On Tuesday, we looked at four players who changed teams during the offseason and could tip the scales of balance in the AFC. Now, we turn our attention to the NFC, where last season’s division champions — the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks — all appear vulnerable, while several of the also-rans they bested have made significant additions.
NFC East: Alshon Jeffery, WR, Eagles
Opportunity: The Dallas Cowboys were the class of the NFC East last season, going 13-3. But a spate of off-field issues and the potential of regression for second-year quarterback Dak Prescott may open up an opportunity for Philadelphia. Despite finishing last in the division at 7-9, the Eagles were among the best teams in the NFL according to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, finishing fourth in the league (Dallas finished second).
What needed to be addressed: Last year’s No. 2 pick of the NFL draft, Carson Wentz, took the league by storm — at least until fans, media and opposing defenses figured out that he was relying so heavily on the screen pass. According to TruMedia, Wentz threw more passes to or behind the line of scrimmage in 2017 than all but three other quarterbacks. And the Eagles ranked 29th in yards per completion last season.
Potential impact: Jeffery and fellow free-agent acquisition Torrey Smith will add serious field-stretching ability to Philadelphia’s dink-and-dunk passing attack. Jeffery averaged an outstanding 15.8 yards per reception in 2016; since Jeffery became a full-time starter in 2013, only Julio Jones and T.Y. Hilton have averaged more yards per reception over more receptions. He also provides Wentz with a much more reliable catcher of the ball: Jeffery had the 14th-lowest drop rate of 87 qualifying NFL receivers in 2016, while Eagles WRs Jordan Matthews, Dorial Green-Beckham and Nelson Agholor ranked 59th, 81st and tied for last, respectively.
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Question mark: At age 27, Jeffery already has a history of nagging muscle pulls and soft-tissue injuries. He also served a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use in the middle of last season as a member of the Bears, making his gameday availability an ongoing concern.
NFC North: Jarrad Davis (R), LB, Lions
Opportunity: The Lions were just over half a game of head-to-head football away from claiming the NFC North crown when they squandered a 14-7 lead against the Green Bay Packers — and a 9-4 start to the season. They finished the year with three straight losses to fellow NFC playoff teams, including that Week 17, winner-take-all home game against the Packers. This spring, Detroit seriously outspent Green Bay in free agency, eyeing a possible first division title since 1993.
What needed to be addressed: Detroit had the worst defense in the NFL last season, according to DVOA. Their pass coverage was an absolute disaster, allowing opponents to be 38.1 percent more effective than average through the air — by far the worst in the NFL. But none of the Lions’ major signings were on the defensive side of the ball.
Potential impact: Davis, whom Detroit drafted with the No. 21 overall pick this spring, has been the unquestioned starter at middle linebacker since his first day on the team, according to the Lions’ official site. Head coach Jim Caldwell told the Detroit Free Press he expects Davis to “quickly” make an impact. Davis’s college defensive coordinator, Randy Shannon, described Davis as an amalgam of three linebackers Shannon coached at the University of Miami: Jonathan Vilma, Jon Beason and Ray Lewis. Those three boast 19 Pro Bowl appearances between them. If Davis’s athleticism and attitude are as advertised, he’ll fill a sizable portion of the hole in the middle of Detroit’s defense.
Question mark: There’s no such thing as a can’t-miss rookie. Projecting a college player’s impact on an NFL unit is closer to superstition than art, let alone science. Further, Detroit’s problems with depth and quality up front were just exacerbated by pass-rusher Armonty Bryant’s latest suspension; it’s hard for linebackers to make impact plays when opposing quarterbacks are unpressured and tailbacks have free passes to the second level of the defense.
NFC South: Adrian Peterson, RB, Saints
Opportunity: In 2016, the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers finished 6-10, good for last place in the NFC South. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons improved from a lackluster 8-8 in 2015 to winning the NFC for themselves last season. Somehow, in all the churn around them, the New Orleans Saints have finished 7-9 for three consecutive seasons. But with the Falcons losing the architect of the offense that took them to the Super Bowl, Kyle Shanahan, to the 49ers, the division could be there for the taking.
What needed to be addressed: Saints tailback Mark Ingram had the fourth-highest per-carry rate of yards before contact in 2016; he didn’t run into a defender until he’d run an average of 3.26 yards. After the crack of the pad, Ingram was solid, averaging a 14th-best 1.82 yards after contact. But he can’t compare to Peterson:
If Ingram needed any guidance learning how to make defenders looks silly, he now has the perfect mentor — albeit one who wants to steal his job. From 2011, the year Ingram entered the league, through 2016, Peterson had the highest average after-contact yardage rate of any back with at least 150 carries.
Potential impact: Peterson’s historical lack of effectiveness out of shotgun alignments seemingly makes him an odd fit for Sean Payton and Drew Brees’s spread-style offense, but the Saints actually used shotgun formations at the eighth-lowest rate of any team in the NFL last year, according to Football Outsiders. Moreover, New Orleans ranked fourth in average yards-per-play when under center, roughly the same as in the ‘gun, and had one of the smallest gaps in efficiency between the two alignments. Though they still passed 63.4 percent of the time, the Saints are a strong fit for Peterson’s skill set. No wonder Peterson told Bleacher Report earlier this month that he was impressed by Payton’s passion about the dimension the veteran running back would add to the Saints’ offense.
Question mark: Peterson is a 32-year-old running back with 11,747 of the hardest-earned yards in recent NFL history already on his odometer. The jury is out on how effective he could be moving forward.
NFC West: Haason Reddick (R), LB, Cardinals
Opportunity: At this time three years ago, the NFC West was one of the two best divisions in football. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks had a death grip on the rest of the NFC, but the Arizona Cardinals were right on their heels. Since then, attrition has taken a toll on all three squads; a Cardinals team that went 29-9 with Carson Palmer under center from 2013 to 2015 finished second in the division last year at 7-8-1.
What needed to be addressed: A host of defenders from recent years left in free agency this past offseason. The Cardinals lost Calais Campbell, Kevin Minter, Alex Okafor and Tony Jefferson, who finished first, third, seventh and 10th, respectively, on the team’s defense in Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value from 2013 to 2016.
The Cardinals boasted a top-three DVOA defense in three of those four seasons, but to keep that up, they’ll need the best of whoever is left — including Karlos Dansby, who returns at age 35 after three years elsewhere. Arizona desperately needs a young impact defender who can run, cover and hit at all three levels of the defense.
Potential impact: Reddick, a Temple product who put up an outstanding combine performance, has the size and athleticism to run with the Cardinals’ outstanding secondary. The 6-foot-1, 237-pound No. 13 overall pick was among the top-performing linebackers in the 40-yard dash (4.52 seconds), vertical jump (36.5 inches) and broad jump (133 inches). General manager Steve Keim told the media that he expects Reddick to have a “huge” impact, according to the team’s official site — and Reddick’s timetable to contribute has since been accelerated, with linebacker Deone Bucannon slated to start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list.
Question mark: As with Davis, measurables and fit alone don’t guarantee anything in the NFL. Reddick will have to prove that his knack for playmaking in the AAC can translate to the NFL.