Much has changed across the NFL landscape since Super Bowl 50. Between free agency, the draft, and time off for healing, there are plenty of reasons to believe some teams will improve on their 2015 campaigns, while some will take a step backwards next season. More can certainly change between now and the start of the 2016 season, but it’s never too early to project how teams will fare. Here are the 16 teams in the NFC ranked by how they are expected to perform next season.
1. Arizona Cardinals (projected record: 12-4)
The Cardinals once again exceeded expectations in 2015, and had it not been for their best defensive player getting hurt—and Carson Palmer having his worst game at the worst time—Arizona could have been in the Super Bowl. While some of the NFC’s elite rosters remained mostly intact or had some players leave, the Cardinals were actually able to improve over the course of the offseason. On offense, they let go of several underperforming linemen and brought in the third-highest-graded guard from last year, Evan Mathis. On defense, they improved their pass-rush with Chandler Jones and rookie Robert Nkemdiche.
2. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
Some might argue that Seattle should be ahead of Arizona, but this Seahawks' team doesn’t look as strong as it once did. The majority of their superstars outside of Marshawn Lynch are still on the roster, but the depth isn’t quite there. Their offensive line isn’t as strong as it used to be—incredibly, seeing as it ranked 30th in the NFL last season—and their pass-rush won’t be as strong without Bruce Irvin (now with Oakland). Their superstars on defense have stayed remarkably healthy over the years, and all it would take is an injury or two for this team to come crashing down. Despite all of those negatives, there are plenty of NFL franchises that wish they could have half of the All-Pro-caliber players the Seahawks have rostered.
3. Carolina Panthers (11-5)
The defending NFC champions have an offense that should be better than ever, with everyone who had 500 or more snaps returning, along with wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (injured for all of 2015). The biggest reason for the fall to No. 3 on this list was the loss of Josh Norman, the 11th best player from 2015, according to our Top 101. Along with Norman, the Panthers lost Jared Allen, Charles Tillman, Cortland Finnegan, and Roman Harper—all players who were past their prime, but still performed at an average level for Carolina last year. The defense still has Kawann Short and Luke Kuechly, so they will remain one of the better teams next season, but will no longer be the most-likely team to win the NFC.
4. Green Bay Packers (11-5)
The Packers' offense is expected to take a step forward after moving in the wrong direction in 2015. In 2014, when Jordy Nelson was targeted, Aaron Rodgers recorded an NFL passer rating of 128.2, the second-best mark for a wide receiver; in 2015, Rodgers was without his favorite target. The offense also added Jared Cook, who had a down 2015 season, but in 2014, produced a yards per route run of 1.60. The only tight end in the Aaron Rodgers-era to top that number was Jermichael Finley in his best two seasons. The Packers' defense is one on the rise, thanks to the emergence of players like Mike Daniels, Morgan Burnett, and Quinten Rollins. The team still has some of the same holes, and a few of the Packers' stars are getting up there in age, preventing them from breaking into the top three on this list.
5. Minnesota Vikings (10-6)
The Vikings were a playoff team last year, and it’s more likely they get better, rather than worse, in 2016. The defense could have the exact same starting lineup, and ideally, their stars of Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, and Harrison Smith stay healthier during the late-season stretch. On offense, John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt return after missing last season, and Alex Boone and Andre Smith were brought in to help the line, as well. If this were 2012, the Vikings could have the best line in the league, but even if one or two of them return to their old form, the line will be improved compared to last year. Adrian Peterson’s age, the Vikings' lack of depth at wide receiver, and uncertainty on the offensive line are all reason’s for concern, which prevents the Vikings from rising any higher on this list.
6. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
The Cowboys are the highest risers in the NFC for some obvious—and some not-so-obvious—reasons. On offense, they bring back a healthy Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, as well as rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott. In 2014, when things were running smoothly, Bryant had a yards per route run of 2.67, fifth-best among wide receivers. In 2015, that fell to a below-average 1.36. The less-obvious reason is that they should improve on defense as well, even without Greg Hardy. Their top cornerback, Orlando Scandrick, is also returning from injury. In 2014, he was one of four cornerbacks with zero touchdowns allowed, at least two interceptions, and at least five passes defended. The team also added Cedric Thornton to play defensive tackle—he instantly becomes their best run-defender at the position, with a PFF grade of 81.1 in that regard last year.
7. Washington (9-7)
In 2015, Washington somewhat overachieved, considering their roster. While they added CB Josh Norman from Carolina, which should be a big help to their defensive backfield, they also lost talent on defense. Terrance Knighton was one of their best run-defenders, and Jason Hatcher was one of their best pass-rushers, and neither remain on the roster. On offense, Alfred Morris was their highest-graded running back, and he was also lost over the offseason (signed with Dallas). Others in the division improved at more positions, which will make it difficult for Washington to repeat as NFC East champs.
8. Chicago Bears (8-8)
After a 6-10 season, the Bears should be one of the most-improved teams, thanks to a completely revamped front-seven. After adding Eddie Goldman and Pernell McPhee a year ago, they completed the renovation with inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, defensive ends Akiem Hicks and rookie Johnathan Bullard, and rookie outside linebacker Leonard Floyd. On offense, they have WR Kevin White returning from injury. The downside is that they lost Matt Forte (signed with the Jets), the league's highest-graded running back from Week 12 and on, as well as long-time tight end Martellus Bennett (now with the Patriots). Kyle Long is the only projected O-line starter who played above a replacement level in 2015. Put that all together, and you might only have baby steps in the right direction, but Chicago is trending upwards.
9. New York Giants (8-8)
The Giants brought in some of the biggest names in free agency with Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, and Janoris Jenkins. The problem is that, last season they had needs at offensive tackle, linebacker, and safety—and none of those needs were strongly addressed over the offseason. Last year, left tackle Ereck Flowers allowed 69 pressures, the most in the league, and right tackle Marshall Newhouse was tied for 11th, at 51 pressures allowed. Both will remain starters in 2016. In recent years, plenty of elite quarterbacks have played well into their mid and late 30s, but Eli Manning is 35 and coming off of his lowest-graded season of the PFF era (since 2007). This Giants should be somewhat improved over last year, but maybe not enough for one more Manning Super-Bowl run.
10. Atlanta Falcons (8-8)
On the bright side for Atlanta, they landed former Browns O-lineman Alex Mack, who, at his best, is among the top centers in the league. On defense, they added Derrick Shelby, who should help their front-seven. The former Dolphin had 25 run stops last year, tied for fourth-most among 4-3 defensive ends. The rest of the Falcons' free-agent additions, as well as most of their draft picks, were players Atlanta liked more than PFF did, however. They also let three of their highest-graded front-seven players go in Kroy Biermann, Paul Soliai, and Nathan Stupar. If they had trouble winning with the talented roster they had last year, they will likely have those same issues in 2016.
11. Philadelphia Eagles (6-10)
For every great player the Eagles have on the team, they also have a questionable starter. The NFL is becoming more and more of a passing game, yet there is a lot of uncertainty as to who will start at cornerback in Philly, and how the snaps will be distributed at wide receiver behind Jordan Matthews. Matthews is the only player with more than 800 yards in the slot each of the last two seasons, and in 2016, he will likely get more opportunities on the outside. If everything goes right for the team, they have the talent to make a playoff run; if everything goes wrong and the off-field distractions impact their play, they could end up giving Cleveland a very high draft pick next year.
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)
The Buccaneers were tied for the third-worst record in the NFC in 2015. While they made some improvements to the roster, it might not be enough to concoct a playoff run. On defense, they added Robert Ayers at defensive end and Brent Grimes at cornerback, but both are in their early 30s and potentially past their prime. They doubled up at those positions with defensive end Noah Spence and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III in the draft. The Bucs need all four to make an impact for the defense to be even above average. On offense, their only big change was moving from Logan Mankins to J.R. Sweezy at left guard. The Buccaneers have the skill players to put a successful attack on the field, but the O-line will likely hold them back.
13. New Orleans Saints (5-11)
While the Saints have a handful of solid players on offense, the only players on that side of the ball with an overall PFF grade above 81.0 last year were quarterback Drew Brees and left tackle Terron Armstead. At 37 years old, Brees is bound to decline eventually. On defense, their DTs were among the most-improved units in the league this offseason, but they still lack depth on the defensive line, have question marks at cornerback after Delvin Breaux, and their linebackers have graded out poorly. On the bright side, Breaux should continue to improve. He recorded 15 passes defended in 2015, tied for third-most at the position.
14. Los Angeles Rams (4-12)
On offense, the Rams could be somewhat improved from last year, but all of their improvements are rookies that might need time to develop. Their only likely starters on offense with a projected PFF grade above 61.0 are running back Todd Gurley, wide receiver Kenny Britt, and right tackle Rob Havenstein, so the rookies won’t have as much help around them as they’d like. On defense, they lost two of their best non-linemen in Janoris Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, and didn’t find replacements for them to be excited about. They still have an amazing defensive line, led by the best player in 2015, Aaron Donald, but a great D-line can only get a team so far.
15. Detroit Lions (4-12)
On offense, the Lions lost most of their highly-graded players. While some might consider 2015 a down year for Calvin Johnson, he still graded in the top-10 for wide receivers, at 89.4. The Lions also let running back Joique Bell and offensive linemen Manuel Ramirez leave. Ramirez had the highest grade among the Lions' O-linemen in 2015. The defense should improve with the return of DeAndre Levy. His run-stop percentage of 14.1 led all 4-3 outside linebackers in 2014. They will miss retired cornerback Rashean Mathis, who only allowed seven touchdowns in his three years with the Lions. Detroit is a team that is now missing their star power, and they’ll hope new stars develop in their absence.
16. San Francisco 49ers (4-12)
The 49ers had the second-worst record in the NFC last year, and followed that up by having one of the quietest offseasons. While DeForest Buckner should have an instant impact on the defensive line, losing players like Anquan Boldin and Alex Boone can’t help the offense. Unless Chip Kelly can get the best out of his players immediately, it will be a season of rebuilding in San Francisco.