NFC West Preview

Posted: 09/05/2016 by levcohen in Football

Is it a stretch to say that the two best and two worst teams in the NFL all play in the NFC West? Probably. While Seattle and Arizona may well be the two best teams in football and San Francisco is widely considered to be one of the worst teams in football, the Rams are, let’s say, slightly more highly regarded than the Niners are. Anyway, Seattle finished first in DVOA and Arizona third last year, while San Fran was the worst team in football, so you can see how lopsided the division was last season. Expect more of the same this year.

Arizona Cardinals (13-3): In some ways, it’s hard to remember that the Cardinals went 13-3 last year and were at least the NFC favorite heading into the playoffs. A 49-15 drubbing in the NFC Championship game will make one forget even a remarkable season. Carson Palmer and the Cardinals got absolutely obliterated in that game, turning the ball over seven times and letting Cam Newton walk all over them. But if they can forget that humiliation, they’ll have a great shot at winning a Super Bowl this year. If anything, their roster is even more talented than it was last season. Everyone of importance is back on the offensive side of the ball, and the offensive line may well be improved. The left side of the line — Jared Veldheer at tackle and Mike Iupati at guard — was tremendous last season and is back this year. The right side was more problematic, which is why Evan Mathis (87.2 PFF rating) was signed to play right guard. Mathis is almost 35, so I wouldn’t expect that kind of performance again, but he’ll certainly be an improvement. Right tackle D.J. Humphries is a 2015 first round pick who didn’t play a single snap last season but has the upside to be an above-average tackle. The line will be at least good, giving Arizona’s three stud receivers all the time they’ll need to get open. Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown aren’t all going to have huge weeks at the same time, but each one will have plenty of success when they’re inevitably matched up with single coverage. Brown might be the premier deep threat in the NFL, a good thing to have when you have a quarterback who loves throwing it deep. As for David Johnson, the running back was tremendous both on the ground and as a pass catcher in his rookie year. He might be the best all-around running back not named Le’Veon Bell. In his first five starts (the last five games of the regular season), he put up 4.9 yards per carry, scored five times, and compiled 658 yards from scrimmage against tough opponents like St. Louis, Minnesota, Green Bay, Seattle, and, er, Philadelphia. I looked hard for a hole in this offense, and the only question marks I can find are at right tackle (Humphries) and tight end (Jermaine Gresham and Darren Fells are both better blockers than receivers).

On the defensive side, Jerraud Powers and especially Rashad Johnson are certainly meaningful losses. But Arizona was fine with losing them because they were unneeded luxuries given the rest of the Cardinals’ defensive talent. Cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson are, hands-down, the best pairing in the NFL. I don’t think I need to say much more about those two guys, because everyone knows just how good they are. Because Mathieu is so versatile, he moves between corner and safety, meaning that Justin Bethel is another important contributor. Bethel had his best year last season playing opposite Peterson, who always matched up against the opponent’s best receiver. The Cardinals also return jack-of-all-trades Deone Buchanan, who’s a LB/S and is really darn good at everything he tries. He’s a big reason that the Cards were so good against opposing tight ends last season. Freak of nature Calais Campbell is also back after putting up a rating of 85+ for the sixth time in seven years. But the scariest thing about this defense is that, by drafting Robert Nkemdiche in the first round and trading for New England’s Chandler Jones, it’s now going to be a ferocious pass-rushing team too. Jones registered 12.5 sacks last year and will immediately become Arizona’s best edge rusher. The rich just keep getting richer.

The Cardinals also have an easy schedule this year. They face the AFC East and NFC South and have the added benefit of playing the Patriots without Tom Brady in week one. Their two extra games are against Washington and Minnesota, which is as good as they could have hoped for given that they were a first place team last season. If anything, the conditions are even better for Arizona this season than they were last year. They’ll probably lose a game to Seattle and have a tough one in Carolina, but aside from that they’ll be favored pretty handily in every single game. 13-3 seems very plausible.

Seattle Seahawks (11-5): The Seahawks have finished each season since 2012 with the best DVOA in football. For those who are keeping score at home, that’s an unprecedented four consecutive years atop all of football. Of course, they’ve only won one Super Bowl in that span (and were a yard away from a second Super Bowl), but they’ve been the class of the NFL in the regular season over the past few years. And they’re going to be really good again this year. Over the last four years, it’s largely been a defense first team. In fact, their cumulative defensive DVOA ranking over the last four is #8, and that’s even after they finished fourth last season. That’s incredible. The defense is in line to be about as good as it was last season. Their two defensive losses are Bruce Irvin and Brandon Mebane, both of whom were decent contributors to the front seven but neither of whom is a devastating loss. The front seven is still elite. Michael Bennett is a monster, one of the best and most versatile all-around defensive linemen in the NFL even at 30 years old. Fellow 30 year old Cliff Avril is also a terrifying pass rusher. The fact that the team’s two key pass rushers are aging may be a problem in the future, but it’s nothing to be worried about this season. They’re supported by second team All-Pro linebacker K.J. Wright, the fourth best LB in football last year, and stud middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. Oh, and they also drafted Alabama’s Jarran Reed in the second round to fortify the defensive line. This is a great front seven, and it’s also supported by a darn good secondary. Three members of Seattle’s original “Legion of Doom” remain, with Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman maintaining spots among the elite at their respective positions. There’s just not a lot to be worried about with the defense.

As for the offense, everything looks amazing… except the offensive line. Seattle’s O-Line might be the worst in football. They were really bad last season, and they lost Russell Okung, their best lineman. First round pick Germain Ifedi is going to be thrust right into the lineup, and he’s probably not going to be very good. The team’s four established starters, meanwhile, are pretty horrific. None of them had PFF ratings last year higher than 47.9. For most teams, an atrocious offensive line is a death sentence. For Seattle? A problem, sure, but nothing they haven’t overcome before. They’re betting that quarterback Russell Wilson is quick enough to evade rushes, inventive enough to adjust on the fly, and smart enough to avoid crushing hits. Based on the evidence, that’s a pretty good bet to make. Quick, name me five quarterbacks better than Russell Wilson… If you could, you’re grossly underestimating just how good he really is. I’d take Aaron Rodgers ahead of him and probably Tom Brady. If Cam Newton can play like he did last season, I’d take him, too. But after that, Russell’s the cream of the crop. He’s also the perfect quarterback to play for this offense because he’s so calm and genius under pressure. But don’t make the mistake of selling his weapons short. Doug Baldwin won’t score 11 touchdowns in four games like he did at one point last season, but he’s just about the best route runner in the NFL. Tyler Lockett is primed for a second year breakout, while both Thomas Rawls and Christine Michael are explosive threats out of the backfield. Everything clicked for Wilson and the Seahawks in the last seven weeks of the regular season, when he threw for 24 touchdowns and one interception and averaged 272 yards per contest. Things won’t be that good this season, but they’ll be good enough to support the defense and one-up the 10 games they won last season. The only things keeping them from a home playoff game are Arizona’s stacked roster and their own slightly more challenging schedule.

Los Angeles Rams (6-10): The Rams will manage to win six games this year for a few reasons. First, they get two games against the 49ers. Second, they have Todd Gurley, a great running back who’ll carry them to a couple of wins. Finally, they may have the best front four in football even without Chris Long and Nick Fairley, both of whom left in free agency. Aaron Donald might be the best defensive player in football with J.J. Watt hobbled (his 96.6 PFF rating was actually higher than Watt’s). The stats say so, coaches say so, and my eyeballs say so. He’s really good. Robert Quinn had a 19-sack season a few years ago and has 40 total sacks in his last three healthy years. He’s healthy again now and is still only 26. William Hayes is one of the most consistent and well-regarded defensive ends in football, and Michael Brockers is a huge run clogger in the middle of the field who’s good enough to stay on the field on passing downs. It’s a great front four for a team that also has a great running back.

Nothing else on the team is close to great. This six game win prediction comes with the assumption that the Rams won’t panic and start Jared Goff before he’s ready. The #1 overall pick certainly isn’t ready right now and was horrific in the preseason, somehow losing his backup job to Sean Mannion. The starter, Case Keenum, isn’t the worst quarterback in the world, but he won’t be able to succeed with a poor offensive line and few weapons. Tavon Austin is fine, but he’s St. Louis’s only option in the passing game. This offense ranked 29th in DVOA last season and will likely be just as bad this year. The defense will be meaningfully worse without safety Rodney McLeod and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Those were the two best defensive backs on the team, and they aren’t really being replaced. Six wins might really be a stretch…

San Francisco 49ers (3-13): With the first pick of the 2017 draft, the San Francisco 49ers select… I can’t really see this going any other way. Blaine Gabbert is the quarterback. The biggest free agent signing was of left guard Zane Beadles, who was rated 54.4 last season. The team’s #1 receiver is Torrey Smith (33 receptions last season), and the #2 WR is Quinton Patton (36 career receptions in three seasons). Running back Carlos Hyde is injury prone and suffered a concussion in the preseason. The guy expected to be the team’s third best player (guard Anthony Davis) is coming out of retirement. There are two excellent players on this team. Linebacker NaVarro Bowman is excellent, and left tackle Joe Staley is excellent. Eric Reid is a decent safety. Arik Armstead is a good interior lineman. Maybe DeForest Buckner will become Von Miller in his rookie year? You can see that I’m grasping at straws, here. I know Chip Kelly acquitted himself really well the first time he had a debut season with an NFL team. He brought the Eagles from 4-12 to 10-6. But that Eagles team had some real pieces (most of whom Kelly disposed of shortly thereafter). I don’t think the Niners team is capable of the kind of turnaround Kelly orchestrated in Philly. They finished last in DVOA last season and were lucky to win five games. I’d be surprised if they reached even five victories this season. Remember the mighty 49ers, the team that reached a Super Bowl and had almost too much talent? How the mighty have fallen.

  1. charlie says:

    Folks in Seattle are actually optimistic about the O line. Ifedi looked good in preseason, and Britt’s switch to center seems to be working. However, it looks like it is going to be left guard by committee. The worry is Wilson getting hurt. Somehow he has gone four years without missing a snap to injury. As to the Arizona, their great weakness is Carson Palmer’s age. You are right about the importance of schedule. Last year the Seahawks had 4 games against teams coming off bye weeks. Arizona’s schedule does look easy this year.

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