Scouts and coaches will tell anyone within earshot that preseason football doesn't count, but it definitely matters when it comes to projecting the potential of an offensive unit. Evaluators can quickly determine which teams have the pieces in place to wreak havoc on opponents, based on their performance in limited action.
With most of the preseason in the books, this is the perfect time to rank the divisions based on the explosive potential of their offenses. While I know it's too early to fully evaluate how the pieces of the puzzle will come together for each team, it's fun to speculate prior to the season. With that in mind, I've ranked the divisions based on their offensive potential.
8) AFC South
This division is littered with relatively inexperienced quarterbacks, meaning the offenses could struggle with consistency and productivity -- aside from the Indianapolis Colts, who are unlikely to face such challenges with Andrew Luck under center. Marcus Mariota's Tennessee Titans, Blake Bortles' Jacksonville Jaguars and Brian Hoyer's Houston Texans will certainly have difficulty putting points on the board. While Mariota and Bortles are poised to ignite their offenses with their athleticism and arm talent, they could struggle with turnovers as they continue to adapt to the pro game. Hoyer can manage a game and win when supported by playmakers on the perimeter, but the loss of Arian Foster could force the seventh-year pro -- who has still started just 17 games -- out of his comfort zone. Given that the Colts are viewed as the only elite offense within the division, the AFC South is this list's cellar dweller.
7) AFC East
The defensive focus of the AFC East will make it hard for any offense to put up big numbers. The New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins are expected to field elite defenses under the direction of blitz-happy coaches, leading to scattershot performances from quarterbacks ill-equipped to deal with heavy pressure. It's hard to expect either the Bills, who have turned to Tyrod Taylor, or the Jets, who will lean on Ryan Fitzpatrick, to light it up through the air. A "ground and pound" approach could help Buffalo and New York compete for playoff berths, but the strategy is unlikely to produce a top-10 offense.
As the only teams with stability at quarterback, the Dolphins (led by Ryan Tannehill) and New England Patriots (Tom Brady) are the offensive flag-bearers for the division, powered by fast-paced attacks poised to wreak havoc on opponents with rhythm. The Patriots should roll, especially now that Brady's four-game suspension has been nullified. The Dolphins, meanwhile, have assembled a diverse receiving corps with several intriguing options on the perimeter. If Tannehill continues to grow as a playmaker, DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills and Jordan Cameron could be household names by the end of the season.
6) NFC South
Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston can all carry their respective franchises to the division title on the strength of their arms, but each player must also overcome various personnel deficiencies. In Tampa, Winston must stand tall behind a leaky Buccaneers offensive line breaking in a pair of rookies (Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet) at key positions. However, if Winston gets enough time in the pocket, the big-bodied pass-catching trio of Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins could cause problems for opponents down the field. Newton faces a similar challenge playing behind the Panthers' rebuilt offensive line -- though he'll also be without receiver Kelvin Benjamin, lost for the year to a torn ACL. Newton will have to lean on veteran tight end Greg Olsen and rookie Devin Funchess to anchor a passing game designed to complement a hard-hitting rushing attack.
In New Orleans, Brees has a host of unheralded pass catchers on the perimeter, but the emergence of Brandin Cooks and a dangerous three-headed monster in the backfield (Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller and Khiry Robinson) will make the Saints' "dink-and-dunk" offense a headache to defend. In Atlanta, Matt Ryan has one of the most talented receiving corps in the NFL, with Julio Jones and Roddy White dominating outside the numbers, but the Falcons need a young runner to step up and balance out the attack. If Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman churns out a 1,000-yard season, the offense could spark a playoff run and return Atlanta to the ranks of the elite.
5) NFC West
The rough-and-rugged reputation of the division overshadows its dynamic offenses. The Seahawks and Rams, in particular, are built to run the football behind hard-nosed backs (Marshawn Lynch in Seattle; Tre Mason and Todd Gurley in St. Louis) adept at finding creases between the tackles. The Seahawks complement their workhorse runner with an electric, mobile quarterback (Russell Wilson) and an athletic touchdown-maker (Jimmy Graham), while the Rams boast a systematic playmaker in Nick Foles. If he can get key contributions from Tavon Austin and Kenny Britt, St. Louis' offense could rank as one of the NFL's biggest surprises.
In San Francisco, offensive coordinator Geep Chryst will unleash Colin Kaepernick 2.0, incorporating some of the dynamic concepts (read-option, run-pass options and quarterback-designed runs) that helped him take the league by storm a few years ago. With a stable of young backs re-establishing the 49ers' offense as an ultra-physical unit, Kaepernick could get back to his playmaking ways. The return of Carson Palmer to health will allow Cardinals coach Bruce Arians to maximize the talents of his deep receiving corps. Opponents will continue to focus on slowing down Larry Fitzgerald, but the evolution of Michael Floyd and John Brown could take Arizona's offense to the next level.
4) AFC West
This could be the most competitive division in football, due to its intriguing quarterback battles. Philip Rivers vs. Peyton Manning will command most of the attention, but the upgraded offenses of the Raiders and Chiefs make Derek Carr and Alex Smith viable contenders in the race for divisional supremacy. The Chiefs, in particular, house an electric set of triplets, with Jeremy Maclin joining Jamaal Charles and Smith. If coach Andy Reid can find the right run-pass ratio, Kansas City's offense will create problems for opponents on the perimeter. In Oakland, the connection between Carr and rookie receiver Amari Cooper -- a natural WR1 -- could become the foundation of an improved offensive attack. If the line can create enough push to give Latavius Murray a little running room, the balance of the Raiders' offense could create problems for opponents.
Coach Mike McCoy has rejuvenated Rivers' career, reconstructing the Chargers' offense to feature more short and intermediate passes, thus helping Rivers regain his consistency from the pocket while enhancing the playmaking ability of San Diego's big-bodied pass catchers (Keenan Allen, Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates) on the outside. With rookie Melvin Gordon solidifying the running game, the Bolts have the potential to turn every game into a shootout.
Gary Kubiak's arrival in Denver comes at the right time, with Manning's arm talent in severe decline; the five-time MVP can no longer consistently push the ball downfield. Still, his impeccable timing and rhythm make him dangerous. Shifting to a more balanced offense featuring a physical running game and a deceptive play-action pass attack will offset Manning's arm deficiency. If the quarterback can keep his ego in check, the Broncos' offense will continue to roll, albeit in a more conservative fashion.
3) AFC North
It's time to recognize the high-powered offenses that reside in the North, despite its defensive reputation. The Steelers could overcome a young defense to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at season's end on the strength of the most explosive offense in football. Pittsburgh boasts the best set of triplets (Ben Roethlisberger, who is playing the best football of his career, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown) and a stable of electric receivers with the speed and quickness to terrorize opponents attempting to "man up" on the perimeter. It's hard to imagine anyone slowing down the Steelers. Granted, the two-game suspension of Bell could diffuse their explosiveness at the beginning of the season, but when the Pro Bowler returns, he'll help the unit utilize a diverse approach.
The Bengals and Ravens can't match Pittsburgh's depth or explosiveness, but they're dangerous in their own right. Cincinnati has a pair of backs (Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill) capable of carving up defenses on the edges or between the tackles, but their best playmakers reside on the perimeter. A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones are dynamic pass catchers with home-run potential, though Andy Dalton must deliver the ball on target to allow them to make plays in space. The pass-play-designing expertise of coordinator Marc Trestman could help Joe Flacco take his game up a notch. If Steve Smith can continue to anchor the passing game as a savvy WR1 and the young pass catchers (Marlon Brown, Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams) develop, the Ravens will have something going.
Cleveland pulls up the rear, due to questions about the quarterback and receiver spots, but there are intriguing options at each position. If the Browns can squeeze a little production from Johnny Manziel, Dwayne Bowe, Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell or Duke Johnson, they could field a competitive offense that complements a dominant defense.
2) NFC North
Each team in this perennial powerful division has a legitimate franchise quarterback with a strong supporting cast. Prior to Jordy Nelson's season-ending ACL tear, the Packers' offense would've ranked as one of the most explosive in recent memory, led by Aaron Rodgers and a deep, talented receiving corps. Randall Cobb is a suitable replacement as a WR1, but to make up for Nelson's lost production, Green Bay will lean on Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery, Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers, collectively.
The Lions' offense is undoubtedly one of the most dangerous in the league, with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate comprising an imposing 1-2 punch on the perimeter. Matthew Stafford takes advantage of their skills by tossing pinpoint passes to every area of the field. With Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick enhancing the passing game as versatile backs, Detroit's electric attack has big-play potential at every turn. If Eric Ebron can live up to the pre-draft hype, the Lions will have a big-bodied athlete capable of controlling the middle of the field. Most importantly, they will have an offense without a glaring hole in the lineup.
The Vikings don't come to mind when most observers envision a big-play offense, but they have all the components needed to light up the scoreboard. Teddy Bridgewater is a pinpoint passer surrounded by a plethora of playmakers (Charles Johnson, Mike Wallace, Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph) and the best running back in the game (Adrian Peterson). If coach Mike Zimmer discovers the right combination along the offensive line, Minnesota could terrorize opponents this fall.
In Chicago, Jay Cutler's inconsistency mars his undeniable talent, but he could finally play up to his potential under coordinator Adam Gase. Injuries to Kevin Whiteand Alshon Jeffery could prevent Cutler from posting big numbers, but Eddie Royal and Martellus Bennett might play well enough to help the Bears win more than a handful of games.
1) NFC East
In Philadelphia, the difficulty stems from defending a quirky scheme that utilizes tempo and rhythm to create chaos all over the field. With coach Chip Kelly matching a pair of downhill runners (DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews) with a zone-based scheme, the Eagles' running game could be nearly impossible to defend at the point of attack. Considering Sam Bradford's pinpoint skills as a pocket or movement-based passer (bootlegs), the Eagles can function without a classic WR1 on the field.
The Cowboys present a similar challenge with Tony Romo at the controls. He has the luxury of tossing the ball to Dez Bryant or Jason Witten while playing behind the best offensive line in football. Although questions about the running-back rotation (Joseph Randle or Darren McFadden) loom large, the line's ability to generate push at the point of attack should help either runner rack up yards.
The Giants can throw the ball all over the yard with Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle forming a spectacular receiving trio. Each player is a polished route runner with the speed, quickness and burst to win on catch-and-run routes or vertical throws. With running back Shane Vereen and tight end Larry Donnell working the middle of the field, Eli Manning can attack the defense in a variety of ways, provided the offensive line holds up.
Washington has a nice set of weapons on the outside, but Kirk Cousins and the offensive line need to get on the same page to get DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon enough touches to impact the game. This offense might be an afterthought compared to the other divisional powers, but it does have big-play potential.