By Sam Spiegelman
Unlike the AFC, the NFC is ultra-competitive. From the top down to the bottom, at least 11 teams have a legitimate shot at being a playoff team in 2014. Of course, only six will be in the dance when it's all said and done.
The NFC West and NFC North are two superior divisions, where teams that do persevere into the playoffs - whether it's as a top-four seed as a division winner or as a Wild Card team - have a realistic shot at a championship. The NFC East has a pack of middle-of-the-squad, what-if type teams - you know, the New York Giants that could be good if certain things unfold as they plan, or the Washington Redskins if X, Y, and Z. And then there's the NFC South, that aside from the New Orleans Saints has regressed. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are rebuilding under new head coach Lovie Smith, the Carolina Panthers have a lot of new faces trying to fill big shoes, and the Atlanta Falcons must answer a lot of questions.
With that being said, here is a way too early look at the NFC contenders - from a June perspective:
There's no denying the defending champs deserve to be on the top of the mountain heading into the season. The offense lost Golden Tate, but will replace him with a healthy, more dynamic Percy Harvin, who should make Russell Wilson even better entering his third season under center. The backfield also is tact, with a lot buzz being created by Marshawn Lynch's backup, Christine Michael, who could add another dimension to the rushing attack. The ground-and-pound attack is the heart and soul of this offensive scheme; don't expect that to change.
The Legion of Boom is also still there. Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas both got paid, but there are injury questions surrounding Kam Chancellor and Bruce Irvin. Fortunately, there is more talent than starting roles for this defense, and there's enough depth that those absences won't be noticed too much. Because of contract situations, the window with these particular players may be closing. As of now, though, no defense is better.
2. New Orleans
I expect criticism for upgrading the Saints into the No. 2 slot, but I'm confident this is where they belong. Last year, they were in contention for the top spot in the NFC before a disheartening defeat to Seattle, which threw them off the beaten path. But the team reloaded in the offseason, offensively and defensively, and with an elite head coach in Sean Payton and quarterback in Drew Brees, I can't rule them out of vying for the No. 1 seed again in 2014.
Don't overstate the loss of Darren Sproles; the Saints did so knowing they have the weapons on this roster to replace him. It begins with a four-prong rushing attack including Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson, Pierre Thomas and the up-and-coming Travaris Cadet, who has displayed explosiveness out of the backfield in OTAs and minicamp. The offensive line remains in tact. The team lost Lance Moore, but it opens the door for Kenny Stills, Nick Toon, and first-round pick Brandin Cooks to have more of an impact and stand out as arguably the best receiving corps in the NFL. Let's just assume Jimmy Graham returns.
3. Green Bay
The addition of Eddie Lacy last year revamped the Packers' offense, finally giving Aaron Rodgers a balanced attack to make defenses pay in another way. Receivers come and go in Green Bay, and now Randall Cobb is healthy and Jarrett Boykin has a chance to contribute even more. Speaking of healthy, we saw how different the Packers are when Rodgers is under center. No brainer, right? This is a tough NFC North, but let's lean on the best player in it to win it.
Speaking of injuries, Clay Matthews will be back in the fold for 2014, and now he has a new pass-rushing mate in veteran Julius Peppers. Finally, there's a legit option on the other side of Matthews, which forces opposing offenses to focus their attention on two rushers now. Sam Shields and Tramon Williams are a strong 1-2 punch at corner, and along with incumbent Morgan Burnett and first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Green Bay has a stout secondary to lean on. That's what drove their playoff runs in recent years.
4. San Francisco
How am I going to justify the Niners being the fourth-best team in the conference? To be honest, I considered them fifth or even lower.
If you've read my column on Colin Kaepernick's contract, you know I'm not sold on him as being a top-notch quarterback. He has his flaws, and he's inconsistent. He has a strong rushing attack to lean on, but that includes the aging Frank Gore and a bunch of youngsters. The offensive line is still among the best in the league, but that doesn't make Kaep a better passer. He'll have to prove me wrong this year, and I'm not confident he can.
Defensively, this team is bracing for an Aldon Smith suspension. That leaves a backup as a key pass-rusher alongside an aging Justin Smith, who will be 35 early into the 2014 season. Navarro Bowman is coming off a major injury, and at corner the torch has been passed onto Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, who I'm not sure are starting-caliber players.
With all that being said, I trust Jim Harbaugh. He's done more with less talent than any coach in the NFL. There is enough talent on offense, including Kaep, to beat the teams he ought to. The only issues will probably be in his own division. Defensively, there may be not a better collection of backers, so long as Aldon Smith is in the lineup. That's a major question and a major hole Harbaugh will have to fill.
Making the case to be the NFL's top offense will be the Bears, who sport a big-four of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte. That's a lot of ways Chicago can beat you, especially when Marc Trestman is pulling the strings. The offense isn't the question, though. It was the horrid defense of last season, which was addressed in the offseason and should allow the team to vie for a NFC North title or at least a Wild Card spot.
The Bears may have pulled off the steal of free agency by landing Jared Allen, who gets to remain in his division and make all the teams that passed on him regret it. He, along with Jay Ratliff and Lamarr Houston immediately bolstered the defensive line. Kyle Fuller, Kelvin Hayden, Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are set to engineer the secondary, which has some formidable wide receiver corps to contend with. While those guys' task is great, the emphasis on the defensive front seven should upgrade the defense enough in 2014.
Just missed: Philadelphia, Washington (nonetheless, one of these teams will be a top-four seed based on winning the NFC East)
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