It’s April, so most of these points will probably look silly in 9 months, but the NFC should be the class of the NFL in 2013. I think you can make a convincing case for practically every team in the NFC as a possible playoff contender, which means a lot of coaches in that conference are going to be wondering what went wrong by December. Here’s my quick thoughts on each team:
San Francisco 49ers – returning NFC Champions lost Dashon Goldson, Isaac Sopoaga, and Delanie Walker, but added Anquan Boldin, Nnamdi Asomugha, Glenn Dorsey, and Phil Dawson. With Colin Kaepernick entering his second season as starter and a roster full of first round talent, it’s hard to imagine anything shy of another double-digit win season and a Super Bowl run for the 49ers. And they have 13 picks in April’s draft. I still see them as having a chance to become this generation’s version of the Lombardi Packers.Seattle Seahawks – maybe the best team in the NFL by the end of last year, the Seahawks solved their two biggest problems in the first week of free agency. The Percy Harvin trade adds another dimension to one of the toughest offenses in the NFL to stop, while signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett significantly improves the pass rush. Seattle could challenge for the league lead in sacks. Having Bruce Irvin, Avril, and Bennett on the field on third downs — especially at CenturyLink Field — will be a nightmare for opposing offenses.
St. Louis Rams – the Rams went 4-1-1 in the division last year and Jeff Fisher did a fantastic job turning the culture around. There were some significant losses in the offseason — Steven Jackson, Danny Amendola, Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Gibson — but the two biggest moves were paying for Jake Long and Jared Cook. St. Louis has the 16th, 22nd, and 46th picks in the draft, so they should be better in a month. They have a brutal division, but it’s clear that they’re moving in the right direction. You could argue that three of the five best coaches in the NFL are in the NFC West, and that doesn’t include the reigning Coach of the Year.
Arizona Cardinals – expectations won’t be high, but the Cardinals should be improved in 2013. The offensive line has to be better, Bruce Arians should help revive Larry Fitzgerald‘s career, and Carson Palmer is at least an upgrade over what the Cardinals trotted out last season. Calais Campbell and Patrick Peterson give the defense some All-Pro caliber talent, so it’s not like the Cardinals are that far from competing. And while I don’t love Rashard Mendenhall, he doesn’t turn 26 until June and probably represents an upgrade over the prior stable of backs.
And while the NFC West is probably the best division in the NFL, the NFC South isn’t very far behind.
Atlanta Falcons – sure, I had some fun poking at how the Falcons weren’t as good as their record last season, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Adding Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora fills two huge holes, and the Falcons presumably think they can replace Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes in the draft. Thomas Dimitroff deserves the benefit of the doubt on that one and I expect Atlanta to again be in the mix for a first round bye.
New Orleans Saints – with Sean Payton back, are the Saints back? Probably, and the addition of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan should help. An aggressive defensive coordinator is what the Saints high-powered offense needs, and the historically bad defense has to be improved in 2013. Drew Brees led the NFL in passing yards and passing touchdowns for the second year in a row, and only moderate improvements to the defense would get the Saints back to double digit wins.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – am I wrong to think this team is nearly there? Tampa Bay has three of the four pieces down. Doug Martin gives them a great rushing attack, while I have already written about why I like Josh Freeman, who ranked 11th in NY/A last year. Tampa Bay’s offense is more than good enough, while the defense was the best in the league against the run. All of that went for naught, however, when the Bucs allowed 4,758 passing yards, just 42 yards shy of tying the 2011 Packers for the most ever. Signing Dashon Goldson helps, and if they trade for Darrelle Revis, all the pieces are in place for them to make the playoffs. Remember, this was the third-youngest team in the NFL last season, so things are looking up in Tampa Bay.
Carolina Panthers – I said how optimistic I was about the 2013 Panthers back in December; after writing that post, Carolina finished the year on a 4-0 run. Drayton Florence and Chase Blackburn aren’t big signings, but the team didn’t lose much in free agency (and was able to retain Captain Munnerlyn). Cam Newton made slight improvements as a passer last year and remains one of the game’s best weapons. He turns 24 next month — it’s crazy to think that his critics are disappointed he hasn’t carried the team on his back yet. With Newton and Steve Smith, the offense will remain productive, and the defense made big strides in 2012. The real problem for Carolina is they’re stuck in a brutal division and have to play the NFC West, the Patriots, Giants, and Vikings next year.
Green Bay Packers – just one year removed from a 15-1 season, the Packers are always going to be Super Bowl contenders during Aaron Rodgers’ prime years. Most teams would would be wondering about their weapons if Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and Tom Crabtree departed, but Green Bay’s passing offense will remain elite with Rodgers, Randall Cobb, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, and Jermichael Finley. Their starting running back in the playoffs will likely be a street free agent signed in November, but that won’t matter too much. The real question is what to make of a defense that still has question marks; at this point, they’re a better version of the Saints, but I’m not sure they’re on the level of the Seahawks or 49ers.
Chicago Bears – the Bears won 10 games last year and their only notable losses were Nick Roach and Kellen Davis. On the positive side, they retained Henry Melton and added Jermon Bushrod, Martellus Bennett, Matt Slauson, and James Anderson. Few think Lovie Smith deserved to be fired, but Chicago is embracing the analytics movement under new head coach Marc Trestman, so you know I’m going to be a fan. If Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, and Matt Forte stay healthy, Chicago will again challenge for the division crown. The scary part is they’d arguably be the third best team in the AFC but might struggle to make the playoffs in the NFC.
Minnesota Vikings – an easy “regression” pick on the surface, a deeper look at the Vikings shows a team that’s trending in the right direction. They did well in swapping out Percy Harvin for a first rounder and Greg Jennings, and don’t be surprised if they add another wide receiver with one of their first round picks. Matt Cassel will help ensure that Joe Webb never starts another playoff game, but otherwise the Vikings experienced minimal roster turnover in free agency. Adrian Peterson won’t be expected to run for 2,000 yards again, but a great running game, an average passing attack and an average defense can still take a team to the playoffs.
Detroit Lions – last year was a ‘burn the tapes’ type of season, but Detroit is closer than you think. Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and C.J. Mosley give the Lions the best group of defensive tackles in a league where interior pass rush gets more important every year (a strength of new defensive end Jason Jones, as well). Reggie Bush may not be a star, but he should give the Lions what they thought they would get out of Jahvid Best. I don’t love Matt Stafford, but he should be very productive in 2013 with Calvin Johnson and Bush as excellent complementary weapons. Losing Gosder Cherilus, Cliff Avril, and Jeff Backus will hurt, but the Lions should be able to solve some of their needs in the draft. I don’t expect a playoff season out of Detroit, but they won’t be an easy out for any team next year. They lost just 3 games last year by more than 8 points.Washington Redskins – the NFC East has suddenly become the worst division in the conference, and it would be a surprise if multiple teams from the division made the playoffs. We don’t know what to expect from Robert Griffin III, but the Redskins ended the season on a seven-game winning streak. Getting back Brian Orakpo, Adam Carriker, and Fred Davis from injury will help a team that doesn’t have a first round draft pick in 2013. The Redskins didn’t gain or lose much during free agency, but if RG3 is healthy, Washington is the division favorite.
New York Giants – the Giants lost Unemyiora, Bennett, Kenny Phillips, and Chase Blackburn (and likely Ahmad Bradshaw), and I don’t think that’s offset by the signings of Mike Patterson, Brandon Myers, Louis Murphy, Dan Connor, and Aaron Ross. Some will continue to tout the Giants as a darkhorse team, but I’m not convinced. Having Eli Manning, Victor Cruz, and Hakeem Nicks means the Giants will be able to win some shootouts, but New York really needs bounce-back years from Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck to be a Super Bowl contender again. The team ranked 12th in points allowed, but finished in the bottom five of the league in yards allowed, net yards per pass allowed, and yards per carry allowed.
Dallas Cowboys – the Tony Romo/Jason Witten/DeMarcus Ware era seems destined to produce a bunch of hype and little else. I remain one of the biggest Romo fans on the planet, so I don’t expect the Cowboys to struggle in 2013, but I find little to get excited about. Monte Kiffin and a new defensive scheme isn’t the answer, so whether Dallas can make a playoff push might come down to keeping DeMarco Murray, Miles Austin, and Dez Bryant healthy.
Philadelphia Eagles – it’s a shame Chip Kelly’s in the NFC, because all of the good things Philadelphia has done this offseason is unlikely to yield any results in 2013. But I expect Kelly to turn the Eagles around and be competitive by 2014. I don’t know what’s going to happen at quarterback, but James Casey could have his breakout season with the Eagles. They lack the talent to make a run, but I expect great things from Kelly long-term and am extremely excited to see how his style works in the NFL.3
With the exception of Denver and New England, you get the feeling that a dozen teams in the NFC could be the third best team if they played in the American Football Conference. With the exception of Philadelphia, Arizona, and Detroit — three teams that I believe are all trending in the right direction — all of the NFC teams have reasons for optimism entering 2013.