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Preseason Power Rankings No. 11: Arizona Cardinals

St Louis Rams v Arizona Cardinals Getty Images

The Arizona Cardinals finished the 2013 season as one of the hottest teams in the league. The Cardinals finished 7-2 over the final nine games with their only two losses coming by a field goal to a pair of playoff teams in Philadelphia and San Francisco. In addition, Arizona is the only team in two seasons to defeat the Seattle Seahawks at home with a 17-10 win in Week 16.

However, the Cardinals have lost a few key pieces off a defense that ranked sixth in the league last season. Karlos Dansby signed with the Cleveland Browns in free agency and Daryl Washington was suspended for the year for another drug violation.

Free agent additions Larry Foote and Antonio Cromartie on defense, and Jared Veldheer, John Carlson and Ted Ginn on offense could help the Cardinals mount a challenge against Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers for control of the NFC West.

Strengths.

The Cardinals possess one of the best 3-4 defensive fronts in the league. Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell are stalwarts at defensive end with Dan Williams and Alameda Ta’Amu as solid options at nose tackle. John Abraham continues to defy his age after posting 11.5 sacks for Arizona last season as a rush linebacker.

Arizona appears to have finally found a true complement to pair with Larry Fitzgerald in Michael Floyd. With the addition of Ted Ginn and third-round pick John Brown, quarterback Carson Palmer should have a bevy of options to help build upon his 4,000-yard campaign last season.

Weaknesses.

The signing of Jared Veldheer and the return of the 2014 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper should help stabilize an offensive line that has long been mediocre at best. However, the right side of the line brings more questions. Journeyman Paul Fanaika is penciled in right guard with a triumvirate of Nate Potter, Bobby Massie and Bradley Sowell likely battling for the job at right tackle.

With Dansby and Washington out of the picture, the Cardinals need to find suitable replacements at inside linebacker. Foote and 2013 second-round pick Kevin Minter will be called upon to step into the vacated roles, but they’ll have massive production to replace. Foote played in just one game last season with Minter unproven as an every down player. Ernie Sims and Lorenzo Alexander could also push for playing time.

Changes.

Dansby and Washington are the most notable departures for the Cardinals on defense while right tackle Eric Winston and left guard Daryn Colledge are gone on offense. First-round pick Deone Buchanon will be called upon to replace Yeremiah Bell alongside Tyrann Mathieu (when healthy) at safety.

Antonio Cromartie should be an upgrade from Jerraud Powers, Justin Bethel and Javier Arenas at cornerback. John Carlson (if he can stay healthy) and second-round pick Troy Niklas should provide some more consistent depth at tight end as well.

Camp battles.

The battles for starting spots along the right side of the Cardinals offensive line will be important to watch. Sowell and Massie have both struggled when called upon to start in the past and Arizona could use consistency up front.

The battle for the inside linebacker jobs should be the most fierce with Foote, Minter, Sims and Alexander all competing for two spots.

Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer will be battling for secondary carries behind Andre Ellington, who showed flashes of promise as a rookie.

Prospects.

The Arizona Cardinals should be legitimate contenders for a playoff spot this season if they can recapture the momentum they finished with in 2013. The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers will enter the season as the favorites to win the division, but the Cardinals aren’t far behind.

They will face a slightly more favorable schedule than their fellow division rivals and will likely be ready to pounce if either Seattle or San Francisco falters this fall.

Carson Palmer has stabilized the revolving door at quarterback over the past several seasons and the offensive line is in better shape than it’s been in a long time. The secondary should be improved with the additions of Cromartie and Buchanon as well. If the Cardinals can find adequate replacements for Dansby and Washington, they should once again be a force on defense.

The Cardinals reside in the best division in football but they appear to be up for the task of challenging for a playoff spot alongside the Seahawks and 49ers.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 12: Chicago Bears

Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall AP

The 2013 Bears scored the second-most points in franchise history (445). Only the 1985 Bears tallied more in regular season play, putting up 456 in their bulldozing of all non-Dan Marino-led competition in a 15-1 season.

But for all of their skill on offense, the 2013 Bears were overmatched on defense, surrendering 478 points, 57 points more than any previous Chicago club had given up.

Long before the Packers’ Randall Cobb sprinted through the Chicago secondary en route to the division-clinching touchdown in the regular season finale, the Bears’ defense was broken. Chicago surrendered at least 28 points in half of its games, including 54 to Philadelphia, 45 to Washington, 42 to St. Louis and 40 to Detroit. No team allowed more yards per play than the Bears, and no team was worse against the run.

In the offseason, the Bears set out to bolster that “D,” signing two of the best available defensive ends (Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen) and drafting defensive players with four of their first five picks. On offense, the Bears tried to build continuity. They re-committed to quarterback Jay Cutler, signing him to a seven-year contract worth up to $126.7 million in January. In May, they signed wide receiver Brandon Marshall to a four-year deal worth as much as $40 million.

These were logical moves for Chicago. For once, it was the offense didn’t need much work. Now, the focus turns to whether the defense can provide more resistance in head coach Marc Trestman’s second season on the job.

Strengths.

The Bears’ 2014 offense could be one of the best the franchise has ever fielded. Marshall (100 catches, 1,295 yards, 12 TDs in 2013) and fellow starting wideout Alshon Jeffery (89-1,421-7) were Pro Bowlers a season ago, as were tailback Matt Forte (1,933 combined rushing-receiving yards) and right guard Kyle Long.

Cutler — now in sixth season in Chicago — appears to have taken well to Trestman’s scheme. The strong-armed Cutler connected on 63.1 percent of his throws a season ago, his best completion percentage in six years. He’s quite capable of being the first Bears quarterback to make a Pro Bowl since Jim McMahon 29 years ago.

If Cutler gets an all-star nod, he’ll be aided by strength of his pass catching corps. Marshall and Jeffery form an outstanding tandem. Forte is one of the game’s best receivers out of the backfield. Tight end Martellus Bennett is solid, too.

In Trestman’s inaugural campaign, the Bears’ passing attempts rose nearly 20 percent, but total sacks were down more than 30 percent. Moreover, the club’s completion percentage was up more than five percent. In short, the 2013 Bears threw it more and threw it better — and their quarterbacks hit the ground less. That’s testament to Trestman’s scheme, but it also reflects well on the offensive line, which the club overhauled last year, drafting Long and right tackle Jordan Mills and signing left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson.

The Bears can only hope their offseason D-line investment will pay similar dividends. And Allen, Houston and ex-Lions end Willie Young should strengthen a defense that got just 20 sacks from its front four a season ago.

Finally, in Robbie Gould, the Bears have one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers. He hit 26-of-29 field goals in 2013, including 9-of-11 from 40 yards and beyond.

Weaknesses.

Even with an upgraded defensive line, the Bears’ defense looms a major concern. The top player in the LB corps, Lance Briggs, will be 34 in November. Shea McClellin, the Bears’ 2012 first-round pick, could get reps at strong-side and middle linebacker in an attempt to jump-start his career. More is also needed from second-year pro Jon Bostic, whether at middle or outside linebacker.

The Bears’ secondary also looks shaky. Per Pro Football Focus grades, the club had two of the four worst starting safeties in 2013 (SS Major Wright, FS Chris Conte). Wright departed in free agency, and Conte comes off shoulder surgery. The Bears added four veterans and a draft pick at safety, which at least gives them some options as they try to craft a workable solution on the back end.

The Bears’ cornerback play should also be monitored. The club added some much-needed youth and depth in the draft, taking Kyle Fuller in Round One. Fuller, veterans Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman figure as the top three corners. If the 33-year-old Tillman stays healthy and returns to form, and if Fuller is a quick study, the Bears should be just fine at this key position. But if Tillman misses time, and if Fuller isn’t quite ready for prime time, the Bears could have a problem.

The worries don’t stop there. The Bears’ special teams are quite unsettled entering training camp. The club will have a new punter, holder, long-snapper, punt returner and kickoff returner. And backup quarterback could be a trouble spot after the departure of Josh McCown. Veterans Jimmy Clausen and Jordan Palmer and sixth-round rookie David Fales will vie to back up Cutler. Clausen and Palmer have generally struggled against NFL competition, but Trestman is masterful with quarterbacks.

Changes.

The defensive depth chart got a makeover. The Bears released defensive end Julius Peppers and didn’t bring back defensive tackle Henry Melton, defensive end Corey Wootton or linebacker James Anderson. The Bears’ most expensive free agent signings — Houston and Allen — are defensive ends, a nod to the premium that ready-made pass rushers command. To bolster the defensive tackle depth, the Bears turned to the draft, selecting Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton in the second and third rounds, respectively.

The Bears took a value shopping approach at safety. Free agent additions Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray and Adrian Wilson are all slated to make less than $1 million in salary this season, per NFLPA records.

On offense, the changes were reserved to backup spots. McCown left to be the Buccaneers’ starter, while tailback Michael Bush and Earl Bennett were released. Rookie Ka’Deem Carey could help replace Bush, while former Washington wideout Josh Morgan was signed to bolster the WR depth.

The Bears underwent several major shakeups in the kicking game. Long-time star returner Devin Hester signed with Atlanta. Punter Adam Podlesh was released, and the club spent a draft pick on a potential replacement (Pat O’Donnell, Round Six). Then, late in the offseason, 16-year long-snapper Patrick Mannelly retired, adding another layer of uncertainty to the special teams.

Camp battles.

Here are the positions and players to watch:

— Safety: Ex-Giant Mundy might have the edge at strong safety, but Wilson is a wild card if he has something left after missing the 2013 season with an Achilles injury. Rookie Vereen is the biggest threat to the incumbent Conte at free safety.

— Cornerback: The progress of Fuller must be monitored. There are plenty of snaps to be had in this secondary if he’s up to it.

— Defensive tackle: Can Ferguson or Sutton push starters Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea? If not, can the rookies at least prove capable rotation players?

— Linebacker: Will Bostic, McClellin and second-year outside linebacker Khaseem Greene step up their play? The Bears didn’t draft a linebacker and added only veteran backup Jordan Senn in free agency.

— Wide receiver: Morgan and second-year pro Marquess Wilson appear the favorites to replace Bennett as the third receiver.

— Running back: Carey and second-year pro Michael Ford will compete for the little work that won’t go to Forte, a true three-down back.

— Quarterback: Palmer, Clausen and Fales will compete for no more than two reserve roles. The question is, which of this trio most quickly applies Trestman’s lessons?

— Returner: Eric Weems is the most experienced option in the competition to return kickoffs and punts.

— Punter: O’Donnell will try to hold off veteran Tress Way.

— Long-snapper: First-year pro Brandon Hartson and CFL veteran Chad Rempel will battle it out.

Prospects.

The Bears must hang tough early. Six of their first nine games are on the road, including trips to visit the 49ers (Week Two), Falcons (Week Six), Patriots (Week Eight) and Packers (Week 10).

If Chicago can get through that nine-pack in decent order, there’s a real chance to close with gusto. From November 16 through December 21, the Bears play five home games and take just one road trip — Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. The Bears end their season at Minnesota — no picnic, yes, but not the worst draw ever.

It all looks fairly cut-and-dried with the Bears. If their defense is better, and if their offense hums along, they are serious contenders for a playoff spot. But if the defense remains a sieve, and if the offense regresses, they are vulnerable.

The Bears aren’t the youngest of teams. Tillman and Briggs don’t have many NFL years left. Cutler and Marshall aren’t kids, either, and Forte is approaching 2,000 career touches. There ought to be a real sense of urgency to get into the playoffs with an offense this talented. As Bears observers with any sense of history would tell you, scoring points traditionally hasn’t been a Chicago strength.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 13: Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia Eagles Training Camp Getty Images

There were a few shaky moments in Chip Kelly’s first season as an NFL head coach, but everything ended up going pretty well for the Eagles.

Nick Foles took over for Michael Vick and turned in a very strong season while LeSean McCoy rebounded from injuries in 2012 to help power one of the league’s strongest offenses. The defense wasn’t quite as successful, but they played well against the run and didn’t break down often enough to make the offensive fireworks less significant.

Kelly and the Eagles won the NFC East with a 10-6 record, making the season a good one even if it ended with a loss to the Saints in their first playoff game.

The offseason had its twists and turns, particularly the departure of leading receiver DeSean Jackson, but our panel thinks that the Eagles remain the best team in the NFC East.

Strengths.

McCoy has done everything the Eagles have ever asked him to do and he’s done it so well that it’s a bit surprising that the Eagles haven’t asked him to do more. Perhaps that’s a stretch, but there aren’t many players in McCoy’s class these days when it comes to moving the ball on the ground or through the air.

Right tackle Lane Johnson is facing a suspension to start the year, which would probably be more troubling for the Eagles if they weren’t also returning their other four starters — Left tackle Jason Peters, left guard Evan Mathis, center Jason Kelce and right guard Todd Herremans – from a last season’s strong offensive line. That continuity should allow Kelly to continue to grow the offense in his second season.

It should also give Foles a good chance of following up his strong 2013 work with more of the same. There’s plenty of debate about how good Foles might turn out to be, but he was nearly flawless running this offense last year and that experience isn’t going to hurt him in 2014.

With Brent Celek, Zach Ertz and James Casey all back for the 2014 season, the Eagles are going to be throwing a lot of multiple tight end sets at opponents this year. They exploited the mismatches those created to great effect last season and should do so again this time around.

There are questions elsewhere at cornerback, but Brandon Boykin locked down the slot last season and there’s every reason to expect more of the same.

Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton had good years at defensive end for the Eagles and both return to start on the defensive line again this this season. Vinny Curry is also back as a pass rushing option in reserve, giving the Eagles a solid group of ends.

Weaknesses.

The Eagles spent all of last season looking for more pass rush at outside linebacker to go with Trent Cole and they continued the hunt into the offseason when they drafted Marcus Smith in the first round. Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham will also be trying to make the Eagles more threatening on defense, but neither one struck much fear last season.

We mentioned cornerback issues while discussing Boykin and they started with Cary Williams last season. The veteran didn’t play particularly well last season and banking on big late-career turnarounds isn’t always the wisest course of action.

They’ll need something better from the secondary, though, because the Eagles’ run defense wasn’t nearly as bad as their pass defense last season. Some of those numbers will always look bad because of how the Eagles play on offense, but they need smaller numbers on the opposition side of the scoreboard. Ideally they’d get better pass rush and pass coverage, but they’ll need at least one.

Changes.

Jackson is gone and so is Jason Avant, leaving the Eagles with a different looking receiver group this season. Jeremy Maclin returns from a torn ACL and rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff arrived in the draft. Matthews has gotten rave reviews for his spring work, which may make any initial worries about losing Jackson hard to remember come the fall.

Another reason why Jackson’s departure may not be seriously felt is the acquisition of Darren Sproles in a trade with the Saints. Sproles is slowing down a bit, but it’s a good bet that Kelly will be able to find ways to take advantage of his skills as a runner and receiver on the deep Eagles offense.

Malcolm Jenkins signed as a free agent while Patrick Chung and Kurt Coleman departed, giving the Eagles a new look at safety. How much better the overall play will be is up in the air given Jenkins’ erratic play in New Orleans and the return of Nate Allen and Earl Wolff, but they’re trying something new.

The same is true at corner where Nolan Carroll signed to join Williams, Boykin and Bradley Fletcher. Carroll may wind up being an upgrade, but his play in Miami wasn’t good enough to guarantee that there are better days coming at cornerback.

Camp Battles.

Matt Barkley and Mark Sanchez will hold an All-USC competition to back up Foles this season. Barkley did not look ready for the NFL when he was thrust into action as a rookie while Sanchez missed all of last season with a shoulder injury suffered late in a preseason game.

Graham only played a quarter of the snaps for the Eagles last year and he may not be long for the roster if he can’t show that his second year in this defense will lead to better results. Bryan Braman and Travis Long should be his primary competition on that front.

We’ve discussed cornerback and wide receiver elsewhere, but both spots are worth watching during camp to see how playing time will be doled out early in the season.

Prospects.

The Eagles won the division last year and there isn’t a team that’s clearly better than them heading into this season, so a repeat should be their goal.

Barring injuries, the biggest reason to think that the Eagles may take a step back is that Foles is unlikely to throw 27 touchdowns against two interceptions again this season. More turnovers would put more pressure on a defense that’s still finding its way and that could lead to worse results this time around.

Given how strong the offense looks, though, Foles would have to pick up some of Sanchez’s habits from the Jets to keep the Eagles from competing in the NFC East even if the defense doesn’t make any major strides this season.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 14: Atlanta Falcons

Mike Smith AP

It looked like the Falcons had finally broken through.

But then last season when a few players were broken, some deeper cracks were revealed.

After turning consistent regular season success (56 wins from 2008-12) into their first playoff win under coach Mike Smith, the Falcons fell apart dramatically last year.

The injuries to star wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White were the most evident, but the Falcons were also deeply flawed along both lines, and it began to show.

But this offseason, they have aggressively (how else) pursued a fix to the problems that doctors couldn’t work on.

They used the first hours of free agency to add heft to both lines, setting the stage for a shift to more of a 3-4 defense and the possibility of more of a run game.

Strengths.

Even with the retirement of tight end Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons ought to be able to score points with anyone.

Once Jones and White are back (they’re crossing their fingers on Jones being ready soon), Ryan should again be able to play pitch-and-catch with anyone in the league.

Fixing the offensive line will help, since it was the biggest problem last year other than injuries. They averaged a measly 77.9 rushing yards per game (last in the league) while allowing 44 sacks.

So the early spend on free agent guard Jon Asamoah and using their first-rounder on tackle Jake Matthews was an immediate upgrade for a line that needed toughness as much as bodies. They’ve installed those two on the right side, and hope that left tackle Sam Baker comes back a different player after knee surgery.

If nothing else, it should give running back Stephen Jackson a chance to look like himself again. The longtime Rams star saw his streak of eight straight 1,000-yard seasons snapped, and they brought in Devonta Freeman in the draft to add some between-the-tackles running depth (which they’ve lacked).

Weaknesses.

The Falcons haven’t completely escaped the injury bug, and suffered a huge blow when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered a torn Achilles tendon in an offseason workout. That will push last year’s replacements and some rookies into more prominent roles.

Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu did yeoman’s work last year, and they’ll be pushed for playing time by a few rookies.

Fourth-rounder Prince Shembo looks like a player they can build around as well, but this is a group still in need of help, which might keep coming once cuts happen elsewhere.

Changes.

The problems with the linebacking corps could be helped by the fact some of their linemen might be standing up more often.

While the Falcons have been reluctant to talk about it, this offseason’s additions made it clear they’re looking at more of a 3-4 look.

Early free agency pickups Paul Soliai (a traditional nose tackle) and Tyson Jackson (a five-technique defensive end), are traditional 3-4 fits, and the price tags don’t indicate they were brought in to be role players.

They also drafted Ra’Shede Hageman in the second round with designs on using him at end, though they have a versatile group.

They brought back defensive tackles Corey Peters, Peria Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux this offseason, giving them some versatile options as coordinator Mike Nolan gets to play mix-and-match.

They needed to shake it up, as they couldn’t stop the run last year, next to last in the league at 135.8 yards per game allowed.

The changes will also be interesting as they pertain to veteran pass-rusher Osi Umenyiora, who had 7.5 sacks last year. They’ll give him a chance to do that again, but are casting a wide net for anyone to create pressure.

Camp Battles.

They’re still sorting out the center position, with Joe Hawley and Peter Konz competing there through the offseason.

Konz was given the first crack at replacing the retired Todd McClure a year ago, but it didn’t last the year, with Hawley taking over before the end of the year.

They appear inclined to give Konz, a former second-rounder, one more chance, though Hawley might have the edge.

The retirement of Gonzalez will change the way they line up, as there’s not a like-for-like replacement at the move tight end spot.

They’ll use veteran Bear Pascoe as a blocker, though they have hopes for second-year man Levine Toilolo as a red zone receving threat. But the reality is they’ll replace Gonalez’s production by committee.

Prospects.

The Falcons made the sort of moves teams make when they’re a bit desperate.

The free agency splash lasted about a day, and then they were forced to fine-tune with spare parts such as their trade for backup quarterback T.J. Yates (though return man Devin Hester may still have something left).

The Falcons are talented enough in the passing game to always have a chance, and the additions to both lines should help.

But with Weatherspoon’s injury and a revolving door in the middle of their defense and a division that only got better this offseason, it might be tough for them to reclaim their spot near the top of the NFC South.

It will be curious to see what that means for the future, as coach Mike Smith is entering his seventh season, with one playoff win to show for it.

That’s nearing the point when people start grumbling (he can ask his new division neighbor Lovie Smith about that), so it will be interesting to see if Smith’s seat ever gets warm over the course of the year.

They’ve done nothing but win games under his watch, but the lack of a big postseason payoff could make him less secure than he might initially appear.

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PFT Preseason Power Rankings No. 15: Pittsburgh Steelers

Roethlisberger AP

For years, the Steelers have consistently reloaded.  As older and/or expensive players exited, younger, cheaper, and in most cases nationally-unknown players stepped in and stepped up.

That trend hasn’t held in recent years.  It started along the offensive line, even though the team thrived for several seasons without a stout, highly-effective five-man crew of blockers.  The phenomenon spread the last two years, with the Steelers missing the postseason and creating a sense that the front office and coaching staff have had their skills at finding young and talented replacements go the way of the Steve Blass fastball.

It’s not entirely true.  The team has developed an uncanny knack for drafting quality receivers in the middle and late rounds, a feat few franchises have accomplished.  Defensively, however, the Steel Curtain mystique has faded a bit as the team has struggled to swap great old players with competent young ones.

Still, the Steelers have missed the playoffs for two straight seasons.  While no one has sounded the alarm just yet, another less-than-stellar campaign from the Steelers will lend credence to the reality that reloading finally has yielded to rebuilding.

Strengths.

NFL teams either have a franchise quarterback or are looking for a franchise quarterback.  The Steelers have one, and while he continues to be less-than-beloved by the locker room at large, Ben Roethlisberger continues to have the full belief of the organization.  For good reason.  He has more Super Bowl wins that Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, and Matt Ryan (all of whom make more money than him), and Roethlisberger continues to perform at a high level amid a supporting cast that often doesn’t.  Eventually, the player and the team will face a contractual dilemma; for now, Roethlisberger remains the guy, and his presence ensures that the Steelers will at least be on the fringes of contention each and every year.

After a few seasons that created a sense of meandering, the Steelers have put together a potentially potent depth chart at tailback, with Le’Veon Bell, the still-underrated LeGarrette Blount, and dynamic rookie Dri Archer leading the way.  Together, they could give Roethlisberger the right balance to make it easier for him to get something positive out of a work-in-progress receiver room.

The offensive line continues to have plenty of question marks, but there’s no ambiguity about the team’s attitude toward center Maurkice Pouncey.  Despite having a year left on his rookie contract and recovering from a torn ACL that limited him to one game in 2013, Pouncey signed a contract that eclipsed Alex Mack’s transition-tag offer sheet from the Jaguars, which the Browns matched.  Put simply, the Steelers got a glimpse of life without Pouncey, and they saw enough to know they don’t want it to happen again.  His presence in the center of the line will definitely make the team better, not worse, in 2014.

Defensively, the Steelers continue to be all about the linebackers.  Even with LaMarr Woodley gone, the Steelers have Lawrence Timmons, transition-tagged Jason Worilds, second-year first-rounder Jarvis Jones, and fleet-footed and versatile rookie Ryan Shazier.  To a large extent, their effectiveness depends on the ability of the defensive line to keep blockers away from them.  This group may be nearly good enough that it won’t matter.

Beyond any personnel group, the Steelers continue to be the Steelers.  Guided by the steady, patient hand of the Rooneys, the folks employed to run the football operations can do so without worrying about hot seats or any of the other short-term, win-now pressures that plague the decision-making of most other teams.  It allows the organization to make decisions without regard to saving jobs and with the sole focus of pursuing championships.  While another year or two of missed playoffs could test that vibe, the Steelers lack the sense of reckless urgency that other teams with a pair of failed seasons would demonstrate.

Weaknesses.

No unit has seen more talent exit the franchise in recent years than wide receiver.  Mike Wallace cashed in with the Dolphins in 2013.  This time around, Emmannuel Sanders opted for the Broncos, and Jerricho Cotchery helped fill the pass-catching void in Carolina.  Entering camp, the position in Pittsburgh consists of Antonio Brown and a bunch of guys who may or may not make much of a difference.  Some of them could.  Rookie Martavis Bryant and second-year product Markus Wheaton possibly will follow in the footsteps of Brown, Wallace, and Sanders as unheralded prospects who become high-impact players.  Less will be expected of veterans Lance Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey, who were available to be signed as free agents for a reason.

Heath Miller continues to be one of the favorite Steelers of the past generation, but there’s a strong sense that he’s close to the end.  Roethslisberger recently broke out the rose-colored beer goggles, claiming that Miller is back to his old self more than a year after tearing an ACL.  Even if the Steelers ultimately take a chance on a guy like Jermichael Finley, the position isn’t as strong as it’s been in the past.

Aaron Smith was one of the best 3-4 defensive ends to ever agree to embrace the anonymity of tying up blockers, and the Steelers have had a hard time replacing him.  With Casey Hampton long gone and Brett Keisel possibly not returning, it’s a time of flux for the defensive line.  The play of the front three needs to improve or the string of failed seasons will match that number, and possibly exceed it.

Cornerback Ike Taylor has said he’s pissed about the pay cut he had to take to stay in Pittsburgh, but the truth is that the Steelers are the only team that would have given him as much as he’ll get this year.  He’ll get that much because the Steelers need him.  They need him because they’re otherwise not very good at the position.

Changes.

For a team that has enjoyed contention through consistency, the Steelers have endured plenty of changes in recent years.  The departure of Sanders has made receiver the modern-day equivalent of the revolving door at linebacker a generation ago.  Then again, that door is still spinning; Woodley went West against his wishes while Worilds opted to stay, at least for one more year.

Disappointing first-rounder Ziggy Hood exited via free agency, and safety Ryan Clark opted for Washington once it became clear that the Steelers weren’t interested in extending his stay, thanks to the restructured deal with Troy Polamalu and the arrival of Mike Mitchell.

As coaches go, there was plenty of speculation that offensive coordinator Todd Haley and/or long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau could take the fall for the team’s struggles.  Instead, offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, Jr. got the boot — replaced by Hall of Famer and former Titans coach Mike Munchak, who given the competition could possibly still win a backup job on the team.  If he can get the line to play better than the sum of the parts, the Steelers could get back to the postseason and make some noise once there.

Camp battles.

The depth chart at receiver will be a work in progress, with Antonio Brown the clear-cut No. 1 and the rest of the players jockeying for position.  Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant will likely vie for the No. 2 job, with Lance Moore penciled in as the slot receiver.  Heyward-Bey in theory could be a factor, but he also could be gone by the time Week One rolls around.  Dri Archer will play running back and receiver, making him an intriguing option on third downs — especially if he lines up in the backfield and then motions to the slot or flanker.

Archer also will be a factor at running back, where Le’Veon Bell is presumed to be the starter and LeGarrette Blount serves as the backup.  Coach Mike Tomlin has said that training camp will determine the ultimate division of labor.  That’s a diplomatic way of saying the best guy will be the starter, and if he’s sufficiently better than the rest he’ll be the workhorse.  It would take a lot for Archer to leapfrog the other two, but given his speed it’s not impossible.

Cam Thomas arrived via free agency to challenge Steve McLendon for reps at nose tackle.  It’s a position where the Steelers definitely need improvement, now.

William Gay and Cortez Allen are expected to battle for one of the starting cornerback jobs.  If Ike Taylor’s play dips, it’s not completely out of the question that he’ll end up out of the starting lineup in what appears to be his final season in Pittsburgh.

At safety, Troy Polamalu is back, somewhat unexpectedly.  That relegates Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas to compete for the right to replace Ryan Clark.  With more and more teams loading up on quality safeties and with the Steelers not as good as they could be at cornerback, it could make sense to find ways to get all three on the field.

Prospects.

When little is expected, the Steelers tend to overdeliver.  Last year, a horrible start to the season nearly became a highly unlikely playoff berth.  This year, the improvements the team has made should be enough to put the franchise back in the playoffs.

If they get there, the Steelers could be dangerous — especially if they can get back to the plug-and-play-well system that has helped the Steelers remain relevant for decades.  The key spots to watch will be receiver and defensive line.  If those areas produce, and if fleet-footed rookies Shazier and Archer can run that way on the choppy sod of Heinz Field, the Steelers will once again be winning in January.

If they fail, the franchise could have a different atmosphere come 2015.  Especially since a fourth straight season without a postseason appearance would match the longest drought since Chuck Noll became the head coach in 1969.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 16: San Diego Chargers

Philip Rivers AP

The 2013 Chargers earned the AFC’s final wild card berth on the final day of the regular season, and were they ever the definition of a wild card.

Of the Chargers’ seven losses a season ago, six were by one score or less. They were 5-2 against playoff clubs but a mere 4-5 against also-rans, including defeats to Oakland, Washington and Houston.

But in the end, San Diego got hot at the right time, winning four in a row to end the regular season. Then, in the postseason, the Chargers proved they belonged, upsetting the favored Bengals in Cincinnati and putting up a fight in a loss at Denver in the divisional round.

In all, it was a successful first season for Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, who oversaw a club that always seemed to give itself a chance to win. And was it ever a splendid return to top form for quarterback Philip Rivers, who again looked like one of the best in his profession.

In some ways, the Chargers might have been ahead of schedule a season ago. The question is, what growth are they capable of this time around?

Strengths.

The Chargers’ offense is formidable. Rivers was fun to watch in 2013, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and ranking near the top of the NFL in passing yards gained per attempt (8.2). He was sacked 19 fewer times in 2013 than in the previous campaign (30 vs. 49), which speaks well of McCoy’s scheme and the work of the offensive line, which stepped up its play.

No team was better on third downs than the Chargers, and no quarterback may have been better than Rivers in such situations. Per STATS LLC, Rivers converted first downs on a league-high 49.4 percent of his passing attempts (77-of-156).

Rivers has multiple capable targets. Second-year wide receiver Keenan Allen starred as a rookie, hauling in 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. Tight end Antonio Gates (77 catches, 872 yards, four TDs) is a key security blanket for Rivers, as is tailback Danny Woodhead (76 catches, 605 yards, six TDs). Wide receivers Malcom Floyd, Vincent Brown and Eddie Royal and tight end Ladarius Green will also get their shots to contribute, too.

The Chargers’ running game is no slouch, either. Lead back Ryan Mathews racked up 1,255 yards a season ago in a career-best campaign. Ex-Colt Donald Brown gives San Diego another starter-caliber rusher behind Mathews. In addition to his pass catching, Woodhead can chip in a few carries per game.

Finally, the Chargers’ defense appears stronger than a season ago. Free safety Eric Weedle is a standout, while ex-Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers could be just what the secondary needs. Defensive end Corey Liguet (12.5 combined sacks in the last two seasons), inside linebacker Donald Butler and outside linebacker Melvin Ingram are nice defensive foundation pieces for now and the future.

Weaknesses.

The Chargers allowed more yards per rush and per pass than any other AFC a team a season ago. Even if San Diego’s defense is better — and it should be, with Flowers arriving and Ingram and Dwight Freeney returning from injury-shortened campaigns — this isn’t a shutdown group by any stretch.

The play of the outside linebackers will be key for the Chargers. Liguet (5.5 sacks) paced the club in sacks in 2013, with fellow end Kendall Reyes finishing second with five sacks. For a club employing a 3-4 base scheme like San Diego, the outside ‘backers must generate some pressure off the edges.

On offense, the play of the Chargers’ line still bears some monitoring, even after the improvements made a season ago.

Changes.

The Chargers’ most important changes could come in the secondary, where Flowers and first-round pick Jason Verrett should bolster the cornerback corps. Those additions came after the club cut ties with corner Derek Cox, who struggled in his lone season in San Diego.

The Chargers have a new offensive coordinator, with Frank Reich replacing Ken Whisenhunt, who became the Titans’ head coach. San Diego has also made a change at backup quarterback, with Kellen Clemens (ex-St. Louis) signing on to replace Charlie Whitehurst, who followed Whisenhunt to Tennessee.

The Chargers’ RB depth chart is a little more crowded with the addition of Donald Brown, who led the Colts in rushing a season ago. He effectively replaces Ronnie Brown as one of the club’s top three backs.

Camp battles.

Several positions bear watching:

—   Right guard: Incumbent Jeromey Clary comes off shoulder and hip surgery; can third-round pick Chris Watt push him for the job?

—   Cornerback: Flowers, Verrett and holdovers Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall are the top four options at the position. Flowers seems likely to garner a major role, but how quickly will Verrett adjust to the NFL game?

—   Running back: How will the reps be split between Mathews, Woodhead and Brown?

—   Nose tackle: Sean Lissemore, Ryan Carrethers and Kwame Geathers are among the options. Cam Thomas, one of the regulars at the position a season ago, signed with Pittsburgh.

—   Outside linebacker: There could be some healthy competition here, with Ingram, Freeney, Larry English, Jarret Johnson, Thomas Keiser and rookie Jeremiah Attaochu all in the mix for work.

Prospects.

The Chargers’ schedule is both inviting and challenging, with the biggest tests right out of the gate and down the stretch.

The Chargers begin with a pair of challenging out-of-conference games at Arizona and vs. Seattle. A 0-2 start is quite possible, given the degree of difficulty of those matchups.

Then comes a five-game run that could ultimately make or break the Chargers’ season. The next five opponents — the Bills (away), Jets (home), Jaguars (home), Raiders (away) and Chiefs (home) — are all conference opponents ranked behind San Diego in PFT’s preseason power rankings. Here’s a chance for the Chargers to stack up some important AFC wins — and they must do so.

Similarly, the Chargers need to make hay in the early part of November. They begin the month at Miami (Nov. 2), then take their bye. Then comes home games vs. Oakland (Nov. 16) and St. Louis (Nov. 23). The Chargers may have to sweep this three-game stretch, considering their next five games — their final of the campaign — are at Baltimore, home vs. New England, home vs. Denver, at San Francisco and at Kansas City.

In all, the schedule seems a perfect test for the Chargers. If their offense remains potent and efficient, and if their defense has improved, the Chargers could get rolling, and they could prove a challenging matchup for anyone, even those strong outfits they face in the final weeks.

The Chargers didn’t blink in tough situations a season ago, which makes them all the more intriguing in 2014. But can they move forward? It probably comes down to whether they can get a few more stops on “D.” They are going to score their share of points.

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2014 NFL training camp reporting dates / locations

Clay Matthews AP

Here are training camp reporting dates and locations for all 32 NFL teams. The information below was announced by the league on July 14:

Arizona Cardinals: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz. Rookies: July 22. Veterans: July 25.

Atlanta Falcons: Atlanta Falcons Training Facility, Flowery Branch, Ga. Rookies: July 22. Veterans: July 24.

Baltimore Ravens: Under Armour Performance Center, Owings Mills, Md. Rookies: July 16. Veterans, July 23.

Buffalo Bills: St. John Fisher College, Pittsford, N.Y. Rookies: July 16. Veterans: July 19.

Carolina Panthers: Wofford College, Spartanburg, S.C. All players: July 24.

Chicago Bears: Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais, Ill. All players: July 24.

Cincinnati Bengals: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati. Rookies: July 21. Veterans: July 23.

Cleveland Browns: Cleveland Browns Training Facility, Berea, Ohio. Rookies: July 23. Veterans: July 25.

Dallas Cowboys: City of Oxnard Fields, Oxnard, Calif. All players: July 23.

Denver Broncos: Paul D. Bowen Memorial Centre, Englewood, Colo. All players: July 23.

Detroit Lions: Detroit Lions Training Facility, Allen Park, Mich. Rookies: July 22. Veterans: July 27.

Green Bay Packers: St. Norbert College, Green Bay. All players: July 25.

Houston Texans: Houston Methodist Training Center, Houston. Rookies: July 21. Veterans: July 25.

Indianapolis Colts: Anderson University, Anderson, Ind. All players: July 23.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Florida Blue Health and Wellness Practice Fields, Jacksonville. Rookies: July 22. Veterans: July 24.

Kansas City Chiefs: Missouri Western State University, St. Joseph, Mo. Rookies: July 20. Veterans: July 23.

Miami Dolphins: Doctors Hospital Training Facility, Davie, Fla. All players: July 24.

Minnesota Vikings: Minnesota State University, Mankato, Mankato, Minn. All players: July 24.

New Orleans Saints: The Greenbrier, White Sulpher Springs, W.V. Rookies: July 20. Veterans: July 24.

New England Patriots: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass. Rookies: July 20. Veterans: July 23.

New York Giants: Quest Diagnostics Training Center, East Rutherford, N.J. All players: July 21.

New York Jets: SUNY Cortland, Cortland, N.Y. Rookies: July 22. Veterans: July 23.

Oakland Raiders: Napa Valley Marriott, Napa, Calif. All players: July 24.

Philadelphia Eagles: NovaCare Complex, Philadelphia. All players: July 25.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa. All players: July 25.

St. Louis Rams: Rams Park Training Center, Earth City, Mo. Rookies: July 22. Veterans: July 24.

San Diego Chargers: Chargers Park, San Diego. All players: July 23.

San Francisco 49ers: SAP Performance Facility, Santa Clara, Calif. Rookies: July 16. Veterans: July 23.

Seattle Seahawks: Virginia Mason Athletic Center, Renton, Wash. All players: July 24.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: One Buccaneer Place, Tampa. Rookies: July 21. Veterans: July 24.

Tennessee Titans: Saint Thomas Sports Park, Nashville. All players: July 25.

Washington Redskins: Bon Secours Training Center, Richmond, Va. All players: July 23.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 17: Kansas City Chiefs

Jamaal Charles AP

At their best, the Chiefs are playoff-caliber.

The Chiefs proved it a season ago with their sound, stout play en route to a wild card berth. The Chiefs forced 36 turnovers and committed a mere 18. Their defense proved too tough for weaker opposition. By early November, the Chiefs were 9-0 and had all but made the postseason.

However, the Chiefs had peaked early. They won just two of their final eight games, including a 45-44 playoff loss at Indianapolis marked by Kansas City blowing a 28-point third-quarter lead.

In the end, there was no doubting where the Chiefs fit in the NFL’s power structure. They were much stronger than the league’s weakest outfits, but they just couldn’t handle stepping up in class. The Chiefs were 10-0 against clubs who missed the postseason but just 1-6 against playoff entrants, with the lone victory against Philadelphia in September.

With seven games against 2013 playoff teams, including league elites Seattle, San Francisco, New England and Denver, the Chiefs must fare better against top competition if they are to improve upon their work from a season ago.

Strengths.

The Chiefs have a strong defensive front seven, with outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, nose tackle Dontari Poe and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson all making the Pro Bowl a season ago. Moreover, the Chiefs’ first-round pick, Dee Ford, will add to the pass rushing depth behind Houston and Hali. Playmaking strong safety and fellow Pro Bowler Eric Berry leads the back end of the defense.

The offense has some skilled core players, too. Tailback Jamaal Charles is among the best at his position in the game. Quarterback Alex Smith takes care of the ball and played very well in the Chiefs’ wild card loss, throwing for 378 yards and four touchdowns. Smith’s future will be a storyline to watch; he’s in the final year of his contract. Smith’s top target, Dwayne Bowe, is the Chiefs’ go-to receiver. Bowe can still perform like a No. 1-caliber target; he lit up the Colts for eight catches and 150 yards in the playoff loss.

In 15 NFL seasons, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has overseen 10 playoff clubs. And his best teams have usually played into January. Of the five teams he’s led that missed the postseason, three had losing records, and two were 8-8.

Weaknesses.

The Chiefs don’t have a wealth of receiving talent beyond Bowe, who will draw the bulk of attention from opposing secondaries. The Chiefs didn’t add any major pass catching help in free agency or the draft, leaving wide receivers Donnie Avery, A.J. Jenkins and Junior Hemingway and tight end Travis Kelce as the complementary pass catchers to watch.

The Chiefs’ offensive line lost three key players in free agency, with left tackle Branden Albert and offensive guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah all departing. That’s quite a drain on the line’s talent and depth.

The Chiefs’ secondary also has undergone some changes. The club released cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Dunta Robinson and didn’t re-sign free safety Kendrick Lewis. After Kansas City struggled against the pass down the stretch, some changes were probably to be expected on the back of the defense. But it will be interesting to see how the Chiefs fare against good passing teams.

Changes.

The Chiefs’ offensive line will have new full-time starters at left tackle, right guard and right tackle. Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in 2013, will step in at left tackle, with Donald Stephenson the favorite at right tackle after finishing out the season at the position. Ex-Colt Jeff Linkenbach is an option at right guard.

The defense will have multiple fresh faces in the starting lineup. At defensive end, ex-Raiders defensive tackle Vance Walker could step in for Tyson Jackson, who signed with Atlanta. At inside linebacker, the Chiefs will have to replace the departed Akeem Jordan. The secondary will have two new starters, with Chris Owens, Phillip Gaines or Marcus Cooper potentially getting the call to take over for Flowers at cornerback and second-year pro Sanders Commings a possible replacement for Lewis.

In the kicking game, rookie De’Anthony Thomas could replace Dexter McCluster (now with Tennessee) on punt returns.

Camp battles.

With so many departures, the Chiefs’ younger players have a chance to show what they can do. Let’s see if any of the pass catchers can take a step forward this summer. Similarly, could a rookie like Zach Fulton or Laurent Duvernay-Tardif push for playing time at right guard? Also, will second-year pro Nico Johnson or free agent addition Joe Mays start opposite of Derrick Johnson at inside linebacker? At defensive end, Walker seems the likely starter, given that the Chiefs gave him a three-year deal, but fourth-year pro Allen Bailey could also be in the mix for more reps.

The Chiefs’ young defensive backs will also have an opportunity to earn playing time. Rookie Gaines and second-year pro Cooper will compete with free agent signee Owens for snaps at cornerback. At free safety, Commings and veteran Husain Abdullah look to be the top options.

Prospects.

The Chiefs don’t get the benefit of a favorable early schedule this season. Four of the club’s first six games are against 2013 playoff clubs — road trips to Denver (Sept. 14), San Francisco (Oct. 5) and San Diego (Oct. 19) and a home game against New England (Sept. 29).

And that’s not it for tall orders for the Chiefs. Witness this three-game stretch from Weeks 11-13: home vs. Seattle (Nov. 16), away at Oakland (Nov. 20), home vs. Denver (Nov. 30). Of that trio, the matchup against the Raiders looks most favorable, but it comes only four days after playing the defending Super Bowl champions, and it involves traveling from the Central Time Zone to the Pacific Time Zone.

In the end, if the Chiefs play above-average defense and ball-control offense, they can again compete for a playoff spot. The postseason ranks always seem to include a team or two like this — a grinder that out-executes the opposition.

That said, the most interesting issues with the Chiefs are the bigger-picture ones. How will Smith play in his second year in Reid’s offense and in an contract year? Will some of the club’s younger players step up their games? The Chiefs would seem to be counting upon it, given all the talent that walked out the door in the offseason.

Some will write off the Chiefs, given the way the club finished 2013. But they do have a system that works, and if some of the kids can play, they might again be right in the playoff picture. Still, the schedule looks tougher, and there are some obvious areas of concern, with the playmaking of the offense the obvious worry.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 18: New York Giants

cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznpte0nti5ztlmotnlnjjjndk3yju4ntc2nddhmdyyyzc2 AP

There have been some magical runs on the way to two Super Bowl titles for the Giants under coach Tom Coughlin.

The start of the 2013 season was pretty much the exact opposite as the Giants got blown out, chewed up and left for dead on their way to six straight losses. Things got better from that point, but the start exposed some major flaws on the offensive line and in the secondary that the team attacked during the offseason.

There was no similar reaction to Eli Manning’s 27 interceptions as the team remained fully committed to their quarterback. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride’s long run came to an end, though, and new coordinator Ben McAdoo is installing the first significant change to the system of Manning’s career.

How he adapts to that and how quickly the new additions can come together will be the big questions for the Giants this season. Our panel’s No. 18 ranking represents the wait and see attitude that often follows such big changes.

Strengths.

If you were a free agent cornerback this season, you probably got a call from the Giants. They wound up signing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Walter Thurmond and Zack Bowman to join Prince Amukamara and Trumaine McBride in a deep corner group that should match up well with any opposing offense. If Amukamara takes another step forward, the unit will lead the way defensively.

Antrel Rolle leads with his mouth, but he’s usually backed up with his play over the last four seasons. Rolle is coming off a particularly strong season, which has led to discussion about an extension. For now, Rolle will again serve as the constant in a shifting secondary.

If Stevie Brown makes it all the way back from the knee injury that wiped out his 2013 season to join Rolle at safety, the secondary should be one of the best in the league.

Manning threw 27 interceptions last season and Hakeem Nicks left for Indianapolis as a free agent, but it’s still hard not to see the passing game as a strength. Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and first-round pick Odell Beckham seem well-suited to the offense that McAdoo is installing. Their success will have much to do with a group listed in the next section, however.

Weaknesses.

The Giants did just as much work on their offensive line as they did at cornerback, but the upgrade isn’t as clear. Geoff Schwartz solidifies left guard, but Will Beatty’s ability to handle left tackle remains a theory and Charles Brown is coming off getting benched in New Orleans. Chris Snee’s health is a concern at right guard, with rookie Weston Richburg or J.D. Walton, who is coming back from two seasons lost to injury, the choices at center.

Jon Beason’s arrival in a trade with the Panthers last season coincided with a positive turn in the play of the team’s defense, but the oft-injured Beason is out with a foot injury for the near future. Jameel McClain has arrived from Baltimore, but holdovers Spencer Paysinger, Jaquian Williams and Mark Herzlich haven’t been consistently productive during their Giant careers.

The Giants didn’t re-sign Martellus Bennett before the 2013 season and Brandon Myers flopped as a fill-in, leaving the team without any proven players at the position. Adrian Robinson’s athletic ability draws raves, but he’s never been healthy. Larry Donnell is similarly unproven and Kellen Davis didn’t leave anyone wanting more in Chicago. With Dustin Keller and Jermichael Finley still possibly returning from injuries, the Giants could take a flyer on outside help.

Changes.

The Raiders were willing to pay Justin Tuck more than the Giants, leading to a big change at defensive end. Damontre Moore and Mathias Kiwanuka are back from last season and the team signed Robert Ayers, but the chances of the Giants defense getting back to its old ways relies on Jason Pierre-Paul. He was a shell of his 2011 self last season and needs to be healthy and back at full speed for the Giants defense to take off.

With David Wilson’s neck injury creating doubt about his future as a running back and the team coming off a dismal 2013 campaign, the Giants signed Rashad Jennings early in free agency. They are talking about him as a bell cow, something he hasn’t done before although he’s coming off a strong year for the Raiders.

Former Dolphin John Jerry joined Schwartz, Brown and Walton as free agent additions to the offensive line as the Giants heavily addressed their biggest problem area from last season.

Trindon Holliday comes aboard from Denver to give the Giants an explosive kick and punt returner who fumbles just often enough to ensure at least one reaction shot that makes viewers worry for Coughlin’s health this season.

Camp Battles.

Word out of Giants spring work was that the team wants Brandon Mosley to at least push Snee as the veteran comes back from hip and elbow surgeries. Jerry could potentially be part of the mix as well.

Linval Joseph left for the Vikings and the Giants will have to sort out playing time among several defensive tackles this summer. Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson are the veterans, 2013 second-round pick Johnathan Hankins has a big body for the middle of the line and 2014 third-rounder Jay Bromley has interior pass rush potential.

The Giants spent a little time with Josh Freeman, but he didn’t make it out of the spring. That leaves Curtis Painter and Ryan Nassib to compete to be Manning’s backup.

Prospects.

The NFC East hasn’t produced a repeat division champion since the Eagles in 2004, so we’re used to seeing quick turnarounds in the Giants’ neck of the woods.

It’s not difficult to envision a scenario where the Giants make one this year. McAdoo’s offense plays to Manning’s strengths, the offensive line allows him time to connect with his talented receivers and Pierre-Paul brings back the pass rush as the Giants end their two-year playoff drought.

It’s just as easy to see things going the other way on the offensive line, though, and the revamped secondary will only hold on so long if Pierre-Paul isn’t leading a high-level pass rush.

Ultimately, though, it is going to be hard to install a new offense and overhaul several position groups while simultaneously making the playoffs. Blips are inevitable and the division is going to be competitive, which should make the start of the season telling.

It doesn’t have to be 6-0 instead of 0-6, but the Giants need to break well to keep things gelling well enough to be there when the season comes to an end.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 19: New York Jets

Rex Ryan AP

When the 2013 season opened, it seemed likely that it would be Rex Ryan’s final year as the Jets’ head coach.

The team had hired a new general manager after missing the playoffs for two straight years and many felt Ryan had worn out his welcome as a result. Things didn’t play out that way, though.

Despite a bumbling offense, Ryan was able to lead the Jets to an 8-8 finish that was far better than many predicted and it may have been the best head coaching job of Ryan’s tenure. That earned him an extension and a bit of security, but it didn’t set the Jets up for surefire success in 2014.

They still need to get that offense in order, starting at the quarterback position where Geno Smith is expected to start ahead of Michael Vick when the regular season opens. Whether it stays that way or not, the Jets have upgraded the talent around them on offense and there will be great pressure to see progress if Ryan is going to be around for many more years.

That’s the big question for a Jets team that lands at No. 19 in PFT’s preseason power rankings.

Strengths.

The Jets may not have had luck finding their franchise quarterback, but they’ve shown a knack for identifying talent on the defensive line. Defensive ends Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson are two of the league’s best young players at the position and defensive tackle Damon Harrison has been steadily productive.

Chris Johnson may not be CJ2K any longer, but his presence adds another piece to a deep running back group. Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell both had some good moments last year and former Ram Daryl Richardson is also around to help take some of the pressure off the quarterbacks.

David Harris rebounded from a couple of down seasons to turn in a strong campaign at inside linebacker for the Jets last season. The unit wasn’t particularly impressive otherwise, but Harris gives them a player to build around inside.

The rest of the group isn’t as good as it was in his earlier days, but center Nick Mangold continues to be a reliable blocker in the middle of the offensive line.

Weaknesses.

The changes at the skill positions should make life easier for any quarterback, but the Smith/Vick duo is less than ideal for a team that continues to look for a long-term answer at quarterback. It’s too early to write Smith off, but he’ll need to be much better this season.

Losing Antonio Cromartie smarts even with the veteran turning in a mediocre season in 2013. Dee Milliner came on strong in the second half of his rookie season, but more adjustments will likely be needed as he moves up a rung on the depth chart, and Dimitri Patterson’s injury history doesn’t do much to inspire hope that the Jets will have him for all 16 games this year.

The Jets got 10 sacks from Calvin Pace last year, a career-high for the 11-year veteran who re-signed this offseason. Some slippage is likely for Pace and Quinton Coples hasn’t developed into an effective pass rusher at this point in his career. The Jets defense is at its best when it is attacking, which means they could use a bit more bite at outside linebacker.

It’s a big year for wide receiver Stephen Hill, who has not lived up to his status as a 2012 second-round pick. Hill has speed, but he struggles catching the ball and is hurt far too often. With improved options around him, Hill’s stay might not extend much longer if he doesn’t take big steps forward in camp.

Changes.

The Jets signed Eric Decker early in free agency, giving them a receiving threat they’ve needed since Santonio Holmes’ career went south after the 2010 season. There is debate about whether Decker’s a “true” No. 1, but he produced with Tim Tebow at quarterback in Denver so he should be effective with this group as well.

That group got a bit deeper in the second round of the draft when the team tabbed tight end Jace Amaro. The Texas Tech product was purely a pass catcher at Texas Tech, but the Jets have a bigger need for a receiver than a blocker with Jeff Cumberland back.

Breno Giacomini was signed to replace Austin Howard at right tackle, a move that may well turn out to be a lateral one. Giacomini was part of a Super Bowl winner last year, though, and that’s never a bad thing to have in your recent past.

The Jets have struggled with safety play quite often during Ryan’s run as head coach, but they hope they solved some of the problems by drafting Calvin Pryor in the first round. Pryor should start from the outset and a quick transisition to the NFL would solidify a persistent Jets weakness.

Camp Battles.

Depending on who you asked, you got a different answer about the Jets’ quarterback competition. The team insisted there was a real one, while Vick maintains the job is Smith’s to lose heading into the season. That doesn’t mean he won’t lose it, so it’s incumbent that Vick bring his best stuff.

The Jets took cornerback Dexter McDougle in the third round in May, creating a potential competitor for Kyle Wilson as the third cornerback. Wilson’s been largely ineffective since the Jets selected him in the first round in 2010 and finding a better option would go a long way toward shoring up the weakness at corner.

Decker and Jeremy Kerley appear set as the top two wideouts, leaving a clutch of players to compete for spots behind them. Hill, David Nelson, Jacoby Ford, Greg Salas and three third-day draft picks will be in the mix. It’s not the most exciting group, but the competition should produce a better group than last year.

Prospects.

We opened with the need for the Jets to get more out of the quarterback position and that’s where we will close as well.

There are questions about the secondary, but the Jets defense should be strong again in 2014. If they are going to return to the playoffs, they will need a massive improvement on offense and that’s only likely to come if they have a quarterback who is able to avoid the kinds of turnovers and mental mistakes that have plagued them for the last three years.

Smith showed some signs of growth as the 2013 season concluded and more of the same will put the Jets in position to challenge for a postseason berth. A reversion to the worst of his rookie season will thrust Vick into the limelight and start the search for a franchise quarterback all over again.

If it turns out to be the latter, that probably won’t be the only change looming for the Jets just a few years after consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game.

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Rams are 20th in PFT’s preseason power rankings

Jacksonville Jaguars v St. Louis Rams Getty Images

The St. Louis Rams are no longer one of the worst teams in the NFL.

The Rams won just 15 games in five seasons between 2007 and 2011 but have risen back into the middle class of the league over the past two seasons. St. Louis has won seven games in each of the last two years but has yet to mount a true challenge against the Seattle Seahawks or San Francisco 49ers for control of the division. The Arizona Cardinals even usurped the Rams as the biggest threat to the Seahawks and 49ers in 2013.

We have the Rams ranked 20th in the league as teams close in on their reporting dates for training camp. Sam Bradford’s performance will go a long way toward determining the fate of the Rams this season and whether St. Louis will be in the quarterback market again next spring.

Our full Rams preview is located here. Tell us in the poll below if you feel the Rams deserve the ranking we gave them heading into the season.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 20: St. Louis Rams

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v St Louis Rams Getty Images

The St. Louis Rams were a trendy pick to possibly make a push for the playoffs last season. A 1-3 start to the season put the Rams in a hole and losing Sam Bradford for the year after seven games was the final nail in the coffin to their playoff aspirations.

But the Rams could take positives out of last year’s performances. Their defense became a nightmare to opposing quarterbacks as Chris Long and Robert Quinn led a scary defensive front and Zac Stacy showed promise as a possible replacement for Steven Jackson.

Unfortunately for St. Louis, they find themselves at the bottom of the best division in the NFL.The Rams added 11 draft picks to their roster as the continue to retool their talent under head coach Jeff Fisher. What are the prospects for the upcoming season? We take a look at the roster below as training camp approaches.

Strengths.

St. Louis may have the best defensive front in all of football. With Chris Long and Robert Quinn combining for 27.5 sacks last season and Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald manning the interior, the Rams will be a handful for any offensive line their square off against. In addition, the Rams still have depth along their front with Kendall Langford, Eugene Sims and William Hayes as rotational players.

James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree give the Rams a nice pair of linebackers they can rely on. Also, Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks are a dependable tight end pair.

Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker provide a strong duo of specialists as well for St. Louis.

Weaknesses.

While the Rams defense proved fearsome at times last season, there were still a could problem areas on that side of the ball. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Will Witherspoon struggled at times at the strong-side linebacker spot. In addition, Darian Stewart and Rodney McLeod had issues at safety after T.J. McDonald suffered a broken leg and was placed on the short-term injured reserve list. Those areas remain question marks heading into training camp.

St. Louis is still lacking a true No. 1 option at receiver and depth in their secondary as well.

Changes.

Cortland Finnegan was released by the Rams over the offseason, which elevated Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson into the presumed starting roles ahead of training camp. Johnson could get pushed for his starting job by rookie Lamarcus Joyner, but Joyner may be best suited in the slot.

First-round selections Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald both should slot into the starting lineup on each side of the ball. Robinson is slated to replace the departed Chris Williams at left guard with Donald supplanting Kendall Langford at defensive tackle.

Camp battles.

Most of the major position battles should come on the defensive side of the ball for the Rams. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Ray-Ray Armstrong will battle for the third linebacker position, Trumaine Johnson could be pushed by second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner for the starting job opposite Janoris Jenkins at cornerback and Rodney McLeod could be challenged by fourth-round pick Mo Alexander at safety.

On the offensive side of the ball, the receiver position seems to be wide open. Tavon Austin’s role is secure as caught more passes than any other St. Louis receiver last year.. However, the Rams have a gaggle of receiving options behind Austin without much separation between them. Chris Givens likely enters camp as the team’s top option on the perimeter after leading the receiving corps with 569 yards last year. Kenny Britt, Austin Pettis, Stedman Bailey and Brian Quick all will be vying for playing time as well.

In addition, Isaiah Pead and third-round pick Tre Mason will likely battle for the backup role to starter Zac Stacy at running back.

Prospects.

The Rams sit looking up at the best division in football. Seattle and San Francisco met in the NFC Championship game last season and the Arizona Cardinals were playing as well as anyone at the end of the regular season.

St. Louis faces the real possibility of being an improved team but still not seeing much improvement in their overall record.

Sam Bradford is entering the final year of his rookie contract. The Rams could take a bigger leap than anticipated if Bradford can finally take the step forward in proving he can be one of the league’s better signal callers. Bradford was completing nearly 61 percent of his passes and had posted a 14-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio before his season ended due to injury.

The Rams keep taking baby steps in their quest to improve from their decade of futility. However, they’ll need more than baby steps of improvement to run down the teams at the top of their division.

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Preseason power rankings No. 21: Detroit Lions

Caldwell Getty Images

On Thanksgiving, the Lions dominated the Packers and looked like heavy favorites to win the NFC North. By Christmas, they had already been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. That’s how quickly things fell apart for the Lions last year.

Will this year be different? Maybe, with the firing of head coach Jim Schwartz and the hiring of head coach Jim Caldwell. But what will be even more different is that the Lions can’t count on the rest of the NFC North being as weak this year as it was last year. In 2013, the Packers won the division with an 8-7-1 record, which meant the 7-9 Lions weren’t far back. But in 2014, the Lions will probably have to be quite a bit better to be in NFC North contention.

The good news is that Caldwell, plus the arrival of receiver Golden Tate and first-round tight end Eric Ebron, should make the offense better. The bad news is that many of the same questions remain about quarterback Matthew Stafford, and there are questions about the defense and special teams as well.

Overall, those question marks outweigh the clear positives, and the Lions look like they’ll miss the playoffs for the 14th time in the last 15 years.

Strengths.

In theory, the passing offense should be a major strength. Calvin Johnson is the best wide receiver in the NFL. The arrival of Golden Tate gives the Lions the best No. 2 receiver they’ve ever had across the field from Johnson. Ryan Broyles, if he can ever stay healthy, has the talent to be a good No. 3 receiver. If Eric Ebron has the kind of rookie year the Lions expect him to, few teams will have a better trio of pass catching tight ends than Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria. The Lions also have a trio of running backs who can make plays in the passing game with Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and Theo Riddick. Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi have a lot of experience coaching good passing teams. There’s a lot of reason for optimism.

So why is the passing offense only a strength in theory? Because in practice, the Lions never know what they’re going to to get out of Matthew Stafford. Is he the quarterback whose brilliant 2011 campaign to the Lions to the playoffs? Or is he the quarterback who threw the season away last year? In the final six games of the season, Stafford had 11 interceptions and six fumbles, and his bad play was the biggest reason the Lions lost their lead on the division. If Stafford plays in 2014 like he did in 2011, the Lions’ offense will be in great shape. If not? Not.

The offensive line, which entered last season with some big question marks, actually looks strong now. Larry Warford was an excellent guard as a rookie last year, and LaAdrian Waddle was a pretty good rookie right tackle. They should both be even better this year, and as left tackle Riley Reiff continues to develop, the Lions have the makings of an offensive line that could be strong for years to come.

The Lions’ defensive line looks like a strength as well. It had better be, after they invested high first-round draft picks on Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ziggy Ansah in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Both Suh and Fairley are heading into the final seasons of their contracts, which should have them motivated for big seasons. Linebackers Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy both had good years for the Lions last year and are back this year, and overall the defensive front seven appears to be in good shape.

Weaknesses.

The Lions’ biggest weakness this year will be the same as their biggest weakness last year, which was the same as the biggest weakness that got them knocked out of the first round of the playoffs the year before and has been a weakness for many, many years in Detroit: Their cornerbacks can’t stop anyone.

In fact, after cutting Chris Houston the Lions may be even worse at cornerback this year. Veteran Rashean Mathis will join with some combination of youngsters Darius Slay, Bill Bentley, Nevin Lawson and Jonte Green to make up a cornerback group that may be the worst in the NFL. If there’s any good news it’s that the Lions have a pair of pretty good veteran safeties in Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo (who came over from Baltimore along with new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin), and sometimes good safeties can hide some lousy cornerback play.

The rushing offense may also be a weakness for the Lions. Reggie Bush is capable of making spectacular plays, but he’s also capable of losing yardage by trying to do too much, and his fumbling became a serious problem for the Lions last year. Joique Bell is a tough runner in short-yardage situations but doesn’t have breakaway speed.

Special teams have been a significant weakness for the Lions in recent years and may be again this year, although there were some signs late last season that the Lions were starting to turn things around in the kicking game.

Changes.

The biggest change is the firing of Jim Schwartz (and most of his staff) and the hiring of Jim Caldwell (and a mostly new staff). The best news about Caldwell is that he has a history of working well with quarterbacks and may be the man to get Matthew Stafford on track. The bad news is that Caldwell’s reputation for working well with quarterbacks stems largely from his time with Peyton Manning, and Stafford is no Peyton.

The Lions’ secondary will look different this year with two starters, safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston, now gone. But considering that the Lions’ secondary stunk last year, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and new defensive backs coaches Tony Oden and Alan Williams need to make the new-look secondary a lot better than last year’s secondary.

Detroit didn’t have a lot of cap space this offseason, which is why it didn’t make a lot of moves in free agency. Safety James Ihedigbo and receiver Golden Tate are two starters who arrived in free agency this year, but the Lions simply couldn’t afford to make as many changes as they would have liked.

Camp Battles.

The Lions will probably break camp with veteran Rashean Mathis joining Darius Slay, last year’s second-round draft pick, as the starting cornerbacks. But they’d love it if one of the other young cornerbacks, like 2012 third-round pick Bill Bentley and 2014 fourth-round pick Nevin Lawson, could push for a starting job in training camp.

A kicker competition isn’t the most exciting thing that can happen in training camp, but the battle between Giorgio Tavecchio and seventh-round draft pick Nate Freese will be very important for the Lions, who still haven’t found the right replacement for the long departed Jason Hanson. If Tavecchio or Freese can emerge as a good kicker this season, that would go a long way toward shoring up the special teams.

Prospects.
The Lions have enough talent on both sides of the ball that it’s not out of the question that they could make the playoffs. The best-case scenario is that an offense led by a resurgent Matthew Stafford throwing to Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate gives Detroit one of the most formidable passing attacks in the league, and that a motivated Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley lead the way on a ferocious Lions defense. If everyone plays up to his potential, the Lions could make a lot of noise in the NFC North.

But the Lions have rarely played up to their potential. If Jim Caldwell helps Stafford develop as a first-rate quarterback the Lions can make the playoffs, but more likely they’ll be somewhere around where they were last year, in the seven-win range.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 22: Cleveland Browns

Johnny Manziel, Brian Hoyer AP

There are many reasons to want the NFL regular season to just get going already.

One is how the Browns’ roster looks on paper.

Top to bottom, the Browns have a very interesting depth chart, an enviable foundation of both young and experienced talent. While the Browns were just 4-12 a season ago, they have one of the NFL’s best tackles (Joe Thomas), centers (Alex Mack) and cornerbacks (Joe Haden).

However, the Browns (again) don’t have a clear-cut starting quarterback, with veteran Brian Hoyer and rookie Johnny Manziel set to battle it out. They are also in danger of losing wide receiver Josh Gordon to yet another NFL suspension. The Browns also must adjust to their third head coach (Mike Pettine) in three seasons.

There is also the matter of the Browns’ divisional competition. The Ravens have reloaded. The Steelers still have Ben Roethlisberger, who has won far more than he has lost against Cleveland over the years. The Bengals are going for four straight playoff berths. (Four straight!)

Yes, NFL turnarounds can happen. But they need a jumping-off point. So here we are with Cleveland. Do the Browns now have the might to stand in and fight in this tough division? Or will they wilt again like so many other recent seasons?

Strengths.

The Browns have a deep and skilled defense. Only the Seahawks and Bengals allowed fewer yards per opponent play a season ago. Moreover, Cleveland was strong against the run and the pass, ranking in the top 10 in yards surrendered per rush and pass. Pettine has worked with talented, stout defenses with the Ravens, Jets and Bills, and it would be a surprise if the Browns didn’t field an above-average “D” this season.

The line is one of the strengths of the Browns’ offense. Thomas and Mack are Pro Bowlers, and the additions of second-round pick Joel Bitonio and ex-Seahawk Paul McQuistan strengthens Cleveland’s hand even further. Bitonio could get the call at left guard, and McQuistan can play tackle or guard.

Finally, in Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron, the Browns have a pair of Pro Bowl targets whom they have drafted and developed.

Weaknesses.

If Gordon is banned for an extended stretch, the Browns’ passing game will be put to the test, as opponents will be able to focus upon Cameron. While the Browns did add receivers Andrew Hawkins, Miles Austin and Nate Burleson in free agency, there is no replacing Gordon’s field-stretching and coverage-dictating skill.

The uncertainty at quarterback also must be considered a weakness for the time being. Hoyer has just four career regular season starts, and he comes off an October ACL tear. Manziel is gifted, but it’s unclear how long it will take him to adjust to the NFL game.

The Browns don’t have many major concerns on defense, but they do lack a star pass rusher, with no player exceeding 5.5 sacks a season ago. Collectively, the Browns appear able to generate enough pressure, but it would be nice if a real difference-maker emerged here.

Changes.

Goodness, where do we start? Well, let’s go back to the final day of the 2013 regular season, when the club surprisingly fired coach Rod Chudzinski. After hiring Pettine, the club later parted ways with CEO Joe Banner and G.M. Mike Lombardi, promoting Ray Farmer to G.M.

The changes didn’t stop there. The Browns released inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, a good player for some bad Cleveland teams. They would replace Jackson with Karlos Dansby, who had a monster season for Arizona in 2013 (122 tackles, 19 passes defended, 6.5 sacks). The Browns would also make a big change at safety, signing Donte Whitner to replace T.J. Ward, who signed with Denver. An Ohio native, Whitner is solid vs. the run and pass.

On offense, the Browns added some much needed help at running back, signing Ben Tate in free agency and drafting Terrance West in the third round. The club also changed offensive coordinators, hiring Kyle Shanahan. He’s the fourth offensive coordinator the club has had in the last five seasons.

On defense, former Bills assistant Jim O’Neil takes over for Ray Horton as defensive coordinator, but Pettine’s influence on this side of the ball will be strong.

Camp battles.

All eyes will be on yet another quarterback competition. As a first-round pick, Manziel figures to have his chances to win the job, but Hoyer can’t be discounted, especially if the rookie is at all shaky in the preseason. The Browns’ most spirited play a season ago came with Hoyer in the lineup.

Guard, outside linebacker and cornerback are other positions worth monitoring, but only because the Browns have well-regarded prospects at each spot. Bitonio is one to watch at guard. If Barkevious Mingo can take a step forward, the Browns will be that much stronger at outside linebacker. At cornerback, first-round pick Justin Gilbert figures to be tested by clubs leery of going after Haden.

Prospects.

The Browns’ schedule is a Fluffernutter sandwich on cardboard bread. If Cleveland can handle the tough edges of the campaign, there’s a chance to gobble up ground in the middle.

The Browns begin their season at nemesis Pittsburgh, then host top-class New Orleans and stout Baltimore before the Week Four bye to end September. However, October and November could be more favorable for Cleveland. Though the Browns play five road games in this stretch, three are against the Jaguars, Titans and Bills. The Browns also have home contests against the Raiders, Buccaneers and Texans. If Cleveland is ready to take a step forward, it will make the most of these two months before closing out the season with home games against tough Cincinnati and Indianapolis and road matchups at Carolina and Baltimore.

In the end, the Browns’ season rides on their offense. Only five other clubs scored fewer points per game in 2013. If Hoyer or Manziel seizes the job with skilled play, the Browns could be in the postseason race much longer than in past seasons.

In so many other campaigns, the Browns have marched out overmatched lineups and have tried to grit and grind out wins. This is a different club, one with the skill to be one of the AFC’s surprise teams, a real feel-good story. But there are hurdles, too.

But at some point, it would be nice if the Browns cleared them, you know?

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 23: Washington Redskins

Jay Gruden, Robert Griffin III AP

The Redskins took a major step backward in 2013 and they blew things up as a result.

Jay Gruden is the new head coach, with the team hoping that his offensive mind can totally relegate former coach Mike Shanahan and his icy relationship with quarterback Robert Griffin III to the fringes of memories. Griffin’s play could also do that as he’s had an entire offseason to work after rehabbing from a knee injury during the spring last year.

Dysfunction and lingering injuries weren’t the only reasons things went south for the Redskins last year, though. The defense was a mess and the changes on that side of the ball were not particularly dramatic, while the team also gave away far too many yards and points on special teams.

The potential for a repeat of 2012 certainly exists, but, based on their spot at No. 23, PFT’s panel needs to see more than potential to buy into the Redskins.

Strengths.

Signing DeSean Jackson was the latest addition to a receiving corps that should be much improved over last season. Pierre Garcon returns, tight end Jordan Reed should be healthy after last year’s concussions and Andre Roberts joined the team as a free agent. That’s more than Griffin had to work with as a rookie and should make his efforts as a passer easier than in past years.

Running back Alfred Morris is also back, giving the Redskins enviable potential balance on offense this season. If all goes according to plan, defenses will find it hard to keep an eye on everyone Washington rolls on the field.

Linebacker Brian Orakpo re-signed with the team and he’ll rejoin with Ryan Kerrigan to give the Redskins a strong pair of outside linebackers. If Jason Hatcher can repeat the pass rush he gave the Cowboys last season, Washington should be very effective at pressuring quarterbacks.

Left tackle Trent Williams remains one of the best in the league at his position and gives the Redskins an anchor as they build the rest of their offensive line.

Weaknesses.

The Redskins didn’t look that strong at safety when Tanard Jackson was in the mix and they aren’t looking any better in light of his latest suspension. The best hope is that Ryan Clark can push back father time and Brandon Meriweather avoids injury long enough for 2013 picks Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas to come into their own.

It would help the Redskins if cornerback David Amerson did the same thing in his second season. Old hands DeAngelo Hall and Tracy Porter will likely hold prominent roles, but the team needs Amerson to develop into a shutdown player on one side for their defense to reach its full potential.

Williams is a great left tackle, but the Redskins aren’t quite as lucky along the rest of the line. Kory Lichtensteiger is moving from guard to center, right guard is unsettled and the team picked Morgan Moses in the third round to give them an option other than Tyler Polumbus at right tackle.

Hatcher’s arrival should be a plus, but his offseason knee troubles are a bit of a concern since the rest of the Redskins defensive ends are an unimpressive lot.

Changes.

Gruden replacing Shanahan as head coach (and, for all intents and purposes, Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator) is by far the biggest change in Washington this offseason. Every coaching change is significant, of course, but this one feels even bigger because of how bad things got between Griffin and Shanahan last season.

Griffin has been spreading nothing but sunshine about the switch and the Redskins are hopeful that his knee will respond to a full offseason of work as well as he has responded to Shanahan’s departure. The quality of the skill position players around him should help.

The Redskins didn’t change defensive coordinators, but there’s been a lot of talk about a more aggressive approach from Jim Haslett’s unit this season. That should fit with the outside linebackers and help defensive tackle Barry Cofield rebound, although the defensive backfield could be stretched if they’re left out on islands.

Ben Kotwica is the new special teams coach and he’ll be charged with turning around units that struggled badly last season.

Camp Battles.

London Fletcher has brought his long career to an end, leaving an opening at inside linebacker next to Perry Riley. Keenan Robinson, Darryl Sharpton, Akeem Jordan and Adam Hayward are all options with Robinson potentially the favorite if he’s over his torn pectoral.

Roberts was signed to play receiver, but Jackson’s arrival opens up the possibility that he could become the team’s primary kick returner. Rookie Lache Seastrunk would be another option for the role.

Chris Chester will try to hold onto the right guard job against challenges from Josh LeRibeus and third-round pick Spencer Long. The right choice there could help mitigate any right tackle issues.

Prospects.

The NFC East title has been a revolving door in recent seasons as the four teams generally muck their way through the regular season before someone grabs a 9-7 record in Week 17.

It is easy to see why the Redskins would believe they could return to the top of the food chain this season. Every report on Griffin’s health is positive, his supporting cast is stronger and the darkness that hung over Shanahan last season has been expunged.

At the same time, though, there’s not much about the Redskins that makes them a sure bet to be better than last year’s also-rans in Dallas and New Jersey or the defending division champs in Philly. The defense needs to be much better and we’ll still need to see Griffin’s play match the offseason reviews, for starters.

Should that happen, a return to the playoffs may not be out of reach but the Redskins will need to show that the stink of last year has been totally eradicated before the bandwagon starts to fill up.

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