Monday, August 4, 2014

2014 NFL Divisional Previews - NFC West

Forget the NFC West, the NFC Best is more like it. This division had three teams win 10 games or more last season, and one of those teams didn't even make the playoffs. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks arguably hold the crown for best rivalry in the NFL right now. The 49ers added some offensive weapons and showed their faith in QB Colin Kaepernick by signing him to a long-term deal. The Seattle Seahawks and their Legion of Boom carried them to a Super Bowl title, causing Russell Wilson to become the latest overrated Super Bowl winning quarterback. The St. Louis Rams seem stuck in mediocrity and this might be Sam Bradford's last chance to prove he is a franchise quarterback. The Arizona Cardinals got a better than expected season out of QB Carson Palmer last year and also have a top notch defense.

1. San Francisco 49ers

2013 Record: 12-4, 2nd place NFC West
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh (4th season San Francisco, 41-14-1 career)
Key Additions: S/CB Jimmie Ward, RB Carlos Hyde, QB Blaine Gabbert, WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Stevie Johnson, OT/G Jonathan Martin, CB Chris Cook, S Antoine Bethea
Key Losses: QB Colt McCoy, RB Anthony Dixon, WR Mario Manningham, C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Carlos Rogers, CB Tarrell Brown, S Donte Whitner

2014 Outlook: Injuries were a common theme for the 49ers in 2013, but like any great team, they overcame those injuries and still managed to win 12 games. Unfortunately for them, the Seahawks were just a little bit better in 2013. 2013 was Colin Kaepernick's first full season as a starter and he showed enough for the 49ers to reward him with a new contract this off-season. Last year he had to deal with injuries to Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, leaving him with very little weapons. Thank goodness the 49ers acquired Anquan Boldin from the Ravens for practically nothing. Boldin showed no signs of slowing down last season and became the 49ers number one receiver. Crabtree enters the 2014 season healthy and ready to return to the productivity levels he showed in 2012. Davis had a ridiculous mini-holdout over his contract but is back in camp and remains an integral part to the 49ers passing game. The 49ers added Stevie Johnson in a trade with the Bills and he could be an excellent third option for Kap. They also brought Brandon Lloyd back and while not a ton will be expected of him, he did play pretty well in 2012. RB Frank Gore is 31 and it seems for about the past 3 or 4 years predictions of his demise have been in vogue. This year those predictions are reaching their apex but I have learned not to count Gore out. The 49ers had tremendous depth at the running back position but that has taken a hit the past few weeks. Dependable Kendall Hunter has been lost for the season after tearing his ACL. Marcus Lattimore sat out the 2013 season as planned but now is missing training camp practices so his status is up in the air. The 49ers drafted Carlos Hyde out of Ohio State, and still have LaMichael James, so those two could be pressed into duty if need be. The 49ers have one of the best offensive lines in football but have to be somewhat concerned about RG Alex Boone's prolonged holdout. Anthony Davis and Joe Staley are tremendous bookends, although Staley has had some injury scares the last few seasons. The defense is a bit of a question mark going into the season. The defensive line and linebacking corps is mostly the same, but the training camp injury bug struck Glen Dorsey last week and is he is now out for the season. However, Justin Smith is starting to get up there in age and the 49ers will be without NaVorro Bowman will miss at least half the season after his gruesome injury in the NFC Championship game. That means the untested Chris Borland will be manning the left inside linebacker position. Aldon Smith had an interesting off-season for all the wrong reasons and could be facing a suspension. Ahmad Brooks and Patrick Willis should still be their top notch selves in 2014. The 49ers secondary sees major changes going into the season, with Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers gone, replaced by Antoine Bethea and Tramaine Brock. Chris Culliver will also be returning from injury but can be beaten like a drum at times. Eric Reid is quickly turning into one of the best safeties in football. Special teams remains a strength as Phil Dawson was as good as advertised last season, and Andy Lee just continues to boom the football when he punts. I'm biased as hell but I really think this is the year the 49ers break through and get that Super Bowl ring. They certainly have some question marks but I think Kaepernick will make a leap with some of the new weapons he has on offense and the defense will remain strong enough even with the changes.

Prediction: 12-4

2. Seattle Seahawks

2013 Record: 13-3, NFC West, NFC, and Super Bowl Champions)
Head Coach: Pete Carroll (5th season Seattle, 77-61 career, 1 Super Bowl championship)
Key Additions: DT Kevin Williams
Key Losses: WR Golden Tate, WR Sidney Rice, DE Red Bryant, DE Chris Clemons, CB Brandon Browner, CB Walter Thurmond

2014 Outlook: I'm going to do my best to not let my Seahawks seep through this preview. Seattle was clearly the best team in football last season and proved it with an exclamation mark by manhandling the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. The Seahawks success had led to people rushing to overrate QB Russell Wilson. Wilson is a nice player but if you were to list out the reasons Seattle won a Super Bowl he would come pretty low on the list. The truth is he is surrounded by an excellent running game, led by the Beast Marshawn Lynch and the best defense in football. He never got to enjoy Percy Harvin last season, as Harvin constantly battled injury but Harvin is injury free so far and will team up with Doug Baldwin as Wilson's two main receiving options. The Seahawks let Golden Tate walk, which is fine, as Tate was decent but nothing special and was overpaid by the Lions.Sidney Rice retired but he was never healthy anyway and not someone Seattle could count on.  Zach Miller is adequate at tight end. The Seahawks offensive line is decent but sometimes is made to look better than they really are because of Wilson's scrambling abilities. The most important offensive line position, left tackle, is always in doubt for the Seahawks because Russell Okung can never stay healthy. If the Seahawks repeat it will be because of their defense. They did lose some pieces this off-season, like Chris Clemons, Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond but that is normal to have happen to the core of a Super Bowl winning team. They locked up S Earl Thomas and CB Dick Sherman so the secondary should remain excellent. Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett do a nice job rushing the quarterback and are also helped by the stingy secondary. Special teams is a major strength for Seattle with strong performances always coming from kicker Steven Hauschka and punter Jon Ryan. Recent Super Bowl winners have a had a tough time following up their Super Bowl winning seasons with success. I think that hangover effect will hit Seattle some but I still believe they will be a playoff team. It is hard when each week you become your opponent's biggest test and they always bring their A game against you. I think Marshawn Lynch will suffer a bit from his mini hold-out and I think the added pressure on Wilson will effect him.

Prediction: 10-6

3. St. Louis Rams

2013 Record: 7-9, last place NFC West
Head Coach: Jeff Fisher (3rd season St. Louis, 161-143-1 career)
Key Additions: LG Greg Robinson, QB Shaun Hill, WR Kenny Britt, DE/DT Alex Carrington
Key Losses: QB Kellen Clemens, G Harvey Dahl, CB Cortland Finnegan

2014 Outlook: The Rams showed flashes in 2013 of taking the next step to becoming a playoff team but were never able to string together enough consistent performances. That also encapsulates the career of QB Sam Bradford. Bradford was having a pretty strong season through 6 games last year, throwing 14 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. But he was then injured in a loss to Carolina, robbing him of the rest of his season. The biggest knock on Bradford has been his inability to get the ball downfield as he always has a very low yards per attempt average. I don't think Bradford's struggles can all be blamed on him though as the Rams front office has done a poor job of surrounding him with skill players. One positive on offense was the emergence of Zac Stacy at running back. Stacy emerged after Bradford went down, and prior to that the Rams had no running game to speak of. The Rams are very thin at wide receiver even after attempting to address the position the last few off-seasons. Tavon Austin had moments but overall didn't show himself to be worthy of a Top 10 pick. Bradford will be relying on no names Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, and hoping for a career resurrection from Kenny Britt. Tight end Jared Cook had a strong start to the season but then disappeared from the offense. The Rams have some good pieces on the offensive line, and added left guard Greg Robinson in the draft. If the Rams are to make the playoffs it will be on the strength of their defense. The Rams have one of the most fearsome front fours in football, anchored by Chris Long and Robert Quinn, while defensive tackle Michael Brockers had 5 1/2 sacks last season. They are also strong at linebacker with James Laurinaitis. Where the Rams did have problems on defense was in their secondary, so they said goodbye to Cortland Finnegan, and are hopeful that corners Tanoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson are the answers. St. Louis has a strong punter/kicker combination with Greg Zeurlein and Johnny Hekker. Austin is a dangerous punt returner as well for St. Louis. I think the Rams have taken on the personality of their coach Jeff Fisher. Fisher is constantly overrated as a coach and largely had produced mediocre results throughout his career. People keep waiting for the Rams to break out but they keep churning out 7 to 8 win seasons. I expect another average year from the Rams, as the defense isn't good enough overall to make up for the underwhelming offense.

Prediction: 8-8

4. Arizona Cardinals

2013 Record: 10-6, 3rd place NFC West
Head Coach: Bruce Arians (2nd season Arizona, 19-9 career)
Key Additions: S Deone Bucannon, TE Troy Niklas, RB Jonathan Dwyer, WR Ted Ginn Jr., TE John Carlson, LT Jared Veldheer, CB Antonio Cromartie
Key Losses: RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Andre Roberts, OT Eric Winston, ILB Karlos Dansby, ILB Jasper Brinkley, S Jeremiah Bell, KR Javier Arenas

2014 Outlook: Going 10-6 wasn't enough and Arizona was the best team to miss the playoffs last season. QB Carson Palmer was slightly above average and threw too many interceptions but he was a far better option at quarterback than the Cardinals had had since the Kurt Warner era ended. Rashard Mendenhall retired, which was good because it will stop Bruce Arians from using him more than the much more talented Andre Ellington. Arians refused to incorporate Ellington more into the gameplan, and kept giving the ball to Mendenhall who barely averaged above 3 yards a carry. Mendenhall's exit should also allow the Cardinals to get a better look at second year back Stepfan Taylor. Palmer's presence was show in the reemergence of Larry Fitzgerald as a top flight wide receiver. Fitzgerald's receiving yards were down but he had 10 touchdowns and 82 catches. Michael Floyd began to emerge as a star last year, which isn't surprising to me as someone who watched him plenty in college. The Cardinals added another former Fighting Irish, Troy Niklas in the draft and he has already earned the starting tight end position. Free agent Jared Veldheer and 2013 first round draft pick Jonathan Cooper figure to improve the offensive line, which is the most important area on the Cardinals since Carson Palmer is a statue in the pocket. Cooper missed the entire 2013 season so this year will make up for his lost rookie season. The Cardinals defense features some exciting pieces but also some players whose best days seem behind them. Darnell Dockett basically showed up for one game last season, recording 3 sacks, but only finished with 4 1/2 on the season. The Cardinals also have question marks at linebacker. John Abraham could face a suspension for a DUI, and they already lost Daryl Washington for the season due to a drug suspension. Larry Foote is getting up there in age and may not have much left in the tank. Where the Cardinals are very strong is in their secondary. They just re-upped Patrick Petersen to a big, long term contract, and added Antonio Cromartie via free agency. Tryann Mathieu looks like he was a steal after a strong rookie campaign at safety. Those three should provide plenty of help for rookie safety Deone Buccanon. Jay Feely and Dave Zastudil make for a pretty decent combo on special teams. Ted Ginn was also signed and should bolster the Cardinals return game. In any other division the Cardinals might be a playoff team, but to me, they are the fourth best team in a loaded division. I would be shocked if Palmer gets through the entire season unscathed and if he doesn't that would mean turning to Drew Stanton. I expect a slight regression from last season and another playoff season of sitting home for Arizona.

Prediction: 7-9

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