The draft is approaching but the NFL division landscape is already shaping up. Who are the early favorites?
AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers
The offense really came around for the Pittsburgh Steelers late last season and Dick LeBeau is enough of a proven defensive coordinator to trust he will get things straightened out provided the team gives him some help in the draft. Pittsburgh just missed the playoffs last year and know their window may be closing so the urgency should be there to do some in the AFC North.
Biggest Challenger – Cincinnati Bengals
In terms of roster strength, the reigning champion Cincinnati Bengals are the biggest obstacle to the Steelers accomplishing their goal. They have the look of a Super Bowl contender but a lot will depend on how the situation with Andy Dalton resolves, whether he’s extended or replaced.
AFC East: New England Patriots
If this is a surprise to anybody they need to read more of their NFL history. The New England Patriots have owned the AFC East since Bill Belichick took over the team and Tom Brady became his quarterback. Vince Wilfork should return healthy on defense and a couple of solid corners in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner should also help. They were in the AFC championship last season and are strong roster-wise now.
Biggest Challenger – Miami Dolphins
Quarterback stability will determine who challenges the Patriots and at present the Miami Dolphins are best equipped to do so. Ryan Tannehill is maturing quickly and has a chance to take that next step but the key will be whether his team can adequately arm and protect him.
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
Step by step Andrew Luck is becoming that elite quarterback everyone knew he’d be when he went first overall in 2012. The Indianapolis Colts have a solid group in place and made some nice additions in free agency. There are still some holes to fill but not many that should dictate how they do. If Luck stays healthy and he gets some help from the defense the AFC South is theirs for the taking.
Biggest Challenger – Houston Texans
Yes, they went 2-14 last season but their roster remains strong. Health will certainly help but the real reason the Houston Texans will challenge is because of Bill O’Brien. His success in New England and then PennState show he’s ready for this job. He hired an excellent defensive coordinator in Romeo Crennel and should get things going again if he picks the right quarterback in the NFL draft.
AFC West: Denver Broncos
They were in the Super Bowl last year and by all accounts the Denver Broncos made the most roster improvements of any team prior to the draft. They also still have Peyton Manning coming off the best season of his career. It’s still a tough division and might be tougher in 2014 but things are at a point where the Broncos know they have the pieces in place and this year is their last realistic opportunity.
Biggest Challenger – San Diego Chargers
Kansas City took some tough roster losses and the Raiders, while improved haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile the San Diego Chargers won a playoff game last season, still have Philip Rivers and are in good position to improve their roster enough to challenge the Broncos for that AFC West crown.
NFC North: Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers staying healthy is the primary reason the Green Bay Packers remain favorites in the NFC North division. There were some roster losses to work past including James Jones and Evan Dietrich-Smith but some additions to the defense like Julius Peppers and getting injured players back mean the Packers have every reason to think they’ll contend again.
Biggest Challenger – Chicago Bears
Fourth-and-8. That is how close the Chicago Bears came to dethroning the Packers last season. A defensive stop wins them the division but like it had all year, the defense couldn’t finish the job. Since then the team has furiously worked to upgrade, adding Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young to the defensive line. Some quality help from the draft should put them in position to right the wrong they still feel.
NFC East: New York Giants
This might be the biggest surprise of the predictions. The New York Giants just looked horrible last season. Injuries did play a part but they also looked downright uncertain at times. Not that its stopped them. New York has had a surprisingly active free agency in which they’ve added much needed help at areas across their roster from the offensive line to the secondary. Eli Manning still needs a couple new weapons, but this team has rebounded well from tough seasons before.
Biggest Challenger – Philadelphia Eagles
They are the champs but anybody who thinks the Philadelphia Eagles have a stranglehold on that division better check their facts. Chip Kelly did a fantastic job but his team was only 10-6 and narrowly won the NFC East last year with a two-point win against Dallas. They haven’t made many significant additions to the roster since then save for Darren Sproles and they did lose DeSean Jackson. They remain in the contender picture but they will have to fight harder for it.
NFC South: New Orleans Saints
They had a shot to beat Seattle in the playoffs but the New Orleans Saints weren’t ready. This time they could be. That is how much the addition of three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd has changed the equation. His presence on that stout defense will create turnover opportunities, which in turn will give the ball to Drew Brees. Provided the Saints bolster his offensive weaponry as expected this team should unseat Carolina in the NFC South.
Biggest Challenger – Atlanta Falcons
The Panthers were a good story last year but their problems on the offensive side of the ball have gotten worse, not better. TampaBay is hard not to pick but their wide receiver situation and the fact they’re putting their faith in a 34-year old former backup at quarterback held them back. The Atlanta Falcons meanwhile made some very underrated additions to their roster, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. With key players returning healthy and a chance to draft some difference-makers, they should rebound quickly.
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks
As the world champions they get penciled in automatically as NFC West favorites. The Seattle Seahawks have the best defense in the league and a Pro Bowler at quarterback. It doesn’t get much better. Oh right, they also have the best home field advantage too. In truth the Seahawks have their core in place but they did lose quite a few complimentary pieces to free agency. Time will tell how much that affects them.
Biggest Challenger – San Francisco 49ers
The NFC West division as a whole in the best in the NFL but there is no doubt the San Francisco 49ers are the biggest threat to the Seahawks reign. Their roster is just as strong. They’ve reached three-straight NFC championship games and have a young quarterback who is beginning to mature. Best of all they have a wealth of draft picks available which they can use to further upgrade their already talented roster.
Tags: Atlanta Falcons Chicago Bears Cincinnati Bengals Denver Broncos Green Bay Packers Houston Texans Indianapolis Colts Miami Dolphins New England Patriots New Orleans Saints New York Giants Philadelphia Eagles Pittsburgh Steelers San Diego Chargers San Francisco 49ers Seattle Seahawks