Analysis

NFC Roster Reset: Conference hierarchy heading into 2022 NFL Draft

The most hectic NFL offseason in human history has left the NFC in a funny place. While its counterpart, the AFC, is flush with powerhouses and potential kings, that's not the case in this neighborhood.

The Buccaneers and Rams rest as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Same for the Niners and Packers, if you squint. The Cowboys see themselves as eternal world champs – but we don't. Does anyone trust the Cardinals, Eagles or Vikings to pull off a pristine playoff run?

From there, the conference tumbles into a jumble of suspicious rosters, half-baked entities and overt rebuilding projects. Where the AFC is rich with franchise passers, I'd argue half the squads in the NFC have major question marks under center. In today's NFL, I simply rule out teams missing a raging star at the most important position in sports.

After three months of firings and hirings, cuts and signings, let's break down the NFC hierarchy heading into the 2022 NFL Draft:

Battling for the throne

Los Angeles Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It's impossible not to admire Les Snead's handiwork. While flocks of clubs flounder for eons, the Rams general manager shrugs off groupthink and simply reloads. Pulling Allen Robinson from a career of quarterback purgatory recalls last year's rescuing of Matthew Stafford from dismal Detroit. We've never seen Robinson in an offense this functional in eight NFL seasons, and his presence only magnifies the potency of Cooper Kupp. Robert Woods is out the door, but it's possible Odell Beckham walks back through. It hurts to lose sturdy bookend Andrew Whitworth, but the re-signing of Joseph Noteboom tells us the Rams believe he can fill the void. Los Angeles could use a dash of pass-rushing help after Von Miller bolted to Buffalo, but landing Bobby Wagner is the most Rams-esque move of the offseason. One can already envision the still-dominant linebacker blowing up Seattle's fill-in-the-blank quarterback in prime time. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey are simply the best at what they do. Stirring this soup is Sean McVay, who slayed nagging ghosts with February's lifting of the Lombardi.

If the Rams stay healthy, their biggest obstacle remains the Buccaneers. It appeared Tampa's ship had sailed into darkness with Tom Brady's retirement, but then the greatest quarterback on terra firma grew tired of playing Connect Four with his offspring and returned to the role he was born to play. The surprising retirement of Bruce Arians would serve as a larger concern if Todd Bowles wasn't such a rock-solid replacement. Even if there wasn't a rift between Brady and Bruce, Tommy Boy and Byron Leftwich are undoubtedly thrilled to run the offense on their own. Losing center Ali Marpet to retirement and guard Alex Cappa to the Bengals is no fun, but Brady using the Force to ply Shaq Mason away from the Patriots for a bag of spoons was master-class territory. TB12 also lured in rising wideout Russell Gage with a phone call -- another example of his dark magic. Even if Rob Gronkowski stays home, this loaded roster has the juice to topple anyone in the conference.

Playoffs or bust

San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys

I don't hate the idea of Jimmy Garoppolo sticking around. The Niners don't, either, especially if they aren't certain Trey Lance is ready to roll. It's an awkward situation, but mostly for those on the outside -- not for Kyle Shanahan. A post-surgery Garoppolo has no trade market right now. Maybe that changes when some poor soul has his knee shattered in OTAs, but you don't hear Garoppolo joining the Discontented Quarterback Club. They've been upfront with him. I'd expect Lance to get a robust chance to start one year after he was drafted third overall, but I'm not convinced the Niners believe they're sitting on Patrick Mahomes 2.0. What they have in Lance essentially makes them A) a Super Bowl contender or B) a playoff hopeful. Outside of adding corner Charvarius Ward, San Francisco has been ultra-hushed in free agency. The club that lost last year's NFC title game by 3 points is operating with self-confidence.

I'll admit a bias toward the Packers. Until their marvelous regular seasons morph into something other than a January plummet, I'm comfortable plopping them into the NFC's second tier. The return of Aaron Rodgers keeps them cooking, but trading away Davante Adams and losing Marquez Valdes-Scantling to the Chiefs is grim stuff. The scene will beam brighter if GM Brian Gutekunst slow-dances with Aa-Rod while adding wideout help at picks No. 22 or No. 28 -- or both! -- in the draft. Playing in a hideous NFC North certainly helps.

Mired in a cap-hell labyrinth, Dallas was forced to trade away wideout Amari Cooper to the Browns for a mere fifth-rounder. The Cowboys thought they'd inked homegrown pass-rusher Randy Gregory to a big-money deal, until Mr. Gregory decided he wanted to play for the Broncos instead. The once-formidable offensive line lost reliable guard Connor Williams and stud right tackle La'el Collins. Much of this nonsense surely tracks back to running back Ezekiel Elliott's $18 million-plus cap hit for 2022. There's still plenty of talent here, but this version of the Cowboys isn't better than last year's heading into draft season.

Contenders

Arizona Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings

Who are the Cardinals? The high-flying spaceship that soared to a 10-2 start? Or the floundering caravan that careened off a cliff into total midnight with four losses in their final five games before flatlining out of existence in a 34-11 loss to the Rams in the Wild Card Round? It's hilarious to me that, weeks later, Kyler Murray began squawking about a contract extension. Chandler Jones and Jordan Hicks are history on defense, while Christian Kirk and Chase Edmonds have been stripped from the offensive attack. Tight end Zach Ertz and last year's touchdown robot, James Conner, were wisely re-signed. The draft is a sure bet to bring edge-rushing help and big uglies along the D-line. One burning concern lingers, though: Will Kyler show up to camp without a new deal?

Monday's blockbuster swap with the Saints was a forward-looking win for the Eagles that leaves them with 10 picks in 2022, two first-rounders in 2023 and a pair of second-rounders in 2024. The trade tells us GM Howie Roseman, who recently inked a contract extension, waltzes hand-in-hand with owner Jeffrey Lurie casting a patient eye toward the future. It's not all tomorrow's business, though, as Philly bolstered its defense with productive edge Haason Reddick and ace coverage 'backer Kyzir White. It's clear coach Nick Sirianni is signing up for another year of Jalen Hurts under center, but all that '23 draft capital would allow the Eagles to heat-seek a new franchise passer in next year's draft if this season isn't a hit.

The newly minted tandem of coach Kevin O'Connell and GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensa killed gossip of a divorce with Kirk Cousins by signing the good-but-not-great passer to a one-year, $35 million extension through 2023. Cousins, armed with enough career greenbacks to purchase 40 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, remains a symbol of Minnesota's floor and ceiling. It's a positive for the quarterback to see a new face in O'Connell after a testy, bizarre relationship with Mike Zimmer. The ex-coach's defense looks different, too, after the club added nasty pass-rusher Za'Darius Smith, linebacker Jordan Hicks and tackle Harrison Phillips. Patrick Peterson also returns on a one-year deal. I'd bet my lease vehicle they go 9-8 or 8-9.

Work in progress

New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Washington Commanders, Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons

If you're wondering why the Saints made that pick-heavy trade with the Eagles, our man Daniel Jeremiah is on the case:

The Saints are the best of this bunch, but my view of the roster is darker than theirs after they lost safeties Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins (to be fair, they added Marcus Maye), rugged left tackle Terron Armstead -- and a brilliant coach in Sean Payton. It's the Dennis Allen Show now, starring Jameis Winston at quarterback -- or is it? The scenery changes if New Orleans grab Jeremiah's aforementioned Desmond Ridder or another rookie passer, paired with one of the draft's top wideouts.

It sure feels like Panthers GM Scott Fitterer is prepared to pick a quarterback at No. 6 overall. Malik Willis would alter my feelings about a team currently propping up Sam Darnold as its Week 1 starter. The Commanders were a candidate to chase after Willis, too, until they seemingly panicked and traded for iffy Carson Wentz and his unwieldy salary. Why not just swing for a rookie arm to pair with the gritty Taylor Heinicke?

If the Seahawks trade away DK Metcalf, the full-scale rebuild is on. We're already mostly there, though, with franchise faces Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner having moved on to new destinies. Seattle can't be serious about starting Drew Lock. If they don't come out of the draft with a rookie flinger, look for Baker Mayfield in a 'Hawks uni. P.S.: I can't wait to see if Rashaad Penny's incredible close to last season was a sign of things to come.

Moving Khalil Mack to the Bolts was a crystal-clear confirmation: The Bears are largely starting over under new coach Matt Eberflus and GM Ryan Poles. They are in a tricky spot, hoping to retool the roster with young quarterback Justin Fields is on a rookie deal. Let's hope this regime has vision, a quality sorely missing in the previous group.

If nothing else, the Giants are more interesting with the quarterback-whispering Brian Daboll looking to milk the most out of Daniel Jones. Adding interior heavies Mark Glowinski and Jon Feliciano bolsters a line that crumbled a season ago. Could a Saquon Barkley trade be next? Can anyone on this team stay healthy? Are we destined for eight starts from Tyrod Taylor?

These Lions appear similar to last year's version. They lost no key players in free agency (they didn't have many to begin with) and added only wideout D.J. Chark. With Jared Goff in place at quarterback, the No. 2 overall pick feels destined for defense in the form of Michigan edge Aidan Hutchinson, should he still be there. With another first-rounder (No. 32 from the Rams), a second and two thirds, Dan Campbell's crew has the chance for friskiness.

Arthur Smith coached Atlanta up last season, but the post-Matt Ryan Falcons own the worst roster, league-wide. With Russell Gage out of the mix, potential starter Marcus Mariota is left with Kyle Pitts and a bunch of nothing on offense beyond Cordarrelle Patterson. Atlanta looms as an obvious QB landing spot come draft day.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

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