The NFL is coming off an offseason that featured far more quarterback movement than any in recent memory. In addition to the five passers selected in the first round of the 2018 draft — only one of which, the New York Jets’ Sam Darnold, is set to start Week 1 — five teams brought in veteran QBs to take over their starting positions.
This included the Washington Redskins trading for Alex Smith, which led to the Minnesota Vikings letting Case Keenum leave for the Denver Broncos in free agency so that they could sign Kirk Cousins. All three passers are coming off strong 2017 campaigns, and all three teams enter the season with playoff hopes — or Super Bowl expectations, in the case of Minnesota — because of their new quarterbacks.
But what is the biggest takeaway from all that movement? Simply put, the NFC is absolutely loaded this season.
Quarterback salaries have risen over the past year, and each of the five highest-paid QBs — and seven of the top nine — now reside in the NFC. Salaries are an imperfect measure of a quarterback’s talent (Tom Brady, for example, has settled for far less money per year than he is worth), but according to some preseason rankings, the conference possesses 14 of the best 20 quarterbacks in the league. The 15th-best NFC starter is likely Arizona’s Sam Bradford, a former No. 1 overall pick who has proved to be a solid passer when he has stayed healthy.
If the Chicago Bears and new Coach Matt Nagy are right about the development of 2017 No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky, each NFC team will face opponents with quality quarterback play in at least 12 of its 16 games. (The one exception might be those playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during Jameis Winston’s three-game suspension to start the season and instead facing backup Ryan Fitzpatrick.) That means the path to 11 wins is going to be challenging for even the conference’s best teams, and NFC contenders will need to go 4-0 or 3-1 in games against AFC opponents to have a good shot at getting there.
Consider the following:
1.) The return from injury of Aaron Rodgers, who just signed a contract extension that is the richest in NFL history, makes the Green Bay Packers a Super Bowl contender, and Cousins joining a very talented Vikings team means there will be an intense race for the NFC North title.
2.) The division-winning Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints return loaded rosters led by a promising young quarterback in Jared Goff and an all-time great in Drew Brees, and the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers are coming off playoff appearances and start recent MVPs in Matt Ryan and Cam Newton.
3.) Jimmy Garoppolo went 5-0 for the San Francisco 49ers last year, and while preseason expectations may be outsized, he makes them competitive. Russell Wilson is good enough to get the Seattle Seahawks to eight wins on his own, and the post-Legion of Boom roster is in better shape than some think.
Add all of it up, and there is going to be little margin for error in the NFC playoff picture.
Which teams could be most affected? One surprisingly vulnerable team is the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles. Franchise quarterback Carson Wentz will miss Thursday’s opener against the Falcons and possibly another game or two after that as he returns from a knee injury, with Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles filling in until Wentz is back. Foles got hot during Philadelphia’s playoff run, but he wasn’t great during the regular season, and expecting him to play like a top quarterback to start the 2018 campaign might be asking too much. The Eagles, who lost their top two offensive assistant coaches from a year ago and will start the year without injured wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, are just hoping to get through these first couple of games without Wentz and not start the season in a hole.
There are two quarterbacks returning from injury who could help balance out the quarterback power for the AFC: Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans and Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts. Watson led Houston to 34.7 points per game in six starts before going down to injury, and the drop-off to backup Tom Savage — who led Houston to an average of 14.9 points per start — was massive.
Luck’s return doesn’t solve everything for the Colts — the defense is still a major question mark, as is the running back position — but he has never led the team to a worse record than 8-8 when he has been healthy. If he and Watson have strong seasons, the Colts and Texans could challenge preseason favorites the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC.
Here are other story lines to watch heading into Week 1:
Jon Gruden simply doesn’t like spending money on defense. That’s the thinking of many people around the league following Oakland’s trade of star edge rusher Khalil Mack to the Bears for a pair of first-round picks. Even though Gruden’s Super Bowl team with the Buccaneers from the 2002 season was built on a ferocious defense, his stated preference over time has been to invest more resources on the offensive side of the ball.
That was the sense out of Raiders camp even before the trade of Mack, and the decision to deal away one of the top defensive players in football — which Gruden justified afterward as a financial decision, in part because of the large contract already owed to quarterback Derek Carr — reinforced it.
The short-term effect of the Mack trade will be evident in Week 1. Oakland’s pass rush will be missing against the Rams, who re-signed interior disrupter and reigning defensive player of the year Aaron Donald in a move similar to the one the Raiders could have made. Defense was a problem for the Raiders last year and will be a bigger problem this year.
The addition of Mack could make the Bears a contender — so long as they’re right about Trubisky. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio should get 20 combined sacks out of his edge rushers Leonard Floyd and Mack, who will be an instant difference-maker for a team that ranked 10th in total defense a year ago. Still, the key to the Bears’ season is whether aggressive General Manager Ryan Pace was right in his decision to draft Trubisky in 2017. The reports out of Bears camp have been positive in his second year, but others around the league have expressed skepticism. We’ll find out Week 1, when Chicago plays at Green Bay in prime time.
Those thinking the 49ers are a playoff team should take a one-year pause. The 49ers gave up 23.9 points per game last season and are in their second year of a conversion to a Pete Carroll-style of defense. It takes time to acquire the talent to make that system work, especially long, angular cornerbacks, and it took the Seahawks and Falcons a while to make the transition. The offense took a huge blow when running back Jerick McKinnon, who was signed to a big-money deal in free agency, blew out an anterior cruciate ligament in a practice. He is worth at least two games to their winning total.
Cornerback Jimmy Smith’s four-game suspension is a blow to Baltimore. Over the past two years, the Ravens have had the lowest quarterback rating allowed in the league when he plays. Without him, the Ravens ranked 18th overall in quarterback rating allowed.
If you doubt that Super Bowl hangovers are real, the Patriots and Eagles should convince you otherwise. The Patriots lost left tackle Nate Solder in free agency and then first-round offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn to a torn Achilles’. They are down to two proven wide receivers — Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett — until Julian Edelman comes back in Week 5 from his suspension. As mentioned above, injuries to Wentz and Jeffery leave the Eagles less than full strength to start their title defense.
The Cleveland Browns will be better this season, and they should send thanks to the Buffalo Bills. The Bills gave Tyrod Taylor to the Browns for a third-round choice. Say what you want about Taylor, but he has averaged 23 points per game as a starter. It’s doubtful the Bills can get that out of Nathan Peterman and rookie Josh Allen, who showed in a five-sack preseason game he is going to need more time to be ready to start. The bonus was the Corey Coleman trade, in which the Bills absorbed a $3.5 million charge for Cleveland and cut the wide receiver before the regular season.
John Clayton has covered the NFL for 40 years, including 22 for ESPN. He hosts radio shows in Seattle and for Sirius XM in addition to doing television sideline reporting. He is writing a weekly column for The Post that will publish Monday mornings during the NFL season.