While the dog days of summer near, it’s never too early to look at the top teams in the NFL. Although a lot can happen between now and Week 1, the conversation involving football generates a joyous feeling.
The rankings were determined by last year’s performance, coupled with offseason additions and subtractions. A few teams got better through the draft and free agency while other teams took big losses. If your favorite team isn’t high enough, don’t worry, there is plenty of time to jockey for position to reach the top.
With that said, let’s take a look at my top 12 NFL teams entering the 2016 season.
1. Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers shocked the NFL by going 15-1 during the regular season, but they fell short in Super Bowl 50 to the Denver Broncos. Despite losing the sport’s biggest game, they should be at the top spot prior to the start of the NFL season. Last year’s MVP, Cam Newton adds a healthy Kelvin Benjamin to an already potent offense that averaged 31.2 points per game. The defense will miss the cornerback tandem of Josh Norman (Washington) and Charles “Peanut” Tillman (an awesome retirement video), but Carolina’s plug-in and play approach should continue to bode well for them going forward. The Panthers may have arguably the best quarterback in the NFL and one of the top defenses, so it’ll be hard to bet against them.
2. Arizona Cardinals
The season will not be complete for the Cardinals if Chris Johnson doesn’t pull off at least one Choppa City Juke. Maybe, that’s a stretch, but fans in the Desert should be excited for the upcoming year. Arizona had an amazing regular season, but they had a forgettable showing in the postseason. Despite faltering in the NFC title game, there is a lot of promise due to the loads of talent on the roster. Adding sack master Chandler Jones to an already top 5 defense will cause headaches for opposing offenses. In addition to Jones, the Cardinals will also add a healthy Tyrann Mathieu into the fold. If Carson Palmer can continue to run away from Father Time, the Cardinals may have a chance to make it to Super Bowl 51.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
If you were to ask Antonio Brown how’s business for the Steelers, he will definitely reply that it’s boomin’. The Steelers are insanely talented on the offensive side of the ball, but like always, health is a concern. If LeVeon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger can remain healthy (which are BIG IFs) they should be the top team in the AFC. Losing Martavis Bryant to a year-long suspension will sting, but the offense has enough firepower to pick up the slack. Linebacker Ryan Shazier emerged as a potential star after his playoff performance in January, and if he continues to emerge, the defense will be strong enough to hold opponents at bay while the Steelers put on a clinic on offense.
4. Green Bay Packers
When Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback, there is no need for panic. The Packers had a solid outing last season, but they will look to bounce back after a heartbreaking playoff loss. Last season, Rodgers had to shoulder a heavy load, and hopefully for the Green Bay faithful, his load is lighter. The return of Jordy Nelson will help Rodgers, and a slim and trim Eddie Lacy will provide a big boost for the team as well.
5. New England Patriots
Tom Brady waved the white flag and is no longer fighting the fiasco of Deflategate. With Brady serving a four-game suspension, Jimmy Garoppolo will be the signal-caller in his absence. Coach Bill Belichick has played without Brady before, so he will know how to navigate without his quarterback. The offense added Martellus Bennett to team up with Rob Gronkowski, and when Brady returns in Week 5, things could begin to get scary rather quickly for any defense going forward.
6. Kansas City Chiefs
Like most teams in the AFC, Kansas City’s season ended against the New England Patriots. Under head coach Andy Reid, the team won 11 games, and at times, they looked as if they were the one of the best teams in the NFL. Pro Bowl RB Jamaal Charles returns from injury, which immensely helps the offense. Alex Smith will continue to be his usual self as the league’s best game manager while the team relies on the hard-hitting defense. Last season, the Chiefs benefitted from one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. Will a tougher schedule be their Achilles’ heel?
7. Denver Broncos
The quarterback combination of Paxton Lynch and Mark Sanchez is perplexing, but the Broncos won a Super Bowl with inconsistent play at the quarterback position in February. It’s unknown who will start at this point, but whatever player that puts less pressure on the defense will make life easier in the Mile High City. Von Miller and the defense will look to lead the team to big year, but it will be tough as the defending champs have had to fill a lot of holes on defense.
8. Cincinnati Bengals
I want to put the Bengals higher on the list, but I can’t trust Marvin Lewis. Although Lewis, Andy Dalton and I have the same number of wins in the playoffs, I think they can finally get over the hump this year. Dalton missed the playoffs last year due to injury, and Cincinnati was a Jeremy Hill fumble and a few penalties away from winning their first postseason game since the ‘Icky Shuffle’ became a hit in the Queen City. The Bengals’ defense is a tough unit, and if they can maintain their discipline, they will be the perfect complement to a potent offense.
9. Minnesota Vikings
Surprise, Surprise. The Minnesota Vikings may shock a few people that they made the list, but they are a team with a world of potential. Head coach Mike Zimmer has done a masterful job in developing the defense. While the running game and defense is stout, all eyes will be on the progress of third-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Minnesota has the tools to do damage, so it’ll be interesting to see how things shape up for them.
10. Seattle Seahawks
The days of Marshawn Lynch plowing over defenders are over, and the team solely belongs to the leader of the S-Curl coalition, Russell Wilson. Wilson has emerged as an elite quarterback, and he will relied upon heavily. After throwing a career-high 34 touchdowns last season, the aerial assault will look to continue its growth into the upcoming year. Despite Wilson’s amazing talent, there are still some questions marks on offense. Will the offensive line continues to be a mess? Also, how will Thomas Rawls look after returning from injury? Although the offense has been the talk as of late, Seattle still boasts one of the best defenses in the NFL.
11. Dallas Cowboys
IF the Cowboys are healthy, they are a legitimate threat to head down Interstate 45 to play in Super 51 in Houston. Tony Romo has battled the injury bug as of late, but with drafting the hero in the half shirt, Ezekiel Elliot, his load to carry the team should lessen. The Cowboys have the luxury of the playing in the NFC East, so at worst, they can win quite a few games within the division. There are a lot of questions in Big ‘D’, but they have the pieces in place to have an improved season.
12. Oakland Raiders
Al Davis is smiling down from Football Heaven as he is witnessing the growth of the young Oakland Raiders. There aren’t many teams with better building blocks than Oakland, and this year should be another step in a positive direction. With soon-to-be superstars such as Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, and Khalil Mack, the Raiders will look to be at or near the top of the AFC this season.
Columbus, Ohio born. Ron is a first-ballot healthy hairline hall of famer. He spent the summer of ‘08 eating calamari pasta because of OJ Da Juiceman. He also loves to write about sports while listening to Sada Baby. Follow him on Twitter @Ron_Hamp