The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are about to face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, but the other 15 teams from Tom Brady's new conference are already plotting ways to take down the Bucs in 2021. Below, Gregg Rosenthal spotlights one significant thing each non-Bucs NFC team must do to pave a pathway to Super Bowl LVI.
The Cardinals must: help Kyler Murray out with diversity in scheme and receiver depth.
Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury needs more counter moves. Defenses found the dink-and-dunk passing attack led by Murray too predictable by year's end, with DeAndre Hopkins topping 1,400 receiving yards, Christian Kirk at 621 yards and no one else over 500. Murray's improvement was incremental in Year 2, but that isn't cause for panic. His running gives the offense a huge advantage and his arm remains outrageous. He needs more open receivers at the intermediate levels and more inventive play-calling. With Kirk entering the last season of his rookie deal and poor depth behind him, the Cardinals could also use another pass catcher. In Kingsbury's spread-'em-out offense, one great one and one good one is not nearly enough.
The Falcons must: find edge rushers ... in the draft.
The Falcons' top four players cost over $100 million against the cap. Even after some financial maneuvers -- including possibly cutting players like Dante Fowler, James Carpenter and Ricardo Allen -- the Falcons aren't likely to be big spenders in free agency. The old regime in Atlanta couldn't muster up a pass rush to help Grady Jarrett for years, so new general manager Terry Fontenot, from the Saints, figures to focus there. New head coach Arthur Smith will need to help Matt Ryan and the Falcons' offense with his scheme because I suspect the defense will get more resources in the offseason.
The Panthers must: bring Deshaun Watson back to the Carolinas.
I could list "Trade for Deshaun Watson" under 20 teams and it would make sense. But when the editors ask for the ONE thing that could bring a team to a Super Bowl and there's a top-five quarterback entering his prime potentially available, what else do you want from me? The Panthers are one of three NFC teams I'm writing Watson down for because they look bold enough to make it happen, though new Texans GM Nick Caserio has "zero interest" in trading the star QB. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that the Panthers will be "aggressive" in pursuing Watson. They were reportedly dogged in going for Matthew Stafford. As we saw in the pursuit of coach Matt Rhule, Panthers owner David Tepper wants to be known as a guy who gets his man. The Panthers would put Watson in an offensive scheme that could accentuate his strengths with a receiver group and running back in Christian McCaffrey that is ready to put up big numbers now. Watson and Rhule could be the new Sean Payton-Drew Brees in the NFC South if the Panthers somehow get this done.
The Bears must: give it all up for Deshaun Watson.
This is just crazy enough to work. General manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy were given a reprieve after sneaking into the playoffs at 8-8, but they know they are year-to-year. What better tandem to give up all the draft picks forevermore by righting a wrong and replacing Mitchell Trubisky with Watson, the guy who Pace could have drafted back in 2017. Admitting your mistake is the first step to healing and there's no cost that would be too much to solve the Bears' decades-long quarterback quandary. The skill position talent in Chicago isn't bad if the team used the franchise tag on Allen Robinson, and I don't see many paths to get Pace and Nagy off the hot seat otherwise.
The Cowboys must: keep the offensive line and Dak Prescott healthy.
Do the Cowboys need to invest in some defensive pieces, especially in the secondary, that fit with new coordinator Dan Quinn? Sure! Does that matter half as much as just getting Prescott, Tyron Smith, La'el Collins and Zack Martin back healthy? Not even close! It's not like the Cowboys' defense can or will get much worse. The Cowboys are paying coordinator Kellen Moore and presumably Prescott all that money because this is an offense-led team with the players to be among the league's best. They just need to get back on the field.
The Lions must: oh, who are we kidding? They are blowing it up.
The Lions obtained a great haul for trading Matthew Stafford and taking on Jared Goff as a bridge quarterback, but that bridge is to a high 2022 draft pick. The Lions aren't likely to contend for the playoffs in the coming season, so they need to focus on developing talent that fits offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn's systems. Flush out the guys who only made sense in Matt Patricia's scheme, like Jamie Collins. So many of the Lions' key players are free agents, with Kenny Golladay, Romeo Okwara, Duron Harmon, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola and Everson Griffen among them. Patricia left the franchise in much, much worse shape than Jim Caldwell. The new regime recognizes that and should prioritize development even if the team on the field is trying its best to win.
The Packers must: improve the back end of the defense.
The media focus surrounding the Packers will be on getting Aaron Rodgers another shiny receiver or two. But the Packers had the most efficient offense in football, with Rodgers routinely finding receivers wide open. Offense wasn't their problem. Beyond cornerback Jaire Alexander, the Packers were not trustworthy in coverage despite always having an extra defensive back on the field. Their off-ball linebackers were among the league's worst. Whoever takes over the defense for Mike Pettine has some promising players up front (Kenny Clark, Rashan Gary and Za'Darius Smith), but the Packers need a lot of help beyond that.
The Rams must: stem the tide on defensive regression.
The Rams' evaluation that Stafford is significantly better than Goff is shared by nearly everyone with eyes. Whether Stafford is enough better to make up for an expected regression by the Rams' defense is another matter. It's hard to expect any defense to dominate again like the Rams did late last season, especially when the opposing slate of quarterbacks improves. (See the 2019 Patriots defense becoming the 2020 Patriots defense.) The Rams are losing defensive coordinator Brandon Staley and replacing him with Raheem Morris. Key starters John Johnson, Leonard Floyd and Troy Hill are all set for free agency in an offseason where L.A. doesn't have much flexibility. The Rams are betting that their offense can go from mediocre to great with Stafford, but it won't mean as much if their defense goes from great to mediocre.
The Vikings must: overload the offense.
The temptation for Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, after the worst defensive season of his career, will be to load up on his preferred side of the ball. They absolutely need pass rush help and other tweaks, but I'd prioritize another route. Add another playmaker or two to this offense and it could be unstoppable. The Vikings are only going to have so many seasons with Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen peaking around the same time. In other words, I would hang up on those calls from the 49ers regarding Kirk Cousins unless the 49ers are ready to dramatically overpay.
The Saints must: let general manager Mickey Loomis pull the biggest rabbit ever out of his hat.
Every year, there is consternation about the Saints' salary cap situation. Every year, Loomis finds some change in the cushions of the couch, pushes some pain into the next year and sprinkles some Zatarain's on it all to make it go down easy. This year is different, and not just because Drew Brees is expected to retire. The Saints may have more than $100 million to slice off their projected cap (per Over the Cap). Some savings should be straightforward (Brees, Jared Cook, Kwon Alexander), but the amount of key free agents (Marcus Williams, Trey Hendrickson, Sheldon Rankins, Jameis Winston) makes the entire process even more complicated. I'm done doubting that Loomis will make it all work, but this is his biggest challenge yet.
The Giants must: find a No. 1 receiver.
Yes, it's another team that needs more playmakers! The Giants' offensive line and defense both improved from decrepit to "not bad!" in 2019. The passing game took a step back despite Daniel Jones entering his second season. Jones needs to make more plays, but it didn't help that his No. 2 wideout Sterling Shepard is often out and excellent deep threat Darius Slayton isn't a true lead guy. Whether it's in free agency or the draft, a team often focused on meat and potatoes needs more sizzle.
The Eagles must: get better injury luck. (Oh, and give up on Carson Wentz.)
The collapse of the 2020 Eagles has largely been put on Wentz, but it hasn't helped that they have been one of the most injury-ravaged teams in football for three straight seasons. Perhaps that bad luck was a residue of a roster designed with older players, but it can't be overlooked as a major reason why the Eagles fell short last year and started off so poorly in 2019. As for Wentz: Don't be so sure that new coach Nick Sirianni was brought in only to salvage the No. 2 overall pick of the 2016 draft. Sirianni has made it clear that Jalen Hurts has a chance to start, which is a sign that the Eagles already have one foot out the door. If they can find the right deal, they should move on now instead of making Sirianni's first season a transition year. General manager Howie Roseman probably doesn't have the luxury of thinking as long term as he used to.
The 49ers must: go get Deshaun Watson.
The 49ers are the last team that I'll write about when it comes to Watson. But they should be Watson's first pick, especially if the Texans are willing to push him to the NFC. Watson and Kyle Shanahan would make beautiful music together. The roster, with young wideouts Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk and a talented defense, is ready to win a title now. The 49ers have shown they aren't afraid to take big swings in trades or free agency. While they don't have a high pick this year (No. 12), they do have a quarterback that Texans GM Nick Caserio knows well in Jimmy Garoppolo and some veteran players they could include in the deal along with picks.
The Seahawks must: hope that Shane Waldron is more Matt LaFleur, less Zac Taylor.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Seahawks' hiring of former Rams passing game coordinator Shane Waldron to run their offense. Any offense that gets the ball out of Russell Wilson's hands faster is a good idea, with Waldron's history in dynamic run-heavy attacks satisfying Pete Carroll's innermost cravings. It's hard to know ahead of time which branches of the ever-growing Sean McVay tree will bear fruit, but it's worth a shot to modernize an attack that grew stale under Brian Schottenheimer. After four years of mediocrity on defense, the Seahawks need to take advantage of Wilson, DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett while they are all still playing together in their primes.
The Football Team must: give Scott Turner a chance.
This might be the smallest hill to die on possible, but I was impressed with how Washington coordinator Scott Turner built an offense out of mismatched parts and sub-replacement-level quarterback play last year. Terry McLaurin and Antonio Gibson are foundation players to build around. Cam Sims and Logan Thomas are nice role players. The Washington offensive line overachieved. After striking out in the Stafford sweepstakes, Washington is likely to be taking a high-risk chance at quarterback. Perhaps it could be Turner and Rivera's old quarterback, Cam Newton. Maybe it will be a reclamation project like Sam Darnold. Given the right talent, Turner can make it work.