Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Ranking every NFC team after first wave of NFL free agency: Rams, Buccaneers class of conference

The NFC took a step back this offseason. The star power of quarterbacks transferred over to the AFC, leaving the NFC with Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford as the premier passers in the conference. Makes sense the Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Los Angeles Rams were conference title contenders. 

Green Bay took a step back with the trade of Davante Adams to the Raiders, while Tampa Bay and Los Angeles held serve despite losing some key contributors on their Super Bowl championship rosters. The Dallas Cowboys also lost key pieces from last year’s NFC East title team, no longer amongst the conference’s elite. The Arizona Cardinals are in the same boat, as a 4-7 finish with a wild card playoff loss led to the team undergoing a youth movement and departing from key veterans. 

The San Francisco 49ers can’t decide who their quarterback is. The Philadelphia Eagles have three first-round draft picks, while the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints have new coaches to get them back to the playoffs. The Washington Commanders have Carson Wentz, for what it’s worth. 

Unpredictability reigns in the NFC, as the second tier of playoff contenders seeks to compete with the Rams and Buccaneers for the conference title. This isn’t a projected order of finish, but how their rosters stack up at making a conference title run after the first wave of free agency. 

1. Los Angeles Rams

Key additions: WR Allen Robinson

The defending Super Bowl champions already had a talented roster, but losing players from the title team was inevitable. The biggest loss was Von Miller to the Bills, creating a void in the pass rush (Miller and Aaron Donald were the best pass rushing duo in the league since the Rams acquired him). Los Angeles couldn’t afford to keep Darious Williams, taking a chance on 2021 fourth-round pick Robert Rochell to replace him at cornerback. 

Los Angeles deserves credit for keeping Matthew Stafford in the fold and improving the wide receiver group with the addition of Allen Robinson. Stafford is easily the best quarterback Robinson has ever played with, and he should create serious damage in the passing game with Cooper Kupp lined up with him. The Rams finding a way to re-sign left tackle Joseph Noteboom and center Brian Allen is huge for the continuity of the offensive line, a vastly underrated unit on last year’s title team. 

The Rams are the best team in the NFC at this stage of the game. Their biggest challenge in 2022 is their daunting division. 

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key additions: WR Russell Gage, G Shaq Mason, CB Logan Ryan

The Buccaneers won the offseason the second Tom Brady announced his return, pulling himself out of retirement and instantly making Tampa Bay Super Bowl contenders. Brady’s return sparked Chris Godwin to sign an extension with the Buccaneers and added Gage to the fold while Godwin recovers from an ACL injury. Tampa Bay has one of the best wide receiver trios in the league with Godwin, Gage, and Mike Evans. Now, the Buccaneers have to convince Rob Gronkowski to return. 

Tampa Bay’s offensive line will look different with Ali Marpet retiring and Alex Cappa moving to the Bengals, but the Buccaneers added Shaq Mason in a trade and Ryan Jensen re-signed hours before free agency. Brady will be protected in 2022, which will be huge in attempting to dethrone the Rams. 

Adding Ryan at safety replaces the loss of Jordan Whitehead, another boost to the secondary after Carlton Davis signed a three-year extension early in free agency. Tampa Bay will have to address the pass rush as Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh are free agents. Both players are also heading into their mid 30s.

The Buccaneers are the Rams’ biggest challenge in the NFC. They can easily get playoff home-field advantage thanks to their division. 

3. San Francisco 49ers

Key additions: CB Charvarius Ward, S George Odum, LB Oren Burks, WR Ray-Ray McCloud 

If only the 49ers had their quarterback situation settled. San Francisco still hasn’t traded Jimmy Garoppolo and the biggest question with the franchise is whether Trey Lance is ready to be the starting quarterback in 2022. Besides the Garoppolo-Lance dynamic, the 49ers are talented. 

Laken Tomlinson is the only starter the 49ers lost on offense and Colton McKivitz is in line to replace him at left guard. Outside of that change, the 49ers have Eli Mitchell, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle back in the fold. The offense is going to score points. 

San Francisco addressed the secondary by adding Ward at cornerback, who should be a bargain by the time he reaches the back end of his deal. Odum could take the place of Jaquiski Tartt, who remains unsigned. The 49ers also have Nick Bosa leading one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, vital toward dethroning the Rams in the division. 

The 49ers have more upside with Lance, yet will go through some growing pains with him. Regardless if it’s Garoppolo or Lance, San Francisco is a contender for the conference title. 

4. Green Bay Packers

Key additions: DT Jarran Reed

The Packers will always have a Super Bowl opportunity with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, but Green Bay took a massive hit to its roster by signing Rodgers to an extension worth approximately $50.3 million per year. Green Bay received a first and second-round pick for Davante Adams, which wasn’t close to the package the Chiefs received for Tyreek Hill. The Packers also lost Marquez Valdes-Scantling in free agency, as Rodgers lost his top two pass catchers on the outside from last season. 

Wide receiver will be a priority in the second wave in free agency and the draft, as Rodgers needs someone other than Allen Lazard and tight end Robert Tonyan to throw to. The offensive line should get a boost with a healthy David Bakhtiari.

Green Bay did a good job retaining De’Vondre Campbell, Preston Smith, and Rasul Douglas on defense — but had to part ways with Za’Darius Smith as a result of saving salary cap space. The Packers added Reed to bolster the defensive line, but have to add a pass rusher or two high in the draft. 

Keeping Rodgers and retaining key free agents was the offseason plan for Green Bay, and the Packers nearly executed it to perfection. The Adams trade is puzzling with Rodgers returning, hurting their status as Super Bowl contenders. Improving at wide receiver will help Green Bay catch up to the Rams and Buccaneers. 

5. Dallas Cowboys

Key additions: WR James Washington, EDGE Dante Fowler Jr. 

The Cowboys were one of the best teams in the NFC last year, but are much closer to the middle of the pack after handing out large contracts to Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. Dallas traded Amari Cooper for pennies on the dollar and re-signed Michael Gallup, making CeeDee Lamb the No. 1 wideout. Lamb is going to live up to that billing, but the loss of Cooper will be massive to the passing game. Ditto for Cedric Wilson, who was underrated throughout most of last year. The Cowboys are hoping Washington fills the void. 

Dallas’ offensive line took a major hit with the release of La’El Collins, and Connor Williams departing in free agency. The Cowboys aren’t as strong in the trenches on defense either, as Fowler doesn’t get to the quarterback as consistently as Randy Gregory — who backed out on the Cowboys offer for the Broncos. At least Dallas still has Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs on defense, but the Cowboys can’t rely on takeaways consistently. 

Still the top team in the NFC East, the gap between Dallas and Philadelphia is much shorter than last season. If the Cowboys were better at handling the salary cap and their preparation for free agency, they’d be a top-three team in the conference. 

6. Philadelphia Eagles

Key additions: EDGE Haason Reddick, LB Kyzir White, WR Zach Pascal 

The Eagles are a better team than the one that took the field in the wild card loss to the Buccaneers, yet the offseason feels a bit underwhelming. Philadelphia needed to find a veteran wide receiver to compliment Jalen Hurts, but the best they could do was Pascal. A wide receiver group of Pascal, DeVonta Smith, and Quez Watkins won’t strike fear in defenses — no matter how good Smith and Watkins can be. Wide receiver will have to be addressed with one of those three first-round picks. 

Philadelphia already has one of the best offensive lines in football and is working that way on the defensive line. Reddick significantly boosts the pass rush, which gets back Brandon Graham after an Achilles injury. Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox are still a force at defensive tackle, even with Cox not as dominant in his early 30s. White is the off-ball linebacker Philadelphia needs, yet the Eagles will still have to address the position in the draft. The secondary outside of Darius Slay is a major concern as well. 

There are still plenty of holes on the Eagles that prevent them from being a contender in the conference, but Philadelphia is a team on the rise. The three first-round picks could get them there quicker. 

7. Arizona Cardinals

Key additions: G Will Hernandez

The Cardinals did a good job at retaining their own free agents, re-signing tight end Zach Ertz and running back James Conner — two vital pieces to last year’s playoff run. Arizona allowed Christian Kirk to walk and may do the same with A.J. Green, so the wide receiver position will look much different behind DeAndre Hopkins. Rondale Moore should have a bigger role in the passing game.

The defense takes a massive hit with Chandler Jones departing to the Raiders and releasing Jordan Hicks so Zaven Collins could start at inside linebacker. Arizona is undergoing a youth movement on that side of the ball. The Cardinals didn’t revamp at cornerback yet, a position that needs to be addressed in the second wave of free agency and the draft. 

Then there’s the Kyler Murray contract situation. Will that be resolved before the season starts? Arizona is good enough to contend in the NFC, but has to take the next step and win a playoff game. This roster is far from a finished product.

8. Minnesota Vikings

Key additions: EDGE Za’Darius Smith, LB Jordan Hicks, DT Harrison Phillips

The Vikings are set at the skill positions with Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen — yet the Kirk Cousins love affair remains a conundrum. Minnesota signed Cousins to an extension this offseason, keeping him with the Vikings for at least two more seasons. The Vikings could do better than Cousins, but they can do so much worse too.

Minnesota’s defense was the unit in need of a revamp, getting that opportunity with new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. Smith is a major boost to a pass rush that is getting Danielle Hunter back from injury, which will be vital to the success of the unit. Hicks is an underrated signing at linebacker, as he’ll be paired with Eric Kendricks on the inside. 

The secondary still needs work outside of Harrison Smith, but Chandon Sullivan signing to play the slot is an underrated move. The Vikings are better, yet it’s hard to get a grasp on where they stack up in the conference. 

If the Vikings are going to make the playoffs, the defense has to be better than a bottom five unit. Having Kevin O’Connell as head coach should help the offense improve from mediocracy, even with a subpar offensive line. 

9. New Orleans Saints

Key additions:Marcus Maye, S Daniel Sorensen 

The Saints are one of the toughest teams to read in the entire NFL. They tried to make a splash in free agency by acquiring Deshaun Watson to be their next franchise quarterback, but are running it back with Jameis Winston (who played well prior to going down with a torn ACL). Getting Michael Thomas back at wide receiver will be huge for New Orleans and will free up Marquez Callaway on the other side.

Losing Terron Armstead is a blow to the offensive line, but the unit is still good. The Saints are going to be intriguing if Winston is healthy for a full season, or if he’ll have the same mobility less than a year after ACL surgery. New Orleans still has many starters back on its top-five defense, but Marcus Williams is a big loss. Maye is an adequate replacement with the little free agent money New Orleans had to make a move. 

With no Sean Payton coaching New Orleans, will this team take a step down with Dennis Allen at the helm? There’s plenty of talent to make the playoffs in New Orleans, but there are a lot of questions with the coaching staff and the offense at this point. 

10. Washington Commanders

Key additions: QB Carson Wentz, LG Andrew Norwell

The Commanders were plagued by Ryan Fitzpatrick going down in Week 1 of last season, though Taylor Heinicke kept them competitive as long as he could. Washington addressed the quarterback position by taking a chance on Wentz, who is coming off two ugly fallouts in the last two years with the Eagles and Colts

Does Wentz make this team any better? The statistics show Washington improved at quarterback, yet inconsistent play and a lack of leadership qualities have affected Wentz in recent years — specifically his ability to maximize his talent. The Commanders lose a key piece on the offensive line with Brandon Scherff leaving in free agency, but signed Andrew Norwell to play left guard while Wes Schweitzer will replace Scherff at right guard. Terry McLaurin and Logan Thomas should benefit under Wentz. The Commanders still need more pass catchers to make the offense more balanced. 

Washington’s defense was underwhelming last year, even though the defensive line is still dangerous with Chase Young, Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, and Montez Sweat. This unit thrives on those four getting to the quarterback, needed given the state at linebacker and cornerback. 

There’s potential in Washington, but they’re stuck in the middle of the pack until the defense improves. This is also Wentz’s last opportunity to prove he can start. 

11. Carolina Panthers

Key additions:Austin Corbett, S Xavier Woods, P Johnny Hekker, DT Matt Ioannidis, LB Damien Wilson, C Bradley Bozeman, WR Rashard Higgins

Another team that struck out on Deshaun Watson, the Panthers currently have Sam Darnold at quarterback. Darnold had a solid start to the year before Christian McCaffrey went down, then was rotating at quarterback with Cam Newton when he came back from injury. Carolina has talent at wide receiver with D.J. Moore, Terrace Marshall, and Robby Anderson, yet none of the three could live up to their potential thanks to the play of Darnold and Newton. 

Losing Reddick to the Eagles was a significant blow to the pass rush, but retaining Jackson was vital to the fourth-ranked pass defense in 2021. Carolina did finish with the No. 2 overall defense last season in yards allowed, a unit that will have to be relied upon to carry this team in a weak NFC South. Ioannidis is one of the best signings of free agency based on his value in the interior of the defensive line. 

Until Carolina gets a better option at quarterback, the Panthers are on the outside looking in. The Panthers are good enough to compete for a playoff spot, but having Darnold in a make-or-break year for head coach Matt Rhule is underwhelming. 

12. Seattle Seahawks

Key additions: EDGE Uchenna Nwosu, DT Quinton Jefferson, C Austin Blythe, QB Drew Lock, TE Noah Fant, DT Shelby Harris

Trading Russell Wilson turned the Seahawks from a conference title contender (they were always in the mix with Wilson) to the bottom of the pack in the NFC. Seattle is another team in this conference that has talent, yet going with Lock at quarterback will be a head-scratching move for a team that has DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett at wide receiver. Re-signing Rashaad Penny was also a good move for the Seahawks offense in the post-Wilson era. 

Seattle still hasn’t found long-term answers at either tackle position, as Duane Brown and Brandon Shell remain unsigned. Lock isn’t as mobile as Wilson, which could turn the offense into a disaster. Releasing Bobby Wagner didn’t help the mood in Seattle either, leaving a massive void at a linebacker group that wasn’t strong to begin with. 

Getting Quandre Diggs to return was huge for a secondary that needs playmakers, a unit hindered by Jamal Adams‘ monster contract. Seattle’s defense has a whole is in flux, from the pass rush to cornerback. Bringing back Rasheem Green would help the pass rush, yet the Seahawks don’t appear pressed to make a move there yet. 

Seattle could be a tough watch in 2022, even though this team can still be competitive with a good draft. Improving at quarterback would be a start. 

13. Detroit Lions

Key additions: WR D.J. Chark, CB Mike Hughes, LB Jarrad Davis

The Lions are still in a rebuild as Dan Campbell heads into year two as their head coach, but they made sure quarterback Jared Goff had better pass catchers to throw to. Chark was the big offseason signing, agreeing to a one year “prove it” deal in Detroit as he becomes the outside compliment to the emerging Amon-Ra St. Brown. The Lions also re-signed Josh Reynolds and Kalif Raymond, two receivers that helped out the passing game down the stretch last year.

Goff remains as the starting quarterback, and he’ll be protected by one of the better young offensive lines in football. This will be Goff’s first year in Ben Johnson’s system, but he will have plenty of protection and reliable targets in the passing game. T.J. Hockenson and D’Andre Swift will also be healthy. 

Re-signing Charles Harris and Tracy Walker was important to the Lions defense, which is still waiting for Jeff Okudah to live up to his top-five draft pick status. Hughes will help the secondary as a slot cornerback. 

In a weak NFC North, don’t be surprised if the Lions make big gains in 2022. 

14. Chicago Bears

Key additions: WR Byron Pringle, DT Justin Jones, G Lucas Patrick, EDGE Al-Quadin Muhammad

The Bears decided to enter a rebuild in Matt Eberflus’ first season as head coach, not exactly the news Justin Fields wanted to hear. Allen Robinson departed in free agency (which wasn’t a surprise) to join the Rams, but the biggest roster move was trading Khalil Mack to the Chargers — ushering in a new era on the defense. 

Chicago doesn’t appear to be bringing back Akiem Hicks, as the pass rush remains a mystery outside of Robert Quinn. (Muhammad was signed as the compliment to him on the edge). The Bears do have Roquan Smith at linebacker, but not much else yet. The same can be said with the secondary, as the defense is undergoing a major renovation. 

Fields’ top pass catcher is the emerging Darnell Mooney, but the Bears did sign Pringle to compliment him in the slot. David Montgomery is back at running back as the Bears hope Tarik Cohen can stay healthy as a complimentary back. The offensive line is still a mess, as the Bears don’t have a starting tackle back from last year. Patrick should solidify the interior of the line. 

Chicago isn’t expected to be good this year. Don’t have high expectations for this team. 

15. New York Giants

Key additions: QB Tyrod Taylor, G Mark Glowinski, RB Matt Breida 

The Giants made the right moves in the front office, hiring Joe Schoen as general manager and Brian Daboll as a head coach. The product on the field leaves a lot to be desired. Daniel Jones still plays behind a putrid offensive line (even with the addition of Glowinski at right guard), which isn’t going to help him keep his job as starting quarterback. New York did sign Taylor in case Jones doesn’t play up to par. 

The Giants aren’t getting any trade offers from Saquon Barkley as he can’t stay healthy. Kenny Golladay’s contract already looks like a disaster and its hard to get a read on if 2021 first-round pick Kadarius Toney is good or not. The Giants’ offense is an enigma, with Jones as the key toward making it better.

Losing Patrick Graham as defensive coordinator is a major blow to the defense. The Giants were able to bring back Blake Martinez, a tackling machine to compliment pass rushers Azeez Ojulari and Leonard Williams. New York is looking to deal James Bradberry, which would be a massive blow to the secondary. 

The Giants’ offseason comes down to having the No. 5 and No. 7 overall picks in the draft. This team has a golden opportunity to land two impact players. This team is still rebuilding. 

16. Atlanta Falcons

Key additions: QB Marcus Mariota, CB Casey Hayward, RB Damien Williams, G Elijah Wilkinson

Atlanta started its rebuild by trading longtime franchise quarterback Matt Ryan — and not getting enough draft compensation for a quarterback that can still play. The Falcons signed Mariota to a two-year contract, giving him one last opportunity to start in the league. Mariota will be reunited with head coach Arthur Smith from his days in Tennessee, so the offense will be familiar for him. 

Outside of Kyle Pitts, the Falcons don’t have many reliable pass-catching options for Mariota. Wide receiver will be the focus in the draft after losing Russell Gage to the Buccaneers. Atlanta did bring back Cordarrelle Patterson as its Swiss Army knife at running back, but still drag out one of the worst offensive lines in football. Mariota’s scrambling ability will be on display.

The Falcons secondary is the bright spot of their defense, but that isn’t saying much for a unit with no pass rush and finished as the 29th-ranked defense. Hayward should help out A.J. Terrell reach his potential at cornerback. 

There just isn’t much to get excited about in Atlanta is this year. This roster may be the worst in the NFL. 

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