The NFL has been busy this offseason with the draft (Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray to Arizona), trades (Pro Bowl wide receivers Odell Beckham and Antonio Brown on the move) and free agency (Le’Veon Bell, Nick Foles and Earl Thomas dashed for the cash).
So what we knew at the conclusion of the 2018 season is no longer operative as we approach the 2019 season. Sure, there remain some constants – the arm of Tom Brady in New England, the legs of Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas and the Pittsburgh pass rush. But with change comes a reshuffling of the NFL’s deck. The league hasn't seen a repeat champion since 2004.
So here’s a crack at how the teams now stack up – Rick Gosselin’s annual offseason rankings:
1. Los Angeles Chargers. Time is running out on QB Philip Rivers to reach a Super Bowl. He has fashioned a Hall-of-Fame resume, ranking in the Top 10 all-time in passing yards and touchdowns plus eight Pro Bowl invitations. But Rivers enters his 16th season with just one AFC title game appearance to show for his career. He’s taken the Chargers to the playoffs six times and Patriots have sent them home on three of those occasions, including the AFC semifinals last January. The Chargers don’t have much of a home field advantage – not playing in a stadium that seats only 27,000. But they are one of the NFL’s best road teams with a 7-1 record in 2018 and winning an eighth game in the playoffs. The offense will be better in 2019 with the return to health of tight end Hunter Henry, who missed the 2018 season with a knee injury. L.A. also bolstered the defense by spending a first-round draft pick on tackle Jerry Tillery and signing veteran Pro Bowl LB Thomas Davis in free agency. This could be the last, best chance for Rivers.
2. Kansas City Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes emerged as the NFL MVP in his first season as a starter in 2018 when he became only the third quarterback in history to pass for 50 touchdowns in a single season and only the seventh to pass for 5,000 yards. There doesn’t seem to be any question whether he’ll win Super Bowls in his career because the NFL has long been a quarterback’s game. The only question seems to be how soon? His arm made the Chiefs the highest-scoring offense in the NFL last season. But the concerns are on the defensive side of the ball. KC finished 31st in the league and allowed 421 points, the most of any 2018 playoff team. Then the Patriots slapped 37 points on them in the AFC title game. The Chiefs led the NFL in sacks last season with 52, but 22 of those sacks left this offseason (Dee Ford and Justin Houston).
3. New England Patriots. The Patriots have the longest dynasty in NFL history at 18 years. They have 16 AFC East titles, 13 AFC championship-game appearances, nine AFC titles and six Lombardi Trophies to show it. Owner Robert Kraft placed that sixth Lombardi into the trophy case last February. How much longer can the Patriots go? Quarterback Tom Brady is 42 this season and will be without his best offensive weapon, tight end Rob Gronkowski, who retired. New England’s best pass rusher (end Trey Flowers) left in free agency as did Brady’s blind-side pass protector (left tackle Trent Brown). The offensive explosiveness also bolted in free agency -- Cordarrelle Patterson, who scored long TDs in 2018 on runs, receptions and returns. The burden on Brady has never been heavier than in 2019.
4. Los Angeles Rams. The last NFC team to lose a Super Bowl one season and return to win it the next was the 1970-71 Dallas Cowboys. So history has not been kind to Super Bowl losers like the 2018 Rams. QB Jared Goff returns as the trigger of the NFC’s highest-scoring offense, but there is lingering concern over the health of Pro Bowl RB Todd Gurley. He led the NFL with 21 touchdowns a year ago but a bum knee limited him to 160 yards in three games in the post-season. The Rams took some hits in free agency with the departures of starting guard Roger Saffold, DT Ndamukong Suh and safety LaMarcus Joyner plus the release of LB Mark Barron. But the NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald returns and the Rams used a first-round draft pick on safety Taylor Rapp.
5. Indianapolis Colts. There were reservations heading into 2018 about the health of QB Andrew Luck, who missed the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury. But after watching him throw for almost 4,600 yards and 39 touchdowns last season, there are no such reservations heading into 2019. The Colts fielded the NFL’s fifth-highest scoring offense a year ago and gave Luck yet another weapon by signing WR Devin Funchess away from the Carolina Panthers in free agency. Indy also had the best draft in 2018. Nine different draft picks combined to start 67 games. Guard Quentin Nelson went to the Pro Bowl and MLB Darius Leonard led the NFL in tackles. The Colts had three of the Top 60 picks in the 2019 draft and expect impacts from CB Rock Ya-Sin, OLB Ben Banogu and WR Parris Campbell.
6. Chicago Bears. The Top 5 teams are heavily-weighted to offense. The Bears are the first to show up in these rankings with a defense-first mentality. They allowed the fewest points and third fewest yards in the league last season. Chicago acquired Khalil Mack last August and he transformed the pass rush from good to great. He collected 12 ½ sacks and the Bears finished third in the NFL with 50. But Mack came at a cost. The Bears did not have a draft pick in the first two rounds of the 2019 draft. But adding WR Cordarrelle Patterson in free agency gives Chicago a game-breaker on special teams.
7. New Orleans Saints. Alvin Kamara may be the most complete running back in the game today. He rushed for 14 touchdowns last season and caught 81 passes with four more scores. The more touches he gets, the better the Saints play. That explains why his backfield partner Mark Ingram left in free agency. There’s only one ball and the Saints are going to give it to Kamara. Drew Brees turns 40 this year but he’s coming off a 32-TD season and still has Michael Thomas catching his passes. The Saints took a hit with the retirement of center Max Unger but replace him with second-round draft pick Erik McCoy.
8. Houston Texans. The Texans spent their first-round draft pick on small-college offensive lineman Tytus Howard of Alabama State. You would, too, if your OL allowed an NFL-most 62 sacks a year ago. DeShaun Watson is too talented a quarterback and too valuable an asset to let him get knocked around like that. Give him time to throw and the Texans are a Super Bowl contender. He has the league’s best wide receiver in his huddle in DeAndre Hopkins. You win on defense in the NFL with your pass rush and few have the 1-2 punch that the Texans have in J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney.
9. Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys emerged as a Top 6 defense last season but need more takeaways (20 in 2018) to pair with an emerging pass rush. The offense also needs to develop more of a downfield passing presence. It helps that QB Dak Prescott will have WR Amari Cooper for a full season – he was an in-season trade acquisition a year ago – and TE Jason Witten returns after a year away in the ESPN TV booth. Dallas also has promoted former QB Kellen Moore to offensive coordinator and play-caller for an injection of creativity. Handing the ball to Ezekiel Elliott is often the best option.
10. Pittsburgh Steelers. Can the Steelers be a better team without two of their best players? RB Le’Veon Bell left in free agency and the Steelers traded away WR Antonio Brown. But plenty of talent remains from the only NFL team that ranked in the league’s Top 6 in both offense and defense a year ago. Pittsburgh expects James Conner to replace Bell and Juju Smith-Schuster to fill Brown’s shoes as Ben Roethlisberger’s lead receiver. The Steelers led the NFL in sacks last season and added another pass-rush threat in first-round draft pick Devin Bush.
11. Philadelphia Eagles. Safety blanket Nick Foles is gone at quarterback so it’s going to be on Carson Wentz to stay health, produce touchdowns and win games. The Eagles added RB Jordan Howard in a trade with the Bears to ease his burden and brought back lightning-fast DeSean Jackson to supplement what may be the NFL’s best receiving corps. Philadelphia also used a first-round draft pick on OT Andre Dillard and signed DT Malik Jackson in free agency to bulk up the NFL’s 23rd-ranked defense.
12. Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens are going all-in on QB Lamar Jackson, who as a rookie in 2018 was a greater threat running the ball than throwing it. Baltimore is returning to its championship roots of power football on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The Ravens used free agency to sign bulldozing Mark Ingram to give some teeth to the running game and safety Earl Thomas to add more swagger back to the NFL’s best defense. First-round draft pick WR Marquise “Hollywood” Brown will give Jackson a deep threat.
13. Green Bay Packers. Only one NFL championship in Aaron Rodgers’ 11 years as the starting quarterback cost head coach Mike McCarthy his job. Now it’s Matt LaFleur’s turn to try to milk another title out of the 35-year-old Rodgers. In a bid to improve the NFL’s 18th ranked defense, the Packers signed OLBs Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith in free agency and spent a first-round pick on another LB, Rashan Gary. The also signed a safety (Adrian Amos) and drafted one (Darnell Savage).
14. Seattle Seahawks. The Legion of Doom is now a memory. Pro Bowl CB Richard Sherman left in free agency in 2018 and Pro Bowl S Earl Thomas departed this offseason. The Seahawks traded their Pro Bowl pass rusher (Michael Bennett) to the Eagles in 2018, then traded their next-best pass rusher (Frank Clarke) to the Chiefs this offseason. That heightens the pressure on the NFL’s best rushing attack and the magical playmaking skills of QB Russell Wilson to win games for the on offense, not defense.
15. Minnesota Vikings. There are $84 million reasons QB Kirk Cousins needs to play better in 2019 than he did in 2018. That’s what the Vikings paid him in free agency in 2018, hoping he would be the final piece to their Super Bowl puzzle. Minnesota was 13-3 without Cousins in 2018 but only 8-7-1 with him. He has the weapons in WRs Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs and coach Mike Zimmer has fashioned a Top 5 defense. The Vikings are Super Bowl ready…if Cousins can become a Pro Bowl quarterback.
16. Tennessee Titans. Mike Vrabel has brought old time football to Nashville. He wants to run the ball and play defense. He has the runner (Derrick Henry) and the defense (No. 8 in the NFL in 2018) to execute his plan. But the Titans are going to need the occasional play from the passing game, which means Marcus Mariota must deliver more than his 11 touchdown passes of a year ago. He also needs to stay healthy. He has yet to play a full 16-game season in his four years in the league.
17. Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons have one of the NFL’s top offenses, finishing sixth in the league last season, and GM Thomas Dimitroff took steps to make it even better by using a pair of first-round draft picks on blockers – guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary. But the Falcons allowed more points (423) than they scored last season which explains why they missed the playoffs with a 7-9 record. With past NFL MVP QBs Drew Brees and Cam Newton in the same division, defense needs to be a greater priority.
18. Cleveland Browns. Baker Mayfield is special and GM John Dorsey has been in a hurry to place weapons around him, trading for WR Odell Beckham and signing past NFL rushing champion Kareem Hunt this offseason. For the defense, the Browns traded for pass rusher Olivier Vernon, signed run-stuffer Sheldon Richardson in free agency and drafted CB Greedy Williams. The only thing holding the Browns back is a division that features perennial playoff contenders Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
19. Carolina Panthers. The Panthers had a rough offseason, losing DE Julius Peppers and C Ryan Kalil to retirement and WR Devin Funchess and OLB Thomas Davis to free agency. Slot CB Captain Munnerlyn also became a salary-cap casualty. Cam Newton was the league MVP the last time Carolina reached the Super Bowl. He’ll have to even better in 2019 for the Panthers to have a chance. But Christian McCaffrey is in the mold of HOFers Thurman Thomas and Marshall Faulk as a complete back.
20. Denver Broncos. Another reload for the Broncos at quarterback. Since Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl in Denver in 2015, the Broncos have tried Brock Osweiler, Tracy Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Case Keenum in an attempt to resurrect that glory but haven’t even returned to the playoffs. Now it’s Joe Flacco’s turn with second-round draft pick Drew Lock waiting in the wings.
21. Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars have a Super Bowl-caliber defense for a few years now. They also have added a quarterback capable of winning a Super Bowl in Nick Foles. But Foles doesn’t have the offensive cast in Jacksonville that he had in Philadelphia. RB Leonard Fournette has been a disappointment and his top WR (Dede Westbrook) averaged only 10.9 yards per catch last season.
22. Detroit Lions. Matt Patricia wants to take some of the heat off QB Matthew Stafford by running the ball more. Kerryon Johnson emerged as a lead ball carrier as a rookie in 2018 and the Lions added C.J. Anderson from the Rams in free agency. The Lions also spent a Top 10 draft pick on the most complete tight end in the 2019 draft – T.J. Hockenson. His blocking will be as important as his hands.
23. Washington Redskins. Quarterbacks have been able to play quickly and contribute in today’s NFL -- Dak Prescott, Baker Mayfield, Sam Arnold and Carson Wentz are prime examples. The Redskins hope they can bottle some of that same magic with their first-round draft choice Dwayne Haskins of Ohio State. Free-agent S Landon Collins and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie give the pass defense some playmakers.
24. New York Jets. It’s been nine years since the Jets went to the playoffs. The Jets rid themselves of their head coach and general manager from 2018 and hired coach Adam Gase to fix this mess. They splurged in free agency, spending $137 million on RB Le’Veon Bell for the offense and ILB C.J. Mosely for the D. The QB is in place in Sam Darnold – an asset Gase didn’t have during his failed tenure at Miami.
25. Buffalo Bills. The sooner Josh Allen develops into a difference-maker at quarterback, the sooner the Bills will become a factor in the AFC. The Bills hired former NFL QB Ken Dorsey to tutor him this season. Slot WR Cole Beasley gives Allen a quality outlet receiver. Pro Bowl DT Kyle Williams has retired by the Bills have high hopes that first-round draft pick Ed Oliver can fill his cleats.
26. Miami Dolphins. QB Josh Rosen feels he has something to prove after being dumped by the Cardinals after only one season in favor of Heisman winner Kyler Murray. But he’s leaving the NFL’s 32nd ranked offense for the 31st ranked offense. He takes over an offense missing its leading receiver (Danny Amendola) and leading rusher (Frank Gore) from a year ago.
27. New York Giants. Eli Manning will get one last chance to add a third Super Bowl to his Hall of Fame candidacy this season, because the job will go to first-round pick Daniel Jones in 2020. If not sooner. The Giants won only five games a year ago and look less intimidating on paper without WR Odell Beckham, pass rusher Olivier Vernon and safety Landon Collins, who all departed this offseason.
28. Oakland Raiders. This won’t be the same team that lost 12 games in Jon Gruden’s return to the NFL in 2018. The Raiders traded for Pro Bowl WR Antonio Brown, spent $66 Million on Tom Brady’s personal protector at left tackle (Trent Brown) and also signed a couple of past NFL headaches, Vontaze Burfict and Richie Incognito. Gruden needs to have the Raiders competitive by the time they move to Las Vegas.
29. San Francisco 49ers. Will Jimmy Garoppolo be worth the $137 million the 49ers are paying him? He’ll have an elite tight end to catch his passes in Greg Kittle, who set an NFL single-season record for receiving yards by a TE in 2018 despite catching balls from backup quarterbacks. The SF pass rush also will be fun to watch with trade acquisition Dee Ford and first-round draft pick Nick Bosa.
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. New coach and quarterback guru Bruce Arians has worked in the past with Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Jameis Winston is no Manning or Roethlisberger. Arians' development of Winston will determine both the short- and long- term future of the Bucs.
31. Cincinnati Bengals. Defensive-minded Marvin Lewis is gone, replaced as head coach by offensive-minded Zac Taylor. There’s one problem – the Bengals have the worst defense in the NFL and that’s the side of the ball that needs fixing.
32. Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals have a rookie coach (Kliff Kingsbury), a rookie quarterback (Kyler Murray) and an offensive line that allowed 49 sacks, fourth most in the league, and paved minimal holes for the league’s worst rushing attack. If the Cards can’t block, they can’t win.