Making gains: The NFC
Post Free Agency and Draft, some teams have seen their roster change a little, some a lot. As a result there will be teams that improve significantly in 2017 over last year and others who may struggle to repeat their relative success.
Dan has already taken a look at the teams with potential to enjoy the biggest improvements in the AFC next year, so now it’s time to go through the NFC Divisions, beginning with…
NFC North: Detroit Lions
The Lions were clearly looking to address big areas of weakness right from the start this off-season. The additions of linemen Rick Wagner and TJ Lang were strong moves to improve an offensive line that struggled with any sort of blocking last year, and Tight End Darren Fells not only further adds to that dynamic, but also gives Jim Bob Cooter a two TE set option for 2017.
The Lions upgraded on the defensive front as well, with the arrival of Cornelius Washington, Akeem Spence and Paul Warrilow. None are necessarily stand out players in their own right, but they bring flexibility depth that will allow the likes of Ziggy Ansah and Haloti Ngata a little more freedom.
Further emphasis was given to the defense in the Draft, with the Lions using their first three picks on that side of the ball; the best of those undoubtedly being Jarrad Davis out of Florida. He’s an explosive LB who I think will see plenty of snaps in his rookie year.
Perhaps the one area the Lions might have addressed to really elevate their chances this time around was running back but, with that improved offensive line we may see renewed vigor from Abdullah or continued progress from Zach Zenner who had a strong finish to the season.
There is a case maybe for the Packers to be the team from the NFC North, but I think the starting point is that little bit lower for the Lions, so they get the nod from me.
NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles
It was a win-win type of off-season for the Eagles as they improved in both Free Agency and the Draft.
Last year the draft delivered them their franchise QB in Carson Wentz, and this year they went and got him some toys to play with in Free Agency. Alshon Jeffery is no doubt the biggest name added to the roster, joining Torrey Smith as two big targets for Wentz. The latter will need to regain some form to be truly effective, but the Eagles do at least now have two receivers than can catch the ball!
On the ground the 4th Round draftee Donnel Pumphrey could turn out to be a steal in that multi-dimensional run game, particularly with the Free Agency additions of Chance Warmack and Dallas Thomas to the offensive line.
The biggest gains were on defense however.
Veteran journeymen Chris Long and Patrick Robinson were added late in Free Agency before the Eagles turned their attention to younger prospects in the Draft, using 5 of their 8 picks to add to the defense, with 3 of those 5 being in the secondary.
First up was Derek Barnett who didn’t have the best combine, but he certainly has the ability to be a disruptive force off the end of that defensive front when you watch his tape. Sidney Jones came in Round 2 courtesy of his injury issues, but a fully healthy Jones is a difference maker to that secondary, particularly when you consider the 3rd Round pick was another solid corner, Rasul Douglas. Jim Schwartz has some young talent to work with this year and he’s more than capable of getting the best out of them.
In a division with some top-drawer offensive talent at every turn, he’ll need to.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If I had to make an early wager on which offense would be the most fun to watch in 2017, I’d consider laying a sizeable sum on the Bucs. They had the sort of off-season that can push a team over the edge and in to the Play Offs.
Free Agency pick up DeSean Jackson gives Jameis Winston another high quality target alongside Mike Evans and the 1st Round pick of OJ Howard probable had him ordering crab faster than they could pull it from the end of the pier. I also think they got something of a steal with their 3rd Round pick in Chris Godwin. He is a solid WR3 with a potential upside to be an early contender for WR2.
Jeremy McNichols (5th Round) is a pass catching back that could be an interesting switch up from Doug Martin and Jacquizz Rodgers, and it all adds up to one loaded offense for Tampa Bay.
Defense was already a strong suit coming in to the close season, but the Bucs used the Draft to add a couple of young aggressive defenders in Safety Justin Evans and Kendell Beckwith. The latter is coming off the back of an ACL injury, so will likely be eased in by Tampa Bay, but they are two more players to fit the ethos of Mike Smith’s defense.
Saints, Falcons, Panthers and now the Buccaneers. There could be a LOT of points scored in the NFC South this season!
NFC West: San Francisco 49ers
Like Dan’s pick of the Cleveland Browns in the AFC North, this is something of a no-brainer selection. Finishing the season with a dismal record and a roster bereft of depth at pretty much every position, I think it would have been harder for the 49ers NOT to improve this off-season.
Free Agency saw a veritable frenzy of activity in Santa Clara with a massive 13 players added to the roster, including 9 on offense as Kyle Shanahan brought in the likes of Pierre Garcon and Brian Hoyer who know (and can teach) his systems and philosophies, as well as raw talents such as Kyle Juszczyk and Marquise Goodwin that he will no doubt look to mould.
They weren’t finished there though, as San Francisco went on to be one of the big winners from the Draft weekend too (and yes, I do say that with my Niners hat on, but it’s a balanced hat!).
Coming in to the Draft, many saw the 49ers as having two potential targets at No.2 overall – Solomon Thomas from Stanford and Reuben Foster from Alabama. Through some diligent trading (and a slice of luck for good measure), they ended up walking away from the 1st Round with both.
Whilst there are some concerns over the status of Foster’s shoulder, these are two players than cannot help but improve the worst defense in football last year. For me, you can also throw in to that mix the 3rd Round pick of CB Ahkello Witherspoon who has the potential to make a solid young pairing with last year’s rookie Rashard Robinson.
There is still a long road ahead for San Francisco and 49ers fans, but I think big strides were made in the past few weeks already.
So there you have it. We’ll break it down a little more for these teams when we get in to our “All 32” ahead of the new season, but that’s an early take on who might be on the upward curve for 2017.
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