*Loss to Atlanta Falcons in Wild Card Round*
Strength: Front 7
The Rams have one of the best front 7’s in football led by DT Aaron Donald, believed to be the best defensive player in the league (should be paid like it soon) and also one of the best players regardless of position. DT Michael Brockers continues to be a problem up front taking on double teams and stopping the run, OLB Robert Quinn continues to be a pass rush nightmare, despite a move to OLB which hasn’t slowed him down and he stayed healthy, OLB Connor Barwin continues to be a consistent pass rusher no matter what team or system he is in, ILB Alec Ogletree continues to be a complete 3-down LB who the Rams smartly chose to build around, and ILB Mark Barron continues to impress and show off his coverage skills and sideline to sideline play. DC Wade Phillips turned this team front a solid front 4 to a solid front 7, as he continues to make good defenses great.
The Rams are one of the youngest teams in the league with an average age of 25 led by a 2nd year QB and the youngest HC in the league in Sean McVay at only 31 years old. The team has finally experienced success and a NFC West division title which no one saw coming, after a few mediocre seasons under former HC Jeff Fisher. McVay helped QB Jared Goff start to show his potential, as a franchise QB in year 1, after struggling late last season while surrounding the offense with an offense based on keeping teams from focusing on RB Todd Gurley and the run attack which led to his best season. Veteran LT Andrew Whitworth has been a great leader as one of the oldest players on the team with the ability to still excel with dominate play; other than Whitworth there aren’t too many players over 30. The core of the team is: QB Jared Goff: 23, RB Todd Gurley 23, DT Aaron Donald: 26, ILB Alec Ogletree: 26, DE/OLB Robert Quinn: 27, WR Robert Woods: 25, WR Cooper Kupp: 24, and NT Michael Brockers: 27.
*Loss to Minnesota Vikings in Divisional Round*
Strength: Offensive Balance
The Saints continue to have one of the best offensive teams in the league behind veteran QB Drew Brees and HC Sean Payton. Brees continues to be fight father time and sling the ball almost at will with the same great accuracy. RB Mark Ingram continues to be a solid power back who can carry the load, if you need him to and even catch a few passes if called upon. New addition rookie RB Alvin Kamara has been a great find and is definitely in the conversation for Offensive Rookie of the Year, as he has been too good to keep off the field and his production led to the trade of veteran, star RB Adrian Peterson to the Cardinals for more carries. Kamara is a perfect complement to Ingram with game breaking speed and most importantly catching passes out of the backfield; he will be the x-factor that teams will need to account for. The WR core continues to led by solid possession WR Michael Thomas who has taken hold of the #1 WR spot and never looked back, #2 WR veteran Ted Ginn Jr. has stepped up as a big surprise and bargain free agent continuing to show off the speed that made him a top pick, Brandon Coleman is a big target who has made plays, and Tommylee Lewis has also stepped up while Willie Snead Jr. struggled with injuries.
The offensive line has played with great chemistry despite some changes led by LT Terron Armstead who has developed from athlete to a solid athletic tackle, LG Andrus Peat has been shifted everywhere in his short career, but continues to play well no matter where they start him, C Max Unger continues to be one of the better centers in the league and makes the Jimmy Graham trade not look as bad due to his consistency, RG Larry Warford has always been a power run blocker, a solid pickup from the Lions, and rookie RT Ryan Ramczyk looks like another longer term piece, after solidifying the right side, despite a draft with not many solid tackles available. This is an offense that no one wants to play with so many ways to beat you; your defensive coordinators should have nightmares.
Weakness: Run Defense
The Saints pass defense has been much improved, behind rookie CB Marshon Lattimore and CB Ken Crawley who have finally solve a long term problem along with rookie FS Marcus Williams and SS Kenny Vaccaro; however the run defense has been the never ending problem. The defense continues to give up big yardage to opposing RBs, as they don’t have a high quality NT to plug the middle or a quality DT outside of Sheldon Rankins and MLB Manti Te’o hasn’t been spectacular in the middle; they could really use upgrades at the physical positions. However, the Saints have the offense to mask run defense, as most teams get into catchup mode, but hopefully they don’t run into a power run game to slow them down.
*Loss to New Orleans Saints in Wild Card Round*
Strength: Defensive Front 7 / Quarterback
The Panthers continue to have one of the best front 7’s in the league led by a strong front 4 featuring: NT Star Lotulelei, DT Kawann Short, DT Vernon Butler, DE Mario Addison, and veterans DE Julius Peppers and Charles Johnson. Lotulelei continues to be a huge run stuffer who doesn’t mind doing the dirty work and covering double teams. Short has developed into an interior pass rush nightmare who can also hold his own against the run; he was recently paid for his production. Butler was a high draft pick waiting on get a starting spot, as he continues to hold his own as a run stuffer when called upon. Peppers is on a home tour back to where it started, as his retirement could be coming soon. Addison has developed into a solid young pass rusher, as the team hope he could learn even more from the veterans and Johnson has been a long term piece that they always seem to go back to always finding a way to get after the QB. Long time veteran OLB Thomas Davis continues to be a threat off the edge and mostly in coverage, but his time is coming to an end soon. MLB Luke Kuechly continues to be one of the top players at his position making plays in coverage and in the run game as the enforcer and leader. OLB Shaq Thompson continues to progress, but it is believed he would be better in Davis’ role, as he is also a S/OLB who excels in coverage. This unit is the reason teams can’t handle the physical play of the Panthers.
The most obvious strength on the team of course is having QB Cam Newton who continues to be one of the best in the league with his size, talent, and production in both the passing and running game. Newton has had the ability to work with less, after losing #1 WR Kelvin Benjamin and his play really determines how far this team can go and if the team will lose or not. The team obviously needs to continue to add playmakers around Newton, as his success is key to the success of the offense and the team overall.
Weakness: Running Offense / Pass Defense
The Panthers who have been known to lean on the run for years and always have had solid running backs on the roster who are battling each other for carries. The problem this season is that Cam Newton may be the best runner on the team. Veteran RB Jonathan Stewart has struggle with injuries an ineffective play, with a slight showcase of his former self when you least expect it. As I expected, despite the hype on rookie RB Christian McCaffrey he has been a blessing in the passing game, very similar to his father, Ed McCaffrey, however the guy can’t run between the tackles and I wouldn’t expect too much improvement there; I believe he will be a slot WR eventually. Young RB Cameron Artis-Payne and veteran Fozzy Whittaker haven’t been any more effective. The Panthers have a solid defense that causes a lot of turnovers, but the coverage on the back end has been hard to mask at times with ineffective play by the young DBs. Both the CB and Safety positions could use upgrades of both talent and production, after a few veterans masked these spots in prior seasons successfully.
*Loss to Philadelphia Eagles in Divisional Round*
Strength: Offensive Balance / Defensive Speed
The Falcons have a nice balanced offensive attack led by the passing game of QB Matt Ryan to WRs Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, along with RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Julio Jones continues to be one of the top WRs in the league considered to be 1A or 1B overall with WR Antonio Brown, as almost unstoppable. Sanu has developed into a consistent sidekick to Jones really showing his value this season as no one else really stepped up. Although Devonta Freeman was paid for his production, both Freeman and Coleman have game-breaking skill sets with the ability to change the game by running or catching passes.
The Falcons defense has really improved adding physical athletes who play with good game speed making the whole unit a sideline to sideline crew that gets after the football. 2nd year MLB Deion Jones has been a welcomed addition and leader who continues to make up for his size with coverage plays and good sideline to sideline speed tackling. OLBs Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley are pass rush demons who know how to get after the quarterback using their speed and athleticism. FS Keanu Neal is a playmaker who loves to blow up plays coming in to make the last minute tackle or break up jarring the ball lose they love his play as the enforcer on the back end. The team is full of young OLBs who can read and react and fly to the ball in the mold that HC Dan Quinn and his defensive staff prefers; expect this unit to continue to grow together and find more young pieces to add.
When you look at the Falcons roster, there aren’t any immediate holes to find in the team as they have a good mix of veteran and young promising talent, however inconsistency has been a problem in prior years, but it seems ever since the SuperBowl loss, the hangover continues; this could be pure inconsistency or maybe even just bad luck. The Falcons have the talent on both sides of the ball, but mistakes on both sides have stopped the team from being great, especially on the offensive side where the team has clearly taken a step back. The window is closing for this team to seal the deal after missing a great opportunity last year; finding a solution to the inconsistent play will be the key.