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Professional

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Associated Press
The Chicago Bears are expecting big things from wide receiver Brandon Marshall, whom they traded for during the offseason.

NFC

In order of projected finish

NFC North

1. Green Bay Packers

In the pass-happy NFL, few quarterbacks are as polished as Aaron Rodgers. The reigning NFL MVP threw for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns in leading the Packers to a 15-1 record last season.

Green Bay’s season ended prematurely, though, with a 37-20 loss to the New York Giants in the second round of the playoffs, and there’s a renewed focus in Titletown to get back to the Super Bowl.

The Packers elected not to re-sign running back Ryan Grant but added free agent Cedric Benson as the offense diversifies from the zone-blocking scheme that had been a staple of the running game.

Rookie to watch: Nick Perry, OLB, Southern California, Round 1

2. Detroit Lions

A spate of offseason arrests put the Lions in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Aaron Berry, for instance, was arrested on a charge of driving under the influence in June and simple assault in July. The cornerback was released soon after.

But Detroit remains an emerging power in the NFC behind quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who has separated himself from all others at the position.

The mystery is at running back, where Mikel Leshoure appears in line to start after missing a portion of training camp with a sore hamstring. Leshoure missed all of last season with a torn Achilles’ tendon.

Rookie to watch: Riley Reiff, T, Iowa, Round 1

3. Bears

In July, running back Matt Forte signed a four-year contract reportedly worth $32 million, but the Bears still added Michael Bush as insurance in the backfield.

The offense also received a major boost at wide receiver with the arrival of Brandon Marshall, who has five straight seasons with at least 1,000 yards. The Bears acquired the three-time Pro Bowler by dealing a pair of third-round draft picks to the Dolphins.

Marshall has been reunited with quarterback Jay Cutler, who appears fully recovered from a thumb injury last season. They played together with the Denver Broncos.

Rookie to watch: Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina, Round 2

4. Minnesota Vikings

All football eyes in the Twin Cities are focused on the return of running back Adrian Peterson, who missed four games last season and suffered a knee injury that required surgery in Week 16.

The Vikings severely limited Peterson’s workload in the preseason, and the four-time Pro Bowl selection will not absorb his first contact until the season opener, leaving in doubt how his knee will hold up.

The good news is that there was no swelling around the joint in the preseason. Backup Toby Gerhart filled in admirably, but Minnesota lost seven of its final eight games in quarterback Christian Ponder’s rookie season.

Rookie to watch: Harrison Smith, S, Notre Dame, Round 1

NFC East

1. New York Giants

The reigning Super Bowl champions made headlines for a while during training camp for locker room antics when a Giants player tweeted a video of Jason Pierre-Paul dunking Prince Amukamara into an ice tub.

While the Giants rarely have faced a shortage of in-house drama under coach Tom Coughlin, their play on the field under clutch quarterback Eli Manning makes them the team to beat not only in the division, but perhaps again in the NFC.

Some notable departures from last season include wide receiver Mario Manningham and running back Brandon Jacobs, both to San Francisco. The pass rush remains as intimidating as any with Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck leading the charge.

Rookie to watch: David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech, Rd. 1

2. Philadelphia Eagles

The question in recent seasons has become how many games quarterback Michael Vick will miss. The centerpiece of coach Andy Reid’s pass-happy offense hasn’t played a full season since 2006, the only year of his career that he went 16 games.

With Vick on the field, the Eagles are one of the more dangerous teams in the NFC, especially if DeSean Jackson validates his big offseason contract.

Running back LeSean McCoy emerged last season as one of the league’s premier running backs. The swarming defense that had been a staple for so many years got off to a rocky start last season under Juan Castillo, but surged late to finish 10th overall.

Rookie to watch: Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State, Round 1

3. Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys gave up the 10th most passing yards in the league last season, compelling owner and general manager Jerry Jones to move up in the draft to select cornerback Morris Claiborne at No. 6 and sign Brandon Carr in free agency.

How well the secondary holds up will go a long way toward determining the Cowboys’ fortunes. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware often makes the job of the defensive backs less taxing by generating a fierce pass rush.

The interior of the offensive line is a mess. Free agent acquisition Nate Livings, a guard, missed most of training camp with a sore hamstring and starting center Phil Costa also missed a significant portion of camp.

Rookie to watch: Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU, Round 1

4. Washington Redskins

The honeymoon for quarterback Robert Griffin III, picked second overall in the draft, continues, but his preseason play was up and down.

Injuries have turned the offensive line into a patchwork unit. The health of those five players figures to be an ongoing concern as Griffin adjusts to the NFL. Three starters missed time in training camp.

The backfield was beaten up in August as well, with Evan Royster and Roy Helu each nursing injuries.

Linebacker Brian Orakpo hurt his left shoulder in the Redskins’ second preseason game, but an MRI exam revealed no significant damage. He’s expected to be back for the season opener.

Rookie to watch: Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor, Round 1

NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints

Despite all the offseason distractions of Bountygate, the Saints remain a well-oiled machine as long as Drew Brees is healthy and happy.

The Pro Bowl quarterback no doubt has been smiling ear to ear since he signed a five-year deal worth $100 million, and even without suspended coach Sean Payton, Brees is more than capable of keeping the offense together.

The defense may be another story. Jonathan Vilma is eligible to at least play in the opener after a season-long suspension was overturned, because of his alleged involvement in the bounty scheme. The NFL could still suspend him later in the season.

Rookie to watch: Akiem Hicks, DT, Regina, Round 3

2. Atlanta Falcons

All indications are first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is planning to open up the passing game with the installation of a three-wide receiver formation as part of his regular package.

That means quarterback Matt Ryan will be asked to do much more, but he certainly has the resources around him to produce perhaps the best season of his career, starting with wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.

The defense has a new coordinator in Mike Nolan, who may work variations of the 3-4 alignment into Atlanta’s base 4-3 scheme. A notable offseason acquisition was cornerback Asante Samuel.

Rookie to watch: Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin, Round 2

3. Carolina Panthers

Quarterback Cam Newton had a transcendent rookie season with 4,051 passing yards and 21 touchdowns, though he did throw 17 interceptions. He also had 706 rushing yards and a team-high 14 rushing touchdowns for the fifth-ranked scoring offense.

The defense, however, finished 27th in the league in points allowed and 28th in yards as it struggled to generate a consistent pass rush. Sean McDermott joins coach Ron Rivera’s staff after the Eagles dismissed the defensive coordinator following last season.

Injuries also ravaged the defense, but linebacker Jon Beason, among others, is back after tearing his Achilles’ last year.

Rookie to watch: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College, Round 1

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers closed the regular season by losing their last 10 games in a row, prompting a shakeup that included the firing of coach Raheem Morris, who found work as a defensive assistant with the Washington Redskins.

Greg Schiano was hired to replace Morris and is one of many new faces, including wide receiver Vincent Jackson and tight end Dallas Clark. Jackson gives quarterback Josh Freeman a downfield threat the team had been lacking for years.

One of Schiano’s top priorities has been addressing the defense, which last season gave up a franchise-worst 494 points and allowed at least 40 points in four games, the most in team history.

Rookie to watch: Mark Barron, S, Alabama, Round 1

NFC West

1. San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers went 13-3 last season and advanced to the NFC championship game, but GM Trent Baalke still made significant roster moves by bringing in wide receivers Mario Manningham and Randy Moss and running back Brandon Jacobs.

Quarterback Alex Smith finally approached the expectations of being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, but the offense bogged down at times. Indicative of that was place-kicker David Akers making an NFL single-season record 44 field goals.

Linebacker Patrick Willis remains an anchor on defense, which has back all its starters. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman is an emerging star on the inside.

Rookie to watch: LaMichael James, RB, Oregon, Round 2

2. St. Louis Rams

New coach Jeff Fisher gave the wayward franchise an instant dose of credibility. Based on last season, the Rams can use all the help they can get.

St. Louis went 2-14 and averaged 12.1 points per game, last in the NFL, but the offense was missing Sam Bradford for the final six games. The starting quarterback had a high ankle sprain he has called a “non-issue” this season.

Defensively, Chris Long had 11 sacks last season, and the Rams added elite cornerback Cortland Finnegan from Tennessee, where Fisher spent 17 seasons.

Rookie to watch: Michael Brockers, DT, LSU, Round 1

3. Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks officially have the highest-paid backup quarterback in the NFL in Matt Flynn, who received a four-year contract worth $19.5 million.

Coach Pete Carroll instead named rookie Russell Wilson the Week 1 starter after the third-round pick outperformed Flynn during the preseason. Seattle also dealt quarterback Tarvaris Jackson to the Buffalo Bills in the preseason and ended its experiment with free agent wide receiver Terrell Owens.

The defense can keep the Seahawks close most weeks. It was ranked No. 9 overall last season and limited opponents to just over 16 points per game in the second half of the season.

Rookie to watch: Wilson, QB, Wisconsin, Round 3

4. Arizona Cardinals

The quarterback controversy between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton gained traction when Kolb, who two seasons ago signed for $63 million, looked so uncomfortable in the second preseason game that Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly called him “skittish” and “scared.” Skelton was named the starter last week.

Among the laundry list of issues facing coach Ken Whisenhunt is the injury to starting left tackle Levi Brown, who has a torn triceps and may not play this season.

The running back situation also could be in flux with oft-injured Beanie Wells competing with Ryan Williams for carries.

Rookie to watch: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame, Round 1

– Washington Post

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