PETER KING’S POWER RANKINGS
Peter King assesses the 32 member clubs, with plenty of gossip. Somewhat edited below:
Mid-May. Time to take stock of the offseason. There’s not much left for teams to do before training camp. Vets with something left (Ndamukong Suh, Muhammad Wilkerson, Jay Ajayi, maybe Chris Long) could land somewhere, but those guys aren’t going to shift the balance of power in pro football’s 100th season.
So here are my rankings, 1 to 32, of the teams with most of the chairs being taken, and the music about to stop. Instead of justifying my pick in many of the fat-graf explanations, I’ll take some space on a key point that could determine success or failure with the team.
I fully expect to be wildly incorrect, so react accordingly.
The Lead: Rankings
The 2018 playoff teams are marked with asterisks … The teams that finished under .500 in 2018 are marked with plus-signs.
1. *KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (2018: 13-5)
Seems a little crazy with the firing of the 2017 NFL rushing champ (Kareem Hunt) six months ago and the iffy status of the NFL’s most dangerous weapon because of a child-abuse investigation (Tyreek Hill). But this is an In-Mahomes-We-Trust pick, mostly. I wonder if you could ever say that a rookie picked as low as 56—that was the draft slot of the Chiefs’ top pick, Georgia receiver-returner Mecole Hardman—would enter a season as the rookie with the most pressure to produce at a high level from opening day.
2. *NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (2018: 14-5)
I just kept thinking as New England, round-by-round, let tight ends go by in the draft: Well, Bill Belichick knows he needs a tight end badly, and if he doesn’t take one, it must mean he didn’t love one, or he has plans beyond the draft. One of those plans, post-Gronk, was Ben Watson, who was highly peeved to not be active for the NFC title game as a Saint, and felt he had unfinished business as a player when he retired after the season. Watson, even at 38, is a useable player familiar with Patriot ways because he played for them for six years. I’m not sure Austin Seferian-Jenkins will be much of a factor either. And we’ll see who else comes available. Could Kyle Rudolph, for instance, in Minnesota, be a June cap casualty?
3. *INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (2018: 11-7)
My first surprise, having the Colts this high. I’m relying on Justin Houston an awful lot here. The Colts haven’t had a pass-rusher have a premier season since 2013, when Robert Mathis had his last great rush season with 19.5 sacks. Houston had an impact year at 29 last fall for Kansas City (14 games, 11 sacks, including playoffs), which is why the Colts outbid others for his services on the free market in March. But he missed 5, 12, 1 and 4 games (regular and postseason) in his last four Chief seasons, so this is a gamble. If the Colts get 12 effective games out of him—and if two or three or those are in the postseason—the investment will be worth it. Big if. You can tell I’m buying Houston being able to have one more strong year for a good team. I’m probably sold mostly by the fact I saw his last game for Kansas City—the overtime classic against New England in the AFC title game—and Houston played an astounding 95 of 97 snaps that cold Sunday at Arrowhead, frequently buzzing around Tom Brady.
4. *LOS ANGELES RAMS (15-4)
The Rams will be good; we know that. But good enough to stave off the Niners and Seahawks in the West? Good enough to play deep into January? You might wonder about Todd Gurley’s future, because of the weird usage pattern in 2018 (first 12 games: 19.4 carries per game; last five games: 10.6 carries) that hinted at a bum knee. I’m not that concerned about Gurley, or the running game, because Sean McVay will figure it out. I’m more concerned with what the heck happened to Marcus Peters last year, and whether in a pass-happy NFC West the Peters-Aqib Talib combo platter can be the top cornerback group in the division like the Rams planned.
5. *LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (13-5)
Guess what percent of the Chargers’ defensive snaps Joey Bosa has played in his three NFL seasons. It’s 58.5 (including playoffs). He’s very productive when he plays—29.5 sacks in 37 NFL games—and now, for the Chargers to try to take the next step, they need the stereo rushers of Bosa and Melvin Ingram to attack the pocket together, consistently. It was interesting watching the Chargers play defense in Baltimore in the wild-card game—the secondary was so good and so deep and so young. If Bosa stays on the field this year, the Chargers will be on equal footing with the Rams for best team in L.A. How amazing it is to see the Chargers, a combined 9-23 in 2016, come so far so fast.
6. *NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (14-4)
I’m dying to know after bowing out of the playoffs in the most bizarre of circumstances in two straight years—the Stefon Diggs walk-off (essentially) TD in 2017, and the blown non-interference call against the Rams last year—whether the impact of those dispiriting losses will have any impact on the Saints in 2019. The two most important people in the Saints world, Sean Payton and Drew Brees, don’t seem like they’ll let a hangover happen. Payton hid for a few days after the game, then faced the music without bitterness at the combine and at the league meetings, helping push the league into improving the rule that doomed the franchise in January. For the Saints’ sake, I was glad to see them trade up for a day-one starting center, Erik McCoy, even if it cost them a second-round pick next year. McCoy was a borderline first-rounder, and after the slightly surprising retirement of Max Unger, he became a vital addition for a line that’s crucial to the Saints’ success.
7. +SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (4-12)
Here’s my big surprise. Only I don’t see it that way. In 2017 and 2018, the Niners were 6-2 when Jimmy Garoppolo started and 4-18 when he didn’t. In his fateful last start, when he ran left and tore his ACL at Kansas City, these were the last four drives he executed that afternoon, going head to head with Patrick Mahomes at rabid Arrowhead: 54 yards to a field goal, 87 yards to a touchdown, 77 yards to a touchdown, 58 yards to a field goal. In his 10 NFL starts, he’s a 66-percent passer. I have no problem making two statements: I think the 49ers are a playoff team if Garappolo plays a full season. And I think Garoppolo will be seen as a top 10 NFL quarterback if he plays a full season this year. Still, the fact that he hasn’t done it leaves the question in everyone’s mind: The kid’s started only 10 games in five NFL seasons, he’s been rewarded ridiculously for what the Niners expect him to do … and now, can he do it? The future of so many people in San Francisco—including joined-at-the-hip coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch—are riding on Garoppolo’s right arm. And his health. I’m fine gambling on him.
8. *PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (10-8)
I am trusting Carson Wentz to play a full season. If I were not, and I were trusting Nate Sudfeld to be the 2019 Nick Foles, I sure as heck would not have the Eagles eighth.
9. *CHICAGO BEARS (12-5)
“Can you believe how lucky I am?” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano told me last week. “Coaching the Bears, in Chicago, with this incredible defense?” The great thing for Pagano and this iteration of the Bears is that Roquan Smith won’t have a ridiculously damaging holdout way too deep into training camp, and Smith can be the power point of the interior of the defense, which is what he was drafted to be … and, presumably, Khalil Mack, who started all 65 games in his career before being traded to Chicago, will go back to ironman Mack in 2019; he hurt his ankle early in his Bear year and missed three starts and was less than himself for three or four more. How good quarterback Mitchell Trubisky will be in year three is shrouded in mystery, but the Bears can still be the best team in the NFC North with a quarterback who’s 18th or 22nd in the league.
10. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (8-7-1)
Washington, at the end of the Kirk Cousins Era, loved Cousins the person and wasn’t entirely sold on Cousins the player. The Vikings, after one year of Cousins as the franchise guy, understand the reticence. His numbers were exquisite—70 percent passing, 4,298 yards, a 30-to-10 TD-to-interception ratio. But the Vikings, as it turned out, needed to win three of their five December games to make the playoffs. They won two. In the three losses, they fell behind New England 10-0, Seattle 21-0 and Chicago 13-0 … and Cousins led three touchdown drives in 32 total possessions in those games. Put simply, he’s got to play better in the big spot to justify $84 million guaranteed in three years. There’s nothing particularly analytical or deep about that, but it is the truth. One X factor in Cousins’ favor: His offensive line was awful last year, and two-thirds of the interior has been rebuilt this spring—with free-agent guard Josh Kline from Tennessee and first-round center Garrett Bradbury from North Carolina State.
11. +CLEVELAND BROWNS (7-8-1)
GM John Dorsey is gambling on the boldest chemistry experiment in recent NFL annals. I am too. I think the Browns enter the season as the best team in the division … but so much is riding on the risky calls Dorsey has made. One: naming Freddie Kitchens head coach. Until the last two months of the 2018 Browns season with Kitchens as interim offensive coordinator, he was a faceless, totally unknown career NFL assistant. Now the Bill Parcells disciple has become the Baker Mayfield muse. No coach in my memory has done more for his career in two months than Kitchens. Two: trading for Odell Beckham Jr. He’s great. We all can see that. But he’s a tinderbox too. Will he grow up, back with his best friend Jarvis Landry? (They were teammates at LSU.) Three: the acquisitions of Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon to bolster the defense line. Richardson’s on his fourth team in seven NFL seasons, Vernon his third in eight years. If Cleveland gets a Pro Bowl year out of either player, I think it’ll be lucky. On the surface, this seems like a free-wheeling, fun team. It has the most talent in the division. But the most talent doesn’t always win. And one final twinkling star may be on the way, if the Gerald McCoy-to-Cleveland rumors pan out. Man, what a time to be alive in Cleveland. What jersey will Drew Carey buy?
12. *BALTIMORE RAVENS (10-7)
This is how close Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh were in the fourth quarter of the final Sunday of the 2018 season. In Cincinnati, the Steelers and the Bengals were tied at 13 with six minutes to play, and the Steelers had the ball, minus Antonio Brown, at their 25-yard line. In Baltimore, the Browns, trailing 27-26, had the ball first-and-10 at the Ravens’ 39-yard-line with 1:18 left. A first down and a field goal would win the game for Cleveland. Imagine, for a moment, if Cincinnati and Cleveland walked off with wins that Sunday. Records of the top three teams in the division: Baltimore 9-7, Cleveland 8-7-1, Pittsburgh 8-7-1. I only mention that because the division is pretty close, and the Ravens, who got Lamar Jackson two new receiving toys (Marquise Brown (they’re hoping he can be in the Tyreek Hill-factor league and Miles Boykin), are a fascinating team to watch. They could win 11. They could win six. The offense had better score, because the defense has holes.
13. *SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (10-7)
In the first two drafts after being named Seahawks GM in 2010, John Schneider picked safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor (same 2010 draft, 119 picks apart), tackle Russell Okung, wideout Golden Tate, linebackers K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith, corners Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell—and Seattle signed Stanford wideout Doug Baldwin as an undrafted free-agent. Not bad. Three-quarters of the Legion of Boom secondary, a Super Bowl MVP (Smith), a cornerstone linebacker (Wright) and the second-best receiver (to Steve Largent) in franchise history in Baldwin. So now, in the span of 14 months, Baldwin, Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor are gone. Schneider is having to rebuild the secondary from scratch. He got his quarterback with the 75th pick in 2012, and Bobby Wagner and Wright should hold the defense together for at least one more year. But make no mistake: Seattle is in the midst of Schneider trying to rebuild a great team and keep it at least good and playoff-competitive, formed around an innovative quarterback. Some puzzle pieces need to come through this year for Seattle to win 10 games: free-agent pass-rusher Ziggy Ansah, first-round rusher L.J. Collier, second-round receiver/male model D.K. Metcalf, and maybe, just maybe a tackling machine in fifth-round Washington linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven—who had the most tackles in a college season (176) since Luke Kuechly in 2011 at Boston College. Not many GMs get to build two teams with the same franchise. That’s Schneider’s task this year and next.
14. +GREEN BAY PACKERS (6-9-1)
I can only imagine what Aaron Rodgers feels like sitting there at the Bucks playoff games when he’s not thinking, Fear the Deer, baby. He has to be thinking how absurd it is that, since mid-2015, he’s won exactly half of his starts—27 of 54, over nearly a four-year period. He has to be thinking how, at 35, he’s reaching the home stretch of his career, and he doesn’t want to go out with one Super Bowl win and just one Super Bowl appearance. And he has to be thinking all eyes around the league will be on him as he tries to team with a new coach, Matt LaFleur, to rekindle the hopes of a great franchise gone mediocre. In a personnel sense, the Packers didn’t help Rodgers and LaFleur much this offseason, adding no marquee free-agents and just a second-round center (Elgton Jenkins) and third-round tight end (Jace Sternberger) and no receiver help. So the weight continues to be on Rodgers as he adjusts to a new coach and new system, in a division with at least two teams that have passed the Packers. Big year for the quarterback.
15. *HOUSTON TEXANS (11-6)
I would have liked to see the Texans devote more resources to fixing, arguably, the worst position group—offensive line—on any returning playoff team. Last year, the mobile Deshaun Watson was sacked, hit or pressured significantly 275 times in 16 games, per Pro Football Focus. That’s a lot. Houston responded by drafting Tytus Howard, a tackle from small Alabama State, in the first round, after their reported top tackle choice, Andre Dillard, was snatched before them by Philadelphia. I hope Howard can play right away, because he’s desperately needed. It’s amazing that, under all that pressure, Watson found time to hit DeAndre Hopkins 115 times. Imagine if Watson had legitimate time to pick apart defenses. He could connect with Hopkins 150 times.
16. *DALLAS COWBOYS (11-7)
Best news of the offseason for the Cowboys, easily, didn’t come in free agency (through re-signing pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence for five years was big) or the draft. It came on the field in the last few weeks, when the Cowboys have seen the best center in football, Travis Frederick, return to form after missing 2018 with an autoimmune disorder that attacked his nervous system and left him feeling weak for months. “He looks really good,” said coach Jason Garrett. “It’s good to see him out there in a stance, running football plays.” In 2017, with Frederick as the linchpin, Dallas had the best line in the NFC. The Cowboys can reclaim that if Frederick’s back whole.
17. +ATLANTA FALCONS (7-9)
I keep hearing owner Arthur Blank is getting restless.
18. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (9-6-1)
It’s going to be peaceful in Pittsburgh without the weekly (daily?) questions about Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. But with all the distractions and discord last year, the Steelers still averaged 26.8 points per game, and I’ll be surprised if they reach those heights this year.
19. +OAKLAND RAIDERS (4-12)
Such an interesting team, from the front office and the addition of Mike Mayock, to the offensive attack and the addition of Antonio Brown, to the run game and the addition of Josh Jacobs, to the secondary and the addition of tone-setter Johnathan Abram. I wonder if the schedule will make it very tough to be good—and not just the quality of opposition, but the way the slate is set up, with the Raiders going 48 days between games in Oakland in Week 2 and Week 9. And the Raiders finish with two straight on the road. Hard to imagine the Grudens being great this year, but they can, at least, set the stage for a bright future by hanging around .500.
20. +JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (5-11)
Hard not to get a weird vibe from this team. You’ve got two of the most my-way-or-the-highway guys, Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone, running the show, and last year there was Jalen Ramsey being a loose cannon all year and Leonard Fournette acting up late in the season—both are back this year—on the way to a stunningly disappointing five-win season. Then Coughlin criticizes players who aren’t in the voluntary offseason program. The leading tackler, linebacker Telvin Smith, mysteriously walks away from football without first telling the team, and acts all bothered when people question why he’s doing this … and makes himself unavailable to the team. Even with Nick Foles, the steadiest guy and best teammate you could imagine, imported to improve the quarterback position, it’s still hard to trust this team.
21. +CAROLINA PANTHERS (7-9)
Just a lot of uncertainty with this franchise right now. I don’t know what the Panthers will get out of Cam Newton after two surgical procedures on his throwing shoulder in the last two-plus calendar years. I need to see whether Bruce Irvin and Brian Burns can be the day-one pass-rush threats they were imported to be. I’ll be interested to watch the line’s ability to keep Newton clean, though the Panthers have to be thrilled with the development of third-year tackle Taylor Moton. More than ever, Carolina needs the quarterback to be kept clean—his long-term health is at stake—and the team also needs to make sure it doesn’t beat Christian McCaffrey (20.2 touches per game last year) into the ground. Carolina will contend if Newton stays healthy for 16 weeks and the pass-rush can be good by Labor Day, and both are possible. Big ifs.
22. +WASHINGTON (7-9)
Love the Dwayne Haskins pick, even though it might take some getting used to for him to mesh with Jay Gruden’s offense. “Could be an adjustment period,” someone close to Gruden told me the other day. But Gruden, after watching Haskins at a mini-camp over the weekend, gushed over him: “He’s made some throws that turn your head, without a doubt.” Love the Montez Sweat pick too, especially late in the first round.
23. +BUFFALO BILLS (6-10)
Here’s what I like about Buffalo’s offseason: They got a little better at a lot of places on the roster.
24. +DENVER BRONCOS (6-10)
The spring has gone rather well for the Broncos … assuming Joe Flacco can play. Even if he can’t, and the Broncos are more optimistic about him than anyone in the state of Maryland, Denver GM John Elway backstopped the quarterback position pretty well by stealing Drew Lock with the 42nd pick in the draft. But the best thing that’s happened in Denver since season’s end is the hire of Vic Fangio, because he’s long-past due at a head-coaching shot, and he can command a room, and he’s the kind of football guy his players will respect from day one. The storm clouds, for me, are the fate of Chris Harris (contract dispute), whether Flacco can recreate the old days from Baltimore, and whether the line can protect Flacco.
25. TENNESSEE TITANS (9-7)
So we’ve reached year five of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. If you’re like me, you really don’t know if either is the long-term passer for his team.
26. +NEW YORK JETS (4-12)
Obviously, the Jets are better, with Le’Veon Bell to energize the offense, C.J. Mosley to be the (expensive) hub of the defense, and Jets fan-man Quinnen Williams pushing the pile into the quarterback. But I’ve got to see it first. The Jets have won five, five and four games the last three years (14-34, for those scoring at home), and the guy they’re relying on most to change the offensive culture, Bell, has a unique résumé in recent NFL history. When he plays, he’s the best all-around weapon among backs in the NFL. When he plays.
27. +DETROIT LIONS (6-10)
The coach, Matt Patricia, is a former Patriot. The GM, Bob Quinn, is a former Patriot. Two assistant coaches and two scouts are former Patriots. Eight players on the roster, led by Trey Flowers and Danny Amendola, are former Patriots; six used to be coached by Patricia, the Patriots’ former defensive coordinator. I’m sure I’m missing a Foxboro alumnus or two. It’s good to have a base of people with a Belichickian base, collectively. And I trust Patricia to build a competitive defense in the rock-ribbed NFC North. But what I’d like to see in Detroit is an offense that scores more than 15 points a game.
28. +NEW YORK GIANTS (5-11)
Every reporter and TV screamer and columnist has weighed in on Eli Manning and Daniel Jones and the sanity of the general manager. So let’s spend one paragraph on one of the most interesting things we’ll witness this year: exactly who will be impactful, and who will line up where, on the Giants defense. By my count, nine of the 11 starters on defense on opening day (if they open in a nickel package) could be new to the team over the last 15 months: defensive linemen B.J. Hill and Dexter Lawrence, linebackers Alec Ogletree, Oshane Ximines and Lorenzo Carter, and defensive backs Sam Beal, Deandre Baker, Antoine Bethea and Jabrill Peppers. Chemistry class will be in session at Giants camp in July. It had better be—because no one knows how productive the post-Odell offense will be.
29. +TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (5-11)
Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich with Jameis Winston. I like that a lot, mostly because of the drama. I have no idea what direction the Bucs’ offense will take, but I do know one thing: Winston will throw deep early and often.
30. +CINCINNATI BENGALS (6-10)
No one in Cincinnati wants to hear this, but this is the same kind of season as Arizona and Miami are approaching: new coach, fact-finding mission, a major rebuilding job. But it seems so much more significant after Marvin Lewis had the head-coaching gig for 16 years, and first-year, first-time head coach Zac Taylor emigrates from the wildly successful Rams offense to the humdrum Cincinnati attack. And not only does Taylor have to figure out—this year, preferably—if he’s going to stick with Andy Dalton after this ninth Bengal season, he’s got to do it while reconfiguring his offensive line and making sure rookie defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has the resources to be competitive during a total defensive overhaul. Bengals were a bad defense last year and allowed 28.4 points per game. Good for the Bengals in finally tearing the insular staff apart and looking outward to fix a foundering franchise.
31. +ARIZONA CARDINALS (3-13)
All is definitely not lost for the Cardinals. The real losers in the post-season Cardinal experiment? The American football fans. Unless you’ve got a TV package able to show every Cardinals game, starting with seven competitive games—Detroit, at Baltimore, Carolina, Seattle, at Cincinnati, Atlanta, at New York Giants—or you’ve got the RedZone Channel, you’re going to miss a fascinating football story. Think of this: Soon after being named the Texas Tech head coach late in 2013, Kingsbury offered a tiny Allen (Texas) High School sophomore quarterback, Kyler Murray, a full scholarship to play quarterback for the Red Raiders beginning in the summer of 2016. Murray turned it down eventually, choosing Texas A&M and later transferring to Oklahoma. And so now Kingsbury, six years after first laying eyes on the phenom quarterback who’s been the smallest man on the field for years, gets to make him the centerpiece of an imaginative and thrilling offense in the NFL. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see every snap of Murray’s developement, with Kingsbury pulling the strings? It’s a shame the Cardinals have but one prime-time affair this year (Halloween night, Thursday, Garoppolo at Murray). If I’m not there in person, I’ll be watching on TV, that’s for sure.
32. +MIAMI DOLPHINS (7-9)
So you hear things in this job. Some things you hear are true, some you’re not sure about, and some sound so smart and logical you figure there’s a good chance they’re true. This falls in the third category: Miami owner Stephen Ross either in direct words to his football people or in every message to the football staff in recent months, has told them he wants a long-term quarterback above all things—and whatever it takes, whether it be tanking this season, or somehow getting in position to take the quarterback they’re sure can be the next franchise quarterback for the Dolphins, that’s the most important development for this Miami season. Why not? Assessing Ross’ 10 years as majority owner of the Dolphins: one season over .500 … zero division titles … zero playoff wins … no franchise QB. If indeed he has told his minions that he is interested only in a quarterback who has a chance to be the next Dan Marino, why not? And if letting Ju’Wuan James and Cam Wake go in free agency and getting third and fifth-round Compensatory Picks in return, and if picking up an extra second-round pick by moving down in this year’s draft in a trade with New Orleans, and if dealing Ryan Tannehill to Tennessee for a fourth-round pick … if doing all those things leaves Miami with nine picks in the first five rounds next April, including (presumably) a high first-rounder of their own, then the Dolphins should be in fine position to draft a big QB prospect. By the way, acquiring Josh Rosen for the 62nd pick this year gives Miami a bridge year to see if Rosen just might be that franchise guy. Smart investment there. Funny to say this about the team I like least in 2019 heading into the season, but I appreciate what Miami’s doing.