Can you feel it in the air? The long summer nights are over, autumn is just around the corner, and the color of the leaves will soon be starting to change color. With National Football League training camps and the pre-season now officially in the books, and every team's 53-man roster finally set around the league, the NFL regular season is only days away. The excitement kicks off with a rematch of Super Bowl between the defending champion Denver Broncos, and the Carolina Panthers.
Before we get to Thursday night's game, just like any other season, there are a ton of questions that still need to be answered, like can the Panthers take the final step and bring the city their first-ever NFL championship, or will the dreaded Super Bowl loser's curse hit them as well? Will the Indianapolis Colts rebound and become the contending team most people including yours truly thought they were heading into last season, or was last year really a sign of things to come? Will Dak Prescott lead to a divorce between Tony Romo and the Cowboys next offseason? And finally, will Chip Kelly be able to make chicken salad out of the chickens$%^ that is the San Franciso 49ers' offense?
There are also some other questions that need to be asked, like what does it say about America that San Francisco 49ers' quarterback Colin Kaepernick is receiving so much backlash and support at the same time for actions during the signing of the U.S National Anthem in the preseason, and going forward?
Another question that needs to be asked, but we won't get any answers to until the games are played, is which teams are clear favorites to win the Lombardi Trophy, and which ones are destined to be picking near or at the top of the at the 2017 NFL Draft in the DeShaun Watson sweepstakes.
With that said, we here at TheSportster present to you, Super Bowl or 1st Overall Pick; This Year's Top 8 and Bottom 7 NFL teams.
15 SB: New York Jets
Just a few years ago, the word Super Bowl and Ryan Fitzpatrick went together like good hip-hop and this generation. Fast forward to today, and while the industry continues to predominantly dash the hopes and dreams of real hip-hop fans and artists worldwide, Fitzpatrick has given the New York Jets fans hope that they will finally capture their first Lombardi Trophy in nearly 50 years.
After what felt like a summer-long showdown between the J-E-T-S and their QB over a new contract, the 12-year veteran signed a one-year $12 million deal to come back to the team.
Helping out Fitzpatrick will be the team's two-headed monster at wide receiver in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. Last year, the dynamic duo combined to catch a remarkable 189 balls for 2,529 yards, and 26 touchdowns. Joining them is nine-year RB Matt Forte, who came over from Chicago in free agency. While the former face of the Bears has a lot of millage- over 1,000 carries, and 264 receptions over the last four seasons - he is still difference maker, with enough speed and plenty of smarts to contribute offensively.
Always blessed with a strong defense, this season should be no different for the Jets, as they return almost all of their starters to a unit that finished 2nd versus the run, 7th in points allowed, 13th against the pass, and 4th in total defense. In an attempt to make the team even faster on that side of the ball, the club drafted linebackers with speed to burn with 2 of their first 3 draft choices, in Ohio State's Darron Lee, and Georgia's Jordan Jenkins.
14 Bottom: Miami Dolphins
Where to begin? The Miami Dolphins have Ryan Tannehill who possesses all the arm talent in the world, but year-after-year, puts up barely above-average numbers (87 TDs/54 INTs). After losing Lamar Miller to the Texans in free agency, the team is left with an aging and injury-prone Arian Foster, a second year RB in Jay Ajayi, and this year's 3rd round pick in Alabama RB Kenyan Drake, who was never the main man, as he shared time with Derrick Henry.
The only bright spot for the offense, is Jarvis Landry who caught up a career-high 110 passes for 1,157 yards and 4 TDs. Hopefully for the Fins, DeVante Parker will step up, as the 2015 1st round draft pick had a disappointing 26 catches for 494 yards and 3 TDs.
On defense, last year the team added the biggest name n the free agent market in Ndamukong Suh. You have to imagine the team and its fans were expecting a bit more than 38 tackles and 6.5 sacks.
To help out Suh, the team added former Pro-Bowl DE Mario Williams in free agency, and traded for Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell. While those additions will help a team that finished 25th in total defense a year ago, it won't be enough to lift the Dolphins out of the cellar.
13 SB: Green Bay Packers
When you have Aaron Rodgers, your team will always have a chance. Despite having arguably the NFL's best quarterback, it's the return of Jordy Nelson, that has the team and its fans envisioning another Lombardi Trophy. Nelson, missed the entire 2015 season after suffering a blown ACL in his right knee.
The return of the Kansas State product has two advantages. First, is it gives Aaron Rodgers his number one receiver back. A year before his injury, Nelson had 98 catches for for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns, all career highs. Secondly, his presence also creates space for the Packers' other receivers, notably Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, both who struggled to deal with constant double teams all of last season.
Also helping out the offense is a lighter Eddie Lacy. The RB who ran for a career-low 758 yards and only 3 touchdowns last year, used this offseason with the help of P90X founder Tony Horton, to shed considerable weight. He hopes to get back some of the burst and explosion he showed in his first two seasons in the league, where he rushed for 1,178 and 1,139 yards to go along with 11 and 9 touchdowns respectively.
On the defensive side, the team upgraded their biggest position of need as they drafted UCLA DT Kenny Clark with their first round pick to replace B.J Raji, who retired unexpectedly in March.
The only real concern with the club is depth and Special Teams, as the franchise has a number of players over the years like Casey Hayward, John Kuhn, Davon House, Jarrett Bush, but with their offense fully loaded, the Pack will still be a Super Bowl contending team.
12 Bottom: San Francisco 49ers
The 49er fan in me REALLY misses the Jim Harbaugh era. Sigh...Since he took his talents to Michigan after the 2014 season, the San Franciso 49ers have been in a tailspin. Last year under Jim Tomsula, San Fran finished with a 5-11 record, the team's worst output since 2007 campaign.
Besides the coaching change, a rash of departures tore apart the team, as cornerstone players like Patrick Willis and Justin Smith retired, and mainstays like Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, and Mike Iupati bolted in free agency.
Poor drafting and spotty QB play has also doomed the team, as names like A.J. Jenkins, Taylor Mays, LaMichael James, and Aldon Smith didn't pan out, and former franchise QB Colin Kaepernick has looked like a shell of the player that took the team to the Super Bowl just three years ago.
Chip Kelly is the 49ers new head coach. His first responsibility will be igniting an offense that finished second to last (31st) in the league last year. That will be difficult to do however, as he and the franchise let their best WR in Anquan Boldin leave in free agency, and are relying on Carlos Hyde and Blaine Gabbert. That's not exactly a duo that will be giving defensive coordinators around the NFL sleepless nights.
While the defense will be led by NaVorro Bowman and defensive ends Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, it won't be enough to get the 9ers out of contention for the first overall pick in the 2017 draft. For the franchise, that'll probably be a good thing.
11 SB: Denver Broncos
The defending Super Bowl champs along with the National Football League said good-bye to the legend that is Peyton Manning this offseason. To take his place this year is former 7th round pick and second year quarterback Trevor Siemian. His only source of NFL action came in Week 14, when he took a knee on the final play of the 1st half against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Why would the Broncos turn their contending team over to a player who has -1 rushing yards as his only NFL stat? It's because Siemian earned the job this preseason by beating out rookie QB and 1st round pick Paxton Lynch, and veteran Mark Sanchez who ended up being released by the team.
Helping out Siemian will be All-Pro wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and fellow Pro Bowl WR Emmanuel Sanders. Running backs C.J. Anderson who struggled in the first half of the season due to an injured ankle, and averaged less than 3 yards a carry, rebounded in a big way the second half of the year, and began averaging 5.6 yards per carry from Week 8 all the way through the Super Bowl.
On defense, the team had to pay their best player, and arguably the game's best in Von Miller. The Broncos not only paid him, but made him the highest paid defensive player in NFL history by signing him to a six-year $114.5 million deal, with a league record $70 million guaranteed. Due to the signing however, the team had to make some hard decisions on other members of their vaunted defense and special teams, as key contributors like Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, David Burton Jr., and Omar Bolden were allowed to leave in free agency.
While the losses might hurt, the team still has mastermind DC Wade Phillips calling the shots. Let's be honest, as good as Manning has been throughout his Hall Of Fame career, he was on the decline, and the team often won in spite of him. The Phillips factor, plus reinforcements that were added to the o-line, (a big weakness last year) in the form of Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson makes me believe that the defending champs have a great shot at defending their title.
10 Bottom: Atlanta Falcons
Yes, they have Julio Jones, and Devonta Freeman, who not only made his first Pro Bowl last year, but also led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with 11, but they still missed the playoffs last year- and the year before that. One of the main reasons for the Atlanta Falcons' lack of success has been Matt Ryan. Despite his high draft status the Boston College product has been average the last few seasons. Over the last twoyears, Ryan has thrown 49 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. In fact, his 21 TDs to 16 INTs last year, were his worst since his rookie where he threw 16 TDs and 11 INTs.
Over the past two offseasons, the team has tried to add toughness and pass rushers. To get tougher, and to help them stop the run the team added the likes of defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai. After recording just 22 sacks in 2014, which left them ranked 30th in the league, to get after opposing quarterbacks, the team addedlLinebackers O'Brien Schofield, Brooks Reed in free agency, and used their 2015 first round pick on speedy Clemson pass rusher in Defensive End/Linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. Two years later, while the Falcons total defense improved from last in the league in 2014 to 16th last season, their anemic pass rush was even worse last year, as they recorded only 19 sacks.
Fast forward to this season Schofield and Soliai are gone, while Jackson and Reed are now coming off the bench. While Beasley Jr., who showed the speed and athleticism to get around offensive tackles, remains the starter, the team will definitely need more than the 4 sacks he provided.
9 SB: Pittsburgh Steelers
While the club still needs to replace the production and clutch catches provided by retired Heath Miller, and Martavis Bryant who is suspended for the year, the return of a healthy Le'Veon Bell, along with Ben Roethlisberger, and Antonio Brown, the Steelers' offense will be firing on all cylinders. Even with the aforementioned Bell suspended for the first three games, the rushing attack should be just fine with DeAngelo Williams filling in after the 11-year veteran ran for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns filling in for Bell last season.
While the Steelers' defense won't be confused with the Steel Curtain anytime soon, the team's front seven which is led by Cameron Heyward, Ryan Shazier, Lawerence Timmons, and ageless wonder James Harrison, should be solid once again. Helping out on the back-end will be an infusion of youth, headlined by Artie Burns and Sean Davis, who the club selected with their first and second round picks respectively in April's draft. The team also recently added CB Justin Gilbert in a trade with their division rival the Cleveland Browns. While the 8th overall pick of the 2014 draft hasn't turned out to be the player most people thought he would, maybe playing on a winning team with better talent around him, will help him turn the corner.
If the secondary can get even half the production out of their rookies and other young players as well, that they get out of their linebackers and defensive line, there will be no reason why the team can make a deep playoff run.
8 Bottom: Philadelphia Eagles
While many people including yours truly, called them the Oregon Eagles or the Philadelphia Ducks during Chip Kelly's tenure, with their former coach's departure to San Francisco, a more suitable name for the city of Brotherly Love's franchise might be the Walking Wounded. At quarterback, with the recent trade of Sam Bradford to the Vikings the team is rolling with the number 2 draft pick of 2016 in Carson Wentz at the game's most important position. While handing the keys to a rookie is always a tricky proposition, it gets even muddier for the Philly, given that their new face of the franchise missed virtually the entire exhibition season after suffering two fractured ribs in his first ever game while playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Adding to the walking wounded theme, the Eagles also chose to stick with Ryan Mathews as their starter at RB, despite the fact that the Fresno State product has suited up for a full 16 games just once in six-year career. The team's number one receiver Jordan Matthews, missed the entire preseason due to a knee injury. Oh, did I mention that the club' best offensive linemen Lane Johnson, is suspended for the first 10 weeks of the regular season? This year should be fun Eagles fans, at least you have the draft to look forward to!
7 SB: Seattle Seahawks
If Thomas Rawls can pick up where he left off before having his season end in Week 15 due a broken left ankle - or one of the RBs they added this offseason in C.J Prosise, Christine Michael, Alex Collins, or Zac Brooks can replace some of what they lost with the retirement Marshawn Lnych, that will be enough to keep defenses honest. Russell Wilson and the offense to continue to thrive off of play-action fakes and bomb to their speedy wide receivers, led by the criminally underrated Doug Baldwin, and Jimmy Graham, who should be better in his second season in Seattle.
The team also made an effort to beef up its offensive line, as they drafted Texas A&M guard/tackle Gernain Ifedi with their 1st round draft pick last April. The team also found a new starting right tackle in J'Marcus Webb.
On defense, the same dominating unit that is still in its prime, and is led by Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas among others, is back once again, and this time it will have the services of its leader in hard-hitting four-time Pro Bowler Kam Chancellor. Also joining the fold is disruptive Alabama DT Jarran Reed. His presence should not only add even more pass rush to a defensive line that already includes sack masters Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, he also brings run-stuffing abilities to a team that gave up an NFL-best 81.5 rushing yards a game.
6 Bottom: Chicago Bears
The goal this offseason for the Chicago Bears appeared to be continuing to improve a defense that jumped from 30th in 14th in total defense. To do that, the team added free agents Jerrell Freeman , Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan. The franchise also used 6 of their 9 draft picks on that side of the ball, including using their first round selection on Georgia linebacker Leonard Floyd. Despite their best efforts, the team wasn't able to fill all their needs on that end, as they still have plenty of holes in their secondary. At both safety spots, they will go with the unproven dual of second year player Adrian Amos and either rookie Deon Bush or DeAndre Houston-Carson. At cornerback, the Bears will go with Kyle Fuller and the injury-prone Tracy Porter. Neither CB strikes fear in opposing quarterbacks, as Fuller and Porter combined for 3 interceptions.
On offense, while the franchise succeeded in their attempt to get younger this off-season by choosing not to resign RB Matt Forte, and trading away Martellus Bennett, their replacements in Jeremy Langford and Zach Miller don't exactly strike fear in the hearts of opposing defenses either. Making matters even worse, is the fact that the team lost OC Adam Gase, who left to become the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Gase, was one of the main reasons Bears' quarterback Jay Cutler had a career-high passer rating of 92.3, and a career-best touchdown to interception ratio of 1.9/1 last year. Because of the missing pieces on offense, and the question marks on defense, I have the Bears finishing with one of the worst records in the league.
5 SB: New England Patriots
Even with missing Tom Brady for the first four games of the season due to him being suspended in the Deflatgate scandal, the New England Patriots will still be hard to beat, and barring injury, will have number 12 back when they really need him. Until Brady does return, the Pats will be going with third-year QB Jimmy Garoppolo. In his short the Eastern Illinois product has so far gone 20 of 31 for 188 yards and 1 touchdown pass.
After narrowly losing to the eventual Super Bowl champions Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship last season, the only reason why I don't have the Pats higher, is because of big question surrounding their pass rush. Before the NFL draft, they traded their best pass rusher in Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals. The team's other top options are injured as Rob Ninkovich (6.5 sacks) suffered a torn triceps in the preseason. Jabaaal Sheard (8 sacks) is currently nursing a strained MCL.
Regardless of the missing pieces on defense, you just know that defensive genius and head coach extraordinaire Bill Belichick will find a way to create blitzes and schemes to turn up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks. More importantly, New England is still a team that can dominate on offense. In addition to Brady, the Pats also have Rob Gronkowski, to go along with the dangerous Julian Edelman. In an effort to make that side of the ball even more potent, the team added Martellus Bennett and Chris Hogan. Both players are capable of stretching the field and coming up with big catches.
4 Bottom: Cleveland Browns
Given their history, most people would say this is the franchise with the best chance of finishing with the worst record in the league and a direct ticket to the top pick in the 2017 draft. LeBron James lifted the curse of Cleveland, by bringing the city their first major sports championship in 52 years. I think Robert Griffin III will lead the Browns out of the cellar. While I'm not saying we will see the RG3 that set the league on fire, and won the 2012 Rookie Offensive Player of the Year, he will definitely be an upgrade over the likes Josh McCown, Jake Delhomme, Derek Anderson, and Johnny Football himself.
The return of electrifying WR Josh Gordon from suspension, along with the addition of former Baylor WR Corey Coleman in the 1st round of the draft, has given the offense a pair of wide-outs who can take it to the house on any given play. Gary Barnidge, who is coming off of a career year and his first Pro-Bowl, returns as well, after re-signing with the club for $12 million over three seasons.
The Browns end up on this side of the list due to the players they lost this past offseason, as the team cut veteran leaders Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner, and they lost WR Travis Benjamin, S Tashaun Gibson, and Alex Mack in free agency. That is just too much talent to lose, especially since the team has elected to go with lesser and in some cases unknown players as replacements.
3 SB: Arizona Cardinals
Led by head coach Bruce Arians, if this team can stay healthy they can beat anybody. On offense, they are led by Palmer and future Hall-Of-Fame WR Larry Fitzgerald. They also have a devastating rushing attack led by David Johnson, and former 2,000 yard rusher Chris "CJ2K" Johnson. For the second year in a row, the Cards also added some toughness and experience to the offensive line, as they signed 2-time Pro Bowler in guard Evan Mathis.
On defense, in addition to the return of Mathieu, the team addressed their real only need, as they added pass rusher Chandler Jones in a trade with the New England Patriots, and they selected Mississippi Defensive Tackle Robert Nkemdicke with their 1st round pick in the 2016 draft. His presence along with Jones, and former Pro Bowl Defensive End Calais Campbell, combined with the top notch coverage they get from the aforementioned Mathieu and All-Pro Cornerback Patrick Peterson, should make life a living hell for opposing quarterbacks.
The Arizona Cardinals have impact players at virtually every position, and are one of the deepest teams in the league. The only thing that has seemed to have gotten in their way is health. If they can somehow avoid the injury bug this year, there is no reason to think that the Cards won't be a Super Bowl threat.
2 Bottom: Los Angeles Rams
Last year the Rams finished with a 7-9 record which was good enough for a 3rd place finish in arguably the toughest division in football - the NFC West. - A lot of things have changed since then. Firstly, after 20 seasons in the "Show Me" state, the franchise relocated back to Los Angeles - their home from 1946 to 1994. Secondly,the team released the heart and soul of it's defense in Chris Long and James Laurinatis. While getting up there in age a little bit, both players were still difference-makers. Thirdly, and most importantly, after a pre-draft trade with the Tennessee Titans, the Rams acquired the first overall pick of the 2016 draft, which they used to select California University Quarterback Jared Goff.
So far this preseason, the new face of the franchise has looked a little shaky, and has taken a lot hits. Unfortunately for the Rams, Goff also hasn't been able to beat out journeyman quarterback Case Keenum, or second year QB Sean Mannion for the starting job. While the team does have Pro Bowl running back Todd Gurley, the rest of the Rams' offense gives no reason for defenses to not play 7, 8, or even and 9 defenders in the box. To make matters worse, the team failed to replace Long and Laurinatis, as well as other key contributors on that side of the ball like cornerback Janoris Jenkins, and safety Rodney McLeod.
1 SB: Carolina Panthers
This one was kind of easy, as the defending NFC champs are still the class of the conference, as a team that finished the regular with a more than impressive 15-1 mark, comes back arguably even better than last year. Yes, I realize they lost All-Pro CB Josh Norman, to free agency, but their defense is led by their dominant front seven, that features the like of Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short, Kony Ealy, and Charles Johnson. The unit should not only be able to make up for the loss, but possibly be able to pick up where they left off last season.
One player who is returning to the Panthers this season is Kelvin Benjamin. The third year wide-out, who had 9 touchdowns and over 1,000 yards in his rookie season, missed all of 2015 after tearing his ACL in training camp. The return of the 6'5 Florida State product to the lineup gives last year's league MVP Cam Newton, a huge target with speed and play-making ability. Benjamin will team up with Greg Olsen, and speedster Ted Ginn Jr., who despite the occasional dropped pass, is capable of taking it to the house on virtually any play. The team also relies on their power running game, which is led by Jonathan Stewart, who finished the regular season 11 shy of 1,000 yards, and Newton, who ran for nearly 650 yards, and rushed for a team-high 10 touchdowns. Believe it or not, the team's offense which was impressive last year, has a chance to be even better this season.