NFL Preview #1: The NFC
Opening day. Let’s make some picks:
East: 1. PHI 2. DAL(*) 3. NYG 4. WAS Wentz has had injury issues, and the Eagles lost their security blanket backup. But if Wentz stays healthy this is the best team in the division — strong on both sides of the ball and very well-coached. Despite the Elliott holdout — which was resolved with a reasonable solution (more guaranteed money for a reasonable yearly cap hit) — the Cowboys have settled in as a relatively stable and competitive franchise. Their offense isn’t as high-octane as Philly’s if Wentz is healthy, but they’ll step into the breach quickly if he’s not. I have absolutely no idea what the Giants are doing as they lurch incoherently from short-term to long-term thinking. The only thing that will save Gettleman is if Jones turns out to be good, and while his preseason is some grounds for optimism let’s also calm down — check out, say, Brett Hundley’s preseason stats. Anyway as of now the Giants have a washed-up veteran and a marginal rookie prospect at QB, only one interesting offensive weapon, and a ghastly-looking defense. That I’m not picking them last shows how much I think the bottom is finally going to fall out on Dan Snyder (sorry Elizabeth!)
North: 1. GB 2. MIN 3. CHI 4. DET There are two ways of looking at Rodgers. One is that he’s in real decline at 35, which is possible — just because Brady and Brees have played at an elite level into their late 30s or beyond doesn’t mean every comparable player will. The other way is to write off last year to playing on a bad knee with bad coaching (and the fact that Rodgers was convinced that McCarthy’s play-calling had grown rote and stale is if anything even more important than the fact that it had.) I’m in the latter camp. Just being a new voice should make LaFleur a short-term improvement, and the defense looks a lot better too. Minnesota still has a strong defense and with a low-ceiling high-floor offense will be competitive at least. A lot of people are high on the Bears again and they might be right, but…while I expect them to be pretty good they seem like an excellent candidate for the Plexiglass Principle to me — their takeaway rate last year is unsustainable and I’m not at all sold on Trubisky. I also really don’t like all the galaxy-brained shit Nagy has been doing with his kickers; that’s not how a winning organization should react to a tough loss and also seems unlikely to develop a reliable kicker, and in a division this tough those marginal points matter. Even the Lions aren’t awful; they have some interesting offensive weapons with a decent QB and an improving defense. This is the division most likely to produce a team with a top-8 DVOA that misses the playoffs.
South 1. NO 2. ATL 3. CAR 4. TB The FO projections rank the Saints with the Pats, and I don’t disagree, although both teams have a “this can’t go on forever issue” at QB. Nor do I particularly disagree with the conventional wisdom that the Falcons probably pissed away the best shot for this core, but don’t ignore them: Ryan is still damned good, Jones is still a marvel, and their defense figures to be healthier. A lot of people like the Panthers but I’m very concerned about Newton’s injury issues. Not just because he might not play but because they’ve caused him to be a below-average QB when he has played 2 of the last 3 years. And while Newton’s backup looked OK last year he was also an undrafted rookie who was benched by two different peonage ball programs, so good luck if Newton does miss any time. It’s hard to see the Bucs being good, but with Arians on board they should at least be bad in a funner way and could definitely be a spoiler.
West 1. LA 2. SEA (*) 3. Santa Clara 4. ARI The Rams are, I think, being a little underrated now. Yes, McVay got a four-hour wedgie from Bill Belichick on national TV in February, but you can say the same for Pete Carroll and Andy Reid, who would still dramatically improve most other organizations; he’ll be OK. Whether Goff would succeed in another system doesn’t really matter as long as he’s in the one, and he’ll have Kupp back. With Gurley who knows, but they can get along very well without him. And another thing about that Super Bowl: Wade has still got it even if he showed a lot of vanilla after the Rams had effectively clinched the division by midseason. Despite the ridiculous game plan in the playoffs Carroll did a terrific job keeping the team competitive in what was basically year 1 of a rebuild last year, and Bill O’Brien just gave the program a very nice boost. They should be good but it’s still a work in progress — the depth behind the underrated Tyler Lockett is nonexistent, the secondary (amazing to type this) is a little shaky, and for some reason Brian Schottenheimer will be back for at least one more year of forcing Russell Wilson try to convert as many third-and-longs as he can. The 49ers are improving but it’s hard to see a case for ranking them ahead of Seattle. The roster is only halfway rebuilt and the QB is coming off a serious injury and is about to turn 28 and has started only 10 NFL games. Kyler Murray has everything you could want in a prospect except being a multiple-year starter (or, if you’re a mediocre scout, being a tall white guy,) and you can’t fault him for sharing a roster with Baker Mayfield. But the infrastructure around him remains abysmal, and while Kingsbury might be good given that he doesn’t even have much of a record of success in peonage ball, I’ll believe it when I see it.