The dust has mostly settled on NFL free agency and teams are turning their focus to the draft, which will fill three consecutive days starting Thursday, April 28th.
The offseason so far has featured major signings and blockbuster trades, and this has caused a brain drain in the NFC - talented quarterbacks and defensive playmakers have joined the AFC arms race. It’s entirely possible that in order to contend in the NFC in 2022, you don’t need to get significantly better because many of the top teams have gotten worse.
The draft could give us a refreshed look at the movers and shakers, and teams aren’t done acquiring talent. Who are the favorites in the NFC conference after accounting for the offseason transactions so far?
1 - Los Angeles Rams
The Rams are the top dog in the conference until they aren’t. While LA lost key defensive contributors to free agency - such as Darious Williams, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Von Miller, and Obo Okoronkwo - they have also added the steady Bobby Wagner to fortify the hole in the middle of their defense. The Rams still need to find a pass rusher on the edge opposite Leonard Floyd, but there are some young in-house candidates that may be up for the role.
Los Angeles traded receiver Robert Woods to the Tennessee Titans, but it’s fair to expect more production from newly signed pass catcher Allen Robinson. It’s also fair to expect improvement in Matthew Stafford’s second season in Sean McVay’s offense, especially considering his best play came late in 2021 during the playoffs.
At least for now, it seems the Rams’ path to the top of the NFC has once again grown clearer.
Tom Brady saw the loss of marquee talent atop the NFC and salivated at the opportunity to unretire - now he’s back and ready to compete for another title.
The Bucs are returning the same talented receiving corps headlined by Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and a lot of the defensive contributors from the team’s 2020 Super Bowl victory remain.
The problem for Tampa Bay is that they’ve lost all three games against the Rams since Brady arrived - and the divisional round loss in the playoffs could have been especially ugly if it weren’t for fluke errors that gave the Bucs life. Will the Bucs topple the Rams in 2022, or will Brady’s return make more of a ripple than a splash?
It’s probably a surprise to most for the Vikings to be so high on this list, but the NFL is a league of parity and it’s almost a certainty that bad or mediocre teams from a season ago will climb into contention the next.
So let me surprise you again - Kirk Cousins has been a top 10 signal caller in the NFL the last couple of seasons, and the marriage between he and head coach Kevin O’Connell could take the Minnesota offense to new heights. The Vikings should still look to add receiving talent early in the draft, but they have a formidable core of playmakers in Justin Jefferson, Irv Smith, Adam Thielen, and KJ Osborn.
On the defensive side of the ball Minnesota was able to retain Danielle Hunter and sign Za’Darius Smith from the division rival Green Bay Packers. They still need to find contributors in the secondary, but they have some up and coming young corners and will probably add reinforcements in the draft.
The Vikings won’t be an easy out in 2022.
4 - Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is still the best quarterback in the NFC, and for as long as that is true the Packers will have a chance to contend.
With that said, the team traded Devante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders and lost Marquez Valdes-Scantling in free agency to the Kansas City Chiefs. As of right now Green Bay’s starting receiving trio would be Sammy Watkins, who has made minimal contributions over the last couple of seasons; Allen Lazard, who recorded over 500 receiving yards last year; and aging veteran Randall Cobb. The Packers are in the market to add a receiver through any means necessary, but the productive Rodgers-Adams connection will be difficult to replace.
Even after rolling a first round draft selection into next year in order to hedge their bet on quarterback Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia has ample draft capital to build around a young offensive nucleus.
Similar to other ball control teams like the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens, the Eagles are a threat to take over on any given Sunday. In some ways their best defense is their offense - and they have the potential to play keep away and limit the production of even the most explosive opposing offenses.
Hurts might not be the long-term answer - time will tell. The Eagles remain a well-run organization with young talent and the opportunity to add even more key contributors in the draft. A lot needs to break their way to go on a playoff run, though they will at least be in the conversation at the end of the season.
Why they didn’t make the top 5:
Why would you want to see a middling quarterback like Dak Prescott without premier receiving options? The Cowboys will come to regret moving on from Amari Cooper.
San Francisco 49ers -
What are fair expectations for second-year quarterback Trey Lance? I’m asking because I honestly have no idea. Deebo Samuel has reportedly asked for a trade. Will this limit the team’s ability to set their young signal caller up for success?
The Cardinals have collapsed in the second half of the season each of the last two years - and they looked completely unprepared for a wildcard matchup against the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams. Kyler Murray has started drama with the team over negotiations on a contract extension, though it’s reasonable that Arizona would have a tough time committing to Murray long-term.
If everything goes right, these teams could surprise:
The Lions are in a tough spot with the number two overall selection in the upcoming draft - the weak quarterback class has reduced the value of the premium draft slot. Jared Goff has earned a second season as a starter, and Detroit should look to add any offensive weapons that become available. If the stars align, the Lions could make things interesting in 2022.
Washington Commanders -
The Washington defense was expected to be one of the best units in the league in 2021, but defensive performance is extremely volatile. They still have a fearsome pass rush and dangerous front seven - so this team is likely due to take a step forward this year. Can they get enough offensive production out of Carson Wentz in order to complement progress made on the defense?
What do the Giants have in Daniel Jones - is anybody really sure? New York has a solid receiving corps and the team hired offensive guru Brian Daboll as head coach. Could this be enough for Jones to salvage his NFL career in 2022?