2015 NFC West Preview + NFC Playoffs & Super Bowl L

Arizona Cardinals

Expected Wins: 7.96
Scouting Wins: 8.50
DVOA Wins: 6.7
2014 Record: 11-5 (8.3 Pythagorean)

Three things you might not realize about the 2014 Arizona Cardinals:

1. Carson Palmer was on pace to finish with 785 DYAR. That would have been good enough for 11th. He finished eighth in DVOA (8.5%). The Cardinals could have won the Super Bowl with him.
2. Drew Stanton wasn’t nearly as good as his advanced metrics suggest (4.2% DVOA, 238 DYAR). He had eight dropped interceptions in 240 pass attempts.
3. The Cardinals finished the season 22nd in total DVOA (-6.4%).

Carson Palmer is going to turn 36 this season. He’s the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards for three different teams. He’s coming back from an injured knee and last season’s resurgence feels like a last stand. Stanton’s good run was a bit of a mirage. This feels like a team that is going to have look at a rebuild fairly soon.

Even when things were going well the Cardinals had no discernible running game. They ended up with 11 total rushing DYAR. Not good. Andre Ellington was excellent in 2013 (17.5% DVOA, 117 DYAR), but was gutted by injuries last season, (-12.3% DVOA). If he’s healthy, he’ll be able to take some of the pressure off Palmer. Rookie third-round pick David Johnson brings a very nice combination of size and speed. He’ll have to make a large adjustment to the competition level, as he’s coming from Northern Iowa. Coaches have been working with him in pass protection and he’ll likely see some playing time on third down.

Larry Fitzgerald may be the big name, but the Cardinals’ wide receiver of the future is 2014 third-round pick John Brown. He didn’t have a great rookie season (-7.3 +/-, -12.5% DVOA). The coaching staff expects great strides from him this season. Fitzgerald grew tired of all the trade rumors and insisted on a no trade clause when the Cardinals asked to restructure his contract. I can’t imagine it would have been easy to trade him, as he hasn’t put up a positive DVOA since 2011. He’s probably best as a #3WR who can jump over smaller nickel cornerbacks. 2012 first-round pick Michael Floyd seems to have fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. He regressed badly in 2014, seeing his +/- fall from +3.5 to -5.2. His DVOA fell from 12.9% to -1.9%. That’s a bad sign for a player who’s supposed to be getting better. He’s currently sidelined with three dislocated fingers on his left hand. Seeing as hands are very important to wide receivers, this could be a problem for Floyd. The Cardinals’ tight ends depth chart is a tragedy. 2014 second-round pick Troy Niklas caught all three balls sent his way last season. He’s been sidelined by numerous ailments, including a hamstring injury that is currently keeping him off the field. The #2TE, Darren Fells, has five career receptions. He’s a former basketball player who ended up making the practice squad. #3TE Jermaine Graham is sidelined with an injured back. Perhaps rookie seventh-round pick Gerald Christian is going to get to live out a bad movie script.

The one shining spot for the Cardinals’ offense is their offensive line. Right tackle Bobbie Massey is solid and left tackle Jared Veldheer finished seventh in my rankings. The interior should be improved. Free agent pickup Mike Iupati is taking over at left guard. He’s not necessarily the star you remember, but he’s still above-average. That’s a great deal better than what Ted Larson was last season. Larson is being moved over to center, where he can better use technique to make up for a lack of raw strength. However, the biggest improvement should come at right guard if 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper can finally stay healthy. Cooper has only managed to make two starts in two years. He was dominant in the brief time he played last season. Rookie first-round pick D.J. Humphries is a long term option at left tackle, but for now he’ll merely provide depth. Between Cooper and Iupati, this line should be much better than it was last season.

The Cardinals’ front-seven has gone through some changes, but don’t dismiss it out of hand. Frostee Rucker played out of his mind (five sacks, 18 hit+hurries, dominant vs. the run) in 475 snaps last season. He’ll start across from Calais Campbell. Campbell earned his first Pro Bowl selection last season. Corey Peters and Alameda Ta’amu will rotate at nose tackle. My main concern is depth at defensive end. Rookie second-round pick Markus Golden was a bit of a reach and might not be prepared to contribute much as a rookie.

The linebacker corps will look different as well. Sam Acho and Larry Foote are gone, which will mean changes on both the inside and outside. Inside, 2013 first-round pick Kevin Minter will be paired with free agent pickup Sean Witherspoon. Witherspoon has battled injuries, but he has the talent to improve the defense if he’s 100%. Minter has not impressed the coaching staff and may be playing for his job. Outside, Alex Okafor will be paired with a platoon of Matt Shaughnessy and Lorenzo Alexander. Okafor is a difference-maker, having grabbed eight sacks and 25.5 hits+hurries last season. There is not a lot of quality depth here, which is one of the reasons Okafor’s job was safe despite this:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/2015/03/09/arizona-lb-alex-okafor-jailed-after-foot-chase-in-texas/24675065/

Patrick Peterson leads a very deep secondary. He’ll play across from Jerraud Powers. Justin Bethel will also see a great deal of playing time as the Cardinals play a significant amount of nickel and dime. The Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) will start at free safety, where he is a safety/cornerback hybrid. When healthy, he is one of the best safeties in the NFL. Peterson is also great, although not as dominant as his pure talent would lead you to believe. Tony Jefferson seems to have the edge at free safety over Rashad Johnson, but as with Bethel, both will see playing time.

The Cardinals’ special teams are rife with training camp battles. Those include punter (Dave Zastudil vs. Drew Butler), punt returner (Patrick Peterson vs. J.J. Nelson), and kick returner (John Brown vs. J.J. Nelson vs. Nathan Slaughter). Butler is bad and Peterson is valuable, so I’d go with Zastudil and Nelson. As for returning kicks, I’ll trust whoever the Cardinals choose. Chandler Catanzaro was an above-average kicker last season. Overall, the Cardinals’ special teams should be solid.

Head coach Bruce Arians is one of the best in the NFL. He’s very good at getting the best out of his roster, both in terms of developing his players and modifying his strategies when his roster changes. The Cardinals were an actively weak team for most of last season, but he got the most out of them. As such, I’m somewhat hesitant to predict doom despite their questionable front-seven. Palmer is going to be hard-pressed to start this season as well as he started the last. The collapse of the 49ers has softened the schedule somewhat, but it is still pretty brutal. 8-8. (Update: No team has seen it’s expected wins decline this preseason as much as the Cardinals. They dropped from 8.52 to 7.96. That’s an enormous and ominous fall.)

San Francisco 49ers

Expected Wins: 5.94
Scouting Wins: 7.08
DVOA Wins: 6.8
2014 Record: 8-8 (7.0 Pythagorean)

Let’s get this out of the way:

http://deadspin.com/new-49ers-coach-jim-tomsula-mumbles-and-huffs-his-way-t-1680004518

That’s a bad sign, but trust me when I say he’s getting a bad rap. He’s never going to be a smooth TV personality, but that’s not part of his job description. He’s a passionate football coach who has won the respect of his players by helping them succeed. I don’t think people realize just how badly Harbaugh quit on (sabotaged?) the 49ers last season. In their first halves, the 49ers outscored opponents by 47 points. They were a little worse than they were in 2013, but nothing to be concerned about. In second halves they were demolished, outscored by 81 points. Harbaugh is a great football mind, but if his heart wasn’t in it (he wanted out?), then it was reflected in their collective lack of halftime adjustments. It may simply have been variance. I doubt it, though. Jim Tomsula won’t quit, and he won’t outsmart himself. That’s going to count for something. Having a head coach who gives a shit should help Colin Kaepernick

Three years ago, Kaepernick usurped Alex Smith and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl (25.8% DVOA, 555 DYAR in 13 games, seven starts). Two years ago, he was the starter from day one and produced a pretty good follow-up (16.6% DVOA, 791 DYAR, plus an additional 91 DYAR rushing). Last year, he fell off badly (-8.4% DVOA, 91 DYAR). However, that drop was entirely in games’ second halves:

Colin Kaepernick first-half DVOA: 18.7%
Colin Kaepernick second-half DVOA: -37.6%

Yes, I blame Harbaugh for that. Defensive adjustments aren’t necessarily on him, but offensive adjustments were under his jurisdiction during his time in San Francisco. Given a competent coach, we should see the Kaepernick of old this season. That will help a clearly-depleted roster.

Frank Gore has finally left the building. 2014 second-round pick Carlos Hyde is going to have to bear more of the load. Hyde wasn’t in NFL-level condition last season, which may be why he only got 83 carries. Kendall Hunter sounds like he is healthy after missing all of 2014 with an ACL tear. Hunter was a pretty good receiver out of the backfield in 2011, yet had just 11 receptions in 2012 and 2013 combined. He’s going to have to work his way to the top of the depth chart above Reggie Bush. Bush had a combined -1 DYAR last season in Detroit, which may be why he is no longer there. Rookie fourth-round pick Mike Davis was a good value pick. He’s built like a bowling ball, but runs a bit too upright to take full advantage of that. Overall, there is good depth here, so while Gore might be missed, there will be enough talent to collectively pick up the slack.

Anquan Boldin has been very good the past two seasons (608 DYAR over that time). However, he’ll turn 35 in October. He’s in an interesting spot contractually, as the 49ers have club options that neither side thought would come into play:

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/san-francisco-49ers/anquan-boldin/

I’m curious if that becomes an issue should he manage to continue defying traditional aging curves.

Torrey Smith is coming off an excellent season in Baltimore (26.8% DVOA, 310 DYAR). He was the king of drawing DPI flags, leading the NFL with 11. Colin Kaepernick has a Flacco-level arm, so we may see that continue in San Francisco. 2014 fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington did not see much playing time last season. He’s currently listed as the #3WR on the depth chart, so we’ll likely see what he is capable of soon enough. He has the speed and athleticism to work out well in the slot, although at 5-9, he has some limitations. Tight end Vernon Davis is coming off of a very rough year (-28.4% DVOA, -66 DYAR). He was excellent in 2013, though (29.3% DVOA, 199 DYAR), so there is reason to believe it was just an off year. It’s a contract year for Davis, so if he has anything left, we’ll see it. The 49ers currently have five tight ends on their roster, so if Davis really does have a fork in his back, they should be able to find someone competent.

I’m somewhat concerned about the 49ers’ offensive line. Left tackle Joe Staley got his butt kicked last season. He’d been very good previously, so maybe it was just a fluke or nagging injuries. The 49ers are expecting him to bounce back. Alex Boone is moving over from right guard to left guard. He was no better than Staley last year. Marcus Martin is moving over to right guard. He was one of the worst centers in the NFL last season. On the plus side, Daniel Kilgore was one of the better centers and he’ll be holding that job for the 49ers. New right tackle Eric Pears played very well last season for Buffalo, but that was at guard. He has played tackle before and was brought in to provide depth. Former right tackle Anthony Davis retired in the offseason. He was coming off a terrible year, so perhaps he knew something we didn’t. Overall, this line looks very questionable. The major questions is Staley. If Staley can return to form, things should be okay.

The front-seven was hit by a wave of retirements. The only real surprise was Chris Borland. It’s not often you see a rookie give back 75% of his signing bonus, but Borland chose to protect his long-term health. That doesn’t leave the 49ers in as bad a position as you might expect because Navarro Bowman is returning from his horrific knee injury sustained in the NFC Championship Game vs. Seattle in January 2014. Michael Wilhoite filled in well for Bowman last season and can do the same for Borland this year. Well, presuming he recovers from a muscle strain in his leg that is currently sidelining him. The 49ers don’t have great depth here, so his health is fairly important. The same can be said for Bowman. Nick Moody is probably the next man up, and he’s a converted safety that is still learning to play inside linebacker. With Aldon Smith’s release, 2014 fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks are slated to start on the outside. Lynch was a pleasant surprise last season, grabbing 6 sacks and 32 hits+hurries. Brooks also had six sacks, but that was a disappointment after having 8.5 in 2013. He also had a measly 10.5 hits+hurries. He was recently charged with sexual assault, so he may go the way of Aldon Smith. However, with Smith gone, the depth here is thin, so perhaps the 49ers will “let the legal process play out.” Rookie third-round pick Eli Harold was a great pickup and may be able to contribute as a rookie.

There are a few potential stars along the defensive line. 2013 second-round pick Tank Carradine excelled in limited usage last season. He’ll get a chance to show it wasn’t a fluke this year. Tony Jerod-Eddie is pretty much “just a guy.” He’s currently slated to start across from Carradine. Darnell Dockett is backing up TJE, which goes to show you just how much it sucks to grow old. Ian Williams and Quinton Dial will rotate in the middle. Rookie first-round pick Arik Armstead is raw. He’s a high risk/high reward player, although if he fails at defensive end, he may be given a shot at offensive tackle.

The secondary is dealing with changes as well. Tramaine Brock missed most of last season due to leg injuries. When healthy, he’s a capable #1CB. I’m more concerned about #2CB Shareece Wright. This is not the contract a quality free agent cornerback should receive:

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/san-francisco-49ers/shareece-wright/

The depth here isn’t great, although 2014 fourth-round pick Dontae Johnson has a shot to play his way up the depth chart. Free safety Eric Reid has played very well, but his concussion history has both him and the 49ers worried. If he can stay on the field, he provides a coverage range that is difficult to replace. That allows strong safety Antoine Bethea to play closer to line of scrimmage. Bethea is coming off an excellent season. It’s not clear how well he would do if he had to cover a larger area. 2014 first-round pick Jimmy Ward provides talented depth. He broke his foot twice last season, so he’s a bit behind on his development.

The 49ers drafted a punter in the fifth round. I, too, find this surprising, but the fact that he’s also going to be kicking off makes this potentially worth it. Rookie punter Bradley Pinion supposedly has one of the strongest legs in the NFL. If he can provide solid value on kickoffs and punts, he’ll do more for his team than most fifth-round picks. Kicker Phil Dawson is entering his 17th season, so perhaps saving him some wear and tear on kickoffs is worth it. The 49ers are still deciding who’ll be returning kicks and punts. For now, I’ll assume whoever wins the job will be competent. Overall, the special teams should be about average.

The 49ers have had a very rough offseason. Still, I wonder if people are overreacting. There is still a decent amount of talent on this roster. Coach Jim Tomsula may have embarrassed himself, but that was an interview. His day job is coaching football and he can clearly grunt his way through that. The schedule is brutal. I’m expecting an offensive rebound, so let’s look for a result that will be more impressive than the record itself. 7-9.

Seattle Seahawks

Expected Wins: 10.93
Scouting Wins: 10.65
DVOA Wins: 10.7
2014 Record: 12-4 (11.9 Pythagorean)

Yes, they should have run the ball. New England screwed up by not calling a timeout. Seattle should have run the ball with about 36 seconds left, and if that was stopped they should have used their last timeout immediately after second down. That would allow for a run or pass on third down, and a quick snap for fourth down. Seattle got greedy in their desire to run clock, which forced a pass. Malcolm Butler gambled on the slant, and the rest is history:

Moving on, Seattle is well-positioned for another Super Bowl run. Green Bay lost Jordy Nelson. Dallas lost Orlando Scandrick. The 49ers and Cardinals have been forced to rebuild their respective defenses. Seattle knows the game plan: Get the #1 seed, win two games at home, and when in doubt, give Marshawn Lynch the football.

Don’t read too much into Russell Wilson’s statistical decline:

2012: 19.7% DVOA, 872 DYAR, 147 rushing DYAR
2013: 15.6% DVOA, 770 DYAR, 134 rushing DYAR
2014: 5.5% DVOA, 503 DYAR, 269 rushing DYAR

There were some philosophical changes in Darrell Bevell’s offense. Specifically, they attempted to use a short passing game based around Percy Harvin. That was a mistake. Harvin was awful last season (-21.4% DVOA, -55 DYAR). Replacing Harvin’s targets with Jimmy Graham will pay huge dividends for the Seahawks and Wilson. Graham is not a traditional tight end (arbitration decisions notwithstanding). Graham is a tough cover, both deep and in short-yardage or in the red zone. However, he isn’t a natural fit as a #1WR. Neither is Doug Baldwin. Baldwin saw most of his advanced metrics crater as his targets increased:

2013: 73 targets, 50 receptions, 778 yards, +7.3 +/-, 33.3% DVOA, 274 DYAR
2014: 99 targets, 66 receptions, 825 yards, +6.1 +/-, 5.5% DVOA, 137 DYAR

He’s a fine possession receiver miscast as the top target. Then again, Jermaine Kearse is potentially the worst #2WR in the NFL (-9.1% DVOA, 19 DYAR). Both would probably be fine a bit lower on the depth chart. Baldwin has moved back to the slot, but he’s going to be competing with rookie third-round pick Tyler Lockett. Lockett has already made a name for himself as a return specialist (both kicks and punts):

http://www.seattletimes.com/sports/seahawks/richard-sherman-asks-for-tyler-lockett-mario-kart-mashup-the-internet-answers/

Before the draft I wrote that Tyler Lockett was better than his draft grade and I hoped he ended up in New York. His professionalism at Kansas St. was unmistakable. Even when wasn’t the primary target, you couldn’t tell just from watching him, as he ran his routes as if he were. It takes a special person to make a cut and be ready for the ball to be in the air towards him even when that wasn’t the plan. Lockett is going to be a great addition to the Seahawks. Former Winnipeg Blue Bombers star Chris Matthews broke out in the Super Bowl:

Super Bowl: 4 receptions, 109 yards, 1 touchdown, 58 DYAR
Rest of his NFL career: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

We’ll see if he can wrangle more playing time this season. He’s currently dealing with a shoulder injury. This is a receiving unit that could use a true #1WR. For now, Wilson will have to make due with a reasonable collection of solid options. One note: Wilson is going to have to adjust to Graham’s unusually high catching radius. Anything below the numbers is tough for him and Wilson will have to get used to that.

Of course, one option is to just hand the ball to Marshawn Lynch. Lynch led the NFL with a 23.1% rushing DVOA. His 452 combined DYAR edged out Demarco Murray (440). That came in 132 fewer touches (317 to Murray’s 449). Lynch turned 29 in April and is on a Hall of Fame trajectory. 2013 second-round pick Christine Michael sits behind Robert Turbin on the depth chart, but may be the true heir apparent if anything happens to Lynch. Turbin sees more playing time due to his usefulness in the passing game as a solid receiver (16 receptions, 186 yards, 104 DYAR). Michael has been the better runner, though.

All these numbers would look even better if Seattle’s offensive line wasn’t garbage. That is the one area where Dallas and Green Bay have a huge advantage. Left tackle Russell Okung is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury. Last season, he was poor, particularly in pass protection. He was pretty bad at right guard last season. New left guard Justin Britt was a bit below-average at right tackle last season. New center Drew Nowak is a converted guard. He didn’t appear in a game last season, so I have little to go on. J.R. Sweezy is returning at right guard, where he was terrible last season. New right tackle Gary Gilliam scored a touchdown as a tight end in the NFC Championship Game. Not a great blocker, though. This line could use a major infusion of talent. One thing I will note: The loss of center Max Ungar in the Jimmy Graham trade is not a huge deal. He was no better than the rest of the line last season.

Defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett may have combined for only 12 sacks, but they were constantly pressuring opposing quarterbacks (76.5 hits+hurries). Bruce Irvin contributed another 6.5 sacks and 19 hits+hurries. And then there is rookie second-round pick Frank Clark. This:

http://seahawksdraftblog.com/seattles-frank-clark-flashes-first-round-talent-explosion

Is why the Seahawks ignored this:

http://www.seattletimes.com/sports/seahawks/witnesses-describe-ugly-hotel-incident-involving-seahawks-draft-pick/

http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/hotel-clerk-says-frank-clark-threatened-her-admitted-hitting-girlfriend/

Clark was dismissed from Michigan’s football team due to various incidents. He’s already had issues this preseason:

http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2015/aug/29/chargers-seahawks-nfl-rivers-frank-clark/

As I mentioned earlier, the NFL’s “No More” campaign is pure bullshit. It’s about as legitimate as their concern about concussions:

http://www.vox.com/2015/8/31/9232191/will-smith-concussion-movie-trailer

Brandon Mebane, Jordan Hill, and Tony McDaniel will rotate inside. McDaniel is a run stuffer. Mebane and Hill are difference-makers if healthy.

Strongside linebacker Bruce Irvin hasn’t been quite as versatile as the Seahawks hoped. They declined to pick up his fifth-year option. Bobby Wagner is one of the best MLB’s in the NFL. He missed five games last season and the defense suffered in his absence. Weakside linebacker K.J. Wright played a little deeper than most and acted as a strong safety/linebacker hybrid. 2014 fourth-round pick Kevin Pierre-Louis provides great depth, presuming he can stay healthy.

Seattle has three elite performers in their secondary. Strong safety Kam Chancellor and free safety Earl Thomas form the best tandem in the NFL. Thomas has Hall of Fame range. Chancellor is dominant against the run. Left cornerback Richard Sherman is as good as he says he is. All three of them played hurt in the Super Bowl, and the Seahawks still could have won. The only weak link may be new right cornerback Cary Williams. The Seahawks targeted him in free agency, so they think he’ll be a good fit in their system. We can wait and see. The depth here isn’t bad. If healthy, this is the premier secondary in the NFL. I should note that Chancellor is currently holding out for a new deal. Thomas does not appear to be 100% recovered either.

The Seahawks’ biggest special teams weakness has been fixed by the addition of Tyler Lockett. He and Doug Baldwin are competing to see who’ll return punts, but Lockett is expected to win the job. Kicker Steven Hauschka is solid on kickoffs and shorter field goals. His accuracy fades a bit as the distance increases, although that may just be variance. Punter Jon Ryan isn’t great. He’s been with the Seahawks longer than coach Carroll, and may not be there next year if he doesn’t play better this season. The coverage units could be better. Overall, the Seahawks’ special teams should be above average, due to the addition of Lockett.

The Seahawks have been the best team in the NFL the last three seasons according to DVOA. They’ve hosted and won the last two NFC Championship Games. They are the clear favorite to win again. There are a few issues. The offensive line is garbage. It’s truly awful and it may end up derailing the offense. The secondary is great, if all the components are 100% and on the field. Thomas isn’t 100%, and Chancellor isn’t on the field. Even so, I say the road to the Super Bowl goes through Seattle yet again. 12-4.

St. Louis Rams

Expected Wins: 7.23
Scouting Wins: 6.61
DVOA Wins: 8.8
2014 Record: 6-10 (7.1 Pythagorean)

The Rams haven’t had a winning season since they went 12-4 in 2003. They’ve had three or fewer wins four times in that span. They’ve gone 20-27-1 over the past three seasons. They just traded for Nick Foles. Where exactly does the 8.8 win projection come from? I can see some benefit of moving to Foles from Austin Davis, but how much of Foles was due to Chip Kelly? I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.

Three years ago, Foles was awful (-20.4% DVOA, -166 DYAR). Two years ago, Kelly helped him achieve nirvana (35.6% DVOA, 1011 DYAR). Last year the magic ran out (1.8% DVOA, 264 DYAR). You can make a reasonable case that Foles’s decline was more a product of a lack of protection, but that doesn’t explain why Kelly was so eager to find a new starting quarterback. The rumors of a trade for the #2 pick (for Marcus Mariota) were rampant. In the end, they swapped Foles for Bradford (the Eagles had to throw in some additional picks, with their 2016 second-round pick as the most valuable). If Chip Kelly felt he had maxed out Foles after the success of 2013, what are the Rams hoping for? Perhaps they just wanted a game manager and an extra premium draft pick. If so, fair enough. They’ve invested in their running game, so perhaps the plan will work.

Todd Gurley was easily the most talented running back in the draft. That doesn’t mean I would have taken him with the tenth-overall pick, but I understand why someone would. He runs with power and vision, as well as breakaway speed. He has a natural talent for pass protection. His biggest weakness is health. He’s coming back from an ACL tear. He was recently cleared for non-contact practice, so I’d expect him to miss the first few games at the very least. 2014 third-round pick Tre Mason looks to see his workload decreased with the addition of Gurley. Mason wasn’t bad last season (2.8% combined DVOA, 110 combined DYAR). Mason is currently slowed by an injured hamstring. Benjamin Cunningham was even better (12.4% combined DVOA, 135 DYAR), although he provides most of his value as a receiver. This is a deep running back corps, which is why Gurley was not the biggest priority for the Rams. Perhaps they just felt his talent was too great to pass up.

Tavon Austin led the Rams in rushing DVOA (45.6%) and DYAR (175). He struggled as a receiver, though (-5.8% DVOA, 24 DYAR). He’ll likely never become the complete player the Rams were hoping for when they used the eighth-overall pick on him. Kenny Britt dramatically exceeded expectations (12.4% DVOA, 124 DYAR). He’s established himself as the Rams #2WR. Brian Quick was on pace for a 24.5% DVOA, 263 DYAR season before he tore his rotator cuff. His shoulder is still not 100%, and he hasn’t yet been cleared for contact. The Rams might be overly optimistic if they expect him to be ready to start week one vs. Seattle. Jared Cook was the Rams’ most targeted receiver (99 targets, 52 receptions, 634 yards, -8.1 +/-, -13.4% DVOA, -39 DYAR). That’s just awful. Backup Lance Kendricks was better (11.8% DVOA, 51 DYAR), but in limited usage (27 receptions). Tangentially related, I am shocked at this:

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/st.-louis-rams/jared-cook/

http://www.spotrac.com/nfl/st.-louis-rams/lance-kendricks/

That is a shitload of money for less than a shitload of value.

Speaking of shitloads, Greg Robinson was very bad last season. Jadeveon Clowney’s troubles may have taken some of the heat off Robinson, but it was just an awful rookie year for the #2 overall pick. He’s going to start at left tackle, so let’s hope last season was a great learning experience. On the plus side, Rodger Saffold trailed only Josh Sitton of the Packers in my left guard rankings. The Rams would like 2013 fourth-round pick Barrett Jones to start at center, but the job might go to Tim Barnes if Jones can’t stay healthy (bad back). Rookie third-round pick Jamon Brown will start at right guard, next to fellow rookie second-round pick Robert Havenstein. Both were taken a little earlier than their draft projections. I don’t necessarily object to the picks themselves, though, as Brown is perfectly suited to play right guard. Havenstein is a prototype right tackle if healthy (shoulder issues). His technique needs refinement, and he needs to build up his upper body strength. This is a very young and inexperienced line. Just because the Rams used early round picks on Havenstein and Brown doesn’t mean they’re worth it, or ready to start from day one. I’d be a little nervous if I were Nick Foles.

Please don’t allow any concerns about the Rams’ offensive line transition over to the Rams defensive line. They are good and honest people. 2014 first-round pick Aaron Donald exceeded expectations for the Rams last season. He deservedly won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He’ll play alongside Michael Brockers. Brockers is talented, but probably gets some glory by association. Free agent pickup Nick Fairley has joined the rotation. On the outside, Robert Quinn had another strong season. He and Donald combined for 20 sacks and 54 hits+hurries. Chris Long is returning from an ankle injury and will start across from Quinn. Long had 20 sacks over his last two healthy seasons, and should be ready to start the season. William Hayes and Eugene Sims provide quality depth.

The linebacker corps is solid. 2013 first-round pick Alex Ogletree has been effective at all phases of the game, albeit dominant at none of them. Free agent pickup Akeem Ayers is similar in that respect. When the Rams drafted James Laurinaitis, they metaphorically penciled him in as the starter for a decade. We’re six years in and he’s lived up to expectations. Jo-Lonn Dunbar would be a competent starter in place of Ayers. Overall, this is an excellent front-seven on an otherwise questionable roster.

Actually, if we include the safeties in a “front-nine,” the Rams are among the best in the NFL. Strong safety T.J. McDonald is excellent against the run. Free safety Rodney McLeod excelled in coverage last season. Things are a little worse at cornerback, where #1CB E.J. Gaines was placed on injured reserve with a Lisfranc injury. He’s out for the season. That leaves Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson as the starters. Jenkins has elite talent, which may be why he hasn’t developed. He could be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, but instead has coasted. Johnson is recovering from the knee injury that sidelined him last season. Lamarcus Joyner will likely hold the nickel job, with Marcus Roberson as the dime. Even with weaker than average starting cornerbacks, this is still an excellent defense.

Johnny Hekker is the best punter in the NFL. In addition, the Rams have solid coverage units. Tavon Austin has become an excellent return man. The only real weakness was kicker Greg Zuerlein. He had an off year, but has been effective in the past. Overall, this should be one of the strongest special teams units in the NFL.

The Rams are building their offense around their offensive line and running backs. That’s old school, but I’m not convinced they’re even doing a good job executing the plan. They have three offensive linemen who have never played their position in the NFL. Two are rookies, and one has to shake off a lousy rookie year. As for the running game, Gurley looks great when healthy. Will he be able to stay healthy as the #1RB for the Rams? And then there is the Nick Foles question. Chip Kelly knew him well, and wanted to move on as soon as possible. The defense should be excellent, with strong special teams. Is that enough? I don’t think so. 7-9.

NFC Playoff Seeds

1. Seattle Seahawks 12-4
2. Green Bay Packers 11-5
3. Dallas Cowboys 10-6
4. Atlanta Falcons 9-7
5. Philadelphia Eagles 10-6
6. New Orleans Saints 8-8

Wildcard Round:

New Orleans Saints @ Dallas Cowboys

Everything is bigger in Texas, including the playoff blowouts. Cowboys 49, Saints 14.

Philadelphia Eagles @ Atlanta Falcons

New coach, but same old playoff struggles in Atlanta. Eagles 27, Falcons 24.

Divisional Round:

Philadelphia Eagles @ Seattle Seahawks

Sam Bradford knows all too well how difficult this task is. Seahawks 24, Eagles 10.

Dallas Cowboys @ Green Bay Packers

The rematch, but this time Dallas gets the job done. Cowboys 31, Packers 30.

NFC Championship Game

Dallas Cowboys @ Seattle Seahawks

Tony Romo has had his fair share of brutal losses, but I have to think this is still #1:

This time it isn’t as close. Seahawks 23, Cowboys 16.

Yes, that means Super Bowl L is a rematch:

Seattle Seahawks vs. New England Patriots @ Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA

There is only one surefire cure for a Super Bowl loss hangover, and it isn’t recovery water. Seahawks 31, Patriots 24.

Last year I had the Patriots over the Saints. We’ll see if I get either of the participants right this time. Enjoy the season y’all!

Seth Burn
@sethburn on Twitter
sethburn dot gmail

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