The Hall of Fame Game was supposed to be Thursday. That was the first NFL game canceled. Not long after, the entire preseason was wiped out.
The preseason doesn’t count, but at very least it’s a reminder that football is right around the corner. It’s harder to get emotionally invested in this NFL season, not knowing what comes next.
The coronavirus outbreaks with the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals are reminders that the football season is tenuous, too. There have been many players go on the NFL’s reserve/COVID-19 list, and more than 50 players have opted out of the season. A few teams have already decided there won’t be fans in the stadium, or had the decisions made for them.
The chances of the season kicking off in Kansas City on Sept. 10 and going through the Super Bowl without any issues seem remote. The NFL can’t do a bubble like the NBA. We just need to hope everyone stays as safe as possible and the season goes forth with as few disruptions as possible.
As awkward as it seems to talk about football amid a pandemic, the news of players opting out affects the outlook for several teams.
Nobody was hit harder by opt outs than the New England Patriots. It’s not even close. They had eight players opt out, including key members of the defense like Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung, and starting right tackle Marcus Cannon. They’re not the same team they were a few weeks ago.
Usually when our annual team preview countdown starts in early June, there is rarely significant news that could change the rankings. That’s not the case when more than 50 players opt out before training camp even really gets going. There has been plenty of other late news. Cam Newton’s signing might have been delayed some by COVID-19 travel issues and Jadeveon Clowney hasn’t signed at all, which is likely affected some by coronavirus restrictions. The Jamal Adams trade to Seattle was also a big story over the past few weeks, though we can’t pin that one on coronavirus.
For now, we’re keeping the power rankings the same as the countdown of team previews, though we’ll note the major recent developments in each team’s ranking below. When we revisit the power rankings before the season, we’ll reevaluate the latest news and whatever happens through August.
As always with the first edition of power rankings for the season, click on the team links below to read an in-depth 2020 preview for that team:
The Jaguars’ stubbornness on Yannick Ngakoue doesn’t have a logical positive conclusion for the team. Ngakoue, upset over getting the franchise tag, isn’t in camp and hadn’t even spoken to coach Doug Marrone as the team reported. Even if Ngakoue plays, he won’t be happy and it’s very hard to see him staying past this year. It’s hard to believe Jacksonville can’t get anything for a young, elite pass rusher, even if he’s on a one-year deal.
Alex Smith has been working out, coach Ron Rivera said he has been pleasantly surprised by how Smith looks and if he continues to impress he’ll be “part of the conversation most definitely” to start at quarterback. Ignore that it wouldn’t make much sense for Washington to bench second-year QB Dwayne Haskins Jr. for Smith. The fact that Rivera is even entertaining the possibility is incredible given Smith’s awful leg injury.
Joe Mixon didn’t hold out, and the team is adamant they want to get an extension done. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported Mixon wants to be paid among the top eight running backs in the league. That seems reasonable.
If continuity matters in this strange season (and we might overrate that factor), the Panthers really have a challenge. Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer pointed out the Panthers are the only team replacing their head coach, both coordinators, quarterback and star linebacker. Coach Matt Rhule hadn’t even met all his players by the end of July.
“I still haven’t met all the players yet,” Rhule said, via Fowler. “Guys are going to be walking in and I’m going to be introducing them to me and [saying], ‘Hey, I’m Matt Rhule,’ and meeting them through masks and all those different things.”
28. New York Giants
Nate Solder might not have lived up to his large contract with the Giants yet, but he was still a solid tackle and the Giants didn’t have an easy replacement when he opted out. The Giants could go into the season with rookies at both tackle spots. First-round pick Andrew Thomas was slotted into one spot, and third-round pick Matt Peart might have to fill the other. That’s not ideal.
27. Detroit Lions
The NFL’s annual “Top 100 Players” list is flawed to say the least, but it’s still a reasonably decent snapshot of how teams stack up in blue-chip talent. The Lions were one of six teams to not have any players on the list, along with the Bengals, Dolphins, Jaguars, Jets and Washington. Maybe receiver Kenny Golladay should have been included, but even if that was an omission, the Lions need some top-end talent to emerge.
26. New York Jets
Since the previews started, the Jets traded safety Jamal Adams and had linebacker C.J. Mosley opt out. That’s arguably their two most talented defensive players, maybe their two most talented players period. While the Jets got a good return on trading the disgruntled Adams to Seattle and it’s hard to blame any player for opting out, it still makes a bad team worse for 2020.
25. Atlanta Falcons
Receiver Calvin Ridley is a favorite breakout pick for many, and he senses it, too. He said he’s healthy and ready to hit a statistical milestone.
“I just think that football has really slowed down for me a lot in the NFL,” Ridley said according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I ain’t going to lie, I’m real hungry to show people that I’m easily a 1,000-yard receiver. Easily and even better.”
24. Miami Dolphins
Receiver Preston Williams was having a strong rookie season last year before tearing his ACL. He was recently cleared to practice, and he’ll be a key player to watch early in the season. If Williams can be the same player he was before that injury, the Dolphins will feel pretty good at receiver with him and DeVante Parker.
Derek Carr sounded off on being disrespected, and he’s not wrong. Carr is better than given credit for. He’ll probably never be a top-10 option and maybe the Raiders aim for someone who can be after this season, but there are worse starting quarterbacks in the NFL than the one Las Vegas has.
The Chargers already seemed set on Tyrod Taylor as their starter, but the lack of preseason games presumably eliminates any chance of first-round pick Justin Herbert winning the job. Herbert could theoretically be so good in practice he forces the Chargers into a change. But his best bet to win the job or at least speed up the change was with a big preseason, like Daniel Jones with the New York Giants last season.
21. Houston Texans
If Deshaun Watson was upset by the Texans trading his top receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, he wasn’t going to let on publicly.
“I didn’t know the whole background story,” Watson said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “That’s their business. That’s just how the business goes. The organization did what they had to do, D-Hop did what he had to do.
“I can’t control that. I feel the way I feel, but it’s not my place and time to speak on that. I’m not going to step out of my lane.”
The Cardinals posted a video of Kyler Murray throwing to DeAndre Hopkins, which was cool to see, but what stood out was Murray’s physique. He looked noticeably bigger, and Kliff Kingsbury said his quarterback has bulked up before his second season. That’s a good sign.
Having defensive tackle Michael Pierce opt out didn’t get huge headlines, but it’s a significant loss. Pierce was the only free agent addition the Vikings spent more than $1 million on. Pierce got a three-year, $27 million contract. Minnesota lost a lot this offseason, and that was before the unexpected news of Pierce opting out. Having a trade for Las Vegas nose tackle P.J. Hall fall through due to Hall’s failed physical doesn’t help either.
18. Chicago Bears
Nose tackle Eddie Goldman was among the players to opt out this season, and that’s a big blow to the Bears’ defense. Goldman was a key part of the team’s run defense. And with many linemen opting out around the league, it’s not like quality replacements are easy to find.
17. Los Angeles Rams
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey isn’t thrilled with repeated questions about when his contract extension will get done, but it might be trickier than normal. The Rams need to pay Ramsey, one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, after trading a lot for him. But a drop in revenue and its ramifications to the salary cap going forward make a record-setting deal complicated.
16. Cleveland Browns
Tight end David Njoku asked for a trade, then rescinded that request and said he’s “all in” on this season with the Browns. That’s good news for the Browns, who haven’t gotten the return they hoped for after using a first-round pick on Njoku, but still will use him plenty with Austin Hooper in Kevin Stefanski’s two-tight end sets.
Ben Roethlisberger said he feels good, has had no setbacks after elbow surgery and believes he has good seasons left. He also confirmed that he had three of the five right elbow tendons torn off the bone, and it’s still fair to be skeptical if he is the same Roethlisberger until we see it.
14. Denver Broncos
Losing starting right tackle Ja’Wuan James when he opted out hits the Broncos at a key spot. Instead of competing with Garett Bolles for the left tackle job, Elijah Wilkinson will slide to the right side. For a team that was set up to take a nice step forward this season, all of a sudden they have a big question with the offensive line.
Seeing the breakdown in carries between rookie Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack early in the season will be interesting. Offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni referred to them as a “1-1” punch in May, indicating an even split. It’s hard to believe the Colts traded up to take Taylor in the second round just to have him share carries, but there might be enough to go around on the run-first Colts.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson testing positive for the coronavirus, despite no symptoms, wasn’t a great sign for the NFL. But Pederson remains optimistic about the season.
“My confidence hasn’t changed at all,” Pederson said, via ABC 6 in Philadelphia. “I’m extremely optimistic. I feel like we’re going to play. I’m confident we’re going to play.”
11. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks paid plenty for safety Jamal Adams. They sent two first-round picks and then some for Adams, only the eighth time since 2000 that a team has shipped two first-rounders for a veteran player. Adams is great and helps Seattle this season and beyond, but he’ll have to be one of the best defensive players in the NFL to make the trade worth it.
Devin Funchess was just a bargain signing by the Packers, but he was the only addition to the Packers’ group of pass catchers this offseason. Funchess opted out of the season, meaning Green Bay added nobody of note to catch passes from Aaron Rodgers, failing to address their biggest weakness over the offseason.
I’m not sure where I’ll put the Patriots in the next power rankings. If it were any other team, I’d look at what they’ve lost since the end of last season and push them way down. But this is New England. Every time it looks like they’ve lost too much, they find replacements and keep rolling. I get if you want to believe this is the year the Patriots fall off — just don’t be the one to go overboard with the tanking for Trevor Lawrence nonsense — but be careful. Bill Belichick always figures out a way.
Edge rusher Vic Beasley was a key addition to the Titans in free agency, then he didn’t report to camp. It was unexcused, but the team is still hoping he comes in and plays. If Beasley doesn’t play for whatever reason he has for not coming to camp, it would leave a hole in the defense.
Bruce Arians said Ronald Jones is the team’s No. 1 back and everyone else, including LeSean McCoy and rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn, will have to battle for snaps behind him. Jones did play better late last season, but over nine starts to end the year, he posted an unimpressive 98-410-4 rushing line with just 200 yards receiving. He’ll have to improve to keep the job, but at least he has Arians’ trust.
Amari Cooper is aiming high. He liked the addition of CeeDee Lamb, the Oklahoma receiver Dallas selected in the first round, and said, “I think the expectations are to have three 1,000-yard receivers this year.” As noted in the preview linked above, having three 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher is rare but has been done before in the NFL. Dallas could have the best offense in the league this season, at least outside of Kansas City.
The Bills had already lost defensive tackle Star Lotulelei when he opted out, then All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White said Wednesday he hadn’t decided if he’d play this season. The Bills have high hopes and rightfully so, and players opting out due to health concerns shouldn’t be criticized, but losing key players is a tough blow in what was lining up as a breakthrough season.
The foot injury to receiver Deebo Samuel is a bad one for the 49ers’ offense. San Francisco isn’t deep at receiver and Samuel looked like a clear second-year breakout candidate. He was pretty good as a rookie. The injury was a Jones fracture and he’ll miss time this season. The worrisome part is players often experience setbacks with that injury, so it’s uncertain if Samuel will ever be totally healthy this season.
Michael Thomas had an outstanding season in breaking the NFL’s single-season record with 149 receptions. Only three other players have come within 20 of that total. Still, Thomas believes he can top 149 catches this season and set a record.
“It’s just what I do,” Thomas said, according to NOLA.com. “At my position, I set real high goals and I try to accomplish them along with winning football games and helping out the people around me.”
Damien Williams was a key piece of the Chiefs’ Super Bowl offense, but Kansas City is still in good shape at running back even after Williams opted out. Rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire is the player whose role grows the most, but Kansas City still has DeAndre Washington, Darwin Thompson and Darrel Williams to fill in behind the first-round pick. Williams played well down the stretch, but the Chiefs might not miss him.
Receiver Marquise Brown, the team’s 2019 first-round pick, had a good rookie season and seems determined to be even better in his second season. Better health will help. He also put on 23 pounds, going from a low point last season of 157 to 180, according to ESPN’s Jamison Hensley. Given the lack of reliable receivers behind Brown on the depth chart, he could have a huge season.