The Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles all won division titles last season. Minnesota and Philadelphia reached the NFC title game and the Eagles went on to win the Super Bowl.
All are better on paper now than when they walked off the field after their final games of 2017.
The Eagles won that Lombardi Trophy without their starting quarterback (Carson Wentz), Pro Bowl left tackle (Jason Peters), middle linebacker (Jordan Hicks) and Pro Bowl return specialist (Darren Sproles) because of injuries. All are back in 2018.
The Vikings won 13 games with a caretaker quarterback and reached the NFC title game without their starting running back. Minnesota has swapped out Case Keenum at quarterback for Kirk Cousins, who will be able to stretch the field and take better advantage of wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. RB Dalvin Cook also returns from a knee injury that ended his season in October.
The Rams won 11 games with the most explosive offense in football. Los Angeles led the NFL in scoring and have added speedy Brandin Cooks on the flank. The Rams needed to improve defensively and they have, adding inside pass-rushing forced Ndamukong Suh to the front and Pro Bowl cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to the back end.
So how do you separate these teams? By the division they are competing. The Rams have the easiest path to January in the NFC West, followed by the Eagles in the East and Vikings in the North. So with NFL teams heading off to training camp at the end of this month, here’s how they stack up in Rick Gosselin’s annual offseason rankings:
1. Los Angeles Rams. The 2017 Rams reminded me of the 1991 Cowboys. Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys were so young in 1991 but didn’t realize how talented they were until they won 11 games and went into Chicago and won a playoff game against Ditka’s Bears. The light bulb went on and the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl the following season. The 2018 Rams now know how good they are and how good they can be. The Cowboys added Hall of Fame pass rusher Charles Haley in 1992. The Rams added defensive impact as well in Peters, Suh and Talib. The light bulb has turned on in Los Angeles.
2. Philadelphia Eagles. Is there a team with a better two-deep at quarterback than the Eagles? Had Carson Wentz stayed healthy, he might have been the NFL MVP. But he leaves with a knee injury in December and his backup Nick Foles goes on to become Super Bowl MVP. Leading rusher LaGarrette Blount departed this offseason but the Eagles proactively replaced him last October with the trade acquisition of Pro Bowl halfback Jay Ajayi. Philadelphia also swapped out speed (Torrey Smith) for speed (Mike Wallace) on the flank this offseason.
3. Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings have the best defense in the NFL and, in Kirk Cousins, now have a quarterback who can threaten defenses downfield with his arm. He strung together three consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons with the Redskins and he’ll have better blockers, runners and pass catchers in Minnesota than he had at any point in Washington. Cook was one of the NFL’s leading rushers as a rookie with 354 yards at the time of his injury in the fourth game of the season. He’s back and the Vikings drafted a cornerback (Mike Hughes) in the first round to add another layer of polish to the NFL’s best defense.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars reached the AFC title game last season with the NFL’s second-best pass rush (55 sacks). That front got better this offseason with the selection of DT Taven Bryan with a first-round draft pick. Jacksonville also signed Pro Bowl guard Andrew Norwell to improve an offensive line that produced the NFL’s top-ranked rushing attack a year ago and allowed only 24 sacks. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye give the Jags the best cornerback combo in the NFL.
5. New England Patriots. The Patriots still have Tom Brady. But he’s 41 this season. He’ll also be without his left tackle Nate Solder, who left in free agency. Also gone are his top two pass-catching wideouts, Brandin Cooks (trade) and Danny Amendola (free agency). His go-to guy WR Julian Edelman will sit the first four games of the season with an NFL suspension. TE Martellus Bennett (30 catches in 2017) and RB Dion Lewis (32 catches) also are gone. Much is asked of Brady. Much more will be asked of him in 2018.
6. Green Bay Packers. QB Aaron Rodgers missed nine games last season with a shoulder injury and the Packers lost six of them to finish out of playoff contention at 7-9. He’s back in 2018 but Jordy Nelson, his favorite receiver, is not. He became a salary-cap casualty. But the Packers did add TE Jimmy Graham to complement Pro Bowl WR Davante Adams. Green Bay also addressed the NFL’s 22nd ranked defense by signing DT Muhammad Wilkerson and spending its first two draft picks on cornerbacks.
7. Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers and Patriots were the only teams in the NFL last season to finish in the Top 5 in both scoring and scoring defense. First-round draft pick Derwin James should have an immediate impact on the NFL’s 15th ranked defense and free-agent center Mike Pouncey should make life easier for HB Melvin Gordon and the league’s 24th ranked rushing offense. But losing TE Hunter Henry to an offseason knee injury removes a key piece from the offense.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers. No team has a better 1-2-3 punch at the top of its offense than Pittsburgh’s trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. The key is Bell. He rushed for almost 1,300 yards last season and caught 85 passes. He eases the defensive pressure on both Roethlisberger and Brown. The Steelers also led the NFL in sacks last season with 56 and adding first-round draft pick Terrell Edmunds at safety makes a Top 5 pass defense even more formidable.
9. Atlanta Falcons. Nineteen games ago, the Falcons were sitting on a 25-point Super Bowl lead with 20 minutes to play. They wound up losing that game to the Patriots, then were knocked out of the 2017 playoffs by the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles. The Falcons have added All-America WR Calvin Ridley to complement Julio Jones and Muhamed Sanu on the flank but the defensive front will be a tad softer with the departures of Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe.
10. Carolina Panthers. When Cam Newton was the NFL MVP in 2015, he accounted for 43 touchdowns with his arms and legs and only 14 turnovers. Since then, he has accounted for 19 touchdowns with 16 turnovers in 2016 and 28 touchdowns with 17 turnovers in 2017. The Panthers go as far as Newton can carry them. WR Devin Funchess had a breakout year in 2017 with 63 catches and eight TDs and the Panthers used a first-round pick on WR D.J. Moore.
11. New Orleans Saints. The clock is also ticking on 39-year-old Drew Brees. He needs 1,496 yards to overtake both Peyton Manning and Brett Favre and become the NFL’s all-time leading passer. He has the weapons to get there quickly in WR Michael Thomas and HB Alvin Kamara. The Saints drafted pass rusher Marcus Davenport and also signed Patrick Robinson and Kurt Coleman for the back end of the defense.
12. Houston Texans. The Texans played without their best defensive player (DE J.J. Watt) for 11 games and their most dynamic offensive player (QB DeShaun Watson) for nine games because of injuries last season en route to a 4-12 finish. They’re both back. Houston also added teeth to the NFL’s 24th ranked pass defense by signing the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu, and drafting Justin Reid for the safety positions.
13. Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs traded away reliable Alex Smith to get the big-play potential of Patrick Mahomes on the field at quarterback. He’ll have some lightning-quick weapons at his disposal in Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Kareem Hunt. KC also added linebacker Anthony Hitchens in free agency and cornerback Kendall Fuller by trade to address the NFL’s 28th ranked defense.
14. Detroit Lions. The Lions finally made a commitment to the running game, using a first-round draft pick on center Frank Ragnow and a second-rounder on SEC rushing champion Kerryon Johnson. They also signed short-yardage specialist LaGarrette Blount in free agency. New head coach Matt Patricia’s expertise is defense and he’ll need it to rebuild the NFL’s 27th ranked unit.
15. Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys lost 42 percent of their passing offense with the offseason departures of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. But Ezekiel Elliott will be back for a full season to chase another rushing title and the Cowboys stabilized the left guard position with second-round draft pick Connor Williams. Free agent WR Allen Hurns will try to pick up some of the slack left on the flank by Bryant’s departure.
16. San Francisco 49ers. The standings say the 49ers were a 6-10 team a year ago but the presence of Jimmy Garoppolo says they are better than that. Much better. Garoppolo went 5-0 as the starting QB down the stretch after his acquisition from the Patriots. Leading rusher Carlos Hyde bolted in free agency but GM John Lynch bolstered the defense by signing Pro Bowl CB Richard Sherman.
17. Tennessee Titans. The Titans are coming off their first playoff appearance in nine years. They addressed their 25th-ranked pass defense by signing free-agent CB Malcolm Butler. They also used a first-round pick on OLB Rashaan Evans to upgrade the defensive front. The strength of the offense remains one of the NFL’s best young blocking fronts anchored by tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin.
18. Baltimore Ravens. With the selection of 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, the clock is now ticking on Joe Flacco. The Ravens finished 29th in the NFL in passing last season and Flacco’s top target on the flank, Mike Wallace, left in free agency. Baltimore drafted two of college football’s top tight ends, Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews, and signed WR Michael Crabtree in free agency.
19. Buffalo Bills. The Bills believed the conservative play of QB Tyrod Taylor (6.6 yards per pass attempt) was holding them back, so they drafted big-armed Josh Allen in the first round and signed A.J. McCarron in free agency. LeSean McCoy will again be the focus of the offense and the Bills used their other-first round pick on dynamic LB Tremaine Edmunds to inject a playmaker into the NFL’s 26th-ranked defense.
20. Washington Redskins. Kirk Cousins and his annual contract soap opera are gone. Alex Smith takes over at quarterback and, with the drafting of LSU’s Derrius Guice in the second round, the Redskins may finally have a ground game. Washington used its first-round pick on 310-pound DT Daron Payne and a fourth on 330-pound DT Tim Settle to address the NFL’s worst run defense.
21. Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks enjoyed a marvelous eight-year run from 2010-18, posting a 79-49 record, qualifying for the playoffs six times, winning four division titles, two NFC championships and a Super Bowl. But Seattle subtracted Pro Bowlers Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Jimmy Graham this offseason. The load becomes heavier for QB Russell Wilson.
22. Oakland Raiders. The Raiders are trying to resurrect the past by rehiring Jon Gruden as coach. But their leading pass catcher (Michael Crabtree), leading interceptor (Sean Smith) and punter (Marquette King) are gone. Any revival by the Raiders will be based on Gruden’s ability to revive QB Derek Carr.
23. Denver Broncos. The Broncos ran through three quarterbacks last season on the way to a 5-11 collapse. A fourth QB gets a chance this year with the arrival of free-agent Case Keenum. Denver still has a Top 5 defense with a pass rush that will get even better with first-round draft pick Bradley Chubb.
24. Arizona Cardinals. Carson Palmer has retired and the Cardinals brought in free agent Sam Bradford to replace him with first-round draft pick Josh Rosen waiting in the wings. Pro Bowl RB David Johnson will be back after missing almost all of last season. The Cardinals also have a new coach in Steve Wilks.
25. Chicago Bears. The Bears also have a new coach in Matt Nagy. His expertise is offense and that should accelerate the development of second-year QB Mitch Trubisky. So should the free-agent signing of WR Allen Robinson. The Bears have a Top 10 defense and used their first-round pick on a linebacker.
26. New York Giants. The Giants also have a new coach in Pat Shurmur. New York used its first-round pick on All-America RB Saquon Barkley, which should slow down the pass rush on Eli Manning (31 sacks). Free-agent left tackle Nate Solder coming over from New England also should slow down the pass rush.
27. Miami Dolphins. RB Jay Ajayi and WR Jarvis Landry were offensive staples on Miami’s 2016 playoff team with 2,500 yards between them. Now both are gone and Miami is knee-deep in a rebuilding project. QB Ryan Tannehill returns from a training-camp knee injury that cost him the entire 2016 season.
28. Indianapolis Colts. QB Andrew Luck also returns after having missed the entire 2017 season with an injury. He’ll have a new head coach in quarterback guru Frank Reich. The Colts also spent a first-round draft pick on Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson to better protect Luck.
29. Cleveland Browns. If the Browns are right on QB Baker Mayfield, this team could become very competitive very quickly. Cleveland added San Francisco’s leading rusher (Carlos Hyde) and Miami’s leading receiver (Jarvis Landry) and former Pro Bowl WR Josh Gordon also returns.
30. Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals have gone 27 years without winning a playoff game. That’s the longest such drought in the NFL. Head coach Marvin Lewis needs to fix the NFL’s worst offense and first-round draft pick Billy Price at center is a nice start. A running game would help.
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs had the NFL’s worst pass rush last season with only 22 sacks. They have since added edge rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry in free agency and used a first-round draft pick on DT Vita Vea. But QB Jameis Winston will sit the first three games with an NFL suspension.
32. New York Jets. The Jets hope they have found their QB of the future in first-round draft pick Sam Darnold. But even as a rookie, there isn’t much he can be expected do to turn around the NFL’s 28th ranked offense.