NFL Nation: Dominant team 2014-16 NFC

NFC North dominant team 2014-16

July, 19, 2011
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ESPN.com's Dream Team of Tomorrow nominees included 10 Green Bay Packers, more than any other NFL team. The Detroit Lions were also well represented, but when editors asked me to predict the division's dominant team in three years, there wasn't much choice.

We obviously don't know who will join the NFC North over the next few seasons, either via the draft or free agency. But based on what we have in front of us, it's hard to look at this any other way.

The Packers won Super Bowl XLV in 2010 and have more rising stars in their pipeline than any team in the entire league. They have the best chance among our four teams to build a long-term dynasty.

Take a look at the 22 offensive and defensive players who started in the Super Bowl. I could easily see 15 of them in similar roles three years from now. More importantly, they are core players.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be 30 at the start of that era. So will receiver Greg Jennings, safety Nick Collins and linebacker A.J. Hawk. Guard Josh Sitton, nose tackle B.J. Raji and linebacker Clay Matthews will be 28. Tight end Jermichael Finley will be 27. All have the opportunity to be in the prime of their careers at that point.

Should the Lions, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings pack it in? Of course not. So many unforeseen variables and events will occur between now and 2014, but it's fair to say the Packers have built the best infrastructure for long-term success in this division.

NFC West dominant team 2014-16

July, 19, 2011
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No team dominated the NFC West in 2010, but the St. Louis Rams are best positioned to control the division down the road.

They've got the franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford, and that separates them from the other teams in the division, at least for now. The San Francisco 49ers might have the answer in rookie second-round choice Colin Kaepernick, but it's too early to say. The Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks can improve their chances by addressing the position during free agency this offseason or in the 2012 draft.

The Rams have no such worries. Bradford showed them plenty last season as rookie, particularly with the way he commanded the offense and kept his poise. The stats were there for stretches -- 11 touchdowns against one pick over a six-game stretch in the middle of the season -- and the numbers should only improve. If all goes as planned, Bradford will be hitting full stride by the 2014 season, and probably before then.

St. Louis already has the most consistent defense in the division. Defensive end Chris Long and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis give coach Steve Spagnuolo young building blocks. Defensive end Robert Quinn, drafted 14th overall this year, should become one as well.

The Rams have more building to do, of course. They'll need to improve at receiver and find Steven Jackson's successor at running back. They must continue replenishing their defensive line while getting help for Laurinaitis at linebacker.

As much or more than other teams in the division, though, the Rams have shown an ability get things right in the draft. Long, Bradford, Laurinaitis and left tackle Rodger Saffold give St. Louis a strong core to build around. Right tackle Jason Smith hasn't been a big hit after being the No. 2 overall pick in 2009, but he's not a bust, either. Smith and Saffold should give the Rams bookend tackles for years to come.

Thanks to Bradford and billionaire owner Stan Kroenke, the Rams have the strongest foundation in the NFC West. That doesn't guarantee divisional dominance for the time period in question, but it certainly gives the Rams a head start.

NFC East dominant team 2014-16

July, 19, 2011
7/19/11
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As far as the Dream Team of Tomorrow project is concerned, the NFC East is a big question mark. We don't have any idea what the quarterback situations will look like for any of these teams in 2014-16, so deciding who'll be the most dominant team in the division was not easy. But I'm picking the Cowboys.

Tony Romo will be 34 when the 2014 season starts. But as long as they build an offensive line that can keep him clean (Doug Free will be 30 in 2014 and this year's first-round pick, Tyron Smith, will be only 24), he's surrounded by offensive talent that should hold up. Miles Austin will be 30 in 2014, Dez Bryant 25, Felix Jones 27, Tashard Choice 29, DeMarco Murray 26 and Jason Witten still just 32. They're good enough to make the Cowboys an excellent offense for the next three years, and young enough that, if they do so, they can keep it going through the following three.

As for the defense, which is Dallas' biggest current problem, I'm betting on Rob Ryan to make it into something sooner rather than later. I don't know who they'll get once free agency begins, but they already have key pieces DeMarcus Ware (who'll be 32 in 2014) and Anthony Spencer (30) around which to build, and assuming they add the right linemen and safeties in the coming weeks and Ryan coaches 'em up, they can work with that.

My close second choice was the Eagles, who have many good young offensive players who'll be in their primes then. DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy and Brent Celek will all still be in their 20s. But a question at quarterback (Michael Vick will be 34) and a concern that Jackson could leave after next year as a free agent held me back. They also have defensive issues similar to those of the Cowboys.

The Giants have some age issues that scare me off, and the Redskins have too many current holes to allow for such projections. So, from here, three years out, having to make this pick in July of 2011, I'm saying the Cowboys are your dominant NFC East team of tomorrow.

NFC South dominant team 2014-16

July, 19, 2011
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We’re spinning the clock ahead to the time period between 2014 and 2016. Each division blogger has been asked to name which of the four teams we cover will be dominant during that time frame.

I’m going with the Atlanta Falcons and that’s mainly because they’re the safest bet. Tampa Bay could be really good, but Josh Freeman needs to keep growing and the Bucs need to surround him with more talent. We have no idea yet how good Carolina quarterback Cam Newton will be. That leaves the New Orleans Saints, who have been the division’s best team in recent years, but nothing stays the same for very long. Drew Brees will be in his mid-30s in the time period we’re talking about, and defensive leader Jonathan Vilma also will be getting close to the end of his career.

That’s why I’m going with the Falcons. They’re already good and should only continue to get better. Yes, they’ve got some aging guys like defensive end John Abraham, tight end Tony Gonzalez and center Todd McClure. Michael Turner’s had so many carries in recent years that he might be worn out by 2014.

But those guys can be replaced, and the Falcons don’t have a lot of glaring holes. In fact, they’ve got a glaring strength. That’s quarterback Matt Ryan. Since he came into the league in 2008, all he’s done is win. He’s a talented passer and a natural leader.

I don’t think the world has realized yet just how good Ryan is. In fact, I think his coaches are thinking it’s time to turn Ryan loose and let him do more in the passing game. That’s why they traded up to draft Julio Jones. He and Roddy White should give Ryan two top-notch receivers. White’s made some noise about the Falcons' having an offense that could be like St. Louis' "Greatest Show on Turf."

Let’s assume he’s right or assume the offense is at least going to be good. What about the defense? It hasn’t exactly been an Atlanta strength in recent years. I think that’s going to change.

Mike Smith comes from a defensive background, but he and general manager Thomas Dimitroff decided early on they had to begin with offense. They’ve started to get the kind of defensive players Smith likes, but we haven’t seen the real results of that yet. The Falcons almost surely will sign a pass-rusher as soon as free agency opens. But whoever that is might not be the real key to the defense.

I’m thinking that, by 2014, Peria Jerry and Sean Weatherspoon, will be very important players. Jerry, a defensive tackle, suffered a major knee injury as a rookie in 2009 and played sparingly last year. The Falcons are convinced Jerry should be 100 percent healthy this year and think he can be a star. Weatherspoon showed flashes of potential and the kind of personality it takes to be a leader as a rookie last season. But his season got interrupted by injuries.

The Falcons should get better on defense in the next few seasons, and their offense already is good. Throw in the fact that Smith has one of the top coaching staffs in the league and that he and Dimitroff work together as well as any coach and general manager in the league, and I think the Falcons will be solid for a long time.

Atlanta fans put up with a lot of suffering throughout franchise history. But things have changed. The Falcons haven’t had a losing record the last three years, and I don’t see that streak ending anytime soon.

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