The 3rd part of my notes from reading the Football Outsiders NFL Preview for 2017. This is the NFC South and NFC West:
Carolina Panthers: projected 9 wins. One of 5 easiest schedules in the league for 2017. Defense was #10 last year in an off year by their standards. D-line still great, linebackers elite if they can stay healthy, and secondary likely to improve. QB Newton is still not back from shoulder injury, must track when he will return. Offense needs to fit the running backs they drafted into their customary downfield passing attack.
Atlanta Falcons: projected 8 wins. Offense has to regress after a record-setting year. Historic examples would suggest offense ranks #6 to #10 in league after being #1 last season. Going from Shanahan to Sarkisian as offensive coordinator is a concern; however, historically a coordinator change after a vastly improved season does not tend to be materially worse than how a unit regresses with the same coordinator in both years. The defense is young with potential but still ranked #26 last year. Part of their December/January run last season was due to a lot of luck in the schedule: 4 cupcakes to end regular season and then 3 favorable matchups in the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: projected 7 wins. Offense has added terrific WR Jackson but big WR signings tend to not improve offense or team record that much. Rookie TE Howard also unlikely to make an impact in first year as you rarely see tight ends have big receiving years as rookies. Starting RB Martin is out the first 3 games of season due to a suspension; he has not been an effective RB anyway (rushing offense was #28 in NFL last year). O-line remains a question mark. QB Winston still throws too many interceptable passes. Team relied on improved defense last year but that is expected to regress. The unit was exceptionally healthy, had a low pass pressure rate, is susceptible to deep passes, and had a lucky year forcing turnovers. High variance of potential outcomes for this team.
New Orleans Saints: projected 7 wins. Offense was #6 or #7 in league for 3rd straight year last season. Were #3 rushing offense last year, best result for that unit in 5 seasons. Still finished 7-9 for 4th time in last 5 seasons because defense remains atrocious. The D ranks below average or terrible on just about every metric. They do have more young talent in the secondary this year and some good players in the interior D-line. If they can rank 24th or better on D, they stand a good chance to make the playoffs. QB Brees is 38 years old and his performance eroded in the final month last season. TBD whether RB Peterson will be a difference maker at 32 years old. Need to make up for loss of WR Cooks after trading him to Patriots.
Seattle Seahawks: projected 10 wins. O-line remains primary weakness. QB Wilson and center Britt have to stay healthy for offense to be better than average. Defense dropped to below average after FS Thomas broke his leg last season; his return to health is key. #2 CB spot is up for grabs. Defense remains excellent; may be last year for this group as six starters hit free agency in next two seasons.
Arizona Cardinals: projected 8 wins. QB Palmer regressed last season; he needs to bounce back some to make them a playoff team. O-line likely to be healthier this year. Lost 5 starters on defense. The two safeties and DE Campbell will be tough to replace. Will the youth movement on that side of the ball be ready? Special teams were abysmal last year. Have a new kicker, punter, and long snapper this season, but this unit has been below average every year since new coaching regime arrived in 2013.
Los Angeles Rams: projected 8 wins. Hired Redskins O-coordinator McVay to be new head coach; will try to improve league’s worst offense from last season. Almost impossible to have that unit be any worse, especially at O-line and QB. Prized rookie QB Goff was worst QB in NFL last season; team went 0-7 in games he started. Goff took on more pass pressure than any QB and had worst rating in league when throwing without pressure. Signed solid tackle Whitworth to improve pass protection. Overhauled WR corps. Running game should not be last in league again. Defense expected to be top 10 from #15 last year after hiring Phillips as D-coordinator. He’s improved all 7 new defenses he has coached in Year 1 during his career. Front seven of the D has lots of talent. Have best punter in the NFL; had best punting season of any player in almost 30 years.
San Francisco 49ers: projected 6.5 wins. Last general manager’s poor draft selection left cupboard of talent bare for new regime. More than half the team is new this year, including every QB. New coach Shanahan has gotten career seasons from four QBs in his years as an O-coordinator. He likes to design his passing concepts around one top WR (not sure who that is here). Have 3 promising young D-linemen to build around. Secondary remains a liability. This team is a work in progress, and coaching staff does not feel pressure to win right away.