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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

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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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Preseason Power Rankings No. 24: Dallas Cowboys

Tony Romo, Brandon Weeden AP

The Cowboys have followed a similar track through the last few seasons.

Impressive wins are mixed with gut-wrenching defeats while key players go down with injuries over the course of a season that ends with a loss to the eventual NFC East champion on Sunday night in Week 17. Last year’s edition made it to that final game despite a defense that existed in name only, but went down to the Eagles with quarterback Tony Romo watching from the sideline because of a back injury.

Things don’t look all that different this season. The offense still looks capable of posting big numbers while the defense looks incapable of preventing them, which makes it easy to feel like we’re about to see more of the same from Dallas.

Strengths.

Romo will always have his detractors thanks to his long history of saving his worst throw of the day for the biggest moment in the game, but it’s hard to see how the Cowboys win games, let alone remain alive in the playoff race into the final game of the regular season, if not for his abilities.

His back surgery is a concern, although the fact that he was able to take part in some of the offseason program is a good sign for the year to come. With Dez Bryant and Jason Witten back to catch passes and DeMarco Murray running the ball, Romo’s got the supporting cast he needs to thrive as well.

He also has a pretty good offensive line in front of him. They picked Zach Martin in the first round and he’ll join left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick, two other recent first-rounders, as the anchors of one of the better blocking units in the league.

Weaknesses.

You can pretty much pick any spot on the Cowboys defense as a starting point for a discussion of the team’s weaknesses. We’ll break ground on a defensive line that will need Anthony Spencer and Henry Melton to make complete comebacks from serious leg injuries if they are going to stand a chance of stopping the opposition. Without them, it will be up to George Selvie, Jeremy Mincey, rookie DeMarcus Lawrence and the power of prayer.

Linebacker doesn’t look much better in the wake of another injury for the talented but all too injury prone Sean Lee. Lee did a little bit of everything for the Cowboys, who will now have to rely on the likes of Justin Durant, Bruce Carter and Kyle Wilber for playmaking.

The secondary picture isn’t quite as bleak thanks to the presence of cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick. The Cowboys are putting a lot of faith in J.J. Wilcox breaking through at one safety spot, but Barry Church doesn’t offer much at the other spot. Things would look better if cornerback Morris Claiborne lived up to his status as a first-round pick, but he hasn’t shown much signs of that through his first two seasons.

Overall, it looks a lot like last year’s defense minus the top three players from last year. That isn’t good.

Changes.

Defensive end DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher joined Lee as the best players on last year’s defense, but the Cowboys cut Ware and let Hatcher walk to Washington because they didn’t have their cap in good enough order to keep them. Both are closer to the end of the road than the beginning, but the loss of talent will be noticeable.

Wide receiver Miles Austin was ditched as part of the effort to get that cap in order. It’s been a while since Austin was healthy and productive, making it an easy choice for Dallas with Terrance Williams heading into his second season.

The Cowboys also made their annual tweaks to the coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was bumped to a different role and Rod Marinelli will take over as coordinator while Scott Linehan takes the offensive play calling reins from Bill Callahan. It’s more business as usual for the Cowboys under head coach Jason Garrett, whose repeated playoff near-misses have not blown back on him to this point.

It remains unclear whether or not the Cowboys will be making a change at backup quarterback. Kyle Orton has not reported for any work this offseason, leaving Brandon Weeden as the No. 2 unless he changes his mind about retiring. With a serious hit to his wallet looming if he does retire, it’s best not to close the book on Orton just yet.

The Cowboys traded for troubled linebacker Rolando McClain, but no one has been able to rely on him for anything other than the occasional mug shot during his NFL career.

Camp Battles.

Spencer, Mincey, Lawrence and Selvie will be battling for snaps at defensive end with the final results likely coming down to how well Spencer is feeling and how quickly Lawrence can pick up the NFL game.

The Cowboys have talked about using Cole Beasley as an outside receiver more often, which should give him a leg up on Dwayne Harris and rookie Devin Street in packages with multiple wideouts.

Running back Ryan Williams signed with Dallas after rarely playing in Arizona because of injuries, but the No. 2 running back job is more likely to go to Lance Dunbar or Joseph Randle.

Prospects.

Given the state of the defense, it is hard to feel confident about the Cowboys’ chances of making the playoffs. You could have said the exact same thing last year, though, and the Cowboys were alive until Orton threw an interception with 1:49 to play in Week 17.

If defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli can get something out of the defense, the offense should be good enough to compete with anyone and the NFC East has lacked a breakout team for the last few years. The Eagles look like the best shot to be that team this year, but it’s hard to count anyone out after watching so many battles of attrition in the regular season.

Games against the 49ers, Seahawks, Cardinals and Saints won’t offer a chance to fatten the record outside of the division, so the Cowboys’ chances will likely hinge on how they handle things in their own yard. Their shortcomings will make that difficult, but history tells us that it isn’t impossible.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 25: Houston Texans

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bill O'Brien AP

The Texans were so close to a good run. They had climbed steadily, going from bad to OK to good.

But they were never able to get past playoff tease, and when the bottom fell out last season, it was time for wholesale changes.

Gone were coach Gary Kubiak and quarterback Matt Schaub, who was offered up midway through a dismal year and was sentenced to Oakland this offseason.

In comes Bill O’Brien, and armed with the first pick in the NFL Draft, he had a chance to take the kind of quarterback he could mold and build around.

Instead, he made the strength of his new team stronger, and surprised many people by not taking a quarterback until Tom Savage in the fourth round. (It was such a shocker that longtime Houston Chronicle NFL writer John McClain had to eat a copy of the sports page to pay off a bet that they’d take a passer first).

Whether O’Brien made the right call will be determined down the road. But for now, he has a a flawed half of a roster and no clear way to improve it until next year’s draft.

At that point, McClain is probably safe to make the same bet.

Strengths.

By using the first choice on South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the Texans added to a defense that already had plenty of star power.

Clowney will have to learn to stand up and play outside linebacker after having his hand in the dirt for three years in college. But once he’s returned from his sports hernia surgery, the transition shouldn’t be that difficult for him.

What he did in a 4-3 he can do in a 3-4 — rush the passer.

With his kind of talent paired with defensive end J.J. Watt, the Texans have an opportunity to have an incredible defense.

And all Watt is is perhaps the best all-around player in the NFL.

Bringing in Clowney also allowed them to experiment with linebacker Brooks Reed, moving him inside next to Brian Cushing, further strengthening the defense.

They also added some heft in the second round, drafting Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix to replace Earl Mitchell.

That gives new coordinator Romeo Crennel lots of quality pieces to work with, and he’ll need to do some of his best work to keep this team competitive.

Weaknesses.

How are they going to score any points?

Being the best option in Texans camp right now is faint praise, but that’s what they’ve laid on Ryan Fitzpatrick by naming him the starter going into camp.

It’s not even recently clear that Fitzpatrick is a good backup in the NFL, but he’s the best they’ve got for the moment.

But it’s hard to know who he’s going to throw it to right now.

Star wide receiver Andre Johnson is disgruntled, and openly questioned the direction of the team this offseason. He has a point, and at 32 years old, he’s burning one of the last years of his prime with a guy who can’t take full advantage of his talents.

Now, it’s unclear if he’ll continue to stay away and pile up fines during training camp since he wants a trade, but then if he comes back, you have the issue of a guy who hasn’t bought fully into the program playing a central role.

Second-year wideout DeAndre Hopkins is the future here, and if Johnson comes back and plays along, they’d have a good pair of targets.

Assuming, of course, they had a viable quarterback.

Which they don’t.

Changes.

Other than a new coach and a new quarterback, there was plenty of other turnover.

They shuffled off some older players, and lost a lot of key depth.

Perhaps no player will be missed like running back Ben Tate, who took the opportunity and the cash in Cleveland.

Arian Foster is back and healthy, but Tate always got plenty of work, and played well when called upon.

The Texans also parted ways with tight end Owen Daniels (who followed Kubiak to Baltimore), putting the position in the hands of Garrett Graham and third-rounder C.J. Fiedorowicz.

The defensive line got a fresh look, with veterans Mitchell and Antonio Smith making way for younger guys, which will be a theme there for some time.

Camp Battles.

The Texans have a premier left tackle in Duane Brown, but the other side of their offensive line is in flux.

Right guard Brandon Brooks and right tackle Derek Newton are going to have to fight for jobs, which they should after a relatively porous performance a year ago.

Second-round guard Xavier Su’a-Filo will eventually take over a job on one side, and will make them more physical in the process.

The Texans will also be looking for more depth at wide receiver among a group of young players, as they can’t know how long they can’t count on Johnson.

Prospects.

The Texans will be good enough on defense to compete with most teams in the NFL.

But they might need to win a lot of 6-3 games, and that’s a lot to ask from any group.

Barring Ryan Fitzpatrick pulling a Kurt Warner-like transformation, it’s going to be hard for them to do much with the ball but run, and that will get tougher with time.

If they can shut teams out and create turnovers, they’re going to have chances, but their margin for error is non-existent.

O’Brien comes to the job well-respected after his work at Penn State.

And though the track record of former New England assistants isn’t great, his work with Tom Brady bought him a chance at this kind of job.

The easy choice for him would have found a quarterback and built around it.

Now, he has to accept that answer’s a year or more away. It won’t reflect well on his record, but he lives in a division in which he can compete, and perhaps build enough of a base that next year’s additions can make more of a difference.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 26: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Lovie Smith AP

It’s possible that there wasn’t a team in the league that needed blowing up more than the Buccaneers last year.

They threw a lot of money at problems, and there never appeared to be any solutions, at least any Greg Schiano appeared capable of solving.

From a former first-round quarterback who lost his way to one of their highest-priced players never quite looking like himself, the Bucs were kind of a mess.

So they got a new coaching staff, a new quarterback, and a new sense of hope.

Strengths.

First off, the Bucs have upgraded their coaching staff.

The NFC South’s a loaded division from a coaching standpoint, and new boss Lovie Smith doesn’t have to take a back seat of any of his neighbors.

While he had his critics in Chicago, he kept a team consistently successful, and made a Super Bowl with something called Rex Grossman starting at quarterback. That merits some kind of lifetime achievement award, but Smith’s strength isn’t simply Xs and Os.

After the Schiano era, anyone is going to seem personable and relatable, but Smith has a calm, collected style borrowing from his mentor Tony Dungy, and the Bucs needed that.

The Bucs also have the makings of a very good defense, even by their own standards.

Gerald McCoy has emerged as a legitimate star, and with free agent pickup Michael Johnson coming over from the Bengals, they have a legitimate edge rusher to keep the pressure on.

With emerging star linbebacker Lavonte David and playmakers in the secondary in Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson, the Bucs have the kind of speed and explosiveness to match up with the varying brands of offenses in their own division.

Weaknesses.

There are reasons to look at their offense and hope, but it’s hard to know exactly what the Buccaneers are getting.

Bringing in quarterback Josh McCown lends a steady, respected veteran who is coming off a hot streak.

But his run of good form with the Bears (subbing for an injured Jay Cutler) might be hard to replicate without Marc Trestman, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.

With Vincent Jackson and first-rounder Mike Evans, the Bucs have some downfield targets, and second-round tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins could become one soon). But they’re still mixing the ingredients together under new coordinator Jeff Tedford, so they’re still an unknown commodity.

Their biggest problem is their offensive line, where they still can’t be sure what they’re going to get out of big investment Carl Nicks, and they’ve otherwise blown up the old line.

They added tackle Anthony Collins and center Evan Dietrich-Smith in free agency, but they’re shaky in the middle, and that might make it tough for everything to gel for a team building an offense from scratch.

Changes.

Oh, pretty much everything. That’s all.

A new General Manager (Jason Licht) and a new coach usually means a lot of turnover, but the rate at which the Bucs cleaned house was amazing.

They cut players (Darrelle Revis, Donald Penn, Davin Joseph), they traded players (Mike Williams, Jeremy Zutttah), and they held the door for most of their own free agents.

Considering the investments the previous regime made in some of those players, the change is dramatic, which should serve as a clear message to the few old guys who remain.

But while the incomings might lack some of the star power, and no islands are named after them, they bought in bulk.

The result could be a team with a drastically different look in 2014, but that was needed after going 4-12 twice in the previous three seasons.

It will be curious to see how former starting quarterback Mike Glennon responds to his benching in favor of McCown. If he develops into a legitimate starter, the Bucs have a chance to build something here around some young skill-position players.

Camp Battles.

With part of the money they didn’t give Revis for another year, the Bucs spent on Titans free agent Alterraun Verner.

But there should be some healthy competition opposite him, with former Cowboys first-rounder Mike Jenkins and 2013 second-rounder Johnathan Banks.

The other big mystery is right guard (and that’s assuming that Nicks gets back on the field).

Patrick Omameh worked there during offseason camps, but they also bright in veteran Oneil Cousins and could look to Jamon Meredith there as well. Nick’s health exposes a lack of depth in the middle, but they hope Dietrich-Smith lends some stability there.

They’ll also be looking for a reliable third receiver among an odd lot of contestants (from rookie Robert Herron to journeyman Louis Murphy), as well as a backup to running back Doug Martin as they hope to spread the carries a bit.

Prospects.

In another division, the Bucs prospects would be much brighter.

But for all the changes elsewhere, they’re battling against proven programs with recent success.

If McCown is able to maintain the kind of clean play he gave the Bears last year, they have a real chance to make strides. He has a respect level among players and an underrated athleticism, so there’s a chance he could make them stable.

That might be all they need, as Smith should make the defense better by scheme alone.

Schiano was overmatched in the pro game, and his lack of any kind of interpersonal skills made it worse. You can only play the Bill Belichick tough-guy act if you win, and Schiano never did.

Smith doesn’t have an act, he’s simply a good coach. That’s enough to make the Bucs better in a hurry.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 27: Minnesota Vikings

Zimmer AP

The Mall of America has the world’s largest indoor roller coaster.  And the team that will take a two-year break from playing indoors has been riding the thing over the past few years.

From the heights of an NFC title game appearance in 2009 to the depths of 3-13 in 2011 to an unlikely playoff berth in 2012 to a 5-10-1 face splat last year, the Vikings has been sufficiently inconsistent to have almost as many head coaches as starting quarterbacks since the franchise’s latest high-profile failure, that “This is not Detroit!” moment in the Superdome more than four years ago.

Despite being much older than most first-time NFL head coaches, Mike Zimmer brings a fresh start to a franchise that needs a kick in the butt.  Adrian Peterson, who doesn’t need a kick in the butt to continue to thrive despite ailments to pretty much every body part but his butt, thinks it will work.  The PFT crew is for now skeptical, parking the Vikings just outside the bottom five as the 2014 season approaches.

Strengths.

They still have one of the best running backs in NFL history, who continues to move the chains and get looooooose for touchdowns even as his 30th birthday approaches.  But in his seven NFL seasons, the Vikings have yet to find a passing game that complements Peterson’s running skills, with the exception of Brett Favre’s first season with the team.

If the passing game struggles again this year, it won’t happen because the pass catchers stink.  Receiver Cordarrelle Patterson seems poised to have a breakout season, tight end Kyle Rudolph enters a contract year, receiver Greg Jennings still has a little something in the tank, and receiver Jerome Simpson has athletic skills that have yet to be fully utilized.  With offensive coordinator Norv Turner drawing up the plays, one or more targets will be open on every snap.

The defense automatically improves at every level with the arrival of Zimmer, who has a knack for getting the most out of whatever he has to work with.  Much has been done to improve the pass rush, which automatically will make the rest of the unit better.  The real question is whether the most that this collection of defenders can muster will be good enough to slow down the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, and Matthew Stafford.

Kicker Blair Walsh continues to be a weapon that can deliver wins in close games, even though his conversion rate for field goals dipped below 90 percent in 2013 — and his accuracy at 50 or more yards fell from 100 percent (10-for-10) in 2012 to 40 percent (two-for-five) in 2013.  It gets tougher with the home games outdoors, and Walsh’s skills won’t matter much if Turner opts to stretch the field and aim for touchdowns in lieu of playing the field-position game.

Weaknesses.

Until a quarterback emerges with skills that fit at least in the upper half of the league, signal-caller will continue to be the most significant weakness on the roster.  Turner recently said veteran Matt Cassel will have a strong season, which implies he’ll be playing.  But the team invested a first-round pick in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, which implies the Vikings want him to be the guy, sooner than later.  Maybe the internal competition will get someone to step up and take off.  As long as it’s not Christian Ponder, that could be good news for a franchise that desperately needs a franchise quarterback.

While not necessarily a full-blown weakness, the offensive line has given the Vikings cause for concern.  Left tackle Matt Kalil’s second season wasn’t as strong as his first, and the team’s sacks allowed spiked from 32 to 44.  In the running game, the total yardage dropped from 2,654 (5.4 yards per carry) to 2,081 (4.9 yards per carry).  Whoever wins the quarterback competition needs better performance from the five large men up front.

The linebacker position is in flux, with Chad Greenway expected to start on the weak side in Zimmer’s defense (which is comparable to Greenway’s strong side position under Leslie Frazier), rookie Anthony Barr to take the strong side, and Jasper Brinkley to play the middle.  But Greenway could take some snaps at the middle spot, too, as he learns the first new defense for the first time since he arrived as a first-round rookie in 2006.  For Greenway, another lackluster year could be his last in Minnesota.

At cornerback, the good news is that Chris Cook finally is gone.  The bad news is that the position still lacks the talent necessary to match the great receivers in the NFC North.  2013 first-rounder Xavier Rhodes needs to step up quickly, as does free-agent arrival Captain Munnerlyn.  Even then, it won’t be easy to slow down Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, etc.

Changes.

Not long ago, the Vikings boasted one of the most potent front fours in football, a neo-Purple People Eaters consisting of Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Pay Williams, and Ray Edwards.  All four are now gone, replaced by what ideally will become a Seahawks-style flurry of fresh bodies flying around opposing quarterbacks, from Everson Griffen to Brian Robison to Sharrif Floyd to Linval Joseph to Corey Wootton to Anthony Barr and beyond.

The biggest change on defense will be the scheme, with the Cover 2 and variations of it gone after eight seasons.  Getting the new pieces playing together in the new attack will be critical to success.

On offense, the biggest name is the newest one:  quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.  He may or may not play in 2014, which will depend largely on whether new offensive coordinator Norv Turner thinks Bridgewater can get it done as a rookie — or whether Matt Cassel is the better option.

Behind the oft-injured Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart has hit the road to Jacksonville, with Matt Asiata and rookie Jerrick McKinnon filling Gerhart’s underused shoes.

Camp Battles.

It begins with Bridgewater vs. Cassel vs. (in theory) Christian Ponder.  The winner may simply win the chance to be the first guy benched, especially if the winner is Cassel.

At running back, Asiata and McKinnon will compete for the ability to spell Adrian Peterson and to replace him if/when he’s injured.  Which has been happening too often lately.

The top four spots on the receiver depth chart are largely set — the question is whether Jerome Simpson or Jarius Wright will get the bulk of the opportunities when the Vikings use a third receiver in addition to Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings.

At defensive end, Corey Wootton concedes that Brian Robison will start on the left side, but Robison wants to continue to be a full-time player. Wootton could take away some of Robison’s reps.

Between Xavier Rhodes, Josh Robinson, and Captain Munnerlyn, two will start at cornerback.  Look for Rhodes and Munnerlyn to draw the top two spots, with Robinson joining the nickel package.

Prospects.

The Vikings have the quiet confidence of a team flying under the radar with more talent that most realize.  Quarterback play will be the most important ingredient between success and failure, and the defense will need to be able to gel — especially once the Vikings are again playing late-season home games in the elements.

A playoff berth this year or next will be regarded as a bonus.  This team has the feel of a franchise on scholarship until the new stadium opens in 2016.

Which puts the Vikings near the bottom of the barrel as the 2014 season approaches.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 28: Buffalo Bills

Doug Marrone, EJ Manuel AP

It has been a while since the Bills contended for more than a Top 10 draft pick and this doesn’t look like the year that things change.

Perhaps things would feel different if linebacker Kiko Alonso was going to be a part of the defense after his strong rookie season, but a torn ACL has left the Bills shorthanded just before the start of training camp. It’s a massive blow for a team that has big questions to answer about quarterback E.J. Manuel in head coach Doug Marrone’s second season leading the team.

Manuel’s progress could make this prediction seem silly come December, but, for now, PFT’s panel thinks the Bills are headed for another disappointing season as the quarterback tries to grow after an injury-riddled rookie season.

Strengths.

The Bills led the AFC with 57 sacks last season and much of the pressure came from a talented defensive line. Defensive end Mario Williams and defensive tackle Kyle Williams will lead the defense again and there’s every reason to believe they’ll be just as effective. The team has to hope that defensive tackle Marcell Dareus gets his head on straight after multiple arrests in the offseason because they’ll need to continue pressuring offenses throughout games to get the results they want.

If that pressure continues to flow, the Bills’ corners should have plenty of opportunities to take the ball away. Stephon Gilmore has lived up to his first-round selection and there’s good depth with Leodis McKelvin, Corey Graham, Nickell Robey and 2014 draft pick Ross Cockrell.

While the Bills keep their fingers crossed for a leap forward from Manuel, they’ll lean heavily on their running backs to keep the ball moving. C.J. Spiller was banged up last year, but still picked up 4.6 yards per carry, and Fred Jackson blew past any age concerns with 833 yards of his own. They added Bryce Brown to the mix in a trade with the Eagles, giving them plenty of options to control the ball and the clock in the coming season.

Weaknesses.

The team signed Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers to give them some veteran depth at linebacker, but Alonso’s loss is still going to be a big one. The team saw safety Jairus Byrd leave in free agency, which means they’ll be without two of their biggest defensive playmakers from last season.

There’s plenty of talent on the offensive line with right tackle Cyrus Kouandjio joining left tackle Cordy Glenn and center Eric Wood as foundational pieces to build around. The guard spots are less settled and it may take some time for the unit to coalesce, especially if rookie Cyril Richardson winds up starting between Wood and Kouandjio this season.

The Bills defense made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks in 2013, but their run defense was not as sharp. Alonso’s loss doesn’t figure to help that, although a new scheme may bear more fruit.

Gelling quickly would be a major boost to E.J. Manuel’s chances of making strides in his second season. Manuel struggled through several knee injuries last season, robbing him of practice and playing time he needs to mature as a quarterback. It is far too early to make any kind of sweeping proclamation about Manuel’s future, but it is also a stretch to say that the Bills should feel totally confident about him heading into this season.

Changes.

There are big changes at wide receiver for the Bills after they traded away Stevie Johnson, acquired Mike Williams from Tampa and made a big move up the board in the first round to select Sammy Watkins. Watkins’ big-play ability is a welcome addition to the offense and should be of great assistance as Manuel tries to establish himself as a starter.

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine left to become the head coach in Cleveland after devising a disruptive attack during his one year with the Bills. Former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz has taken over the unit and a lot of the pieces are still in place, although it remains to be seen if Schwartz will deploy them as aggressively as his predecessor.

Byrd’s absence may be one reason for a less frenzied approach. Aaron Williams will take over Byrd’s spot while Da’Norris Searcy, Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks vie for playing time next to him.

The biggest change hasn’t actually been made, though. The Bills are going to be sold in the wake of founder Ralph Wilson’s death and that will mean differences in the way business is done in Buffalo, although we won’t know how many until the new owner has taken over the reins.

Camp Battles.

With Watkins, Williams and Robert Woods, the Bills have the top three spots at wide receiver pretty well settled heading into camp. T.J. Graham and Marquise Goodwin will compete for snaps as the fourth man on the depth chart and one of the third-round picks could find his roster spot in jeopardy.

Kouandjio is seen as the likely right tackle, but the Bills have both Erik Pears and Chris Hairston back as well. That means the rookie won’t be handed the job without a second thought, although taking him in the second round is a pretty good sign of how much the Bills wanted to upgrade at the spot.

Alonso’s injury has cast some doubt on how the Bills will line up at linebacker. Spikes looks set for the middle and Preston Brown is expected to get the first shot at replacing Alonso on the weak side. Nigel Bradham and Rivers should compete on the other side, although the situation will likely be fluid through camp.

Prospects.

The looming ownership change creates uncertainty beyond the eventual home of the Bills. Marrone and General Manager Doug Whaley should probably feel some pressure to put up a winning season before new decision makers decide their fate in the organization.

That pressure may have contributed to the decision to trade up for Watkins, a move that brought them a dynamic athlete but also cost the team next year’s first-round pick. As a result, it ratchets up the need to win now because another high pick will be Cleveland’s to use.

There’s enough talent on defense and in the backfield to make a case for the Bills taking that step forward, but they stand right alongside several trouble spots that make it hard to buy into that wholeheartedly as the Bills head toward a new chapter in the history of the franchise.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 29: Jacksonville Jaguars

Bortles AP

Unlike in recent years, there’s at least reason for hope with the Jaguars in the preseason.

They might be hanging around the bottom of the PFT Preseason Power Rankings, but the arrow is clearly pointing up for them after years of floundering about.

Second-year coach Gus Bradley and General Manager Dave Caldwell have remade the roster rapidly and with a clear plan, and they were willing to not reach last year knowing they couldn’t fix everything at once.

The Jaguars added their quarterback of the future this offseason, but they’re committed to not making him the quarterback of the present until he’s ready.

Along with the steady progress they’ve made building a competitive roster, the Jaguars are more interesting than they’ve been in years.

Strengths.

Bradley made a statement in his first year, getting the Jaguars to a competitive place one side of the ball at a time.

With a solid defense in place, they added parts which should make it even better this offseason.

Bringing in old friends from Seattle such as Chris Clemons and Red Bryant will lend some stability to the defensive line (along with former Steelers first-rounder Ziggy Hood).

They lost a solid starter in linebacker Russell Allen, but with former Buccaneer Dekoda Watson coming aboard, it’s still a fast group.

As their young secondary grows together, it should only get better, and give the Jaguars time to develop on the other side where they need it the most.

Being able to cut a productive veteran like Jason Babin points to the fact the Jaguars think this can be a good group as it stands.

Weaknesses.

For lack of a better word, the Jaguars were painful to watch last year when they had the ball.

And that feels generous.

They’re still in the process of remaking themselves on offense, and kept steady quarterback Chad Henne around to keep a hand on the wheel until Blake Bortles is ready.

The goal is to let Toby Gerhart provide some ballast to the running game. He’s shown enough in glimpses of playing time in Minnesota to make you think he can be a productive every-down player, and that’s what they’re banking on.

They’ll need a productive running game, because their receiving corps is very much a work in progress.

Wide receiver Cecil Shorts has shown game-breaking ability, but he needed help in the worst way. The Jaguars used a pair of second-round picks on wide receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson, and will need both to contribute right off the bat.

With the offense in a bit of a holding pattern until Bortles makes his inevitable rise, it’s hard to know how much to expect.

But at least there’s a plan.

Changes.

As important as anyone the Jaguars brought in this offseason was their decisions on when to let go.

They made the cold, clinical call to let franchise running back Maurice Jones-Drew walk into free agency, when they easy thing would have been to keep around a player who for years was the only reason to watch them.

Then they cut the cord on former first-rounder Blaine Gabbert, trading the guy they thought would be their franchise passer to the 49ers for a sack of beans.

There was also the tacit admission that they’ll never get anything from wide receiver Justin Blackmon by drafting receivers in bulk.

While it’s easier for a new administration to admit the mistakes of a former regime, getting something of value for Gabbert was a coup, and moving on from Jones-Drew before the inevitable decline was probably good business.

We’ll see if staking the running game to Toby Gerhart was the right decision, but drafting Blake Bortles is the clean slate at the position the team so desperately needed.

Camp Battles.

The Jaguars still have some work to do on defense, primarily finding a free safety.

Winston Guy and Josh Evans shared the role last year, and one needs to emerge. The Jaguars have been consistent giving young players chances, but they’ve brought in some depth to push them as well. Former Panthers second-rounder Sherrod Martin is still young enough to be an intriguing prospect, with the kind of range to have a shot.

The Jaguars also need to settle the middle of their offensive line.

With longtime center Brad Meester retiring and stable guard Uche Nwaneri cut, they’re remaking the interior. Former Broncos guard Zane Beadles was a big-ticket free agent addition, and they’re hoping some other young players are ready to step up.

If Mike Brewster is ready to take over at center, and they can find a right guard with the ability to help the run game, they appear to be moving in the right direction up front.

Prospects.

The Jaguars can get better this year, even if their record doesn’t.

Because the only true barometer of this season will be how it helps Bortles develop into the starter.

If he’s not ready to start the opener, they know they can leave Henne in there and be at least acceptable. But if they can use the time to get the third-overall pick up to speed, they’re better off for it in the long run.

Many thought during the draft season that Bortles was the player with the most upside, the classic drop-back passer frame, and the tools to succeed. But there was also a consensus that he needed some time.

The Jaguars appear willing to give him just that.

The way they pursued last season (knowing they didn’t have a long-term quarterback, and not reaching to get one for the sake of having one) indicates a well-thought-out plan.

Now comes the execution part of the plan, and if they can get Bortles ready, they’re set up to be competitive for years to come.

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