NFC Roster Reset: Crowded at top of conference hierarchy

Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2018 NFL Draft. Gregg Rosenthal examines the pecking order of the NFC.

This is the year for sky-high expectations in the NFC. There are so many loaded depth charts and teams with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations that will necessarily end in disappointment come January.

The Eagles are bringing back an MVP-candidate at quarterback to a championship squad. The Vikings expect Kirk Cousins to put them over the top. The Rams have acquired a group of Pro Bowl veterans to one of the most exciting young cores in football. Aaron Rodgers will be back and essentially the entire NFC South has reason to believe in their firepower.

Forecasting an NFL season in April is like taking a half-court shot, but the NFC sure looks better at the top and deeper than the AFC. A Saints squad returning one of the best rookie classes of all time might be favorites in the AFC, but they are one team in the crowd.

"Our competition is a little stacked," Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan told me during a recent trip to NFL Network. "It would be nice to be in the AFC something or other."

A lot of NFC teams could be thinking the same in 2018. After a week's worth of evaluating all the NFC changes in our Roster Reset series, here's how things stand in the conference less than three weeks away from the NFL draft.

The real deals

It's not like the Eagles' offense can necessarily play better than it did while scoring 79 points combined in the NFC championship and Super Bowl, but the return of Carson Wentz should help prevent a step back. This is a roster that is deep in the right places (the lines) and has a compelling mix of youth and veterans in their prime.

The Eagles -- and the rest of this tier -- would be bitterly disappointed by anything but a playoff trip. In one year, the Rams will have gone from afterthoughts to handling outsized expectations following their offseason trade spree. By the time the Rams added Ndamukong Suh and Brandin Cooksafter free agency died down, it was as if people were offended the team added too many good players. (Note: Good players are helpful in football.)

The Suh signing was a coup in part because he chose the Rams over the Saints, a would-be NFC rival the Rams will face for a second straight season in 2018.

"No disrespect to anyone, I just felt with Suh there -- there was no way I could have caught a full line slide and a chip," Jordan said about the impact Suh could have made on Jordan's path to opposing quarterbacks.

The Rams were shut down at home in the playoffs by the Saints' division rival last season, inspiring brief visions of a potential Dirty South NFC title game between the Falcons and Saints. I believe that if you ran the 2017 playoffs 10 different times, seven to eight different champions might have emerged. It was that kind of season, with the Falcons and Saints both rightfully believing they were close to ring-worthy. There's no reason for either team to feel differently about 2018 with both rosters boasting mostly homegrown, young and increasingly balanced talent.

The Packers believed they were somewhat balanced until they lost Rodgers. Green Bay was ranked first in this exercise a year ago and Rodgers' return should have them right back in the mix, like the rest of the decade. Minnesota has every right to dream big after adding Cousins and getting running back Dalvin Cook back from injury, but the Vikings are barely favorites in their own division.

Don't forget about us

It's a deep conference when this trio doesn't crack the top tier. The Panthers have a star-laden roster led by an MVP quarterback coming off an 11-win season with a coach who has made the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. The Seahawks essentially rented a spot in the Divisional Round all decade and still have Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner leading their respective units. The Cowboys still boast the most exciting young quarterback-running back combination in football.

All three fan bases will probably light up my mentions claiming disrespect for their placement, but every team can't land in the top tier. No one knows anything, so use your time more productively than getting muted, and try reading a book.

An uphill climb

Even the lower-middle class of the NFC has a lot of upside. The Bucs' defensive line looks better than it has all decade, and Jameis Winston should enjoy one of the best receiver groups in football. The Lions have a top-10 quarterback in his prime, now if they can just get the rest of the roster up to par. Put Jimmy Garoppolo on the Giants and they might be a tier or two higher. But there's little reason to think Eli Manning will suddenly raise his game next season, while the supporting cast around Jimmy G still looks like it's a year away, especially on defense. The Redskins believe they upgraded at quarterback, although the just-there defense is hard to get excited about.

Inevitably one or maybe more teams from this tier will make the playoffs, which will only lead to heartbreak for the favorites in the tiers above. Expectations can weigh on a team early in a season gone wrong (hello, 2017 Giants) -- and these squads could benefit by underpromising and overdelivering.


The Bears have been in this tier in allfouryears of doing this exercise, an amazing ode to consistency in an otherwise topsy-turvy league. I've never felt more optimistic about them, however, after an offseason of exciting additions on offense, a new head coach and their smart move to retain defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Perhaps the Bears are ready to make their jump up the standings a year ahead of schedule like the 2017 Rams, who were also in my bottom tier a year ago.

It feels unfair to put the Cardinals this low considering their raw defensive talent. But a re-made coaching staff and question marks at quarterback make them a franchise clearly in transition. Few teams need a great draft class more than Arizona.

That's the catch at evaluating rosters before the draft. The offseason remains an incomplete test, and the Saints showed last season how one draft class can change so much.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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