Ranking the teams from 1 to 32 ... and Oakland isn't dead last
There might be a Lito Sheppard trade between now and training camp, and Jerry Jones might pay dearly for Chad Johnson before Labor Day. But it's May, and the offseason personnel side of the business is mostly over.
Now that every team has done just about every significant thing it can do before opening day, let's see how the power structure has changed in the league since the end of the year.
The short answer: Not much, other than the rise of Jacksonville, Carolina and the Jets. But you might find a surprise or two in the first 2008 ranking of the teams from one through 32 -- get ready to send in those we-don't-get-no-respect e-mails, Giants fans -- just eight days after the draft. Read and react:
THE HO-HUM SECTION
1. New England. No team fixes the startlingly bad things as well as New England. And what sticks with me from last season is how porous the offensive line was against the Giants in the Super Bowl, and how poorly Richard Seymour played in the postseason. Tom Brady was pressured significantly -- an ungodly 23 times in the championship game -- while Seymour had zero sacks and zero quarterback pressures in the three playoff games. The line, which allowed 1.3 sacks per game in the regular season, and Seymour are better than that.
Some might read into New England's draft approach as arrogant. Quarterback in the third round, dealing another third-round pick for a 2009 second-rounder, no offensive linemen. I view it as a confident team doing what's best for the long haul. The Patriots' response to almost getting Brady killed in the Super Bowl -- basically, doing nothing on the offensive line in free-agency or the draft -- tells me Dante Scarnecchia, New England's offensive line guru since the Hannah years, will figure out a way to seal the cracks.
2. Indianapolis. Because we don't know what's going to happen in the Marvin Harrison case in Philadelphia -- and even if he makes a clean break of the shooting allegations before July, we don't know if he's going to be healthy enough to be a force again -- we'll leave him out of the fate of the Colts for now.
Jake Scott migrating to Tennessee is a loss, as was the defection of second tight end Ben Utecht to Cincinnati. But a guard's a guard and a backup tight end is replaceable. The Colts did re-sign guard Ryan Lilja and starting tight end Dallas Clark. Underrated rotational defensive end Josh Thomas also re-signed, so there wasn't a lot of Colts pillaging this offseason.
Dwight Freeney should come back healthy from his Lisfranc injury; his presence in the postseason would have made a big difference in the loss to San Diego. The bottom line with my top two teams is this: Bill Belichick and Tony Dungy are still there. Scott Pioli and Bill Polian are still there. Brady and Peyton Manning are still there. They went 31-5 last year. The opposition might be chipping away, but these are still the two best teams in football.
NOW IT GETS A LITTLE INTERESTING
3. Jacksonville. "Why'd they let Marcus Stroud go?'' Jags fan Jonathan Papelbon asked me a couple of weeks ago. Long story. Ankle surgery, four-game suspension last year, age (29), unwillingness to pay him big money anymore. Now the underappreciated Rob Meier's going to have to plug the gap there. I think he can, and I think Jack Del Rio will scheme around the loss of Stroud.
What I like about the Jags is that they've addressed their pass-rush need with the daring trade-up for Derrick Harvey -- who will have to be good right away -- and they have a quarterback of the future who's not a worry. David Garrard was pure guts in beating Pittsburgh on the road in the playoffs, and he was pretty good in a playoff loss at New England, with confident scoring drives of 80 and 95 yards. Jacksonville people are more sure than I am that Raider import Jerry Porter will be a reliable receiving weapon for them. I'll have to see it to believe it because I've seen too much inconsistency from him.
The Jags had a good defense last year, allowing 19 points a game. If Harvey's a DeMarcus Ware-type presence as a rookie, which scouts think he can be, they could morph into a premier defense and be serious Super Bowl challengers in an impossible conference.
4. Dallas. The Cowboys still need a receiver; the thought of Patrick Crayton playing crunch-time minutes in a playoff game has to be a nightmare to any Cowboy fan. But there's not much else they need to win the NFC.
I'm assuming Pacman Jones will be reinstated, though I have no inside information; and if he does play, he'll be a huge threat on the other side of Terence Newman. If he doesn't, rookie Mike Jenkins' development will have to progress faster than Wade Phillips would like. Otherwise, the Cowboys haven't changed much. Explosive offense with a power running game, pressure defense with what could be a much better secondary. That's how you win in the NFL.
5. San Diego. I kept thinking: Why not put the Chargers over the Colts? They beat Indy at Indy in the playoffs and were the better team. The Colts aren't that much better on offense (only five touchdowns better, in fact, last year), and San Diego's free-agent losses (Michael Turner, Drayton Florence) were offset by the drafting of Antoine Cason and Jacob Hester. I think the key is this: I've got to see Philip Rivers perform at a high level consistently to think this is a Super Bowl winner, particularly in a conference as tough as the top-heavy AFC.
6. New York Giants. This is a team that caught fire at the right time and rode the wave to a title. Was it the best team in football in 2007? For the last two games of the year, yes. For the rest of the season, not even close. But the last two games of the season are the biggest.