2016 NFL Preview: NFC West + NFC Playoffs & Super Bowl LI

The Cardinals-Seahawks rivalry has become one of the best in the NFL. The Rams and 49ers have a lot of work to do before they catch up to either of them.

NFC West:

Seattle Seahawks 11-5
Arizona Cardinals 11-5
Los Angeles Rams 7-9
San Francisco 49ers 4-12

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Arizona Cardinals

Talent Wins: 10.61

Expected Wins: 10.25

DVOA Wins: 10.4

Last Year: 13-3 (12.1 Pythagorean Wins)

Just as the Steelers were handcuffed by Ben Roethlisberger’s injury and the Bengals were doomed by Andy Dalton’s, the Cardinals were sunk by Carson Palmer’s. For much of last season there were two great teams in the NFC: Seattle and Arizona, with Arizona having a slight edge. Carolina was undefeated but less impressive. Arizona still managed to fight their way to the NFC Championship game, but they were crushed by Carolina in a game that was never competitive. Can they get back there this season?

In 2013 and 2014, Carson Palmer was pretty good in Arizona. He only played six games in 2014, so I combined the two seasons and prorated it to 16 games:

2013 + 2014: 4,291 yards, 25 touchdowns, 4.3% DVOA, 605 DYAR

That’s not bad. Last year he blew those numbers out of the water:

2015: 4,671 yards, 35 touchdowns, 34.4% DVOA, 1,698 DYAR

He led the NFL in both DVOA and DYAR last season. What happened? As far as I can tell, the Cardinals presented too many threats for a defense to stop. Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald, and John Brown were as dangerous a trio as any in the NFL. The Cardinals’ downfield passing game was brutal on defenses for most of last season. Before Palmer was injured, the Cardinals averaged 32 points a game. In the four games post-injury, that dropped to 21. He’s 37 years old, so health remains a concern. For now, the Cardinals remain one of the most imposing teams in the NFL.

Arizona had three wide receivers in the top 14 in DYAR and the top ten in DVOA. It was a balanced attack. Larry Fitzgerald enjoyed Palmer’s renaissance:

2014: 63 receptions, 784 yards, +/- -1.2, -5.8% DVOA, 54 DYAR

2015: 109 receptions, 1,215 yards, +/- +14.7, 18.9% DVOA, 363 DYAR

Fitzgerald isn’t quite as physically dominant as he was in his younger days, but the technique is still there. He presents opportunities for a good quarterback to matriculate the ball down the field. 2014 third-round pick John Brown struggled his rookie season. He showed flashes of talent and the Cardinals trusted he could handle a large role in the offense:

2014: 48 receptions, 696 yards, +/- -7.3, -12.5% DVOA, 1 DYAR

2015: 65 receptions, 1,003 yards +/- +6.6, 29.9% DVOA, 352 DYAR

A replacement-level rookie can blossom into a star in his second year in the league. It’s a good lesson to keep in mind. 2012 first-round pick Michael Floyd is one heck of a third amigo:

2015: 52 receptions, 849 yards, +/- +2.8, 24.0% DVOA, 247 DYAR

There is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Did Palmer make the receivers? Did they make Palmer? The answer might be more complex. It’s possible that all four pieces are necessary and no three are sufficient. 2015 fifth-round pick J.J. Nelson is battling Jaron Brown for the #4WR job. Both caught 11 balls last year, so it is a fair fight. Tight end Jermaine Gresham turned down more money from other suitors to stay in Arizona, but I wonder if it was a good decision. Darren Fells was much more effective than him last season:

Gresham: 18 receptions, 223 yards, -14.0 DVOA, -16 DYAR

Fells: 21 receptions, 311 yards, 35.8% DVOA, 86 DYAR

2014 second-round pick Troy Niklas has had trouble getting on the field. The Cardinals focus most of their passing game on the wide receivers, so I wouldn’t expect much from either Gresham or Fells. (Update: John Brown has been sidelined this preseason with concussion symptoms. The Cardinals expect him to be ready week one, but this is an area where we can’t be sure).

2015 third-round pick David Johnson had one heck of a rookie season despite spending little of it atop the depth chart (17.7% DVOA, 253 DYAR). He’s the #1RB now and should have a monster year. Chris Johnson struggled (-8.0% DVOA, 3 DYAR). He may have reached his expiration date. Andre Ellington provided good value in limited usage (91 DYAR on 69 touches). He may end up being the change-of-pace back behind David Johnson.

Speaking of change, we’ll be seeing it across the offensive line. The left side remains stable, but that’s it. Left tackle Jared Veldheer ranked fourth in my spreadsheet, just below the elites. Left guard Mike Iupati was above-average. Center Lyle Sendlein was the best center in the NFL last season. He retired at the top of his game. Rookie fourth-round pick Evan Boehm is currently losing a battle to replace Sendlein. Veteran A.Q. Shipley appears likely to start at center. Shipley would be quite a dropoff from Sendlein. Boehm has been described as “A coke machine with a helmet.” He’s far more athletic than Shipley, so it would be a good sign if he were to work his way up the depth chart early in the season. Free-agent pickup was solid at left guard last year in Denver. He should be fine to take over at right guard in Arizona.

2015 first-round pick D.J. Humphries is taking over at right guard. Humphries did not endear himself to head coach Bruce Arians last year. “Knee deep” is a hard nickname to live down. Humphries took the criticism to heart. He’s more talented than the man he is replacing (Bobby Massie). Massie played well last year, so the pressure will be on Humphries. Overall, this line looks pretty good. Losing Sendlein hurts, but if Humphies lives up to his potential, the line could be even better than it was last year.

The Cardinals added a pair of major upgrades to their front-seven this offseason. One came via a trade with the Patriots when they acquired Chandler Jones. The other was in the first round of the draft when Robert Nkemdiche fell to them. Here is what I wrote about Nkemdiche before the draft:

Robert Nkemdiche: He’s talented. He’s weird. I’m not sold the talent is enough to justify all that accompanies it.:

I’ve softened my stance on Nkemdiche. Teams schemed to stop him in college and he was still effective. It will be a little while before we see him at his best (he’s recovering from an ankle sprain). I expect him to be one of the most disruptive players from the draft once he is up and running at full speed. Calais Campbell is coming off of another great year (five sacks, 32.5 hits+hurries). He will form a nice pairing with Nkemdiche fairly soon. Corey Peters is returning at nose tackle after missing last season with an Achilles tear. His return will strengthen the line. Rodney Gunter will start while Nkemdiche gets back up to speed. Frostee Rucker is recovering from a foot injury. Rucker was a key part of the defense last season (three sacks, 24.5 hits+hurries). He might not be ready to the start the season. Overall, the depth here is excellent (especially once Rucker is back).

Adding Chandler Jones improves what had been a somewhat unintimidating linebacker corps. Jones was excellent last year in New England (12.5 sacks, 24.5 hits+hurries). He’ll start across from 2015 second-round pick Markus Golden. Golden will likely see a lot of playing time, as Alex Okafor is dealing with a torn biceps. Golden impressed last season and may be ready to blossom into a star. One concern for the Cardinals is that Okafor’s injury will make the loss of Dwight Freeney more painful. Freeney had eight sacks and 20 hits+hurries last season despite only playing 255 snaps. The depth here has become thinner than the Cardinals were expecting. 2014 third-round pick Kareem Martin may find himself with more playing time than anyone anticipated.

2013 second-round pick Keith Minter saw the light come on last season. He was the most underrated player on the defense, dominating inside. If he can maintain that level of play, he’ll be looking at an enormous payday. 2014 first-round pick Deone Bucannon is effectively a safety/linebacker hybrid. He performed admirably in that role last season. Overall, this is a very talented linebacker corps, but the lack of depth could be a major problem if injuries hit.

Injuries weakened the Cardinals’ secondary late last season. Free safety Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu was lost after 14 games last season. This is the second time he’s returning from ACL surgery. When healthy, he’s one of the best safeties in the NFL. Like Jalen Ramsey, he has the skills to play cornerback as well. Patrick Peterson has entrenched himself as the #1 cornerback in the NFL. The other slots are open to competition. Justin Bethel is the favorite for the #2CB job. He’s battling both rookie third-round pick Brandon Williams and his own surgically repaired foot. If Bethel is healthy, he’s a highly athletic player. His foot has slowed him so far this preseason. Williams wasn’t expected to be drafted nearly that highly. He might be thrown directly into the fire. D.J. Swearington is battling Tyvon Branch for the strong safety job. Both players have disappointed in previous stops. Right now, Swearington has the edge. Overall, this is a very strong secondary. I’m a bit concerned about the #2CB and nickel jobs, but I have faith that the Cardinals know what they are doing.

J.J. Nelson has been given both return jobs, but the problems in the Arizona special teams go deeper. Punter Drew Butler has been awful. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro has been lousy. There isn’t anything good to point to here. I guess the best hope is for some regression to the mean.

The Cardinals catch an enormous scheduling break to start the season. They get to face the Patriots sans Tom Brady. Seattle has to travel to New England in November. They also get a break in heading to face Minnesota, while Seattle has to travel to Green Bay. Will that be enough to reclaim the division? There’s a lot of skepticism that Carson Palmer will be able to repeat his performance from last season. If he can’t, Arizona will be merely a good team. Still, this is a roster without any major flaws. They were the best team in the NFL for most of last season. Even with some regression from Palmer, they are still a championship contender. 11-5.

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Los Angeles Rams

Talent Wins: 6.1

Expected Wins: 6.66

DVOA Wins: 7.7

Last Year: 7-9 (6.5 Pythagorean Wins)

It does not matter how the Rams do this year, Stan Kroenke has already won. His franchise has significantly increased in value. He felt a need to acquire a franchise quarterback to go with his new stadium. That led to the series of events recapped here. The Titans got two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and a third-round pick. The Rams got the top pick in the draft, plus a fourth-round pick and a sixth-round pick. That top pick turned out to be Jared Goff. My thoughts on Goff from before the draft:

Jared Goff: I love his accuracy and his decision-making. If I were rolling the dice on a quarterback in this draft, he’d be my choice. The size of his hands concerns me. I’m assuming the Rams have seen him throw multiple routes with an NFL regulation football and are comfortable with his ability to handle it. He’s played from the spread offense in college, so he’s going to need some work to learn how to play from under center. His pocket presence is a bit of a conundrum. I honestly can’t tell if he’s excellent at maintaining focus downfield or if he’s just oblivious to the rush. You’re going to see some odd strip-sacks against him. He wasn’t surrounded by much NFL talent at Cal, so this is going to be a fairly huge leap for him. I don’t have the confidence I had in Bridgewater or Mariota here. The Rams know they need a quarterback, and they are going with the best available option. One last thing I should mention is that he’s already done a lot of work in the weight room, and has bulked up from what was a very slight frame at the combine.”

If preseason results are any indication, the Rams blundered. Goff’s flaws have been pronounced. For the record, Mariota’s fumbles aren’t considered a major concern at this point. When it comes to hands, size matters. This isn’t quite worthy of the “Butt-fumble” class, but it is bad. What’s most frustrating to the Rams is that Goff is impressive in other ways. He has shown an understanding of the game. He still needs to learn protection schemes and how to read a defense. Still, none of this will matter if he can’t hold onto the @#&%ing ball.

“Gentlemen, it is better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football.” – John Heisman

Goff’s struggles have given hope to the Case Keenum fan club. Keenum achieved mediocrity last season (-1.1% DVOA, 83 DYAR). He’ll likely be given some time to lead the team while they wait for Goff’s hands to grow… accustomed to the NFL ball. 2015 third-round pick Sean Mannion has to feel awkward. By all accounts, he’s done everything the Rams have asked to the best of his ability. With Goff receiving the focus of the coaching staff, Manion is effectively playing out his contract with little hope of winning the job.

Regardless of who starts at quarterback, 2015 first-round pick Todd Gurley will be a major focal point for the offense. Last year, he gained 1,294 yards on 250 touches (9.2% DVOA, 195 DYAR). This year, he will see significantly more touches, but his efficiency is likely to drop. Defenses are going to be designed to shut him down and make Rams Quarterback beat them. Backup Benny Cunningham was solid in limited usage last year (6.4% DVOA, 57 DYAR). As for 2014 third-round pick Tre Mason, concussions have effectively ended his career. It’s a sad story.

The Rams’ most effective runner in 2015 wasn’t a running back. Tavon Austin ran for 427 yards on 51 carries (41.5% DVOA, 253 DYAR). That was more rushing DYAR than any running back in the NFL last season (Thomas Rawls led the RB’s with 216). If you add his receiving, Austin’s DYAR drops to 131. Amazingly, his DVOA drops to -4.1%. Austin has been successful as a change-of-pace back and nowhere else. It’s not just him,, though. The only successful Rams receiver was Kenny Britt:

Kenny Britt: 11.0% DVOA, 139 DYAR

Everyone else: -30.2% DVOA, -434 DYAR

Nick Foles was terrible in St. Louis (-27.9% DVOA, -353 DYAR), and all the receivers (save Britt) suffered. Rookie fourth-round pick Pharoh Cooper was a nice value. I also liked the pickup of tight end Tyler Higbee a few picks earlier in the round. Cooper has worked his way up to fourth on the depth chart. Here is what I wrote about him before the draft:

Pharoh Cooper: What a great name. He’s all over the place on various draft boards. Scouts love his attitude but question the overall talent level. I expect him to succeed in the pros as a slot receiver and special teams contributor.”

His skill set is a bit similar to Tavon Austin’s. It will be up to the coaching staff to find ways to get value out of both of them. As for the tight ends, Lance Kendricks and Cory Harkey are both expected to start. Kendricks is a mediocre talent who has contributed 37 DYAR over the past three seasons. Harkey is the less talented of the two. His blocking is what keeps him on the field. Higbey was very productive at Western Kentucky, so we may see him rise up the depth chart. Overall, the Rams have an awkward receiving corps.

The 2015 Rams’ offensive line saw some strong performances and some poor ones. Left tackle Greg Robinson had his best season, but he remains below-average. The talent is there, but he’s never put it together. I don’t know if that is due to poor coaching or something internal. Rodger Saffold was once traded to the Raiders but failed his physical. The Rams considered him healthy and signed him to a major contract. He was only available for five games last season, and he played poorly in those. Saffold is slated to start at right tackle. Rob Havenstein started there last season. He was, by far, the best right tackle in the NFL. Right now his availability is in question. If Havenstein can’t go, the Rams will be significantly weakened. Cody Wichmann was excellent at right guard last season. This year, he’s going to switch sides and start at left guard. Center Tim Barnes was solid last season. Right guard Jamon Brown was a bit below-average last season. If you wanted to be optimistic about this line, you’d point to Saffold’s play from two years ago. I am not sure he is in the same physical condition. As for Robinson, I’m hoping he continues to improve.

The Rams’ defense has been solid for a few years now. It starts with the defensive line, and more specifically with 2014 first-round pick Aaron Donald. Last year, he had 11 sacks and 58 hits+hurries. Those are incredible numbers for a defensive tackle. He’ll play alongside 2012 first-round pick Michael Brockers. Brockers is more a space-eater, but his numbers were respectable as well. The return of 2011 first-round pick Robert Quinn will boost the pass rush. Last season he had five sacks and 125.5 hits+hurries in eight games. Quinn is returning from a back injury that required surgery. Hayes isn’t quite the pass-rusher that Quinn is (5.5 sacks, 32 hits+hurries over a full season), but his numbers against the run were excellent. Dominique Easley, Eugene Sims, and Ethan Westbrooks provide above-average depth along the line.

Mark Barron and Akeem Ayers will man the outside linebacker positions, but the real question is in the middle. 2013 first-round pick Alec Ogletree is replacing James Laurinaitis. He’s traditionally played on the outside. Ogletree was playing very well last year before a fractured fibula ended his season after just four games. He’s a tremendous athlete. While he looks like he is making a difference, his stats suggested otherwise. Opponents are going to test his coverage skills. He might end up with a large number of tackles downfield. That is not the hallmark of a good middle linebacker. Ogletree has never been great attacking the line of scrimmage. If I were the Rams, I suppose I would make the same gamble. Ogletree looks the part. If the Rams’ coaches have improved his technique, this will give the Rams more speed on the field at little cost. If not, Ogletree will be like the guy in the office who always looks like he’s working hard but gets little done. Barron might be the next man up if Ogletree fails inside. Barron is a safety/linebacker hybrid with great speed. Ayers is the only one of the three who can mix it up with offensive linemen and come out on top. He had great numbers against the run. The depth here isn’t great. Don’t look for reinforcements either, as the Rams will need to use their limited draft picks elsewhere for the foreseeable future.

2013 third-round pick strong safety T.J. McDonald has to work his way back up the depth chart. Last season, he played with a shoulder injury and his performance showed it. It was a setback for a player on his way to stardom. 2014 fourth-round pick Maurice Alexander started in McDonald’s absence and has yet to give back the job. McDonald has a higher ceiling, so I expect the Rams to trust that he’ll return to form. Cody Davis appears to have won the free safety job by default. His backup is rookie undrafted free-agent Jordan Lomax.

The Rams were unable to work out a long term contract with cornerback Trumaine Johnson, so they hit him with the franchise tag. Johnson is pretty good. I have the sense that the Rams don’t want to invest too many resources in their secondary, so Johnson is likely playing for a free agent contract. It looks like 2014 second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner has won the #2CB job. He held off 2014 sixth-round pick E.J. Gaines, as well as free-agent pickup Coty Sensabaugh. Overall, this is a sub-par secondary. Thankfully, the pass rush will mask its deficiencies.

Punter Johnny Hekker is coming off of a monster year (47.9 gross, 43.7 net). He’s been great for a while now. Kicker Greg Zuerlein still has a powerful leg, but his accuracy has been poor for the past two seasons. He doesn’t quite make up for it with his kickoffs, and the new touchback rule will further diminish his value. Tavon Austin is a quality punt returner. Benny Cunningham did a good job returning kicks last season and will return in that role this year.

It’s odd, but Goff’s struggles may end up helping the Rams in the short run. Case Keenum is more prepared to start in the NFL. The offense looks like it should be competent, if not imposing. The defense should remain strong so long as the defensive line is dominant. The Rams are giving up a home game to face the Giants in London. While I expect the Rams to face very dark times ahead (trading away a slew of picks rips your depth apart), they should remain mediocre for another year. 7-9.

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San Francisco 49ers

Talent Wins: 3.8

Expected Wins: 5.03

DVOA Wins: 5.4

Last Year: 5-11 (3.8 Pythagorean Wins)

Bear with me a second, I want to show you something:

Team QB RB WR OL DL LB DB ST
San Francisco 49ers -3.70 -1.27 -4.25 -1.54 -1.15 -0.53 -1.32 -0.94

That is how the 49ers look in one of my spreadsheets (ST is -0.94. WordPress formatting sucks balls). Straight red across the board. They are the only team in the NFL without a single strong unit. Their passing game looks absolutely dreadful. Chip Kelly has a very tough choice to make:

Kaepernick: -21.5% DVOA, -182 DYAR

Gabbert: -15.6% DVOA, -85 DYAR

Both quarterbacks were bad last year, but Kaepernick was clearly worse. The thing is, that was a high water mark for Gabbert. Kaepernick was good in 2012 and 2013 (23 starts, 1,346 DYAR, 19.9% DVOA). Since then, he has seen his performance crater. Can Chip Kelly fix him? Kaepernick has missed practice time with a “dead arm.” Kelly is waiting to see him on the field before naming a starter, but so far it looks like Gabbert has the inside track.

Torrey Smith has succeeded despite the 49ers’ struggles at quarterback:

Smith: 14.3% DVOA, 134 DYAR

Adjusted for quarterback play, those numbers might be more impressive than what he managed in his final season in Baltimore in 2014 (26.8% DVOA, 310 DYAR). I’m expecting Kelly to make him a focus of the offense. After Smith, the receiving corps is grim. 2014 fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington has 19 career receptions (-16 DYAR). Ellington was also lousy returning punts. 2013 fourth-round pick Quinton Patton will be back in the slot. Jerome Simpson was promoted to #4WR. This is an underpowered unit. 2013 second-round pick tight end Vance McDonald has a nice round -100 career DYAR. He’s been bad no matter who was under center. Garrett Celek hasn’t had much opportunity (34 targets over the past three seasons). He’s been decent (3.6% DVOA) over that small sample. (Update: Ellington is slowed by a hamstring injury and might not be ready to start the season.)

2014 second-round pick Carlos Hyde has been a disappointment during his brief career (-1.9 DVOA, 59 DYAR). He’s returning from a stress fracture. We’ll see if he’s the same player post-surgery. Shaun Draughn was no better (-18.7% DVOA, -37 DYAR). 2015 fourth-round pick Mike Davis was even worse (-25.6% DVOA, -54 DYAR). I understand that the 49ers played poorly last year, so the stats will reflect that. The thing is, not much has changed, apart from the new coaching staff. Coach Chip Kelly has his work cut out for him. (Update: Hyde looked good in the preseason, then suffered a concussion. His availability is unknown.)

Left tackle Joe Staley finished seventh in my positional rankings last season. He isn’t quite as dominant as he was a few years ago, but he remains a strength for the unit. New left guard Zane Beadles was perfectly average last season in Jacksonville. Center Daniel Kilgore made only three starts last season. He was excellent in them and deserves the job this year. Rookie first-round pick Joshua Garnett was expected to start at right guard. The 49ers traded up with Kansas City to acquire Garnett. Let me share my thoughts from before the draft on the two top guards:

Cody Whitehair: Whitehair played left guard for three years at Kansas State, before moving to left tackle as a senior. His arms are too short for him to stay at tackle. He projects as a left guard in the NFL. I’m a little higher on him than most observers. I like his technique and general knowledge. I’ve seen him beaten, but rarely due to a mental error.”

Joshua Garnett: Garnett won the Outland Trophy. He’s more powerful than Whitehair, but less mobile. Where Whitehair is a good fit in a zone blocking scheme, Garnett will be much better attacking the man in front of him. I prefer Whitehair overall, although I have no idea who will be drafted first.”

Garnett looks more impressive than Whitehair, but Whitehair was the better player in college. I expected Whitehair to be ready to play immediately. Whitehair ended up going 56th to the Bears. I’m confident the Bears got a better value. The 49ers could have had Whitehair had they stayed at 37. It’s possible they could have waited and saved a fourth-round pick, while Garnett fell into their laps. Instead they were proactive and are now short a draft pick. This is a roster that needs talent pretty much everywhere. I think the 49ers goofed. The fact that Garnett is behind Andrew Tiller on the depth chart at right guard amuses me. 2015 seventh-round pick Trent Brown is taking over at right tackle. Brown is enormous (6-8, 355). Whether or not he has the skills to play tackle in the NFL is open to debate. There is a reason he lasted until the seventh round. He played his college ball at Florida, so it wasn’t like he was a small school prospect who flew under the radar. Erik Pears is available to step in if Brown struggles. Pears was average last year. Maybe the 49ers have found some gems. It’s just as likely that they’ve tricked themselves.

The 49ers have given Chip Kelly his Oregon defensive ends back. 2015 first-round pick Arik Armstead is going to start across from 2016 first-round pick DeForest Buckner. Here is what I wrote about Buckner before the draft:

DeForest Buckner: If not for September 12th, 2015, Buckner would be looking at being the first defensive player off the board. That was the day Jack Conklin whupped him on the field and in trash talk: “I play football. What sport do you ******* play?” Other than that, I love everything I’ve seen from him. He looks like a great 3-4 DE. I’m sure he could find a place to play in a 4-3 as well. I expect him to be an excellent pro and would love to see him somehow slip to the Giants.”

Armstead was a bit of a disappointment as a rookie (two sacks). Perhaps adding Buckner will take a little bit of the heat off of Armstead. Quinton Dial will also get significant playing time, but he is currently slowed by an injured knee. There is some confusion as to whom the 49ers will start at nose tackle. Mike Purcell and Glenn Dorsey are both possibilities. While there is a lot of young talent on this line, I am not expecting much success for it this year.

The 49ers found a gem in Aaron Lynch. The 2014 fifth-round pick surprised with six sacks as a rookie. He followed that up with 6.5 sacks and 50 hits+hurries in only 14 games last season. He’ll be limited to 12 games this year because he is suspended for the first four due to the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Ahmad Brooks matched Lynch with 6.5 sacks, but he wasn’t nearly as disruptive (19.5 hits+hurries). The expectation is that 2015 third-round pick Eli Harold will start in Lynch’s absence.

On the inside, NaVorro Bowman was almost as good as he was before his gruesome injury in the 2014 NFC Championship Game. His range and reaction speed are still elite. Michael Wilhoite is a well-liked competitor, but not particularly talented. He might lose his job to Gerald Hodges.

Tramaine Brock, Jimmie Ward, and Dontae Johnson will all receive significant playing time at cornerback. For the most part, Brock and Johnson got their asses kicked last year. Team speed was an issue, as opponents were particularly interested in testing them deep. 2014 first-round pick Ward is a safety/cornerback hybrid. He played closer to the line and had better results than his teammates. Strong safety Antione Bethea is coming back from a torn pectoral. His play had dropped last season and he may be in danger of losing his job to 2015 second-round pick Jaquiski Tartt. Free safety Eric Reid is like the artist who drops a great first album and then disappoints with every subsequent release. He made the Pro Bowl as a rookie (no mean feat in a game determined by reputation). Since then, he’s been good, not great.

The 49ers’ excellent punt coverage unit was not enough to mask 2015 fifth-round pick Bradley Pinion’s terrible season. Oddly, it isn’t Pinion, but rather kicker Phil Dawson who is facing a training camp battle. The elderly Dawson (41) is facing John Lunsford. Bryce Treggs will take over the return duties if Bruce Ellington is unable to go. Overall, the 49ers’ special teams are below-average, just like every other unit.

I remember when Kaepernick/Wilson/Luck was a legitimate debate. To see Kaep lose his starting job to Blaine Gabbert is saddening. Chip Kelly had some early success in Philadelphia. The league soon adjusted and Kelly didn’t have additional tricks up his sleeve. The 49ers’ schedule is surprisingly tough. I thought I’d expect the 49ers to win five games again this season, but upon further analysis, I think they’ll slip back. 4-12.

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Seattle Seahawks

Talent Wins: 11.14

Expected Wins: 10.73

DVOA Wins: 10.5

Last Year: 10-6 (11.8 Pythagorean Wins)

According to DVOA, the Seahawks have been the best team in the NFL each of the past four seasons. Last year was the first time during this run that their offense was better than their defense. The stars shone bright:

Russell Wilson: 24.3% DVOA, 1,190 DYAR

Doug Baldwin: 39.6% DVOA, 414 DYAR

Jermaine Kearse: 29.8% DVOA, 227 DYAR

Tyler Lockett: 35.1% DVOA, 249 DYAR (Remember when I said I wished the Jets had drafted him?)

Thomas Rawls: 26.4% DVOA, 216 DYAR

Some of that is symbiosis. Wilson and Baldwin benefit from playing with each other. Still, the Seahawks have a talented young offensive core. 2015 undrafted free-agent Rawls is the surprise name on this list. He filled in when Marshawn Lynch was hurt and stunned the league. He’s coming back from a fractured ankle. Christine Michael excelled in Rawls’ absence (18.6% DVOA), and has looked great this preseason. He might push Rawls for playing time. The key name is Russell Wilson, so let’s look at his progression.

2015 (Part A prorated to a full season): 3,756 yards, 18 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 8.03 YPA

2015 (Part B prorated to a full season): 4,292 yards, 50 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, 8.62 YPA

Part A is the first eight games. Part B is the final eight games. Wilson went from being a pretty good quarterback having a disappointing season (by his standards), to the reincarnation of peak Dan Marino. It was a stunning shift, and one that did not continue into the playoffs. He had -8 DYAR in the playoff win over Minnesota. He followed that up with -67 DYAR in the first half when Seattle was blanked by Carolina 31-0. He rallied against a prevent defense, but it was too late. Expectations are high this season.

Baldwin is the league’s most underrated star. Somehow, he managed to dodge a Pro Bowl invite despite being the most efficient receiver in the NFC. He was excellent in 2013 as well (33.3% DVOA, 274 DYAR), so last season wasn’t a fluke. Lockett was a star at Kansas State and he will be a star in the NFL. His awareness is incredible. He worked his way up the depth chart fairly swiftly and is likely going to effectively be the #2WR even if he isn’t listed as such in the program. Jermaine Kearse excelled in limited usage in 2013 (26.2% DVOA, 116 DYAR). He struggled in 2014 (-9.1% DVOA, 19 DYAR). He bounced back last year and should be solid again this season. Jimmy Graham is coming back from a torn patellar tendon. It’s unclear if he’ll be the player he was pre-injury, as many players with this injury suffer a loss of agility and speed. 2013 fifth-round pick Luke Willson has effectively had one season’s worth of targets in Seattle (94 targets, 59 receptions, 847 yards, 8.6% DVOA, 98 DYAR). He’s a fine fill-in if Graham can’t go. Rookie third-round pick Nick Vannett should be ready to step in as well. He’s more of an offensive lineman than a wide receiver. He was a good value late in the third round.

I’ve already talked about Thomas Rawls and Christine Michael. Rookie third-round pick D.J. Prosise adds depth at the position. He’s a converted receiver who can be used as a third-down back if necessary. He’s also made a name for himself on special teams.

We’ve reached the point where we need to talk about the flaw in the ointment. Seattle’s offensive line looks terrible. On paper, it’s the worst in the NFC. Garry Gilliam was a slightly above-average right tackle last season. That earned him a promotion to left tackle. 2015 fourth-round pick Mark Glowinski has been promoted to left guard. It is unclear if it was earned. 2014 second-round pick Justin Britt was average at left guard last year. He’s been moved over to center. Rookie first-round pick Germaine Ifedi is taking over at right tackle. Here are my thoughts on him before the draft:

Germain Ifredi: He could go in the first round. Tremendously talented, with some bad habits that can be corrected with proper coaching. He might end up at right tackle or at guard. Should be a solid pro.”

I’m not sure he was a great value, but I can’t fault the Seahawks for targeting their major weakness. J’Marcus Webb was an average right guard in Oakland last season. He’ll start at right tackle for the Seahawks. The Seahawks have filled their line with good run blockers, but the pass protection looks iffy at best. Rookie third-round pick Rees Odhiambo played tackle at Boise State, but is likely going to be a guard in the NFL. The best thing I can say about the depth along the line is that at least the drop-off in talent won’t be large.

Seattle builds their defense around their pass rush. That may become a problem this year, as the pass rush is looking a bit thin. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril combined for 19 sacks and 93 hits+hurries last year. They were also excellent against the run. Seattle’s problem is that the depth behind them is questionable. 2015 second-round pick Frank Clark is the major unknown. He had three sacks and 14.5 hits+hurries last year in limited usage. This year, his role will be larger. Ahtyba Rubin and 2013 third-round pick Jordan Hill will start at defensive tackle. The loss of Brandon Mabane hurts here. The Seahawks traded up to grab Jarran Reed in the second round. My thoughts on Reed:

Jarran Reed: Best 3-4 NT in the draft. Excellent run stuffer. What you see is what you get.”

I stand by those thoughts and expect Reed to see significant playing time. I gave him a first-round grade.

There is some turnover in the linebacker corps as well. Bruce Irvin has taken his skills to Oakland. He’ll be replaced by Michael Morgan. Morgan is entering his sixth season. He has one career sack. I’m thinking we’ve seen a step down in talent. 2012 second-round pick Bobby Wagner remains elite in the middle. 2011 fourth-round pick K.J. Wright has continued to improve. Like Wagner, he is an elite player. With Irvin, this was one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL. Without him, opposing quarterbacks will breathe a little easier. The depth here is made up of 2014 fourth-round picks (Cassius Marsh, Kevin Pierre-Louis). Marsh is a converted defensive end. KPL has played sparingly and has neither impressed nor embarrassed himself. That’s my way of saying I have no idea how good he is.

The Seahawks have three-fourths of a Hall of Fame secondary. Cornerback Richard Sherman is an all-time great. Earl Thomas remains the best free safety in the NFL. He should be even better than he was last year, as his shoulder is back to 100%. Strong safety Kam Chancellor missed the first two games with a holdout last season. His numbers were still excellent, but Seattle will appreciate having him on the field for as many games as possible. We still don’t know who the #2CB is, or who will start at nickel. Jeremy Lane is competing with DeShawn Shead. Tharold Simon, Brandon Browner, and Marcus Burley are all receiving looks as well. You can rest assured opponents will test whoever wins the job.

Punter Jon Ryan is the only Seahawk who has been in Seattle longer than head coach Pete Carroll. He’s coming off of a solid season, although the team’s weak punt coverage made it look worse than it was. The rest of Seattle’s special teams were strong. Tyler Lockett revitalized both return games (sigh). Kicker Steven Hauschka excelled, although he too would have looked better had the kick coverage been stronger. Even if Lockett returns to the pack this season, improved coverage units should keep Seattle’s special teams above-average.

Staying on top is hard. Seattle has played a lot of extra football over the past four years. They’ve seen free agency strip away their depth. If they are going to return to the Super Bowl, they will need to produce more diamonds in the rough like Thomas Rawls. Their defense looks just a little bit worse than it looked entering last season (although the secondary should start off a bit stronger). If they can find a third pass-rusher to help Avril and Bennett, great! If not, it will be up to the offense to pick up the slack. Will we see Wilson continue the dominance he showed the second half of last season? That’s a lot to ask. The offensive line is almost certain to struggle in pass protection. I’m expecting the offense to regress a bit. That leaves the Seahawks as a very good team in a league without a great one. 11-5.

NFC Seeds:

1. Green Bay Packers

2. Seattle Seahawks

3. Carolina Panthers

4. New York Giants

5. Arizona Cardinals

6. Minnesota Vikings

NFC Wildcard Round:

Minnesota Vikings @ Carolina Panthers

The Panthers shut down the overmatched Vikings. Panthers 23, Vikings 16.

Arizona Cardinals @ New York Giants

This is painful for me, but Arizona comes out with the victory. Cardinals 31, Giants 21.

NFC Divisional Round

Arizona Cardinals @ Green Bay Packers

Green Bay gets revenge for a tough playoff defeat. Green Bay 24, Arizona 20.

Carolina Panthers @ Seattle Seahawks

Revenge will be a theme in the NFC playoffs. Seahawks 34, Panthers 17.

NFC Championship Game

Two years ago Seattle had a miracle comeback to hold off Green Bay. This time they fall short. Packers 24, Seahawks 23.

Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston Texas

New England Patriots @ Green Bay Packers

Neither team is as good as it was just a few years ago. At this point New England has the more complete roster. Aaron Rodgers tastes his first Super Bowl defeat. Patriots 31, Packers 27.

I cannot wait for Tom Brady to retire. I wouldn’t mind if the Dolphins dominated the division. I’d actually like to see the Bills return to glory. I cannot stand the Patriots, but they are the class of the AFC. In the NFC they’d have a much tougher path to the Super Bowl. I really hope I’m wrong about this. Let’s find out and enjoy the season. Cheers!

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