Everyone knows the NFL’s a copycat league, but in this case I’m cribbing from myself. Last year at this time, I attempted to cobble together my first ever “Vibe Rankings,’’ an effort to gauge each team’s up-to-the-minute mojo factor as NFL training camps began to open in earnest.
Naturally I saw sheer brilliance in the concept. So I’m hitting the repeat button. A reminder: these aren’t simply another version of the ever-popular NFL Power Rankings. This is me trying to divine and assess how each team enters camp based on its sense of off-season momentum and serendipity factor. A last-minute tea-leaves reading, if you will.
Good vibes in late July obviously don’t assure anything come September and the regular season. If you don’t believe me, just ask the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were No. 2 in my 2018 Vibe Rankings a year ago right now. Or the No. 4 Packers for that matter. In my own defense, however, I had the Rams at No. 3 and the Patriots at No. 5, and if memory serves they both rode those mojo rankings all the way to the big game in Atlanta last February.
So here we go. With the 2019 NFL season now in the midst of taking its first-week steps, another set of rankings sure to rankle. As always a reminder, your results may vary:
1. Cleveland Browns
I know, I know. As a default setting, my laptop almost over-rode my key strokes when I tried to put a No. 1 by the word Cleveland, for any reason. But hey, that’s were we are with these star-laden Browns, football fans. Of course the hype is out of control. That’s the nature of hype and why it was invented. But after their boffo offseason and strong finish to 2018, the Browns have as much reason as anyone to feel good about themselves these days. Now let’s see if they can live up to their lofty billing.
2. New Orleans Saints
If heartbreak and missed opportunities in the playoffs are the springboard to eventual success, the talented Saints are a slam dunk to make it back to South Florida and perhaps celebrate their second Super Bowl title and the 10th anniversary of their first one — on the same field that proved to be historic for them in early 2010. And this time they’ll have a handy potential replay review in their pocket to challenge an uncalled pass interference.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
Compared to the last two tempestuous years, the Steelers are a veritable Team Harmony as the 2019 season arrives. Maybe addition by subtraction isn’t a real thing, but we’re about to vigorously test that theory in Pittsburgh this fall. With Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell gone, and Big Ben’s contract extended, the Steelers are short on drama, but alas, perhaps talent, too.
4. New England Patriots
Granted it was not the smoothest of offseasons with Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, some potentially impactful departures to the coaching/support staff and roster, and Ben Watson’s suspension (which makes him the early favorite for Super Bowl MVP, right?). But when you’ve already earned six rings, how rough can the ride really get? The recent footage of Tom Brady’s descent from a cliff is probably not the greatest tone-setting backdrop for the season. But no worries, the Patriots as a whole are not about to plunge from the ranks of Super Bowl contenders.
5. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are considerably ahead of schedule and assembled a pretty formidable roster almost overnight in the first year-plus of the Frank Reich coaching era. Now comes the hardest part, continuing to ascend after surprisingly reaching the NFL’s elite eight last January. That’s the big challenge this year, but the belief level remains sky-high in Indianapolis and these Colts are for real.
6. Los Angeles Rams
Sean McVay’s Rams couldn’t figure out how to beat the Patriots in Atlanta, but it wouldn’t be stunning to see them follow in New England’s footsteps and become the second consecutive team to win a Super Bowl the year after losing one. In the NFL, not all hangovers are created equal. Los Angeles has the useful “unfinished business’’ mantra to cling to this season. Use it wisely, Rams.
7. Green Bay Packers
There’s an innovative new coach, a versatile new offense, and hopefully the same old great Aaron Rodgers of 2008-2016 vintage. That’s at least the formula the Packers are counting on to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years. The defense looks improved and the only buzzkill this offseason has been the overblown “audible’’ issue, as Rodgers and Matt LaFleur try to work it out and make sure their honeymoon doesn’t end before the regular season even starts.
8. Chicago Bears
The Bears haven’t strung together winning seasons since 2005-06, so last year’s worst-to-first success doesn’t guarantee anything in the competitive NFC North. But Chicago’s talented defense is legit, even without departed coordinator Vic Fangio, and head coach Matt Nagy will again be resourceful with his offense and third-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Let’s see how Chicago handles being the chased this season, but the Bears enter 2019 with a well-deserved dose of confidence (in everything but its kicking game).
9. Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers came a long way — and traveled a long way — last season in going 13-5, and now they won’t have the element of surprise in their favor this year. The Melvin Gordon holdout saga threatens to loom over training camp, but in reality he has limited leverage and will be back with the Bolts at some point once the game checks start coming. Anthony Lynn has a very good roster at his disposal, and this is a fairly young team that still has ceiling room to work with.
10. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles had a productive offseason talent haul and their lineup is deep and boasts an impressive blend of youth and experience, buttressed by the team’s two consecutive playoff trips. The most pressing question is the obvious one: With no Nick Foles to fall back on, can Carson Wentz get all the way back to the MVP-level form he was playing at when he suffered a knee injury in December 2017? If Wentz is right, worries will be relatively scarce in Philly this season.
11. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks’ quick return to relevance last season has raised hopes and expectations, and their spot in these rankings is far higher this year than in 2018, when they looked to be on their way down after dismantling their famed Legion of Boom defense. There’s more pressure than ever on quarterback Russell Wilson to carry the offensive load, but I suppose that comes with Seattle making him the game’s highest paid player earlier this year. With Wilson, the Seahawks usually find a way, and the arrow is definitely pointing up in Seattle.
12. Minnesota Vikings
Speaking of pressurized quarterback situations, my hunch is the Vikings get a steadier, less streaky Kirk Cousins in his second season in Minnesota, and he won’t lose all of his biggest games this time around. There’s no glaring weakness on the Vikings’ roster, so if Cousins produces, Mike Zimmer’s team can dream big. But that’s the key question that looms over 2019 in the Twin Cities.
13. Baltimore Ravens
Figuring out who the Ravens are offensively under new coordinator Greg Roman will consume most of the oxygen in the preseason, but the answers won’t really come until September. Baltimore wants to be more diversified with second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, using his skill set creatively. But he’s still a work in progress, and the Ravens also have questions on defense, where a ton of veteran leadership, edge pass rusher and talent left the lineup.
14. Kansas City Chiefs
If these were traditional power rankings, the Chiefs would clearly be a top-five team. But good vibes have been in short supply in Kansas City thanks largely to the Tyreek Hill saga, and now that he avoided a league suspension and returned to the team, it remains to be seen if that puts him in line for a contract extension. Still the defensive makeover was the right move and Tyrann Mathieu’s signing could be pivotal. And any team that starts Patrick Mahomes at quarterback still has some solid serendipity to call upon.
15. Carolina Panthers
If Cam Newton’s surgically-repaired throwing shoulder is all the way back and his new, compact throwing motion works as planned, the Panthers have every reason to believe last season’s second-half slide was a mere aberration. We shall see. With dynamic and electrifying playmakers on offense, Carolina could be one of the most entertaining teams in the league. But Newton’s health is everything.
16. Buffalo Bills
Rather quietly the Bills had an impressively strong offseason and I’m bullish on their chances to make a little noise in the AFC East. They aren’t ready to supplant the Patriots, but if Josh Allen can take a significant year-two step at quarterback, and the vastly improved offensive line holds up, Buffalo will be playing meaningful games in all four months of the regular season.
17. San Francisco 49ers
Nick Bosa hasn’t signed his rookie contract yet, so that’s not an optimum way to get things started. But Jimmy Garoppolo is back at quarterback, with a rebuilt left knee. If he’s comfortable and capable of dissecting defenses, the 49ers have a chance to beat almost anyone. But Bosa could be the key to a much-improved pass rush, and if he makes early impact last year’s nightmare season in San Francisco won’t be repeated.
18. Dallas Cowboys
Coming off a strong second half that earned them the NFC East title and a playoff win, the Cowboys shouldn’t find themselves this low in our rankings. But it’s the potential Ezekiel Elliott contract holdout that we’re wary of, because he’s the most irreplaceable cog in the run-first Dallas offense. The Cowboys aren’t a playoff team without him, and everyone from Dak Prescott on down in Dallas knows it.
19. Denver Broncos
The Broncos are pinning their hopes in 2019 on new head coach Vic Fangio fixing the defense and new quarterback Joe Flacco ending the team’s quarterback carousel. I’m buying the former more than the latter, but Flacco may be supremely motivated to prove us all wrong. In a rugged division, it’s hard to see the Broncos finishing higher than third.
20. Houston Texans
No one really knows what to make of the Texans’ general manager weirdness late in the offseason, firing Brian Gaine and hiring no one to replace him. But other than quarterback Deshaun Watson, is there any other reason to feel great about Houston’s current state? With a tough schedule, a still-weak offensive line and a so-so secondary, it’s hard to see the Texans winning 11 games and another AFC South title this season.
21. Tennessee Titans
It’s tiresome to point out that it all comes down to Marcus Mariota in Tennessee, but how can you arrive at any other conclusion? It’s make or break time for Mariota, who is now in the fifth and final season of his rookie deal. This is at least the best Titans team on paper he’s had surrounding him, so now he needs to stay healthy and avoid the inconsistencies that have made people question his long-term viability. Arthur Smith takes over for the departed Matt LaFleur at offensive coordinator, so he’ll be the latest to try and get the most out of Mariota.
22. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have already had to contend with some early injuries in training camp, and that’s an unwanted reminder of last season’s unraveling. Atlanta has been generous with the contract extensions — you’re up next, Julio Jones — in the belief that it still has the core of a Super Bowl contender on its roster. But the NFC has improved the past two years and the Falcons haven’t kept pace. Let’s see if Dirk Koetter back at offensive coordinator returns Matt Ryan’s game to an elite level.
23. New York Jets
There’s been a definite talent upgrade this offseason, headlined by free-agent running back Le’Veon Bell, and there’s hope in the form of new coach Adam Gase’s track record with quarterbacks. If year two of Sam Darnold is anything like his strong final month of the season, I may look back and realize I seriously underestimated the Jets’ pre-camp mojo reading.
24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The record book says new coach Bruce Arians has won early everywhere he’s been, and the Bucs will likely get a bounce of some sort from the energy and enthusiasm his hiring has created. But if he can’t fix quarterback Jameis Winston’s game in the former No. 1 overall pick’s pivotal fifth season, nothing else Arians brings to the table will matter all that much.
25. Arizona Cardinals
They might not win much in their first season together, but the new-look Cardinals of rookie quarterback Kyler Murray and rookie head coach Kliff Kingsbury might be a very fun watch this year. Which beats the boring monotony of bad football Arizona put on display last season.
26. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders are undertaking an interesting and likely eventful roster experiment and they took some big chances in trading for Antonio Brown, signing Trent Brown and strictly following their own counsel in the first round of the draft. There’s nowhere really to go but up, but with an almost comically tough road schedule, the results might again be meager in Oakland.
27. Cincinnati Bengals
Expectations are set very low for the Bengals in the stacked AFC North, and rightly so. But at least new coach Zac Taylor is a youthful breath of fresh air, and Cincinnati’s veterans seems invigorated by the long-awaited change to the status quo.
28. Miami Dolphins
The reports of the Dolphins’ demise have been greatly exaggerated in my estimation. It won’t likely be pretty in 2019, but the hiring of rookie head coach Brian Flores at least gives Miami the chance to build something solid. And who knows, the Josh Rosen low-cost gamble at quarterback might produce unexpected success, ruining the tanking premise.
29. Detroit Lions
The Lions seem to be getting completely overlooked in the tight NFC North race, and maybe that’s to their benefit. But with key defensive veterans like Darius Slay and Damon Harrison planning to report to camp while continuing to seek new contracts, and quarterback Matthew Stafford hoping to rebound under new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, there are some key issues Detroit has to deal with.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
When last year’s dramatic regression produced no significant changes to the coaching staff or front office, it set up 2019 as a pressure-packed, win-or-else type of season. Quarterback Nick Foles is the team’s biggest reason for optimism, but if the Jaguars defense doesn’t rebound in a major way, not even Foles’ magic act will work well enough.
31. Washington Redskins
When’s the last time you really got a good positive vibe coming out of D.C. as football season approached? Not sure but I think Joe Gibbs was still in his first go-round as Washington’s head coach. Rookie first-round quarterback Dwayne Haskins brings the promise of better days, but that might not be enough for Jay Gruden, who’s probably coaching for his job in 2019.
32. New York Giants
The controversial Beckham Jr. trade. Landon Collins’ surprise release. The wildly unpopular Daniel Jones first-round selection. The bad mojo hits just keep coming for the Giants, who seem to have lost their way. Maybe the method to general manager Dave Gettleman’s madness will become apparent and pay off in the long run. But the early returns aren’t particularly confidence-inspiring. Somebody has to be our anchor, and New York certainly earned it.