By Zach Moretti
The NFL season is almost upon us. Everyone starts fresh with a clean slate and the dream that this could be their year. This will be the first part of a two part series that will break down the divisions and project how each team will finish. This week will concentrate on the NFC, but be sure to check back next week for the AFC preview.
1) New York Giants- The Giants bring back star RB Brandon Jacobs and have just recently locked up franchise QB Eli Manning long term. The defense should be stellar once again and they should continue to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks with DE’s Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. The receivers are a question mark for the Giants, but they have one of the top offensive lines in all of football and they will give Manning time to find the open receiver. This team should be a great team once again and win another NFC East title.
2) Dallas Cowboys- The Cowboys parted ways with controversial WR Terrell Owens and some question the Dallas receiving corps now that Owens is gone. But, Dallas is confident that WR Roy Williams will bounce back from a terrible 2008 campaign and the team still has one of the top TEs in the league in Jason Witten. The backfield is loaded with talent and Marion Barber and Felix Jones have healed from injuries that hobbled them last season. Outstanding LB DeMarcus Ware leads the defensive unit that racks up sacks and CB Terrance Newman leads a good secondary. The Cowboys have all the talent, it’s just a matter of them putting it together on the field. They should be in the playoff hunt once again.
3) Philadelphia Eagles- Philadelphia has long time QB Donovan McNabb back at the helm and he, along with star RB Brian Westbrook, will lead what should be an explosive offense. On defense the team goes on without captain and team leader in FS Brian Dawkins, who was let go in free agency, and they also enter this season without long time defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who passed away. They still have stud DE Trent Cole and standout CB Asante Samuels, but it is unclear how the defense will respond to the numerous changes and the controversial signing of QB Michael Vick could prove to be more of a distraction than he’s worth. Regardless, this team is still very talented and should compete for a playoff berth.
4) Washington Redskins- Washington has a great defense and they should only get better with the addition of DT Albert Haynesworth. The team has a talented secondary led by CB Carlos Rodgers and a solid group of linebackers built around veteran London Fletcher-Baker. The problem with the Redskins is on the offensive side of the ball. The team twice tried to replace QB Jason Campbell, but they were unsuccessful in their efforts and are therefore stuck with him for another season. The Redskins still have a workhorse in RB Clinton Portis, and TE Chris Cooley is one of the top at his position in the league. But the Redskins are in a tough division with a weak offensive line and there just doesn’t seem to be enough firepower on offense for this team to vie for the playoffs.
1) New Orleans Saints- New Orleans is known for their offense and they are still led on that side of the ball by franchise QB Drew Brees. The Saints are hoping to have star WR Marques Colston for a full season and the running game should be improved as RBs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush should prove to be a good tandem. The defense hasn’t magically changed and won’t be in the top five in the league, but they should be better. FS Darren Sharper was a nice addition to the team and they still have talented players in DE Will Smith and LB Jonathon Vilma. This team is so explosive offensively that their defense only has to be average for them to capture the NFC South crown.
2) Carolina Panthers- Carolina looks to build off their success in 2008, and if they continue to hand the ball off to RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart they could see similar results. But in order to keep defenses honest and not have them stacking eight or nine guys in the box, QB Jake Delhomme is going to have to improve. He does have a great target in WR Steve Smith, who is a perennial Pro-Bowler, but outside of that his options are thin in the passing game. The defense is certainly capable of getting stops and they have a lot of talent on that side of the ball. LB Jon Beason is a tackling machine, DE Julius Peppers racks up sacks and CB Chris Gamble is a shutdown corner. But while this team is definitely going to be in the playoff hunt, their fate will be determined by the play of their quarterback.
3) Atlanta Falcons- The Falcons are coming off a remarkable season where rookie QB Matt Ryan played extremely well. Ryan will once again get to hand the ball off to last year’s breakout star, RB Michael Turner. The offense also has Pro-Bowl WR Roddy White and they traded to acquire future Hall-of-Fame TE Tony Gonzalez from the Kansas City Chiefs. The defense is where the Falcons have issues. The team ranked 24th in yards per game allowed last year and they have since parted ways with LB Keith Brooking. The schedule is much tougher this season and while their offense is good, it isn’t elite and it will be tough to make up for their sub-par defense. So while the Falcons could contend for the playoffs, a step-back year seems likely.
4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers- Tampa Bay has gone through dramatic changes since last season. They have a new head coach in tow and changed quarterbacks in the off-season, swapping out Jeff Gacia with Byron Leftwich. Leftwich will have some decent passing options in WR Antonio Bryant and newly acquired TE Kellen Winslow. The team also added RB Derrick Ward and he will be part of what should be a respectable ground game as he splits carries with RB Earnest Graham. The defense said goodbye to long time defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and LB Derrick Brooks was cut, so it is unclear what to expect from that bunch. This team will be better than most people think, but they are clearly in rebuilding mode.
1) Green Bay Packers- The Packers were a disappointing team in 2008, but they were also quite unfortunate, losing seven games by 4 points or less. Look for those close games to balance out more this year as young QB Aaron Rodgers looks to build on a stellar season. Rodgers will once again have up-and-coming WR Greg Jennings to throw to and he will also have RB Ryan Grant to handle the running game. The Green Bay defense moves from the 4-3 scheme to the 3-4, but LB Aaron Kampman is great at getting to the opposing quarterback and the secondary is strong with CBs Charles Woodson and Al Harris. The defense doesn’t have to be great, just solid as their offense should be a prolific one. Look for the Packers to battle it out with the Bears for NFC North supremacy.
2) Chicago Bears- The Bears finally got a franchise quarterback when they traded for Broncos QB Jay Cutler. Cutler won’t have the weapons he had in Denver, but WR Devin Hester is developing into more than just a great return man and TE Greg Olsen is a good receiving threat as well. The ground game will again be good with RB Matt Forte leading the charge coming off an outstanding rookie season. The defense should be good, with their strength being a loaded linebacking corps led by LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. The secondary is a bit of a question mark but the Bears have a lot of talent and should be in contention for the playoffs.
3) Minnesota Vikings- After all the waffling a decision was finally made and the Vikings signed future Hall of Fame QB Brett Favre. It is well known that Favre is tough, starting in a quarterback record 253 consecutive games, but that could prove to hurt Minnesota. Favre had a great start last year with the New York Jets, but he tore his bicep in his throwing arm in the middle of the season. Yet Favre played through the pain and his play declined as the team sputtered to a 1-4 finish and ended up missing the playoffs. Favre will turn 40 in October so health is a major concern, but the team does have a phenomenal player in RB Adrian Peterson and they should still lean on him heavily. The defense is a talented group with defensive line that boasts DTs Kevin and Pat Williams and DE Jared Allen. The team has the talent, but relying on a 40 year old QB to stay healthy makes the Vikings a coin toss.
4) Detroit Lions- Abysmal. Dreadful. Horrendous. All of these words can be used to describe the 2008 Lions season, where they were the so bad that they finished with the first ever winless season in NFL history. The Lions selected QB Matthew Stafford first overall in the 2009 NFL Draft and while it is unclear whether Stafford will have the opportunity to start right away. It is almost certain that he will get his shot at some point this year. The team has some talented young weapons offensively with WR Calvin Johnson and RB Kevin Smith, but the offensive line still needs some work. Defensively the Lions are pretty slim on talent. LB Ernie Simms is a beast in the middle, but the team has a weak defensive line and the secondary is nothing to write home about. It is highly unlikely that Detroit will go winless yet again, but don’t expect anything more that 4 or 5 wins.
1) Seattle Seahawks- The Seahawks were bad in 2008, but they were also unlucky with several key players getting injured. QB Matt Hasselbeck has recovered from numerous injuries that kept him off the field last year and Seattle gave him a new weapon to work with this season with the addition of WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The backfield isn’t exactly loaded with the likes of Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett, but they should be good enough to keep defenses honest in what will surely be a pass happy offense similar to their 2007 team. The defense is anchored by MLB Lofa Tatupu and the Seahawks signed veteran CB Ken Lucas to help improve their secondary. If the defense can be middle of the pack then it should be enough for Seattle to win a rather weak division.
2) Arizona Cardinals- Arizona’s 2009 fortunes rest solely on QB Kurt Warner and whether or not he can stay healthy for all 16 games. Warner was simply amazing a season ago and posted huge numbers, but it was the first time he had played in every game since 2001. It seems unlikely that he will be able to keep healthy for a full slate of games again, especially at the age of 38. There is plenty of talent for Warner to work with if he can stay on the field, with elite WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. The defense was decent last year but they do have some talent. FS Adrian Wilson is stellar and LB Karlos Dansby looks to build upon his career year. If Warner can stay healthy, this is a potential playoff team, but that’s a big if.
3) San Francisco 49ers- The 49ers are built around franchise RB Frank Gore and head coach Mike Singletary has preached giving him the ball more, which should help San Francisco be more competitive. The signal caller for the 49ers this season will be QB Shaun Hill, who was decent in his time as a starter last year. At least for now, Hill will be without rookie WR Michael Crabtree, as he is holding out amidst a contract dispute. The defense was actually respectable last season and they are led by one of the best linebackers in the league in Patrick Willis. The 49ers won’t be a pushover this season, but they won’t drastically improve from last year either.
4) St. Louis Rams- The Rams have one thing going for them and that is stud RB Steven Jackson. There’s just about nothing Jackson can’t do on a football field, but getting on the field has been a problem for Jackson as he has missed time each of the past two seasons due to injuries. The team’s quarterback is an issue as starter Marc Bulger has also been constantly injured the past few years. The defense isn’t terrible and DE Chris Long should be good for years to come. But the Rams just don’t appear to be at a place where they can consistently compete from week to week.