2014 NFL Season Preview: NFC West

Seattle Seahawks 

Additions: DT Kevin Williams, CB A.J. Jefferson, CB Philip Adams.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.   Player                     College
2          45         WR      Paul Richardson         Colorado
2          64         OT        Justin Britt                   Missouri
4          108       DE       Cassius Marsh              UCLA
4          123       WR      Kevin Norwood           Alabama
4          132       LB        Kevin Pierre-Louis     Boston College
5          172        DT        Jimmy Staten               Middle Tennessee
6          199       OT        Garrett Scott                 Marshall
6          208       SS        Eric Pinkins                    San Diego State
7          227        RB        Kiero Small                   Arkansas

Losses: WR Golden Tate, OT Breno Giacomini, DE Red Bryant, DE Chris Clemons, DT Clinton McDonald, CB Brandon Browner, CB Walter Thurmond.

Analysis:

Simply put, the Seattle Seahawks were the best team in the league in 2014 and it was available to see before the season. They’re just as good this season, if not better. They’re still one of the deepest (if not the deepest) teams in the league even after other teams pillaged their roster to try to get a piece of the action.

Russell Wilson is a legitimate franchise quarterback. The Seahawks rely on the run game and their defense to carry them but aren’t afraid to let Wilson light it up if that is what they need to do. He could improve in his ability to get rid of the ball faster but he has enough pocket tolerance, presence, and athleticism to hang on to the rock a beat longer than most QBs and still be able to escape trouble.

Golden Tate left and yet the wide receivers still should be better. Doug Baldwin is a magician at getting off the LOS clean and quick and Percy Harvin is an athletic marvel when healthy. Jermaine Kearse is one of my favorite players in all of the NFL. There isn’t a better run blocking wide receiver in the NFL (and hasn’t been since Hines Ward) but Kearse is also an explosive vertical threat – averaged 16.6 yards per catch last season.

There’s an embarassment of riches at the running back spot in Seattle. Marshawn Lynch is at the age where the Seahawks should be planning to lighten his load but they appear to be ready to run him into the ground and then give the ball to Robert Turbin or Christine Michael when Lynch is more “Least Mode” than Beast Mode.

The offensive line is the weakest unit of the entire team. This is no different than last season and they’re no better and no worse than they were last year. James Carpenter needs to lookout for his job. Alvin Bailey is a versatile player who looked terrific in the preseason. He may force the Seahawks to find a spot for him along the line somewhere because his presence uplifts the entire group if he plays like he did in the preseason.

On defense, Seattle will continue to get pressure by mixing and matching along the defensive front with Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril burning up tackles and Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel holding pat on the inside. Look for Brandon Schofield to get playing time as he was another guy who looked terrific in the preseason.

People swoon over the LB duos of Luke Kuechly/Thomas Davis and Patrick Willis/Navarro Bowman, but Seattle’s LB corps is arguably the best in the league. Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, and Malcom Smith are all studs in their own right. Bruce Irvin is a damn good player and is more of a rotational player in this defense because of how good the other LBs are. This unit gets overshadowed by the dominance of the defensive line and the bravado of the secondary, but they’re as good as either.

Richard Sherman and company proved that they can play within the new enforcement of old rules this preseason. The starting unit wasn’t flagged for defensive holding or illegal contact a single time. Early Thomas is still – bar none – the best safety in the league and the most important cog of this defense. His presence allows the defense to scheme the way that it does. Outside of Peyton Manning, he may be the most valuable player in the league. Kam Chancellor is a multi-utility tool that can bring the hammer on receivers or can align in man coverage over a slot receiver and be more attached to him than his shadow. Byron Maxwell, Jeremy Lane, and Tharold Simon round out a group of CBs that is still ridiculously deep.

This Seahawks team is really unfair. The roster is phenomenal and the scheme is so ideally suited for it. It’s the perfect pairing and one of the reasons they’ll find themselves in the Super Bowl again. However, I think their opponent in the Super Bowl might be the one team that can out-scheme them. The Seahawks will have to settle for NFC Champs and fall just short of a repeat.

San Francisco 49ers

Additions: QB Josh Johnson, QB Blaine Gabbert, WR Brandon Lloyd, OT/G Jonathan Martin, CB Chris Cook, S Antone Bethea.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.   Player                   College
1          30         S           Jimmie Ward             Northern Illinois
2          57         RB       Carlos Hyde                Ohio State
3          70         C          Marcus Martin           USC
3          77         LB        Chris Borland             Wisconsin
3          100      G          Brandon Thomas      Clemson
4          106      WR      Bruce Ellington          South Carolina
4          129       CB       Dontae Johnson         North Carolina State
5          150       DE       Aaron Lynch                South Florida
5          170       CB       Keith Reaser                Florida Atlantic
6          180      CB       Kenneth Acker             SMU
7          243      DT       Kaleb Ramsey             Boston College
7          245       FB        Trey Millard                Oklahoma

Losses: QB Colt McCoy, RB Anthony Dixon, WR Mario Manningham, C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Carlos Rogers, CB Tarell Brown, S Donte Whitner.

Analysis:

Colin Kaepernick really needs to stay healthy. No one wants to see Blaine Gabbert at the helm of this offense. That’s like Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade driving a Ferrari but without Charlie telling him when to take the corners.

The 49ers offense has surpassed the defense in terms of talent. The offensive line is still one of the best in the league. The left side is rock solid with Joe Staley acting as a stonewall and Mike Iupati hulk-smashing opponents in the run game. Alex Boone ended his holdout so he’ll be back at guard which is good news for the 49ers. Daniel Kilgore is an above average center but playing with so much talent on the line really helps him flourish. RT Anthony Davis really improved his pass blocking last season and that’s a huge help for Kaepernick who still is a bit slow in his reads and needs the extra time. Joe Looney is the “swing” backup on the OL in the sense that if one of the tackles goes down, he’ll pop in at guard and one of the guards will likely kick out to tackle. It seems unlikely that Jonathan Martin will see a lot of playing time unless significant injuries strike the line.

The backfield is loaded now with Frank Gore who seems to be an ageless wonder. The hope was that Marcus Lattimore would come back healthy and be Gore’s replacement but that ship probably sailed with the addition of Carlos Hyde who is the exact type of back the 49ers want and will fit perfectly in this offense.

The wide receiving crew is a perfect fit for Kaepernick. Kap still has issues getting through reads (though he’s getting better) and often likes to throw to his first read. He really struggled passing when teams were able to identify his first read and take it away immediately after the snap forcing him to get to his 2nd and 3rd options. With Kaepernick, his 3rd best option is usually taking off and running. With the addition of Stevie Johnson, the 49ers now have 3 guys who get off the line of scrimmage well (Crabtree and Boldin being the other 2) and get separation quickly. This gives Kaepernick multiple options on each play if he can make the correct presnap reads. This should really help him complete more of his passes and get rid of the ball quicker if he finds it within himself to pull the trigger on those throws. Vernon Davis provides a great vertical threat to eliminate any team that wants to try to cheat up and crowd the line of scrimmage against these receivers.

The defense is expected to take a step back with all of the bad news circulating it. Navarro Bowman begins the year on the PUP list, while Aldon Smith (definitely) and Ray McDonald (likely) suspensions, will keep them out for significant amounts of time. As long as Justin Smith is healthy, the defense will still impose it’s will on offenses.

Top end talent at CB has been an ongoing issue for the 49ers. Part of that is due to a lessened emphasis on the position considering they play a lot of quarters coverage. If the 49ers continue to lose players on defense, the small but important flaws in this secondary will begin to crack and turn into full blown blemishes. Let’s just hope that Antoine Bethea stays healthy because Greg Dahl starting is something no one wants to see.

The 49ers have a lot going on off the field. It’ll be important that Jim Harbaugh keeps his troops focused. It’s a veteran group of players so the impact of the commotion is minimized but it still has ripple effects. It’ll be interesting to see if the 49ers can keep their composure and fight for the NFC West while missing some key pieces. I want to say they’re destined for 2nd place but the division is so good and the schedule is so tough, it’s possible that the Cardinals can hang with them.

St. Louis Rams

Additions: QB Shaun Hill, WR Kenny Britt, G Davin Joseph, DE/DT Alex Carrington.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.   Player                      College
1          2            OT       Greg Robinson              Auburn
1          13          DT       Aaron Donald                Pittsburgh
2          41          S          Lamarcus Joyner         Florida State
3          75          RB       Tre Mason                      Auburn
4          110        S          Maurice Alexander     Utah State
6          188       CB       E. J. Gaines                     Missouri
6          214       QB       Garrett Gilbert              SMU
7          226       OT       Mitchell Van Dyk         Portland State
7          241        FS        C. B. Bryant                   Ohio State
7          249       DE       Michael Sam                  Missouri
7          250       C          Demetrius Rhaney      Tennessee State 

Losses: QB Kellen Clemens, TE Mike McNeill, G Harvey Dahl, G Shelley Smith, G Chris Williams, CB Cortland Finnegan, S Darian Stewart.

Analysis:

It’s unfortunate that Sam Bradford went down in the preseason with a season ending injury. He looked like a competent QB in the preseason and the offense showed some promise. Instead, it’s the Shaun Hill show. Hill is a capable QB but not really a guy that a team wants to rely on to start 16 games.

The fact that Greg Robinson isn’t starting in week one is troubling. There were concerns about his ability to pass block early on in his career and those concerns have manifested themselves into reality. He’ll eventually win the job, he’s just too talented not to. The offensive line is better as a whole and if Robinson develops his pass blocking, the line could be really good.

That’s good news for Zac Stacy who looks to continue his strong finish to 2013. Stacy wasn’t exactly efficient as a ball carrier (3.9 yards per attempt), but he was a punchy battering ram between the tackles who has enough juice to break off longer runs. They don’t need him to to be a homerun hitter – that’s where Tavon Austin factors in. Benny Cunningham played well and tossed himself into the mix at running back, and even though he’s a smart runner he lacks the athleticism and zip that Stacy has for a larger back. Lookout for 3rd round draft pick Tre Mason. He could end up being the homerun threat that the Rams will be looking for out of the backfield. He was my highest graded back out of the 2013 draft and is a good size/speed/agility/vision/explosiveness mix. He’s the total package and really probably the most talented back in this group. Side note: I really liked Zac Stacy last preseason. I like Tre Mason more this year.

There is a lot of athleticism and explosiveness at the WR position. Kenny Britt is the one guy with size. Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey have the potential to break a big one on any play. Chris Givens is a big deep threat and Jared Cook still remains a weapon from the tight end spot. Now if only they had a QB who could get them the ball in an effective manner.

The defense relies on its pass rush to make everything work. Without it everything else falls apart. Chris Long and Robert Quinn are 2 of the most lethal pass rushers in the league. Michael Brockers creates great interior pressure and the addition of Aaron Donald is going to make this one badass (technical term, I know, but it’s apt) defensive line. The linebacking corps was disappointing as a whole last season and that is what keeps me from selecting the Rams as my “defense carries offense to terrific season” candidate this year.

Janoris Jenkins looked like a terrific young CB last season though he was a bit aggressive. If he continues to develop and stay out of trouble, he’s going to be fun to watch. The Rams are extremely high on rookie 6th round draft pick, CB EJ Gaines. He played well in preseason but it will be interesting to see how he stacks up when the games count. There is basically no depth here with undrafted free agent Marcus Roberson and Brandon McGee as the backup CBs. Same goes for the safety position but without the same level of talent at starter.

The Rams have some good pieces but they’re not all in sync yet. There’s a serious lack of depth in the back 7 and some questionable talent at some of the starting positions. Without Bradford, it’s easy to have serious concerns about where this team finishes since they reside in one of the most stacked divisions in the league.

Arizona Cardinals

Additions: RB Jonathan Dwyer, WR/KR Ted Ginn, TE John Carlson, OT Jared Veldheer, C Ted Larsen, CB Antonio Cromartie.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.   Player                     College
1          27          S           Deone Bucannon        Washington State
2          52         TE        Troy Niklas                   Notre Dame
3          84         DE       Kareem Martin            North Carolina
3          91         WR       John Brown                 Pittsburg State (KS)
4          120       QB        Logan Thomas            Virginia Tech
5          160       DE        Ed Stinson                    Alabama
6          196       WR       Walt Powell                 Murray State

Losses: RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Andre Roberts, OT Eric Winston, G Daryn Colledge, ILB Karlos Dansby, ILB Jasper Brinkley, CB Antone Cason, S Yeremiah Bell, KR Javier Arenas.

Analysis:

Admittedly, the Cardinals are probably one of the teams that I feel the most uncomfortable projecting in 2014. They were much better than I expected in 2013 and the roster is a little muddled after a suspension to Daryl Washington and an injury to Darnell Dockett. Those are both massively impactful to a defense that relied heavily on turnovers last season.

John Abraham was one of the biggest pickups before last season and was an incredible pass rushing presence for the Cards last year. They’ll need him to continue that in 2014 for the defense to continue to shine. He and Calais Campbell were a tough duo to stop. The LB corps looks depleted without Washington to anchor it. I’m perplexed by the addition of Larry Foote. Kevin Minter is a young player who is still growing. It will be interesting to see if Alex Okafor or Desmond Bishop crack the starting lineup early in the season.

The secondary is still superbly talented. The addition of Antonio Cromartie to Patrick Peterson and Justin Bethel makes this a very deep unit. Jerraud Powers is a great 4th option at CB. Tyrann Mathieu was fun to watch as a safety/corner last season as he played all over the place. He’ll need some support from Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson who both played fairly decent last season behind and beside Mathieu. A dip in safety play for the Cardinals spells doom for a defense that needs a safety valve because of how aggressive it is up front.

Carson Palmer makes the offensive line look better than it truly is. His ability to read defenses, call out protections, and make quick decisions keeps him cleaner than he should be behind a mediocre-at-best line. Jared Veldheer was the only significant addition to the offensive line this offseason and that doesn’t really help the rest of the line get better.

The skill positions are still talented but not particularly deep. Hopefully Bruce Arians gives Andre Ellington the workload he deserves and let’s the kid shine. He’s a very good runner with good juice and explosion. With enough touches, he’s going to become a household name. Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd lead the receivers but it’s an odd mix throwing Tedd Ginn in as the 3rd receiver. I’m not sure his skill set fits the grouping. The Cards drafted TE Troy Niklas out of Notre Dame to start for them. The kid has some developing to do in a hurry in the passing game before he’s an impact player for the offense. For now, he’s more of a blocker than a pass catcher.

Arizona is a good team who has been really unfortunate to lose 2 of the largest cogs in their defense. Unfortunately, that’s really going to hurt. I’m usually a big believer in scheme being able to overcome roster deficiencies but the losses of Washington and Dockett are too detrimental.

Overall NFC West Analysis:

Seattle Seahawks (14-2)

Why not repeat what they did last year? Keep Russell Wilson healthy and they can.

San Francisco 49ers (9-7)

Too much going on around the team. They’re still a great team, just not as good as last year at this point. 9-7 is more indicative of a tough schedule than a huge regression.

Arizona Cardinals (6-10)

Tough season for a good team. I would have them lower if for my belief in Arians. And no, this season is not Palmer’s fault.

St. Louis Rams (6-10)

I like the Rams but they’re missing big pieces in key positions. The lack of depth usually means a bad season. Put them in another division and they might compete for the playoffs.

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