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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Preseason Power Rankings No. 30: Tennessee Titans

Jake Locker AP

The Titans have been decidedly solid yet uninteresting the last several years, floundering between six and nine wins for each of the last five.

They responded by firing the solid coach, and perhaps the most interesting player in franchise history.

While they’ll get a shot of energy from new coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff, there are serious questions about how much he can do with this offense.

Running back Chris Johnson might not have been Chris Johnson any longer, but his absence still leaves a big hole, and there’s no way to have enough confidence in quarterback Jake Locker to fill that void.

With that much uncertainty, our PFT panel voted the Titans close to the bottom, at No. 30. They could end up better than that, but we’ll delve into the reasons why below.


Nothing against former coach Mike Munchak, but the Titans traded up in coaching staff.

Former Cardinals boss Ken Whisenhunt brought a good staff with him, as well as a reputation for working well with talented quarterbacks.

If he can get Locker to resemble a first-round pick, there’s a chance for the Titans to surprise people. But the first step will be keeping Locker on the field, and that’s been difficult.

With new defensive coordinator Ray Horton comes some new responsibilities for guys who were settled into a 4-3 scheme.

How he works Derrick Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley, Shaun Phillips and Akeem Ayers into the mix could define how successful their defense can be this year.

It’s a deep group of players who have shown they can rush the passer, and the shift could benefit Ayers, who has never lived up to his draft status.

The good news is they might be able to get by without him, as Phillips is the kind of solid veteran addition they made several of this offseason.

Their offensive line should be solid, and they have a good first three wideouts in Nate Washington, Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter. Coupled with a versatile tight end in Delanie Walker, there are options on offense if the run game stabilizes.


The Titans figure to play aggressively up front on defense.

Which should help, as their secondary could be a bit of a mess.

They never really replaced free agent departure Alterraun Verner, and have a committee of young players with chances to shine.

A solid group of safeties headlined by Bernard Pollard (who frankly had more in the tank than we expected last year) should help, but there are many question marks around the edges.

Of course, if Locker falters (or gets hurt again — what are the odds?), the Titans are in a mess. They brought in veteran clipboard-jockey Charlie Whitehurst, and drafted rookie Zach Mettenberger, but there’s no reason to think it will be anything other than a disaster if Locker’s not well.


Whisenhunt should help move the Titans’ offense into the 21st century, bringing an up-tempo passing game which should mesh well with Locker’s abilities.

Getting the ball out quickly and allowing Locker to take advantage of his athleticism should help a team with a good group of pass-catching options.

It’s a bit of risk with Locker, now running his third offense in four years (while coming off foot surgery).

On the other hand, the simple act of changing things should help an organization that had gotten into a significant rut in recent years.

Munchak was a good solider, and probably got more chances than his record would have indicated because of his track record with the late owner Bud Adams.

But they’re entering a new era now, and unless Locker flourishes, there will be more changes on the way.

Camp Battles.

There are many, which is part of the reason it’s hard to peg the Titans this year.

Perhaps the most interesting will be to see what they do at offensive tackle.

In a problem few teams have, the Titans have three legitimate options to start.

Veteran left tackle Michael Roos is clearly nearing the end of a very good run with the team, but should have one good year left in him.

But then they went out and signed free agent Michael Oher to replace David Stewart, and used their first-rounder on Taylor Lewan, putting a lot of resources into the position.

While Lewan is the future at left tackle, and they’ll like that pick a year from now, his selection casts a different light on giving Oher guaranteed money.

Without Johnson, Shonn Greene will go into camp as the de facto starter at running back, but there’s an opportunity there for someone to earn some serious time, because Greene is Greene.

Bishop Sankey is an exciting prospect. While he might not have the potential to run for 2,000 yards, it’s easy to see him as a quality back.

They also need to find a new kicker, after parting ways with long-time Titan Rob Bironas.

For now, they have two guys named Maikon Bonani and Travis Coons, but this could easily be a revolving door that doesn’t stop until other veterans hit the street in September.


It’s not an overstatement to say the entire season, and the next few, hinges on Locker.

If he can earn the trust of Whisenhunt, they’ll have an expensive decision to make this offseason. They didn’t use the fifth-year option on him, leaving this year as a carrot for him.

And while Mettenberger is an interesting prospect, he’s hardly the next franchise passer, so if Locker fails, look for a high pick next year as they hit reset at the position.

At the same time, Whisenhunt has some parts to work with, and the defense has sufficient parts to keep them in games.

If they can keep Locker on the field and playing well, they have a chance to be competitive — which they were on the fringes of already.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 31: Miami Dolphins

Ryan Tannehill

For most of the offseason, it looked like the Dolphins were on the way to better days.

They signed Branden Albert and drafted Ja’Wuan James to shore up their sickly tackle position and hired offensive coordinator Bill Lazor in an attempt to ratchet up the production in quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s third season. After losing their final two games to miss the playoffs in 2013, it looked like the Dolphins were making strides toward a better result this time around.

Then came word that center Mike Pouncey will likely miss the opening weeks after hip surgery and that free agent signee Knowshon Moreno needed to have an operation on his knee. A four-game suspension for 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan handed down last week made for three steps backward for a team that can hardly afford them.

Our PFT panel thinks those steps backward will be costly enough to drop the Dolphins all the way to No. 31 in our Preseason Power Rankings. We’ll discuss some of the reasons why in our preview of the 2014 Dolphins season.


The Dolphins may not get any immediate help from Jordan in the pass rush, but they are still in good shape in that area. Cam Wake and Olivier Vernon combined for 18.5 sacks last season to help the Dolphins finish in the Top 10 in points allowed and both should still be big threats off the edge this year.

Miami lost Paul Soliai in free agency, but they re-signed Randy Starks and have Jared Odrick on hand to step into a larger role. They’ll need better linebacker play to improve against the run, but the defensive line is in good shape in Miami.

Cornerback Brent Grimes bounced back from a lost 2012 season with a great year for the Dolphins and Miami was able to bring him back before another team could nab him as a free agent. The Dolphins will need to be defensively sound to compete for a playoff spot this year. Grimes helps a lot in that regard.

While the offensive line remains a major question mark, there’s no doubt that the Dolphins upgraded with the addition of Albert at left tackle. His presence should give Tannehill a bit more time to throw the ball after being sacked 58 times last year and he’s shown promise when afforded such an opportunity. It will take more than promise to make him a bona fide strength, but he’ll have to struggle behind a halfway decent line before he can be deemed a weakness.


At the risk of belaboring the point, the offensive line still has more red flags than a Chinese Olympic Team pep rally. James is a rookie and the guards will likely come from an underwhelming group that includes Shelley Smith, Daryn Colledge, Dallas Thomas and third-round pick Billy Turner. Whoever replaces Pouncey will be a major downgrade and the team will be trying to build a cohesive unit with no returning starters. Maybe the changes to the locker room and the coaching staff lead to a quick turnaround, but it’s a better bet that some of the same problems hinder the team this year and that the Dolphins struggle to consistently put points on the board.

Moreno’s injury and lack of fitness left Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas to do most of the running during spring practices. Both players have failed to grab opportunities to take the job in the past and neither one has looked good enough to thrive with a mess on the line in front of them.

The Dolphins shuffled up their linebackers last season, but neither Dannell Ellerbe nor Phillip Wheeler did a particularly good job. Ellerbe is moving out of the middle this season, swapping spots with former strong side starter Koa Misi , in hopes that Year Two bears more fruit.


Lazor’s arrival to run the offense has people in Miami hoping that Mike Wallace can make more of the big plays that brought him stardom in Pittsburgh. With Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and Charles Clay around as possession options, a return to form for Wallace would be a major boon to Tannehill’s hopes of making the next step in his progression as a quarterback.

However those strides come, they have to come this season or the Dolphins will have to rethink their long-term plans on offense. The unit collapsed with a playoff spot on the line last year and the problems were so widespread that Lazor’s got a big job to do if the Dolphins are going to get back on track.

Grimes was a bright spot of the secondary last season and the Dolphins made a couple of free agent moves in hopes that he won’t be the only one. Safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Cortland Finnegan come with questions about their health and ability to perform at a high level, but they’ve both been good in the past and that’s more than you can say about most of the other options in Miami.

Camp Battles.

Matthews and Gibson will compete for snaps after Matthews took advantage of Gibson’s injury to make his mark as a pass catcher. Both should play, though, and the same is true at tight end where Dion Sims could push Charles Clay over the summer.

Finnegan is likely to fill a prominent role with Grimes at cornerback, but things are unsettled from there. Jamar Taylor and Will Davis were both non-factors as rookies last season, which may have helped convince the Dolphins to add Walt Aikens in the draft this year. They’d benefit from one of those players stepping up as both a third corner and an alternative if Finnegan doesn’t rebound from a poor 2013 season.

Moreno’s offseason injury and reported lack of fitness are both troubling, but he can probably still move back to the top of the running back rotation with a good camp. If not, Miller’s speed will likely keep him in front of Thomas.


It’s likely going to come down to the offense. If Lazor can get Tannehill and Wallace going while settling on a workable mix in the backfield behind a competent offensive line, the Dolphins should be in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Those are a lot of ifs for a team installing a new offensive system, though, and the defense doesn’t look quite good enough to carry the team through growing pains on the other side of the ball. Head coach Joe Philbin probably needs significant improvement to keep his job in 2015, but it is hard to see where there’s enough talent to provide it.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 32: Oakland Raiders

Matt Schaub AP

In the best-case scenario, the 2014 Raiders prove engineered to win now.

In the worst-case scenario, they are a collection of yesterday’s news.

The Raiders shook up their roster in free agency, signing at least a half-dozen players who figure as starters. They traded for Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, who comes off his worst season but helped lead Houston to a wild-card win in each of the previous two campaigns.

That is the thing about the Raiders — the résumés of the assembled talent look quite good. Schaub has made two Pro Bowls, and free agent additions Maurice Jones-Drew, Justin Tuck, Donald Penn, Carlos Rogers, Antonio Smith and LaMarr Woodley have combined nine Pro Bowl nods to their credit, per Pro Football Reference records.

However, of those seven players, the 29-year-old Jones-Drew is the youngest — and he gained a mere 3.4 yards per carry a season ago. Schaub, Tuck, Penn, Rogers and Smith are all 30 or older, and Woodley turns 30 in November.

The Raiders had salary-cap space to use this offseason, and they did not lack for needs. And let there be no doubt: the Raiders’ depth chart is better for all that spending. But will it be enough for Oakland to close the gap on its AFC West rivals, all of whom made the postseason in 2013?


The Raiders’ rushing attack should be a strength, just like it was in 2013. Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden can share the workload in the backfield, and this might be the way to keep both fresh and effective for 16 games. Versatile fullback Marcel Reece can catch, rush and block.

The defensive front seven looks solid. New starting ends Woodley and Tuck are accomplished edge rushers, and Tuck can kick inside in passing situations, too. Smith provides a stout and disruptive presence at defensive tackle opposite of Pat Sims, the lone holdover starter along the line. Rookie Khalil Mack has the talent to be a difference-maker right off the bat at strong-side linebacker — and he adds a needed dose of youth to an older club, as does second-year weak-side linebacker Sio Moore. The Raiders might be as deep at linebacker as they are at any other position.

Keep an eye on the Raiders’ receiving corps. Ex-Packer James Jones is an ideal addition to this young group; tough, dependable and productive, he can be a tone-setter. And there’s a good deal of intriguing talent beyond Jones, with Rod Streater, Denarius Moore and Andre Holmes all having playmaking ability.


While the Raiders traded for Schaub and drafted a signal-caller in Round Two (Derek Carr), they might still be unsettled at quarterback. If Schaub’s 2013 struggles were no fluke, and if Carr isn’t ready for NFL play, the Raiders could be in trouble — big trouble. And let’s be frank: even if Schaub or Carr proves just OK as a starter, the Raiders’ quarterback play will lag behind that of division rivals Denver and San Diego — and perhaps Kansas City as well.

The Raiders’ secondary also looks a little shaky. The club lacks a real standout cornerback. The progress of second-year pro D.J. Hayden bears watching. If he can stay on the field and pick up his play, he’ll give Oakland someone to build around now and in the future.

Finally, we must mention the lingering concern about the age of some of the Raiders’ key contributors, as well as the wear-and-tear some of Oakland’s core players have endured. For instance, Woodley — whom the Raiders are counting upon at defensive end — has missed a combined 14 games in the last three seasons. Moreover, McFadden’s durability woes are no secret, and Jones-Drew has more than 2,000 career touches to his credit.


The Raiders have replaced their leading passer (Terrelle Pryor), rusher (Rashad Jennings) and left tackle (Jared Veldheer). Penn, an above-average left tackle at his best with Tampa Bay, will take over for Veldheer, who signed with Arizona.

Penn’s addition is just one of several changes along the offensive line, which could have new starters at 4-of-5 spots. Ex-Jet Austin Howard could get the call at right guard, with rookie Gabe Jackson among the options at left guard. Ex-Giant Kevin Boothe could also be in the mix at guard. Second-year pro Menelik Watson, a 2013 second-round pick, looks to have a shot at right tackle.

The Raiders’ additions of Woodley, Tuck and Mack were the headline-grabbing moves on defense, but the signings of ex-49ers cornerbacks Rogers and Tarell Brown are also notable. Rogers and Brown will help replace departed starting corners Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter, who left in free agency.

Camp battles.

Carr should push Schaub, who tossed 14 picks in 10 games in 2013. The Raiders have to hope competition makes both better for the experience. If Schaub looks a little shaky and Carr is a quick study, the Raiders — a team built for today, not tomorrow — are going to have an interesting decision to make.

The Raiders could also have some competition at left guard, right tackle and cornerback.


The Raiders have collected some skilled, proud players who all have something to prove. If Schaub, Jones-Drew, Tuck and Co. all find their best form, the Raiders could be significantly improved over a season ago — certainly better than the NFL’s 32nd-best club. But to make a run, the Raiders are going to need to get more than their share of breaks, especially in the turnover and health departments. Schaub must take care of the ball, and the starters need to stay in the lineup.

The Raiders must make the most of a favorable early schedule. Four of Oakland’s first six games are home, and the Raiders face just two 2013 playoff teams (New England, San Diego) in their first seven games.

Oakland just cannot afford a slow start. In their final nine games, the Raiders face the Seahawks, 49ers, Chargers and Rams once and the Broncos and Chiefs twice. If the Raiders can’t get into gear right out of the gate, the season could snowball on them, which could prove problematic for head coach Dennis Allen and G.M. Reggie McKenzie.

Here’s the good news: the Raiders have a puncher’s chance in the AFC, the weaker of the two conferences. Here’s the bad news: given their schedule, age and division, the Raiders may be the most vulnerable club in their conference. Their ceiling just doesn’t seem that high, even after they spent all that money in the offseason.

But their floor?

Oh, man.

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Who wore No. 8 better, Young or Aikman?

AikmanYoung Getty Images

For most of the PFT Planet polls posted in connection with the Prime Numbers series, we’ve had five or more options, with a goal of identifying the top two or three.

For No. 8, it’s much simpler. Two players. One winner. Steve Young or Troy Aikman.

Cast your vote below for the better of the two to wear the number, and tune in on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. ET to see the results. Along with the rest of the show.

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Vote for the best to ever wear No. 73

09000d5d808ce52c Getty Images

In addition to No. 7, Tuesday’s edition of Pro Football Talk on NBCSN will consider the best players to ever wear No. 73.

To make it work, you need to vote on the best to wear No. 73.

We’ve narrowed it down for you, as we always do.  Pick the best three.

And then tune in at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, especially if the soccer game has become a two-nil blowout by then.

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Prime Numbers looks at No. 7 on Tuesday

Elway Getty Images

As the Prime Numbers series commences the process of pulling into the station, with the last show devoted to the topic coming on Thursday, Tuesday’s edition of NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk focuses on one of the most prime numbers.  Which also is an actual prime number in the mathematical sense.

It’s time to take up No. 7.  And it’s time for you to vote on the best three players to ever wear that number.

Cast your ballot below, and then tune in at 5:30 p.m. ET for a full hour that will look at No. 7, No. 15, No. 31, No. 71, and No. 73.

Yeah, we know the U.S. will be playing Belgium at about the same time.  So DVR our show.  Or do the split screen thing.  Or watch us during a commercial break.

(Even with this parenthetical pointing out that I realize that are no commercial breaks during a soccer game/match/whatever, there will still be at least a dozen comments pointing out that there are no commercial breaks during a soccer game/match/whatever.)

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Prime Numbers hits homestretch with No. 80

Rice Getty Images

It’s the last week for Prime Numbers on NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk, and we’re getting Monday started with a bang.

The PFT Planet vote for Monday will focus on No. 80.  It’s a number that plenty of all-time greats have worn.

Vote for up to three from the 10 listed below.  The three highest vote-getters will be revealed on Monday’s show, which gets started at 5:30 p.m. ET.

The other numbers to be considered Monday include 30 (with Brian Mitchell in studio), 60, 90, and 93.

So tune in for the first of the last four shows before we conclude Prime Numbers — and before we take a pre-training camp three-week break.

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Friday’s Prime Numbers looks at No. 78

BruceSmith Getty Images

It’s time to do your civic duty.  Which for the Prime Numbers series applies on a daily basis.  Sometimes, twice per day.

For Friday’s edition of Pro Football Talk on NBCSN, there’s only one poll.  So only one vote.  But vote for two.

On the surface, No. 78 doesn’t seem like it would be iconic.  Based on the guys who have worn it, it surely is.

Cast your ballot now, and then dial us up at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN for a 60-minute show to wrap up the week.

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Prime Numbers looks at the best to wear No. 75

Greene Getty Images

Thursday’s Prime Number series heads back to the 70s, with a number made very famous by several all-time greats.

PFT Planet, it’s time to cast a ballot (or two) for the best to ever wear 75.  The choices appear below.

The results will appear tonight on NBCSN at 5:30 p.m. ET.  Along with a lot of other stuff we have to get to because the show is only 30 minutes long.

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Thursday’s Prime Numbers will look at the best to wear No. 84

Moss Getty Images

We’ve covered plenty of Prime Numbers over the last few weeks, but we’ve got plenty more to do.  A doozy comes on Thursday — No. 84.

Pick the best three of the eight guys listed below.  And then tune in on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ET for NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk to find out who made the list.

You’ll find our plenty of other stuff, but only 30 minutes of it.  The show is shorter than usual on Thursday.

But you can watch whatever is on after our show ends.  OK, you should watch whatever is on after our show ends.

(Does that mean I get my check now?  Or will it be cash?)

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