1) Philadelphia Eagles– There are a whole host of reasons to believe that the Eagles can bounce back from a 4-12 season, their second consecutive year of epic disappointment. Two years detached from their ‘dream team’ nickname which they gained after adding a whole host of big name free agents before the 2011 season, the Eagles are under first year NFL head coach Chip Kelly and he is looking for a more level headed under the radar approach. Kelly’s tenure of the Oregon Ducks brought unparalleled success to the school and he became one of the hottest properties in college football. He has a bit of a reputation as a mad scientist but there is no doubting how innovative he is and he is bringing his dynamic, fast-paced offense to the NFL in the city of brotherly love.
Kelly’s predecessor, Andy Reid never got the credit he deserved in Philly but while he did a fine job, it was clear in 2012 that his period in office had run its course. Kelly’s energy and enthusiasm should rub off on a roster that has the talent to be right in the playoff hunt in 2013. Offensively, the Eagles are stacked with talent. A three way quarterback battle should go in the favour of Michael Vick, the mercurial but injury prone veteran looks the ideal fit for the new offensive scheme. Still the fastest and most dynamic running quarterback in the league yet possessing all the throws, Vick should be suited by a fast pace offense and one which won’t require him to make as many pre-snap reads. On the outside the duo of Jeremy Maclin and the enigmatic but explosive DeSean Jackson give the Eagles a deep threat and LeSean McCoy should be much more utilised this year as the top tier do-it-all running back that he is. The key to the Eagles offense is keeping Vick healthy and although that’s easier said than done when he’s 20 yards past the line of scrimmage the returning Jason Peters, a pro bowl calibre left tackle and first round draft choice Lane Johnson who projects to play on the right should help him no end.
Going from worst to first in the division is tough but Washington did it last year and it would be no surprise if Philadelphia did it this year. The competitive nature of the NFC East means that 9 wins is normally enough and Philly shouldn’t be far away from that in 2013. All four teams have won the division in the last four years showing just how open it is and the Redskins were the outsiders to do so last season. It’s now 10 years since the Eagles were the last team to defend the NFC East and once again the incumbent champions look very vulnerable.
2) New Orleans Saints– Three full seasons have passed since the Saints shocked the Indianapolis Colts to win their first Superbowl. Their run of three straight playoff appearances was halted with a disappointing 7-9 season last year but that tells barely half the story. Rocked by the bounty scandal which revealed how players had received cash bounties for injuring opponents the Saints found themselves wrapped up in the biggest scandal since the Patriots Spygate incident of 2007. The repercussions saw several defensive players banned and most importantly inspirational head-coach Sean Payton banned for a year. General Manager Mickey Loomis also received an eight game ban and Assistant Head Coach six matches. With franchise quarterback Drew Brees holding out for part of the offseason the Saints couldn’t possibly have been in worse shape going into the year despite a talented roster. It carried over into a 0-4 start which left the Saints in an impossible position. They regrouped and became competitive again but the playoffs were a bridge too far.
With Payton now back in full command and Brees signed up and back on board the key to the Saints in 2013 will be their defense which was the worst in the NFL in 2012, particularly against the pass. First round draftee Kenny Vaccaro, a returning Jonathan Vilma and the conversion into a 3-4 scheme under veteran Rob Ryan all give hope and with Brees coming off a third straight 5000 yard passing season (no other quarterback in history has two) the defense doesn’t have to be great. Middle of the road would probably be enough for a playoff berth although the NFC South is as tough now as it ever has been.
3) Detroit Lions– It’s hard to see how a team with the talent of the Lions could go 4-12 last season but it’s even harder to see them not improving on it in 2013. Admittedly the NFC North containing the mighty Green Bay Packers, consistent Chicago Bears and 2012’s surprise team the Minnesota Vikings is tough, really tough but the Lions have the talent on both sides of the ball to compete with anyone. Offensively former number 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford has got over the injuries that plagued his early NFL career and now developed into a dynamic pocket passer. His arm strength and accuracy have combined to help him to over 10,000 passing yards in the past two years. Wide receiver Calvin ‘Megatron’ Johnson sees the lion’s share of those yards (excuse the pun) as the best receiver in all of football. Although expected to be a viable option on the other side Titus Young ended up as a bust way more notorious to the police than defensive coordinators. They still however have upper echelon tight end Brandon Pettigrew and in Jahvid Best and new addition Reggie Bush a rushing attack that should be improved.
Defensively the strength of this unit is the line. Ndamukong Suh gets criticised (sometimes rightly) as a dirty player but he can also be a dominant one. Nick Fairley adds a young solid complement alongside and first round draftee Ziggy Ansah should improve their edge rush. The Lions were a respectable 13th in yards allowed but inexplicably 27 in points allowed in 2012. They need to improve their red-zone defense and improve on a minus 16 turnover ratio that was huge. The talent on this roster is top 10 on both sides of the ball so it would be no surprise if they were competing for a playoff spot in 2013 and they certainly shouldn’t be last in the NFC North again as strong as it is.
4) Miami Dolphins- The Dolphins finished 7-9 in 2012 and will hope to take further steps to firstly secure their place as the Patriots biggest rival in the division and secondly gain a playoff place. This is a franchise that has disappointed consistently in the last decade, making just one playoff appearance since 2001 but could be on the verge of turning the corner. Second year quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the key to progress. The former Texas A & M Aggie had an up and down rookie year which was expected due to his lack of experience at College level but physically he has the tools required. A second full off season should be big and he can add further to the class of 2012 which of course starred Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson. He will be protected by second round pick Jonathan Martin rather than the departed Jake Long but most vitally the acquisition of speed demon Mike Wallace and big target Dustin Keller should give him a massive boost.
Defensively the Dolphins ranked 21st in yards allowed but 7th in points allowed. A middle of the road unit overall but again retooled and likely to improve in 2013. Linebackers Phillip Wheeler and particularly Dannell Ellerbe were prized acquisitions and Brent Grimes although coming off an injury is a top tier cornerback who should further upgrade this defense. First round draft choice Dion Jordan was the consensus top pass rusher in the draft and alongside Paul Soliai, Randy Starks and Cameron Wake he should be a part of one of the top defensive lines in football. Big things are expected of second year head coach Joe Philbin’s team and a playoff place is likely if Tannehill is the real deal.
5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers– Picking two improvers in one division is perhaps controversial but it’s hard to think the Buccaneers won’t be stronger in 2013 under second year head coach Greg Schiano. The marquee signings of all-world corner Darrelle Revis and pro-bowl safety Dashon Goldson should turn their secondary round from team weakness to team strength, adding second round corner Jonathan Banks further shows the point of emphasis of their off season. Three more defensive linemen drafted add to the rotation upfront and a team which was first in the league against the rush, last against the pass should this year be around the top 10 overall.
Offensively quarterback Josh Freeman has something to prove but promising draftee Mike Glennon will push him and will want to compete for the job if Freeman doesn’t step up. Freeman is certainly surrounded by talent, Doug Martin rushed for almost 1500 yards as a rookie and receiving tandem Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams give him two big bodied targets. With the defensive acquisitions this team should go as far as Freeman can take them in 2013 and I fully expect a three way battle for supremacy in a brutal looking NFC South.