Today marks the opening of mandatory mini-camp for the Green Bay Packers. The mini-camp will run through Thursday, and then the players will have off until July 26th when training camp begins.
This is a good time during the offseason to stack up where the Packers rank among their NFC competitors. The NFC is a vastly superior conference to the AFC at this point, which makes Green Bay’s path to Super Bowl XLIX that much tougher.
The NFC West is by far the best division in the NFL with four playoff contenders. The Packers have dominated the NFC North for the last three seasons with division titles, but their three competitors all made improvements this offseason. The only real weak spot in the conference is the NFC East, which used to dominate the conference but has fallen on tough times the last few years.
Here are my rankings of the NFC’s top 5 teams:
1. Seattle Seahawks
To be the best you have to beat the best, and the Seattle Seahawks remain the most complete team in the NFL heading into the 2014 season. Their biggest issue will be how hard it is to repeat in the NFL.
Seattle had a solid offseason keeping most of their team in tact. They got important long term extensions done with safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman and were able to re-sign defensive end Michael Bennett.
They lost corners Walther Thurmond and Brandon Browner in the secondary, but they should hardly be missed with Sherman, Thomas and Kam Chencellor back there. Also, Seattle lost wide receiver Golden Tate, but with healthy seasons from Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice nobody will really notice that he’s gone either.
The Seahawks should still boast a dominate defense with a very balanced offensive attack, assuming Marshawn Lynch doesn’t retire. Russell Wilson should continue to grow even more in his third season. Seattle will be a huge force to be reckoned with and have the best chance of repeating that any team has had in awhile.
2. New Orleans Saints
The Saints are returning the core of their 11-5 team last year and added some key pieces this offseason. The biggest is free safety Jarius Byrd, who in tandem with Kenny Vaccarro can challenge Seattle’s safety duo as the best in the NFL.
The New Orleans defense was already better last season than many realized, as they were fourth in the NFL in both points (19) and yards (305.7) allowed per game. Also, they were fourth in the NFL in sacks, with Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette combining for 24.5 sacks.
The New Orleans offense is a force every year with quarterback Drew Brees leading the attack. However, his weapons were lacking last season outside of tight end Jimmy Graham, so the Saints traded up for wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the NFL Draft. Cooks should be able to help Brees right away and be nightmare matchup in the slot.
Protecting Brees was an issue for the Saints last year and remains their biggest question heading into this season. They will also have to prove that they can win outside of the comforts of the Mercedes-Benz SuperDome.
3. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have earned the third spot out of respect for their three straight NFC Championship appearances, but they have had an extremely troubling offseason.
The only real addition they made aside from their draft was wide receiver Stevie Johnson. Johnson should fit the system well, as he gets off his man quickly in press conference and Colin Kaepernick loves to hit his first read.
San Francisco has done with a lot of turmoil this offseason with the latest being the hold out of star tight end Vernon Davis. There have been rumors of tension between head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke.
However, the biggest issue has been San Francisco’s inability to stay out of the police blotter. The biggest offenders have been outside linebacker Aldon Smith and cornerback Chris Culliver. Smith is essential to San Franicsco’s pass rush and is expected to be given a lengthy suspension. Culliver was charged with a felony and two misdemeanors in hit-and-run accident and was expected to start opposite Tramaine Brock.
On the field the 49ers have to deal with injuries to Mike Iupati and Navarro Bowman suffered in the NFC Championship game. The secondary is a huge question mark following the losses of Tarrell Brown, Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers. They will be looking for Colin Kaepernick to take the next step in the passing game with a nice group of weapons to throw to.
This is a team to watch heading into 2014. Do not be surprised if the Rams overtake them for second in the NFC West and they’re on the outside looking in come playoff time because of the grueling division they play in.
4. Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers recently stated that “not much” separates the 49ers and the Packers. He’s right considering it took a game winning field goal for San Francisco to beat the Packers in the wild card game last year when Green Bay was nowhere near full strength health wise.
Health will be the key to the Packers’ season being that the last healthy season they had was when they went 15-1 in 2011. They have been able to survive injuries pretty well, but they have proved too much to overcome against the elite teams.
It was a pretty normal offseason for the Packers except for the signing of Julius Peppers. Peppers will look to give the Packers a respected pass rusher to go along with Clay Matthews.
The offense has a chance to be the NFL’s best with Aaron Rodgers and Eddie Lacy forming a balanced offense that the Packers haven’t had in recent years. The offensive line looks to be in the best shape it has been in years, and Rodgers is surrounded with plenty of weapons as usual.
Green Bay’s defense improving will ultimately decide the fate of their season. They have the talent to get it done this year so defensive coordinator Dom Capers will be heavily under the microscope.
5. St. Louis Rams
The Rams have been building talent for a number of years and will hope that this is the year that it all comes together this year.
St.Louis was already a nasty team in the trenches and got even nastier with the drafting of Greg Robinson at offensive tackle/guard and Aaron Donald at defensive tackle. The offensive line will be key in keeping quarterback Sam Bradford healthy, which is a huge key for them. Bradford doesn’t have the best weapons at wide receiver, but should have a dynamic running game with Zac Stacy and rookie Tre Mason.
The pass rush of the Rams has a chance to be the best in the NFL and could be absolutely unstoppable. Robert Quinn had an amazing 19 sacks last year and is just getting started. Chris Long had 8.5 sacks last year and is an elite pass rusher in his own right. Also, Donald’s quickness combined with Michael Brockers already being a solid player gives St. Louis a monstrous pass rush inside as well.
The Rams have good active linebackers in James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree to go along with their all-world defensive line. Their secondary isn’t great, but won’t need to be with their ridiculous front seven.