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Projecting NFC standings, division by division, as off-season nears end

 With the NFL’s off-season nearly in books, this is how I see things the NFC standings taking shape.

Last week, before the Deflategate report was released, taking the NFL news cycle hostage for the foreseeable future, we were halfway through a post-draft division-by-division projection of the 2015 standings, based on the off-season work teams have done to their roster and coaching/front office staffs. The AFC can be found here, and now we finally get around to predicting the NFC pecking order.  

The 2015 draft is a done deal and free agency has largely been completed, meaning the personnel acquisition phase of the off-season is all but over. At this late date, teams are making tweaks, not wholesale changes. With the NFL’s off-season still having more than nine weeks to go, this is how I see things shaping up from the vantage point of mid-May:

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NFC East

1. Philadelphia Eagles—Other than relocate to Eugene and rename the franchise the Oregon Kellys, what haven’t the Eagles done this off-season? Head coach Chip Kelly has certainly gone to town on his roster, wheeling and dealing as if he was playing fantasy football for the first time. But lost in all the sexy headlines is Philly’s obvious improvement on defense, with Byron Maxwell, Kiko Alonso, Walter Thurmond and Eric Rowe added to the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass defense in 2014. If Sam Bradford stays healthy and flourishes in Kelly’s passer-friendly offense, and DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews combine to top what LeSean McCoy provided in the backfield, the Eagles will make all Kelly’s bold moves look smart.

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2. Dallas Cowboys—The Cowboys’ stunning 12-4 showing last season has infused the organization with confidence, so much so that Dallas was content to let the NFL’s leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, get away in free agency to the one team that will be its biggest challenger for division supremacy. They don’t seem to know it yet, but the Cowboys will come to regret that call. Dallas had itself a heck of a draft if Byron Jones, Randy Gregory and La’el Collins all play like first-round talents, but a step back on defense and in the running game again will put too much of the burden on Tony Romo’s shoulders and doom the Cowboys’ bid for their first consecutive playoff seasons since 2006-07. 

[]​3. New York Giants—Here’s the good news, Giants fans: Tom Coughlin won a Super Bowl in his fourth season in New York, and again in his eighth season in New York, and the veteran coach is now entering his 12th season in New York. So go ahead and get the Canyon of Heroes permit ordered now because there’s a parade in store ... or maybe the end of an era, in what shapes up as Coughlin’s playoffs-or-walk-into-the-sunset season with the G-Men. I like the back-to-the-future move of re-hiring Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator, and if Victor Cruz returns to health and teams with wunderkind second-year receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Eli Manning should do some damage in the passing game. But overall, it still doesn’t look like enough.

4. Washington Redskins—I suppose Robert Griffin III could return to his phenomenal 2012 rookie form, Brandon Scherff could stabilize and elevate a shaky offensive line, the defense could improve dramatically with veterans like Terrance Knighton, Stephen Paea, Chris Culliver and Dashon Goldson added to the mix, and new general manager Scot McCloughan could finally bring a sense of order and effectiveness to Washington’s front office operation. But that’s a lot to ask for in one year, and even though I foresee improvement in D.C., it won’t add up to playoff contention or escaping the NFC East basement just yet. 

NFC North

1. Green Bay Packers—When you were a mere onside kick recovery away from the Super Bowl, it’s best not to over-react and try to re-invent the wheel, so the Packers’ Team Status Quo act this off-season makes perfect sense. Green Bay did the smart stuff we've come to expect from the Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy regime, re-signing Randall Cobb, Bryan Bulaga, John Kuhn, B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion, and getting more help for the secondary in the draft with the additions of Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. The Packers still haven’t lived up to their multiple Super Bowl potential, but Green Bay will make it five consecutive NFC North titles, and an NFC-best seven straight trips to the playoffs in 2015.

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2. Minnesota Vikings—The Vikings have something good building in Year 2 of Mike Zimmer’s coaching tenure, and let’s see how much better Teddy Bridgewater is at quarterback this season when he has a highly motivated Adrian Peterson lining up behind him (and yes, that will be the end result of the long Peterson saga). With another strong draft added to the mix (Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, T.J. Clemmings) and a legitimate No. 1 receiver in Mike Wallace arriving via trade with Miami, Minnesota is primed to fight through a tough schedule and lay claim to an NFC wild-card berth.

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3. Detroit Lions—I didn’t see the Lions coming last year, when they went a surprising 11-5 and made the NFC playoffs, and I don’t see them following up on that success story with another January run. Detroit hasn’t put together consecutive winning seasons and playoff trips since stringing together three in row under coach Wayne Fontes from 1993-95. Haloti Ngata replaces Ndamukong Suh on paper, but I’m not sure the on-field results will be there, and if the Lions’ strength in the middle is missing, Teryl Austin’s defense could be in for a season of regression.

4. Chicago Bears—The Bears have proven new coaches in John Fox, Vic Fangio and Adam Gase, and a highly regarded first-time general manager in Ryan Pace. But they still have Jay Cutler at quarterback—much to the organization’s chagrin—and that’s why they’re sentenced to last place in our NFC North projection. Cutler is a sunk cost for Chicago at this point, and he’ll find a way to sink the Bears once again in 2015 with his maddeningly inconsistent play. A promising draft brings some hope to Fox’s team, with Kevin White, Eddie Goldman and Hroniss Grasu adding building block pieces, but it won't be enough to lift the Bears to .500 territory.

NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints—Did I really pick the Saints to win it all last season, right before they tanked, earning the Underachiever of the Year award in the NFL? I have a habit of being a year too early on these things, so, with that in mind, I kind of love New Orleans’s bounce-back chances in 2015. The Saints were frenetic in their dealings this off-season, but veteran additions like center Max Unger, running back C.J. Spiller, cornerback Brandon Browner and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe are win-now moves that should pay off nicely. And maybe jettisoning tight end Jimmy Graham is one of those less-is-more decisions that pays dividends in ways that only the Saints locker room can fully appreciate. With a schedule on the soft side and a division that’s still eminently winnable, New Orleans will rebound.

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2. Atlanta Falcons—It was a strange brew in Falcons-ville last year, with head coach Mike Smith somehow keeping his team in it until Week 17 in the dysfunctional NFC South, even while ownership and the front office seemed eager to end his largely successful run. Smith did indeed get the boot in favor of Dan Quinn, and the former Seattle defensive coordinator brings a fresh approach to the gig. But unless he can get immediate impact from all three of his top defensive draft picks—edge rusher Vic Beasley, cornerback Jalen Collins and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett—Quinn’s Falcons still don’t have nearly enough talent on that side of the ball to punch in the NFC’s heavyweight class.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers—The Bucs have to be hoping Jameis Winston changes everything about the losing dynamic in Tampa Bay, taking Lovie Smith’s team on a similar trajectory as Andrew Luck did for Indianapolis after he went first overall in 2012. Those Colts went from 2-14 to 11-5 and in the playoffs overnight, and they haven’t stopped climbing since. Unlikely? Maybe, but it’s not as if there isn’t talent to work with in Tampa Bay. That’s how much of a difference a big-time quarterback can make, and if Winston is the real deal, the Bucs could be the turnaround story of the year in the NFL. I don’t rule out Tampa Bay taking a quantum leap, but six or seven wins and flashes of elite play from Winston would make for a solid first step.

4. Carolina Panthers—Picking a team that went 7-8-1 to finish last in its division might not seem like such a big stretch, but it does raise a few eyebrows when that club also happens to be the two-time defending NFC South champion. Behold the enigma that is the Carolina Panthers. No matter how impressive their December rally was, I can’t get past how shoddy a team the Panthers were for most of last season. When you mix in their ho-hum free agency work (Ted Ginn, Michael Oher, and Jonathan Martin?) and a puzzling top of the draft (Shaq Thompson and trading up for Devin Funchess?), it's really hard to view Carolina as a playoff contender.

NFC West

1. Seattle Seahawks—Only time will tell us if the Seahawks really are past the Super Bowl play call that shook Seattle. I’m dubious that a psychic scar of that magnitude can be filed away with the power of compartmentalization, but Pete Carroll’s resilient team might be just the type to prove me wrong. The Seahawks wisely made Marshawn Lynch happy this off-season, but there is that lingering Russell Wilson contract situation to contend with, and the Frank Clark pick in the second round might wind up being way more trouble than it was worth. The Jimmy Graham trade should solve this team’s red-zone scoring issues, but with Max Unger’s departure, the interior of Seattle’s already problematic offensive line just got weaker.

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2. Arizona Cardinals—The Cardinals posted their first 11-win record in 39 years last season, but it didn’t quite feel that successful, because their dominant 9-1 beginning gave way to a 2-5 finish that included a one-and-done playoff dismissal at Carolina. That’s what happens when you’re forced to identify and start your fourth-string quarterback. But with a healthy Carson Palmer, Bruce Arians can work a little magic in the NFC West, and I’d be surprised if the Cardinals aren’t nipping at Seattle’s heels all season. The loss of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles bears watching, but Arizona still has enough talent to win with and added some useful cogs in free agency like guard Mike Iupati, linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and LaMarr Woodley and defensive tackle Corey Peters.

3. St. Louis Rams—The perennial tease that is the Rams has a new twist this year. They took Georgia’s Todd Gurley in the draft’s top 10, then went heavily for offensive linemen, with Jeff Fisher fully intent on re-creating the kind of offense that runs first and thinks about passing as a diversion. Whatever you do this season, take the under when St. Louis is involved. Low-scoring games should continue to be the Rams’ calling card. It’s always tempting to pick the Rams as a breakthrough team, but I can’t see Nick Foles playing better in St. Louis than he did in Philadelphia, and who knows what that renovated offensive line is going to look like by September? St. Louis hasn’t had a winning season since 2003, and Fisher hasn’t been north of .500 since '08. Those are trends I foresee continuing.

4. San Francisco 49ers—In fairness to the 49ers, following the tumultuous events of 2014 and this off-season, they could probably use a little time to collect themselves, catch their breath and re-focus their energies on the future. It’s why I’m giving them this season with absolutely no burden of expectation placed upon them. I’m assigning them last place in the NFC West, with a promise to check back on them in 2016. Jim Tomsula as Jim Harbaugh’s replacement? Who knows? Colin Kaepernick returning to franchise-QB form? I guess we’ll see. No Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland or Vic Fangio? That’s a load of departures to overcome. Whatever the 49ers are to be going forward, it’s clearly not going to be what they were in the past under Harbaugh. I suppose there’s a chance that could be for the better, but I’m fully expecting it to be for the worse.