Bird hunting

Who can challenge the Seahawks' hegemony in the NFC?

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In the high school cafeteria of the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks are the cool kids.  Back-to-back NFC champions – nearly back-to-back Super Bowl champions – they skip the lunch line, sit on the stage and oversee their dominion with glee. They are the most likely to succeed, plastered all over the yearbook as the best the conference has to offer. It’s easy to envision the Seahawks vying for a second Super Bowl crown in the enemy stronghold of Levi’s Stadium in late January.

Finding their top challenger is a more difficult endeavor. The Green Bay Packers were ticketed for the No. 1 or No.2 spot in the NFL’s power conference, but Jordy Nelson’s season-ending injury requires at least a reevaluation of those vying to unseat the Seahawks. With respect to the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Detroit Lions — all of whom could surprise — these are the most likely candidates.

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The Dallas Cowboys were a play or two away from facing the Seahawks last January, with Dez Bryant’s catch-that-wasn’t against the Packers serving as a frustrating exclamation point to a revelatory season. Behind an MVP-worthy campaign from Tony Romo and the league’s best rushing attack, the Cowboys finally leapt from fringe playoff team to contender, albeit a flawed one.

Romo, a year removed from his second back surgery, finished last season first in QBR, fifth in Football Outsiders’ DYAR and second in adjusted net yards per attempt. Bryant, his all-world wideout, returns following a fat payday, joined by a respectable, if unspectacular group of wideouts and Romo’s binkie, tight end Jason Witten. The offensive line returns starters at all five positions, a notable fact considering Dallas was the only team to see all five starting lineman ranked in the top 20 of their position groups by Pro Football Focus. The Cowboys also signed projected top-10 pick La’el Collins as an undrafted free agent to provide depth.

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After spending 2014 wringing wine from dirty dish rags, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was finally given quality grapes. Defensive end Greg Hardy, while not necessarily a saint, is a heck of a pass-rusher and will miss just four games as part of his suspension. In 2013, his last full NFL season, Hardy had 82 total pressures, per PFF. The Cowboys’ top pass-rusher last season, Jeremy Mincey, had 50. DeMarcus Lawrence also figures to improve in his second season, as does breakout candidate Tyrone Crawford. The return to health of linebacker Sean Lee will bolster a run defense that was 22nd in run defense DVOA last season according to FO.

The concerns linger in the offensive and defensive backfield, the latter of which improved by adding Corey White, PFF’s 106th-graded cornerback out of 108 players last season and the “return” of Morris Claiborne. It’s not often one can say a secondary improved by losing a former first-round pick for three-quarters of the season, but Claiborne was especially abysmal, allowing an opposing passer rating of 121.5 in four games. Meanwhile, first-round pick Byron Jones is ticketed for major playing time as a rookie across from grossly overpaid corner Brandon Carr, he of the 5-year, $55 million contract and last season’s 116.6 passer rating against.

The Cowboys never appeared very interested in keeping 2014 AP Offensive Player of the Year DeMarco Murray, a concern given that the running back accounted for 36.8 percent of the Cowboys’ total offense last season. The plan this year is to split Murray’s 392 carries among third-year running back Joseph Randle and backups Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar. Randle performed well in brief stretches last season, but their depth is lacking. Dunbar is an average, at best, third-down back and if McFadden is healthy when you’re reading this, wait 10 minutes and check again. The former No. 4 overall pick has played a full season just once in seven NFL campaigns and hasn’t averaged more than 3.4 yards per carry since 2011.

Overall, the Cowboys’ roster is deeper, more talented and a more viable threat to the Seahawks than last season. The question is whether coach Jason Garrett can maximize the talent on the roster and avoid the type of safe, vanilla decision-making that sank the Cowboys in years past. Before the 2014 campaign, the Cowboys were a combined two games above .500 in Garrett’s four-plus years at the helm and finished in the bottom third of the NFL in fourth-down attempts in all but his first, 8-game season as coach. Despite cultivating and developing Garrett over 16 years as a player and then as a coach, owner Jerry Jones was wary enough of Garrett’s capabilities to allow him to enter last season as a lame duck. It wasn’t until the Cowboys won 12 games, an NFC East title and a first-round playoff game that Jones ponied up for his nearly two decade-long project.

There are reasons to believe in the Cowboys, but an untrustworthy coach at the helm, a potential bottom-five secondary and issues at running back raise enough to explore other options.

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The 2014 Arizona Cardinals were an experiment in resiliency and a bit of luck. Despite a cavalcade of injuries that devastated their defense, limited quarterback Carson Palmer to six games and forced Ryan Lindley to start a playoff game, Arizona won 11 games and led the NFC West for two-thirds of the season.

This offseason, the Cardinals set out to rebuild depth in their defensive front seven while shoring up their offensive line. Unfortunately, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The club’s prized offseason addition, guard Mike Iupati, is sidelined 3-8 weeks, while defensive tackle Corey Peters was lost for the season and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is already having trouble staying healthy. Arizona also had to re-sign declining veteran center Lyle Sendlein midway through camp after the players vying to replace him failed to impress.

There are plenty of things to like about Arizona – coach Bruce Arians, a relentless downfield attack, wide receiver John Brown and a blitz-happy defense headlined by Calais Campbell and Tyrann Mathieu. But a shaky offensive line threatens to undo them all. Like the playground hooper who never saw a 25-foot 3-pointer he didn’t like, Arians refuses to dial down his aggressiveness, regardless of opponent or personnel. The problem is that Arizona possesses neither a defense-altering running game nor a quarterback capable of escaping a consistent rush.

There’s no debating Arians’ credentials, but a defense already dealing with injuries up front and an offense set back by a muted rushing attack and potentially one of the league’s worst offensive lines make the Cardinals difficult to buy as a legitimate NFC contender.

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Following back-to-back 10-win seasons, Chip Kelly will start this year in the red.

Whatever goodwill Kelly managed to bank in Philadelphia was drained during a radical and captivating offseason makeover in which ten starters were either cut, traded or not re-signed. Out the door went quarterback Nick Foles, both offensive guards, three cornerbacks and running back LeSean McCoy – all in the name of conforming the roster to Kelly’s vision.

At the root of the changes is Kelly’s unflinching belief in himself, his coaches and his scheme. He wants players who will unflinchingly follow directions, from sleeping patterns to route concepts. The new additions – from Sam Bradford to DeMarco Murray to Byron Maxwell – are as much about changing the physical dynamic of Eagles’ roster as they are about scheme fit.

Kelly’s wishes were clearest in his moves to remake the Eagles’ running backs corps. McCoy, an extremely talented, yet frustrating, back, was dealt for rangy linebacker Kiko Alonso. In McCoy’s place, Kelly signed Murray and former Charger Ryan Mathews, a pair of downhill runners who will follow the blocking scheme rather than dance behind the line. For all of his talent, McCoy finished seven games last season with an average of under 4 yards per carry, three times finishing games with an average below 1.7 yards. That sort of inefficiency can kill any offense but is particularly damaging to an offense like the one Kelly runs, in which pace, consistency and overall effectiveness trump individual successes.

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In Bradford, Kelly saw the talent of a former No. 1 overall pick, a quarterback floundering under bad coaching in a wayward NFL city with little around him in the way of complementary talent.  He also saw a passer who, if protected, could thrive in a pace-driven system based on quick decisions and defined reads. In 6-foot-3 slot wideout Jordan Matthews, rookie Nelson Agholor, tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek and running back Darren Sproles, Bradford will have his best group of targets in six years. It’s not unrealistic to expect Bradford to have the most efficient year of his career after Mark Sanchez and Nick Foles combined to complete 61.8 percent of their attempts for 4,581 yards, 27 touchdowns and 21 interceptions last season. The question, of course, is not Bradford’s ability to hit a 15-yard out or pop pass, but whether he’ll remain on the field for a full season. Bradford played 16 games once in the past four seasons, including all of 2014 after tearing the ACL in his left knee for the second time in less than two years.

While Kelly needs a healthy Bradford to compete with the NFC’s elite, Philadelphia’s makeover in the secondary shouldn’t be overlooked. Despite finishing second in the NFL with 49 sacks last season, the Eagles still allowed a mind-numbing 72 passing plays of 20-plus yards and 18 plays of 40-plus, both league leaders. With Maxwell and second-round pick Eric Rowe, Kelly got bigger and more athletic at corner, while cornerback-turned-safety Walter Thurmond pairs with Malcolm Jenkins to give the Eagles two rangy coverage options in the back end. Simply aiming for league average play in Philadelphia’s secondary could do wonders behind one of the best front sevens in the league.

For all of the genius talk over the past two years, never has Kelly’s reputation been more scrutinized and debated than the past six months. There’s no doubting this Eagles roster better fits Kelly’s vision of what it takes to succeed in the NFL, but whether it even can remains to be seen. In addition to Bradford’s brittle frame, Murray and Matthews have a combined two healthy seasons between them, while Maxwell’s success came in the bubble of Seattle. The best-case scenario could produce an NFC title contender, but the room for failure and the amount of questions attached to Kelly’s makeover are just as great.

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There’s no denying the loss of Nelson for the season is a terrible blow to Green Bay. After the Packers spent much of the offseason talking up their potentially historic offensive attack, such boasts and braggadocio will take a back seat to predictable post-injury speak. But while the offense may not set records, it still has the ability to carry the Packers to the conference title.

By almost any statistical measure, Aaron Rodgers has authored two of the finest quarterback seasons in the history of the NFL over the last four years. In 2011, Rodgers completed 68 percent of his passes, compiled a 45-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and posted the second-best Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt since 1970 – all while being sacked 36 times and playing 15 games. Last year, Rodgers won his second MVP award – the first came in 2011 – with a 36-5 TD-to-INT ratio, the sixth-best ANY/A since 1970 and a completion percentage of 65.58. While the 2014 campaign doesn’t quite match the gaudiness of 2011, consider that the Packers posted the third-highest halftime score differential in NFL history, behind only the 2007 Patriots and 2001 Rams. Rodgers’ numbers could have reached astronomical heights if only his opponents could’ve kept up. If there is a quarterback and an offense that can withstand losing one of the seven best wideouts in the game, it’s Rodgers and the Packers.

The beauty in Green Bay’s offense is in its flexibility and its depth. Between wide receivers Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, tight ends Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless and running back Eddie Lacy, the Packers have a multitude of quality targets to spread across the formation. Whether it’s a Pistol look, a two-back, three-wide set, or 11 personnel — one tight end, one running back and three wide receivers — the Packers can stress offenses with both personnel and with scheme. The return of Cobb in particular provides a sizeable cushion for Green Bay’s post-Nelson offense. The NFL’s best slot receiver, Cobb was targeted 125 times last season, catching 91 balls for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns. Most impressively, no quarterback in the NFL had a higher passer rating when throwing to a particular receiver than Rodgers did when targeting Cobb, per PFF.

With Nelson lost and Cobb now the No. 1 target, Adams, Richard Rodgers and Lacy will be counted on to take measured leaps in their own development. Adams flashed in games against Dallas and New England last season, but will be now draw opponents’ No. 1 or No. 2 corners on a regular basis. Richard Rodgers, the talk of training camp, will be expected to fill a sizeable chunk of Nelson’s red zone work. Third-year wideout Jeff Janis and rookie Ty Montgomery will likely battle for the No. 3 receiver role that Adams handled as a rookie, while Lacy can expect an uptick in his overall touches and likely more defensive focus on Green Bay’s running game.

No one player on the Packers will be able to replace Nelson’s adept work along the sideline or explosiveness after the catch, but the Packers will remain in the title hunt because of their sheer depth of talent, along with Aaron Rodgers, a strong offensive line and a stellar scheme. The Cowboys, Eagles and Cardinals each have their cases to make, but the Packers can still go toe-to-toe with any NFC contender, even the Seahawks.