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Five questions: New York Giants

Eli Manning,  Tom Coughlin AP

In four of the last five years, the Giants haven’t qualified for the playoffs.  A championship win during that lone postseason appearance takes some of the sting out of it, but Lombardi Trophies can lose their luster pretty quickly.

With two straight subpar seasons since the most recent Super Bowl victory, the Giants could be teetering toward significant change if they go three years without a playoff appearance for the first time since 1994 through 1996.  Which could be good news; the last two times coach Tom Coughlin was clearly on the hot seat, he took the team to the top of the mountain.

Here are five questions for the team unrelated to the coach’s potentially tenuous job status.

1.  Which Eli Manning will show up?

The Giants quarterback recently admitted that he’s a “little nervous” in the team’s new offense.  He should be.

Whatever the offense, Eli Manning’s career has arrived at an unexpected crossroads, at the age of 33 and with a pair of Super Bowl pelts on his wall.  Wrapped around that second NFL title are four failed seasons, with 2013 featuring a career-high 27 interceptions.

Eli’s older brother has a reputation for performing incredibly well during the regular season and then failing to meet expectations in the playoffs.  Eli has a knack for thriving in the postseason, but not being able to get there often enough.

After the second championship, Eli had seemed to be a lock for the Hall of Fame.  Now, his candidacy depends on what happens over the balance of his career.  Starting now, in a new offense with plenty of jobs riding on Eli’s ability to thrive in it.

If he’s only a “little nervous,” he’s not nearly nervous enough.

2.  Can the offensive line get the job done?

The Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl run was fueled by great performances from both the offensive and defensive lines.  Last year, the offensive line wasn’t great.  This year, with the retirements of David Diehl and Chris Snee, the offensive line could be even worse.

The primary goal of training camp and the preseason will be to find the best combination of five starters and hope they can find a way to stay healthy.  A good offensive line works in seamless harmony, opening running lanes and keeping the quarterback from getting hurried, hit, and/or sacked.

The offensive live never gets enough credit when things go well, balanced by never getting enough blame when things don’t.  Things need to go well for the offensive line this year, or plenty of offensive linemen and other employees could be going away.

3.  What happened to the pass rush?

In 2007, the Giants figured out how to beat the Patriots and Tom Brady.  Specifically by knocking him down early and making him worried about getting knocked down for the rest of the game.

Four years later, the Giants showed that they still knew that the best way to win on a big stage is to throw the opposing quarterback off it.

Three years after the fact, who’s left?  Michael Strahan gets his ugly mustard jacket in less than two weeks, Osi Umenyiora can soon be seen on Hard Knocks as a member of the Falcons, and Justin Tuck has taken his 11.0 sacks to Oakland after allegedly being lowballed by the Giants.

Mathias Kiwakuna and his six sacks and restructured deal that has left him with a stick in a place where sticks don’t normally go is back, and the team hopes that the once-promising Jason Pierre-Paul can improve on his paltry sum of two sacks in 2013.  With Pierre-Paul in a contract year, he has plenty of millions of reasons to get back to being the guy who had 16.5 sacks in 2011.

4.  Who plays tight end?

Maybe Pierre-Paul should ask to play offense.  He’d have a good chance to play tight end.  Possibly as the starter.

Look at the depth chart.  The five tight ends currently on the roster are Kellen Davis, Larry Donnell, Daniel Fells, Adrien Robinson, and Xavier Grimble, who sounds like the antagonist in a Dickens novel.  That quintet combined for six total NFL catches last year.

It’s hard not to imagine the Giants making moves at the position, even if they merely pounce on a tight end cut by another team.  Or, ideally, if Jermichael Finley is cleared by the Giants and decides to keep playing football.

5.  Will they be able to run the ball?

Speaking of guys with neck injuries whose futures were in doubt, running back David Wilson has been cleared to play.  The next question becomes whether Wilson, a first-round pick in 2012, can get back to the top of the depth chart, or whether he’ll play second fiddle to newcomer Rashad Jennings, whom G.M. Jerry Reese has called a “bell cow” type.

Former Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis is also on the roster, and it remains to be seen whether former Packers assistant Ben McAdoo will play the hot hand or use a revolving door at tailback.

Whoever gets the ball needs to do something with it, which could be difficult if the offensive line and/or Eli Manning don’t play well.  But that could be the key to opening up the passing game.  Which will take a lot of pressure off the defense.

Which will make the team better.  Which could keep Tom Coughlin around for at least another year.

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PFT’s 2014 Preseason Power Rankings

Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

Here is how PFT ranks all 32 NFL clubs entering the 2014 season. A preseason analysis of each team can be found below. The rankings were determined by vote of the editorial staff:

1. Seattle Seahawks. (NFC rank: 1.)

2. San Francisco 49ers. (NFC rank: 2.)

3. Denver Broncos. (AFC rank: 1.)

4. New England Patriots. (AFC rank: 2.)

5. Green Bay Packers. (NFC rank: 3.)

6. New Orleans Saints. (NFC rank: 4.)

7. Baltimore Ravens. (AFC rank: 3.)

8. Indianapolis Colts. (AFC rank: 4.)

9. Cincinnati Bengals. (AFC rank: 5.)

10. Carolina Panthers. (NFC rank: 5.)

11. Arizona Cardinals. (NFC rank: 6.)

12. Chicago Bears. (NFC rank: 7.)

13. Philadelphia Eagles. (NFC rank: 8.)

14. Atlanta Falcons. (NFC rank: 9.)

15. Pittsburgh Steelers. (AFC rank: 6.)

16. San Diego Chargers. (AFC rank: 7.)

17. Kansas City Chiefs. (AFC rank: 8.)

18. New York Giants. (NFC rank: 10.)

19. New York Jets. (AFC rank: 9.)

20. St. Louis Rams. (NFC rank: 11.)

21. Detroit Lions. (NFC rank: 12.)

22. Cleveland Browns. (AFC rank: 10.)

23. Washington Redskins. (NFC rank: 13.)

24. Dallas Cowboys. (NFC rank: 14.)

25. Houston Texans. (AFC rank: 11.)

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (NFC rank: 15.)

27. Minnesota Vikings. (NFC rank: 16.)

28. Buffalo Bills. (AFC rank: 12.)

29. Jacksonville Jaguars. (AFC rank: 13.)

30. Tennessee Titans. (AFC rank: 14.)

31. Miami Dolphins. (AFC rank: 15.)

32. Oakland Raiders. (AFC rank: 16.)

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 1: Seattle Seahawks

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks enter their 2014 training camp as defending Super Bowl champions for the first time in franchise history. While the team lost a handful of contributing pieces to free agency, the Seahawks return most of their impact players from their championship squad. In addition, the team locked up Michael Bennett, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin to long-term contracts to keep them in Seattle for the foreseeable future.

However, Seattle still has some questions to answer as training camp gets set to open on Friday. Can Thomas, Sherman and others play with the same drive after getting paid this offseason? How does Seattle replace Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald on their defensive line? Can Percy Harvin stay healthy enough to contribute all season?

Despite the few question marks, Seattle still enters the year as a strong candidate to return to the Super Bowl and become the first team to win consecutive titles since the New England Patriots in 2003-2004.

Strengths.

Even without Brandon Browner, the “Legion of Boom” will continue to cause fits for opposing offenses this year. Earl Thomas has become the premier safety in the game and Richard Sherman arguably the best cornerback. Kam Chancellor remains as the muscle of the quartet and Byron Maxwell has become dangerous as well with four interceptions in five starts to end the regular season.

Assuming the Seahawks and Marshawn Lynch can resolve any potential lingering contract concerns, Seattle’s rushing attack should be as good, if not better, in 2014. Seattle finished the season fourth in rushing with Lynch accumulating 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns. Second-year back Christine Michael has drawn praise from the coaching staff and could give the offense a home run threat out of the backfield. Defenses still have to be aware of quarterback Russell Wilson rushing as well as he ran for 539 yards last season.

Weaknesses.

The offensive line was the biggest problem area for the Seahawks last season and many of the same issues remain as the season approaches. Russell Okung, Breno Giacomini and Max Unger combined to miss 18 games due to injury and the line struggled in their absence.

Giacomini is now gone to the New York Jets and Okung didn’t participate in offseason workouts while recovering from foot surgery. Former first-round pick James Carpenter has slimmed down and in the best shape of his professional career, but has mainly been a disappointment up to this point. Seattle also needs to find a starter at right tackle between Michael Bowie and second-round pick Justin Britt.

While still ranking as the best defense in the league last year, the Seahawks did struggle every once in a while against the run. St. Louis and Tampa Bay rushed for 200 yards against Seattle in consecutive weeks. With Red Bryant released for cap reasons, one of the stalwarts of Seattle’s rush defense is now gone.

Changes.

James Carpenter is slotted to take over full-time at left guard in place of the departed Paul McQuistan. The position had been a timeshare for most of last season. Breno Giacomini will also need to be replaced at right tackle.

The Seahawks had found a nice pass rush package late in the season that caused problems for opposing offenses. However, Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald have departed and Seattle will need to find replacements. Benson Mayowa, Greg Scruggs, Jordan Hill, Kevin Williams and Jesse Williams should all be vying for time in passing situations.

Bryon Maxwell will take over the starting cornerback job opposite Richard Sherman after assuming the role last season following the suspension of Brandon Browner.

Camp battles.

Despite Pete Carroll’s “always compete” mantra, there aren’t many battles for starting jobs expected during training camp. Michael Bowie and Justin Britt will compete for the starting job at right tackle.

Beyond that, the wide receiver position should be fierce for roster spots and playing time. Percy Harvin participated in all offseason workouts and appears truly healthy for the first time since injuring his ankle in 2012 with the Minnesota Vikings. Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Paul Richardson and Sidney Rice will be among the group competing for the next spot in line behind Harvin.

The same applies for the defensive line rotation with a slew of players competing for playing time. Greg Scruggs, Jesse Williams, Jordan Hill and Benson Mayowa were “redshirted” for lack of a better term due to being buried in the depth or injury. Along with the redshirt class, draft picks Cassius Marsh and Jimmy Staten will also have a chance to factor in the rotation.

Seattle will also need to find a punt returner to replace Golden Tate.

Prospects.

The Seahawks roster remains supremely talented and young. They were the youngest team to ever win a Super Bowl last February and Seattle has done a very good job of preparing their roster to absorb the larger contracts given to their emerging superstars.

The defense remains a physically imposing unit. Marshawn Lynch is a battering ram at running back and Russell Wilson the calm, distributor that directs the offense.

There are few areas of concern from a roster standpoint for Seattle as training camp approaches. The biggest question may be if they can handle being the hunted as reigning champions.

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Tony Dungy’s statement regarding his Michael Sam comments

[Editor's note:  In response to quotes that appeared in Monday's Tampa Tribune, Tony Dungy has released a statement.  The full content of it appears below.]

On Monday afternoon while on vacation with my family, I was quite surprised to read excerpts from an interview I gave several weeks ago related to this year’s NFL Draft, and I feel compelled to clarify those remarks.

I was asked whether I would have drafted Michael Sam and I answered that I would not have drafted him.  I gave my honest answer, which is that I felt drafting him would bring much distraction to the team. At the time of my interview, the Oprah Winfrey reality show that was going to chronicle Michael’s first season had been announced.

I was not asked whether or not Michael Sam deserves an opportunity to play in the NFL.  He absolutely does.

I was not asked whether his sexual orientation should play a part in the evaluation process.  It should not.

I was not asked whether I would have a problem having Michael Sam on my team.  I would not.

I have been asked all of those questions several times in the last three months and have always answered them the same way—by saying that playing in the NFL is, and should be, about merit.

The best players make the team, and everyone should get the opportunity to prove whether they’re good enough to play.  That’s my opinion as a coach.  But those were not the questions I was asked.

What I was asked about was my philosophy of drafting, a philosophy that was developed over the years, which was to minimize distractions for my teams.

I do not believe Michael’s sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization.

I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction.  Unfortunately we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction.

I wish Michael Sam nothing but the best in his quest to become a star in the NFL and I am confident he will get the opportunity to show what he can do on the field.

My sincere hope is that we will be able to focus on his play and not on his sexual orientation.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 2: San Francisco 49ers

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers have arguably been the best team in the NFL over the last three seasons with a Super Bowl appearance and two NFC Championship game appearances on their resume. But any trip to the postseason that doesn’t end with that final victory leaves a team ultimately unfulfilled.

Despite some changes to the roster and some off-field incidents this offseason, the 49ers are once again primed to push for a sixth Super Bowl title this season.

San Francisco should be more dynamic offensively with a healthy Michael Crabtree and the addition of Steve Johnson to provide targets for Colin Kaepernick. However, the 49ers may have lost a little strength on the defensive side of the ball. NaVorro Bowman could miss a significant portion of the season while returning from injury and Aldon Smith could be suspended for transgressions off the field. In addition, all four members of the 49ers starting secondary in Super Bowl XLVII have now moved on with some question marks remaining.

Strengths.

The 49ers running game should continue to be among the most explosive in the league. Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick are a daunting threats to carry the ball. In addition, Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde and possibly even Marcus Lattimore provide capable depth for an aging  (but somehow still not diminishing) Frank Gore. San Francisco will need to hope Daniel Kilgore can be an adequate replacement at center for the departed Jonathan Goodwin.

When healthy and able to play, the 49ers linebackers remain as strong as any unit in football. Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith are dynamic threats at outside linebacker with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis as two of the best inside linebackers in the game. However, Bowman could miss several games while recovering from a knee injury in the NFC Championship game and Smith’s off-field issues could likely lead to a suspension this fall.

Weaknesses.

San Francisco is noticeably weaker at cornerback than they were during their run to the NFC title in 2012. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are now gone, leaving Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver as the penciled starters with journeymen Perrish Cox and Chris Cook as depth options. Brock has proven to be a solid player. However, Culliver could ultimately be suspended as well for a felony charge of possession of brass knuckles stemming from a hit-and-run arrest this offeseason.

Colin Kaepernick’s play against the division rival Seattle Seahawks is also an area of concern. In four career starts against Seattle, Kaepernick has struggled mightily in the passing game. He’s completed just 52 percent of his passes for an average of 175 yards per game with three touchdowns and seven interceptions. Against all other opponents, Kaepernick has thrown 34 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. San Francisco is just 1-3 in those games and has been outscored by a margin of 111-52. Considering the road to the top of the division likely goes through Seattle, this an area that the 49ers have to hope Kaepernick can improve in.

Changes.

Daniel Kilgore is penciled in to replace Jonathan Goodwin as the starting center for the 49ers. It’s the first shake up to an offensive line that has been among the league’s elite units over the past few seasons.

Antoine Bethea was signed to replace the departed Donte Whitner at strong safety.

Meanwhile, the addition of Steve Johnson and the return of Brandon Lloyd to the 49ers could stabilize a receiving corps that was underwhelming last season.

Camp battles.

While Kilgore may have the jump-start, rookie Marcus Martin could also challenge for the starting center job once he comes off the non-football injury list.

The 49ers will need to find an interim replacement for NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker. Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody and rookies Chris Borland and Shayne Skov will likely be called upon to challenge for the job.

Prospects.

The San Francisco 49ers are one of the best teams in the NFL. The problem for San Francisco right now is that until they can prove otherwise, the Seahawks are better.

The injury to Bowman and potential suspension of Smith, along with the changes in the secondary could cause some initial struggles defensively for the 49ers as well. However, the 49ers are still plenty talented enough to compete for the divisional title in the NFC West.

Another year of experience from Colin Kaepernick and improved quality at the receiver position should make the passing game more efficient this season. With a rock solid rushing attack, the 49ers offense could be the best it has been with Kaepernick under center.

The Seahawks and 49ers don’t meet until Thanksgiving night in Santa Clara before playing twice in three weeks. Those two meetings will likely go a long way toward determining the champion of a loaded NFC West and a favorite in the NFC to reach the Super Bowl.

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Preseason power rankings No. 3: Denver Broncos

John Elway, John Fox AP

Can Peyton Manning win another Super Bowl?

That is the question people ask when they talk about these Denver Broncos. John Elway, John Fox and the rest of the decision makers in Denver answer that question with an emphatic yes, and they’ve made it clear that they’re putting all their chips on the table and trying to win a championship now: Not only have the Broncos given Manning a good corps of receivers, but the Broncos also invested heavily in veteran free agents on defense this offseason, most notably DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. The plan in Denver is try to win another title while Manning is still on top, and worry about the potential consequences of having a lot of expensive aging veterans on the roster later.

That’s a strategy that makes a lot of sense, but it’s also a strategy that has the potential to blow up in the Broncos’ faces, if Manning and some of the other veterans on the roster begin to show their age more quickly than the Broncos are expecting. Still, the Broncos enter this season looking like the best team in the AFC.

Strengths.

Obviously, it begins with Peyton Manning, the reigning MVP of the NFL, who’s coming off perhaps the greatest season any NFL player has ever had. As long as Manning is healthy, the Broncos will have a great passing offense.

But it goes beyond Manning. If left tackle Ryan Clady is back to form and healthy for 16 games, the offensive line should be better than it was last year, when Clady was lost for the season in Week Two. And the receiving corps, featuring Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker along with new arrivals Emmanuel Sanders and second-round draft pick Cody Latimer, could be better too. And don’t forget that tight end Julius Thomas, who burst onto the scene last year, is still relatively inexperienced and may keep getting better this year.

The Broncos’ run defense was solid last year (stopping Seattle’s running backs was about the only thing the Broncos did well in the Super Bowl), and it could be better this year as well. The Broncos liked the way 2013 first-round draft pick Sylvester Williams played late last year at defensive tackle, and this year there’s every reason to expect a strong second season.

Weaknesses.

Last year the Broncos’ most significant weakness was their pass defense, which is why the pass defense was the top priority in free agency. Can DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward turn that pass defense into a strength? If so, the 2014 Broncos may be even better than the 2013 Broncos. If not, they’re going to need the offense to win a lot of shootouts. The wild card is the return of Von Miller, who was suspended for the first six games of last season and then missed the playoffs with a torn ACL. If Miller is healthy for 16 games and as good a pass rusher as he was in 2012, then maybe we’ll need to list the Broncos’ pass defense under “strengths.”

Middle linebacker Nate Irving could turn out to be a weakness in the Broncos’ defense if he can’t prove he’s ready to handle the starting job on a full-time basis. Wesley Woodyard departed in free agency, and Denver needs Irving to be ready to handle the responsibilities that Woodyard handled last year.

Special teams may turn out to be a weakness for the Broncos as well. Last year they struggled covering kicks (although that was partially masked by the fact that it’s easy to boot the ball into the end zone for a touchback in Denver), and the Broncos still have no idea who will return punts and kickoffs for them.

Changes.

Champ Bailey has meant a lot to this franchise for the last 10 seasons, and it will look a little strange to watch the Broncos’ defense and not see Bailey. But adding both veteran Aqib Talib and rookie Bradley Roby should change the cornerback position for the better.

Eric Decker is also a significant loss at wide receiver, but that may again be a position where the net result of the changes is an improvement. Emmanuel Sanders is an accomplished veteran, and Cody Latimer is a talented rookie. Denver’s front office did a good job of compensating for the departure of Decker.

Position battles.

The No. 1 cornerback is Aqib Talib, but after that there’s plenty of competition at the cornerback position. First-round draft pick Bradley Roby has a good shot at being the No. 2 cornerback, but if Chris Harris is completely healthy (he said in June that he’s 85 percent recovered from a torn ACL), then Harris may beat out Roby to start opposite Talib. Kayvon Webster, a 2013 third-round pick, is also in the mix and will compete to be the Broncos’ nickel corner.

Another interesting competition will take place at right tackle, where Chris Clark currently looks like the favorite. Clark stepped in for injured left tackle Ryan Clady last year and performed well enough that it would seem likely that Clark will remain a starter now that Clady is back on the left side. However, veteran Winston Justice will get a shot at beating out Clark in training camp, and so will rookie third-round pick Michael Schofield.

The backup running back position behind starter Montee Ball appears to be Ronnie Hillman’s to lose, but it wouldn’t be a shock if Hillman does, in fact, lose that battle. C.J. Anderson looked good in limited work last year, and the Broncos really like a couple of undrafted rookies, Juwan Thompson and Brennan Clay. Ultimately, the second-string running back in Denver will probably the running back who proves himself the best pass protector in training camp and the preseason, as protecting Peyton Manning is the most important priority in Denver’s offense.

The most interesting camp competition of all may be for the return job, where the departure of Trindon Holliday in free agency leaves things wide open. On punt returns, Wes Welker is the most experienced man for the job, but given Welker’s age and concerns about whether he’ll stay healthy for 16 games, it seems unlikely that Welker will be the regular punt returner this season. Instead, the Broncos will likely give a number of young and athletic players a shot at earning a roster spot by returning punts. Isaiah Burse, an undrafted free agent receiver, was a good return man at Fresno State and may be the best bet to end up winning the punt return job. Burse can also return kickoffs, and he’ll likely compete with veterans Andre Caldwell and Omar Bolden for that job.

Prospects.

The bottom line for the Broncos? First of all, they still look like the best team in the AFC. And secondly, no one in Denver will be satisfied with just being the best team in the AFC.

It’s a “Super Bowl or bust” year for the Broncos, and that means winning the Super Bowl, not just getting there. If the offense is as good as last year and the defense is better, the Broncos have a real chance of hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But with the Super Bowl debacle fresh in our minds, it’s hard to argue that the Broncos are the best team in the NFL.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 4: New England Patriots

Julian Edelman, Ryan Allen, Danny Aiken AP

The Patriots were back in the AFC Championship Game last year, but their bid for another Super Bowl title were dashed by the Broncos.

Making it there was a credit to coach Bill Belichick’s adaptability as he had to fill holes created by injuries while finding a way to keep the offense moving in spite of an underwhelming season by Tom Brady’s wide receivers. That stopped against Denver, but the Patriots made it clear they have designs on staying on top in the AFC East.

They signed cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in hopes of stopping the revolving door at that position, with the Revis acquisition and a growing group of talent in the front seven leading to thoughts of the best Patriots defense in several years.

There were no such additions to the offense, but the hope is that the return to health of tight end Rob Gronkowski serves the same purpose.

Strengths.

When Gronkowski was healthy last season, the Patriots had one of the most potent offenses in the league. When he was out, they weren’t close to the same level as a team and Brady wasn’t as effective as a quarterback. Whether Gronk can stay healthy for an entire year is a matter of some debate, but his impact on the team is certain.

The Patriots had a pretty good defense last season without Revis. Adding one of the best cornerbacks in the game as he looks to restore some luster after a forgettable year in Tampa has the potential to move the defense from pretty good to great in a shift that the Pats would love to see.

Revis won’t be doing it alone, though. Linebacker Jerod Mayo was lost after the sixth week of the season because of a torn pectoral muscle and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork’s torn Achilles made him a bystander as well. Getting both back to go with Jamie Collins, Donta’ Hightower, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich would make for one of the best front sevens in the conference.

The permanent move to safety was a good one for Devin McCourty, who turned in an excellent year in 2013. With better cornerback play expected, McCourty could be deployed in a more aggressive manner this time around.

Weaknesses.

Julian Edelman caught a lot of passes, but the rest of the wide receivers left something to be desired last season. The Patriots need Danny Amendola to remain on the field and they’d like to see the potential of Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins or Josh Boyce translated into actual production. Without those developments, the Patriots will be relying heavily on Gronkowski remaining healthy once again this year.

Brady was sacked 40 times last year, the second-most of his career, and that number will need to come down this season. Center and right guard are the spots most in need of improvement as Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly were weak links last year.

LeGarrette Blount wasn’t re-signed as a free agent, leaving the Patriots without their battering ram in the backfield from last year. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are on hand, so there’s no reason to panic although the team’s versatility took a little bit of a hit with Blount’s departure.

If everyone is healthy, the defensive line should be pretty good. Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Will Smith and first-round pick Dominique Easley are all returning from serious injuries, though, and the depth isn’t strong enough to keep pressure on opposing quarterbacks if they aren’t in the game.

Changes.

We’ll get to the changes that have been made in a second, right after we discuss the changes that the Patriots hope will take place. After losing Gronkowski, Mayo, Wilfork, Kelly and Sebastian Vollmer to season-ending injuries last year, the Patriots will be hoping that simply being healthier will allow them to push their way back to the top of the conference.

The Pats added three offensive linemen in the draft — center Bryan Stork, tackle Cameron Fleming and guard Jon Halapio — to restock with some young depth up front.

Browner will serve a suspension to start the year, so it will be some time before he and Revis can be deployed as a tandem. Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard will be on hand to fill in and then fill out the sub packages.

Brandon LaFell was signed as a free agent after playing out his contract with the Panthers. There’s probably more upside with the younger receivers, but the Pats will take any help they can get at the position after last season.

Camp Battles.

Steve Gregory is gone, leaving an opening at safety next to McCourty. Patrick Chung is back after a spell with the Eagles and he’ll join Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Kanorris Davis and rookie Jemea Thomas at the position. Harmon looks like the first choice heading into camp.

The Patriots drafted running back James White in the fourth round and he’ll likely vie with Brandon Bolden for backfield snaps left up for graps after Blount’s departure. Given the fluid nature of running back situations, he could wind up with even more than that if things break right.

New England selected quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round, setting up a competition with Ryan Mallett for backup duties and the role as unofficial heir to Brady.

Prospects.

The Patriots have advanced at least as far as the conference title game in each of the last three seasons. When you survey the AFC at this point, another trip to that round feels like the expectation once again in New England.

We can’t know which Patriots might be injured this season or which teams might come together to form a whole better than anyone is predicting in July, but, outside of Denver, there aren’t any teams in the conference that are safe bets to be better than the Patriots. And there certainly aren’t any in the AFC East, where the question again appears to be how many weeks it will take for the Pats to sew up the crown.

Getting beyond the conference title game and earning another Lombardi Trophy is a different matter, however. They’ll need better health than last season, development from a young receiver or two and no noticeable slippage from key veterans to add a fourth ring for the Belichick era.

There’s a lot that needs to break right, but the Patriots are in position to capitalize if things do go that way.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 5: Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers AP

Forget about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or anyone else not named Aaron Rodgers.  The best quarterback in the NFL currently plays in Green Bay.  And that’s good enough to get the Packers in the top five as the 2014 season approaches.

They’d be even higher if Rodgers had the help that other franchise quarterbacks enjoy.  Specifically on defense.  And everyone knows it.  Maybe that’s why recent remarks from Rodgers that easily could have been interpreted as a slap at the front office and/or the locker room didn’t ruffle many feathers.

“We haven’t had the kind of physical talent as far as size here in a while,” Rodgers said last month.  “I think there’s been times — I think back to playing Jacksonville in ’08 in Jacksonville, some of the battles we’ve had with our division teams at times — where you walk on the field and feel like you’re kind of a JV team.”

Beyond Rodgers, the Packers have been a JV team, mainly on defense.  But the Packers may have improved just enough that they’ll be good enough to have a chance to get back to the Super Bowl.

Strengths.

On offense, it begins (and arguably ends) with Rodgers.  A high-precision passer who can run the ball, too, Rodgers knows how to gain yardage on the ground without putting himself at undue risk.  Last year’s broken collarbone happened not while he was being reckless but while trying to step up in the pocket.  Shea McLellin of the Bears shed a block and spotted Rodgers and closed ground and pulled him down before Rodgers knew what happened.  If he can stay healthy throughout 2014, the Packers will likely win the NFC North.  The real question becomes whether he’ll have enough help in the postseason to advance past the divisional round, or whether it’ll be another JV-level showing at single-elimination time, particularly from the defense.

The Packers rolled the dice last season on a pair of tailbacks, stopping Eddie Lacy’s round-two free-fall and snagging Johnathan Franklin, who appeared to be a perfect fit for the Green Bay offense.  A neck injury ended Franklin’s career before it could get started, but the gamble on Lacy ended up being a good one — especially since he eventually was able to pound out some strong performances even when the Packers were forced to implement a crappy backup plan for Rodgers.  If Lacy can match the quarterback when it comes to avoiding injury, the Packers could have the best one-two offensive punch in the NFL.

A bad defense would be a lot worse without linebacker Clay Matthews, who continues to be one of the better pass rushers in the NFL, but who has missed nine games over the past two seasons combined.  The arrival of Julius Peppers could make Matthews even better, even though the jury is still out on whether Peppers still has it like he used to.

The secondary has the potential to be very good, with highly-paid cornerback Sam Shields and first-round rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix potentially leading the way.  As a unit, however, the defense doesn’t belong in the “strength” category.

Weaknesses.

The tight end position holds little promise after the departure of Jermichael Finley.  He seems to want to return to Green Bay after neck surgery, but it seems highly unlikely that that Packers will clear him to play — or pay him what it would take to get him to walk away from his probably-too-good-to-be-true $10 million tax-free insurance policy.  The depth chart is so uncertain that the Packers have taken a chance on undrafted rookie Colt Lyerla, whose talent has been overshadowed by a litany of off-field concerns.

The offensive line continues to shuffle and rotate and generally underperform.  Bryan Bulaga moves back to the right side after a short-lived experiment at left tackle, which ended when his ACL gave out during an intrasquad scrimmage.  David Bakhtiari played well enough as a fourth-round rookie to keep the job, holding former Viking (new Bear) Jared Allen without a sack in two games and generally not being nearly as bad as some feared Bakhtiari would be.  Center Evan Dietrich-Smith bolted for Tampa Bay (to the chagrin of Rodgers), leaving the Packers to hope JC Tretter is ready.  Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang provide quality at guard, but the five-man operation as a whole allowed 45 sacks, ninth worst in the league.

Despite a few bright spots, the defense continues to be a liability, finishing in the bottom fourth of the league last year in yards allowed (372.2 per game) and points (26.8 per game).  Most of the blame lands on the poorly-toupeed head of coordinator Dom Capers, who should have been given a ticket out of Titletown after a playoff meltdown against the 49ers in January 2013.  Coach Mike McCarthy has opted for loyalty to a fault; that could end after the coming campaign.

Changes.

G.M. Ted Thompson stepped out of character in free agency, adding veteran pass rusher Julius Peppers.  Whether he plays linebacker or defensive end (he’s listed as both), Peppers could wreak havoc, if his play in 2012 was more about not being in the right frame of mind and less about diminishing physical skills.

Offensively, Matt Flynn officially is back as the Week One backup to Aaron Rodgers, which is a much better plan that to have no plan for fear of jinxing Rodgers.  While not able to lead an offense, Flynn has shown that he can get it done when pressed into service.  The Packers wisely have decided to make sure he’s available to do what needs to be done, if Rodgers gets banged up again.

The receiving corps continues to be in a state of transition.  A year after losing Greg Jennings to the Vikings, James Jones signed with the Raiders.  Jordy Nelson and/or Randall Cobb could be joining them a year from now, which perhaps suggests that the Packers realize a quarterback like Rodgers can make most receivers look good.

The biggest free-agency defection occurred when safety M.D. Jennings left for the Bears.  Rookie Clinton-Dix will be expected to fill the void right away, if he can.

Position battles.

Barring the unlikely return of Jermichael Finley, it’s time to find a new tight end.  Andrew Quarless is expected to get the first crack at the starting job, with others in place (like Richard Rodgers) to challenge Quarless for the top spot on the depth chart and playing time.  Colt Lyerla provides the most intriguing option.  If he can stay out of trouble and get the most out of his skills, Lyerla could be the next Finley.

Before we assume that Eddie Lacy will become the unquestioned workhorse, consider these words from coach Mike McCarthy about the tailback position:  “My depth chart looks nothing like your depth chart.”  James Starks and DuJuan Harris provide plenty of talent, when healthy.  If Lacy stumbles or gets injured, one or both of them could step up.

JC Tretter gets the first crack at replacing center Evan Dietrich-Smith.  Corey Linsley provides Plan B.  Plan C could be a lot of shotgun formation and plenty of roll-out passes.

At safety, converted cornerback Micah Hyde could delay the ascension of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the starting lineup, if the rookie struggles to make the transition to the next level.

Prospects.

Since winning Super Bowl XLV, the Packers have had three straight playoff appearances that resulted in disappointment, with a home loss to the Giants, a road loss to the 49ers, and a home loss to the 49ers.  The defense has primarily been responsible for the inability to progress beyond the divisional round, and if that happens again in 2014, it’ll be time for a new coordinator, at a minimum.

Chances are the Packers will be good enough on both sides of the ball to let Rodgers carry them back to the round of eight again.  It’ll take more than a mild improvement to get to the NFC title game, or beyond.  The Packers could be poised to do just that, and they’ll get a chance to show where they are when traveling to Seattle for the first game of the regular season.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 6: New Orleans Saints

drew-brees-sean-payton-saints-7b0eb0f96d81cbae_large Getty Images

The Saints are in an interesting position.

There might not be a team in the NFL as good as the thing they do than the Saints are at throwing the football.

The combination of Sean Payton and Drew Brees continue to be one of the best coach-quarterback pairings, and now that the contract unpleasantness with tight end* Jimmy Graham is over, their offensive weapons are in place, mostly intact from last year.

But where does that get them?

When the top teams in the NFC are playing power football, can the Saints push beyond big fantasy stats with finesse?

They benefit by being different from the teams that topped the conference last year (the Panthers likewise want to play physically), but this year will be a test to see if that difference is meaningful.

Brees is still at the top of his game, but that might not be enough any more.

Strengths.

Did we mention Drew Brees was good at throwing the ball?

He threw for 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions last year.

And with Graham paid, they still have an impressive array of targets.

Marques Colston is still producing at a high level, and even with a change in the backfield (more on that in a moment), they’re going to be able to move the ball.

Payton is tremendous at the chess match of offense, and incorporating some new guys into the scheme will allow them to develop that capability.

Adding first-round speedster Brandin Cooks should more than make up for the departure of Lance Moore, especially with Kenny Stills developing into a more dependable target.

Weaknesses.

Last year, the Saints’ defense might have been better than their offense, or perhaps it was just by contrast to the year before.

Rob Ryan transformed a group that set a league record for yards allowed in 2012, and it’s not as if they had a gigantic personnel upgrade.

Ryan was patching together parts, and injuries didn’t help.

But Junior Galette emerged as a legitimate outside linebacker option, and defensive end Cameron Jordan had a breakout year with 12.5 sacks.

The offseason’s big acquisition, safety Jairus Byrd, ought to be able to make a big impact, paired alongside Kenny Vaccaro. That enthusiasm was dampened a bit when Byrd needed back surgery, knocking him out of most of the offseason work.

The only problem is, the Saints still might not have sufficient personnel on that side of the ball, so regression is a real possibility.

They finally pared away some of the old parts on defense (cutting Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Roman Harper and Jabari Greer), which might have been necessary.

But other than bringing in last-legs cornerback Champ Bailey, there wasn’t the kind of influx of talent they might have needed.

They improved last year based largely on energy and emotion, and we’ll see how long that lasts in the face of a talent discrepancy.

Changes.

The Saints traded a complementary running back, which ordinarily wouldn’t be a headline move.

But that back was Darren Sproles, who was such an integral part of their offense, catching 71 passes last year.

Replacing him will be a huge challenge, and they’re going to be relying on a deep group of backs.

Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram will likely get most of the carries, but Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet will need to make a big step to pick up the slack from Sproles’ departure.

Cooks might be the biggest beneficiary of the change, as they want to take advantage of his 4.3 speed. While it’s not a like-for-like replacement, he does have the same kind of game-changing ability as Sproles.

Camp Battles.

The Saints offensive line was a work in progress last year, but rookie Terron Armstead settled into a spot where they’re comfortable with him at left tackle. They were also able to hang onto right tackle Zach Strief and guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans return.

That leaves a hole in the middle, after Brian de la Puente left in free agency for Chicago.

Tim Lelito will get the first crack, but they brought veteran Jonathan Goodwin back for cover, giving them a reasonable competition.

It would also help if a young cornerback would step up opposite Keenan Lewis. They brought in Bailey, but all parties are probably best served if he’s able to limit his snaps a bit. Second-rounder Stanley Jean-Baptiste gives them some new size at the position, which will enable them to match up better with the big wideouts in their division.

Prospects.

They’re going to be pretty good.

If the defense continues at last year’s pace, they can be very good.

But the Saints have problems local and national.

They play in perhaps the league’s deepest division, with the Falcons healthy and re-tooled and the Buccaneers on the upswing with Lovie Smith along with the defensively stout Panthers.

Then comes the matter of whether they can stand toe-to-toe with the Seahawks and 49ers to make a push for another title.

That makes the regular season of extreme importance. They’re a different team in their own building, so getting home field advantage might mean more to them than any team in the NFC.

If they can get it, the Saints could easily be a Super Bowl team.

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PFT’s 2014 Preseason Power Rankings Countdown

Seattle Seahawks Rookie Minicamp Getty Images

Here are PFT’s 2014 preseason power rankings. Click on the team name for an in-depth preview entering training camp:

1. Seattle Seahawks. (NFC rank: 1.)

2. San Francisco 49ers. (NFC rank: 2.)

3. Denver Broncos. (AFC rank: 1.)

4. New England Patriots. (AFC rank: 2.)

5. Green Bay Packers. (NFC rank: 3.)

6. New Orleans Saints. (NFC rank: 4.)

7. Baltimore Ravens. (AFC rank: 3.)

8. Indianapolis Colts. (AFC rank: 4.)

9. Cincinnati Bengals. (AFC rank: 5.)

10. Carolina Panthers. (NFC rank: 5.)

11. Arizona Cardinals. (NFC rank: 6.)

12. Chicago Bears. (NFC rank: 7.)

13. Philadelphia Eagles. (NFC rank: 8.)

14. Atlanta Falcons. (NFC rank: 9.)

15. Pittsburgh Steelers. (AFC rank: 6.)

16. San Diego Chargers. (AFC rank: 7.)

17. Kansas City Chiefs. (AFC rank: 8.)

18. New York Giants. (NFC rank: 10.)

19. New York Jets. (AFC rank: 9.)

20. St. Louis Rams. (NFC rank: 11.)

21. Detroit Lions. (NFC rank: 12.)

22. Cleveland Browns. (AFC rank: 10.)

23. Washington Redskins. (NFC rank: 13.)

24. Dallas Cowboys. (NFC rank: 14.)

25. Houston Texans. (AFC rank: 11.)

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (NFC rank: 15.)

27. Minnesota Vikings. (NFC rank: 16.)

28. Buffalo Bills. (AFC rank: 12.)

29. Jacksonville Jaguars. (AFC rank: 13.)

30. Tennessee Titans. (AFC rank: 14.)

31. Miami Dolphins. (AFC rank: 15.)

32. Oakland Raiders. (AFC rank: 16.)

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 7: Baltimore Ravens

Harbaugh AP

Yeah, the Ravens failed to make the playoffs last year.  Yeah, they’re facing a degree of transition and upheaval on par with last year’s post-Super Bowl retirements and free-agency defections.

But the Ravens continue to be the Ravens.   The franchise that lives by the motto, “In Ozzie We Trust.”  The team with one of the best football organizations the past generation has seen.  The group that John Harbaugh led to five straight playoff appearances to start his head-coaching career.

Last year’s performance exposed some issues that needed to be addressed.  The Ravens have addressed them, for the most part.  Here’s a look at where they are as the 2014 season approaches, and why they landed in the top 10 after failing to qualify for the 2013 postseason.

Strengths.

It’s a quarterback-driven league, and the jury is out on how driven the Ravens’ starting quarterback remains after getting a $120.6 million contract in 2013.  Does Joe Flacco have the degree of determination that true franchise quarterbacks have shown, year in and year out?  Will Flacco act like an unofficial member of the coaching staff, both during the season and when the games aren’t being played?

The answer could be no, at least not for now.  Flacco didn’t get together with his receivers before the start of the offseason program, explaining that he didn’t know enough about the new offense to make the effort worth everyone’s time.  But he could have learned plenty about the new offense, if he really wanted to.  And he could have started the process of teaching it to teammates before the official process for teaching them began, if he really wanted to.  (With or without violations of offseason rules that are never enforced.)

And so, while the Super Bowl MVP trophy and the huge contract make Flacco a strength, it’s fair to ask whether he’s the kind of quarterback that makes a team a perennial contender regardless of the quality of the rest of the roster, or whether he has simply been in the right place at the right time with a team that had enough parts around him to allow him to appear to be better than maybe he really is.

The guys expected to catch the passes from Flacco fall into that same “strong but how strong?” category.  Torrey Smith enters a contract year with numbers that have been very good, but without the kind of breakthrough in his third season that would make him one of the best receivers in the league.  Steve Smith arrives to put some punch (perhaps literally) into the position, but it’s unclear how much he has left, especially with a balky and banged up knee.  Jacoby Jones has shown flashes, but at times he falls into the “meh” category.  And while the tight end room now boasts Dennis Pitta and Owen Daniels, the Ravens claim they coveted rookie Eric Ebron.  If they wanted Ebron, how good do they really feel about the guys they have?

Despite plenty of changes in recent years, the front seven on defense sets the tone, led by defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, linebacker Terrell Suggs, and linebacker Elvis Dumervil.  Linebacker Daryl Smith became a free-agent steal last year, and he’s now one of the anchors of the unit.

Safety Matt Elam made a big impact as a rookie, helping the secondary weather the departure of Ed Reed.  Cornerback Lardarius Webb should be better more than a full year after tearing an ACL, and competition should shake out the rest of an understated but talented depth chart.

On special teams, the Ravens have one of the league’s best kickers in Justin Tucker.  Which makes it easier to squeeze out close games premised on field-position battles — and which could be the difference between making to the playoffs or going home early for the second straight season.

Weaknesses.

The offensive line took a big step back last year.  The outcome would have been worse but for the midseason arrival of left tackle Eugene Monroe via trade with Jacksonville.  A huge hole currently exists at right tackle with the decision not to bring back Michael Oher, and Gino Gradkowski couldn’t fully fill the shows of the retired Matt Birk.  The line will need to get better quickly or the new offense under Gary Kubiak won’t.

At running back, a looming suspension of Ray Rice and an early off-field incident from Lorenzo Taliaferro complicates the depth chart at the start of the season.  Rice, who likely will be gone for at least one game if not more, will need to be replaced by Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett, and/or Taliaferro.

Speaking of Rice and Taliaferro and the various other Ravens who found trouble in the offseason, the franchise currently has earned the title of the reigning NFL renegades.  They’ll all undoubtedly pay for it in training camp, thanks to a head coach who has little tolerance for nonsense, but who has been forced to tolerate plenty of it.  While a positive reaction from the players could turn that weakness into a strength, the misadventures of multiple players are a problem that needs to be solved.

Changes.

In his first full year as offensive coordinator, Jim Caldwell didn’t do nearly as well as he did down the stretch in 2012.  But Caldwell still did well enough to get himself a head-coaching job in Detroit.  Gary Kubiak, fired after seven years of coaching the Texans, brings a new system to town, with zone-blocking, one-cut running, roll-out passing, and all sorts of other stuff the Ravens didn’t do on a regular basis last year.  The team’s ability to adapt will determine its ability to thrive.

The offense got better with the arrival of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels, and it got worse with the departures of tight end Ed Dickson, fullback Vonta Leach, and Oher.  If they can adequately fill the hole at right tackle, the offense should be fine.

On defensive, losing lineman Arthur Jones to the Colts hurts, but when a team has a great collection of linemen it’s impossible to pay them all.  Also being paid elsewhere will be linebacker Jameel McClain, cornerback Corey Graham, and safety James Ihedigbo.

Position battles.

A fifth-round pick a year ago, Rick Wagner gets the first shot to replace Oher at right tackle.  If Wagner can’t do it, Ryan Jensen provides a Plan B, and Kelechi Osemele could be moved back outside if necessary.

At inside linebacker, 2013 second-rounder Arthur Brown and 2014 first-rounder C.J. Mosley will square off for the starting job and total reps.  If the Ravens thought Brown could get it done, they wouldn’t have had to draft Mosley.  That said, we’re told that Brown had a very strong offseason, possibly responding to the challenge presented by the addition of Mosley.

At cornerback, Asa Jackson and Chykie Brown will battle for the nickel job, and Darian Stewart and Terrance Brooks will compete for a starting safety job, with Stewart getting the first shot.

Prospects.

At a time when the best teams in the NFC have the physicality to routinely pilfer the juice-box money of the best that the AFC has to offer, the Ravens are one of the few teams that can match the muscle of the likes of the 49ers and Seahawks.  But before the Ravens can face the NFC champion, they need to climb the playoff tree.  Before they can do that, they need to qualify for a seat at the postseason table.

They definitely can get there.  And their placement at No. 7 as the season arrives means that we think they will.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 8: Indianapolis Colts

andrewluck AP

The Colts are realizing the true benefit bottoming out.

With quarterback Andrew Luck at the helm of their offense, there’s a floor that they’re simply not going to fall through.

Playing in a division that is unsettled at best and ridiculous at worst (it occupied three of the bottom eight spots in our Preseason Power Rankings), the Colts should easily own the top spot in the AFC South barring a calamitous injury.

This year’s additions weren’t as dramatic as last year’s spending, but they added depth to an already good team, the kind of thing you’re able to do when your quarterback is both excellent and on a cheap rookie contract.

Winning 11 games each of the last two years has raised expectations, so this year will be about the Colts taking that next step.

Strengths.

The Colts have quietly developed a deep stable of targets for Luck to throw to.

If Reggie Wayne returns to anything resembling his old form, he’ll join with T.Y. Hilton and Hakeem Nicks (who came on a one-year prove-it deal) as a very good receiving corps.

They also have problem-child Da’Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen in reserve, giving them developmental players for the future.

But perhaps the biggest boost will be getting tight end Dwayne Allen back from injury to pair with Coby Fleener, giving the Colts plenty of options in the passing game.

Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton would love to call a traditional grind-it-out game, but given the weapons at his disposal, spreading the field and using multiple formations is the right thing to do.

Weaknesses.

It sure would help if the Colts could find some balance in their offense with the running game.

And it sure would help if Trent Richardson ever proved to be worthy of the first-round pick they gave up to acquire him.

Richardson averaged 2.9 yards per carry after coming over from the Browns last year, hardly what they were hoping for or needed. He admitted it was hard learning a new offense, so it’s reasonable to give him this year as a fresh start.

Then again, some help up front would also help.

The Colts offensive line has underperformed despite some big investments the last few offseasons, and finding a center and some stability in that group would pay big dividends.

Second-round pick Jack Mewhort has seen work at center, guard and tackle during the offseason, and he could add an element of toughness that they need.

There’s also the small matter of how they’ll rush the passer in the first four games, with Robert Mathis out following a PED suspension. That could cost them significantly as they open with the Broncos and Eagles, before they start division play with the Jaguars and Titans.

Changes.

The Colts didn’t make wholesale moves this offseason, but they made three significant ones which should help their defense.

Keeping cornerback Vontae Davis with a four-year, $39 million extension was the first big step, as they could ill afford to lose one of the top cover men in the AFC.

But adding linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and defensive end Arthur Jones will add some heft and legitimacy to a defense that was too often pushed around last year.

After losing safety Anotine Bethea to San Francisco, they need LaRon Landry to be a more consistent producer.

Camp Battles.

The Colts have some decisions to make at guard, as Donald Thomas is coming off two muscle tears, making it hard to know how much he can be counted on.

Mewhort worked at left guard during OTAs, but they also have Hugh Thornton as a possibility. The Colts think Lance Louis can add something as well, and seeing how that position shakes out will be huge as they try to run the ball more consistently.

They also have running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard coming off injuries, and they would love to have one of them ready to go if Richardson isn’t able to carry the load as expected.

Finding a safety to station next to Landry will also be a toss-up, as the Colts have a host of candidates for that job including Mike Adams, Colt Anderson along with holdovers such as Sergio Brown.

Prospects.

It’s easy to have high expectations for the Colts, as they practically have six wins in the bank by function of playing in the AFC South.

The Texans are good on defense, and the Jaguars are improving, but there’s no reason for the Colts to not roll through this group.

But a division title isn’t the goal for this bunch, as Manning found out more than a decade ago.

The Colts have something of a narrow window with this group because of Luck’s pending contract situation.

They have the ability to add parts now while he’s on a cheap rookie-scale deal, and they have bought aggressively in free agency. Of course, not all those deals look like bargains.

When they have to start paying Luck real money, it will be harder to make wholesale changes, so they have to hope they have a solid base in place.

Last year’s comeback win over the Chiefs in the playoffs was a solid first step, but the Colts are still punching over their weight (or at least their age) when they come up against the big guns of the AFC.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 9: Cincinnati Bengals

Andy Dalton, Vontaze Burfict AP

The 2013 Bengals won 11 games, third-most in their history. They outscored opponents by 125 points, a margin superior to their Super Bowl entrants of 1981 (+117) and 1988 (+125). They were 4-0 against eventual playoff teams, knocking off Green Bay, New England, San Diego and Indianapolis.

But once again, Cincinnati was one-and-done in the postseason. The Chargers, whom the Bengals handled in December, turned the tables in January, rolling to a 27-10 wild card win in Cincinnati. And once again, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton played poorly on the playoff stage, committing three turnovers.

The loss dropped coach Marvin Lewis’ playoff record to 0-5, with three home playoff defeats. It also marked the 23rd consecutive season the franchise didn’t win a single postseason game.

The good news? The 2014 Bengals should contend for another trip to the playoffs. There are quite a few General Managers who would surely trade rosters with Cincinnati in a heartbeat, and that cannot be overlooked, even as another postseason setback is fresh in memory.

Strengths.

The Bengals’ defense is one of the league’s best. No AFC club was better stopping the opposition short on third downs a season ago, and only Seattle gave up less yards per play. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins and weak-side linebacker Vontaze Burfict (171 tackles in 2013 ) are the standouts on this skilled stop unit. Atkins, who comes off an ACL tear, is an outstanding interior rusher when healthy, while Burfict, a former undrafted free agent, has become a star.

The Bengals’ offense can hold up its end of the bargain, too. A.J. Green (98 catches, 1,426 yards, 11 TDs in 2013) is a bona fide go-to receiver, a tall, fast, athletic, sure-handed pass catcher who can shred secondaries. Tailback Giovani Bernard (695 yards rushing, 514 yards receiving) is an exciting playmaker, as is wideout Marvin Jones (51 catches, 712 yards, 10 TDs). The Bengals are deep at tight end, too, with Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham a nice 1-2 punch.

Dalton (4,293 yards, 33 TD passes, 20 interceptions) is durable and productive. His TD passes total about 61 percent of the club’s touchdowns in the last three seasons (80-of-132). Dalton enters the final year of his contract, and his future is a major storyline entering 2014.

The Bengals’ offensive line is solid, with two former first-round picks (right tackle Andre Smith, right guard Kevin Zeitler) among its ranks. Dalton was sacked 17 fewer times in 2013.

Weaknesses.

Too many of Cincinnati’s drives end in Dalton turnovers. He committed at least two turnovers in 7-of-16 regular season starts in 2013 and followed that with two picks and one fumble in the wild card loss. If Dalton cuts down on the giveaways, this could be an elite offense on its very best, given the talent on hand.

With Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall (Achilles) coming off serious injuries, the Bengals’ defensive depth is an area to watch. Moreover, the club is a little thinner at defensive end after Michael Johnson’s departure in free agency.

Finally, the offense and defense will be adjusting to new coordinators. On defense, Paul Guenther replaces Mike Zimmer, who became Minnesota’s head coach. On offense, Hue Jackson takes over for Jay Gruden, now Washington’s head coach. Both Guenther and Jackson have ample experience in Cincinnati, which could shorten the transitional period.

Changes.

The Bengals suffered a few losses in free agency, though that was to be expected. Johnson and offensive tackle Anthony Collins received lucrative deals from Tampa Bay, which turned over its roster under new head coach Lovie Smith. The Bengals also lost slot receiver Andrew Hawkins to Cleveland after declining to match an offer sheet.

The Bengals released a pair of 2013 starters, parting ways with strong-side linebacker James Harrison and center Kyle Cook. Emmanuel Lamur could take over for Harrison, while veteran Mike Pollak and rookie Russell Bodine are among the competitors to replace Cook.

At the backup spots, the biggest move came with the addition of quarterback Jason Campbell, who reunites with Jackson, his head coach in Oakland three years ago.

In the draft, the Bengals added several rookies who could contribute right off the bat, including tailback Jeremy Hill, a second-round pick from LSU. The club’s first-round selection, cornerback Darqueze Dennard, joins a deep CB corps.

Camp battles.

With a strong roster, competition is a given. Here are the positions to monitor:

Running back: The Bengals are willing to play young skill-position players, so Hill figures to get a real shot getting plenty of work. Bernard will not lack for touches, so any work Hill earns could put the squeeze on veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who’s slated to make $2.3 million this season.

Cornerback: Dennard and third-year pro Dre Kirkpatrick are waiting in the wings behind Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones. Hall is trying to return from a second Achilles injury since 2011.

Linebacker: Lamur and Vincent Rey are the players to watch. Can Vincent Rey push Rey Maualuga at middle linebacker?

Defensive end: With Johnson gone, there are more reps to be had opposite Carlos Dunlap. Wallace Gilberry (7.5 sacks in 2013) will get his share of work. Keep an eye on second-year pro Margus Hunt and rookie Will Clarke, two fresh faces at the position.

Center: Pollak, Bodine and Trevor Robinson are the candidates to take over for Cook.

Prospects.

The Bengals have a challenging schedule. They draw the NFC South in non-conference play, which entails trips to powerful New Orleans and improved Tampa Bay and home games against respectable Atlanta and Carolina. The Bengals will also face each of the AFC’s first-place clubs from a season ago (Denver, Indianapolis, New England). Finally, the club also draws an early bye (Week Four), which means any later-season injury issues will challenge the team’s depth.

In a scheduling quirk, six of Cincinnati’s first nine games are at home, including three in a row from Oct. 26 through Nov. 6 (Baltimore, Jacksonville, Cleveland). However, the Bengals then take a three-game Southern road trip, facing New Orleans, Houston and Tampa Bay in succession.

Nevertheless, the Bengals appear equipped to handle such regular season challenges. In fact, a hurdle-laden schedule could be just what’s needed to keep Cincinnati sharp as it goes for its fourth playoff berth in a row.

The Bengals are beyond the thrill of simply getting to the postseason. Winning in January is what they seek. Their last playoff win was at Riverfront Stadium, back before Nirvana’s “Nevermind” had even been released.

It’s been too long between playoff successes for Cincinnati, but so it goes in the NFL, which has no best-of-seven tournaments. The league does, however, have quite the tough 12-team, one-and-done bracket, as the Bengals know too well.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 10: Carolina Panthers

Dave Gettleman, Ron Rivera AP

There were points last season when it appeared time to start writing the obituary for Panthers coach Ron Rivera and the team built by former General Manager Marty Hurney.

Then Rivera’s team did a funny thing — they forgot how to lose.

The Panthers won 11 of their final 12 games last year, and only a loss to the 49ers in the playoffs spoiled an unpredictable run built on defense and a singular talent at quarterback.

Of course, they spent the offseason subtracting more than they added, cutting past fat into meat and bone to try to keep a good roster intact.

But that’s what they’re going to have to do for another year or so (when it’s time to pay the next wave of young stars), and they’ve done it well.

Strengths.

In quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers have perhaps the best bail-out-a-play guy in the NFL.

It seems no play is over for Newton, who has matured as a passer while remaining dangerous as a runner. His ability in short-yardage helped spark last year’s belief that they could win, and his growth as a passer helped him make plenty of big plays through the air as well.

Newton will need to be incredible, because they took away most of his help (more on that in a moment). But he is incredible, and looks comfortable running an offense which is far from cutting-edge.

It doesn’t need to be complex it if works, and he’s reached what appears to be a good relationship with play-caller Mike Shula.

They also have what might be the best defensive front seven in the NFL.

They have a pair (for a year anyway) of double-digit sack ends, which only required using more than 20 percent of their cap to keep them.

Greg Hardy got the franchise tag after an impressive salary drive (7.0 of his 15.0 sacks came in the final two games), while overpaid-but-productive veteran Charles Johnson has been a steady presence (44.0 sacks the last four season) against the run and pass.

Paired with a interior that included 2013 top picks Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, and a group of linebackers led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers can match personnel with anyone in the league.

It’s a front designed to take the pressure off a suspect back, but it did just that a year ago, succeeding without much pedigreed talent in the secondary.

Weaknesses.

As long as you spend so much on defensive ends, you’ve got to scrimp somewhere. So the fact they’re using temps in the secondary is nearly a non-issue.

What they’re doing without on offense is alarming.

The Panthers lost two of the five or six best players in franchise history when Steve Smith was cut and Jordan Gross retired.

Smith was cut for reasons that exceeded age and production, as all the wideouts who caught a pass last year are gone. If he wasn’t so much of a grouch, they’d have possibly let him ride off into the sunset next year, but they wanted to let Newton take control of the locker room as well as the huddle.

Instead, they signed just-a-guys Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant to play stable-pony for first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin.

A good running game (everybody’s healthy for a change) and tight end Greg Olsen take some of the pressure off this odd lot of guys to perform. Which is good, because that seems unlikely.

But for all the consternation about the receivers, what happened to their offensive line is worse.

They needed an upgrade from right tackle Byron Bell, but instead they’re letting him compete for the left tackle job along with converted defensive tackle Nate Chandler. They made a run at former Bengals tackle Anthony Collins in free agency, but otherwise did nothing to improve the team’s most glaring weakness in a post-Gross environment. They’ll find out in a hurry how much they miss Gross, which might make management re-think squeezing veterans into dramatic pay cuts in the future.

The middle of the line could be OK, with center Ryan Kalil there to help along a young group. If former second-rounder Amini Silatolu plays to his pre-injury form, they have a chance. Third-rounder Trai Turner is going to have a chance to win the right guard job, and might have the quickest path to the starting lineup of any of their rookies.

Changes.

Perhaps the biggest change for the Panthers was in Rivera himself.

Once a guy with a 2-14 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, Rivera started rolling the dice and it kept working.

It wasn’t just going for fourth downs (but that’s easier when you have a giant quarterback and a big fat fullback such as Mike Tolbert), there was a different air about the Panthers last season.

They went from playing to unfulfilled potential and bloated salaries to playing like a team with something to prove.

In fact, they did have plenty to prove, as a losing record last season might have triggered a huge house-cleaning by new G.M. Dave Gettleman.

He’s talked for two years about the cap issues created by the previous administration (the cost of owner Jerry Richardson spending none of the money before his lockout, and then spending it all at once afterward). Gettleman’s done a good job of filling in the blanks with day laborers, and appears to have done so again.

Losing players such as Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn shouldn’t sting as much, considering they were a minimum-wage free agent and a seventh-round pick. He found spare parts before, and has again, with cornerback Antoine Cason and safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud in line to be this year’s beneficiaries of a pass rush.

Camp Battles.

The Panthers need to find a pair of starting wideouts, and it would be swell if Benjamin would grow into the job in a hurry. Beyond that, they have a bunch of unproven receivers who will be angling for significant roles, from journeyman haircut Tiquan Underwood to kids including Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King.

There’s also some shuffling among the offensive line jobs and in the secondary, with plenty of roles to fill.

One guy who might need to win a job is former starting safety Charles Godfrey, who tore his Achilles last year and then was forced into a pay cut just to have a chance. Godfrey could end up playing as their nickel, and he has some corner skills from his college days. Whether he can run remains to be seen.

Prospects.

It’s hard to not expect regression, considering the way the Panthers exceeded every reasonable expectation last year.

Their defense and Newton gives them a solid base to build upon, but it will only get harder from here.

They’re built to beat the best teams in the conference, and might have played the Seahawks tougher than anyone in Week One (before anybody realized they were any good).

If they find two dependable tackles and can get something — anything — from their receiving corps, they have a chance to pull off the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.

But it’s hard to consider either of those feats a given, which makes this a team which could still play well, but win far fewer games.

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Preseason Power Rankings No. 11: Arizona Cardinals

St Louis Rams v Arizona Cardinals Getty Images

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

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

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

Strengths.

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

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

Weaknesses.

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

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

Changes.

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

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

Camp battles.

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

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

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

Prospects.

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

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

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

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

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