TGS 2016 PRO FOOTBALL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE NFC WEST
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
We conclude our 2016 NFL division previews with a look at the NFC West. As always, teams are listed in order of projected finish, with last year's straight-up, spread, and over/under records included...
Wow, can it really be 40 years since the Seattle Seahawks (2015 SUR 11-7; PSR 8-9-1; O/U 8-10) entered the NFL? We remember it like yesterday, including the first preseason and the inaugural game against the 49ers on the same day the Montreal Olympics concluded. We were watching the local San Francisco telecast, which was being shown in Reno (which is 49ers territory) as the Hawks fell behind 24-0 at the break but rallied in the second half behind unheralded first-year QB Jim Zorn, who had spent the previous season on the Cowboys taxi squad. Zorn led a breathtaking late rally that had Seattle inside of the San Francisco 5-yard-line in the waning seconds before a final try was foiled, as the 49ers hung on for a 27-20 win.
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That fighting spirit would transmit thru the first four years of the franchise under HC Jack Patera, who was the DL coach for the best years of the Purple People Eaters in Minnesota before getting the expansion franchise up to speed. By their third year the Hawks were 9-7, a mark they duplicated in ‘79, with established stars such as the southpaw QB Zorn, RB Sherman Smith, and WR Steve Largent, before the momentum temporarily slowed in the early ‘80s. Still, it has been a mostly-exciting four-decade run in Seattle.
But, as is often said, staying on top is harder than getting to the top. The Seahawks wouldn’t argue after what looked like a recent budding dynasty in the Great Northwest has fallen short of its title quest the past two seasons after the Super Bowl XLVIII romp past the Broncos. Now some NFC onlookers are wondering if the championship window is closing in the Emerald City.
Not yet, we say.
After all, it’s not as if the Seahawks have turned into the Jaguars; they were one yard away from winning Super Bowl XLIX nineteen months ago, and last January’s 31-24 Division Round loss at Carolina, when the Hawks bravely made a game of it in the second half after spotted a 31-0 deficit at the break, is hardly shameful. Though there have been some personnel adjustments, the core of the team has stayed mostly in tact, and another serious run in 2016 would come as no surprise.
Keep in mind that it was going to be hard to sustain the benefits that came with QB Russell Wilson’s rookie contract, which allowed the Seahawks to spend lots of money elsewhere on their roster, and not at the QB position (save for Wilson’s rookie year of 2012, when FA backup Matt Flynn took up a lot of unnecessary cap space) for Wilson’s first few years in the league. That began to change last season when Wilson signed a new deal that would count roughly $7 mill against the cap last season, $11 mill this season, and $15 mill in 2017. While not a handicap as most teams spend similar amounts on their QBs, it has forced some contract juggling by GM John Schneider to find new ways to fit under the cap.
Still, the Seahawks have the look of another serious contender for HC Pete Carroll, now the NFL’s oldest coach after Tom Coughlin’s retirement. Carroll, however, shows no signs of slowing down, and cites progress during preseason in a couple of important areas as evidence that the Hawks can make another title run this fall and winter, especially since Schneider has settled the contracts of practically all of the key players.
The main concern heading into 2016 was a re-worked OL that regressed last year as it needed time to adjust minus traded c Max Unger and did not consistently protect QB Wilson, who despite his mobility was still sacked 45 times a year ago. In the offseason, Schneider made Raiders’ RT JaMarcus Webb one of the featured FA signees, while spending a first-round draft pick on Texas A&M OT Germain Ihedi. The plan was for Webb and Ihedi to form a new right side of the OL, with last year’s starter at RT, Gerry Gilliam, sliding to the left side to take the place of Russell Okung, who moved to Denver in free agency. Such are the best made plans of mice and men, however, as a knee injury prior to camp by Webb would force Gilliam back to his old RT spot, with Bradley Sowell moving in at LT. Sowell has looked so good, however, that Gilliam was moved back to his old RT spot, where he now battles the recovering Webb for the starting role. Whatever, after some shaky work in early exhibitions, the line play was much improved in preseason game three vs. Dallas, with Wilson not touched, and the only sack when backup QB Trevone Boykin ran out of bounds.
Even if the OL has shortcomings in pass protection, the versatile Wilson (4024 YP and 34 TDP a year ago, plus 553 YR) has the wheels to avoid trouble and still make plays thru the air. Indeed, it’s Wilson’s innate ability to keep his eyes downfield when on the move that causes so many headaches for opposing defenses. He’s nearly impossible to contain, and might be ready to parlay all of that moxie into an MVP season. The wideout corps is now considered top-tier after Doug Baldwin caught 14 TDP a year ago while Tyler Lcokett and Jermaine Kearse combined for 100 catches. A key in 2016 will be embracing the full skill set of ex-Saints TE Jimmy Graham, who endured a somewhat disappointing Seattle debut LY before tearing a patella tendon in the Week 11. Graham’s best numbers, however, came right before his injury, suggesting that o.c. Darrell Bevell and Wilson might have figured out how to use him best.
Much is being made of the decision of longtime key cog RB Marshawn Lynch to retire, but injuries had already reduced his role a year ago, when rookie Central Michigan rookie Thomas “Lou” Rawls would lead the team with 830 YR. Rawls has returned from a late-season broken ankle, and along with ex-Texas A&M start Christine Michael and perhaps a couple of rookie draft picks (Alex Collins from Arkansas and C.J. Prosise from Notre Dame) provide depth for the infantry.
Seattle’s defense was still blue-chip last season when it allowed the fewest points in the league and the second fewest yards. All after a bumpy beginning when key S Kam Chancellor was an early-season holdout. With Chancellor in the lineup, however, Seattle was 8-3 last season, and hoped there would be a reunion of sorts in the “Legion of Boom” secondary with Chancellor in the saddle from the outset and former member Brandon Browner back after a two-year sojourn to New England and New Orleans, perhaps to line up opposite CB Richard Sherman, reprising their old bookend shutdown corner roles. Browner, however, has lost a step, and was being projected more at safety, and when that diodn't work as well as expected, Browner was released in late August, though Carroll said there was a chance he could be re-signed.
The Seattle “D” didn’t force as many TOs last season, instead using brute force for effectiveness. The usual suspects are back on the DL, led by Michael Bennett, who can swing from an end to a tackle slot, and that versatility might come in handy after DT Brandon Mebane moved to the Chargers in free agency. Another starter, SLB Bruce Irvin, moved to the Raiders, though MLB Bobby Wagner and underrated ILB K.J. Wright are two of the league’s best.
The Seahawks seemed to suffer from the familiar Super Bowl losers hangover a year ago, compounded by contract distractions and key injuries. None of those appear to be concerns entering this season, and if things fall in place and Wilson has the sort of campaign we expect, Seattle likely re-claims the West from the Cardinals and should have a good shot at its third Super Bowl trip in four seasons.
Spread-wise, the Hawks’ success for Carroll from a few seasons ago has flattened out somewhat; Seattle was just 4-4 vs. the line at CenturyLink Field LY after an 18-6 mark in regular-season play the previous three years. The Hawks aren’t underdogs very often these days, but note they’re 9-4-1 in that role since Wilson took over at QB in 2012.
In the coming weeks and months, we’ll find out once more if preseason results mean anything (they usually don’t, but sometimes, well...). We’re talking about the Arizona Cardinals (2015 SUR 14-4, PSR 9-9, O/U 8-10), who did not accomplish a whole lot on the field in their first three exhibition games (all losses), save establishing the fact that the offense would be in big trouble if third-string QB Matt Barkley had to take snaps in the regular season.
In fact, the Cards are probably glad to be rid of August altogether, with the preseason losses, HC Bruce Arians forced to the hospital after feeling ill at one of the practice sessions, and the wife of longtime owner Bill Bidwill passing away as well.
As for the desultory early preseason results, they probably don’t mean a lot because much of the time Barkley was on the field. Don’t worry, Big Red fans, that probably won’t happen once the real games begin, but after Ryan Lindley had to be re-acquired late in the season and actually started a playoff game two years ago, the support base in the Valley of the Sun is aware that worst-case scenarios can happen at the QB position. Arians, however, knows what he has in starter Carson Palmer and had no interest in more than limited work for him in the meaningless games, especially since Palmer has had injury problems before. Backup Drew Stanton is serviceable and a well-established backup, so the Cards should feel rather comfy at the QB spot heading into the season.
On the plus side in preseason, at least Palmer didn’t get hurt, but we wonder how long Arians is going to be able to keep squeezing big years out of his 36-year-old pilot, who had the best regular season of his career a year ago when passing for 4671 yards and 35 TDs, with nine, count ‘em nine, 300-yard games. All the more remarkable since Palmer didn’t have key WR Michael Floyd at 100% until midseason and Arizona spent much of the first half of the campaign trying to establish the run with Chris and David Johnson. Palmer was not particularly sharp in the playoffs, however, tossing six picks even though he recorded the first postseason win of his career in a Division Round OT thriller vs. the Packers. The NFC title game vs. the Panthers was one he would rather forget, with four interceptions in that humiliating 49-15 loss at Charlotte.
For the Cards to win big again, another wow-ee ka-zow-ee season from one more oldster, 33-year-old WR Larry Fitzgerald, who proved he still had plenty of tread on his tires a year ago with his best stats (109 catches and 11 TDs) since 2011, would certainly come in handy, though either the aforementioned Floyd (52 catches LY) or big-play threat John Brown (65 catches LY) could supplant Fitz as Palmer’s favorite target. One of the revelations of last season was RB David Johnson, who arrived without much fanfare as a 3rd-round draft pick from Northern Iowa (special to Big Red fans as Kurt Warner's alma mater) and emerged as the workhorse by the end of the year, though versatile vet Chris Johnson, who once upon a time led the league in rushing, should again prove a useful option.
The concern on offense for Arians, other than keeping Palmer in one piece, could be a remolded OL with three new starters from a forward wall that allowed only 27 sacks (fourth-fewest in league) a year ago. Shrewd GM Steve Keim, who has pushed a lot of the correct personnel buttons the past few years, was able to minimize the damage by inking ex-Panther G Evan Mathis in free agency. Arizona also has a rather reliable FG kicker in ex-Clemson PK Chandler Catrazaro, who made 28 of 31 FG tries last season, but he inexplicably missed five PATs and did not kick a FG from 50 yards or longer.
Even considering the torch job it endured from Cam Newton and the Panthers in the NFC title game, the defense has been one of the conference’s best for the past three seasons and allowed fewer than 20 ppg in 2015. No team blitzes more than the Big Red, which is why d.c. James Bettcher would like his platoon to improve upon the very modest 36 sacks it generated a year ago. Once again, enter GM Keim, who addressed that potential area of conern with gusto in the offseason, trading for Patriots LB Chandler Jones (12 ½ sacks last season) and tabbing Ole Miss DE Robert Nkemdiche, considered a possible top five pick before off-field distractions, at the bottom of the first round.
The highlight area of the platoon, however, remains the secondary, especially if star FS Tyrann Matthieu has recovered fully from his second ACL surgery in two years. The “Honey Badger” has continued to rehab thru August and was just recently reactivated from the PUP list, though his target return date remains the opener on September 11 vs. New England. His old LSU buddy, Patrick Peterson, remains state of the art at one of the corner spots, though the entire secondary has something to prove after their poor effort in the NFC title game vs. the Panthers.
At times we wonder if Arians has squeezed as much as he could out of this team the past three seasons, as the Big Red appeared to tire after everything came together in penultimate week, 38-8 romp past the Packers. Arizona didn’t play a sharp game thereafter and certainly has had a dull edge in preseason. Maybe we’re nitpicking, but we see reason for concern. Note also that Palmer, for all of his gaudy stats, has not had much career success in the postseason. The pieces are certainly in place for another playoff push, but we suspect the Big Red backs up a bit after last season, and perhaps much further back if Palmer should go down.
The tech trend to watch for Arians has been his stellar mark as an underdog (13-6 in the reg. season the past two years), though other than the NFC title game at Carolina, the Big Red received points only one other time (at Seattle, a 39-32 win) last season.
While we have empathy for the fans in St. Louis, who have lost an NFL franchise for the second time in 28 years, it’s kind of nice having the Los Angeles Rams (2015 SUR 7-9, PSR 7-8-1, O/U 4-12) to kick around again. Owner Stan Kroenke, who since buying the team from the estate of Georgia Frontiere (Kroenke was a minority owner in Georgia’s final years) had his eyes on a move for the franchise back to its home base from 1946-94, finally got his wish in January.
Thank a lease at the Edward Jones Dome that included an escape clause every five years if the city didn’t maintain the Dome in the top ten stadiums in the league. Plus Kroenke’s very deep pockets (his wife Ann is a daughter of Sam Walton and has a larger net worth than even Stan!) and ability to not blink at the $500 million relocation fee or funding for a new, state-of-the-art $2.8 billion stadium as part of a new entertainment complex in Inglewood on the site of the old Hollywood Park race track.
For the time being, the Rams will pitch their tents at the venerable and historic LA Coliseum, which the team actually abandoned after 1979 but now becomes the NFL’s oldest facility by about 40 years for the next three seasons before the Inglewood palace is ready. Since the move was announced, the Rams have been bouncing around So Cal, setting up temporary headquarters in Ventura County, at Oxnard, at the outset before they headed more than 100 miles south to Orange County (an ode, perhaps, to their years at nearby Anaheim Stadium from 1980-1994) and UC Irvine for training camp. Then, it’s back to Ventura County, though a bit closer to LA in Thousand Oaks, and the temporary team headquarters at Cal Lutheran University, which Dallas Cowboys fans might remember as their team’s training camp from 1963-89.
Steering the ship into battle for a fifth season is HC Jeff Fisher, who has managed to keep his job despite not yet delivering a winning record for the horned helmets. In fact, Fisher does not have a winning record in his last six seasons as a head coach (also counting 2009-10 with the Titans), with only six of those winning records in 21 seasons as a head coach dating back to 1994 and the old Houston Oilers! Fisher, however, has dealt with franchise moves before, being part of the Oilers’ transfer to Tennessee in 1997 (which first stopped off in Memphis for a year, then to Nashville and Vanderbilt Stadium, before a move into the new stadium by the banks of the Cumberland, now called Toyota Stadium). So, if nothing else, Fisher has experience with this sort of upheaval, even if his teams haven’t posted a winning record since George W. Bush was still in the White House.
After the Sam Bradford experiment at QB finally fizzled a couple of years ago in St. Louis, the Rams were looking for a franchise QB befitting their new/old role as Hollywood’s team after featuring the likes of Norm Van Brocklin, Bob Waterfield, Roman Gabriel, and (for a short while) Joe Namath in their first incarnation in Los Angeles. So, a draft day deal was swung with the Titans for the top pick and a chance to nab Cal QB Jared Goff with the first choice. Goff, however, remains a developmental project (perhaps not for too long), and there is a good chance that journeyman holdover Case Keenum, serviceable when taking over for Nick Foles late last season, will be able to keep the ship afloat until Goff is deemed ready to start, which might come later this season, but perhaps not until 2017.
Keenum has been running first string in summer appears the de facto starter as preseason is ready to conclude, but how long he might remain in the saddle depends upon how the Rams are faring in the standings. If the season starts to go sideways, most expect Goff to move into the lineup sooner rather than later.
The Rams were not especially active in free agency except for trying to keep as many of their unrestricted FAs in house as possible. They did not really address the suspect receiver positions, though they did go for pass-catchers with three of their six picks in the draft, with fourth-rounders TE Tyler Higbee (Western Kentucky) and WR Pharoh Cooper (South Carolina) both featured at times in preseason. Still, this looks like an area of potential concern, though GM Les Snead thought enough of LY’s leading receiver Tavon Austin (52 receptions but only 9.1 yards per catch in 2015) to ink him to a long-term deal in August.
The offense should revolve around second-year RB Todd Gurley, who seems destined to be the first star of the new LA Rams. After recovering from a knee injury early last season, the ex-Georgia Bulldog burst upon the scene with four straight 100-yard games en route to 1106 YR and Rookie of the Year honors. The offensive line is big but young and remains a work in progress. Perhaps it is a positive sign that after investing heavily up front the past few years, Snead did not pick a lineman in the draft at Chicago. Another situation to watch is at PK, where strong-legged Greg Zuerlein endured his worst season a year ago, missing 10 FG tries.
What little additions Snead made in free agency came on the defensive side, where he hopes ex-Jets DE Quinton Coples and ex-Titans CB Coty Sensabaugh can make immediate contributions. Getting MLB Alec Ogletree back from a broken leg should be a plus after MLB James Laurinaitis (whose position Ogletree will assume) left in free agency. Former S Mark Barron moved to OLB when Ogletree was hurt last season and was so impressive that he will stay in his new position.
Yet the Rams could also not hold on to CB Janoris Jenkins or S Rodney McLeod, two key members of their secondary who both departed in free agency, though Snead and Fisher like their depth in the defensive backfield. Key CB Trumaine Johnson received the franchise tag after picking off seven passes last year, but must stay healthy after missing games each of the past two seasons.
The strength of the stop unit remains up front, where ex-Pitt DT Aaron Donald (11 sacks LY) has emerged as a monster, and with ex-LSU Michael Brockers forms one of the best 1-2 combos at the tackle spots in the league. The addition of DE Coples should goose the pass rush that needed a bit more bit from the edge than Robert Quinn and William Hayes provided last season.
Consistency has been a recurring issue for Fisher, whose team was good enough to win at Arizona and Seattle last season (indeed, beating the Seahawks in both meetings) but losing at San Francisco and hammered at Chicago in another back-and-forth season. Like a year ago, the Rams might be close to a breakthrough, but with the jury still out on too many areas on offense, and the secondary a bit of a question, overtaking the top two in the division and getting into the playoff mix looks a tall order.
Fisher’s spread marks with the Rams have flattened since an 11-5 mark vs. the number in his debut season of 2012. The recent trend to note has been “under” with LA that way 12-4 last season and 15-5 since late in the 2014 campaign.
It’s hard to believe the San Francisco 49ers (2015 SUR 5-11, PSR 7-9; O/U 7-9) were knocking on the door of a championship just a few years ago. That might as well seem decades to Niner backers who are now having to look a lot further in the rear-view mirror to recall the franchise’s glory days, with the last Super Bowl title 22 years ago.
Itr still rankles many 49ers fans how the Jim Harbaugh regime could have unraveled so completely and in such a short period of time when it looked as if everything was in place for a long and successful partnership at the new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. But it started to go pear-shaped when Harbaugh began to tinker a bit much with the offense in 2014 and QB Colin Kaepernick lost his mojo. (More on Kaepernick in a moment.) By the end of 2014, most 49er fans knew that Harbaugh’s forced departure might have been the best for all parties considered, though still wondered how it all went wrong so quickly. (Michigan supporters have been forewarned.)
Last year then turned out to be a complete waste in San Francisco, as the doldrums deepened. The hire of longtime position coach Jim Tomsula to succeed Harbaugh was doomed from the start and failed predictably, as Tomsula was given little talent, while injuries and trades hampered his ability to field a winning team. Which apparently almost cost GM Trent Baalke (earlier at odds with Harbaugh) his job as well. The demise of Kaepernick was perhaps the most-significant marker in 2015 before the expected dismissal of Tomsula. What surprised a bit was the Niners turning the reins over to ex-Oregon and Eagles HC Chip Kelly, whose tenure in Philly jumped the rails and prompted his own dismissal from the Birds just before the end of last season.
Kelly, who was rumored for a time to be bound for Tennessee where he could have reunited with his college QB Marcus Mariota, now inherits what was the NFL’s lowest-scoring team (just 237 points) a year ago. Unfortunately for Chip, the high-tempo Kelly scheme never seemed to have the proper fit at QB in Philly and we’re not sure he has it with the Niners, either, as Kaepernick, once considered a perfect match for the Kelly system, appears a shell of himself after various injuries KO’d him a year ago and shoulder woes kept him out of the first two preseason games this summer. Mostly, Kaepernick’s confidence seems to be waning, though a bit of the old swagger appeared to return in the preseason finale vs. the Chargers. His recent national anthem controversy in the home preseason loss to the Packers has turned into a national news flashpoint, but Kaepernick’s roster spot was rumored in jeopardy even before his anthem sit-down (which, it should be noted, started at the beginning of preseason...it just wasn't noticed until the Green Bbay game). Whatever, get used to Kaepernick being one of the top news stories in the NFL until further notice, with the national anthem suddenly must-see viewing in 49ers games, which are now top stories on CNN and FNC, not to mention ESPN.
While Kaepernick floundered and eventually had to go into dry-dock last season, ex-Mizzou star and former Jags first-round pick Blaine Gabbert took a stab running the Tomsula offense and did well enough to get invited back to compete for the job, which he might have won by default though he has actually looked serviceable in the Kelly offense this summer. Not that it is what the fan base wanted; beyond Kaepernick’s anthem antics, the 49er faithful realized the door was still open to win the QB job, but some of the bad habits that Kaepernick into trouble in the pocket the past couple of years did not abate (indeed, they seemed to get worse) in his first summer work. With GM Baalke not addressing the QB situation in free agency, and waiting until the sixth round in the draft to nab a QB (Florida and La Tech’s Jeff Driskel), Gabbert looks like the best alternative to run the offense until further notice. (Though the most-effective 49er QB of the summer has been the much-traveled Christian Ponder, signed after Thad Lewis injured a knee in the preseason opener vs. Houston, and leading comeback wins at Denver and San Diego. Ponder’s presence intrigues because it might open the door to jettison Kaepernick. Stay tuned.)
The high-speed Kelly offense has gotten moving a few times in the preseason, and if healthy, RB Carlos Hyde can likely fill the featured runner role once occupied in the Harbaugh years by Frank Gore. But Hyde was dealing with concussion issues at the end of preseason and his availability for the opener vs. the Rams was in question, and he has missed 11 games the past two seasons. Another question about the Kelly offense is its lack of ball control, as his Eagles were at or near the bottom in time of possession the past three years. Without a big-time defense, that sort of stat-line proves especially ominous.
Gabbert, or whomever Kelly uses at QB, does not have a plethora of receiving weapons on hand, either, with former Raven Torrey Smith likely the top target after Anquan Boldin, expected to re-sign by many observers, instead opted to ink with the Lions in late July. The Niners also don’t have the sort of athletic TE a Kelly offense could use. Meanwhile, the OL, one of several flashpoints of the problems the past two seasons, received some attention in free agency (adding Jags G Zane Beadles) and the draft (the Niners traded up to nab Stanford G Josh Garnett late in the first round), though the loss of G Alex Boone in FA to the Vikings might make the offseason juggling a wash.
Put in difficult spots by the sputtering offense last season, the “D” was probably better than its stats indicated, and proved resourceful by ranking in the middle of points allowed despite low rankings vs. the rush and pass. The secondary, however, was a weakness, as San Francisco managed only eight picks all of last season, which prompted Baalke to take three CBs in the draft. None of those, however, figure to crack the lineup. Former Colts SS Antoine Bethea had his season cut short a year ago by a pectoral tear but can offer good leadership if back on the field.
Kelly will see some familiar Oregon faces on his defensive front, with last year’s first-round DT Arik Armstead now joined by this year’s first-round pick, DE DeForest Buckner, in a very Ducky-looking DL. The tone of the “D” is set by punishing ILB NaVorro Bowman, who recovered from a horrific knee injury in the 2013 NFC title game vs. Seattle that cost him 2014 in rehab but is the unquestioned emotional heart of the platoon after his NFL-high 154 tackles in 2015.
After Kelly’s operation veered off course in Philly, we have to wonder if his schemes can ever really resonate in the NFL. Perhaps they can with the right pieces on offense, but the 49ers’ current hodge-podge of role players hardly seems suited for any breakthrough until further notice. San Francisco might not be as bad as most are predicting, and it should do a bit better than last season when it was competitive in only half of its games, but it’s hard to project the Niners higher than anybody else in the West. By the end of the season, the recent but short-lived Harbaugh renaissance era might feel like it happened a lot longer than just a few years ago.
It was no surprise that Kelly’s teams trended “over” in Philly (28-20 “over” the past three years, including an “over” in the game after Kelly was canned in the 2015 finale vs. the Giants). That’s a change from the recent 49er “under” trend (20-12 the past two seasons). Under Tomsula, the Niners did fare better at home vs. the number (5-3) a year ago than they did in Harbaugh’s last season (2-6 in 2014). Within the division, note San Francisco has gone eight straight meetings without a cover vs. the rival Seahawks!
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