The NFC is loaded with several teams that are legitimate contenders. The best rivalry may include the two best teams in the entire league in San Francisco and defending Super Bowl champion Seattle. Despite Roger Goodell’s desire to turn the game into a soft flag football league, the league’s best teams will overcome the sissy penalties and excel on the defensive side of the ball.
Philadelphia (10-6) - Chip Kelly burst on to the scene with his dynamic style of offense. He fed LeSean McCoy the ball and turned QB Nick Foles into a very good quarterback. The o-line will once again be very good. The big question mark is at the receiver position. Yes, DeSean Jackson was a knuckle head - but a talented one nonetheless. The combination of Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin simply isn’t enough even with the development of tight end Zach Ertz and the reliable Brent Celek. On defense, there were plenty of issues and likely will be again this season. The young defensive line will continue to develop - look for NT Bennie Logan to have a big year. The linebackers are a question mark once again. There weren’t enough big plays and a lack of pressure on the QB to make matters worse, the secondary isn’t good either. The addition of FS Malcolm Jenkins should help but the corners are still a glaring weakness. Philly will win a lot of games via shoot outs but in the playoffs that will be a different story.
Rookie Watch - First round pick Marcus Smith will play well on special teams and work his way into the starting lineup. The key for this season will be the development of receivers Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff.
New York (8-8) - The Giants had a very rough year - so much so they hired a new offensive coordinator. Ben McAdoo will be under pressure as will Eli Manning. Eli must bounce back for the Giants to return to the playoffs. Victor Cruz is still a very good receiver but a second target must step up with the departure of Hakeem Nicks. The running back position is a major concern. Rashard Jennings will likely be the starter. The defense struggled at times but should be much improved with a healthy Jason Pierre- Paul. The addition of Jon Beason last year proved to be a very good pickup. The addition of defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will help. The G-Men should compete for a playoff spot but expect some early bumps in the road.
Rookie Watch - Odell Beckham is highly thought of. He will get every opportunity to produce. The same can be said of former Boston College running back Andre Williams. Expect a big year from Williams.
Dallas (9-7) - The Cowboys were simply put, putrid on defense. The future looks no better with the injury to Sean Lee and the departure of DeMarcus Ware. If DT Henry Melton is healthy - he will be a major addition against the run. Overall, the talent still isn’t there on the defensive side of the ball - it will be a long year. On offense, there is plenty of talent with the key still being Tony Romo. If Romo is healthy, he will have another huge season. Dez Bryant is one of the best receivers in the game. His shenanigans sometimes overshadow his immense talent but there is no doubt he is an impossible cover. Jason Witten is still a very good TE. Look for young TE Gavin Escobar to make an impact. DeMarco Murray goes somewhat unrecognized but he is an important cog for the Cowboys. There will be plenty of shootouts once again in Big D - but the defense isn’t good enough for a playoff berth.
Rookie Watch - Zach Martin should be a day one starter. He is technically sound and can play several positions on the o-line. Devin Street could be a steal as could safety Ahmad Dixon.
Washington (9-7) - The drama over in Washington? With RG3 likely not but expect a much tighter ship under new Head Coach Jay Gruden. Many are calling for Kirk Cousins, which is laughable. There is little doubt if RG3 takes better care of himself by avoiding hits, this offense could be electric. The addition of DeSean Jackson will provide a major deep threat. Jackson along with Pierre Garcon provides a daunting one-two punch. TE Jordan Reed is a very good target as well - expect a big leap in his second year. The running attack should be very good with the two headed monster of Alfred Morris and the versatile Roy Helu. The o-line is the major concern. If healthy, the Skins offense should be very good. The defense must improve. Expect a good pass rush with a healthy Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. However, the loss of London Fletcher to retirement creates a void. The d-line can be solid but the secondary as a whole will struggle without an elite pass rush. Washington will once again be an entertaining team to watch and with some breaks they could return to the playoffs.
Rookie Watch - Linebacker Trent Murphy will get some snaps and he should contribute in his rookie season. Big tackle Morgan Moses is somewhat of a project but down the road could pay dividends. Look for fifth round pick Ryan Grant to earn playing time.
Green Bay (12-4) - Aaron Rodgers is the best QB in the game. He is the total package with excellent pocket presence, outstanding mobility and a rocket arm and not to mention very accurate. He is the heart and soul of the Pack and when healthy they are always a legitimate contender. To make matters worse for opponents, Green Bay now has a running game with the powerful Eddie Lacy. The bruiser ran for over 1,000 yards and had 11 rushing TDs in his rookie campaign. The receiving corps is very good with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Jarrett Boykin will contribute as well. The o-line isn’t great but Rodgers’ ability to climb the pocket and feel pressure can cure a lot of ills. The defense struggled mightily last year in part due to injuries. The loss of BJ Raji certainly hurts but he did not play well last year. DE Datone Jones is going to be a very good pro. The LB group is very talented if healthy. Julius Peppers may struggle at times as a LB but no doubt will bring heat on the QB. Clay Matthews is one of the best players in all of football. His speed and tenacity are difficult to deal with. AJ Hawk and Brad Jones are solid players. The secondary however is a major area of concern. Sam Shields is a very good corner but the rest of the group did not produce. If Peppers and Matthews are healthy, the pass rush should be a major help. Health is the key for Green Bay and when they are at full strength they are a Super Bowl caliber team.
Rookie Watch - Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix should be a good one in time. He has all the physical tools to be a high level player. Davante Adams will provide a big target for Rodgers and should get playing time. Center Corey Linsley could be a day one starter. Keep an eye on seventh round pick Jeff Janis.
Detroit (10-6) - The Lions have been chronic underachievers. They have a stockpile of talent but very little discipline - a case of the parts being far greater than their sum. Enter Jim Caldwell who should bring stability and no doubt structure. It all starts with QB Matthew Stafford. He puts up big numbers every year but doesn’t have the most important stat - wins. He has a cannon arm but his leadership and big game moxy have been questioned. Calvin Johnson is one of the best receivers in the game. Megatron is a difficult cover for any DB. The addition of Golden Tate will provide a tough physical target for Stafford. The tight end position is stacked with Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria and rookie Eric Ebron. The RB committee, led by Reggie Bush, is a diverse group. The o-line played very well last year. Larry Warford had a very good rookie year - expect even better play. On defense, the expectations never seem to be met. The talent is immense, especially on the line. Ndamukong Suh is a terror and Nick Fairly is extremely talented but they rarely put together a complete game. Second year pro Ziggy Ansah is a very good pass rusher. If this trio plays up to their talent, the horrid secondary will be vastly improved. The line backing group is solid with Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy. If the defense shows anything at all, Detroit has a very good shot at the playoffs.
Rookie Watch - TE Eric Ebron has a shot at being an elite pass catcher. He is fast and a fluid runner. Kyle Van Noy could be an excellent outside backer.
Chicago (9-7) - The Bears must have a healthy Jay Cutler to compete for a playoff spot. Instead of Josh McCown as a backup, Jimmy Clausen now holds the clipboard. Cutler has everything you want in a QB with the biggest question being durability. His quick release and powerful arm are perfect for his skilled receivers and Marc Trestman’s system. His targets are among the best in the league. Brandon Marshall has excellent hands and is a tremendous route runner. Alshon Jeffrey is a simply a monster. Matt Forte is a shifty runner and very good in the passing game. He is often overlooked but is one of the best backs in the entire league. The defense was shaky last year lacking any type of pass rush. They lost Julius Peppers then replaced him with Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston. If healthy, Allen will bring much needed tenacity. The line backing corps was banged up and didn’t play well. Lance Briggs must return to his old form and DJ Williams is coming off a torn pectoral muscle. Shea McClellin may start at an outside backer position. He could be a surprise. Youngster Jon Bostic has the potential to be a plugger inside. The secondary played very well with the always tough Peanut Tillman leading the charge. The safeties are an area of concern - they will need youngsters to develop rapidly. The division is very tough but if Cutler plays at a high level Chicago can overpass Detroit and compete for a wild card spot.
Rookie Watch - First rounder Kyle Fuller will be in the lineup out of the gate as a nickel corner. He has the potential to be a very good corner. D-tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton will both get plenty of snaps. Sutton could be a dandy. Ka’Deem Carey will be a nice back behind Forte. Safety Brock Vareen will likely be a day one starter.
Minnesota (4-12) - New Head Coach Mike Zimmer will bring some fire to the Vikings. Will he be patient enough to handle a growing season? He better as there are plenty of holes in the current roster. Adrian Peterson is still one of the best and will be the focal point of the Minnesota offense. If completely healthy, he can still carry a team. Matt Cassel will serve as a bridge, pun intended, to rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater. Cassel should be effective playing off of the running game. Greg Jennings is still a solid receiver. Cordarrelle Patterson is an exceptional athlete but is a very poor route runner. TE Kyle Rudolph is back from injury. He should have a big season with Cassel at the helm. The o-line should gel with Cassel at the helm. The defense will be much more aggressive under Zimmer. Expect DE Everson Griffen to play well and big growth from DT Sharrif Floyd. Chad Greenway is a solid mobile backer. Jasper Brinkley will be a key component The secondary has some talent with Xavier Rhodes being the star of the show. Harrison Smith is a good free safety who is rarely out of position. FA addition Captain Munnerlyn is a solid player.
Rookie Watch - Anthony Barr is raw but has all the physical ability to be a star. He will no doubt be Zimmer’s project and will excel sooner than later. Teddy Bridgewater is their future starter. He is excellent at moving in the pocket. Scott Chrichton is a very good football player who brings some nasty to the d-line.
New Orleans (11-5) - The Saints had a very good bounce back season with the bounty drama behind them. Expect another division championship as the team continues to add talent. It all of course still starts with Drew Brees. He is still one of the best signal callers in the game. His poise and touch are upper echelon. The receiving group is getting a little long in the tooth but still very productive. The addition of youngster Brandin Cooks is huge. Expect Nick Toon and Kenny Stills to be more productive. The running game will be on Mark Ingram’s shoulders. He played very well in the preseason and if given the opportunity will produce. The offensive line is very good - expect growth by youngster Terron Armstrong. The sky is the limit for the former project. The defense will continue to improve under the aggressive direction of Rob Ryan. The d-line has a budding star in Cameron Jordan and plenty of girth in the middle. The linebackers are led by sure tackler Curtis Lofton. Junior Galette had 12 sacks under Ryan’s tutelage. The secondary is excellent with tough cover corner Keenan Lewis and a great safety pairing with Kenny Vaccaro and free agent addition Jarius Byrd. The Saints are deep and talented - a viable Super Bowl contender.
Rookie Watch - The aforementioned Cooks will have a big year. His is shifty and tough. Stanley Jean-Baptiste is a long rangy corner who will fit well into Ryan’s scheme as will quick LB Khari Fortt.
Atlanta (9-7) - The Falcons fell flat last year with injuries and basically everything going wrong. Matt Ryan again will be the key. He will have his main target Julio Jones back to go along with Roddy White. Ryan also developed a nice chemistry with Harry Douglas who had over 1,000 yards. The running game needs better production. Steven Jackson has very little gas in the tank and there isn’t much behind him. The offensive line was horrible last season. They must improve for the Atlanta offense to return to their former glory. With a QB as talented as Ryan and a receiving corps this good - the offense should churn, but the lack of a running game and a porous o-line will make things tough. On defense, there are plenty ofareas of concern as well. The d-line lacks punch and the linebackers were shaky at best. The secondary, a perpetual problem for the Falcons, has improved. Desmond Trufant is a nice d-back. The reality is it will be difficult for Atlanta to return to their 2012 version. They will be in the wildcard race but will likely just miss out.
Rookie Watch - Jake Matthews should start from day one and will be an integral part for years to come. Ra’Shede Hageman, if properly motivated, can be a very good d-lineman. Devonta Freeman will likely get a bunch of carries this year - he could play an important role.
Carolina (8-8) - The Panthers used defense and a conservative offense to propel them to the playoffs. Cam Newton played well but his numbers declined. His lack of production was in part due to the offensive scheme and strategy but also the lack of talent at the wide receiver position. Carolina stalwart Steve Smith bolted during the off-season which will be a big blow. Jerricho Cotchery is a nice addition but the key will be the development of rookie Kelvin Benjamin. The TE position is set with Greg Olsen. He is a valuable target for Newton. If DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are healthy, the running game will be fine - unfortunately that is a big if. The offensive line is a major question mark. There are holes throughout - yes Newton’s scrambling ability can offset some of it but expect significant heat on Cam. The defense is nasty - one of the best in the entire league. Greg Hardy is an elite pass rusher. He is a handful for any team. Charles Johnson is certainly close to that level. They are a difficult duo to contain. The interior d-line is only going to get better. Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short are going to be very good in short order. The linebackers are very good as well. Luke Kuechly is the best MLB in the game. He makes plays sideline to sideline with outstanding instincts. Thomas Davis and Chase Blackburn are very good on the outside. The secondary took a beating in the offseason losing several important players. It will be an old group with Roman Harper leading the way at FS. The Panther defense is good enough to keep them in every single game. It will be a grind it out season for Carolina who will compete for a return to the playoffs.
Rookie Watch - Kelvin Benjamin is a big red zone target. His ability to create space is a major concern. Kony Ealy should be a situational pass rusher out of the gate.
Tampa Bay (5-11) - Major turnover took place as Lovie Smith will now be the Head Coach. Smith will provide discipline and experience. He appointed Luke McCown as the starting QB. The move is a calculated risk but should fit into Smith’s philosophy of playing defense and keeping the game close with mistake free football. McCown will have big targets in veteran Vincent Jackson and youngster Mike Evans. The TE position is stacked as well. The key may be the return of Doug Martin. When healthy, he is an upper echelon back. The offensive line was a major area of concern but a trade for veteran Logan Mankins will help immensely. The defense is uber talented. Gerald McCoy is as good as any defensive tackle in the league. The rest of the line however needs to step up- they in fact may. Expect a big year from free agent acquisition Michael Johnson and Adrian Clayborn. Da’Quan Bowers may take it up a notch as well. Linebackers Mason Foster and Lavonte David are outstanding. The secondary experienced some changes as Darrelle Revis was shipped to New England and will be replaced with the talented Alterraun Verner. Johnthan Banks could step it up at the other corner spot. Safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson are both intimidating safeties who can also cover ground. The Bucs will be much improved but the NFC South is very tough.
Rookie Watch - Mike Evans will be a starting receiver out of the gate. He is a big target with outstanding hands. TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins could be an excellent target. RB Charles Sims should contribute early - especially in the passing game.
Seattle (12-4) - The defending champions are again among a handful of Super Bowl favorites. Russell Wilson has exceeded all expectations. He doesn’t turn the ball over and is great on third downs and in the red zone. The running game is led by the powerful Marshawn Lynch. He is a tough punishing runner who sets up the Seahawk offense. Golden Tate is a big loss but that will be cancelled with the return of a healthy Percy Harvin. Doug Baldwin is a gritty receiver who attacks the ball. It’s more of a committee but they have enough talent to play off the stout running game. The return of tackle Russell Okung will fortify a very good run blocking line but most importantly improve a subpar passing blocking unit. The defense is big and nasty. The loss of Red Bryant will hurt against the run but Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril can flat out bring heat against the passer. The LB corps doesn’t have any big names but as a unit is very good and fast. Bobby Wagner can fly to the ball. The key may be the pass rushing ability of specialist Bruce Irvin. He is quick with great body lean. Richard Sherman is one of the league’s best corners - just ask him. He is long and rangy with outstanding ball skills. Likewise, safety Earl Thomas tracks the ball with rare instincts. Kam Chancellor is a big time intimidator. Overall, this team is very good - do not expect a big drop off. It will be difficult to repeat but they will be in the mix.
Rookie Watch - Paul Richardson is a burner. He should help take the lid off. Kevin Norwood could develop into a solid possession receiver.
San Francisco (10-6) - The Niners may be the second best team in all of football. The issue is the best team happens to be in their division. The rivalry between San Fran and Seattle is perfectly scripted. The two franchises mirror each other on and off the field. The hope is Colin Kaepernick takes his game to the next level. He is a freak athlete with a rocket arm but is still a little slow getting rid of the ball and at times lacks touch on the ball. A healthy Michael Crabtree will be a great addition. Grizzled vet Anquan Boldin is still a reliable target. Don’t count out Stevie Johnson - he will develop chemistry with Kaepernick as the season progresses. Frank Gore is still a very good running back but has plenty of wear and tear. The o-line is as good as any in the league. They are a bruising gritty bunch. The defense will miss the big hits of Donte Whitner but the roster is still stacked. The line is still very good led by aging vet Justin Smith. The line backing group is among the best in the league - well normally. However, the loss of Navorro Bowman for a substantial time due to an ACL injury and the suspension to pass rushing star Aldon Smith will have a dramatic impact on the defense as a whole. Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks are very good. The secondary has some question marks but Eric Reid is a budding superstar. The key for the Niners is gaining home field advantage away from Seattle. With early injuries and the suspension of Smith - that may be very difficult task.
Rookie Watch - Jimmie Ward is a hard hitting safety with good range. He will get snaps. Carlos Hyde will at least be a perfect candidate to spell Gore while gaining 10 touches per game. Keep an eye on Chris Borland - the gritty Badger will flat out bring it.
Arizona (8-8) - The Cardinals were a major surprise last season. They just missed a playoff spot with great defensive play and a solid season from Carson Palmer. If Palmer can cut down on turnovers, this offense is very good. Bruce Arians did a masterful job and will do so again in 2014 providing no significant injuries. The combination of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd is very good. Andre Ellington is a speedster who is poised for a breakout season. The o-line was shaky at times but should improve with another year of seasoning. The defense was very good in 2013. However, the losses of Karlos Danby (free agency) and Daryl Washington (season long suspension) will be costly. The group could still be solid with the signing of vet Larry Foote and the development of youngster Kevin Minter. The secondary is very good led by Patrick Peterson who is one of the best corners in the game. The addition of Antonio Cromartie will help as well. Tyrann Mathieu should continue to develop. If in another division, Arizona would be primed for a playoff spot - in the West it will be very difficult.
Rookie Watch - Safety Deone Bucannon is a big hitter - a throwback safety. He will contribute early. They took a gamble on project Troy Niklas at TE but expect his raw talent to get him on the field early. Speedster John Brown will get snaps at receiver. The front office hopes Logan Thomas is the QB of the future.
St. Louis (5-11) - The Rams have one of the best defenses in the league - and have an upper tier coach. However, their WR production has hurt them - they have addressed the position but Sam Bradford tore his ACL last year - unfortunately he suffered the same injury this preseason. Now the Rams enter the 2014 campaign with Shaun Hill as the starter. He will face an uphill battle but could be solid enough to keep them in games. The receiving corps is much improved. The signing of Kenny Britt got little pub but he can flat out play when his head is in the game - with Fisher that will be the case. Expect a big season from Tavon Austin. Brian Quick will be very important during Stedman Bailey’s suspension. Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks are viable options at the TE position. The o-line has a chance to be very good. The addition of Jake Long at LT is huge as is the return of Roger Saffold. DC Gregg Williams will have plenty of toys at his disposal. Robert Quinn is simply the best pass rusher in the game. His burst and body lean are rare. Chris Long is a physical force versus the pass and the run. The tackles are very good with Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford. James Laurinaitis is a smart football player with outstanding instincts and his flanked by an emerging star in Alec Ogletree. The secondary needs improvement and may find it simply by seasoning. Janoris Jenkins has the talent to be a very good corner. Safety TJ McDonald has played very well in the mold of his father. Overall, this team is extremely talented but the question mark at QB will be their Achilles heel.
Rookie Watch - Greg Robinson will start from day one at guard. His is a physical mauler with a nasty streak. The same can be said of DT Aaron Donald. He will be a force in due time. LaMarcus Joyner will get some snaps at corner. Tre Mason will get plenty of touches coming out of the backfield.
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