The Seattle Seahawks hype train rolling full steam ahead. Because of that, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the idea that this team was dominant all year in 2012. The 49ers was everyone’s pick to run away with the NFC West, especially when the Seahawks were only 6-5 heading into week 13. It’s also arguable that it should have been 5-6 with one of those wins belonging to the Packers. Either way, the Seahawks rolled off 5 straight wins to end the season to establish the reputation they would take into the playoffs, and carry into this season.
Most teams that go 11-5 often don’t make a lot of changes to the roster but the Seahawks play by their own rules. The departed: QB Matt Flynn, OT Frank Omiyale, DT Alan Branch, DT Jason Jones, LB Leroy Hill, and RB/KR Leon Washington. How did the Seahawks fair in replacing those guys? Pretty well: WR Percy Harvin, DE Cliff Avril, DE Michael Bennett, and DT Tony McDaniel. They also had one of the better CBs in 2012, Antoine Winfield, on the roster before cutting him. This roster is so loaded that the Seahawks could afford to cut Pro Football Focus’ number one graded cornerback in 2012. Yawn.
Front seven and pass rush. The defense is loaded up front. Even with Bruce Irvin’s suspension, the Seahawks are not hurting at all. KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner are both great linebackers who are physical versus the run and are very good in coverage. The secondary is lengthy and deep, lead by CB Richard Sherman and FS Earl Thomas. The Seahawks appear to have their franchise quarterback in Russell Wilson, who is probably in the film room as you read this. The RB stable is loaded with Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin, and rookie Christine Michael – all three could be considered upper level starters at the position. Then there’s FB Derrick Coleman and Spencer Ware who the team deemed good enough to hold onto and release veteran and team favorite Michael Robinson. The receiving unit also impressed this preseason showing a good ability to get off the line and get separation against pretty much everyone. There isn’t really a burner in the group but they’re all good route runners.
There are really only two areas that can be considered weaknesses for the Seahawks: offensive line and tight end. LT Russell Okung and C Max Unger are two of the better offensive linemen in the league but RT Breno Giacomini, G JR Sweezy, and G Paul McQuistan leave something to be desired. Zach Miller and Luke Willson are decent enough players but they’re not the type of tight ends that defenses will spend extra time game planning for. The Seahawks would benefit from a legitimate “move TE” that could stretch defenses as both Miller and Willson get a lot of their value in their blocking skills.
Name To Know
Walter Thurmond – Thurmond is the cornerback that essentially made Antoine Winfield expendable. Winfield would have been the 3rd CB and in on nickel packages, but a healthy Thurmond balled out in the preseason and found himself in the nickelback role.
The Seahawks are the best and most complete team in the NFL. An edge in the receiving corps and a better secondary puts them slightly ahead of the 49ers. It will be fun to watch these two teams go at it and I expect the home team to win each matchup. Beyond that, I think the Seahawks storm through a fairly easy schedule outside of their NFC West opponents. This is a 12 or 13 win team and eventual Super Bowl champions.
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco was my pick to win the Super Bowl last year and I still believe that they were the better all around team. The roster is loaded throughout and the coaching staff is just as good. This is going to be another good year for the defending NFC West champs.
The 49ers traded away QB Alex Smith and allowed some major pieces to leave through free agency. TE Delanie Walker, DT Isaac Sopoaga, LB Larry Grant, K David Akers, and KR Ted Ginn were all important pieces for an 11-4-1 team that won the NFC. The most important departure was All-Pro S Dashon Goldson. He was probably the best player in a secondary that proved to be the weakest link on a stacked defense. The 49ers reloaded by trading for WR Anquan Boldin and QB Colt McCoy. They signed G Adam Snyder, DT Glenn Dorsey, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, S Craig Dahl, and K Phil Dawson. They drafted S Eric Reid in the 1st round to replace Goldson and added DE Tank Carradine, TE Vance McDonald, LB Corey Lemonier, and WR Quinton Patton who all could contribute this season. There’s also RB Marcus Lattimore who won’t see the field until 2014. One final trade swapped 1st round disappointment WR AJ Jenkins for WR Jon Baldwin who offers upside due to his size but has problems getting separation.
This is another loaded team with a great coaching staff. General Manager Trent Baalke is doing it better than anyone in the league right now. His draft picks can’t even see the field because the team he’s built is good enough they don’t need to. And he’s still stockpiling future draft picks – 13 in total for 2014. With Harbaugh, Kaepernick, and Baalke leading the way, this team is going to be good for a very long time.
The 49ers’ offensive line is the best in the NFL. It’s laced with maulers who pass protect well: LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Jonathan Goodwin, RG Alex Boone, and RT Anthony Davis. There’s some serious depth with Joe Looney and Daniel Kilgore coming off the bench. Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, and LaMichael James provides a great mix of RBs who can hurt defenses with different skills. DE Justin Smith is one of the best in the league and opens up a ton of opportunities for what’s probably the best 3-4 starting linebackers in the league: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, and Ahmad Brooks.
The two areas where San Francisco would probably like to improve is at wide receiver and in the secondary. After number one WR Michael Crabtree tore his ACL, the 49ers were face with some questions at the position. The addition of Anquan Boldin was big but it leaves Kyle Williams as the other starter. Youngsters Quinton Patton and Marlon Moore will need to step up and if Jon Baldwin finds his NFL groove, this could become a position of strength. Having Vernon Davis at TE will help take some pressure off the receivers, too. In the secondary, Carlos Rogers and Tarrell Brown are very good corners and fit the SF quarters-heavy scheme well. Nnamdi Asomugha is the nickel corner and teams will look to test him to see if he’s still got it. At safety, Eric Reid is a rookie and Donte Whitner is a hitter but needs to be better in coverage.
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DT/DE Glenn Dorsey – Dorsey came over after not living up to his draft status in Kansas City. With a new staff coaching him, Dorsey could end up finding his place and could become dominant next to or across from Justin Smith.
The division is going to be a battle between Seattle and San Francisco all year with a chance that St. Louis interjects them into the situation. The 49ers are every bit as good as the Seahawks and could take the division. This is a 12-13 win team in itself, but a slightly tougher schedule than Seattle might cause them to drop an additional game.
St. Louis Rams
Jeff Fisher picked the wrong time to jump in and start coaching in the NFC West. What used to be a punching bag division that teams looked forward to piling up stats against, has all of a sudden become the best in the NFL. St. Louis is the younger brother that’s gotten left behind but is quietly plotting his revenge. This is a team that went 4-1-1 inside the toughest division in football last year but somehow went 1-3 against the AFC East last season, and barely beat Buffalo, 15-12. Any given Sunday.
With Sam Bradford leading the way, there’s a little uncertainty about the offense. Adding some playmakers by drafting Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey, and adding TE Jared Cook should really help Bradford in the passing game. The Rams also signed LT Jake Long who will be a major upgrade and anchor the left side of that offensive line. The Rams let go of RB Steven Jackson, WR Danny Amendola, WR Brandon Gibson, TE Matthew Mulligan, CB Bradley Fletcher, S Quentin Mikell, and S Craig Dahl. The Rams seem to love rookie LB Alec Ogletree’s athleticism but there are some concerns about his instincts in the run game. S TJ McDonald and C/G Barrett Jones were two really good additions via the draft that should see significant playing time.
Playmakers are something that the Rams haven’t seen in abundance since “The Greatest Show on Turf” but they are certainly there now. The Rams have a lot of good versatility and talent in the receiving unit with Chris Givens, Tavon Austin, Austin Pettis, Brian Quick, and Bailey. The running backs appear in good order with Daryl Richardson leading the way and Isaiah Pead and Zac Stacy as the backups. The real strength of this entire team is its front four. Defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn might prove to be the best duo at the position by season’s end. DT Michael Brockers is a rising star and Kendall Langford is no slouch by any means. Courtland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins are two very good starting corners but it will be interesting to see how the youth behind them holds up in sub packages.
The safety position has some concerns attached to it. TJ McDonald appears to be a good player but he’s a rookie and he has Darian Stewart lining up next to him who went undrafted in 2010. Behind them there isn’t anyone who sticks out as a viable replacement. The offensive line is much improved but still could use some extra depth.
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Chris Givens and Zac Stacy – Most of the focus this offseason has been on the addition of WR Tavon Austin as an explosive guy who will be used all over the formation. Chris Givens is a very good deep threat and overall WR. He’ll open up space for Austin to work and when defenses focus too much on Austin, he’ll reap the rewards on the outside. Zac Stacy is buried on the depth chart but is a very good RB who offers a change of pace to Richardson and Pead. If either goes down, he’s an interesting guy to keep an eye on.
The Rams suffer from being in the wrong division. They’d have the potential to win any other division but having the two brutes in front of them makes it hard to give them any optimism. Jeff Fisher has to figure out what they did wrong outside of the division and correct it. Those are the games that St. Louis needs to win because I don’t see them going 4-1-1 in the division again. 4-2 isn’t out of the question, but I’d expect them to be vying for 1st in the division if that happens. The defense is built to beat teams up and Laurinitais is a tackling machine in the middle. With Brian Schottenheimer leading the offense, there have been questions about his ability to be creative in using Austin. Austin’s special packages need to be woven into the offense, not just tacked on as a side piece to the original structure. The Rams however could benefit from what shakes out as a very favorable schedule. They match up well versus the NFC South and get to play the AFC South, a division they could win all four games against. It’s nearly impossible for three teams in the same division to win ten games, but the Rams should approach that number. 9-7 and just missing the playoffs.
Bruce Arians will get a rude welcome to his new head coaching position. He picked the toughest division in football to compete in and he did it with a team that had serious problems at QB and on the offensive line last season.
This is another 5-11 team that made wholesale roster changes. The Cards added QB Carson Palmer, QB Drew Stanton, RB Rashard Mendenhall, G Chil Rachal, DE Frostee Rucker, LB Karlos Dansby, LB Jasper Brinkley, CB Antoine Cason, CB Javier Arenas, CB Jerraud Powers, and S Yeremiah Bell. The entire QB staff departed, along with RB Chris (Beanie) Wells, RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, WR Early Doucet, G Adam Snyder, LB Paris Lenon, LB Stewart Bradley, CB Greg Toler, CB William Gay, S Adrian Wilson, S Kerry Rhodes, and S James Sanders. For a defense that looked very good for most of the year, that’s a lot of turnover. In the draft, Arizona got a very good G in Jonathan Cooper, LB Kevin Minter, S Tyrann Mathieu, and DE/OLB Alex Okafor. They also stole two very good RBs late in Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington.
The biggest departure from this team is that Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton decided to move on after not getting the head coaching position. Horton was the architect and play caller for a defense that relied heavily on scheme and variation to create pressure and mix coverages. With all the personnel lost, this defense looks to be significantly worse than it was last year. On offense, Larry Fitgerald and the entire team will benefit from having a capable QB in Carson Palmer at the helm.
The defense still has Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett up front leading the way. These guys were the lynchpin to the defense that Horton based all of his scheming off of. The Cardinals still have a very good cornerback unit with Patrick Peterson, Jerraud Powers, and Javier Arenas. On offense, the receiving unit is better than most might realize. Behind Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts are both said to have improved and loving having a new QB throwing them the ball.
The offensive line is pretty much the same as it was last year, but the story is that the Cardinals front office believes in the line after it improved vastly over the 2nd half of the season. The safety duo of Yeremiah Bell and Rashad Johnson don’t strike fear in the hearts of offenses. Adding Tyrann Mathieu into the equation gives them a playmaker but has questionable cover skills and lacks a bit in size.
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Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington – These two late-round running backs are probably better than Mendenhall or Ryan Williams who are both listed ahead of them on the depth chart. They compliment each other well and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them end up as the leading duo by seasons end.
The Cardinals are a very average team in a brutal division. Adding Carson Palmer will elevate the offense but the defense probably drops due to a lack of personnel and Ray Horton. Bruce Arians offenses are known for leaving a QB vulnerable at times so Carson will have to be aware of what’s going on with the line in front of him. Against the defensive fronts of SF, SEA, and STL, that spells major trouble. The Cardinals will end up with about 4-5 wins.by