Once the best division in football, the NFC West could still make some noise in 2017.
The Sports Quotient’s annual Divisional Preview series is here. Over the next week, we’ll look at every NFL division and break down each team’s season-long prospects. Today, we’ll dive into the NFC West and determine how the year will play out in a division that has taken a step back in recent seasons.
The Seahawks, consistently one of the better teams in the NFL, captured the NFC West title in 2016 for the third time in the past four years, finishing the regular season 10-5-1. However, their fifth consecutive playoff appearance ended against the NFC Champion Falcons in the Divisional round. As consistent as they come, Russell Wilson fought injuries all year long to turn in another spectacular campaign, as did the always-dominant Legion of Boom. However, the team’s on-field success was somewhat clouded by rumors of off-field issues, headlined by the polarizing Richard Sherman.
As controversial as he may be, the aforementioned Sherman is the leader of what has long been the Seahawks’ strength: their secondary. Notoriously known as the Legion of Boom, the unit has three regular Pro Bowlers in Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Earl Thomas. In those three, they have an all-world cover corner, an enforcer and vicious hitter, and one of the best all-around safeties in the league.
The RCB position is a bit of a question mark with DeShawn Shead on the PUP list and Jeremy Lane underperforming last season (he was even shopped on the trade market recently), but the team expects big things from third round pick Shaquill Griffin.
As consistently good as Seattle’s secondary has been in recent years, their O-line has been as consistently bad. In fact, the Seahawks offensive line is the worst in the entire NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. The unit has just one above-average graded player, center Justin Britt, who played the position for the first time last season. The other four starters average overall grades of 52.3 (hint: that’s very bad). Seattle has managed to succeed despite its O-line woes, but they’re tempting fate by allowing Wilson to take a beating in the backfield.
The Seattle offense was missing a key dimension last season, as the familiar threat of Beast Mode was no longer wearing navy and green. In his place, Thomas Rawls, Christine Michael, and C.J. Prosise all attempted to grab hold of the starting gig, each with varying degrees of success. There is similar uncertainty surrounding the running back position this year, but if anyone is going to bring the same dynamic Lynch once brought, it’ll be former Packer Eddie Lacy. If Lacy can provide consistent production, the Seahawks’ offense will be all the more dangerous.
As mentioned before, the Legion of Boom is this team’s bread and butter. But with that being said, the trio of Sherman, Thomas, and Chancellor were on the field together for just 186 of the 535 pass attempts against Seattle last season. However, the team still managed to win 10 games. With some better fortune injury-wise, the Seahawks could be even more dangerous this season.
Playoff Status: Automatic
This division ain’t what it used to be, and despite their flaws, the Seahawks are still one of the more talented teams in the NFL. Wilson reportedly looks the best he has in his whole career, and the defense will once again give offensive coordinators nightmares. Expect to see this team playing late in December.
The Cardinals were perhaps the league’s biggest disappointment in 2016, finishing below .500 after winning the division the season before. Carson Palmer’s age began to show, as he failed to replicate his stellar 2015 season. David Johnson continued to prove he’s one of the best running backs in the league, and ageless wonder Larry Fitzgerald was a bright spot as well, but the rest of the promising wide receiver core drastically unperformed. On the defensive side of the ball, injuries to key players such as Tyrann Mathieu hurt what should’ve been one of the league’s better units.
When a team has one of the most dynamic players in recent memory, he’s most likely going to be that team’s biggest strength. Alas, David Johnson gives the Cardinals a matchup nightmare every team must game plan for.
He paced the league in all purpose yards, finishing with 2,118, along with 20 total touchdowns. According to Bruce Arians, Johnson is poised to get even more touches this season. The sky is truly the limit for the young running back, and this team will likely go as far as he can take them.
Unlike the Seahawks, the Cardinals are a team without a clear-cut weakness. They struggled a bit in coverage last season, but Patrick Peterson and Mathieu are two of the best players in the game, so the secondary is hardly a weakness. They entered the offseason with a need at linebacker, but they added Hassan Reddick in the draft.
If there are any issues to pinpoint, it would have to be quarterback depth. Carson Palmer has hardly been the pinnacle of health in his career, and he’s entering his age-37 season. Since this figures to be his last go-round, many expected the team to add a quarterback in the draft. But they stood pat, content with a duo of uninspiring backups in Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton. Should Palmer miss time, or further succumb to Father Time, the Cardinals’ season could be sunk.
Not to be too repetitive, but the Cardinals playoff chances rest heavily on Carson Palmer’s shoulders. David Johnson can take over and win a few games on his own, but it’s extremely difficult to make the postseason without a competent QB under center.
A good season from Palmer should have the Cardinals in the playoffs. A season like he had in 2015, and they could challenge the Seahawks for the division crown.
If you weren’t already aware, David Johnson is pretty dang good. Aside from Week 17, in which he only had five carries, the young running back had over 100 yards from scrimmage in every single game last season. Opposing teams can’t contain him; they can only hope to limit the extent of his damage. His consistency is also ideal in fantasy; envy whoever drafted Johnson in your league.
Playoff Status: On the bubble
Coming off a disappointing season, the Cardinals are predicted by many to make a return to the postseason. With Palmer and Fitzgerald firmly in the twilight of their careers, their championship window is closing fast. The Redbirds could have one more Super Bowl run in them, but they are by no means a lock for playoff football.
Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams, in their first season away from St. Louis, entered the 2016 season with optimistic expectations. Their defense was full of playmakers, they had a blossoming star in running back Todd Gurley, and they traded up in the draft to select their franchise quarterback Jared Goff. Needless to say, the team disappointed, finishing just 4-12. The defense was as good as advertised, but the offense was borderline anemic. Todd Gurley, who averaged a measly 3.2 YPC, went as far as to say the offense looked “middle school”. Jared Goff didn’t start until Week 11, and he did little to inspire confidence in his first taste of action.
As mentioned above, the Rams defense didn’t disappoint last season, particularly their front seven. According to PFF, they have the fourth best defensive front in the league. That is, as long as everyone is playing. Aaron Donald remains a holdout due to contract disputes, and it looks likely he’ll miss the beginning of the regular season. Without him on the field, this team’s strength could become nothing more than average.
The Rams did a lot to address their offensive concerns this offseason, adding Andrew Whitworth to a suspect O-line and adding Sammy Watkins to a thin receiver corp. With that being said, this team’s biggest weakness remains their offensive uncertainty. Will Jared Goff breakout in his sophomore campaign? Will Todd Gurley regain his rookie year form? Can Watkins stay on the field for 16 games? All those questions make it difficult to have a lot of faith in the Rams’ offense.
As talented as he is unreliable, Sammy Watkins wore out his welcome in Buffalo, as he was shipped to Los Angeles in a stunning preseason trade. He now joins former Bills teammate Robert Woods in the new-look Rams receiving core that also features rookie Cooper Kupp.
Watkins has the ability to be a true number one receiver; he just needs to stay on the field. A full season from the Clemson product could work wonders for the Rams offense; Goff could break out with a consistent go-to weapon, and running lanes would be opened up for Gurley. However, if Watkins once again struggles to make a consistent impact, the offense could face many of the same issues it did last season.
Despite a career low in sacks, Aaron Donald graded out as the best defender in football during the 2016 season. His PFF grade of 95.6 trailed only that of Tom Brady’s, showing just how important the defensive tackle is. Rams, get your act together and pay this man.
Playoff Status: Cellar Dweller
It wouldn’t be a complete shock if the Rams broke out ahead of schedule and made a push for the playoffs. But as previously mentioned, there are just way too many question marks to feel good about their chances. If they want even a remote chance of meaningful games in December, they need to get the Aaron Donald situation resolved quickly.
San Francisco 49ers
The 2016 season went about as expected for the 49ers— poorly. Seen as a rebuilding season, San Francisco was more often than not in the headlines for their controversial quarterback than their play on the field. The team finished the season 2-14, the second worst record in football, and they were the only team to lose to the lowly Browns. There weren’t really any positive takeaways from the season; not a single 49er was selected to the Pro Bowl. However, the offseason brought about a great deal of change, including the introduction of John Lynch as GM and Kyle Shanahan as head coach.
As mentioned above, there weren’t a lot of bright spots for this team in 2016. With that being said, San Francisco has improved dramatically this offseason. Their biggest strength at this point has to be their new personnel, who have orchestrated a culture shift for the organization.
In his first year as GM, John Lynch pulled off a widely acclaimed draft, adding Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster to a young and improving defense. He made quite a few offseason splashes as well, and while some signings were unorthodox, the team as a whole looks much better on paper heading into the season. Perhaps the most important offseason addition was Kyle Shanahan, a proven offensive guru who should vastly improve the league’s 26th ranked attack.
Again, if we’re going based off of 2016 here, the answer here is everything. While the team improved in the offseason, there are still a variety of weaknesses. The most glaring one is perhaps the team’s offensive line. PFF’s 27th ranked unit, the 49ers O-line was disastrous in 2016. Free agent addition Jeremy Zuttah should help, and Joe Staley is as consistent as they come, but this line could make things difficult for Brian Hoyer and Carlos Hyde.
Since Frank Gore left in 2015, Carlos Hyde has been given every opportunity to seize the bell cow role for the 49ers. Unfortunately for him and San Francisco alike, he has been unable to stay on the field. With a below average starter at quarterback, this team will need consistent production at the running back position if they’re going to stay competitive.
Hyde will once again be given a chance to prove he’s their guy, and if he doesn’t succeed, the team could be in trouble. They only have undrafted rookie Matt Breida and injured Joe Williams as alternative options.
This may surprise quite a few people, but last season the 49ers were actually second in the league in red zone efficiency last season. They scored a touchdown on over 68% of red zone opportunities, a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable season. Look for the offense to improve with Kyle Shanahan at the helm.
Playoff Status: Cellar Dweller
This team is undoubtedly improving, but they are still a couple years away from competing. They know that as well, signing only stopgap options at quarterback. They’re going about rebuilding the right way, but it’ll still be a long season in San Francisco.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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