With most teams winding down their offseason programs and players, coaches and front-office executives about to take a month or so of vacation before training camps open in late July, here's one ranking of the 32 teams after 31/2 months of player movement and roster reshuffling:
Winner of two of the past three Super Bowls, New England has the sport's top coach in Bill Belichick and got better, with the trade for tailback Corey Dillon and a bountiful draft.
It's a Super Bowl-or-bust season after three straight losses in the NFC title game, and Philadelphia loaded up with the free-agent addition of defensive end Jevon Kearse and the trade for wide receiver Terrell Owens.
This might be their last shot at the big prize for a while. They overpaid to keep quarterback Peyton Manning, giving the reigning NFL co-most valuable player a $34.5 million signing bonus as part of a seven-year, $98-million contract, and tailback Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison are eligible for unrestricted free agency in March.
Yes, Seahawks. The re-signing of wide receiver Darrell Jackson and the arrival of free-agent defensive end Grant Wistrom give the club a legitimate shot at the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
There are questions on defense and the club committed to Marc Bulger at quarterback after last year's 22-touchdown, 22-interception performance. Another quick playoff exit could put Coach Mike Martz's job in jeopardy, but there is still plenty of talent for another Super Bowl run.
Coach Dick Vermeil says this is the best team he has ever been around. The offense is imposing, but new coordinator Gunther Cunningham will have to be the savior on defense after Kansas City did little in the offseason to upgrade.
Salary-cap squeeze led to free-agent departures of Kearse and defensive tackle Robaire Smith, but Coach Jeff Fisher and co-MVP quarterback Steve McNair should keep Tennessee in the race for AFC supremacy.
They probably won't be as fortunate in close games as they were during their NFC championship season, and quarterback Jake Delhomme won't take anyone by surprise any more. Certainly, tailback Stephen Davis will lose a step sometime in the next few years. But this is still a solid team anchored by its fearsome defensive front.
Did the fourth-and-26 failure and quarterback Brett Favre's overtime interception in their playoff loss at Philadelphia cost Favre his last, best Super Bowl chance? Maybe not. The Packers just have to hope that Favre stays in the lineup and the Tim Couch era doesn't begin this year.
They made the necessary defensive upgrades after last season's 6-0 start gave way to a 3-7, non-playoff finish.
If second-year quarterback Kyle Boller comes through, the other parts are in place, provided that tailback Jamal Lewis is available and in the lineup.
Can Joe Gibbs turn a 5-11 team into a playoff club in one year? You bet. He's that good.
A Bill Parcells-coached club never has failed to improve by fewer than three victories from Year 1 to Year 2, and Vinny Testaverde could provide stability at quarterback. But much depends on rookie running back Julius Jones and the offensive line could be a problem.
The return of quarterback Michael Vick could make them winners again, but will the defense do its part?
They're still old, but not as old, and an offseason of retooling could have them back in the playoff chase.
Coach Mike Shanahan always has been able to find a new 1,000-yard-plus rusher, but replacing Clinton Portis from among his current group of candidates might be tougher, especially with offensive-line guru Alex Gibbs now in Atlanta.
Coach Dave Wannstedt begins a win-or-else season with a tumultuous offseason and a quarterback quandary, but there is talent at his disposal. The Dolphins must get disgruntled defensive end Adewale Ogunleye signed and on the field for the season opener.
The NFL's busiest team this offseason patched some of its holes while saying goodbye to mainstays Warren Sapp and John Lynch. But will the Buccaneers pay for again looking less than committed to quarterback Brad Johnson?
Coach Marvin Lewis is crafting a built-to-last contender. But his decision to go with Carson Palmer as his starting quarterback could be a case of taking one step backward now to take two steps forward later.
This is a very solid team in the making, but perhaps a year away.
Quarterback Chad Pennington's return should make them competitive again, but they still haven't fully recovered from the Redskins' 2003 raid on their roster.
Can Coach Mike Mularkey fix the offense? It's possible, but unlikely to happen immediately. This could be a transition year at quarterback, from veteran Drew Bledsoe to rookie J.P. Losman.
Will Coach Bill Cowher take a few lumps -- at a time when his job security has been called into question -- and make his quarterback of the future (Ben Roethlisberger) his quarterback of the present?
Stayed still while division rivals Tampa Bay and Atlanta got better.
Gradual climb toward .500 continues.
They got better. But there was a long, long way to go.
Rex Grossman could be the answer at quarterback. But not this year.
Coach Dennis Green will have Arizona winning at some point. But he faces a tough task in year one, particularly with the untested Josh McCown at quarterback.
There's no one left to blame but Coach Butch Davis. He made certain of that with his offseason consolidation of power.
Will Eli Manning get even a one-year grace period in New York?
They have one-third of their salary cap tied up in players no longer on the team and are crossing their fingers that Tim Rattay will be healthy enough to start the opener at quarterback. Otherwise they'll go with Ken Dorsey. Not exactly Montana vs. Young, is it?
The draft-day trade for quarterback Philip Rivers could end up being very helpful indeed to Marty Schottenheimer's successor as coach.
After Delhomme led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl in February, team officials said they intended to negotiate a lucrative contract extension with him and yesterday they made good on that pledge. Delhomme was signed to a five-year extension worth about $38 million, including $12 million in bonus money.
Delhomme, 29, had one season remaining on the two-year, $4-million deal that he signed with Carolina as a free agent last offseason, calling for a salary of $1.37 million for the upcoming season.
"They came to me and said, 'We're going to try to do this and that,' '' Delhomme told reporters at the Panthers' training facility as the club wrapped up its offseason practices. "I had a smile on my face. I said, 'That sounds great. Let's get something done.' . . . I don't want to move around a lot. I want to stay grounded. I was in one place for a while and now I want to stay in this place. . . . I just got lucky that I came here. "
Delhomme was signed by New Orleans as an undrafted rookie in 1997 and, after a year on the practice squad, was a backup for the Saints for five seasons before picking the Panthers over the Dallas Cowboys in free agency. He threw for 3,219 yards and 19 touchdowns during the regular season, and passed for 323 yards and three touchdowns in Carolina's 32-29 loss to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
"The Panthers have made a statement that they're going to build their future around Jake,'' agent Rick Smith, who represents Delhomme and negotiated the extension with Carolina General Manager Marty Hurney, said by telephone. "He worked his tail off to get where he is and when he got his opportunity, he made the most of it.''
The Panthers turned their negotiating focus to Delhomme after completing a three-year contract extension (through the 2008 season) with Coach John Fox two weeks ago.
"Everybody in the league tries to identify their quarterback,'' Fox told reporters yesterday. "Once you identify him, getting him locked up for the future is paramount to your success.''
In another move, the Patriots signed inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi to a three-year extension that includes a $3.5-million signing bonus. Bruschi, 31, had one season remaining on his contract and, with the extension, will earn $8.1 million over the next four seasons. He represented himself in negotiations.
The 49ers surprisingly released offensive tackle Greg Randall, signed earlier in the offseason to a one-year, $560,000-contract as a free agent. The $25,000 that San Francisco gave to Randall, a starter for Houston last season, as a signing bonus adds to its total of approximately $27 million in "dead money'' -- salary cap space devoted to players no longer on the roster -- on its $80.5-million cap. The Cowboys tried to sign Randall before he picked San Francisco. . . .
The Chiefs released veteran offensive tackle Marcus Spears. That leaves newcomers John Welbourn and Chris Bober as the top contenders to replace the departed John Tait at right tackle. . . .
Inside linebacker Tedy Bruchi agreed to a contract extension with the Patriots that reportedly will pay him about $8.1 million over the next four seasons. . . . The Patriots reportedly contacted Neil O'Donnell about serving as their backup quarterback. Like the Giants, they were rebuffed by O'Donnell, who plans to retire. . . . Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey appears to be leaning toward undergoing surgery on his ailing right foot. Doctors have found a "hot spot," an area vulnerable to a fracture or where a fracture could already exist. Surgery probably would keep Shockey sidelined through the early stages of training camp.
One more list. There aren't too many players still available on the free-agent market capable of helping teams this season. But there are a few. Here's a list of the top free agents still looking for work (with their 2003 teams):
Jeremiah Trotter, LB (Redskins)
Jason Gildon, LB (Steelers)
Antowain Smith, RB (Patriots)
Kenny Holmes, DE (Giants)
Greg Randall, T (Texans)
James Stewart, RB (Lions)
Chad Eaton, DT (Seahawks)
Oronde Gadsden, WR (Dolphins)
Dana Stubblefield, DT (Raiders)
Chris Redman, QB (Ravens)
Joe Johnson, DE (Packers)
Solomon Page, G (Chargers)
Stacey Mack, RB (Texans)
Antonio Freeman, WR (Packers)
Jason Sehorn, S (Rams)
Bill Schroeder, WR (Lions)
Rob Johnson, QB (Raiders)
Shane Matthews, QB (Bengals)