1) *Cowboys. They were surprise last year. Don’t complain the Dez Bryant no-catch against the Packers, they got a gift call from the refs against the Lions the week before. They lost DeMarco Murray, but signed Darren McFadden to back up Joseph Randle. We shall see, they trade for RB Christian Michael of Seattle after the preseason. On defense – which Rod Marinelli amazing made functional with little talent - they added Greg Hardy at DE after Carolina cut him for hitting his girlfriend (have to love sports). He is suspended the first four games, but is only 27 and had 26 sacks the last two seasons he played. LB Sean Lee will be back from missing last season with injury. But they lost CB Olando Scandrick for the season (although not he was their #1 coverman). They have thrown in some of their picks from last year into starting roles on defense. TE Jason Witten is starting to slow down. They got a gift in adding OL La'el Collins as a rookie free agent. A first round talent he went undrafted after reports surfaced police wanted to talk him about the murder of his former girlfriend. He was cleared after the draft.
2) Giants. Last year they went 6-10 and the roster has not changed much. They overpaid Eli Manning (for his talent, not for the market as teams are desperate not lose QBs who have any talent so are overpaying guys everywhere – to be fair with no QB you have no chance) and had their franchise DE blow his finger off with a firework (from which he still has not recovered). They will get Victor Cruz back at WR to match with last year’s amazing rookie Odell Beckham Jr. They drafted a LT (well his is now with Will Beatty on the PUP anyway) and are using last year’s #2 pick as their starting center. They have had a rash of injuries at safety already.
3) Eagles. I predict Chip Kelly is out of the league in two years. I know he has his little system, but you need talent to win. Sam Bradford is just an ok QB in those rare moments he isn’t having knee surgery whereas Foles was a talent. Shady McCoy is great, whereas DeMarco Murray was great in a contract year behind a great OL after an injury plagued career. He is backed up by the also injury prone Ryan Mathews. After trading DeSean Jackson last year (1,100 yards and a 21 yard per catch average in Washington in ’14) and letting Jeremy Maclin walk this year (1,300 yards and 10 TDs coming off knee surgery) the receivers are Riley Cooper and Jordan Mathhews, who looked last year as a rookie – while playing with Foles, McCoy, and Maclin. For added measure he also cut G Evan Mathis who played in the last two Pro Bowls. On defense the Iggles blew up a so-so secondary and signed SF Walter Thurmond and CB Byron Maxell – both former 2nd tier members of the Seattle secondary. They wildly overpaid for Maxwell. And Kelly clearly is rubbing his players the wrong way judging from all the comments guys have made once they are gone – which can build up and make a team not play as hard.
4) Washington. Is there really any surprise? Despite all the interceptions Cousins may be more viable than RGIII after what this franchise has done to the QB they trade 3 first round picks and second to draft. My money says there will be Colt McCoy sighting at some point this year. This is largely the same team that went 4-12 last year – minus the talented but oft-injured OLB Brian Orakpo. Surprisingly for once Danny Boy did not go nuts in free agency, just picking up role players. The best would be run stuffer Terrance Knighton. They also took a flier on former All-Pro (but late hit prone) safety Dashon Goldson who was a free agency bust in Tampa. Maybe after watching last year’s “big” signing DT Jason Hatcher get 5 sacks he is starting to figure it out? Naaaaah. Would Jay Gruden be an NFL head coach if his brother had not been? I would say no. But give him credit for benching RGIII over Danny’s wishes. Fun fact: my preview last year started “The fact that people are calling for Kirk Cousins BEFORE the season has even started tells you this team is a mess. What a surprising change from normal. Overpaid for Jason Hatcher.” Damn I am good.
1) *Saints. Last year we kept wait for N’awlins to take a weak division and they never did (their loan winning streak was just two games). Perhaps they will this year – but honestly I put them first by default after look at the rest of the division. They still have a great QB. Losing Jimmy Graham at TE hurts, but last year’s #1 pick WR Brandon Cooks looks good (he better, they all cut their #2 pick) and they needed the cap space. Mark Ingram finally look good last year – but I am not sure I believe he has truly arrived. But if pickup CJ Spiller can stay healthy they will have a great weapon in their backfield. They also added a good center in the Jimmy Graham trade and signed big CB Brandon Browner from New England. Plus eventually last year’s big free agent signing SF Jairus Byrd will be come back from the injury that knocked him out last year. That will give them a strong secondary, which is good because they cut their best pass rusher – Junior Galette – after a video of him hitting a girl with a belt in a fight on the beach showed up on the web. They do still have one solid DE in Cameron Jordan. They also lost a lot of quality guys, but not household names to free agency (but added some too).
2) Falcons. They didn’t have a running game last year and are relying on two unproven youngsters to help out Matty Ice. I still believe in him – his stats have stayed steady despite the team sucking the last two years. But other than the WRs (and possibly the LT what was their #1 pick last year) the talent around him simply is not there. On defense they have some playmakers in the secondary – including SF William Moore who should be much better known then he is. Otherwise the defense does little for me unless their #1 pick Vic Beasley Jr. rushes the passer as well as their front office expects.
3) Panthers. They won their division last year, but only went 7-8-1. They lost their best (only?) WR to an ACL in the preseason. You can’t assume RB Jonathan Stewart will stay healthy all year. Cam is a big name, but has never complete more than 61% of his passes in a season (59% career) – last year Derek Anderson completed 67% in his two starts. Simply put there is not a ton of talent on this offense. On defense they have good (and one great) LBs and a suspect passrush – which is not a good mix with the old secondary they are sporting.
4) Buccaneers. This season is really figuring out what they have their young guys – Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Ali Marpet, Donovan Smith. Those are 5 of their 11 on offense and were all drafted this year or last. Winston has the ability to be a quarterback, but I highly doubt the maturity. Evans is a good #2, poor #1. Seferian-Jenkins also has talent, but maturity issues. Marpet and Smith are lineman with physical skills, but aren’t very polished. There is no way all these guys pan out, but is some do the Tampa could be good…in a couple of years. The offense also has the talented, but aging Vincent Jackson and the unlikely hope that Doug Martin can regain his form from two years ago. Meanwhile on defense they have one great DT in Gerald McCoy...and other people. They do have a bunch of DBs who have been ok players for other teams – Major Wright, Sterling Moore, Tim Jennings, Mike Jenkins, Chris Conte, DJ Swearinger – so they have experience. But how many of them do you know? Several of them are former Bears who played under Lovie Smith in Chicago. As did DT Henry Melton, who made the Pro Bowl in Lovie’s last season and hasn’t done anything besides get hurt since.
<1) *Packers. They were the best team in the division last year and did not lose much to free agency besides a few non-key defensive figures. But then in the pre-season their best WR, Jordy Nelson, blew out his knee. But last year’s second round pick has already has the look of a quality WR – remember the name Devante Adams. And with Randall Cobb resigned he won’t even have the pressure of being a #1 guy. With those two, Aaron Rodgers and Eddie Lacy their offense should be able to withstand the loss of Nelson. On defense they have plenty of front seven talent and another player coming off a great rookie year in safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
2) Lions. Let’s start by making this clear - Calvin Johnson is best WR in the NFL. He was hurt last year, but until I see evidence of an actual decline there is no reason to assume he won’t continue to be dominant. They were a playoff team last year – but lost many names – Reggie Bush, longtime center Dominic Raiola, and the starting DTs in Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. They did trade for DT Haloti Ngata to mitigate that DL loss somewhat, but there is no denying they have less talent this year. But they still have a talented roster – not enough to surpass Green Bay, but possibly enough to make it as a wildcard again.
3) Bears. This team is just a hot mess. The history of “Da Bears” hides that this franchise has been largely dysfunctional since the Ditka era. Their QB is an unhappy enigma, they traded away the talented, if insane, Brandon Marshall, and then reached in the first round for WR Kevin White – who is hurt now anyway. They do still have WR Alshon Jeffery and TE Martellus Bennett so Cutler will have plenty of talented receiver to throw interceptions while trying to force a ball to. They also flushed several long time staples on defense – including CB Peanut Tillman and LB Lance Briggs – but in truth it was time. They signed WR Eddie Royal, who is better than you think if not so consistent, and a talented defensive lineman from the Ravens in Pernell McPhee – who they moved to OLB. This is always idiotic to me – when teams take quality defensive ends and then move them to linebacker because they love the 3-4. The Bears are doing this trice – as Jared Allen is also an OLB now, wasting the little bit of time has left, as is their sack leader last year Willie Young. Worse yet they are doing this on defense with generally marginal talent – so it is not as though they have some great 3-4 personal they are moving others for – no, they are moving their best guys out of position. Now I like new head coach John Fox and love their new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio – but the best coaches adjust their systems to maximize the talent they have.
4) Vikings. I debated this team a lot. Despite Teddy Bridgewater’s creditable play last year as a rookie without many weapons after Adrian Peterson turned to be beating his kids - Greg Jennings!? – despite that I liked him coming out of college, despite the return of All-Day, despite the addition of Mike Wallace (bit of a malcontent and not a first tier #! WR), and despite that they went 7-9 in Mike Zimmer’s first year this just doesn’t have the feel of a team about to take a leap. Objectively they could – and I considered them as possibly being second in the division and making the wildcard, but sometimes you have to go with your gut. They just don’t have many players I would call just more than “good.” But I would not be stunned to see them finish December with 9-10 wins and in the postseason.
1) *Rams. I have great respect for Jeff Fisher, although if you look at his record it isn’t that amazing. This team went 6-10 last year and lost no one. On defense the secondary is shaky (they did lose one of their better corners, EJ Gaines, to injury), but the front seven, especially the DL is underrated (that is what you get for being good on a bad team). All four starters were drafted in the first half of the first round. Aaron Donald made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Chris Long will be back after missing ten games with an injury. And they signed Nick Fairley to be a rotation guy. He was Suh’s sidekick in Detroit but he is no slouch. But their real improvement is on offense. I am amazed how little respect Nick Foles is receiving. Don’t say Chip Kelly made him good – the “genius” is 6-8 in games sans Foles. Yes, Kelly was good in college, but the team was before and after him - you may have notice the Ducks playing in the title game last year. Now Foles will not have great targets (TEs are better than WRs), but the Rams are doing everything they can to give him a powerful rushing attack. They spent the tenth overall pick on UGA RB Todd Gurley. They also carpet bombed their OL by talking linemen in the 2th, 3th, 4th, and 6th rounds – and this was after they took a tackle with their first pick in 2014. This does mean they are starting two rookies and a soph. And don’t forget they have sophomore back Tre Mason, last year’s third rounder, who ran up 765 yards in 12 games.
2) *Cardinals. Two years ago in HC Bruce Arians first year they went 10-6. Then last year using three QBs because of injuries and without their talented RB Andre Ellington down the stretch they went 11-5. This is a well-coached team on the rise. In the offseason they improved their OL and backup RB options. They have a solid WR corps with the emergence of rookie John Brown as a deep threat last year. On defense they lost the interior of the DL (as well as longtime leader Darnell Docket who was hurt all season) and a solid CB in Antonio Cromartie. But the biggest loss is the excellent Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles who is now the head man for the Jets. Bowles was brilliant at the use of blitz schemes to make his unit play better than the sum of its parts. I do worryt the defense won’t be it was, but they are a playoff team, possibly even the division winner.
3) *Seahawks. I say they decline and this is not simply motivated by hate – teams don’t stay good forever. Success means guys leave, or pine to leave. Byron Maxwell - #2 corner – got a huge contract from Philly (teams always overpay role players from winning teams). Cam Chancellor is holding out, Michael Bennett is talking about going back to Tampa. They overpaid Russell Wilson. On the other hand they traded for TE Jimmy Graham, who becomes their best receiving option by far the moment he walks through the door and Fred Jackson give them a great 1-2 RB punch. Finally I think the way they lost the Super Bowl will stick with them a bit – and dents their psyche as well as how other teams perceive them and Pete Carroll. Lose to the Pats and you seem less invincible.
4) 49ers – Ugh. A good coach was fired by our silver spoon owner. Following him out the door for various were DT Justin Smith, LB Patrick Willis, OLB Aldon Smith, T Anthony Davis, G Mike Iupati, budding stud LB Chris Borland, P Andy Lee, RB Frank Gore, DE Ray McDonald, CB Chris Culver, WR Michael Crabtree, CB Perrish Cox and most importantly defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. That is enough talent to base a team around. Replacing them is the incredibly motley crew of RB Reggie Bush (a change of pace type – let’s hope Carlos Hyde pans out), WR Torrey Smith (a speed deep threat with so-so hands – IF Kaepernick can get the ball to them accurately in the first place), T Erik Pears (a marginal talent Bills let go and the Niners brought in to be a backup until Anthony David suddenly retired), and CB Shareece Wright who saw get burned repeatedly in San Diego. There is literally NO WHERE they are better than they were on last year’s 8-8 squad, with the possible exception of ILB because stud Navarro Bowman is back from injury. Also our first round pick DL Arik Armstead out of Oregon – he of impressive size and combine numbers, but just 4 career sacks – is currently at the bottom of the depth chart and showed me little in preseason (but I have been wrong before – so cross your fingers). I do have some hope second year CB Keith Aker may burst onto the scene – well as much as you can on a team with a ceiling of 6 wins.