The Sports & Swag Football Preseason Spectacular starts off its NFL previews with a stop in the NFC West. Over the last several seasons the NFC West has been a two team division. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks dominated not only the division, but the entire NFC with both teams playing in each of the last three Super Bowls. The Niners could have made it four straight if not for a Kyle Williams’ muffed punt against the New York Giants in the 2012 NFC Championship Game. My my, how things have changed. The Seahawks are still the Seahawks, and it’s still basically a two team division. But, right now that other team is the Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers have come up on hard times, and may find themselves looking up at the St. Louis Rams. The Rams are much improved and have reason to believe they can make this a three team race, or even be that second team in the division if things break their way. Last season, the Seahawks were able to beat the Cardinals when it counted. That turned out to be enough to win the division and ultimately get them back to the Super Bowl. It should be another hard-hitting season in one of the NFL’s most physical divisions. Let’s take a look with divisional rankings, an outlook for each team, and Division MVP…..
Marshawn Lynch – In a division where each team is built around their defense for the most part, the division isn’t necessarily full of offensive stars. The quarterback position is a bit of question mark everywhere except Seattle. Even there, Russell Wilson may not put up huge numbers. Jimmy Graham, should be a great addition for him, and could put his own name in the hat. But, Lynch is every bit as important as Wilson is to Seattle’s offense, and will more than likely put up better stats.
Coaching – 1. SEA 2. AZ 3. STL 4. SF
Intangibles – 1. SEA 2. AZ 3. SF 4. STL
Schedule Strength (Easiest to Toughest) – 1. STL 2. SF 3. AZ 4. SEA
Special Teams – 1. STL 2. SEA 3. SF 4. AZ
QB – 1. SEA 2. AZ 3. STL 4. SF DL – 1. STL 2. SEA 3. SF 4. AZ
RB – 1. SEA 2. STL 3. SF 4. AZ LB – 1. SEA 2. SF 3. STL 4. AZ
WR/TE – 1. SEA 2. SF 3. AZ 4. STL DB – 1. SEA 2. AZ 3. SF 4. STL
OL – 1. AZ 2. SEA 3. SF 4. STL
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH AND SEASON OUTLOOK
1. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
2014: 12-4 (Lost in Super Bowl to Patriots) NFL Ranks – Offense: 10th (24.6ppg) Defense: 1st (15.9ppg)
Key Losses: CB-Byron Maxwell, OG-James Carpenter, C-Max Unger
Key Adds: TE-Jimmy Graham (Saints), CB-Cary Williams (Eagles), CB-Will Blackmon (Jaguars)
It’s had to be a long offseason for the defending NFC champs. First, having to live with being one yard short of back to back Super Bowl victories. Then, having to deal with the speculation of of how, if, and when they would pay their star players. It’s questionable whether or not they’ve gotten over the loss to the Patriots. But, the Seahawks have done pretty well in trying to take care of their stars. In recent weeks, Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner have inked deals to remain in Seattle. There’s still more work to do. But, it’s a great start.
The Seahawks were also able to bring back Marshawn Lynch, who is essential to their success offensively. Then, there’s Jimmy Graham who will take over at tight-end. Graham’s presence should be huge for Wilson and a nightmare for defenses. In the draft, Seattle added receiver, Tyler Lockett from Kansas State. Lockett, could be dynamic, and along with Graham, could give Pete Carroll two weapons to stretch the field with. If there was a weakness in the Seahawks attack, it was throwing the deep ball.
Defensively, the biggest change is at cornerback, opposite of Richard Sherman. Gone is Byron Maxwell, but in are Cary Williams and Will Blackmon. Either of those guys are capable of filling that spot. Kam Chancellor, and Earl Thomas at the safeties make up the ‘Legion of Doom. Maybe, the most feared secondary in the league. The Seahawks still have one of the best front sevens in the league. Anchored up front by Michael Bennett, and Wagner at middle linebacker, the Seahawks should be as hard to score on as ever. They’ll need that D to step up with a tough home date against the Steelers, and rugged road trips to Green Bay, Dallas, and Baltimore on the slate. Otherwise, the schedule is actually pretty manageable. The Seahawks are of course, a serious threat to return to the Super Bowl. That would be three in a row.
2. ARIZONA CARDINALS
2014: 11-5 (Lost to Panthers in Wildcard game) NFL Ranks – Offense: 24th (19.4ppg) Defense: 3rd (18.7ppg)
Key Losses: NT-Dan Williams, DE-Darnell Dockett, CB-Antonio Cromartie
Key additions: G-Mike Iupati (49ers), LB-Sean Weatherspoon (Falcons)
The Cardinals continued their rise toward the top of the NFC West with an eleven win season, in 2014. One more than in 2013. However, if the Cardinals are going to have any shot at improving on that mark, or just holding steady, they have to answer a lot of questions. One of those questions is how do you replace your starting nose tackle in Dan Williams, a starting inside linebacker in Larry Foote (retired), and a starter at corner in Antonio Cromartie. That’s a starter at every level of the defense. To make matters even worse, the defensive coordinator (Todd Bowles) is now the Jets head coach. So many questions for a unit that’s been so good the last couple of seasons. As good as they were, Arizona had just 35 sacks last season. Luckily, the two leaders in sacks, Calais Campbell at defensive end, and linebacker Alex Okafor are back. But, will that be enough? Can Jerraud Powers handle the void left by Cromartie, opposite Patrick Peterson at the corner positions? Crucial questions that need an adequate answer.
The problem with so many questions on defense is that the offense was highly dependent on them to keep games close. That may not be a luxury this season. That’s bad news with a healthy Carson Palmer on the field or not. Palmer, is unquestionably the key to the success of this offense, and he has some weapons. John Brown, and Michael Floyd both have the ability to stretch the field, and Andre Ellington showed flashes of being the answer at running back, before he went down to injury. Oh yeah. Larry Fitzgerald is still around, also. However, it seems almost inevitable that the injury prone Palmer will miss at least a game or two somewhere on the schedule. That schedule is pretty tough with road games at Pittsburgh and Detroit, then back home against the Ravens in consecutive weeks. There’s also a tough road game at Philadelphia, and a date at home against the Packers late in the season. Arizona still has the potential to be really good if Palmer is healthy, and if head coach Bruce Arians can find some of the magic of 2014. However, with lots of questions looming, and a tough schedule, it’s very conceivable this team could take a couple of steps back to 9 or 10 wins.
3. ST. LOUIS RAMS
2014: 6-10 (Missed Playoffs) NFL RANKS – Offense: 21st (20.2ppg) Defense: 16th (22.1ppg)
Key Losses: QB-Sam Bradford, LT-Jake Long
Key Additions: QB-Nick Foles, LB-Akeem Ayers, DT-Nick Fairley
Last season, was pretty disappointing for Rams fans. There was much anticipation that the Rams would improve on the seven wins from 2013. Unfortunately, that fate was sealed before the start of the regular season, when Sam Bradford went down to injury in the preseason.Shaun Hill, and Austin Davis tried to keep things afloat. But, it was just too much to overcome. The offensive line was a disappointment, and there was a lack of playmakers on offense. Nick Foles, is the leader of the offense now. But, the offensive weapons he has to work with remain mostly the same. The Rams did draft Todd Gurley with their first round pick. The rookie from Georgia has a history of injury problems. But, he’s capable of being a Hall of Fame running back, if he can stay healthy. Unfortunately, the offensive line is also a huge question mark. If the O-Line does it’s job, the Rams could have one heck of a running back tandem with Gurley, and Tre Mason. It would make Foles’ job a lot easier, and make it lot easier to find a big play receiver or two. Brian Quick, has shown signs of being that guy. It would also be good if new offensive coordinator, Frank Cignetti can find more ways to get Tavon Austin the football. Austin, is too explosive to put up the small numbers he’s put up so far in his career.
Head coach, Jeff Fisher has always depended on a strong defense, and a good physical running.game. Fisher, may not have quite the running game he desires, but he could have one of the better defenses in the NFL. The Rams are very strong up front, led by Aaron Donald at his tackle position, and Robert Quinn from his defensive end position. Quinn, is excellent at getting pressure on the quarterback and is the perfect fit with a tackle like Donald. Alec Ogletree, and James Laurinaitis lead a good group of linebackers. If there is a question defensively, its with the secondary. They’re solid, but they gave up a few too many long pass plays.TJ McDonald, and Rodney McLeod can be hard-hitting safeties. But, they have to be more consistent with their coverages. This is a very important season for the Rams. If, there’s not marked improvement shown, big time changes could be made. They may also be on the move out of St. Louis to L.A.. The Rams’ schedule is pretty tough with the AFC and NFC north teams on the schedule. But, it looks slightly easier than the other teams in the division. The expectation in St. Louis is for a playoff appearance. The Rams are no doubt capable of the playoffs and contending against Seattle and Arizona. However, the line between contending and winning nine or ten games vs winning six games again is razor-thin.
4. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
2014: 8-8 (Missed Playoffs) NFL RANK – Offense: 25th (19.1ppg) Defense: 10th (21.2ppg)
Key Losses: LB-Aldon Smith, RB-Frank Gore, LB-Chris Borland, LB-Patrick Willis, DE-Ray McDonald, OG-Mike Iupati
Key Additions: DL-Darnell Dockett, RB-Reggie Bush, WR-Torrey Smith, CB-Shareece Wright
To say, there’s turmoil in the City by the Bay would be a massive understatement. The 49ers were already on an epic slide from being one of the NFL’s elite teams and a constant Super Bowl contender to be an afterthought in their own division. Injuries, and disarray in the locker room that ultimately ended the Jim Harbaugh era were just a few of the reasons. It was hard to believe the off-season could be any worse. But, it was. The Niners lost Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree, and Chris Culliver all to free agency. Patrick Willis, and Chris Borland retired suddenly. The troubled and released Ray McDonald is in Chicago. Then, there’s Aldon Smith, who is no longer with the team and soon may no longer be in society after another indiscretion with the law. Somehow, the Niners fought through all of their troubles last season and finished 8-8. There’s still a lot of talent there. Defensively, the Niners are still capable of being quite decent. Of, course there are questions. Navorro Bowman, is back from a devastating knee injury in 2013. How good he is in helping out Ahmad Brooks, and Michael Wihoite will be crucial. And what about Justin Smith, who himself is also considering retirement. Rookie Arik Armstead, could take over for him. Darnell Dockett, is also coming back from injury. If, he’s the same player he was in Arizona before the injury, the Niners could be pretty good up front. Oh yeah, speaking of change, the Niners replaced defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Eric Mangini, takes over that post after many thought Fangio should have gotten the 49ers head coaching job.
The next big question is Colin Kaepernick. The Niners ranked 30th in the league throwing the football in 2014. Kaepernick, has shouldered much of the blame. However, so did Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. There was a lot of thinking that the Niners somewhat getting away from their physical run game had a lot to do with their futility on offense. It actually seemed to be a combination of things. The offensive line did not do a good job in protecting Kaepernick, there was a serious lack of anyone being able to stretch the field, but also and maybe most importantly Vernon Davis spent much of the season sidelined by injury. Davis, is back which will help. There’s also a new coaching regime. Jim Tomsula, takes over head coaching duties, and Greg Chryst is the new offensive coordinator. Can he get the Niners back on track? Maybe, but it will ultimately will be up to Kaepernick, who participated in some extensive workouts over the offseason to hone his skills. He has weapons. Torrey Smith, can be that guy to stretch the field, and Anquan Boldin is back to give the Niners a Ravens flavor at wideout. Gone is Gore, but Carlos Hyde could be ready to carry the load. Reggie Bush, can give a nice change of pace. Again, the NFC and AFC North themed schedule will be tough to overcome. Most people are way down on this team. Anywhere from four to six victories are being predicted. In my eye, the Niners look a bit better than that. Of course, that’s contingent on a lot of things going right. If they do, the Niners could get back to 7 or 8 wins, which wouldn’t be too bad after a disastrous 2014 and off-season.
NEXT UP: in the Sports & Swag NFL Preseason Spectacular – AFC West
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