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Who is Most Likely to Challenge Last Year’s Division Winners?

Maddie Meyer-Getty Images

As we approach the 2018 NFL season, what teams have the best chance to challenge last year’s division winners?

The 2017 NFL playoffs gave fans some electrifying plays and several exciting games. With the season behind us, it’s time to review each of last year’s division winners and analyze the teams with the best chance to challenge them.

NFC East:

2017 Winner: Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)


Best Challenger: Washington Redskins (2017 record: 7-9)

Key Players Returning: TE Jordan Reed, OT Trent Williams, OG Brandon Scherff, WR Jamison Crowder, OLB Ryan Kerrigan, ILB Zach Brown, CB Josh Norman, DL Jonathan Allen, OLB Preston Smith

Key Offseason Acquisitions: QB Alex Smith, WR Paul Richardson, RB Derrius Guice (draft), CB Orlando Scandrick, DT Da’Ron Payne (draft)

After hovering around .500 the past three years, Washington decided it was time for a change at the quarterback position. Consequently, they sent cornerback Kendall Fuller, as well as a 2018 third-round pick, to Kansas City in exchange for a proven veteran, Alex Smith. After watching Smith have great success with a deep threat in Tyreek Hill over the last two years, Jay Gruden and company decided to go after someone with a similar skill set, eventually inking Paul Richardson to a five-year, $40 million contract.

With the exception of the additional signing of cornerback Orlando Scandrick, the Redskins were rather quiet and cautious in free agency. However, they accomplished their “dream” draft scenario, selecting Da’Ron Payne and Derrius Guice with their first two picks to help their run game on both sides of the ball. Washington has the tools to contend in the NFC East; the key for them is going to be staying healthy. If they do, they can surely be a legit threat to the Eagles atop the division.

NFC West

2017 Winner: Los Angeles Rams (11-5)


Best Challenger: San Francisco 49ers (2017 record: 6-10)

Key Players Returning: QB Jimmy Garoppolo, WR Pierre Garcon, WR Marquise Goodwin, OT Joe Staley, DT DeForest Buckner, DE Solomon Thomas, ILB Reuben Foster, DE Arik Armstead, ILB Malcolm Smith

Key Offseason Acquisitions: RB Jerick McKinnon, C Weston Richburg, OT Mike McGlinchey (draft), CB Richard Sherman

Man, how pleased do the 49ers have to be with their decision to trade for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. After sending a second-round pick to the Patriots in exchange for the fourth-year man out of Eastern Illinois, Garoppolo was given an opportunity to start the team’s final five games of the season (with San Francisco already well out of playoff contention). Upon going 5-0 with impressive wins over Tennessee and Jacksonville, the 49ers gave Garoppolo a five-year, $137.5 million extension. 

With their quarterback situation set-in-stone, San Francisco went out and signed running back Jerick McKinnon (150 carries, 570 yards rushing, three touchdowns in 2017) and center Weston Richburg on the offensive side in free agency. Moreover, easily their biggest signing, they secured ex-Seahawk Richard Sherman with a three-year, $40 million contract. With the return of wideouts Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin, as well as several vital defensive players, there’s no doubt this will be a dangerous team in 2018-19. I fully expect them to challenge the Rams for the NFC West title.  

NFC North

2017 Winner: Minnesota Vikings (13-3)


Best Challenger: Green Bay Packers (2017 record: 7-9)

Key Players Returning: QB Aaron Rodgers, WR Davante Adams, WR Randall Cobb, OT David Bakhtiari, OT Bryan Bulaga, DL Mike Daniels, ILB Blake Martinez, OLB Clay Matthews, FS Ha Ha Clinton Dix

Key Offseason Acquisitions: TE Jimmy Graham, DL Muhammad Wilkerson, CB Jaire Alexander (draft), CB Josh Jackson (draft)

Each time Aaron Rodgers suffers an unfortunate injury, it proves as a further indication of just how valuable he is to Green Bay. The good news for Packers’ fans is that their beloved signal-caller is back healthy, and although they released Rodgers’s go-to target, Jordy Nelson, after 10 seasons, Green Bay brought in veteran tight end Jimmy Graham in free agency. 

On the defensive side, they signed defensive end Muhammed Wilkerson; they also used their top two draft picks on cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson after surrendering the 10th most passing yards in the NFL in 2017. Being that the defending division champions in the Minnesota Vikings have a new quarterback, Kirk Cousins, under center, there’s no telling how successful they’re going to be. If Rodgers can stay healthy, the Packers are poised for a dominant season and could very well end the season as NFC North champions.

NFC South

2017 Winner: New Orleans Saints (11-5)


Best Challenger: Carolina Panthers (2017 record: 11-5)

Key Players Returning: QB Cam Newton, RB Christian McCaffrey, WR Devin Funchess, TE Greg Olsen, C Ryan Kalil, OG Trai Turner, ILB Luke Kuechly, OLB Thomas Davis, OLB Shaq Thompson, CB James Bradberry, S Mike Adams, DL Kawann Short, DL Julius Peppers

Key Offseason Acquisitions: RB C.J. Anderson, WR Torrey Smith, WR D.J. Moore (draft), OT Matt Kalil, CB Donte Johnson (draft), CB Ross Cockrell, DL Dontari Poe

The Panthers had as good of chance as any to capture the NFC South title in 2017; losing both regular season games (and the wild card game for that matter) to the eventual division winners in the Saints surely did not help. However, Carolina returns Cam Newton, Christian McCaffery, and Greg Olsen on offense, as well as the majority of their seventh-ranked defense (317.1 total yards allowed per game) from a year ago. 

Furthermore, following the midseason loss of their top receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, to the Bills, the Panthers used their first-round draft pick on D.J. Moore, a speed threat receiver out of Maryland. They also brought in C.J. Anderson, Torrey Smith, Matt Kalil (brother of Ryan Kalil), Ross Cockrell, and Dontari Poe in free agency. This is a deep, veteran-oriented team that can definitely be threat to the Saints in 2018-19. 

AFC East

2017 Winner: New England Patriots (14-2)


Best Challenger: Buffalo Bills (2017 record: 9-7)

Key Players Returning: RB LeSean McCoy, WR Kelvin Benjamin, WR Zay Jones, TE Charles Clay, CB Tre’Davious White, S Micah Hyde, OLB Lorenzo Alexander, DL Kyle Williams

Key Offseason Acquisitions: QB AJ McCarron, Josh Allen (draft), RB Chris Ivory, CB Vontae Davis, ILB Tremaine Edmunds (draft), DL Star Lotulelei, OLB Trent Murphy, CB Phillip Gaines

While there’s currently not much of a threat to the Patriots atop the AFC East, the Bills provide the biggest challenge to the AFC juggernaut. Although they traded quarterback Tyrod Taylor to the Browns for a third-round pick, they used their first-rounder on who many believed to be the best quarterback in the draft: Josh Allen. They also signed AJ McCarron in free agency as someone Allen could potentially develop behind.

In addition, they added Chris Ivory, Vontae Davis, Star Lotulelei, Trent Murphy, and Philip Gaines in free agency, as well as linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, in the draft. This Bills team has some intriguing potential, and even though they’re not likely to finish the season atop the AFC East, they could surely prove to be a test for New England.

AFC West

2017 Winner: Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)


Best Challenger: Los Angeles Chargers (2017 record: 9-7)

Key Players Returning: QB Philip Rivers, RB Melvin Gordon, WR Keenan Allen, WR Tyrell Williams, DL Joey Bosa, DL Melvin Ingram, OLB Jatavis Brown, ILB Denzel Perryman, CB Casey Hayward, CB Jason Verrett

Key Offseason Acquisitions: C Mike Pouncey, S Derwin James (draft), OLB Uchenna Nwosu (draft)

A team that caught fire late, winning nine of their final 12 games and finishing with the fourth best offense (376.6 total yards per game), the Chargers return most of their dominant offense from a season ago. Furthermore, they added center Mike Pouncey in free agency to help create more running lanes for running back Melvin Gordon. 

San Diego addressed their defensive side in the draft, selecting Derwin James with their first-round pick and Uchenna Nwosu in the second round. The division’s reigning champions in the Chiefs are enduring a quarterback change with Patrick Mahomes taking over following the trade that sent Alex Smith to the Redskins. Consequently, the door could potentially be open for the Chargers to capture the AFC West title in 2018-19.

AFC North:

2017 Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)


Best Challenger: Baltimore Ravens (2017 record: 9-7)

Key Players Returning: QB Joe Flacco, RB Alex Collins, OG Marshall Yanda, OT Ronnie Stanley, OLB Terrell Suggs, ILB C.J. Mosley, CB Marlon Humphrey, CB Jimmy Smith, S Tony Jefferson, S Eric Weddle

Key Offseason Acquisitions: WR Michael Crabtree, WR John Brown, WR Willie Snead, TE Hayden Hurst (draft), TE Mark Andrews (draft) QB Lamar Jackson (draft)

It appears as though the Ravens are planning for life after Joe Flacco, as they went out and signed Robert Griffin III in free agency and drafted Lamar Jackson with the 32nd pick of the draft. However, it looks like they’ll roll with the 33-year-old quarterback for at least one more year. 

After a season in which their defense pretty much “carried” them to nine wins, Baltimore committed to upgrading their offensive weapons, signing wide receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead, while also drafting tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews. It’s going to take a lot to dethrone the Steelers, who are fresh off a 13-win season and an AFC Championship berth; nevertheless, the Ravens not only have a dominant defense, but they also now have a capable offense. Combine the two, and they can 100% challenge the Steelers for the AFC North title. 

AFC South

2017 Winner: Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)


Best Challenger: Houston Texans (2017 record: 4-12)

Key Players Returning: QB Deshaun Watson, RB Lamar Miller, WR DeAndre Hopkins, WR Will Fuller, DL J.J. Watt, OLB Whitney Mercilus, ILB Zach Cunningham, OLB Jadeveon Clowney, CB Jonathan Joseph, CB Kevin Johnson, S Andre Hal

Key Offseason Acquisitions: WR Sammie Coates, WR Keke Coutee (draft), CB Aaron Colvin, S Tyrann Mathieu

This prediction depends solely on the health of second-year phenom Deshaun Watson. Watson is recovering from a torn ACL that caused him to miss the second half of the 2017-18 season. Prior to the injury, he was putting up ridiculous stats (1,699 passing yards, 19 touchdowns) that had him in discussion for Rookie of the Year and even MVP

Along with Watson, the Texans return DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Lamar Miller on offense, as well as hometown hero J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus on the defensive side. They also added Tyrann Mathieu, Aaron Colvin, and Sammie Coates in free agency, while giving Watson an additional target to throw to by drafting wide receiver Keke Coutee in the fourth round. Should Watson remain healthy, I can definitely see this Houston team returning to the form that he had them playing at, and potentially contend with the Jaguars for the division title.   

Edited by Jazmyn Brown.

SQuiz
Who did the Eagles defeat in Super Bowl LII?
Created 6/3/18
  1. Atlanta Falcons
  2. Minnesota Vikings
  3. New England Patriots
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars

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