NFL 2020-2021 Record Projections: NFC

It’s almost here! We’re living in a world filled with uncertainty right now, and, at times, it didn’t look like we’d have football. Alas, all signs are pointing to the season happen (albeit without fans), especially as other sports continue to come back into the fold.

All the offseason moves, all the studies we’ve conducted at this website, it all comes down to this; I’ve constructed a model to project each team’s win total. The model rightfully weighs different areas of a team based on previous research, uses projected grades based on their previous performances, adjusts for play-callers, and also takes into account expected rookie quarterback improvements. From there, the model generated an expected point differential, and using the pythagorean formula, was able to project wins totals; after that, all that was left to do was adjust for strength of schedule! In short terms, this was not a model that I put together on the fly, and it’s as objective as it can be. 

Today, we’ll go through the AFC. There appears to be a clear top two in place, but I wouldn’t discount a few other teams as well. We’ll go through each division, looking at their projected win totals, strength of schedule, as well as their offensive and defensive ranking.

Note: For more information on each team’s offense and defense, head over to the articles below:

Offense: Ranking Every NFL Team’s Offense Heading Into 2020

Defense: Ranking Every NFL Team’s Defense Heading Into 2020

NFC North

#1: Green Bay Packers

The Packers came one game away from the Super Bowl, but most are aware that they were fundamentally close to a ten-win team. After a very unproductive offseason, they’d be lucky to even get to ten wins.

Is Aaron Rodgers still an elite quarterback? That’s a question that I’ve seen pondered constantly, and, to be honest, I don’t have a quality answer. He’s clearly not the game-changing talent he once was, but he ranks third in Pro Football Focus grade over the past two seasons, so he’s clear still one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. Plus, he has a star receiver in Davante Adams, while the offensive line is still solid. After that, though, the pickings are slim. Maybe Allen Lazard can emerge as a quality #2 receiver, but there’s not much to get excited about outside of him; Adams can only carry them so much. A lot of pressure is going to be placed on Rodgers to elevate his surroundings, though perhaps he can mesh better with head coach Matt LeFleur in their second season together.

Defensively, the Packers are built very similarly to their offense: top-heavy. They have a very talented pass rush with Z’Darius Smith, Kenny Clark, and Preston Smith on the defensive line, and also have a true #1 cornerback in Jaire Alexander; Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos isn’t a bad safety duo either. After that, though, there are a lot of concerning question marks present. Kevin King graded out as an average-at-best player as the team’s #2 cornerback, while it’s unclear how they’ll defend slot receivers this season. Meanwhile, their struggles at linebacker were constantly on display against opposing tight ends, and I’m not sure exchanging Blake Martinez for Christian Kirksey accomplishes much.

There’s a lot of star talent present in Green Bay, but, at the same time, they lack depth on the perimeter, which is an issue that I’d expect to come back to bite them. They have the fortune of playing in a relatively easy division, but it’s a shame that they couldn’t build off of last season with some fruitful acquisitions.

#2: Minnesota Vikings

With five straight seasons without a losing record, it’s safe to say that the Vikings have done an admirable job remaining competitive despite some serious turmoil at the quarterback position. They have stability at that position with Kirk Cousins under center, while head coach Mike Zimmer has been a great leader for them. However, they have a lot of moving parts after a busy offseason, so a slight regression from the ten wins they had last season feels likely.

Cousins isn’t a quarterback that gets a lot of recognition, but based on his metrics, he’s been a top-ten quarterback. He’s a perfect fit in Gary Kubiak’s play-action-heavy offense, where his accuracy and efficiency is maximized. Yet, you have to wonder how he’ll respond to the loss of star receiver Stefon Diggs. Sure, Adam Thielen is still a quality receiver, but outside of him, Minnesota is relying on a rookie in Justin Jefferson, as well as the likes of Olabisi Johnson, which isn’t ideal. Tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. will get plenty of opportunities to be productive in a two tight-end offense, but you’d like for there to be more depth at wide receiver, as well as more reliability from the interior offensive line. Should the Vikings be placed in an unfavorable situation that forces them to be a normal dropback offense, I’m not sure how they’ll respond.

Minnesota also doesn’t have a lot of continuity defensively, but that’s not a reason to be overly concerned. Sure, they’re relying on unproven cornerbacks – Holton Hill, Mike Hughes, Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler – but at least there’s considerable upside with those four players, especially when considering the fact that Zimmer will do what he can to make their lives easier. Plus, with the league’s best safety tandem in Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith, as well as a productive linebacking group, Minnesota will likely be able to rely on them to be strong in pass coverage; it’s a formula that has worked for them in the past. After trading for edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue, their issues at cornerback are the only real concern, but, then again, it’s not like they got much production from the players at that position last year.

Defensively, the Vikings will be fine, although their opposing schedule of opposing quarterbacks is brutal. The offense, however, has some clear weak-links, predominantly on the interior offensive line and at the #2 receiver spot, and the loss of offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski can’t be overlooked. As per usual, Minnesota has a high floor, but they lack the “upside” to finish better than with a .500 record.

#3: Detroit Lions

After a three-win season, the Lions feel like the forgotten team in the NFL. However, let’s not forget that they were extremely competitive before Matthew Stafford went down with a back injury, and with him back healthy, I expect their improved roster to guide them to playoff contention.

Paired with new offensive coordinator Darren Bevell, Stafford dramatically increased his average depth of target, and the results were tremendous. He has all the tools to be a very productive vertical passer, and he was able to connect with the fantastic receiver duo of Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. constantly down the field. Obviously, Stafford’s high-end play in unstable metrics may not sustain, but this is a strategy that should gives them the opportunity to change the game with one play, and, thus, sets them up for success even without efficiency. As for the rest of the offense, tight end TJ Hockenson could be primed for a major step forward in his second season, while the offensive line is mostly in good shape. Yet, you have to wonder what the consequences could be for starting Hal Vaitai at right tackle, considering that Stafford is going to need time for these explosive plays to develop.

The Lions did not have a good defense by any measure last season, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be a fine unit this year. Many have harped on the loss of cornerback Darius Slay, yet he struggled mightily last season, and the additions of third overall pick Jeffrey Okudah, veteran Desmond Trufant, and safety Duron Harmon should dramatically improve a secondary that they’re relying heavily on in a defensive scheme with man coverage principles. Additionally, although they had a very poor pass rush last year, they’ll get back Da’Shawn Hand to pair with Danny Shelton on the interior, while linebacker Jamie Collins Sr. and Julian Okwara can also be flexible pass rushers to help take some of the load off of Trey Flowers. Generally, you’d hope for an even better front seven (the linebackers aren’r great), but this is clearly the most talent head coach Matt Patricia has had to work with, and I expect the results to reflect that.

A general rule of thumb is to not let previous win-loss records influence your results (the four-win 49ers went to the Super Bowl the year after), and that isn’t true for any team moreso than the Lions. With an aggressive Stafford back healthy, they have all the makings of a pretty dynamic offense, even if they aren’t very efficient, while the defense will at least be average this season. Right now, they’re projected to just miss out on the last wildcard spot, yet no one should be shocked if they won this division outright.

#4: Chicago Bears

One aspect of team-building that is harped upon tremendously by analytically-minded football analysts is that it’s nearly impossible to win sustainably through team defense, and the Bears learned that reality the hard way last year. Rather than learn from their mistakes, they’ve doubled-down on that approach, and my model expects them to regress even further this season.

Chicago has the league’s best defense in 2018, and a lot of credit was given to Khalil Mack. However, if you look at their data from that year, it was their pass coverage that led the way, and they lost safety Adrian Amos and nickel corner Bryce Callahan in the following offseason. Thus, their backslide defensively shouldn’t be seen as a surprise, and they’ve only gotten worse in the coverage department after losing cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in free agency. Don’t worry, though- they had enough money to give Robert Quinn a $14 million/year contract! The front office’s approach to building this defense has been quite perplexing, and it looks like “the Monsters of Midway” will be more of a middle-of-the-pack unit this season.

Remember, that defense is going to have carry the bulk of the load; the offense is in far worse shape. At this point, it’s pretty clear that Mitch Trubisky hasn’t proven himself as their franchise quarterback, yet they remain committed to him, and it’s not like Nick Foles (acquired for a fourth-round pick) is a massive upgrade anyways. That’s a shame for receiver Allen Robinson, who remains the lone spot of optimism for this offense, as the rest of the receiving corps isn’t in good shape and the offensive line regressed significantly last season. Head coach Matt Nagy rates out well as a play-caller, but it’s hard to imagine this offense not being a bottom-ten, if not a bottom-five offense.

General manager Ryan Pace has sacrificed a lot of draft capital in a way best described as “irresponsible”, which has forced the team to lose a significant amount of its depth. At this point, the roster is a shell of what it was in 2018, and with the defense continuing to get worse, there isn’t much hope for them competing in the NFC this season. In fact, they may even be a sneaky candidate to finish with the #1 overall pick in the draft, which may be the best thing that could happen to that organization.

NFC East

#1: Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys may have only finished with an 8-8 record last season, but, based on their point differential, they were closer to a 12-4 team. That massive underachievement led them to make major coaching changes, and although they’re a chaotic organization that can be difficult to trust, all signs are pointing to them dominating the NFC East in 2020.

Last season, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore called the plays in Dallas, and he experienced great success in his first season- the Cowboys led the league in yards/play. Now paired with head coach Mike McCarthy, Moore’s modern offensive principles should be embraced even more, so I expect them to run an offense filled with pre-snap motions, early-down passes, and designed quarterback runs. That would elevate an offense without much talent, yet Dallas’ roster is filled with quality contributors. Dak Prescott, for instance, may only be a mid-tier quarterback, yet he has the talent to produce like an elite player in the right situation. Well, throwing the ball to Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Ceedee Lamb while protected by a fabulous offensive line certainly helps matters, and, as mentioned, the scheme couldn’t be better. Simply put, this offense has a chance to be an absolute juggernaut.

That’s great, but can Dallas do their part defensively. Even after losing cornerback Byron Jones, I believe they can. Sure, their pass rush is great with Demarcus Lawrence and Everson Griffen, but I think it’s their sneakily-adequate pass coverage that’ll help them. Even without Jones, they aren’t inept at cornerback with Chidobe Awuzie, second-round pick Trevon Diggs, and Jourdan Lewis in the fold. Plus, with safety Xavier Woods and the linebacker tandem of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander-Esch, the cornerbacks will be assisted tremendously, similarly to the Vikings; having the recently-cut Ha Ha Clinton-Dix still around would helped, however.

The Cowboys had a strange season last year, but they were truly one of the better teams in football, and it’s very likely that they’re on the better end of variance this season. Thus, by projecting them to have an 11-5 record, my model is technically implicating they’ll be slightly worse this season, which is probably accurate after parting ways with an elite cornerback. Regardless, this is going to be a very fun team to watch this season.

#2: Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles appeared to be on the verge of becoming a powerhouse after winning the Super Bowl in the 2017-2018 season, but, since then, they’ve only mustered a 9-7 record in consecutive seasons. They’ve been able to sneak into the playoffs despite that regression, but, this season, my model doesn’t anticipate on them being as fortunate.

Carson Wentz was a frontrunner for the MVP award before tearing his ACL late in that Super Bowl season, but he’s quietly been a mediocre quarterback since then. His mean passing grade over the past two seasons, per Pro Football Focus, ranks in the middle-of-the-pack, while he has struggled with accuracy and relies a lot of unstable, volatile metrics. In other words, he’s in the same boat as Prescott; he needs a strong supporting cast to thrive. Yet, he won’t benefit from a strong supporting cast like Prescott will. Unless rookie receiver Jalen Reagor steps up and immediately contributes, they have an awkward collection of aging veterans and unproven young players at wide receiver, and you can only rely on your tight ends (Zack Ertz and Dallas Goedert) so much. Heck, even the offensive line is in worse shape following the injuries to guard Brandon Brooks and tackle Andre Dillard, and head coach Doug Pederson doesn’t do his offense any favors with his propensity for early-down rushing attempts. This figures to be a very average offense.

Defensively, Philadelphia took steps in the right direction, acquiring cornerbacks Darius Slay and Nickell Robey-Coleman. At the same time, Slay is coming off of the worst season in his career, the #2 cornerback spot is a question mark, and they’ll miss not having safety Malcolm Jenkins around; I’m not sure how much their secondary actually got better. Plus, they have one of the worst linebacking situations in the future, which could leave them vulnerable to defending the middle of the fields, especially without Jenkins able to stick with tight ends. The defensive line is in good shape, but without sound coverage, I’m not sure it’s going to matter.

The Eagles have doubled-down on building through the trenches, and although they made some attempts to add perimeter talent, it’s clear that their foundational beliefs have come back to bite them. Unless Wentz takes some magical step forward or a rookie like Reagor dramatically exceeds expectations, I don’t think the losing record my model projection to finish with is ill-fated.

#3: New York Giants

Do the Giants have any sort of direction? Ever since general manager Dave Gettleman took over as the organization’s general manager, they’ve vacillated between trying to rebuild and contend, and, thus, they’ve made little progress so far. With a new coaching staff in place heading into quarterback Daniel Jones’ second season, this is a critical year for the franchise.

Jones’ rookie season was a rollercoaster of emotions. He made plenty of big plays, but those were negated by an extreme amount of turnovers, especially when it come to fumbles- his pocket presence was atrocious. That means that New York has a very low floor offensively – he’s putting the offensive line in a tough position – but it also means that it could thrive if he hits the right side of the bell curve. That’s particularly true with the depth of playmakers New York has to work with (receivers Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate, and Darius Slayton, in addition to tight end Evan Engram), though they lack a true #1 receiver, and it’s more likely that they’re closer to their floor than their ceiling. Having Jason Garrett as the offensive coordinator, considering his early-down rush-attempt philosophies in Dallas, probably doesn’t help matters.

Also hurting the Giants is their talent-barren defense, which has been built the wrong way. Gettleman has placed on emphasis on adding run defenders along the defensive line, and the team’s pass defense has suffered as a consequence. Regardless of where you stand with the “pass rush versus coverage” debate, it doesn’t matter with this team- they have neither. I’m sure what James Bradberry did to warrant being one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL, and he’ll anchor one of the league’s worst secondaries, and an edge rush tandem of Markus Golden and Lorenzo Carter isn’t scaring anyone.

In a man-heavy scheme that relies on defensive talent, the Giants aren’t going to stop anyone defensively, which will put a lot of pressure on Jones, and that’ll likely lead to him making a lot of mistakes. The construction of this roster is very strange, and I’m not sure how many players are a part of their next contending team. Come next year, it’s likely that New York has a different general manager, and we’ll see if head coach Joe Judge lasts beyond this season- it’s a tough situation for him to try and fix.

#4: Washington Football Team

Luckily for the Giants, they aren’t projected to finish in last place, and they can thank the Washington Football Team for that. Speaking of poorly-constructed rosters, there’s very little talent to get excited about whatsoever, and they’re still stuck at the beginning of a painful rebuild.

Is Dwayne Haskins a franchise quarterback? After a slow start to the season, the first-round pick showed signs of progress with a hot stretch to end the year, and he did an admirable job limiting his mistakes. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that he’s a quarterback elevating his supporting cast, which is worrisome, given the situation he’s in. Second-year receiver Terry McLaurin is great, but after that, Haskins will be asked to throw to Antonio Gandy-Golden, Steven Sims, and Jeremy Sprinkle??? That’s far from ideal, especially behind a subpar offensive line, and with a new offensive coordinator (Scott Turner) taking over. Haskins’ ability to not make mistakes and McLaurin’s star talent give this offense a reasonably high floor, but it’s hard to imagine them not being a bottom-ten offense.

It’s okay, though, the Redskins invested in their pass rush! Well, even after spending the second overall pick on Chase Young, Washington’s pass rush, based on their personnel, is more of a top-ten group than a potent unit, and the pass coverage is an absolute mess. A cornerback trio of Ronald Darby, Fabian Moreau, and Kendall Fuller doesn’t really inspire me, nor does their collection of linebackers and safeties. This defense has gotten a lot of hype based on their defensive line, yet I’d be shocked if they weren’t near the bottom of the league in points allowed.

With a thin offense and an even worse defense, there’s not much to be excited about it in Washington. Not only is the franchise overdoing a massive re-brand, but they’re making very little progress from a football aspect- the organization is in shambles right now. Currently, my model has them projected to finish with the #2 pick, which would mean another new starting quarterback, and the beginning of another pointless cycle of poor roster construction around said quarterback.

NFC South

Note: Saints= 13-3 Record

#1: New Orleans Saints

With three straight NFC South titles, the Saints have been arguably the best team in football during that span, which has come at the perfect time- Drew Brees is nearing the end of his career and is still looking for his second Super Bowl title. As per usual, they’re loaded with roster talent, and although the playoffs are another story, a fourth straight divisional championships appears likely.

Brees’ arm strength has declined in recent years, but that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the most productive quarterbacks in the NFL. His accuracy is incredible, and his quick-decision making allows him to get rid of the ball quickly and put the offensive line in a fantastic position to succeed. Even then, the offensive line is one of the best in the league, which certainly gives them a nice foundation. The exciting aspect of this offense, however, is their improved group of playmakers. Last season, it was up to star receiver Michael Thomas to carry the load, but with tight end Jared Cook back healthy and receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the fold, they won’t have to force-feed him targets this season. Heck, even a healthy Alvin Kamara will be put to use in this offense, especially since they have a brilliant play-caller in head coach Sean Payton. Outside of the hypotheticals regarding Brees’ recent late-season declines, there’s no nits to pick with this offense; they only continue to get better.

Once upon a time, New Orleans’ defense was a liability. That time, however, has passed. The addition of safety Marcus Williams and cornerback Marshon Lattimore in the 2017 draft have changed that unit, while adding veterans Malcolm Jenkins and Janoris Jenkins will help give them the support they needed. Meanwhile, nickel corner Chauncey-Gardner Johnson is an ascending player, their linebacking corps is in solid shape, and they even have quality depth amongst their pass coverage. It’s not like they’d need a great pass rush, but with Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, and a healthy rotation of interior rushers, they have that working in their favor as well. If they had a better defensive coordinator, this would be an elite defense. Unfortunately, Dennis Allen has consistently held down this defense, based on certain metrics, though a reliance on position-less football and more man-coverage principles could help limit that effect.

In my opinion, no team in the NFL has a better roster than the Saints, and my model agrees. They aren’t weak at any position, have loads of depth, and also are filled with star players that any other franchise would love to have. Their future, given their cap space issues, is another story, but it’s easy to see why my model believes they’ll be the top seed in the NFC.

#2: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Saints certainly will be challenged more than they have previously, however- the Bucs are surging. That’s expected when you sign a quarterback of Tom Brady’s caliber, though he’s far from the only reason why they’re a Super Bowl contender heading into this season.

At 43-years-old, what does Brady still have left in the tank? His numbers certainly declined last season, but if you look at his poor receiving corps and dissect his independent metrics, it’s clear he’s still an excellent quarterback. Thus, bringing him in to anchor such a talented offense could produce some massive rewards for Tampa Bay. Chris Godwin and Mike Evans may be the most talented receiver tandem in the league, and with Rob Gronkowski and OJ Howard at tight end, Brady has an abundance of options to target in the passing game. Plus, his quick release will benefit the offensive line; the personnel here isn’t an issue. Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts with this offense, but there is too much talent for them not to score a lot of points.

Quietly, the Bucs also made massive improvements defensively last year. They’ve invested a lot of resources in their secondary, and they’ve been rewarded. Jamel Dean, Carlton Davis, and Sean Murphy-Bunting will anchor this cornerback group for a long time, and with improved safety play, I believe that the pass coverage will be even better this season; my models believe Lavonte David is the most valuable linebacker in the NFL. Furthermore, although they’ll regress, the pass rush, led by Shaquil Barrett and Vita Vea, complements the pass rush well. Similarly to the offense, there isn’t much to be concerned about regarding the personnel with this defense, and since Todd Bowles is one of the top defensive play-callers in the league.

With a young, ascending defense and an extremely talented offense, the Bucs have transformed their roster into a very well-rounded force. They’re still behind the Saints when it comes to overall depth, and lack any sort of continuity, but they’ll likely secure their first playoff spot since 2007.

#3: Atlanta Falcons

Prior to the Saints’ recent dominance over this division, the Falcons were the team to beat in the NFC South, especially after they won the NFC in 2016. However, they’ve consistently gotten worse since then, and, this season, it appears that they will finish with another mediocre record.

The Falcons have never been short of star talent on the offense, which is why they’ll continue to be explosive. Matt Ryan is still a top-ten quarterback, and with a superstar receiver in Julio Jones and a high-end #2 option in Calvin Ridley, the upside with this offense is tremendous. Yet, their third receiver right now is Russell Gage, their offensive line isn’t in a great spot (Ryan doesn’t generally help with that), and the play-calling is suspect. Thus, although they still have the same pillars that they’ve always had, Atlanta likely won’t reach their offensive potential this season.

Defensively, the Falcons were a disaster last season, but they rectified the situation by the end. If safety Keanu Neal can stay healthy, and after signing slot corner Darqueze Dennard, their pass coverage has a chance to be much better. At the same time, it’s not ideal that they’re relying on rookie AJ Terrell and Isaiah Oliver to be their outside cornerbacks, and Neal has barely played over the past two seasons. More depth in the secondary would have been greatly beneficial, but the front office decided to invest more resources in the front four. Grady Jarrett is a fantastic interior defender, yet the duo of Dante Fowler Jr. and Takkarist McKinley isn’t going to compensate for their lack of quality defensive backs.

The Falcons have invested a lot in superstar talent, which gives them a very high ceiling. At the same time, they don’t have any depth whatsoever, and if adversity hits them through. injuries, I don’t think they’ll be able to come back from that. Add in the fact that they have the league’s toughest schedule, and it’s hard to buy into them getting back to their old ways.

#4: Carolina Panthers

Did any organization undergo as much change this offseason as the Panthers did? They’re heading into this season with a new coaching staff, quarterback, and without several franchise icons, so it’s hard to know what to expect from them. Any scenario that doesn’t involve finishing in last place, however, would be a surprise.

As mentioned, Carolina is going into this season with a new quarterback; they cut Cam Newton and replaced him with Teddy Bridgewater. Still just 27-years-old, Bridgewater went 5-0 when he had to fill in for Drew Brees in New Orleans last year, and also showed the capability to be more comfortable throwing the ball down the field. At the same time, he didn’t rate well in most stable metrics, benefitted greatly from a strong supporting cast, and also was mostly just a game-manager/facilitator for them. Sure, he’s a very accurate quarterback, but he’s certainly not an elevator of talent. Luckily for him, he actually has some pieces to work with, as DJ Moore is an ascending wide receiver, and Robby Anderson is a talented deep threat. Yet, the offensive line is in a shaky position (he holds onto the ball too long), and without much receiving depth or a competent tight end, it’s a more one-dimensional offense that’ll likely over-rely on running back Christian McCaffrey. On the bright side, they may have found a gem by hiring Joe Brady, the architect of LSU’s explosive offense, to be their offensive coordinator. That seems like a hire that’ll help them more in the future, however, as he’ll also likely go through growing pains.

The real problems with this team exist defensively, however. What is there to get excited about? Sure, they drafted some young defensive linemen, but that isn’t going to move the needle, especially with how poor their pass coverage is. Safety Tre Boston is great, yet their cornerbacks are one of the worst in the league, the linebackers are subpar, and the safety spot outside of him is a question mark. In other words, things aren’t looking good for this defense.

I really like where the Panthers are heading from an organizational standpoint, as head coach Matt Rhule will build a culture that’ll be a key part of the next contending team. That isn’t this team, however, and, honestly, I think the additions of Bridgewater and Anderson hurt them- it decreases their chance of securing. a top pick. In a tough division, them finishing with five wins may be the most predictable outcome for any team.

NFC West

#1: San Francisco 49ers

With a ten-point lead with seven minutes to go, the 49ers were on the verge of winning the Super Bowl. Instead, they fell short, and, now, will look to get revenge in 2020. They failed to get better this offseason, which is a concern, but they’re hoping that they’ve done enough to combat any sort of regression that may be awaiting them.

Last season, the 49ers fielded a dominant defense, and based on common logic, that likely won’t be the case this season. Still, it’d be hard to imagine them not being a top-five unit. A lot of the credit for their success last season went to the pass rush, which is understandable. Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and Arik Armstead are a fantastic trio on the front four, and although they traded DeForest Buckner, interior defender Javon Kinlaw should be able to replace his production. However, they were Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded coverage unit, which is the main reason for their success. That’s where some concerns lie, though, as Richard Sherman may not be able to sustain his high level of play, and they don’t have a lot of defensive back depth. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is fantastic, but he’ll have to more responsible for the success of this defense than he was last year.

Even if the defense regresses, the 49ers will have a top-ten offense, which is due in large part to the brilliance of head coach Kyle Shanahan. His disciples have struggled to duplicate his system, but he’s had no trouble continuing to adapt. He plays a key role in elevating the performance of Jimmy Garoppolo, a competent mid-tier quarterback, and also is able to scheme open receivers very well. Yet, there’s something to be said for not having one receiver who can get open on their own, especially with Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk injured, so it feels like this offensive is going to be run through George Kittle. As for the rushing attack, they weren’t super efficient on the ground and relied on a lot of explosive plays, so they’ll likely regress in that area. This all likely won’t matter, as Shanahan is incredible, but he’ll have his hands full this season.

The 49ers spent this offseason trying to make lateral moves, yet that doesn’t just mean they’re relying more on rookies, but that they’re also likely to be worse this season. They have an absolutely brilliant coaching staff, which is probably why they’ll win this division. At the same time, they lack enough perimeter talent for them to be the favorite to get the #1 seed, and it’ll be interesting to see them attempt to win in a more sustainable fashion this year.

#2: Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks winning 9-10 games and finishing second in the NFC West, it’s an annual tradition at this point. With an elite quarterback and some clear star talent, Seattle should be competing for the top seed in the NFC. Unfortunately, their conservative principles have held them back, and there isn’t any reason to believe that’ll change this season.

#LetRussCook. That’s a hashtag that has trended on twitter between NFL analysts and Seahawks fans, and I couldn’t agree with them more. Russell Wilson is the second-best quarterback in the NFL, and when you have a player like that, you should be letting him dictate the flow offense. Instead, they continue to run this offense through the running game, and, at some point, Wilson won’t be able to consistently bail them out on third and longs. Sure, they have the vertical receiving talent (Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf), but that strategy leads to Wilson being pressured at a very high rate, and with how volatile performance under pressure can be, it should ultimately lead their doom. Having Wilson gives them an extraordinarily high floor, but it’s a shame that they haven’t been able to recognize the potential rewards of giving him more opportunities to shine.

Ever since the Seahawks’ “legion of boom” defense fell apart, Seattle has been doing what they can to get back to being a superb point-prevention team. That became even more apparent with their acquisition of safety Jamal Adams, who, along with linebacker Bobby Wagner will anchor a strong middle-of-the-field coverage unit. Then, you add in the cornerback tandem of Quinton Dunbar and Shaquill Griffin, and there’s a lot to be excited about. Yet, for as much as I embrace the “coverage over pass rush” argument, it’s concerning that Seattle is so deficient on the defensive line, while their scheme is another issue. They play a lot of base defense, which leaves them very vulnerable to slot receivers and tight ends. Adams will help them tremendously, but all indications are that he’ll be pigeon-holed into a classic strong safety role; the lack of innovation with this coaching staff is remarkable.

In terms of high-end talent, the Seahawks are near the top of the league, especially with how strong they are on the perimeter. Yet, they could use some more depth, and, most of all, their rigid, old-school principles will continue to hamper them. They got a lot of luck in one-score games last season, so, when it’s all said and done, nine wins seems reasonable for them.

#3: Los Angeles Rams

The Rams went all-in on building a Super Bowl contender, and many believed that it was a smart strategy- they made it to the Super Bowl in 2018. However, that short-term approach never works out in the long run, and it’s showing now; they have few resources available and have had to trim down their roster talent as a result. Once seen as a vaunted powerhouse, they’d be lucky to even finish with anything better than a .500 record this season.

Jared Goff is the exact prototype of a mid-tier quarterback, which means he needs to be in the perfect situation in order to succeed. That worked when he was a rookie contract, but now that he’s making $33.5 million a year, he’s playing behind a very poor offensive line, and he didn’t respond well last year. Theoretically, having two great receivers (Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp) and two talented tight ends (Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett) should make his life much easier. Yet, head coach Sean McVay has failed to adapt the what defenses are now throwing at him, and unless he embraces the quick-passing game, the lack of talent on the offensive line will continue to show.

Meanwhile, the Rams may be even more top-heavy with their defense. If you strip out positional value, interior defender Aaron Donald is the best player in the NFL, and cornerback Jalen Ramsey has all the talent in the world. Yet, what do they have outside of them. It’s hard to find a worse linebacking corps after they lost Cory Littleton in free agency and their defensive back depth isn’t great. Meanwhile, cutting ties with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips may hurt them, and, for once, can they give Donald any sort of help when it comes to rushing the passer? Building a defense should be about avoiding weak links, but Los Angeles has plenty of them.

The Rams remind me a lot of the Falcons. They invested in superstar talent, and they now are paying for it- they have zero depth whatsoever. Unless McVay finally alters his scheme, or they get unexpected production from some of their unproven players, they feel destined to be very mediocre this year.

#4: Arizona Cardinals

Between the acquisition of star receiver De’Andre Hopkins and the expected development of quarterback Kyler Murray, few teams are generating as much buzz as the Cardinals. Yet, this is still a fundamentally-flawed roster, and in a tough division, I’m not sure the hype is warranted.

Murray has a great track record of success based on his collegiate production, which is why he was the #1 pick. At the same time, he also earned the worst Pro Football Focus passing grade from a clean pocket, which is a very stable metric, so even if he progresses in his second season, there likely isn’t a great probability that he’s the MVP candidate that many believe he is. Even though Hopkins is a major addition, it’s harder for receivers with his play style (relying on contested catches) to mesh with new quarterbacks, and I still am more skeptical about the rest of the receiving corps than others. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury runs a very unique scheme, which is of great benefit to them, but it’ll take time for Hopkins and Murray to mesh together, and the former Oklahoma Sooner quarterback’s propensity for inviting pressure also induces more volatility with this offense. In other words, the idea of this offense may be better than the final product.

In the end, though, it’s the defense that will hold this team back. They finished with the worst Pro Football Focus pass coverage grade this season, and, despite that, they failed to add a single defensive back this offseason. Yes, linebacker/defensive chess piece Isaiah Simmons should assist them when it comes to defending the middle of the field, but he’s also a rookie that benefited from playing a creative role in college, which he won’t have in Arizona- defensive coordinator Vance Joseph plans to strictly use him as a linebacker, which makes him a less-valuable player. Instead of spending a combined $23 million on below-replacement players in Jordan Phillips, De’Vondre Campbell, and Devon Kennard, perhaps general manager Steve Keim could’ve done something to improve the pass defense? After all, practically any addition would’ve classified as an upgrade.

With Kingsbury, Hopkins, and Murray’s potential, the Cardinals are trending positive when it comes to their long-term outlook. However, it definitely feels like we’re a year too early on them; their offense still has some flaws, particularly with Murray’s poor rookie season, and the defense is an absolute liability. They look like a carbon copy of last year’s Browns team, and the more hype they continue to receiver, the greater the feelings of disappointment may ultimately be.

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