Eli Manning’s team may be the defending champions, but they have teams such as the Packers, Cowboys and 49ers eager to take them down. Greg A. Bedard examines how the teams look as the 2012 season kicks off. Teams are listed in their predicted order of finish:
Outlook: The defense should be one of the league’s best in the second season under coordinator Rob Ryan and the addition of CBs Brandon Carr and first-round pick Morris Claiborne. The Cowboys need free agents Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau to solidify a shaky offensive line, and for WRs Dez Bryant and Miles Austin to stay on the field for QB Tony Romo, who is coming off his best season.
TE impact ranking: 4th. Jason Witten, coming back from spleen injury, is one of league’s best. John Phillips is underrated.
Outlook: QB Eli Manning just keeps getting better, and WRs Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle are explosive targets. The offensive line is still weak and can’t run block, and the secondary missing Terrell Thomas and Prince Amukamara (to start the season) could be the undoing. Relentless pass rush will keep them in playoff hunt.
TE impact ranking: 27th. Martellus Bennett is more a blocker from Cowboys, and Bear Pascoe is limited.
Outlook: How long can QB Michael Vick stay healthy behind a line that is again average at best, especially after the loss of LT Jason Peters? That’s the entire season right there. Vick has really good weapons around him, starting with All-Pro RB LeSean McCoy. Can the defense play well the entire season under coordinator Juan Castillo? Andy Reid’s job depends on it.
TE impact rating: 29th Brent Celek is a solid but the Eagles like to use their receiver speed.
Outlook: QB Robert Griffin III is the prototype to run coach Mike Shanahan’s boot-action offense; you just wonder how much throwing he’s going to be able to do behind a makeshift offensive line that was made worse by RT Jammal Brown’s hip injury. Front seven on defense is stout. Good luck with Brandon Meriweather and Madieu Williams at safety.
TE impact ranking: 19th. Fred Davis has become one of the league’s better players. Niles Paul switches from WR.
Outlook: Offense will always be dominating as long as QB Aaron Rodgers is directing targets like WRs Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson and TE Jermichael Finley. Adding RB Cedric Benson to the mix should make them more dangerous. Defense has big questions with the pass rush, at linebacker where Desmond Bishop will miss the season, and cornerback. Have to be better.
TE impact ranking: 18th. Finley is a rare talent who lacks focus at times.
Outlook: QB Jay Cutler and RB Matt Forte are healthy, and that’s a good place to start. Bears finally have a legitimate receiver after trading for Brandon Marshall, but will he behave? The offensive line is still terrible, and LB Brian Urlacher missed all of camp with a knee injury. Can former Vikings coach Mike Tice be a good coordinator?
TE impact ranking: 28th. They want to be a lot better with Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth. We’ll see.
Outlook: There is a lot of talent on a team seeking first back-to-back playoff trips since 1994-95 between QB Matthew Stafford, WR Calvin Johnson and TE Brandon Pettigrew on offense; DT Ndamukong Suh and DE Cliff Avril lead the defense. Running back is a big weakness, but more problematic is the secondary in this division.
TE impact ranking: 8th. Pettigrew could be a star, and Tony Scheffler is a very good No. 2.
Outlook: Team is still in rebuilding mode, but appears to be going in the right direction if QB Christian Ponder is the guy and RB Adrian Peterson can come back at full strength after ACL surgery. Defensive line can match most in the league, especially with DE Jared Allen coming off 22 sacks. LT Ryan Kalil has to be good from start.
TE impact ranking: 15th. With John Carlson joining Kyle Rudolph, duo has a chance to leap up list.
Outlook: Obviously they’re dealing with the fallout from the bounty scandal, but besides being without coach Sean Payton, the impact is minimal. Curtis Lofton is an upgrade over suspended LB Jonathan Vilma. The offense will be top-notch again behind QB Drew Brees, TE Jimmy Graham and RB Darren Sproles, and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will improve that unit. And there’s the whole revenge factor.
TE impact ranking: 9th. Graham is a stud, and he has two solid running mates in former Patriots David Thomas and Daniel Graham.
Outlook: If there’s one team that could surprise, it’s the Panthers. They should still be a juggernaut offensively behind QB Cam Newton, a three-headed monster at running back, and WR Steve Smith. If the defense can stay healthy, and first-round pick Luke Kuechly can make a big impact, the Panthers could go deep into the playoffs.
TE impact ranking: 3rd. Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey (released) combined for 30 percent of passing offense according to FootballOutsiders.com.
Outlook: There is subtle pressure on this group – no playoff wins for coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan since they came aboard in 2008. The first four weeks could tell the tale if they sink or swim at the Chiefs, vs. the Broncos, at the Chargers and home against the Panthers. There is talent on both sides. No excuses.
TE impact ranking: 14th. Twelve-time Pro Bowler Tony Gonzalez said this is likely his final season. Still very good at 36.
Outlook: Discipline for a young and talented team arrives with new coach Greg Schiano. And the Bucs added talent with draft picks S Mark Barron, LB Lavonte David and RB Doug Martin, and free agents G Carl Nicks and WR Vincent Jackson. Losing guard Davin Joseph to a knee injury will be a blow to erratic QB Josh Freeman, who will determine how much the Bucs improve.
TE impact ranking: 16th. If Dallas Clark, another new addition, stays healthy, they should climb.
Outlook: If the 49ers can get something out of new WRs Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and first-round pick A.J. Jenkins, they are loaded just about everywhere on the field. The 49ers are talented and experienced on both sides, especially on defense. The lone question: is QB Alex Smith capable of leading the team to the Super Bowl?
TE impact ranking: 2nd. Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are one of the few duos that can approach the Patriots.
Outlook: Rookie Russell Wilson gets the initial call over free agent Matt Flynn at quarterback. RB Marshawn Lynch hopes to carry over his success from the second half of last season, but will need the line to stay healthy. The secondary is top notch. The pass rush must improve with free agent Jason Jones and first-round pick Bruce Irvin.
TE impact ranking: 22nd. Team let Kellen Winslow go, so it’s all Zach Miller.
Outlook: Arizona, on paper, has one of the league’s better defenses although he didn’t look very good in the preseason. It also has a very good 1-2 punch at running back with Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams. And Larry Fitzgerald is still one of the league’s best WRs, and the team spent a first-round pick on Michael Floyd. Can John Skelton or Kevin Kolb do anything at quarterback?
TE impact ranking: 21st. Jeff King and Todd Heap have the potential to be a top-10 unit…with a good QB.
Outlook: Jeff Fisher is in total rebuilding mode after taking over for Steve Spagnuolo. There should be 13 new starters total, and both kickers. The Rams do have a solid core with RB Steven Jackson, QB Sam Bradford, LB James Laurinaitis and DE Chris Long. Recent picks in DE Robert Quinn, DT Michael Brockers and CB Janoris Jenkins must make impacts.
TE impact ranking: 24th. On talent alone this group is worse, but Bradford makes them better.