We still have several weeks until we even see preseason football, but with other sports’ seasons wrapped up, the itch for football season to return keeps getting stronger. Of course, plenty of things will change between now and then, but it’s never too early to start speculating on how the season might go. After projecting the quality of each team and using them to predict the outcome of all 256 regular-season games, here are the projected standings of each team for the 2017 season.
1. Atlanta Falcons (projected record: 12-4)
The Falcons are coming off of Super Bowl disappointment, and despite losing Kyle Shanahan they are still in good position to make another playoff run. For the most part, their starting lineup will look the same as it did in the Super Bowl, and if anything it could be better. Desmond Trufant is one of the better cornerbacks in the game and he will be returning from his pectoral injury. Since joining the league in 2013 he’s allowed 0.98 yards per coverage snap, which is fifth-best for corners with 2000 or more snaps.
2. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
After a disappointing exit from the playoffs, the Cowboys in some senses took a step back in the offseason. Four defensive backs who had overall grades above 75 in 2016 are now on different rosters, and it will likely take a year or two for the defensive backs they drafted to replace them to be fully up to speed. What is working in their favor is they had a lot of key contributors in 2016 who were rookies and should step their game up. Even outside of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, cornerback Anthony Brown and defensive tackle Maliek Collins made strides as the season went on. As of Week 12, Collins had a pass-rushing productivity of 3.57, but from Week 13 on that was up to 8.16.
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3. Green Bay Packers (10-6)
Similar to the Cowboys, the Packers had an unsatisfactory end to the season with a blowout loss to the Falcons. They lost T.J. Lang, who was top five in pass-blocking efficiency for guards over the last two seasons, but replaced him with Jahri Evans, who was top 10. Year after year, they’ve been a division favorite who can make a run in the playoffs. Some of their key players are getting older, including two free agents over the age of 30, but this season should result in similar success.
4. Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
In 2015, the Cardinals were a game away from the Super Bowl. They followed that up with a season where they were top 12 in terms of PFF overall grade for the team, and they scored 50 more points than they allowed, but still ended up with a losing record. They will definitely miss longtime veteran Calais Campbell, but many of the lowest-graded players on the roster are either no longer on the roster or will no longer see playing time unless there is an injury. Winning more close games than they lose should get the Cardinals on the right side of .500, and if Carson Palmer or Tyrann Mathieu is able to return to their 2015 form, Arizona should find their way back into the playoffs.
5. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
The Seahawks were close to 10-6 last year, and not much has changed for them. They made a few changes on the offensive line but it’s unclear if that will impact the line’s overall quality. Eddie Lacy (77.3) and Bradley McDougald (79.0) were two underrated free agent moves. Since 2013 Lacy has had 169 defenders miss tackles on his carries; a number only topped by Marshawn Lynch, DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy. While they might be reasons for optimism, the star players on the roster are either at their prime, or reaching the downside of their career. If the team is able to improve on the last year, they’ll need some of their younger players to take big steps forward.
6. Carolina Panthers (9-7)
The Panthers are a team that ended last season 5-5 after a Super Bowl hangover saw them start 1-5. There is little question that their goal is to win now with the veterans they added to improve the defense. Returning to the Panthers after stints elsewhere are Captain Munnerlyn, who has 2,272 career coverage snaps in the slot (second-most in the PFF era), and Julius Peppers, who has 3,507 pass-rushes in the PFF era (second-most for edge defenders). The new addition of safety Mike Adams and most importantly the return of the best off-the-ball linebacker in football Luke Kuechly will raise the level of the defense compared to last year.
7. New Orleans Saints (9-7)
The Saints were a better team in 2016 than their 7-9 record indicated, and there is reason to believe they could be better in 2016. While the talk has been about the running backs, more attention can be given to wide receiver Michael Thomas. Last year his overall grade of 87.1 was the second-best a rookie receiver has earned in the PFF era, only behind Odell Beckham Jr. If his career progresses like other wide receivers who have a strong rookie year, he could be among the league’s elite in 2017. On defense cornerback Delvin Breaux is healthy and should build on his 2015 season. His 15.8 percent playmaker index is top 10 for cornerbacks over the last two seasons.
8. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
Position by position, the Eagles have one of the better rosters in the league. One of the main things that held the team back in 2016 was Carson Wentz. Over the first five games of the season Wentz looked like one of the best rookie quarterbacks the league has seen, but from Week 7 on was among the lowest-graded. Typically you expect improvement from year one to two, and the odds are even better after the addition of Alshon Jeffery. Since 2013, he has 2.15 yards per route run, which is 10th-best for wide receivers in that time. If both Wentz and the cornerbacks can take steps forward, this team could be much higher. If not it will be difficult to stand out in a competitive division.
9. Minnesota Vikings (9-7)
The Vikings were an average football team last year, and it wouldn’t be surprising if that remains the same in 2017. Their biggest upgrades were Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers at offensive tackle. Neither player is likely to play at a Pro Bowl level, but they should perform better than their various tackles of 2016. The key to them breaking away from another average season could be rookie running back Dalvin Cook. He led the FBS last year in yards after contact with 1208. If he can have a similar impact to Ezekiel Elliott did last year for the Cowboys, Minnesota will be back in the playoffs.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
The Buccaneers went 6-2 during the second half of the 2016 season, and are a hot pick as a breakout team in 2017. One of their biggest problems will be their competition; all three teams in the division have a quarterback and head coach who have been NFC champions at some point in the last decade. They are also top-heavy in that they have a few very good players, but not as much depth as other teams in the NFC. An injury to a key player would devastate this team more than it would other contenders. On defense, some of their best players are either at an age where they are unlikely to get better, or are players where their best season was a few years ago. If their older defenders can maintain their level of play, their other stars return to their old form, and young players progress like you would like to see, then this team is a playoff team. That requires a lot of things to go right.
11. New York Giants (8-8)
The Giants were a playoff team in 2016, but similar to the Buccaneers might have difficulty replicating their success because they have a few star players but not as much depth as other teams. Their big offseason move of adding Brandon Marshall should help as he’s helped the other offenses he’s been on. No receiver has made more defenders miss tackles on his catches in the PFF era than Marshall’s 157. However, Eli Manning has had his PFF pass grade decrease every year since 2011, and it is rare to see any NFL player turn their career around at age 36. Their biggest strength last year was at defensive back, but defensive backs are the position we see the least consistency in play from one year to the next. With how competitive the NFC should be this year, the Giants will need to find a way to win a lot of close games.
12. Chicago Bears (7-9)
A lot of signs point to the Bears being a much better team in 2017 then 2016. In 2015 their best guard was Kyle Long, their best defensive lineman was Eddie Goldman, their best pass-rusher was Pernell McPhee, and their best cornerback was Kyle Fuller. All of them played fewer than 500 snaps in 2016 due to injury. They hit on 2016 draft picks halfback Jordan Howard (81.0), center Cody Whitehair (87.2), and linebacker Leonard Floyd (65.1). Both the offense and defense have a lot of pieces that haven’t played together before, but on paper this team is much better than their 3-13 record last year indicates.
13. Washington (7-9)
Washington was an average team last year that lost two key free agents at the same position in Pierre Garcon (85.8) and DeSean Jackson (78.6). They’ve added a few players to give them reason for optimism, but they are all players who flashed excellence in a few games but haven’t done as much the rest of their career. On offense, they added wide receiver Terrelle Pryor, who had five games with 90-plus receiving yards, but in over half of his games he was held to under 50 yards. At safety, they added D.J. Swearinger, who had a top-10 safety grade in 2016, but it was his first year with a good grade and the grade came from taking advantage of some of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Similarly linebacker Zach Brown had a career year in 2016 with the Bills, but his five best-graded games against the run were the first five games of the season. If these players can sustain greatness over a longer period of time then Washington can take steps forward. If not, they may take a step back.
14. Detroit Lions (6-10)
The Lions started 2016 cold, then went on a streak of winning seven of eight games, all by close margins, which led to a (brief) playoff appearance. On one hand, the additions of guards T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner should help, as Matthew Stafford was sacked 40 times last year including the playoffs. The problem is if you take the best players on the Lions, they don’t stack up as favorably as the best players on other teams. If the Lions can continue winning close games and have a strong showing from their rookies they can make another run into the playoffs, but that can be said for most teams.
15. San Francisco 49ers (4-12)
The 49ers had the worst record in the NFC last year. They’ve changed coaches, quarterbacks, and several players. There is reason to be excited about their defensive line. 2015 first-round pick Arik Armstead led 3-4 defensive ends in pass-rushing productivity; 2016 first-round pick DeForest Buckner had 48 pressures which was fourth most for 3-4 defensive ends; and now they add third overall pick in the 2017 draft Solomon Thomas. They are a team in transition, and it might take more than a season for the 49ers return to being a playoff contender.
16. Los Angeles Rams (4-12)
The Rams were 4-12 last year, and it could take some time before they return to contending form. Due to the Jared Goff trade a year ago, the team didn’t have a first-round pick in this year’s draft, and with cap constraints they were only able to make a few splashes in free agency while also seeing a few players leave. Having Andrew Whitworth at left tackle should help Goff immediately. When at left tackle last year, he had a 98.0 pass-blocking efficiency (source: PFF ELITE), which led all tackles. However, a lot of Goff’s receiving targets are rookies, and the defense is transitioning to a 3-4. Those factors can lead to long-term success, but not necessarily short-term gains.