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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
Green Bay Packers
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.