The NFL preseason is over and the march toward Super Bowl LI begins for all 32 teams on Thursday as Carolina travels to Denver in a rematch of the final game of last season. While it seems like it has been forever since those two teams met at Levi’s Stadium, the official kickoff event of the NFL means football is finally back in our lives and that has everybody roaring to go.
With that in mind, it’s time to sort out the contenders from the pretenders heading into the 2016 season. Factoring in everything from overall roster strength, to quarterback play, to the head coach’s track record, here is the first edition of NFL power rankings to begin the season. Over time these will start to reflect how the teams are playing on the field and whatever key injuries they suffer but here is where every team stacks up from 1 to 32.
Week 1 NFL Power Rankings
1. Arizona Cardinals
A trendy pick to make it to the Super Bowl this year, it’s understandable to have high expectations in the desert given what Bruce Arians returns in 2016. The secondary might be the best in the game, special teams is dangerous on every snap and the offense is loaded if quarterback Carson Palmer can pick up where he left off in the regular season last year. Don’t be surprised to see the defense take a leap with the pass-rushing additions of Chandler Jones and Robert Nkemdiche either.
2. Green Bay Packers
The offense should once again be among the league’s best and able to win a shootout with any team. The return of Jordy Nelson will provide another reliable option for Aaron Rodgers and Jared Cook could become the dependable No. 3 pass catcher after looking good in the preseason. There are a few question marks on defense but the secondary has a chance to grow into one of the best in the game with more seasoning. Things change but this looks to be the most well-rounded team heading into the season.
3. Carolina Panthers
While they check in at No. 3 to begin the year, it would surprise nobody if the Panthers once again earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC given the amount of talent on the roster and their schedule. A repeat of last year’s record might be a little too much to ask but Cam Newton has a chance to defend his MVP award with the return of Kelvin Benjamin to the receiving corps. The secondary remains a giant question mark but luckily the front seven is fantastic.
4. Seattle Seahawks
Pete Carroll’s squad has the best track record of success of just about any team in the NFC over the past few years and a large part of that is because of the deep and talented roster he’s helped assemble. The defense will again rank highly in just about every statistical category and the offense has Russell Wilson and some dangerous skill position players. Seattle may have been No. 1 to start the year had the team upgraded the dreadful offensive line at all.
5. New England Patriots
The coaching staff should make Jimmy Garoppolo comfortable to start the year but the Patriots won’t truly be judged until Tom Brady returns from his four-game suspension. The offensive line is a little shaky but always seems to be a unit that comes together down the stretch with some out-of-left field contributions. On the flip side, the defense could be sneaky good and among the most versatile Bill Belichick has coached in the past few years.
6. Houston Texans
The question on everybody’s mind is what kind of boost Brock Osweiler can provide the offense but the bottom line is him just being consistently decent will help the team out tremendously after the last several years of struggles at the position. The offense has a lot more speed than in the past and, combined with Osweiler’s arm, will help avoid loaded fronts in the future. Bill O’Brien’s squad will continue to run the ball and play great defense so this could be the AFC’s breakout team in 2016 if all falls into place.
7. Cincinnati Bengals
The “what might have been” scenarios surrounding the Bengals last year will probably haunt the team for several more years but a shot at redemption (and finally getting a playoff victory) remains given what Cincinnati takes into the upcoming season. Expect more consistency out of Andy Dalton as the offense continues to progress and don’t be surprised if rookie Tyler Boyd turns into a star opposite A.J. Green. The defense needs to improve, as does the offensive line, but this will once again be a team fighting to win the division and get a bye in the AFC.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
Nobody wanted to play the Steelers late last season and that trend probably continues to begin the 2016 campaign as well. The offensive is flat loaded and Ben Roethlisberger is primed to have his best year yet. The offseason was a little rough for the team or else it would start off the year a few spots higher than this but it’s still a pretty good group. If the defense progresses at all, especially on the back end, this is a team that can go all the way.
9. Minnesota Vikings
You can understand the urgency to win now for the Vikings and paying such a high price for Sam Bradford when you look at the team’s overall roster. Adrian Peterson has a chance to lead the league in rushing and rookie wide receiver Laquon Treadwell should soon become Bradford’s best friend with the way he makes plays. The defense is loaded and, if healthy, has a chance to be the best in the division — if not the conference. The loss of Teddy Bridgewater is a blow no doubt, but the team itself is still pretty good and certainly capable of heading into the playoffs with momentum.
10. Denver Broncos
The retirement of Peyton Manning isn’t as big of a blow to the defending Super Bowl champions if you consider his late-season form but the fact that the team is turning to Trevor Siemian says plenty about the state of the offense. The offense did enough to capture the Lombardi at the end of the year but this unit remains in flux with new faces and players in new places. Luckily the defense is so good with Von Miller and company that the champs will have a chance in every game but the Broncos at the end of the year figure to be a much different team than the one at the beginning.
11. Kansas City Chiefs
The talent level in Kansas City and last season’s strong finish bodes well for the upcoming year. The team would find themselves much higher in the power rankings if not for question marks surrounding Jamaal Charles’ return from an ACL injury and the issues on defense with Justin Houston starting the year on the PUP list. The team still has Marcus Peters, Derrick Johnson and Jeremy Maclin, and added a good piece in free agent Mitchell Schwartz to bolster the offensive line so the Chiefs are still one of the better teams in what is a wide-open division.
12. Oakland Raiders
This is quickly becoming one of the trendy picks to make a big jump in 2016 out of the AFC and it’s not hard to figure out why. The offensive line is one of the better ones in football and the Derek Carr-to-Amari Cooper combination is quickly becoming one of the better pairings in the league. Jack Del Rio’s defense is where the team really shines though, with Khalil Mack possibly vying to dethrone J.J. Watt as defensive player of the year.
13. Baltimore Ravens
Few teams have been hit with the injury bug quite like the Ravens have in the past few years since winning the Super Bowl. But if they can get lucky on that front, there’s no reason to see why they can’t challenge for a playoff spot or even the division. The offensive line figures to take a step up and that side of the ball as a whole should be much more consistent from week to week. The addition of safety Eric Weddle addresses a huge need on defense and might be one of the best moves of free agency when all is said and done.
14. New York Giants
It’s been an offseason full of change in New York, starting at the top with a new head coach and continuing on with some big-name free agents like Oliver Vernon, Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkins. Despite those additions and the presence of veterans like Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jason Pierre-Paul, the Giants’ season will likely come down to how much growth they’ll be able to get out of the young players on their roster. If Landon Collins on defense or Sterling Shepard at wide receiver turn into key role players, a division title is certainly within reach.
15. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys are going full steam ahead on the Dak (Prescott) Attack at the moment but it says plenty that the team is keeping injured quarterback Tony Romo on the active roster with hopes of an early return. Prescott should be ok under center with the league’s best offensive line, some quality weapons like Jason Witten and a productive run game built around fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott. The giant question mark is on defense and but don’t be surprised if the unit progressed to being solid by midseason.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars
People have been raving about the Jaguars’ drafts the past several years and the young core of talent that is on the roster but it’s finally time for all that potential to turn into actual production. Blake Bortles has shown flashes of a breakout season and as he progresses, so will Jacksonville. The receiving corps is strong and the run game figures to be very good with a pair of home-run hitters. The defense is where the team is expected to take a big jump however and all you have to do is look at the depth chart to figure out why.
17. Washington Redskins
Kirk Cousins is the guy in D.C. now and figures to eliminate some of the costly mistakes that marred his first full season as a starter last year. Luckily he has one of the better receiving groups in the league with rookie Josh Doctson being added to veterans like DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. The defense has undergone an overhaul by signing Josh Norman and bringing in rookies such as Su’a Cravens and Kendall Fuller. Whether that’s enough to repeat in the NFC East remains to be seen but Washington shouldn’t yo-yo from a good season to a bad one like the ‘Skins have in the past.
18. Indianapolis Colts
The return of Andrew Luck is undoubtedly the biggest news for the Colts to start the year but rookie center Ryan Kelly might be the biggest boost to an offensive line that has struggled for years. Frank Gore needs a renaissance year for the offense to truly be scary however. Defensively, the back end looks really thin and this group needs to make some big progress if the team is to unseat the Texans in the AFC South.
19. New York Jets
Todd Bowles nearly got the team to the playoffs in his debut season but getting back to that level will be considerably harder heading into this season. The return of Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn’t give a boost to the offense at all but does keep it from sliding backwards significantly, with free agent signee Matt Forte possibly making the unit a little more dangerous than a year ago. The front four has a chance to be one of the better units in the league but it won’t mean much if guys the behind them don’t step up.
20. Buffalo Bills
Is this finally the year the Bills get over the playoff hump? A tumultuous offseason may put that to the test in what is likely a make-or-break season for Rex Ryan. Tyrod Taylor is the guy under center going forward and there should be some optimism that he develops even more chemistry with Sammy Watkins after a strong close to 2015. The run game will once again be strong and the secondary is in the upper tier of the league for sure. Still, that front seven has question marks all over it.
21. New Orleans Saints
This will once again remain a team that gets into plenty of shootouts and has a good chance to win a lot of them thanks to quarterback Drew Brees and the potential of a healthy Mark Ingram. The receiving corps has several new faces that could explode onto the scene but the bottom line is the Saints will only go as far as their defense takes them.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The elevation of Dirk Koetter to head coach suggests that the team will continue to build around its budding offense and it’s easy to see why with Jameis Winston heading into his second season surrounded by an all-star cast at tailback and receiver. The key to the season and getting out of the bottom of the division lies with the offensive line and improvement on the secondary, which needs plenty of help.
23. Miami Dolphins
Adam Gase is a well-respected, offensive mind around the league and he will have several pieces to work with in Miami. The offensive line has been quickly re-tooled and the extra time should allow Ryan Tannehill to bounce back after an up-and-down 2015. The front four has some big names but they’re all getting older and that could spell trouble defensively with a secondary that needs to make a big step up given the Dolphins reside in the AFC East.
24. Atlanta Falcons
The offensive line for Atlanta has been an issue in the past but should be instantly boosted by the addition of center Alex Mack into one of the better units in the division. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones will be the beneficiaries, but the Falcons’ success depends mostly on if the defense can come together at all. The team will be extremely young on that side of the ball and head coach Dan Quinn has to hope the front four can take some pressure off of a thin secondary.
25. Los Angeles Rams
It seems like the Rams have dominated the offseason storylines between moving to Los Angeles, selecting Jared Goff with the No. 1 overall pick and having their ins and outs documented by the Hard Knocks crew. The strength of the team remains centered on the defensive line, with tackle Aaron Donald among the brightest stars in the game. Goff figures to be the guy down the road but Case Keenum will start out leading an offense that is Todd Gurley and whole lot of question marks.
26. Chicago Bears
A massive overhaul in Chicago is nearly complete under general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox that has surprisingly made quarterback Jay Cutler the longest-tenured Bears player around. The team will again lean on the ground game but don’t be surprised if they are a little more successful through the air with Alshon Jeffrey aiming to stay healthy all season and former first-rounder Kevin White adding a new element on that side of the ball. The defense should win most battles at the line of scrimmage, which should help the back four even more than last year.
27. Detroit Lions
Matthew Stafford will have to shoulder the load with the departure of Calvin Johnson and that just might be too much to ask if he plays anywhere like he did to begin 2015. The offensive line figures to improve and a solid ground game behind Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick gives the team a lot of options. Whether the rest of the defense can catch up to the front four remains a mystery heading into the season though.
28. San Diego Chargers
Perhaps no team is looking forward to putting the excessive drama of the offseason (and preseason) to bed and taking the field than the Chargers. Philip Rivers is the headliner of an aging offense that is slowly turning over to younger players and badly needs the linemen up front to improve rapidly if this team wants to make any leap forward. The defense will need rookie Joey Bosa to play early and up to his potential because there are not a ton of superstar players on that side of the ball for San Diego.
29. Philadelphia Eagles
The Carson Wentz show in Philly is apparently getting underway a bit sooner than anybody expected and that probably isn’t the best news short term even if things work out down the road. The tight end group will help until a young receiver group can take the next step but nobody stood out a year ago. The pass rush and safety group are nice building blocks but the defense could take some lumps given how thin this unit is elsewhere.
30. Tennessee Titans
The identity of this team was made quite clear this offseason: run the ball, run the ball, let Marcus Mariota do his thing. Pass protection is probably the only thing keeping Derrick Henry from overtaking DeMarco Murray on the depth chart but both figure to be used heavily each week. The skill position talent around the backs is still really thin though so getting to third and short is paramount. The front four on defense should again be a strength but after that things might be a little interesting.
31. Cleveland Browns
Hope springs eternal in Cleveland with yet another overhaul of the front office and coaching staff. The addition of Robert Griffin III should upgrade the quarterback position and the receiving corps has a chance to really surprise people. The roster is being completely turned over however and that’s really apparent on defense, which goes from a one-time strength to a massive liability.
32. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers hope another ex-college coach can turn the franchise around but Chip Kelly won’t have an easy first year given what the roster looks like heading into Week 1. Quarterback controversies aside, Kelly’s up-tempo offense may cover up some weaknesses but there are just too many issues for a dramatic turnaround from last year. The defense has some pieces (including ex-Ducks Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner on the line) but really needs All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman to have another otherworldly campaign for the team to be competitive.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.