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NFL Preseason Power Rankings: Patriots, Rams, Saints lead way

Welcome to a new era of the Power Rankings.

New guy, same drill. Every Tuesday morning during the regular season and through the playoffs, I'll spin through the NFL and rank every team, from glorious No. 1 to dreaded No. 32. Like a gritty reality TV competitor, I didn't come here to make friends. But I promise to be fair.

We'll fire up the engine with a mid-preseason Power Rankings. I implore you not to get too amped up in either direction over where your team stands in the middle of August. There will be plenty of time to rage tweet me at @danhanzus. Let's ease into this relationship slowly.

Finally, I'd like to shout out Elliot Harrison, who did great work in this space over the past eight years. Excited to take the baton and break into a clunky Dad Jog. Let's do this thing.

Defending champions should never drop out of the No. 1 spot in a preseason power rankings exercise. Josh Gordon's reinstatement is a huge lift for an offense crossing its fingers for an impact from the likes of Maurice Harris, Jakobi Meyers and first-round pick N'Keal Harry. As for the guy who will be throwing the ball: ESPN's Mike Reiss recently wrote that Tom Brady, who turned 42 earlier this month, has "been as sharp as ever" at Patriots camp. Don't be surprised at the end of the season when this is a top-10 offense -- again.

Rams coach Sean McVay left around 20 starters back home when the team traveled to Hawaii for its preseason game last week against the Cowboys. When the NFL finally moves away from four preseason games (I believe this will happen), you can thank McVay for playing his part. The coach's preseason crusade did not preclude us from getting a closer look at rookie running back Darrell Henderson, who had six receptions and 54 yards of total offense against Dallas. We are less than three weeks away from Week 1, and one of the league's burning questions is how McVay will split backfield usage between Henderson, Malcolm Brown and Todd Gurley.

Taysom Hill went off in the second half of the Saints' preseason game on Sunday, relieving an ill Teddy Bridgewater and lighting up the Chargers with his arm and legs in a comeback win. Exciting? Yes. But remember that the preseason makes fools of many. It does make you think, though: In games that count, would Sean Payton carve out an even greater role for Hill in the Saints' offense than what we saw last season (133 snaps, seven pass attempts, 37 rushes)? Would Drew Brees be OK with that? Payton wouldn't do anything to disrespect his future Hall of Fame quarterback, but you know there must be alternate game plans rattling around in that genius offensive mind of his.

Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' offense looked mortal in their preseason tuneup against the Steelers. The reigning NFL MVP finished 2-of-5 for 11 yards in two fruitless possessions. You may remember -- or Steelers fans may still be trying to forget -- Mahomes throwing six touchdown passes last September at Heinz Field. Is there any reason to worry in K.C.? Of course not. With Tyreek Hill a full go, the Kansas City offense will enter 2019 as an unholy terror. The addition of speedy second-round pick Mecole Hardman, who had a TD catch in each of the first two preseason games, further complicates matters for opposing defensive coordinators.

You can probably drop the Colts 15 spots on this list if Andrew Luck's latest mysterious injury eats into his regular season. For now, we'll work under the assumption that the superstar quarterback will be ready for Week 1. Luck was seen warming up before Indy's preseason matchup against the Browns, which seems like a good sign. The Colts may not be Super Bowl contenders with Jacoby Brissett, but they aren't lost, either. He was great in limited action against Cleveland. In Jake Brisket, the Colts have themselves an ideal hold-the-fort guy. (Editor's note: Luck announced Saturday evening that he was retiring from football.)

The depth behind Carson Wentz gets more troubling by the week. Seven days after Nate Sudfeld broke his wrist in the preseason opener, Cody Kessler suffered a concussion against the Jaguars. Clayton Thorson managed to remain in one piece for the balance of Thursday's game, and general manager Howie Roseman coaxed 40-year-old Josh McCown out of retirement two days later. A search of McCown's name will bring up hundreds of notebooks and feature stories singing the veteran's praises as a teammate and man, but McCown the football player did not put out positive tape in extended action for the Jets in 2018. In Nick Foles, Philly had the ultimate luxury at quarterback. Even at full health, could you trust McCown, Sudfeld or Kessler to be competent if called upon?

Bears coach Matt Nagy went Full McVay on us in Week 2 of the preseason, holding rookie running back David Montgomery out of action after his eye-opening performance against the Panthers a week prior. Montgomery is likely to stay out of harm's way until real football begins -- and he'll hardly be alone. The Bears held out 26 players that are either starters or key reserves against the Giants. However, the game did lead to a development at one key position. The Bears waived Elliott Fry on Sunday, leaving Eddy Pineiro as the only kicker remaining in one of the league's most heavily scrutinized positional battles this summer. Who knows what mental tests Nagy has in store for Pineiro now that he's alone? Escape room? Sleep deprivation chamber? Hot-coals walk?

OK, Cowboys fans: It's officially understandable to be nervous about the Ezekiel Elliott holdout. Week 1 is on the horizon, and we are not hearing anything positive on the contract negotiations front. At least he's back in the U.S. -- that's a start, right? For now, it's wise to focus on who is actually at The Star. That includes Dak Prescott, who has looked very sharp in both his preseason tuneups. In fact, the fourth-year starter didn't throw an incompletion in nine attempts against the Niners and Rams. One of Prescott's completions in Hawaii was hauled in by Jason Witten, who played all 12 snaps of Dallas' opening drive. Witten had 63 catches for 560 yards on 87 targets in his 2017 "farewell" season. It will be interesting to see if he comes close to approaching that production in 2019.

The Steelers got serious about improving their defense in the offseason, and we continue to see promising signs in the early going of the preseason. As we mentioned earlier, Pittsburgh put the clamps on Mahomes across nine snaps -- a small sample size, but encouraging nonetheless. First-round pick Devin Bush flashed big-time in the preseason opener against the Buccaneers, while T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were pass-rush terrors against Kansas City. Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell might be gone, but you'd be foolish to count out the Steelers' chances in the AFC. A soft reboot might be exactly what this organization needed.

The summer has been filled with praise for D.K. Metcalf, the second-round rookie wide receiver expected to step into the void left by the retired Doug Baldwin. That plan hit a speed bump with Sunday's announcement that Metcalf needs surgery to repair a knee injury suffered last week. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll doesn't believe Metcalf will be out long, but it's more bad news for a Seattle rookie class that is having trouble staying on the field. Defensive end L.J. Collier, the team's first-round pick, is working his way back from an ankle sprain. On Sunday night, second-round safety Marquise Blair was carted off the field with back spasms.

The Derwin James injury is a crushing setback for the Chargers, who lose a young team leader and one of the biggest difference makers in the NFL from the safety position for at least three months. That the injury occurred in practice last week serves as a reminder that holding key players out of preseason games doesn't guarantee much. James played in 99 percent of the Chargers' snaps as a rookie, earning first-team All-Pro honors in the process. NFL coaches love the "next man up" mantra, but this is not your typical situation. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has some capable players -- Adrian Phillips and Desmond King, to name two -- who will help try to fill the void. It's plain bad luck for a franchise that's had more than its share.

"Slide a little bit." That was the advice Aaron Rodgers gave Lamar Jackson when the two quarterbacks met at midfield after Thursday's preseason matchup between the Packers and Ravens. (FWIW: Robert Griffin III was there, too -- he later referred to himself as "RG3rd Wheel.") Rodgers may have been referring to the game's most exciting play, an 18-yard Jackson touchdown run that saw the second-year passer fake out one Packers defender and hurdle over another on his way into the end zone. (The play was nullified by a penalty, but who cares?) Rodgers, of course, makes a good point. Jackson absolutely should be sliding in a meaningless preseason game, but that's just not the kid's style.

Kirk Cousins is under a lot of pressure after an up-and-down first season with the Vikings, and a sharp preseason isn't going to quiet the doubters. Still, Cousins looked nice and loose in an efficient cameo on Sunday against the Seahawks. It will be interesting to see how Minnesota's attack operates with offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski (his interim label now removed) and -- looking this up, one moment -- offensive adviser Gary Kubiak in the mix. Cousins' counting stats were actually pretty great in his first season in Minnesota, but that's kind of become Cousins' MO, hasn't it? Entering his eighth season, it's time to tie that production to more wins and a deep playoff run.

The Texans aren't really going to trade Jadeveon Clowney, are they? That was the big story around this team last week after longtime Houston Chronicle scribe John McClain tweeted that he'd be surprised if the talented edge rusher *wasn't* traded. Perhaps -- and this is not likely -- but perhaps Houston could find a team willing to part with a premium draft pick for Clowney, but how many teams would do that without any assurances that Clowney won't simply walk to the highest bidder in free agency seven months from now? Maybe the relationship between Clowney and head coach/de facto GM Bill O'Brien is worse than we know ... but it just makes more sense for the Texans to hold onto Clowney and put their best team on the field in a couple weeks.

One of the NFL's biggest subplots entering the 2019 season is how Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense will change -- the hope in Green Bay is for the better -- with rookie head coach Matt LaFleur now at the controls. This might be a good time to revisit Mike Silver's June profile on the new relationship between the 35-year-old Rodgers and 39-year-old LaFleur. We learned in Silver's piece that Rodgers -- who was held out of preseason action and a weekend practice as a precaution due to back stiffness -- will not have as much freedom at the line of scrimmage as he did during the Mike McCarthy era. Rodgers seemed open to the change in June ... we wonder if he'll feel the same way if Green Bay goes 1-3 in September.

Add Freddie Kitchens to the list of coaches who treat preseason games as far less than a necessity. The first-year Browns head man rested a host of players in the team's preseason win over the Colts, including quarterback Baker Mayfield, running back Nick Chubb, defensive end Myles Garrett, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and tight end David Njoku. OBJ (hip) and Njoku (knee) are both nursing what seem to be minor injuries (Njoku returned to practice on Monday). Kitchens said Garrett got "banged up" in Thursday's joint practice with the Colts. One player who did suit up this weekend was running back Kareem Hunt, who knocked a little bit of rust off with two carries against Indy. It will be interesting to see what kind of role he inherits when his eight-game suspension is up. Chubb has a golden opportunity to take the starting job and, well, run with it.

Gregg Williams was not going to give Matt Ryan an easy time of it on Thursday night. The Jets defensive coordinator sent all sorts of heat at the former MVP, who was sacked three times and under constant pressure during his four possessions. The positive spin for the Falcons is that they did not have what they believe will be their full starting five on the field to protect Ryan, which -- while we're here -- makes you wonder why franchise cornerstones like Ryan are on the field in the first place for these exhibitions. Ryan wasn't spooked by the pressure, by the way. He completed nine straight passes at one point against New York's subpar secondary, and he would have had a touchdown if not for a pair of end-zone drops.

Welcome back, Marqise Lee. The veteran wide receiver returned to practice this weekend, marking an important step in his comeback after tearing multiple knee ligaments in a game last August. Lee's next battle is to work his way up a depth chart that includes Dede Westbrook, D.J. Chark and Chris Conley. The wide receiver position in general is a big question mark for the Jaguars, who gave Nick Foles a hefty free-agent contract in the spring but may not have surrounded him with enough weapons to spark the kind of change Jacksonville brass expects with the former Super Bowl MVP behind center. It wouldn't be shocking if the Jags looked to add to this group if and when a veteran name shakes free come final roster cuts.

Do we have a sneaky quarterback competition going on in Nashville? Ben Volin of the Boston Globe reported this weekend that the Titans' starting QB gig "looks surprisingly wide open." The Football Cognoscenti had been under the impression that Marcus Mariota would be the starter for Week 1 and beyond, with the newly acquired Ryan Tannehill on the ready if Mariota struggled or went down with another injury. Volin believes Mariota will have a "short leash" at best, which -- let's be honest here -- makes sense. Mariota has had plenty of time (four seasons so far) to prove himself as The Man in Nashville. It's hard to fault the Titans if they are indeed having a crisis of confidence in the former No. 2 overall pick.

Ron Rivera is wisely keeping Cam Newton out of harm's way as the 30-year-old quarterback returns from his second shoulder surgery in two years. The downside of this has been the grim backup quarterback competition we're seeing through two preseason games. Kyle Allen started against the Bills and struggled to get passes beyond the line of scrimmage. Will Grier replaced Allen and threw a pick-six on his second pass attempt. If you're looking for a long shot in this scintillating backup battle, don't count out Taylor Heinicke, who actually moved the ball against the Bills' reserves. Yep, the Panthers really need Cam to stay healthy this year. Newton will finally hit the field Thursday.

Bradley Chubb looked like a man ready for induction into The Superstar Club on Monday night against the 49ers. The second-year linebacker was an absolute terror over 15 snaps, finishing with three tackles, one strip-sack and two quarterback hits. One of those QB hits led to an interception, making Chubb responsible for two Niners turnovers in the first half. Chubb was stronger and faster than both San Francisco blind-side protectors who attempted to stop him, one of them being six-time Pro Bowler Joe Staley. It's scary what the three-headed monster of Chubb, Von Miller and defensive wizard Vic Fangio is capable of.

Jets coach Adam Gase told reporters he was wrong to play inside linebacker Avery Williamson as long as he did on Thursday against the Falcons. Williamson was playing with all reserves when an end-zone collision resulted in a season-ending torn ACL. It's a brutal setback for a New York defense that needs all the help it can get. Williamson is a solid veteran who was shifting positions after the Jets handed C.J. Mosley a huge contract in free agency. Gase told reporters on Sunday that Williamson's misfortune ended any lingering consideration that running back Le'Veon Bell will see live action before Week 1. Bell hasn't played in a game since January 2018, but it's hard to blame Gase for the decision. You get the feeling the Jets could be playing in a lot of 34-31 games this fall.

The Bills start in humble territory in our power rankings, but keep an eye on the upstarts out of Western New York. Coach Sean McDermott has a roster that could surprise, and the Bills could be downright frisky if Josh Allen develops in Year 2. The 2018 first-round pick was sharp on Friday against the Panthers, leading the Bills to 10 points in two possessions. Fantasy owners: Keep an eye out on wide receiver Cole Beasley, who has developed a quick rapport with Allen. He has six catches for 72 yards on six targets through two preseason tilts. Former English rugby player Christian Wade continued his long-shot bid to crack the Bills roster, taking a swing pass from Tyree Jackson and rumbling nearly 50 yards to the goal line. That'll do, mate.

Jimmy Garoppolo made his return to game action against the Broncos on Monday night and ... well ... let's just say there's room for improvement. The quarterback, whose 2018 season was cut short by a torn ACL last September, had what ESPN analyst Rex Ryan termed a "deer in the headlights" look across three series. Garoppolo finished 1-for-6 with an interception and zero yards passing. Zero. His numbers would have been worse if not for a dropped would-be pick six. This performance comes after Jimmy G threw interceptions on five consecutive passes in practice last week. Time to panic? Nah, rust is expected for the former Tom Brady understudy. But it's pretty wild how much expectations have shifted for Garoppolo since this time last year.

AB Drama returned with a vengeance the weekend. General manager Mike Mayock told reporters Sunday that Antonio Brown -- who went AWOL on the team again over his helmet crusade -- has to make a decision now as to whether or not he wants to be part of the team. You know the Raiders hoped to avoid the situation reaching this territory. They've essentially given Brown, a complete and utter wild card at this point of his career, what amounts to an ultimatum. Brown's agent responded on behalf of his client, and yikes, this is a big, old mess. The Steelers were roasted for sending Brown to Oakland in exchange for a pair of mid-round picks (and a huge cap hit), but now it looks like a stroke of genius. The good news? Brown returned to the team on Monday. The bad news? That doesn't guarantee he'll stay there.

Though they didn't get a win out of it (doesn't matter), the Lions have to be feeling much better about themselves after their 30-23 loss to the Texans. The Lions looked completely out of sync in their preseason opener against the Patriots; the offensive line allowed nine sacks! You can understand why coach Matt Patricia continues to keep Matthew Stafford out of game action. The line was a much more competitive unit against the Texans, giving up just two sacks and actually allowing backup quarterbacks Josh Johnson and David Fales time to make some plays. Stafford will likely make his first and only preseason cameo this week against the Bills. How the Lions' line looks early on in that one will likely dictate how long the franchise quarterback stays on the field.

Daniel Jones' preseason debut made everyone wonder if there was any chance a legit quarterback competition would come into focus in Northern New Jersey. Eli Manning probably put that to rest with one possession against the Bears. (Yes, the bar was that low.) The veteran completed all four of his pass attempts with a touchdown in his only drive before giving way to Jones. The first-round pick wasn't nearly as impressive as he was a week ago, fumbling in two of his first three possessions. Jones pulled it together and flashed later in the game on a gorgeous 15-yard fade pass to T.J. Jones late in the first half. You get the feeling that Manning is going to have play well -- and win -- to still have his starting job by Halloween.

Rookie Dwayne Haskins hung tough in the pocket and dropped a dime into the hands of Robert Davis for a 55-yard touchdown against the Bengals, but ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that veteran Case Keenum is the favorite to start Week 1 against the Eagles. It makes sense. As I wrote in my breakdown of the job security of all 32 head coaches, Jay Gruden does not have the luxury of going through the peaks and valleys of a rookie quarterback's first journey through the NFL. Gruden has to win games -- and Keenum probably gives the Redskins a better shot at doing that right now. That said, consider it a shock if we don't see plenty of Haskins in 2019. Gruden must walk a fine line. (Or is it a plank?)

The big storyline around the Bucs this offseason centered on the relationship of new head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Jameis Winston, but this defense could be in line for a big improvement. New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is getting high marks from Bucs players, and free-agent acquisitions like Ndamukong Suh and Shaquil Barrett flashed in training camp and the preseason. Bowles' reputation took a hit during a largely unsuccessful run as head coach of the Jets, but he was one of the league's most effective defensive coordinators before that. It will be interesting to see if he can get his mojo back in Tampa.

The Bengals are without both A.J. Green (ankle) and John Ross (hamstring), but that hasn't stopped fourth-round rookie quarterback Ryan Finley from putting a chokehold on the backup job behind Andy Dalton. Finley has completed 75 percent of his attempts with three touchdowns and one interception thus far. Andy Dalton is in no danger of losing his grip on the starting gig, but the departure of coach Marvin Lewis after 16 seasons creates the feeling of a fresh start in Cincinnati. If Zac Taylor isn't in love with what he sees from Dalton this season, could another big organizational change be on the way in 2020?

The Kyler Murray Instant Superstar Express (working title) hit a speed bump on Thursday night. The No. 1 overall pick struggled mightily against the Raiders. Murray went 3-for-8 for 12 yards in four futile possessions, took a bad sack that resulted in a safety and was flagged for two false starts connected to his "clap snap." That last issue might be the trickiest to address for the rookie, who will be forced to make a quick adjustment. That said, this is not panic time in the desert. The Cardinals and new head coach Kliff Kingsbury aren't showing close to their real offense in the preseason, and Murray will get better with more pro reps.

I say this with all the respect in the world for The Beard: Is there a reason for Ryan Fitzpatrick to be on this particular Dolphins team? It made sense when Fitzpatrick signed back in March; at that point, the Miami depth chart consisted of Jake Rudock and Luke Falk, two men with five NFL pass attempts between them. But the arrival of Josh Rosen changed things. With Miami deep in a rebuild, it makes sense to see as much as possible from Rosen, who was deemed worthy of the 10th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, before having to make a huge decision at quarterback come next April. Speaking of which, when Fitzpatrick goes full Fitzmagic for a month in September or October, won't the excitement and ensuing victories be offset by the resulting weakened draft position in the first round? Real talk: Fitz makes more sense as trade bait than as the Dolphins' starting quarterback.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @DanHanzus.

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