2014 NFL Preview – NFC

Author’s Note: This story was originally written on August 31, 2014. It was reposted on this blog November 9, 2015.

NFC East

Philadelphia: There was a lot of doubt surrounding the Eagles heading into 2013. Would Chip Kelly’s offense translate into success in the NFL? Who was their quarterback? How would the team respond to the Riley Cooper incident? All of those questions were answered in a big way last year, so there’s really only one question for the 2014 Eagles: how much can this team improve? The loss of DeSean Jackson is substantial, but Jeremy Maclin will be back. Additionally, the newly acquired Darren Sproles seems like an ideal fit for Kelly’s up-tempo, spread offense. The team also added receivers Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff in the draft, and recently traded for running back Kenjon Barner, so Kelly will have plenty of speed again on the offense side of the ball. Not to mention the return of the NFL’s leading rusher and highest rated passer, LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles. On the defensive side of the ball, Philly added safety Malcolm Jenkins in free agency and drafted defensive end Marcus Smith from Louisville. Smith is expected to play outside linebacker in the Eagles 3-4 defense.

Prediction: Let’s not dismiss the reality that the NFC East was uncharacteristically poor in 2013 and the Eagles took advantage. While the rest of the division should be better than they were last year, none of them seem to be in a position to challenge Philadelphia for the division crown. I think the defensive additions will help, and with another year in Chip Kelly’s offense, the Eagles will make it back-to-back division championships. 10-6

New York: It felt like the Giants were among the league’s worst teams last year, because they got off to such a terrible start (0-6). They definitely weren’t a good team, but the perception around New York was worse than their actual performance on the field. Despite being the coordinator for two offenses that won the Super Bowl, it was finally time to move on from Kevin Gilbride. Ben McAdoo is the latest offensive mind poached from Green Bay. He’ll be tasked with getting Eli Manning back on track, as well as putting together a competitive offensive line to support Manning and the running game. Rashad Jennings was signed away from Oakland and should become the feature back in McAdoo’s offense. First round draft pick Odell Beckham Jr. has the talent to contribute immediately at wide receiver. He and fellow former LSU receiver Rueben Randle will have to replace Hakeem Nicks production. Perry Fewell is an excellent defensive coordinator and should be able to improve an already strong defensive core with the additions of Robert Ayers, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Walter Thurmond.

Prediction: The Giants were much better than they looked last year, and they should be even better this season. They won 7 of their last 10, so they’re certainly capable of consistently winning games. I think all the improvements and new faces will give them two more wins, landing the G-Men at 9-7 come season’s end.

Dallas: America’s team seems to have the same story year after year. Weeks of dominance, weeks of utter incompetence, and ultimately an early end to their season. Throughout the season, they compete for the division, but seemingly never claim the top spot after week 17. And with all the other strong NFC divisions, wild card sports are hard to come by in recent years. To sum up the Cowboys in a word with which their fans are all too familiar, mediocrity. Tony Romo takes too much of the blame for a team with an awful defense. Rod Marinelli will be the latest big name coach to take over this struggling unit. There weren’t many big name offensive or defensive additions. Henry Melton is coming off an ACL tear, but was having a great year for the Bears last year before the injury. Zack Martin, the man taken instead of Johnny Manziel, looks like a day 1 starter at guard. At some point this offensive line has to be good again with all the draft picks they’ve invested in it. Demarcus Ware left for greener pastures in Denver, while another season ending injury for Sean Lee is a massive blow. The secondary has some big names (Claiborne, Carr), but they have been a disappointment so far.

Prediction: The Cowboys have had an uncharacteristically quiet offseason, because they haven’t brought in many big names on either side of the ball. With so little turnover, it’s hard to predict significant improvement for America’s team in 2014. The offensive line should be good, and they still have weapons on offense (Witten, Bryant, Murray) and Tony Romo; a great quarterback will always keep you competitive in this league. Unfortunately I just don’t think it’ll be competitive enough to win the division. Dallas goes 9-7.

Washington: There has been a lot of Redskins talk this offseason, but most of it has been about the team name, not on the field projections. Washington played so poorly last season that it’s hard to believe they were an overriding favorite to win the division following an amazing rookie season from Robert Griffin III. Expectations are much lower this year, but they made a splash hiring Jay Gruden from Cincinnati. Most know him because he is John Gruden’s brother, but anyone who watched Hard Knocks last August is probably a believer in Jay Gruden and new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. The good news for Redskins fans is that if RGIII can become a franchise QB, Gruden will get it out of him. If he’s not, well that’s bad news for Gruden and the fans, and neither of them are to blame. The team’s biggest offseason signing was easily DeSean Jackson, who reminded the NFL he’s a top 15 wide receiver with his amazing season last year. If Ryan Clark has anything left in the tank, he could help out a secondary that struggled mightily in 2013. He’ll also have to help compensate for the triple digit tackles London Fletcher put up seemingly every year in Washington. Fletcher’s leadership and production will be greatly missed.

Prediction: Like most NFL teams, this Redskins team will go as far as their QB can take them. RGIII led them to a division title his rookie year, but took a big step backwards last year. There are reports that he has been dividing the locker room with both his personality and poor play. I don’t know how true those rumors are, but Griffin has to bounce back in a big way in 2014. Personally, I don’t see it happening. I like Gruden and the weapons on offense, but the defense is still bad and I just don’t see RGIII getting back to elite. Washington will be better than 3-13 this year, but not much.

Predicted Division Standings:

1) Philadelphia (10-6)

2) New York (9-7)

3) Dallas (9-7)

4) Washington (5-11)

NFC North

Green Bay: It’s hard to believe the Packers found a way to make the playoffs last year despite being without Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews for much of the season. They did so with an unimpressive (depending on how you look at it) 8-7-1 record. Eddie Lacy was the breakout player of 2013 as he gave the Pack a physical running game for the first time in years. Combining Lacy with Rodgers and the always-prolific passing game should give Green Bay an unstoppable offense. But that’s never been the problem with the Packers. Since winning the Super Bowl, the defense has been what’s kept them from winning another one. That, and the San Francisco 49ers. Julius Peppers was their big name acquisition in free agency, but it remains to be seen how much he can bring to the table at 34. A healthy Clay Matthews will be the biggest help to this defense, while rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could play early. If the defense can hold up and keep Rogers on the field, this team can compete with the NFC’s best.

Prediction: In the NFL, anytime you have an elite quarterback, you have the potential to be an elite team. It’s not a guarantee, you have to give him help and have a good coach, but the QB changes everything. That’s why I see Green Bay winning the division again. I love Cutler and Stafford, but they’re not on the Aaron Rodgers level. With a balanced offense and a solid defense, the Packers finish 12-4 and claim the #2 seed behind Seattle.

Chicago: The Bears are almost a carbon copy of the Packers, possessing the same strengths yet bearing the same weaknesses. Chicago has a terrifying offense. Jay Cutler has his flaws, but his new contract goes to show you he’s no scrub. He also has arguably the most talent around him of any quarterback in the league. Last offseason the Bears rebuilt his offensive line in a big way, while he’s still handing off to Matt Forte and throwing to Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Martellus Bennett. This offseason, the rebuilding focus has been on the Chicago defense. The team signed defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen and drafted Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller with their first round pick. All three players should be instant upgrades, but unfortunately there are still holes at linebacker and safety. Marc Trestman seems like a good head coach, but he’ll need to prove it this year by finishing better than 8-8.

Prediction: First place in the NFC North might come down to which team has the best defense (excluding Minnesota), because Detroit, Green Bay, and Chicago all have high-powered offenses. Like Tony Romo, Cutler gets a lot of flak for his team’s shortcomings, but the Bears did not field a playoff caliber defense in 2013. They made some nice additions, but the middle of the unit is still below average. Even with 10 wins, it will be hard for Chicago to lock up a wild card spot in the loaded NFC. They win the tie breaker with Atlanta and land the #6 seed.

Detroit: The Jim Schwartz era finally came to its inevitably disappointing end, after the Lions missed the playoffs yet again. While the jury is still out on how good of a coach Jim Caldwell really is, Detroit should at least look like a different team in 2014. Fans have to hope Caldwell can get the best out of the still promising, yet unceasingly frustrating, Matthew Stafford. Calvin Johnson is still the best wide receiver in football and Reggie Bush is still a dynamic running back, but the Lions added even more playmakers this offseason. Rather than addressing the secondary, the Lions signed wide receiver Golden Tate away from the Seahawks and drafted North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron in the first round of the draft. Building around your franchise quarterback is a good idea, but neglecting the glaring defensive needs is not. The front four remains the Lions’ defensive calling card, but a weak secondary doesn’t bode well when Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers are in your division.

Prediction: I think the Lions will be a more disciplined, much-improved team in 2014. Stafford will be better with more weapons and an offensive-minded coach. Unfortunately, I don’t see quite enough improvement to warrant a playoff prediction. They’re in a tough division and a tough conference, so I think both the division and wild card will be out of reach for Detroit. As they have been in recent years, the Lions will be fun to watch, but not quite strong enough to win more than 9 games.

Minnesota: After 3 disappointing years, the Vikings are finally closing the book on the Christian Ponder era. Entering his third season as GM, Rick Spielman spent a first round pick on quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The team also fired head coach Leslie Frazier and replaced him with another established defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer. To run the offense, Zimmer hired quarterback guru Norv Turner. Journeyman Matt Cassel will begin the season as the Vikings starter, but Bridgewater is expected to take over whenever the coaches realize Cassel isn’t taking this team to the playoffs. Regardless of who starts for Minnesota, he’ll be handing the ball off to the NFL’s best running back, Adrian Peterson. Before Bridgewater, the Vikings took UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr with the 11th overall pick. He’ll be a part of a young nucleus on defense that includes Harrison Smith, Sharif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes, Josh Robinson, and Everson Griffin. The Vikings have developing talent on offense as well, including second year receiver Cordarelle Patterson, it all just depends on how quickly Mike Zimmer and his staff can turn that talent into a winning football team.

Prediction: I love the Zimmer hire for Minnesota, but this team’s success rests on their second first round pick. Teddy Bridgewater was supposed to be a top five pick, but lots of questions arose during his draft evaluation. However, there’s no question Matt Cassel isn’t taking the Vikings to the playoffs, so the rookie will get a chance to prove himself this season. Since Bridgewater couldn’t win the job in training camp, I don’t see him having an Andrew Luck type of rookie season. There’s rising talent on the roster, but Minnesota is in rebuild mode and it will be obvious in the win column.

Predicted Division Standings:

1) Green Bay (12-4)

2) Chicago (10-6)

3) Detroit (9-7)

4) Minnesota (3-11)

NFC East

New Orleans: Other than the Broncos, no team in the NFL had a louder offseason than the Saints. Jimmy Graham finally agreed to a contract extension, after he being told he’s not a receiver. While the team lost key contributors Darren Sproles, Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, and Lance Moore, their replacements are all expected to be upgrades. Free safety Jairus Byrd was one of the biggest free agent acquisitions. He’ll start alongside promising second year strong safety Kenny Vaccaro. The two should be a dynamic pair, as they’ll headline a secondary that is thin at cornerback. Sproles’ release was surprising, but first round pick Brandin Cooks looks like a perfect fit for Sean Peyton’s offense. Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, and Khiry Robinson will rotate at running back, and Drew Brees remains the lynchpin in Saints’ high-powered passing game. The real test for New Orleans will be proving they can win on the road, or winning enough games to ensure they don’t have to, come January.

Prediction: The Saints added some big names on both sides of the ball, and I think they’ll yield immediate results. Rob Ryan had a great first year as defensive coordinator and he’ll get the most out of a unit that lacks strength at cornerback and linebacker. Offensively, they’ll be right up there with Denver for best in the league. The NFC East always provides stiff competition, and this year will be no different, but the Saints will still find themselves back on top when the regular season ends.

Atlanta: Last year was a disaster for the Falcons. Seemingly, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The end result was a 4-12 record, just one year removed from a trip to the NFC championship. While they were plummeting, the Carolina Panthers rose up to claim first place in the division. Once the season ended, however, GM Thomas Dimitroff went right to work plugging holes across the offensive and defensive lines. In free agency, Atlanta signed defensive tackle Paul Solai, defensive end Tyson Jackson, and guard Jon Asamoah. With their first round pick the dirty birds took offensive tackle Jake Matthews, who looks the part of a franchise left tackle. He’ll start there week 1, following Sam Baker’s injury. Kroy Biermann’s return should bring a much-needed boost in both pass rush and leadership, while Matt Ryan will be happy to see Julio Jones back in the starting lineup. Steven Jackson has had injury issues since he signed with the Falcons, but Jaquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman are ready to step in if he’s not able to stay on the field.

Prediction: The only reason I think Atlanta finishes ahead of the Panthers is because of Matt Ryan and his dynamic wideouts. Cam Newton might have a higher ceiling than Matty Ice, but there’s no question his receivers are worse. I don’t believe this defense is elite, but with the promising rookie seasons from cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, I think they’ll do enough to help the Falcons win 10 games. That may or may not be enough to make the playoffs in the NFC (see Arizona last year), as it is I have them losing a tiebreaker to the Bears.

Carolina: The most important position on offense is quarterback and the most important position on defense is middle linebacker. Once Carolina found franchise players for both spots, it was easy to fall in love with this team’s potential. However, no one expected them to put it together last year. With Cam Newton and Luke Keuchly, the Panthers should have a very high ceiling going forward. While the defense should be great again, 2014 presents several major challenges for Newton and Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula. There are question marks all across the offensive line and even fewer answers at receiver. First round pick Kelvin Benjamin will need to have a big rookie season, because no other receiver on the roster has big play capability. Greg Olsen will probably become Cam’s new top target, with Steve Smith’s departure. The defensive front seven is among the best in the league, but the secondary will miss Captain Munnerlyn. Roman Harper has had some good years in New Orleans, but it remains to be seen what he’ll bring to the Panthers.

Prediction: This team quietly finished 12-4 last year, so improvement will be near impossible within such a difficult division. With a franchise quarterback and a strong defense, there’s always reason for playoff expectations. Carolina was no fraud last year, but I do think they overachieved. If they can continue to win close games, they’ll contend for the division again, but I see them finishing 9-7 in 2014.

Tampa Bay: All three teams in the NFC East that finished behind Carolina were not content to stand pat this offseason. As previously discussed, New Orleans and Atlanta both made a splash in free agency and the draft. Division bottom feeders (lately) Tampa Bay also made major changes. They cleaned house at the top, firing GM Mark Dominik and head coach Greg Schiano. Jason Licht and Lovie Smith will replace them, respectively. They went to work right away bringing in upgrades on offense and defense that fit in with the new regime. Josh McCown is a game manager and should protect the football. He’ll have the luxury of throwing to Vincent Jackson and rookie wide receiver Mike Evans. The offensive line added Evan Dietrich-Smith, Anthony Collins, and Logan Mankins to provide McCown some time to throw and running lanes for Doug Martin. Though the team cut Darelle Revis, they signed Alterraun Verner and defensive end Michael Johnson. Under Lovie and new coordinator Leslie Frazier, this defense can be special. The Bucs playoff hopes rest on McCown and the offense.

Prediction: That last sentence is why it’s hard to buy the Bucs as a playoff team in 2014. They will be much better— a balanced, physical team. No team will want to play Tampa Bay this year, but in a loaded division, I can’t see McCown leading this team to double digit wins, which will be necessary for making the playoffs in the NFC. Despite the losing record, the Bucs will be a strong 7-9 team.

Predicted Division Standings:

1) New Orleans (12-4)

2) Atlanta (10-6)

3) Carolina (9-7)

4) Tampa Bay (7-9)

NFC West

Seattle: Has there been a Super Bowl team in recent memory to get more love from the media than this Seahawks team?  I suppose that’s warranted when you shut down Peyton Manning and the Broncos in dominant fashion. Seattle certainly has all the makings of a great franchise going forward. General Manager John Schneider is able to find valuable depth in later rounds of the draft and press all the right buttons in free agency. Head coach Pete Carroll has always been a great leader and knows how to build a dominant team. They have a franchise quarterback, a strong running game and dominant defense. Not to mention the best home field advantage in the NFL. While the Seahawks didn’t add any immediate contributors through the draft or free agency, they didn’t lose too much either. Golden Tate, Chris Clemons, and Red Bryant are gone, but the front office is making sure they keep their core intact. Pro Bowlers Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas recently got long term extensions, while Russell Wilson has a big one waiting for him after this season. Most teams look forward to all the changes an offseason brings, but Seattle fans shouldn’t expect a much different team in 2014. That’s great news for the champs.

Prediction: I feel like this team is overhyped, so I keep trying to find a reason why they will disappoint and I just can’t do it. The hype is a little over the top, but Seattle has no holes on their roster. They’re not perfect, but they’re the most complete team in the NFL. While I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid, I do agree with the people pouring it. It’s hard to picture them being anything less than a 10-win team. I see them winning 14 games.

San Francisco: Expect to see the 49ers and the Seahawks at the top of this division for the foreseeable future. It’ll be tough to keep either team out of the playoffs each year with great quarterback play, a strong running game, and a dominant defense. The 49ers may have been doing it a few years longer than the ‘hawks, but Seattle is showing they might be doing it just a little bit better. After all they won the ring that has been so elusive for Jim Harbaugh’s squad. San Francisco has had a lot of negative storylines this offseason, but don’t expect this team to drop off on the field. Stevie Johnson is yet another weapon for Colin Kaepernick, while Carlos Hyde could be the next Frank Gore. They’ll miss Aldon Smith (9 game suspension) and Navarro Bowman (injury), but Antoine Bethea shouldn’t be much of a drop off from Donte Whitner. With the losses on defense, young players Jimmie Ward, Tank Carradine, and Ian Williams could have opportunities to establish themselves on an elite defense.

Prediction: There has been a lot of speculation about Jim Harbaugh’s future in San Francisco, and the reports sound pretty serious, but the front office seems pretty smart. They have to know how essential Harbaugh is to this team’s success. I don’t think they’ll let him go anywhere. That being said, I think this team will be good again in 2014. They’re probably finishing second to Seattle again, but they’re significantly better than St. Louis and Arizona. 11-5 will get them a wild card spot and back to the playoffs, where they are always dangerous.

Arizona: It’s too bad the Cardinals have to play in the same division as the defending Super Bowl champs and the team that could’ve won the Super Bowl two years ago. This was a talented, well-coached team in 2013. Patrick Peterson is a top 5 cornerback and got rewarded for his production with a lucrative extension this offseason. Fellow LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu played very well at free safety last year, but he’s coming off a knee injury. Deone Bucannon was the Cards’ first round pick and he’ll likely start immediately at strong safety. Antonio Cromartie is a big name signing at cornerback, but it’s unclear if he’s still a reliable cornerback at 30. The front seven will greatly miss Darnell Dockett (injury), Daryl Washington (suspension), and Karlos Dansby (free agency). Offensively, Carson Palmer showed he’s still got some juice left in his arm, but 10 wins wasn’t enough to get him and the Cards back into the playoffs. Jared Veldheer comes over from Oakland to protect Palmer’s blind side, and 2013 first round pick Jonathan Cooper should start at guard after missing last year with a broken leg. Larry Fitzgerald is still playing at a high level and now that Michael Floyd is playing like a first round pick, this offense could be dangerous.

Prediction: It’s hard to ignore what the Cardinals were able to do last year, but I’m just not a Carson Palmer believer. The story of his career is disappointing, but solid. Even if he stays healthy I just can’t see this team winning 10 games again. They made some improvements this offseason, but it won’t be enough in the loaded NFC west.

St. Louis: There were whispers of the Rams being a dark horse Super Bowl candidate this year. Those whispers have been silenced after Sam Bradford’s ACL surgery was announced. If any of the quarterback in this draft class pan out, it’s going to be brutal year for Rams fans. This team is loaded with talent. They upgraded the offensive and defensive line and most of their team is getting better. Kenny Britt looked poised for a comeback season, and Tavon Austin will probably get more touches in year two, but all for naught. Without a quarterback, none of it works, as the Rams found out last season. The good news for St. Louis is that they’re a good quarterback away from being a contender. The bad news is that quarterback may not be on their roster. More frustration awaits the Rams in 2014.

Prediction: I feel bad for Jeff Fisher. He came to St. Louis because of Sam Bradford, and he’s basically hasn’t had Bradford. I feel even worse for Bradford. The guy has paid his injury dues and can’t catch a break. He’s the new Chad Pennington and the opposite of Brett Favre. With him, I think this team competes for the division. Without him, they’ll repeat last season. You gotta feel for Rams fans. We’ll see what the future holds for both Bradford and Fisher as they’ll both watch their team finish under .500.

Predicted Division Standings:

1) Seattle (14-2)

2) San Francisco (11-5)

3) Arizona (8-8)

4) St. Louis (4-12)

Author: Zac Howard

Professional Writer in Jacksonville, Florida

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