Panthers, Patriots lead 2016 Way-Too-Early Power Rankings

(ESPN) — Super Bowl 50 is now in the books, so naturally, we’re already looking toward next season.

Will the champion Broncos be a force once again? Is there any hope for the Browns and other 2015 bottom-feeders?

Yes, it’s difficult to project anything before free agency and the draft, but our smaller-than-usual panel of experts (21 voters) gave it a whirl. Five teams — Carolina, New England, Seattle, Green Bay and Denver — received at least one first-place vote.

Below is our way-too-early 2016 hierarchy.

1. Carolina Panthers

2015 record: 15-1
Voting results: 653 points

Why they’re here: Including Super Bowl 50, the Panthers have won 20 of their past 23 games, return both their offensive and defensive coordinators, the core of a young defense, get big-bodied Kelvin Benjamin back in the offense, and their franchise QB isn’t just coming into his own as a passer, he won’t even turn 27 until May. Did we mention they finally have cap space?

What could change: Winning is expensive, and returning to a Super Bowl is tough. Josh Norman is going to need about $14 million per year, and they need secondary help beyond him. And the Super Bowl didn’t make the tackles look good.

2. New England Patriots

2015 record: 12-4
Voting results: 641 points

Why they’re here: They haven’t won fewer than 12 regular-season games in seven years, kept both offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in the fold, and will also get Tom Brady‘s blindside protector Nate Solder back. New England doesn’t even have a big free agent to lose, as LeGarrette Blount is probably the biggest name who could depart.

What could change: Brady turns 39 before New England’s first preseason game, and while he’s coming off another brilliant season, dramatic QB declinesat this age aren’t uncommon. The Patriots lack a first-round pick and need to stabilize the O-line. Did we mention Brady has another court date this offseason?

3. Seattle Seahawks

2015 record: 10-6
Voting results: 623 points

Why they’re here: A quarter of the voting panel had Seattle at No. 1, and that’s not hard to imagine given the Seahawks will return nearly every piece of the NFL’s top scoring defense, and have a 27-year-old QB coming off a breakthrough passing season. No Beastmode? Well, Thomas Rawls will be back. And don’t overlook that Pete Carroll didn’t have his top two coordinators poached.

What could change: An offensive line that never quite jelled in 2015 could be down two more starters if Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy move on, andMarshawn Lynch is retiring. Seattle also has a tough decision to make onJimmy Graham. And will Kam Chancellor be trade bait?

4. Arizona Cardinals

2015 record: 13-3
Voting results: 580 points

Why they’re here: Despite a disappointing crash in the NFC Championship, the Cardinals will return in 2016 with one of the NFL’s deepest rosters. They’ll also see the return of Tyrann Mathieu. Bruce Arians hasn’t won fewer than 10 games since he arrived three years ago, and despite his shaky postseason the team is 19-3 when Carson Palmer starts over the past two seasons.

What could change: Palmer is 36, lacks mobility and the Cardinals always appear an injury at QB away from disaster. Larry Fitzgerald turns 33 in August and Calais Campbell turns 30 days later. Age is an issue with linchpin players. One other big question: Can cornerback Jerraud Powers and safety Rashad Johnson be retained?

5. Denver Broncos

2015 record: 12-4
Voting results: 574 points

Why they’re here: John Elway has proved to be a master of roster assembly, and Denver will return the core of one of the NFL’s most dominant defense in 2015, assuming Von Miller is retained. Brock Osweiler got help from the defense, but was 5-2 as a starter and completed 62 percent of his throws. Denver’s O-line should be even better in year two of Gary Kubiak’s offensive makeover.

What could change: Osweiler’s seven-start run looks good in the win-loss column, but that was with the NFL’s best defense. His QBR was good for 24th, so there will be growing pains. And signing Miller and Osweiler could mean Denver can’t afford the emerging Malik Jackson, which would be a big blow. That said, the Broncos also have young defensive talent on the rise.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers

2015 record: 10-6
Voting results: 569 points

Why they’re here: It’s hard to bet low when Mike Tomlin is entering his 10th season and has finished under .500 zero times. The Steelers had one of the best offenses in the NFL in 2015 … without Le’Veon Bell. He’ll be back, the ridiculous corps of wide receivers will be too, and Big Ben will be healthy. A defense that has transitioned young is improving and will return Senquez Golson.

What could change: The Steelers face a major cap crunch, among the worst in the NFL. In short order, they could lose up to six starters in free agency, including a pair of starting offensive linemen, in front of a QB that is too often playing hurt. They might need to be creative just to keep Heath Miller. Heeeeaaatth sounds a little like not very deeeeeep.

7. Green Bay Packers

2015 record: 10-6
Voting results: 556 points

Why they’re here: Though they sit at No. 7, the Packers actually got a No. 1 ranking from one of our panelists. It’s not a stretch. Dom Capers’ defense improved in 2015 and could take another step forward, and Green Bay will getJordy Nelson back. It’s not easy to lower expectations on a franchise that consistently replenishes the roster and hasn’t missed the playoffs in seven years.

What could change: That improved defense? Well, Mike Neal, Casey Hayward, B.J. Raji and Nick Perry are unrestricted free agents, Julius Pepperscould be a cap casualty, and it’s hard to say what the future holds in the backfield after Mike McCarthy called out Eddie Lacy for his conditioning issues. And while Nelson is back, will GM Ted Thompson be willing to spend in free agency to add another weapon? That’s (famously) not his style.

8. Cincinnati Bengals

2015 record: 12-4
Voting results: 547 points

Why they’re here: The Bengals have great stability on the offensive side of the ball, one of the deepest rosters in the NFL — with emerging depth along the offensive lines — and a will have a healthy Andy Dalton returning with an arsenal of weapons after a breakthrough season. They’ve been to the postseason in five consecutive seasons and should have won a playoff game even with a backup at QB.

What could change: What had been a deep secondary could be a lot thinner with Leon Hall, Adam Jones, George Iloka, and Reggie Nelson all headed to free agency. The wide receiving corps could also be facing departures. Unless Dalton takes another step forward, are the Begals better or merely running in place?

9. Kansas City Chiefs

2015 record: 11-5
Voting results: 500 points

Why they’re here: How much lower can you project an Andy Reid-coached team — he has 31 wins in three seasons here — with young stars on both sides of the ball and steady if unspectacular play from quarterback Alex Smith, who is coming off his most efficient season and appears revitalized with actual weapons in the offense?

What could change: Not only could the Chiefs be forced to replace roughly half the starters from a great 2015 defense, they have a cap decision to make onJamaal Charles, who is coming back from a major injury in his ninth (feel old yet?) NFL season. Even as a young star like Marcus Peters emerges, there exists the question of whether 33-year-old Derrick Johnson will defy age.

10. Minnesota Vikings

2015 record: 11-5
Voting results: 487 points

Why they’re here: Rick Spielman’s exceptional work in the draft makes the Vikings not only a good team, but one capable of moving up this ranking as good young players turn into really good veteran players … on both sides of the ball. Teddy Bridgewater won’t even be 24 until the midway point of the 2016 season — where he’ll be throwing indoors at home — and Adrian Peterson isn’t showing his age just yet. This is a sneaky-loaded roster.

What could change: The Vikes could be replacing both their left tackle and right tackle, which clouds any certainty that Bridgewater is about to become an upper-echelon QB. Mike Wallace could also be gone, which is good for the cap and also another reason to question whether this offense will ever get past a dink-and-dunk approach.

11. Indianapolis Colts

2015 record: 8-8
Voting results: 433 points

Why they’re here: It’s pretty simple: Andrew Luck has played four seasons, and in the three he’s played 16 games the Colts have reached the playoffs each year, winning 11 games in each. Even with roster deficiencies on both sides of the ball, the Colts are viewed as a playoff team if Luck is on the field. And even after a disappointing season, head coach Chuck Pagano has a 41-23 record in four years. He appears to have a clue.

What could change: The offensive line has a chance to get better based both on continuity and because it can’t get much worse (it was 27th in both run-blocking and sack rate in 2015), and the team could get younger at running back and wide receiver if Phillip Dorsett emerges.

12. New York Jets

2015 record: 10-6
Voting results: 394 points

Why they’re here: The panel sees the Jets as a good team coming off a 10-6 season, but this ranking reflects the question of whether they can take another step forward with Ryan Fitzpatrick likely back at quarterback, and the possibility of at least a couple noticeable departures on both sides of the ball.

What could change: No team had a better offseason before the 2015 season that the Jets, who did well in free agency and also hit home runs in the draft. Now they face tough cap decisions on Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison, could lose Chris Ivory, and have three starters over 30 along the O-line. There’s also been a question of whether Sheldon Richardson could be trade bait. Busy months ahead…

13. Dallas Cowboys

2015 record: 4-12
Voting results: 388 points

Why they’re here: That’s right — the last-place team from the NFC East coming off a 4-12 record and outscored by almost a touchdown a game is considered the division’s front-runner going into 2016. Call it the Romo Effect. A healthy Tony Romo behind arguably the NFL’s best offensive line makes for a sunny forecast. That said, Dallas was considered a Super Bowl contender going into 2015, so don’t say it haven’t taken a hit in perception.

What could change: Greg Hardy could be gone, which just makes a total overhaul in the secondary even scarier. Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carrcould be headed elsewhere, and Orlando Scandrick is coming back from a knee injury. As much as some want the Cowboys to draft the QB of the future at No. 4, can they afford to pass on a player who could help in 2016?

14. Houston Texans

2015 record: 9-7
Voting results: 383 points

Why they’re here: A good roster with a good coach and a big question at quarterback puts the Texans at No. 14 as the quintessential middle-of-the-pack team. The defense started to click, and J.J. Watt is J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkinsis a superstar … and as the playoffs showed, the QB situation is a complete mystery.

What could change: And the draft promises to be focused around the question of whether the Texans will finally target a quarterback early, and whether that could be Bill O’Brien’s former pupil Christian Hackenberg. Can the Texans really convince fans (and themselves) that Brian Hoyer as the Week 1 starter makes them repeat favorites in the AFC South?

15. Washington Redskins

2015 record: 9-7
Voting results: 371 points

Why they’re here: A mid-pack ranking for a playoff team is essentially a three-word response to the 2015 season: OK, prove it. As in, prove the growth was real and the playoffs were more a result of Washington’s rise than Tony Romo being hurt, a collapse in Philly and the end of the personnel-plagued Tom Coughlin era in New York.

What could change: Kirk Cousins is about to go from a player making under $1 million per season to making roughly that total per week. Does he improve as his bank account grows? Hell-o expectations. RG III will be gone, the D-line needs to get younger even with Junior Galette returning, and both Chris Culliver and Dashon Goldson could depart. Scot McCloughan will be shopping for defense.

16. Baltimore Ravens

2015 record: 5-11
Voting results: 351 points

Why they’re here: Voters didn’t completely forget that Baltimore won just five games, but they also didn’t forget that this is a John Harbaugh-coached team that was simply decimated by injuries in 2015 and will have Joe Flaccoback for training camp.

What could change: Ozzie Newsome could be shopping (and drafting) secondary help after the Ravens picked off just six passes in 2015, a shockingly low figure even in an era when INTs are down. Not only is Flacco back the wide receiving corps could look much different than the way they did in Week 17, as 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman will finally debut and Steve Smith, Sr. has vowed to be back as well, though he’ll be coming back from an Achilles tear at age 37.

17. Atlanta Falcons

2015 record: 8-8
Voting results: 294 points

Why they’re here: Even with a franchise QB, an all-world wide receiver, a stud running back and emerging talent on defense, the Falcons have both promise and also the potential to take a step back. They went 1-5 in division games in 2015 and where will it get easier, with Carolina stacked, Tampa rising and New Orleans still home to Drew Brees and Sean Payton?

What could change: Even if Roddy White is back, the Falcons need to find a true weapon in the passing game to take pressure off Julio Jones. They also need a fix at center and more pass-rush help after Vic Beasley only flashed potential as a rookie. What might not change is Matt Ryan becoming a better decision-maker. His INT rate in 2015 just wasn’t really off his career averages.

18. Buffalo Bills

2015 record: 8-8
Voting results: 288 points

Why they’re here: A talent-laded mystery, the Bills are a top-12 team if Rex Ryan rediscovers his magic touch on the defensive side of the ball — the Bills were one of the NFL’s top defenses in 2014 and fell off a cliff in 2015 — and while nearly every indicator says Tyrod Taylor was the real thing in 2015, a bigger sample size is needed. (The Bills were 8-8 but 8-6 in games he started.)

What could change: Mario Williams will be gone, and the offensive line could change dramatically if Buffalo can’t figure out how to get Richie Incognitoand Cordy Glenn back without busting the salary cap. And even with all the joking about whether Rob Ryan is an addition or a sign of the coming defensive apocalypse, nothing about Rex’s many past successes on defense would indicate the unit will get worse.

19. Oakland Raiders

2015 record: 7-9
Voting results: 275 points

Why they’re here: A great young core of talent could make some wonder if the Raiders are being sold short, but the reality is Oakland went 3-6 over their final nine games and still have a lot of work to do on the personnel side of things. Khalil Mack, Derek Carr and Amari Cooper are good, but they’re three of 22 on both sides of the ball. There’s work to do.

What could change: For one, not the location. Elsewhere, Reggie McKenzie had to weather years of salary-cap hell, but the Raiders enter the 2015 offseason with the chance to spend. They’ll have over $70 million in cap space and you could see wholesale changes in the secondary.

20. Philadelphia Eagles

2015 record: 7-9
Voting results: 257 points

Why they’re here: A true mystery team going into 2016, the Eagles have in some ways returned to the Andy Reid era by hiring Doug Pederson as the head coach. But so much could look different in 2016.

What could change: New head coach. New offensive philosophy. A new defensive philosophy. A new QB if Sam Bradford doesn’t re-sign. A sign of optimism? Start on defense: In 2014 the Jim Schwartz-coached Bills defense was arguably the best in the NFL. Last year it fell off a cliff under Rex Ryan’s direction. Now Schwartz gets to work with a talented Eagles core. Don’t be surprised if they spike.

21. New York Giants

2015 record: 6-10
Voting results: 249 points

Why they’re here: The Saints stole some of the defensive futility headlines, but it was actually the Giants who finished dead last in total defense in 2015, allowing a whopping 420 yards per game. In that regard, being ranked No. 21 is actually a show of respect. When you have Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr., it’s hard not to at least remain hopeful.

What could change: Wholesale changes will hit the defense, with the problem being Jason Pierre-Paul and Prince Amukamara are possible departures, which just makes things even dicier on that side of the ball. The Giants do have roughly $50 million in cap space and a top-10 draft pick, and they need help at all three levels on defense. Fans will need to buy a program to start 2016.

22. New Orleans Saints

2015 record: 7-9
Voting results: 236 points

Why they’re here: Similar to the Giants, when you consider some of the problems New Orleans does have, No. 22 ain’t much of a slap in the face. The problem is New Orleans has to get better without spending, as it will have a number of cap casualties this offseason just to be cap compliant headed into 2016. The good news? Sean Payton is back, and it’s not really possible for the defense to go backward.

What could change: Marques Colston. Jairus Byrd. Zach Strief. David Hawthorne. C.J. Spiller. The list goes on and on, and it contains names of guys who could be cut to get the cap back in order. Drew Brees will likely have to be extended to keep a $30 million cap hit off the books for 2016, as well. Expect plenty of new names in New Orleans.

23. Detroit Lions

2015 record: 7-9
Voting results: 213 points

Why they’re here: The Lions went 6-2 over their final eight, but the voting panel also had Calvin Johnson‘s likely retirement on their minds as they cast votes last week. The simple reality is that nobody knows which Detroit team will show up to start 2016, the one we saw in the first half of 2015, or the one we saw in the second half. And when it comes to Detroit, when in doubt, vote with caution.

What could change: The one reason it’s not sacrilege to suggest the Lions could improve in 2016 without Megatron is his retirement would create a whopper of a void on the 2016 books. Detroit needs to look for more help on the D-line, and another tackle as well. Matthew Stafford was battered early and often in 2016. Fortunately, what appeared to be a successful transition to Jim Bob Cooter at offensive coordinator will get another year.

24. Miami Dolphins

2015 record: 6-10
Voting results: 212 points

Why they’re here: The fact that Miami already needs to consider a major restructuring of Ndamukong Suh‘s contract this offseason after making him the big free agency buy of 2015 is a microcosm for how bad things went over the past year. Everyone is hopeful that Adam Gase can get Ryan Tannehill‘s career back on track after a two-steps-back 2015, but don’t expect any splashy additions this offseason.

What could change: Hopefully Tannehill, and for the better. Gase will take a shot after getting the job largely based on getting Jay Cutler to play well, if not smile. A personnel problem could arise if the team can’t perform the cap acrobatics required to keep Olivier Vernon around.

25. Los Angeles Rams

2015 record: 7-9
Voting results: 192 points

Why they’re here: The Rams haven’t finished inside the top 20 in offensive DVOA since 2006, an incredible run of offensive incompetence that won’t change in 2016 unless the team finds something new at quarterback, whereCase Keenum will likely be back but needs competition. The Rams will be able to draft a QB at No. 15, but could also look at the likes of, yes, RG III. There is some all-world talent on the roster, but the QB question clouds everything, even in sunny L.A.

What could change: Hopefully the quarterback. And the Rams will haveTodd Gurley in Week 1 this year. But even a strong defense faces some tough changes, as William Hayes, Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, and Mark Barron are all unrestricted free agents.

26. Chicago Bears

2015 record: 6-10
Voting results: 177 points

Why they’re here: The Bears got better in 2015, but there is concern among panelists that Jay Cutler could regress in 2016 without Adam Gase guiding him, and the defense is a combination of young and in need of even more work, which doesn’t make voters bullish.

What could change: Chicago has money to sped. They need to lock up Alshon Jeffrey, but have over $50 million in cap space to find upgrades elsewhere (linebacker would be a wise place to look). And don’t forget No. 7 overall pick Kevin White will return, so the Bears will have money and essentially two first-round picks. In 14 seasons as a head coach, John Fox has never had a losing record in two consecutive seasons.

27. San Diego Chargers

2015 record: 4-12
Voting results: 168 points

Why they’re here: The Chargers were decimated by injuries in 2015, but voters don’t give them the benefit of the doubt to bounce back in 2016 because a team that can’t seem to block people (or stay healthy on the offensive line) for several years running is a bad fit in a division with Justin Houston, Khalil Mack,Von Miller and others. Nobody disagrees that Philip Rivers is special, but he needs help.

What could change: The Chargers will be healthier, the offensive line could be in better position to succeed because of that and with the addition of a new center, and it’s possible the relocation soap opera will be settled. On the downside, will Eric Weddle and Antonio Gates both be back? The guess is probably only one of the two stays.

28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2015 record: 6-10
Voting results: 158 points

Why they’re here: The Bucs improved in 2015 with a rookie quarterback running the show — Jameis Winston posted the third-highest passing total for any rookie since the merger — but then fired the head coach, which isn’t the surest way to get the Power Rankings committee excited. There are also questions about whether Vincent Jackson and Doug Martin will return in 2016.

What could change: If those two aren’t back, it ain’t because the Bucs can’t afford it. They go into the offseason with over $50 million in cap space, and at least have the option to keep whom they want and also do some shopping. Would Olivier Vernon be an option? As for other changes, don’t expect Winston to go backward given he’ll have complete continuity with Dirk Koetter still around, and two rookie offensive lineman should get better as well.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars

2015 record: 5-11
Voting results: 123 points

Why they’re here: 5. 2. 3. 4. 5. Those are the last five seasons of win totals in Jacksonville. With that kind of a track record, selling “On the cusp” is becoming more and more difficult. The Jags saw their young QB grow by leaps and bounds in 2015, and have legit star power at wide receiver, but the offense’s step forward was mirrored by a defense that got worse in 2015, and that’s in a division where they faced a rookie QB twice, Andrew Luck got hurt, and the Texans had, well, the Texans’ QBs.

What could change: First-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. would have helped the defense at least to the extent you count on rookies, and will be back in 2016. The Jags can also shop all they want, with a whopping $70-plus million in cap space. What really needs to change is young players need to keep improving on both sides of the ball, and the defense becomes competitive again.

30. San Francisco 49ers

2015 record: 5-11
Voting results: 98 points

Why they’re here: The presence of Chip Kelly wasn’t met with a shrug, but Kelly had more talent to work with in Philadelphia and faces the challenge of reviving Colin Kaepernick‘s career without many weapons on offense. Few doubt Kelly can coach, but he enters a division with three of the NFL’s best defenses.

What could change: The 49ers have a ton of cap room to do some shopping, and the offensive line could be addressed. They also have the No. 7 pick in the draft. And while there’s some gloom around, they also get a coach who took over a 4-12 team and won 26 games over the next three seasons without a single above-average QB.

31. Tennessee Titans

2015 record: 3-13
Voting results: 59 points

Why they’re here: Marcus Mariota‘s raw totals look pretty good on paper, but the reality is Tennessee had the NFL’s least-efficient offense in 2015 and opted to retain interim head coach Mike Mularkey. The Titans have the No. 1 pick in the draft, but in a year where there isn’t a transcendent, franchise-changing talent sitting there. The good news is the Titans believe they have their QB of the future. The bad news is that didn’t mean more wins in 2015.

What could change: They have a new general manager, and a chance to upgrade the offensive line via the draft. And in reality, Mariota was ahead of schedule in 2015 and is a good bet to make strides if he can stay healthy in 2016. There’s nobody running away in the AFC South.

32. Cleveland Browns

2015 record: 3-13
Voting results: 40 points

Why they’re here: No voter placed the Browns higher than No. 31. That’s what happens when you lose 10 of 11 to finish the season, fire the head coach, make major front-office changes, and move on from your recent first-round pick quarterback. And Cleveland could lose a pair of its top offensive linemen this offseason.

What could change: The culture already has with Hue Jackson in town andJohnny Manziel soon to be out. Jackson was a coveted interview and the Browns got him, a major positive for the organization after the Chip Kelly drama of a few years ago. There’s also this: Exactly 15 months ago, the Browns were 7-6 and one game out of a playoff spot, switched to Manziel and have gone 3-16 since. No, the losing wasn’t all Manziel. But there are at least embers of winning still on the roster, Josh Gordon could return, and an exciting new face leading the charge.

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