This is how I see the NFC as of April 4, 2018.
Drew Brees is 39 but he led the NFL in Y/A and completion percentage last year, so I would still feel comfortable calling him the best or second-best quarterback in the NFC. On top of that, New Orleans ranked first in rushing DVOA in 2017 and there’s no reason for me to think they’ll be anything other than “very, very good” again behind maybe the best offensive line in the league. Defensively, they were fifth against the pass and they added Patrick Robinson in free agency. I think the Saints were the best team in the NFL last season and I’ll stick with that; playing a schedule against the AFC North (Browns, Bengals, Ravens) and NFC East (Washington, Giants, Cowboys) puts them at a slight advantage with the schedule, in my opinion, over some other NFC teams.
A healthy Aaron Rodgers could still be the best quarterback in the NFL, so as usual Green Bay comes down to being “mediocre-to-bad” as a team without Rodgers to “Super Bowl favorites” when he’s healthy. I just have to assume health at this point and there’s other things to like about this Packers team compared to some other recent ones. They added Muhammad Wilkerson and Jimmy Graham, two premier players (with issues) that address major deficiencies that Green Bay has had in the past. They also have interesting up-and-comers (Kevin King, Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, Blake Martinez, Josh Jones, Kenny Clark, Jake Ryan) who could really change the narrative with positive forward progress. And a great offensive line. Schedule includes the AFC East (Bills, Dolphins, Jets) plus Arizona, Washington, and two games against the Bears. Saints and Packers would be my two early leaders for the top two seeds in the NFC.
Last season is last season and even still, I thought the Eagles lagged behind some other teams; by DVOA, they ranked fourth in the NFC behind the Saints, Rams, and Vikings. They benefited from a big enough lead with Carson Wentz to secure the number one seed and to their credit, played well when it mattered. But last year’s playoff success has negative effects on teams for the following season, if there are any effects at all. I think Wentz could be developing into a top-3 quarterback, we just need more time to see him prove it. A very good offensive line, nice weapons for Wentz, and a defensive line where Haloti Ngata is somehow the seventh-best player in the unit. I don’t consider this ranking to be a “slight” to the Eagles at all, they’re very good.
4. LA Rams
I’m sure this could be seen as a slight too, but I’m really just looking at them as the fourth-best division winner with a lot of new personalities to manage and perhaps the most difficult schedule in the conference. For more on that, I wrote about the “half full, half empty approach” to the Rams last week. That was before they added Brandin Cooks, but I’m not sure Cooks does more than make up for the loss of Sammy Watkins, putting them closer to where they were last season: a really good offense and a great defense. I get it, they’re extremely talented relative to most NFL teams, it’s just going to be a fascinating experiment to put Ndamukong Suh, Aaron Donald, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib on the same defense. It’s hard to imagine they’ll all get along.
Not a slight, I just see them as having higher odds to be the four seed than to be the one seed.
5. Minnesota Vikings
They’ve been fairly consistent on defense under Mike Zimmer and George Edwards, ranking first in points allowed and second in DVOA in 2017. I think Kirk Cousins is a better quarterback than Case Keenum, but as far as 2017 to 2018 goes, the production may be more of a lateral move. If they get a full season from Dalvin Cook, Minnesota could move ahead of the Packers again (I realize they won the division last year) and get a bye week again, I am just not sold on Cousins over Rodgers. That’s fair, right? They also added Sheldon Richardson for a defensive line that is maybe better than Philly’s, but their line on the other side of the ball does not look good.
6. Dallas Cowboys
I think after the top five, there’s a drop-off in the NFC right now. I’m going with the Cowboys because they do have a good number of extremely talented players surrounding their bad players. The good ones include Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Demarcus Lawrence, Jason Witten, and sometimes Dez Bryant. Allen Hurns might be a quietly good addition to the receiving corps. Their schedule includes four games against weak-looking division opponents (Giants, Washington), plus Lions, Seahawks (depending how you feel about them), Colts, Texans, Titans, and Bucs. They were 9-7 a year ago and that’s pretty close to being the sixth-best team in the NFC next season. If the defense improves (and with their young players gaining experience like Jourdan Lewis, Chidobe Awuzie, Byron Jones, Taco Charlton, Maliek Collins, Jaylon Smith, David Irving that could happen) Dallas could be good enough to win the NFC East.
They won 7 of their last 10 games, plus a playoff road win over the Rams. Matt Ryan is still an elite quarterback. I am not sure most people would remember though that they were ranked below the Seahawks in overall DVOA. They didn’t have as much improvement on defense as I thought they would (20th in DVOA, below-average against both the pass and run) and that’ll be necessary for them to see a deep playoff run. Takkarist McKinley could be a key player because they could really use more pass rush opposite of Vic Beasley (or from Vic Beasley), especially now that Adrian Clayborn is in New England. You can still build a defense around Deion Jones and Keanu Neal and if they get that side of the ball into the top 10 of DVOA, the Falcons will be where they want to be.
8. Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson is still the third or fourth-best QB in the NFC (Rodgers, Brees, Ryan, Wilson), which keeps the Seahawks as playoff contenders regardless of whatever else happens. Their talent base includes Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Earl Thomas, Frank Clark, Doug Baldwin as established stars, and Duane Brown, Justin Britt, Jarran Reed, Shaquill Griffin as very good established starters. From there, you mix in Chris Carson, Tyler Lockett, Tom Johnson, Justin Coleman, Bradley McDougald, Nazair Jones, Barkevious Mingo, Shamar Stephen, and I think they have plenty of quality players. Many are calling it a “transition year” but this is a transition that could still include a wild card berth, at least.
9. Detroit Lions
Another 9-7 team that could be moving in the upwards direction. Matthew Stafford can be great when his thumb isn’t jacked up and the defense ranked 16th against the pass by DVOA. Darius Slay is now a legitimate star and they added DeShawn Shead, who could be a surprise next season after returning from a torn ACL and gave the franchise tag to Ezekiel Ansah, who had 12 sacks in 14 games without much attention. The offensive line looks pretty good too.
10. Tampa Bay Bucs
I feel like they should be a lot better. Maybe next season.
Jameis Winston does put up some great numbers (including advanced stats) amid the noise that he’s overrated or bad. O.J. Howard’s going to be a great player, I think. They added Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry as their two edge rushers on the defensive line, upgrading a front-seven that already includes Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David. Tampa’s potential win totals for next season might range from 6 to 11. I could see either. Maybe because it’s the offseason I’m leaning towards the high side but that is how I feel right now.
I’m not there with the 49ers yet but who knows, they could be a “surprise” (to me) team in 2018. Jimmy Garoppolo still has just seven starts, Jerick McKinnon has not proven to be a starting running back yet, and those are some of the bright spots on offense; I think “below average” starters in the NFC at their positions could include Pierre Garcon/Marquise Goodwin, George Kittle, Jonathan Cooper, and Laken Tomlinson. And I wouldn’t be able to exclude McKinnon and Garoppolo from that list entirely, regardless of their 2018 salaries. (Nearly $50 million combined between the two players.)
Bigger starting question marks on defense include Arik Armstead, Eli Harold, Malcolm Smith, Reuben Foster, Jaquiski Tartt, and Ahkello Witherspoon. I mean, Richard Sherman is a question mark too, right? Otherwise, Seattle wouldn’t have cut him. They were a 1-10 team without Garoppolo and a 5-0 team with Garoppolo. Do you believe that they’d be a 16-0 team with Garoppolo? If not, then you have to make up the difference and come to a conclusion that, in my opinion, settles around the .500 range.
In the last six seasons, these are the Panthers’ win totals, in order: 7, 12, 7, 15, 6, 11.
Is it just me, or do the Panthers look bad again? Their top running back is meant to be Christian McCaffrey, who did not look like a running back as a rookie. Their top receivers are Devin Funchess, Torrey Smith, and Curtis Samuel. The offensive line is bad. The defensive line lost Star Lotulelei and replaced him with Dontari Poe, which might be a wash? Mario Addison and Julius Peppers are a combined age of 69. The secondary doesn’t look good (Ross Cockrell, James Bradberry, Da’Norris Searcy, Mike Adams).
13. New York Giants
They were 3-13 a year ago and Eli Manning isn’t great but there’s still some talent remaining from their 2016 campaign: Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, Janoris Jenkins, Landon Collins, Eli Apple. You’d think they’ll trade Odell Beckham, Jr but they signed Nate Solder to a record contract, so it doesn’t seem like New York is just giving in. I like Pat Shurmur as a head coach, as long as it’s not in Cleveland.
The only team guaranteed to have a new head coach and a new starting quarterback, and that quarterback has done virtually nothing through eight seasons to prove that he can lead a bad team to close wins. They also added Justin Pugh, Andre Smith, Mike Glennon, and Bene Benwikere. They have Patrick Peterson, Chandler Jones, David Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Budda Baker, Deone Bucannon, Haason Reddick, so they aren’t quite “talent poor” but I think it’s still lining up for them to return to prominence in 2019 because they will have a tough time doing that in 2018 with Bradford and Glennon.
15. Chicago Bears
if Mitchell Trubisky looks good (and with Matt Nagy as head coach, I think he might), it would change the outlook entirely. Adding Allen Robinson and potentially getting Kevin White back (I know) theoretically helps a lot. They also added Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel. I think the Bears need to be a lot more efficient with their passes to their running backs, because those guys are a lot more talented than their 6 yards per catch indicates. The defense was weirdly not terrible.
The more I think about the trade for Alex Smith, the more I like it. But I just don’t know how you could like Washington’s prospects for next season. They need a lot of offensive players who have had disappointing careers (Josh Doctson, Paul Richardson, Samaje Perine, Jordan Reed) to be not disappointing. We don’t know what to expect from Jonathan Allen, Fabian Moreau, Deshazor Everett. I mean, they don’t have very many exciting starters on defense outside of Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith, Zach Brown, and Josh Norman, three of whom are 29 or older. Jay Gruden’s job is to do good enough to survive to see 2019.