More Charles Robinson: AFC preseason rankings
Unlike last year, the status of Terrell Owens doesn't shape the top of the NFC's preseason rankings. With the conference so weak, and the Eagles so deep in talent and experience, even a protracted holdout or trade of Owens couldn't knock them from the top spot.
That's a testament to the Eagles' front office, which has been at the forefront of player development and salary-cap management over the last few years. But it's also an indictment on the rest of the NFC, where poor drafts, age and free agency have robbed the strength from many teams. In fact, the conference has become so thin that a ranking of the NFL's top 15 teams would arguably include only four from the NFC – Philadelphia, Atlanta, Minnesota and Carolina.
While the conference does have some teams with impressive potential (Detroit, Arizona and Chicago), Philadelphia easily lords over the here-and-now in the NFC.
NFC PRESEASON RANKINGS
1. Philadelphia Eagles – T.O. or no T.O., the Eagles are far and away the best team in the NFC. They have the best depth, best collection of starting talent and most experience. Granted, the corps of receivers isn't very imposing without Owens, but the Eagles gained an entirely new self-confidence when they reached the Super Bowl without him in the lineup. As long as the contract issues with Corey Simon don't lead to a training camp holdout and a replacement can be found for defensive end Derrick Burgess, the team should be dominant enough to earn another Super Bowl berth.
2. Atlanta Falcons – It's time Michael Vick developed a passing rapport with someone not name Alge Crumpler. Rookie Roddy White might give Atlanta a speedy deep option, but he's not going to change the fact that Vick has yet to become comfortable with any wide receiver since arriving in Atlanta. Vick is dangerous enough as it is, but forcing defenses to be honest against the pass would make him unstoppable (Didn't we say this last year?). The defense is going to be even better this season. It didn't gain speed with the signings of linebackers Ed Hartwell and Ike Reese, but it got sure tacklers. Also, in the secondary, a healthy DeAngelo Hall is going to work wonders against the pass.
3. Minnesota Vikings – Randy Moss is gone, and rookie Troy Williamson won't even come close to replacing him. Rather than relying on another receiver to fill the void Moss left, the Vikings need running back Michael Bennett to stay healthy for a full season. Bennett's presence will also be needed to help quarterback Daunte Culpepper get used to the loss of Moss. Don't expect the defense to click immediately. With five major additions, it's going to take time for Minnesota's talent to come together.
4. Carolina Panthers – Wide receiver Keary Colbert will have his first 1,000-yard season with the absence of Muhsin Muhammad, and the Panthers will rebound nicely from an injury-marred season. But someone has to step up at running back. If DeShaun Foster and Stephen Davis can't go, rookie Eric Shelton will be a big success when called upon. On defense, Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble will be a nice young tandem at the cornerback spots, but the difference-maker will be defensive end Julius Peppers, who will walk away with Defensive Player of the Year honors.
5. Seattle Seahawks – Wide receiver Koren Robinson's departure is going to be a good thing in the long run. He did far more harm than good to the Seahawks last season – both on and off the field. But his departure is going to put pressure on Darrell Jackson to be more consistent. It will also force Bobby Engram or Jerome Pathon to become a solid second receiver. If running back Shaun Alexander doesn't report to training camp, Seattle will fall several spots in the rankings.
6. Dallas Cowboys – You can see the old-school Bill Parcells philosophy coming back to life. Running back Julius Jones is going to hover around 25 to 30 touches a game, and the retooled defense is going to be expected to be the team's backbone. It had better be, because quarterback Drew Bledsoe and receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn are beyond their better days.
7. Green Bay Packers – The team is in a very tough spot with defensive tackle Grady Jackson and receiver Javon Walker. Green Bay needs both players, who are threatening to sit out because of contract issues. With quarterback Brett Favre making criticizing remarks, it's not going to make for a great locker room if (or when) the two players report. The Packers were already sliding because of aging stars and a thin defense, and the side issues aren't going to improve the much-needed chemistry.
8. Detroit Lions – Joey Harrington's tenure in Detroit is officially on the clock, and he's going to be under fire early. There are two road dates in the Lions' first four games, as well as home contests against Green Bay and Baltimore. The offense has plenty of young talent, but the key to the team (beyond Harrington) may be at linebacker, where the Lions have to find a spot for Teddy Lehman and hope Boss Bailey's knee holds up.
9. St. Louis Rams – Quarterback Marc Bulger had a superb final four games last season, but the coaches are still concerned about his decision making in the red zone – where he threw 10 interceptions last season. Steven Jackson is going to be a good, powerful and most likely underused running back by coach Mike Martz. The team revamped the linebacking corps, but it remains to be seen whether Chris Claiborne can handle middle linebacker. He's been a vastly overrated player in stints with Detroit and Minnesota.
10. Arizona Cardinals – Only Detroit can rival the amount of young, exciting talent that coach Dennis Green has stockpiled over the last two offseasons. Now he has the final two pieces of his backfield figured out with quarterback Kurt Warner and running back J.J. Arrington. The defense will be strong, but unless the offensive line is consistent, Warner and Arrington will be doomed to struggle.
11. New Orleans Saints – It's stupefying for the Saints to have the talent they have and yet be so mediocre in a weak NFC. Rookie tackle Jammal Brown is going to show flashes of his Pro Bowl future, and Deuce McAllister is going to have a big, injury-free season. But Aaron Brooks will be the same inconsistent quarterback he has always been and the Saints will hover just below .500.
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The defense is getting old and is only a shadow of the unit that dominated in Tampa Bay's Super Bowl title run three seasons ago. Rookie running back Carnell Williams looked good in minicamp and should be an exciting player to watch, but this is clearly still a team retooling for the 2006 season.
13. Washington Redskins – No matter what Joe Gibbs says about Patrick Ramsey, the quarterback spot is just a dramatic mess waiting to happen. Plus, Santana Moss isn't going to pan out as a bona fide No. 1 receiver. On the bright side, the defense could be just as good as last season – if Sean Taylor's legal problems don't get any worse.
14. New York Giants – With Michael Strahan aging, the defense needs an infusion of young impact players. Adding linebacker Antonio Pierce was a good start, but the Giants need more. On offense, quarterback Eli Manning is on the right path. He's going to benefit from a reworked offensive line and the signing of receiver Plaxico Burress, but he'll need another year before he can consistently lead the Giants to victories.
15. Chicago Bears – Whether they overpaid or not, receiver Muhsin Muhammad is going to be a good leader and teacher (not to mention talent) for a needy Bears offense. But quarterback Rex Grossman will do what all quarterbacks do when they get their first long-term experience as a starter – struggle.
16. San Francisco 49ers – Even with the signing of Johnnie Morton, they have a thin group of wide receivers. That's bad news for Tim Rattay, who will start until the playoffs are out of the question and coach Mike Nolan turns to younger players. Linebacker Julian Peterson is talking a good game right now, but it will be a miracle if he returns to Pro Bowl form his first season back from a torn Achilles.