Time for a brief tour through all the NFC divisions. Catch up with what’s going on in the AFC edition here:
There was a lot of panic around the Dallas Cowboys after back-up QB Kellen Moore sustained a broken leg during training camp. Given how much the team struggled without Tony Romo last season, one figured the team would have gone out and invested in another experienced back-up. Instead though, fourth round draft pick Dak Prescott has preformed remarkably well through his first two pre-season appearances, putting the Cowboys minds at ease for the time being. There is no guarantee how well he would fare if Romo were to miss more time in the regular, but they have to like what they’ve seen in the early going. The team is also very excited about the potential of first round pick RB Ezekiel Elliott running behind arguably the best offensive line in the NFL. He hasn’t practiced much or played in either of the first two pre-season games due to a minor hamstring ailment, but they appear ready to unleash him as soon as this week.
The New York Giants were hoping to finally get WR Victor Cruz back after missing all of last season and most of 2014 mainly due to patellar tendon surgery and a plethora of other nagging injuries. Unfortunately his return is still up in the air as he has been battling a groin pull through most of training camp. Even if/when he does come back, just how effective will he be nearly a year and a half away from playing his last snap? Luckily for the Giants, they drafted WR Sterling Sheppard in the second round of the draft this year, and so far he looks the part. With Odell Beckham likely to grab most of the attention from opposing secondaries, the Giants need a reliable second option to emerge and it looks like Sheppard should be able to hold his own. If Cruz does eventually make it back and contribute, it will make the Giants group of wideouts that much more dangerous.
It will be a much different looking Philadelphia Eagles team with Chip Kelly no longer coaching the team, especially offensively. The Eagles will return Sam Bradford at QB, but he has a new back-up in Chase Daniel and the team also looked ahead to the future when they traded up to draft QB Carson Wentz. Don’t be surprised if all three end up playing significant snaps by the time the season is done. Of concern for the team is the looming 10 game suspension of LT Lane Johnson. Because Johnson is a repeat offender, his punishment is much more steep. He is going to appeal the suspension, but expect it to stand, though he might see a few games shaved off his sentence. For an offensive that has a lot of question marks going into the season, the last thing the team needs is to miss their starting left tackle for any period of time.
Things have been relatively ho-hum for the defending NFC East Champion Washington Redskins during training camp and the pre-season. Of note is that QB Kirk Cousins is playing on a one year deal this season, in hopes of proving to the team that he is worth a long term investment. With a questionable running game (presumed starting RB Matt Jones is out for the rest of the pre-season with a shoulder injury) and a lot of passing game weapons in TE Jordan Reed and WR’s DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder and eventually injured first round pick Josh Doctson, the offense will likely revolve around Cousins and his ability to distribute the ball. He proved in the second half of last season he had what it takes to get done, and we will now get to see if he is for real and if he can do it over the course of the whole season.
In year two under head coach John Fox, the Chicago Bears hope to show some progress this year in a tough NFC North division. After years of consistency and great play from RB Matt Forte, it appears that the torch has been passed on to RB Jeremy Langford, who showed well in spurts when Forte was injured last season. He may not be a big name yet, but he posted the fast time among running backs at the combine during his draft year, and looks to have put on some muscle this season in anticipation of a heavier workload. It has been a bit of a slow start for WR Kevin White, the first round pick of the team from last year, after missing all of last season with a shin injury. While Alshon Jeffrey is a proven number one receiver, he is injury prone and the Bears need to know that White will be able to produce when called upon. Ideally the two will form a dynamic duo of twin towers for QB Jay Cutler to target, but the odds of both Jeffrey and White remaining healthy for 16 games is not overly good.
There’s no doubt what the biggest storyline through training camp and the pre-season has been for the Detroit Lions thus far: how will the team fare without retired star WR Calvin Johnson? Golden Tate has proven to be a reliable secondary option for the Lions, and even a decent fill in as the top guy when Johnson was injured, the team had to go out and address this need and they decided to go the free agent route with former Bengals receiver Marvin Jones, and the ageless Anquan Boldin, who was added later in the summer just before training camp. Jones has looked good through the first couple of pre-season games as he looks to prove himself as a top flight receiver. While QB Matt Stafford is sure to miss Johnson, the team might actually be collectively deeper at the position now. Throw in emerging TE Eric Ebron, and Stafford will have no shortage of weapons to fling the ball all over the field to.
The Green Bay Packers finally got the news they were waiting for late last week as WR Jordy Nelson was activated from the PUP list. He was sorely missed last year after tearing his ACL in the pre-season, as the Packers offense relied heavily on Aaron Rodgers improvisation skills and mobility to produce and keep the team afloat. Nelson’s return will bump Randall Cobb back to the second receiver role, and role that is much more suited for his skillset. The other notable news from Green Bay comes in the form of RB Eddie Lacy dropping weight over the off-season in order get back to the form he showed in his rookie season two years ago. As much as the Packers rely on Rodgers to run the offense, a healthy and slimmer Lacy will go a long ways to help make the Packers offense fearful again.
Expectations are high for the Minnesota Vikings this year, and aside from moving into a brand new stadium this season, it has been an uneventful lead up to the start of the regular season. The Vikings biggest goal in the off-season was to improve their offensive line, and they did that by signing LG Alex Boone and RT Andre Smith. Boone’s addition killed two birds with one stone as the team will move last years starting LG Brandon Fusco back to the right side, where he is much more comfortable. T.J. Clemmings will move to the swing tackle role after starting at right tackle for the team last year. Should the line play improve, that could mean big things for the third year QB Teddy Bridgewater, who could be ready to break out this year. No matter what though, this team will still revolve around workhorse running back Adrian Peterson and a defense under coach Mike Zimmer that is just brimming with talent and upside.
The biggest issues for the Atlanta Falcons last season was finding a competent second receiver to compliment star WR Juilo Jones and finding a way to get a more consistent pass rush. Early in the off-season, the team signed Mohamed Sanu away from the Bengals to help draw some attention away from Jones. While he is relatively unproven as a second option, frequently playing behind A.J. Green and Marvin Jones while with the Bengals, the upside is there for him to be productive. The development of second year WR Justin Hardy and rookie TE Austin Hooper as reliable targets would also go a long way to making the Falcons offense more productive. Big things are expected of Vic Beasley as a pass rusher going into his second year, but the team still felt it needed some more juice, which is why they signed veteran Dwight Freeney at the beginning of the month. How much he was left in the tank remains to be seen, but he preformed well in late season duty with Arizona last year.
The Carolina Panthers are going to have a hard time repeating their 15-1 regular season of last year, but the talent is definitely there to win the NFC South again and have another deep playoff run. The biggest development for the Panthers on offense is the return of WR Kelvin Benjamin this season after suffering a torn ACL in training camp last year. While he is still working on his conditioning, the return of the towering wideout, along with the continued development of second year wideout Devin Funchess will make an offense led by reigning league MVP Cam Newton that much more dangerous. The biggest question for the team is how the secondary will fare without CB Josh Norman. The team drafted CB’s James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez, and hope at least one of them can emerge and contribute this season.
There’s not much concern about the offense for the New Orleans Saints, as per usual. QB Drew Brees continues to get better with age, and the team added TE Coby Fleener in free agency and WR Michael Thomas in the draft to supplement RB Mark Ingram and WR Brandin Cooks. Where the bulk of the concern resides is on defense, where the Saints were routinely torched last season. Unfortunately, second year OLB Hau’oli Kikaha tore his ACL over the summer and first round pick DT Sheldon Rankins suffered a broken fibula and will likely miss at least half the season, putting the defense behind the eight ball before the season even got started. The team hopes free agent additions DT Nick Fairley, LB James Laurinaitis, S Roman Harper along with second round pick S Vonn Bell and returning second year CB P.J. Williams can help lift the defense to a more respectable showing. It doesn’t need to be elite, but it absolutely needs to be better than it showed last year.
There wasn’t nearly the same amount of roster turnover this off-season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as there normally had been recently, which is the sign of a team that is on an upward trajectory. They did add a few veterans in CB Brent Grimes, LB Daryl Smith and DE Robert Ayers to help supplement a young, and still developing defense. The team expects second year QB Jameis Winston to take another step forward, and he has already done that in a way by showing up to training camp much leaner and trim. If WR Mike Evans care cure his case of the drops that he showed last season, the Winston to Evans combination could be on of the most deadly in the league. A sneaky story to keep an eye on is rookie K Roberto Aguayo, whom the team spent a second round pick on this spring. He’s had an uneven showing thus far, and the team can’t afford to have issues at the position like they had this year, so how he shows the rest of the pre-season will be something to watch.
Expectations for the Arizona Cardinals are sky high again this season, and when you look at the roster, you can see why. The offense returns relatively unchanged, aside from the right side of the offensive line where veteran RG Evan Mathis was signed in free agency and first round pick from last season D.J. Humphries takes over at RT. This is a flat out scary offense, and what’s really scary is that second year RB David Johnson is just starting to scratch the surface of his unlimited potential. Defensively, there are a few more question marks, but the team received some good news last week when S Tyrann Mathieu, CB Justin Bethel and DE Frostee Rucker all were cleared to return to practice. Mathieu, who recently signed a long term contract extension, is the biggest and most important returnee of that group. The team added OLB Chandler Jones via trade and DT Robert Nkemdiche to a defense that hopes to be able to generate a more natural pass rush without having to blitz all the time. This team definitely has the looks of being a Super Bowl contender.
The Los Angeles Rams. That’s the biggest off the field news surrounding the team, having moved back to LA after leaving St. Louis. On the field, the biggest development thus far is that it’s likely first overall pick QB Jared Goff will more than likely start the season on the bench behind veteran QB Case Keenum. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s no doubt Goff will see the field this season. But there’s no need to rush him if he isn’t ready, especially with a smart, capable veteran in Keenum able to fill in until the youngster is ready. RB Todd Gurley is going to be the focal point of the offense no matter who’s quarterbacking this team though. Another year removed from ACL surgery, Gurley is a star in the making and could be ready to explode this year. Aside from having to replace CB Janoris Jenkins and S Rodney McLeod, the Rams defense looks to be in tip top shape again, led by All Pro DT Aaron Donald.
While the defense looks to be in fine shape, the Seattle Seahawks have a handful of question marks on the offensive side of the ball. At running back, things are going to be different this year with Marshawn Lynch having retired. Thomas Rawls looked good in spurts last season, but he suffered a severely broken ankle late last season, and likely won’t play in the pre-season. He was just recently activated from the PUP list and the team will be cautious with him. Mercurial Christine Michael has looked electric this pre-season, and the team is optimistic he’s turned over a new leaf and matured as both a player and person. He’s not a sure thing though. The team has high hopes for third round pick C.J. Prosise, but he has been sidelined since early in training camp with an injury. At TE, Jimmy Graham was just activated from the PUP list as well, but expectations for him have to be tempered as ruptured patellar tendon injuries have proven to be very difficult for others to return to past form. And then there is the offensive line. Littered with question marks, the team drafted OT/OG Germain Ifedi in the draft and signed former Pro Bowl G Jahri Evans a few weeks ago as well. With Garry Gillam and J’Marcus Webb set to play left and right tackle respectively, QB Russell Wilson will have to be on his toes again this season.
It’s likely going to be a long season for new head coach Chip Kelly and the San Francisco 49ers. While the team might be more exciting to watch offensively with Kelly and his fast, up tempo based offense, this is a team that appears to be very thin on talent, aside from RB Carlos Hyde. What was supposed to be the biggest battle in training camp and the pre-season hasn’t really been much of a battle because of injury. QB Blaine Gabbert earned the right to start training camp atop the depth chart with the way he finished last season, but the team had hoped to see Colin Kaepernick compete and push him for the starting job. That has yet to materialize thought as Kaepernick has suffered from what the team describes as a “dead arm” injury. He does appear to be close to returning however, so there is a chance he can still push Gabbert before the pre-season is over. It’s been quite a fall from grace for Kaepernick, who only a few seasons ago was a play away from leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl championship.