Rick Gosselin’s NFL rankings: Hail to the Chiefs

Editor’s note: Rick Gosselin is in his 48th season reporting on the NFL in 2020. He has covered the Lions, Giants, Chiefs and Cowboys in his career plus 38 Super Bowls. He has served on the Hall of Fame selection committee and is a member of both the senior and contributor sub-committees. Gosselin also is one of the 12 voters for the AP 32, the weekly ranking of NFL teams conducted by the Associated Press. Here is his ballot for Week 1:

1. Kansas City Chiefs. (Previous rank: 1) Eighteen of the 22 starters are back from their Lombardi Trophy-winning lineup. Gone are RB Damien Williams, guards Stefan Wisniewski and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and LB Reggie Ragland. But QB Patrick Mahomes, WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce return, which makes the Chiefs the favorites to repeat in 2020.

2. Baltimore Ravens. (2) Lamar Jackson became the 2019 NFL MVP in his first full season as a starting quarterbacking, passing for 3,127 yards and a league-leading 36 touchdowns and also setting an NFL record for quarterbacks with 1,206 rushing yards and seven more scores. He’s only 23 years of age – so his best years as an NFL quarterback should still be ahead of him. Get your popcorn ready.

3. New Orleans Saints. (3) On paper, the Saints have an offense that’s difficult to top. New Orleans has three first-round draft picks on the offensive line plus five offensive skill players who have combined for 23 Pro Bowls – QB Drew Brees (13), HB Alvin Kamara (3), WR Michael Thomas (3), WR Emmanuel Sanders (2) and TE Jared Cook (2).

4. Seattle Seahawks. (6) The Seahawks came within a yard of winning the NFC West last season riding a ball-control offense with one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks. The ground game will be even better this season with the addition of a second 1,000-yard rusher (Carlos Hyde) to team with Chris Carson. Pete Carroll’s historically safety-driven defense also added one of the game’s premier safeties in Jamal Adams.

5. San Francisco 49ers. (4) Two veteran Pro Bowlers have departed the NFC champions with the retirement of OT Joe Staley and the trade of DT DeForest Buckner to the Colts. The 49ers moved quickly to replace both, acquiring veteran Pro Bowl OT Trent Williams in a trade with the Redskins and drafting DT Javon Kinlaw with the 14th overall choice of the first round last April.

6. Buffalo Bills. (7) QB Josh Allen has a big arm and the Bills are giving him every opportunity to stretch the field with the acquisition of WR Stefon Diggs, who averaged almost 18 yards per catch last season with the Vikings. A Top 3 defense figures to be even better this season with the acquisition of edge rushers Mario Addison in free agency and A.J. Epenesa in the draft.

7. Dallas Cowboys. (9) The Cowboys led the NFL in offense a year ago and figure to be even better in 2021 with the addition of rookie slot receiver CeeDee Lamb. The Cowboys also addressed a deficient pass rush with the signings of past Pro Bowl edge rushers Everson Griffen and Aldon Smith. But Dallas needs rookie CB Trevon Diggs to become the playmaker in a secondary otherwise absent of big plays.

8. Green Bay Packers. (5) With the emergence of Aaron Jones last season and the selection of A.J. Dillon in the draft last April, the Packers may rely a bit more on the running game than they have in years past. Jones became a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in 2019 and led the NFL with 19 touchdowns. Dillon rushed for 1,685 yards and 14 touchdowns at Boston College last fall.

9. Minnesota Vikings. (8) The Vikings need a healthy season from RB Dalvin Cook and a productive season from rookie WR Justin Jefferson. DT Michael Pierce opted out of the season because of COVID concerns and Pro Bowl edge rusher Everson Griffen bolted in free agency. But the Vikings moved quickly to replace him by trading for Yannick Ngakoue, who collected 37 ½ sacks in his first four season with Jacksonville.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (10) Coach Bruce Arians has assembled an all-star cast of offensive skill with Tom Brady, Michael Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and Leonard Fournette. But can the Bucs protect Brady? Jameison Winston was sacked 47 times last season and he’s more mobile than a 43-year-old Brady.

11. Tennessee Titans. (11) The Titans qualified for the playoffs as a wild-card and reached the AFC title game last season despite erratic placekicking. Tennessee ran through three kickers a year ago in managing a league-low eight field goals. Coach Mike Vrabel addressed that deficiency by signing his former New England teammate Stephen Gostkowski, a five-time NFL scoring champion.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers. (12) The Steelers fielded the NFL’s best defense in 2019, leading the league in sacks (54) and takeaways (38) and allowing the fifth fewest yards. It has the potential to be even better in 2020 because Pro Bowl safety Minkah Fitzpatrick will be around for the full season and linebacker Devin Bush will be a year older and a year better following a superb rookie season. Fitzpatrick was acquired from Miami in a trade during the 2019 season.

13. Philadelphia Eagles. (13) The Eagles needed speed on the flank and thought they addressed the problem by signing Marquise Goodwin in free agency and drafting Jalen Reagor. But Goodwin has already opted out of the season with COVID concerns and Reagor will miss much of the opening month with a shoulder injury. Losing LT Andre Dillard for the season with a torn biceps was yet another summer setback.

14. Indianapolis Colts. (14) The Philip Rivers era begins for the Colts Sunday at Jacksonville. But will it last more than one season? Rivers has already been hired as the head-coach-in-waiting at St. Michael’s High School in Fairhope, Ala. He’ll assume that position upon his NFL retirement. But at 39 years of age this season, how much longer does he intend to play? Is this his final run at an elusive Super Bowl?

15. Arizona Cardinals. (18) The Cardinals are envisioning a possible trio of 1,000-yard receivers in DeAndre Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. The continued development of Kyler Murray at quarterback could make that a reality. He was 42-0 as a starter in high school and 11-2 his Heisman Trophy season at Oklahoma. Losing is foreign to him.

16. Houston Texans. (15) DeShaun Watson has had a fast start to his career, passing for 71 touchdowns in his 37 career starts and leading the Texans to back-to-back AFC South titles in his first two full seasons as a starter. But for the first time in his career, he will be without his go-to guy DeAndre Hopkins, who was traded to Arizona in the offseason. Hopkins went to the Pro Bowl each of the last three years catching Watson’s passes. He was on the receiving end of 31 of Watson’s NFL TD passes.

17. Los Angeles Rams. (16) Two new NFL stadiums open this season. The first comes Sunday night in Los Angeles when the Rams host the Dallas Cowboys at the $5 billion SoFi Stadium. There are 70,240 seats in the palace that Stan (Kroenke) built but no fans will be in attendance because of COVID restrictions. The Cowboys also were the Houston’s opponent when the Texans opened their new stadium in 2002. The Texans prevailed in that game – the first game in franchise history.

18. Atlanta Falcons. (17) The Falcons will find out how real their Super Bowl expectations are playing a schedule that includes fellow NFC contenders Seattle, Dallas and Green Bay in the opening month of the season. A 1-3 start to the 2019 season doomed the Falcons from the start.

19. New England Patriots. (19) A total of 66 players opted out of the season because of COVID concerns. The Patriots took the hardest hits, losing six of them including defensive stalwarts Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung and special-teams ace Brandon Bolden. New England will transition at quarterback in 2020 from one former NFL MVP (Tom Brady) to another (Cam Newton).

20. New York Giants. (20) For Daniel Jones to take the next step as an NFL quarterback, the Giants must protect him and give him the chance to succeed. He was sacked 38 times in his 12 starts last season and now the Giants will be without their left tackle Nate Solder, who opted out of the season with COVID concerns.

21. Chicago Bears. (21) The expectation when the Bears acquired former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles in the offseason was that he would replace erratic Mitch Trubisky at quarterback. It turned out to be an erroneous expectation. Trubisky, with his 23-18 career record, reclaimed the starting position in camp this summer.

22. Las Vegas Raiders. (22) The Raiders were deficient on defense a year ago, allowing more than 400 points. In addition to a new city in 2020, the Raiders will have a new-look defense with four starters acquired this offseason via free agency: DT Maliek Collins, LBs, Nick Kwiatkowski and Corey Littleton and safety Jeff Heath. The upgrades cost the Raiders $71 million in contracts.

23. Cleveland Browns. (23) Kevin Stefanski makes his NFL debut as head coach of the Browns this weekend. He’s one of five new head coaches in 2020 but one of only three making their debuts as NFL head coaches along with Joe Judge of the New York Giants and Matt Rhule of the Carolina Panthers. The other two are Mike McCarthy at Dallas and Ron Rivera at Washington.

24. Denver Broncos. (24) Drew Lock becomes the fourth different opening-day quarterback for the Broncos in the five years since Denver won its last Super Bowl with Peyton Manning at the helm in 2015. Trevor Siemian (2016-17), Case Keenum (2018) and Joe Flacco (2019) followed Manning and preceded Lock.

25. Carolina Panthers. (25) Teddy Bridgewater kept the Saints in playoff contention a year ago by winning all five of his starts during the injury absence of Drew Brees. The Panthers are hoping he can bring some of that same quarterbacking magic now to Carolina, wooing him in free agency with a three-year, $63 million contract.

26. Detroit Lions. (26) Last year QB Matthew Stafford was on pace for a 5,000-yard, 38-touchdown season before suffering some broken bones in his back in a 2019 game against Oakland at the season’s midway point. If Stafford can return to that form and stay healthy, the Lions could be a surprise team in 2020.

27. New York Jets. (28) The Jets fielded a Top 10 defense a year ago but absorbed one of the biggest COVID-related hits when MLB C.J. Mosley opted out of the season. The Jets gave him an $85 million contract in 2019 and Mosley had an interception and a fumble recovery before suffering a season-ending groin injury in the second week. Now the Jets won’t see him until 2021.

28. Cincinnati Bengals. (27) Since last appearing in a Super Bowl in 1989, the Bengals have spent four first-round draft picks on quarterbacks without returning to an AFC title game. Now it’s Joe Burrow’s turn. He follows in the footsteps of Carson Palmer (2003), Akili Smith (1999) and David Klingler (1992).

29. Los Angeles Chargers. (31) The Chargers fielded the sixth best defense in the NFL last season but absorbed a broadside in camp in August when Pro Bowl safety Derwin James suffered a season-ending knee injury. This after James missed 11 games in 2019 with a stress fracture in his foot.

30. Miami Dolphins. (29) The development of rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa could be slowed by the departures of veteran WRs Albert Wilson and Allen Hurns, who opted out of the season with COVID concerns. They combined to catch 75 passes for 767 yards and three touchdowns last season.

31. Washington. (32) Washington said good-bye to its two best running backs (Adrian Peterson and Derrius Guice) and its nickname this summer. The minority owners no longer want any part of Dan Snyder’s team and the NFL also has undertaken an investigation into the workplace conduct at the franchise. Jan. 1, 2021 can’t come soon enough for this bunch.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars. (30) The old gang – the gang that reached the 2017 AFC title game — is gone. RB Leonard Fournette is the latest out the door, following in the footsteps of QB Blake Bortles, TE Marcedes Lewis, DEs Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue, DT Malik Jackson, LBs Tevin Smith and Paul Posluszny, CBs Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye and safety Barry Church (among others).

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