USA TODAY Sports’ Lorenzo Reyes says that these five position battles will be the most exciting to watch throughout NFL training camps.
USA TODAY Sports
NFL rosters are essentially set until training camps open later this month. In the meantime, USA TODAY Sports has analyzed each team’s depth chart and has rated units throughout the league. Based on those results, here’s an assessment of the overall strength of all 32 clubs from the talent perspective of their 53-man rosters. (Number in parentheses indicates average based on rankings of special teams, secondaries, linebackers, defensive/offensive lines, pass catchers, running backs and quarterbacks):
1. Atlanta Falcons (6.8): They faltered in the Super Bowl by the slimmest of margins but prevail here by a narrow edge. One of the most explosive offenses in NFL history returns virtually intact, complete with MVP Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones, maybe the most physically dominant player in the game. A youthful, improving defense that cracked in the second half of the Super Bowl gets CB Desmond Trufant and DE Adrian Clayborn back from injury, added DL Dontari Poe and Jack Crawford in free agency and landed pass rusher Takk McKinley in the first round. Sure seems more formidable than the group that lasted into overtime of Super Bowl LI.
2. New England Patriots (8.1): No, Patriots fans, we’re not saying the champs are worse than Atlanta. This roster evaluation doesn’t factor in the brilliance of coach Bill Belichick and his staff, nor does it give added weight to the quarterback position, where Tom Brady is the ultimate trump card. But when comparing New England’s depth chart to the Falcons’, most areas are reasonably close with one glaring exception — running back, where the NFC champs are considerably stronger with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman than the Pats, who let workhorse LeGarrette Blount walk and will now rely on a less proven committee.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (10.1): They continue to feature the best offensive triple threat (QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le’Veon Bell, WR Antonio Brown) in the business, augmented by a nice line and WR Martavis Bryant, back from suspension. A defense that needs more from its young players remains the big unknown.
4. Seattle Seahawks (10.9): Fully healthy, they’ve still got the best D on the planet, and it’s probably not all that close. But settling on Blair Walsh at kicker — Fore! — and hoping what may again be the NFL’s worst O-line could be Seattle’s undoing.
5. Tennessee Titans (11.3): This probably seems high. But this club is young, talented and lurking below the surface. It boasts perhaps the game’s best group of blockers, ascendant QB Marcus Mariota, a very good run game and solid defense. Their only weakness may be inexperience.
6. Oakland Raiders (11.6): They might be a juggernaut … if they didn’t have to play defense. Oakland has enough talent to be the prohibitive favorite in the AFC West, but DE Khalil Mack is going to need help, especially up the middle, to keep this club out of constant shootouts.
7. Dallas Cowboys (12.9): The NFC’s version of the Raiders. QB Dak Prescott must also show he isn’t susceptible to a sophomore slump as expectations of him expand along with the catalog of game film opponents have to study.
8. Los Angeles Chargers (13.8): An O-line in transition and special teams loom as stumbling blocks. But if you hadn’t noticed, veteran QB Philip Rivers is surrounded with excellent young talent on both sides of the ball. Especially noteworthy is a loaded D-line featuring Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on the edges.
9. Green Packers (14.0): This is largely the same team that reached the NFC title game last season, and new TE Martellus Bennett could make the passing game even more deadly. But it remains to be seen if the defense can stop anyone, or if Ty Montgomery and Co. are ready to mount a consistent presence on the ground.
10. Carolina Panthers (14.4): If QB Cam Newton and MLB Luke Kuechly revert to the players they were in 2015, this team can again challenge for a Lombardi Trophy. But a resurgence from Newton will require better protection and a relatively seamless integration of rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel into what promises to be a heavily revised playbook.
11. Kansas City Chiefs (14.5): The defending AFC West champs could keep their crown if OLB Justin Houston stays healthy and dynamic Tyreek Hill proves he can handle the primary role for a wideout corps that is otherwise limited. Depth could also be an issue in the secondary behind S Eric Berry and CB Marcus Peters.
12. Philadelphia Eagles (15.1): The skill players around second-year QB Carson Wentz appear significantly upgraded, even if the group is probably fairly average from an overall perspective. A decent group of linebackers plays behind an awesome line and in front of a woeful group of DBs, S Malcolm Jenkins notwithstanding.
13. Arizona Cardinals (15.5): RB David Johnson and an exciting group of linebackers represent the strong points. QB Carson Palmer, WR John Brown and DB Tyrann Mathieu are among players trying to recapture the magic of 2015.
14. Jacksonville Jaguars (15.8): Seems a little high for a team coming off a 3-13 season? Perhaps. But don’t forget, the defense ranked sixth last year, added DL Calais Campbell, CB A.J. Bouye and S Barry Church and should get more from second-year MLB Myles Jack. Talented rookie RB Leonard Fournette is expected to reboot the offense.
15. New Orleans Saints (16.0): Pretty much what we’ve come to expect since Sean Payton and Drew Brees came to The Big Easy in 2006 — a main line offense and a defense that looks like it lost a battle with Bourbon Street.
16. New York Giants (16.1): This team could be a microcosm of QB Eli Manning — wildly uneven. The secondary, D-line and receivers are all elite or at least borderline. But the linebackers, special teams and running back situations leave this team looking quite lopsided.
17. Miami Dolphins (16.3): They’re probably the best bet to challenge New England in the AFC East, but a lot rides on QB Ryan Tannehill’s continued growth and an offense that could have significant upside in Year 2 under coach Adam Gase.
18. Minnesota Vikings (16.9): Ultimately, they’re probably going to largely resemble the 2016 edition — meaning a potentially suffocating defense still may not be able to carry an offense that’s likely going to struggle to get adequate line play.
WATCH: Five players who need to step up
USA TODAY Sports NFL reporter Lorenzo Reyes looks at the five players who need to take their games to another level if their teams are going to have a shot at making the playoffs this season.
USA TODAY Sports
19. Los Angeles Rams (17.1): The playbook will be new under coach Sean McVay. But the reliance on RB Todd Gurley, a capable defense and perhaps the league’s best special teams remains.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (17.4): There’s talk of the Bucs ending a decade-long playoff absence. It could happen, but the Jameis Winston-led passing game may have to assume an inordinate burden to achieve team success.
T21. Houston Texans (17.6): Yes, DE J.J. Watt is back. But he and last year’s No. 1 defense may again find themselves leading a charge way in front of the offense — unless QBs Tom Savage and/or Deshaun Watson perform better than most outsiders anticipate.
T21. Washington Redskins (17.6): Can the defense keep up with a poor line, and can QB Kirk Cousins keep the offense rolling even after losing a pair of 1,000-yard receivers?
T23. Baltimore Ravens (17.8): Maybe the signings of WR Jeremy Maclin, RB Danny Woodhead and S Tony Jefferson will bolster a team that was too dependent on K Justin Tucker. Then again, maybe not.
T23. Denver Broncos (17.8): They’ve got exceptional defensive backs and linebackers and a pair of stud wideouts. But plenty is up in the air for a club 18 months removed from a championship.
25. Detroit Lions (18.8): Eight of their nine wins in 2017 had a margin of a touchdown or fewer. That’s not much wiggle room for a team that relied so heavily on QB Matthew Stafford to pull victories out of the fire.
26. Cincinnati Bengals (19.6): They’ve got some nice players on both sides of the ball. But health of some key ones, lack of depth in some areas and an offensive line that could be a dominant red flag may be too much to overcome.
27. Buffalo Bills (20.8): They’re in the midst of organizational and schematic overhauls and also watched their depth at the offensive skill positions raided in free agency along with No. 1 CB Stephon Gilmore.
28. Chicago Bears (21.5): After matching a franchise low with 13 defeats in 2016, this squad could be on the road back. The Jordan Howard-led run game will probably have to carry the offense whether Mike Glennon or rookie Mitchell Trubisky is under center.
29. Indianapolis Colts (22.4): The defense is in the midst of a near-total rebuild. And the offense may be in no position to cover for it if Frank Gore suddenly begins to play like a 34-year-old running back and/or if QB Andrew Luck’s surgically repaired shoulder doesn’t hold up behind a sometimes spotty line.
30. Cleveland Browns (23.8): They were fortunate to avoid an 0-16 record last season. That shouldn’t be a concern any longer as the core talent continues to improve —especially on the offensive line, where LT Joe Thomas will now be working with some quality veteran help.
31. New York Jets (27.5): These guys could be a legitimate threat to go winless, especially after jettisoning more veteran talent this spring. The offense could be particularly futile unless RBs Matt Forte and Bilal Powell produce valiantly.
32. San Francisco 49ers (28.6): New front office, new coaches preaching far different philosophies than their predecessors and quite a few new players trying to make sense of it all. The defensive front could be special if it quickly takes to the club’s new scheme.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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