The NFC West is arguably the most talked about division in all of football, consisting of intense coaches, tremendous talent, a plethora of trash-talking, and of course, the defending Super Bowl Champions. Heading this prestigious conference are the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, who had two of the three best records in all of football last year at 13-3 and 12-4. With these powerhouses sitting at the top, it is easy to forget about the great 10-6 season that the Arizona Cardinals had this past year. Bringing up the rear are a not too shabby St. Louis Rams team, who at 7-9 helped the NFC West obtain the best record in football at 42-22. However, 2014 is a new year with new transactions, new contracts, and more experience for the up-and-coming young stars of the division. Let’s dive in, shall we?
St. Louis Rams
We embark on our quest for enlightenment with last year’s bottom feeder, the St. Louis Rams. The Rams were a team searching for an answer last year, and they found one in running back Zac Stacy, who had a breakout 2013-2014 season, helping the Rams have a somewhat respectful season. Looking to 2014-2015, Jeff Fisher will be looking to make some noise, and emerge among the powers of the NFC West. Despite slight disappointment last year, this year, the team may be ready to make a push.
I have serious doubts when it comes the Rams’ secondary. While there may be talent amongst the secondary, it is an extremely young one, with seven new defensive backs including four rookies. Headlining this group of rookies is Lamarcus Joyner out of Florida State. If they want to have any chance of competing in this league full of up and coming quarterbacks, they are going to have to be able to hold their own in the secondary, and let their defensive line control the game.
The biggest strength for the Rams is being able to control the trenches. The Rams really worked hard on strengthening their O-Line as they drafted OT Greg Robinson second overall. In addition, they resigned LG Roger Saffold, who alongside Robinson and former number one overall pick Jake Long, should be able to create ample holes for emerging star Zac Stacy and former Auburn rookie Tre Mason. The Rams running game will be their focus on offense, as they have all the pieces necessary to be able to produce a dynamic running attack.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line is loaded with talented veterans. To help strengthen an already strong core group headed by Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, and Robert Quinn, the Rams signed veteran Alex Carrington from the Bills, and they additionally drafted Aaron Donald from Pittsburgh, who led the NCAA in tackles for loss last season. The defensive line will have to be able to halt the running game, and control the dynamic quarterbacks of the West, in order to help an otherwise suspect defense.
Keys to Success
The defenses in the NFC West are elite; they are arguably the best in the game. The Rams defense is solid, but not up to the same level as the rest of the division. As a result of this, they will have to be able to develop into a legitimate dual-threat offense. Sam Bradford was on track for his best season yet before his season came to a halt with a season ending injury. Nevertheless, the former Sooner is on the hot seat in my opinion, as he needs to be able to deliver this season if he wants to remain a starting quarterback in this league. The running game will be the main aspect of their offense, but in order to open up Stacy and Mason, Bradford needs to utilize big play threats Tavon Austin and free-agent signee, Kenny Britt. If St. Louis can emerge as a dual-threat offense, they may have a shot at contention with the top of the division.
The Rams are close, but at the end of the day I don’t see them making the hurdle to elite just quite yet. Their depth worries me, and teams should be able to pass the ball with ease against their lacking secondary. Their offense will be tough to stop, but not tough enough in the end.
Next, we head west to Arizona. The Cardinals successful 2013-2014 was overlooked despite a surprising 10-6 year. Much like the Rams, the Cardinals found an answer least year in a breakout running back, Andre Ellington. Bruce Arians is in his second year at the helm ,and with Ellington back and pieces surrounding him, we will see if the Cardinals can make the final leap to the playoffs.
My biggest concerns for the boys from Zona are the linebackers and the defensive line. The linebacking core took a huge hit in the offseason as Karlos Dansby signed with the Browns, and Daryl Washington is suspended for the year as a result of marijuana usage. Come on Daryl, you’re better than that. The Cardinals are stuck now with unproven Kevin Minter and veteran Larry Foote who is past his prime and unable to play a full game.
Dansby and Washington were monumental in the Arizona pass rush, and without them, quarterbacks just might have too much time when they face the Cardinals. Calais Campbell and John Abraham were successful last year, but Abraham is now 36 years old and unable to perform consistently at a high level. Linemen Matt Shaugnessy and Darnell Dockett are solid defenders against the run, but when I look at the Arizona front seven, I see a group who is just hanging on. As soon as someone goes down with an injury, the rush defense and pass rush is going to be in serious trouble.
The areas of in which the Cardinals can count on are their receivers and their secondary. Although Larry Fitzgerald had a somewhat disappointing 2013-2014, he is still one of the top five receivers in the league, and can carry an offense single-handedly. Pun intended. In addition, Michael Floyd emerged last year as a reliable threat, and with the signing of big-play Ted Ginn, the receivers from Arizona will be a serious force to be reckoned with. If one of the many young Tight Ends can emerge as a consistent threat, the Cardinals passing attack may be a serious threat.
The Cardinals secondary can sometimes be overlooked because of the defense up in Seattle, but the Cardinals have a remarkably good secondary. This secondary is anchored by star Patrick Peterson, who just signed the largest contract among active DBs. On the other side is everyone’s favorite Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu, who grew into the lockdown defender the Cardinals knew he could be. Moreover, the Cardinals brought in Antonio Cromartie, who, when at full health, is another lockdown corner. To replenish the safety position after the loss of Yeremiah Bell, the Cardinals drafted Deone Bucannon out of Washington State who should be able to step in right away.
Keys to Success
It is absolutely vital that the Cardinals can once again establish their running game for a multitude of reasons. Carson Palmer is entering some of his last years, and although he will not be able to do anything spectacular, he will be able to produce with the talented receivers he has. However, Ellington needs to take a lot of pressure off of Palmer with the running game. If the Cardinals can run the ball, they will be able to control the clock and control the game which will keep their aged defense off the field as much as possible. The secondary is young, energetic, and will not have a problem with playing lots of snaps, but the front seven is a completely different story. The linemen and linebackers are full of veterans who are capable of high performance, but their snaps need to be limited. I believe the Cardinals will be able to establish this mandatory running game, as the offensive line is young, but full of potential. One of their biggest signings was left tackle Jared Veldheer who will play a huge role in the Arizona offense.
I like what the Cardinals have done this offseason, but I honestly think this year will be a step in the wrong direction. Their secondary is deadly, and their defense has lots of potential, but I have fear that Ellington will not be able to produce like he did at the end of last year. The depth on offense worries me, along with Carson Palmer’s old age and his tendency to throw interceptions. This team can contend, but they are not quite good enough.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are coming off a successful season, where they fell just one play short of the Super Bowl. Their season began with an inconsistent Colin Kaepernick, but as the season progressed and Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree got healthy, Colin hit his stride, and the 49ers found themselves in the playoffs, just short of the division winning Seahawks. Led by intense coach Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers are going to be hungrier than ever.
The 49ers are coming off a very successful defensive season, but it will not come as easily this year, as there are many question marks in the secondary. With the loss of Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, and Donte Whitner, San Fran will be searching for answers in Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock. Although both guys have some experience, neither of them can be relied on all-season. They brought in cornerback Chris Cook and safety Antone Bethea, but again, neither can be relied on to lock anyone down.
I see the 2014 49ers biggest strength as their offense. Kaepernick will be hungry after last season’s bitter conclusion, and he will finally have a full season with all of his weapons healthy. With Crabtree and Vernon Davis anchoring the receiving core, they negated the loss of Mario Manningham by signing Brandon Lloyd and Stevie Johnson, who will help take some of the pressure off of Davis and Crabtree down the stretch.
Additionally the running game should be at full strength as they return a veteran offensive line, and fighter, Frank Gore. However, as a result of Gore’s age being a risk going into the season, the 9ers drafted underrated Buckeye running back Carlos Hyde, who, in my opinion, is an NFL-ready tailback.
Key to Success
The key to success for the 49ers this year will be their front seven on the defensive side of the ball. This aspect of the game has been the anchor of this team in the past, and if they want to take down the Seahawks, they are going to have to be even stronger this year. They will have to do without Aldon Smith for an undetermined amount of time because of his numerous legal problems. The rest of the core is still around, but the two players who are question marks or Navarro Bowman after his gruesome ACL, MCL injury. In addition, the man who will be playing for Aldon while he is out is second year player Corey Lemonier, who will need to overachieve in order to keep this San Francisco defense a powerhouse.
The San Francisco 49ers were a great football team in 2013, but they could not make the leap over the Seahawks because they had a few areas that needed reinforcement. This offseason, they have gotten the reinforcement and then some. Their offensive depth is off the charts and while there may be some question marks on the defensive side, they return enough of the core to have a lockdown D, and in my opinion, to make a Super Bowl run.
The Seahawks and the Legion of Boom are coming off an incredible Super Bowl season where at times they were as dominant as a team can be in professional sports. With some more question marks than there were last year, it will be very interesting to see if the Seahawks can reach the promise land once more.
The biggest concern for me has to be the running game. While Marshawn Lynch is one of the hardest runners in the NFL, his style of running can only be effective for a certain amount of years before it starts wearing on him. The Seahawks have heavily relied on him in the past, and he is reaching a point in his career where he may be prone to injury. To make matters worse, there are many holes in the offensive line, and with the loss of Breno Giacomini and the injury prone Russell Okung, Lynch may be taking more hits than he can handle.
Even with the losses of Red Bryant, Brandon Browner, and Walter Thurmond, the L.O.B will be back in full force this year. Headed by everyone’s favorite Richard Sherman, the secondary will still be strong, with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor making noise in the passing game. Also, the Seahawks return all of their linebackers in Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, and Malcolm Smith, who will be sure to cause plenty of havoc in the middle. Rushing the passer should not be a problem either as Michael Bennett, Brandon Mebane, and Cliff Avril will be causing nightmares for quarterbacks everywhere.
Key to Success
The key to success for the Seahawks is going to be Russell Wilson and the passing game. Russell will enjoy the luxury of getting Percy Harvin back from injury, but this comes at the cost of losing his former top-target Golden Tate. When Wilson isn’t finding Harvin, he will be forced to look elsewhere to Jermaine Kearse, Zach Miller, and others. With Marshawn Lynch not being able to carry as much of the load this year, Wilson will need to be able to shoulder more responsibility, and take the reigns of the offense.
The Seahawks will be a playoff team undoubtedly again, but I see some holes in the defense that worry me a little. The depth is not there on the offensive side at any position, which is very worrisome to me in such a physical division. Wilson will have by far his best year, and the defense will be stout, but I do not see this Seahawks team as a Super Bowl Champion.