Though we’re still over two months from the start of the season, we know enough about most rosters and teams that we can start guessing who we tip to do well this season. I’m taking a look at the top six teams in each conference – not necessarily those I expect to make the playoffs, but those I reckon are the platonic best. First, I pick six from the NFC.
NFC #1) Green Bay Packers
The Packers have been a top-echelon NFL team for so long now that it’s almost passé. The root of that is excellent quarterbacking, first through Brett Favre, and since 2008 through Aaron Rodgers. Spoiler: Aaron Rodgers will have yet another incredible season. Whether that leads to the Packers being good or great will revolve around the supporting cast.
Green Bay have tried to strengthen their secondary and running back corps through the draft. The secondary puzzled me last year – Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix was excellent but Damarious Randall’s play fell off a cliff. You peg Morgan Burnett and Quinten Rollins as decent players, but both just weren’t on it last year. A bounce-back in 2017 will need to be fuelled by a bounce-back from them, and positive contribution from second-round picks Kevin King at corner and Josh Jones at safety. These are reasonable things to assume.
Running back is an issue – a converted wide receiver and three 2017 day 3 picks are all that you’ve got. That said, throwing everything at a wall and seeing what sticks isn’t the worst running back strategy. Remember, this is an excellent O-Line, despite losing TJ Lang and JC Tretter. Remember also: Rodgers has an array of weapons to throw to, now including the rejuvenated Martellus Bennett. I still worry about the exterior pass rush, but predicting a few bounce-backs and a run game benefiting from an even more terrifying pass game, it’s easy to see Green Bay doing very well indeed.
#2) New York Giants
Given how suddenly good the NFC East looks, don’t be surprised if the Giants don’t get a top-2 NFC seed. After Eli Manning’s down 2016, the Giants desperately need diversity beyond the admittedly stratospheric Odell Beckham. So, they’ve gone all-in this year on receivers. Brandon Marshall should become an excellent possession receiver opposite Beckham and Shepard. Evan Engram is a tight end in name only – a down-the-seam 4.4 40 threat who can’t block for toffee. Thing is, said options will need to be excellent. The tackle situation still includes Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart, which, yuck. And Paul Perkins is the only semi-worthwhile running back, though he looked serviceable last year.
As with last year, the Giants will live and die by their defense. Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon will continue as an excellent pass-rushing tandem. Damon Harrison should continue to be the league’s premier run-stuffer in the middle. The only area of concern is whether rookie Dalvin Tomlinson can replace Jonathan Hankins. They still look a touch shallow at linebacker, but that’s only linebacker, so that’s ok. The secondary? Well, the excellent Landon Collins as a thumping, instinctive safety is a decent start. Eli Apple had a good rookie year and with Janoris Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie thriving under DC Steve Spagnuolo, this defense should be excellent again next year.
#3) Atlanta Falcons
It seems a bit counterintuitive to put the reigning NFC Champions at #3, but here we are. The offense was a juggernaut last year, but its mastermind – Kyle Shanahan – has gone to San Francisco. In his place is Steve Sarkisian, a decorated college coach last seen being pushed out of USC ostensibly because of ‘alcohol issues’. Issues or not, becoming a first-time NFL OC and having to follow the co-ordinator of the year is an intimidating prospect. Okay, the Falcons offense is unchanged, personnel-wise. There’s still much unknown about whether, say, Matt Ryan’s elite year was a one-year wonder under Shanhanan. And whether Sarkisian can have the unit playing at a near-similar level.
How will Matt Ryan do without Kyle Shanahan? (Gwinnett Daily Post/Jason Braverman)
The defense, at least, should be improved through experience. Second years in the league for rookie standouts Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and De’Vondre Campbell should see further improvement. Having Desmond Trufant back to full health will help. Don’t expect too much from raw rookie Takkarist McKinley too early. He’s full of vim but will need refinement before moving from situational to every-down, just like Vic Beasley did. And that worked out pretty well, right? There’s still depth issues in the defense, and I feel more pessimistic about the offense than most. But Atlanta should still be good in 2017.
#4) Seattle Seahawks
You worry that the Seahawks are reaching the end of their window. The defense – cornerstone of Seattle’s recent-years success – is still the same defense. Sherman, Bennett, Thomas, Wagner et al might all be another year older, but they’re still around their peak years and producing at a high-level. There are still under-the-radar stars in the defense like K.J. Wright. Perhaps with an eye on that – and rumours of cornerback discontent – the Seahawks went after the secondary in the draft. So, expect to see Shaquill Griffin, Delano Hill and Tedric Thompson getting some backup snaps.
The offensive line remains abysmal, and a stain on the record of Tom Cable. There, I said it. I joked enough that it was four blocking sleds and a piece of tarp last year. In hindsight, that was unfair on center Justin Britt, who was actually fairly good. So, of course the Seahawks spent their second-round pick replacing him, with LSU center Ethan Pocic. I despair. Luke Joeckel was signed to a one-year ‘prove-it’ contract, though the only thing he’s proven in his career to date is his suckitude. Eddie Lacy will start the season well at running back, then tail off. Thomas Rawls will then take over, and do much the same. So the offense is again going to fall on an underprotected Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin. There’s still enough to expect Seattle to record, say, a 4th-best-in-the-NFC record, mainly thanks to their division containing Schrodinger’s Cardinals, and the weak 49ers and Rams.
#5) Philadelphia Eagles
Yes, you read that right. I like this Eagles team a lot – I think their management makes sensible, savvy moves, doesn’t overreach and their team improves year on year. Today’s Eagles are built from the trenches back. On defense, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry were a great trio to start with. Free agency and the draft added Timmy Jernigan and Derek Barnett, to which: ouch. On offense, well, ProFootballFocus just ranked it their O-Line number 1 in the league. And I agree. Note they have great depth too, with Seumalo, Wisniewski et al.
Jason Kelce anchors one heck of an O-Line in Philly (USA Today Sports)
Philly still have important areas of uncertainty, which keeps them out the top 4. Carson Wentz’s mechanics struggled down the stretch last year. No-one wants Blake Bortles mark 2. That said, he had a godawful receiving corps last year. Now with Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith added, there’s less pressure on Jordan Matthews. And who knows, that may provide the kick up the arse Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham might need. The running game still looks iffy, so while there’s some hope Wentz’s situation has improved, it’s not amazing. And then, of course, there’s the secondary. Rookies Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones will eventually develop, but they’re far from instant fixes. So Philly are an imperfect, but promising team.
#6) Dallas Cowboys
I’m out on my own in being down on the Cowboys, because I’m on my own on Dak Prescott. Prescott had a nice rookie year in which he looked like a top-16 quarterback. He played like a careful passer who showed elite playmaking passer talents in flashes. That, to me, doesn’t make him a top-100 NFL player. But here we are. I think he’s an asset, as is Ezekiel Elliott, and me putting them #6 is assuming they will neither have sophomore slump or boom. This is a good offense anchored by a very strong O-Line, if one with more question marks than recent years.
My issue is Dallas’ defense, which seemed to perform well out of absolutely nowhere last year. Thing is, its strong point was the secondary, and most of their starters left this offseason. Barry Church, JJ Wilcox, Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne had roles of varying importance, but all are gone. They mostly replaced departed players with rookies, which could take a while to click. Also: we still don’t know where the pass rush will come from. David Irving, their only serviceable pass-rusher, has a 4-game ban to start the season. With the secondary looking shaky too, this defense could just as easily crash as stay decent.
What’s that? I didn’t mention your team? Well let’s see how far off I think they are:
Nearly There But Not Quite
In no particular order. The Detroit Lions still look a perfectly cromulent team but lack enough excellence and depth to compete. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be competitive but look like a one-dimensional pass offense with a difficult-to-trust quarterback. The Carolina Panthers could easy slip into this top 6 if their skill position rookies perform, but not otherwise. Washington’s offense put up big numbers last year but failed to perform late in games; their run defense still looks poor.
Despite drafting so many defensive players recently, the New Orleans Saints still look inexperienced in that area. Couple that with O-Line standout injuries and they seem further away than ever. It could be a good year for the Arizona Cardinals, but more likely Carson Palmer’s farewell will be a whimper, with underwhelming receivers and a lack of defensive depth. If Dalvin Cook has an all-world rookie year, the Minnesota Vikings might be able to overcome their poor O-Line and mediocre receiving corps, but that’s a big if.
Sean McVay has his work cut out turning the Los Angeles Rams’ weakest offense in the league on paper into anything. I do think the San Francisco 49ers have a decent young core, but they’re mostly poor. The Chicago Bears failed to add good players to any of their needs in the offseason save Prince Amukamara. They are a decent bet to pick #1 overall next year.