We made it. The months-long wait for football’s return is finally over. In a few hours, noted NFL superstars Cam Newton and Von Miller will be back on the field and back in our living rooms as we enjoy a Super Bowl rematch from the Mile High City.
I spent this week at The Ringer ranking every team in the NFL. You can check out Part I, with the league’s bottom feeders, here; Part II, with the promising teams destined to fall short, here; and Part III, with the teams looking to make a playoff leap, here. Mostly, though, that’s all a precursor to where we are today.
To celebrate our final football-free moments (and because we already did the rest of the list) of the year, we’re finishing The Ringer’s NFL Preseason Rankings with the best eight teams entering the season. It’s a group filled with familiar faces, the sorts of MVP candidates and immortal coaches that already populate plenty of America’s Game DVDs. Feel free to yell and scream about who’s at or near the top. I’ll be in too good of a mood to care. It’s football day.
8. Kansas City Chiefs
2015 record: 11–5
2015 Football Outsiders DVOA finish: 6th on offense; 6th on defense
Last year’s Chiefs had all the makings of a title contender. They won their final 10 regular-season games, and with a surging offense (third in weighted DVOA) and a stifling defense (second in the same stat), they were peaking entering the playoffs and looked like they could knock off anyone in the AFC.
Much of that roster returns in 2016, and based on how Andy Reid’s teams have performed for the past few seasons, Kansas City’s floor — especially on offense — is notably high for a unit that doesn’t feature a transcendent quarterback. Without running back Jamaal Charles, a dominant offensive line, or any semblance of a downfield passing game, the Chiefs absolutely shredded teams in the second half of last season. Reid, as it turns out, is really good at this play-calling thing.
Kansas City has been patient with Charles as he rehabs from the ACL tear in his right knee that cut his 2015 short, and that’s smart. Despite what Kansas City’s other backs were able to accomplish last year, Charles remains one of the best playmakers in football. The scariest version of this offense involves healthy doses of him as both a runner and a receiver.
The more troubling injury for the Chiefs concerns their star on the other side of the ball. Whereas Kansas City’s offense is merely a less dynamic version of itself without Charles, its defense could devolve into a different unit entirely if Justin Houston is out for an extended period. The superstar pass rusher is in danger of missing the full 2016 campaign because of complications from his own ACL surgery, and that’s an issue given the rest of this team’s defensive personnel. Top-tier cornerback Sean Smith left for AFC West rival Oakland in free agency, safety Tyvon Branch went to Arizona, and safety Husain Abdullah retired. The Chiefs lost 1,696 defensive snaps and a ton of flexibility on the back end.
Losing Houston for the final five regular-season games in 2015 obviously didn’t torpedo Kansas City’s defense, but its competition during that span wasn’t exactly Super Bowl quality: The average weighted DVOA of the opposing offenses the Chiefs faced during that stretch was 21.2. Foes included the crashing Raiders, the lowly Browns, and the banged-up Chargers. Top to bottom, this Chiefs roster is really good, and it’s led by a fantastic coaching staff that constantly gets the most of players. But with a thinner defense, Kansas City may sit there at the end of the season and lament the opportunity that slipped away a year ago.
What They Should Do Well: The interior of this defensive line is full of guys who can push people around. Jaye Howard (re-signed as a free agent), Dontari Poe, Allen Bailey, and 2016 second-round pick Chris Jones may not offer much in the way of pass rush, but they make for a deep group between the tackles that should ensure the Chiefs remain stout against the run.
Where They Will Struggle: Marcus Peters led the league in interceptions as a rookie, but the cornerback also had plenty of brutal moments. Now, instead of lining up Smith opposite him, the Chiefs will count on a combination of recent draft picks, including third-rounders from the past three drafts. All of those dice rolls may net a reliable second corner, but considering the questions that could arise about the pass rush with Houston gone and Tamba Hali about to turn 33, though, Kansas City’s fifth-ranked pass defense could possibly take a tumble.
Potential Breakout Star: Jones. At 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, he’s a perfect multidimensional piece along a defensive line. During the preseason — which, who knows how much stock to place in that — Pro Football Focus credited him with eight pressures in only 36 pass-rushing snaps.
Stat of Note: 14th. That was the Chiefs’ rank in DVOA difference on plays when they got pressure in 2015 and when they didn’t. Coordinator Bob Sutton’s group, more than other defenses, has trouble without a pass rush. In 2013 — the last time Kansas City lost Houston for extended time — it ranked 26th in this statistic.
7. Cincinnati Bengals
2015 record: 12–4
2015 DVOA finish: 2nd on offense; 10th on defense
Cincinnati’s 2015 season seemed to happen in a sort of cruel, sideways universe. The Bengals, who despite their recent success remain the Theon Greyjoy to the Steelers’ Ramsay Bolton, were the best team in the AFC by the end of November. That they lost that status when quarterback Andy Dalton — a guy booed in his own city last summer — broke his thumb is a perverse joke.
In coordinator Hue Jackson’s offense, Dalton was a totally different QB. During his first four NFL seasons, he averaged 6.5 adjusted yards per attempt, good for 25th among quarterbacks who started at least 10 games over that stretch, one spot behind Brian Hoyer. Last year, Dalton’s average jumped to 8.9 — only Carson Palmer and Russell Wilson were better. It was enough to help Cincy finish first in passing DVOA, and it made it all the more heartbreaking when the Bengals lost Dalton and their claim as AFC favorites.
What’s even more depressing is that Cincinnati’s offense might never reach those heights again. Jackson is gone, as he was hired as the Browns head coach and replaced by longtime Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. Few play callers in the league are more creative than Jackson, who uses so many formations that his offenses sometimes look like the brainchild of a Taco Bell R&D employee who just took ayahuasca. Jackson’s ability to pull off some Yoda shit with Dalton is a factor when breaking down the Bengals’ 2016 outlook, and beyond that, the offense’s supporting cast is largely no longer in place.
Gone are receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, both of whom were given gobs of free-agency cash to become no. 2 options elsewhere. More importantly, tight end Tyler Eifert will miss at least the first month of the season after having offseason ankle surgery. After missing the final 15 games of the 2014 campaign because of an elbow injury, Eifert blossomed into one of the NFL’s unique offensive weapons last year. He’s downright unstoppable in the red zone, where he caught a league-leading 80 percent of his targets (among players with at least 10) and hauled in 11 touchdowns. Those numbers tend to normalize for most players, but Eifert’s size and route-running abilities make him something of a Baby Gronk.
Cincinnati is hoping that second-round pick Tyler Boyd can replace Jones at wideout from Week 1, but it’s already possible to see why the Bengals offense might not be what it was last year. If Dalton remains the same player he was in 2015, it won’t matter. But that’s a big ask for the quarterback without Jackson and with a lesser receiving corps.
What They Should Do Well: Wow, that all sounds pretty doom and gloom for the seventh-best team in the NFL! The good news for the Bengals is that Dalton’s probable step back is the only thing keeping them from being higher on this list. Cincy has boasted a top-five offensive line for years, and that group has a chance to be even better this season. Some decline from 34-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth is possible, but that assumes he’s mortal and susceptible to human trappings like "aging." So far, I’ve seen no reason to believe that he is. On the other side, 2015 first-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi will step in for Andre Smith at right tackle, and by all accounts, Ogbuehi looks great. Among 37 qualified QBs last year, Dalton ranked 37th in pressure rate. His quick release time helps in that regard, but this line knows how to keep him upright.
Where They Will Struggle: That’s the thing about Cincy — it has no glaring weaknesses. A healthy Geno Atkins resuscitated a pass rush that was lifeless as he recovered from a torn ACL three years ago, and the recently signed Karlos Dansby should bolster the Bengals’ coverage in their linebacking corps. The big question on defense resides in the secondary, where 2013 third-round pick Shawn Williams will take over for Reggie Nelson, who was as reliable as they come and signed with the Raiders in free agency.
Potential Breakout Star: Ogbuehi. Historically, offensive line coaches are crusty guys, and Paul Alexander has been perfecting that act for more than two decades as Cincinnati’s line guru. Maybe he’s getting soft, but Alexander loves Ogbuehi. That’s enough to convince me of Ogbuehi’s potential.
Stat of Note: 82. That’s the number of pressures Pro Football Focus credited Atkins with in the 2015 season. In any other era, Atkins would be far and away the best pass-rushing defensive tackle. The fact he even makes it a debate when Aaron Donald exists is a real feat.
6. Carolina Panthers
2015 record: 15–1
2015 DVOA finish: 8th on offense; 2nd on defense
I know this ranking might seem low for a 15-win team led by the reigning MVP on one side of the ball and a top-three defensive player on the other, but there are a few different indicators pointing to a Panthers backslide in 2016. The situation in the secondary is the most obvious. Josh Norman was incredible last season, and general manager Dave Gettleman’s decision to rescind the franchise tag on his star cornerback remains the most shocking move of the offseason. Gettleman has made it clear that his team-building strategy prioritizes front-seven players over corners, but after jettisoning Norman, Carolina now has no choice but to start two rookies — second-round pick James Bradberry and third-round pick Daryl Worley — on the outside.
The Panthers defense deserves the benefit of the doubt in most cases. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis still comprise the best linebacker duo in the league, and the front four was already great before the Panthers drafted tackle Vernon Butler in the first round. But even if Kuechly and Davis’s coverage abilities can mask some issues with Carolina’s pass defense, we should acknowledge that we’d consider this an insane plan if nearly any other team in the league was rolling with it.
On offense, Cam Newton was asked to be a similar type of cure-all during his MVP season. No receiving corps did less to help its quarterback, and even that didn’t stop Newton from taking over the league. He’s a singular force, and that isn’t about to change in 2016. Yet despite losing wideout Kelvin Benjamin for all of last season, Carolina enjoyed mostly remarkable health en route to becoming the NFL’s highest-scoring offense.
The starters along the Panthers’ offensive line, potentially the most surprising position group in football last year, missed a combined four starts. In Carolina’s offense, which deploys a wide array of intricate run concepts that propelled it to finish sixth in rushing DVOA, continuity up front is vital. If that unit were to suffer any major injuries this fall, it could mean a swift death for the version of this offense we saw in 2015. Carolina’s offensive line reserves have been on a combined 13 rosters or practice squads since the spring of 2014; its starters simply can’t afford to get hurt, and that’s a dangerous position to be in.
What They Should Do Well: I’m not sure there’s a better one-two punch in the middle of an NFL defense than Kuechly and Kawann Short. Like the Bengals, the Panthers have a group that relies on a tackle to jump-start its pass rush, and Short was up to the task, finishing 2015 with 11 sacks and 14.5 hurries. Kuechly, Davis, and to a lesser degree, Shaq Thompson, give Carolina an unbelievable advantage in the middle of the field. Their range and route recognition provide this unit with what amounts to four safeties playing at one time. Last year, it resulted in the second-best DVOA against short passes.
Where They Will Struggle: This one is obvious. No matter how much help they’re given, Carolina’s rookie corners will likely have some bad moments.
Potential Breakout Star: Kony Ealy. The third-year defensive end shined in the Super Bowl, and after racking up 21 hurries in nine starts last season, he could grow into another dangerous pass-rush option for this defense.
Stat of Note: 20. Carolina’s turnover differential from a year ago. Only two other teams — Kansas City and Arizona — were even half that good.
5. Green Bay Packers
2015 record: 10–6
2015 DVOA finish: 11th on offense; 9th on defense
The talk surrounding Green Bay’s 2015 offense may have been the best proof to date of just how ridiculous this unit has been with Aaron Rodgers. After wideout Jordy Nelson was lost for the year, a slew of injuries sabotaged the line and the walls came crumbling down around the quarterback, the Packers’ offensive DVOA finish was a lowly … wait, 11th? There’s no way that can be right.
Only it is. Since 2009 (Matthew Stafford’s rookie season), the other NFC North teams have finished that high in offensive DVOA a combined five times. Even at its worst, the Packers offense is better than anything else in its division. (Related: This Bears fan needs a fucking drink.) Now, Nelson is back, and even after Green Bay’s stunning decision to release All-Pro guard Josh Sitton last week, the line should be more stable. The Packers offense is a picture of consistency led by an actual dragon; it’s going to be fine, and in most years that would be enough to warrant the team checking in this high in the rankings.
The scary part, though, is that Green Bay’s defense is no longer a weakness. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels signed a four-year, $41 million extension in December, and this group boasts a nice rotation of pass rushers in Clay Matthews (who is moving back to the edge), Julius Peppers, and Nick Perry. On the back end, Green Bay has the makings of a top-three secondary. Nowhere is GM Ted Thompson’s sorcery more apparent than in how the Packers seem to pump out cornerbacks. Oh, Tramon Williams and Davon House are gone? Cool, we’ll draft Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. With defensive depth and an inevitable offensive resurgence, 2016 may be the franchise’s best shot at a title since Super Bowl XLV.
What They Should Do Well: Did I mention this team has Aaron Rodgers? Since 2008, his first season as a starter, Rodgers ranks among the NFL’s top two in touchdown passes, interception percentage, and adjusted yards per attempt. The two-time MVP remains the best QB in football. Green Bay’s title chances live and die with him every year, and since I’m fairly certain he can’t be killed by conventional weapons, they should be alive for a very long time.
Where They Will Struggle: Especially after moving Matthews back to the outside, inside linebacker remains the biggest question mark on Green Bay’s roster. Right now, 2015 fourth-round pick Jake Ryan and 2016 fourth-rounder Blake Martinez are slated to start, and even with all of the positive spin about Martinez that came out during training camp, there’s no way to know how this youth movement will go. Since 2009, Green Bay ranks 24th in DVOA against the run. Coming into this season, that remains its biggest issue.
Potential Breakout Star: Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Now in his third NFL season, the former first-round pick is ready to take the final step and join the league’s elite at his position. At 6-foot-1, 208 pounds, he has the frame to contribute against the run and the range to hold down the back end of a defense. The Packers haven’t had a talent in the secondary like Clinton-Dix since Nick Collins was forced to retire.
Stat of Note: 36 percent. Here’s an amazing stat from the Football Outsiders Almanac: Since 2009, that’s the percentage of running plays against the Packers that have gone for 5 yards or more. No team has been worse over that stretch.
4. Seattle Seahawks
2015 record: 10–6
2015 DVOA finish: 1st on offense; 4th on defense
As my friend, noted Seahawks fan, and excellent ESPN the Magazine writer Mina Kimes likes to say, "Super Bowls are nice. A DVOA four-peat is better."
That’s a joke (I think), but what Seattle has done over the past four seasons really is crazy. It’s topped Football Outsiders’ measurements each year, and looking at the teams the Seahawks have brought into the playoffs every season, it’s totally believable. Still, a run to the 2015 DVOA title was the most improbable yet, and it’s because of how Seattle got there.
This franchise’s defense took the NFL by storm in 2012, and make no mistake, it remains great. With the exception of the Broncos defense — and hell, maybe even including the Broncos defense — no unit is scarier. All of the usual suspects return in 2016, and second-round pick Jarran Reed immediately turning into a reliable defensive tackle is only the most Seahawks thing ever. While it feels like this cast of characters has been in our lives forever, though, Seattle won’t have a single defensive starter older than 30 in Week 1. Kam Chancellor, who feels like the old soul of this group, is 28. A host of high-price guys on second deals and a lack of success in recent drafts has left this defense thinner than it was in its peak years, but for at least one more season, opponents will struggle to find the end zone.
Then there’s Russell Wilson, who used the second half of 2015 to turn into a fireball-wielding monster. Wilson’s 24-touchdown, one-interception run rivaled the best stretch any NFL QB has ever had, and even though we probably won’t see that again, the tweaks Seattle made to its offense have helped turn him into one of the more valuable passers in the entire league.
What They Should Do Well: Name it. What makes Seattle’s defense great is that it has stars at every level, and they just seem to keep emerging. (K.J. Wright morphing into one of the league’s best linebackers is an added luxury for a team that didn’t need it.) But there’s a reason the Legion of Boom is the first thing we identify about this group. Earl Thomas remains the best safety in all of football; his abilities in the middle of the field are what make Seattle’s brand of Cover 3 possible. And Richard Sherman still affects the game more than almost any other cornerback. Offenses continue to fear him, and the Seahawks finished last season first in DVOA against no. 1 receivers.
Where They Will Struggle: I think you know where this is going. Seattle’s offensive line has a real claim to being the worst position group in the entire NFL. It’s almost impressive. Former undrafted free agent Garry Gilliam wasn’t a capable right tackle in 2015; after trying to transition to the left side this preseason, he’ll reprise his starting role on the right this fall. Justin Britt will now play center, his third position in three years. J’Marcus Webb, a new addition to this front, was last seen engulfed in flames trying to play on the edge as the Bears’ left tackle. Thanks for reminding me of that, by the way.
A combination of Seattle’s wide-open offense and Wilson’s mobility helps compensate for some of the line issues, but only three QBs were hit more in 2015. Wilson is excellent at avoiding big shots when he takes off as a runner, but he’s far less in control when he hangs in the pocket. The Seahawks have never leaned on Wilson for a full season like they will in 2016. The thought of him playing behind this group is frightening.
Potential Breakout Star: Tyler Lockett. Among wide receivers with at least 45 targets, only 11 averaged more yards per target last season than Lockett’s 9.6. The only player with fewer than 85 targets to catch more touchdowns than Lockett’s six was Tyler Eifert. Lockett had as many scores as Martavis Bryant and Michael Floyd despite being targeted far less frequently. This guy is a packet of instant points. Just add water.
Stat of Note: Three. That’s how many more touchdown receptions Doug Baldwin (14, to Jordan Reed’s 11 in 2015) had last year than any other player who finished a season with at least a 75 percent catch rate since the merger. Baldwin was on a different planet during the second half of the 2015 campaign, and as with Wilson, it’s reasonable to believe that Seattle’s offensive shift could have a permanent effect on his production.
3. New England Patriots
2015 record: 12–4
2015 DVOA finish: 5th on offense; 12th on defense
Tom Brady’s suspension looms over the first four weeks of New England’s season, but by Thanksgiving, I’m not sure it’s going to matter. There’s no way to predict how Jimmy Garoppolo will fare during his four games as a starter, but even if he falls flat on his face, it’s reasonable to think the Patriots can ride the rest of their roster to crucial division wins over the Dolphins and Bills.
In this year’s AFC East, 10 wins can probably do the trick, and if that means the over-under on wins for a vindictive Brady in New England’s final 12 games is 7.5, I’m taking the over.
Much of that faith rests in New England’s defense. This is a group that finished 12th in DVOA last year and is lined with excellent young players. Losing Chandler Jones may hurt, but landing Barkevious Mingo softens the blow. It’s a roster swap that is quintessential Belichick: The Patriots got a second-round pick for Jones; they had to give up only a fifth rounder for Mingo. Barkevious is still just 25, and many of New England’s best defenders — Jamie Collins, Malcom Brown, Dont’a Hightower, and Malcolm Butler — are right around the same age. This is a group that could easily be better than it was a year ago, and if it is, there is a chance the defense gives the offense a run for the Patriots’ best unit.
What They Should Do Well: The Patriots’ run of passing-game success has become its own brand, and remains the most fascinating element of the Belichick-Brady era. Since 2009, New England has finished outside of the top five in passing DVOA only once, in 2013 — the Patriots were sixth. Brady orchestrates one of the league’s most brutally efficient passing games every year, and he’s routinely done it without a down-the-field receiving threat.
This year’s team has the makings of what could be the Patriots’ offensive ideal. The pairing of Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett gives New England an interchangeable tight end duo that allows it to play around with personnel packages and formations to create mismatches in a way no other team in the league can. And this is still a team with Julian Edelman carving up defenses seemingly at will. When Brady gets back, we’ll have a chance to see the best version of the New England–style passing offense since 2011.
Where They Will Struggle: No other team has played fast and loose with its offensive line in recent years quite like the Patriots. Since the start of last season, the Patriots have used 13 different offensive line combinations. Part of that has been a result of injuries, but New England also spent the early weeks of the 2015 season swapping players in and out without much regard for continuity. This year will be no different. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is likely out for the season, replaced by Marcus Cannon, who still has scorch marks from what Von Miller did to him in the AFC championship game. New England will also be relying on two new guards — former top-10 pick Jonathan Cooper, who was acquired in the trade for Jones, and rookie third-round pick Joe Thuney. There’s a chance that Cooper and Thuney are an upgrade over what New England had a year ago, but once again, the line figures to be the team’s weakest link. The return of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia after a brief two-year retirement should help, but there is no certainty there, either.
Potential Breakout Star: Collins is already a star to most, but now that he’s playing in a contract year, even casual fans might begin to see Collins as the best linebacker in the NFL not named Luke Kuechly. New England asks Collins to do a little bit of everything — rush the passer, patrol the middle of the field, run with receivers down the sideline — and he doesn’t just function. He does it all well.
Stat of Note: 11 percent. Per the Football Outsiders Almanac, that’s how often the Patriots used play-action passes on third down, a figure second to only Carolina. No matter how effective the Patriots’ running game has been, play-action will always be a staple of their offense. Considering how effective those plays often are, it’s just another example of New England finding small advantages where other teams don’t.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
2015 record: 10–6
2015 DVOA finish: 3rd on offense; 11th on defense
Building a case for Pittsburgh as the AFC’s best team isn’t hard. We know that the Steelers will be without receiver Martavis Bryant for the season and that running back Le’Veon Bell will be suspended for three games for reportedly missing multiple offseason drug tests, but this isn’t the first time that Pittsburgh has been staring down less-than-ideal circumstances on offense. A year ago, Bell missed 10 games, Roethlisberger missed four, and All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey didn’t even play. All the Steelers did was finish second in weighted offensive DVOA.
There’s an argument to be made that, especially with Pouncey healthy after recovering from a broken fibula, the combination of having 13 games from Bell and zero from Bryant would make the 2016 Steelers offense superior to last year’s version that got only six games from Bell and 11 from Bryant. At 6-foot-4 and 211 pounds, Bryant is a ridiculous talent capable of torching defenses on any given play, but even without him Pittsburgh has the best offensive trio in football in Bell, Roethlisberger, and Antonio Brown. It’s not particularly close.
Roethlisberger’s maturation during his four years playing in coordinator Todd Haley’s scheme has turned the quarterback into a player who elevates every bit of the offense around him. Among 37 qualified QBs, only Andy Dalton was pressured less often last fall, and the Steelers are no dink-and-dunk offense predicated on short throws. The job that offensive line coach Mike Munchak has done deserves recognition, but equally as responsible is Roethlisberger’s grasp of where his throws are going — and how much time he has to make them. He is now at a Peyton Manning or Tom Brady level of being able to transcend his surroundings.
If Roethlisberger and Brown stay healthy for most of the year, almost nothing else could derail the Steelers offense from ranking among the best in the league. Somehow, this group has both a sky-high ceiling and an unmistakably high floor. History has told us that taking an offense like that into every season and hoping for the defense to click is the safest route to title contention; for Pittsburgh, this could easily be that year.
The Steelers have plenty of young, high-round draft picks on defense, although losing pass rusher Bud Dupree, their 2015 first-rounder, for at least eight weeks to injury is a significant blow. They will have to lean on the rest of the front seven to manufacture a pass rush, particularly given the uncertainty they have at corner, but it’s not as if this unit needs to take a giant leap. Pittsburgh finished 11th in defensive DVOA last season, and there’s enough youth to anticipate growth. It’s worth remembering that the Steelers fumbled away a one-score game, on the road, against the eventual champs in the AFC divisional round in January — and did it with a one-armed Roethlisberger and with Bell and Brown on the sideline.
What They Should Do Well: One of my favorite stats is something Scott Kacsmar at Football Outsiders started using a year ago. It’s called ALEX, and it’s designed to measure a quarterback’s aggressiveness by looking at the depth of passes in relation to the first-down marker. Last year Roethlisberger had the highest ALEX of any QB since 2007, which makes sense to anyone who has recently watched the Steelers. They love throwing deep no matter the situation, and they’re going to do it with or without Bryant. Pittsburgh’s ability to push the ball down the field while maintaining its crazy efficiency is what makes it so dangerous. Well, that and Antonio Brown.
Where They Will Struggle: The Steelers’ pass rush got home at a decent clip last year (seventh in adjusted sack rate), but it remains one of the weaker spots on the roster. Pittsburgh finished 24th in pressure rate in 2015; now, it will be without Dupree. His replacement, Arthur Moats, was a capable option last fall, but improvement from players like Dupree is one reason this defense was expected to take a step forward. Without a consistent pass rush, the Steelers may have to lean on a group of corners who can’t handle that weight.
Potential Breakout Star: Ryan Shazier. The 2014 first-round pick started to come alive during the playoffs, and he still has played only 21 games in his career. The linebacker could easily challenge defensive end Cameron Heyward as the best player on this unit by season’s end.
Stat of Note: Three. That’s how many receivers since 1992 have posted more than one season with at least 100 catches and a 70 percent catch rate. The list: Jerry Rice, Wes Welker, and Brown. Brown’s ability to maintain his unbelievable efficiency despite a historic volume of work is Steph Curry levels of incredible.
1. Arizona Cardinals
2015 record: 13–3
2015 DVOA finish: 4th on offense; 3rd on defense
And we have a winner.
From top to bottom, no team in the NFL has a roster that can match Arizona’s. On offense, the Cardinals have a quarterback who played at an MVP-caliber level in 2015, maybe the best set of receivers in football, a cyborg second-year running back, and an offensive line that’s been salvaged through free agency. On defense, they have arguably the two most valuable corners in the league (Tyrann Mathieu is a cornerback in my world, even though he has little patience for trivial stuff like "positions"), a deep and talented front four, and now, with Chandler Jones, a pass rusher who can actually win with talent alone.
General manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians have turned Arizona into a perennial contender, and this year, the Cardinals may have their best shot to win a Super Bowl. This team is built like the champions we’ve gotten used to in recent years. They have a lot of young talent that hasn’t cashed in with second contracts yet — Michael Floyd, John Brown, Deone Bucannon, David Johnson, Jones, and to some extent, Mathieu, who got an extension this summer but won’t truly break the bank until next year — and they’ve combined that with successful dalliances into free agency that have allowed them to instantly fix problems that couldn’t be rectified with the talent they had in the pipeline. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like the Seahawks and Broncos teams of the past few seasons.
What They Should Do Well: Arizona is an embodiment of Arians, who loves pushing the ball downfield more than any other coach in the league. Few play callers are more adept at assembling route combinations that maximize the stress placed on a secondary through simple geometry, and for Arians, it’s all done with the goal of bringing the hammer down on an opposing defense all at once. With Floyd and Brown on the outside and Johnson — who weighs 225 pounds but is among the most skilled pass-catching backs in the NFL — and Larry Fitzgerald carving up the underneath areas of the field, Arizona has a perfectly constructed group of targets to do Arians’s bidding, and in Carson Palmer, the perfect quarterback.
It should be noted that all of this becomes moot if Palmer’s disaster of an NFC championship game performance is the start of a prolonged decline rather than a blip caused by a combination of a bad night and a finger that may or may not have been injured. By now, we should have faith in Arians to figure out just about anything, but the Cardinals would struggle to survive with a caretaker QB given the way that they’re built. Arizona’s Super Bowl dreams were made possible by the franchise stealing Palmer away from Oakland for a couple of late-round picks. It will crash if he does.
Where They Will Struggle: The Cardinals will rely on a pair of first-year starters at two critical spots. D.J. Humphries, a 2015 first-round pick who didn’t play a snap last fall, will take over for Bobby Massie at right tackle. Humphries has the higher ceiling, but Massie had developed into a reliable option over the past few seasons. With Arizona’s deep-passing mentality, a high baseline at tackle is extremely valuable; we have yet to see where the baseline is for Humphries.
Arizona’s blitz-now, blitz-later approach to defense also puts immense strain on its cornerbacks, and 2016 third-rounder Brandon Williams will get the first crack at starting opposite Patrick Peterson. The Cardinals’ man-heavy scheme requires a young corner to learn less than he would in other systems, but teams threw to their no. 1 receiver less often against the Cards in 2015 than they did against anyone else in the NFL. Williams will be tested early and often.
Potential Breakout Star: Johnson. This feels cheap, considering how he lit the NFC on fire down the stretch last season, but we’re still talking about a guy with only 125 carries in his professional career. I’m in love with the skill set he brings to this offense. Watching him run for 1,300 yards and catch 65 passes in 2016 is going to be a real treat.
Stat of Note: 59 percent. That’s how often Arizona played with six defensive backs last year, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. The Cardinals’ flexibility in the secondary has been their primary defensive advantage for years, and after losing Rashad Johnson (Titans) and Jerraud Powers (Ravens), there’s no guarantee they’ll enjoy it quite to the extent they recently have.