PFT preseason power rankings No. 14: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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It’s reasonable for the Buccaneers to think they’re on the cusp of something.

In fact, if the new overtime rules were in place last season, they’d have been a playoff team (since their loss to the Raiders was a tie at the 10-minute mark, and that would have given them the edge over the Lions for the last wild card spot).

They behaved like a team making a push for the top of the division this offseason, giving quarterback Jameis Winston the kind of weapons any quarterback would love.

Now the pressure is on the former No. 1 overall pick to continue piling up big passing yards while cutting into the turnovers (18 interceptions), though that may not be in his nature.

If he can play more efficiently, and if they continue to progress in a few other areas, there’s reason to think they could push the Falcons for the top of the NFC South.

Biggest positive change: It’s not like their offense was bad last year.

But when you add wide receiver DeSean Jackson and tight end O.J. Howard to wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate (who had eight touchdown receptions last year), it gives Winston a lot of options. Both Jackson and Howard have the kind of deep-ball ability that Winston’s strengths play to.

How he uses them will largely determine the fate of the season.

Biggest negative change: Running back Doug Martin still has three games of suspension to serve, but the Buccaneers seem confident he can return to his previous form. That would help, because last year’s form (2.9 yards per carry) was pretty bad. And they didn’t exactly bring in reinforcements, putting their faith in Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers for the start of the season, along with fifth-rounder Jeremy McNichols.

Other than that, the only real loss of note was backup quarterback Mike Glennon, and they knew that one was coming, and covered themselves by bringing in veteran mentor Ryan Fitzpatrick to cover for Ryan Griffin.

Coaching thermometer: As long as Winston keeps the offense moving, it should be cool. Dirk Koetter’s fist qualification for the job was his comfort level with Winston. But he’s growing into the head coaching role, and kept a young team steady after a 1-3 start. Koetter seems to get it, and in a difficult division which continues to stockpile talent, his ability to orchestrate an offense should keep them competitive.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Second-year kicker Roberto Aguayo, primarily because the poor devil could probably use one.

They brought veteran Nick Folk in to compete with him, and Folk’s good enough to win the job on his own merits.

It’s not Aguayo’s fault that General Manager Jason Licht traded up to take him in the second round, creating the expectation that he should never miss. And when he did miss (fairly often, as he was 22-of-31) and his own fans were booing him during practices, it created a kind of self-perpetuating problem for a guy at a confidence position.

How they can prove us wrong: It’s possible that they are neither underrated nor overrated. They could be better defensively, but they have some playmakers there, and they do not appear to be outclassed in that regard by the Falcons and Panthers. If Winston becomes more efficient, they’d be truly dangerous, though there’s reason to wonder if his risk-taking style precludes him ever being careful.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 15: Detroit Lions

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The Lions are coming off a surprise playoff season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a lot of optimism heading into 2017.

In fact, the optimism that abounded in Detroit mostly came to a halt over the end of last season, when the Lions lost their last three regular-season games to back into the playoffs and then got stomped by the Seahawks in the wild card round. Because of that, there’s not much playoff buzz around the Lions this year.

So can the Lions be a surprise playoff team for the second year in a row? Let’s have a look.

Biggest positive change: Detroit’s defense struggled all season, but the Lions think they got a lot better on draft day. First-round linebacker Jarrad Davis should start on Day One, second-round cornerback Teez Tabor will get plenty of playing time as a rookie, and fourth-round linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, fifth-round defensive back Jamal Agnew and sixth-round defensive tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter can all provide depth. Mere regression to the mean suggests the Lions’ defense should be quite a bit better, and the infusion of young talent looks like a real positive.

Biggest negative change: The loss of starting left tackle Taylor Decker for at least the first month of the season, and possibly much more, was a huge blow. The Lions made Decker their first-round pick last year with the thought that he’d protect Matthew Stafford’s blind side for years to come. Now they may have to rely on a castoff like ex-Ram Greg Robinson or ex-Bill Cyrus Kouandjio. On the right side of the line, the Lions think they got better by signing tackle Ricky Wagner and guard T.J. Lang to replace the departed Riley Reiff and Larry Warford. But at least until Decker returns from his shoulder injury, it’s hard to see how the Lions can feel confident in their offensive line this season.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Matthew Stafford, to find out where the quarterback really thinks his future lies. Stafford is heading into the final season of his contract, and so far it doesn’t appear that he and the team are all that close on a new deal. Is Stafford committed to the Lions for the long haul? Or would he like to shop his services to the highest bidder in March?

Coaching thermometer: Jim Caldwell’s seat is a lot hotter than you’d expect for a guy who’s made the playoffs two of his first three seasons. He’s heading into the final season of his contract, and his boss, G.M. Bob Quinn, may want to bring in his own coach if Caldwell can’t get to the playoffs for the third time.

How they could prove us wrong: If the Lions’ offensive line can keep Stafford upright and the young players on defense make an immediate impact, it’s easy to see them being better than we’re expecting. If not, it’s easy to see them being worse.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 16: Baltimore Ravens

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It seems only yesterday the Ravens won the Super Bowl. But that came during the 2012 season. Baltimore has gone only 31-33 the past four seasons with just one postseason appearance.

The Ravens, who had a long run of success under John Harbaugh, have become ordinary.

Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco are under pressure to win and win now, and with as many as 10 new starters, that won’t be easy. The Steelers and Bengals both appear to have better talent, and though the Ravens can compete for a wild-card berth, they will have to find more offensive firepower after ranking 17th in total offense, including 28th in rushing.

Biggest positive change: The Ravens ended last season in desperate need for playmakers, which is why nearly every mock draft predicted they would draft a receiver in the first round. With the top three receivers gone in the first nine picks, the Ravens selected Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey in the first round. They ended up using five of seven picks on defense, with two linemen being the only offensive players selected. But Jeremy Maclin fell into their laps when the Chiefs unexpectedly released him. Maclin, a Pro Bowler in 2014, signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Ravens. They needed him as Mike Wallace and Breshad Perriman are the only returning receivers who caught more than 30 passes for Baltimore last season. The Ravens have had success with veteran receivers, getting productive seasons out of Anquan Boldin and Steve Smith, which should help Maclin rebound from last season when he had only 44 receptions for 536 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games.

Biggest negative change: The Ravens lost their leading tackler, Zach Orr, when, at the age of 24, he retired because of a congenital spine and neck condition. Orr began seeking a return last month, and as an unrestricted free agent, has visited several teams but has yet to sign. The Ravens, meanwhile, are left with uncertainty at the position. Kamalei Correa appears the top option. A second-round selection last season, Correa started one game and saw action in eight others as a rookie but played only 48 defensive snaps.

Coaching thermometer: John Harbaugh finds himself on a hot seat for the first time as a head coach. Harbaugh, as a Super Bowl-winning coach, won’t have trouble finding another job if this is his last in Baltimore, but both he and the Ravens would love to have reason for him to stay for the long term. Harbaugh, 85-59 in nine seasons and now the longest-tenured coach in team history, is under contract through 2018. Although owner Steve Bisciotti hasn’t placed a “playoffs-or-else” edict on Harbaugh, a playoff berth likely would assure a return.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Eric Weddle. How can you not love this guy? OK, so maybe if you’re on the other side of one of his hits he doesn’t seem so nice. But he is all-in, all the time, arriving at the team’s practice facility before dawn and dog piling a new teammate after an interception during a summer practice. His agent and close friend, David Canter, told the Baltimore Sun that Weddle is “the best human being I’ve ever met in my life. He signs every autograph and poses for every picture. He’s got a group of friends that goes 40 deep, and they’ll all tell you he’s never changed. He’s a man of extreme conviction.”

How they can prove us wrong: The Ravens, as usual, will rely on their defense and their Pro Bowl kicker. After giving up late scoring drives, General Manager Ozzie Newsome addressed the defense in the offseason. The Ravens ranked seventh in total defense and ninth in scoring defense a year, and the additions of Brandon Carr, Tony Jefferson, Marlon Humphrey, Tyus Bowser, Chris Wormley and Tim Williams should make them even better. Justin Tucker, the NFL’s all-time most accurate kicker, gives the Ravens great faith in their kicking game. But they need more touchdowns after ranking 21st in scoring. Joe Flacco didn’t have one of his best seasons, with 20 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and an 83.5 passer rating, but now more than a year away from reconstructive knee surgery, he should be more comfortable. The offense, though, still lacks playmakers with only Jeremy Maclin and Danny Woodhead added to the mix. That will make it difficult on the Ravens to get done what they want to get done this season.

PFT preseason power ranking No. 17: Carolina Panthers

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For a team with a lot of star power, the Panthers get to enter this season without the burden of expectations which weighed on them after a Super Bowl appearance.

But if things break right for them, they might be more talented than the team that went 15-1 en route to the NFC title.

There’s still plenty of work to do, especially on offense. They’re trying to “evolve” on that side of the ball, because, well, they needed to. With Cam Newton playing slowly and/or hurt last year, it was hard for all those long-developing deep routes to get open (and when they did, Ted Ginn dropped them half the time). So the emphasis this year is on allowing Newton to get the ball out more quickly, and let some fast young kids help him. The hope is that keeping him from feeling compelled to run as often will benefit him from a health and a strategic standpoint as well.

He’s also coming off surgery on his throwing surgery which cost him the entire offseason program and OTAs. So they’re installing (and writing) new chapters of the playbook on the fly in training camp, when we assume Newton will be well.

They’re also going to lean on a defense with several highly paid stars (Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short), some veterans who need to win soon, and some young cornerbacks who showed real promise last year. James Bradberry looked more polished as a rookie than the guy he was replacing (Josh Norman) did at a similar point in his career. And any defense which already included guys such as Thomas Davis, Star Lotulelei, Charles Johnson, and Kurt Coleman is going to be factor.

Then they added some reinforcements, for what they think is a run at the top.

Biggest positive change: Former General Manager Dave Gettleman went down the grocery list this offseason, filling just about all of the major questions marks from last season. Speed on offense? Check (Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel). Starting-caliber left tackle? Check (Matt Kalil). Veteran pass-rusher? Check (Julius Peppers). Nickel corner? Check (Captain Munnerlyn). Veteran strong safety who can be trusted to allow Kurt Coleman to play deeper? Check (Mike Adams).

Now all of those guys have to play to the level they can. Kalil in particular is going to have to be better than he was the last few years in Minnesota, but they’re hoping he’s healthy now and in a more conducive environment.

Biggest negative change: The Panthers’ bench is nearly as deep as it used to be. And that only has a little bit to do with the roster.
They lost assistant G.M. Brandon Beane and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to the Bills as their G.M./head coach. That’s not an insignificant loss, for an organization which prides itself on stability.

And that’s before they fired Gettleman Monday, leaving them short-handed in personnel at a time of year when decisions have to be made.

They’re also a little picked-over in terms of players. Losing guys like Luke Kuechly-understudy A.J. Klein to the Saints isn’t fatal, but they’re not as well-equipped to handle injuries as they have been in past years. That’s what happens when you build a top-heavy roster.

Coaching thermometer: It’s far from boiling in this pot, as Ron Rivera’s a two-time coach of the year. But you could definitely poach something in it.
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson rejected former coach John Fox’s pleas for a lucrative extension in part because he never had back to back winning seasons. Well, Rivera hasn’t either. Their three straight division titles included a backed-in 7-8-1, leaving the franchise still searching for that mythical feat. With Rivera in his seventh season, the clock is ticking, and if they don’t have their traditional bounce-back year he’s not going to be the only one around there on unsteady footing.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Peppers remains one of the most fascinating players of this generation. Blessed with NBA-caliber athleticism, he’s remained a productive sack man throughout his long career, and now ranks fifth on the league’s all-time list. He has never been a big talker, and his first stint in Carolina was marked by his extreme privacy, the result of being a homegrown star and in a bit of a fishbowl. But he’s opened up a bit in time, and has a better perspective on the game (and life) than he’s been willing to show to most people.

How they can prove us wrong: For all the offseason additions, the core issue will be for Newton to play better. Though he was dealing with injuries (to himself and several important others), Newton simply wasn’t very good last year, a big drop-off from his MVP the season before. If he can spread the ball around better, and if his big, plodding receivers (Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess) can get themselves open and catch it when it gets there, if Kalil makes the same kind of jump under this coaching staff that Michael Oher did, and the defense stays healthy, they have a real opportunity to contend for a playoff berth and much more.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 18: Philadelphia Eagles

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At this point last year, the Eagles thought Sam Bradford would be their starting quarterback while Carson Wentz learned about life in the NFL.

Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s knee injury changed those plans and led to Wentz starting every game in his rookie season. There were the expected ups and downs, but the end result was enough ups for the Eagles to feel like they have their quarterback of the present and future.

As long as everyone is healthy, the offensive line should provide strong support for Wentz and what the Eagles hope will be a better run game. They also have a deep defensive line despite the loss of defensive tackle Bennie Logan as the additions of Chris Long, Timmy Jernigan and first-round pick Derek Barnett ensure the cupboard will be well stocked.

Tight end Zach Ertz, linebacker Jordan Hicks and safety Malcolm Jenkins are other players to like in Philly, but Wentz’ development figures to be the lead storyline for the Eagles one way or another.

Biggest positive change: The Eagles were lacking at wide receiver last season and they addressed the issue by signing a pair of veteran free agents. Alshon Jeffery came on a one-year deal as he tries to get past recent injury woes and return to where he was with the Bears a couple of years ago. Torrey Smith’s time with the 49ers was dismal, but he still has the ability to stretch the field and improves Wentz’s options over the corps he was working with last year.

Biggest negative change: No one in Philadelphia is likely to lose too much sleep lamenting the departures of cornerbacks Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin, so it may not be a negative change so much as the lack of an immediate positive one at cornerback. The Eagles signed Patrick Robinson and drafted Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones, but Jones may be a redshirt after a pre-draft Achilles tear and it would be a lot to ask Douglas for high achievement in his rookie season.

We’d like to crack a beer with … LeGarrette Blount. Coming off an 18-touchdown season for the Patriots, Blount lingered as a free agent until signing with the Eagles in May and it would be interesting to hear what his conversations with New England were like before they made it clear they were moving in other directions. Blount’s previous departure from New England didn’t go well as his stay with the Steelers didn’t make it a full season, so we’d also be interested to know where things will be different this year.

Coaching thermometer: There’s going to be an expectation of improvement in Philly after going 7-9 with a rookie quarterback in Pederson’s first year, but there will be growing pains in Year Two for Wentz as well and that may not lead to a leap in the standings that makes the Eagles a playoff contender. Barring total catastrophe, that shouldn’t be an ominous outcome for Pederson given how much they’ve overhauled the team since Chip Kelly’s departure.

How they could prove us wrong: We’re around the midpoint of the power rankings, which means the Eagles could prove us wrong with a move in either direction. A shift in the positive direction would likely mean the new faces on offense aid in a jump for Wentz in his second season while more injury trouble for Jeffery and a lack of growth in the secondary would be reasons why the Eagles could fare worse than anticipated. In a strong division, there’s also the chance that the Eagles could be better overall without making much headway in the standings.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 19: New Orleans Saints


There are changes every year in the NFL, but a few things we have come to count on.

Drew Brees is still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Sean Payton’s one of the most creative offensive minds, and the Saints defense continues to serve as the anchor for both, dragging them to the bottom of the division.

They made significant changes this offseason, but not enough to fix a defense that needed help at every level.

But they also tinkered with the offense, adding an all-time running back in Adrian Peterson, and trading a star wide receiver (Brandin Cooks) to the Patriots.

It’s a risky bet, fiddling with the one things they can more or less count on. But the Saints have to evolve if they want to keep up with the Falcons and Buccaneers and Panthers, who each in their own way create offensive matchup problems.

The Saints have more issues on the other side of the ball than the rest of their division, which probably leaves them as the clear fourth of four.

Biggest positive change: They continued to bring in reinforcements for what has been a historically bad defense. Getting inside linebacker A.J. Klein away from the Panthers could be a good piece of business, and drafting cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams could lend immediate benefits. Mixing in linebacker Manti Te’o provides some quality depth which they have lacked.

They have a long way to go before they can be considered mediocre, but they’re at least on the road toward something other than awful.

Biggest negative change: The Saints cut bait on historical free agent bust Jairus Byrd, but their biggest problems were not related to personnel transactions.

Between the heart issue that will keep defensive tackle Nick Fairley out for the season and possibly be career-ending, and the torn labrum suffered by left tackle Terron Armstead, the Saints took two major blows.

The bigger concern with Fairley is obviously his health, but Armstead’s condition will have a major impact on what they want to do on the field.

Protecting Brees is their biggest priority, and now it will be in the hands of first-rounder Ryan Ramcyzk. Oh, by the way, center Max Unger is coming off foot surgery and isn’t expected to be ready until the start of the regular season. That’s practically the good news here.

Coaching thermometer: Cool, as long as Payton wants it to be that way. He just signed a lucrative extension last year, but the constant chatter about his next job exists for some reason. He’s got the run of the place for the time being, and other than Brees, it’s easy to argue he’s their most valuable asset.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . It would be kind of fun to put some truth serum in Mark Ingram. Ostensibly the lead running back going into the offseason, he got a former MVP dropped into his meeting room and now has to adjust. He’s said all the right things so far, and the two of them could make an intriguing tandem if they use them that way. But it’s also easy to wonder how the job-share will work, and whether everyone will still be happy about it by the end of the year. Ingram had done enough to seemingly be trusted, so hearing his thoughts on the team’s future and his own would be interesting.

How they can prove us wrong: They can still score with anyone. Adding Peterson to the offense lends a different element (I mean, as long as Peterson’s healthy and anything like his pre-knee injury form). Michael Thomas emerged as enough of a receiving threat that they were willing to flip Cooks, and backfilling with Ted Ginn helps keep them fast.

But there are some very good offenses around them in their own division, so winning shootouts is far from a sure thing. That defense will have to improve more than a defense which didn’t add a pass-rusher might be able to for them to make up ground.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 20: Minnesota Vikings

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A year ago, the Vikings had legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, for the first time since 2009. Then came the late August news that quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s knee had been shredded without contact, ending his 2016 season and maybe more.

So much for the Super Bowl aspirations.

Then came the stunning trade for quarterback Sam Bradford, and an unsettled sense of optimism returned to Minnesota. Then came a Week One win in Tennessee with Shaun Hill under center, an accomplishment that in hindsight should have been regarded as a big deal, given that the Titans aren’t the Titans they’ve recently been.

Then came a surprising win at home over the Packers to properly christen a new stadium. Even with the loss of running back Adrian Peterson to a torn meniscus, the title-game train returned to the tracks, as the Vikings eventually racked up five straight wins.

And then came the part when it all went to sh-t.

From 5-0 to 3-8 to 8-8 and that’s that. Along the way, offensive coordinator Norv Turner abruptly quit, coach Mike Zimmer had multiple eye surgeries, and the offensive line played well enough to open no holes for the tailbacks and plenty in the body of Bradford. Somehow, the spindly-legged quarterback with the oversized Joe Montana physique survived the year.

This year, the Vikings have no clear expectations. They could go 4-12. They could go 12-4. The former is more likely. Something in the middle is the most likely.

Biggest positive change: Although Peterson may have a back-to-the-future-style season in New Orleans, the Vikings had to end a decade of hitching their offensive wagon to one of the best running backs in league history. Quarterback play never thrived much around him, possibly because the quarterbacks (along with everyone else) were always waiting for Peterson to save the day with a blast through the line of scrimmage, a bullying of a linebacker or a safety at the second level, and a “he’s loose!” exclamation from the loudmouth in the radio booth. They saved $18 million in cash and cap space by moving on from Adrian, and they jumped up in round two after running back Dalvin Cook slid out of round one. Cook may now be getting loose from time to time, but the Vikings need to never again put all of their eggs in one running back’s basket. Through their 10 years with Peterson, the Vikings made it to the playoffs only four times and won only one playoff game.

Biggest negative change: It’s not really a change, it’s that things have stayed the same at the quarterback position. Sam Bradford continues to be the starter, Teddy Bridgewater continues to rehab, both have one year left on their current deals, and no one really knows who the starter is going to be later this year or beyond. And that’s a problem. Leadership is critical when it comes to the quarterback position, and the team equipping the quarterback to lead is an overlooked but critical part of that dynamic. With the Vikings not making it clear that either guy is “the guy,” neither guy will be able to lead the team the way he’d like to, or more importantly the way he needs to. If they’d sign Bradford to a contract extension, that would slam the door on Bridgewater, who remains a fan favorite locally and a player who through no fault of his own has had his career derailed. But they can’t dump Bradford, go with Case Keenum, and wait for Bridgewater, either. Perhaps the best-case scenario would be for Bridgewater to make remarkable strides in camp (he’s recently been working out without a knee brace) and for some other team to suffer the same hardship the Vikings did a year ago, allowing Minnesota to unload Bradford and recoup the first-round pick they gave up for him — unless they’ve already decided discreetly that Bradford is the guy, and that they’re not ready to cut the cord on Bridgewater for P.R. reasons, or in the event Bradford suffers a similar physical fate. If that’s the case, the Vikings need to find a way to make sure the locker room realizes that Bradford’s voice is the one to be heard, for 2017 and beyond.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Alex Boone. This one’s the easiest perhaps of all teams. Boone is candid and frank and the addition of a beer (or 10) would only get the mountain of a man to say all the things we’d love to hear him say about what went wrong last year and what needs to go right this year, and who hasn’t been on board and who needs to get on board.

Coaching thermometer: It’s getting warm in the land of ice fishing and red snow cones in the vicinity of wood chippers. While only a grossly sub-.500 finish would likely put Mike Zimmer in immediate danger, that could happen if: (1) the offensive line continues to struggle; and (2) Zimmer’s defense continues to engage in self-leg urination with games on the line. Something in the 7-9 to 9-7 range gets him at least one more year; a division title and a progression at least to the divisional round re-establishes Zimmer as the captain of a ship that has now gone more than four decades since sailing to a Super Bowl.

How they could prove us wrong: The offensive line needs to become effective and remain healthy, allowing for the kind of cohesiveness that opens holes for Cook, Latavius Murray, and Jerick McKinnon. Bradford, who shockingly stayed healthy a year ago, needs to do it again. The receivers, led by Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, need to allow the passing game to have a default plan much more dynamic than short throws to tight end Kyle Rudolph. And the defense needs to get back to being a force that doesn’t need much of a second-half lead to clamp down on an opponent and secure a win. The loose notion that they can turn things around simply by scoring 20 or more points in every given game feels a little like the Randy Ratio, the catch phrase of the last Mike’s final year on the job as coach of the team.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 21: Cincinnati Bengals

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The Bengals went 52-27-1 from 2011-15 with five consecutive playoff appearances. Not that anybody noticed. An 0-5 postseason record tends to make people disregard you as a contender.

After sinking to 6-9-1 last season, the Bengals truly are forgotten heading into this season. Cincinnati, though, doesn’t mind the role of underdog. Although they are young, the Bengals believe they have enough talent to rebound rather than rebuild.

The Bengals hope for better luck in the health department this year. Receiver A.J. Green missed six games last season, and tight end Tyler Eifert was out for six. They started only four games together. Andy Dalton missed his favorite targets, especially in the red zone, as he threw a career-low 18 touchdowns.

The Bengals lost five games by five points or less and arguably have as much talent as any other team in the division, so they might be closer to returning to the playoffs than most think.

Biggest positive change: The Bengals drafted speed, speed and more speed. Receiver John Ross’ 4.22 broke the combine record. Jordan Willis was the fastest defensive lineman, and Jordan Evans the fastest linebacker. Running back Joe Mixon and safety Brandon Wilson were the fastest among prospects at their positions, too. Ross and Mixon, the team’s top-two picks, give Andy Dalton two more weapons to go with A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert.

Biggest negative change: The Bengals offensive line wasn’t good last season, and it lost its two best players – Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler – in free agency. That leaves former first-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi, who was benched at right tackle last season, to start at left tackle, and Jake Fisher, a second-round pick in 2015, to start at right tackle. Andre Smith returns after a year in Minnesota but will move to right guard. If the line can’t protect Andy Dalton or open holes for Joe Mixon, the Bengals are going nowhere in 2017.

Coaching thermometer: It’s 212 degrees. Boiling. Marvin Lewis, the Bengals head coach since 2003, enters the final year of his contract for the first time since 2010. He has received a series of one-year extensions in recent years but not this year. It might be now or never for Lewis to win a playoff game in Cincinnati.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Geno Atkins. Did you know the defensive tackle has made five Pro Bowls in seven seasons.? That he’s a two-time All-Pro? That he has 52 career sacks? That Atkins, 29, could end up being one of the best ever at his position? Let’s get to know him better.

How they can prove us wrong: The offensive line is better than expected, allowing Joe Mixon to run for 1,000 yards. A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert stay healthy, allowing Andy Dalton to pass for his career averages of 3,700 yards and 24 touchdowns. The defense plays like it did in the second half of last season when it allowed 15.3 points per game, but gets more sacks (33) and takeaways (20) than last season. And rookie kicker Jake Elliott, whom the Bengals drafted in the fifth round, doesn’t miss six extra points and seven field goals like the team’s kickers did last season. All of that likely needs to happen for the Bengals to make the playoffs, but winning a playoff game for the first time since 1990 might be the only way Lewis earns an extension.

Terri Valenti breaks ground in becoming first female instant replay official

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Terri Valenti has five sons, so dealing with football players is a walk in the park.

“At first, [coaches and players] give me a little bit more space, which I use to my advantage,” Valenti said Friday during the NFL’s annual officiating clinic, “but I also have five sons, so I understand boys a lot. It’s just natural for me.”

This season, Valenti becomes the NFL’s first female instant replay official in the booth, two years after Sarah Thomas became the league’s first full-time official on the field.

“It’s a positive benchmark in society that we’re not sort of in an old-school, old-boys mentality,” referee Brad Allen said.

Valenti began officiating games in 1999 and has experience as an on-field official at the high school, college, minor league and international league levels as well as spending the 2009 season in the United Football League. She spent four seasons as an instant replay communicator for the league from 2012-15 and then as a replay assistant last season.

Valenti earned a promotion this season as the NFL named her one of the 17 instant replay officials. She will act as the go-between for the on-field referee and the NFL’s centralized operations in New York, where Alberto Riveron, the league’s director of officiating, will make decisions on reviews.

“It hasn’t been done before, but I’m not the one and only trailblazer,” Valenti said. “There have been many women ahead of me in the officiating world who have broken ground, and I’m just really honored and pleased to be here, and I’m thankful that the NFL and the league office now gave me this opportunity.”

NFL’s head of officiating will make all replay decisions

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The NFL has its message down pat: The instant replay “process” isn’t changing. That’s what league officials and the NFL’s head of officiating repeated Friday during the first day of their annual officiating clinic.

But what has changed is who makes replay decisions under the NFL’s new centralized system.

“The process hasn’t changed,” Alberto Riveron, the league’s senior vice president of officiating, said. “We’ve had the same process in place now for three years, so the only thing that’s changed about the process that instead of the final decision being with the referee on the field, it’s now with New York.

“Again, we go back to the process. The referee goes and speaks with the coach, stops the game, makes an announcement, consults with us in New York. In the meantime, while he’s had that conversation with the coach, we are gearing up in New York and showing up the best possible angles, and then the final decisions will be made in New York. But the consultation process, the way we look at the film, the plays we show him, the angles, that hasn’t changed one bit.”

Riveron said plans are for him to make every decision. However, Wayne Mackie, the league’s vice president of officiating evaluation and development, and Russell Yurk, the league’s vice president of instant replay and administration, will provide assistance, especially if multiple replays happen simultaneously.

“Ultimately, I’m making the decisions,” said Riveron, who was a veteran game official for nine seasons. “But that’s why, like before when it was Dean [Blandino] and myself in that room, now we’re going to have Wayne Mackie, Russell Yurk, and myself in the room, so if I’m tied up in a replay, somebody else will be looking at that, but ultimately I will be involved in every decision-making process.”

Riveron will communicate with the referee, who now will use a tablet on the sideline to view the play in question, before Riveron makes his decision. Previously, referees made replay decisions after consulting a monitor under a hood on the sideline. The new system mirrors that of the NHL and MLB.

“Obviously, I’ll have the same input that I’ve had in the past, but then the final decision will be made in New York,” referee Walt Coleman said. “That’s obviously to be consistent, so instead of 17 referees deciding stuff, the people in New York will be deciding. I think that it will help with consistency on the calls, because what I think is an incomplete pass might not necessarily be what another referee thinks. I think it’s good, and I think it helps for consistency and so forth. The process is pretty much the same other than where the final decision comes from.”

The move to centralized replay intends to streamline the process and quicken the pace of reaching a decision. Referees insist they have no problem with having the final decision taken out of their hands.

“I have never had a situation where New York and I differed on what we were going to do, so it will still be seamless,” referee Brad Allen said. “The fact that in most circumstances, we’re not physically going to be under a hood, we are going to be looking at a tablet, it’s a little different.

“We just don’t see it as an issue; we really don’t.”

Relaxed celebration rules clear about what’s legal, NFL head of officiating says

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Ezekiel Elliott still will get penalized for leaping into the Salvation Army kettle, but the Packers can feel free to have the entire offense do the Lambeau Leap. The celebration rules are clear, the league’s head of officiating said Friday, regarding what actions will result in a 15-yard penalty.

“Extremely clear, yes,” Alberto Riveron, the league’s senior vice president of officiating, said during the annual NFL Officiating Clinic in Irving, Texas. “We have plenty of film to show them; we have plenty of training videos that they will see that they have already seen. There is no gray area when it comes to that.”

Based on feedback from players, the NFL announced in May it was relaxing rules on celebrations. Players now can use the football as a prop after a touchdown; they can go to the ground; and they are allowed to have group celebrations.

“We have a lot fewer actions that are going to be penalties, and we’ll be able to focus on those and not have to worry about all the other ones,” NFL referee Carl Cheffers said.

But it isn’t anything goes. Prolonged celebrations, taunting and dunking over the goal post are among actions still banned and subject to a 15-yard penalty.

“There are some boundary lines that have been put in as far things they can’t do,” referee Walt Coleman said. “Things that are sexual suggestive. Things like a throat slash, shooting a bow and arrow. Things along that line that are violent and so forth. Those have been illegal. They are still illegal. . . . They can’t use other things as a prop. Those are still illegal like picking up the pylon and using it for a putter. They still can’t dunk the ball over the goal post. [The Salvation Army kettle] is a prop, so you won’t be able to jump in the kettle. Basically we’re going to watch what they do and let them celebrate, and if it gets excessive in length of time, then we’ll have to decide, but I’m not sure we know exactly what that length of time is.

“We know players are out there thinking up what they’re going to do, so it should be interesting and entertaining.”

Coleman is curious to see the reaction from defensive players, remembering George Teague’s response to Terrell Owens’ celebration on the star in Texas Stadium in 2000 when Owens scored for the 49ers against the Cowboys.

“Here in Dallas, obviously they know all about how they break up celebrations when they run to the middle of the field,” Coleman said with a chuckle. “So we’ve kind of come full circle as far as we stopped them from doing all that because people were breaking up the celebrations, and we were creating fights and things that weren’t very good presentation-wise for the National Football League. So now we’ve kind of come back around with the cooperation with the players and so forth, and they have asked to put some of the fun back in the league. So I think that’s what we’re going to try to do. So It’ll be interesting to see how it happens, because we have come full circle as far as where they could do it, then we got more and more they couldn’t do it, and now we’re back to allowing them to do some of the celebrations. The defensive players they don’t think it’s entertaining, so it’ll be interesting.”

PFT preseason power rankings No. 23: Buffalo Bills

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With Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley out as coach and General Manager, respectively, there’s no question that this is a transitional year in Buffalo.

What is a question is how big that transition will wind up being. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor got a new contract this offseason, but the Bills can back out of it after this season if coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane decide he’s not the right guy for the job over the long haul.

Taylor’s two years as a starter have featured many positives, but he’ll likely need to be even better and more consistent this year to secure his place in Buffalo. The same is true of wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who didn’t have his 2018 option exercised and could head elsewhere if things don’t break the right way in the coming months.

Those decisions will provide a big sign about the direction the Bills will take under McDermott and Beane and let us know if this year is a building block or a prelude to a bigger rebuilding effort.

Biggest positive change: There was a lot of excitement when Ryan got to Buffalo, but it didn’t take long for trouble signs to emerge. The biggest were on defense where Ryan scrapped a successful 4-3 scheme in favor of the 3-4 base defense he’s run all over the league. Players found it too complex and weren’t shy about sharing those feelings as the team struggled on the field, leaving a dark cloud over the team that appears to be clearing now that McDermott has moved things back in the other direction.

Biggest negative change: The Bills would miss cornerback Stephon Gilmore and running back Mike Gillislee regardless of where they wound up signing as free agents. The fact that both players moved to the Patriots makes things even worse because their success will make it even harder for the team to make headway in the AFC East.

Coaching thermometer: Any feeling that McDermott might be in for a tenure as short as Ryan’s dropped considerably when the Bills fired Whaley and hired Beane, who worked with McDermott in Carolina. The hunger for a playoff return isn’t going to go away, but McDermott should have ample time to try to put it together.

We’d like to crack a beer with … Jerry Hughes. Hughes has gone from a first-round disappointment with the Colts to getting 20 sacks in his first two years in Buffalo to a less successful stint in Ryan’s defense. That’s given him a lot of experiences to draw on as he embarks on his eighth NFL season and, we imagine, a lot of insight into how talent, scheme fit and coaching styles combine to shape a career.

How they can prove us wrong: Having running back LeSean McCoy and Watkins healthy for an entire season is a must because they are lacking other proven talent at skill positions without them. If they get that, a step forward from Taylor and a resurgent performance on defense, the Bills could find themselves in the playoff hunt in the AFC.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 24: Los Angeles Chargers

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The Chargers won nine games the past two seasons combined. Now, they start over with a new home and a new coach.

Anthony Lynn’s hiring as head coach was overshadowed this offseason by the team’s move to Los Angeles after 56 years in San Diego. They will spend the next two seasons playing in a 30,000-seat soccer stadium in Carson before moving into the new digs they’ll share with the Rams in Inglewood.

The Chargers will compete with the Rams and every other team in Los Angeles for attention and likely won’t get much of it until they win. The Chargers, though, do have a chance to exceed expectations with a talented roster that includes several rising stars, but they enter training camp with a number of questions, including how they handle the move to L.A.

Biggest positive change: Anthony Lynn’s run-first mentality. Yes, the Chargers were behind a lot last year, which partly explains why they threw 59.6 percent of the time. But no matter the record this year, expect Lynn to call running plays more than 40.4 percent of the time. Lynn played running back in the NFL. He coached running backs nearly his entire coaching career. Lynn, who had the best rushing attack in the NFL last season in Buffalo, preaches “ground and pound.” Melvin Gordon, if he stays healthy, figures to be a big part of the offense.

Biggest negative change: Moving into a 30,000-seat soccer stadium isn’t likely to provide the Chargers with much of a home-field advantage. It’s the smallest stadium to host a full NFL season since the Packers played their home games at 25,000-seat City Stadium in 1956. The Chargers, whose slogan is “Fight for L.A.,” will find everything new and different this season. Distractions likely abound, and how the Chargers handle those distractions likely dictates how the season goes.

Coaching thermometer: It doesn’t figure to get hot in L.A. for Anthony Lynn until at least 2019 when the Chargers move into their new stadium. Lynn will get time to figure it out. He had never even served as a coordinator until Week 3 last season in Buffalo and finished out the season as the interim head coach after Rex Ryan was fired before Week 17. Players, though, love playing for Lynn, and, as a former player, he will have their respect from the start.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Philip Rivers. Rivers arguably is the best trash talker in the NFL. He loves to get under opponents’ skins. He even plays better when opponents go back at him. Rivers, though, does his trash talking in the nicest of ways without uttering an expletive.

How they can prove us wrong: The Chargers have more talent than their five victories last season suggest. Joey Bosa and Melvin Gordon are rising stars, and the addition of first-round pick Mike Williams could give Philip Rivers a feature receiver. If Keenan Allen can stay healthy – a big if based on his injuries of the past two seasons – and Antonio Gates has anything left, Rivers will have more options than he has had in a few years with tight end Hunter Henry having had a solid rookie season and receiver Tyrell Williams coming off a 1,000-yard receiving season. Rivers, 35, passed for more than 4,000 yards for the fourth consecutive season, but he will have to cut down on his 21 interceptions. The defense, which is switching to the 4-3, should improve with Gus Bradley running that side of the ball. Bosa and Melvin Ingram, who had 18.5 sacks over the past two seasons, will get after the quarterback, and cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Jason Verrett, if he’s healthy, are playmakers on the backend. Anything better than 5-11 is a move in the right direction, though the Chargers don’t have many years left to take advantage of Rivers’ talent.

PFT preseason power rankings No. 25: Washington Redskins

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After the first 14 weeks of the 2016 season, the Redskins looked like a pretty good bet to make the playoffs for a second straight season as they were 7-5-1 with two home games and a road date with the hapless Bears to close out the schedule.

They beat the Bears, but losses to the Panthers in Week 15 and a Giants team with nothing to play for in Week 17 meant that there would be no playoff streak. The offense, which was strong all year, managed just 25 points in those losses and they’ll have to bounce back without offensive coordinator/new Rams coach Sean McVay and wide receivers Pierre Garçon and DeSean Jackson.

Those changes could make life more difficult for quarterback Kirk Cousins, who had another good season but remains without a long-term contract after getting a second straight franchise tag. That didn’t hurt him on the field last year and his focus should remain strong with the prospect of a big payday still on the horizon, but success will have to come with a different supporting cast this time around.

Biggest positive change: While the offense was a strength in Washington last year, the defense was less impressive. The Redskins changed defensive coordinators with Greg Manusky replacing Joe Barry and they were aggressive in the offseason by adding players to the unit. First-round defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebacker Zach Brown and safety D.J. Swearinger highlight the new additions and will be counted on to spearhead improvement on the field this season.

Biggest negative change: In many circumstances, the departures of McVay, Garçon and Jackson would take the prize in this category but the winner has to be the departure of General Manager Scot McCloughan. The drama that was synonymous with the franchise quieted during McCloughan’s time in Washington, but it came back in full force with the awkwardly handled ouster of a guy who had done a lot to get the team back on track after the ugly end to the Mike Shanahan era. Doug Williams moved to the top of the football operations department, but it feels like the shift moved power back to president Bruce Allen when all was said and done.

Coaching thermometer: There’s no fire, but that doesn’t mean it’s chilly. Jay Gruden is 21-26-1 through three years in Washington and changes to a front office often come with coaching changes, especially if they aren’t sold on their starting quarterback. A rocky start will likely be accompanied by an uptick on Gruden’s thermostat.

We’d like to crack a beer with … Josh Norman. The cornerback isn’t shy about sharing his opinion under any circumstances, so we imagine it would make for an entertaining visit to share some cold ones while talking Odell Beckham, Dez Bryant and anything else that comes to mind.

How they can prove us wrong: They won the division in 2015 and, as mentioned, weren’t far away from the playoffs last year so it doesn’t feel far-fetched that Washington could find themselves in the mix. For starters, the new faces on defense will have take to Manusky’s vow to be more aggressive and Josh Doctson and Terrelle Pryor will have prove to be capable replacements for the departed wideouts if the Redskins are going to contend in a deep NFC East.

PFT Preseason power rankings No. 26: Indianapolis Colts

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The Colts could actually be pretty good. As long as Andrew Luck’s shoulder’s fine and they can keep him upright in the future.

Of course, those are two pretty big questions, and neither of them are close to certainties at the moment.

At last news, Luck still wasn’t throwing after having surgery on his very valuable right shoulder. We’re sufficiently far away from the start of the regular season that this could easily be a lot of worry about nothing. But when an entire franchise is riding on that surgical reconstruction, it’s also not the kind of thing to minimize.

Beyond that, they pushed through years of awkwardness-if-not-dysfunction by firing General Manager Ryan Grigson and keeping coach Chuck Pagano. He and new G.M. Chris Ballard won’t be tied at the hip, which could create future tension.

Ballard realized the defense he inherited was a bad one, and bought in bulk to help shore it up. He signed a bunch of solid, competent players such as Johnathan Hankins and Jabaal Sheard and John Simon who lend ballast to a side of the ball that needed it most.

It will take some time to stabilize things completely, but as long as Luck’s able to play, they’re going to contend in the AFC South.

Biggest positive change: It’s unseemly to kick a man when he’s down, but he’s also already down there next to your foot so it seems like a waste not to sometimes.

Put simply, Grigson squandered the single-most valuable commodity a G.M. could be gifted with: A good quarterback on a cheap rookie contract.

Instead of investing the savings wisely (the way the Seahawks did and others have), Grigson bought a bunch of non-contributors and wasted the window in which Luck was good and cheap. Now that he’s good and expensive, the job is going to be harder for Ballard to put the right parts around his quarterback.

Biggest negative change: They still haven’t invested in protecting Luck the way you think they would after he took 41 sacks last year. Former G.M. Bill Polian knew he was building an unbalanced team when he had Peyton Manning, but he did it because he knew Manning was his top asset and should be protected. The Colts have brought back largely the same line as last year, and that line wasn’t good enough then.

Coaching thermometer: Pagano might have another year or two after the scapegoating of Grigson (not that he did it), but he’s on at least a steady simmer if not a low boil. He and Ballard have different agendas, and lack familiarity. While they might have similar goals, Ballard’s there for the long-term fix and will obviously have more time to do it.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . We’d say Pagano, but we’re afraid he’d want to keep chopping wood and we’d be there all night. Frank Gore’s one of the more underrated backs of recent memory, and his workmanlike approach to his craft makes him one of the most respected by his peers. He’s also had ringside seats for some real weirdness in his career in San Francisco and now Indianapolis, which would make his perspective on looking for stability an interesting one.

How they can prove us wrong: If 2016 first-rounder Ryan Kelly turns into Luck’s Jeff Saturday, it would begin to stabilize the line and maybe they all get better. Otherwise, a lot of guys upfront are going to have to play beyond their level for this thing to stay on track. Again, it’s the AFC South so the bar’s not the highest. But the Titans have made big strides of late, and the Texans are always close, and one day the Jaguars might deliver, so there’s pressure on the Colts not to fall farther behind.