The draft is complete and the NFL division landscape is shaping up. Have the favorites changed at all?
To see the pre-draft favorites, click here.
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens
Initially the prediction was the Pittsburgh Steelers would reclaim the AFC North crown based on their excellent finish to 2013. However, thanks to top GM Ozzie Newsome the Baltimore Ravens once again had a productive NFL draft that puts them in position for a run. C.J. Mosley, Timmy Jernigan and Terrence Brooks are all quality, athletic additions to an aging defense. Together with underrated offensive weapons Crockett Gilmore and Lorenzo Taliaferro they are quietly poised to regain their playoff form.
Biggest Challenger – Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals remain the biggest challenger in the division for the simple facts that they are the reigning champs and they have the best young roster. On top of that they had another productive draft, helping out their secondary with physical corner Darqueze Dennard and gaining a potential feature running back in Jeremy Hill to pair with Giovani Bernard. For all his playoff faults, Andy Dalton does his best work in the regular season.
AFC East: New England Patriots
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have ruled the AFC East for over a decade with few challengers to their crown. That is why the New England Patriots almost get a free pass this 2014 NFL season. Their draft wasn’t lights out but it served a purpose, adding some help on defense with interior pass rusher Dominique Easley and blocking help for Brady with center Bryan Stork and tackle Cameron Fleming.
Biggest Challenger – New York Jets
Prior to the draft the Miami Dolphins were the pick to take down the Pats but after their questionable picks, that honor has shifted to the New York Jets. Rex Ryan and company had an outstanding draft, filling every conceivable need on the board including top safety Calvin Pryor and shiny new offensive weapons Jace Amaro and Jalen Saunders for the offense. If Geno Smith can take the next step and that defense plays like it should the Jets know they can take down the Patriots.
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
Thanks to a limited number of draft picks it was difficult for the Indianapolis Colts to get much better than they are. Still, they managed to meet some needs, particularly on offense by bolstering their protection of Andrew Luck with tackle Jack Mewhort and adding underrated receiver Donte Moncrief. Add in a solid free agent period and they remain the favorite in the AFC South.
Biggest Challenger – Houston Texans
Few teams had a more productive NFL draft than the Houston Texans. The defense got a whole lot bigger and more dynamic with the infusion of Jadveon Clowney at outside linebacker and Louis Nix at nose tackle. Meanwhile the offense got some help up front with top guard Xavier Su’a-Filo and two-way tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. On top of that they landed perhaps the most physically talented quarterback in the class in Tom Savage out of Pittsburgh. How the quarterback position pans out will ultimately decide the Texans’ 2014 fate, but from a talent view they are more than a match for Indy.
AFC West: Denver Broncos
If free agency wasn’t enough to keep them on top, then the Denver Broncos cemented their place as top dog in the AFC West with a very solid draft. They stole cornerback Bradley Roby with the 31st pick, then landed receiver Cody Latimer and tackle Michael Schofield on day 2. Their roster has somehow gotten better from the one that reached the Super Bowl last season. With Peyton Manning still under center it’s hard to pick against them.
Biggest Challenger – San Diego Chargers
It was hard not to pick the Raiders after the great draft they had but the San Diego Chargers were the only AFC West team to beat Denver last year and they also got better. Jason Verrett, Jermiah Attaochu and Ryan Carrethers should significantly upgrade their defense while guard Chris Watt and speedy weapons Marion Grice and Tevin Reese should assist Philip Rivers on offense. It’s a solid series of add-ons that make the Bolts playoff contenders again.
NFC North: Green Bay Packers
The draft is their time to shine. Ted Thompson always does great work for the Green Bay Packers and he didn’t disappoint in 2014. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was exactly what they were looking for at safety, a position that has caused problems for them since Nick Collins was lost to a neck injury. Together with a massive influx of weapons for Aaron Rodgers including Davante Adams, Richard Rodgers, and Jared Abbrederis the Packers are poised to retain their hold on the NFC North title.
Biggest Challenger – Chicago Bears
Coaching changes always have an unforeseen effect on teams, which is why Minnesota and Detroit lose points here. Besides, the Chicago Bears went into the NFL off-season with one mission: improve the defense. Thanks to free agency and then a solid draft, they succeeded. V-Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller should contribute right away at nickel while stout defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton given them immediate and long-term help with run defense and interior pass rush. Throw in All-American running back Ka’Deem Carey and they seem ready for a chance at taking down their old rivals.
NFC East: New York Giants
This prediction was made prior to the draft and it hasn’t changed. The New York Giants have a knack for bouncing back from tough seasons under Tom Coughlin and their 2014 off-season reinforces that belief. Eli Manning should see a serious upgrade along the offensive line, something that hampered him all of last season. Together with new weapons like Odell Beckham Jr. and Andre Williams the Giants seem ready to take on that dreadful NFC East.
Biggest Challenger – Philadelphia Eagles
In all honesty it’s hard to feel good or bad about what the Philadelphia Eagles accomplished this NFL off-season. Their core is still in place with LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles. Together with new faces like Darren Sproles, Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff they should remain a dynamic offense under Chip Kelly. The question is was the defense truly upgraded at all? Marcus Smith and Jaylen Watkins will provide the answer to that question.
NFC South: New Orleans Saints
The Jairus Byrd addition was enough to propel the New Orleans Saints into favorites for the NFC South. So to think they added a good draft on top of it should keep it that way. Brandin Cooks should step in to help replace the departed Sproles while Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Khairi Fortt and Ronald Powell upgrade what was already a really good defense. Nobody else in the division made such strides.
Biggest Challenger – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Carolina Panthers really seemed to take a step back following their 12-4 run last year. Their entire receiving corps was gutted as was a solid chunk of their secondary. On the other hand the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put together a tremendous run. After spending wildly in free agency to upgrade the defense, they went all-out on offense in the NFL draft by adding large talents like Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Together with Vincent Jackson they form perhaps the biggest receiving corps in football, something Josh McCown got used to in Chicago. Add it up and from a talent point of view the Bucs are a legit challenger to the Saints.
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks
Being the world champions earns a team the benefit of the doubt. On paper it seems like the Seattle Seahawks had a rather ordinary draft but given their success in developing late-round talent it’s best to hold off on that judgment. Their core remains in place despite some tough losses in free agency and they still have the best defense in the business with a Pro Bowl quarterback under center in Russell Wilson.
Biggest Challenger – San Francisco 49ers
At the same time their hated rivals down the coast have only gotten deeper and better. The San Francisco 49ers used another laundry list of draft picks to further fortify arguably the deepest roster in football. Colin Kaepernick has some new toys to play with such as Stevie Johnson, Bruce Ellington and Carlos Hyde. The defense on the other hand got a boost in the secondary with safety Jimmie Ward. Nothing hints at them going anywhere and more than ever they seem poised to break the Seahawks’ brief hold on the NFC West.