Five NFC Teams to watch that missed the 2014 playoffs

With NFL training camps opening next month, all 32 teams have fan bases excited for the upcoming season. A new NFL season brings with it a fresh start, hope that what went right last season will only grow and get better, while on the opposite side, what went wrong has been corrected and flushed out. Every season, NFL fans see teams participating in the playoffs that the previous year might have been picking in the top ten of the draft. At the same time, teams who made the playoffs or won their respective divisions the previous year miss the playoffs the following year. This is why the NFL offseason is so popular. Fans feel like the right moves, like a coaching hire, proper free agent pick-ups, or a solid draft class, can propel their team to be the next “surprise” playoff participant. Every year, there is a team or two that comes out hot at the start, gains confidence, and rides that wave all the way to January. In 2014 it was the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions, in 2013 it was the Philadelphia Eagles, and in 2012 the Washington Redskins. So who will it be this year? Which team has made the right moves to flush out a bad 2014 season and propel themselves into the playoffs this coming January? Here are five NFC teams that missed the playoffs last season and have a chance to become this year’s surprise.   Minnesota Vikings (2014 record: 7-9) Head Coach: Mike Zimmer Key Addition(s): RB Adrian Peterson (suspension), WR Mike Wallace, CB Terence Newman, CB Trae Waynes (Draft Pick), LB Eric Kendricks (Draft Pick) Key Loss: WR Greg Jennings Why They Have a Chance: Last season, the Vikings really started to come on down the stretch winning three of their last five games, but more so than the victories, you saw that the team was coming together and starting to believe in their rookie head coach and rookie quarterback. Mike Zimmer has been a well-respected assistant coach in the NFL, and it was only a matter of time before he would become a head coach. He is a tough, hard-nosed, no nonsense type of coach, and you saw this team develop and take on the personality of their coach. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater started to show more poise and confidence as the season went on, with another season in Norv Turner’s offense, the feeling is Bridgewater will take his game up another level. With the return of Adrian Peterson at running back and the addition of speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace, to go along with Kyle Rudolph at tight end, Charles Johnson, and Cordarrelle Patterson at the other wide receiver spot, Bridgewater and Turner have some weapons at their disposal. The talent on defense is what really has the organization excited about their chances this coming season. Last season the Vikings finished 14th in total defense overall (7th versus the pass, and 25th versus the rush). With the additions of Trae Waynes at CB and Eric Kendricks at LB, to go along with the added development of last year’s first round pick, Anthony Barr, the Vikings are building a good, young core on defense. Shariff Floyd, Linval Joseph, Brian Robison, and Everson Griffen give them a solid defensive line. Adding veteran Terence Newman (who knows Zimmer’s system from his days in Cincinnati) will give them added depth in the defensive backfield to go along with Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith, the previously mentioned Trae Waynes, and young safety Antone Exum. They will need to shore up that run defense, but with this being the second season under Zimmer, plus the addition of Kendricks, I feel the Vikings, defensively, will improve overall and possibly get closer to being a top ten defense.   St. Louis Rams (2014 record: 6-10) Head Coach: Jeff Fisher Key Addition(s): QB Nick Foles, RB Todd Gurley (Draft Pick), DT Nick Fairley, LB Akeem Ayers, OT Rob Havenstein (Draft Pick) Key Loss: QB Sam Bradford, OT Jake Long, OL Scott Wells, OT Joe Barksdale Why They Have a Chance: Heading into what might be a make or break year for coach Jeff Fisher, the Rams are a team under the radar. Injuries have really hurt the Rams the last couple of seasons, mainly at the QB position with Sam Bradford. The Rams feel like they may have rectified that issue when they traded Bradford to the Philadelphia Eagles for Nick Foles this offseason. The Rams have been raving about the leadership Foles has already displayed early in OTA’s and the vigor with which he is attacking the new offense. With the switch at Offensive Coordinator, (former Quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti replaced Brian Schottenheimer) the Rams are believed to be going back to a more run-oriented offense. With the drafting of Running Back Todd Gurley in the first round, to go along with last year’s rookie runner in Tre Mason, this also showed a preference for a run-first offense. With a strong running game and a very good defense, Foles will not be asked to sit back and fling the ball 30 to 40 times in a game. With 46 career touchdown passes to only 17 interceptions, it would appear that Foles could be suited to fill the role of a quarterback who can make the correct read and throw but, also, will not lose his team the game. The one concern the Rams had with Bradford, and will also have with Foles, is whether they can adequately protect him when he is asked to throw the ball. The offensive line is currently the Achilles heel for this team and will need to be solidified. Only Greg Robinson, Roger Saffold, and Tim Barnes are back from last year’s starting unit that ended the season. Even Barnes is in a battle for his center spot, as he started just four games last year. Youngsters Rob Havenstein, Jamon Brown, and Brandon Washington will be in competition to start on the right side of the Rams' line. Defense is what the Rams will rely upon to win this coming season. With a front four anchored by the likes of Chris Long, Aaron Donald, Michael Brocker, and Robert Quinn, the Rams strike fear in every quarterback they face. Throw in free agent acquisition Nick Fairley from the Lions, and suffice to say, the Rams are strong up front. The back seven of this defense is where there will need to be improvement. At linebacker, free agent Akeem Ayers was brought in to compete for the Mike backer with James Laurinaitis and Sam backer with Jo-Lonn Dunbar respectively. The Rams would like to see more consistency from both players. The secondary has some young corners in Janoris Jenkins, E.J. Gaines, Trumaine Johnson, and Lamarcus Joyner. The Safety position has T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod, with former Tampa Bay Bucs' top ten pick Mark Barron in competition to start. For the secondary, as a group, there is some talent there, but just like the linebackers, the Rams need consistency. The Rams rely heavily on their front four to provide constant pressure. When they are getting through and hitting the quarterback, that’s when the Rams are dangerous. When the front four are on their game, they’re able to cover up the deficiencies in the rest of the unit. A strong running game complementing an attacking, aggressive defense, coupled with a quarterback who will limit turnovers might just be the recipe that leads the Rams to the playoffs this coming season. Not to mention, the NFC West might see a couple teams in Arizona and San Francisco take a step back.   Atlanta Falcons (2014 Record: 6-10) Head Coach: Dan Quinn Key Addition(s): LB Justin Durant, LB Brooks Reed, LB O’Brien Schofield, DE Adrian Clayborn, RB Tevin Coleman (Draft Pick), Vic Beasley (Draft Pick) Key Loss: WR Harry Douglas, RB Steven Jackson, LB Sean Witherspoon, OL Justin Blalock, DE Jonathan Massaquoi Why They Have a Chance: New Head Coach Dan Quinn brings with him a fresh new outlook and approach to the Falcons, who over the past two seasons, had the look of a team in the midst of an identity crisis. First, they wanted to be a high scoring team led by Quarterback Matt Ryan and playmakers that consisted of Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Steven Jackson. When that failed, they tried becoming a tough, hard-nosed defensive team led by Linebacker Sean Witherspoon, defensive lineman Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, and Kroy Biermann. When that failed, they fired Mike Smith and brought in Dan Quinn and his staff. Quinn comes from the Pete Carroll/Gus Bradley coaching tree of high energy, fast paced, defensive minded football. Quinn inherits a team that has some talent on both sides of the ball.  Offensively, everything starts with the quarterback position. With Matt Ryan entrenched as the starter, Quinn has a very key piece already in place. There is talent around Ryan as well, starting at wide receiver with Julio Jones, Roddy White, and rookie Justin Hardy. With Kyle Shanahan on board as the Offensive Coordinator, he will bring with him the Zone-stretch blocking scheme, where all types of runners have succeeded. Rookie running back Tevin Coleman will fit in nicely with the offense. Coleman will bring the element of speed to the backfield. A strong running game will help balance the attack and take pressure of Ryan. Defensively, they will be transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense. Normally, personnel is always an issue with this sort of switch, but remember, Quinn comes from Seattle where they ran a hybrid front. Quinn will have the defense give multiple looks to an offense both in a 3-4 and 4-3 front. The question is how quickly Quinn will be able to gel the pieces together into a formidable defense. They brought in veterans Justin Durant, Brooks Reed, O’Brien Schofield, and Adrian Clayborn. In the draft, they took pass rusher Vic Beasley, who initially will be used as a pass rush specialist off the edge. Desmond Trufant and safety William Moore will be the leaders of a young secondary. How quickly the team buys into Quinn and his staff will greatly determine how successful the upcoming season will be. Early reports out of OTA’s are encouraging. Playing in the NFC South Division is also a plus, where last season’s winner the Carolina Panthers compiled a record of 7-8-1.   Chicago Bears: (2014 record 5-11) Head Coach: John Fox Key Addition(s): LB Pernell McPhee, S Antrel Rolle, WR Eddie Royal, LB Mason Foster, CB Alan Ball, C Will Montgomery, WR Kevin White (Draft Pick) Key Loss: WR Brandon Marshall, C Roberto Garza, DT Stephen Paea, CB Charles Tillman, LB Lance Briggs  Why They Have a Chance: The Bears are coming off a season full of turmoil, dysfunction, and plain old ugly. It started with internal locker room issues boiling out in front of the media, then it went to players openly questioning the leadership on the team. Ownership went ahead and cleaned house bringing in a new General Manager in Ryan Pace, who in turn, hired a whole new coaching staff. John Fox was brought in to do what he does best, and that is to clean up a messy situation. That is what Fox did in Carolina and Denver respectively and eventually helped guide each team to a Super Bowl. Fox brought with him a number of assistant coaches from Denver, including Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase. That Fox was able to reel in Gase was a surprise, as the young assistant had been interviewing for head coach openings around the league. Gase will be the latest Offensive Coordinator to take a shot at fixing the issues Jay Cutler has had during his time in Chicago. What Gase inherits is a quarterback who, admittedly, lost some confidence last season with all the turmoil surrounding the offense. He also lost Brandon Marshall, who was traded to the Jets, and replaced him with rookie first round pick Kevin White. Gase will need to start from scratch and not only build up Cutler, but also put together an offense that will work with the talent on hand. The offense is not lacking talent with the likes of Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, Eddie Royal, Kevin White, and Matt Forte, but I can’t see how Gase would run the same offense he ran in Denver. Peyton Manning is not walking through the doors at Halas Hall folks. The belief in Chicago is Gase will attempt to put Cutler in situations where he is not forcing the ball in harm’s way. Limiting Cutler’s turnovers and getting the ball in the hands of his playmakers quickly. Getting Cutler and this offense on track will go a long way in determining if the Bears will make the playoffs next season. On the defensive side, Fox brought in one of the most respected Defensive Coordinators in Football in Vic Fangio. They will be transitioning from a 4-3 Tampa 2 base defense to a 3-4. Veterans like Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, and Stephen Paea were allowed to leave via free agency, while Pernell McPhee, Antrel Rolle, Mason Foster, and Alan Ball were brought in to help with the transition. Holdover players from last season are already raving about the way Fangio teaches the schemes, the creativity he has shown, and the ease in which he simplifies everything for them. Fox and Fangio have a track record around the league of building good defenses. It will be put to test this year as they try and turn around last year’s 30th ranked defense. If they're successful, and Gase gets the offense rolling, we can see Chicago contending for a Wild Card spot next season.   New Orleans Saints: (2014 Record 7-9) Head Coach: Sean Payton Key Addition(s): RB C.J. Spiller, CB Brandon Browner, C Max Unger, LB Dannell Ellerbe, DE Anthony Spencer, OT Andrus Peat (Draft Pick), LB Stephone Anthony (Draft Pick) Key Loss: TE Jimmy Graham, RB Pierre Thomas, LB Curtis Lofton, G Ben Grubbs, DB Corey White, WR Kenny Stills Why They Have a Chance: When you have the combination of Drew Brees at quarterback and Sean Payton as Head coach/Play caller you always have a chance. This combination of player and Head coach has led the Saints offense to top five finishes every year except one (2010 when they finished 6th overall). With the team over the salary cap heading into this offseason, the front office had to make some tough decisions. Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham was traded to Seattle, guard Ben Grubbs was traded to the Chiefs, wide receiver Kenny Stills was shipped to Miami, and underrated running back Pierre Thomas was released. The team did bring in C Max Unger, RB C.J. Spiller, and drafted OT Andrus Peat with one of their first round picks. With Brees top target Graham gone, along with the speedy Stills, the pressure is on a couple of young players in wide receiver Brandin Cooks and tight end Josh Hill. The addition of Spiller will give Brees another weapon to use out of the backfield, similar to the role Darren Sproles had when he was with the team. History shows this team does not have trouble scoring points, and there will undoubtedly be an adjustment period with so many changes. The one constant, though, is the man pulling the trigger at quarterback and his coach. As long as they are still there, the Saints will be fine offensively. Defensively, this is a big year for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Coming off a horrible season, in which they were the 31st ranked defense, Ryan may have been placed on notice by Sean Payton, as he added former Broncos' defensive coordinator and Raiders' head coach Dennis Allen to the staff as a Senior Defensive Assistant. Just like the offense, the Saints made a number of changes on defense as well. The Saints brought in Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Brandon Browner as free agents. They used draft picks on defense with Stephone Anthony, Hau’oli Kikaha, and P.J. Williams. With Browner and Keenan Lewis at the corners, Ryan can now play some more press man coverage, which, in turn, allows him to bring more pressure with schemes and stunts up front. Plus, the return of safety Jarius Byrd, and his play making abilities, from injury will help stabilize the defensive backfield. The recent injury to linebacker Junior Galette, who might be lost for the season, hurts and creates a major void that will need to be addressed. Although some feel this maybe a transition year for the Saints with so many changes being made on both sides of the ball, this team still has talent, and they still have a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Brees. Couple that with the fact they play in the NFC South, and it is not hard to envision this team back in the playoffs in 2015. Next week we will five AFC teams, who, missed the playoffs last season, that have a chance to become this year’s surprise team Danny Shimon is a graduate of Introduction to Scouting and Scouting Boot Camp. Follow Danny on Twitter @dshimon56
Danny Shimon
NFPost Scouting 101 & Scouting Seminar Graduate. Bears writer for www.windy-citysport.com

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