The Peyton Manning Relocation Project stands as the No. 1 storyline for the 2012 NFL offseason.
Our NFL Power Rankings panel, reconfigured for 2012 with Dan Graziano and Jamison Hensley joining the crew, couldn't agree on the quarterback's likely impact on Denver.
The way Manning appeared to gain strength and sharpness during preseason seemed encouraging. Then again, preseason is ... preseason. We wound up ranking the Broncos 13th in our initial regular-season NFL Power Rankings for 2012, but 10 spots separated the highest and lowest votes.
"I might have Denver too high," said Ashley Fox, who ranked the Broncos eighth on her ballot, "but in a quarterback-driven league, the Broncos have one of the top six quarterbacks. Peyton Manning gives them a chance. They've got a tough schedule, particularly early, but if Manning can be the Manning we are used to seeing, they should contend for the AFC West."
Graziano, who covers the NFC East, made his Broncos ranking match Manning's familiar No. 18 jersey number.
"I don't think we've seen proof yet that Manning is at full health, and even if he is, I'm not sold on the weapons he has around him," Graziano explained. "Is Eric Decker a No. 1 receiver? Or is Demaryius Thomas? Is Willis McGahee going to contribute what he did last year? It's a new offense that everyone but Manning has to learn, and I think they'll have some growing pains. Also, for all of the hype the Denver defense got, the Broncos finished 22nd against the run and 18th against the pass. Given the improvements the Chiefs have made in the run game, I think Kansas City they should be able to control the game against Denver."
Graziano wasn't the only skeptical panelist. John Clayton dropped the Broncos to No. 17 on his ballot, down seven spots from May. Was it something Manning said?
"I dropped them down a little because of the schedule," Clayton said. "Four of their first five games are against playoff teams."
The Chiefs were the only team to produce a larger gap between high and low votes. More on them in a bit. First, a look at how the rankings changed since May, while noting that changing two panelists was bound to change the baseline as well:
Falling (10): Arizona Cardinals (-4), Denver Broncos (-3), Detroit Lions (-3), Baltimore Ravens (-2), New York Giants (-2), Carolina Panthers (-1), Cleveland Browns (-1), Jacksonville Jaguars (-1), New York Jets (-1), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-1).
Rising (11): Buffalo Bills (+4), Atlanta Falcons (+2), Chicago Bears (+2), Green Bay Packers (+2), New Orleans Saints (+2), Seattle Seahawks (+2), Houston Texans (+1), Minnesota Vikings (+1), San Francisco 49ers (+1), St. Louis Rams (+1), Washington Redskins (+1).
Unchanged (11): Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, Tennessee Titans.
Deadlocked: We broke three ties this week. Baltimore prevailed over Philadelphia for the fifth spot. Tennessee edged Buffalo at No. 18. Miami prevailed over St. Louis for the 27th spot. We broke all ties this time on won-lost records for the 2011 season. Tiebreakers during the season are, in order: head-to-head results, overall record, which team won a game most recently and previous week's ranking.
Like minds: The Texans were ranked fifth or sixth on every ballot. The Packers were ranked first through third. The Jets were ranked 20th to 22nd. Those were the three teams with only two spots separating their highest and lowest votes.
Agree to disagree: Kansas City generated the largest disparity between high and low votes. Graziano had the Chiefs 12th. Hensley had them only 24th.
I asked Graziano to explain himself. He did:
"The Chiefs were only a game out of that messy first-place tie in the AFC West last year, and that was without Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry [and Matt Cassel, for seven games]. With those guys back, I don't see why they can't overcome the teams in front of them. Eric Winston and Peyton Hillis are high-level additions that should help the run game [especially with Charles back], and I think Stanford Routt should be able to replace Brandon Carr at corner.
"Dwayne Bowe, Dexter McCluster and Jonathan Baldwin all are or should be explosive passing-game weapons for Cassel, who isn't the flashiest of the division's QBs but shouldn't get them beat with bad mistakes. Every year has a last-to-first team. Kansas City was the closest last-place team to first place in 2011 and offers a lot of reasons to think they'll be much better in 2012."
I'm leaning toward Graziano on this one. I had the Chiefs 15th. Ashley Fox had them 17th. Clayton had them 18th. Hensley's No. 24 ranking begged for some elaboration.
"The Chiefs have the pieces in place except for quarterback," Hensley said. "Matt Cassel is the reason why I have Kansas City ranked so low."
A look at the teams generating high-low disparities of at least seven spots in the rankings:
Chiefs (12): Graziano ranked them 12th, higher than any voter ranked them. Hensley ranked them 24th, lower than any voter ranked them.
Seahawks (11): Sando 14th, Hensley 25th.
Cowboys (10): Hensley seventh, Sando 17th.
Broncos (10): Fox eighth, Graziano 18th.
Bengals (9): Hensley 11th, Fox 20th.
Power Rankings histories: These colorful layered graphs show where each NFL team has ranked every week since the 2002 season.
Ranking the divisions: Teams from the NFC East averaged a league-high 11.5 ranking, well ahead of teams from the runner-up NFC North (13.5).
Our divisional bloggers on the panel -- Graziano (NFC East), Hensley (AFC North) and me (NFC West) -- favored the teams we cover. That hasn't happened to such a degree in the past, as a general rule. It's something I monitor each week, though. Will it continue?
Graziano ranked NFC East teams 9.75 on average. No other voter ranked them higher than 11th on average. Hensley had the AFC North at 12.25 on average. Everyone else had those teams right around 15th on average. I ranked Seattle and St. Louis relatively high, producing a 16.75 average for NFC West teams. No one else had the division higher than 18.25.
We'll be doing self-scouting all season, so if those trends continue, look out.
A voter-by-voter look at changes of at least four spots since our May rankings:
Sando: Cardinals (-4), Chargers (-4), Bills (+5), Chiefs (+6).
Clayton: Broncos (-7), Ravens (-5), Bucs (-5), Dolphins (-4), Jets (-4), Texans (+4), Eagles (+4), Seahawks (+4), Rams (+4), Bears (+5).
Graziano: New to panel.
Hensley: New to panel.
Fox: Lions (-4).
Note: Once we get into the season, I'll pass along an Excel file illustrating potential voting inconsistencies. The file will show how many higher-ranked teams each team has defeated. If those figures grow too large, voters will have some explaining to do.