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post #1 of 4 (permalink) Old 06-08-2007, 02:40 PM Thread Starter
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Early NFL power rankings

lets try this again

Power Rankings: Colts still the kings
Peter Schrager

With the NFL's opening weekend still a good three months away, it may seem a bit premature to put out our first NFL Power Rankings of the 2007 season in June. Training camp, the preseason, and about 300 previews praising the 49ers as "This year's Saints" haven't even begun yet.

Then again, after an off-season packed with player movement, coaching changes, and more disciplinary issues than a fifth grade class we might as well sort things out the best we possibly can. If the NFL season were to start today, here would be our NFL Power Rankings. Agree or disagree, let us know how you feel.

1. Indianapolis Colts Hey, you've got to beat the best to be the best. And until New England or San Diego proves they're better than the Super Bowl champs on the field, I'm not going to crown them. Sure, Indianapolis lost a slew of key defensive players from their championship team last season (Nick Harper, Cato June, Jason David specifically). And yes, 2006 postseason rushing leader Dominic Rhodes is now playing in Oakland. But, the core of that Super Bowl wining squad Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, the majority of the offensive line, Dwight Freeney, Joseph Addai, and the special teams unit is back. Toss in sure-handed first-round pick Anthony Gonzalez and recently re-signed wideout Aaron Moorehead and the Colts offense should be buzzing and clicking like it has been for years come opening day. On defense, Indy will look to fill holes left by veterans with a slew of young and relatively inexperienced players. That list will likely include 2006 third-round picks Daymeion Hughes of Cal and Quinn Pitcock of Ohio State. Sure, there are questions surrounding the Super Bowl champs. Is the defense TOO young? Can Addai carry the load himself? Are New England and San Diego as good as advertised? All will be answered over the course of the season. Just don't be shocked when Peyton Manning's playing for another Super Bowl ring come February. And hosting SNL by March.

2. New England Patriots Just as everyone was fitting the New England Patriots for their 2007 Super Bowl rings and the parade route was being planned throughout Boston, a bit of controversy erupted out of Beantown this week. Disgruntled cornerback Asante Samuel announced on Monday that he doesn't plan on attending the team's voluntary mini camp ... or training camp ... or the first 10 weeks of the season. He's holding out. Samuel was furious over being given the franchise tag, saying "I'm not coming to camp. I'm not showing up until the 10th week. I feel unappreciated. The way they're treating me is just wrong." The Samuel situation is muddy. That said, the Patriots' off-season went unmatched as far as the haul they brought in. Donte Stallworth, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Kelley Washington at receiver; Sammy Morris at running back; Kyle Brady at tight end; and 2007 Defensive POY candidate Adalius Thomas at linebacker. The Pats have always been big on locker room chemistry. Do the new faces buy in? Or will the Pats implode? I trust Tom Brady, and will go with the former. But I can't put New England past the Colts just yet. A date to circle? Nov. 4th. That's when Tom Brady and Co. head to Indy to avenge last season's AFC Championship Game loss. Cancel all other plans now.

3. San Diego Chargers The Chargers' Super Bowl dreams ended in heartbreak last year, with a slew of brainless plays and foolish penalties giving New England the opportunity to dance all over mid-field after an upset win in San Diego. San Diego's roster remains pretty much the same this go-around, but their coaching staff is all new. Five of the top minds on the coaching staff of last season's 14-2 squad, including head coach Marty Schottenheimer, are gone. In comes Norv Turner and a completely new cast of characters calling the shots. Personnel-wise Michael Turner's back, Kris Dielman was re-signed, Donnie Edwards is gone, and first-round draft pick Craig "Buster" Davis will join the re-signed Malcolm Floyd to form one of the more promising 1-2 wideout combos in the league. Did San Diego get over the hump this off-season? The AFC's as tough as it's ever been, so 14-2 will be hard to top. Come postseason time, the Chargers want to be the ones dancing on their home-field logo, not their opponents. We'll see in January if that ends up being the case.

4. Denver Broncos Denver picked up yet another weapon for their struggling defensive line by signing defensive tackle and all-around clog in the middle Sam Adams earlier this week. Adams joins a revamped line that has already added three draft picks in Jarvis Moss, Tim Crowder, and Marcus Thomas. In comes Travis Henry as well. A 1,500-yard rusher with Tennessee last season, Henry comes to Denver with a Pro Bowl-caliber 2006 season under his belt. But is that really enough to propel Denver to the fourth spot? A team that didn't even make the playoffs last year? No, not quite. It's the development of Jay Cutler that does the job. I see the second-year man out of Vanderbilt having a breakout season in 2007; the kind that puts him in the league's "superstar" discussion. Cutler really came on toward the end of last season. And with Jake Plummer gone, it's fully his team. Look for a Pro Bowl season, and quite possibly, an MVP year.

5. New Orleans Saints It's only June, but it seems like New Orleans is the pre-training camp favorite to win the NFC amongst the general football media. From Peter King to the blogosphere, it looks like everyone's got the Saints playing in Glendale come February. Hey, it's hard not to drink the Kool-Aid. The Saints reached the NFC Championship Game last January, and only got better this off-season. On defense, Charles Grant was re-signed for a long-term deal, veterans Brian Simmons, Kevin Kaeshivarn, and Jason David were all brought in and speedster corner Usama Young was drafted out of Kent State. On offense, Robert Meachem replaces Joe Horn, and Antonio Pittman adds yet another playmaker to an already loaded backfield. Sure, Meachem showed up to last week's mini-camp 16 pounds overweight, and yes, he injured his knee and will now miss 4-6 weeks due to surgery. But he should be down to his playing weight, all healed up, and running at that 4.39 40 speed by September. Drew Brees and Sean Payton have even more weapons on offense than they did last year, and the defense improved across the board. What's not to love?

6. Seattle Seahawks No one's talking about the Seahawks. But consider this with a banged-up Matt Hasselbeck, a banged-up Shaun Alexander, and a beaten on defense, the Seahawks still won the NFC West and came a few plays in overtime short of the NFC championship game. From all accounts out of Seattle, both Hasselbeck and Alexander are 100 percent healthy and ready to go. The team also upgraded on the defensive line by bringing in Patrick Kerney and at safety with Deon Grant. They also scooped up some valuable defensive pieces in Josh Wilson and Brandon Mebane through the draft. Does losing Darrell Jackson hurt? With a bunch of young wide receivers looking to get touches, not as much as you'd think. The NFC West will be better this season than it's been in years past but Seattle should still come out on top. After all, Shaun Alexander's off that Madden cover.

7. Baltimore Ravens The Ravens lost a slew of contributors from last year's squad with Jamal Lewis, Tony Pashos, Adalius Thomas, and Olvie Mughelli all leaving to play elsewhere. Baltimore also released OG Edwin Mulitalo. But they brought in Willis McGahee and had a rather solid draft. First-round pick Ben Grubbs will start right away at guard and third-round selection Yamon Figurs could end up being the league's next Dante Hall. Ravens fans should be excited about the Troy Smith pick as well. The 2006 Heisman winner slipped like a stone at the draft, but should be a formidable pro. And with Steve McNair not getting any younger and Kyle Boller a free agent next off-season, Smith could very well be the Baltimore starting quarterback by 2008. The Ravens were the AFC's second-best team in the regular season last year. I don't see them having as good a campaign in '07 but they're certainly the favorites in the AFC North.

8. Chicago Bears The Super Bowl runner-ups had a curious off-season to say the least. Lance Briggs is unhappy, Tank Johnson is out for the first six games (and possibly eight), Thomas Jones was traded for next to nothing, Devin Hester's going to be playing just about every position on the field, and there's been a ton of Donovan McNabb rumors. Toss in the curious Adam Archuletta acquisition, and Bears fans are scratching their heads. That said, Chicago's still the favorite to win the NFC North. The Cedric Benson/Garrett Wolfe/Hester combo could very well compensate for the Jones loss, while first-round selection Greg Olsen came to camp ready to roll and make an immediate impact. Word has it that late-round pick Corey Graham out of New Hampshire could be one of the sleepers of this draft class too. Come January, Chicago should be right back in the playoffs.

9. New York Jets Was that not the coolest athlete/TV show cameo of all-time? Okay, well maybe it's second to Patrick Ewing's spot on Webster, but the "Mangenius" got the ultimate sign of respect in last Sunday's Sopranos. Very cool. Another thing that was very cool: the Jets' off-season. New York picked up a 1,000-yard back from Chicago in Thomas Jones, scooped up two defensive starters in the draft, and brought in a host of new defensive linemen. New York surprised a ton of folks last year. This season, they'll be expected to perform from the get go. Under Tony Soprano's new buddy, there's no reason they shouldn't.

10. Cincinnati Bengals What started off as a relatively quiet off-season in Cincinnati got a bit more interesting with recent news that suspended linebacker Odell Thurman was accused of kicking and hitting two men while down in Georgia over the weekend. Here we go again. Of course, this comes on the heels of the Bengals releasing linebacker A.J. Nicholson for off-the-field legal issues a few days earlier. Think those Bengals jokes are corny? Hackneyed, even? Well, the talking heads keep getting fodder to work with. The punchlines write themselves. On-the-field, however, things are a little better. Carson Palmer's leg is apparently at 100 percent full strength. As for any fears about the offense taking a hit with receiver Kelley Washington gone and Chris Henry suspended for the first eight games, a lot will be expected out of reserve wideouts Tab Perry and Antonio Chatman. Chick Ludwig, beat writer for the Dayton Daily News, asked Chatman about the Bengals '07 receiving corps. His response? "We can be one of the best that ever played." Someone alert Jerry Rice and John Taylor.

Last edited by Hollywood; 06-08-2007 at 03:12 PM.
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11. Philadelphia Eagles Philadelphia lost two of their biggest offensive weapons from last year's squad with Jeff Garcia signing with Tampa Bay and Donte Stallworth going up to New England. But Donovan McNabb's healthy and in comes Kevin Curtis as an underneath threat at receiver. Takeo Spikes still has some good football left in him and the Eagles picked up some potential contributors in the draft. They're the favorites in the NFC East this season, but did they improve from last year? Probably too close to call at this point.

12. San Francisco 49ers FOXSports.com columnist Adam Schein is currently on his honeymoon in Hawaii, yet I can still hear him screaming, "We're rolling with Nolan!" from here in New York. Get on the 49ers bandwagon now before it's too late, folks. It's almost full. No one's as high on the Niners for 2007 as Schein, but I'm close. San Fran cleaned up this off-season, bringing in veteran performers (Nate Clements, Tully Banta-Cain, Darrell Jackson) as well as star rookies (Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Jason Hill). The real reason for the No. 12 ranking? The "Big Three" Alex Smith, Frank Gore, and Vernon Davis. With all three healthy and ready to bust onto the scene, there's reason for great optimism. Can Smith work his magic without Norv Turner guiding him? My gut says yes. Expect a playoff-bound, possible Pro Bowl season out of the third-year signal caller. And a whole lot of preseason hype.

13. Jacksonville Jaguars The wildest story of the NFL off-season doesn't necessarily involve pitbulls or Vegas strip clubs. But rather, it may have very well been the near fatal plane crash that Jaguars RB Fred Taylor and his wife survived while touring South Africa with buddies Samarri Rolle and Lito Sheppard and their second halves. "I thought that was it," Taylor told reporters afterwards. "I put my head down and started praying. That was some frightening stuff." Taylor survived the near crash, and was back with the team shortly after. On the field, things have been a lot smoother for Jacksonville. Free agent wideout Dennis Northcutt has already established himself as one of the team's main targets, and Byron Leftwich reported to camp in the best shape he's been in in years. Maybe the biggest off-season addition down in Jacksonville, though? The hiring of former Arizona State and Boise State passing mastermind Dirk Koetter as the squad's new offensive coordinator. Koetter, long known for his fantastic work with quarterbacks, reportedly loves what he sees in Leftwich. It's the Jaguars quarterback's fifth year at the helm. Now or never time. We think the Jags are a playoff-caliber team in '07.

14. Dallas Cowboys Goodbye Tuna, hello Bum's kid. It's a new era in Dallas, and with word of a Super Bowl and a Cleveland first-round pick coming to town in the next few years, there's unbridled optimism about the future of Cowboys football. Tony Romo's dating an American Idol, T.O.'s been a model citizen, and the offensive line picked up some valuable new parts over the off-season. Could it really be all so, what's the word tranquil in Dallas ? It seems so. Of course, there's still some question marks at defensive back, and the starting receivers Terry Glenn and T.O. are both in their mid-30s. But all that considered, Dallas should still be in the hunt for a division crown this season, and, at the very least, another Wild Card spot.

15. Carolina Panthers Several members of the sports media pegged Carolina as their favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl before the 2006 season. The result? A less-than-stellar 8-8 season in a watered-down NFC, which ended without a postseason berth. Owner Jerry Richardson wasn't pleased. So what'd he do about it? Well, he brought the team's leaders to his lake house, of course. Yep. Over the past weekend, Julius Peppers, DeShaun Foster, Jordan Gross, Jake Delhomme, and Steve Smith joined Richardson at the owner's lake house for an old school retreat. Just the boys. What'd they do? Well aside from talk business, they played basketball, billiards, tennis and water-skied. What, no s'mores?! Richardson hopes the bonding experience will help bring the Panthers closer together when they take the field this fall. They'll be doing so without some familiar faces (Keyshawn Johnson), and with some new ones (Ryan Kalil, Dwayne Jarrett, Jon Beason, Ryne Robinson). David Carr comes to Carolina as the team's new backup quarterback, and Chad Lavalais joins the roster to add some insurance at defensive tackle. There's reason for optimism down in Charlotte ... from the football field all the way to the lake house.

16. Pittsburgh Steelers There's a new boss in town and Mike Tomlin's all business. With a whistle around his neck, the third Steelers coach in the last 38 years has the team playing his style of football. Of course, there's been some distractions to deal with this off-season. First and foremost, the Alan Faneca contract situation. Still unhappy with his current contract, the six-time All-Pro guard skipped the Steelers voluntary OTAs and does not appear to be showing up to the team's organized activities anytime soon. And then there was the worst email to get around since Michael Scott's pictures of his Sandals vacation with Jan on The Office. On Friday, May 18th, Steelers offensive line coach Larry Zierlein accidentally sent an explicit email to several high level league executives, including commissioner Roger Goodell. A mortified Zierlein later said the error "was unintentional as could be." Either way, it made some news. And not the news Tomlin and co. were hoping for to kick off the new era of Steelers football. On the field, Pittsburgh has much of the same personnel from last year's squad, minus defensive leader Joey Porter. The Steelers went 6-2 to end the season, finishing with an 8-8 record in 2006. If Tomlin can get the defense to play like he's expecting they will and Big Ben can stay healthy Pittsburgh should be right back in the playoff hunt in '07. Hopefully, with Faneca in the mix. And hopefully, without any more lewd emails being sent to the Commish.

17. Kansas City Chiefs The Chiefs upgraded their defense this off-season, bringing in tackle machines Donnie Edwards and Napoleon Harris at linebacker, as well as draft picks Turk McBride and DeMarcus Tyler as clogs in the middle. On offense, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe adds depth at one of KC's sorest spots. But then there's the quarterback position. In his eight weeks of action last season, Damon Huard played well, leading the Chiefs to key victories and throwing for big yards. But is he a starting quarterback? It might not matter. From various reports out of KC, the position is apparently second-year man Brodie Croyle's position to lose. Either way, it's up Herm Edwards. And whoever the choice, neither is a sure bet. Kansas City was bounced from the first round of the playoffs last year. They'll be fortunate to get that far this season.

18. St. Louis Rams The Rams had a solid off-season, picking up new defensive tools in first-round pick Adam Carriker, and free agents Chris Draft, James Hall, Todd Johnson, and Mike Rumph. On offense, do-everything back and second round pick out of Rutgers Brian Leonard should spell Steven Jackson, while Drew Bennett joins the receiving corps. The NFC West is as good as it's been in years, but the Rams are right in the mix. If the defense holds up, they could very well be playing football deep into January.

19. New York Giants As Tiki Barber provides holiday gift-giving tips in the mornings and insight on NBC football games on Sunday nights, the Giants will move on without him. The Brandon Jacobs/Reuben Droughns era has officially begun. What exactly that means, no one knows for sure. Big Blue got rid of several familiar names and faces in the off-season including LaVar Arrington, Carlos Emmons, Chad Morton, Tim Carter and Luke Petitgout. They did well enough in the draft by scooping up potential starters Aaron Ross and Steve Smith, but failed to address their offensive line woes until the sixth round. When it all comes down to it, though this is Eli's season. Make-or-break time for Mr. Manning. After two straight first-round playoff exits, is this the year the Giants go one round deeper? I don't have a magic 8 ball but all signs point to no.

20. Arizona Cardinals I gave the Cardinals my highest grade at April's draft an A+. They had five picks and knocked each one out of the park. Levi Brown's the ideal anchor for Russ Grimm's offensive line, Alan Branch was a top 10 pick who inexplicably slipped to the second round because of combine workouts, and Buster Davis, Steve Breaston, and Ben Patrick will all contribute immediately. Ken Whisenhunt will work wonders with all the young weapons on that offense, and the defense picked up big additions Roderick Hood and Terrence Holt via free agency. Arizona's been a "sleeper" pick for what feels like close to a decade. If ever there was a year such talk is actually warranted, it's 2007.

21. Buffalo Bills That Sabres' Eastern Conference finals elimination sure bummed out the Buffalo sports fan base. Now, if only Chris Drury could play some linebacker. All kidding aside, there's actually a ton of optimism out in Buffalo for the 2007 Bills. Rightfully so. J.P. Losman is now embarking upon his fourth year in the NFL and with rookie Trent Edwards now backing him up, will be expected to step up and perform. He should. Losman's got one of the best young receivers in the game in Lee Evans to play catch with and the offensive line is one of the better units in the AFC. Buffalo had a fabulous draft as well, scooping up top collegiate performers Marshawn Lynch, Paul Posluszny, Trent Edwards, and safety Jon Wendling in April. However, for all the glorious additions this off-season, there are notable subtractions from last year's team as well. Willis McGahee, Takeo Spikes, and London Fletcher-Baker are now gone, and if recently acquired DT Darwin Walker doesn't show up to camp by Aug. 5 he goes back to the Eagles for a future sixth-round pick. The Bills are one of the more exciting young teams in the league. They're also in one of the toughest divisions with one of the toughest schedules. At best, they're a long shot for a wild-card spot.

22. Tennessee Titans No one's had a worse off-season than the Tennessee Titans. Whether it was the Pacman Jones suspension, the questionable draft, the loss of key playmakers on offense (Bobby Wade, Drew Bennett, Travis Henry), or their starting running back showing up to mini-camp completely out of shape, it's been one negative after another. Sure, Vince Young is there. But who's he handing the ball off to? Who's he throwing to? I'd be shocked if Tennessee matched their win total from last year. Then again, that quarterback ... well, he's something else.
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23. Minnesota Vikings Brad Childress's offense got two shiny new weapons on draft day with first- and second-round picks Adrian Peterson and Sidney Rice. Both should see action immediately. If the Peterson-Chester Taylor combo plays as expected, and that star-studded offensive line continues to uphold its end of the bargain, we could be looking at the best rushing team in the NFL. As for the passing game? Well, yeah. Whole other story. Tarvaris Jackson was anything but stellar in his few appearances last year (see Thursday night in Green Bay ), and the receiving corps leaves a lot to be desired. Is Bobby Wade really their No. 1 option? If Jackson performs, though, Minnesota could very well be a force to be reckoned with in the NFC. That said, it's not even a sure bet that Jackson will be starting on opening day. According to Pioneer Press columnist Sean Jensen, "Jackson didn't exactly distance himself from Brooks Bollinger in the race to be the Vikings' starting quarterback" during the team's recent three-day mini-camp. My gut? Jackson starts and plays better than expected, but the Vikes are still a year away from playoff contention.

24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Tampa overhauled its defense this off-season, picking up Super Bowl champion linebacker Cato June, former Broncos pass specialist Patrick Chukwurah, and collegiate defensive stars Gaines Adams, Quincy Black, Tanard Jackson, and Sabby Piscatelli in the draft. Monte Kiffin's got new tools to work with, and there's no doubt he'll bring the best out of them. There's a bit of a quarterback situation, but the Garcia-Simms battle should end up becoming a healthy competition. Neither is new to this, as Garcia's entire career has been marked with QB battles and Simms has been second-guessed since his time pitted against Major Applewhite in Texas. The Bucs will be better than they were in 2006. But a playoff squad? Probably not.

25. Washington Redskins I actually like the Redskins as a sleeper pick in the NFC this season. Sure, Clinton Portis needs to stop discussing dog fights with the media, and yes, the Redskins only had one pick the entire first day of the NFL Draft. But on the field, the Portis/Ladell Betts duo could very well form the best 1-2 rushing combo in the entire league. Al Saunders threw a lot at the Redskins in his first year as offensive coordinator, with a playbook rumored to be the size of a phone directory. Year 2 could be the breakout season where it all comes together. Then again, even if Jason Campbell develops into a star, Santana Moss returns to his 2005 form, and the rushing attack tears up the league that defense is still a mess. Washington did bring in London Fletcher-Baker and LaRon Landry two immediate starters but failed to address a porous (that's generous) defensive line. That'll once again be the team's undoing. This is an 8- or 9-win team at best.

26. Green Bay Packers Favre, Favre, Favre, Favre, Favre, Favre. Welcome to the Green Bay Packers' off-season topic of conversation for the past three years. This time around, however, there's more to discuss. The rushing game, for one. Who's going to carry the load now that Ahman Green's gone and William Henderson isn't blocking? How about defensive back? Who's going to cover Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams? Green Bay got a ton of production out of four rookies last season, and won their last four regular season games, beating the preseason odds and finishing 8-8. Several pundits will identify them as the preseason sleeper in the NFC. I'm not so sure about that. More than likely, it's another year similar to last if not worse. And we'll be talking about Favre's future next off-season ... again.

27. Miami Dolphins And so it goes, the Cleo Lemon era is over before it even began. Oh well. In comes Trent Green (finally) as the quarterback for one of the more curious teams in the entire league. Green reunites with one of his former mentors in Cam Cameron, and already knows the entire Dolphins playbook. But what to make of this team? If the Dolphins were to go 10-6 and sneak into the playoffs behind Green's arm, Ronnie Brown's legs, and that top notch defense few would be surprised. Then again, if they came out, stumbled out of the gate, went 4-12, and secured a top-five pick in next year's draft no one would be shocked either. They're truly an enigma. I'm envisioning a season somewhere in the middle. Joey Porter adds a bit of bite to the defense, and for all the criticism Miami got for taking him Ted Ginn's going to be an explosive NFL player. When it's all said and done, though, Miami's not a playoff team in '07.

28. Houston Texans Maybe my favorite NFL story this month comes from Houston, where backup running back Samkon Gado requested and was granted some time off from the Texans to prepare for the MCAT exam. How cool. And it's just what this team needs a doctor! (Thank you, thank you I'll be here all week.) The Texans franchise has been one disappointment after another over the course of its five-year existence. The David Carr era, the passing on Reggie Bush, the continuous ignoring of the offensive line woes it's just been non-stop. But there's reason for hope in '07. New quarterback, new running back, new offensive tackle, and yet another first-round pick on the defense. That said, the additions of Matt Schaub, Ahman Green, Jordan Black, and Amobi Okoye do not catapult Houston into the playoff discussion. In the NFC? Maybe. The AFC? Not even close. Not even with a doctor in the backfield.

29. Atlanta Falcons Disastrous off-season for the Falcons, and it's only getting worse. As this Michael Vick situation continues to shake out, Joey Harrington better get his arm ready. Five-page feature articles in Sports Illustrated, constant dog fighting pieces on "Sports Center", and a cocksure bravado on the issue out of Vick isn't exactly what coach Bobby Petrino had in mind when he took the head coaching job back in February. Meanwhile AirTran's already dropped the quarterback from its ad campaign and the Falcons front office has remained eerily silent on the issue as a whole. Weird times in Atlanta. On the field, Atlanta may be in bad shape too. Joe Horn was the only notable acquisition on offense and he's 35. On defense, Patrick Kerney left for the Seahawks. The Falcons did well in the draft, but you can't win the NFC South relying on rookies. Atlanta's collapsed at the end of the last two seasons missing out on the playoffs despite strong starts both years. They'll look to improve under Petrino. Doing so would be really overcoming the odds.

30. Detroit Lions From all accounts thus far, Calvin Johnson is the real deal. In Nicholas Cotsonika's Detroit Free Press blog, the reporter wrote from Lions mini camp on one of CJ21's many highlight-reel grabs, "Johnson did it again today. He made another one-handed catch. This time, during an off-season practice at team headquarters, he cradled the ball into his body while he was twisted and falling down. There were quite a few smiles on the sideline." There should be quite a few smiles in the Ford Field crowd this season, too. Finally. In a less-than-stellar NFC North, the Lions actually could surprise some folks this year. With some new pieces on offense (Johnson, Tatum Bell, T.J. Duckett) and a revamped offensive line Mike Martz's offense could be one of the higher scoring units in the league. Jon Kitna will hold the fort down while Drew Stanton waits in the wings just as he did for Carson Palmer in 2003. The defense will be this team's Achilles' heel, though. Look for improvement from last season and maybe even a Thanksgiving Day victory (can you imagine?) but no games to be played in January. Not this season, at least.

31. Oakland Raiders The defense wasn't the problem in Oakland last year, and the unit remains pretty much the same for '07. But that offense ... wow. The Raiders featured one of the league's worst offensive units of all-time last season. Art Shell brought Tom Walsh (who had been running a bed and breakfast in Idaho for the past eight years) out of retirement to become the offensive coordinator prior to the start of the season. The results were disastrous. The quarterbacks were horrid, not one, but two star receivers shut it down, and the running game was non-existent. In '06, the Raiders averaged league-worsts with 246.2 yards per game, 4.2 yards per play and 46 turnovers. They also finished a league worst 2-14. So in comes the overhaul. Lane Kiffin the 31-year-old wunderkind takes over at coach, they bring in new quarterbacks (Josh McNown, JaMarcus Russell), new running backs (Dominic Rhodes, Michael Bush, Justin Griffith), new receivers (Mike Williams, Johnny Lee Higgins), and a bright, shiny new All-American tight end (Zach Miller). They're still green, though. One of the youngest units in the league, the Oakland offense won't be all fireworks just yet. Should they win more than two games? Of course. Will they make the playoffs? Not a chance.

32. Cleveland Browns Sure, Cleveland picked up three first projected first-round picks in April's draft. And yes, they signed key contributors from the rival Bengals and Ravens in Eric Steinbach and Jamal Lewis. But they're not there yet. Keep in mind as good as Quinn, Thomas, and Wright may be down the road they're all still rookies. And in the case of Quinn, reports out of Cleveland still point to Charlie Frye as the opening day starter. LeCharles Bentley, their Pro Bowl center, has put off surgery but still may not be ready to play at all this season either. The new Cleveland Browns have been the AFC North's resident doormat for most of the team's existence since 1999 (minus that magical year in 2002) and I see no difference for 2007. 2010? Brady Quinn and Braylon Edwards may very well be telling cameras they're "Going to Disney World". In 2007? It's more likely a top-five pick in the upcoming draft. Alas, that pick goes to Dallas anyway. Ugh.
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