1. Philadelphia Eagles (2017 Record: 13-3)
The reigning Super Bowl Champions should almost always start the season here, and when they’ve spent the off-season aquiring Michael Bennett, Mike Wallace, and Dallas Goedert and Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, Darren Sproles, and Carson Wentz are returning from injury the Eagles are certainly no exception. Wentz won’t start Week 1, but Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles should slot in nicely.
2. Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
The Vikings made it to the semifinals last season and since then they’ve replaced Case Keenum with Kirk Cousins. Cousins should be primed for the peak of his career surrounded by Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph, Dalvin Cook, and a defense. Cook is also back in the fold after injuring his knee in the middle of a promising start to his rookie season.
3. New England Patriots (13-3)
On one hand it feels like a slight to place the Patriots, who have been in three of the past four Super Bowls, any lower than second on this list. On the other – the roster, absent Brandin Cooks, Dion Lewis, Nate Solder, and Malcolm Butler – seems undermanned compared to the company at the top of the rankings. It’s a testament to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, who’ve survived countless other departures, and to the competition in the AFC East (see the bottom of these rankings for further details.)
4. New Orleans Saints (11-5)
The Saints have a suspension to Mark Ingram to start the season, but that might just give second-year sensation Alvin Kamara even more room to shine. The Saints have quickly changed from a team waiting for the Drew Brees era to end to one of the most complete and exciting contenders in the NFC.
5. Los Angeles Rams (11-5)
Speaking of quick turnarounds, the Rams worst-to-first offense from 2017 is now paired with a defense that obtained Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, and Aqib Talib. With Cooks joining the offense as well, the Rams are all-in in 2018 and the only question seems to be how well all these new pieces will gel.
6. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)
Marquise Lee being the wide receiver Jacksonville decided to keep around while the Allens departed makes his season-ending injury all the sadder. But the passing game was not what’s keeping Jacksonville at the top of this list. The league’s best defense and a heavy dose of Leonard Fournette are, and that will all be back this season.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)
We’re two days from the start of the regular season and Le’Veon Bell is not with the Steelers. That’s not the only concern for the Steelers, who were caught looking ahead last postseason and got walloped by Jacksonville for the second time in a season. Regardless, how Bell’s potential final season in the Steel City will play out – on the heels of a season where he racked up 406 touches – is still the most interesting storyline in Pittsburgh.
8. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
The pieces from the Falcons Super Bowl run still remain. (Okay, minus Kyle Shanahan.) While 2017 didn’t see the same high-scoring success that led to an MVP for Matt Ryan in 2016, they looked more like their old selves by season’s end, finishing the year on a 6-2 run that included a 4-1 mark against their division. They got stopped by the eventual Super Bowl Champs in the playoffs, but won’t have to wait long for revenge: the NFL’s opening game hands them a rematch in Philly.
9. Green Bay Packers (7-9)
The highest team on this list not to make the playoffs a year ago, and that has absolutely nothing to do with the return of Aaron Rodgers from injury. Zero. Rodgers’ welcome back present is tight end Jimmy Graham, without a doubt the best pass catcher he’s worked with at the position. It’s time for Davante Adams to embrace the number one role on the outside following the departure of Jordy Nelson.
10. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7)
The Chargers always seem like one of the most injury beset teams in the league, and 2018 is no exception so far. Hunter Henry and Jason Verrett are both done for the season already. There’s still a ton to like about this team. Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, and Keenan Allen are one of the league’s best trifectas on offense. Joey Bosa leads a fierce pass rush, and the secondary is deep enough to survive Verrett’s loss.
11. Carolina Panthers (11-5)
Jonathan Stewart is out and C.J. Anderson is in, but the Panthers still have the league’s best power back in Cam Newton. How Newton and Norv Turner mesh is going to be an interesting watch. The Panthers look like one of the 12 best teams in football, but the NFC South is stacked.
12. Tennessee Titans (9-7)
The Titans made the playoffs last year and didn’t lose much in the off-season. To the contrary, they added three former Patriots: Head Coach Mike Vrabel, Malcolm Butler, and Dion Lewis. If Corey Davis can start showing why they drafted him in the top five a season ago, the Titans might take the next leap in an AFC short on contenders.
13. Detroit Lions (9-7)
The Lions have been in a rough spot for years, chasing Aaron Rodgers’ Packers. Just when it looked like their window might open last season, the Vikings emerged as the new class of the NFC North. The Lions still have the quality to make the playoffs, but they’re dealing with the same problem the Panthers are: too competitive a division.
14. Houston Texans (4-12)
Expecting a big jump from the Texans is rooted entirely in expecting Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt to return from injury and pick up where they left off. Tyrann Mathieu should help the secondary in a big way, and there just really is something to be said for not trotting Tom Savage and T.J. Yates out there at quarterback.
15. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
Kansas City has transitioned from a team reliant on its defense to one reliant on its offensive stars: Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce. With that in mind, how well second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes is ready to step into his role as the starter should define this entire season. Early results are promising.
16. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
The Cowboys don’t feel like they’re trending in the right direction. With Travis Frederick out indefinitely and Zack Martin and Tyron Smith seemingly always one wrong step away from injury the Dallas line doesn’t feel as imposing as it was in the past. We saw what that meant for Dak Prescott and the passing game last season. It wasn’t good.
17. San Francisco 49ers (6-10)
Jerick McKinnon’s injury is rough news for both the 49ers and the running back coming off a breakout 2017 in Minnesota. Kyle Shanahan, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Richard Sherman are all still promising reasons to be excited about the 49ers this season. But neither Matt Breida nor Alfred Morris will replace McKinnon’s explosiveness.
18. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)
The Lamar Jackson era is still a ways away in Baltimore. If the Ravens want to see him on the field, they might consider putting he and Joe Flacco out there at the same time. There are a lot of targets available with the departures of Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin, and Brandon Watson. Hayden Hursts injury complicates things further. A lot of the passing game will rest on Michael Crabtree’s shoulders.
19. Denver Broncos (5-11)
Also from the “How Much Can a Quarterback Transform a Team” category: the Denver Broncos. Going from some of the worst play at the position to Case Keenum should return Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to the ranks of stars and help a once-great defense asked to defend way too many short fields in 2017. Top five pick Brandon Chubb should get plenty of opportunity to rush the quarterback opposite Von Miller.
20. New York Giants (3-13)
With their decision to pass up a quarterback in the draft in favor of Saquon Barkley, the Giants are betting Eli Manning still has some seasons left in his arm. To help him show that, they’ve attempted to fix the issues that have plagued the offensive line and running game for years. Barkley is the most talented back they’ve had since Tiki Barber, and Nate Solder and rookie Will Hernandez should give him more holes to work with than the backfield’s previous occupants have had.
21. Chicago Bears (5-11)
Trading for Khalil Mack is the feather in the cap of the Bears’ 2018 off-season. It saw them add Allen Robinson and Trey Burton to the offense as potential explosive weapons for second-year QB Mitchell Trubisky. That should further open things up on the ground for Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. Mack elevates an already talented defense.
22. Washington (7-9)
Washington had one of the most confusing off-seasons in the league. Not only did they end the Kirk Cousins era by letting their quarterback walk without receiving anything in return, they traded one of their most promising young defenders and draft capital to have Alex Smith lead a team that’s not near contending quality.
23. Seattle Seahawks (9-7)
Kam Chancellor is retired, Richard Sherman is a 49er, and unless Earl Thomas ends his holdout the Legion of Boom is officially gone from Seattle. Russell Wilson has been doing it all for the offense, but asking him to play safety might be too tall an order.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (7-9)
The Bengals addressed their offensive line issues this off-season with the addition of Cordy Glenn and attention in the draft. That should provide breathing room that could let second-year players Joe Mixon and John Ross transition into stars. The defense is young too. There are some reasons to believe in progress for this seemingly stale team.
25. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
Sam Bradford is the starter for now, but with the way Josh Rosen has looked this Preseason the Cardinals might want to think about handing him the reigns while he’ll be surrounded by a healthy David Johnson (in the last year of his contract) and Larry Fitzgerald (who are we kidding, he may play longer than Rosen.)
26. Oakland Raiders (6-10)
When the Raiders complete their move to Las Vegas they’ll do so without the franchise’s best player: reigning Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack. With Mack gone one of the worst defenses in the league gets worse, and aging players like Jordy Nelson and Doug Martin aren’t what the ailing offense needed to rejuvenate it.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)
Tampa Bay spent much of the off-season upgrading their pass rush, an overdue move. Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea, and Vinny Curry will need to get to the quarterback quick to help out a young and shaky secondary. Their difficult start to the season (New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh) is made even harder by the suspension to quarterback Jameis Winston.
28. Cleveland Browns (0-16)
A lot of new faces in Cleveland (Tyrod Taylor, Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Carlos Hyde) and one old one (Josh Gordon) make the offense look more dangerous than it has in years. (Ever?) There’s a lot of optimism about a team that is 1-31 in it’s last 32 games.
29. Buffalo Bills (9-7)
The Bills ended the NFL’s longest playoff drought last season. In response they packaged the quarterback who led them there and several other assets to draft Wyoming’s Josh Allen. Meanwhile, the possibility of a LeSean McCoy suspension looms.
30. Indianapolis Colts (4-12)
A truly healthy Andrew Luck elevates the Colts in such a way that makes them difficult to rank. Leaving that question mark aside, the Colts are still a young team that is relying on the draft to build. They’re going to take some knocks. The AFC South is a completely different beast than the one a healthy Luck dominated in his youth.
31. New York Jets (5-11)
The Sam Darnold era looks like it is something to be excited about for the Jets. The trouble is there’s not a whole lot else in that category yet. He has some speedy wideouts, but it looks like Darnold is going to be asked to do more than any other rookie signal caller this year.
32. Miami Dolphins (6-10)
The Dolphins bid farewell to Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh this off-season, their biggest names on offense and defense. All eyes are on how Ryan Tannehill returns from injury and how Kenyan Drake performs as the featured back.