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NFC Roster Reset: Rams, Saints, Eagles sit atop conference

Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2019 NFL Draft. Gregg Rosenthal examines the pecking order of the entire NFC below.

At this time a year ago, I listed six NFC teams that appeared to be legitimate championship contenders. Three of those teams -- the Falcons, Packers and Vikings -- didn't even make the playoffs.

The other three -- the Rams, Eagles and Saints -- all made it to the Divisional Round. The NFC remains the NFL's deeper conference, but this trio enters 2019 as the resident favorites. History indicates they won't all stay near the top for long, but let's take a quick crack at where the NFC stands leading up to the draft.

Playoffs or bust

The Rams have identified their core young players and done an enviable job locking many of them up long-term. That provides the backbone of the organization, with veteran pickups like Eric Weddle and Clay Matthews -- as well as the one-year deal to keep Dante Fowler Jr. -- filling in the cracks. While some role players and coaches have departed, the key ingredients to Sean McVay going 24-8 the last two regular seasons all remain in place.

The Saints have the most trustworthy quarterback in this tier and a sneaky young roster built on the team's boffo draft class of 2017. Getting over their second crushing playoff loss in as many seasons looks like a bigger task than any of the team's offseason departures.

There was a lot of concern in Philadelphia about the team's lack of cap space entering February. Then general manager Howie Roseman found a way to bring in DeSean Jackson, Malik Jackson and Jordan Howard without losing that much. The strength on both the offensive and defensive lines combined with Carson Wentz being another year removed from ACL surgery should give the Eagles some margin for error, especially if their awful injury luck turns around.

Anything less than a playoff appearance from these teams would qualify as a huge disappointment.

The crowded middle

The continuity that Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have built on their talented and expensive defense is remarkable. They kept that trend going by retaining Anthony Barr and keeping Everson Griffen this offseason. With Kirk Cousins entering the second year of his three-year contract, it sure feels like the Vikings are in a win-now window before the group breaks up.

The arrival of Bears coach Matt Nagy felt like the start of something special in Chicago last year, but it's going to be difficult to repeat such a dominant defensive campaign. The Cowboys had a strange offseason, adding players past their prime like Randall Cobb, Jason Witten and Robert Quinn, while trying to save money for extending their young stars. Teams quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan should not remain under .500 for long unless there are serious problems elsewhere in the organization. The Packers did plenty to buoy coordinator Mike Pettine's defense in free agency, so it's on new head coach Matt LaFleur to deliver offensive improvements.

The Seahawks and Panthers have been among the most consistent NFC teams all decade because of their quarterbacks and head coaches. Those enormous assets remain in place and both teams made some quiet, smart moves to fortify their offensive lines this offseason.

Don't sleep on us

There is some serious post-hype potential for the 49ers and Bucs, two former "it" teams that buzz now has forgotten. It's Year 3 of the John Lynch/Kyle Shanahan partnership, with enough raw talent on defense and offensive acumen from Shanahan to win 10 games in 2019 after winning 10 games combined over the last two campaigns.

In an offense-first league, Bruce Arians is taking over a Bucs attack with an abundance of talent and a 25-year-old quarterback in Jameis Winston who has already produced plenty. The Bucs' defense was the bigger issue under former coach Dirk Koetter.

The Lions added some quality starters (Trey Flowers, Justin Coleman) to Matt Patricia's defense, and they still have an above-average starting quarterback in Matthew Stafford.

While both the Bucs and Lions are saddled by difficult division schedules, it shouldn't be a shock if any team in this tier finds a way to January.

Uphill battle to the playoffs

Only three NFC teams have enough systemic problems to be considered true playoff long shots. Two of those organizations are in the NFC East. Both the Redskins and Giants' quarterback situations figure to change after the draft, but will a rookie signal-caller be ready to change either team's fortunes?

The problems for both teams are similar: They are hoping for veteran quarterbacks to be "good enough" without the defensive personnel to pull off that strategy. The Giants lost talent from a below-average unit from a year ago. Redskins coach Jay Gruden has been searching for an identity on defense for years, and former Giants safety Landon Collins can't turn the group around by himself. Winning eight games would qualify as overachieving for either team, which is not where you want to be with a 38-year-old quarterback like Eli Manning or a coach entering his sixth season at the helm like Gruden.

The one team with no expectations

Arizona Cardinals

General manager Steve Keim, whose job status could be tenuous, would probably disagree with the heading above. But the Cardinals are among the very few NFL teams entering 2019 with close to zero playoff hopes. That doesn't mean it's impossible, but they will be installing their third offense and third defense in as many seasons, presumably with a rookie quarterback at the helm. It's not the worst place to be for a first-time head coach like Kliff Kingsbury. Six wins and a competent offense qualifies as a great year.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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