The free-agency madness has come and gone. NFL executives and coaches were crowded around their war-room table jostling for players they prefer. Pre-camp rosters are set, and it's time for an early look at who could be the NFL's best.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
It is hard to put the Steelers anywhere else heading into the 2009 season. They are the defending Super Bowl champions and have retained most key players from last year's run.
Pittsburgh's defense is going to be just as impressive and Mike Tomlin will keep this team hungry.
Until the Steelers suffer a disappointing loss in the season, they will remain at the top spot due to their quality leadership and playoff experience.
2. New England Patriots
Four words. Tom Brady is back.
New England will have their superstar quarterback under center again and that automatically qualifies them as one of the leagues best.
The Patriots consistently bring players out of nowhere to fill holes and their elite coaching always makes them an early season favorite.
In the off-season New England did nothing but improve their roster by adding rookies Patrick Chung, Ron Brace, and Darius Butler who can immediately contribute.
3. New York Giants
Bravo to the New York coaching staff and front office. They have done nothing but make this the best and deepest front seven in the entire league.
There are still questions regarding Eli Manning and whether or not he is a franchise quarterback, but the Giants put a perfect cast around him to succeed.
New York has a great running game even with the loss of Derrick Ward and as mentioned... their front seven is going to be a headache for anyone they play.
People will say that the Giants don't have an elite receiver, but rookie Hakeem Nicks will be more than effective with Steve Smith and fellow rookie Ramses Barden could be a monster in the red zone.
4. San Diego Chargers
San Diego was just another underachiever last season. They always have the talent to be amongst the leagues elite and this could be the year they finally get it all together.
There isn't much competition inside the division. If San Diego can handle business with non-division opponents than they should cruise to the playoffs.This will be where their real season starts.
Shawne Merriman returning will be a huge lift as will the addition of rookie Larry English and free-agent signee Kevin Burnett. Burnett was a very underrated acquisition. He is incredible dropping back into coverage and he adds top notch depth to the line-backing corp.
Last season everyone predicted big things from San Diego, this could be their year.
5. Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan needs to avoid a sophomore slump. If he plays as well as he did last season then the Falcons are an elite team in the NFC.
Trading for tight end Tony Gonzalez will do nothing but make that offense even more dynamic. Gonzalez will bring the receiving threat from tight end that Atlanta severely lacked last season. Pair that with emerging star Roddy White and the Falcons passing game could reach new heights.
The additions of linebacker Mike Peterson and rookies William Moore(S) and Lawrence Sidbury(DE) will also improve their defense. The line-backing corp did take a hit losing Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, but now they are a younger and fresher unit.
As long as they stick to their strong running game and they get the pressure from their defensive line, the team shouldn't suffer a let down and could find themselves improving on last season.
6. Carolina Panthers
Jake Delhomme returning was a good move regardless of what some may say. This team is built to go now and while Delhomme had a disappointing end to last season, the Panthers will come back strong.
They have the best running back duo in the league and with Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad on the outside, the offense is balanced and always a threat to put up points.
Don't underestimate the drafting of fullback Tony Fiammetta from Syracuse who will do nothing but improve the rushing attack and add a powerful goal line back to the mix.
On defense they brought in former Seminole, Everette Brown, to play across from Julius Peppers. Brown was one of the best pure pass rushers in this class and Peppers benefit from another force on the opposite side.
7. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens were one game away from reaching last year's Super Bowl.
Baltimore failed to add an elite receiver in this draft to help out second year starter Joe Flacco. As long as Derrick Mason returns healthy, he should do the job well enough to keep the Ravens in the playoff picture.
While the passing game may not be putting fear in the eyes of opponents, the running game should remain atop the NFL. Willis McGahee should be healthy entering the season, second year back Ray Rice adds versatility and tough running, and fullback Le'Ron McClain is the hammer.
The hammer on defense, Ray Lewis, has returned to Baltimore. Retaining Lewis was huge after the departures of Rex Ryan, Bart Scott, and Jim Leonhard from the defensive unit.
The Ravens should still have a strong defense. Anytime you have a guy like Ed Reed patrolling the secondary, a big play is only one step away.
8. Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia needed to keep up with the New York Giants and they did so with an incredible draft. Getting a steal like Jeremy Maclin in the late first round was a gift from above.
The Eagles may now have the most explosive wide receiving corp with DeSean Jackson, Kevin Curtis, and Jeremy Maclin. To go along with Donovan McNabb's new toys on the outside, Philly brought in two new running backs --LeSean McCoy from Pitt and Lorenzo Booker from the Cardinals-- to make up for the loss of Correll Buckhalter.
McNabb will also have time to spread the ball to his new targets after the Eagles solidified their left tackle position when they brought in Jason Peters.
On defense the loss of Brian Dawkins will be huge, but free-agent signee Sean Jones and returning starter Quintin Mikell are both effective players who shouldn't miss a step.
Philly added cornerback Ellis Hobbs during the draft to improve among their already impressive stable of defensive backs to take that defense to the next level.
9. Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis could be in for a serious let down this season after losing head coach Tony Dungy and offensive line coach Howard Mudd. Those two have been key members of the staff and were a large part of Peyton Mannings success.
Marvin Harrison was also released, but this shouldn't have as big of an impact because Marv appeared to be on the downside of his career.
The Colts beefed up their defensive line when they drafted Fili Moala and Terrence Taylor at defensive tackle and their secondary looks just as impressive as ever.
Indianapolis could rely on a more balanced running game this season since they have three solid backs, Joseph Addai, Mike Hart, and Donald Brown. This would be a new look to the Colts offense, but it could help them be one of the AFC's last teams standing in 2009.
10. Minnesota Vikings
While there isn't a clear resolution to the Brett Favre situation in sight, the Vikings are still one of the best in the NFL. They have the best running back in the game and a superior run defense.
This is a formula that has been proven to work over the years.
Adrian Peterson should be able to keep this team in the playoff picture single- handed. If Tavaris Jackson could keep playing at the level he was at near the end of the season, he will win the starting job and be a good enough quarterback to get this team in the postseason.
If Favre is to join the team, they automatically jump right up with the Giants as the NFC's best. If he stays at home with his tractor, the team has enough talent to be a force.
11. Tennessee Titans
A lot of people think that the Titans could crumble after the loss of Albert Haynesworth. Don't be so quick to assume.
They added Jovan Haye and Auburn standout Sen'Derrick Marks this offseason. Add these guys to Jason Jones and Tony Brown, and the Titans have a great rotation at defensive tackle who should more than make up for the loss of Big Al.
On offense they return to rushing duo of "Smash and Dash." Chris Johnson will be looking to improve on his 1228 yards and 9 TD's from his rookie season. Tennessee added some weapons at wide receiver that should allow him to see more open room.
Nate Washington and Kenny Britt will step in at receiver and automatically be better than what the Titans had last season. As the slot receiver Washington had just as many receiving yards (631) as the Titans former No. 1 receiver, Justin Gage (651).
Washington will be able to stretch the field and Britt, who has been compared to Terrell Owens on the field, will provide a big physical wide receiver for Kerry Collins.
12. New York Jets
Getting Rex Ryan to be the new head coach was a brilliant move in New York. He is immediately changing the attitude of the team. Bart Scott has described the Jets as a "swaggerlicious" team and said that they will be "violent."
New York made the biggest splash in the draft when they jumped up and grabbed USC star quarterback, Mark Sanchez. Sanchez has already gained some respect among the team's veteran players and he seems poised to win the starting job.
If it were not for the collapse of Brett Favre last season, this team could have made a deep run. Sanchez should be able to step in and play game manager while handing off to Thomas Jones and the electrifying Leon Washington.
The defense looks to be strong and that will just help to keep even more pressure off of Sanchez.
13. Dallas Cowboys
Last season at this time people had the Cowboys penciled in as the NFC representative for the Super Bowl. How things have changed.
After a season of locker room turmoil and off the field distractions, Dallas is entering the season with a new approach. They are looking to have more chemistry in the locker room and after cutting Terrell Owens and Pacman Jones, they seem to be headed in the right path.
It's time for Roy Williams to step up and be the big time receiver Jerry Jones expected him to be. Dallas will also need some production from youngsters Miles Austin and Sam Hurd.
Defensively they are still one of the NFC's best. They added Igor Olshansky and Gerald Sensabaugh for much needed depth as long as bringing in former Falcon Keith Brooking to start at middle linebacker.
DeMarcus Ware will need to have another big season and Tony Romo will have to show he is the main guy. He doesn't have any excuses now.
Don't be surprised if the Cowboys turn to a strong rushing attack with their three-headed monster at running back, Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice.
14. New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees is a top five quarterback in the NFL. His talent along with Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey, and last season's breakout wide receiver Lance Moore makes this one of the league's best offenses.
Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush will share the load at running back.
The defense is always the weak point for the Saints. Rookie defensive back Malcolm Jenkins will be a huge help. He brings incredible ball skills and elite zone coverage ability to a secondary that has lacked much talent for the past years.
Darren Sharper also adds talent to the secondary and the team is on its way to turning things around.
15. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins really burst onto the scene last season and surprised a lot of people. Bill Parcells and Tony Sporano put together a fantastic off-season and really changed the mindset down in Miami.
Chad Pennington proved to the Jets that they had made a mistake in choosing Favre over him, and the Dolphin took the NFL by storm with their new "Wildcat" phenomenon.
Parcells just brought back Jason Taylor to add another much needed pass-rushing linebacker. In the process they stole a second round draft pick from the Redskins in the masterful deal.
Pat White is an intriguing draft pick. No one is sure how often he will be used, but it appears as if he will be utilized in the "Wildcat" formation. Miami should once again be one of the league's most exciting teams.
16. Arizona Cardinals
It is not often that you see a Super Bowl team rank in the middle of the pack following their appearance, but the Cardinals defy all logic. They were widely regarded as the NFL's worst playoff team last season, yet they appeared in the big game.
The loss of multiple coaches and the unhappiness that seems to grace their locker room could really have a negative impact on the team.
Kurt Warner is nearing the end of his career and perhaps he gave it his all last season. They will be an interesting team to follow. No one knows what to expect.
17. Chicago Bears
The Bears traded a fortune for quarterback Jay Cutler and they need to hope the move pans out. I'm a little skeptical with the move because the team still has no offensive line and no well-known commodity at wide receiver.
Devin Hester will be brilliant in the slot, but I don't think he is NFL starting receiver caliber. Juaquin Iglesias was drafted and he has the potential to develop into a strong target, however, I expect Greg Olsen to be the teams leading receiver.
As long as the defense plays well, the team has a chance to make a splash in the NFC.
18. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks will most likely have a healthier season than they did last year and anytime you are in the NFC West you have a chance.The addition of Aaron Curry was incredible and grabbing Max Unger in the second will help improve their line.
Curry is ready to step in and contribute immediately. He joins LeRoy Hill and Lofa Tatupa and the group could automatically be one of the leagues best.
Matt Hasselbeck will return healthy and he has new target TJ Houshmandzadeh to toss the ball to. As well as Houshmandzadeh, the Seahawks have one of the best young tight ends in the league, John Carlson.
Carlson will help Hasselbeck get comfortable as he returns from injury and the Seahawks will no doubt have a better team than they did last season.
19. Buffalo Bills
Terrell Owens will help Lee Evans continue to be one of the league's best deep threats. If Trent Edwards can play like he did in the early part of the season the team could have an explosive offense. If he performs like he did in the second half of the season, they will have an explosive locker room.
Buffalo added Penn State sensation Aaron Maybin to help boost their pass rushing ability. Fellow Penn State alum, Paul Posluszny, could be poised for a breakout season and the two could take the Bills defense to another level.
The Bills have the talent; they are just a year or two away from being serious contenders.
20. Houston Texans
The Texans have had a great off-season. They addressed their biggest need at right defensive end when they signed free-agent Antonio Smith and drafted Cincinnati's "Mr. Versatile" Connor Barwin.
They addressed their other big need at strong-side linebacker with first-round draft pick Brian Cushing.
On offense this team has one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, Andre Johnson, and a future star running back in Steve Slaton.
If Matt Schaub can stay healthy the offense is as explosive as it gets and they could finally be the breakout team that we've expected for years.
If Schaub continues to be injury prone, in comes Dan Orlovsky and away goes any chance they have this season.
21. Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers filled in great as Brett Favre's replacement last season. The reason the team didn't reach the playoffs was their poor defensive play.
The team did add Clay Matthews Jr. and nose tackle BJ Raji, but the transition to the 3-4 defense will take a little while.
With new faces scattered throughout their line-up and the learning curve for learning a new scheme, the Packers will have a rough start to the season and will fall short of the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
22. Washington Redskins
Washington overpaid for DeAngelo Hall and Albert Haynesworth.
The acquisition of Haynesworth looks good on paper, but he has been known to not play hard when the money is there. The Redskins will have to keep Haynesworth motivated and that is easier said than done.
They did bring in Brian Orakpo who was one of the highest rated defensive ends in the draft, but he has also been compared to Vernon Gholston who was a non-factor in his rookie season.
There are questions as to whether Jason Campbell is the guy for Jim Zorn, and most signs point to a non-trustworthy relationship.
Washington tried everything possible to get rid of Campbell this off-season, but they weren't able to succeed.
The Redskins could very well implode this season.
23. Cincinnati Bengals
Anytime you have a franchise quarterback like Carson Palmer you should be in the running for a title. Unfortunately the Bengals have been injury plagued and never really have had any form of leadership.
Palmer is coming back healthy and hopes to start turning things around.
The Bengals had a great draft when they grabbed Andre Smith, Rey Maualuga, and Michael Johnson within the first three rounds. The team also drafted former Missouri standout Chase Coffman who should be to Cincinnati what Dallas Clark is to Indianapolis.
Smith, Maualuga, and Johnson were all first round talents but they fell due to minor concerns. Smith showed up out of shape and had an awful combine, Maualuga has questions concerning his ability to cover, and Michael Johnson has a motor that shuts off too often.
With good coaching these guys could turn into great NFL players. The Bengals just need to dig deep and find that coaching.
24. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs new regime is off to a hot start. They bring in their quarterback of the future with Matt Cassell and they bring in veteran leadership with Mike Vrabel and Zach Thomas.
The one issue with the team is that they traded Tony Gonzalez. Matt Cassell has all of the talent, but Kansas City traded away his security blanket.
Kansas City could be on their way to turning things around; it just may be a few years away.
25. Denver Broncos
Josh McDaniels came in and screwed things up for Denver. They had a young franchise quarterback and a prolific offense. The first thing he does is come in and completely change the offense while driving their franchise quarterback out of town.
The Broncos entered the season with Jay Cutler as their starter and they will go into camps with Kyle Orton and Chris Simms in a battle. The talent drop off is obvious.
Give credit where credit is due though. They brought in a great veteran leader in Brian Dawkins. Even with that signing the defense still has a lot of holes.
It could be a long season in Denver and the fans that haven't already turn on McDaniels could soon turn on him.
26. San Francisco 49ers
Mike Singletary is working hard to turn things around in the bay. Singletary is on his way to changing the attitude and culture, but the team is a few years away.
They have no proven quarterback and there are holes all over the roster.
Michael Crabtree was a great draft pick and he could be a franchise wide receiver, now they only need a quarterback to get him the ball.
If they get a QB to go with running back Frank Gore and Crabtree, then the offense has a solid young corp.
Go get that QB San Fran.
27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This team was absolutely gutted. They no longer have a quarterback, defense is depleted, and they have a rookie head coach.
It is clear that Tampa Bay is rebuilding and if they choose to go with Josh Freeman, who isn't NFL ready at all, they will fall flat on their faces.
The only hope for Tampa Bay to not have an embarrassing season is to start Byron Leftwich. Even if Leftwich is the guy, the Bucs will rank among the leagues worst in all categories.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars
They have an awful offensive line. To make matters worse, they cut Fred Taylor and now will have Maurice Jones-Drew as their featured back.
MJD is a very good change of pace back, but I think he will end up injured if he's given the main load.
There aren't many weapons for this team on offense. David Garrard is an okay starter, but they could absolutely upgrade at the position and they have no real threat at tight end.At wide receiver, while they did bring in Torry Holt the cupboard is relatively bare.
Jack Del Rio is likely in his last "hoorah" as a head coach in Jacksonville.
29. St. Louis Rams
They had a great draft. Orlando Pace's replacement is now Jason Smith and he is an incredibly athletic lineman with unlimited upside.
St. Louis is the team that I think could make the biggest jump in rankings during the season.
30. Cleveland Browns
They have a new coaching staff and no real quarterback.
To make matters worse for whoever their quarterback may be, their No. 1 receiver wants traded and the No. 2 guy is facing vehicular manslaughter charges.
On defense they have a lot of Mangini's old guys coming in, unfortunately the guys won't make a significant impact immediately.
It will be a long and bumpy road in Cleveland this season.
31. Oakland Raiders
Al Davis raised eyebrows again when he reached for Darrius Heyward-Bey and Michael Mitchell on the first day of the draft.
Heyward-Bey is a pure speedster with suspect hands and he has never been asked to run an NFL route. In his first rookie camp, Heyward-Bey pulled his hamstring. That's an awful start for their number one pick.
Until the Raiders get rid of Al Davis it is hard to ever see them succeeding.
JaMarcus Russell needs to prove he is more than a physical specimen. It is time for him to show intelligence and that he is a capable starter in the league or else Jeff Garcia will be ready to jump in.
32. Detroit Lions
They have a rookie coach, rookie quarterback, and they failed to address their major needs in the draft.
The Motor City will likely host the NFL's worst team again this year.
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