While plenty of NFC teams likely feel they’re in a pretty good place, one would be hard pressed to find one that wouldn’t trade places with the Philadelphia Eagles right now. After all, Philadelphia is 60 minutes of good football away from winning a Super Bowl. No other NFC team can make that claim.
That’s the bad news for the NFC’s other team teams. The good news is that next season isn’t that far away. Even better is that the NFC has been littered with parity in recent years. It’s an oft-reported figure, but it’s worth mentioning. In all but two of the last 16 (soon to be 17) Super Bowls, the AFC Champion has been quarterbacked by Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Ben Roethlisberger. The NFC has been much more wide open.
It appeared as though the Seattle Seahawks would be a dynasty. But we’ve seen three different NFC Champions since the Seahawks’ most-recent trip to the Super Bowl. The 2016 Atlanta Falcons and 2017 Eagles both won the NFC Championship after missing the playoffs the year before. The 2015 Carolina Panthers were coming off a playoff trip despite a losing record in 2014.
So, while much of the last two decades has featured teams trying to unseat the mighty New England Patriots, the NFC has been about the quick turnarounds.
There’s reason for every NFC team to be optimistic. No matter how bad 2017 was, a fair amount of history shows that with the right moves, getting to the Super Bowl next season is possible.
These are the first moves that each NFC team must make if that’s going to happen.
Dallas Cowboys: Acquire a game-breaking receiver
In truth, Dallas could really use an upgrade at the head coaching position. But Jerry Jones has consistently defended his head coach and now, it’s far too late to think that a change would (or at this point, even should) happen. But bringing in a big weapon to help Dak Prescott is absolutely possible, and an absolute must.
We’re not saying that Dez Bryant is done. But he’s had a hard time staying healthy in his career. In 2017, he played all 16 games, but set a career low with 12.1 yards per receptions. That’s not what you want to see from a No. 1 receiver, let alone one who will turn 30 during the 2018 season. It showed, as the Cowboys were 26th in passing yards in 2017. Someone who can be taken seriously as a vertical threat will not only make the big plays, but will also open up the shorter routes and running game. Finding that player has to be Dallas’ top priority in the 2018 offseason.
New Orleans Saints: Upgrade the linebackers
Would the Eagles have done to Drew Brees and the Saints what they did to Case Keenum and the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game? Or, were the Saints one miracle away from being in this game? It’s tough to say. But either way, New Orleans is one of the most balanced teams in the league and will be on a short list of favorites in the NFC entering the 2018 season.
One thing that must be improved on is the Saints’ run defense. New Orleans allowed 1,787 yards on the ground in 2017, the 16th-best total in the league. If an opponent is running the ball well, then guys like Brees, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram and Michael Thomas are on the sidelines. Keeping those guys off the field is the way to beat the Saints. As such, New Orleans needs to upgrade the linebacker position to better stop the run.
Detroit Lions: Bring in a top running back
No Lion has rushed for 100 yards in a game since 2013. In the four subsequent seasons, Detroit has finished no better than 28th in total rushing yards and has ranked dead last twice. You just can’t be that one dimensional and succeed in the NFL.
Someone like Le’Veon Bell would do wonders for the Lions. He doesn’t want to play for the New York Jets, but maybe Bell can be persuaded back to Michigan, where he played college ball. Even if Bell is a pipe dream, the position needs to be upgraded. There’s work to be done in Detroit. That starts with finding someone who can take the pressure off of Matthew Stafford’s right arm.
San Francisco 49ers: A big red-zone target
While San Francisco finished the season with five straight wins, this is a team with some gaps to fill in the offseason. Still, when looking at this team’s rankings in 2017, a group of stats jump right off the page. The 49ers were a respectable ninth in passing yards. Despite that, they were tied for 28th in passing touchdowns, besting only the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, and Chicago Bears.
While the San Francisco receivers were better than expected, they’re not the kind of players who tend to thrive when the field gets short. With that in mind, the 49ers need to find someone who can do that. Even if the receiver doesn’t have an especially refined game, someone who can create separation and/or use his size to get positioning is what San Francisco needs to take the next step.
New York Giants: Move on from Eli Manning
It’s never easy to say goodbye to a franchise icon. But Manning’s production just wasn’t there in 2017. In fact, it hasn’t been there much at all in recent seasons. It’s strange because on the surface, we admit that Manning would seem like a natural fit to mentor a rookie quarterback like Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, or any of the others who might be selected second overall. But the fact is that this team can’t protect Manning. A mentor is no good if he’s constantly getting knocked down.
Whether we’re talking about 2018 or the future, the best idea is to let Manning go elsewhere. At that point, another more mobile quarterback (ie: Tyrod Taylor) could be brought in as a mentor for the kid, assuming New York wouldn’t want to play the rookie immediately. Letting Manning go wouldn’t be easy. But sometimes, those tough decisions are best for all parties. This is one of those times.
Seattle Seahawks: Rebuild the offensive line
This almost seems too obvious to mention. But we could have said the same thing after the 2016 season and Seattle didn’t seem that eager then. Before Week 1 of the 2018 season, this offensive line needs to look almost entirely different. Of course, we understand that Russell Wilson is incredibly mobile and elusive. But just because he has that skill doesn’t mean that it should be used on every pass play.
The Seahawks figure to be a much different looking team in 2018. Expect most of the attention to go to the secondary if and when some of those faces leave town. But for Seattle’s own good, the offensive line needs to have a much different look, as well.
Carolina Panthers: Add a top-tier receiver
We’re pretty sure that the Cowboys need an upgrade at the No. 1 receiver position. But with Carolina, we’re not quite there. We wouldn’t be opposed but on balance, we like Devin Funchess. In the eight games after Kelvin Benjamin was traded, he caught 30 passes for 483 yards and five touchdowns. That’s a 16-game pace of 60 receptions for 966 yards and 10 touchdowns. But whether we’re talking about adding a No. 2 receiver or bringing in a No. 1 receiver and making Funchess a No. 2, something needs to be done.
Funchess led the Panthers with 840 receiving yards in 2017. Christian McCaffrey was second with 651. Nobody else topped 500. Even if we figure that a healthy Greg Olsen will be in that level, the offense still looks one dimensional. If they don’t have to respect a downfield threat, good defenses will figure out even a solid running attack like Jonathan Stewart, McCaffrey, and Cam Newton. Carolina isn’t far from Super Bowl contention. But an upgrade in the passing game is necessary to make that leap.
Chicago Bears: A home run hitting receiver
While seemingly not as close to contending as a team like the Panthers, the Bears find themselves looking at the same kind of players. Chicago was dead last in passing in 2017. Part of that is because Mike Glennon got significant playing time and he’s just not that good. Even when the switch was made to Mitchell Trubisky, he wasn’t called on to chuck the ball around too often. But in what’s become an all too familiar part of the franchise’s history, the Bears just didn’t have the receiver to make opposing defenses sweat.
That’s where Chicago and Carolina are different. Carolina should be looking for a consistent presence to compliment Funchess and Olsen. The Bears should be looking for a guy that can score any time he touches the ball. Even if that guy isn’t a great overall receiver yet, someone who can turn a two-yard out pass from Trubisky into a 60-yard gain is precisely what this offense needs. New coach Matt Nagy had that with Tyreek Hill. Tarik Cohen can be that guy out of the backfield. But Chicago needs one of those guys on the outside. If that happens, this is a nice sleeper team in 2018.
Los Angeles Rams: Lock up Trumaine Johnson
While these other teams really need to make significant upgrades from the outside, we can’t say that about the Rams. This has been an immensely talented team in recent years. In 2017, Los Angeles finally got an immensely talented coach to compliment the players. It showed with successful results on the field. The Rams just laid an egg in their playoff game. It happens, especially with young teams.
Los Angeles’ priority this offseason should just be to stay the course. That starts with retaining Johnson. It would be nice if the Rams could add a No. 1 receiver. But truthfully, while it lacks a true top guy, Los Angeles’ overall group of receivers is quite strong. If 2018 yields another short postseason stay (or worse), then it may be time for the Rams to look for some bigger chances. Until then, though, this team should be focused on resembling the 2017 squad as best as it possibly can.
Atlanta Falcons: Fire Steve Sarkisian
Reports are that Sarkisian will be back with Atlanta in 2018. So, if you’re a bitter Falcons’ fan, our best advice would be to hope that Dan Quinn changes his mind. With Kyle Shanahan as the coordinator, this offense was a juggernaut in 2016. In 2017 under Sarkisian, it was essentially league average.
Go down to the local hospital and hire a newborn baby to be your offensive coordinator. If the offense that baby is running includes guys like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, it should not be league average. It should not lose a playoff game in which its opponent scores only 15 points. If that does happen, the offensive coordinator who runs the offense needs to be removed. If that doesn’t happen, it’s time to evaluate those who decided to keep him.
Green Bay Packers: Sign Ja’wuan James
With Aaron Rodgers on the field, the Packers are a Super Bowl contender. Without him, they’re not even a playoff team. With that in mind, Green Bay has to address the offensive line during the offseason. We think that James should be getting a heck of a look.
He’d be an immediate upgrade at the tackle position. That’s absolutely necessary. The Packers allowed 51 sacks in 2017. It was the fifth highest total in the league. Imagine how high it would have been without mobile quarterbacks like Rodgers and Nick Hundley back there. Given how good Rodgers is even when he’s not protected, this team can be right back if he’s given time to work his magic.
Washington Redskins: Add a big defensive lineman
Washington was a flawed team in 2017. But the one flaw that stood out above all others was the run defense. The Redskins were 29th in yards allowed per attempt and dead last in total yards allowed. A 3-4 defense should be good against the run. But in order for that to happen, good linebackers and linemen are needed. We like Washington’s linebackers well enough. The linemen, though, can be improved on.
Think about how good someone like Zach Brown could be if the linemen in front of him could hold onto their blocks. Someone like Dontari Poe would do wonders for this team. He’s so big and strong that he’d make plenty of plays on his own. But more often than not, his value would come from keeping guys like Brown clear.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Land a top running back
The Bucs entered 2017 with playoff buzz. They ended the season as one of the NFL’s worst teams. There are layers of reasons to explain this, but here’s a rather telling one. Tampa ranked 27th in both total rushing yards and yards per attempt. No Buccaneer topped even 500 rushing yards on the season. Quite simply, that won’t cut it.
Essentially everything we said about the Lions applies to the Bucs. Your offense can’t be one dimensional in the NFL and Tampa is just too dependent on the pass. One difference is that Stafford is a relatively polished quarterback at this point. Jameis Winston has a great deal of talent, but his game is very raw. This team needs a running game to take some of the responsibility off of a guy who’s just not refined — at least not yet.
Arizona Cardinals: Bring Kirk Cousins to the desert
Whether it’s the draft, free agency, or trades, we figure that the Cardinals will be active in the quarterback market. Given that Arizona doesn’t currently have a quarterback under contract, we’d go as far as to call it a necessity. As far as targets go, we like Cousins.
In truth, the best thing for the Cardinals to do would be to embrace a rebuild and get younger. But whether that or winning in 2018 is the priority, Cousins is an ideal target. Of the quarterbacks likely to be available in 2018, he’s the best bet to have the best season. That’s nice if the goal is winning it all. But at his age (he’ll turn 30 in August), Cousins can be the franchise quarterback. We’re seeing signal callers play well into their 30s and even beyond in some cases. If Arizona goes into a rebuilding project, Cousins will be there on the other end. We can say this about multiple teams in 2018, but Cousins should be the Cardinals’ top target.
Minnesota Vikings: Bring Case Keenum back
We know that the season ended poorly for Minnesota. The Vikings were blown out in the NFC Championship Game. Making matters worse, Minnesota’s fans have had their home town and stadium invaded by the players and fans of the team that vanquished them. It’s frustrating. No doubt. But as the offseason gets underway, the Vikings should do everything possible to hold firm.
As bad as Keenum was in the NFC Championship Game, it was only one game. He had a fantastic season, completing 67.6 percent of his passes for 3,547 yards with 22 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a 98.3 rating. He also developed a strong rapport with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. We’d call that pretty important. Throw in one of the league’s best defenses and a returning Dalvin Cook, and this team is absolutely one of the NFC’s best entering 2018. The temptation may be to go for a bigger named signal caller, but bringing back Keenum is a sound play.