We’ve got one week until the preseason games start up. So, let’s take a quick spin around the NFC to see what’s up in each division.
The Vikings were the class of the division last season, but they sent away all their quarterbacks (three in all, Case Keenum, Tedy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford) to bring in Kirk Cousins from Washington. Reports from camp are that Cousins is finding some rhythm with his new receiving corps, especially the recently extended playmaker Stefon Diggs. Whether he can maintain the offensive balance that made the Vikings so dangerous offensively last year will be another story entirely. The other big news out of Minnesota is that Dalvin Cook looks to be nearing one-hundred percent and adding the young RB back to the mix will certainly help ease the new quarterback’s transition.
The Bears selected Butkus award winning LB Roquan Smith out of Georgia with the number eight pick in the draft to shore up one of the more porous defenses in the NFC. I’d tell you more about him, except that he hasn’t taken the field yet. He’s in a contract stalemate over some very specific language. His agents are looking for a specific carve out that protects Smith’s guaranteed money, even if he is suspended for multiple games for the newly specified targeting rule. I’m not sure how this will pan out, because I’m certain that the Bears brass are under considerable pressure from other owners to avoid setting this precedent.
Green Bay will be looking to get back on track after their injury-plagued 2017 campaign. Given that Aaron Rodgers has said he’s looking to follow Tom Brady’s lead and play until after his fortieth birthday, the Packers should be ready to re-do their quarterback’s deal. I’m sure that there are some obstacles, but clearly Rodgers wants to be a Packer for life. You do NOT want that guy showing up twice a year in purple like Brett Favre did.
Detroit has a new coach, in former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. Reports from camp are that the new head coach has been deeply involved in the coaching process on both sides of the ball, and that he runs a tighter and tougher ship than his predecessor. He’ll look to beef up the NFL’s worst running game by bringing in an old Patriots cohort, bruising back LaGarrette Blount. It will be interesting to see how the new coach’s more physical style will go as the preseason stretches on.
Tampa Bay got exactly the news that they didn’t want to hear and will start the season without QB Jameis Winston. While it doesn’t look like any criminal charges are coming, the league has decided that there was merit behind an Uber driver’s claim that Winston drunkenly groped her, and that he lied about the incident afterwards. Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick will be the starter until Winston is cleared to play, and it’s likely to cost the Buccaneers any chance to compete in the loaded NFC South. Honestly, they probably couldn’t contend even if Winston got a pass for his idiotic and loathsome behavior.
Carolina has had a rough and tumble camp, losing both Daryl Williams and Ross Cockrell to leg injuries in the opening days. But some glimmers of hope are starting to emerge on the defensive side of the ball. Rookie cornerback Donte Jackson looks like a serious baller, showing burst on corner blitzes and making life tough for Cam Newton. Whether we see Superman Cam this season, or not, will go a long way towards deciding the fate of the South.
New Orleans was a bit of a surprise last year, featuring a two-back system and a larger reliance on the run. Despite the looming suspension of Mark Ingram, I’d expect to see more of the same next year. Reports are that the team is even practicing some read- option plays in red zone drills. No word yet on how Drew Brees feels about initiating contact with linebackers, given the new helmet rule.
Atlanta probably has the best-looking QB-WR duo in the division, now that the contract drama with Julio Jones has been resolved. It took a little bit of tweaking, but Julio Jones is no longer the ninth-highest paid player at his position in the league. I feel ridiculous just saying that. It’s absurd. I’d mention other issues from Falcons camp, but as long as that duo is in place, Atlanta is in the fight for the division.
Jerry Jones seems to be taking the hard line desired by the sitting president on the anthem issue, stating that his players will be on the field and standing, not back in the locker room (the craven compromise the league has worked out), under penalty of fines and suspensions. While it’s his prerogative to penalize players for policy infractions in his organization, he must know that such a team policy will further divide his team and inflame the issue. I’d be shocked if the Cowboys don’t buckle under the weight of Jones’ ego.
At the other end of the spectrum, Giants owner Steve Tisch has made it crystal clear that he expects the president to mind his business, and that regardless of fines levied against the organization, no players will be punished on his watch. In other news, the Giants benefitted from the Browns being the Browns, getting possibly the best offensive player in the draft, Penn State RB Saquon Barkley. The new RB is already showing flashes of brilliance in camp, both as a rusher, and as a pass-catcher in the flat. He’ll do
several things that will make the Giants far more dangerous. First, he’ll give Manning time in play action to hit OBJ on longer routes, and he’ll keep safeties from locking in on Beckham. The Giants got a steal at number two overall. They still aren’t as good as the Eagles.
The returning champion Eagles have had a great camp thus far, with injured QB Carson Wentz almost all the way back from the knee injury that ended his season. Once he’s cleared for contact, it will be full on enthusiasm for fans in the City of Brotherly Love, because I can’t see any reason why the Eagles couldn’t repeat. The addition of Michael Bennet to the defense is borderline unfair.
Washington’s training camp has been largely devoid of any major fireworks. Reports are that Alex Smith is coming along nicely, avoiding trouble and making few, if any, mistakes as he adjusts to his new offense. Yup. That sounds like the camp report on the Least Interesting Man in the World. In the division with these other three teams, Washington is unlikely to stand out for any reason aside from their horrible team name and mascot. Sorry, not sorry.
At the top of the division, the Rams look terrific, adding strength to strength in the offseason, adding WR Brandin Cooks from the Patriots, and shoring up their secondary with two top veteran corners, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. With Todd Gurley’s contract situation settled and Cooks to stretch the field as he did in New England, this is a team that has the potential to be even better than it was last year. Caveat. No one saw the Rams coming last year. Teams won’t be surprised this coming season. I still expect them to contend for the NFC title.
In San Francisco, the fans have a case of Jimmy G fever. And with his (thus far) undefeated NFL career as a starter, Jimmy G is feeling himself. His recent comments that he thought he was better than the starter in New England are what you want to hear from a team leader, but they do seem a little delusional when the guy playing in front of you is the GOAT. San Francisco will be better this year, but they won’t pressure the Rams in the division. Not yet. The addition of former Seahawk Richard Sherman should help shore up an uneven secondary. Reports from camp are that Sherman has generally looked good, even getting the better of Garoppolo with an INT. Problem child Reuben Foster is back in camp, after his ex-girlfriend recanted her story of domestic abuse to officials. Apparently, her injuries were the result of a road rage incident with
an unknown other party, and she chose to pin the injuries on her ex for unknown reasons. He’s not out of the woods, though, as he’s still got a suspension coming stemming from incidents involving both marijuana and an illegal firearm.
The Cardinals are loving what they’re seeing from their new rookie QB Josh Rosen in camp. While the maddeningly oft-injured Sam Bradford is officially the starter, it won’t be long before the fans in Cardinal nation want to see their shiny new toy in action. Rosen has shown poise in his drills, as was expected. Many, including myself, saw Rosen as the most polished and NFL-ready of this year’s QB prospects. He’ll only get a year, or two, with Larry Fitzgerald. I wouldn’t waste that if I was the coaching staff in
Seattle. Boom goes the dynamite. With most of their vaunted Legion of Boom wearing different uniforms this year, it looks like a full rebuild is on the horizon for one of the best teams in the NFC in recent years. Gone are Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Earl Thomas is in a staring match with the brass, and he wants out. There’s no reason they should be reticent to pay one of the best safeties in the entire league what he’s worth if they aren’t gearing up for a seriously down year. Thomas has been a bargain, and the lynchpin of that championship defense. They need to pay him for his services or let him go.
Image source: USA Today