NFL 2016-17: NFC team-by-team guide

Jay Asser 8/09/2016
The NFC season is set to get underway.

With the new NFL season upon us we have the lowdown on each and every team aiming to compete for honours in the NFC Championship.

From the key ins and outs over the course of the summer to our predictions for this year’s NFL, we have you covered.

Who do you think will be crowned NFC Champions?

Have your say by commenting below, using #360fans on Twitter or getting in touch via Facebook.

NFC EAST

DALLAS COWBOYS

HEAD COACH: Jason Garrett

STAR PLAYER: Tyron Smith

LAST SEASON: 4-12

KEY INS: Ezekiel Elliot (rookie), Dak Prescott (rookie), Alfred Morris (Washington), Mark Sanchez (Philadelphia), Orlando Scandrick (injury), Cedric Thornton (Philadelphia)

KEY OUTS: Greg Hardy (free agent)

STRENGTHS: Feature hands-down the best offensive line in the league, which will power a strong ground game.

WEAKNESSES: A pass rush is severely lacking and will expose a middling secondary.

VERDICT: Quarterback Tony Romo’s injury absence shouldn’t completely cripple their chances, but it won’t make winning the division any easier. If Prescott can hold down the fort until Romo returns, their efficient offence should yield a playoff spot.

Tyron Smith.

Tyron Smith.

NEW YORK GIANTS

HEAD COACH: Ben McAdoo

STAR PLAYER: Odell Beckham Jr

LAST SEASON: 8-8

KEY INS: Damon Harrison (New York Jets), Olivier Vernon (Miami), Janoris Jenkins (St. Louis),Eli Apple (rookie), Sterling Shepard (rookie), Darian Thompson (rookie), Leon Hall (Cincinnati)

KEY OUTS: Hakeem Nicks (free agent), Andre Williams (San Diego), Robert Ayers (Tampa Bay)

STRENGTHS: An up-tempo offence with Eli Manning at the helm should once again score a lot of points.

WEAKNESSES: Allowed the most yards of any team last year, but offseason acquisitions should change that.

VERDICT: They spent heavily in free agency and have a new coach. In their case, change is good and should mean a winning record.

Odell Beckham.

Odell Beckham.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

HEAD COACH: Doug Pederson

STAR PLAYER: Fletcher Cox

LAST SEASON: 7-9

KEY INS: Carson Wentz (rookie), Dorial Green-Beckham (Tennessee), Brandon Brooks (Houston), Stefen Wisniewski (Jacksonville), Nigel Bradham (Buffalo), Stephen Tulloch (Detroit), Chase Daniel (Kansas City)

KEY OUTS: Demarco Murray (tennessee), Sam Bradford (Minnesota), Mark Sanchez (Dallas), Kiko Alonso (Miami), Byron Maxwell (Miami), Cedric Thornton (Dallas)

STRENGTHS: Defensive potential is there and the line has stalwarts like Cox and Bennie Logan on the interior.

WEAKNESSES: Changes across the board on offence, combined with a rookie starting quarterback, are likely to spell doom.

VERDICT: An ugly season awaits.

Fletcher Cox.

Fletcher Cox.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

HEAD COACH: Jay Gruden

STAR PLAYER: Josh Norman

LAST SEASON: 9-7, lost in Wild Card round

KEY INS: Josh Doctson (rookie), Josh Norman (Carolina), Su’a Cravens (rookie), Kendall Fuller (rookie), Robert Kelley (rookie), David Bruton (Denver)

KEY OUTS: Alfred Morris (Dallas), Robert Griffin III (Cleveland), Terrance Knighton (free agent)

STRENGTHS: Quarterback Kirk Cousins should lead a strong air attack that puts up points.

WEAKNESSES: Pass defence ranked 25th in the league last season and struggled to get off the field, but the addition of Norman should help.

VERDICT: Should be favourites to repeat as division champions, but surpassing nine wins will be a challenge.

Josh Norman.

Josh Norman.

NFC NORTH

CHICAGO BEARS

HEAD COACH: John Fox

STAR PLAYER: Pernell McPhee

LAST SEASON: 6-10

KEY INS: Brian Hoyer (Houston), Danny Trevathan (Denver), Jerrell Freeman (Indianapolis), Jordan Howard (rookie), Akiem Hicks (New England), Leonard Floyd (rookie), Kevin White (injury)

KEY OUTS: Martellus Bennett (New England), Matt Forte (New York Jets), Matt Slauson (San Diego)

STRENGTHS: Front seven should be much improved after the talent they’ve added and run defence, which has often struggled over the years, is likely to be better.

WEAKNESSES: The departure of Forte leaves a big hole at running back and it’s yet to be seen if Jeremy Langford can fill it adequately.

VERDICT: They’ll be a couple a wins better than last year, but it won’t be enough to reach the postseason.

Pernell McPhee.

Pernell McPhee.

DETROIT LIONS

HEAD COACH: Jim Caldwell

STAR PLAYER: Ezekiel Ansah

LAST SEASON: 7-9

KEY INS: Marvin Jones (Cincinnati), Anquan Boldin (San Francisco), Taylor Decker (rookie), A’Shawn Robinson (rookie), Wallace Gilberry (Cincinnati)

KEY OUTS: Joique bell (free agent), Lance Moore (retired), Calvin Johnson (retired)

STRENGTHS: Defensive line is arguably the strongest unit on the team, anchored by Ansah and big bodies Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker.

WEAKNESSES: Produced the fewest rushing yards in the entire league in 2015 and will need some sort of ground game, particularly from Ameer Abdullah, to compliment the passing attack.

VERDICT: A full season under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter should do wonders, but nine wins seems like their best-case scenario in a difficult division.

Ezekiel Ansah.

Ezekiel Ansah.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

HEAD COACH: Mike McCarthy

STAR PLAYER: Aaron Rodgers

LAST SEASON: 10-6, lost in Divisional round

KEY INS: Jordy Nelson (injury), Jared Cook (St. Louis), Kenny Clark (rookie)

KEY OUTS: Josh Sitton (Chicago), John Kuhn (New Orleans), James Jones (free agent), Casey Hayward (San Diego)

STRENGTHS: Any offence with Rodgers under centre will be deadly and with Nelson back in the fold in good health, the attack should return closer to the elite levels of 2014 when they were nearly unstoppable.

WEAKNESSES: Injuries derailed them last season and always seem to hold them back one way or another.

VERDICT: As long as Rodgers is around they’re contenders and after retaining most of the team from last year, they should be primed for a better campaign to reach the doorstep of the NFC Championship, if not the Super Bowl.

Aaron Rodgers.

Aaron Rodgers.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

HEAD COACH: Mike Zimmer

STAR PLAYER: Adrian Peterson

LAST SEASON: 11-5, lost in Wild Card round

KEY INS: Sam Bradford (Philadelphia), Laquon Treadwell (rookie), Alex Boone (San Francisco), Andre Smith (Cincinnati), Mackensie Alexander (rookie)

KEY OUTS: Teddy Bridgewater (injury), Phil Loadholt (retired), Mike Wallace (Baltimore)

STRENGTHS: A young, up-and-coming defence features several playmakers and should take another step forward this season.

WEAKNESSES: How will they fare without Bridgewater? Bradford is capable, but he has little time to get acclimated and they’re a low-volume passing team as it is.

VERDICT: Bridgewater’s injury definitely lowers their expectations, but the rest of the roster is good enough for the playoffs.

Adrian Peterson.

Adrian Peterson.

NFC SOUTH

ATLANTA FALCONS

HEAD COACH: Dan Quinn

STAR PLAYER: Julio Jones

LAST SEASON: 8-8

KEY INS: Alex Mack (Cleveland), Mohamed Sanu (Cincinnati), Matt Schaub (Baltimore), Dwight Freeney (Arizona), Keanu Neal (rookie), Deion Jones (rookie), De’Vondre Campbell (rookie)

KEY OUTS: Roddy White (free agent), Paul Soliai (Carolina)

STRENGTHS: Quarterback Matt Ryan has two of the very best pass-catchers at their position in wide receiver Jones and running back Devonta Freeman.

WEAKNESSES: Pass rush produced a paltry 19 sacks last season and getting pressure has long been an issue.

VERDICT: A fast start to 2015 fizzled out over the second half of the season. Though they’re a better team, it’s hard to see their record getting any better.

Julio Jones.

Julio Jones.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

HEAD COACH: Ron Rivera

STAR PLAYER: Cam Newton

LAST SEASON: 15-1, lost in Super Bowl

KEY INS: James Bradberry (rookie), Daryl Worley (rookie), Kelvin Benjamin (injury)

KEY OUTS: Josh Norman (Washington), Jared Allen (retired), Roman Harper (New Orleans), Charles Tillman (retired)

STRENGTHS: One of the best front sevens in the games is led by stellar linebacker play.

WEAKNESSES: Their secondary always seems vulnerable heading into the season, only to come together with a hotchpotch of faces, but reliable depth at the position is a concern.

VERDICT: Regression is almost certain, at least as far as their record from last year. Their run could stop short at the NFC Championship this time.

Cam Newton.

Cam Newton.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

HEAD COACH: Sean Payton

STAR PLAYER: Drew Brees

LAST SEASON: 7-9

KEY INS: Coby Fleener (Indianapolis), Roman Harper (Carolina), James Laurinaitis (St. Louis), Sheldon Rankins (rookie), Michael Thomas (rookie), Nick Fairley (St. Louis)

KEY OUTS: Ben Watson (Baltimore), Jahri Evans (free agent), Marques Colston (retired)

STRENGTHS: Passing game with Brees should continue to flourish and young receivers will provide threat downfield.

WEAKNESSES: Defence surrendered the second-most yardage last year and has been a constant source of frustration.

VERDICT: While their championship window with Brees has shut, they still have the potential to snag a wild card spot. That said, they’ll have competition in their own division.

Drew Brees.

Drew Brees.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

HEAD COACH: Dirk Koetter

STAR PLAYER: Gerald McCoy

LAST SEASON: 6-10

KEY INS: Roberto Aguayo (rookie), Vernon Hargreaves (rookie), Noah Spence (rookie), Robert Ayers (New York Giants), Brent Grimes (Miami), Daryl Smith (Baltimore)

KEY OUTS: Logan Mankins (retired)

STRENGTHS: Boast one of the most balanced offences, capable of gaining chunks of yards through the air or ground.

WEAKNESSES: Secondary struggled last year and while cornerback play should be better, there are question marks at the safety position.

VERDICT: Nine to 10 wins seems very possible, as does reaching the post-season. That will largely hinge on how much quarterback Jameis Winston develops, but they’re trending upward.

Gerald McCoy.

Gerald McCoy.

NFC WEST

ARIZONA CARDINALS

HEAD COACH: Bruce Arians

STAR PLAYER: Tyrann Mathieu

LAST SEASON: 13-3, lost in NFC Championship

KEY INS: Evan Mathis (Denver), Chandler Jones (New england), Tyvon Branch (Kansas City), Robert Nkemdiche (rookie)

KEY OUTS: Bobby Massie (Chicago), Jonathan Cooper (New England), Lamarr Woodley (free agent), Sean Weatherspoon (Atlanta)

STRENGTHS: Talented offence features a trio of explosive receivers and a dynamic running back.

WEAKNESSES: There are moving parts and some health concerns on the defensive side of the ball.

VERDICT: They’re so good across the board and have few soft spots, so the NFC Championship again looks on the cards if they can hold their nerve.

Tyrann Mathieu.

Tyrann Mathieu.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

HEAD COACH: Jeff Fisher

STAR PLAYER: Aaron Donald

LAST SEASON: 7-9

KEY INS: Jared Goff (rookie)

KEY OUTS: Jared Cook (Green Bay), Nick Foles (Kansas City), Chris Long (New England), Janoris Jenkins (New York Giants), James Laurinaitis (New Orleans)

STRENGTHS: Dominant defensive line is a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks and powers what should be a strong unit overall.

WEAKNESSES: The passing game will have a hard time keeping defences honest and not stacking the box.

VERDICT: Fisher’s teams perennially finish 7-9 or 8-8 and there’s no reason to think this campaign will be any different. They better hope they see some good signs from Goff to be their quarterback of the future.

Aaron Donald.

Aaron Donald.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

HEAD COACH: Chip Kelly

STAR PLAYER: NaVorro Bowman

LAST SEASON: 5-11

KEY INS: DeForest Buckner (rookie), Zane Beadles (Jacksonville), Anthony Davis (retired)

KEY OUTS: Anquan Boldin (Detroit), Reggie Bush (Buffalo), Alex Boone (Minnesota)

STRENGTHS: Offence will be more dynamic, at least from an aesthetic standpoint, but results should be tempered for a depleted roster.

WEAKNESSES: Talent is lacking across the board and there are few impact players that can help turn this team around.

VERDICT: Kelly has his work cut out to make this team competitive and a finish near the bottom of the league should be expected in a year where rebuilding seems the priority.

NaVorro Bowman.

NaVorro Bowman.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

HEAD COACH: Pete Carroll

STAR PLAYER: Earl Thomas

LAST SEASON: 10-6, lost in Divisional round

KEY INS: Germain Ifedi (rookie), Alex Collins (rookie), C.J. Prosise (rookie), J’Marcus Webb (Oakland)

KEY OUTS: Marshawn Lynch (retired), Russell Okung (Denver), Bruce Irvin (Oakland)

STRENGTHS: The Legion of boom is still around and performing at an elite level between Thomas, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor.

WEAKNESSES: Offensive line play can only go up from last year when they had a rough go.

VERDICT: Between their defence and Wilson, they’re always threats to reach the Super Bowl. A run-in with division rivals Arizona in the playoffs seems likely, whether it’s in the NFC Championship or earlier.

Earl Thomas.

Earl Thomas.

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#360view: All eyes remain on the NFL

Jay Asser 8/09/2016
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Popular as ever: Levi's Stadium at Super Bowl 50.

The fervour surrounding the return of the NFL feels like it continues to incrementally grow leading up to every season.

For all the controversies the league has dealt with over recent years – from the Ray Rice assault, to ‘Deflategate’ and now Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest – the sport remains firmly entrenched as the most popular in the United States.

When it comes to international appeal, the NFL pales in comparison to the NBA and MLB. It’s a league and sport specialised to the Western Hemisphere because it’s so ingrained in Americana.

And yet, the NFL has rightly come under heavy criticism from many in its home country, even those that love it most, for its authoritarian leadership and propaganda agenda.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has propositioned his way to judge, jury and executioner regarding any discipline, while many celebrations and acts of individualism have been abolished to create a ‘No Fun League’ atmosphere.

Underlying all that are concussions, which, even after you overlook the league’s lack of awareness on the topic, has the potential to threaten the sport’s very existence.

Brain injuries and head trauma are real issues and as more and more people learn about their dangers, it’s inevitable that fewer and fewer children will be allowed to play by their parents. Those same parents, however, are most likely watching the NFL and have no problem with their children watching too.

That is a microcosm of the general attitude of a majority of NFL followers. There’s no ‘ignorance is bliss’ here. The issues are front and centre and very much known. This is all about turning a blind eye to those issues for the purposes of entertainment.

And entertaining it continues to be, now more than ever.

Perhaps no major sporting league has benefitted more from technological advances of the digital age than the NFL.

It’s easier than ever to follow the sport, which has truly managed to become a year-round spectacle despite having only a five-month season of actual play.

Coverage of the NFL draft and free agency can be found far and wide, while training camps are well-attended and preseason games attract plenty of viewers for what is meaningless action.

So much of that exposure is fuelled by gambling, and its subset, fantasy football.

Many actually believe the NFL’s injury report – which has undergone changes this off-season, namely doing away with the ‘probable’ designation – exists for the purpose of aiding gambling handicappers.

Even if you’re not gambling – which is very much illegal in the UAE – it’s likely you have at least one fantasy team.

Fantasy football has come far from the shadows of nerdism in the internet’s early days to now practically being a prerequisite for following the NFL. Chances are if you’re even casually interested in the NFL, you’re in some sort of league with your friends, co-workers or family members.

What’s helped the fantasy boom has been the evolution in the style of play in real life. Passing is at the forefront more than it ever has been, with the action more fast-paced and points aplenty.

But even with the importance placed on having a top-tier quarterback, the Super Bowl last season was won by a renowned defence.

The highly-coveted parity is still alive and well, even if the aesthetics have shifted.

All of that makes the NFL enjoyable, as long as you don’t think too much on the issues. Another scandal will spring up at some point this season and attract our outrage, but it won’t draw our eyes away from the product.

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