite running back that Twitter so desperately wants him to be and T.J. Yeldon still hasn’t lived up to his pre-draft hype from years ago. Jacksonville will yet again be relying on their defense to carry them this season, but lucky for them their defense may be good enough to take them to the AFC Championship game once again.
The Bengals have very quietly built a great team this offseason. They added Cordy Glenn and Billy Price this offseason to solidify their offensive line. The emergence of John Ross as an actual football player might mean that they never have to let Tyler Boyd see the field ever again, and A.J. Green is still a top-tier talent at receiver. It’s hard to rely on an offense led by Andy Dalton to be any good but the Bengals have put enough tools around him that it’s going to be hard for him to fail.
The real power of this roster resides on the defense. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap headline a defensive line that will give offensive coordinators nightmares. Despite his character flaws, Vontaze Burfict returning to the defense in Week 5 will be a huge boost to their linebacking corps. They are solid at corner as well. William Jackson was one of the surprise stars of the 2017 season and should only get better now that he’s an every-down starter. Dre Kirkpatrick has shown flashes in the past and if he can return to previous form the Bengals defense will be a force to be reckoned with. Cincinnati will be relying on a lot of players to take a step up in play and find consistency they haven’t found in the past in order to succeed this year. If they can get meaningful contributions from their young core, though, then they may challenge the Steelers for the AFC North title.
13. Baltimore Ravens
If there is one thing you can respect about the Baltimore Ravens it’s that they clearly know their brand and will stick to it. The 2018 Ravens, just like almost every previous iteration, features a below average quarterback, a good offensive line, a running back they will need to carry them, a receiving corps devoid of any talent and a defense that will shred opposing offenses.
Joe Flacco is still the starting quarterback for now and nothing about that should make Ravens fans excited. They can be excited about the return of future Hall of Fame guard Marshall Yanda and having a full season of Alex Collins, though. On defense they will be without one of the NFL’s best defensive players in cornerback Jimmy Smith for the early stages of the season as he was hit with a four-game suspension. 2017 first-round pick Marlon Humphrey looked great last year and should be able to help alleviate the loss of his fellow corner. Safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson, linebacker C.J. Mosley and edge rusher Terrell Suggs are the spine of an elite defense that created turnovers at a rampant pace last season. Baltimore’s offense won't be very pretty this season, but their defense is good enough to make sure opposing offenses won't look pretty either.
14. Houston Texans
The Houston Texans are getting Deshaun Watson back to open the season and the quarterback that took the league by storm for a couple of months last year should be ready to pick up where he left off. He has a great receiving duo in DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller to throw to. Lamar Miller is one of the most underrated running backs in the league, and when D’Onta Foreman returns from injury they will form a great 1-2 punch to complement the passing game. Unfortunately, the offensive line is a mess and Watson will probably spend much of this season having to run around for his life while his protection fails him.
The defense features a great front seven that just can not stay healthy. J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are among the league’s best pass rushers. Linebacker Zach Cunningham had a great rookie year that he’s looking to build upon. Their secondary leaves much to be desired, though. The addition of Tyrann Mathieu is interesting but it isn’t enough to cover the lack of quality cornerbacks they have on the roster.
Houston should score a lot of points and break off a bunch of huge plays. They will also allow a lot of points and huge plays as well. The Texans will be appointment viewing this season for neutral fans, but they will probably give their own fans a few heart attacks this year.
At some point when everyone is picking a team as their “sleeper team” that team isn’t allowed to be called a sleeper any more, right?
We all know about Jimmy Garoppolo, the handsome unbeatable quarterback who tore the Jaguars a new one last season. Boy wonder Kyle Shanahan is an offensive genius that is supposed to make the most out of Garoppolo and the rest of the roster—and with how bad the rest of the roster looks, they will need him to.
They obviously have something special at quarterback and Marquise Goodwin is a great receiver who should be hitting his prime, but other than those two, there is not much to look forward to on this offense. They over-drafted tackle Mike McGlinchey and receiver Dante Pettis. Their offensive line is filled with players who have never shown any consistency. Jerick McKinnon was their most prized free agent signing and his preseason ACL tear will be a huge dent to their plans this season.
Their defense features a bit of young talent in the front seven with DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. 2017 third overall pick Solomon Thomas was terrible last year ,but he still has a chance to develop into a great player. Behind the defensive line, their defense is basically Richard Sherman—who’s coming off an Achilles injury—and a bunch of players that wouldn’t make a majority of NFL rosters.
Shanahan and Garoppolo are going to have to work some serious magic for this team to be the NFC West contenders so many seem to want them to be. But it’s also hard to bet against a quarterback who’s never lost a professional football game.
With all of the super-talented teams flying around the NFC at the moment it seems like the team from Washington has been lost in the shuffle. They have quietly built a pretty good team, though, and have legitimate reason to believe that they can compete in the NFC East this season.
It starts up front for them. They have two elite talents on their offensive line in tackle Trent Williams and guard Brandon Scherff. Adrian Peterson is not a very good running back anymore, but Chris Thompson is a star in the making that fans of Theo Riddick should enjoy watching.
Their receiving corps features Jordan Reed, a great talent who just needs to stay healthy, Jamison Crowder, an incredibly underrated slot receiver, and newly signed Paul Richardson. They replaced Kirk Cousins with Alex Smith in an early offseason trade and did a great job surrounding the gun-shy quarterback with receivers that excel at catching shorter passes and gaining yardage after the catch. Their defense is also led by a powerful front line, featuring back-to-back Alabama first-round selections Da’Ron Payne and Jonathan Allen. Matt Ioannidis is one of the most underrated defensive line talents in the league, and probable future Hall of Famer Ryan Kerrigan has been occupying quarterbacks’ nightmares for seven years now.
Their secondary raises a few concerns, though. Josh Norman is still a great corner but no one else from that unit looks very promising. Quinton Dunbar and D.J. Swearinger have shown flashes in the past, but neither are where the team needs them to be at the moment. They may not have the star-studded roster that many other teams in the NFC have, but Washington may have just enough talent on their roster to be a sleeper playoff team.
Part 2, featuring teams 17-32, is coming Thursday!