For the second straight season the Dallas Cowboys will win the NFC East. The team is loaded with talent at multiple positions. They have the most underrated quarterback in the NFL in Tony Romo, the best offensive line in football, the best receiver in football in Dez Bryant, a superb tight end in Jason Witten, and their defense is only going to get better with the addition of Greg Hardy. Barring an injury to Tony Romo or Dez Bryant, the Cowboys are going to be one of the best offenses in the NFL. With all that said, a major weakness that the Cowboys find themselves with is at the running back position. This past offseason, they lost the NFL’s leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, in free agency. They opted not to pay the running back the money he wanted. According to the Cowboys coaching staff, they believe much of Murray’s success was a product of their tremendous offensive line. What they replaced Murray with is a major downgrade. They brought in the often injured Darren McFadden to split carries with an unproven Joseph Randle. Even with their question mark at the running back position, I still believe the Dallas Cowboys are talented enough to win the NFC East.
- Philadelphia Eagles: 10-6
In two seasons as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Chip Kelly has a record of 20-12, despite the fact he’s started four different quarterbacks over that span. This season is no different for the Eagles, as they brought in the former number one overall pick Sam Bradford to compete with Mark Sanchez for the starting quarterback position. But with so much uncertainty at the quarterback position how does Chip Kelly find success in the NFL, while so many other teams struggle to win eight games due to the lack of a talented quarterback? Easy, Chip Kelly is an utter genius. Coach Kelly does not believe in paying big time money to his skill position guys. He’d rather spend it on defense, which was no more evident than this past offseason, as the Eagles lost arguably their two best skill players in LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin. Kelly opted instead to spend his money on two cornerbacks, Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond. The cornerback position has been a huge weakness for the Eagles since Chip took over in 2012. Chip Kelly believes his offense can make an average player look like a superstar and frankly he is right. Look what it did for the likes Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez. If Sam Bradford and DeMarco Murray (the NFL’s leading rusher last season) can stay healthy the Eagles offense could potentially break all sorts of records.
- New York Giants: 10-6
Key Losses: Walter Thurmond, Antrel Role
Thanks in large part to the offensive rookie of the year last season, Odell Beckham JR, the Giants were must see TV while on offense. After missing the first four games of the season, Beckham took the league by storm finishing with 91 catches, 1,305 yards, and 12 touchdowns. For all intensive purposes, he was a life saver for Eli Manning, who up until Odell Beckham became healthy was having a terrible season. This year will be the second year under offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo. He installed a new offense for Eli Manning last season. It started off a little shaky, but as I said before, as the season went on the team became more comfortable with it. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that the Giants offense is going to be superb next season, but two things I’m worried about are their offensive line and their defense. They have already suffered a few injuries on the offensive line, something quarterback Eli Manning doesn’t want to hear. He was among the bottom five in quarterback rating while under pressure. The Giants are usually known for their strong defense, but this year might be different. Their best defensive player, Jason Pierre-Paul just had one of his fingers amputated and his timetable to return is unknown. The Giants are so banged up at the safety position they brought in 31-year-old Brandon Meriweather to hold down the fort. One bright spot for their defense is the reunion with their former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who was brought back after leaving in 2009.
- Washington Redskins: 4-12
It seems like ages ago that the Redskins future looked so bright. Robert Griffin the 3RD had just posted the best season we had seen from a rookie quarterback in the history of the NFL. But, two knee surgeries later, a new head coach, a new GM and the Redskins are back where they started; in the land of mediocrity. Outside of Alfred Morris and DeSean Jackson, the Redskins do not have many talented players. Guys like Jordan Reed are being relied on to be impact players. As I mentioned earlier, you cannot win in this league without talent. It is impossible. Although I see Kirk Cousins as an upgrade over Robert Griffin the 3rd, the Redskins are still miles away from being a competitive NFL team.
- Green Bay Packers: 12-4
Last season’s loss in the NFC Championship for the Packers was arguably the worst way to lose a game in the history of the NFL. A quick recap for those who may have missed it (Were you living under a rock?); with five minutes left in the fourth quarter the Packers led 19-7, but after an abundance of blunders, the Packers blew the 19-7 lead and ultimately lost the game in overtime. Now Packers’ fans everywhere are asking themselves; how can the Packers overcome such a devastating loss?
Well, the answer is quite simple. They have the best quarterback in the league, Aaron Rodgers, and a team full of players who are familiar with each other. Currently, there is only one player on the Packers roster who has played with another professional organization. This is remarkable, considering the amount of player movement that happens throughout the NFL.
As I mentioned before, they also have this guy named Aaron Rodgers, you know, the reigning NFL MVP, the best quarterback in the NFL, (hell he may be the most talented quarterback to ever play the game). With him at the helm, the Packers offense is going to be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Even with the recent news that Jordy Nelson will miss the entire regular season, I still predict the Packers are going to be one of the best offenses in NFL history. I expect the second year receiver Davante Adams to take a huge leap forward. He’s going to step into that number two role with ease. The Packers also still have Eddie Lacy, who for all intensive purposes is one of the best running backs in the entire NFL.
- Detroit Lions: 11-5
The Lions returned to the playoffs last season for the first time since the 2011 season, but like their previous six trips, it ended abruptly, with a wildcard round loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The Lions offense has a familiar look this season, as they’re returning eight of their 11 starters on that side of the ball. In addition to that, they’ve also added a potential superstar running back in Ameer Abdullah during the draft. Of course they lost the best defensive tackle in football (Ndamukong Suh), but they replaced him with Haloti Ngata, whom I think is overrated, but by no means is he a bad player.
The strength of the Lions this season will be their offense. They have the potential to finish in the top five in total offense. With offensive weapons like Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Brandon Pettigrew, Eric Ebron, and Ameer Abdullah, quarterback Matt Stafford, is poised to have a big season. It’s also the second season under offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.
Lombardi is an offensive genius and is often regarded as the biggest reason why the Saints offense was so prolific from 2006-2013. I expect the Lions offense to take another leap forward this season. According to Rotoworld, Calvin Johnson is “100 percent better than last season.” A healthy Calvin Johnson will only help the Lions already prolific offense.
- Minnesota Vikings: 7-9
The Vikings quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, proved a lot of people wrong last season with his level of play. Bridgewater was productive, showed off his high NFL IQ, and demonstrated the majority needed to be an elite NFL quarterback. In year two, I expect Bridgewater to continue to develop toward becoming an elite level NFL quarterback.
With that said, I still think the Vikings are one year away from being a serious playoff contender. The teams’ offense will improve with the addition of Mike Wallace, giving Teddy Bridgewater a serious deep threat and red zone target. With the return of Adrian Peterson, the team will have continuity at the running back position, something that could not be said last season. Their offensive line steadily improved last season, giving up fewer sacks in the second half of the season than they did in the first half.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings were one of the more underrated teams. They ended up finishing in the top ten in terms of total defense. This was surprising, considering the previous season the Vikings were among the bottom teams in terms of total defense. I love the addition of rookie cornerback Trae Waynes, but cornerback is one of the toughest positions for rookies to play. I expect him to improve as the season goes along, but we will not see his full potential until year two.
I could very well be wrong about the Vikings being a year away, but in my opinion, it is more likely that this year will be the stepping stone, while next season will be the year the team emerges as a serious Super Bowl contender.
- Chicago Bears: 3-13
A new head coach, a new offensive system, and a new defensive system, but the Bears will still finish in last place in the NFC North, in fact, I have them finishing with a worse record than last season. Why? It’s simple, Jay Cutler and player personnel.
For a long time I was a big supporter of Jay Cutler in Chicago. After the 2011 NFC Championship, when fans were labeling him a quitter for not playing through a torn MCL, I stuck with him. When fans yelled and called for his job due to his poor on field mannerisms, I stuck with him. After the Bears paid him like an elite quarterback, I stuck with him, but I can finally say this; Jay Cutler I am done with you. We know what you are; an inefficient NFL quarterback. Sure, you have a big arm, but you have no pocket awareness, you throw a lot of interceptions, you’re a poor leader, and you act like you’re bigger than the game. You will never lead an NFL team to a championship. You may be the starter in Chicago, but the only reason you are is because of your enormous contract. They tried to trade you, but not one team was willing to take on that outrageous deal.
With all that said, I wish the Chicago Bears all the luck in the world. You’re going to need it with a guy like Jay Cutler as your starting quarterback and the slew of injuries that have plagued your team. Your replacement for Brandon Marshall, Kevin White, may miss the entire season. Your superstar running back, Matt Forte, is turning 30 soon and he is coming off of the most touches he has ever received in an NFL season. The Bears are an absolute mess.
- Seattle Seahawks: 12-4
The two time defending NFC champion, Seattle Seahawks are looking to be the first team to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl for three consecutive seasons. But, the approach the Seahawks take to this season will be different than the previous two.
To start, the offensive line has gone through a major change. In March, the Seahawks traded All-Pro center Max Unger to the Saints in a deal for Jimmy Graham. Unger is one of the best centers in the NFL. He specializes in run blocking. Trading him for Jimmy Graham, the second best tight end in the NFL, points to one thing. The Seahawks are looking to throw the ball more this season. In addition to losing Max Unger, the Seahawks also lost James Carpenter, their starting left guard, another sign pointing toward Seattle relying more on the passing game.
With that said, I still believe the Seahawks offense will be one of the most dynamic offenses in the entire league. Russell Wilson has gotten better and better each and every season. With a legitimate red zone threat in Jimmy Graham, Wilson finally has a reliable target to throw to. Wilson’s mobility and pocket awareness extends plays, which will make up for the loss on the offensive line. Even though the Seahawks will rely more on the pass, they still have a beast of a running back (Literally, his nickname is BEASTMODE). Marshawn Lynch has shown to be one of those guys who are more effective with fewer carries. With an offense relying more on the pass, Lynch’s effectiveness will not dip; in fact, it may even improve.
On defense, Seattle lost their number two cornerback, Byron Maxwell, but this shouldn’t be a problem for the Legion Of Boom. They still have one of the best cornerbacks in the league, Richard Sherman, the best safety in the league, Earl Thomas, the best linebacker in the league, Bobby Wagner, a solid pass rush with Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. Not to mention the other defensive studs, K.J Wright, Bruce Irvin, and if he returns from his holdout (I think he will) Kam Chancellor. The defense is stronger than ever.
With a new look offense and the Legion of Boom still getting better, the Seahawks will soar to 12 wins and another NFC West Division title.
- Arizona Cardinals: 11-5
Despite playing three different starting quarterbacks, including the likes of Ryan Lindley and Logan Thomas, the Cardinals still managed to win 11 games and make an appearance in the playoffs. This season, Carson Palmer is healthy and the Cardinals have not lost a game with him as a starter since the 2013 season. Can the Cardinals, who looked like a team that could have won the NFC if Palmer had stayed healthy, challenge Seattle for the NFC West title? The answer: it’s quite possible.
As I mentioned earlier, the Cardinals won 11 games in spite of their quarterback play. They were downright awful. With Palmer returning from injury, the quarterback play will only get better. Last season, the team was 6-0 under Palmer as a starter. The team’s offense averaged more yards, points, and plays per game with Palmer than without him. Wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michale Floyd, and John Brown looked much more comfortable with Palmer under center. In fact, there best games came while Palmer was playing.
After Palmer went down the team had to rely much more on the running game, which led to Andre Ellington being worn down at season’s end. This year, he is still a little banged up, but head coach Bruce Arians is certain Ellington will be ready to go for the season opener. With a healthy Palmer, the offense will have a much more balanced approach. Ellington’s workload will not be as heavy, which will result in a healthy Ellington at season’s end.
On defense, the Cardinals were among the best in the NFL. They gave up the fifth fewest points per game (18.7) and tied for seventh in total interceptions. According to profootballfocus, over the last two seasons, the Cardinals have been the most efficient team at blitzing and stopping the run. This season should be no different notes John Weinfuss of ESPN. He has reported that the Cardinals new look defensive line is starting to “jell” and are feeling more and more comfortable with each other as the preseason goes on.
With an improved offense and a stellar defense, the Cardinals should comfortably win 11 games. It wouldn’t shock me if they won more than 11, but I think 11 is the absolute minimum.
- St. Louis Rams: 7-9
It seems like every season, the Rams are always a quarterback away from being a dangerous team. Well with the addition of Nick Foles, have the Rams finally found their quarterback?
I don’t think they have. What we saw from Nick Foles last season, is much more indicative of who Foles is than what we thought he was after he threw for 29 touchdowns and two interceptions during the 2013 NFL season. He is an inaccurate deep ball thrower, has happy feet in the pocket, and lacks the awareness to read an incoming blitz. Foles isn’t the answer the Rams are looking for. It’s a shame to say that, considering the talent they have around him.
The Rams have two potential number one running backs. Second year back Tre Mason, exploded onto the scene during week seven of last season. He was among the leaders in yards per attempt during the second half of the season, despite opposing teams stacking the box because of the lack of a passing game. Back in May, the Rams drafted Todd Gurley with their first round draft pick. Gurley could very well be the best player of the draft, but he fell to number ten because of a knee injury he suffered while playing at Georgia. Gurley likely won’t be ready until October, but with him and Mason in the backfield, the Rams’ running game will be a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.
Speaking of defenses, the Rams’ defense isn’t anything to mess with. Since Jeff Fisher took over, the Rams defense has been among the best in the NFL. They have one of the best pass rushes in the league with Chirs Long, Aaron Donald, and Robert Quinn. With a defense like the Rams have, it’s a shame that this team will likely not win more than seven games.
- San Francisco 49ers: 5-11
Key Additions: Torrey Smith, Reggie Bush
The San Francisco 49ers nightmare of an offseason is finally over. The final results of that offseason are a loss of one of the best head coaches, Jim Harbaugh, retirements to four of the team’s best players, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Antonio Davis, and Chris Borland, the loss of the best running back in franchise history, Frank Gore, the loss of the team’s number one wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, and finally the loss of the best pass rusher in the NFL, Aldon Smith. I don’t think there is any team in the NFL who could overcome the losses that the 49ers suffered this offseason.
On the offensive side of the football they lost two starting offensive linemen in Antonio Davis and Jonathan Martin. This is a major blow as their offensive line was one of the only bright spots on the offense last season. Their quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, is coming off of an abysmal season. With a weaker offensive line and a question mark at running back, it’s hard to see the 49ers offense doing anything substantial this year.
On defense, the team took some major blows, but none bigger than the loss of Aldon Smith, the NFL’s best pass rusher. Smith, who has had legal troubles throughout his career, was released by the 49ers earlier this month after being arrested for a hit and run. It was Smith’s fifth arrest since 2012. In addition to the loss of Smith, losing another pass rusher in Justin Smith is just as crucial. Losing both Smith’s on the defensive line is a huge blow to a team that is going to need a defense to stay in games.
Losing Patrick Willis is also huge blow, but with Navorro Bowman on the roster, the 49ers will be able to make due.
- New Orleans Saints: 10-6
Last season was a huge disappointment for the Saints, as they finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs. This season, the team has a new look to it, as they appear to transition to a more run based offense and that is no more evident than in their biggest offseason move; trading Jimmy Graham for Max Unger.
By brining in one of the best run blocking centers in Max Unger, the Saints are essentially telling the rest of the league that they are in a period of transition. A year after signing Jimmy Graham to a huge deal, the Saints unloaded him to Seattle. Despite being one of the best tight ends, Graham struggles at run blocking, making him disposal for the Saints new look offense.
The Saints re-signed Mark Ingram and brought in C.J Spiller, a third down specialist. By relying more on the run, the team’s success will be on the shoulders of the offensive line and the running backs rather than the shoulders of the declining Drew Bress.
By no means am I saying Drew Brees is done as an elite quarterback, but if last year is indicative of what is to come, than Brees is surely on the decline. I still think the Saints offense will be a dynamic force in the league, but it will just look a little different than usual.
The biggest question mark that remains for the Saints is the same thing that has been holding them back for the past few seasons; their defense. To say they are below average would be an insult to a below average defense.
The Saints’ defense is absolutely atrocious. They can’t defend against the pass. They can’t stop the run. They can’t do anything that an above average defense can do.
The only reason I have the Saints winning 10 games is because of two things; their offense and the weak competition that surrounds them. They play in the worst division in football and have one of the easiest schedules in the NFL (5th easiest according to their strength of schedule).
- Carolina Panthers: 9-7
Prior to Kelvin Benjamin tearing his ACL, I was leaning toward picking the Panthers to win the NFC South, but now, I have them finishing in second.
Much like last season the biggest question in Carolina is “Who will be catching passes from Cam Newton?” Last year, Kelvin Benjamin emerged as his safety blanket. Does that mean it’s safe to assume that rookie wide receiver Devin Funchess can replicate what Benjamin did as a rookie? The answer is no.
Coming into an NFL season with a rookie wide receiver as your number one target is never a good thing. More times than not, rookie wide receivers do not live up to the hype that surrounds them throughout the offseason; and considering the Panthers lucked out last year with a rookie receiver, it’s hard to believe that it could happen again.
Across from Funchess, the Panthers have Corey Brown, the second year receiver from Ohio State. Brown has looked awful throughout the preseason. He leads the team in targets this preseason, but also has dropped the most passes out of any receiver in the entire league. If the Panthers want to succeed through the air, than Corey Brown is going to have to find a cure for his “Stone Hands”.
They’ve taken a step back on defense; losing Greg Hardy. Now, I know he didn’t play last season, but still the loss of Greg Hardy will have an effect on the Panthers. The players the Panthers have added are old. Just look at the biggest defensive acquisition this offseason; bringing in Charles Tillman, a cornerback who was routinely embarrassed by opposing receivers last season.
With all that said, I do like what Carolina is doing with their running game. By letting DeAngelo Williams leave in free agency, Jonathan Stewart finally has the starting running back position to himself. They improved their already stellar offensive line. From the month of November to January, Stewart was among the league leaders in rushing yards after contact.
The Panthers injuries and lack of depth will ultimately be their downfall this season.
- Atlanta Falcons: 7-9
The Falcons will be lucky to win seven games this season. Their offensive line is abysmal, their defense rivals that of the Saints, and they have a huge question mark at the running back position. The only reason why this team will win seven games is because of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
Without Ryan and Jones, this team would be one of the worst in the league. The notion that Matt Ryan is overrated is laughable. Look what he has done in his career with a terrible offensive line. It’s amazing that Ryan has been able to stay healthy with the lack of talent the Falcons have on their line.
Jones is arguably the best receiver in the entire NFL. He’s a physical specimen. He’s 6’3, runs a 4.39 40 yard dash, and he jumps out of the gym. He is a monster on the outside, but as I mentioned earlier Jones and Ryan cannot do it by themselves.
Last season the Falcons gave up 26.1 points per game, sixth worst in the league. It wouldn’t shock me if they give up more points this season. They’ve gotten worse on that side of the football. I think they botched their first round pick this year, drafting Vic Beasley, a guy who has bust written all over him. Also, they didn’t address one of their biggest needs this offseason, the cornerback position.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5-11
Of all the teams in the NFC South, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the best offseason. To start, I love what they did with the number one pick in the draft. It’s no secret, I think Jameis Winston is going to be a star in the NFL. Adding Winston to an offense that already has Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, two big receivers, is going to be a deadly matchup for opposing teams. Both Jackson and Evans are threats to score from any where on the field. Both are fast, can jump high, and have extremely large hands. They are a nightmare for opposing cornerbacks. They will be even more dangerous with an adequate quarterback throwing them the ball.
The running back position is still a huge question mark for the Buccaneers. Head coach Lovie Smith still doesn’t know who the starting running back will be. If Doug Martin can regain his 2012 form, than their offense could be the best in the division, but that is a big if.
Their offensive line is awful, so much so, it wouldn’t shock me if Winston is sacked more than 60 times this season.
I have the Buccaneers winning five games, but it wouldn’t shock me if they won more or fewer.
Spark Sports NFL Analyst