More Robinson – Offseason NFC rankings
When the Super Bowl wrapped and Ben Roethlisberger had become the youngest starting quarterback in league history to win a coveted ring, it took less than an hour for someone to ask the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback to contemplate an encore performance.
"Are you kidding?" said Roethlisberger shaking his head. "I'm just going to enjoy the first one before I think about the next one."
While the 2006 season was understandably the furthest thing from Roethlisberger's mind on that February night, Pittsburgh's quest for a Super Bowl sequel is drawing closer.
With training camp just over two months away, the Steelers have done little more than plug holes this offseason. But with many of the AFC's expected elite coping with defections (Edgerrin James, Mike Anderson and Drew Brees) or injuries (Carson Palmer and Daunte Culpepper), the Steelers have done just enough to stay in the conference's pole position for '06.
Now that the dust has settled on the draft and free agency, here is how the AFC stacks up in the offseason rankings.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers – Health is paramount on the offensive line. The Steelers did an adequate job replacing free-agent losses in the draft, and they will have better depth this season. Heath Miller and Willie Parker will make strides, and Ben Roethlisberger should be an MVP front-runner next season.
2. Denver Broncos – Mike Anderson is a significant loss, but Jake Plummer can take another step forward this season with Javon Walker. Ron Dayne's play is going to be pivotal, and the defense needs pass rushers who can finish the job in 2006. The collection of cornerbacks has the potential to be the NFL's best this season.
3. Cincinnati Bengals – Dexter Jackson and Sam Adams are solid additions on defense, but the draft class doesn't look like it will have the immediate impact of last year's crop. David Pollack and Odell Thurman should continue to improve. Carson Palmer is the great unknown, but if he returns at full strength, this is a team worthy of a Super Bowl.
4. Indianapolis Colts – The loss of Larry Tripplett will sting, but the departure of Edgerrin James is monumental. Peyton Manning can count on consistently facing eight men in coverage. The Colts appear to have another draft class (beyond Joseph Addai) that will take a few seasons before making a significant impact.
5. San Diego Chargers – The development of Shawne Merriman and Luis Castillo and the signing of Marlon McCree will make the defense better from Day 1. Antonio Cromartie and Marcus McNeill provide quality depth. The offense is still loaded, but Philip Rivers will be the key to success. If he falters, the Chargers will struggle to make the playoffs.
6. New England Patriots – Laurence Maroney and Chad Jackson were great pieces for the future, but the draft did little to replenish what the Patriots need right now. The departures of Willie McGinest and defensive coordinator Eric Mangini will hurt a defense that has become a shadow of the Super Bowl units.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars – Mike Williams and Stockar McDougle could improve the offensive line … or they could continue to be overweight disappointments. Brian Williams and Nick Greisen should be solid defensive additions, but the draft was yet another head-scratcher. The Jaguars' advancement to a Super Bowl is going to depend on the health of Byron Leftwich and Fred Taylor and the emergence of either Reggie Williams or Matt Jones.
8. Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins might be a trendy dark horse pick for Super Bowl XLI, but there are way too many questions hanging over this team. Daunte Culpepper's health is the No. 1 issue, and the secondary is an unknown with the additions of Will Allen, Renaldo Hill and Jason Allen. The loss of Ricky Williams is going to put a lot of pressure on Ronnie Brown to stay healthy and carry a full load.
9. Kansas City Chiefs – Beyond the addition of Tamba Hali, the Chiefs are largely the same team from 2005. Under Herm Edwards, Larry Johnson could rush for 2,000 yards, but the defense remains the big issue. Unless Kansas City can generate some kind of consistent pass rush, it's going to be another season of shootouts and more hopes for a full season of good health on the offensive line.
10. Cleveland Browns – The Browns are amassing plenty of talent, but there is lots of uncertainty. Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr. are coming off significant injuries, and Charlie Frye is still getting adjusted. The offense should be better with the additions of LeCharles Bentley, Kevin Shaffer and Joe Jurevicius. The defense also got a shot in the arm with veterans Willie McGinest and Ted Washington and rookies Kamerion Wimbley and D'Qwell Jackson.
11. Baltimore Ravens – An active offseason produced some quality veteran talent in Mike Anderson, Trevor Pryce and Corey Ivy. Adding Haloti Ngata in the draft should help, too, but it remains to be seen how all the turnover will affect the defense's chemistry. Also, the quarterback issue still hasn't been resolved. If Steve McNair doesn't land in Baltimore, it's another season of praying that Kyle Boller develops.
12. Oakland Raiders – The offense is still loaded, but will Aaron Brooks be any better than Kerry Collins? History suggests he can't. Lance Johnstone will be a good complement to Derrick Burgess, and the secondary is young and talented with another first-round addition in Michael Huff. But the linebackers are still a big concern. Adding Darnell Bing and Thomas Howard won't shore up the unit overnight.
13. Houston Texans – The Texans should be able to put together a respectable rebound season, a la Cleveland in 2005. They added a nice group of solid veterans in free agency with Anthony Weaver, Eric Moulds, N.D. Kalu and Sam Cowart. The draft should have some instant impact, too, with Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Charles Spencer and Eric Winston all vying for starting spots. Plus, Gary Kubiak should be able to breathe some life into the offense immediately.
14. New York Jets – John Abraham and Kevin Mawae are significant losses, while free agency only brought solid additions in Andre Dyson and Kimo von Oelhoffen. Unless Chad Pennington and Curtis Martin have huge bounce-back seasons, it's going to be another long year for the Jets. For Eric Mangini, this should be a rebuilding year.
15. Buffalo Bills – Larry Tripplett was a good addition in an offseason of pulling players off of the scrap heap. Forget the reaching in the draft for players like Donte Whitner and John McCargo. The Bills took plenty of gambles in free agency by signing Aaron Gibson, Peerless Price, Andre Davis and Craig Nall.
16. Tennessee Titans – The Titans didn't make a lot of moves in free agency, but they got some quality veterans with the signings of Kevin Mawae, David Givens, Chris Hope and David Thornton. LenDale White could provide some instant impact from the draft, too. But the second half of the 2006 season should eventually be about Vince Young, unless Steve McNair returns and Young holds a clipboard all season.
- Super Bowl
- Mike Anderson