NFL Power Rankings 2011-2012: Top 17 NFL Squads
I was originally planning to rank the top 16 teams, but I felt it unfair not to include the #17 team given the unexpected success they had last season.
The free agent frenzy has slowed significantly, and with most teams ready to prepare with their most recent acquisitions, it felt right to rank the top half of the league.
Last season was marked by extreme parity, and I think it’s fair to expect the same equality around the league this season, but, at the end of the day (last year it was the Packers) some teams will stand out.
To find out who, read on…
17. Kansas City Chiefs
The Cheifs had an unbelievable season last year by exceeding all expectations. For the first time in years they were a playoff team as they went 10-6. Led offensively by Jamaal Charles and Matt Cassel and defensively by Tamba Hali and Brandon Flowers, the Chiefs surprised the entire NFL.
Flowers has emerged as a legitimate shutdown corner, while Jamaal Charles (1,467 yards, 6.4 YPC) showed he has elite skill as a running back.
Matt Cassel will continue to develop, and the Chiefs hope he can build on a season which saw him throw 27 TDs to just 7 Interceptions (93.0 QB RTG). Throw in the speedster Dexter McCluster on special teams, and Kansas City looks to have a dangerous squad.
The Chiefs were the best rushing team in the NFL last year averaging 164.2 yards per game. Still, the Chiefs had arguably the easiest schedule in all of football last year, and although the team will be better, their record will not.
16. Minnesota Vikings
The 6-10 Vikings were obviously hurt by their lack of a starting QB last year, as the revolving door of Tavaris Jackson, Joe Webb and Brett Favre was not successful.
The addition of Donovan McNabb will immediately transform their offense and help hide the offensive line deficiencies which led to Favre getting hurt in the first place. Maybe Bernard Berrian will finally live up to his potential with an elite quarterback tossing him passes, but without Sidney Rice the Vikes have only one real receiving option in Percy Harvin.
Minnesota (and McNabb) will sorely miss Rice’s production in the form of 1,312 yards and 8 TDs from his healthy 2009 campaign.
The Vikings will look for rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph (an athletic player from Notre Dame) to be a consistent underneath option for McNabb who has the speed to roll out of the pocket, but relying on rookies (especially as receivers) is always a risky proposition.
Although Minnesota benefits from having an All-Pro running back in Adrian Peterson, they will struggle because of their lack of offensive depth.
Defensively, they were solid against the run and pass (9th/10th in the league last season respectively), and are led by pass rushing extraordinaire Jared Allen. Barring injuries, there is enough talent on both sides of the ball to make a run, but in a league where depth is so vital, the Vikings will be in trouble.
Further, Minnesota faces the Bears and Packers twice each during the season, and their success will depend on how they fare against these two divisional rivals.
15. Dallas Cowboys
As Always, the Cowboys have the talent to be a big time postseason contender. But, will their talent translate into wins? Last season, it did not, as the ‘Boys ended up 6-10.
Offensively, Dallas has studs throughout the field including Miles Austin and Felix Jones. Austin had 1,041 yards and 7 TDs last season, and looks to continue on his success from the past 2 seasons. Jones has seen increasing responsibility with each NFL season, as last year he had 800 yards on 185 carries (4.3 YPC).
Throw the ever-dangerous Jason Witten into the mix, and the young but fast Dez Bryant, and the Cowboys are looking to explode on offense.
The offensive line of the Cowboys, however, has always been a major concern for the team. It should be bolstered by the drafting of Tyron Smith, but, the larger question remains, can Tony Romo be the quarterback the Cowboys need him to be? History says no, and their defense has too many holes to carry the load.
In 2010 Terrence Newman had 79 tackles and 5 picks, while DeMarcus Ware totaled 15.5 sacks, 66 tackles and 2 FF. These two Pro-Bowlers are clearly elite players, but can they cover for the massive liabilities throughout their squad, including cornerback Mike Jenkins?
If a team does not have the depth to support their stars in the NFL, then that team is beatable, no matter who their stars are.
14. Arizona Cardinals
The 5-11 Cardinals needed a legitimate quarterback last season, but could not get much out of Matt Leinart or Derek Anderson. The weapons are in place and with a high level QB the Cards made it to the Super Bowl (Kurt Warner).
After trading for Kevin Kolb, the Cardinals think they’ve found their answer, and frankly he’s certainly an upgrade over the players they let onto the field last season. Kolb picks up yards, but is susceptible to the interception (7 TDs and 7 Ints)
I don’t think the Cardinals are an exceptionally strong team, but in an extremely weak NFC West anybody has a chance (see the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks who made the playoffs last year).
Offensively, the Cardinals hope rookie RB Ryan Williams will immediately upgrade their 32nd ranked run offense (86.8 YPG), and he will. Larry Fitzgerald even without a real QB, amassed 1,137 receiving yards.
Defensively, The Cardinals will look for Patrick Peterson to make an impact as soon as he steps onto the field, adding another solid athlete to their already stacked secondary (Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes).
Darnell Dockett is a great defensive tackle (5.0 sacks last year), and will bolster the front seven. The problem with this team is depth, as it is with many rebuilding teams.
They have their stars but, like the Vikings and Cowboys, lack depth. Ff one of their key guys goes down, the whole team might follow.
13. Indianapolis Colts
There’s no secret in Indy’s formula for winning. Let Peyton Manning score as many times as possible, and hope the defense can allow one less score. Indy limped into the playoffs at 10-6, but were not the dominant team that Colts fans had seen in years past.
With Manning’s neck injury a cause for concern, the Colts might be in trouble. They have no running game to speak of, and very little defense after losing Clint Sessions.
As always, the team will need Manning to be amazing. But, with a defense unlikely to stop either Chris Johnson of the Titans or the Houston Texans offense, the Colts might miss the playoffs entirely.
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The (10-6) Buccaneers are the real deal. Offensively, they have a trio of young players in QB Josh Freeman, WR Mike Williams, and RB LeGarette Blount. Not only do they have a strong top three, but those key guys are also young, improving players.
Last year, Freeman threw 25 TDs to just 6 Interceptions. LeGarette Blount averaged 5.0 YPC on his way to a 1007 yard rushing season, while Mike Williams finished with 11 TDs and 964 yards receiving.
The Bucs addressed their defense with their 1st round selection of DE Adrian Clayborn. Clayborn, with his explosive athleticism, should provide the Bucs pass rush a needed boost and put less pressure on a secondary led by a still effective Ronde Barber (65 tackles, 3 interceptions last season).
The Buccaneers are building their defense from the trenches, a strategy that has proven successful in the past (2000-2010 Patriots).
Raheem Morris has set the proper attitude for his young team, highlighting responsibility, passion and ownership. His players clearly love to play for him.
However, the major flaw with this team is the division they play in. Force to compete with the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, the Bucs’ playoff drought will continue for another season.
11. Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears finished11-5 last season, but viewers always seemed skeptical about their success. Similar to the squad that reached the 2006 Super Bowl, the Bears put a lot of faith in an erratic quarterback. In 2006 it was Rex Grossman, now it is Jay Cutler.
Cutler had 23 touchdowns to 16 interceptions last season, and having a young, fairly unproven receiving squad will not help his high interception total. Also, the Bears parted ways with Greg Olsen during the offseason. Arguably Cutler’s favorite target, the tight end’s absence will be noticed if the receivers cannot step up. Devin Aromashodu will likely be a top receiving target.
This offense has question marks at every position, although the drafting of OL Gabe Camiri will immediately strengthen the miserable offensive line and should inherently have a positive impact on Cutler’s inconsistencies.
Cutler is unquestionably a superior player when compared to Rex Grossman, and if Chicago can prevent Cutler from getting hit every time he drops back then they will have a dangerous offense.
Defense is of course a strong point for the Bears. Led by Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, the group certainly commands respect from opposing offenses.
The biggest positive for the Bears comes in their return game, as they can consistently expect sparks from speedster Devin Hester.
A team with a lot of weapons and a lot of question marks.
10. Houston Texans
Offensively, this team is rock solid. Led by Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster, Houston relied on their offense for their 6-win season.
Andre Johnson: 13 games, 1,216 yards, 8 TDs.
Arian Foster: 1,616 yards, 16 TDs.
Matt Schaub: 4,370 yards, 93.0 QB RTG.
Clearly, the offense should not be a problem for Houston.
Defense, however, is an entirely different story. Although strong up front, the Texans had an atrocious pass defense last year, allowing a league worst 267.5 YPG passing. They will be looking for first-year corner Brandon Harris to support Jonathan Joseph as the second corner, but the Texans made very few improvements in their secondary over the offseason as they failed to sign Nnmadi Asomugha.
What does bode well for Houston is their front seven. Mario Williams, Demeco Ryans and hopefully steroid-free Brian Cushing (76 tackles in 12 games) will lead their front 7.
The Texans, by drafting DE J.J. Watt, are clearly looking to solve their CB deficiencies with a strong pass rush and run defense, forcing offenses to be predictable.
Houston has an exceptionally talented offense, but will need their defense to improve to have any legitimate success.
9. San Diego Chargers
Last year, the Chargers were the epitome of the “stats lie” adage in the NFL. The Chargers ended up a mediocre 9-7, but led the league in both total offense and total defense (395.6 YPG and 271.6 YPG respectively).
The biggest problem for San Diego came on special teams, as their return defense was one of the worst in the NFL. Yet, they were able to go on a late season run last year as they closed out the campaign with a 7-2 record over their final 9 games. They hope the big-hitting rookie corner Shareece Wright can have an immediate impact on Special Teams.
Offensively, San Diego should see an improvement in their running game as Ryan Matthews makes a healthy return. San Diego will have a far more balanced attack with a healthy Matthews if Rivers can continue having success with Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd and Antonio Gates.
Defensively, Shaun Phillips leads the front seven (11 sacks) while CB Quentin Jammer is a tone setter in the secondary. He is a big, physical player who lays down punishing hits.
The Chargers will win the AFC West if their special teams can become an even mediocre unit, and will be a very threatening playoff team.
8. Atlanta Falcons
The 13-3 Atlanta Falcons have no shortage of talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Roddy White had 115 catches for 1,389 yards and 10 TDs last season. White is an elite, premier receiver who will no longer be the only receiver on the radars of defenses now that rookie playmaker Julio Jones has entered the fold.
Matt Ryan had 28 TDs to just nine interceptions last year (91.0) rating, and is developing into an elite quarterback.
While Tony Gonzalez is more of a threat in name than ability in this stage of his career, his leadership/veteran presence is vital in guiding a young offensive core.
With Michael Turner fully healthy after a successful 2010 campaign (1,371 yards, 12 TD s), the offense looks poised to shred through defenses once again.
Defensively, the Falcons were very poor against the pass. Playing against the Saints (passing team) twice a year, Atlanta will have to improve their defense, ranked 28th in PPG allowed last season.
The Falcons signed Ray Edwards, a premiere defensive lineman, to bolster the front seven and give support to the aging John Abraham.
Atlanta’s offense is sensational, but to finally find postseason success the Falcons will need to focus on defense (and they failed to do so in the draft).
7. New York Jets
The Jets are pretty much the same 11-5 team that they were last year. Braylon Edwards’s absence was quickly filled by the signing of Plaxico Burress, although Burress needs to stay on the field to help the team.
Santonio Holmes is one of the great NFL receivers, and defensively the Jets were able to bring back Antonio Cromartie to support Darrelle Revis.
But, New York lost respected veteran Shaun Ellis (to the Patriots nonetheless) and with the exception of Calvin Pace, have a weak front seven. For them to reach the next level, they need to beat the Patriots, and with New England’s tight ends being as powerful as they are (Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez), I’m not sure the Jets have safeties/linebackers who match up.
Also, the Jets can trust Mark Sanchez all they want, but I’m still not ready to put my faith in a 75.3 rated passer who completed just 54.8% of his passes in 2010.
The Jets will look for LaDainian Tomlinson to have another successful season (934 yards, 6 TDs), but we’ve seen old running backs have a one year of resurgence before quieting down for good (Corey Dillon).
The Jets do have one thing going for them, and that’s their passionate, play with nothing to lose attitude instilled upon them by Rex Ryan.
6. Baltimore Ravens
Ray Rice led this offense with a stellar 2010, as he had 1,220 rushing yards with 5 TDs. Joe Flacco built upon his early-career success with a 25 TD season in which he amassed 3,622 yards with a 96.3 quarterback rating.
Defensively, the Ravens are rock solid. Ed Reed had 8 picks in just 10 games, while Ray Lewis had 139 tackles, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and two sacks. Haloti Ngata is a boulder (quite literally, in fact) down low, as the nose tackle is arguably the best in the game.
Throw Terrell Suggs and Cameron Heyward into the mix, and the Ravens’ front seven becomes even more deadly. Suggs had 11 sacks last year, and Heyward has the strength to fit right into the physical Baltimore defense.
Although Baltimore is known for defense, they had the 21st ranked pass defense in the NFL. By drafting CB Jimmy Smith, the Ravens found a strong, physical, Ravens-style defensive back who should allow Ed Reed more freedom as a center fielder.
The Ravens will look for Anquan Boldin to replicate the success he had with the Cardinals, after a fairly unsuccessful season last year (just 837 yards). Although he did have 7 TDs, the Ravens need Boldin to be a capable receiver.
The Ravens will also likely rely on Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss (rookie receivers) to begin making contributions on the field.
The question is, can Joe Flacco lead this team to the next level? If he can, the Ravens look poised to make a deep run…
5. New Orleans Saints
The Saints have one of the most versatile offenses in the NFL, and with a healthy Pierre Thomas and newly drafted Mark Ingram, New Orleans is as dynamic as ever. 11-5 last season despite a sub par year from Drew Brees (despite his 90.9 rating, 4,620 yards, 33 TDs, Brees threw 22 interceptions), New Orleans is improved if by nothing else than health.
Marques Colston is a premier receiver, and showcased his talent once again last year, catching 7 TDs and totaling 1,023 receiving yards.
4th in NFL in total defense, and third in the league in passing yards per game (277.6), New Orleans clearly has the talent for a Super Bowl run. After drafting DE Cameron Jordan, New Orleans will have an improved pass rush and therefore an inherently better passing defense , already ranked 4th in the league.
It’s pretty clear New Orleans needed a healthy running back last season, and they now have two. Strong defense, better offense.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
This team has always been a defense-first, pound the rock kind kind of squad. James Harrison is of course an elite, top three linebacker in the NFL, and the secondary is led by Troy Polamalu who, despite missing 2 games, had seven interceptions and 63 tackles.
James Farrior (109 tackles) and LaMarr Woodley (50 tackles, 3 forced fumbles) are also elite linebackers, punishing tacklers, and smart defensive players.
The Steelers have the best linebackers in the NFL, and having the 330 pound Casey Hampton at the nose helps.
The Steelers do not have a good group of cornerbacks however, and rely on their run defense to force offenses to become one-dimensional passing teams, so Troy Polamalu can take over. Pittsburgh also boasts a strong pass rush, putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks to make consistent throws.
Offensively, the Steelers have a strong core. Hines Ward is not the player he once was, but he has the physicality to power through smaller corners. Ben Roethlisberger had a 97.0 rating as he threw for 3,200 yards with 17 TDs. The Steelers play run-first offensively, and Big Ben is the perfect QB for their style.
Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall have very bright futures with exceptional seasons last year. Wallace had 60 catches for 1,257 yards and 10 TDs, and Mendenhall managed 13 TDs on 1,273 yards of rushing.
Mendenhall has the speed to burst around the corner on stretch plays, and the power to give defensive backs in the second level fits.
A Super Bowl victory last year was all that the Steelers lacked, and a great team is returning this year.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
The 10-6 Eagles have certainly made noise this offseason. They added Nmadi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Jason Babin and Vince Young.
Defensively, the Eagles are vastly improved. They have one of the best corner tandems in the NFL (Nmadi and Asante Samuel) along with the very talented (and fast) Rodgers-Cromartie. Jenkins and Trent Cole anchor a defensive line which will also be bolstered by Jason Babin, whose motor is always at 110%.
Offensively, the Eagles have DeSean Jackson, Michael Vick and Jeremy Maclin.
Last year, Vick threw 21 TDs to just 6 interceptions with a 100.2 rating, easily the best rating of his career. Jackson had 1,056 yards and 6 TDs, while Maclin caught 11 touchdowns. A healthy (TE) Brent Celek will give defenses fits, as he can make catches up the seam, an area that will be opened up by the Jackson and Maclin.
Vick, given his fragile frame and reckless playing style, can always be counted on to miss 1-2 games with a minor injury, and with Vince Young cut from the same mold as Vick, the Eagles should be able to keep pushing forward.
Of course, one of the Eagles greatest strength comes in the form of special teams, with electrifying return men such as Jackson and Maclin, the Eagles are always a threat to score.
Philadelphia bolstered a shaky defensive unit through free agency, and with an ever-explosive offense will be tough to beat.
2. New England Patriots
After a 14-2 regular season, the Patriots choked against the Jets and were eliminated in their first playoff game. But this season, they hope that their free agent acquisitions provide them with more offensive options, and a defensive presence that they lacked last year.
They have arguably the most dynamic offense in team history, with tight ends, wide receivers, running backs and a quarterback who are all exceptional play makers.
The defense was not great statistically, especially on 3rd down, but led by Devin McCourty (7 interceptions) and Jerod Mayo (175 tackle) the Patriots were able to lead the league in turnover differential (mind boggling +28).
Vince Wilfork has received help on the defensive line this year as the Patriots brought in Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, Mark Anderson, Andre Carter and retained Gerard Warren. All of these guys are mammoths who have power to push offensive linemen backwards.
The pass-rush issue was not solved with a dynamic, outside linebacker or defensive end. Instead, Bill Belichick solved it with brute force.
The Patriots are once again a Super Bowl contender, and if their offseason acquisitions produce, look out.
1. Green Bay Packers
It’s simple why the Packers are number one. They won the Super Bowl last season, and have a plethora of returning players who were on the IR last season, including starting RB Ryan Grant, starting TE Jermichael Finley and a strong press CB in Atari Bigby.
They have two shutdown corners in Tramon Williams (6 interceptions in 2010) and Charles Woodson (11 interceptions over the past 2 years, with 76 tackles last season).
Aaron Rodgers still has Greg Jennings as a number one target, and the Packers drafted a big OT in Derek Sherrod who should help keep Rodgers from spending time on the bench.
Basically: The best team in the league has some of its best players returning — Hard to beat that.
What do you think? Did I miss any teams you think will do better than expected? Do I have any teams on this list that will end up under achieving? With the season coming up, we’ll see…
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