Ranking every NFC team by projected finish
After projecting the AFC standings yesterday, today we turn the attention to the NFC. Three of the four divisions should have plenty of drama late into the season. The NFC South should be wide open, while the NFC East and North each have a few teams who have a strong playoff chance.
Here I make my attempt at projecting the NFC standings taking into account their current rosters and their schedules. They are sorted by their projected playoff seed followed by their projected number of wins for non-playoff teams.
- Green Bay Packers
In 2014 the Packers tied for the best record in the NFC, and outside of an injury to WR Jordy Nelson (87.0), not much has changed between last year and this. The other 12 offensive players with at least 250 snaps return to the team. On defense CB Casey Hayward (82.3), who has been one of their highest-rated defensive players these past few years, has finally won a starting role. Their biggest losses in free agency were both at cornerback, but they also added two top-12-graded cornerbacks in the preseason in rookies Ladarius Gunter (+5.7) and Quinten Rollins (+3.6) in case a starter gets hurt. Two of their three lowest-graded players from 2014 on defense are no longer on the roster. This team has the best mix of All-Pro-caliber players and fewest weaknesses in the NFC.
- Seattle Seahawks
After back-to-back appearances in the Super Bowl, there is no need to argue why Seattle is one of the best teams in the league. The only question is why they aren’t No. 1. There are reasons to be concerned about this team. Russell Wilson was under pressure on 46 percent of his dropbacks last season, which was the most for all quarterbacks, and he lost two of his offensive linemen. The only linemen they have with a PFF rating above 65 is LT Russell Okung (72.2). There are also question marks in the secondary. Cary Williams (75.2) is a slight downgrade from Byron Maxwell (80.2). Having slot cornerback Jeremy Lane (78.2) on the PUP list doesn’t help, either. It also looks like there is a serious chance Seattle might be without SS Kam Chancellor (88.6) unless a deal can be worked out. There is enough to like about this team that they will still be a definite contender, but also enough to be concerned about to think this team might not be as good as the past two years.
- Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles were one of the most talked-about teams this off-season, but after two 10-win seasons they improved at two of the most important positions in football. When healthy, Sam Bradford (70.6) has looked like an average NFL quarterback. If he is able to play as well in 2015 as he did before his last injury, he will post big numbers in Chip Kelly’s system and have an improved PFF rating. His accuracy percentage of 74.7 percentage in 2013 was seventh-best among quarterbacks. Only three teams in the league have two running backs with PFF ratings above 75, and one of those teams is the Eagles with DeMarco Murray (86.7) and Ryan Mathews (75.3). While Philadelphia did lose a few solid players to trades or cuts, they also ensured none of their eight players with a PFF grade of -7.0 or worse in 2014 will be starters for them in 2015. They are a team with very few weaknesses, but lack the star power to put them in the top two.
- Atlanta Falcons
Chances are whoever wins the NFC South will end up with the fourth seed, even though there is a chance the best team not to make the playoffs will be better than the best team in the South. The Falcons have arguably the easiest schedule in the league, and enough star power to make them favorites in their division. They have QB Matt Ryan (82.9), WR Julio Jones (87.4) and CB Desmond Trufant (88.6) to cover some of the most important positions. One of their biggest struggle areas is the front seven, but they added players to help there. Free-agent pickups DE/OLB O’Brien Schofield (72.6) and LB Justin Durant (66.3) will make immediate impacts, while LB Brooks Reed (77.6) will hopefully help later in the season if healthy. They also drafted DE/OLB Vic Beasley, who will be an instant starter and upgrade to the pass rush, and PFF favorite rookie DT Grady Jarrett. The NFC South title should come down to the last few weeks of the season, but for the moment I give the slight edge to Atlanta.
- New York Giants
It might be a surprise to see the Giants so high, but if they can stay healthy they will be a tough opponent for anyone. Over the last seven games of last year, the Giants outscored their opponents by 12 points. They did this without WR Victor Cruz (74.3), CB Prince Amukamara (79.2), slot CB Trumaine McBride (81.6), and other star players missing significant time like CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (84.5), DL Robert Ayers (83.4) and OL Geoff Schwartz (81.9). Their only major free-agent addition was RB Shane Vereen, who should be more of a factor in the passing game (82.2 receiving). The Giants had eight players with a PFF grade below -10 last year, but only three remain on the roster with just one slated to start. This window of opportunity might be short for the Giants, as Eli Manning will reach the age of 35 before the end of the season, but they have put together a talented roster which should fight for a playoff spot and possibly the division.
- Detroit Lions
There are four teams with 11 or more players on their roster with a PFF rating above 80, and the Lions are one of them. Even though they lost all of their defensive tackles in the offseason, which was previously a position of strength, they replaced them well with Haloti Ngata (86.2) and Tyrunn Walker (73.5). The offense should be better this year than last, assuming WR Calvin Johnson (89.2) can stay healthy. The main thing holding the team back is QB Matthew Stafford (74.3), and having only a few Pro Bowl-caliber players. There were only four games last year where Stafford had an above-average PFF grade for a quarterback. The results for this team should be similar to last year unless Stafford steps up: a wild card spot and probably an early playoff exit.
- Dallas Cowboys
At best, the additions of DE Greg Hardy (85.7) and return of LB Sean Lee (80.4) can help the Cowboys front seven improve and keep the NFC East division crown in Dallas. There is also plenty of reason to be concerned. On offense the team had no notable additions, but lost RB DeMarco Murray (86.7). QB Tony Romo (83.3) is also 35 and a decline in his play is inevitable eventually. On defense the loss of Orlando Scandrick (80.4) as well as Sterling Moore (83.5) in free agency will greatly hurt the secondary. The average team has over four defensive backs with a PFF rating above 70.2, while the Cowboys are the only team without a single one. The decline at running back and defensive back should outweigh their gains in the front seven, and might cost Dallas a playoff spot.
- New Orleans Saints
The Saints are a team that just a few years ago was full of offensive stars, but now most of them have gotten older and declined or are off the roster. The offensive line is a strong point following the addition of Max Unger (79.2), but their best receiving option is Marques Colston (77.8), who is among the older wide receivers in the game. The main reason they are so high is they still have Drew Brees (89.5), who is still among the top few quarterbacks in the league, despite a perceived drop-off in his play last season. The defense is full of players who for the most part deserve to be starters in the league, but lack star power. Not a single projected starter has a PFF rating above 80. That is enough to be competitive in the NFC South, but likely won’t get them a wild-card spot.
- Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings are a team that could end up much higher or much lower than this. QB Teddy Bridgewater (79.3) had an impressive rookie year, and could either continue to improve or suffer a sophomore slump. RB Adrian Peterson (77) is coming off of seven straight games where he averaged 2.8 yards after contact per carry, after averaging at least 2.8 yards after contact per carry in 16 of his previous 20 games. The Vikings had eight players on offense last year with an above-average PFF grade, but only two are back with the team and slated to start in 2015, so Bridgewater and Peterson won’t be getting a lot of help outside of each other. Over the past few years Minnesota has quietly put together one of the better defenses in the league led by DT Sharrif Floyd (84.1) and S Harrison Smith (82.4). If Peterson can turn back time to 2012 and Bridgewater continues his development, then this is a playoff team. If not, then the offense will need to reload some next offseason.
- Arizona Cardinals
The most confusing team in the league in 2014 was the Cardinals, who kept on winning despite having one of the least talented rosters in the league. Currently they only have five players with a PFF rating above 80, which puts them in the bottom quarter in the league in that category. One of those players is free-agent addition LG Mike Iupati (80.1), who will miss the first part of the season. Their second-highest-rated player on defense last year, DT Dan Williams, (85.0) left for Oakland. When a team outperforms the talent on their roster, one likely solution is coaching. Part of that credit likely goes to last year’s defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who is now the head coach of the New York Jets. Like the Vikings, the Cardinals are a team more likely than most to prove me wrong.
- Carolina Panthers
In 2014 the Panthers were division champions at 7-8-1, and it’s hard to see the Panthers being much better than their last year performance. Going into last year their biggest weaknesses on offense were at wide receiver and offensive tackle. That remains true, as their projected starting receivers are Ted Ginn (67.6) and Philly Brown (66.8), while their projected starting tackles are Michael Oher (65.3) and Mike Remmers (68.3). The defense remains largely unchanged outside of the addition of CB Charles Tillman (70.0). There isn’t much reason to believe they will play much better or worse than last year, so they should again be a below-average to average team.
- St. Louis Rams
These last few years the Rams have seemed like a team on the cusp of making a playoff run. The team is going through too much of a transition to expect that this year. The offensive line is starting LT Greg Robinson (36.7), who had a rookie season to forget, C Tim Barnes (58.3), who is basically a replacement-level player, and two rookies. QB Nick Foles had an NFL Passer Rating of 51.5 when under pressure last year, and he will be often behind this St. Louis O-line. On the bright side, the Rams added talented RB Todd Gurley with the No. 10 overall pick. They also have one of the best defensive lines in the league (including star-in-the-making DT Aaron Donald), and they got better this offseason with the addition of DT Nick Fairley (81.5). Unfortunately, their best player in the back seven from last year, CB E.J. Gaines (78.1), has landed on injured reserve. This team has the potential to be very good in the next year or two, but there are too many young, highly drafted players on the roster who have yet to hit their stride.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have some pieces in place to make a playoff run, but they lack the depth that most teams in the NFC have. On defense, DT Gerald McCoy (90.7) and LB Lavonte David (88.1) are great players to build around, while on offense WR Mike Evans (84.1) had an excellent rookie year. They also have some veterans who should help them be somewhat competitive in LG Logan Mankins (83.4) and WR Vincent Jackson (78.2). When you’re starting three rookies out of necessity, that isn’t a good sign for the offense. Outside of George Johnson (75.2 pass rush), they lack an outside edge rush that will make life easier for opposing offenses. If No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston can live up to his draft status immediately at QB, then the Buccaneers can be competitive in the NFC South. But with an NFL passer rating of 10.7 under pressure in the preseason, it looks like Winston will need a little bit more time to develop at the pro level.
- Chicago Bears
The Bears ended up as a five-win team in 2014, and there isn’t much that got better over the offseason. WR Brandon Marshall (82.3), LB Lance Briggs (76.2) and DT Stephen Paea (75.0) were among the better performers on the Bears roster in 2014 who are no longer with the team. They added some players to help make up for those losses, including edge rusher Pernell McPhee (86.9), C Will Montgomery (80.4) and WR Eddie Royal (78.8). This has been a team who had too many of their good players get older, and haven’t had a youth movement come in to help make up for those losses. They have drafted some quality players recently like WR Alshon Jeffery (81.4) and OL Kyle Long (79.8), but it will take the 2015 draft picks panning out (No. 7 overall pick WR Kevin White is out with an injury) as well as another good draft or two until this team becomes a quality playoff contender.
- San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers disaster of an offseason has been highly publicized, and it should result in a long season for San Francisco. Back when they still had a very talented roster, they had a .500 season last year. They still have a few very talented players on the team, including ILB NaVarro Bowman (88.4), LT Joe Staley (87.6) and WR Anquan Boldin (86.3). The biggest weak point on offense is the right side of the line, which consists of C Marcus Martin (38.5), RG Jordan Devey (36.9) and RT Erik Pears (43.5), which will make things very difficult for their run game and pass game. They retained enough talent who can play well against the run, but the pass rush isn’t nearly as strong as it once was. OLB Aaron Lynch (75.9 pass rush) had a strong rookie year, but he is the only pass-rusher who will scare offenses. They retained a few good players in coverage, but there are also a few weaknesses. The 49ers have been drafting for a rebuild, but too many of the draft picks haven’t lived up to expectations yet, and no team could have expected to lose as many good players as the 49ers did.
Most teams are only as good as their good as their quarterback, and there aren’t many NFL teams with a worse starter than Kirk Cousins (52.8). Even when he’s not under pressure, he has a career 13-to-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio. If there is enough talent around a quarterback, that can make him look better, but Washington doesn’t have enough talent on the roster to give Cousins much help. They made a few nice moves in free agency, especially along the defensive line with the additions of Terrance Knighton (89.5 in run defense) and Stephen Paea (87.7 in pass-rushing). Even with the additions, it will be hard for them to overcome three of the five players in nickel defense having a PFF rating below 55. They had the second-lowest win total in the NFC in 2014, and outside of the defensive line, they don’t appear to have gotten any better.