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BACK FROM THE DRAFT // WHO RANKS HIGH, AND WHO'S JUST RANK AND FILE

NO. 1 DALLAS

1995 RECORD: 15-4.

1996 OUTLOOK: Free agency continues to pick apart the Cowboys, with four defensive starters jumping ship: DT Russell Maryland, DB Larry Brown, LB Dixon Edwards and LB Robert Jones. Add to that the uncertainty swirling around WR Michael Irvin, who could be suspended for up to four games if he pleads or is found guilty of drug possession charges. The Cowboys found no starters in the draft. Depth is nil, but they still have the best nucleus of players in the NFL.

EARLY LINE: Don't be surprised if they fail to reach the NFC title game.

NO. 2 GREEN BAY

1995 RECORD: 13-6.

1996 OUTLOOK: The Packers are suddenly the class of the NFC. Last year, they caught San Francisco and this season the aim is finally beating the Cowboys after seven straight losses. OT Bruce Wilkerson will improve the Packers up front and Green Bay also used its first-round pick to take OT John Michels. Former Buc Santana Dotson will clog the middle for defensive ends Sean Jones and Reggie White. The Packers still could use an inside LB.

EARLY LINE: Should play either the Cowboys or 49ers for the NFC title.

NO. 3 SAN FRANCISCO

1995 RECORD: 12-5.

1996 OUTLOOK: The 49ers did not have a first-round pick for the first time since 1988, but used their top selection (46th overall) to try to fill their need for a dominating pass rusher by drafting Southern Cal defensive end Israel Ifeanyi. The biggest question mark is whether RB William Floyd can recover from knee surgery, but the Niners took steps to improve their anemic ground game by signing free agents Johnny Johnson and Tommy Vardell. Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Brent Jones have at least one more run for a Super Bowl in them.

EARLY LINE: The 49ers should win the NFC West, with the Rams and Panthers closing the gap.

NO. 4 INDIANAPOLIS

1995 RECORD: 11-8.

1996 OUTLOOK: The Colts came within a Hail Mary of playing in Super Bowl XXX and have concentrated on improving the cast around QB Jim Harbaugh. They drafted Syracuse WR Marvin Harrison with the first-round pick they received from Atlanta for QB Jeff George. Indy signed three free-agent offensive linemen: Troy Auzenne, Kay Leeuwenburg and Doug Widell. The big question is how Lindy Infante will fare in his second try as an NFL head coach.

EARLY LINE: Should compete for the AFC East title with Miami.

NO. 5 KANSAS CITY

1995 RECORD: 13-4.

1996 OUTLOOK: Remember how the Steelers used their playoff loss to San Diego in the AFC title game as motivation to reach Super Bowl XXX? That could be the Chiefs, only their collapse came in a first-round upset at home versus the Colts. WR Willie Davis and Darren Mickell are gone and the Chiefs haven't added anyone of consequence.

EARLY LINE: Can you go anywhere with QB Steve Bono? Not far. One and done in the playoffs again?

NO. 6 PHILADELPHIA

1995 RECORD: 11-7.

1996 OUTLOOK: The Eagles lost two of their three starting linebackers when Bill Romanowski and Kurt Gouveia left via free agency. The big additions were CB Troy Vincent and WR Irving Fryar. The Eagles' goal is beating the Cowboys, and to that end they drafted an elephant OL in Jermane Mayberry. Philadelphia will be better off without divisive QB Randall Cunningham.

EARLY LINE: Ray Rhodes has done some weeding. Expect the playoffs, maybe more.

NO. 7 DETROIT

1995 RECORD: 10-7.

1996 OUTLOOK: Forget ultimatums. It won't be enough for coach Wayne Fontes to make the playoffs, he has to win a game or two. The Lions will miss OT Lomas Brown and LB Chris Spielman. Detroit's additions are LB Michael Brooks and OL Ray Roberts. The Lions moved up to draft LB Reggie Roberts in the first round and must improve defense.

EARLY LINE: The Lions won't catch Green Bay in the NFC Central.

NO. 8 MIAMI

1995 RECORD: 9-8.

1996 OUTLOOK: It has been a bad start for the Jimmy Johnson era in Miami. Strapped by the salary cap, the Dolphins lost four starters to free agency: LB Bryan Cox, DB Troy Vincent, WR Irving Fryar and DL Marco Coleman. They signed WR Fred Barnett and WR Charles Jordan. Johnson was handcuffed with just one of the first 50 picks in the draft and used it to take underachieving DT Daryl Gardener. A nice pickup in the third round was UCLA RB Karim Abdul-Jabbar.

EARLY LINE: Johnson will make the playoffs, but winning the AFC could be asking too much.

NO. 9 BUFFALO

1995 RECORD: 10-6.

1996 OUTLOOK: The Bills proved last year they still can be a force in the AFC. A speedy receiver was critical and they got one, drafting Mississippi State's Eric Moulds in the first round. Former Detroit LB Chris Spielman will replace Cornelius Bennett, who signed with Atlanta. RB Thurman Thomas and QB Jim Kelly still get plenty of help from their defense.

EARLY LINE: The retooling is almost complete, but not before another playoff run by Kelly and company.

NO. 10 OAKLAND

1995 RECORD: 8-8.

1996 OUTLOOK: You have to love what Al Davis did for his defense by luring free agents Russell Maryland and Super Bowl MVP Larry Brown from the Dallas Cowboys. Then the Raiders were aggressive in trading up for TE Rickey Dudley, one of the jewels of the draft. Dudley could do what a TE like Todd Christensen did for the Raiders' passing game. But is there enough protection for concussion-prone QB Jeff Hostetler?

EARLY LINE: Favored to win the AFC West and maybe play for a championship.

NO. 11 PITTSBURGH

1995 RECORD: 13-6.

1996 OUTLOOK: The off-season has been gut-wrenching for Steelers fans. First they watch QB Neil O'Donnell trot off to the Jets, then read that RB Bam Morris faces possible jail time for drug charges. OT Leon Searcy went to the Jags as a free agent and will be replaced by Will Wolford. The big question is whether Jim Miller or Kordell Stewart can get it done at QB.

EARLY LINE: Playoffs are possible, but don't expect to see the Steelers in New Orleans in January.

NO. 12 SAN DIEGO

1995 RECORD: 9-8.

1996 OUTLOOK: GM Bobby Beathard might have made the bonehead move of the draft, trading the Chargers' No. 1 in '97 to Tampa Bay for the 41st overall pick to take Virginia Tech receiver Bryan Still. The Chargers needed to replace WR Shawn Jefferson, but they also needed help on defense. It took four straight wins to end the season for San Diego to qualify for the playoffs.

EARLY LINE: Coach Bobby Ross is a miracle worker if the Chargers do more than earn a wild-card spot.

NO. 13 CHICAGO

1995 RECORD: 9-7.

1996 OUTLOOK: The Bears needed another corner to go with Donnell Woolford and got him by trading up in the draft to take Mississippi State's Walt Harris. Finding a receiver to replace 1,000-yard man Jeff Graham won't be as easy. It's uncertain what kind of impact maverick LB Bryan Cox will have on the defense. The offensive line was weakened by losing OT Troy Auzenne and OG Kay Leeuwenburg.

EARLY LINE: The Bears could lose some ground in the NFC Central.

NO. 14 ST. LOUIS

1995 RECORD: 7-9.

1996 OUTLOOK: The Rams got richer than any team in the draft if RB Lawrence Phillips stays out of trouble. DL Leslie O'Neal could make up for the trade of Sean Gilbert. St. Louis has three speed receivers after adding LSU's Eddie Kennison. But who's really sold on Steve Walsh as a starting QB? Getting two picks for RB Jerome Bettis was a plus.

EARLY LINE: Rams could earn at least a wild-card spot if Walsh plays as advertised.

NO. 15 SEATTLE

1995 RECORD: 8-8.

1996 OUTLOOK: The Seahawks addressed their biggest need by drafting Boston College offensive tackle Pete Kendall in the first round. Coach Dennis Erickson turned his team around in the second half last season; it finished by winning six of eight and narrowly missed a playoff spot. The Seahawks did little in the off-season except re-sign WR Brian Blades.

EARLY LINE: A winning record and possible playoff spot is on the horizon.

NO. 16 DENVER

1995 RECORD: 8-8.

1996 OUTLOOK: Dee-fense, Dee-fense. That too often was the plea by Broncos fans. So Mike Shanahan signed DE Alfred Williams and LB Bill Romanowski in the off-season. Denver also picked up two starters in the draft with LB John Mobley and DB Tory James. QB John Elway will finish his career as a Bronco, but at this rate, he won't have a Super Bowl ring to show for it.

EARLY LINE: Nine or 10 wins, but an early flameout in the post-season.

NO. 17 TAMPA BAY

1995 RECORD: 7-9.

1996 OUTLOOK: Coach Tony Dungy could have the youngest defense in the NFL, but that doesn't scare him. DL Regan Upshaw and Marcus Jones will be immediate starters. FB Mike Alstott should clear a path for Errict Rhett. The Bucs achieved their goal in free agency of not losing any ground by re-signing Hardy Nickerson. But nothing gets done if offensive coordinator Mike Shula doesn't develop QB Trent Dilfer.

EARLY LINE: The 13-year losing streak ends and the Bucs earn a wild-card playoff spot.

NO. 18 MINNESOTA

1995 RECORD: 8-8.

1996 OUTLOOK: The defensive line took another hit when Roy Barker was lost to free agency. Last year, it was Henry Thomas. The Vikings took DE Duane Clemons in the first round Saturday, but they really need a dominating DT to line up next to John Randle. Consider, too, the effect of losing Tony Dungy to the Bucs. If QB Warren Moon isn't out of gas, he's running on fumes.

EARLY LINE: A losing record would mean so long to Dennis Green.

NO. 19 ATLANTA

1995 RECORD: 9-8.

1996 OUTLOOK: The Falcons probably overpaid for QB Jeff George last year and thus did not have a pick until the third round (84th overall), where they took Alabama DL Shannon Brown. They looked to free agency by signing LB Cornelius Bennett and trading their second-round pick to Oakland for S Patrick Bates.

EARLY LINE: Falcons will need help to return to the playoffs.

NO. 20 N.Y. JETS

1995 RECORD: 3-13.

1996 OUTLOOK: No team did as much to improve itself. Then again, no team was quite as pathetic at the end of last season. The offense will not finish last in the NFL again after signing QB Neil O'Donnell, OT David Williams, OT Jumbo Elliott and WR Jeff Graham. First overall pick Keyshawn Johnson will be a star. But the Jets missed a great chance to address their RB need by passing over Leeland McElroy to take receiver Alex Van Dyke. Adrian Murrell will be the featured back.

EARLY LINE: The Jets will make the biggest leap in wins this year.

NO. 21 HOUSTON

1995 RECORD: 7-9.

1996 OUTLOOK: The Oilers made the biggest improvement in wins of any team in '95. They should continue in that direction after a productive draft that brought the Oilers underrated Heisman Trophy RB Eddie George and DE Bryant Mix. QB Steve McNair should emerge as the starter over Chris Chandler sometime this year and the Oilers could pile on the points.

EARLY LINE: The Oilers will chase Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in a tight AFC Central race.

NO. 22 CINCINNATI

1995 RECORD: 7-9.

1996 OUTLOOK: The Bengals played much better than their record would indicate last season and addressed their biggest need by drafting Auburn OT Willie Anderson. Free agents Ashley Ambrose and Bo Orlando will try to plug a leaky secondary. WR Carl Pickens led the AFC in receiving with 1,234 yards and 17 TDs. TE Tony McGee and WR Darnay Scott give QB Jeff Blake the best targets in the AFC.

EARLY LINE: Coach David Shula will enjoy his first winning season.

NO. 23 CAROLINA

1995 RECORD: 7-9.

1996 OUTLOOK: Is this a great organization or what? The Panthers set an expansion team record with seven wins a year ago without a feature RB. Now they have him in Michigan's Tim Biakabutuka. Their second pick also was spent on improving the offense with WR Muhsin Muhammad. QB Kerry Collins was spectacular as a rookie. Imagine what the Panthers will do finally playing at their own stadium.

EARLY LINE: A winning record is not far-fetched, but the Panthers won't sneak up on anyone this year.

NO. 24 NEW ENGLAND

1995 RECORD: 6-10.

1996 OUTLOOK: Coach Bill Parcells almost never favors the offense over defense in the NFL draft, but he did the right thing in getting another target for QB Drew Bledsoe by selecting Ohio State's Terry Glenn seventh overall. Glenn could be another Cris Carter. Washington DB Lawyer Milloy will help an aging secondary.

EARLY LINE: Give Parcells the benefit of the doubt and call the Pats a contender.

NO. 25 WASHINGTON

1995 RECORD: 6-10.

1996 OUTLOOK: The Redskins traded the sixth pick to St. Louis for DE Sean Gilbert, but he still could use help. Then they swung a deal with Dallas for the final pick in the first round and selected Penn State OT Andre Johnson. But the Redskins have not been able to unload QB Gus Frerotte, which means former No. 1 pick Heath Shuler still will be looking over his shoulder. Coach Norv Turner needs to show some wins to stick around.

EARLY LINE: QB controversies cripple teams and 8-8 would be great for Washington.

NO. 26 N.Y. GIANTS

1995 RECORD: 5-11.

1996 OUTLOOK: The Giants needed everything on defense and had to settle for DE Cedric Jones. Free-agent signings have been rare and losing LT Jumbo Elliott could hurt. New York is loaded with RBs and finally added a receiver by taking Armani Toomer in the second round. QB Dave Brown takes Giants fans on an amusement park ride every Sunday.

EARLY LINE: Improvement will be minimal for Dan Reeves' team _ eight Ws tops.

NO. 27 NEW ORLEANS

1995 RECORD: 7-9.

1996 OUTLOOK: When you face Jerry Rice, Eric Metcalf and Issac Bruce week in and week out, it's good to have a cover cornerback like Oregon's Alex Molden. That was the thinking when the Saints made Molden their first-round pick and took DB Je'Rod Cherry in the second round. New Orleans is hoping to rebuild its defense with free-agent linemen Daren Mickell and Fred Stokes. The Saints lost six of seven to start '95 but marched home 6-3. Coach Jim Mora must make the playoffs to keep his job.

EARLY LINE: A .500 season looks more like it.

NO. 28 ARIZONA

1995 RECORD: 4-12.

1996 OUTLOOK: New coach Vince Tobin ignored the team's biggest need at offensive line to draft DE Simeon Rice, who is not an every-down player. Arizona could've used UCLA tackle Jonathan Ogden to protect Boomer Esiason's blind side at RT. Leland McElroy is a steal at RB in the second round, but now the Cards have two unhappy campers _ DT Eric Swann and RB Garrison Hearst.

EARLY LINE: You ave to love Boomer, but this team has no QBs. Back of the pack.

NO. 29 BALTIMORE

1995 RECORD: 5-11.

1996 OUTLOOK: Safe haven for Ravens owner Art Modell in Baltimore, which is thrilled to be back in the NFL. The potential PR flap prevented the Ravens from addressing their biggest need at RB and they passed up Phillips. No. 1 pick Jonathan Ogden may not make the transition to guard. Miami LB Ray Lewis could help a soft front seven. Modell spent zilch on free agents. There also is the QB controversy between Vinny Testaverde and Eric Zeier.

EARLY LINE: Ted Marchibroda doesn't deserve this at his age. A wild card is a long shot.

NO. 30 JACKSONVILLE

1995 RECORD: 4-12.

1996 OUTLOOK: The Jaguars improved their defense by drafting Illinois LB Kevin Hardy and Texas DE Tony Brackens. But they could rue the day they passed on Nebraska RB Lawrence Phillips. Jacksonville also failed to address one of its biggest needs at WR this off-season. Expansion brother Carolina is proving quicker to develop.

EARLY LINE: Anything more than six wins is a surprise for the Jags.

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