Continuing my series with my divisional previews for this upcoming season where I’ll outline why each team and fan base should be optimistic, whey they should be concerned, and ultimately what their odds are for this season. Some dumb fans will undoubtedly take my predictions of a “one in a million” chance as well as this guy did…
In case you missed my first preview, here’s the link to the NFC East Preview.
Next up in my divisional previews is the NFC West…thought that was fitting given how active the Seahawks have been this week, and with the Niners in the news today. So let’s get right to it.
St. Louis Rams
Why they should be optimistic: After a disappointing start to the season last year, the Rams finished pretty strongly in a very tough division and seem to be well-stocked with young talent. So there’s plenty to be excited about if you’re hanging out by the Gateway Arch. Their defense started to show signs of the promise that had Rams fans giddy before 2014 started, and going into 2015 their defensive line is absolutely stacked: Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, Aaron Donald and Nick Fairley. That makes five 1st rounders in their D-line rotation, which is unheard of (especially given the actual talent level of these guys). Gregg Williams should have fun with his defensive play-calling given the pressure they should generate up front this year.
On offense, they traded for Nick Foles in the offseason so his transition to a more traditional offense (coming from Chip Kelly’s scheme) will certainly take time. But at least he has talented running backs to share the backfield with. Tre Mason showed his explosive ability in a huge performances late in 2014 (164 all-purpose yards and 3 TDs vs Oakland), and the Rams added Todd Gurley with the 10th pick in the 2015 NFL draft – a guy who’s been compared to AP. Gurley is coming off a torn ACL and will be eased back in slowly, but Rams fans have got to be salivating at the thought of a Gurley-Mason 1-2 punch.
Why they should be concerned: Their offensive line was in shambles last year, so they invested 5 draft picks this offseason on offensive line prospects. They’re clearly committed to improving in that area, but all of the youth would certainly be a concern for me (especially considered none of those prospects were taken in round 1). Nick Foles’ entire right side of the o-line is projected to be filled by rookies…and I’d expect them to have a learning curve early on this season.
Speaking of learning curves…Nick Foles himself will have to learn a brand new offensive system and playbook. Not to mention that he wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire before his injury in Philadelphia. So once he learns the system, he’s still got to deliver and perform up to the abilities some people see in him. Personally, I’m not a believer. I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid after his ridiculous finish to 2013…so I knew he’d come crashing back to Earth. I think the Foles we saw last year is the real Nick Foles, and that won’t be enough to carry this offense.
It’s particularly true given the lack of proven receivers on the Ram’s roster. They’ve got guys with speed and talent – see Tavon Austin, Brian Quick, and Kenny Britt. But none of them have lived up to their potential, and none can be counted on to deliver in a big game. So it’s a complete crapshoot in the passing game this season…roll the dice and hope it doesn’t come up snake eyes.
What are their chances: They’re in a really tough division, so it’s an uphill battle out of the basement that they’ve occupied for so long. But I think this is finally the year the Rams get back above .500 and at least sniff the playoffs. They’ve got a defense that could be top-5 in the NFL, a capable starting QB and a great RB tandem. Ultimately, I think they come up just short as their offense lacks the firepower to pick up the slack on days when the D doesn’t show up big and force turnovers. My official prediction = 9-7 record, on the outside looking in for the playoffs but building momentum and excitement going into next offseason.
San Francisco 49ers
Why they should be optimistic: The hope should center around their offense and the guy who thinks he can be “the Man”, Colin Kaepernick. He’s shown the flashes in the past and obviously has the talent. He’s a dual-threat that has torched defenses with his legs or his arm, so there’s got to be hope of a rebound from him. Plus, the Niners did a solid job of replacing the talent they lost this offseason on the offensive side of the ball, as Carlos Hyde should step right in for Frank Gore and Torrey Smith provides a much more dynamic threat downfield than the departing Michael Crabtree. They also added Reggie Bush – a curious fit to be fair – but Kap needs all the weapons he can get.
Why they should be concerned: This doesn’t have the look of the Niners that we’ve becomes accustomed to over the past few years. It was clear last season that the players had completely tuned out Jim Harbaugh and they fell apart down the stretch. Preseason Super Bowl aspirations became an 8-8 finish, so a change was desperately needed there. But this once vaunted defense has so many question marks now that it looks like something left behind by the Riddler. Patrick Wills, Justin Smith and Chris Borland all retired this offseason. (Starting OT Anthony Davis also retired – making it 4 starters they lost to retirement…most of whom were unexpected given their age) They also lost starting corners Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver in free agency.
Plus, reports have come out today that Aldon Smith was arrested AGAIN last night on DUI, vandalism and hit and run charges. This coming after he missed 5 games in 2013 for a DUI (and he voluntarily entered rehab) and was suspended 9 games last season. The Niners were smart enough to restructure his contract so that Aldon is only paid if he’s on the field, but I have to assume they’re going to think real hard about cutting bait right now (they’ve actually already cut him since I drafted this post earlier today). The kid has boatloads of talent and can definitely rush the passer, but his decision-making ability makes Josh Gordon look responsible. At least he didn’t pull a Ricky Jarrett and punch a dude in the club right? (seriously, if you don’t get the reference…here is why you should be embarrassed and get caught up on Ballers real fast)
The offense isn’t without questions either…they lost starting offensive lineman Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati, and watched Crabtree and Gore leave for greener pastures. Now, as I said above, I think they’ve done a good job of replacing those offensive skill players…but the o-line would be a concern. During their heyday that was a major strength of the team and it allowed them to ground and pound, letting Kap utilize his strengths to get outside the pocket and destroy defenses with play-action looks downfield. That all backfired last season when the line couldn’t block and Kap was running for his life, rather than for first downs. He took more hits, and took 13 more sacks last season than he did in 2013. Protecting their franchise QB will be a key for the Niners in 2015.
What are their chances: They’ll be competitive, but this is one of the toughest divisions in football in my opinion. I think the defense is really going to struggle and don’t think the offense has enough firepower to carry the lunch pail. So, I think this is the start of a rebuilding process in San Fran. My official prediction = 6-10 record, good for last place in the division.
Why they should be optimistic: The Cardinals finished 11-5 last season and made the playoffs, despite losing Carson Palmer AND then Drew Stanton – leaving them with Ryan Lindley at quarterback by season’s end. They were 9-1 before the wheels fell off the wagon, and frankly they were serious contenders to make a run at a Super Bowl before all of the injuries derailed their season.
Going into this season Carson Palmer is healthy again, and they have good weapons surrounding him in an aging Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Josh Brown and Andre Ellington. They also had one of the best defenses in the NFL last season, and return the core of their secondary with Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Had a couple of losses on D (to be discussed later) but they did bring in Sean Weatherspoon and LaMarr Woodley to help solidify their pass rush.
Why they should be concerned: While the core of the defense is mostly intact, they did lose some key pieces in Darnell Dockett and Antonio Cromartie. That consistent production won’t be easy to replace, so the defense could take a slight step back. Which in this division, any step back leaves them leaps and bounds behind the Seahawks and fighting for a wildcard spot.
They’re also banking on health from two guys who couldn’t stay healthy last season…Carson Palmer and Andre Ellington. People assume that Ellington is young because he’s only spent 2 years in the NFL, but the dude is already 26 years old. Not saying that’s old…because conveniently enough that’s also the age of The Office Sports Guy…but he’s got less tread left on the tires than most people assume. And Carson Palmer has had issues staying healthy dating back to his days in Cincinnati. Not saying it’s impossible for him to make it through 16 games, but pardon my French when I say this…if he goes down, they’re royally fucked.
What are their chances: I love Bruce Arians as a coach, and think he’s done an amazing job with this franchise just as he did when he stepped in for Chuck Pagano back in Indy. Even with the injuries they went through last season he guided them to double-figure wins and I think this season will be the same. Everyone talks about the home field advantage Seattle has at the Link, but the Cardinals have a great run going at home too. My official prediction = 10-6 finish and they make the playoffs as a wildcard, but lose in the 1st round on the road. Come up just a little short on the defensive side of the ball.
Why they should be optimistic: Well, they’ve been to back-to-back Super Bowls…so there’s plenty to be optimistic about if you’re a Seahawks fan. You just locked up Russell Wilson long-term, and one of your only weakness last season was a lack of offensive weapons around him (outside of Marshawn)…well here comes Jimmy Graham to fix that. So now you’ve got the best dual threat quarterback in the league, a ferocious running back that has deservingly coined the nickname Beast Mode, coming off another 1,000+ yard season, AND the second best tight-end in the entire league (sorry gotta give the edge to my boy Gronk on that one). Almost seems unfair.
Plus, you’ve still got the core of what has been one of the best defenses in the NFL the last 2 years. Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor form the Legion of Boom – doesn’t matter who that other corner is because their job is cake with the other three guys around. Michael Bennett and Bruce Irvin are creating havoc up front, and Bobby Wagner is running the show at middle linebacker. Enjoy this run while it lasts Seahawks fans, because the core you’ve got in place right now is special…and it doesn’t last forever (speaking as a truly spoiled Patriots fan who just assumes this based on what I hear from fans of other franchises).
Why they should be concerned: Well, if I’m a Seahawks fan…I’m pretty sure the first time the Seahawks have the ball on the 1-yard line, 2nd down and goal to go, I would have a serious case of PTSD and lose my shit. “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, RUN THE BALL!!!!” is what the entire 12th Man will be shouting at their TVs across the pacific northwest. So I guess their biggest concern is Pete Carroll continuing to be an utter moron and make decisions like throwing a slant from the 1-yard line in the waning seconds of the Super Bowl. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist taking one last shot at that…by the way, I don’t think I’ve thanked Pete Carroll enough for that decision…I love you bro. You keep doin’ you Pete.
Okay, one more and I’m done…
I lied, but this is the last one, I swear…
What are their chances: Short answer is…pretty damn good. There’s a reason why they’ve been to back-to-back Super Bowls. BREAKING NEWS: they’re one of the best teams in the NFL. That won’t change this year. They’re almost impossible to beat at the Link and even if they go .500 on the road (which won’t happen), that’s a 12-4 record which would be enough to win their division. My official prediction = 13-3, will win the division and have the best record in the NFC meaning the road to the Super Bowl will go through Seattle and that means a 3rd straight trip for Russell Wilson and the gang. Book your tickets now.