With training camps open or opening soon around the NFL, it seems like a good time to offer an early view of how teams stack up for the 2015 season.
My full, 1-to-32, preseason ranking accompanies this column. Below, I am making my extremely premature picks for the Super Bowl, including the winner, and the clubs that I expect to be in serious contention.
Super Bowl matchup: Seattle Seahawks vs. Baltimore Ravens
Making the cases: The Seahawks made the best move of the offseason by acquiring tight end Jimmy Graham. He gives them the highly effective red-zone target that could have come in handy at the end of the last Super Bowl when the New England Patriots intercepted Russell Wilson’s throw to the end zone to seal their victory. Yes, yes, the obvious call was a run by Marshawn Lynch. However, there was a pretty good chance of a different outcome had Graham been among Wilson’s targets.
Lynch’s contract is settled, so that eliminates some potentially nasty drama. Wilson’s new deal still needs to get done, but that shouldn’t pose a major problem given his attitude and highly professional approach to his job. The “Legion of Boom” should be every bit as foreboding to opposing offenses as ever now that defensive backs Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Jeremy Lane have recovered from injuries that slowed them in the postseason.
The Ray Rice disaster notwithstanding, the Ravens have earned a reputation for mostly doing things the right way as an organization. Ozzie Newsome is one of the smartest general managers in the league, and he appears to have done another good job of maintaining key pieces while adding others. One of the key decisions was re-signing Rice’s replacement at running back, Justin Forsett, after he became a full-time starter last season. The running game will remain the focal point of the Ravens’ offense and should do plenty to help maximize the effectiveness of quarterback Joe Flacco.
The Ravens’ offensive line, one of the best in the NFL, remains intact. It features a devastating guard duo of Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda. Steve Smith Sr., caught 79 passes for 1,065 yards and six touchdowns. First-round draft pick Breshad Perriman should be a nice big-play receiving complement as a replacement for Torrey Smith, who left for San Francisco in free agency. Although the Ravens traded one of the long-time fixtures on their defensive line, Haloti Ngata, to the Detroit Lions, they should still be in fine shape with Timmy Jernigan, who filled in nicely during Ngata’s four-game suspension last season.
Super Bowl winner: Seattle. There isn’t a more complete team in the league, period.
Other serious contenders: Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, and Dallas Cowboys.
Making the cases: With the Packers, you start with the fact that Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback and that the rest of their passing game should be just as explosive as always. On that basis, alone, they are seemingly everyone’s choice to win it all. But there are some significant defensive concerns, especially on the back end and with the pass rush. The Packers are obviously equipped to win shootouts, but that doesn’t mean they’ll win enough of them to get to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots are always going to be in the Super Bowl conversation, even when they’re not defending NFL champions. The only thing that could change that this year is if Brady ends up serving his entire four-game suspension for his role in the “Deflategate.” There continues to be rampant speculation that Commissioner Roger Goodell will reduce the punishment to two games, and that doesn’t figure to be enough to derail the Patriots’ season. But four games could.
The Cowboys addressed their weakest area last season by adding the best 4-3 defensive end in free agency, Greg Hardy (whose suspension for domestic abuse was reduced from 10 games to four), and the draft, Randy Gregory, should do plenty to help them greatly improve their No. 28 ranking in the NFL for sacks. Although they lost DeMarco Murray to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency, the Cowboys should still be able to run the ball well with Joseph Randle and a good offensive line.