The NFL offseason began Sunday night after the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers 25-22 to claim the Super Bowl LVIII title and (only slightly less importantly) the top spot in our postseason power rankings.
That means that all the fan bases that have been tuning out as their teams were eliminated from playoff contention or the playoffs are now back in the game. Hope is alive again for everyone with free agency and the draft coming into view.
With that in mind, we’re resetting our power rankings by combining some of the old (last season’s results) and some of the new (who’s getting a stud quarterback back, who might get a new coach lift, who has salary-cap space, etc.) to set the field going forward.
How the Chiefs stack up among NFL dynasties (and a path past the Patriots): Sando’s Pick Six
1. Kansas Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes, who was 8-for-8 passing on the drive that just won the Super Bowl, won his third Super Bowl MVP trophy and is now one of five quarterbacks in NFL history to win at least three Super Bowl titles (and he was behind by double digits in all three of those games). He is 15-3 in the playoffs in his six-year career and has advanced at least to the AFC Championship Game in all six of those seasons. Kansas City has $24 million in salary-cap space but might as well use it all to make sure the defense stays stocked because Mahomes will make it work on offense.
2. San Francisco 49ers
This will be a tough week, but the future will be fine. The 49ers are over the salary cap (by just $3.7 million) but have all of their significant offensive weapons under contract. They also still have Kyle Shanahan, which despite what everyone is saying today, is a good thing. Shanahan is 72-54 as a head coach. San Francisco is second in the league in yards per play (5.9) and seventh in scoring (25.04) since Shanahan became the head coach in 2017, according to TruMedia.
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Everyone’s favorite underdog had the 49ers on the ropes in the NFC Championship Game, has money to spend ($47 million in cap space) and, shockingly, still has offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who rebuffed the Washington Commanders to stay in Detroit. Every significant offensive contributor remains under contract on a team that finished fifth in the league in scoring (27.35 ppg). When coach Dan Campbell said after the loss to the Niners that it would be “twice as hard” to get back to that point next season, it wasn’t poor-mouthing, it was just his first motivational speech of the 2024 season.
A disappointing ending (scoring 10 points in the AFC Championship Game against the underdog Chiefs) shouldn’t overshadow the fact the Ravens, who have $7.3 million cap space, remain the class of the AFC’s B flight (which includes any team that doesn’t employ Patrick Mahomes). There won’t be any Lamar Jackson contract drama this offseason, which will allow Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Monken to strengthen their connection. That’s good news for the Ravens considering Jackson is coming off the second-best season of his career and second NFL MVP award. The quarterback’s yards per attempt (7.9) this year were a career-high and his passer rating (101.6) and touchdown passes (27) were the second best of his career.
The Texans are one of the big movers since the last publication of these rankings. Rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud put 45 points on one of the league’s most aggressive defenses in the playoffs, beating the Browns 45-14 in the wild-card round, and was named offensive rookie of the year. His offensive coordinator, Bobby Slowik, is back after taking head coaching interviews, and Houston has $57.4 million in cap space.
A Matt LaFleur Appreciation Post: The Packers head coach somehow is the forgotten man in the Kyle Shanahan-Sean McVay conversation. LaFleur is 56-27 in five seasons in Green Bay. That .675 winning percentage is better than Shanahan or McVay, not to mention every other active coach in the league other than Jim Harbaugh (.695). Until last season, Aaron Rodgers got the credit for LaFleur’s accomplishments, but the Packers (who are $2.9 million above the salary cap) are doing it now with 25-year-old Jordan Love.
Things get a lot harder for Buffalo starting this offseason because Josh Allen’s cap hit just went from $18.6 million to $47 million, and it will be north of $40 million for the next five seasons. It’s why the Bills already are $51.3 million over the 2024 cap. The good news is they still have Allen, and he’s the reason Buffalo sits with Baltimore on the AFC’s second shelf. Remember, the Bills finished the season fourth in point margin (plus-140) despite six regular-season losses.
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8. Cleveland Browns
Deshaun Watson is back, but we’re all still trying to figure out if that’s a good thing. Kevin Stefanski earned NFL coach of the year honors by getting the Browns to the playoffs with no Nick Chubb and with Joe Flacco at quarterback after Watson’s season-ending injury. Watson has started only 12 games since joining the Browns two years ago (8-4 record), and he’s 57th in the league in EPA per attempt (minus-.07) in that time, according to TruMedia. Still, the Browns, who are $19.6 million over the cap, have a great defense and Chubb returning from a devastating knee injury.
Are you ready for a lot of Tua Tagovailoa talk? Well, you better be. The Dolphins quarterback is under contract for 2024 at a $23.2 million cap hit, but that’s the last year of his deal and “Should Miami give Tua a market-setting deal?” is going to be one of the questions of the offseason. The Dolphins aren’t exactly rolling in spending money. They are $51.9 million over the salary cap at the moment and should pay defensive tackle Christian Wilkins this offseason.
Tua Tagovailoa got on stage with Darius Rucker to play the guitar & sing Wagon Wheel in Vegas 🎤
Daniel Jones was in the crowd cheering him on 👏
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) February 10, 2024
No team has moved up this list more than the Bengals, who not only have $59.4 million cap space but are getting Joe Burrow back from a season-ending wrist injury. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan is gone, but Burrow’s return more than makes up for it. Burrow is 27-15 as a starter in the last three seasons and cheap(-ish) for one more year. Burrow’s cap hit for 2024 is $29.7 million. After that, it goes over $46 million for each of the next five seasons.
The Cowboys are allowed to be in the top half of these rankings only because the playoffs are over. Dallas, which is $19.7 million over the salary cap, has won 12 regular-season games in each of the last three years but only one playoff game in that span. Dak Prescott and Mike McCarthy are back, looking to move past last month’s embarrassing 48-32 loss to the Packers, but running back Tony Pollard is an unrestricted free agent.
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Everyone of note is under contract, and the Rams have $27.7 million in salary-cap space. They won seven of their last nine regular-season games and came within a point of upsetting the Lions in the playoffs. Barring an unexpected (but you could see it at his age) retirement by Matthew Stafford, the Rams will enter 2024 as a dark-horse conference championship contender.
Did we underestimate the Bucs all season long? Did the Eagles just quit? Tampa Bay’s 32-9 win over Philadelphia in the wild-card round raised questions about both teams. Questions that probably won’t be answered until next season starts, but the Buccaneers do at least deserve some recognition here. Tampa Bay — which has $36.9 million in salary-cap space, some of which certainly will go to re-signing Baker Mayfield — has gone to the playoffs each of the last four seasons, winning the division title three times and a Super Bowl once in that span.
In a world where Houston quarterback C.J. Stroud didn’t exist, Indianapolis would be feeling very good about itself right now. The Colts are getting quarterback Anthony Richardson back from his season-ending shoulder surgery and are believers in Shane Steichen after his first year as head coach. Throw in $58.9 million of salary-cap space to plug holes, and Colts fans can talk themselves into a brewing rivalry with Stroud and the Texans.
15. Philadelphia Eagles
A case could be made to put the Eagles just about anywhere on this list. Many of the reasons they went to the Super Bowl a season ago (Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith) are still around, but questions abound. They have $20.2 million in salary-cap space but may lose Jason Kelce, Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham to retirement and/or free agency. Then there’s the coaching staff overhaul that ended with Kellen Moore in charge of the offense and Vic Fangio in charge of the defense. How good are the Eagles? Who knows?
This position is Kirk Cousins dependent. The 35-year-old free agent is coming off a torn Achilles tendon, but he’s still going to be the hottest quarterback commodity on the market. The Vikings have $24.7 million in cap space and will create as much more as they need to to get Cousins back. He’s expressed his contentment with Minnesota, and why not? In his two seasons playing for Kevin O’Connell, Cousins is third in the league in passing yards (275.12) and passing touchdowns (1.88) per game, according to TruMedia.
Robert Saleh should just pretend last year never happened. Seriously. Make it a bit starting now. Pretend this is Aaron Rodgers’ first season with the team. Claim he’s never heard the names Pat McAfee or Zach Wilson. Lean into it. The Jets have $5 million in salary-cap space, the No. 10 pick in the draft and a healthy Rodgers. New York still has Nathaniel Hackett as offensive coordinator, but maybe Saleh can pretend that’s not real either.
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Seattle gets a new head coach bump thanks to Mike Macdonald’s hiring, but it’s still in one of the league’s toughest divisions with the 49ers, Rams and perhaps ascendant Cardinals. The Seahawks need to create some salary-cap room (they’re minus-$5.2 million at the moment) and hope Geno Smith has a bounce-back season. The quarterback’s passer rating (100.8 to 92.1), touchdowns (32 to 20) and yards per attempt (7.5 to 7.3) all went down after a surprising 2022, according to TruMedia.
Mike Tomlin checked the “winning season” box again, but that’s about all the Steelers got out of the season. They weren’t competitive against Buffalo in the first round of the playoffs, and they don’t seem to know if Kenny Pickett or Mason Rudolph is the quarterback. Something everyone in Pittsburgh can look forward to, though, are some great sideline shots of new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith and mercurial wide receiver George Pickens throughout the season. Pittsburgh is $16 million over the cap.
Yes, Jim Harbaugh is quirky, but only Guy Chamberlin (who coached the Canton Bulldogs among others in the 1920s; I had to look it up), John Madden, Vince Lombardi and George Allen have a better career winning percentage in the NFL than Harbaugh’s .695. He also has Justin Herbert. There are issues, though, including an aging roster and the fact the Chargers are $45.8 million over the cap.
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No team will have a longer offseason than the Jaguars, who lost five of their last six games to fall out of playoff contention. Jacksonville, which has $11.3 million in cap space, has only two more cheap years of Trevor Lawrence. The quarterback will be an $11 million cap hit this year and then either play on his fifth-year option or a new deal, either of which will be a bigger number. The Jags pick 17th in the first round.
The Raiders were 5-4 under interim head coach Antonio Pierce, which was good enough to make him full-time head coach Antonio Pierce. Now, he has his work cut out for him. The Raiders have some money to spend ($36 million in cap space) and the No. 13 pick in the upcoming draft, but they probably need a quarterback and are a long way from being able to compete with the division-dominating Chiefs.
It’s hard to see where this team will find a solution at quarterback. Sean Payton still won’t say if Russell Wilson will be back, but things aren’t trending in that direction. The Broncos are set to pick 12th so they’ll either have to trade up or decide they can live with one of the second-tier quarterback prospects if they want a rookie quarterback. They are $23.9 million over the salary cap and will take another big cap hit if they cut Wilson ($85 million in dead money if he’s released before June 1), so attracting a name in free agency seems unlikely.
Matt Eberflus is coming back. Now, what about Justin Fields? Thanks to last year’s trade with the Carolina Panthers, the Bears have the No. 1 pick, which means they can take Caleb Williams (or Drake Maye or even Jayden Daniels, but probably Williams) or bank on more development by Fields. Either way, this is going to be an offseason of additions. The Bears have the Nos. 1 and 9 picks in the first round and $46.9 million of cap space.
Mike Vrabel is out, and Brian Callahan and a more “collaborative” mindset are in. Will that and $68.1 million in salary-cap space be enough to get Tennessee back into the playoff hunt after two years out of the mix? That depends mostly on quarterback Will Levis, who started nine games last year and whom Callahan, the former Bengals offensive coordinator, was hired to elevate. The Titans were 3-6 in Levis’ starts.
26. Washington Commanders
The Commanders’ offseason of optimism — new owner, No. 2 pick, $73.6 million in cap space — lost some momentum when Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson seemed to leave them at the head coaching altar late in the process. It may turn out that Washington stumbled into a great hire with Dan Quinn, whose positive attitude should help a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2005, or it may be a bust. A lot could depend on whether Quinn’s offensive coordinator hire, Kliff Kingsbury, works out.
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Jerod Mayo is on the clock, and it seems as if he’s suddenly in charge of the first round of the NFL Draft. The Patriots pick No. 3. Quarterbacks are considered locks to be taken in the first two picks, but things get interesting at No. 3. Will Mayo decide it’s time to move on from Mac Jones and draft a quarterback or will he take Marvin Harrison Jr. to help Jones’ development? What New England does with its $66 million in cap space in March may give us some clue about that.
Let’s all take a moment to appreciate the Saints for always playing their role. General manager Mickey Loomis scoffs at the salary cap, and thus New Orleans is in the worst cap shape in the league heading into the offseason ($83.9 million over the cap). The other thing Loomis always does is figure it out by the time the fall arrives, although Saints fans might be starting to wonder about the long-term strategy. New Orleans hasn’t made the playoffs or won double-digit games in the last three seasons.
The Falcons have a new head coach, with Raheem Morris taking over for the fired Arthur Smith, and $25.8 million in salary-cap space. What they don’t have is a quarterback. That’s why they will be attached to every available one until the question is settled. Justin Fields? Sure, he could be an option. Kirk Cousins? He’s familiar with the new offensive system. Trading up from No. 8 in the draft to get Jayden Daniels? Might be an option. That’s a preview of the next two months for the Falcons.
Daniel Jones will count at least $41.6 million toward the salary cap each of the next three seasons. The Giants have the No. 6 pick in the first round. They have to at least consider making a change at quarterback. They also have to figure out what to do about Saquon Barkley. They couldn’t get a long-term deal done with their star running back last offseason but have $21.8 million in cap space available they want to try harder this offseason.
31. Arizona Cardinals
This is the offseason the Cardinals have been waiting for since last offseason. Arizona has $41.9 million in cap space and has three picks in the top 35 selections and seven of the top 104. No team will get a bigger facelift before the start of next season. One place where there won’t be a change is quarterback as the Cardinals have committed to keeping Kyler Murray.
32. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers hired a new head coach, Dave Canales, to fix their still-kind-of-new quarterback, Bryce Young. Canales was the surprise hire of the offseason, coming to Carolina after only one year of calling plays at division-rival Tampa Bay. Either he blew the Panthers away in the interview process or mercurial owner David Tepper was worried he wasn’t going to be able to attract a bigger-name hire. Carolina has $28.6 million in cap space heading into the offseason.
(Top photo: Michael Owens / Getty Images)