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Breaking Down Every NFC Division After the Draft and Free Agency

The Bucs have a new identity. The Cardinals have DeAndre Hopkins. And the Packers and Eagles have high-profile backup QBs. How could this offseason’s move shape the 2020 conference landscape?

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After a news-filled past few months, the NFL is officially off for the summer. Rookies will attend virtual minicamp over the next few weeks, but with free agency and the draft in the books, the rest of the league will be dormant for the remainder of May. With rosters now (mostly) set, it’s the perfect time to recap the player movement that’s happened and forecast how it could shape the league landscape in 2020. Over the course of two days, we’ll examine the biggest moves, changes, and question marks in each conference, division by division. Today, we’ll break down the NFC. For the AFC, click here.

NFC East

Team That Improved the Most: Eagles

A lot of Eagles fans are still parsing Philadelphia’s decision to draft quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second round, but they shouldn’t get hung up on that for long. The Eagles front office added a significant amount of talent this spring that should contribute immediately. First-round pick Jalen Reagor should give the offense a dose of playmaking that it lacked last season, and general manager Howie Roseman doubled down at receiver by trading for burner Marquise Goodwin. With Reagor and Goodwin in the fold and DeSean Jackson returning from an injury, a lack of explosiveness should no longer be an issue in Philly.

Roseman and the front office have consistently addressed areas of need with multiple players in a single offseason, and that also applies in 2020 at cornerback. To fill one of its outside corner spots, Philly traded third- and fifth-round picks to Detroit to acquire Darius Slay. The Eagles gave Slay a three-year, $50.5 million extension as part of that deal, and then made up some value by nabbing Nickell Robey-Coleman on a one-year, $1.4 million contract—a bargain for a proven slot cornerback. Along with improving the back end of their defense, the Eagles also signed defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to a three-year, $39 million deal. With Hargrave, Fletcher Cox, and Malik Jackson on the interior, Philly has a chance to overwhelm opposing offensive lines.

Team With the Most Work Left to Do: Redskins

There’s no need to dwell on this: Washington is squarely in rebuilding mode. It needs help at virtually every position on the field other than the defensive line, as it added Ohio State star Chase Young with the second pick. For head coach Ron Rivera and the new front office regime, the 2020 season will be about evaluating the roster to determine what sort of talent this team has in-house.

Instant Impact Veteran Additions: Darius Slay and Javon Hargrave (Eagles), James Bradberry and Blake Martinez (Giants)

Slay’s appeal is fairly self-explanatory, but I don’t think most fans properly appreciate what Hargrave can do in this defense. As a rotational player in Pittsburgh last season, he tallied 49 pressures on just 373 pass-rush snaps. That’s a better pressure rate than established stars like DeForest Buckner, former teammate Cam Heyward, and current teammate Fletcher Cox had. I can’t wait to see what Hargrave can do when he’s unleashed.

The Giants used a huge chunk of their available cap space to add corner James Bradberry and linebacker Blake Martinez on expensive deals in free agency. At $14.5 million a year, Bradberry has the fourth-highest average annual value of any cornerback. Diving into the first wave of free agency typically means overpaying for players who are hitting the market for a reason. The Giants paid full freight to add two at positions of need.

Most Notable Departures: Travis Frederick, Byron Jones, and Robert Quinn (Cowboys); Trent Williams (Redskins); Jason Peters (Eagles)

The Cowboys used the majority of their offseason resources to retain Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, which meant losing several quality pieces in free agency. Dallas hopes that second-round pick Trevon Diggs can step in as a starter at cornerback, but he’ll likely have a tough time replacing Jones as a rookie. The Cowboys also lose All-Pro center Travis Frederick, who decided to retire for health reasons. Both Joe Looney (who filled in for Frederick when he missed the entire 2018 season) and fourth-round pick Tyler Biadasz should be in the mix to take over that spot.

The Redskins and Eagles also said goodbye to star offensive linemen this offseason, with Trent Williams and Jason Peters both moving on to new teams. Williams was traded to San Francisco after missing last season because of a dispute with Washington, while Philly decided it was finally time to start over at left tackle. The Eagles drafted Andre Dillard in the first round last year with this exact scenario in mind, and he’ll have to take a significant step forward to make up for the departure of Peters.

Notable Under-the-Radar Additions: Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Cowboys); Nickell Robey-Coleman (Eagles)

Dallas had to be judicious in free agency after handing out so much money to homegrown talent, but the front office still managed to address a few needs with relatively affordable deals. Both McCoy and Poe come from Carolina, and they’ll fill holes on the defensive interior left by Maliek Collins and Michael Bennett. And Dallas nabbed Clinton-Dix on a one-year deal after his solid 2019 showing in Chicago. Those three players will carry a combined $12 million cap hit in 2020, with limited dead money remaining beyond this season. That’s not a bad haul for a team that needed to remake its defense on the fly.

Intriguing Draft Picks: CeeDee Lamb (Cowboys), Chase Young (Redskins), Xavier McKinney (Giants)

Both Lamb and Young were the best players available for their respective teams and will join loaded positional groups. Watching Lamb play alongside Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup in the Cowboys offense should be entertaining as hell. Prescott already had a lot of playmakers to work with, and he added a receiver who can do this. In Washington, Young should step in and wreck shit from day one. He’s a ready-made star off the edge.

Jordan Love
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NFC North

Team That Improved the Most: Bears

Putting the Bears in this spot says more about the rest of the NFC North than it does about Chicago. Minnesota traded its best offensive player this offseason and purged several expensive veterans from its defense. Detroit took several swings in free agency for the second straight year, and its roster doesn’t seem much better now that the dust has settled. Green Bay did ... well ... almost nothing. The Packers used their first-round pick on a backup quarterback, took a backup running back in the second round, signed linebacker Christian Kirksey and receiver Devin Funchess, and lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga. It’s possible that the team’s pivot to a run-heavy offense will work and its young core will take a step forward under second-year coach Matt LaFleur, but those are risky bets.

Chicago also had its fair share of underwhelming developments this spring, as it parted ways with vertical threat Taylor Gabriel and starting cornerback Prince Amukamara and handed a fading Jimmy Graham a two-year, $16 million contract. The only reason the Bears might have improved more than their division rivals is that going from a bottom-five quarterback to an average one is one of the biggest jumps that any team can make. General manager Ryan Pace had to fork over a fourth-round pick and $21 million guaranteed to acquire Nick Foles in a trade with the Jaguars. Even if you disagree with the value of Foles’s deal, the best version of him is a clear improvement over Mitchell Trubisky. Chicago declined Trubisky’s fifth-year option earlier this month, indicating that the franchise isn’t tied to him long term. If Foles can wrestle the job away and infuse life into a scheme that he knows well from his stints with the Chiefs and Eagles, the Bears have a chance to go from a putrid offense to a decent one. Sometimes, that’s enough.

Team With the Most Work Left to Do: Vikings

The Vikings get the nod here because there are just so many unknown quantities who will have to contribute for them this fall. Given some of the win-now financial decisions that the franchise made last year, change was inevitable in 2020. While Minnesota has done an admirable job of retooling its roster on the fly with cheaper, younger pieces, head coach Mike Zimmer’s team didn’t get better this spring.

General manager Rick Spielman did a great job maximizing the trade value of Stefon Diggs and using his surplus of draft picks to restock the roster, but it’s possible that four rookies (receiver Justin Jefferson, cornerbacks Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler, and offensive tackle Ezra Cleveland) could start. That’s a lot to ask from a single draft class. The Vikings also didn’t have the resources to adequately replace Everson Griffen at defensive end, leaving a huge hole opposite Danielle Hunter.

The Lions were the other option for this spot, as they lost a top-tier corner in Darius Slay and let guard Graham Glasgow walk in free agency. But this is still a solid roster, and Detroit addressed holes by adding Jamie Collins, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Duron Harmon, and Desmond Trufant before snatching up Jeff Okudah with the no. 3 pick in the draft.

Instant Impact Veteran Additions: Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon, Desmond Trufant, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai (Lions); Robert Quinn (Bears); Michael Pierce (Vikings)

Lions head coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn are apparently hellbent on adding every single player who’s ever met Bill Belichick. Now, it seems like Detroit is doing all it can to replicate the Patriots’ defensive blueprint. Without much pass-rushing talent up front, expect Patricia to use Collins as a blitzer while relying on his revamped secondary to play a lot of sticky man coverage behind the front seven.

The Bears paid the sticker price for pass rusher Robert Quinn after his resurgent 2019 season with the Cowboys. He’s an upgrade over Leonard Floyd opposite Khalil Mack, but $30 million guaranteed is a lot of money for a player whom Dallas got for a sixth-round pick a year ago.

Meanwhile, the Pierce signing was curious for a Vikings team without much cap space. Pierce was a stout, physical presence during his tenure with the Ravens, and should adequately replace Linval Joseph in the middle for Minnesota. But he’s limited as a pass rusher, and while his cap hit is only $5.1 million this season, that jumps to more than $10 million in 2021, with his entire $7.9 million base salary becoming guaranteed on the third day of the league year.

Most Notable Departures: Stefon Diggs, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Everson Griffen, and Linval Joseph (Vikings); Darius Slay and Graham Glasgow (Lions); Bryan Bulaga (Packers)

The divorce between Diggs and the Vikings wasn’t about his play on the field. Diggs was one of the most valuable receivers in football last season, finishing first in yards on deep receptions, second in yards per route run, and third in percentage of his team’s air yards. Few offenses in the NFL relied on a single pass catcher more than Minnesota relied on Diggs. The return of a healthy Adam Thielen and the arrival of rookie Justin Jefferson should help offset his departure, but the Vikings lost a star.

Slay didn’t quite play up to a superstar standard last season, and it’s understandable why Detroit would be apprehensive about giving him top-of-the-market money. But at his best he’s still an excellent cornerback. The same used to be true of Xavier Rhodes in Minnesota, but his play has declined over the past few seasons. With 2018 first-rounder Mike Hughes and 2020 first-rounder Jeff Gladney likely stepping in for Rhodes and Trae Waynes, the Vikings might have actually upgraded at corner.

Best Under-the-Radar Additions: Duron Harmon (Lions), Tashaun Gipson (Bears), Christian Kirksey and Devin Funchess (Packers)

Both Harmon and Gipson provide veteran presences at safety for a relatively cheap price. Gipson had a rough time in Houston after signing a pricey free-agent deal in 2019, but he could provide the Bears with some much-needed stability on the back end. The situation is similar for Kirksey in Green Bay. Before injuries struck, the linebacker was a reliable piece in the middle of Cleveland’s defense. The Packers are banking he’ll return to form and give coordinator Mike Pettine’s unit a jolt at the second level.

Intriguing Draft Picks: Jordan Love and Josiah Deguara (Packers), Jeff Gladney and Justin Jefferson (Vikings)

Love won’t get much playing time in Green Bay this season, but he was the most shocking selection in this draft by a mile. The situation surrounding Love and Aaron Rodgers will be a talking point all season long. From an on-field perspective, though, the Packers pick I’m most interested in is third-rounder Josiah Deguara. The fullback/H-back/tight end role can be huge in LaFleur’s scheme (just look at what Kyle Juszczyk has done with the Niners), and Green Bay will have to use him in a variety of ways to justify his draft status.

Divisional Round - Los Angeles Chargers v New England Patriots
Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

NFC South

Team That Improved the Most: Buccaneers

Rumor has it that the Bucs got a new quarterback this offseason. Tom Brady will be 43 if and when the 2020 season begins this fall, but even at this stage in his career, he can provide Tampa Bay with the type of reliable QB play it was missing with Jameis Winston. Last season, Winston threw 30 interceptions. Brady has thrown 36 during Winston’s five-year career. Brady may not be able to push the ball down the field quite like Winston can, but he consistently makes the right decisions. He should allow the Bucs’ ridiculous collection of playmakers to thrive.

Landing Brady also enabled the Bucs to lure Rob Gronkowski out of retirement. Similar to his quarterback, Gronk is no longer the all-time great that he was in his prime, but he’ll give the Bucs another useful target and an above-average blocking tight end. The thought of Gronk and first-round pick Tristan Wirfs caving in the edge together in the run game makes me wish that the season started tomorrow. Wirfs was the missing piece on an already loaded offense. He should immediately lock down the starting right tackle job and turn the Bucs’ line into a top-10 group.

Second-round draft pick Antoine Winfield Jr. also fills a crucial need on defense. He’s a playmaking safety who can wreak havoc for coordinator Todd Bowles. Tampa Bay addressed several problem areas while adding the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history and the best tight end of his generation—albeit in the twilight of their careers.

Team With the Most Work Left to Do: Panthers

The Panthers are a team in transition as they move on from the Cam Newton–Luke Kuechly combination that defined the franchise for nearly a decade. Teddy Bridgewater signed a three-year, $63 million contract in free agency, but that feels like a stopgap deal designed to let Carolina search for its QB of the future. The front office also added wide receiver Robby Anderson and defensive end Stephen Weatherly as midtier free agents. This season will be a trial period for new head coach Matt Rhule and staff to get their footing as the Panthers’ plan begins to take shape.

Instant Impact Veteran Additions: Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski (Bucs), Emmanuel Sanders (Saints), Teddy Bridgewater and Robby Anderson (Panthers), Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler Jr. (Falcons)

You gotta hand it to the Saints: This team goes for it. New Orleans outbid other receiver-needy teams for the services of Emmanuel Sanders, who’s still a talented wideout at age 33. The Saints previously haven’t had a true no. 2 receiver lining up opposite Michael Thomas, choosing instead to rely on players like Alvin Kamara and Jared Cook as complementary targets. With Sanders in the mix, this offense has no remaining weaknesses and plenty of depth.

The Falcons added a couple of former Rams in Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler Jr., both of whom should immediately step into the starting lineup. Atlanta entered this offseason in desperate need of a pass rusher after finishing 28th in adjusted sack rate, and while Fowler’s contract is huge ($15 million AAV with $29 million guaranteed), he’s only 25 and tied for 12th in pressures among edge rushers last season (67). Gurley signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal after being cut by L.A., and will step in for the recently released Devonta Freeman. That sentence pretty much sums up the state of bloated running back contracts in the NFL.

Most Notable Departures: Cam Newton (Panthers), Jameis Winston (Bucs), Austin Hooper (Falcons), Vonn Bell (Saints), Devonta Freeman (Falcons)

Both the Panthers and Bucs decided to move on from no. 1 draft picks, and neither decision was especially surprising. The regime change in Carolina likely sealed Newton’s fate with the franchise, and his health will be a huge question mark for any team considering signing him. Tampa Bay was clearly ready to hop off the Winston roller coaster, and he’ll attempt to rebuild his value while learning from Drew Brees in New Orleans.

The Saints let Vonn Bell leave for Cincinnati in free agency, but quickly replaced him by bringing back Malcolm Jenkins to play the box safety role. Atlanta made a similar move by trading for tight end Hayden Hurst to offset the loss of Austin Hooper. For the most part, NFC South teams addressed any roster attrition they experienced this spring.

Best Under-the-Radar Additions: Hayden Hurst (Falcons), Russell Okung (Panthers)

Trading Hurst to Atlanta for a second-round pick was good value for the Ravens, who already have a primary receiving tight end in Mark Andrews. That price tag indicates the Falcons believe Hurst can be a key figure in this offense; with no real competition on the roster, the starting tight end job is his to lose.

By trading guard Trai Turner to the Chargers for Russell Okung, the Panthers made clear that they value a good left tackle significantly more than a quality guard. Okung is entering the final season of his four-year contract, and should help Bridgewater and the Carolina passing game function from the jump.

Intriguing Draft Picks: Jeremy Chinn (Panthers), Marlon Davidson (Falcons), Cesar Ruiz (Saints)

Chinn’s NFL combine testing numbers were absolutely ridiculous. At 221 pounds, he had better broad jump, vertical leap, and 40-yard dash figures than Derwin James did in 2018. Chinn is an incredible athlete, and I’m curious how the Panthers plan to use him—especially after Carolina bypassed Isaiah Simmons with the seventh pick.

Davidson played a significant number of defensive end snaps at Auburn, which isn’t the ideal position for someone who weighs 303 pounds. With the Falcons, he’ll slide inside next to second-team All-Pro Grady Jarrett, and that duo could cause problems for guards in passing situations.

The Saints are befuddling sometimes. So many of their moves are shortsighted decisions that mortgage the future in order to maximize the present. But every once in a while, they use a high pick on a player with no clear path to starting as a rookie—and it often tends to work out. Ruiz was considered the best interior offensive lineman in this class. He’ll likely open the year on the bench behind starting guards Andrus Peat (who got a big extension this offseason) and Larry Warford (who’s in the final year of his deal). Ruiz is a depth piece who will protect New Orleans from getting derailed by injuries on the interior of its line. This team is stacked.

Houston Texans v Tennessee Titans
DeAndre Hopkins
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

NFC West

Team That Improved the Most: Cardinals

Could DeAndre Hopkins possibly have been traded to a more exciting destination? One of the league’s best receivers now gets to catch passes from an ascendant, ultra-talented quarterback in a wide-open, pass-happy scheme. I can’t wait to watch the Kliff, Kyler, and Nuk show in the desert.

If you consider Hopkins to be the Cardinals’ second-round pick (since that selection was part of the package sent to Houston), that means Arizona’s haul in the first three rounds was Hopkins, Isaiah Simmons, and tackle Josh Jones. Simmons might have been the best defensive player in this draft—a versatile playmaker who can line up at virtually any spot in the back seven. Many considered Jones to be a first-round talent, and Kliff Kingsbury was dumbfounded when he was still available at no. 72. Jones played in an Air Raid system at Houston, which should give him a leg up with the concepts and terminology in Kingsbury’s offense. This could be a transformative offseason for a team that’s brimming with promise.

Team With the Most Work Left to Do: Rams

Sean McVay’s team simply didn’t have the resources to do much this offseason. With no first-round pick following the Jalen Ramsey trade and so many huge contracts on the books, the Los Angeles roster is really just a thinner version of what it was in 2019. The offensive line regressed last year and didn’t make any significant changes this spring. Brandin Cooks, Eric Weddle, Todd Gurley, and Dante Fowler Jr. are now gone. The team is hoping that second-round picks Cam Akers and Van Jefferson can make up for the loss of Gurley and Cooks, but the Rams aren’t nearly as talented as the group that went to the Super Bowl two seasons ago. It’s hard to figure out exactly what they are right now.

Instant Impact Veteran Additions: DeAndre Hopkins (Cardinals), Trent Williams (49ers), Greg Olsen (Seahawks)

The Niners are not messing around. They managed to keep news of Joe Staley’s retirement quiet before swinging a trade with the Redskins for left tackle Trent Williams. It’s hard to lose a player with Staley’s pedigree and upgrade, but the Niners did exactly that. And they managed to do it for the low price of a 2020 fifth-round pick and a 2021 third-rounder. Williams is scary good when healthy, and the 31-year-old is already familiar with the language of Kyle Shanahan’s offense after spending four years with him in Washington.

Williams isn’t the only accomplished veteran joining the NFC West this season. The Seahawks nabbed former Panthers tight end Greg Olsen on a one-year, $7 million deal. Olsen has had trouble staying on the field in recent seasons, but still caught 52 balls in 2019 while playing with Kyle Allen. If healthy, he’ll be a reliable underneath option for Russell Wilson.

Most Notable Departures: Joe Staley and DeForest Buckner (49ers), Jadeveon Clowney (Seahawks), Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Eric Weddle, and Dante Fowler Jr. (Rams)

San Francisco’s decision to trade Buckner to Indianapolis was surprising. By using a first-round pick on defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, though, it’s possible that the Niners will be able to mimic Buckner’s production for a fraction of the price. Kinlaw boasts unbelievable burst for a 325-pound defensive lineman, and he’ll step into a system that asks its players to constantly attack upfield. He couldn’t have landed in a better spot.

The Jadeveon Clowney saga is ongoing in Seattle. The former no. 1 draft pick remains a free agent after the market failed to unfold the way he and his agents anticipated. Clowney could return to the Seahawks on a one-year, prove-it deal to pump up his value before hitting free agency again in 2021, but by bringing back Bruce Irvin and drafting Darrell Taylor this offseason, Seattle addressed its needs on the edge even if Clowney moves on.

Best Under-the-Radar Addition: Quinton Dunbar (Seahawks)

Are you a rudderless NFL team with a quality defensive back you don’t appreciate? Call the Seahawks. They’ll take that player off your hands, no problem. After stealing Quandre Diggs from the Lions last season, general manager John Schneider committed front office larceny again this spring by prying cornerback Quinton Dunbar from Washington for only a fifth-round pick. Seattle continues to blend excellent, value-centric moves with draft picks that make absolutely no sense. It’s the Seahawks’ offseason tradition.

Intriguing Draft Picks: Isaiah Simmons and Josh Jones (Cardinals), Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk (49ers)

We already touched on what Simmons and Jones bring to Arizona and how Kinlaw should fit with San Francisco, so let’s focus on Aiyuk. The Niners traded away the 31st, 117th, and 176th picks in the draft for the right to select the Arizona State product at no. 25. Like 2019 second-rounder Deebo Samuel, Aiyuk is a beast with the ball in his hands. The Niners clearly have a type at receiver, and it should be a blast to watch Kyle Shanahan devise ways to get Aiyuk opportunities after the catch.