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.