1. Green Bay Packers Projected Record: 13-3
The offseason talk surrounding the NFC has typically centered on a handful of certain teams. The Los Angeles Rams are getting a lot of buzz for their flashy offseason moves, while the Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles are generally considered the class of the conference. Yet much of football media has ignored the Super Bowl contender staring them in the face, the Green Bay Packers. Lead by superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Packers will once again field one of the league’s most dynamic offenses. The addition of tight end Jimmy Graham to a pass catching group that includes wide receivers Davante Adams and Randall Cobb will give Rodgers plenty of ways to pick apart defenses, and should make Green Bay absolutely unstoppable in the red zone. The running back trio of Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery complement each other nicely, and if one is able to step up and take on lead ball carrying responsibilities a major question mark surrounding the offense would be answered. Defensively, the signing of defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson was one of the most underrated acquisitions of the offseason and transforms the Packers front seven into one of the best in football. Wilkerson and fellow defensive end Mike Daniels are an absolutely lethal pairing in the middle of that defense, and linebacker Blake Martinez should continue where he left off last season after co-leading the league in tackles. Green Bay’s greatest question mark lies in the secondary, where the team is relying heavily on talented yet inexperienced cornerbacks like rookies Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, and second year pro Kevin King. Alexander and Jackson were two of the draft’s most highly touted cornerback prospects, and both possess the skills to contribute from day one. In total, the Packers should be one of the best teams in football and a real threat to bring home the Lombardi trophy.
2. Minnesota Vikings Projected Record: 12-4
The Minnesota Vikings are one of this year’s trendy picks to make the Super Bowl, and it’s easy to see why. The have one of the most complete rosters in football, and their defense top to bottom might be the most talented in the league. The signing of defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson elevates Minnesota’s defensive line from great to unreal. Being able to generate an obscene amount of pressure when only sending four is a massive advantage, and helps define the Vikings defensive scheme as a whole. Safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes anchor one of the league’s strongest secondaries, while linebacker Anthony Barr controls the middle of the field. On the offensive side of the ball, the signing of quarterback Kirk Cousins and the extension for wide receiver Stefan Diggs clearly indicates Minnesotas shift towards a more aerial attack. It makes a lot of sense, considering Diggs and fellow pass catcher Adam Thielen form the leagues most talented wide receiver duo. The team will also look to utilize running back Dalvin Cook, who looked absolutely electric before going down with an injury early last season. The biggest question surrounding the Vikings is Cousins, and if he ultimately raises their ceiling or handicaps it. The idea that Cousins will be significantly better than last season’s starter Case Keenum is presumptuous, and underrates just how impressive Keenum was last season. Cousins has yet to show he can lead a team to the playoffs, and the pressure of expecting to improve off of last season’s NFC Championship game berth may be a little bit too much for Cousins. Ultimately Minnesota’s defense should be one of the stingiest in the league, and they will keep the Vikings in essentially every game they play. I personally have some concerns about Minnesota’s offense, but still feel confident enough to project double digit wins and another playoff berth.
3. Chicago Bears Projected Record: 8-8
The trade for pass rusher Khalil Mack was probably the most shocking of the offseason, and adds a whole new element to one of the league’s up and coming defenses. A player of Mack’s caliber elevates everyone around him, and a front seven that also includes fellow pass rusher Leonard Floyd and top ten pick Roquan Smith should improve from a borderline top ten unit to one of the league’s best. Chicago’s secondary hovers around league average, and safety Adrian Amos is a superstar hiding in plain sight. The biggest question surrounding this Bears team is the offense, and more specifically the play of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Believers in the Bears project a stellar season for Trubisky, and Chicago’s front office has certainly made it a priority to make his life as easy as possible for the upcoming season. That starts with the hiring of Matt Nagy as the team’s new head coach. Nagy, an Andy Reid disciple, was one of the most innovative young coordinators in the league last season and should completely revamp the Bears offense. Chicago’s front office has also surrounded Trubisky with a bevy of weapons, including running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen as well as free agent signings wide receiver Allen Robinson and tight end Trey Burton. Couple all that with an above average offensive line, and all the pieces are in place for Trubisky to have a Jared Goff or Carson Wentz style breakout sophomore season. Chicago has set themselves up very nicely for the future, and I personally would be more optimistic about their upcoming season if they didn’t play in such a tough division.
4. Detroit Lions Projected Record: 3-13
The Detroit Lions boast one of the weakest and most uninspiring rosters in football, headlined by longtime quarterback Matt Stafford. The Lions offense once again projects as a below average unit, as their inability to cultivate a run game handicaps the teams overall ceiling. The team drafted running back Kerryon Johnson in the second round, but buried him on the depth chart behind veterans Theo Riddick and LeGarrette Blount. Detroit’s wide receivers are nothing to write home about, with Marvin Jones Jr. and Golden Tate the most talented of the group. Defensively, the Lions lack difference makers are every level of their defense. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah is a powerful force off the edge, but he lines up alongside three other league average talents at best. Middle linebacker Jarrad Davis is bursting with potential, but he must improve off his abysmal rookie season if he wants to remain in the league. Detroits secondary is similar to the team’s defensive line in that one outstanding talent (cornerback Darius Slay) must try and compensate for the rest of the abysmal unit. In total, Matt Patricia’s first season as Lions head coach looks primed to be a disappointing one as he inherits one of the leagues worst teams.