We have reached the Top echelon of NFL teams with the Elite Eight. But before we start the detail let me say that in many cases I don’t see a huge difference between these eight and those below them at 9-16. A couple of injuries to the wrong players could really shake up this list.
8) PACKERS So let’s get down to basics here. Do you really think that the 10-6 PACKERS were lacking only JORDY NELSON in their Offense to plunge them all the way to 23rd overall in Total Offense? I surely don’t buy that. We could throw in a grossly out of shape EDDIE LACY/RB and an incredible rash of injuries along the OL. But a great deal of the issue is more likely the lack of young offensive players showing improvement and professional growth. When you build your roster almost exclusively through the Draft it is essential that some of those draftees step up, sooner rather than later. The Defense, which ranked 15th overall, actually carried this team in many of their victories. The 2016 Draft looks like it may have provided some significant upgrades for the roster, but until they prove it on the field they are nothing but young guys with potential. If the injury bug has moved out of the PACKERS locker room then they may be able to assert themselves as a Super Bowl contender. Look or another 10-Win season, but the VIKINGS now look like the cream of the NFC North.
7) BENGALS This is another talented team that has been to the Play-Offs for 5 straight seasons. But some people are projecting a serious drop-off for the Bengals this season. The loss of OC HUE JACKSON to Cleveland is worrisome, and most of the WR support group for A.J. GREEN has moved on. ANDY DALTON should be back from his thumb injury, but he’s going to need a lot of pre-season reps to get used to working with his new WR group. TE/TYLER EIFERT is already out with injury and unlikely to be ready for the season opener. The team is excited by Rookie WR/TYLER BOYD, who reminds many of another former PITT PANTHER in LARRY FITZGERALD. He better be because he needs to be their No. 2 WR NOW! The BENGALS ranked 11th in the NFL in Total Defense, and are retooling their secondary. Oh yeah, CB/WILLIAM JACKSON, their Round 1 Pick is already lost for the season with injury. I disagree with those who are projecting this team to fall to a .500 record, or worse, but I don’t think this is the year they mount a deep run in the Play-Offs.
6) CHIEFS The work done by GM JOHN DORSEY (another Packers protege) and HC ANDY RIED continues to impress in Kansas City. AFter sifting through a top heavy, salary cap unfriendly team just a few years ago and suffering through a 2-14 season in 2012 the team has won 11, 9 & 11 games the past three seasons. The Chiefs bounced back from some key injuries last year, Jamaal Charles in particular, to roll into the Play-Offs on a 10-game winning streak. ALEX SMITH/QB ain’t no AARON RODGERS, and seldom throws the deep ball, but as a field general he gets the job done. He has thrived working hand-in-hand with ANDY REID. A 7th ranked Defense carried the team, and coordinating their takeaways with a lack of turnovers by SMITH and his Offense the team ranked 2nd in the League in Turnover Differential with a +14. The D ranked 2nd in the NFL with 22 INT, including a league leading 8 from Rookie CB/MARCUS PETERS, who still has room to improve. No one is quite sure when sack master JUSTIN HOUSTON will return from ACL surgery, but don’t think guys like TAMBA HALI, JAYE HOWARD, DEE FORD & others won’t make life difficult for opposing QBs. This physical, fundamentally sound team will be lurking to move up if say Denver really isn’t the same without MANNING/OSWEILER in the AFC West.
5) PANTHERS CAM NEWTON should be even better this season than last, but there appear to be some other areas of the roster that may take a step backward this year. The biggest boost for NEWTON would be the return to health and Rookie form by WR/KELVIN BENJAMIN, who reminds me JULIO JONES, just not as fast downfield. CAMERON ARTIS-PAYNE/RB needs to take it up a notch and take some carries off the back of JONATHAN STEWART, who is entering his ninth NFL campaign. Their 6th ranked Defense may have trouble repeating their work of 2015 given some major losses in their secondary, but the front 7 appears deep and solid. JOSH NORMAN will clearly be missed, as well as ROMAN HERPER & CHARLES TILLMAN. But DC SEAN McDERMOTT and HC RON RIVERA, will likely fill in the blanks. Overall this team is sound and solid, but probably not quite as good as their 15-1 record might have indicated last season. If they are bitten hard by the injury bug they may not have the quality depth to survive and thrive. They are still the class of the NFC South, but an 11-5 season mark might be more realistic, with a run that that doesn’t quite get them back to the Super Bowl.
4) VIKINGS Things continue on the uptick in Minnesota, which will open it’s palatial new stadium this season. And if TEDDY BRIDGEWATER can progress again as an NFL starting QB the rest of the pieces just might be good enough to make a deeper Play-Off run this time around. A nice Draft group, supplemented by some solid VFA signings have the roster looking deeper than ever for the coming season. A big factor will be what kind of impact WR/LAQUON TREADWELL/R can make for the Offense. He’s not a speedster, but is athletic, shows good hands and is dangerous after the catch. He also shows up with a reputation as a hard worker, good teammate and positive locker room influence. He and 2nd year man STEFON DIGGS could emerge as the top WR pairing in the NFC North. OC NORV TURNER will continue to run first and pass second, which works nicely when ADRIAN PETERSON is your top RB. JERICK McKINNON is a nice change of pace guy when AP needs some rest. The Defense ranked 13th overall and can get after the passer with some solid athletes in their Front 7. MIKE ZIMMER still has the touch working with his Defensive coaches to max the output from his talent base. If the VIKES can make their offense more versatile downfield, and establish a home field advantage in their new stadium they will be a tough out next January.
3) PATRIOTS It sure does not help that the League, and Goodell in particular, have decided to trump up their phony charges against the PATRIOTS and sidelined TOM BRADY for September. Look for BELICHICK and his staff to work through the adversity and pull off at least a .500 record in the first month of the season. Barring another year of constant injury issues this team has plenty of weapons on both sides of the ball. CHANDLER JONES will be missed but perhaps not as much as many think. VFA additions like CHRIS LONG, TERRENCE KNIGHTON, FRANK KEARSE & RAMON HUMBER may not be perennial Pro Bowlers, but as a group they should upgrade the overall defensive depth. The weakest aspect of the PATS is still likely to be their running attack, which ranked 30th in the NFL last season. But if DEON LEWIS comes back healthy, steady VFA DONALD BROWN may give them a boost. MARTELLUS BENNETT/TE and CHRIS HOGAN/WR are expected to boost the receiving corps significantly. And based on the additions along the OL things should get better within that group, barring another injury plagued season. By the end of October I would expect tis team to be rolling along and perhaps peak in the Play-Offs.
2) CARDINALS The CARDS continue to roll along under the leadership of HC BRUCE ARIANS and GM STEVE KEIM. They have a nice mix of solid vets and talented young players. They had the top ranked Total Offense in the League last season, while their Defense was ranked 5th overall. That is the kind of balance that allows a team to win week after week. CARSON PALMER is thriving under ARIANS’ system and play calling. Now they just have to protect him better in the pocket. New names like EVAN MATHIS/G, EVAN BOEHM/C/R & COLE TONER/R will battle to provide that upgrade in the trenches. FITZGERALD, JOHN BROWN & MICHAEL FLOYD all managed to catch more than 50 balls last season, and speedster JJ Nelson could carve out a bigger niche for himself with his explosiveness. Their Defense flourishes by letting players do what they do best. The return of a healthy TYRANN MATHIEU is key for that Defense, which lost it’s top sack man in DWIGHT FREENEY. The thought is that most of that slack will be picked up by the addition of CHANDLER JONES, who racked up 12.5 sacks in New England last season. It will also be interesting to see how the team utilizes Rookie ROBERT NKEMDICHE along their DL. Double digit Wins should be expected again.
1) SEA HAWKS While much of the football world has bemoaned the loss of MARSHAWN LYNCH to retirement they have failed to notice the positive additions to the Seattle roster in general. The team finished 3rd in the League in rushing last season, mush of it behind Rookie RB THOMAS RAWLS. But the running back group now includes wayward son CHRISTINE MICHAEL, back for another go-round, and two draftees in C.J. PROSISE & ALEX COLLINS. As long as a revised OL group works out, and it usually does under OL Coach TOM CABLE, it looks as though the running game should be just fine. The bigger news may be that QB/RUSSELL WILSON carried this team in December with the best passing of his young career. If they need to chances are that the passing attack can bear more of the weight to carry the offense. I would also expect that TE/JIMMY GRAHAM (if healthy) will be more productive in his second season within the Sea Hawks offense in 2016. BRANDON MEBANE & BRUCE IRVIN will be missing on the defensive side, but once again reinforcements have come to town. BRANDON BROWNER is not likely to start in the secondary but his locker room presence and flexibility to fit into their scheme is invaluable. At a biscuit shy of 350 lbs. VFA SEALVER SILIGA/DT is just the kind of plugger they need to spell RUBIN on the nose, and Rookie JARRAN REED would have been a first rounder before the league went pass crazy. The team is solid, with better depth than ever, IMO. Their overall roster quality, combined with star power make them tops in the NFL for me.