Not unlike an actual football game, here, the season alone will be divided into quarters; the second quarter report coming at the end of week four, and so on. The team(s) representing the NFC West in postseason play will then have an individual postseason report.
First off, the teams are listed below in the respective order of their predicted end-season placing. Thereafter, each quarter’s report will simply place each team in their current position in the NFC West division standings.
Preseason games are not supposed to mean a hill-o-beans but, at first glance, the Seattle Seahawks appear poised for yet another Super Bowl run (and this article was written after Seahawks RBs, Robert Turbin and Christine Michael, were either released or traded away). Oh, and don’t be fooled by those sporadic articles floating around in cyberspace implying that the absence of that Pro Bowl-caliber and said-to-be heart of the Legion of Boom safety will cause the team’s demise in the NFC, if not their own division.
Things to consider:
Apparently impressed enough with their recent acquisition of safety Kelcie McCray to give a fifth-round draft pick, and the nearly-ready-for-primetime emergence of an undrafted second-year safety named Dion Bailey, Seattle is prepared to move on without (arguably) the best safety in the game, Kam Chancellor. Both play Coach Carroll’s brand of football: physical. Baily, who played linebacker at USC and averaged four tackles during preseason, is slated to be the starter opening week against the St. Louis Rams. His versatility allows flexibility in the nickel and dime packages. Along with second-team safety DeShawn Shead, the ‘hawks are now set to rotate at the position in hopes of filling one pair of large shoes.
A healthy Fred Jackson is an upgrade from the previous depth at running back. Third-stringer Thomas Rawls looked impressive in preseason and a promising change-of-pace back that can ignite some adrenaline when needed.
Speaking of adrenaline, rookie third-round WR Tyler Lockett already has highlights in preseason that most young offensive players dream about for a full season totality, including a touchdown run, a kick-off return, and a 63-yard touchdown reception. The not-so-quiet whispers of Offensive Rookie of the Year have begun, and with the addition of former New Orleans Saints bread ‘n butter (don’t call me a Tight End) TE Jimmy Graham, Russell Wilson figures to have his best year statistically.
Another rookie, the first 2015 draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks and domestic violence-tainted DE Fred Clark out of Michigan, has looked strong so far and adds depth to a defensive front that includes Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril.
The Seahawks chose to keep only two QBs on their roster but this is not a real concern. WR B.J. Daniels, a quarterback until this year, survived the final cut after taking snaps at QB in the final preseason game.
The Bottom Line:
The coaching staff alone is worth several points, and the “always compete” philosophy Pete Carroll implanted in Seattle from his USC glory years works to inspire the youngest, most inexperienced players to strive to get better, knowing they will always have a fair chance at playing time. During this past preseason, the “eye test” prominently stood alone and flashed a ten-foot text message in neon to the rest of the NFC West: We just play harder than you!
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Checking for typos, are ya? No, it’s not a copy and paste error either. Certainly not the norm of the usual experts but I love the St. Louis Rams here in slot two, having picked them to finish third in 2014 (a full-time Sam Bradford-led team might have pulled that off). This year they are slightly better equipped, and the youngest team in the NFL has an additional year of experience to work with.
Things to consider:
Quarterback play (Where else could I possibly I begin?): the jury is still out on if the straight-up swap of Nick Foles for Sam Bradford is indeed an upgrade for either team, but for the Rams it is rather obvious that their newest starting QB communicates with his surrounding cast considerably better in recent weeks than Bradford has in years in St. Louis. Additionally, Foles oozes more ability to extend plays; no doubt to this writer, one reason for the Tebow experiment (and any ongoing off-camera Zen-like excursions to a future vacation spot I playfully dub Mariota Island, planned for…say, four years, Chip? ). Of course, the best ability is availability so the Rams need Nick Foles to stay on the field.
The St. Louis receivers are not among the best overall group in the league but early signs point to 2015 improvements; the first being their persistence to get WR Tavon Austin the ball more in some fashion. The exciting and explosive receiver has made big plays in preseason and is said to be running crisper routes than ever before. Rams fans are crossing their fingers that the light has finally turned on in his head and the built-in swag he possesses should be on display a number of times this season. Credit the coaching staff for being more experimental and bold in their play calling, and having the best receiver (and best blocking receiver), Brian Quick, return to the line-up, this is could be the first year since the Greatest Show on Turf era that the offense has a positive share in the outcome of a game on a more consistent basis.
If the Rams can survive the initial shakiness of a suspect O-line and the injuries/suspensions of the best three RBs, things could solidify by mid-season. Julius Caesar “Trey” Watts III, the best performing back of the preseason, is suspended the first four games of the season, Tre Mason is nursing a hamstring, and the debut of the top-rated RB taken in this year’s draft, Todd Gurley, is still two to three weeks away. With RBs Isaiah Pead and Benny Cunningham (who is likely to start week 1) improving with experience and understanding of the offensive system, the Rams should be fully stacked in the ground game in time for a long-awaited playoff push.
Hard to believe that the monster created by General Manager Les Snead and Head Coach Jeff Fisher could be possibly be stronger on the front end than in recent years, but that is exactly how the view appears from where I sit looking at the Rams defensive line. They are so deep that they were forced to cut preseason standout, DT out of Iowa, Louis Trinca-Pasat (much to the surprise of their fans commenting on roster cut-down pages), who then cleared waivers (much to the further surprise of their fans and at least one sports writer) and signed on with the Rams practice squad.
The season-ending injury to an emerging D-back E.J. Gaines was a blow, but the development of Trumaine Johnson, Lamarcus Joyner, and the surprising rookie middle-linebacker Bryce Hager is encouraging.
The Bottom Line:
General Manager Les Snead is on record as saying, “You can never have too many good defensive ends.” This leads me to believe that the St. Louis Rams’ philosophy regarding defense is simply, DON’T GIVE A QB TIME TO THROW AND YOU DON’T NEED A LEGION OF DIVAS HOLDING OUT FOR MORE CASH.
The Rams need stabilization at the quarterback position, a healthy Brian Quick, and O-line to compliment a top-tier defense and take that next step into a winning season, possibly a playoff season.
Easily my choice for the most intriguing team in the NFC West, the Arizona Cardinals seek to accomplish what they started in 2014; top-tier status. The team is definitely built to win now, and coach Bruce Arians is an old dog with new tricks up his sleeve. Don’t let this third-place ranking in the division lull you to sleep. It’s arguably the most competitive division and the Arizona Cardinals are but a major injury or two elsewhere away from stealing it when the dust settles and the blood dries.
Things to consider:
Speed…Consider speed first and foremost when you consider this team. The Cardinals have some jets across the board on both sides, but most importantly offensively, especially at wide receiver. Imagine the second coming of The Greatest Show on Turf and you’ll get the mental picture of what they could become. 2014 third-round selection, WR John Brown, and this year’s fifth-round pick, WR J.J. Nelson, are the speediest and on opposite sides of the field in three-receiver sets, which means an opposing defense’s lone safety is destined for rendezvous with Excedrin bottles. Oh, and they aren’t the starters. Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald has a lost a step or two but still sports the best hands on the team. The other starter, the speedy Michael Floyd, is also a deep threat, and forth on the depth chart is Jaron Brown, a big-play threat who could probably start in Green Bay, Carolina and New England right now.
Arizona Cardinal fans are praying for Carson Palmer to stay healthy this season, and rightfully so. He’s a top ten QB worst case if he does. Still, with the addition of ex-Eagle, QB Matt Barkley, coach Arians and staff are planning ahead. O-line is currently their biggest concern and if Carson misses time again in 2015, they will need another receiver-savvy young QB with upside to spell back-up Drew Stanton, who at nine years into his pro career, hasn’t sold me either.
The defense upfront and at outside linebacker is stout against the run, which allows for more creativity with their pass coverage when needed. Defensive coordinator James Bettcher will utilize six or seven defensive backs on occasion, and safety Tony Jefferson is used as a hybrid linebacker to play the run up close. They have a thumper in inside linebacker Kevin Minter who has reportedly lost twenty pounds this off-season to be quicker. The Cardinals also drafted a linebacker out of West Virgina that excites them, Shaq Riddick, a 6’6″, 265-pounder that runs a 4.6 in the 40.
Defensively, I’m excited to see a full season of both Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu on the field at the same time. Both are electric, smart players that make great reads and breaks on the ball with the potential for big plays this season, especially if the Cardinals significantly improve their league bottom-ten sack rating.
The Bottom Line:
This is a playoff team already. If the Gods of Griddom smile down on their health this season, they will definitely have something to say about the outcome of the NFC representation in this year’s Super Bowl. Bruce Arians is a good coach with an even better staff, but it’s hard to believe in his core unit being able to stay on the field an entire season (the NFL’s third oldest team), but if that happens, the newly acquired still-speedy RB Chris Johnson does what’s expected, and the guys in the trenches man up, hang on!
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
There may have been a worse overall off-season somewhere in the depths of time than the San Francisco 49ers and their fans had to endure these last few months, but I can’t recall one and the research would be just too damn depressing. For that reason alone they deserve the task of bringing up the rear in the NFC West. Deserve, you say? How dare me, I know, but I meant it in a good way. If you’re a 49ers fan, just think of the storyline, and don’t deny that you love a good Cinderella story. Imagine the blissful 2016 off-season that awaits if your team can pull off a Patriot-esque type coup d’etat! It can happen.
Things to consider:
Not sure how much on-field time he’ll see once the season’s underway, but the place to start is the first potential feel-good story of the “moving on” phase, a man named Jarryd Hayne. The former National Rugby League superstar of Australia is now squaring off with the NFL and its merry band of rock stars. If you attend a 49ers game, be sure and wear goggles as there will surely be testosterone flying around and about…Oh, sorry, that’s a future article. However, this one’s relative because although the 6’2″, 226-pound stack of War And Peace novels is smart, shifty with good vision, very physical and has imposing presence, he is still only 6’2″, 226 pounds and a rookie in the greatest sport on the planet (Remember Jordan and baseball?). Training camp and preseason games are one thing, the grind of an NFL playoff run week 12 is another. As most rookie RBs find by that time, it is exhausting…and hurts. But I, for one, have wondered over the years after the occasional glance at the foreign sport on the telly, how those big beefy-looking guys without pads would do running with the “big dogs” of American football, or as its commonly known down under, gridiron football. I…no, WE are about to find out because we have one of their best and he’s no pampered college kid coming from a level of play several floors below the pro ranks (although opposing second and third-string d-backs gave that impression). Hayne is a 27-year old man coming from the highest level of play, only somewhere else. Forget the notion in the back of your mind that if you don’t know him, how good can he be…Google Trends can attest, the rest of the world knows him well. I have no doubt he can be successful here, I only long to witness how success once the American egos, film study and consecutive hits kick in from opposing linebackers…Secondaries will just have to stop bouncing off and learn how to tackle.
The 49ers will work to overcome the loss of Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland (Willis’ impressive replacement), Aldon Smith and Justin Smith, Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox (both starting cornerbacks), O-line anchors Anthony Davis and Mike Lupati, Michael Crabtree, and then were cut DE Darnell Dockett when some new meat showed promise…Oh, and they lost (or chased away, depending on who’s side you’re on) head coach Jim Harbaugh. Say what you want about him—weird, whatever—but the man is a great football coach that reversed a dumpster fire there.
New additions include Baltimore’s ex, WR Torrey Smith, a bona fide field-stretcher. For whatever reason last season’s receiver Michael Crabtree didn’t work out, but Torrey is a huge upgrade sight-unseen. He and Anquan Boldin have established themselves as the likes of which Crabtree has yet to see. Stir in some new cut-n-move called Reggie Bush, who I will always choose over current starter Carlos Hyde, and Colin Kaepernick has no more excuses. Nor does the new coaching staff for at least putting up a good fight in 2016.
The Bottom Line:
I’m putting defense as San Fran’s primary concern because too much was lost on that side and the experience it needs playing together is so much greater. Yet with the return of the opposing offensive-offending linebacker NaVorro Bowman playing like a mad man in preseason, and veterans safety Eric Reid and OLB Ahmad Brooks still there, the gap back to 2012 is lessened. With 2015 expected to be more offensive in the NFC West with a healthy Carson Palmer and Nick Foles, both the offense and defense need only be close to the best of the Harbaugh era to heighten the intrigue the NFC West already promises.