Last season the NFC West produced the Super Bowl champ (Seattle Seahawks), the second-best team in the league (San Francisco 49ers), the best non-playoff team (Arizona Cardinals) and the most dangerous fourth-place team (St. Louis Rams). If the U.S. soccer team’s group of four was “The Group of Death” in the World Cup, what does that make the NFC West?
Here’s the rundown on each team’s personnel coming into the 2014 season, and our NFC West preview with a prediction on how each will fare against their number on the NFL win futures in Las Vegas.
Offense: It appears running back Marshawn Lynch has decided to report to camp after a brief holdout, but anything that has the Seahawks’ beast of a running back unhappy is a cause for concern.
This is an offensive line with serious problems at the guards, and while Russell Wilson has become a good NFL quarterback, I don’t know how anxious anyone in Seattle is to find out if Wilson can do it without Lynch barreling over defenses and setting the tone. Particularly when the best receiver, Percy Harvin, can’t stay healthy.
Defense: There’s some personnel changes on the defensive line, but nothing that should impact the overall quality of this front seven. And the secondary remains the gold standard of the NFL, with a lockdown corner in Richard Sherman, along with one of the best free safeties in the game in Earl Thomas.
I would expect Sherman, obviously anxious to get paid, to be motivated for an exceptional season in 2014 and if he’s locking up the opposing team’s best receiver by himself, it’s going to free up everyone else to attack.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Offense: This offensive line is excellent across the board, so even if veteran running back Frank Gore starts to show wear and tear, I think the Niners can continue to run the ball. They’ll have Michael Crabtree for an entire season at wide receiver, so Colin Kaepernick won’t be starved for targets in the way he was much of 2013. It’s no coincidence that when Crabtree returned from injury late in the year, Kaepernick started playing better.
I consider Kaepernick the best young quarterback in the NFL, and if the 49ers continue the path they started on last year—prudently letting him use his legs in big situations—then this offense is going to be steady.
Defense: The linebackers have been the anchor of a great defense over the last three years, but there’s big question marks coming into this year. Aldon Smith is looking at a suspension for two DUIs and a weapons violation. Navarro Bowman, the best inside linebacker in football last year, is out until midseason with an ACL tear from last year’s NFC Championship Game. Patrick Willis is still as good as there is, but he won’t have the same kind of help from his friends.
This is going to present a significant challenge for San Francisco, as Justin Smith is getting up there in years at defensive end, and the secondary is average at best. If rookie corner Jimmy Ward proves NFL-ready out of the gate, it would give this defense a big lift.
Offense: There’s good personnel at the skill positions here, with Larry Fitzgerald as the go-to receiver and Michael Floyd a nice number-two option. Andre Ellington can both run and catch the ball out of the backfield. But can Carson Palmer still, at this stage of his career, get them all the ball consistently enough to compete in a division where there is no margin for error?
And can the offensive line keep Palmer upright and give Ellington some creases? A mix of the unproven and mediocre dot this offensive front, and without blocking, all the talent on the world on the edges isn’t going to be able to get the football in advantageous positions.
Defense: The corners, led by the newly wealthy Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Antonio Cromartie anchor this defense and cover for a lot of ills. Calais Campbell is an elite defensive end within the 3-4.
What Arizona needs is more help for Campbell in rushing the passer. Matt Shaughnessy isn’t the answer at outside linebacker, as much as it pains me to say that about a former Wisconsin Badger. I have my doubts about John Abraham at this stage of his career. Larry Foote’s productive years are well behind him.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Offense: If a good offensive line can still be an anchor in this day and age in the NFL—and I believe it can—then the Rams can get some offense going. Jake Long has the all-important left tackle spot nailed down, and the right side of the line is in good hands with Rodger Saffold and Joe Barksdale. There’s some vulnerability up the middle, making the fast development of rookie guard Greg Robinson an imperative.
I like the lead running back, Zac Stacy, along with St. Louis’ decision to draft Tre Mason out of Auburn. That brings us to Sam Bradford—he’s going to have the protection, he’ll have run support. He doesn’t have great receivers, but this is enough of a supporting cast for Bradford to at least be modestly effective—if he’s the long-term answer.
Defense: This is an excellent defensive front, led by end Robert Quinn, who finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting last year and should have been at least second, with an argument for winning the award also being legitimate. Chris Long is on the other side, with Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford completing a front four that can be the best in the NFL.
The back seven is a problem though, and in a passing league that protects quarterbacks from getting hit, it’s a serious liability. St. Louis drafted Lamarcus Joyner, the talented Florida State corner, and will throw him to the wolves right away, joining another young CB in Janoris Jenkins. There’s a lot of youth in this area, so at least the Rams are drafting where they need help. But that doesn’t mean 2014 will be the year it all comes together.
Each team’s Over/Under number on the NFL win futures is in parentheses. Closer to the regular season, I’ll make an exact pick of each team’s record. For now, we’ll stick with a generic Over/Under prediction…
Seattle (11): I have a standing policy against making an Over pick on any scenario where a team has to go 12-4 to get the Over. It’s a policy that’s served me well over the year. The problem I have here, is that normally the number is 11.5 or higher. Could the Seahawks really go as low as 10-6? I suppose it’s possible, but the ceiling on this team is high enough that I’m going to make a reluctant exception here and say Over.
San Francisco (10.5): I really want to pick the 49ers to win the Super Bowl, and by the start of the regular season, I’m sure I’ll have found enough justification. I have to say though, that I am worried about the defense, and I’m worried about whether the obvious friction between Jim Harbaugh and the front office is going to undermine team cohesion. But my affinity for Kaepernick trumps all that, so I’ll say yes, the Niners can at least get to 11-5.
Arizona (7.5): This number stuns me—to put it in perspective, the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans also have win props of 7.5. I outlined the concerns over the Cardinals’ roster, so I’m not necessarily on the bandwagon that is pushing them to the playoffs, but I’ll certainly say they can go 8-8. Over.
No, not all the Michael Sam stuff—the real statement the Rams are trying to make is on the field and that you can still win by being tough and physical in both trenches, even with problems on the edges. That’s the statement I want to see vindicated.
Wanting to see it and believing it can happen in an NFL world dedicated to wiping out traditional, solid line play, are two different things though. I don’t believe in Bradford so I can’t see St. Louis doing better than 8-8 in this division. That’s way too little room on the Over side, whereas I can see them slipping to 6-10 if things don’t work out. It’s a tight window either way but a bit more room in taking the Under.
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