- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 5, 2013

1. San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers have an extremely talented roster and, most importantly, an explosive young quarterback in Colin Kaepernick. Coach Jim Harbaugh has proven he’s a winner at Stanford and through two seasons in San Francisco. The team gained experience from losses in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl in consecutive seasons. The 49ers also drafted six players in the first four rounds this year, led by LSU S Eric Reid. Their receivers will get healthy eventually. The 49ers are set to be good for a long time.

2. Atlanta Falcons

QB Matt Ryan has 56 wins in his first five NFL seasons. He’ll likely break Ben Roethlisberger’s NFL record of 60 in six seasons. Ryan is one of many young playmakers on Atlanta’s loaded roster. The Falcons added RB Steven Jackson, 30, to an offensive corps that features physical WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White. First-round rookie CB Desmond Trufant and second-round CB Robert Alford should eventually stabilize the pass defense.

3. New England Patriots

The Patriots have established the modern-day blueprint for staying power: an elite quarterback and masterful head coach have produced nine AFC East titles in the past 10 seasons. Tom Brady is 36, though, and is dealing with a depleted receiving corps. The Pats return 10 starters from a defense that ranked 29th in yards per pass. Re-signing CB Aqib Talib is a step in the right direction.

4. Green Bay Packers

An elite quarterback can cover for many other deficiencies, as Aaron Rodgers has proved in Green Bay. Defenses started disrespecting the Packers’ running game last season and instead defended the pass with two high safeties. General manager Ted Thompson adjusted by drafting Alabama RB Eddie Lacy in the second round. Of mild concern: Green Bay in the offseason devoted $55 million in signing bonuses to two players — Rodgers and OLB Clay Matthews.

5. Baltimore Ravens

The defending Super Bowl champs have had only three losing seasons since 2000. General manager Ozzie Newsome and longtime top college scout Eric DeCosta have combined for one of the best draft records in recent history. If Baltimore steps back this season after losing FS Ed Reed, ILB Ray Lewis and others, it would be only temporary. It still has franchise QB and Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco and RB Ray Rice.

6. Houston Texans

The Texans have proven the most important component to staying power is talent. Stars on both sides of the ball got them to within one win of home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. QB Matt Schaub, RB Arian Foster and WR Andre Johnson arguably comprise the best offensive trio in the NFL. DE J.J. Watt, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year, and LB Brian Cushing are joined by free agent FS Ed Reed.

7. Denver Broncos

Denver, winner of the woeful AFC West, has reloaded for another run at the Super Bowl. The Broncos’ staying power, however, largely depends on how long 37-year-old QB Peyton Manning plays at a high level. Disciplinary problems — DUI arrests of two personnel executives and the substance-abuse suspension of All-Pro DE Von Miller — marred an otherwise productive offseason.

8. Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks’ roster checks a lot of boxes: Good young quarterback; talented back seven on defense; strong running game. They seem to be a team rising fast behind QB Russell Wilson. Teams will try to contain the 5-11 speedster in the pocket, but that didn’t happen often at the end of last season. Some key free agent additions — injured WR Percy Harvin (hip), DE Cliff Avril and CB Antoine Winfield — have positioned Seattle for an entertaining NFC West rivalry with the 49ers.

9. Cincinnati Bengals

It’s difficult to achieve staying power while competing in the AFC North against organizations such as Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The Bengals, however, have made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons with a prime combination of talent and youth. QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green, both in their third year, form an explosive tandem. The Bengals’ defensive front seven, led by DE Michael Johnson and DT Geno Atkins, is young, fast and physically imposing.

10. New Orleans Saints

Another prime example of how an elite quarterback compensates for deficiencies and establishes staying power. The Saints surrendered an NFL-record 7,042 yards last season and played without suspended coach Sean Payton but still won seven games with Drew Brees, now 34, at the helm. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is implementing a pressure-filled 3-4 scheme. Generating a consistent pass rush will be the Saints’ greatest challenge.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers

One of the NFL’s most stable organizations wobbled a bit last season as part of an ongoing transition. The Steelers’ effort to make their stellar defense younger and more opportunistic continued in the offseason. They parted with OLB James Harrison and NT Casey Hampton and drafted Georgia OLB Jarvis Jones 17th overall. At age 31, QB Ben Roethlisberger must live without top deep threat Mike Wallace, who signed with Miami.

12. New York Giants

As long as Tom Coughlin, 67, is coaching and Eli Manning, 32, is quarterbacking, the Giants will contend for the playoffs. They haven’t had a losing season since Coughlin’s first year in 2004. WRs Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks and RB David Wilson are young, explosive scoring threats. If the Giants could regain some toughness up front in stopping the run, they would be the favorites in the NFC East.

13. Indianapolis Colts

Nothing helps the staying power ranking more than a smart, talented, young QB. Andrew Luck threw for a rookie-record 4,374 yards and 23 touchdown last seasons in helping the Colts finish 11-5 after going 2-14 the previous season. If the Colts progress in the second year of their transition to a 3-4 defensive front, they could reclaim the division throne from Houston. They signed former Redskins SS LaRon Landry to help that.

14. Washington Redskins

The Redskins have advanced from a three-year rebuilding period and are positioned to make the next step — as long as dynamic QB Robert Griffin III is healthy. Their depth has significantly improved, and they finally have top offensive talent in RB Alfred Morris, LT Trent Williams and WR Pierre Garcon. Their staying power is weakened, though, by a $36 million salary cap penalty that will have a lasting impact and the loss of two first-round picks in the trade for Griffin.

15. Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings won 10 games and made the playoffs with a one-dimensional offense, so the potential for staying power exists. Third-year QB Christian Ponder has new WRs Greg Jennings and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson to target. His completion percentage improved from 54 to 62 last season, a sign of significant growth. But defensive stalwarts Jared Allen, 31, and Kevin Williams, 33, are in the last year of their contracts.

16. Chicago Bears

The Bears have relatively weak staying power for a team that won 10 games last season. Despite a 7-1 start, they missed the playoffs when Minnesota finished with wins at Houston and vs. Green Bay. Chicago replaced coach Lovie Smith with Marc Trestman. Now QB Jay Cutler has entered the last year of his contract. LB Brian Urlacher retired. They need to pass protect better and diversify the passing game to break through in a tough NFC North.

17. St. Louis Rams

Coach Jeff Fisher’s first season produced a five-win improvement. The Rams are stabilizing now that QB Sam Bradford will play for the same offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, in consecutive seasons for the first time in his career. They added speed at the receiver positions — first-round pick WR Tavon Austin and TE Jared Cook. They believe their offensive line, with former Pro Bowl LT Jake Long, is better equipped to protect Bradford. If Bradford takes advantage, the Rams would take a major step forward.

18. Miami Dolphins

Miami’s staying power depends on overtaking New England in the AFC East, which is why general manager Jeff Ireland spent on speedy playmakers during the offseason. WR Mike Wallace is a weapon for second-year QB Ryan Tannehill. Free agent CB Brent Grimes and third-overall pick Dion Jordan, a former Oregon DE, should help improve a poor pass defense.

19. Dallas Cowboys

Three straight non-winning seasons sparked changes in Dallas, and instability is the opposite of staying power. Coach Jason Garrett relinquished play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Bill Callahan. New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, patriarch of the Tampa-2, is converting Dallas’ personnel to a 4-3. QB Tony Romo now has more say in play calling and game planning, but he hasn’t proven he can win big games.

20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Several elements are helping to increase the Bucs’ staying power: Coach Greg Schiano established a disciplinary culture in his first season. RB Doug Martin emerged as a rushing (1,454 yards) and receiving (472) threat as a rookie, and they upgraded their secondary by acquiring CB Darrelle Revis and S Dashon Goldson and drafting CB John-

than Banks. But QB Josh Freeman is not a convincing solution, and Tampa Bay is looking up at Atlanta and New Orleans in the NFC South.

21. Tennessee Titans

The Titans are within striking distance of some staying power, but they play in a difficult division and are still waiting on QB Jake Locker to take a step forward. The completion percentage issues he faced in college have continued in his first two pro seasons (56 percent). Explosive RB Chris Johnson should thrive behind an offensive line fortified by the selection of Alabama RG Chance Warmack.

22. San Diego Chargers

If Philip Rivers, 31, reduces his turnovers and improves his accuracy under new head coach Mike McCoy, the Chargers could return to respectability. They have a young, talented defense led by DEs Corey Liuget. San Diego will have to fight, though, to overcome recent unproductive drafts.

23. Kansas City Chiefs

Hiring Andy Reid as head coach this offseason should stabilize an organization that has averaged five wins over the last five seasons. It’s uncertain whether 29-year-old QB Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, is a long-term solution. But the Chiefs do have talented RB Jamaal Charles, WR Dwayne Bowe and ILB Derrick Johnson, each of whom is younger than 30. They could turn it around quickly in a wretched division.

24. Carolina Panthers

Carolina has gone four years without a winning record, but the roster isn’t bare. That means coach Ron Rivera is on the hot seat entering his third season. The Panthers have a good foundation in QB Cam Newton and LB Luke Kuechly, young studs on both sides of the ball. Newton’s completion percentage dropped slightly in his second year, but he also threw five fewer interceptions. He lacks a deep receiving corps.

25. Detroit Lions

They’re proof of how difficult it is to achieve staying power. The Lions won only four games a year after a 10-6 record earned them their first playoff berth since 1999. WR Calvin Johnson is 27 and QB Matt Stafford is 25, but Detroit lacks balance in the running game. The Lions’ selection of three top-15 defensive linemen from the past four drafts helps to explain that. They signed free agent RB Reggie Bush to make the offense multidimensional, but they’re at the bottom of a strong division.

26. Philadelphia Eagles

New coach Chip Kelly used an up-tempo speed-option offense to establish Oregon as a national power. He inherited a weak quarterback situation in Philly, though. QB Michael Vick won the job over second-year QB Nick Foles, but Vick has turned the ball over too often when healthy in recent seasons. Kelly is going to a 3-4 defense, too, so this once-dominant team has a long way to go before it returns to the top of the NFC East.

27. Buffalo Bills

Forget staying power — the Bills would settle for their first winning season since 2004. Buffalo underwent a complete overhaul during the offseason following four straight seasons of six or fewer wins. New coach Doug Marrone and new general manager Doug Whaley drafted former Florida State QB E.J. Manuel 16th overall. They continued targeting offense with WRs Robert Woods in the second round and Marquise Goodwin in the third.

28. New York Jets

Two seasons removed from the AFC Championship Game, the Jets are trending in the wrong direction. They fired general manager Mike Tannenbaum in the offseason and left coach Rex Ryan as a lame duck in the last year of his contract. QB Mark Sanchez doesn’t complete enough passes (54 percent last season), leaving the job open to rookie Geno Smith. New GM John Idzik got rid of 11 starters, most notably trading cornerback Darrelle Revis.

29. Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals don’t have a quarterback. That’s a trend among teams at this level of the rankings. QB Carson Palmer will bridge the gap between this season, the first for general manager Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians, and whatever passer they draft next offseason. It also hurts that the other three teams in the NFC West are ahead of Arizona and on the rise. Free agent RB Rashard Mendenhall must spark the running game if the Cardinals are to compete.

30. Oakland Raiders

This will be a cover-your-eyes and hold-your-breath type of season in Oakland. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie is trying to restore the organization’s salary cap health by getting rid of bad contracts in one season. The leaves about $45 million in dead money this year, or one-third of the salary cap. The bright side: About $50 million in cap space next year with which to build. The first step will be finding a quarterback.

31. Jacksonville Jaguars

QB Blaine Gabbert has not played at a level commensurate with his 2011 first-round draft status. He becomes rattled when the pocket breaks down, and it’s not as though he has a supporting cast capable of lifting him. Jacksonville’s best hope is that new general manager David Caldwell and new coach Gus Bradley blend their enthusiastic approach with exceptional talent acquisition over the next couple of seasons.

32. Cleveland Browns

An organization marred by instability since its rebirth in 1999 again turned the coaching staff and front office over. New coach Rob Chudzinski is stuck with QB Brandon Weeden, whom the Browns spent the 22nd overall pick on in 2012. Weeden, who will be 30 in October, didn’t consistently see the field well or throw accurately as a rookie. The Browns have won five or fewer games in eight of the past 10 seasons, and there aren’t many reasons to expect a step forward this year. RB Trent Richardson must stay healthy.

• Rich Campbell can be reached at rcampbell@washingtontimes.com.

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