NFL Nation: 2012 NFL pre-draft power rankings

Power Rankings voters haven’t let the Texans' personnel losses hurt the team’s standing much.

Despite losing Mario Williams and Mike Brisiel as free agents, cutting right tackle Eric Winston and trading inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, the Texans are sixth in our pre-draft edition of the Power Rankings.

I’m sure a lot of that has to do with what other teams have done or failed to do. But as one of the four voters, I dropped the Texans to 10th.

Here is the AFC South overall.


Here’s my entire ballot, with where I had each team ranked at the conclusion of the 2011 regular season in parenthesis:

1) NY Giants (10)

2) Green Bay (1)

3) New England (6)

4) San Francisco (3)

5) Baltimore (4)

6) Houston (8)

7) Pittsburgh (5)

8) Detroit (7)

9) Chicago (18)

10) Denver (15)

11) New Orleans (2)

12) Atlanta (9)

13) San Diego (16)

14) Philadelphia (13)

15) Dallas (14)

16) Carolina (21)

17) Arizona (19)

18) Kansas City (24)

19) Tennessee (12)

20) Washington (27)

21) NY Jets (20)

22) Cincinnati (11)

23) Oakland (17)

24) Buffalo (25)

25) Seattle (22)

26) Jacksonville (26)

27) Tampa Bay (29)

28) St. Louis (31)

29) Miami (23)

30) Cleveland (28)

31) Minnesota (30)

32) Indianapolis (32)

AFC East Power Rankings analysis

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
1:00
PM ET

The first Power Rankings of 2012 are in, and we have a lot of interesting things to discuss.

ESPN.com chose to its first rankings early this year, and it couldn't come at a more volatile time. Teams are adding and subtracting players everyday in free agency, and the draft is yet to come. Therefore, the voting was very challenging for myself and the rest of the panel.

Here is how things turned out for the AFC East:

New England Patriots

Power Ranking: No. 2

Walker's vote: No. 2

Analysis: New England came in behind the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants. No argument there. New York proved to be the better team on the field in February. The Patriots have retained their biggest free agent -- receiver Wes Welker -- via the franchise tag and added deep threat Brandon Lloyd to an already dangerous offense. Yes, the Patriots still need some help on defense. But four draft picks in the first two rounds should fix it. There's no reason to think the reigning AFC champs shouldn't be one of the elite teams again next season.

New York Jets

Power Ranking: No. 20

Walker's vote: No. 17

Analysis: It's clear the panel doesn't think very much of the AFC East at this stage. The second-place team came in at No. 20. I voted the Jets three spots higher at No. 17. I understand the pessimism. Starting quarterback Mark Sanchez finished last season with a thud. The Jets have chemistry issues and haven't done much to improve the roster. New York's biggest signing thus far is safety LaRon Landry, who may or may not be healthy enough to make an impact. The Jets just don't have the cap room to do much in free agency. This group's best chance to improve this offseason is to nail the draft.

Buffalo Bills

Power Ranking: No. 23

Walker's vote: No. 16

Analysis: This was the biggest disparity from my ballot to the overall vote. I had Buffalo seven spots higher than the panel. The Mario Williams signing was big for Buffalo, but it didn't do much for the Power Rankings. I'm looking deeper with the Bills and the fact Kyle Williams and Fred Jackson -- two of the best players on the team -- are coming back healthy. Jackson and C.J. Spiller running the ball could be dangerous, and Buffalo's defensive line should be one of the best in the NFL. There are some good pieces in Buffalo as long as everyone stays healthy. I actually voted Buffalo one spot higher than the Jets, but don't read too much into it. I view both teams as virtually even right now. I want to see how they continue to improve their rosters via the draft and free agency.

Miami Dolphins

Power Ranking: No. 28

Walker’s vote: No. 31

Analysis: The Dolphins came in at No. 28 and I voted them at No. 31. It’s pretty surprising Miami is in the this spot. Because, regardless of Peyton Manning’s decision, I thought the Dolphins had a good chance to put themselves in playoff contention this offseason. Instead, Miami gutted its roster by trading away their Pro Bowl receiver (Brandon Marshall), cutting its leading tackler (Yeremiah Bell) and failed to get a viable starting quarterback (David Garrard). The Dolphins’ defense should be solid, but I really don’t see how the offense can score enough to surpass last year’s win total.
A look at how the AFC North teams stand in ESPN's NFL pre-draft Power Rankings. Sure, it's the offseason. But you can still gauge where these teams are right now.

And, right now, there's not a lot of respect for the AFC North. Three of the four teams dropped since the end of last season. The AFC North is ranked third overall -- behind the NFC East and NFC North -- after being the only division to send three teams to the playoffs last season.

I don't have a vote in the power rankings, but I can certainly give my take on them:

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Power Ranking: No. 5

2011 record: 12-4

Comment: Don't have a problem with this ranking especially after the Ravens lost more than they have gained in free agency. The Ravens are behind the Super Bowl champion Giants, Patriots (who added receiver Brandon Lloyd), Packers and 49ers (who upgraded their wide receiver group). Baltimore brings back its core from a team that was one catch away from going to the Super Bowl, but it has holes at left guard and outside linebacker.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Power Ranking: No. 9

2011 record: 12-4

Comment: The Steelers dropped three spots since the end of last season, which is surprising to me. Pittsburgh had to make cuts because of the salary cap, but it only lost one starter (inside linebacker James Farrior). While the Steelers' depth has been depleted, they will have a healthier Ben Roethlisberger. That's a major factor. I don't think the Lions and Broncos (even with Peyton Manning) are better than the Steelers right now.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Power Ranking: No. 19

2011 record: 9-7

Comment: There's no respect for the Bengals, who dropped eight spots since the end of last season. The only two teams that fell more were the Raiders and the scandal-ridden Saints. This offseason, the Bengals have upgraded at running back with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, retained safety Reggie Nelson, improved at guard with Travelle Wharton and added Jason Allen in the secondary. Cincinnati is ranked behind three AFC teams that failed to make the playoffs last season: San Diego, Tennessee and Kansas City.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Power Ranking: No. 30

2011 record: 4-12

Comment: The Browns slipped two spots, which is understandable. While I liked the moves on defense (adding defensive end Frostee Rucker as well as keeping linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and cornerback Dimitri Patterson), the Browns have yet to improve at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and right tackle. Only the Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts are ranked below the Browns.
After two weeks into the NFL's player acquisition period, many of you are asking the question: Is the NFC North now the toughest division in football?

The Chicago Bears made one major improvement, trading for receiver Brandon Marshall, and a number of smart moves on the secondary market. The Detroit Lions managed to retain the core of a 10-6 team despite a tight salary-cap situation. And the Green Bay Packers, are, well, the Packers.

(It's tough to include the Minnesota Vikings in this discussion at the moment, but nobody's perfect.)

So on this Friday afternoon, we have an unscientific answer to your question. ESPN.com's pre-draft Power Rankings places three of our teams in the top 10. Our average ranking of 12.9 is the second-highest among the eight divisions, behind the NFC East, but the Vikings' standing pulled down that average.

The details:

3. Green Bay Packers
Ended 2011 season:
1
Comment: The only teams ahead of the Packers are the Super Bowl XLVI participants, the New York Giants and New England Patriots. I'm not worried about them.

7. Detroit Lions
Ended 2011 season: 8
Comment: It's fair to say that our panel doesn't see the Lions as a one-year wonder. Nor should it.

10. Chicago Bears
Ended 2011 season:
20
Comment: Offseason rankings often reflect the previous year's finish, but obviously our voters are impressed with the Bears' offseason thus far.

31. Minnesota Vikings
Ended 2011 season:
30
Comment: Only the gutted Indianapolis Colts are ranked lower. Yikes.

NFL Power Rankings: Giants on top

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
12:13
PM ET
Call me Pineapple.

I don't think they're trying to rub anything in, but the Power Rankings voters have convened for an offseason edition of our popular feature, and four of the five have the New York Giants ranked at the top. Their reasoning, I have discovered after an unscientific poll, is that the Giants are the defending Super Bowl champs, and barring any major personnel losses, you're always supposed to rank the defending champs No. 1 in the first poll of the new year. I'll buy that, and truthfully there's not another team that I believe has a completely convincing claim on the spot. Sure, they only won nine regular-season games while the Patriots won 13 and the Packers won 15. But there's no reason to think the Giants won't be contenders again for the Super Bowl next season, along with several of the teams in this poll's top 10, and probably a couple in the bottom 10. (Who saw the 49ers coming last year?)

Anyway, as usual, Power Rankings are a harmless debate point, intended to spark discussion, and so I'll let you know what I think and you can take it from there.

1. Giants: As I said, sure, they could be great again. They have the quarterback, and the receivers, and the pass rush. And while there are issues to address on the offensive line and in the running game, they feel good about their ability to address them. And who am I to doubt but a humbled pineapple?

12. Philadelphia Eagles: Obviously, the hopes in Philadelphia are that the 2012 version of the Eagles will finish much higher in the rankings than this. And there's reason to consider them the Giants' strongest challenger in the NFC East. But we've all been burned before, by basically this same group, so it's perfectly understandable for the voters to wait for the Eagles to prove themselves.

14. Dallas Cowboys: They finished in the middle of the 2011 pack, so they start 2012 in the middle as well. It's far too early to know what to expect from the Cowboys, who have made great strides in free agency, but have work to do before they convince us the defense can hold it together for a full season this time. The offense should be fine, especially as long as DeMarco Murray returns. But it's that defense that we just never know about in Dallas these days.

25. Washington Redskins. Optimism in Washington is much higher than such a ranking reflects, and I'm sure Redskins fans are looking as far as 10 spots up the list and thinking their team, behind Robert Griffin III, has a chance to be better than a lot of the teams in front of them. And it does. But the guy's still going to be a rookie quarterback, and that can go either way. Again, it's hard to blame the voters for wanting to see it first.

NFL Power Rankings: How they voted

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
12:00
PM ET



Crushing bounty-related penalties levied against the New Orleans Saints forced a re-vote in ESPN.com's first NFL Power Rankings looking ahead to the 2012 season.

We planned to run the rankings after Peyton Manning signed with Denver, figuring that would be a good time to reassess the NFL landscape. Voters cast ballots by Tuesday. But when the Saints' punishment came down Wednesday, complete with a one-year suspension for coach Sean Payton, one of the highest-ranked teams was suddenly reeling.

Every panelist downgraded the Saints. John Clayton pointed to the Payton suspension as the single greatest blow. He saw New Orleans dropping from 12 to nine victories.

"Payton's mind, play-calling ability and leadership will be impossible to replace," Clayton wrote. "Payton took a Super Bowl ring away from Peyton Manning with his decision-making. His call for an onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV is a classic example of how a coach can win a game. Plus, his creative game plans and bold gambles will be missed."

The Saints and Oakland Raiders each dropped nine spots from our most recent rankings, which ran after the regular season. The Broncos climbed six spots to No. 8 after adding Manning as voters hedged somewhat over Manning's health. The Chicago Bears jumped a league-high 10 spots as voters anticipated Jay Cutler's return to the lineup.

The New York Giants were a near-unanimous No. 1 after winning the Super Bowl. Clayton ranked them fifth while other voters figured the defending champs should start at the top. "Unless they suffer giant losses, the Super Bowl champs deserve to be No. 1 in any preseason poll," voter Paul Kuharsky said. "That is my default setting."

And now, a closer look at the ranking, beginning with a look at how teams changed (or did not change) in the rankings from Week 18 last season:

Falling (15): New Orleans Saints (-9), Oakland Raiders (-9), Cincinnati Bengals (-8), Atlanta Falcons (-5), Miami Dolphins (-4), Tennessee Titans (-4), Pittsburgh Steelers (-3), Arizona Cardinals (-3), Green Bay Packers (-2), Cleveland Browns (-2), Dallas Cowboys (-1), San Francisco 49ers (-1), Minnesota Vikings (-1), Seattle Seahawks (-1), New York Jets (-1).

Rising (14): Chicago Bears (+10), New York Giants (+8), Denver Broncos (+6), Carolina Panthers (+5), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+5), Kansas City Chiefs (+5), Houston Texans (+4), Philadelphia Eagles (+3), Buffalo Bills (+2), St. Louis Rams (+2), New England Patriots (+2), Detroit Lions (+1), San Diego Chargers (+1), Washington Redskins (+1).

Unchanged (3): Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars.

Deadlocked: We broke four ties. Denver prevailed over Pittsburgh at No. 8 based on the first tiebreaker, head-to-head results. New Orleans edged Philadelphia at No. 11 based on the second tiebreaker, overall record. Arizona edged Seattle at No. 21, also on overall record. St. Louis beat out Cleveland at No. 29 based on head-to-head results.

Like minds: Only one spot separated high and low votes for the Packers, 49ers and Cowboys. Two spots separated high and low votes for the Patriots, Saints, Chiefs and Vikings.

Agree to disagree: Ten spots separated high and low votes for the Cardinals. Panelist James Walker ranked them only 27th, 10 spots lower than Paul Kuharsky and Ashley Fox ranked them.

"I think the Cardinals are stuck in the mud with Kevin Kolb," Walker said. "He's not a franchise quarterback, and the Cardinals can only go as far as Kolb takes them. Arizona has to live with that mistake for at least another year or two."

Walker, who covers the AFC East, was much higher on Buffalo. He ranked the Bills at No. 16. Everyone else had them between 22nd and 25th.

"The Bills have done everything right this offseason," Walker said. "I expect them to take the next step to at least the middle of the pack in 2012 -- if not more. It's not just the Mario Williams signing. Buffalo also gets back a healthy Fred Jackson and Kyle Williams."

A look at the teams generating high-low disparities of at least seven spots in the rankings:
  • Cardinals (10): Kuharsky and Fox ranked them 17th, higher than any other voter ranked them. Walker ranked them 27th, lower than any other voter ranked them.
  • Bills (9): Walker 16th, Sando 25th.
  • Panthers (8): Kuharsky and Fox 16th, Clayton 24th.
  • Bengals (8): Walker 14th, Kuharsky and Fox 22nd.
  • Jets (8): Clayton 15th, Sando 22nd.
  • Seahawks (8): Sando 17th, Kuharsky 25th.
  • Buccaneers (8): Clayton 19th, Kuharsky 27th.
  • Titans (7): Sando 16th, Walker 23rd.
Power Rankings histories: These colorful layered graphs show where each NFL team has ranked every week since the 2002 season.

Ranking the divisions: Teams from the NFC East ranked 12.8 on average, highest for any division. That was a change from Week 18 last season, when the AFC North and NFC North were 1-2 in highest overall ranking average.


A voter-by-voter look at changes of at least five spots since Week 18:
  • Sando: Bengals (-9), Saints (-8), Dolphins (-5), Raiders (-5), Titans (-5), Broncos (+6), Buccaneers (+7), Giants (+8), Bears (+12).
  • Clayton: Raiders (-13), Saints (-9), Bengals (-8), Giants (+6), Eagles (+8), Buccaneers (+9), Bears (+10).
  • Kuharsky: Bengals (-11), Saints (-9), Titans (-7), Raiders (-6), Dolphins (-6), Panthers (+5), Broncos (+5), Chiefs (+6), Redskins (+7), Giants (+9), Bears (+9).
  • Walker: Saints (-9), Titans (-9), Dolphins (-9), Raiders (-6), Falcons (-6), Steelers (-6), Cardinals (-6), Texans (+6), Giants (+7), Bills (+8), Broncos (+8), Buccaneers (+9), Bears (+9).
  • Fox: Bengals (-12), Saints (-10), Raiders (-7), Titans (-6), Falcons (-6), Jets (-5), Texans (+5), Redskins (+6), Panthers (+7), Giants (+8), Bears (+10).
Note: No Excel file this time. The file sheds light on potential voting inconsistencies during the season, when on-field results can be used as a reference.

ESPN.com's NFL pre-draft Power Rankings

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
11:30
AM ET


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