My friend Peter King of Sports Illustrated has the Carolina Panthers ranked 18th in his current power rankings for 2009.
That, of course, is too low. As currently constructed, the Panthers have 21 of 22 starters back from a team that went 12-5 last season. Now you can take that one of two ways. The Panthers haven't lost anybody (even No.90, despite all the offseason gnashing of teeth) but they also haven't gained anybody outside of the draft (which is why Everette Brown needs to help immediately on the pass rush this season).
If you're looking for ammo against Peter and/or Sports Illustrated, there's plenty. Peter picked New England to beat Dallas in Sept. 2008 in the 2009 Super Bowl -- ouch. SI has in past seasons gone as far as to pick the Panthers to win the Super Bowl in seasons where Carolina hasn't even made the playoffs and to err just about as far on the other side as well.
But to dismiss Peter's opinion as misguided is too simplistic. He's one of the most insightful writers in the business. He has great sources. If he picks the Panthers at No.18, that to some extent reflects the conventional wisdom around the NFL.
Where would I put the Panthers right now? My Top 10 is below, and I've put the Panthers at No.10. (And of course, I've missed the Panthers' outcome big-time in some past seasons, too).
My first 3 for 2009 would be Pittsburgh, New England and Indianapolis, in that order, followed by the N.Y. Giants.
I'd put Atlanta slightly ahead of Carolina right now if I were to guess who is going to win the NFC South, because the Falcons have really done a nice job filling their needs in the offseason. But I definitely wouldn't drop the Panthers all the way to No.18.
Here's my 2009 top 10 as of right now:
2. New England
4. N.Y. Giants
9. San Diego
9 months ago