Only seven (count ‘em!) days left until the biggest draft day in all of North American sport, and the other half of the league have also been busy in plugging perceived holes in their rosters.
It is akin to a sporting Cold War: teams are not only desperate for their draft information not to get out, but are also trying to feed the press misinformation to throw everyone else off their strategy. The only certainty for draft day is that Roger Goodell will be heavily booed when he takes the stage on April 28. Here’s my outlook for the NFC – I will have a go at posting one mock draft closer to the date.
The Eagles always seem to be big players in free agency year after year. Last year brought us their creative trade of Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso to Miami for draft capital, followed by a stunning trade with Cleveland to move up and select quarterback Carson Wentz.
This year, their free-agency focus was on surrounding Wentz with some weapons; first they acquired wide receiver Torrey Smith on a reasonable deal ($15m, three years), followed by the best wide receiver on the market in Alshon Jeffery in a slightly curious one year “prove-it” of $9m.
They have moved on from some defensive players such as Connor Barwin, but still figure to play fiercely with All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox the linchpin. I was a huge fan of Timmy Jernigan at Baltimore and think they got a steal with their trade for him.
The Eagles overall are in a strange spot at present. For the last three years, they have churned their roster like no tomorrow – the Chip Kelly years, in particular, were an adrenaline rush unlike no other – and have been happy to release/trade high-profile players in LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.
They figure to upgrade at running back, and their offensive line is not to the calibre of their fantastic 2014 version. While not as talented as the Cowboys or Giants, they remind me a bit of the Pakistani one-day cricket team; can play rubbish one week, can play David and slay Goliath the next.
7-9 – will lose games they shouldn’t, and win games they have no business winning.
The Giants did some things in free agency – Jason Pierre-Paul got paid, Johnathan Hankins remains unsigned in his quest for $10m a year, annual disappointments Rashad Jennings and Larry Donnell were cut loose – but nobody cares because the only thing we want to watch this year is how the new diva-receiver pairing of Odell Beckham Jr and Brandon Marshall will get along in the Giants’ locker room.
It has all the hallmarks of a reality TV show – in one alternate ending, the two act quasi-professional, stick to their respective halves of the field, catch everything Eli Manning throws at them, and the locker room remains intact through some unexplained law of physics.
In another, Marshall unleashes his inner Simon Katich and grabs Beckham by the throat shortly after a narrow loss in week three, condemning the Giants to a season of bitter infighting. Beckham refuses to play again until Marshall says sorry, and Marshall responds by calling Odell “Victoria” all over social media. It all becomes too much and Marshall is cut before week five.
Strap yourselves in people – no matter what happens this year with Big Blue, it’s going to be entertaining. I wonder if there will be an end-of-regular-season boat trip this year before the playoffs?
11-5 if Marshall and Beckham are restrained with emotional straight-jackets.
Wow. It has truly been a horror show in DC, and we’re not even talking about the election.
When you combine the sacking of their general manager shortly after the NFL Combine, the loss of their two best wide receivers in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, and the total and utter financial mismanagement of Kirk Cousins by putting the franchise tag on him once again without being able to sign him to a long-term deal, their entire offseason has abruptly face-planted into a giant dumpster, defecated wildly, doused itself in petrol, and set itself on fire.
Cousins will walk for nothing but a compensatory pick next year short of a miraculous thawing of hostilities. In non-quarterback roster moves, they re-signed tight end Vernon Davis almost as an admission that Jordan Reed cannot stay healthy, and goodness knows they need him too.
Terrelle Pryor escaped Cleveland on a very odd $8m one-year rental after badly misjudging both the free agent wide receiver market and the stability of the team he was coming to – at least he can share a ride with Cousins to the airport in February 2018.
5-11, 2-14 if they trade Cousins to San Francisco shortly before the draft. The dumpster fire will burn brightly through the long, cold DC winter.
No recap is really necessary of the stunning rise of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott into NFL superstardom. Both have breathed new life into a Dallas offence that was for too long carried by Tony Romo.
Now that the Romo circus has come to a finale and he has been released (so he can sign for Hou- wait, he’s taken a commentary job at CBS!? Doesn’t he want to win a SuperBowl!? I digress…), Dallas otherwise retain collectively an array of offensive firepower that will remain elite in 2017.
However, for all the certainty that they have on offence, the Cowboys have huge issues defensively. Last year was spent papering over the cracks, and those cracks have blown wide open with the departures of Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church and JJ Wilcox. Sean Lee aside, they are awash with mediocrity.
I am wary of the Cowboys having the same success this year as they had in 2016. While they will still put up points, they figure to be in a lot of shootouts or at least games with shootout potential.
They also have a much tougher schedule; away opponents excluding the NFC East are the Cardinals, 49ers, Broncos, Raiders and Falcons. They also play the Seahawks and Packers at home – of those seven games, I don’t seem them winning more than four. Prescott was an unknown quantity last year, but with a whole season of tape teams will plan and scheme accordingly.
9-7, probably due for a regression, and will require a lot of time of possession arm-wrestles to get their wins.
I certainly didn’t see Detroit as a playoff calibre team last season, and I’m going to double-down this season. There’s really just nothing about them that excites you, and they are a team who are always a chance to go out any given week and get beaten by 30.
While Matthew Stafford threw for 3,000 light years or so last year and single-handedly won games, that has been the problem; it’s all Matthew Stafford. Marvin Jones started the year hot, then disappeared. Golden Tate disappeared at the start of the year, then got hot, then disappeared again.
Eric Ebron was at least consistent enough to disappear for the entire year. Despite all that, they still finished 9-7, made the playoffs, and gave the Seahawks the heeby-jeebies for three quarters in their Wild Card game. Go work that out.
They upgraded on the offensive line with an enormous contract for ex-Ravens right tackle Ricky Wagner, and another one for ex-Green Bay right guard TJ Lang (there certainly is something sweet about robbing a divisional rival of a talented player).
I don’t know whether this is designed to protect Stafford better, or if this heralds a crazy new philosophy of running the football. One thing is for sure – no matter how I predict they will go next year, I will be wrong.
7-9, but take the over if you’re a gambler as I am a poor one. Profit from my error.
The 2016 season was over before it began for Minnesota last year when starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater went down with a gruesome knee dislocation.
Panicked, the front office did the only thing that a front office with Super Bowl aspirations could; they traded their 2017 first-round pick to the Eagles for Sam Bradford – who’s not allergic to a knee injury himself. For the first five weeks of last year, that trade looked like a masterstroke. But the front well and truly fell off (RIP John Clarke) once Adrian Peterson and various offensive linemen went down, and Bradford was forced to do very un-Bradford-like things like stay healthy and throw the ball.
So I don’t really know what to make of the 2017 Vikings. Peterson is gone, Bradford is still there, and they joined the league-wide offensive lineman merry-go-round. New signing Latavius Murray had a tendency to disappear in games even behind a much superior offensive line in Oakland.
Star defensive tackle Shariff Floyd is no guarantee to return soon after rumours emerged of a nerve injury to his quadriceps. Bridgewater still has no return date. They have no first round pick in the upcoming draft. Any defence containing Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith will remain dynamic, but they’re not going to improve enough in the offseason to be thinking playoffs again.
6-10 if and when the run game reaches its 2016 nadir.
When Mike Glennon is the answer, I cringe at the question. Jay Cutler is much more talented as a quarterback, but after seven seasons in Chicago and not the best record or rub with teammates, you can understand why the front office decided it was time for a change.
It goes to show you the quarterback market where Glennon, who didn’t do a whole lot good on an admittedly poor Tampa Bay side a few years ago, gets a $45m, three-year contract.
This year is going to be a dour and uninspiring one for long-suffering Bears fans. While not in total dumpster mode like the Jets, they won’t be far away if 2015 Glennon re-emerges from under his shell and Jordan Howard can’t repeat his impressive rookie season of 1300+ rushing yards.
Mark Sanchez waits in the wings when Glennon proves ineffective. Yep that’s right – Mark Sanchez, patron saint of the buttfumble (YouTube it.) Will Kevin White ever get healthy and show what made him the #7 pick a few years ago?
3-13 without divine intervention or spending pick three on a quarterback – and even then, they’re squarely in the conversation for number one in 2018.
Green Bay are like a fanatical cult in terms of free agency, preferring to re-sign their own players rather than outsiders, but they finally opened their wallets to sign Martellus Bennett, the Black Unicorn himself.
It will certainly give Aaron Rodgers something he has been waiting a long time for – a reliable target at tight end, and Bennett’s blocking prowess is under-rated for a team that for a few years in the Eddie Lacy era threatened to have the sledgehammer to complement Rodgers’ scalpel.
Unfortunately, Lacy regressed and has since jumped ship to Seattle, leaving a motley crew of running back pieces in wide receiver castoff Ty Montgomery and Seahawks castoff Christine Michael to carry the load.
They have their concerns on defence, especially at cornerback, but ultimately how far they go into the postseason depends on their offence, and it’s not a fait accompli that they will continue to pile on the points.
Randall Cobb has vanished since signing a new deal two years ago, Davante Adams has threatened to break out but has yet to truly take the next step towards dependable receiver, and Jordy Nelson will be 32 and a year removed from ACL surgery.
Despite that feeling, it could all fall into a heap, any team with Rodgers’ Houdini-esque ability for extending plays will feel like they can run down any deficit they face, and the trip to Wisconsin in winter remains up there as the toughest in the NFL.
11-5, but not better than last year’s NFC Championship game appearance.
The clock is ticking towards midnight in The Big Easy. Drew Brees has maybe two or three years left of what has been a stellar career, and while victory in Super Bowl 44 probably puts him in the Hall of Fame, a second would settle any debate.
The Saints have finally wriggled themselves free of salary cap purgatory brought on by sins of free agency past, and have indeed made some interesting moves in the current iteration in an attempt to retool for one final push to the football summit.
Despite scoring 29.3 points per game, second in the NFL, with the emergence of Michael Thomas as their new star wide receiver, they only finished 7-9. Their defence was, as Shaq would say, horror-awful.
Now armed with picks 11 and 32 courtesy of the Brandin Cooks trade in the upcoming draft, can the New Orleans front office assemble something resembling a defence quickly enough to give Brees that last crack at a playoff run?
Not even Scotty Cam and his hearty group of D-grade faux-celebrities on “The Block” could pull off a renovation this quickly. Unless they nail this draft, there will be more 41-35 losses ahead.
Being mediocre in the NFL is never a great place to be. 8-8.
Let’s start with the physical; on paper, this Atlanta team is loaded. They have the reigning MVP in Matt Ryan, arguably the best 1-2 punch running back combo in the league in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, a solid O-line, and soul-eating all-galaxy wide receiver Julio Jones.
Defensively, they have re-signed their most talented player in Desmond Trufant to a new five-year, $69m deal, and if he returns healthy and offseason purchase Dontari Poe hits the spot, they will clearly be better defensively than last year.
They still have a lot of good young players in Coleman, Vic Beasley, Keanu Neal on cheap contracts, so everything is set for them to entrench themselves at the top of the NFC.
Psychologically, however, will this team ever recover from their all-time meltdown in last year’s Super Bowl? Can they deal with seeing “28-3” banners at every away game they play?
Ryan and Jones will together count for a whopping $37.5m in salary cap this year, most of any quarterback/wide receiver combo in the league.
Fun fact: no team has ever won the Super Bowl having lost it the year prior. 12-4.
Cam Newton had to reinvent himself somewhat as he learned that elite post-touchdown dance ability isn’t the magical elixir of career success.
His injury-ravaged offensive line did their best turnstile impersonation for most of the year, leaving him taking more hits than the Top 40 and hampering his ability as a pocket passer, which wasn’t the best to begin with. Their fall from Super Bowl 50 runners-up in 2015 to a low-altitude 6-10 record last year is certainly cause for concern, but that doesn’t accurately reflect where they are right now.
So what to make of Carolina as we gaze into the 2017 crystal ball? They can continue playing stingy defence while hiding their questionable secondary with relentless pressure from their front seven, especially their NFL-best linebacker corps lead by Luke Kuechly.
Jonathan Stewart has been a serviceable running back, but of all the landing places for Leonard Fournette, Carolina would be better than anything Married At First Sight could offer up. They do have games against the Jets, 49ers and Bears though, which are as close to gimmies at this point in the season as there are.
In the playoffs or thereabouts is a par for them this season. 9-7.
Slowly but surely, Tampa Bay are putting together a team that might rattle a few cages this year. Opposition defences could previously bet the house that Jameis Winston was going to target Mike Evans over a dozen times per game, and plan accordingly. In Evans’ defence though, he certainly won most of those match-ups.
Now, they add a whole new dynamic in DeSean Jackson, which is bound to give secondaries across the league nightmares. Jacquizz Rodgers, a name you can just love, did a pretty good job filling in at running back for Doug Martin, who has thrown away a whole bunch of guaranteed money and finds his roster spot in jeopardy after a four-game ban for a positive performance enhancing drug test.
If 2015 All-Pro Martin was to re-emerge, Tampa Bay could really start to turn on the razzle-dazzle.
They are still probably a year or two away from making the playoffs – outside of Gerald McCoy, they don’t have a whole lot on defence that will frighten opposing offensive coordinators.
Winston is also notorious for making some boneheaded plays while also capable of making game winners. The boneheaded plays will ultimately crush Tampa in crucial games.
8-8, but certainly on the improve.
Well, you certainly can’t accuse the 49ers of being quiet during the free agency period. They handed out big contracts to all sorts of players, just probably not the ones that deserve them.
Perhaps Kyle Shanahan is just in love with players who share his first name and has some amazing plan for his $21m new fullback/halfback/tight end Kyle Juszczyk where he catches 100 checkdowns from some combination of Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley.
Maybe Kirk Cousins will be the one throwing the passes instead if rumours demanding a trade are to be believed, but we’ll wait and see.
San Fran are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive alignment this year, which is a bit of a head-scratcher given they invested 2015 and 2016 first round picks in 3-4 defensive ends Arik Armstead and DeForrest Buckner.
Short of a trade for Cousins, I really don’t know what the 49ers do with the #2 pick of the draft. Probably not a good year to be a Niners fan. An overall improvement in the roster from last year though.
Let’s hope Carlos Hyde can stay healthy, otherwise they will probably move on next year. 5-11.
Men greater than Pete Carroll, such as Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, have built dynasties destined to last the ages that have ultimately crumbled. It looks as if this is the start of the decline of the Seattle Seahawks.
Russell Wilson spent 2016 running for his life behind an offensive line more porous than a pasta strainer, and there has been no suggestion 2017 will be any improvement. Should even mediocrity replace the ineptness percolating through their pass-blocking game, Wilson has the talent and support cast to win, but for the first time in a long time the defence poses the questions.
Michael Bennett and Kam Chancellor in recent offseasons have complained about their contracts, and now the rumblings about a possible Richard Sherman trade are gathering steam. Earl Thomas has even had thoughts about retirement.
While there is often smoke without fire, you can bet someone is being paid to gather as many fire extinguishers as possible and pull the triggers. The current squad does not have the depth of 2013 and 2014.
Will still win an otherwise uninspiring NFC West, but expectations thereafter are tempered. 10-6.
Speaking of old men getting older, how about Larry Fitzgerald and Carson Palmer? They must have spoken to each other every day over the offseason, as I can’t imagine Fitzgerald wanting to come back without Palmer and vice-versa.
Last year certainly brought them crashing back to earth though, so much so that they found themselves out of playoff contention early, and picking in the top ten this year.
David Johnson proved to be the conduit though which all good things happened; his work as both a punishing runner and electric receiver would have had him in MVP conversation if they finished in the playoff fold.
They lost some key pieces in free agency from their imposing defence – the void Calais Campbell leaves will be deeper than that of Tony Jefferson – but importantly they got their prime free agent in Chandler Jones re-signed to a big extension. Overall, the Cardinals are more talented than last season demonstrated, and are due for some improvement provided Palmer doesn’t have any further regression.
This will probably be the final ride for both he and Fitzgerald – I predict a short one. 8-8.
Todd Gurley is a top-five NFL running back marooned behind a bottom-five NFL offensive line. He is the only thing worth writing about for the Rams not named Aaron Donald.
I still have no idea what to make of Jared Goff, but safe to say at this point they have to wonder if the picks they traded with Tennessee to move to number one last year, including this year’s number five pick, put them on the dud end of the deal.
They probably won’t make it out of the bottom ten for next year either, and the Titans will be willing more of the same ineptness from the LA staff to give them another premium pick. At least the Rams got the sacking of Jeff Fisher right.
Until the recent free agency period, I would have said at least the games against San Fran would be competitive. Now, I’m not so sure that holds true.
More of the same 4-12ness will transpire in 2017, with at least one of those wins coming against Seattle, unless Goff does something worthy of making him the number one pick last year, or Gurley begins to imitate his 2014 self, as I have no idea where their points are coming from otherwise.