NFL: NFC 2016 season preview

NFL: NFC 2016 season preview
GIGANTIC GIANT: Defensive end Olivier Vernon, a major free-agent addition, was dominant in the pre-season. The Giants spent $40 million this season to re-sign Jason Pierre-Paul and sign Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and linebacker Kennan Robinson. They drafted cornerback Eli Apple in the first round to upgrade the secondary. The offence will score points. If defensive co-ordinator Steve Spagnuolo gets the most out of his group, New York should rise to the top.

KIRK’S CREW: Quarterback Kirk Cousins earned himself a one-year contract worth $19.95 million (U.S.) on the franchise tag after throwing for 4,166 yards and 29 touchdowns. Robert Griffin III is gone, so there’s no quarterback controversy in D.C. But Cousins still has to prove himself after the team didn’t give him a long-term contract. The Redskins gave All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman a $75 million, five-year deal to bolster the secondary. Norman better walk his talk after criticizing Odell Beckham, Sam Bradford and others.

GANG GREEN: There hasn’t been this much excitement surrounding the Eagles’ defence since Jim Johnson was calling the shots. Jim Schwartz is the most accomplished defensive co-ordinator in Philadelphia since Jim Johnson passed away in 2009. Schwartz’s defence was outstanding in the pre-season, wreaking havoc and forcing turnovers. It won’t be easy to maintain that success when the games count, but they are on the right track. Defensive end Fletcher Cox got paid to be an elite player and should thrive in Schwartz’s system. Linebacker Jordan Hicks returns after an injury shortened his promising rookie season. Safety Malcolm Jenkins has developed into one of the best at his position.

DOOM IN BIG D: Tony Romo’s latest injury is a big setback for the Cowboys, who were hoping to go from first-to-worst-to-first. But Dak Prescott seems like an upgrade from Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel. He also has a better supporting cast. The real problem for Dallas will be stopping other teams. Starters DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are suspended for the first four games and Rolando McClain will miss the first 10 games of the regular season.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Giants, Redskins, Eagles, Cowboys.

NFC West

LIGHT YEARS: Seattle believes it has rediscovered its swagger from the 2013 Super Bowl title season. There’s no Super Bowl hangover from winning or losing to deal with, just the bitterness of an NFC divisional playoff loss to Carolina.

Despite a calm off-season, Seattle still has flaws. It’s shaky on the offensive line and the performance of the blockers could determine Seattle’s offensive success. If given enough time, quarterback Russell Wilson appears ready to build on last year’s evolution as a passer and his connection with Doug Baldwin, who tied for the NFL lead with 14 TD catches.

The Seahawks have been the top scoring defence in the NFL the past four seasons, and that remains the expectation with the likes of Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner still in their primes.

“I am seeing the same joy, the same intensity, same passion (as 2013),” Sherman said. “Guys just playing for one another and appreciating one another.”

LEARN TO FLY: The Cardinals were 13-3 last season to win the division and are 34-14 under head coach Bruce Arians. They’ve proven they can win in Seattle, a prerequisite to contending in the division.

But there is urgency surrounding Arizona. Quarterback Carson Palmer is coming off his best season but threw four interceptions against the Panthers in the blowout loss in the NFC title game. He turns 37 in December and star receiver Larry Fitzgerald turns 33 on Wednesday, so the opportunity for success may be shrinking.

Running back David Johnson showed last season he can be a great complement to Palmer and the passing game, while the defence should be buoyed by the acquisition of Chandler Jones, the drafting of Robert Nkemdiche, and return of Tyrann Mathieu.

BACK IN CALI: The Rams have a second honeymoon going with Los Angeles after their return home from St. Louis, with 89,140 fans setting an NFL pre-season attendance record for their opener.

But the good feelings in Los Angeles will be tested if the Rams struggle early with a defence that lost a few key contributors and an offence that didn’t add much beyond No. 1 overall draft pick Jared Goff, currently the backup to Case Keenum.

“It’s not up to me. Again, it’s something that I’d love to do, but it’s not my decision,” Goff said of being the starter. “That’s what they pay the coaches for, and that’s what they’re here for.”

Head coach Jeff Fisher hasn’t coached a winning team since 2008, but he’s banking on steady improvement across the board and another big year from running back Todd Gurley to alter the steady mediocrity of his first four Rams teams.

The Rams have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, with the likes of Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn, but it may not be enough to move beyond .500.

FREE FALLIN’: The 49ers have taken a rapid fall from perennial NFC contender to also-ran in recent seasons. After a failed experiment with Jim Tomsula in place of Jim Harbaugh, the Niners are turning to Chip Kelly in hopes that his up-tempo style that was so successful in college at Oregon and early in his tenure with the Eagles will translate to San Francisco.

Kelly has a tall task, starting with finding a quarterback. Colin Kaepernick’s career has plummeted since nearly winning a Super Bowl following the 2012 season, and his insistence on not standing for the U.S. national anthem has sparked something of a furor across the nation.

Blaine Gabbert, who was elevated last season when Kaepernick struggled and was injured, could start despite a career 55.8 completion rate. At receiver, Torrey Smith is the only proven commodity.

The solid defence is led by linebacker NaVorro Bowman and recent first-round picks Eric Reid, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner.

“I don’t ever put a ceiling on a team,” 49ers GM Trent Baalke said. “In 2011, a lot of people wanted to put a ceiling on this team and we did pretty well. This is a young football team. There’s a lot of competition out there.”

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Seahawks, Cardinals, Rams, 49ers.

NFC North

UNDER COVER: The Vikings have moved back inside after a two-year stint at the University of Minnesota while their $1.1 billion, ship-shaped, see-through venue was being built. The gawking will likely go on all season, with the translucent, space-age roof and the ground-to-ceiling glass on the front side giving the enclosed stadium an outdoor feel.

Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, entering his third season, ought to benefit from the controlled climate. After ranking in the bottom third of the league in most of the major passing categories in 2015, Bridgewater has begun a critical season on a team with elite expectations. Signing left guard Alex Boone and drafting wide receiver Laquon Treadwell were important moves made with an eye toward providing the young quarterback with more support.

DIGGING IN: To take back the division title they’ve won eight times in 14 years, the Green Bay Packers need some improvement on defence. Linebacker Clay Matthews has moved back outside to his natural position after a solid performance playing inside to fill in.

That has put the spotlight once again on the men in the middle, a position that has often been in flux during the past decade under coach Mike McCarthy.

Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington are the expected starters for now. Ryan cracked the starting lineup down the stretch as a rookie fourth-round draft pick, and Barrington has been working his way back from a foot injury that cost him most of the season. The Packers ranked 21st and 23rd in yards rushing allowed in the NFL the past two years.

AIR BEARS: Alshon Jeffery was the only player who topped 500 yards receiving for the Bears last season and calf, hamstring, groin and shoulder problems limited him to nine games. The seventh pick in the 2015 draft, Kevin White, missed his rookie season because of a stress fracture in his left shin. That left Jay Cutler without much to work with in the passing game.

With stalwart running back Matt Forte and talented tight end Martellus Bennett gone, there’ll be even more onus on Jeffery and White to not only stay healthy but produce like a top-flight tandem. Jeremy Langford will be the featured runner now that Forte has joined the New York Jets.

GETTING GROUNDED: Detroit’s replacement of Calvin Johnson, following the star wide receiver’s surprise retirement at age 30, will be under scrutiny. Newcomers Marvin Jones, Anquan Boldin and Andre Roberts, who have 25 seasons of experience in the league between them, are getting settled with quarterback Matthew Stafford to supplement Golden Tate.

Running back Ameer Abdullah, along with third-down standout Theo Riddick, is really the one to watch though. The Lions ranked last in the league in rushing yards last season when Abdullah was a rookie. Offensive co-ordinator Jim Bob Cooter, under whom Stafford thrived after a mid-season change, has been tasked with establishing better balance.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Packers, Vikings, Lions, Bears.

NFC South

SECONDARY CONCERNS: Cam Newton remains at quarterback for an offence that has all but one starter back and might be the most potent in the NFL.

Carolina will have two new starters at cornerback, and the players most likely to step in are both rookies: James Bradberry and Daryl Worley. The Panthers led the NFL in takeaways last season with 39, and the secondary was a big reason. But defensive leaders such as linebacker Thomas Davis tend to downplay the extent to which turnovers at those key skill positions could become a liability.

“These young guys have come in and done everything that has been asked of them,” Davis said. “The coaches are really good at what they do and they will get those guys ready. . . . We have a lot of faith in our young players.”

Offensively, the Panthers look as good as ever — and that’s saying something for a franchise that scored an NFL-best 500 points, and which has posted at least 100 yards rushing in an NFL-best 32 straight games (including playoffs).

RYAN’S RESPONSE: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is coming off one of the worst seasons of his largely productive career. Despite having top receiver Julio Jones in all 16 games, Ryan’s 21 TD passes were his fewest since his rookie season in 2008, and he threw 16 interceptions.

Atlanta hopes bringing in three-time Pro Bowl centre Alex Mack from Cleveland helps shore up Ryan’s protection. The Falcons also needed to address one of the NFL’s worst pass rushes and hope they’ve done so with veteran free agent end Dwight Freeney, going into his 15th season.

If those moves pan out, the Falcons might improve upon the eight victories in 2015 in coach Dan Quinn’s first season.

BETTER BUCS: Tampa Bay has finished last in the NFC South five straight times, hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007 and has changed coaches three times in four years. But the offence showed potential under top overall 2015 draft pick Jameis Winston, who passed for more than 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns. Now he’ll be under a new head coach in Dirk Koetter, who also has to be encouraged by moves made to improve his defence. The Bucs drafted cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and defensive end Noah Spence in the first two rounds after signing three new starters in free agency: cornerback Brent Grimes, pass rusher Robert Ayers, Jr., and linebacker Daryl Smith.

SAGGING SAINTS: Coach Sean Payton, who received a lucrative extension despite consecutive 7-9 records, hoped his team was moving in the right direction when it finished 2015 with three victories in its final four games. Yet in three pre-season losses this summer, New Orleans hasn’t demonstrated its offensive line can consistently protect 37-year-old star quarterback Drew Brees, or that its defensive line has considerably improved a pass rush that was anemic in 2015.

The secondary is young and largely unproven, particularly after the release of veteran cornerback Keenan Lewis during training camp.

Depth at numerous positions also is a concern because the Saints were constrained in free agency by meagre salary cap space.
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