Teams are listed by expected divisional finish (last year’s finish in parentheses), and include significant additions and subtractions from trades, free agency and the draft. A “+” denotes a team looks to be improved, whereas a “=” shows a team didn’t sufficiently address significant weakness(es).
+ San Francisco 49ers (13-3, lost NFC Championship)
The Niners played at a very high level all year in Jim Harbaugh’s first year as head coach in 2011, even with less than stellar individual talents at key positions. Adding Manningham and Jenkins to the receiving corps, by far their biggest area of need, makes them all the more dangerous.
Added:RB Brandon Jacobs (Giants), WR Mario Manningham (Giants), WR A.J. Jenkins (Illinois), RB LaMichael James (Oregon)
Lost: CB Shawntae Spencer (Raiders)
+ Seattle Seahawks (7-9)
Pete Carroll again is realizing how hard it is when the other teams can pay their players just as much as he can. Wilson provides an interesting option if Flynn falters, but let’s be honest, everybody’s happier that Tarvaris Jackson won’t be starting anymore.
Added: TE Kellen Winslow (Buccaneers), DT Jason Jones (Titans), LB Barrett Ruud (Titans), QB Matt Flynn (Packers), OLB Bruce Irvin (West Virginia), ILB Bobby Wagner (Utah State). QB Russell Wilson (Wisconsin)
Lost: TE John Carlson (Vikings), OG Robert Gallery (Patriots),LB David Hawthorne (Saints)
= Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
Nobody was happier with the Floyd pick than Cards all-world WR Larry Fitzgerald, but Arizona’s fate will again rest on Kevin Kolb… so yeah. Arizona probably would have been better served shoring up the offensive line, given how jumpy Kolb seemed in the pocket, not to mention how much of a pounding he took.
Added: WR Michael Floyd (Notre Dame), CB William Gay (Steelers)
Lost: OG Deuce Lutui (Seahawks)
+ St. Louis Rams (2-14)
This team can hardly get any worse, and they have some nice additions here that should merit a few more wins. But like every other team in this division, the quarterback position looms large. It’s time for Sam Bradford to show himself worthy of the no. 1 overall pick.
Added: CB Cortland Finnegan (Titans), LB Rocky McIntosh (Redskins), C Scott Wells (Packers), WR Steve Smith (Eagles), DT Michael Brockers (LSU), WR Brian Quick (Appalachian State), CB Janoris Jenkins (North Alabama), RB Isaiah Pead (Cincinnati)
Lost: WR Brandon Lloyd (Patriots), CB Ron Bartell (Raiders), P Donnie Jones (Texans)
= New Orleans Saints (13-3, lost in divisional round)
When Alex Smith torches your defense, it’s time to re-tool. The Saints did just that, but question is, will it be enough? As long as Drew Brees is here, and he’s not going anywhere, the offense should be just as good. Which means the Saints will again be Super Bowl contenders.
Added: LB Curtis Lofton (Falcons), DT Brodrick Bunkley (Broncos), OG Ben Grubbs (Ravens), LB David Hawthorne (Seahawks)
Lost: OG Carl Nicks (Buccaneers), CB Tracy Porter (Broncos), DT Shaun Rogers (Giants), WR Robert Meachem (Chargers)
= Atlanta Falcons (10-6, lost in wild card round)
The Falcons bet the house on Julio Jones last year that he would be the missing piece on the their road to the Super Bowl. Well, he wasn’t, at least not last year, and Atlanta’s 2012 draft class paid the price. Samuel should help, but the bigger questions here are probably more so how much RB Michael Turner has left and whether the rest of the team is playoff caliber.
Added: CB Asante Samuel (Eagles), OC Peter Konz (Wisconsin)
Lost: LB Curtis Lofton (Saints)
+ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12)
The Bucs upgraded all over the board, and it’s hard to imagine QB Josh Freeman not having a career year with Jackson and Clark to throw to. That being said, Freeman wasn’t the only Tampa Bay player to take a step back last season, and Raheem Morris’s job security will be directly correlative to getting guys like Freeman and RB LeGarrette Blount back on track.
Added: OG Carl Nicks (Saints), WR Vincent Jackson (Chargers), TE Dallas Clark (Colts), CB Eric Wright (Lions), S Mark Barron (Alabama), RB Doug Martin (Boise State), OLB Lavonte David (Nebraska), DT Amobi Okoye (Bears)
Lost: TE Kellen Winslow, LB Geno Hayes (Bears), S Sean Jones (Lions)
+ Carolina Panthers (6-10)
The Panthers are counting on improving from within, and when you realize what Cam Newton did in just his first year as an NFL quarterback, they might be more prepared to do that than most.
Added: ILB Luke Keuchly (Boston College), OG Amini Silatolu (Midwestern State), RB Mike Tolbert (Chargers)
= New York Giants (9-7, Super Bowl Champions)
The Giants kept up their tradition of cutting loose Super Bowl hero wide receivers. Losing Manningham as well as Jacobs certainly hurts the offense, but we’ve all learned not to bet against this team. As long as Eli Manning is at the helm, and the defensive line, led by Jason Pierre-Paul, is terrorizing opposing quarterbacks, the Giants will be a force to be reckoned with.
Added: LB Keith Rivers (Bengals), DT Shaun Rogers (Saints), OG Sean Locklear (Redskins), RB David Wilson (Virginia Tech), WR Reuben Randle (LSU)
Lost: RB Brandon Jacobs (49ers), CB Aaron Ross (Jaguars), WR Mario Manningham (49ers)
= Philadelphia Eagles (8-8)
The team many picked to dominate on the way to the Super Bowl missed the playoffs in large part due to injuries (Michael Vick, et al.) and underachievers (DeSean Jackson). But the talent is still there, and a four-game win streak to close 2011 bodes well for a team which, barring injury, is very much still built for a deep playoff run.
Added: LB DeMeco Ryans (Texans), DT Fletcher Cox (Mississippi State), OT Demetress Bell (Bills), ILB Mychal Kendricks (California), DE Vinny Curry (Marshall)
Lost: CB Asante Samuel (Falcons), WR Steve Smith (Rams), QB Vince Young (Bills)
= Dallas Cowboys (8-8)
As popular as it might be, you can’t blame Tony Romo for Dallas’s underachieving of a year ago. More blameworthy was the pass defense, and Morris Claiborne is the rare rookie who very possibly turns a weakness into an area of strength all by himself. Meanwhile, Orton provides some insurance in case Romo takes a physical beating, which he’s been known to from time to time.
Added: CB Morris Claiborne (LSU), QB Kyle Orton (Chiefs), CB Brandon Carr (Chiefs)
Lost: CB Terence Newman (Bengals), WR Laurent Robinson (Jaguars), LB Bradie James (Texans), S Abram Elam (Chiefs)
+ Washington Redskins (5-11)
The nation’s capital will be home to the RG3 show, and the debut of Washington’s new franchise quarterback will be one of the top storylines of the 2012 NFL season. However, to keep defenses from keying on Griffin, the Skins will need production from their running backs, something that was spotty at best a year ago and was not improved in the offseason.
Added: QB Robert Griffin III (Baylor), WR Pierre Garcon (Colts), CB Cedric Griffin (Vikings), S Brandon Meriweather (Bears), PK Neil Rackers (Texans)
Lost: LB LaRon Landry (Jets), LB Rocky McIntosh (Rams), OG Sean Locklear (Giants)
+ Green Bay Packers (15-1, lost in divisional round)
The Pack seemed poised to repeat as Super Bowl Champs before Pierre-Paul and company terrorized their offensive line and kept Aaron Rogers from being able to be Aaron Rogers. Saturday should prove to be a slight upgrade at center, but the offense again will be relied upon to compensate for a below-average defense.
Added: C Jeff Saturday (Colts), DE Nick Perry (USC), DT Jerel Worthy (Michigan State), CB Casey Hayward (Vanderbilt)
Lost: C Scott Wells (Rams)
+ Chicago Bears (8-8)
Da Bears finished 28th in the league in opposing passing yards, so unless Brandon Marshall intends to play both ways, the Rogers and Staffords of the world will continue to take advantage. On the offensive side, Campbell provides a legitimate insurance policy for Jay Cutler, something they didn’t have last year, and Michael Bush is another backfield threat.
Added: WR Brandon Marshall (Dolphins), QB Jason Campbell (Raiders), RB Michael Bush (Raiders), LB Geno Hayes (Buccaneers), OLB Shea McClellin (Boise State), WR Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina)
Lost: S Brandon Meriweather (Redskins), DT Amobi Okoye (Buccaneers)
= Detroit Lions (10-6)
The defense will have to improve for this team to take the next step, and there’s no evidence here that that will happen. However, if Jahvid Best (or even Kevin Smith) can stay healthy, they will score even more points, which will take the pressure off the still-porous defense.
Added: OT Riley Reiff (Iowa), WR Ryan Broyles (Oklahoma), S Sean Jones (Buccaneers)
Lost: CB Eric Wright (Buccaneers)
+ Minnesota Vikings (3-13)
Unlike Arizona, the Vikings are betting that shoring up the offensive line is more important to a young quarterback’s development than surrounding him with more offensive weapons. Of course, this team isn’t going anywhere without Adrian Peterson, who is coming off a brutal knee injury and probably won’t be ready for the season opener. And then there’s that defense…
Added: OT Matt Kalil (USC), S Harrison Smith (Notre Dame), TE John Carlson (Seahawks), WR Jerome Simpson (Bengals)
Lost: LB E.J. Henderson (Dolphins), OG Steve Hutchinson (Titans), CB Cedric Griffin (Redskins)