With the NFL Draft in the books and a long wait ahead for the next season, we’re taking a look at the most important areas for each team to focus on to improve their chances. Last week, we covered the AFC, and this week, the NFC.
DALLAS COWBOYS: Adequate rushing defense.
The Cowboys’ defense was very bad last season, though there was some improvement towards the end of the year. That improvement did not change the Cowboys’ status of having the second-worst rushing defense in the NFL by yards allowed. Even with a very strong linebacking group headlined by Jaylon Smith, this team really struggled to stop the rush. The safety position still seems mostly undefined at this point, but the Cowboys did invest a third-round draft choice there, along with a third-rounder addressing the defensive line. The gem of the draft class and likely the best defender from the draft, Micah Parsons, will work in tandem with the other additions to potentially help the Cowboys improve this aspect of the defense.
NEW YORK GIANTS: Daniel Jones taking positive steps in his development.
The Giants have gradually built up their roster and now seem to have put enough pieces in place to expect the Giants to be in playoff contention this season. There may not be a more important player for a team’s fortune than Daniel Jones with the Giants. When he is dealing, the Giants offense led by Saquon Barkley is a juggernaut. More often than not, however, Daniel Jones has been an albatross for this team with turnovers, and the offense has been mired with injury issues. With new top wideout Kenny Golladay and a healthy Saquon Barkley to go along with an improving offensive line, the focus turns to Daniel Jones. The excuses are waning, and it is time to evaluate whether or not Jones can bring the Giants back to contention.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Getting quality play from the linebackers.
Much has been made about the Eagles’ maligned secondary, and the quarterback spot still has question marks. While the quarterback issues will need to be worked on, the pass defense for the team actually ranked about average in the NFL and the addition of talented safety Anthony Harris tempers concerns. However, the Eagles linebackers really have not had any star power for a long time. The Eagles rush defense was worse than the pass last season, and tackling issues played a significant role in this regard. The Eagles did add another Minnesota Vikings impact defender in Eric Wilson who will probably head the group, but quality play from other projected starters Genard Avery and TJ Edwards will be important for a quality Eagles defense. General manager Howie Roseman has been known to invest very little for this position group even compared to other teams, and it will be seen how far the secondary and defensive line can take this team without improvement from the linebackers.
WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM: Separation from the receivers.
Washington has become a trendy pick to win this division considering a very strong defense, the signing of Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the weak current status of the division. While the problem for the team last season was the offense in general, a particular issue was the passing game. Kyle Allen, Alex Smith, and yes, even Dwayne Haskins have performed well enough in certain games behind an above-average offensive line and serviceable support from the rushing game. What the team really struggled with was the lack of quality play from the receivers, specifically outside of Terry McLaurin. Fitzpatrick has been known to take some risks, so getting separation from the secondary is of even greater importance with Fitzpatrick. With speedy Curtis Samuel as a free agent addition along with dynamic receiver Dyami Brown recently drafted, Washington will hope to form a more explosive offense behind Fitzpatrick’s arm.
CHICAGO BEARS: Having a dominant defensive line.
Khalil Mack is an absolute problem, but his pairing with elite defensive lineman Akiem Hicks seems to be close to coming to a close after Hicks requested a trade. The Bears offense is likely to be pretty bad this coming season, so this team will need to hang their hat on the defensive end just as they have in recent years. Last year, even the defense had an off year, with Mack producing a little less than he normally does and the defense falling to the middle of the pack after an elite start carried the Bears to 5–0. The Bears lost Kyle Fuller but replaced him with Desmond Trufant, and they have rising star Jaylon Johnson at cornerback to pair with him. Losing Hicks up front would leave a massive hole in this defense, making quality play from the defensive line the point of emphasis for this team to return to the playoffs this coming season.
DETROIT LIONS: Improvement from the secondary.
The Matt Patricia tenure ended in disappointment after he was unable to rebuild a defense after multiple attempts at retooling. This year, coach Dan Campbell comes in again with some quality draft picks and signees that seem to have given the Lions the best on-paper team defensively that they have had in recent memory. However, the secondary struggled immensely last season, giving up the worst passer rating to opposing quarterbacks at an unthinkable 112.4. The secondary was addressed by adding Ifeatu Melifonwu in the draft, and there is hope because this group is very young, but there will need to be significant improvement for the Lions to take the next step to show the city of Detroit that this team is moving in the right direction after decades of ineptitude.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: Keep Rodgers healthy, happy, and here.
Green Bay would not be a good team without Aaron Rodgers. They will not be a great team without a healthy and motivated Rodgers. They could win the Super Bowl with an MVP Rodgers with enough of a supporting cast. As of now, GM Gutekunst and Rodgers seem to not have a salvageable relationship. If Rodgers does end up being traded, there does not seem to be any type of outcome in which the Packers would be able to adequately compete with the top of the NFC. Rodgers has carried this team for what seems like forever and is still capable of giving Packers fans a Super Bowl, but Rodgers needs to be given the respect he deserves as one of the most influential players this game has ever witnessed.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Kirk Cousins being consistently above average.
The Vikings have invested in this team very well. Even without much cap flexibility, they have added to the defense (while dealing with significant departures) as well as built the offense through the draft. The offensive line will likely consist of a first or second round draft pick from each of the last four drafts at four of the five spots, and Justin Jefferson was unstoppable at wideout last season. The missing piece for the Vikings as it stands is the quarterback. Cousins is good, but is he enough to take this team from just average to a true competitor? This Vikings team did get exceedingly close to a Super Bowl with a much worse offensive line, and it has been proven that you do not need to have a top flight quarterback to win it all (see: the Eagles & Nick Foles), but the Vikings need Cousins to consistently protect the football and make winning plays for this ball club.
ATLANTA FALCONS: Development of the young cornerbacks.
The Falcons had trouble defending the pass last season, allowing the most passing yards in the NFL. This team has talent on the back end, but very young talent which is more potential than NFL-ready competition at this stage. That showed last season, but there is the possibility for this Falcons team to take the next step. The offense in Atlanta with Ryan and Julio usually does its job, and the front seven for Atlanta improved significantly, most notably with Foyesade Oluokun breaking out as a turnover-creating machine. Now the Falcons turn to corners Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield, and AJ Terrell to capitalize on their talent and give new coach Arthur Smith a workable defense.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: Great play from the offensive line.
Even though their record did not always reflect it, the Panthers were a competitive team last season. The Panthers have invested in the defense with two impact draft picks in recent years adding to both their secondary and their defensive line, making for a young and improving defense in Carolina. The focus now turns to new quarterback Sam Darnold and his pairing with the most electric player in the NFL, Christian McCaffrey. After losing left tackle Russell Okung but retaining right tackle Taylor Moton and returning the rest of the starters, this offensive line seems to be set up well. After years of truly terrible help from the New York Jets, this offensive line will need to instill confidence in the young quarterback and open lanes for the generational talent of McCaffrey. With success from the offensive line, Carolina could be a surprising team this next season.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Get the quarterback decision right.
For the twilight of Drew Brees’ career, it seemed as though the Saints just needed a few things to go right to bring another Super Bowl to the Bayou. Of course, that didn’t work out, and now the Saints are being ushered into the post-Brees era. The looming decision for Sean Payton is choosing between very different quarterbacks in Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston. Both have proven they can win and be effective, with Hill in a much smaller sample size than Winston. Even with essentially no holes in the defense and a very impressive supporting cast on offense, this team seems to have no certainty on whether they will be competitors, for the reason that there seems to be no quality quarterback option on this team. On the other hand, if one of Hill or Winston pans out and provides positive value, this team is constructed so that they can make a deep playoff run.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Continuing to be elite at stopping the run.
I could have easily said that the key is Tom Brady staying great, but that seems like a given at this point. The hallmark of this team this past season, though, was their dominance against the run, punctuated by completely shutting down the Chiefs running game. The Buccaneers amazingly brought virtually everyone back from last year’s squad, but some players will not be immune to aging like Brady is. This team needs to continue to be stout in the run game, and that starts with continued dominance up front from Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh, to pair with elite linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David. There are playmakers all over this defense with a great blend of youth and experience, and the Buccaneers seem primed to rediscover their success because of great continuity on both ends of the ball. As long as this team does not falter due to aging at some key positions along the defense, they should be able to maintain their status as the best rushing defense and again stay atop the NFC.
ARIZONA CARDINALS: Consistency in the running game.
Kyler Murray is an elite quarterback who will continue to improve, especially with the presence of AJ Green and DeAndre Hopkins as his main targets. In the Cardinals’ West Coast offense, the running game is often overlooked, which has led to teams loading up in the secondary and forcing Murray into tough throws and scrambles. While Murray can do a lot on his own, this offense would find a new gear with a running game that matched the efficiency of the passing attack. To be clear, the Cardinals have racked up a lot of yards running the football, though those stats are complicated by Murray’s contribution to yards and yards per carry metrics. Losing David Johnson and replacing him with the struggling James Conner will hope to boost a mediocre running game to add a new dimension to an already explosive offense.
LOS ANGELES RAMS: Replacing John Johnson III.
By all measures the Rams had an elite defense the past season, ranking in the top three in both pass and run defense in yards allowed. With a very difficult cap situation, the Rams had to let some key contributors go, and their lack of draft assets did not allow them to replenish their losses. Most notable of the losses, which included Michael Brockers, Troy Hill, and Samson Ebukam, was John Johnson III. He was one of the leaders of the defense and certainly contributed to the top defensive ranking the Rams enjoyed, but cashed in with the Browns in the offseason. There does not seem to be an immediate replacement on this roster, so the Rams will look for someone to step up and fill his shoes.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Domination in the run game.
The focal point for the Niners’ offense in recent years has been the running game. Jimmy Garroppolo and Trey Lance’s competition throughout the season will garner the most headlines, but in all likelihood it will be an average at best passing game. Led by Raheem Mostert, the Niners have used a committee approach to take over some games and let a rested defense win the rest. This is and will continue to be the 49ers’ recipe for success. The team added promising draft pick Trey Sermon and will again have a great offensive line to help bully the opposing front seven. As long as the defense remains a strength, the combination with a strong running game should propel this team to the playoffs.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Keeping Russell Wilson upright.
For a second it seemed as though franchise quarterback Russell Wilson might be on his way out due to frustration with the front office. For now, though, moves made in the offseason, highlighted by a trade for guard Gabe Jackson, have appeased Wilson. The fact remains, however, that Wilson has not been supported by a quality offensive line for years. There was some improvement last year, but the team still allowed three sacks per game, tying for fifth-worst in the league. Wilson both demands and deserves a better performance from the offensive line to enable him to find Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf down the field. Letting Russ cook is the key for this team to be great, and pass blocking is the way to ensure his, and the team’s, success.
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