Between the Seahawks’ apparent discord, the 49ers playing Sun Belt level football, and the Rams confusedly looking at the Dodgers’ and Chargers’ “different” logos, the NFC West has enough drama to start its own reality TV show. But let’s not forget that it’s football, not CNN, and focus on the game. With that, here are my NFC West predictions.
Seattle Seahawks: 1st Place
Between a provocative article about their locker room culture, trade rumors about a franchise player, and China food, this has been a pretty eventful offseason for the Seahawks. Overall, the team is better than they were last year. They may not be up to their Super Bowl shape, but they have enough to retain control of the top spot in the NFC West.
The biggest headlines this season revolved around rumors involving Richard Sherman, whom the Seahawks were allegedly open to trading. While it is difficult to believe such rumors surrounding such a crucial player to a team, they were still there. It was likely a move to humble the increasingly outspoken Sherman, who was caught yelling at Pete Carroll about offensive play calls last season, and only time will tell if it did its job.
The Seahawks lost two crucial players, Earl Thomas and Tyler Lockett, to broken legs late last season. It seems more likely that Thomas could be back for the start of the season, seeing as he did not require surgery. Lockett’s more gruesome break required an operation and is more likely to keep him out into the 2017 season, but Pete Carroll is, not surprisingly, optimistic about both guys.
“I don’t think there’s any reason not to say that for those two guys,” Carroll said of Thomas and Lockett. “Both of those guys have a really good chance to be there as we kick off the season.”
Division’s Strongest Position: Secondary
Thomas’s return will bring the defense back to full strength. With leading tackler Bobby Wagner and threatening safety Kam Chancellor still in on the defensive side of the ball, the Seahawks are as intimidating as ever. Newly and hopefully humbled Richard Sherman will continue to play lockdown corner, and the Legion of Boom will continue its dominance in the NFC West.
Weakest Position: Offensive line
With a former college basketball player at left tackle, the offensive line continues to be a major question mark for Seattle. Fortunately, Russell Wilson’s ability to extend plays with his legs has been able to bail out a porous O-Line, but with several leg injuries last season, it’ll be interesting to see how mobile Wilson is under pressure.
The addition of Eddie Lacy to the backfield brings a veteran stability not seen since Marshawn Lynch’s departure. Running backs C.J. Prosise and Thomas Rawls split time last year with Christine Michael, who is no longer with the team, and no clear starter ever truly emerged. Lacy’s weight struggles have been well documented and were well addressed in his contract, but if he can keep himself in shape, the Seahawks’ running game will be back to form.
After their additions this offseason, and pending the healthy return of some key pieces, the Seahawks look primed to take the NFC West, again.
Los Angeles Rams: 2nd Place
Not gonna lie, it’s still pretty cool to say “Los Angeles Rams” and pretend like I live in the 80s and social media isn’t running the world. Also, that Reebok Pumps are socially acceptable, even admirable. The Rams may be the division’s best chance to dethrone the Seahawks in the NFC West. It’s a long shot, and the major question mark lies at the quarterback position, but with the addition of some strong pieces, the Rams may surprise some people this year.
While the youth on the offensive side of the ball can cause some to doubt, the upgrades on the defensive side of the ball are promising. First off, the addition of veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is a major upgrade, and his presence and know-how will be key to improving the Rams defense, which ranked ninth in the league last year for opponent yards allowed, and tenth in opponent rushing yards per attempt. Phillips will be vitally important in Sean McVay’s development as an NFL coach, and the development of what really feels like a new franchise.
Division’s Strongest Position: Linebacker Corps
Much of the run-stopping ability came from linebacker Alec Ogletree, who was in the top ten for tackles in 2016. He’s joined by new acquisition Connor Barwin. Mark Barron, originally a safety, contributed 116 tackles of his own at the weakside linebacker spot. The big question mark is in the secondary, which hasn’t seen much improvement, if any, at the corner spot.
Weakest Position: Tight End
The tight end position is a big “we’ll see” point of the Rams’ offense going into 2017. With Tyler Higbee likely to see an increase in usage under Sean McVay, things could go either very well or very poorly for the Rams’ passing attack. It seems most successful quarterbacks need a decent tight end to get things done, and we simply don’t know if Higbee or newly drafted Gerald Everett fits that bill for a very young quarterback.
The Jared Goff experiment went just as well as anyone could expect last year, and Case Keenum ended up as the primary starter. Keenum is now gone, and the job is Goff’s to lose. Chances are, he will lose it, so we can get some looks at Sean Mannion as well.
Fantasy owners were wildly disappointed at Todd Gurley’s sophomore slump. This third year will be a real test and could set the tone for the rest of Gurley’s career. He had the phenomenal rookie year, he struggled in his second year, the way he learns and rebounds or falls again will determine a lot of how this offense functions and how his career goes.
All in all, the only direction the Rams can go is up. Their young guys are getting older, they have veterans on defense, and this could be a great year for football in Los Angeles.
Arizona Cardinals: 3rd Place
Even with a strong candidate for next year’s #1 overall fantasy football draft pick in the backfield and a secondary that always manages to contend, the Cardinals aren’t likely to contend the way they have in recent years
The Cardinals secondary has been among the strongest in the league for the past few seasons, ranking in the top five in the league for turnovers forced and opponents passing yards. Much of that depends on whether or not safety Tyrann Mathieu has been healthy, but they always manage to disrupt at an elite level. ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss presented the possibility of the Cardinals signing a veteran to fill in behind Peterson should Bethel or Williams fail to prove themselves.
Division’s Strongest Position: Running Back
The offensive attack is led by running back David Johnson, who broke out and ended up seventh in the league in rushing yards and second in rushing touchdowns last year. The passing game is in deep trouble with a 37-year-old Carson Palmer at the helm, and Larry Fitzgerald, last year’s leading receiver for the team, rolling into his age-34 season. Fitzgerald did manage a 1,000-year season last year, but the age of the passing attack and lack of depth at receiver will place much of the weight on David Johnson.
This is both good and bad news for fantasy owners; Johnson will get plenty of touches and put up great numbers, but just like Melvin Gordon in 2016, it can only last so long. Johnson is clearly the better running back of the two, but the spike in touches Johnson is likely to see means he may see the injured reserve for a good part of next season.
Weakest Position: Cornerback
There are several concerns on the defensive side of the ball for the Cardinals; first, their depth at cornerback. Patrick Peterson is the clear choice to lead the depth chart, but apart from that things are still up in the air. The main options for backups lie in Justin Bethel and Brandon Williams, two inexperienced players who will have limited time to prove themselves.
Regardless of the lack of depth and age of key positions, the Cardinals will field a strong pass defense and, hey, Drew Stanton has some experience already. Unfortunately, this likely won’t be enough to dethrone the Seahawks.
San Francisco 49ers: 4th Place
Look away while you still can. The 49ers are one of those teams that really need to be in rebuild mode but hasn’t fully accepted it. As a result, we have a rousing quarterback battle between rookie C.J. Beathard, Matt Barkley, and Brian Hoyer. The defense is young and actually not completely horrible looking, but don’t expect this team to do anything but make 49er fans cuddle up to their Joe Montana jerseys and think of the good ol’ days (trust me, I’m a Mariners fan, I know how it goes).
Division’s Strongest Position: None
The 49ers used the draft to build up their defense and didn’t do a horrible job at it. They used their first round picks to bring in Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster to bolster up the interior run defense. Foster’s maturity and personality are likely under question after his actions at the combine, but his tackling ability and strength are undeniable.
Weakest Position: Take your pick
There really isn’t much more to say about this team, especially when their leading receiver last year, Jeremy Kerley, went for less than 700 yards. They’ll be contending with the Jets for the first overall pick next year.