2018-2019 NFL Preview: NFC

As you’ll see tomorrow, the NFC is certainly the more interesting and better conference.  That’s why I’m not making you wait for it.

I mean, the NFL also isn’t making you wait for it, given that two NFC teams play tonight.

The AFC preview will go up tomorrow afternoon.  I’m splitting them up because 1) We’ve done it this way almost every year.  2) College is A LOT of work.

A couple rules for this column first.

  1. People have mentioned to me that, if you add up all the records of all 30 teams in the NFL, it should equal a .500 winning percentage.
  2. I know that, and have known that every year writing this column.  The point here isn’t to predict every game right.  It’s to project each team based on what they should be and what they can be.  We can’t predict injuries, for example.  That can make a 10-6 team go to a 5-11 team.  Teams lose games they aren’t expected to lose.  We can’t predict that in this column either.  The record projected is based how much talent the team has and how hard their schedule is.  That is the greatest indicator of performance, not predicting each and every game throughout the season.

Anyways, now that that’s out of the way, enjoy the game tonight.  And enjoy 6,100 words on a conference that has six playoff teams and six Super Bowl contenders.

NFC East

Philadelphia Eagles

Projected record: 11-5

Strengths: Almost everything 

Weaknesses: Linebacker, wide receiver 

Can you name any other team this equipped to handle their starting quarterback not playing in Week 1?

I’m not too worried about Nick Foles starting even multiple games this season if necessary.  No evaluation of anything should ever come out of the preseason, and the Eagles have, as we saw last postseason, one of the best support systems in the league for an average-to-below average QB.

An 11-5 record with Carson Wentz not starting is ambitious, but it seems like the Eagles are just being cautious right now with him, which is the reason for Foles starting Week 1.

Once they’re full strength, the Eagles have a couple minor holes.  Their main weapons at wide-out are still tops in the league, but they lack the depth they had last season.  That’s made up for with their running back rotation though, which features multiple pass catchers and dynamic runners.

Another minor nit-pick with this Eagles team is their linebackers.  It’s minor because the Eagles defensive line is equally equipped to defend the run and rush the quarterback, but an injury up front could put more pressure on the middle men.

This is where the loss of Mychal Kendricks hurts, but it’s not like he would have been there even if he remained an Eagle.

The two minor issues, and more importantly Wentz’s uncertain return, gives the Eagles only 11 wins, rather than a 12-13 win season that we expect from this type of powerhouse.

Dallas Cowboys

Projected record: 8-8

Strengths: Ground and pound, linebacker

Weaknesses: Weapons, secondary 

I’m not as sour on this Cowboys team as most people.  It starts with their almost completely healthy offensive line, and the premise that Dak Prescott is a good quarterback.

Travis Frederick is the only Cowboys starter on the O-Line who won’t play in Week 1.  It’s a loss, but it doesn’t have the same impact that losing Zack Martin and Tyron Smith on top of Frederick would.

With their line mostly back, Ezekiel Elliot should return to his rookie form.  Last season was a combination of two things:  Suspension taking him out of the season’s flow, and normal, expected regression after a fantastic first year.

The rest of the help surrounding Dak Prescott isn’t great.  The Cowboys essentially have three receivers in Cole Beasley, Allen Hurns and Terrance Williams.  Calling Williams a legitimate target is stretching it, and their so-called 4th receiver is Tavon Austin, who’s been nothing more than a utility guy who only excels in certain schemes.  The Dallas power and play action scheme is not his best fit.

Dallas’ defense got better though.  They signed Datone Jones and drafted Leighton Vander-Esch, who was one of the most NFL ready players in the draft.  Assuming injuries don’t destroy them like usual, a linebacking core of Vander-Esch, Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith is pretty intriguing.  The run defense, even with the newly-signed Jones, is the weaknesses of the line.  Vander-Esch and Lee should be able to make up those for deficiencies since they aren’t the type to drop back in coverage.

But, the secondary is still a disaster; so bad that it could bring this defense down to the level it was at last season.

That, combined with the offense’s potential to stutter, and stutter bad, is why I can’t go higher than eight wins for this team.  Like multiple other teams that you’ll see below and tomorrow, there’s nothing that points to this offense being a dynamic one; their scheme and plays are going to be too predictable.  Defenses will figure it out, and the offense won’t be able to rely on the other side of ball to bail them out in games.

New York Giants

Projected record: 8-8

Strengths: Defense 

Weaknesses: Weapons, quarterback

On paper, the Giants are better than the Cowboys.

I have both teams at 8-8 but Dallas finishing higher.  Why?  Though Saquon Barkley could have just as productive of a season as Elliot, Barkley’s a rookie and has a much worse offensive line, which won’t help him battle through those rookie ups and downs he may experience.  Plus, if the running game isn’t there, I’ll take Dak Prescott over 37 year old Eli Manning to make things happen.  The lack of weapons cancel out even though New York has the 2nd or 3rd best receiver in the league; the Giants don’t even have a Tavon Austin like-flyer to take a chance on.

The Giants have the potential to exceed 8-8 though.  The defense alone gets them there.  They’ll be great against the run and have Olivier Vernon to put pressure on opposing QBs (If there is a weaknesses, it’s the pass rush).  The secondary is talented, but they’ll need Eli Apple to not be a complete disaster.

Making the case that a Manning-led offense can be above average is daunting, but the hope is that Barkley can make such an impact that Eli doesn’t have to do a whole lot.  That, combined with Odell Beckham Jr. being one of the best receivers in the league, is all there is to it.  Yeah, it’s really not a strong one.  Dallas gets the edge because of that.

Washington Redskins

Projected record: 6-10

Strengths: Offensive line, front seven

Weaknesses: Quarterback, competence 

I’m out on this team.  The simplest way to look at the Redskins is by crafting it this way:  It’s a Alex Smith-led offense with a defense not good enough to bring a team to eight wins.

Not great.

The offense is very much like the one the Chiefs had during Smith’s tenure there:  A cache of running backs who can catch passes out of the backfield and have speciality roles, but none who can be given 20+ carries a game (Obviously that changed last year) and receivers who are good when they’re playing their best, but playing their best is the hard part.

Alex Smith has been the only consistent part of any offense he’s been on, and that’s also the problem.  Without a dominant defense, you aren’t going anywhere with an average quarterback.   Even Andy Reid couldn’t get him out of his ways.

I don’t believe Washington got a whole lot worse at quarterback this offseason, but they certainly didn’t get better.  The belief that Smith will radically change an offense, which is the belief the Redskins made with that awful February trade (Kendall Fuller and a 3rd round pick?  When your secondary was one of the worst in the league last season?), is false hope.  Smith’s never made his receivers better and can only get the ball 10 yards downfield.  So long for Josh Doctson ever turning into the downfield threat we expected him to be.

Washington has neither a dynamic offense nor a dominant defense.  That’s the path to a below .500 record.

I like the front seven, but it’s a couple years away.  The Redskins are starting Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne, young Alabama players who I both liked in their respective drafts.  But Allen’s heading into his 2nd year and Payne’s a rookie.  Relying on those two as your whole run defense is problematic.  Their linebackers are good enough to make up for that, but the 3-4 system generates no pass rush.  Combine that with a secondary that should improve but was one of the worst groups in the league for no reason last year, and nothing really stands out.

Washington should rebuild, but a delusional owner won’t allow that.  Instead, their drastic change won’t get them any farther.

NFC North

Minnesota Vikings

Projected record: 12-4

Strengths: The whole roster

Weaknesses: Quarterback?

It’s not often where we get to toss around the word “loaded” when it comes to NFL rosters.

This is one of those times.

When Kirk Cousins (Even though I’ve never been a massive fan of him, he’s still an above average QB), is listed as a weakness on a NFL team, you’re loaded.

The Vikings have the most talented defense in the league.  Their secondary was shutdown last season and only got better.  They have immense depth at corner and safety.  Mike Hughes (their first round pick), Mackensie Alexander (their 2nd round pick two years ago who dominated at Clemson), George Iloka and Marcus Sherels make up their backups in the secondary.  That’s a young, promising starting group anywhere else.

I’d expect the young corners to get snaps right away.  With Terrence Newman retiring and Trae Waynes as close to being called a bust as we can get, the Vikings should start trying out new faces.  Sure they’re young, but this defense can get away with that.

The offense is also one of the most talented groups in the league.  Dalvin Cook’s return gives Minnesota an element they didn’t have last year: A dominant runner who doubles as an incredible pass catcher.  Adam Theilen and Stefon Diggs are two of the ten best receivers in the league, and perhaps Laquon Treadwell can lose his bust label.

And then there’s Kirk Cousins, who is the only source of doubt I have with this Vikings roster.

It’s worth pointing out that a poor performance from Cousins probably won’t matter.  We’ve talked quite a bit about defenses that can bring a team to eight wins. Minnesota certainly has that, and their defense might be the only one that exceeds that benchmark.  Think about it.  If you put Andy Dalton on this team, would they win 10 games?  Probably.

I guess my concern with Cousins isn’t his regular season performance.  The Vikings surrounding cast, offense and defense, is good enough to make up for it.  The concern comes when Minnesota is a high seed in the playoffs.  When have we ever seen Cousins succeed in high pressure situations?  The downside with Cousins has always been the interceptions and fumbles, especially in the clutch.  Minnesota’s good enough to be in those situations.  How will he play?

As we’ve seen in the past, Cousins’ turnovers and poor decisions have cost teams a whole season before.  Costing this Minnesota team a season means possibly costing them a Super Bowl.

Green Bay Packers 

Projected record: 11-5

Strengths: Secondary, Quarterback

Weaknesses: Weapons, pass rush

This division is fantastic and a lot of that is due to the fact that Aaron Rodgers is back.

Oh, and he has Jimmy Graham to throw to.

A slight problem may be that he’s the only person to throw to.

Though he doesn’t need much, what’s surrounding Rodgers is concerning.  Jordy Nelson’s release didn’t make any sense, and the Packers are left with Davante Adams as their No.1.  Adams has teetered between a No.1 and No.2 option throughout his career so far.  Drops and injuries have plagued him at times.  If either occur, the Packers offense could be in real trouble.  Green Bay only has two other viable targets after Adams: Randall Cobb and Graham.

It’s not a very deep or talented core.  The scheme, as we’ve seen over the past two years, isn’t great either.  Maybe Rodgers should just throw to Jimmy Graham every time.

I defended that contract when it signed and will still do so.  Graham isn’t the same player he was in New Orleans, but he’s still a deadly weapon, especially over the middle of the field, where the new helmet rules might give him even more open looks.

I don’t think we’re talking enough about how ridiculous this pairing could be.  You could make the case Rodgers has never had a target like this.  He’ll utilize it well.  I mean, it’s not like he has many other options.

The defensive side of the ball was another serious issue for the Packers last year.  Considering the task, they actually did a good job fixing those issues.  Muhammed Wilkerson gives them at least some pass rush, and they upgraded a secondary which was absolutely horrific last season.

I love what the Packers did in the secondary.  Whether it works or not is dependent on injuries and how well the youth plays, but it’s a promising group.  Kevin King should take a step forward given that his shoulder issue doesn’t re-emerge; in-case it does, the Packers invested heavily in cornerback depth.  That’s also incase age catches up with Tramon Williams, who will start the season as the 2nd cornerback.  Green Bay took Louisville’s Jaire Alexander with their first round pick, a pick that I thought should have been used on Iowa’s Josh Jackson.  They ended up with both, as Jackson stunningly fell to the 2nd round.  I was higher on Jackson; he was the best cornerback in the Big Ten last season and tortured quarterbacks.  He’s ready, which is fantastic news for Green Bay given Williams’ age.  Their depth allows them to rotate guys frequently, and gives their young guys critical experience.

If you put any other quarterback on this team, it wouldn’t be pretty.  We experienced that last season.  A roster depleted of the two most important pieces to a NFL team (Pass rush and weapons) should not win 11 games.  When Aaron Rodgers is in charge though, anything’s possible.  I’m not doubting that man.

Chicago Bears

Projected record: 7-9

Strengths: Weapons, pass rush, secondary

Weaknesses: Quarterback, experience, chemistry

If the Bears were a NBA team, they’d be very high up on the league pass rankings and would be just on the cusp of the playoffs.  This year’s Bears team is what the Denver Nuggets have been for years.

I didn’t have time to write a column about the Kahlil Mack trade, so let’s evaluate the Bears side of it now.  The draft capital they gave up was significant, but Mack is one of the three best players at not only a loaded position, but the most important position on defense and one of the two most important on any team.  Mack takes this Bears defense from a talented but young one to a defense that can boost an average team to eight wins, or even better.  The Bears now have Mack and Leonard Floyd on the edge, and a good run defense up the middle.  The linebackers are a little concerning, but they have some good depth thanks to their draft day and the flyer contracts they signed in the offseason.  Sam Acho is a decent backup, and Roquan Smith should be able to contribute in Week 1 assuming he’s fully ready to go.  I also like Aaron Lynch as a 5th linebacker.

The picks given up almost made me sick, but Oakland’s side of the trade made me even sicker.  The Bears have surrendered a ton of future picks between this trade and the Mitchell Trubisky trade-up, but both are looking like they’ll pay off.  Mack is Mack, and as we’ll get into later, the offense is very close.

Two first round picks, a 3rd and a 6th is a mind-boggling amount for any player.  But the Bears absolutely finessed Oakland by getting a future 3rd rounder along with Mack.  That, considering how much they gave up, is worth the equivalent of a 1st.

This deal couldn’t have been better for Chicago and couldn’t have been worse for Oakland.  Handing Mack the largest defensive contract ever is daunting, but given his rank at his position, he’s 100 percent worth it.

The Mack trade takes the Bears defense to another level, but it may not pay off this year.  That’s fine since Mack’s contract is six years long.

Chicago has a 2nd year quarterback who may or may not be good, brought in a new head coach, and completely revamped their receiving core.  There’s a lot of new faces here, and that includes Mack.  Pass rushers as dominant as Mack aren’t totally affected by scheme, but his impact may be reduced as the whole team will be learning a new system.  Also consider that one of the defenders they’ll rely on the most is a rookie (Smith).

The offense is extremely talented.  The Allen Robinson contract was the bargain of the offseason.  Assuming his Achilles tear doesn’t have too drastic of an impact on his athleticism, Robinson is automatically the No.1 option, and a pretty dang good one for a developing QB.    Taylor Gabriel gives them a quick underneath option in the slot, and Anthony Miller caught everything in his sight in college.  Trey Burton can get open across the middle, and should be a great RPO option in the passing game.

The Bears are so loaded that the two receivers they counted on (and didn’t get anything out of) two years ago are just depth guys.  It’s a plus if Kevin White is anything at this point (If he’s the dude we thought he was gonna be coming out of college… hoo boy), and Josh Bellamy as a 5th receiver is a ridiculous display of riches.

Oh yeah… we haven’t even gotten to the running backs.  Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen are an electric pair; Howard can be a touchdown machine on the ground and the same can be said of Cohen in multiple ways.

Cohen’s not a reliable option like Howard or Robinson, but when he breaks out, no one can catch him.  Whether it’s on the ground, out of the backfield or on kickoffs, Cohen is a wild-card on every play.  If he disappears during games, it doesn’t matter.  The good plays make up for it, and it’s not like the Bears are toast without him.

So how is this team only going 7-9?  I think it’s fair to say that this will be like a 2nd rookie year for Trubisky; he wasn’t good last season, has a whole new offense to learn and all new weapons around him.  Everyone’s adjusting in Chicago.  Trubisky has the toughest adjustment to make.  And remember, a bad quarterback can be bad enough to squander even the best defense.

Detroit Lions

Projected record: 6-10

Strengths: Secondary 

Weaknesses: Competence 

Like Washington, the Lions are stuck in the middle.

Not bad enough to be terrible but underwhelming and average enough to not get a lot of respect.

It’s the same thing every year and nothing changes.

And I’m tired of projecting the same record for them, so this year I’m going a little lower to show my displeasure with their team.

It’s just so average.  They don’t have a star running back, though I love Kerryon Johnson and think he could emerge as a lead back someday; they just need to feed him the ball and give him a chance.  The offensive line is okay.  They lack a quick, slot receiver who can be useful in RPO sets, but they have downfield receivers.  Why don’t they just go to an air-raid system?  Stafford would excel, and they have the firepower to make it happen.  The lack of depth at running back doesn’t matter in that system.

That style of play would put less pressure on the defense, which, like the rest of the team, is very average.  Ziggy Ansah is their only real pass rusher, and there’s a lot of youth on the line.  Run defense will also be an issue with their linebacking core.

I do like the secondary though.  Darius Slay is underrated when healthy, and Glover Quin is a good safety.  It’s not impactful enough to bring the defense to an above average level, but it’s at least a strength.

The Lions, unless they start really tossing it around, should probably be kept off your TV screen.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons

Projected record: 13-3

Strengths: Almost everything 

Weaknesses: Linebacker depth 

Probably the biggest surprise of the NFL preview so far.  I was not expecting the Falcons to come in at 13 wins.  This team is really solid!  You can’t find a real weakness.

The Saints are the same way.  The two teams probably have the same weakness: Linebacker and the lack of options there.

It took a quick scan of each team’s schedules to determine who’d come out on top, and for whatever reason the Falcons came out a win higher.  I’m putting way too much confidence in Steve Sarkisian.

We have to remember that we’re projecting regular season record here.  The Falcons will somehow figure out a way to screw it up or choke in the postseason; that’s just a given at this point.  But when the stakes are low, they’re close to unbeatable with this team.

Calvin Ridley being the 4th receiver on any team is ridiculous, and is even more unfair considering Matt Ryan is his quarterback.  The offensive line is one of the best in the league, and Devonta Freeman is a beast.

I also like their defensive front more than New Orleans’.  Grady Jarrett and Terrell McClain is a monster in the middle, and Vic Beasley is a terrifying block.  They have some good depth up front too with Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby.  As mentioned above, linebacker is a little sketchy, but their secondary is talented and physical.  Keanu Neal is not someone you want to meet in the middle of the field.

The Falcons might be the team in the NFL during the regular season.  They have the best record of all the teams we’ve covered so far.  But that doesn’t mean it will translate come January.  If it doesn’t, we’ll see some big changes, because there are no more excuses.

New Orleans Saints

Projected record: 12-4

Strengths: Almost everything 

Weaknesses: Linebacker 

I expected the Saints to come in here wins wise, just not 2nd in the division.

Them and the Falcons are neck and neck.  Both teams are loaded and have the same weakness.  The Saints’ schedule is a tad bit tougher, therefore they fall one game back.

Another way I can see New Orleans falling to 2nd place and even a couple wins lower is due to their success last year.  The Falcons made the 2nd round of the playoffs, but, as per usual, we never felt confident in them.  The Saints kicked butt during the entire course of last season.  In fact, I thought they were the best team heading into the 2nd round of the playoffs.  At that point, Philly was without Wentz, I still wasn’t believing in Case Keenum (and never did), and the Patriots defense concerned me (Boy, did that hold up or what?).

The Saints might be in for some tough yet expected regression.  Does Alvin Kamara have a sophomore slump?  Do they stay completely healthy?  Also, doubting Drew Brees is a scary proposition, but he’s 39 years old.  Again, QBs are good till they’re not, and we can usually give them the benefit of the doubt.  There’s no reason or evidence that Brees should fall off this year, but at some point it will happen.  If it’s this season, it’s just another way New Orleans falls behind the Falcons.

I still have New Orleans going 12-4.  The talent on this roster is undeniable.  Alvin Kamara is one of the best talents the league has since I launched this site.  Michael Thomas is a top five receiver, and the Saints’ investment in the offensive line a couple seasons ago is paying off.  New Orleans also quietly signed Cameron Meredith, who saw an immense amount of targets in Chicago and their No.1 receiver before their overhaul this offseason.  He’s the 4th receiver on this team.  Talk about firepower.

The defense has some questions.  There is a lack of pass rush besides Cameron Jordan, and the linebacking core isn’t exactly stacked like the rest of the team.  Sheldon Rankins should be able to help stop the run, limiting some of the pressure put on the linebackers.

The secondary is completely back and only got better.  Though it cost them their season on one fluke play, there’s no denying this is one of the best groups in the league.  Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley and Marcus Williams are all shutdown players, and are backed up by Patrick Robinson, Vonn Bell, and PJ Williams.  The Saints backup secondary starts on most teams in the league, and does pretty well.

Again, I have the Saints going 12-4.  They are not going to suck.  Their problems only hurt them against Atlanta, not against the rest of the league.

Carolina Panthers

Projected record: 8-8

Strengths: Front seven 

Weaknesses: Weapons, Secondary 

Carolina struggled immensely to the move the ball last season, despite finishing at 11-5 and making the playoffs in the once again loaded NFC South.

It didn’t get any better.  They “fixed” their offense by signing Torrey Smith (who though is a long favorite of mine, should not be a No.1 option on any team) and hiring Norv Turner, which’ll help their offense stall even more.  Christian McCaffrey is obviously here, but his presence brings a problem in itself.

He, like the Panthers offense, is too predictable.  When he’s on the field, he’s getting the ball, and defenses know that.  Carolina doesn’t have anyone as a decoy for McCaffrey, though DJ Moore’s speed and route running might open things up.  That was a fantastic pick, and was easily the best move they made.

Still, Torrey Smith isn’t taking eyes off of McCaffrey.  Moore might, but that’s cancelled out by whatever scheme Turner comes up with.

The front seven is scary.  Julius Peppers is still dominating, and he’s opposite Kawaan Short on the edges.  Dontari Poe is an underrated run stuffer, and Mario Addison is a fine 4th lineman.  Shaq Thompson is still raw in a couple areas, but his versatility can help out a weak secondary while also adding to a ridiculous front.

The secondary is in a weird spot.  James Bradberry is their No.1, but elsewhere there’s questions.  The Panthers are probably going to split snaps between Captain Munnerlyn and Donte Jackson.  Munnerlyn was terrible last year, and Jackson’s a rookie who’s bound to make mistakes.  Mike Adams gives them some certainty, but the other spot is occupied by Da’Norris Searcy, who’s been up and down for most of his career.

The secondary’s mediocre, but isn’t bad enough to tank the rest of the defense.  The terrifying pass rush gets them to 8-8.  They have the potential to be better, but it’s going to take some creativity on the offensive side of the ball.  Will we see it?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Projected record: 5-11

Strengths: Defense

Weaknesses: Quarterback, offensive line 

If only the Buccaneers had a quarterback…

They should.  Jamies Winston’s fall on and off the field has been detrimental to Tampa Bay, a team that’s extremely talented but has never been able to piece everything together.  With Winston suspended for the first four games of the season, the Bucs are left with Ryan Fitzpatrick, who at this point may not be much worse than Winston, but doesn’t have any of the skills to even attempt to take advantage of the talent on this offense.  Fitzpatrick is not a deep ball thrower, and with DeSean Jackson, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, there couldn’t be a worse match.  All are big time play-makers, and Fitzpatrick is the exact opposite of that.

Winston would at least try to make those plays, but it’ll result in interceptions most of the time.  An explosive, almost air-raid like system is the last type of scheme Winston should be inserted to given his turnover rate.  His weapons are made exactly for that.

Tampa Bay’s offense isn’t going anywhere no matter who the quarterback is.  Winston is a turnover machine, and when Fitzpatrick isn’t one, he’ll be dumping it off to Peyton Barber, who has never had any real playing time and won’t be supported by a good offensive line.

It’s really a shame, because this defense is one of the six-to-eight most talented in the league.  Their depth up front is deep, with Noah Spence and Vita Vea at the back-end of the rotation.  Jason Pierre-Paul and Gerald McCoy are ridiculous together, and Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David double that.  The secondary is physical and young with Vernon Hargraves, Chris Conte and Carlton Davis (Don’t be surprised if Davis gets playing time over Brent Grimes at some point).

But it just won’t matter.  Tampa Bay fits that depressing category of teams who have talent squandered by poor coaching or poor quarterback play.  No matter who’s at the helm doesn’t have my trust, and the record will suffer.

NFC West

Los Angeles Rams

Projected record: 13-3

Strengths: Almost everything 

Weaknesses: Linebacker

This team is just ridiculous.

On offense, they can run it down your throat with Todd Gurley and an offensive line that is anchored by John Sullivan and Andrew Whitworth.  They can throw it to one of their five proven weapons, now including Brandin Cooks and the solid Cooper Kupp.  Josh Reynolds, the young one out of Texas A&M, gives them a downfield threat.  And Jared Goff, assuming last season wasn’t a fluke, should only get better in Sean McVay’s scheme.

The Rams more than fixed their issues on defense.  To take care of their weak linebacking core, they signed Ndamkong Suh and locked up Aaron Donald.  Suh and Donald are the two best run defenders in the league, so that should limit the pressure put on their linebackers.  From a traditionalist perspective, they don’t have  a great pass rush, but Donald is just as good at getting to the quarterback as he against the run.  Him and Michael Brockers take care of that issue.

If teams try to attack the linebackers, they’ll have to penetrate one of the best secondaries in the league.  The Marcus Peters trade was an aggressive yet necessary move, and they doubled it up with Aqib Talib, completely remaking their cornerback rotation.  Pair those two with the hard-hitting Lamarcus Joyner and together we’ll send some good luck to offensive coordinators looking to throw on this team.

I don’t like projecting what will happen in the playoffs before the season, but here’s how the Rams stack up.  Their defense is better than Green Bay’s, New Orleans’ or Atlanta’s, I somehow trust their quarterback more than Minnesota’s, and it’s really, really hard to even go to the Super Bowl two years in a row.  The NFC is loaded, and anything can happen, but the Rams should be the favorites to make the Super Bowl.  They’re that good.

Seattle Seahawks

Projected record: 7-9

Strengths: Linebacker

Weaknesses: Offensive line, weapons

My projection for the Seahawks is high compared to what I’ve read on them so far.  This team is not great, but it’s also not as brutal as some are making it out to be.

I think we’re forgetting that Russell Wilson can get the maximum out of any set of weapons.  He still has Doug Baldwin, who’s a No.1 target on most teams throughout the league.  The rest is bleak.  Jaron Brown, a former Cardinal, is fine as a 4th option; he can go up and snag balls, but he disappears in games (Perhaps that is a scheme issue, though I’m not sure how much better Seattle’s scheme is than Arizona’s).  Tyler Lockett got a lot of money, perhaps a little too much for what he is, and Brandon Marshall is still chugging along, though it’s hard to see him actually contributing.

Seattle doesn’t have anything reliable on the offensive end besides Wilson, and when you don’t give him receivers, it means he’ll be difficult to count on.  The offensive line is still garbage, and Marshawn Lynch’s absence still looms large.  Chris Carson is getting a lot of buzz, but so have many former Seahawks running backs (notice former).  Nothing ever came out of Thomas Rawls, and CJ Prosise can’t stay healthy even though he’s been effective when playing.  They reached for Rashaad Penny in the draft, who even though is an extremely explosive player, could be very hit-or-miss, especially considering he’s a rookie with no offensive line.

Usually, a bad offense wouldn’t be as big of an issue for the Seahawks, because the defense would be there to bail them out.  That’s not the case anymore.  Even though Earl Thomas showed up yesterday, the defense has many holes.  They’re very young up front, and lack a consistent pass rush.  They only have two of their four secondary positions taken care of, with holes at one of their corner and safety spots.  Linebacker is loaded though; they’ll have to make up for the mistakes of the defensive front and help out in coverage (That shouldn’t be a problem for Shaquem Griffin).  Even though they have options in the middle, it can’t make up for the issues up front and in the back end.

This will be the year Seattle realizes they need to truly rebuild.  This what happens at the tail end of title windows; it’s depressing and sad.  You’re stuck in the middle and don’t really have anywhere to go.  It’s a lot better when you’re out of it, above or below.

San Francisco 49ers

Projected record: 6-10

Strengths: Defensive line, quarterback, coaching 

Weaknesses: Youth, back seven

I come in high on Seattle and low on San Francisco.

I get the sleeper buzz.  Jimmy Garrapolo is awesome, and Kyle Shanahan is the perfect coach.  They did a good job in the offseason of adding weapons and getting more creative.  The defense is young and talented.  But there’s just too many holes for me to hop on this bandwagon.

The biggest issue is the youth.  The defensive line, arguably the most talented position group on this team, is still incredibly young and struggled immensely last season.  They should take another step forward; all have the potential to be dominant at their positions someday.  DeForest Bucker and Arik Armstead are nasty, and Solomon Thomas is a huge presence in the middle.

But the rest of the defense is concerning.  They brought in Richard Sherman not only to serve as a veteran presence, but bring some competence to this secondary.  It’s a raw group of a lot of 2nd year players.  The linebacking core is mostly new faces, anchored by Malcolm Smith.  It’s a rough cast, and is the biggest reason I can’t get too excited about this team.  You need a good-to-dominate defense to make it in this league.  The 49ers don’t fit that range.

I want to believe offensively, but Jerick McKinnon’s injury hurt that quite a bit.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the contract and what his role was gonna be, but he gave them a dynamic presence who could be used in multiple ways.  That’s gone now, and San Francisco is relying on Matt Brieda to takeover.

Then there’s Jimmy G, who could turn this thing completely on its head and lead San Francisco to the playoffs.  All the concerns defensively could be uprooted by him.  What we saw at the end of last season was magical.  It’s unlikely it carries over, but the 49ers sleeper case is that it does.  That’s the issue.

It’s a raw, young team.  If Garappolo is a franchise guy immediately, then there is a good enough group of receivers around him for the offense to click.  But I expect there to be some struggle to start.  A five game sample is just too little.  The Niners are a year away.

Arizona Cardinals

Projected record: 5-11

Strengths: Secondary

Weaknesses: Weapons, competence 

This is painful to write.

It’s a transition year.  New coach, new quarterback(s).  Hardly any weapons.  Like a couple other teams, nothing really stands out, which why competence is a weaknesses.  For one team in particular tomorrow, that will be a strength.  The Cardinals just got out of a successful run.  Competence is a downgrade from that.

The Cardinals, for now, have Washington’s formula.  It’s a Sam Bradford-led offense with a defense not good enough to get the team to eight wins.  With Bradford at the helm, expect the Cardinals to check-down to a healthy (!!!) David Johnson once every four downs, and force the ball to Larry Fitzgerald (That’ll be the case no matter who the quarterback is).

I had a serious problem with starting Bradford over Josh Rosen, but after examining the receiving core, it’s probably a good move.  There is no one for Rosen to throw too besides Fitzgerald, and even though that’s not a bad option, defenses will figure it out and be able to take advantage of the rookie quarterback.  We’ve seen this too many times in the past.  Bad QBs force the ball to Larry, and he ends up having to play cornerback instead of receiver on his routes.

Rosen should play at some point this year.  We know Bradford is either going to get hurt or have a meltdown game.  That will be the time to act.  Maybe a receiver emerges (Christian Kirk?) and David Johnson can serve as a No.2 option.

There’s a chance they’re worse than my projected record suggests.  When you’re not good at really anything, the lows can be lower than you imagined.

NFC Playoff Picture

  1. Los Angeles Rams, 13-3
  2. Atlanta Falcons, 13-3
  3. Minnesota Vikings, 12-4
  4. Philadelphia Eagles, 11-5
  5. New Orleans Saints, 12-4
  6. Green Bay Packers, 11-5

What a bloodbath.  Can’t you see all these teams making the Super Bowl?

AFC Preview coming tomorrow afternoon…