The Green zone: never too early for an NFL power poll

Our NFL correspondent Ozz has been traveling all over the country visiting NFL OTA’s, interviewing coaches and players, and dissecting game tape. After going over all this information with a fine toothed comb he is finally ready to impart his knowledge on us. (Editors note: the above might not be entirely factual) Regardless, here is Ozz!

NBA and NHL seasons are winding down and we’re still a couple of months away from when the MLB starts to matter, so naturally now is the perfect time to look at football. Here’s one, very uninformed opinion on how NFL teams stack up post-draft.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers: They’re the champs and they deserve to be here. However, don’t let the trophy distract you from a season that saw Ben Roethlisberger running for his life constantly. Big Ben’s numbers saw a huge drop off from 2007 to 2008. Although he threw for more yards last year, he threw 4 more interceptions and 15 fewer TDs on a career high 469 pass attempts. The D remains one of the best, but if the Steelers don’t improve up front on offense, a repeat might not be looking too good.

2. New England Patriots: Honestly, I can’t put together an early season power poll without the Pats on it. Apparently, it’s illegal. So here they are at #2. They get Brady back and it’s very questionable that he’ll be able to return to pre-injury form in a reasonable time. Still, a gimpy Brady is better than probably 24 of the league’s starting QB’s, including Matt Cassel. We got Brady, Moss, and Welker involved, so you know the passing attack should be potent.

The real question for the offense is if they can have a “go-to” back or will the coaching staff continue using their… six-headed monster? Really, I’ve never seen more disdain on the part of a coach towards the concept of starting running back than Bill Belichick. In an era where even those in a running-back-by-committee scenario find themselves rushing for north of 1000 yards, Bill Belichick still finds a way to limit his top rusher to 700 yards and some change. Message to Bill: Even Jamal Lewis found a way to crack the 1000 yard club wearing an ankle bracelet while Derek Anderson was cashing checks on the sideline.

3. New York Giants: The Giants like to believe they were one piece away from being a dominant team. Well, more dominant than their 12-4 season suggested anyway. Perhaps overshadowed by an abysmal performance in windy conditions in the playoffs and the constant Plaxico circus, Eli actually posted his best statistical season yet as a Giant and finally finding a way to limit his INTs. The problem for the Giants last year was the red zone. The Giants made their way into the red zone 69 times this year. Tops in the league and their best mark in a decade. However, their 51% TD conversion rate ranked them 20th overall in the NFL. This, the Giants hope, will be remedied by the addition of Hakeem Nicks (who possesses Chris Webber-like hands apparently) and Ramses Barden (who’s apparently really tall). The defensive unit should see a boost with the return of Osi Umenyiora.

4. Baltimore Ravens: Matt Ryan seems to be the trendy pick for having a breakout season this year, but I think it’s Joe Flacco who is going to have the more impressive sophomore season. Their line got a boost in the draft, and their running game should be consistent. Ray Lewis might jump on more piles after the play is over than any player in the last twenty years, but he still leads a defense that might have the best defender in the game in Ed Reed.

5. Arizona Cardinals: Everyone seems to think that the Cards are a flash in the pan and will probably be the typical Super Bowl participant that doesn’t make the playoffs the following year. However, two things tell me they are ready to make another strong playoff run.

First, the offense is still elite. Kurt Warner limited his back-breaking fumbles most of the season (nevermind the fact that his back-breaker in the Super Bowl wasn’t really a fumble at all) and produced. We were all witnesses in the playoffs when Larry Fitzgerald legally changed his name to Mr. “I’m gonna catch that f’n ball, then I’m gonna take it to the f’n house and you can either watch me do it or star in my YouTube clips.” If there’s even a 20% chance that Beanie Wells will turn out not to be yet another “I only looked good in college because I mostly played against Big Ten linebackers” running back, then the Cards can go from being elite to being ELITE. Oh yeah, second, the NFC West still sucks.

6. Philadelphia Eagles: Donovan McNabb still likes throwing at his receivers’ feet. Andy Reid still likes choking close games away. But dammit, they somehow know how to perform when their backs are against the wall and there’s not a title on the line. The Eagles seemed to be NFC East front-runners post-draft when they “stole” Jeremy Maclin. But my only question is, aren’t Maclin and DeSean Jackson exactly the same player? Of course, Maclin isn’t as dumb as DeSean, but they do seem to share a skill set.

7. Atlanta Falcons: These guys seem to be the trendy pick by many people this year to finally break out. For their sake, hope they’re not supposed to “break out” like many experts predict the Alex Smith-led 49ers to “break out” in 2007. They have the luxury of having an incredible ground game and stable offensive line that’ll allow Matt Ryan to limit his mistakes and continue to grow. Having Tony Gonzalez in the red zone probably won’t hurt either. I wonder if in 2 years we’ll be saying, “Remember when Michael Turner couldn’t get on the field behind LaDainian Tomlinson? San Diego probably could use him right about now…”

8. Tennessee Titans: The defense should be good, the offense should still have Kerry Collins trying not to lose games, and the bench will still have Vince Young. Although there should be some drop off with the loss of Albert “the Skins are going to ruin me” Haynesworth, the Titans should be able to contend in the weaker than usual AFC South. The running game is still strong and the passing game will still be waiting for the emergence of a receiving threat. I’m still shocked that the Titans haven’t figured out a way to get Vince Young involved in the offense somehow. He might not be bright and he might have the throwing motion of Tom Brady after a severe rotator cuff injury, but he’s still tall, strong, and fast. In the era of the Wildcat, you’re telling me the Titans’ anemic offense can’t find SOMETHING to with his salary?

9. Indianapolis Colts: Most people probably view the Colts as a team in flux with the loss of Tony Dungy and Marvin Harrison. But what people overlook is that Peyton Manning calls the shots on offense and he still has viable weapons on offense. The defense should be good enough once again and don’t be surprised if they win the division outright.

10. Miami Dolphins: On paper, this team continues to look ugly. When I see Ronnie Brown running the Wildcat, I can’t help but think, “The NFL’s going to figure this thing out soon, right? Right?” And do we have any confirmation that Chad Pennington can throw the ball further than 20 yards? But they still put up good results and there’s no reason to start doubting them this year. The Tuna and Sparano know what they’re doing and Jerry Jones probably still thinks that Wade Phillips’ “I’m a 4A Texas high school football coach” act will eventually be successful in Dallas.

11. Chicago Bears: The D has lost some luster over the years, but that was mainly due to injuries. Tommie Harris and co. should be an near-elite unit once again. The running game should be consistent once again with Matt Forte and the addition of Jay Cutler should only help an offense that’s been looking for a franchise QB desperately. Yes, he’s still a jerk, but his big arm should help move the offense in the Windy City (see what I did there?).

12. San Diego Chargers: LDT (there’s only one LT) gets to prove his critics wrong or right this season. If he can start threatening for rushing titles again, this offense could be really good once again, but I can’t help but think there’s just too many miles on him at this point. Phillip Rivers still is able to put up eye opening stats, but he continues be the only ringless wonder in the Eli-Ben-Rivers debate (and an unmitigated douchebag to boot). Shawne Merriman comes back from injury and there will be questions of whether or not he can return to his previous form. Of course, this will only set up the inevitable “I only used HGH to recover from injury” press conference by “Lights Out” later in the season. Remember the outrage over Shawne Merriman testing positive for roids? Yeah, I don’t either. Anyway, based on their draft, the Chargers seem to have some concern over Merriman’s health and/or dedication.

13. Adrian Peterson, er, I mean Minnesota Vikings: Football might be a team game, but when you have the best offensive weapon in the game today, the “team” concept seems to matter less. The defense, even with the suspensions, should be good enough to make up for Brad Childress’ complete ineptness on putting together a successful, cohesive gameplan on offense which doesn’t involve the words, “Well, the D expected us to use Adrian Peterson to run the ball, so that’s why we didn’t give him the ball.” If Sage Rosenfels can protect leads, not fumble the ball on helicopter dives, and otherwise do everything the opposite of Tavaris Jackson, this offense should be able to put up points and win games. Ha, and you thought I’d mention Brett Favre. Dammit!

14. Carolina Panthers: The offense will continue to be two great backs, one great wide receiver, and one average QB. And they will probably still find a way to win games and compete for the NFC South once again. John Fox continues to overachieve with the Panthers, and there’s no reason to think otherwise this year. Unfortunately for the Panthers this year, their D isn’t as stout as it once was so it might not take much to overachieve.

15. Dallas Cowboys: As desperately as Dallas fans are pushing the “addition by subtraction” theme this offseason, the rest of the NFC East is licking their chops. Like him or hate him, but TO forced NFL defenses to deal with him. Now that he’s gone, NFL defenses can take more risk attacking Tony Romo and his feminine hands. Wade Phillips continues to look like someone lost at a Luby’s Cafeteria and the luster is coming off of Jason Garrett’s star. We’re only a couple of years away until Tony Romo becomes one of those players whose fantasy football value far outweighs his on the field value. On a side note, this should break the Cowboys’ Pre-Season Super Bowl Championship streak at three.

16. Washington Redskins: This isn’t the first time the Skins overpaid for stars and won’t be the last. Some day, Dan Snyder will realize you can’t buy chemistry. Until then they have a young QB who will constantly think about almost being traded for another QB. That worked out well for Cutler and the Broncos.

17. Buffalo Bills: TO seems to behave for one season before going nuclear. Buffalo should be able to turn that one season into a few wins. But the division remains tough, so their success will be limited.

18. Houston Texans: This has to be their year, right? They have yet to post a winning record, but that D is young and loaded. Matt Schaub should settle down this year and Owen Daniels and Andre Johnson continue to be the best receiving tandem that nobody acknowledges.

19. New York Jets: If Mark Sanchez is involved, this will be a long season for the Jets. The D should be good enough to keep them in games and the running game will be consistent. But the ceiling isn’t very high this year.

20. New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees obviously isn’t someone to bet against, but the odds are finally catching up to him. They have a good coaching staff and a good QB, which is why they’re ranked this high. Besides that, everything else is a question mark. It’s never a good sign when talking about Jeremy Shockey, people cite the specific YEAR when he last caught a TD in the NFL.

21. Jacksonville Jaguars: I haven’t seen someone go from franchise QB to overpaid quite as quickly as David Garrard in quite some time. The division is very competitive and the days of the Jags being consistently above average might be over.

22. Seattle Seahawks: Hasselbeck apparently has back issues again this year. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for their upcoming season, but TJ Houshmanwhatever finally should provide them with a bona fide receiving threat.

23. Cincinnati Bengals: OchoCinco plus Cedric Benson minus TJ Houshmandzadeh seems to be a recipe for disaster. This season could be very ugly unless Carson Palmer can turn back the clock to a few years ago.

24. San Francisco 49ers: Mike Singletary’s shtick seemed to work decent enough last year, but there’s a limited number of times you can motivate your team by dropping your pants.

25. St. Louis Rams: Never underestimate the power of a young coach that knows what he’s doing to be able to get his crappy team to overachieve. The Rams won’t compete, but they’ll show signs of life.

26. Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers can only further grow into his role as the team’s signal caller, but behind a shoddy offensive line, his playmaking at the end of games seemed severely limited.

27. Oakland Raiders: Poor Heyward-Bey. He will forever be under a microscope as people pinpoint the exact moment Al Davis went senile. But hey, the old man called the whole “Lane Kiffin is a jackass” thing, so maybe he has one more card up his sleeve.

28. Denver Broncos: I honestly don’t think there’s going to be much of a fall off for Denver swapping out QBs with Chicago. Unfortunately, they weren’t exactly perched very high to begin with.

29. Kansas City Chiefs: Still not sold on Matt Cassel. Not that he has many weapons to help him on offense not named Bowe. Also, he’s still apparently looking for an extension. There’s still a chance he’s one and done in KC and we hear “And with the #1 pick, the Chiefs select Sam Bradford” next year.

30. Cleveland Browns: Hello, Cleveland! We suck! This team seems to have all the elements in place to be a complete disaster. Faltering, overpaid QB with young fan favorite waiting in the wings. Murder trial. Aging running back. New coach. Disgruntled wide receiver who claims he’s happy now that teams passed over him and his $10million a year extension demands. But hey, we still have the high comedy of Braylon Edwards talking about how 5 Hour Energy helps him concentrate… right until the ball bounces off his hands and hits the ground.

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: If this was Madden Football 2010, I’d trade for Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson. Unfortunately for the Bucs, they’re stuck with their team… which sucks.

32. Detroit Lions: They’re here until they can prove they can beat Appalachian St.

- Ozz

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