2014 NFL team previews and predictions: NFC

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BY SAM SPIEGELMAN
XNSports.com

Football season is right around the corner. If you slept through the draft, free agency or the preseason, you'll need this refresher course on every team.

XN Sports previewed every team in the NFC from an offensive and defensive standpoint, and has provided fantasy outlooks for each team.

Here's your 2014 cheat sheet for the NFC:

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2014 NFL team previews and predictions: NFC

Arizona Cardinals

Offense

Bruce Arians is again proving to be one of the NFL’s best offensive coaches after helping Carson Palmer return back to relativity and getting the most out of players like Michael Floyd and Andre Ellington.

In 2014, those players are going to be counted on to take another step forward now that they’re familiar with the system. Floyd may be on the verge of passing Larry Fitzgerald as Arizona’s top wideout, while rookie John Brown has turned heads this offseason. Ellington is now going to be counted on to be an every down back for the first time in his career.

Defense

It’s hard to overlook what Arizona lost defensively this offseason. Daryl Washington is suspended for the year, Karlos Dansby in now in Cleveland and Darnell Dockett is out for season due to injury.

Those are major losses to overcome, especially when aging Larry Foote and youngster Kevin Minter are being counted on to play bigger roles.

Still, the Cards boast of the league’s top secondaries, with top corner Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, and the additions of veteran Antonio Cromartie and first-round pick Deone Buccanon.

Outlook

After just missing out on the playoffs a year ago, there’s definitely a mixed bag when it comes to their 2014 campaign. They play in arguably the toughest division in football, and with the losses you can say the team regressed before this season even started.

Still, it’s hard to count out Arians’ offense, which could be among the NFC’s best. If the 49ers take a step back, the Cardinals could leap them in the standings. But certain parts of the team must exceed expectations in order for that to happen.

Atlanta Falcons

Offense

The Falcons’ offensive line was atrocious last season, and combined with a number of injuries to key players the entire offense suffered. The team landed Jake Matthews with the No. 6 overall pick, and he’ll slide right into the left tackle spot, immediately bolstering the team’s pass protection.

A healthy Julio Jones and Roddy White can be all the difference for Matt Ryan, who is now without Tony Gonzalez. Expect Harry Douglas to take on a larger role, with White fitting into the slot. In addition, Devonta Freeman is a rookie to keep an eye on, and may be the best running back on the roster right now.

Defense

Atlanta is transitioning to a 3-4 scheme, and is doing so with most of its linebacking corps lost already due to injury. Among those losses is Sean Weatherspoon, the defensive captain.

Kroy Biermann is the team’s top pass-rusher, while 2013 first-round pick Desmond Trufant is being counted on to be the team’s top cornerback. There’s talent, but not a lot of depth. Expect some growing pains in the first year of this new defense.

Outlook

Now that it’s healthy, the Falcons’ offense is primed to bounce back in a big way. But there are major questions about the new defense, which will have trouble stopping the likes of New Orleans in its own division.

Atlanta will be in a fight for the No. 2 spot in the AFC South, but with deeper divisions in the NFC North and West, they’re probably not going to be able to make the playoffs this year.

Carolina Panthers

Offense

No offense took a harder hit than Carolina’s, which lost its left tackle and right guard, as well as its top three wide receivers. DeAngelo Williams is 31 years old and Jonathan Stewart hasn’t played a full 16-game season in three years. Meanwhile, the franchise, Cam Newton, underwent ankle surgery in the offseason and is now dealing with a injury to his ribs in the preseason.

It feels like Newton is going have to single-handedly move this offense up and down the field. His go-to target, tight end Greg Olsen, will likely be relied on heavily in the early going, and eventually first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin should develop into a downfield threat. But the talent around Newton is minimal, and with a patchwork offensive line and poor stable of running backs, don’t expect this offense to make much noise.

Defense

The offense wasn’t the only side of the ball to suffer some key losses. Carolina lost three of its starting members of its secondary from 2013 in a division with the Falcons’ and Saints’ aerial attacks. Marquee pass-rusher Greg Hardy could be suspended to start the season, too.

Last year Ron Rivera had finally pieced together a defense of his liking, but the NFL’s No. 2-ranked unit is bound for regression after losing its top corners and both safeties. The front seven remains stout, but the back end of the D is very, very suspect.

Outlook

A different team has won he NFC South every year since 2002, and with the Panthers without so many of their main contributors from a year ago that trend seems very likely to continue in 2014.

Newton cannot be happy with the lack of talent the front office has surrounded him with, and after a remarkable 2013 campaign the Panthers again will be irrelevant in the playoff race. That can’t be good for Newton, nor his future in Carolina.

Chicago Bears

Offense

Offensive guru Marc Trestman has assembled what could be the most prolific unit in the league. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are out to make the case to be the NFL’s top receiving tandem. The offensive line is now a strength in the Windy City, and Matt Forte continues to fly under the radar as a multi-talented back.

Injuries to Jay Cutler didn’t set Chicago back too much last year — thanks to a surprising emergence of Josh McCown — but with Cutler healthy for a full season, the Bears could be even more explosive.

Defense

The Bears were atrocious defensively in 2013, finishing dead last against the run. This offseason the team revamped its front four, adding Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen, Willie Young and Israel Idonije, while re-signing Nate Collins and Jay Ratliff.

The Bears’ middle-of-the-pack secondary was also a focal point of the offseason, as the team added Kyle Fuller in the first round, Brock Vereen a few rounds later and signing Ryan Mundy from the Giants. It’s a lot of new faces on the Bears D, but a lot more talent than what was there last season.

Outlook

A healthy Bears squad should be neck-and-neck with the Pack for the NFC North crown. While both offenses have the ability to be prolific and among the NFL’s best, it may come down to which defense succeeds.

The Bears have the making of a playoff team for 2014, but could be destined for a Wildcard spot. The defense remains a work in progress, but it just has to do enough for that offense to win them games.

Dallas Cowboys

Offense

Offense remains the strong point of the Cowboys team in 2014. Dez Bryant has solidified himself as one of the NFL’s premiere wide receivers. Terrance Williams was under-the-radar good last year, and is now going to be counted on to be Tony Romo‘s No. 2 receiver. And a healthy DeMarco Murray is a dynamic back with the benefit of the league’s best offensive lines to run behind.

Romo is 34 years old coming off back surgery, and I wonder when Week 8 rolls around where his health will be. Obviously, when healthy Romo has been one of the best statistical quarterbacks, but late-season success has annually been a November storyline. Perhaps the front office is going to regret not drafting Johnny Manziel when they had the chance.

Defense

The Cowboys will score points, but they will have a big-time problem stopping anybody. It feels like the team ignored the glaring holes up and down the unit, beginning with a defensive front that lost DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, and Sean Lee to injury for the year. The underachieving secondary will be without a suspended Orlando Scandrick to begin 2014, while Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne continue to underperform.

No NFL team should have to claim Henry Melton as their best defensive lineman and Barry Church as their best defensive back. And the three linebackers slated to start will struggle mightily against the run. This unit could be the worst D in the league.

Outlook

The Cowboys will be in contention for the No. 1 overall pick. The team has a lot of offensive firepower, but it doesn’t have enough talent to stop anybody. Shootouts will be a common thing in Big D, but more often than not I expect the Cowboys to come out of the wrong side of them.

Romo is getting up there in age, and the team needs to begin focusing on his future under center beyond him. It needs to find help on the defensive side of the ball to replace its franchise player, Ware. There’s too many weak spots up and down the roster to think more than four wins is likely.

Detroit Lions

Offense

With a new regime in Detroit and Joe Lombardi coming over from New Orleans, the Lions’ already dynamic offense could take a leap forward in 2014. Calvin Johnson now has a true No. 2 wide receiver opposite him in free-agent addition Golden Tate, while the team drafted tight end Eric Ebron in the first round to play the Jimmy Graham role.

The Lions have a three-prong backfield of Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and Theo Riddick, and new head coach Jim Caldwell will ensure the unit is more balanced. That’ll go a long in way in Matthew Stafford cutting down turnovers.

Defense

Jim Schwartz left behind a fearsome front four featuring Jason Jones, Ndamukong Suh and Ziggy Ansah, but the line has underperformed given their contracts and where they were drafted. New coordinator Teryl Austin has a strong resume, and given how he’s handled Nick Fairley‘s offseason, he looks to be the guy to set these players straight.

The secondary remains a weakness, but it’ll benefit from the front seven putting forth a solid effort. With offenses like Green Bay and Chicago in the division, the Lions will struggle to get big stops.

Outlook

Caldwell should add an element of discipline to this team, but probably not enough to push them back into postseason consideration in Year 1. His presence does bode well for the likes of Stafford and the offense, and perhaps questionable character players like Suh and Fairley.

Detroit is probably a smidge better than .500 — at least until it proves its defense is worthy of higher consideration. The fact that they’re in such a competitive division gives them a more difficult road to the playoffs … for now.

Green Bay Packers

Offense

Without a real running game, the Packers were a top-five offense. Now factor in the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy, and Aaron Rodgers is now engineering arguably the most dangerous unit in the NFC and possibly the league.

Randall Cobb is stepping into the No. 2 receiver role with James Jones now in Oakland, and Jarrett Boykin will slide into the slot. The question lies at the tight end spot, where Andrew Quarless and Brandon Bostick are competing to take Jermichael Finley‘s spot.

Defense

Injuries ravished the Green Bay D a year ago, but after a strong showing in free agency the team could be poised for a major bounce-back year.

The team re-signed Sam Shields and drafted Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to a secondary featuring Tramon Williams and Morgan Burnett. Mike Daniels was one of the league’s most underrated ends in 2013, and he’ll be rushing the passer along with a healthy Clay Matthews and free-agent signee Julius Peppers.

Outlook

The Packers will be in a dog fight with Chicago to get out of the NFC North, but will be in contention for a top-three seed in the NFC.

The Packers took home the divisional crown despite the loss of Rodgers for a long stretch of games, so with him under center for a full 16-game slate is a major difference-maker.

Minnesota Vikings

Offense

The Vikings are set on trotting out Matt Cassel under center Week 1, putting the Teddy Bridgewater Era in the Twin Cities on hold … for now. Cassel proved to be the best quarterback on the roster last year over former first-round picks Josh Freeman and Christian Ponder, and was re-signed in the offseason to be that bridge quarterback until Bridgewater is ready.

How long before Bridgewater is ready? That remains to be seen. Much of the offseason hype has revolved around second-year wideout Cordarrelle Patterson, who came on very strong down the stretch in 2013. Adrian Peterson is back, entering his age-29 season, again looking to defy the odds of nature. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner has hyped up Kyle Rudolph. Turner has made tight ends major parts of his passing games; just see Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron for references.

Defense

Now that Mike Zimmer is the Vikings’ new coach, expect him to have a tremendous impact on his defense. He did it with Cincinnati, and he has a lot of talent to work with in this group.

Jared Allen is gone. Now newly paid Everson Griffen will be the team’s premier edge-rusher. Anthony Barr was drafted in the first round to do the same. Captain Munnerlyn and Linval Joseph came over via free agency, while two youngsters, Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes, are players on the rise.

Outlook

The Vikings are a long shot in a very competitive NFC North, especially with their quarterback position unsettled beyond Week 1. The pressure is on Cassel to perform, because if he doesn’t the fans will call for the quarterback who was drafted in the first round to take over as the starter.

With Chicago and Green Bay jawing for the division crown, and the Lions on the rise as well, Minnesota is likely to find themselves on the outside looking in. However, with so much talent up and down the roster, it shouldn’t be long before the team again is competing for the postseason.

New Orleans Saints

Offense

Despite losing matchup nightmare Darren Sproles and go-to slot receiver Lance Moore, the Saints offense actually got better this offseason. Not only did the team lock up Jimmy Graham, but added a dynamic rookie in Brandin Cooks with the expectation breakout years on the horizon for Kenny Stills and Nick Toon.

Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson are as solid a 1-2 punch in the league as you’ll find, while Pierre Thomas is the best running back when it comes to screen passes and pass-blocking. With Drew Brees at the helm, you’d be hard-pressed to find a defense that’ll slow these Saints down.

Defense

Like many other teams, New Orleans took a page out of the Legion of Boom playbook, adding ballhawk safety Jairus Byrd and veteran corner Champ Bailey to solidify a secondary already featuring Kenny Vaccaro and Keenan Lewis.

Last year Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks and Junior Galette proved the Saints had a solid front seven, among the best in the NFL. Rob Ryan has put his players in the right places, and this year they should surface to among the league’s elite units.

Outlook

The Saints were toe-and-toe with Seattle early on last year, but after re-tooling in the offseason the team is poised to compete for the No. 1 or 2 seed in the NFC.

The offense is well-balanced, and the defense is a unit that’s begging to be talked about. It’s an even more well-rounded team than the Saints squad that won the Super Bowl in 2009.

New York Giants

Offense

The Giants coaching staff has set the bar high for Eli Manning after a disastrous 2013 campaign. But if Manning is unable to bounce back in a major way, not only will the entire offense remain stagnant but there’s a chance the team must seriously consider other options at the quarterback position.

The team addressed its offensive line and added a host of backs in an effort to jump-start the running game. It added downfield threat Odell Beckham Jr. with its first-round pick to insert next to Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle, replenishing Manning with dynamic wideouts.  Still, the unit lacks a playmaker at tight end.

Defense

The Giants defense has struggled mightily to generate a pass rush like they had during both of their Super Bowl runs. Jason Pierre-Paul, who was passed the torch from Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, has been hurt more often than not, and the rest of the unit has followed his lead.

Pierre-Paul proclaims himself back to full strength, while second-year end Damontre Moore is expected to see an expanded role. But we need to see this line strike fear in opposing quarterbacks like it used to, otherwise the rest of the defense will suffer.

Very active in free agency, the Giants revamped their secondary. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is now starting opposite Prince Amukamara, while Walter Thurmond and Quintin Demps add depth at safety.

Outlook

The offense is already improved over last year’s unit, but the play of Manning will be the difference between average and good. Manning’s clutch play was the catalyst during the team’s playoff runs, and his sporadic play has been the reason why the offense has stalled in recent years.

Similarly, the defense hasn’t been as effective since the pass rush dwindled. The team needs to get back to what it does best, but it remains to be seen whether the personnel is good enough.

The Giants need players to live up to the back of their playing cards if they want to make a run in the NFC East. There’s a lot of talent, but disappointing production. Let’s see what 2014 brings.

Philadelphia Eagles 

Offense

Chip Kelly proved that the Oregon offense is not limited to just the college ranks. Evidence: the Eagles finished as the NFL’s top rushing team, and far and away the fastest offense in the league.

Philly lost its top wide receiver, DeSean Jackson, who’s now hauling in passes from Robert Griffin III down I-95 in Washington. Jeremy Maclin is back healthy, playing for a long-term deal, while second-year tight end Zach Ertz and second-round pick Jordan Matthews have garnered all the praise over the offseason.

Kelly knows what he’s doing, and wouldn’t allow a player of Jackson’s caliber to leave town if he didn’t have another plan in place. The Eagles again should have one of the NFL’s best offenses.

Defense

As good as the Eagles were on the offensive side of the ball, they were equally as bad on defense, especially against the pass. The Eagles owned the league’s worst pass defense in 2013, though it did improve down the stretch.

The team added Malcolm Jenkins from New Orleans and Nolan Carroll from Miami to solidify a secondary featuring budding stars in Earl Wolff and Bradley Fletcher. Marcus Smith was taken in the first round to help rush the passer, since the team lacks true weapons in that area.

Outlook

Yet again the NFC East is wide open, but barring a truly resurgent season out of the Redskins or Giants, the Eagles should still be considered the favorites to win it. It was a dog fight last year to take home the division crown, and because none of these teams fit the “elite” category, it’ll likely be the same in 2014.

How far Philly can go in the playoffs without seeing major improvements out of the D remains to be seen. And there is still a cloud of doubt hovering over Nick Foles, despite a fantastic 2013 as the full-time starter. The Eagles need both of those questions answered quickly.

San Francisco 49ers

Offense

Quietly, the Niners have assembled a really dynamic offense this offseason. The team locked up Colin Kaepernick; added Carlos Hyde — widely considered the top running back in the NFL draft — to a backfield featuring the ageless Frank Gore; and added slot receiver Stevie Johnson to the mix.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see the 49ers become more offensively driven in 2014, not just because of the additions but because the defense could lag. With more weapons and more freedom, Kaepernick could be poised for a breakout year.

Defense

San Fran’s usually dynamic defense is going to be without a lot of its key players to begin 2014. Three of its starting four defensive backs — Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown — are now elsewhere. Aldon Smith may be destined for a suspension, and NaVorro Bowman will be sidelined until about midseason.

The unit is destined for regression — at least early on — but you have to trust Jim Harbaugh has a plan in place. The Niners have long been one of the NFL’s deepest teams, so it’s just a matter of whether these role players excel in starting positions.

Outlook

The team’s offseason losses may have cemented the 49ers as a distant second in the NFC West race behind Seattle. But still, the team has enough firepower to compete with the best of the best in the conference.

If the Niners can hold down the fort until Smith and Bowman are back in the fold, and Kaep can make the strides he’s expected to, this is still a playoff team. It may not be the 49ers we’re used to, but that’s just a credit to a very good head coach.

Seattle Seahawks 

Offense

Russell Wilson has been nothing short of spectacular this preseason. Let’s not forget he’s only entering his third NFL season, so there’s plenty of room for him to grow as a passer. That bodes well for an offense that you might not have realized was just a middle-of-the-pack unit in 2013.

With Marshawn Lynch in the backfield, an expanded passing attack could help the Seahawks become even more explosive. Percy Harvin is healthy in his do-it-all role, while the team added speedster Paul Richardson to stretch the field in place of Golden Tate.

Defense

Seattle’s Legion of Boom lost a couple of contributors, but many experts peg new starting corner, Byron Maxwell, as an upgrade. The team retained Michael Bennett and locked up Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas III, meaning its nucleus is back for the long haul.

The big question is the health of Kam Chancellor and Bruce Irvin. Both are dealing with hip injuries, and both should be back in time for Week 1. They should show some rust in their debuts.

Outlook

The defending Super Bowl champs remain the class of the NFC and the NFL, and have another strong shot at being the first team to repeat since the Patriots of 2004 and 2005.

The defense remains stout and the offense looks primed to take another step forward. They should be able to notch a second consecutive NFC West title with ease, though with Green Bay and New Orleans both improved, the road back to the Super Bowl remains tough.

St. Louis Rams

Offense

The Rams offense took a major hit when it lost Sam Bradford to a torn ACL for a second straight year, leaving the unit in flux and the quarterback’s future unknown. Bradford had been enjoying a strong preseason as he entered a make-or-break type of year in St. Louis.

Now the reins of the offense are passed onto veteran journeyman Shaun Hill, barring the team trading for a Mark Sanchez or Ryan Mallett.

There is some talent, though. Zac Stacy shined when he got a chance as a rookie, while second-year wideouts Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey are looking to make leaps and bounds in 2014. But without Bradford or a quality quarterback under the center, the offense is very limited.

Defense

St. Louis boasts arguably the best front four in football, beginning with Robert Quinn and Chris Long and now first-round pick Aaron Donald. This extremely deep and talented unit has a strong shot at leading the league in sacks.

It’s the second and third layers of the D that remain suspect. Linebacker Alec Ogletree needs to take his game up a notch, and corner Janoris Jenkins needs to be a more consistent player.

Outlook

Without Bradford, the Rams’ 2014 season loses most of its potential. The defense should remain stout, but the offense is going to be inconsistent week in and week out, which doesn’t bode well for a team competing against the likes of Seattle, Arizona and San Francisco.

This season, Jeff Fisher needs to find out which offensive players are ones he can build around. This offseason the team can invest in a top free-agent quarterback or go after one in the first round. With a defense so talented and some high-potential players on offense, the Rams are still not too far away from contention.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Offense

Call them prisoners of the moment, but the Bucs went after Josh McCown after his career-best year under Marc Trestman in Chicago last season. McCown has been a career journeyman, but thrived under a great offensive mind. First-year Bucs coach Lovie Smith bought into the hype and designed his offense around what the Bears had done.

It remains to be seen whether McCown has really turned a page in his career, but he does have three larger-than-life targets to work with in Vincent Jackson, first-round pick Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Doug Martin is also healthy, but has a suspect offensive line to run behind.

Defense

Smith always trots out of terrific defenses, and Tampa Bay has a chance to fit that bill. Gerald McCoy is one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles and often flies under the radar. Lavonte David is an elite weak-side linebacker, and free-agent corner Alterraun Verner rounds out what should be an exceptional secondary.

What remains to be seen is how quickly these players can adjust to the Tampa 2. Often, it takes players a year to get comfortable in the system. Twice a year the Bucs will see high-flying passing attacks in Atlanta and New Orleans, so they’re sure to be tested right away.

Outlook

The NFC South is typically unpredictable, so it wouldn’t surprise anybody to see the Buccaneers ascend in the standings right away. The defense should be much improved, but there remains some doubt about whether McCown can truly engineer this offense.

The Bucs should be team hovering at or maybe above .500. It wouldn’t be unrealistic to see Mike Glennon to take over for McCown midway through the year. If that’s the case, the team is still a year away from competing for a division title.

Washington Redskins 

Offense

Maybe the most unpredictable team in the NFC and perhaps the entire NFL, Washington has a new head coach, a new wide receiver and a major question mark at the quarterback position.

Will RGIII be the Offensive Rookie of the Year he was in 2012 or the inconsistent, indecisive quarterback he was in 2013? How does he fit into Jay Gruden’s scheme, and will he be able to thrive in it?

Washington added the explosive DeSean Jackson from Philadelphia and Andre Roberts from Arizona, giving RGIII a solid three-deep at receiver as well as Jordan Reed at tight end. And you cannot forget Alfred Morris out of the backfield.

Defense

Washington has a very solid front seven, which features premier pass-rushers in Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo, who are as good a tandem as there is in the NFC. The questions, though, lie in the pass defense.

DeAngelo Hall is still around, and David Amerson is penciled in at the other corner spot. Aging Ryan Clark and overrated Brandon Meriweather round out the defensive backfield, which makes you wonder how this defense will stop the Eagles or Cowboys offenses.

Outlook

Washington added a lot of new talent, but failed to address a lot of needs in the offseason. The front office made a concerted effort to take care of Griffin and the offense, which is the first building block toward returning to contention.

RGIII needs to answer the bell and prove his doubters wrong. Let’s see if he’s capable of doing that. If so, this offense can be dynamic, maybe as good as the Eagles’. But this secondary won’t allow the team to even sniff the postseason.

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