Yesterday, we did the AFC. Here comes the NFC predictions and outlook for the '08 season.
NFC EAST: Dallas Cowboys:
Simply put, on paper, this is the best, most complete team in the league, thanks to Bill Parcells groundwork, and Jerry Jones cash.
That's not to say there aren't concerns. The wide receivers corp is thin, if not old—and you can check in at least 1-2 drops from T.O. each game.
That said, the defense is excellent, the running game, with Marion Barber and Felix Jones is superb. Even the special teams, with Nick Folk and Mat McBriar is above average. This team should go deep into the playoffs. And they'd better. There would be no excuse not to.
New York Giants:
I doubted the Giants every step of the way through the playoffs last year. And here I go again.
However, I have become something of an Eli believer. Without Jeremy Shockey, Eli looked more relaxed, more in charge. And there's no reason that won't continue this season. His receiving corp has looked solid in preseason and his line and running backs are healthy. The problem lies on defense. Without Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, can their attack defense duplicate the massive rush of last season's playoffs? Doubtful, although Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka do seem tailor-made to be ferocious pass-rushers. Can rookie Kenny Phillips come in at safety and play without a hitch? Can Bryan Kehl and Gerris Wilkinson perform as veterans now that they are starting in the linebacking group. It's doubtful to say that all these things can happen.
The Giants will be good, I won't completely doubt them again. I just can't seem the repeating.
Donovan McNabb is healthy. Great. Now who does he throw to?
Kevin Curtis, last year's no. 1 receiver is out indefinitely. Reggie Brown is doing his best bust impersonation. DeSean Jackon may be Devin Hester in waiting, but he's a rookie and Donavan (not to mention Jon Runyon, Brain Dawkins and Tra Thomas) is a guy looking to win NOW.
That said, the defense should be in good shape. Coordinator Jim Johnson will have a great time with his new, young and fast linebacking corp, safe in the knowledge that he has a deep and talented (and rich, just ask Asante Samuel) cornerbacking crew. The defensive tackles, Bruckley and Patterson are rock-steady.
All of which should make this a competitive team. Unf. for McNabb and his crew of vets, it's not enough to get them past Dallas.
Just after the draft, one could tell what new coach Jim Zorn wanted to do with this team. With the first three picks in the draft, Zorn and crew selected two wide receivers—Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly—and tight end, Fred Davis. They also picked Colt Brennan later in the draft and signed free agent wide receivers, Jerome Mathis, Billy McMullen and Maurice Mann.
Get the picture?
The early returns for all this offensive work is mixed. There have been a lot of injuries and thus, development delays in getting the offense to gel—something the Redskins can't afford in the tough NFC East. Also, and more troubling, are some reports that Jason Campbell can't succeed in the NFL, that the offense has to be dumbed down for him to have a chance. To counter that, coaches say that Campbell has looked sharp in preseason, but needs to improve his accuracy.
On the defensive side, the Redskins are solid, if not spectacular. Marcus Washington and Carlos Rogers should return healthy to aid the group that lost Sean Taylor. However, depth is an issue, as the Redskins did little to shore up their defense with younger players in the draft.
Overall, there are too many questions for the Skins to succeed. Especially in the NFC east. Pencil them in for fourth place.
NFC NORTH: Minnesota Vikings:
How do you not take these guys? They have arguably, two of the best players in the league on both sides of the ball, in Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen. Allen, whom they got from the Chiefs in a trade, now gets paired with Kevin and Pat Williams to form a awesome front line. Also, Chad Greenaway is said to be having a fantastic camp and is ready to dominate. Antonine Winfield should continue to be a Pro bowl-level cornerback. free agent signing Madieu Williams should return in the third week to help shore up the secondary.
On the offense, aside from the All-World Peterson, Minnesota went out and got WR Bernard Berrian to help 2nd year players Sidney Rice and Aundray Allison, who had a nice camp. Tarvaris Jackson, who's played a grand total of 16 games, has his share of doubters. However, he has shown small but steady improvement and has enough pieces around him to keep the offense moving. The Vikings didn't spend jillions of dollars this offseason to lose.
Green Bay Packers:
While yes, Brett Farve contributed mightily to the Packers 2007 run, in fact, it was the defense who did a lot of the yeoman's work last year.
The defense, ranked sixth overall should continue to do good work, though it may be a little harder this year. After trading DT Corey Williams in the offseason, the Packers have found out that DT Justin Harrell blew out his back and may not be able to play this year. Also, DT Johnny Jolley has a date with a judge come Sept 16th and his status for the season is uncertain. Depth on the line, needless to say, is a problem. Also, the Packers are saying some extra prayers that corners Al Harris (33) and Charles Woodson (31) can hold on for one more year. behind them are eager, but green Will Blackmon, Tramon Williams and rookie Patrick Lee.
Aaron Rodgers has looked like talented guy who hasn't played; that is to say, no one really knows how he will perform once the game whistle blows. The Packers have a deep wide receiving corp—they just hope Rodgers can get them the ball.
Questions remain in Wisconsin. The talent is there. Can it gel enough to compete for a playoff spot?
Say this for Rod Marinelli, Detroit's head coach. He has a vision.
After last year's team finished with a 7-9 record (the best record of the Mike Millen era, by the way), Marinelli got busy. He let offensive coordinator Mike Martz go and replaced him with Jim Coletto, who runs an offense more to Marinelli's stylings. He also let go of defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson and replaced with with Joe Barry, whom Coletto worked with in Tampa Bay. Then all Coletto did was get rid of arguably the best player the Lions had on defense, Shaun Rogers because A) he didn't fit the scheme and B) took plays off—a fatal character flaw in Coletto's eyes. They also got rid off/let go Boss Bailey, Damien Woody, Kalimba Edwards, Kevin Jones and Fernando Bryant, among others—all in an effort to create a football team that Coletto feels comfortable with. To that end, the Lions have brought in Dwight Smith and Brian Kelly, both of whom have played in Coletto's system before, as well as Chuck Darby, Leigh Bodden and Rudi Johnson.
Does all this movement add to much?
It'd better. This team hasn't won since America liked Ike.Problem is—for this system that Coletto likes—Tampa Two—to work, there has to be playmakers who can exploit it—Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch. Detroit, simply put, doesn't have them.
Two years ago, the Bears were in the Super Bowl.
What the heck happened since then?
Well, since then draft picks, Cedric Benson flamed out, as did Rex Grossman. This year's no. 1 pick, Chris Williams—brought in to shore up the offensive line after Rueben Brown and Fred Miller were let go—is already injured. Oh and Bernard Berrian was let free to sign big free agent money, but don't worry. The Bears will see lots of him—he went to the Vikings.
Oh, is that all?
The Bears paid big money to their defensive stars, Lance Briggs, Tommie Harris and Brian Urlacher—here's hoping the don't get complacent. Because really, that's all the Bears have now. Lot of luck Chicago fans.
NFC SOUTH: New Orleans Saints:
The Saints knew what to work on this offseason. Defense, defense, and more of the same.
So in comes Jon Vilma, from a trade with the Jets, Dan Morgan, Randall Gay, and draftees, DT Sedrick Ellis and CB Tracey Porter. If the Saints can at least stop their defensive bleeding to a trickle, the offense should be able to take care of the rest.
Here's a fact I'm sure Drew Brees likes: In the last 1,271 pass plays, the Saints have given up only 39 sacks. And with only C Jeff Faine not returning, the line should be just fine again this year. Drew Brees should have the most options he's ever had with the Saints, with Jeremy Shockey joining the Saints to open up lanes for Marques Colston, improving Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson and David Patten. Also, with Deuce McAllister returning, coach Sean Payton has promised to utilize Reggie Bush in a way that makes the most of his talents. All in all, the Saints should take the South and ride into the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
With seemingly everyone on the planet assuming the Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden was going to improve the receiving corp in the offseason, Gruden outfoxed us all. By doing next to nothing in that area.
Instead, Gruden went hard to improve the Bucs secondary corp; first by drafting Aqib Talib in the first round, then signing Eugene Wilson from the Patriots.
In truth, Gruden did draft a receiver, 2nd round pick Dexter Jackson from Appalachian State, but he is seen more as a longer-range prospect. For this season, ageless Joey Galloway is being paired up with retread Antonio Bryant. The defense, under Monte Kiffen, is still potent, ranking 3rd in total yards last season.
Gruden should have enough to squeak into the playoffs, maybe. but like last year, it should be a one-and-done once he gets there.
There are a heck of a lot of changes down in Charlotte. For one thing, the offensive line should have not one player playing the same position that was manned in 2007. Continuity, there is not.
Also, Julius Peppers will be lining up on the right defensive end, ion hopes of jump-starting him from the 2 1/2 sack season he had last year. Linemate Kris Jenkins is gone, replaced by Maake Kemoeatu. Then there's Steve Smith, suspended for fighting, rides the bench for two games. in his place is greybeard Mushin Muhammad and D. J. Hackett.
Jake Delhomme, if healthy, should be a welcome sight back. And Jonathon Stewart, rookie back from Oregon, is my pick for rookie of the year. But that wont be enough, as the panthers should be lucky to make it to .500 this year.
It's one of the give-and-takes of being a poster boy college quarterback. Sure you get fame and money and all that comes with it. But you also get selected by a truly terrible team.
Welcome to the NFL, Matt Ryan.
Did I say truly terrible. I meant god-awful. Former Boston College QB, Ryan joins a team left in the rubble by Bobby Petrino who went 3-10 and then bailed. The left side of the offensive line will be manned by rookie Sam Baker and and year guard Justin Blaylock. And that's the solid part of the line. TE (really offensive tackle) Ben Hartsock will be lined up on the other side to help out with backup OT Tyson Clabo fills in for Todd Weiner and "who dat?" guard Harvey Dahl.
The defense is not much better than the offense, and wont be much better this year than they were last year, when they were 29th in the league. It's going to get worse before it gets better.
NFC WEST: Seattle Seahawks:
Somebody has to come in first in the NFC West.
On the defensive side of the ball, Seattle, which placed 6th in the league last year, is solid. NFC sack leader, Patrick Kearney teams up with Maracus Trufant who got 7 interceptions last year, Julian Peterson and Lofi Tatupu to lead a defense that gave up just 15 passing touchdowns last season and just 3.9 yard per rush.
On the other side of the ball, Matt Hassleback—who must be ecstatic that the Seahawks signed Mike Wahle to fill the gigantic hole that's been on the offensive line since Steve Hutchinson left town—has a few problems. First, who can he throw to? Deion Branch and Bobby Engram are out for the forseeable future. Nate Burleson—for whom, inconsistant is a kind word—is an option, as is rookie John Carlson. Also, running backs Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett have been less than stellar this preseason. All of this puts pressure on Hassleback, in this, head coach Mike Holmgren's last year. Lucky for Seattle, they are in the NFC west, and should overcome these problems and take the banner again this year.
Is this the year the Cardinals finally arrive?
Defensivly, they may arrive soon. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has created a potentially nice copy of the Steeler defense he knew back in Pittsburgh. This second year, the Cardinals have added some depth to their talent. The Cardinals took DE Calais Campbell and Kenny Iwebema in the draft to support Darnell Dockett, Bertrand Berry and Antonio Smith. They also added Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to their secondary to back up solid corners Eric Green and Roderick Hood.
Offensively, while the Cardinals are explosive—they were 7th in the league last year—they are unbalanced, gaining only 3.6 yards per rushing attempt. The Cardinals also gave up the ball 36 times, 12 fumbles and a whopping 24 interceptions. Can the Cardinals grow up, cut down their mistakes and take the next step. They have the talent; they just have to do it.
San Francisco 49ers:
The 49ers have spent money and time trying to change an offense that was ranked dead last in 2007. Only the center position, manned by Eric Heitmann remains the same after giving up 55 sacks last season (poor Alex Smith). And with new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, comes a new corp of wide receivers. Bryant Johnson from Arizona and Issac Bruce from St. Louis join surprising rookie Josh Morgan. Holdovers Arnaz Battle and TE Vernon Davis complete the corp.
Martz has also changed the QB, going with journeyman J.T. Sullivan over 1st round pick Alex Smith. The change doesn't stop there, as Takeo Spikes joins Justin Smith as free agent signings designed to boost a defense that was decidedly middle of the pack last season. Not that there wasn't anything to work with. Patrick Willis made seemingly every tackle in the Bay area and Nate Clements and Walt Harris solidified the corner positions. The backups, Mcihael Lewis, Shawtae Spencer and rookie Reggie Smith provide for a deep secondary.
The Niners have been busy. And the club should take a step forward in 2008. But there are not there yet.
St. Louis Rams:
In short, Saint Louis has got problems.
To start with, the line play was so bad that quarterback Mark Bulger, once rock solid, has gotten the jitters. his footwork is so bad, the Rams have called in a special coach just to work on Bulger relearning his feet.
Then there's the fact that Steven Jackson sat out almost all of the preseason and should be rusty going into the season.
Don't forget the injuries that have tsunami-ed the secondary, where O.J. Atogwe—who had 8 interceptions last season—has not practiced yet. Also, Fakhir Brown and rookie Justin Brown have been out as well, with King already gone for the season.
Then there's also the fact that no one knows if All-Pro tackle Orlando pace is ready to return from injury.
The Rams, in truth have made good moves to return to prominence in the NFL—drafting Chris Long, resigning Steven Jackson, getting Jacob Bell to help solidify the offensive line—but there is just too much more work to do to consider them a threat for the playoffs.