With the release of our preseason NFL Power Rankings, we assembled a group of NFL Insiders to answer the big questions: Which team is most overrated, and which is most underrated? Which team is this year's wild card? How does Ezekiel Elliott's suspension impact the Dallas Cowboys' playoff chances?
Which team is most overrated in these Power Rankings?
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: I'm sure the bulk of the voting was done before the news of Ezekiel Elliott's suspension, but even so, I don't see why the Cowboys are five spots higher than the Giants, who beat them twice last year and finished two games behind them. Suspensions and other issues on the defensive side of the ball, coupled with a brutal-looking schedule, were reasons to knock Dallas down further than this.
Mike Clay, NFL writer: The good news is that Denver's dominant 2016 defense mostly remains intact for this season. The bad news is that this team is without much punch or depth on the offensive side of the ball. Though some teams can manage with question marks or deficiencies at running back, tight end and on the offensive line, Denver's dismal quarterback situation is a deal breaker. Trevor Siemian is a replacement-level player and 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch has yet to show signs of an emergence. Denver very well could end up bringing up the rear in a tough AFC West.
Aaron Schatz, editor of Football Outsiders: Houston may have finished 9-7 thanks to close victories last year, but the Texans ranked 29th in the Football Outsiders DVOA ratings. This is a team that was outscored by 49 points during the season, and got pummeled by a Patriots team led by their third-string quarterback. Houston's 8-2 record in games decided by seven points or fewer is likely to regress toward the mean. Yes, J.J. Watt is back, but we can't assume that he'll return at the same level of play he showed before his recent injuries. And there's no reason to believe the quarterback play will be better in the short term. Chances are that Deshaun Watson will be a big improvement over Brock Osweiler in the long term, but these aren't the 2019 Power Rankings.
Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: The No. 3 ranking for Seattle could be optimistic. Teams usually need to win 12-plus games to finish with one of the three best records. I see the Seahawks winning fewer than that unless their running game comes back to life. They should be good enough to win the NFC West, but their window as a truly elite team is a little tighter now than it was a few years ago.
Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: I don't see the Cardinals as a top-10 team. From a big-picture standpoint, the best you can say is that they play in a weak division that includes two teams -- the Rams and 49ers -- who appear miles away from the playoffs. Arizona looks like a team puttering to the end of its competitive window, with a 37-year-old quarterback and a roster that includes 15 players at least 30 years old.
What about the opposite -- who's underrated?
Graziano: A lot of teams. The Bengals, Rams and Chargers should all be better than they're ranked here, for a variety of reasons. But having been to Washington's camp as well as Philadelphia's, I would definitely not rank the Eagles higher. Washington's roster is stronger than a lot of people realize, and the defense could really benefit from the addition of safety D.J. Swearinger and the possible return of Junior Galette from injury. Washington should score plenty, and if Dallas and/or the Giants take a step back, they should be a factor in the NFC East race.
Clay: Right when it seemed like the Chargers' bandwagon was finally picking up well-deserved steam, they show up here 24th. Twenty. Fourth. Los Angeles' newest franchise has a top-10 team on paper and one of the most balanced rosters in the league. The season-ending injury to rookie guard Forrest Lamp is unfortunate, but far from a knockout blow. Led by the likes of Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and Jason Verrett, the Chargers are primed for a playoff run in 2017.
Schatz: I understand why nobody else is going to jump on my "Rams going 8-8" bandwagon until they see the product on the field, but I remind you: Wade Phillips has an insane track record of improving defenses. There's no reason to believe the Rams' defense won't be as good as Houston's, maybe even Denver's. (Unlike Denver, the Rams can stop the run.) The special teams are better and the quarterback play ... well, it has to be better than last year, right? If Jared Goff could just be as good as Trevor Siemian, the Rams are going to be in the wild-card hunt.
Sando: Cincinnati jumps out. The 23rd-ranked Bengals are one spot below Baltimore in this poll. I'm not sure why that would be the case. Cincy should finish in the top half of the league with an explosive offense and decent defense. Also, Miami will be better than 25th, and San Francisco has a chance to surprise -- at least a little.
Seifert: If the Chargers can somehow avoid the injury bug that has plagued them for years, they're at least a top-half team and thus are underrated in this poll by at least eight spots. Adding a full offseason for tight end Hunter Henry and the return of receiver Keenan Allen gives them another two high-end offensive weapons. If Anthony Lynn can successfully transition into the head coach's role, the Chargers can exceed their modest expectations.
Which team is the ultimate wild card this season? As in, you have no idea what to expect come Week 1?
Clay: Jacksonville's massive scheme change and imbalanced roster makes the Jaguars a tricky team to project in 2017. On one hand, the defense is about as good as you'll find, on paper, in the NFL. Already a decent unit in 2016, Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Barry Church were added to fill the remaining voids. The plan now will be to lean on that defense and hand the ball off to fourth overall pick Leonard Fournette as often as possible. If the defense plays as well as it looks on paper and Blake Bortles' impact is minimized, the Jaguars will compete for a wild card. If not? Another top-five draft pick might be in the cards.
Graziano: I think Arizona could go either way. Lots of talent there on the roster and the coaching staff, and the Cardinals won a lot of games prior to last year, so you can see how it might all come together for something special. But you also can see how it all might fall apart. If Carson Palmer struggles and/or gets hurt, they have very little behind him. Larry Fitzgerald is bound to not be able to do it anymore at some point. Bruce Arians had health issues more than once last year. The window is tight in Arizona, and I'm not sure how shocking it would be to see it close sooner than expected.
Sando: Carolina. Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly are pivotal variables. Newton is coming off a rough season followed by shoulder surgery. We could be seeing the beginning of the end for him in terms of taking so much punishment on designed power runs. But if his body responds well and Carolina's defense provides the necessary support, Newton can again become an unstoppable force. Kuechly can also be a transcendent player, but he is seemingly another concussion away from having a difficult career decision to make.
Schatz: I'll go with Tampa Bay. I understand why people are so high on the Bucs, but we don't know for sure that it will all work. We don't know for sure that Jameis Winston is that good. We don't know for sure that the offensive line is good enough. Rookie tight ends like O.J. Howard don't have a great track record of being hugely productive. The pass rush is a question mark, and there are strong indicators that we should expect defensive regression. But if the offense clicks and the defense doesn't regress, the Bucs could be really special.
Seifert: The Dolphins. It's easy to look at them as a fluke playoff team last year -- one that has lost quarterback Ryan Tannehill, is having trouble keeping tailback Jay Ajayi on the field during camp, and has one of the least experienced coaches in the league. But is there really a big drop-off from Tannehill to Jay Cutler, especially considering Cutler's past success with coach Adam Gase? The Dolphins could collapse on their inertia, or they could be a 10-6 team in a division with little competition other than the Patriots.
The Cowboys are No. 6. Are they a playoff team if Ezekiel Elliott misses six games?
Clay: I had the Cowboys missing the playoffs even if Elliott was a full go, so his suspension only adds to their list of roadblocks. Ronald Leary and Doug Free are both gone from the offensive line, the Cowboys lack quality depth at the offensive skill positions, and their defense is a bottom-10 unit in the league. Four of the team's top five defensive backs from 2016 are gone, multiple players are suspended to start the season, and there's little star power on defense outside of Sean Lee and Byron Jones. I suspect the Cowboys will hang in the playoff conversation, but they could easily finish last in a tough NFC East.
Graziano: The offensive line should keep the Cowboys from bottoming out completely, but the schedule makes it very hard to imagine a repeat of 13-3. They have road games in Denver and Arizona in September, and later in the season they travel to Atlanta and Oakland. Remember: The Cowboys finished fourth in 2015 so they got a last-place team's schedule in 2016. Last season, they finished first in the division, so they get a first-place team's schedule in 2017. That doesn't mean everything, but it could make enough of a difference to push Dallas to the brink of missing the playoffs.
Sando: Yeah, I think they probably are, but it's less of a sure thing. I had the Giants winning the NFC East even before the Elliott suspension. If that happens, there are other NFC teams that could push the Cowboys for a wild-card berth.
Schatz: The suspension is bad news in Dallas, but at least only one of the first six games is in the division, and that's a home game. The NFC East is going to be cutthroat, likely the best division in the NFL, but I think the Cowboys still have a good chance to win it since they'll have Elliott back for five of the six games that will matter in terms of tiebreaks. Week 3 at Arizona might be the most important game, because a loss to the Cardinals could cost Dallas a wild-card spot if it doesn't win the division.
Seifert: Nope. Honestly, I thought the Cowboys were primed to take a step back even if Elliott were on the field to start the season. The chances of them improving on a 13-3 record are far less than declining from it. In a wide-open division, losing an offensive crutch could prove the deciding factor.
Which team that didn't make the playoffs in 2016 is a lock -- barring injuries and other disaster -- to make it this season?
Clay: The Titans went 9-7 and just missed out on the AFC South crown last season. They did a very nice job filling voids during the offseason, specifically in the secondary (Logan Ryan, Adoree' Jackson, Johnathan Cyprien) and at wide receiver (Corey Davis, Eric Decker). The defense has talent on every level, and the offense will benefit from one of the game's best tailback duos and offensive lines. If Marcus Mariota takes another step forward, the Titans should easily run away with the AFC South in 2017. I considered the Panthers here, as they're arguably better on paper than the Titans, but Carolina's path to the playoffs isn't quite as smooth in the tougher NFC South.
Graziano: I like Cincinnati to bounce back. This was a playoff team five years in a row before last season, and with some improved health the Bengals should have an explosive offense. I have a little bit of concern about the young tackles, but if Cedric Ogbuehi plays to his first-round pedigree, this should be a team that gets right back to where it was from 2011-15.
Sando: Tampa Bay is a good choice. The Buccaneers came close last season, added talent, and could grow in their second year under the current coaching staff. I did not pick Tennessee because I'm concerned about Marcus Mariota staying healthy.
Schatz: Apologies for the ice-cold take, but there are no locks. Among teams that didn't make the playoffs in 2016, Carolina looks to be the best in 2017 by my analysis, but Tennessee has the best chance to reach the postseason because of the lack of competition in the division.
Seifert: I like the Titans. Mariota had one of the most under-the-radar efficient years last season among all quarterbacks, and the Titans have bolstered him with more offensive weapons and -- they hope -- a better pass defense. It's very reasonable to think they could at least match last season's 9-7 record, which under the right circumstances could be enough to make the playoffs -- or even win the AFC South outright.