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Power Rankings: 49ers on top after spate of injuries across NFL

Let all the worrying begin.

It was the first quarter of Seattle Seahawks-San Diego Chargers. Ryan Mathews took the handoff and bucked it up the middle for a few yards. A simple running play -- and I thought he was hurt already.

Too soon? Hey it's not just the reputation of the Chargers running back for, uh, not being available. For a two-week span, it seemed like tons of players were going down ... Jeremy Maclin, Dennis Pitta, Dan Koppen and on and on. Fans have been cringing -- understandably -- with each gloomy video clip from camp. See: A.J. Green taking a tumble on HBO's "Hard Knocks." Thankfully, the Cincinnati Bengals' star wideout turned out to be OK, merely tweaking his knee.

All of which is to say that our first non-offseason Power Rankings were heavily influenced by the franchise health-o-meter. That starts right at the top, as the last time we took stock of all 32 clubs, there was a different team at No. 1. You'll see that has changed -- because of the loss of a slot receiver. Take a look at that and the rest of the NFL totem pole after a week of preseason action.

Remember, we welcome your thoughts ... @HarrisonNFL is always the dropbox. Let the dissension commence!

NOTE: The following pecking order reflects changes from the June 25 Power Rankings, which were compiled at the close of minicamps.

Even the most diehard San Francisco 49ers fan has to wonder about this secondary right now. Who's starting? Obviously, Dashon Goldson is with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chris Culliver is out and the great unknown -- Nnamdi Asomugha -- is wearing No. 24, not the No. 21 he made famous playing for that other team in the Bay Area. Will Tarell Brown hold his own at one corner spot? Did (or do) the 49ers want to dump Carlos Rogers on any level? Going a step further -- or, rather, back -- will the club go with an unproven rookie over Craig Dahl at safety? If so, first-round draft pick Eric Reid had better ball out, because we saw what can happen to this secondary when the pass rush isn't clicking (see: the end of last season).

All that said, we still have the 49ers on top ...

... partially because the Denver Broncos took a key hit on the injury front, much like the team that follows them on our rankings. Losing center Dan Koppen hurt, no doubt. Just ask the Green Bay Packers or Dallas Cowboys how important it is to have an effective player at center -- or at any of the interior line spots, for that matter. Now, did Koppen have a great 2012? No. But finding a veteran center who can handle protection changes and maintain chemistry with Peyton Manning is big. That's why bringing in Ryan Lilja was a smart move, even if Manny Ramirez ends up starting.

Wait. Not happy that we devoted the entire Broncos blurb to a conversation about centers? Here's a fantasy prediction: Demaryius Thomas > Wes Welker > Eric Decker. You're welcome.

The Seattle Seahawks and Broncos both failed to nab the top spot mostly because of health issues, which is unfortunate. When you lose a player of Percy Harvin's caliber, it's going to affect the standings. And on the defensive side of the ball ... Irrespective of how fans feel about Bruce Irvin's upside, this club must get defensive end Chris Clemons back. The tricky deal is that Clemons wants to return -- like, now. The Seattle brass must be careful here, as Clemons turns 32 in October. Better to have him fully healthy in Week 3 or Week 5 than to rush him back for Week 1.

The guy we're watching? Doug Baldwin. He can play, and he should be a primary option in the slot sans Harvin. There's a reason teams inquired about Baldwin's availability this offseason.

The Atlanta Falcons stand pat at the cleanup spot. Speaking of power hitters, the Falcons could still use some oomph on that defensive line, particularly in the middle, where Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters have blown away approximately no one. Remember, this defense gave up 123 rushing yards to the Seattle Seahawks and 149 to the San Francisco 49ers during the playoffs last season, despite having huge leads in both games. While I understand general manager Thomas Dimitroff shying away from the aging, slightly unmotivated Richard Seymour, the proven vet sure could be a nice addition for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

Watching Houston Texans rookie DeAndre Hopkins' touchdown catch against the Minnesota Vikings on Friday night, all one could really say was, well ... damn. Kevin Walter might have perfect hair -- it's a beautiful coif -- but he would never, ever make that play. Watch it again.

By the way, with the New England Patriots' passing game still in flux and Denver losing its center, this is the year to get it done in Houston.

The only thing more uncomfortable than seeing A.J. Green spill awkwardly on "Hard Knocks" was watching Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden wilt after attempting to admonish James Harrison about hitting players. The nervous laughter didn't seem to help much.

On the subject of Green, awkward spills involving little-to-no contact have destroyed guys' careers. Jamal Anderson in 1999 at Texas Stadium comes to mind. Robert Edwards, who rushed for 1,000 yards as a rookie with the New England Patriots in 1998, was an up-and-coming player like Green before leaping for a ball in a beach -- yes, beach -- flag football game. He was never the same. Anyway, disaster averted here for the Bengals.

If most of the teams ranked below the Baltimore Ravens weren't having serious issues or carrying RGIII-esque question marks, Baltimore would probably fall another spot. Since we last rated the Ravens, they lost tight end Dennis Pitta for the season -- a huge development. Look, is Pitta the second coming of Jason Witten? No. But he's pretty doggone good, and he was slotted to easily be the most favored target on third down, what with Anquan Boldin having been traded away. Now the Ravens are down a possession receiver. That means running back Ray Rice -- who many felt would be in a time share with Bernard Pierce this season -- will be on the field more. Rice is sure to eclipse his 61 catches from last year.

While the Green Bay Packers also suffered a Pitta-like blow, perhaps there shouldn't be an overreaction to tackle Bryan Bulaga's season-ender. After all, Green Bay's offensive line was already in the bottom half of the league. While coach Mike McCarthy treats the outcomes of preseason games with the seriousness of a 49-year-old man playing "The Legend of Zelda" on wine coolers, the Packers' complete lack of an explosive run game against the Arizona Cardinals the other night was a bit noticeable. The positive news: The Chicago Bears' O-line still stinks.

Everyone wonders exactly who Tom Brady will throw the football to this year; it's been a storyline for over a month now. But don't sleep on those New England Patriots running backs. Stevan Ridley (eight rushes, 92 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday) continues to show he is a premium back, and Shane Vereen made a sweet catch over Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks in that same game. Did you see LeGarrette Blount's touchdown run? Very Tony Dorsett-ish.

Last season, Robert Griffin III was mostly healthy, but we didn't know who was going to step up in the passing game from one week to the next. If you started a Washington Redskins receiver in fantasy, well ... you lost that week in fantasy. Different deal in Washington now, as tight end Fred Davis is healthy, Pierre Garcon has been absolutely tearing it up (figuratively, not in terms of ligaments) and Aldrick Robinson has folks imagining 60-yard bombs off of play action. Robinson had a rough preseason opener, but it was the first preseason game.

As with many teams, health is the mitigating factor here. But if all goes well, the Redskins are the favorites in the NFC East.

Minnesota Vikings fans are pretty convinced that this is an 11-win team. It's possible. But did you see Christian Ponder's second toss on Friday night? Not good. That's OK ... Matt Cassel's interception was worse. The Vikes will go as far as their quarterback takes them, as this is a pretty solid ballclub otherwise. Thankfully, an MRI revealed no damage to the knee of Sharrif Floyd after the first-round pick was injured against the Texans.

Like the Vikings, who are stuck at 11 until they get something out of the quarterback position, the Indianapolis Colts will reside at 12 until the defense proves it can play. There are a lot of new faces in Indy, but they got some old results in their preseason opener. The defense was poor -- whether we're talking about the starters, the second-stringers or the future Olive Garden employees playing toward the end of the game. Yes, it was the first week of preseason. But at some point, this group has to show something.

Well, the Chicago Bears' defense still looks as disruptive as ever. (What a pick-six by rookie Jon Bostic against the Carolina Panthers.) The offensive line is still rough. (Did you see the seven sacks allowed Friday?) And, as if we needed any more recurring themes ... who knows what to make of Jay Cutler? It sure looked like Alshon Jeffery should've run through Cutler's first pass of the game. And it still is so difficult to judge the Bears starting quarterback when the line struggles as much as it has over the past few years ... or decade.

Neither Ryan Tannehill nor the Miami Dolphins as a whole looked particularly strong in the Hall of Fame Game, but things went much better in the follow-up. A huge key for this football team will be the protection of Tannehill, and there were some breakdowns in Jacksonville. But then Tannehill bought time and hit Dustin Keller on a 22-yard touchdown pass. The announcers called it a poorly thrown pass, but watch it again. Looks like the second-year quarterback knew exactly what he was doing, putting the ball behind the defensive back, where only his tight end could get it. Or maybe it was blind luck. Miami is still 14th.

Tom Coughlin's three favorite things: a) running late, b) a VHS copy of the 1999 AFC Championship Game, and c) running backs who fumble. Here's to New York Giants running back Andre Brown not getting the David Wilson treatment.

It wasn't the smoothest of starts in Cleveland. If you watched the St. Louis Rams' preseason opener, you saw their youth -- especially on defense. Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden took 'em apart. Then there was Isaiah Pead putting the ball on the ground. This kid got beaten out by a supremely motivated Daryl Richardson last preseason, and he's not doing himself any favors this time around. Still, there were bright spots, starting with Sam Bradford's play.

Sean Lee looks so solid at middle linebacker, word is the Dallas Cowboys would like him to play some guard. OK, maybe not, but finding a guard who is affordable and hasn't decided to go fishing for the entire fall has been a problem. Until that's solved -- Brian Waters? -- look for DeMarco Murray and the run game to struggle.

No one knows what to make of the Pittsburgh Steelers right now. The last time the club entered the season in a similar spell of mediocrity -- coming off a somewhat lackluster, playoff-free 2009 campaign -- Pittsburgh surprised many by making it all the way to Super Bowl XLV. Many in this bidness believe rookie running back Le'Veon Bell could be the key to the Steelers turning things around, providing Ben Roethlisberger some much-needed ground support. The kid was held out of action last weekend with knee stiffness, but we should get a long look at him next Monday night in Washington.

Took in a fair amount of the San Diego Chargers' preseason opener against the Seattle Seahawks, and I can't help but think that the Bolts could be a sleeper team in 2013 -- a true sleeper. (If everyone keeps chatting up the Kansas City Chiefs, then you can't really say they're under the radar, right?) San Diego's offense made some plays against Seattle's stout D. Meanwhile, the defense stifled Russell Wilson and the Seahawks' first-team offense -- two drives, two punts. Thinking former Dallas Cowboys tight end John Phillips can bring this club some value in 2013.

Well, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got thumped by the defending Super Bowl champs. OK, but as my colleague Dave Dameshek says, watching preseason ball is like watching Civil War reenactments. (My cousin looks like one of those re-enactor guys, with his gray, permed half-mullet, but I digress.) It would be nice to see the Bucs supply Josh Freeman with an effective target at tight end. In theory, Luke Stocker could be that guy, but he just got activated from the PUP list and hasn't done much since entering the league in 2011. Yes, that was Tom Crabtree you saw running for 60-some-odd yards Thursday night.

Given how cocky Rob Ryan has been, it's difficult to ever feel sorry for the guy. And yet, here comes some sympathy. As the Cowboys' defensive coordinator last season, he lost half his troops to injury -- which led to the defense forcing no turnovers and allowing gobs of yards. This season, the newly minted New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator already has lost two guys brought over from his Cowboys regime: Victor Butler and Kenyon Coleman. While neither is a premier player, the Saints' defense needs all the help it can get after giving up 454 points in 2012 ( second-worst in the league). And it was a bit worrisome seeing the Kansas City Chiefs starters march 80 yards to pay-dirt on the opening drive of Friday's preseason opener.

Word is Ryan was so desperate for healthy ex- Cowboys that the team signed Patrick Crayton.

When it comes to training camp, most coaches feel competition is the key to everything. Yet that axiom doesn't seem to apply to the Carolina Panthers' receiving corps. Oh, sure, Domenik Hixon, Ted Ginn Jr., Armanti Edwards and some other receivers whose jerseys you'll never buy are competing at WR3. But what about the deuce? Brandon LaFell has done very little thus far at the pro level, yet he sits atop the depth chart opposite Steve Smith. The latter has enjoyed a fantastic career, but he's 34. Hey, if the Panthers can ride this group to a wild-card berth, more power to 'em.

Yes, that was Brandon Weeden you saw making plays the other night. The soon-to-be 30-year-old went 10-for-13 Thursday night, with no less than 10 throws coming out of the 'gun. That Norv Turner is one smart football mind; the offensive coordinator routinely had Weeden in comfortable positions. Even Bernie didn't think it was horrible.

OK, so it might have come off the hand of Mark Sanchez -- doesn't mean Ziggy Ansah's pick-six wasn't sweet. The fifth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft also got in on two tackles during his time on the field against the New York Jets on Friday night. As much pub as the Detroit Lions' defensive front has received over the past few years, the actual results have been mostly underwhelming. If Ansah plays like that, and Nick Fairley plays more than the 500 snaps he logged in 2012 (a low number), we might see some disruptive football in Detroit after all.

On the set of "NFL Fantasy Live" on Monday, my colleagues gushed over Larry Fitzgerald's potential with Carson Palmer at quarterback. Of course, it all depends on protection -- the Arizona Cardinals gave up nearly 60 sacks last year. Well, so far, so good: Arizona allowed just one sack in 30 drop-backs at Green Bay.

On a sad note ... I mentioned Cardinals rookie wideout Ryan Swope in this space last time. Unfortunately, Swope had to call it quits before he ever got started due to lingering concussion symptoms. Hate to see a kid have to give up the dream -- his dream -- so quickly.

Lost in the Riley Cooper shuffle: how much losing Jeremy Maclin means to coach Chip Kelly's offense. Maclin was often the "X" receiver in the Eagles' offense, a spot that the aforementioned Cooper will have to fill, especially with Jason Avant now manning the slot. And with Arrelious Benn (knee) also out, tight end Clay Harbor has logged some reps outside. The passing game in Philly should be interesting come opening night at Washington, and not just because of whoever's at quarterback.

At first glance, it appeared Chris Johnson's home run in the preseason opener against the Redskins was more the result of an overambitious upfield rush by Brian Orakpo than it was an epic run by CJ2K. But take a second look. Johnson saw a backside hole with his peripheral vision and, after taking a few steps toward the onside hole, went against the grain in an instant -- definitely too quick for Orakpo to recover from his exuberance. If the Titans have a determined Chris Johnson this season, look out.

Let the Alex Smith bandwagon-boarding begin. That was a nice opening outing for Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs' first-string offense down in New Orleans. Almost as important is how well Dontari Poe comes on at nose tackle in his second year, as well as what free-agent acquisition Mike DeVito can give new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton up front. Kansas City got beat at the point too often last year.

 *Power Rankings side note:* This is the squad most primed for a surge, at least among the bottom-tier teams. 

Amazing how standards have changed for rookie quarterbacks. EJ Manuel was 16-for-21 and posted a passer rating of 102.7 against the Colts on Sunday ... only to receive reviews of "He looked pretty good." Dude, it was his first dance in the NFL! Manuel went 9-for-9 with a touchdown in the two-minute drill -- who cares if it wasn't against starters. More than any other franchise in the NFL, the Buffalo Bills need something to galvanize the organization. It's here.

I don't want to jinx a New York Jets club that's been somewhat jinxed since 1969, but first-round draft pick Dee Milliner sure looked good when the Detroit Lions tested him deep Friday night. Fans are still excited about rookie quarterback Geno Smith -- never mind the recent criticism, or the fact that his popularity likely stems from the fact that his name isn't Mark Sanchez -- but the reality is that Milliner will likely be the superior player this season. On the subject of young players, receiver Stephen Hill stepping up his game should be huge for the Jets.

How do we feel about seeing those new Jacksonville Jaguars uniforms in action? It's tough wrapping your brain around that wraparound gold fade over the backside of the helmet. Thinking it's growing on me ... would love to hear your take ( @HarrisonNFL is the place). Meanwhile, irrespective of stats or the starting wideouts not playing, Chad Henne looks better out on the field than the other guy. It's that simple.

General manager Reggie McKenzie and the Oakland Raiders' coaching staff are developing a bunch of pups, which is exactly what the organization should be doing. One of those guys is seventh-round draft pick Brice Butler, who ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash at his pro day. Against the Dallas Cowboys last Friday, Butler had a 40-yard catch-and-run, followed by a delicious 30-yard touchdown grab. Yo Delicious!!! Watch this kid.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter _@HarrisonNFL_.

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