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NFL: NFC preview - Up for grabs

With the NFL season having just kicked off, the Cloudbet Blog takes a look at the NFC - in a year in which the Conference title looks to be more up for grabs than it has been for a while.

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Last week, we brought you our AFC preview, headlined by the star-studded Kansas City Chiefs - who just got off to a winning 34-20 start over Houston.

Today we turn our attention to the National Football Conference, which does seem to be that bit more open this year.

Up for grabs

The betting is headed by last year’s winners, the San Francisco 49ers, but a whole host of teams look like very viable threats to dethrone them for the George Halas trophy. But which one might do it?

Let’s take a look as we go around the NFC divisions to explore some possible positions for sharp bettors before the big kickoff.

NFC North

Let’s get this one out of the way first. The Chicago Bears have recently named Mitch Trubisky their starting quarterback - and unhappy Bears fans’ best hope is that it’s an error in judgement by the coaching staff rather than the former UNC Tarheel signal-caller outplaying Nick Foles… because, in our humble opinion, Trubisky is not at the level required, nor has he the tools to ever be.

It’s somewhat of a waste too, as the North seems more winnable in 2020 than ever. Chicago’s defence remains a top-10 unit in the league - with star pass rusher Khalil Mack and Eddie Jackson overtop - but they’ll be needing to hold teams to single figures if the Bears aren’t to be a laughing stock again.

They made absolutely no acquisitions of note in free agency, and they had one of the weaker draft classes – with Cole Kmet being the standout from Notre Dame. Unfortunately, this coaching staff has proven time and time again it doesn’t utilise tight ends effectively, so that may also be redundant.

Never change, Chicago.

The favourites for the North reside in Minnesota, and rightly so. The Minnesota Vikings have lost some key pieces, but they’ve gotten younger, faster and more schematically intelligent.

Long-time nose tackle Linval Joseph has headed for Los Angeles, while the cornerback trio of Mackensie Alexander, Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes have all left for pastures new. However, Joseph was upgraded by the acquisition of Michael Pierce from Baltimore.

The favourites for the North reside in Minnesota, and rightly so

The Vikes then cleverly traded away their second first-round pick to San Francisco to gain an additional pick in the 2020 draft, which saw them select two corners in Jeff Gladney and the concerningly slow, yet promisingly intelligent, Cameron Dantzler out of Mississippi State.

Their blueprint remains the same, and if they can get their defensive backs acclimatised early, there looks to be a clear path to the division.

Challenging them, at least according to odds-setters, are the Green Bay Packers. While everyone was full of praise for Minnesota’s draft strategy, the April spectacle didn’t quite land so well in Wisconsin.

Aaron Rodgers’ unique talent levels were largely wasted by the Packers’ front office, which failed consistently to put elite players around him. With A-Rod turning 37 this December, it was presumed there’d be a first-round receiver for him to have one last shot at a Super Bowl.

Instead, they drafted his successor... Cue maniacal cries in Green Bay and the surrounding areas.

In fact, Green Bay really accomplished very little this off-season as their roster looks thinner at almost every position. Long-term Pro Bowl right tackle Bryan Bulaga is gone, as is tackle machine Blake Martinez. Neither have been sufficiently replaced.

Devin Funchess was the big-name acquisition this year, and that tells its own story. With regression-by-age expected now from Rodgers, is it feasible they can hold onto the division? Despite coming off the back of a 13-3 record last year, it seems unlikely to us.

The surprise package in the entire NFC, is the Detroit Lions. They welcome back All Pro-level quarterback Matt Stafford, whose health issues seem to be fully cleared.

And he’ll come back to a much-improved squad, too. In place of the Green Bay-bound Ricky Wagner is Halapoulivaati Vaitai, while Des Trufant comes in for Darius Slay. Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton beef up the run D, while drafting Jeff Okudah third overall means they have probably one of the better backfields in all of football this year.

D’Andre Swift joins the running back ranks of a team that, in recent times, simply hasn’t been able to run the ball – but that now be a thing of the past as Adrian Peterson moves to the Motor City to help bleed in the young Georgia tailback.

The surprise package in the entire NFC, is the Detroit Lions

But, perhaps strangely, we believe their biggest addition comes in the form of an undrafted free agent out of Washington – Hunter Bryant. He’s joining TJ Hockenson in what could become one of the NFL’s best pass-catching tight-end tandems.

We’re not saying the Lions are a shoo-in for the postseason by any stretch, but the front office has given them quite a push in 2020.

Suggested Bet: Minnesota to win the NFC North – 2.59 Cloudbet odds quoted at the time of writing and subject to change - for a full list of outright markets and latest odds, click here.

NFC East

While the whispers in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area in March weren’t overly positive due to the losses of Byron Jones and Maliek Collins – soon to be compounded by the retirement of Pro Bowl starter Travis Frederick - the Dallas Cowboys claimed their rightful place among the NFC title favourites after the draft.

While the punts on Everson Griffen and Dontari Poe scream win-now rather than long-term stability, the Cowboys added hope through the draft by selecting the electric CeeDee Lamb, cornerback Trevon Diggs, underrated defensive tackle Neville Gallimore out of Oklahoma, and the huge upside project that is centre Tyler Biadasz.

If these parts mesh, we’re willing to view the Cowboys as not just winners of the East, but the NFC conference too

While this may not go down well in Philly, the Philadelphia Eagles are under-staffed at key positions and the loss of starting left tackle Andre Dillard is crippling. Something else that’s crippling is Carson Wentz’s health. Until he proves his durability, you really can’t predict the Eagles to win anything with him under centre.

Again, the Eagles lack clarity at receiver, having added only Jalen Reagor - who will likely end up going down as quite a reach in the draft - it’s almost like they don’t really want to protect their quarterback. So much so, that they actually drafted Jalen Hurts in the second round to run a totally different offensive scheme if Wentz doesn’t play a full season this time.

We’re sure the faithful believe the Eagles have enough in them to challenge Dallas, but we’re afraid they really don’t – and expect them to fully accept their transition phase by December.

It’s all change for the Washington Football Team – quite literally. Alex Smith’s revival from nearly losing his leg will be the feel-good story regardless of what happens this year, but Dwayne Haskins is retaining the reins, and rightly so.

Very quietly, this is one of the best defences in the entire league – with soon-to-be All Pro edge rusher Chase Young joining a front four with Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne and Montez Sweat. They’ve even got veteran Ryan Kerrigan for pass rushing situations. Amazing depth.

Their back four in base defence also boasts Troy Apke, Landon Collins, Ronald Darby and Kendall Fuller. Goodness me.

The problem is that outside Terry McLaurin there is virtually nobody else to catch the football – so expect a heavy dose of rushing through rookie Antonio Gibson.

Placing your entire offensive identity on a rookie out of Memphis? No thank you.

As for the New York Giants, well – what is there to say?

Defensively, there should be major improvements after the signings of Logan Ryan, James Bradberry, Nate Ebner and the drafting of Xavier McKinney. Blake Martinez is also a massive pickup.

But there’s still weakness in pass rush, where they’ve made no notable improvement at all. Yes, Saquon Barkley should put up points, but we’ve concerns about his durability. Is Daniel Jones going to improve exponentially? We’re not so sure… and thus see it hard to expect more than last year’s win total of four.

Suggested Bet: Dallas to win the NFC Championship – 8.92

NFC South

There’s only one place to start herre - and rightly so.

Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski could be charged with bringing the game into disrepute with their nonsense - if they weren’t so damned talented…

And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are lucky they got Bruce Arians into the fray to keep a lid on this thing, otherwise it would boil over.

Looking at it from a purely football perspective though, this is the toughest division in football now – and the Bucs could well be favourites, despite the heavy presence in Louisiana suggesting otherwise. That’s more down to Arians than it is anyone else, too, regardless of the glossy imports. His philosophy and dynamism mean the Bucs are an unpredictable unit, rather than a spent force.

They haven’t lost a tonne, and they’ve obviously gained the big two - as well as drafting Tristan Wirfs to protect Brady’s blindside, and the free-firing safety Antoine Winfield from Iowa.

This unit is very hard to predict, though – but look out for OJ Howard who should benefit massively from the attention his tight end partner will get in 12 personnel.

Speaking of that heavy presence in Louisiana, the New Orleans Saints are many people’s favourites for the NFC - but not for us, sir.

Brees is 41 now, and the departure of Von Bell and AJ Klein leaves a gaping hole in the leadership stakes.

They brought in Malcolm Jenkins, but being a 32-year-old safety in this division is no joke, and their four draft picks might result in some productivity but it’ll likely be hampered by the need to win instantly.

With as many holes as the Saints have across the board, we’re comfortable asserting that they’ll win 10 games or fewer.

The Carolina Panthers are going through a rebuilding phase, and without their quarterback of the future, we fully expect Matt Rhule to cater for Teddy Bridgewater on rollouts and play-action. That ties into Christian McCaffrey’s skill set nicely, and the Panthers’ offense will rely almost exclusively on him, while Rhule is waiting to grab his signal-caller to launch his own scheme.

They’ll need that durability too, as their offensive line coach, who was a member of the Chargers for a lengthy spell, effectively just grabbed their entire offensive line from a few years ago, in the shape of Russell Okung, Michael Schofield and Trent Scott. By the way, that unit was one of the worst in the NFL.

This isn’t going to be pretty, but those in Raleigh accept this. The cornerstones are coming together on the opposite side of the ball first, as Rhule and co drafted an unprecedented seven straight defenders in April.

As for the Atlanta Falcons, it’s hard to know where to go with them. They possess one of the best offences in the NFL but have almost nothing on the opposite side of the ball – and outscoring teams in this division? Tough.

Hayden Hurst is a gem of a pick-up, but the loss of Austin Hooper is understated - so call that a scratch. If Todd Gurley isn’t broken in half, they’ll be screen-heavy and help with some of the opposing pass rush, but can they actually maintain any pressure themselves?

If not for Grady Jarrett, we’d rule it out – but he commands double-teams, allowing one-on-ones for Tak McKinley to have a bounce-back year. He’ll need to have one if the Falcs are to get near a wildcard spot.

Suggested Bet: New Orleans to win Under 10.5 Games – 1.84

NFC West

We’ve been quite vocal about the lack of value in backing against divisional favourites, but if there was one where we’d try, it’d be the NFC West.

The San Francisco 49ers were the best team in the NFL last year and it wasn’t even particularly close... but they got unprecedented production from a group that was a combination of very young and very old.

Generally the older players regress and the younger players have yet to prove they can do it consistently, and that they’re not just protected by scheme. Their primary success came on play-action passes and a multi-faceted run game crafted in the depraved mind of offensive genius Kyle Shanahan.

They’ve lost two key pieces of the former in Emmanuel Sanders and Levine Toifolo. A lot would have to go right for Jordan Reed to play at a level conducive to continuity in that system, while Travis Benjamin hasn’t made a contested catch in about two years.

Joe Staley has obviously been replaced by Trent Williams, and while that’s quality-for-quality, it certainly is not scheme-fit-for-scheme-fit.

Defensively, they’ve replaced DeForest Buckner - last year’s team MVP in our eyes - with Javon Kinlaw, an inspired draft pick, and they took Brandon Aiyuk as a possession receiver slot-in.

However, that secondary raises massive concerns now, and no Cover 4 scheme from Robert Saleh can hide that again.

Co-stars of Hard Knocks, the Los Angeles Rams have been quiet, and as you can see from their television exploits, they seriously lack leadership outside of Andrew Whitworth. Outside of Van Jefferson, who will likely land a gimmick role rather than a starting job, there’s little to be excited about.

The only notable storyline to watch here is whether or not Jared Goff looks like he can actually carry this franchise for the next decade or not. Sean McVay has done a job for him so far in making his reads easy, but with slight adjustments expected this year, it will be interesting to see just how composed he is when he has to read the field by himself.

Our guess is that it’ll end in unmitigated disaster.

Among the season’s most fascinating teams are the Arizona Cardinals whose five-wide lunacy-inducing offensive blueprint would spin even the most educated of heads.

They’ve added Nuke Hopkins to an already formidable offensive arsenal and now they look set at every position. Kyler Murray is also a threat to take off at any given moment, and should they maximise Kenyan Drake’s potential, this could be the most intriguing offence in football.

Defensively, they were short a Swiss Army knife and now they have one in the form of Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons. Patrick Peterson, Byron Murphy and Budda Baker make this one of the most dynamic defensive backfields in the NFC.

Genuinely, you could see three teams win 10 games here. Our guess is that you will – and the two wild cards will come from the West. Arizona is primed to be one of them.

Things will never get too bad for the Seattle Seahawks as long as Russell Wilson exists, but they have absolutely gone for it this year by sacrificing some big assets that could have benefited them in the future. Jamal Adams comes over from New York in exchange for a tonne of draft capital.

He should help restore the once-feared Legion of Boom dynamic that’s been long-lost. But offensively, Wilson may have found a gem in DK Metcalf to aid him on deep balls, while his receiving partner Tyler Lockett remains one of the league’s most undervalued assets.

Probably returning to the three-tight-end sets that made them so hard to play against thanks to the re-acquisition of Luke Willson and the addition of Greg Olsen, it seems like Seattle are going back to the tried and tested.

Watch out.

Suggested Bet: Arizona to win Over 7.5 Games – 1.84

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