So having set myself this ridiculous task, it’s time to try to finish my whistle-stop previews in time for the start of the season so on to the NFC!
The Minnesota Vikings won the division at a canter last season and whilst they might not have it all their own way this year now the Packers have Aaron Rodgers back and healthy, they are one of the fancied teams in the NFC. Having let three quarterbacks walk at the start of free agency they signed Kirk Cousins and expect to match offensive production with their fearsome defence. The offensive line is the one obvious weakness but in Mike Zimmer they have one of the best coaches in the league and I think they will be there or there about come December.
The Green Bay Packers had a down season last year thanks to Aaron Rodgers’s broken collar bone, but they will be hoping for a return to the playoffs now he’s back and healthy. A new GM saw the Packers dip into free agency more aggressively this offseason and after nine years they let go of Dom Capers and brought in Mike Pettine as a new defensive coordinator. It hard not to see the Packers in contention come the end of year as long as Rodgers stays healthy and if things gel for them they could be one of the better teams in the league.
The Detroit Lions went nine and seven but failed to make the playoffs and decided to go for a new head coach. They brought in Matt Patricia from the Patriots and a lot of the focus this year will be on just how good a coach the Belichick pupil is. Having left a team with the thirtieth ranked defence by DVOA last season , Patricia takes over a Lions team that ranked nineteenth so we shall have to see, but I like the continuity of Jim Bob Cooter staying in charge of offence and continuing his successful work with Matthew Stafford. I can’t take too much from pre-season as I didn’t see any of the starters, but they were not impressive against the Browns and they could be a candidate for a team who struggles. We’ll just have to see how things work out and a lot depends on how successfully Patricia blends what he learnt in New England with his own beliefs now he’s the man who is ultimately responsible.
I was feeling things were on the up for the Chicago Bears even before they swung the trade for Khalil Mack. I’ve seen their offence improve over the course of the pre-season and whilst I’m not necessarily convinced by Mitchell Trubisky, with the skills players the Bears brought in through free-agency and new head coach Matt Nagy’s offensive scheme the Bears almost can’t help but improve on offence. The defence was pretty good before the addition of Mack and rookie linebacker Roquan Smith so I can see why there is a buzz around this team. How many wins this will actually yield this year I don’t know, but I like the aggressive approach the Bears took having realised how short a window an NFL franchises gets to exploit having a quarterback on a rookie contract. Whilst I didn’t like how they manoeuvred to get Trubisky in the draft, I like how they surrounded him with talent this offseason. Now let’s see just how big a dividend the team gets.
The Philadelphia Eagles come into the season with one of the strongest rosters on paper, but there are a fare few injuries floating round apart from the Carson Wentz making his way back from the ACL and LCL tears. More worrying is that the Super Bowl winning Nick Foles and the first team offence have not scored a touchdown in pre-season. I think they are still favourites for the season and after the Super Bowl win Doug Pederson had all the affirmation he needs to stick to his plans but there may be a difficult few weeks ahead.
The Dallas Cowboys have lost a lot of franchise cornerstones over the last couple of seasons and big questions remain over who Dak Prescott will be throwing the ball to so a lot rests on how well Ezekiel Elliot can run the ball. That won’t be helped by the injuries to an offensive line that has been the cornerstone of the Cowboys’ offence in recent years. Meanwhile the defence has been more impacted by whether Sean Lee plays or not than any other unit has been by a single player that is not a quarterback. I’m not ready to declare them non-competitive just yet as there is potential for them to have a good year but it would not surprise me if they do in fact struggle, particularly as Jason Garrett doesn’t fill with a lot of confidence as head coach if this team starts to have difficulties.
Washington failed to make the playoffs last season and after several seasons of franchise tagging Kirk Cousins they traded for Alex Smith and then promptly gave him an extension. I am not convinced by the roster moves over recent years and I have a feeling that Jay Gruden will likely have his team win another 7-9 games like they have the last three seasons. There have been positive noised about Smith’s performance in the pre-season and when healthy Jordan Reed has been one of the most effective tight ends in the league in the passing game but I don’t know if the changes that have been made indicate a big improvement.
The New York Giants were a car crash last season with Ben McAdoo losing the locker room, the offence failing to function minus Odell Beckham and the defence slipping to a rank of eighteenth by DVOA having been second in 2016. This year’s Giants have a new GM and head coach who doubled down on Eli Manning despite his flagging form in recent years. They brought in Nate Solder from New England to solidify their offensive line at left tackle and drafted Saquon Barkley second in the draft without trading down and ignoring the various quarterbacks they could have had. There are genuine arguments about taking even as transcendent a talent as Barkley is thought to be over a quarterback given their respective values to a team and career length, but it seems they could have also struck a deal to move down but this what they have to play with now. The worry is how much does Manning still have in the tank but the coaching situation has to better than last year and so whilst I expect an improvement, I don’t know quite how much of a step up the Giants will make. I just hope they don’t regret not grabbing a quarterback when they had the second pick in the draft, who know when they’ll next pick that high again and they certainly will be hoping it isn’t for a while.
The NFC south was one of the most competitive division s in the NFL last season with three teams finishing with double digit wins and making the playoffs.
The New Orleans Saints had a franchise changing draft bringing in enough defensive talent to shoot their ranking up into the top ten by DVOA whilst Alvin Kamara generated 1901 yards of offence. There were whispers that Drew Brees’s arm was not quite the same but he’s still as good as any quarterback in the league and threw for four thousand yards for the twelfth straight time! Yes he’s thirty-nine, but there don’t seem to have been any serious signs of decline yet and the Saints have just traded for Teddy Bridgewater who looked excellent throwing the ball for the Jets in pre-season. I’m not sure I would have invested the amount of draft capital the Saints did to pick such a raw pass rush talent in the first round as they did in this year’s draft but I suspect they will be there or there abouts at the end of the season.
The Carolina Panthers’ experiment with changing the way Cam Newton plays failed early in the season but he now has a new offensive coordinator in Norv Turner and I will be very interested to see how this works out. They do have multiple injuries at offensive tackle so it may be a work in progress but for his occasionally maddening accuracy issues, Newton is an effective quarterback in the style that he plays. If the defence continues to be in the top ten by DVOA then I would feel confident in saying that the Panthers will contend. My only concern is that for the last six years the Panthers have alternated double digit win seasons with seven win seasons, although one of them did net a playoff appearance. I certainly don’t believe this constitutes a pattern that is going to suddenly manifest itself in a seven win season but I do worry about their Panthers consistency from year to year. As ever we shall just have to see what the season holds.
The Atlanta Falcons were coming off a difficult Super Bowl loss last season and losing their offensive coordinator to the San Francisco 49ers. They were still a good team but the offence didn’t quite flow under Steve Sarkiesian but the defence continued to shape up under head coach Dan Quinn’s direction and they made it to the playoffs once more. Having adjusted Julio Jones’s contract and extended Matt Ryan’s contract the Falcons look set to challenge once again this season and may feel they weren’t far away last season in the playoffs.
The other team in the NFC South very much feel like the other team. Head coach Dirk Koetter was promoted because of his relationship with Jameis Winston who so desperately wants to be a leader but hasn’t quite managed that or to develop his play. Winston starts the season on suspension after groping an Uber driver and this franchise feels like it is disarray and it would not exactly surprise me if this team struggles all season. We shall have to see how the season plays out and it wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong, but come the end of the year I suspect it could be all change for the Buccaneers.
Last season’s surprise package in the NFC were the LA Rams who were transformed by young head coach Sean McVay who overhauled the offence to reignite Todd Gurley and rescue Jared Goff from the category of draft bust whilst leaving Wade Phillip alone to run the defence. Not content with making it to the playoffs last season they added Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Sam Shields, and Ndamukong Suh to the defence. It’s clear they have faith in Wade Phillips to control that combustible mix of personalities but there is no doubting these players talent and if both sides of the ball live up to expectations they will be one of the more formidable teams in the league. I’m not sure if it is possible to live up to some of the hype but the Rams would be my pick as favourite for this division.
The Seattle Seahawks had a tough time last year as injuries hobbled the legion of boom and it has been all change for the franchise in the offseason. Not a lot is expected of them, particularly with Earl Thomas holding out but I’m ready to give up on Pete Carroll just yet. The offensive line might finally have solidified a little according to those watching closely and Rashaad Penny, the Seahawks’ rookie running back, has been turning heads in pre-season. As has Australian rookie punter Michael Dickson who managed to kick two fifty yard plus punts out of bounds within the five yard line in one game. I’m not prepared to guarantee anything other than a competitive team, but I think they could surprise a few people this season.
The Arizona Cardinals seem a strange prospect for me without Bruce Arians never mind having to find a new starting quarterback. We know that Sam Bradford is unlikely to make it through the season without getting injured and that receiving legend Larry Fitzgerald deservers a better team, but David Johnson is returning from a wrist injury and so he should get back to something like his previous form. However, with a new coaching staff and so much turmoil it feels like whilst this team in transition might rally round and surprise people, it could also really struggle and something says to me that struggle is the more likely option. I always want to see teams and players do well so I hope to be proved wrong.
Finally, in this two day scramble of writing madness we come to the only team with a quarterback who has an undefeated starting record in the NFL. It is a small sample size so whilst I’m certain that Jimmy Garoppolo’s steak won’t continue throughout this season, the hope that he and first year head coach Kyle Shanahan gave last year will continue to come to fruition this year. However, they have already lost running back Jerick McKinnon to an ACL injury and it’s worth remembering the place that the 49ers started from when John Lynch came in to be Shanahan’s GM last year. I expect the 49ers to be competitive even if they can’t replicate the five game winning streak from the end of last year’s season but the fans from San Francisco may have to wait until next season to return to the playoffs given the size of the rebuild job that had to be taken on. I wouldn’t necessarily put any money on that though…