The Question I Need To Answer for Each NFC Team Before Week 1

Last week I covered a key question I had for each of the 16 AFC teams, and if you missed that write-up I’d highly recommend checking that out. This week, ahead of the first full slate of preseason games, we shift our focus to the NFC where there are just as many pivotal and juicy questions to be answered before the real action kicks off in Week 1. These two write-ups hopefully can serve as a viewing guide for the preseason and the rest of camp, and give you an idea of what to look for.

And for those of you that missed it, my NFL model plays are now available to purchase. The model plays include a full refund if the plays do not yield a five unit profit by the end of the season, making it so that a $100 bettor either breaks even or gets refunded. If you didn’t follow along last year, the model went 75-47-6 record (61% hit rate) for +43.1 units (18% ROI) and you can read a full recap of the results here if you didn’t follow along last year.

NFC North

Despite improvement over the previous year, the Bears’ offense left a lot to be desired in 2018. Combining a second-year quarterback selected second overall the previous year with a new head coach coming directly from the Andy Reid coaching tree sounds like the perfect recipe for marked improvement. However, the Bears only went from 29th in passing DVOA in 2017 to 20th in 2018. To me, that sounds like a lot of the improvement came from new head coach Matt Nagy, and not so much from development on Mitch Trubisky’s end. Can Trubisky take that “next step” in his development and further improve this offense? Given that elite defensive performance is less likely to be repeatable year-over-year compared to offense and with Chuck Pagano replacing Vic Fangio as the defensive coordinator, improvement on offense will be necessary for this team to remain a contender.

When Kevan Stefanski took over as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator late last season, there was one very notable change: a much higher reliance on two tight end sets. The results for the Vikings followed a trend that is permeating the rest of the league: higher passing efficiency. As a testament to this, the five teams that attempted the most passes with 12 personnel all made the playoffs last year:

Most passing attempts with multiple TE on the field in 2018:
1. Eagles: 255
2. Texans: 208
3. Chiefs: 181
4. Ravens: 164
5. Colts: 159

— Field Yates (@FieldYates) August 7, 2019

In this year’s draft, the Vikings spent a second round pick on stud tight end prospect Irv Smith Jr. Will Mike Zimmer give Stefanski and the Vikings the opportunity to continue with their two-tight end experiment? Zimmer’s meddling with the offensive playcalling in the past has been troublesome to say the least.

Matt LeFleur is the new head coach of the Green Bay Packers, and has quite a mixed bag of recent experience. He excelled in 2015 and 2016 as Kyle Shanahan’s QB coach (Matt Ryan’s MVP win, SuperBowl appearance) and in 2017 as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator (5th in offensive DVOA), but struggled in 2018 as the Titan’s offensive coordinator  (27th in points scored, league average in offensive DVOA). Which version of Matt LeFleur are the Packers going to get as their head coach? Offensive dynamism and creativity isn’t something this offense has had in quite some time but if LeFleur can inject that into this offense, it could go a long way in making up for their relative lack of experience and talent on that side of the ball.

The Lions’ 2018 campaign consisted of Matthew Stafford playing through a fractured back, Marvin Jones missing seven games, Kerryon Johnson missing nine games, and Golden Tate getting traded halfway through the season. When you get your $135 million quarterback, your electric running back, and your go-to outside-the-numbers wide receiver all back to full health while adding eighth-overall pick TE T.J. Hockenson and veteran WR Danny Amendola, you should have all the potential in the world to put together an explosive offense. However, if Matt Patricia continues forward with the run-centric mindset he has introduced in Detroit, all of that potential might be left untapped. Will Patricia pledge his allegiance to the “establish the run” coaching community or take advantage of the slue of weapons he has on offense?

NFC East

The addition of Amari Cooper in the middle of last season may just be the beginning of a new-look Cowboys’ offense for the first time in a very long time. Scott Linehan was finally shown the door and Kellen Moore takes over as the offensive coordinator. Moore lacks any significant experience to draw conclusions from, but it’d be hard for Moore to be less creative and mundane than Linehan was during his five year tenure. With a new offensive coordinator, a full season of Cooper, and an offense that ranked 24th in wide receiver, tight end, and offensive line health last year, is there anywhere for the Cowboys’ offense to go but up?

The Philadelphia Eagles arguably head into the 2019 season without a single below average starter on either side of the ball. However it’s not what you start with, but what you finish with. In 2017, the Eagles finished the 13th healthiest team and, despite losing their starting quarterback, had enough talent left on the field to bring home the Lombardi trophy. Last year, the Eagles ranked dead last in Adjusted Games Lost and still managed to make the playoffs. Can the Eagles stay healthy in 2019? This is an especially important question for the WR corps, who ranked 25th in health last year and have an appreciable history of injuries amongst them. In fact between Alshon Jeffery, Desean Jackson, and Nelson Agholor, the average chance of injury is just under 50% (according to Sports Injury Predictor).

No NFC team lacks a silver lining more heading into the 2019 season than the New York Giants. Replacing Odell Beckham Jr. with Golden Tate has already proven to be worse than anticipated with Tate’s four game PED suspension to start the season. But the significant losses in talent don’t just stop on offense. The Giants lost OLB Olivier Vernon (PFF grade: 86.3), FS Landon Collins (70.4), DT Mario Edwards (70.1), DT Josh Mauro (66.8), DT Kerry Wynn (66.2), and CB B.W Webb (62.6). Adding safeties Jabrill Peppers (OBJ trade) and Antoine Bethea (free agency) as well as DT Dexter Lawrence and CB Deandre Baker through the draft is hardly going to be close to enough to fill the voids of the aforementioned losses, and has me asking “Who can this Giants defense realistically stop?“. 

The Redskins have a lot of questions to answer during camp and preseason, but none as big as “Who is going to play quarterback?“. The first unofficial depth chart has Colt McCoy listed as the starter, with newly acquired Case Keenum as the backup,  and fifteenth overall pick Dwayne Haskins as the third stringer. My evaluation of each varies enough from each other that the results of this quarterback competition (as well as any changes at the position throughout the season) has a significant impact on the team’s value.

NFC South

Something that flew under the radar for the Saints last season was Drew Brees’ struggles with the deep ball later in the season. Prior to Week 12, Brees completed 63% of his deep passes for 6 TDs, 0 INTs, and a 144 passer rating. Week 13 onwards, his completion percentage on those throws dipped to 41% and he threw 1 TD and 2 INTs and had a passer rating of just 63 (via Warren Sharp’s “2019 Football Preview”). Whether it was an undisclosed injury, league-wide defensive adjustments, or just poor play, we’ll never know. But the question obviously stands heading into 2019: Will Brees’ struggles with the deep ball late last season continue into 2019?

There seems to be some optimism amongst football fans that the Atlanta Falcons can get back to the playoffs. After keeping a close watch over them in the offseason, I’m not so sure I agree. The Falcons have struggled with offensive playcalling ever since the departure of Mike Shanahan. Steve Sarkisian’s two year tenure resulted in a points per game average drop of nearly a full touchdown, and he was unsurprisingly let go. Is former Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter the answer for this offense? This is somewhat a sarcastic question as I firmly have my feet planted in the “no” camp, but I am keeping an eye on anything I can draw from their preseason affairs. If Koetter and the Falcons can surprise me, then the landscape of the NFC South could look quite a bit different than I currently anticipate.

There really isn’t a more pressing question for the Panthers (and arguably for the entire NFC South) than “What lasting effects will Cam Newton’s shoulder injury have?“. Following a 6-2 start last year during which Newton was arguably an early MVP candidate, Newton sustained a shoulder injury that severely affected his throwing motion and ability. His play was visibly very limited, and it came to no surprise that he underwent offseason surgery to repair the issue. Whether it be a result of the injury, the surgery, or the recovery, Cam Newton has changed his throwing motion ahead of the 2019 season and it has been described as a work-in-progress as recently as of last week. Any early indications or analysis of the effect during preseason will be telling, just like it was for Andrew Luck and his recovery process last season.

Although much focus of the focus with the Buccaneers has been on new head coach Bruce Arians and what transformations the offense will undergo, I think the defense deserves an equal amount of attention. The losses of DT Gerald McCoy and CB Javien Elliott were aptly dealt with by the additions of DT Ndamukong Suh and OLB Shaquil Barrett in free agency and with the additions of LB Devin White, CB Sean Murphy-Bunting, and CB Jamal Dean through the draft. Add new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to the mix as well as the fact that this defense ranked dead last in total Adjustes Games Lost on the defensive side of the ball and you have the formula for a big jump. Can the Buccaneers defense turn it around a year after ranking bottom three in both pass and rush defense in my model?

NFC West

The Los Angeles Rams are looking to get back to the SuperBowl and will have breakout wide receiver Cooper Kupp back on the field. Goff with Kupp on the field had a 69.6% completion percentage, 2.8 TD:INT ratio, 9.7 YPA, and 111.9 passer rating. Without Kupp, Goff had a 60.1% completion percentage, 2.3 TD:INT ratio, 7.1 YPA, and a 88.6 passer rating. It’s easy to point at those splits and just attribute them to Kupp’s absence and not consider that maybe the league just figured out McVay’s offense. This is an offense that ran 95% of their plays from the same formation and ran a league-high 77% of their plays from 11 personnel. Furthermore, they played the eighth-easiest schedule of pass defenses Week 7 onward last year but cooled off incredibly quickly in the latter half of the season. This is also the same offense that only beat the Cowboys by one score in the Divisional Round despite knowing 90% or more of the Cowboys’ defensive plays. So did the Rams’ offense cool off last year because of Cooper Kupp’s absence or did the rest of the league just figure out the Rams’ offense?

The Seahawks, much like the Lions and Texans, are prisoners to their own offensive playcallers. Brian Schottenheimer implemented a run-heavy offense last year that really reduced the potential impact Russell Wilson, one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league, could have on a game-to-game basis. But it’s hard not to ask “Will Schottenheimer call plays any differently this year?” following a year in which passes to Tyler Lockett yielded a perfect passer rating and a draft in which they took DK Metcalf in the second round. One encouraging sign is that starting running back Chris Carson has discussed how Schottenheimer has given him and Rashaad Penny more reps in the passing game, including splitting them out wide.

For the second offseason in a row, I find myself looking at the San Francisco 49ers’ place in the market and asking myself “Is Jimmy Garoppolo really that good?“. Sure, losing your starting quarterback in Week 3 AND ranking dead last in turnover margin (-25) AND ranking 29th in overall team health AND going 3-6 in one-score games all point towards an incredibly unlucky season that should signal positive regression for the next, but I still remain a firm skeptic that a significant turnaround for the Niners would come from the arm of Jimmy G, especially coming off of an ACL tear. 

For the Arizona Cardinals, much of the focus this offseason has been on what new head coach Kliff Kingsbury will be able to do with his air raid offense. There is bound to be a learning curve for both coaches and players when it comes to deploying that offense at the pro level, so a lot of Arizona’s early hopes for wins may come down to how much the defense can hold up in the meantime. Vance Joseph might find coordinating the defense a much more manageable task than his head coaching ventures with Denver, and Terrell Suggs and Jordan Hicks are great additions to the front seven for Joseph to utilize. But can cornerbacks Robert Alford and Byron Murphy hold the secondary together while Patrick Paterson serves his six game PED suspension? Alford saw a massive decline in his play last year compared to the previous year and Murphy is a rookie who has obviously not yet played a snap at the professional level. It’s a big task for the two, to say the least.

And that wraps it up for this week’s write-up! In the coming weeks, I’ll likely shift my focus to some free model-recommended futures or win totals. If you have something you’d like covered before the season begins, make sure to give me a shout on Twitter – I’m more than open to any suggestions you guys may have!