1. New England Patriots. 2016 Record: 14-2, Won Super Bowl. 2016 Final Ranking: 1
If a 28-3 deficit in the Super Bowl couldn’t knock the Patriots out of this spot, losing Julian Edelman to injury isn’t going to do it. All they did this off-season is bring in Brandin Cooks and Stephen Gilmore fresh off a Pro Bowl season. Nowhere is a more attractive destination for new arrivals either, chomping at the bit for constant success. Now opponents can wait and see if Philip Dorsett’s speed finds a better home in New England than it did in Indianapolis.
2. Atlanta Falcons. 2016 Record 11-5, Lost Super Bowl. 2016 Final Ranking: 6
Kyle Shanahan may be gone, but Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, and Julio Jones et. all remain, so this offense should be in pretty good shape. The Falcons probably brought in enough on the defensive side as well to off-set Jalen Collins continued problems. The Super Bowl hangover is the last enemy that shall be conquered.
3. Oakland Raiders. 2016 Record: 12-4, Lost in Wild Card Round. 2016 Final Ranking: 3
The 2016 Oakland Raiders were an amazing story before suddenly becoming a poignant reminder of why franchise quarterbacks are the great white whale of the NFL. Robbed of theirs in the short term for the 2017 playoffs, the Raiders wasted no time securing Derek Carr for the long term, briefly making him the highest paid player in the NFL while they were at it (Carr’s $125 million deal was just surpassed by Matthew Stafford’s own record signing.) Now they just need to work out their contract situation with Sebastian Janikowski, or find a new kicker for the first time since 2000.
4. Kansas City Chiefs. 2016 Record: 12-4, Lost in Divisional Round. 2016 Final Ranking: 4
Adding Patrick Mahomes shouldn’t impact the 2017 season if all goes according to plan in Kansas City, but it certainly locks down the trajectory of the franchise going forward. Of course, spending a first round pick (and the bounty it took to trade for it) on Mahomes rather than reinforcements that could contribute immediately to a Super Bowl contender...that may impact it greatly. Following Spencer Ware’s injury, third round pick Kareem Hunt is of much more interest this season, and to fantasy owners.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers. 2016 Record 11-5, Lost AFC Championship. 2016 Final Ranking: 5
The Steelers secondary got better as the year went on last season, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they jumped at a newly (and briefly) unemployed Joe Haden. While they continue to add pieces on defense (T.J. Watt) it’s the status of Martavis Bryant awaiting league reinstatement and Le’veon Bell holding out that has dominated this summer. To be fair, whether or not Le’Veon Bell suits up (he will) probably should be the most pressing issue this side of Ben Roethlisberger’s health to any Pittsburgh fan.
6. Green Bay Packers. 2016 Record 10-6, Lost NFC Championship. 2016 Final Ranking: 7
Speaking of franchise quarterbacks, there isn’t one better than #12 in Green Bay. Most of the off-season talk, due to fantasy influences, resides around Ty Montgomery and Jamaal Williams battling for carries and the arrival of Martellus Bennett. But make no mistake, as it has in recent seasons, this team will go as far as Aaron Rodgers can carry them, but the defense will be what decides just how far that is.
7. New York Giants. 2016 Record 11-5, Lost in Wild Card Round. 2016 Final Ranking: 8
The rich get richer when it comes to the passing game in New York. (Unless you’re talking about the Jets, in which case the exact opposite of all of that applies.) Adding Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram to Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard was giving Eli Manning the kind of weapons treatment usually reserved for young gunslingers like Carson Wentz and Jameis Winston. It didn’t necessarily improve the running game or offensive line any, however with OBJ’s injury status up in the air, it’s a good thing the reinforcements arrived.
8. Seattle Seahawks, 2016 Record: 10-5-1, Lost in Divisional Round. 2016 Final Ranking: 9
A few years removed from their Super Bowls, Seattle remains much the same though the situation around them has changed. Their triumph came after a few seasons of competition with another team that looked ready to compete for a decade: the 49ers. And then they fought off the talented Cardinals. Now the 49ers are only competing to avoid the title of worst in the league, and Arizona is looking to pick up the pieces of 2016. Seattle, intact except for perhaps their most personable star, Marshawn Lynch, remain division favorites.
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2016 Record: 9-7. 2016 Final Ranking: 14
There’s now a scary amount of pass catching talent in Tampa. Mike Evans, the most-uncoverable man in football, gets joined by Desean Jackson, the fastest, and O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin arrive in the draft. The Buccaneers are so awash in receiving talent the bulk of Howard’s work his first year is expected to be as a blocker. They also poached one of the more famous roster cuts - former Broncos safety T.J. Ward. If Jameis Winston can take another step forward in his third season, they’re this year’s Raiders.
10. Dallas Cowboys. 2016 Record: 13-3, Lost in Divisional Round. 2016 Final Ranking: 2
The final say on Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension may change this ranking some. But to be honest, the decay is more influenced by disruption in the secondary (one that was a disrespected cause for the Cowboys success in 2016) and along the offensive line that has been Dallas’ calling card for a few seasons now. It’s natural to expect some regression from first-year wonderkind Dak Prescott, especially without Elliott behind him, and from the Cowboys without three-fourths of their starting secondary and two-fifths of their offensive line.
11. Washington, 2016 Record: 8-7-1. 2016 Final Ranking: 13
Everyone sleeps on Washington, but they have the most productive quarterback in their division, a better line than the Giants, a better pass rush than the Cowboys, and the receivers in Terrell Pryor and Jordan Reed to replace Pierre Garcon and Desean Jackson.
12. Tennessee Titans, 2016 Record: 9-7. 2016 Final Ranking: 18
Giving Marcus Mariota Corey Davis and Eric Decker just continues the theme of this off-season: If you’ve found your franchise quarterback, throw weapons at him so he can throw footballs at them. How much Tennessee’s dedication to smashmouth football changes in Mariota’s third year will be interesting to watch.
13. Houston Texans, 2016 Record: 9-7, Lost in Divisional Round. 2016 Final Ranking: 12
The Texans are the talented team hurt most by their lack of a surefire option at quarterback, and it’s been the case for several seasons now. Give the Texans the quarterback from any of the other top 16 teams on this list, and they’re a good five spots higher and with some, a top five team. But here they are, until Deshaun Watson or someone else stake their claim to this job.
14. Detroit Lions, 2016 Record: 9-7, Lost in Wild Card Round. 2016 Final Ranking: 11
The Lions don’t need to look around the league at the Texans, Jets, or Browns to see the results of not having a quarterback you can call your own. They learned the hard way through much of the 2000s before Matthew Stafford came their way. He may not be perfect, but he’s their quarterback and in this league, that’s worth $135 million.
15. Philadelphia Eagles, 2016 Record: 7-9. 2016 Final Ranking: 23
It’s debatable whether the Eagles receiving corps or cornerback group were the weakest link in the team in 2016. It’s not debatable which group got more help in the off-season. Sure, a couple draft picks were invested in corners, but bringing in Patrick Robinson in free agency somehow didn’t steal hype away from the arrival of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Carson Wentz becomes the latest beneficiary of his team deciding he’s ready for the surround-with-weapons approach.
16. New Orleans Saints, 2016 Record: 7-9. 2016 Final Ranking: 19
The Saints allowed 28.4 points per game in 2016, and still won seven games. Just add that to the ever-growing list of bizarre stats filed under “Drew Brees is amazing.” With the defense sure to be better thanks to drafting Marcus Lattimore and the theory that, really, how could the defense be any worse, the Saints are bound to be a dangerous team in 2017.
17. Miami Dolphins, 2016 Record: 10-6, Lost in Wild Card Round. 2016 Final Ranking: 10
Ryan Tannehill’s injury cast a dark cloud over what should have been a pretty enjoyable off-season for the Dolphins, fresh off their first playoff appearance since 2008. All things considered, while Jay Cutler may not be the NFL’s ideal quarterback, he’s walking into a pretty ideal situation: big receiving targets, a strong running game, and the familiarity of Adam Gase’s offense. Hurricane Irma’s dangerous growth is threatening their first game with Tampa Bay as well as the east coast.
18. Carolina Panthers, 2016 Record: 6-10. 2016 Final Ranking: 24
The Super Bowl hangover’s latest wreckage was the 2016 Panthers season. Returning to the running game and taking some of the load off Cam Newton is a priority, and bringing in two dangerous rookies: Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel should go a long way towards accomplishing that goal.
19. Denver Broncos, 2016 Record: 9-7. 2016 Final Ranking: 16
It was a long fall from grace for Denver in 2016. Not just from Super Bowl Champions to playoff onlookers but from 7-3 to 9-7. They have the defensive horses to be in every game, but we saw large a strain that responsibility was causing in 2016. With the rest of their division on the ascension, Denver could be in trouble. But hey, at least Brock Osweiler is back home, and on a veteran’s minimum salary, no less.
20. Minnesota Vikings, 2016 Record: 8-8. 2016 Final Ranking: 22
A year ago the Vikings looked as promising a team as the NFL had, fresh off a playoff appearance and ready to challenge the Packers with one of the league's best defenses. Since Teddy Bridgewater crumbled on a practice field last summer, only the part about the defense is unchanged. Even without Bridgewater’s injury, the offensive line may have proved Minnesota's undoing. But their place in the league has been usurped by Oakland and Tampa Bay.
21. Arizona Cardinals, 2016 Record: 7-8-1. 2016 Final Ranking: 21
2017 in Arizona is going to depend on how much of an aberration 2016 was. Were career lows for Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald hiccups or a sign of the end? There's still a lot to feel good about in Arizona, but some of the strengths - like the air game on offense and defense - are suddenly up in the air.
22. Los Angeles Chargers, 2016 Record: 5-11. 2016 Final Ranking: 26
Contract negotiations put the squeeze on the start of top pick Joey Bosa’s career last season, and now injuries are doing the same to this year’s selection: Mike Williams. The Chargers can only hope Williams rookie year keeps following the same trajectory as Bosa’s however. Bosa racked up 10.5 sacks on his way to the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2016.
23. Cincinnati Bengals, 2016 Record: 6-9-1. 2016 Final Ranking: 25
It was a season to forget in Cincinnati back in 2016. Hopefully, a healthy Tyler Eifert and the arrival of speed-demon John Ross can quicken the amnesia. Vontaze Burfict’s suspension does carry an air of nostalgia about it though.
24. Baltimore Ravens, 2016 Record: 8-8. 2016 Final Ranking: 15
The Ravens promise Joe Flacco will be ready for Week 1, but if he isn’t and Ryan Mallett gets the call...there may be no amount of Jeremy Maclin signings or recalling Steve Smith from retirement that can patch that passing game.
25. Indianapolis Colts, 2016 Record: 8-8. 2016 Final Ranking: 17
The Colts are in the same boat as the Ravens, give or take. A completely different team with and without their quarterback and unfortunately, too often they are without him. Andrew Luck’s status remains up in the air as the season looms and when the other most talented players on Indianapolis’ roster are receivers, it just compounds their ability to compete without Luck.
26. Jacksonville Jaguars, 2016 Record: 3-13. 2016 Final Ranking: 27
Earlier this summer, Doug Marrone was asked how many times he’d like Blake Bortles to throw each game and replied, “zero.” Last week, Bortles was named the starting quarterback, a role he’s held for three seasons and 51 interceptions. Safe to say not everything has gone to plan. If Jacksonville can accomplish the seemingly insurmountable task of protecting the football they’re in decent shape with Leonard Fournette and an improving defense.
28. Los Angeles Rams, 2016 Record: 4-12. 2016 Final Ranking: 31
The Rams brought in Sean McVay, the youngest head coach in NFL history (now 31 years old,) to, among other things, do for Jared Goff what he did for Kirk Cousins in Washington. If he can accomplish that the rest of McVay’s job will become a lot easier. An ascendant season from Goff paired with Todd Gurley and a defense that has been asked to do too much for too long would see an equally quick ascension in these rankings.
27. Buffalo Bills, 2016 Record: 8-8. 2016 Final Ranking: 20
This feels too low for Buffalo until the exodus of talent in Spring and Summer is remembered. Zach Brown, Stephen Gilmore, Reggie Ragland, and Ronald Darby were all already gone before the news that Sammy Watkins got shipped out (maybe not Darby? Call it a tie.) Then Jonathan Williams gets cut. We don’t know why they decided on rebuilding in Buffalo, but they clearly did.
29. San Francisco 49ers, 2016 Record: 2-14. 2016 Final Ranking: 30
New coach Kyle Shanahan got the quarterback he wanted - without trading the house for Kirk Cousins - in Brian Hoyer. That said, the 49ers got competent quarterback play (16 touchdowns, four interceptions) out of Colin Kaepernick last season and still struggled. Adding Pierre Garcon helps, and they apparently feel comfortable enough with their other options to ship Vance McDonald, their leading receiving tight end the past two seasons, to Pittsburgh.
30. Chicago Bears, 2016 Record: 3-13. 2016 Final Ranking: 28
Cameron Meredith’s ACL tear means half of the Bears breakout duo from last season is now sidelined for 2017. An even greater load falls on Jordan Howard’s apparently capable shoulders (252 carries in 2016, and 240 over the final 13 games.) Meredith’s injury also creates opportunity (and necessity) for Kevin White to harness the potential that caused Chicago to invest the seventh pick in him two seasons ago and become the latest towering receiver to star in the windy city. Mike Glennon is the starting qb for now, but Mitch Trubisky’s budding popularity in Chicago makes it a hard position to hold without looking over your shoulder.
31. New York Jets, 2016 Record: 5-11. 2016 Final Ranking: 29
Forcing themselves to start Josh McCown ensures the Jets will have at least a competent NFL signal-caller, but it doesn’t come close to solving the offensive issues furthered when Brandon Marshall’s and Eric Decker’s departures were followed by Quincy Enunwa’s injury. They continue to invest in the defense in New York, and it may keep them from a truly disastrous season, but the offense could use some of the same attention.
32. Cleveland Browns 2016 Record:1-15 2016 Final Ranking: 32
The fourth quarterback taken in the 2017 draft became the first to earn a starting job when DeShone Kizer was named the (reborn) franchise’s 27th starting quarterback. If anyone is keeping tabs, this will be the 19th season since their return. One of the few bright spots on the Browns over his career, corner Joe Haden is no longer with the team.