Happy Thursday, friends. Today, I thought we’d go with a little NFC Preview action, because two NFC teams are going to be kicking off the season tonight.
Everybody seems to think that the NFC is vastly superior to the AFC, but I don’t quite see it that way. I think it’s got about four of the best seven teams, but I also think it has a few bottom-feeding teams too.
Follow me across the divide between space and time, and we’ll work our way through it, you dig?
The Best Team – Philadelphia Eagles
I’m buying Chip Kelly stock, and I have been since the beginning. It’s not so much that his scheme is all that innovative, because it isn’t. What impresses me most about Kelly as a coach is that he has a tremendously clear idea of the kind of players he needs to be successful, conventional wisdom be damned. In that way, he reminds me a lot of Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll, who have managed to win Super Bowls “despite” their media-criticized player acquisitions.
Philly has an offense that should be near the top of the league again, if Nick Foles takes another step. They’re going to do a tremendous amount of damage with RBs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles. Their offensive line is good, and will be better when RT Lane Johnson comes back from his four-game suspension.
The defense is quite a bit less good, but I still think it’s better than that of Dallas or Washington. I think the Eagles are going to be better and more creative at rushing the passer than they were in 2013, and it’s clear that they drafted DE-OLB Marcus Smith with that in mind.
Offensive teams that expect to play with the lead need to be able to hit the QB. This defense keeps Philly from being a legit Super Bowl contender, but the program is clearly moving in that direction.
The Worst Team – New York Giants
Turnover-prone Eli Manning returned last season, and he was maybe the worst starting QB in the NFL who never faced talk of being yanked. Winning a couple of Super Bowls buys you some goodwill, but that will threaten to run out in 2014 if he keeps looking terrible.
The Giants went from a vertical scheme that was based on the Run and Shoot to a horizontal West Coast offense this offseason, and in the preseason, it looked atrocious. The one thing it looked like the Giants may be able to do is run the ball, and if they can, it would be a big help to Manning.
I liked the preseason look of rookie RB Andre Williams, despite the fact that he caught zero passes (literally zero!) as a college senior at Boston College, and only had 10 career catches in 45 games.
The defense was the best in the division in 2013, and it probably still is, but it’s thoroughly average. They don’t hit the QB enough or generate many turnovers. Every year, the watch is on for Jason Pierre-Paul to be the same guy from 2011, and he continues to disappoint.
The Improving Team – Washington Football Franchise
Only because it’s hard not to be better than 3-13. This team has an interesting situation at QB, because the limited Kirk Cousins spent the whole preseason outplaying the much more talented Robert Griffin. Cousins also seems to be a better fit for the pocket-oriented scheme of Jay Gruden, whom I take to be a scheme guy.
I think Washington still looks pretty meh on both sides of the ball, and that improvement looks like six or seven wins in this case. If everything comes together on offense, despite an offensive line that’s undertalented and a poor scheme fit, they might push for 10.
The Plateaued Team – Dallas Cowboys
Dallas had one of the very worst defenses in the NFL last season (challenged only by Chicago and Washington), and somehow they finished 8-8 for the third year in a row. I expect them to be just about as bad on that side of the ball this year. Jason Garrett wasn’t kidding when he said they signed Michael Sam for his talent; they really need it wherever they can get it.
The offense will be pretty good again. Terrance Williams doesn’t blow me away as a #2 receiver, and DeMarco Murray is missing the most important ability (availability). The weapons are good overall, though, and anybody who blames Tony Romo for the team’s struggles is listening to too much MSM bullshit.
The Best Team – New Orleans Saints
New Orleans is one of the few teams in the NFL that has a coherent and continual program in place that can overcome the seasonal variations that serve as noise when it comes to understanding the true state of things.
What you can know about the Saints is that they’re going to throw the ball well, and this year will be no different. I’m really fired up about the selection of Brandin Cooks for this team; he’ll be a great fit with Drew Brees, who is one of the best deep ball throwers ever.
I have a lot of reason to like the defense too, mainly because of the safeties. Jairus Byrd is as good a centerfielder as there is, and Kenny Vaccaro is an emerging star as a strong safety. The place where you can beat them is in the shallow middle, though, because Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne aren’t exactly coverage LBs.
The Worst Team – Carolina Panthers
Yeah, I foresee a worst-to-first-to-worst here. I don’t think they’ll be bad, but I think they’ll finish fourth. The Panthers have nothing at WR, and their offensive line is going to be a mess too. They had the second-worst offense in their division last year already, and I’m going to say that I think Tampa’s is better at this point too.
The Panthers’ defense will be tough again, mostly up front, but I think the good teams will be able to throw it on them. Their key is the play of DEs Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, and if DT Star Lotulelei continues to emerge as a second-year player, I might be selling them short.
To me, a team that will struggle to throw the ball, but which can be thrown upon, is set up for difficulty.
The Improved Team – Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons were largely done in by injuries and bad luck in close games early last year. Also, their defense wasn’t very good. This year, with Julio Jones back (but minus Tony Gonzalez), I expect the Atlanta offense to be above average, especially if they get some running game from Steven Jackson and Devonta Freeman.
Defensively, I like what they’ve done to add some big bodies up front, but I still seriously doubt that they’ll be good enough with the pass rush or in coverage. I’ve seen some people saying Desmond Trufant is going to be a top-five CB this year, but I can’t tell from what I’ve seen of him. This is going to be a team that the good offenses can throw on, and I think that will make them an 8-8 team, which is a step up from 4-12.
The Bizarre Team – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I’m not a huge fan of any plan that calls for a 34-year-old journeyman QB like Josh McCown to displace a guy who did a reasonably good job as a rookie in Mike Glennon. If I were an owner, and a head coach I was interviewing told me that was his plan, I’d send him packing quickly. I’m also not too sure about trading for a high-dollar 32-year-old left guard like Logan Mankins, a week before the season.
If there was a free agent who was almost sure to be overpaid, it was DE Michael Johnson, and yep, the Bucs got him too. And then, a team that wants to play Tampa 2 goes and pays a big dollar CB in Alterraun Verner. Some people see a great offseason there, but I see a bizarre one.
That said, there is a case to be made for an improved Bucs team. I think they’ll be good on defense, probably the best in the division, and if Mike Evans develops quickly, they’ll have a pair of huge wide receivers to make up for what I think will be uneven QB play.
The Best Team – Green Bay Packers
I think the Packers do one of the most consistent jobs of any franchise in drafting good players. That’s led to them being the most talented team in the NFC North. Obviously, the Packers have a great QB in Aaron Rodgers, and they need to be hoping for some strong improvement from LT David Bakhtiari in his second year. He didn’t do all that badly as an overmatched rookie, but a lot is riding on his ability to play well in 2014.
On defense, the Packers made the interesting move to sign DE-OLB Julius Peppers. I think he looks like he has lost a step, but more than a few players find the fountain of youth in new environments. I’ll be interested to see how rookie S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix looks too; I think the Packers can be beaten in the secondary.
The Worst Team – Chicago Bears
This is a hard call, and the Bears are the best team that I am calling the worst team in any division. Honestly, they can be a legit playoff team if they can field a more credible defense than I’m able to imagine.
I really do like head coach Marc Trestman, and I think he did outstanding things with both Jay Cutler and Josh McCown last season. Their receivers are excellent, and Matt Forte is a good RB. The offense is going to be good, especially if Cutler stays healthy for a change.
That defense, though. By PFR’s Simple Rating System, they were the worst in the NFL. What’s amazing is that in 2012, they fielded the NFL’s third best defense by the same metric. Here’s a theory – when D.J. Williams joins a team, its defensive ranking is likely to crater. (That’s admittedly an unfair shot at Mr. Dyme Lyfe, who only played 217 snaps.)
What really happened is that a lot of players who had once been good played poorly. It was like they all declined at once. Lance Briggs was literally the only defensive player to have a PFF rating over plus-1. He checked in at 1.7 over 565 snaps. Former first-round DE Shea McClellin was a -30.6 at LB. This unit was a huge mess.
In 2014, the Bears are using two new DEs (LaMarr Houston and Jared Allen) and two new safeties (Ryan Mundy and rookie Brock Vereen), but otherwise it’s the same guys who were so terrible last year.
The Improving Team – Detroit Lions
The Lions also have enough talent to make the playoffs, but they’re also flawed in their construction. Their main issue is that they drafted Calvin Johnson, Matt Stafford, and Ndamukong Suh all in the top two picks of the draft back when you had to pay the top rookies stupid money. That has compounded the problem as all three guys got into their second contracts, which were inflated by a need to be better than their rookie deals.
Stafford is still one of the most talented QBs in the NFL, and he could really use head coach Jim Caldwell’s help. He tends to play like a less-emo Cutler, throwing with bad footwork and weird arm slots, because he knows he can make every throw. That leads to too many picks.
As for weapons, the Lions have some good ones for their passing game. Megatron is obviously awesome, and Golden Tate is a unique number two, in that he’s more like a RB than a traditional WR. Reggie Bush is more like a WR than a traditional RB, and he can do a lot of damage.
An underrated storyline was how well he fit the Detroit style last year. The Lions drafted TE Eric Ebron tenth overall, and he gives them three TEs who can catch, along with Brandon Pettigrew and Disco Joe Fauria.
The defense is less good, but their line is still pretty tough. I think that a lot is riding on second-year guys Ziggy Ansah at DE and Darius Slay at CB. If they play well, and the Lions stay pretty healthy on defense, they’ll be competitive enough to be in the playoff mix.
The High Upside Team – Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings are the team in this division that I see as having a high upside. Over the last three years, they’ve drafted seven players in the first rounds, and all of them show signs of being good NFL players when they grow up. The list:
- LT Matt Kalil #4 in 2012
- FS Harrison Smith #29 in 2012
- DT Sharrif Floyd #23 in 2013
- CB Xavier Rhodes #25 in 2013
- WR Cordarrelle Patterson #29 in 2013
- DE Anthony Barr #9 in 2014
- QB Teddy Bridgewater #32 in 2014
That’s a lot of young talent that’s dispersed pretty evenly across the roster. It’s just a question of when and if they all show up as big-time players. I think the Vikings are making a mistake in playing Matt Cassel over Bridgewater – that kid looked ready in the preseason, just as I expected him to.
The defense wasn’t that proficient last season, but I think they’ll get a dose of good coaching from Mike Zimmer, and that they’ll be respectable this year. Trust me, if the youth movement blossoms, the Vikings will be in the playoffs, and they’re set up for lasting success.
The Best Team – Seattle Seahawks
It pains me to say so, after the Super Bowl, but these guys are still the class of the division. I expect Russell Wilson to be improved even more in his third year. (Digression – LOL at the Broncos fans who criticize the Brock Osweiler pick because they could have had Wilson instead. If they did, we’d know exactly the same thing about Wilson as we do about Osweiler – very little.)
The Seahawks will also probably run the ball well again, because Marshawn Lynch is a beast, and because they’re committed to it.
You know how the overabundance of penalties in the preseason are supposed to be about reining in the Seahawks’ tactics? Guess which was the only team in the NFL whose starters didn’t get an illegal contact, defensive holding, or pass interference call in the preseason.
If you guessed the Seahawks, you win a gold star.
I will point out that the Seahawks quietly got less deep on defense in the offseason. Chris Clemons, Red Bryant, and Brandon Browner are all good players who left, and there are some voids to be filled there. I also heard an anecdote on Sirius NFL Radio on Wednesday that former Seahawk Michael Robinson thinks that they are underestimating the loss in leadership they’ll feel from Bryant’s departure to Jacksonville.
All that said, though, the Seahawks are going to be difficult once again.
The Worst Team – St. Louis Rams
If it weren’t for the injury to Sam Bradford, I’d like St. Louis as the better worst team than Chicago, but with Shaun Hill under center, not so much. The Rams have used a lot of high draft picks on receivers the last few years with little to show for it. They’re looking at Brian Quick and Kenny Britt (who has undeniable talent) as their starting WRs, with Tavon Austin as the primary slot guy. I don’t know about that one. I’m also not as high on Zac Stacy as some others are.
The Rams defense is going to be good, though. All nine guys on their defensive line can really bring it, and in Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, and Aaron Donald (who probably won’t start right away), there are four top-of-the-league talents at their positions. This is a fearsome group.
The linebackers are good too, especially if Alec Ogletree makes the expected second-year jump. The secondary has been hit or miss, but with as much Cover 2 as they play, they should be fine. I still like the talent of Janoris Jenkins, and S T.J. McDonald was drafted by a team that uses his talents well, and hides his deficiencies.
The Troubled Team – San Franciscio 49ers
The 49ers are right up there with Denver, Seattle, and New England in terms of talent, but it seems like there’s a lot of bad stuff circling around them. I also was the opposite of impressed in watching their first-, second-, and third-stringers all get shellacked by the Broncos at home a couple weeks ago.
Let me put it to you like this – the Niners are probably going to be without stalwart DE Ray McDonald for six games, because he allegedly beat the hell out of his pregnant fiancee. They’re definitely going to be without star pass rusher Aldon Smith for nine games. They’re missing All Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman due to a knee injury from the NFC Championship game.
And they’re counting on Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver to be their starting CBs. (That’s shocking to me, for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.)
There’s just a lot not to like here, you know? Add to that the fact that QB Colin Kaepernick still hasn’t shown that he’s capable of consistently making big throws from the pocket, and I see an inconsistent offense (despite improved weapons) and an undermanned defense. This feels like 10-6 at best to me, maybe 9-7.
The Plateaued Team – Arizona Cardinals
Arizona finished 10-6 last year, and didn’t make the playoffs, on the strength of a very good defense and some above average offensive play. It seemed like the plan of head coach Bruce Arians came together well. This year, I have reason to believe that the Cardinals will regress on defense.
The best thing about them last season was that they had two excellent ILBs in Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby. Washington is suspended for the season, and Dansby got paid in Cleveland. Their replacements are huge downgrades in Kevin Minter and Larry Foote. (In Foote’s case it’s a GIGANTIC, in-all-caps downgrade.)
I do really like Arizona’s OLBs in Norwich, CT’s own Matt Shaughnessy, and the ageless John Abraham. I also like their secondary players, particularly CB Patrick Peterson and DB Tyrann Mathieu. Count me as somebody who thinks that Antonio Cromartie’s best days are behind him though. Overall, I think this is a solid defense, but not a dominant one.
On offense, it looks reasonably good if you like Carson Palmer. (I don’t, very much.) The left side of the offensive line should be vastly improved with the acquisition of LT Jared Veldheer and the return to health of 2013 first-round LG Jonathan Cooper. Again, this is a solid offense, though, and not a threatening one. I don’t think there’s any way they could score with the Broncos, Patriots, or Saints.
So overall, I think the Cardinals will be back in the 9-7 or 10-6 area, and be in the mix for a playoff spot. They’re a solid team, but I don’t see where the improvement is coming from if you’re counting on a declined guy like Palmer at QB.