Falcons sit atop first batch of NFC projections for 2017

Nathan Jahnke offers his first projected records for each NFC team in 2017, starting with the defending conference champion.

| 5 days ago
(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Falcons sit atop first batch of NFC projections for 2017

We still have several weeks until we even see preseason football, but with other sports’ seasons wrapped up, the itch for football season to return keeps getting stronger. Of course, plenty of things will change between now and then, but it’s never too early to start speculating on how the season might go. After projecting the quality of each team and using them to predict the outcome of all 256 regular-season games, here are the projected standings of each team for the 2017 season.

1. Atlanta Falcons (projected record: 12-4)

The Falcons are coming off of Super Bowl disappointment, and despite losing Kyle Shanahan they are still in good position to make another playoff run. For the most part, their starting lineup will look the same as it did in the Super Bowl, and if anything it could be better. Desmond Trufant is one of the better cornerbacks in the game and he will be returning from his pectoral injury. Since joining the league in 2013 he’s allowed 0.98 yards per coverage snap, which is fifth-best for corners with 2000 or more snaps.

2. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)

After a disappointing exit from the playoffs, the Cowboys in some senses took a step back in the offseason. Four defensive backs who had overall grades above 75 in 2016 are now on different rosters, and it will likely take a year or two for the defensive backs they drafted to replace them to be fully up to speed. What is working in their favor is they had a lot of key contributors in 2016 who were rookies and should step their game up. Even outside of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, cornerback Anthony Brown and defensive tackle Maliek Collins made strides as the season went on. As of Week 12, Collins had a pass-rushing productivity of 3.57, but from Week 13 on that was up to 8.16.

Get more pass-rushing productivity data when you sign up for PFF ELITE.

3. Green Bay Packers (10-6)

Similar to the Cowboys, the Packers had an unsatisfactory end to the season with a blowout loss to the Falcons. They lost T.J. Lang, who was top five in pass-blocking efficiency for guards over the last two seasons, but replaced him with Jahri Evans, who was top 10. Year after year, they’ve been a division favorite who can make a run in the playoffs. Some of their key players are getting older, including two free agents over the age of 30, but this season should result in similar success.

4. Arizona Cardinals (10-6)

In 2015, the Cardinals were a game away from the Super Bowl. They followed that up with a season where they were top 12 in terms of PFF overall grade for the team, and they scored 50 more points than they allowed, but still ended up with a losing record. They will definitely miss longtime veteran Calais Campbell, but many of the lowest-graded players on the roster are either no longer on the roster or will no longer see playing time unless there is an injury. Winning more close games than they lose should get the Cardinals on the right side of .500, and if Carson Palmer or Tyrann Mathieu is able to return to their 2015 form, Arizona should find their way back into the playoffs.

5. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)

The Seahawks were close to 10-6 last year, and not much has changed for them. They made a few changes on the offensive line but it’s unclear if that will impact the line’s overall quality. Eddie Lacy (77.3) and Bradley McDougald (79.0) were two underrated free agent moves. Since 2013 Lacy has had 169 defenders miss tackles on his carries; a number only topped by Marshawn Lynch, DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy. While they might be reasons for optimism, the star players on the roster are either at their prime, or reaching the downside of their career. If the team is able to improve on the last year, they’ll need some of their younger players to take big steps forward.

6. Carolina Panthers (9-7)

The Panthers are a team that ended last season 5-5 after a Super Bowl hangover saw them start 1-5. There is little question that their goal is to win now with the veterans they added to improve the defense. Returning to the Panthers after stints elsewhere are Captain Munnerlyn, who has 2,272 career coverage snaps in the slot (second-most in the PFF era), and Julius Peppers, who has 3,507 pass-rushes in the PFF era (second-most for edge defenders). The new addition of safety Mike Adams and most importantly the return of the best off-the-ball linebacker in football Luke Kuechly will raise the level of the defense compared to last year.

7. New Orleans Saints (9-7)

The Saints were a better team in 2016 than their 7-9 record indicated, and there is reason to believe they could be better in 2016. While the talk has been about the running backs, more attention can be given to wide receiver Michael Thomas. Last year his overall grade of 87.1 was the second-best a rookie receiver has earned in the PFF era, only behind Odell Beckham Jr. If his career progresses like other wide receivers who have a strong rookie year, he could be among the league’s elite in 2017. On defense cornerback Delvin Breaux is healthy and should build on his 2015 season. His 15.8 percent playmaker index is top 10 for cornerbacks over the last two seasons.

8. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)

Position by position, the Eagles have one of the better rosters in the league. One of the main things that held the team back in 2016 was Carson Wentz. Over the first five games of the season Wentz looked like one of the best rookie quarterbacks the league has seen, but from Week 7 on was among the lowest-graded. Typically you expect improvement from year one to two, and the odds are even better after the addition of Alshon Jeffery. Since 2013, he has 2.15 yards per route run, which is 10th-best for wide receivers in that time. If both Wentz and the cornerbacks can take steps forward, this team could be much higher. If not it will be difficult to stand out in a competitive division.

9. Minnesota Vikings (9-7)

The Vikings were an average football team last year, and it wouldn’t be surprising if that remains the same in 2017. Their biggest upgrades were Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers at offensive tackle. Neither player is likely to play at a Pro Bowl level, but they should perform better than their various tackles of 2016. The key to them breaking away from another average season could be rookie running back Dalvin Cook. He led the FBS last year in yards after contact with 1208. If he can have a similar impact to Ezekiel Elliott did last year for the Cowboys, Minnesota will be back in the playoffs.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)

The Buccaneers went 6-2 during the second half of the 2016 season, and are a hot pick as a breakout team in 2017. One of their biggest problems will be their competition; all three teams in the division have a quarterback and head coach who have been NFC champions at some point in the last decade. They are also top-heavy in that they have a few very good players, but not as much depth as other teams in the NFC. An injury to a key player would devastate this team more than it would other contenders. On defense, some of their best players are either at an age where they are unlikely to get better, or are players where their best season was a few years ago. If their older defenders can maintain their level of play, their other stars return to their old form, and young players progress like you would like to see, then this team is a playoff team. That requires a lot of things to go right.

11. New York Giants (8-8)

The Giants were a playoff team in 2016, but similar to the Buccaneers might have difficulty replicating their success because they have a few star players but not as much depth as other teams. Their big offseason move of adding Brandon Marshall should help as he’s helped the other offenses he’s been on. No receiver has made more defenders miss tackles on his catches in the PFF era than Marshall’s 157. However, Eli Manning has had his PFF pass grade decrease every year since 2011, and it is rare to see any NFL player turn their career around at age 36. Their biggest strength last year was at defensive back, but defensive backs are the position we see the least consistency in play from one year to the next. With how competitive the NFC should be this year, the Giants will need to find a way to win a lot of close games.

12. Chicago Bears (7-9)

A lot of signs point to the Bears being a much better team in 2017 then 2016. In 2015 their best guard was Kyle Long, their best defensive lineman was Eddie Goldman, their best pass-rusher was Pernell McPhee, and their best cornerback was Kyle Fuller. All of them played fewer than 500 snaps in 2016 due to injury. They hit on 2016 draft picks halfback Jordan Howard (81.0), center Cody Whitehair (87.2), and linebacker Leonard Floyd (65.1). Both the offense and defense have a lot of pieces that haven’t played together before, but on paper this team is much better than their 3-13 record last year indicates.

13. Washington (7-9)

Washington was an average team last year that lost two key free agents at the same position in Pierre Garcon (85.8) and DeSean Jackson (78.6). They’ve added a few players to give them reason for optimism, but they are all players who flashed excellence in a few games but haven’t done as much the rest of their career. On offense, they added wide receiver Terrelle Pryor, who had five games with 90-plus receiving yards, but in over half of his games he was held to under 50 yards. At safety, they added D.J. Swearinger, who had a top-10 safety grade in 2016, but it was his first year with a good grade and the grade came from taking advantage of some of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Similarly linebacker Zach Brown had a career year in 2016 with the Bills, but his five best-graded games against the run were the first five games of the season. If these players can sustain greatness over a longer period of time then Washington can take steps forward. If not, they may take a step back.

14. Detroit Lions (6-10)

The Lions started 2016 cold, then went on a streak of winning seven of eight games, all by close margins, which led to a (brief) playoff appearance. On one hand, the additions of guards T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner should help, as Matthew Stafford was sacked 40 times last year including the playoffs. The problem is if you take the best players on the Lions, they don’t stack up as favorably as the best players on other teams. If the Lions can continue winning close games and have a strong showing from their rookies they can make another run into the playoffs, but that can be said for most teams.

15. San Francisco 49ers (4-12)

The 49ers had the worst record in the NFC last year. They’ve changed coaches, quarterbacks, and several players. There is reason to be excited about their defensive line. 2015 first-round pick Arik Armstead led 3-4 defensive ends in pass-rushing productivity; 2016 first-round pick DeForest Buckner had 48 pressures which was fourth most for 3-4 defensive ends; and now they add third overall pick in the 2017 draft Solomon Thomas. They are a team in transition, and it might take more than a season for the 49ers return to being a playoff contender.

16. Los Angeles Rams (4-12)

The Rams were 4-12 last year, and it could take some time before they return to contending form. Due to the Jared Goff trade a year ago, the team didn’t have a first-round pick in this year’s draft, and with cap constraints they were only able to make a few splashes in free agency while also seeing a few players leave. Having Andrew Whitworth at left tackle should help Goff immediately. When at left tackle last year, he had a 98.0 pass-blocking efficiency (source: PFF ELITE), which led all tackles. However, a lot of Goff’s receiving targets are rookies, and the defense is transitioning to a 3-4. Those factors can lead to long-term success, but not necessarily short-term gains.

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • Old School

    So, I’m guessing that PFF doesn’t put much stock in the “Super Bowl Loser” line of history. That’s too bad, because there’s a lot of evidence that shows teams that lose the Super Bowl don’t really do as well the following season. And they didn’t just lose….they choked up a historically epic hairball. This is difficult to rebound from.

    And they won’t. They had really good health last year. Lots of things went right for them. Their offense is potentially awesome, but the same can be said for Dallas, Green Bay, New Orleans, and NY. Their defense is overrated, IMO, and just got hot down the stretch against some weak offenses. Their defense gave up some thing like 35 points in the second half tofhe Super Bowl…..don’t tell me this is a great defense.

    • Refman

      If you want to focus on a half, that same defense also shutdown the Patriots in the first half. They also shutdown the Packers, the Seahawks, and the Saints (last game of the season) before it became garbage time. They just gassed in the 2nd half because of too many plays (Coach Quinn admitted as much). They get Poe, add Takk, and Trufant returns from injury. I say the Falcons have the deepest cornerback group in the NFL with Trufant, Alford, and Collins. If the offense remains potent, then the Falcons are easily the favorites in the NFC because the defense should be even better with all those rookies in their 2nd year.

      • Old School

        So they shut down a Packers team whose healthiest WR had broken ribs, a bad offense in Seattle, and a New Orleans offense that was playing for nothing on the last day of the season. I’m impressed.
        Look at the history of Super Bowl losers and then tell me why it isn’t going to apply to Atlanta. And tell me how good that defense is: 25th in total defense, worse than the Packers. 27th in scoring defense…worse than the Packers.
        They had a soft schedule last year. People stayed healthy. They got hot at the right time. They’re not going to be as successful this year.

        • JahiRa

          Seattle has been to the playoffs the last 5 years straight win or lose. Guess who got them to the Bowl with the best d in football both times. DAN QUINN.

        • AJ

          “Look at the history of Super Bowl losers”

          In the past decade, Super Bowl losers have made the playoffs the following season more times than the winners.

          Since 2007
          Super Bowl winners to miss playoffs next season: 2009 Steelers, 2012 Giants, 2013 Ravens, 2016 Broncos

          Super Bowl losers to miss playoffs next season: 2008 Patriots, 2016 Panthers

        • Refman

          That same Packers team that tore up the Cowboys the week before. New Orleans was playing for stats (they wanted Drew Brees to pad his stats) which is plenty to play for when it comes to Sean Payton. You remind me of the same people who said I was crazy when I said that the Falcons would win the NFC last season.

          • Old School

            We “tore up” the Cowboys the week before? I seem to recall an overtime game that I thought we were going to lose about 3 times. We staggered to the finish line, more beat up than before. We had nothing left in the tank in the Championship game.

            Here are some facts:

            Of the past 23 Super Bowl losers (the free agent/salary cap era)

            43.5% did not even make the playoffs. So there. Right off the bat, you’ve got a better than 40% chance of not winning the division or getting a Wild Card berth.

            NONE of the previous 23 have made it back to the Super Bowl the following season.

            Ergo…….it’s unlikely you’re going to have as successful of a season as last year. You might get a challenge in your division. The Cowboys, Packers, and Giants are all going to be good in the NFC. Seattle is always good in the NFC.

    • JahiRa

      We lost but still, Julio is still unguardable, Gabriel still top 10 fastest wr in the game, We still have the best rb tandem in the league, and a young hungry defense who has depth now after this draft.

      • Old School

        Your young and hungry defense was one of the league’s worst last year and couldn’t protect a 30 point lead when it counted. Carolina lost the Super Bowl the year before….how’d they do in 2016?
        Super Bowl losers fair badly the next year. Atlanta had a lot of things go right….it’s unlikely that both Matt Ryan and Julio Jones will have two career years in a row

        • JahiRa

          I’m starting to think ppl say the Panthers had a bad season just because ESPN says they had a bad season without during any research as to why. The Panthers lost 4 defensive back STARTERS. 11 players to free agency in total. How the hell could any of you expect for them to get into the Post season losing that many quality players. Atlanta has lost no-one, excpet a fullback, and 5th string receiver and A OC which were all replaced with quality depth, not rookies. Also people call Brady the GOAT but then trash our defense who started 4 rookies and and 4 2nd year players and expect them to hold him to 3 points for 90 plays. If we had held him how tf could he be called the GOAT if he couldn’t score on Rookies!

          • Todd

            Sorry that should say Refman.

          • JahiRa

            No oldschool said what happen to Carolina after the superbowl

    • AJ

      “There’s evidence that shows teams that lose the Super Bowl don’t really do as well the following season.”

      This is borderline common sense, as doing equally well the following season would require reaching the Super Bowl again. That doesn’t mean the losers are not successful.

      See comment below. Super Bowl losers in recent history have been more successful than the winners the season after.

      • AJ

        Actually, see comment above. At the time I posted, this was at the top of the page.

  • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

    i think i’m high on the redskins this year, NFC gonna have some good teams missing the playoffs though too.

    also, it’s june, every team is going 16-0! (except the jets)

    • crosseyedlemon

      I wouldn’t say I’m high on the Redskins but they are under everyone’s radar and gradually putting the right pieces in place. The acquisition of Zach Brown in free agency may prove to be among the best poachings.

      • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

        love their offense, should be top 5 if they stay healthy

  • David Stinnett

    SEA will be better this year. SEA has a better schedule this year. SEA had 10.5 wins last year. Their floor is 11. 10 is a bad guess. 12 is more likely than 10.

  • Donnie Palmer

    Strange that age is a problem for Sea but not for AZ? According to Football Outsiders snap weighted age ranking published 4/27/17 (sorry to be bringing the competition over here, but they actually measure what you used as a differentiator), AZ is 9th oldest whereas Sea is 19th oldest. Didn’t even need to look it up though when Palmer is 37 and Fitz is 33, Palmer’s on a restricted offseason program and they’re both talking retirement.

    Oh and if they win more close games than they lose, they’ll do better? Now THAT’s a searing insight.

    • AZCardsFan85

      Outside of Palmer and Fitz, Arizona has a very young team. All of Arizona’s star players are young while all of SEAs outside of the QB are over 30 or pushing 30. Avril/Bennett are 30+ years old, Sherman/Kam are almost 30, Thomas is 28. The defense is aging. Arizona has a very young defense.

  • crosseyedlemon

    My favorite player is Larry Fitzgerald but sadly the Cardinals are imploding and will be no better than last season. Seahawks win that weak division uncontested but the Rams should be improved. McCaffrey will be rookie of the year and the Panthers will challenge the Falcons for the division title there. Assuming the Bears can stay healthy, not have the worst turnover ratio and next to worst time of possession, they could win maybe 4 games.

    • AZCardsFan85

      You are an absolute moron…. AZ has a loaded roster , they are not imploding at all. AZ has a better overall roster than SEA does and it will show in the rankings this year. SEA has some major problems, for instance look at that secondary. Outside of Sherman they have no CBs, Jeremy Lane is outright horrible & was beaten like a drum last year ( As was Sherman) & they are likely starting a very green rookie as their starting #2CB in Griffin, who gave up 7TDs in college last year. All of their RBs are extremely injury prone and their #1RB Lacy has been in decline since 2014. SEA has some major questions heading into 2015. The Defense is getting old as well, SEAs top 2 pass rushers are over 30+YRs old, Sherman is 29 pushing 30yrs old, Kam is in decline and can no longer stay healthy due to his violent playing style, DTs are weak and SEA is heavily relying on a guy who put up a whole 1.5sks last year in rookie McDowell. SEA Has some big question marks.

      • crosseyedlemon

        The Cardinals got themselves into a bad cap situation which forced them to part with some talent they won’t be able to replace easily. Then the head coach says he’ll be resting his starting QB in pre season because he’s concerned about his durability. They have absolutely nothing in the way of depth behind Palmer. This is a classic “house of cards” situation.

        • AZCardsFan85

          Nothing like making shit up to support your argument because the facts don’t support it is there??

          AZ has nothing wrong with their cap situation, AZ just did not want to pay a 30yr old Calais Campbell who is on the back 9 of his career…. AZ still has 15 Million in cap space and will have over 90+ Million in cap space this next off-season, and the roster is loaded from top to bottom. AZ is ready to contend in the NFC this off season.

          As for Palmer no one is worried about his durability. Arians opted to not work his 37 year old QB hard thru OTA’s because at 37 knowing the offense like he does Palmer doesn’t need the work or wear and tear on his arm…. Palmer threw all thru Mini Camp and will throw all thru training camp, their is nothing wrong with Palmer.

  • freewilly21055

    Last year Dallas won 2 games against teams that made the playoffs. This year they play 7 of the 10 top ranked teams, one of them twice. Dak and Zeke have a harsh reality check coming their way. Dallas and Atlanta are ranked too high on this list. Philadelphia, Tampa and the Giants are all ranked too low. All three will be 10-6 or better.

    • Jonny Kilroy

      “Last year Dallas won two games against teams that made the playoffs and eleven against a creampuff schedule”—–Dallas actually beat 3 (GB, Det, Pit), tied for most in the league among playoff teams. There isn’t a team out there that’s playing juggernauts every, there’s only 16 games in a season, its impossible.

  • RegisHawk

    “They followed that up with a season where they were top 12 in terms of PFF overall grade for the team, and they scored 50 more points than they allowed, but still ended up with a losing record. ”

    Translation: Our assessment methods suck, but we’ll do our best to stick with them and cover up the discrepancies.

  • HD

    Seattle will take the west again…Arizona lost a lot of defensive starters, are still thin at WR and Palmer is 38 coming off a so so year. If David Johnson were to get hurt they would have some real problems with their offense. Seattle also has one of the easier schedules in the NFC this year for a change. I see Seattle with 11 wins, possibly 12 wins with a 1 or 2 seed. As injured as they were last year with a pitiful offensive line they still nearly came away with a #1 seed. Seattle improved their defense and offense this offseason.

    • David Stinnett

      Hmm, I see everyone saying 10. They are all wrong. 11-12

  • David Stinnett

    SEA’s schedule is best they’ve had in a long time. Russell Wilson and Earl Thomas are healthy. The OL will be a little better, and Joeckel is a definite upgrade for them.
    They are deep at RB now. 11 wins at the worst. People aren’t thinking it through.