The staff here at Purple Reign Show all have one thing in common: an unyielding love for the Baltimore Ravens. And an equal hatred for the Pittsburgh Steelers. I’d also be willing to bet that we all love Game of Thrones too, because who doesn’t? That may or may not be more than one thing, but who’s counting? Anyways, my point is that we love our Baltimore Ravens, and we enjoy keeping our readers up to date with any and everything related to our beloved franchise.
While doing so is very much our primary mission, we also feel it’s important to keep tabs on the rest of the league. So in spirit of doing just that, I present to you my (most likely very wrong) division-by-division predictions for the upcoming season. We will take a look at where each team stands now that the majority of the offseason has played out, and I will also predict season records for each team, and awards for each division. First up in our two-part series: the NFC.
When you take a quick glance over the list of teams that make up the conference, it quickly becomes apparent that the Ravens are fortunate to be part of the AFC. There’s three to four NFC teams that I would deem a more viable Super Bowl contender than the cream of the AFC crop. Every NFC division houses a legitimate powerhouse. Let’s break it down further and explore each division as their own separate entity.
State of the division: Since the 2002 division re-alignment, the Seattle Seahawks have led the NFC West in wins (127), division titles (8 of 16), and playoff appearance (11). In the past five seasons, they have averaged 11 wins per season and won a Super Bowl (should have been two consecutive).
The Seahawks have dominated this division as of late with a dual threat QB, a power run game, and a dominant defense. Last season told a different story though. They are no longer the same intimidating group they once were. That power rush attack that once wore opposing defenses out has finished 25th and 23rd over the past two seasons. The defense, who earned the nickname “The Legion of Boom”, has lost a lot of star power, including the likes of CB Richard Sherman, DE Michael Bennett, DL Sheldon Richardson and LB Bruce Irvin. There had also been trade winds swirling around their All-Pro safety Earl Thomas during the 2018 draft. To make matters worse, DE Cliff Avril is in danger of never playing again due to a spinal injury. One of the few constants will be QB Russell Wilson. As long as he’s on the field, this team will have a shot to win more games than they lose. That said, it seems as though there’s a definite changing of the guards taking place in the West.
Last year, it was the LA Rams that came out of nowhere to lay their claim as the new powerhouse of the division. The Jeff Fisher era had just ended after five losing seasons. His replacement would be the youngest head coach in NFL history. At just 30 years old, Sean McVay would take the second youngest team in the league and make believers out of them. After winning the division with a record of 11-5, it was apparent that the players bought into McVays message. They also had a trifecta of Associated Press award winners, with McVay winning AP Head Coach of the Year, running back Todd Gurley taking home AP Offensive Player of the Year, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald running away with AP Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Given the success of the season, paired with the Seahawks regression, GM Les Snead went all-in on the upcoming season. This offseason he has either signed or traded for NT Ndamukong Suh, CB Aqib Talib, CB Marcus Peters, and WR Brandin Cooks. Suh paired with Donald and Talib paired with Peters should make for some of the best pairings in the NFL. Cooks should be a great addition offensively for young up and coming QB Jared Goff, who already had some nice weapons in place in Gurley and WRs Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. This will be a team that nobody wants to face in 2018.
The other two teams in the division, the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers, finally have young franchise quarterbacks in place. The Cardinals drafted Josh Rosen after he fell into their laps as the 10th overall pick. They will also get a big offensive boost via the return of star RB David Johnson. WR Larry Fitzgerald will be joined by second round draft pick WR Christian Kirk, a player I was high on heading into the draft. While these are all dynamic playmakers, this is a team that still has some building to do in order to compete in the NFC.
The 49ers signed Jimmy Garoppolo to a 5-year deal this offseason after they traded for him midseason last year. He took over as the starter in week 13 for the 1-10 Niners, and led them to a 5-0 record the rest of the way, including wins over three eventual playoff qualifiers. It will be interesting to see how he follows that up this season. He definitely makes them a dark horse candidate in the NFC. They also added CB Richard Sherman from division rival Seattle.
San Francisco_____ 9-7
MVP- RB Todd Gurley, LA Rams: While it’s not a rule for me, I feel more often than not that the MVP is the best player on the best team. That will be Gurley with ease. I actually expect him to be better than he was a year ago.
Offensive Player of the Year- QB Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: Im aware that the OPOTY almost always goes to a skill position, and I almost went Cardinals RB David Johnson here, but Wilson is gonna CARRY that offense (as always). With the defense in a bit of a rebuild, he’ll have to do even more to keep the team in games.
Defensive Player of the Year – DT Aaron Donald, LA Rams: The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year should only be better with Ndamukong Suh playing alongside him.
Offensive Rookie of the Year- RB Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks: Penny has the build, speed and ability to be a three-down back in the NFL. Should immediately become a big part of an offense lacking star power.
Defensive Rookie of the Year – LB Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers: Reuben Fosters season is in serious doubt after accusations of domestic violence led to felony charges. This leaves an opportunity for Warner to get on the field and make an impact. He is also very capable of being a hybrid safety kind of guy in sub packages, which should give him even more opportunities to contribute.
Favorite Draft Pick- LB Shaquem Griffin, Seattle Seahawks: We all know the story by now. At four years old his mother found him in the kitchen trying to cut his fingers off because of the unbearable pain caused by a prenatal condition called amniotic band syndrome. After having his hand surgically removed, he beat the odds and was drafted by the same team that his twin brother plays for. So awesome.
Best Division Newcomer- CB Aqib Talib, LA Rams: Talib is undoubtably a top ten cornerback in this league. He’s a great addition to a defense that has to see the likes of Garoppolo, Wilson and Rosen twice a year. He shot down a trade that would have sent him to San Francisco.
State of the division: The Minnesota Vikings have been a team on the cusp for seemingly the past decade. Last season, they finally broke through and looked like a top three team in the NFL for the duration of the whole season. What makes this impressive is that they were able to do it with an undersized journeyman at quarterback. Case Keenum led the team all the way to the NFC championship game. He was repaid by the team by being viewed as the one piece holding the team back from reaching the promised land, and wasn’t offered a new contract. Ouch.
Minnesota opted to roll the dice on former Redskin Kirk Cousins for the 2018 season and hope that he can help the team take that last step. He has the weapons in the passing game. The wide receiver duo of Adam Thielen and Stephon Diggs was great last year, and TE Kyle Rudolph is serviceable. RB Dalvin Cook should be a real boost to an already good offensive unit. Sure, the committee of Jerrick McKinnon and Latavius Murray was productive, but Cook is a superior talent.
Defensively, the Vikings boast one of the best groups in the league. They ranked first in both points allowed and yards allowed, and second in both rushing yards allowed and passing yards allowed. This is an elite roster but to me, it will ironically come down to their quarterback Kirk Cousins how far this team goes this year. It’s super bowl or bust in Minnesota.
In Green Bay, the return of QB Aaron Rodgers from injury has to be music to fans ears after suffering through Brett Hundley last year. He’ll have much of the same offense that he had last year, minus his favorite target WR Jordy Nelson, who is now in Oakland. New to the group is TE Jimmy Graham, and I have a gut feeling that this is gonna be a big year for him. In the backfield, they have a pair of young running backs that both flashed at times last season. Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones should be a great one-two punch in 2018. I don’t have much that I want to touch on defensively with the Packers except for the fact that they simply aren’t very good. No player had double digit sacks or more than 4 interceptions.
In The Windy City, the Bears are a team that have the wind at their backs. They have had a nice offseason and continue trending up. They already had a top rushing attack in place with Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. Their defense was also way better than advertised. They chose to focus the offseason on surrounding second year signal caller Mitchell Trubisky with weapons to take the offense to new heights. They brought in WR Allen Robinson, WR Taylor Gabriel and TE Trey Burton to bring some life to a pass catching group that was a ghost town last season. They also spent a third round draft pick on WR Anthony Miller. I like these guys as fits in Chicago. This is a team that should compete for a wild card berth.
The Detroit Lions are housing some really talented players, just not enough of them. QB Matt Stafford should be just fine with Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay. New head coach Matt Patricia knows that the first step in becoming competitive is fixing a rushing attack that hasn’t had a 100 yard rusher since Reggie Bush on Thanksgiving day of 2013. That’s a mind blowing 68 straight games, folks. They used their first round pick on C Frank Ragnow and their second round pick on RB Kerryon Johnson, and also signed veteran RB LeGarrette Blount in free agency. The defense ranked 27th last season. Ezekiel Ansah had a nice season with 12 sacks. Im a huge fan of Darius Slay. He had 8 interceptions last season. That’s the only two nice things I have to say about this defense, so I’ll leave it at that.
Green Bay 9-7
MVP- QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: Need I really explain this? He’s possibly the best player in the league, and certainly the best player in the division.
Offensive Player of the Year- RB Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings: I had a hard time choosing between Cook, Jordan Howard and Jamaal Williams here.
Defensive Player of the Year- CB Darius Slay, Detroit Lions: I can already sense the majority of readers disagreeing with me here. What about Xavier Rhodes? Harrison Smith? I don’t care. I’m sticking to my guns. Slay is a very underrated shutdown corner. Underrated, as a First Team All Pro? Yes. He led the league in both interceptions and pass breakups (21).
Offensive Rookie of the Year- C Frank Ragnow, Detroit Lions: I know that you typically see a skill position player as offensive rookie of the year, but I truly see him making a bigger impact for his team than RB Kerryon Johnson or WR Anthony Miller will with Chicago as a rookie.
Defensive Rookie of the Year- LB Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears: It’s good to see Chicago get back to its roots with an intelligent, physical inside backer. He should thrive from day one.
Favorite Draft Pick- CB Josh Jackson, Green Bay Packers: This isn’t so much about the player (although I am a fan of his skill set) than it is the thought process. The Packers preceded this pick with CB Jaire Alexander in the first round. I loved the idea of going CB-CB to start the draft for a team that desperately needed an upgrade at the position.
Best Division Newcomer- TE Jimmy Graham, Green Bay Packers: As I mentioned before, I see a big year for Graham. While he was quietly very good in Seattle with a very good QB in Russell Wilson, he was plain dominant in New Orleans with a top three QB in Drew Brees. Aaron Rodgers just might be in that Brees category. And he’ll be looking for a new favorite target without Nelson. It’ll be Davante Adams, but Graham will still get a lot of targets.
State of the division: Sorry, not sorry… the NFC East should be a cakewalk for the defending Super Bowl champions. If I had to bet my net worth (it’s A LOT) on one team this preseason to win their division, it would be the Philadelphia Eagles without much, if any, hesitation. They won their first Super Bowl with a backup quarterback. Maybe Nick Foles deserves more credit than that, but this is less a knock on him than it is a compliment to the roster that GM Howie Roseman built. As good as the Foles-led Eagles were, they were even better with franchise QB Carson Wentz at the helm. He was so good last year that he was considered the favorite to win the league MVP before a torn ACL in his left knee ended his season in week 14. He has even more help this year with WR Mike Wallace and TE Dallas Goedert joining WR Alston Jeffery and TE Zach Ertz. Yeah, an MVP candidate quarterback stacked with big targets and a physical, very aggressive, in-your-face top-5 defense. It’s all a bit much for the rest of the league let alone the rest of the division.
The Dallas Cowboys lost two franchise all-timers this offseason with the release of Dez Bryant and the retirement of Jason Witten. They combined for 1,683 receptions, 19,907 yards and 142!touchdowns in their Cowboys career. That’s impressive and a lot of production that needs replaced. Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson, Michael Gallup and Dalton Schultz were added this season in free agency and the draft to try and ease the pain of these humongous losses. Expect a lot of RB Ezekiel Elliott this season.
The New York Giants share one thing in common with the Detroit Lions: they both have been downright pathetic at moving the ball on the ground. The Giants main focus this offseason was to find a remedy that would allow them to become multi-dimensional. And with the second overall pick in the draft, they were in perfect position to do it.
The Giants drafted RB Saquon Barkley, who many consider to be the best rookie in the league. His build, speed, intelligence, heart, work ethic, etc. all combine to make the perfect NFL running back prospect. He has huge expectations to live up to. Drafting G Will Hernandez in round two should lend a huge hand in helping Barkley succeed in doing so. He’s probably the best run blocker in the class, save Indianapolis Colts G Quenton Nelson. Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr should be an exciting duo this season.
In the nations capital, the Washington Redskins for whatever reason let their franchise quarterback Kirk Cousins get away. I found it weird that they just kept throwing the franchise tag on the guy. They obviously didn’t like him enough. They prefer 35 year old Alex Smith, who they traded a budding cornerback (Kendall Fuller) and a third round pick to the Chiefs to acquire him. Theirs no denying that Smith was playing out of his mind last year. He had career highs in yards, yards per completion, touchdowns, interceptions, and passer rating (his rating of 104.7 was tops in the league). The problem is that he doesn’t have close to the supporting cast that he had in Kansas City. His best target is a running back out of the backfield (Chris Thompson) or a tight end that cannot stay healthy. Ever. His wide receivers are nothing to write home about. But they do have a decent offensive line and a rookie running back that is very talented. Derrius Guice at the end of round two was a steal. But he won’t be enough to make this a competitive football team.
MVP- QB Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles: While coming back from an ACL tear is not easy and historically it doesn’t end up well, Wentz seems on track to be ready to go for the season opener and he was just way too good last year for me to put another NFC East player here over him.
Offensive Player of the Year- RB Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys: So far in his short NFL career he’s been as good as advertised coming out of college. With a young offensive core, he’ll be leaned on heavily as a bell cow for this team.
Defensive Player of the Year- EDGE DeMarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys: The dudes nickname is Tank. Lawrence had 15 quarterback sacks last season to go along with 79 quarterback pressures, second best in the league. Per Pro Football Focus, he was first among all edge defenders with at least 200 pass rush snaps in pass rush productivity at 14.8. Its just gonna be a lot more of that this year. He’s here to stay and by the end of the year, he’ll be a name people know.
Offensive Rookie of the Year- RB Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins: I liked him more than Barkley even before the draft. He runs angry, playing every down like it’s his last and making defenders work to take him down. He wants to be great and I think that goes a long way.
Defensive Rookie of the Year- LB Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys: I love this pick for Dallas. He’s an instant three down starter at linebacker. He’s a freakish athletic specimen with great size that flies to the ball and can cover.
Favorite Draft Pick- WR Michael Gallup, Dallas Cowboys: A lot of Ravens fans had a draft crush on Gallup, and I was certainly one of them. This dude may be coming from a small school but make no mistake about it: he can ball. An excellent route runner with adequate size and speed. He’ll be an impact player at this level.
Best Division Newcomer- QB Alex Smith, Washington Redskins: It remains to be seen whether he can continue to have success at this age, but last season he sure didn’t look like a guy with a tank running on empty.
State of the division: For my money, the NFC south is by far the best division in the NFL. The New Orleans Saints offense has a lot to do with that. I’m sure first ballot Hall of Fame shoe-in QB Drew Brees loves not having to do it all at this stage of his career. Veteran RB Mark Ingram and sensational RB Alvin Kamara were the centerpiece of this offense last year, and I’m sure that’s very much the plan moving forward. Don’t let my previous statements fool you though; Brees is still one of the best quarterbacks in the game. He has an elite wide receiver in Michael Thomas and gets back TE Ben Watson after one year with the Ravens. The Saints also signed Cam Meredith away from the Bears.
The Saints defense might not be quite as stacked as the top teams in the other NFC divisions, but they are still very talented. CB Marshon Lattimore was fantastic in his rookie year and I expect the same out of edge rusher Marcus Davenport this year opposite of Cameron Jordan. Vonn Bell led the team in tackles last year and is a really good young player in this league.
While the Saints are the favorite, both the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers have what it takes to win the division. I’d expect all three of these teams to be in contention come December, barring major injury.
Atlanta did next to nothing in free agency, and thats ok considering the roster they already have in place. QB Matt Ryan became the leagues highest paid player, after signing a 5-year extension worth $150 million ($100 million in guaranteed money). He’s flashed as a great quarterback at times in his career, but he’s just too inconsistent for my liking.
The front office in Atlanta has always made sure to give Ryan weapons in the passing game. Julio Jones is one of the best in the league, and this year, they spent another first round pick on an Alabama wideout. Calvin Ridley ended up landing in a great situation and should produce right away opposite Julio. I do feel they could use an upgrade at tight end, but RB Davante Freeman is very involved in the short passing game and eases the pain a bit.
I feel a lot of people view the Falcons as an offensive football team, but they were actually top 10 on both sides of the ball last season. Vic Beasley is a hell of a pass rusher, but only had 5 sacks last season due to a hamstring injury that held him to eight starts. Adrian Clayborn led the team with 9.5 sacks and left for New England this offseason. Beasley is gonna have to stay healthy this season without him in the fold.
Carolina was also a top 10 defensive unit last season. You’ve gotta love the combination of LBs Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. These guys are fast and physical. Edge rusher Julius Peppers returned to the team that drafted him after stints with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, and all he did at 37 years of age was sack opposing quarterbacks 11 times. When will this dude ever slow down? They have a good young pair of corners in the secondary in James Bradberry and Daryl Worley.
Cam Newton got a nice weapon in the first round of last year’s draft in RB Christian McCaffrey. He seemed to adjusted the speed of the NFL as the season went on and was really playing well by seasons end. I think he’s gonna break out this year. Newton got another nice weapon in this year’s first round pick, WR DJ Moore. He should earn a starting role right away opposite Devin Funchess. There was talk that TE Greg Olsen might not return this year, but he re-signed and will be back as Cam Newtons safety blanket.
Let’s take a quick trip into the NFC South cellar, where Tampa Bay made themselves comfortable for the next couple of years. QB Jameis Winston wasn’t very good last year and took a step back in his development. He turns the ball over entirely too much. Their star wide receiver, Mike Evans, did the same. He wasn’t the dominant force he had been prior to last year, although he seemed to get it going towards the back end of the season. TE Cameron Brate was a bright spot on this team, and if fellow TE OJ Howard, the teams 2017 first round pick, plays up to his capabilities, it would really open up creative opportunities.
The main thing Tampa needs is a run game. They took steps in the right direction this offseason to fix it. They signed C Ryan Jensen, who was a mauler for Baltimore in his first year as a starting center. They got younger and bigger at running back, letting go of Doug Martin and drafting Ronald Jones II in round 2 of the draft. This kid was a beast at USC. His last college season ended with 1500 rushing yards and 19 TDs on the ground. Good numbers, but watching him play shows just how hard he fights for every yard. He not very fast but he is shifty and has elusiveness in his game. He’ll be a big determining factor in the Bucs offensive success.
On defense, Tampa has a really nice front seven with heavy hitters such as DT Gerald McCoy, DE Jason Pierre Paul, LB Kwon Alexander and LB Lavonte David. They added mammoth DT Vita Vea in the first round of the draft and he should pair with McCoy to deem running up the middle against Tampa nearly impossible. The secondary is what really let this defense down. They gave up more yards through the air than any other team and didn’t address it this offseason. Maybe they are hoping that CB Vernon Hargreaves takes the next step? I don’t know, even if he does, they still need a lot of help back there.
MVP- RB Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints: This was an easy choice, as I’m a big fan of this kid. He’s a guy that defensive coordinators lose sleep over and center their game plan on stopping. With fellow backfield mate Mark Ingram suspended the first four games of the season, he’ll have even more opportunity to solidify this prediction. Hell, by the time Ingram comes off suspension they might not even want to give him any snaps over Kamara.
Offensive Player of the Year- WR Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons: I could have easily put Kamara here as well, and almost did. But for the sake of not seeming suspect, I’ll go with Julio. He was struggling with injuries last year but got better as the season went on. He should have a big year with Calvin Ridley on the other side.
Defensive Player of the Year- CB Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints: I really wanted this guy in purple and black. He proved me right in his rookie season, making the pro bowl and winning Rookie of the Year honors. He’ll take it to the next level this season. And yes I thought about Luke Kuechly.
Offensive Rookie of the Year- RB Ronald Jones II, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: There we’re a lot of contenders to choose from but I went with Jones slightly over DJ Moore and Calvin Ridley mostly due to guaranteed touches. He’s on a team that offers little in the way of competition for the job. They also want to limit turnovers after ranking 26th last season, and running the football is a good way to go about doing so.
Defensive Rookie of the Year- EDGE Marcus Davenport, New Orleans Saints: Here’s another one of those physical freaks of nature. Davenport is 6-6 and 264 pounds yet runs a 4.5 40. He has a good secondary that should buy him time to wreak havoc in his first year. He’s a little raw but he’ll get there a lot with pure athleticism and length.
Favorite Draft Pick- DT Vita Vea, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: This is the one team in the division that really needs to build their roster to compete. I like how they recognized that the way to build a winner is in the trenches and didn’t go for the sexy pick. Vea reminds me of Haloti Ngata a lot and that probably also has a lot to do with why I think it was a great selection.
Best Newcomer- C Ryan Jensen, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: For a team that was 27th in the league at running the football, a physical run blocking center like Jensen is just what the doctor ordered. He was very good last year as the starter in Baltimore, and the Bucs obviously thought so too, making him the highest paid center in the NFL after one season at the position.