St Louis has always been known as the gateway to the best. After a terrific offseason by the Rams, Seahawks, 49ers and to certain extents, the Cardinals, the NFC West may deserve the moniker of being the gateway to the best in the NFL this season.
The mediocre days of the western division of the NFC are long behind us. Each team has a similar blue print. Build from your defense, draft well and develop good young quarterbacks. Trent Baalke, Les Snead and John Schneider are quickly becoming three of the best young general managers in the game and have built their teams to last.
Though I try to avoid bias, this was one primer that I was really looking forward to writing.
The St. Louis Rams were a fun team to watch last season. Casual fans may not pay much attention to them, but slowly but surely, they are going to be a force to be reckoned with.
I typically start these blog posts by talking about the offense, but the Rams shine with a young attacking defense that was tied for first in the league in sacks with 52. Robert Quinn and Chris Long are absolute studs and fit perfectly with the type of defensive ends that Jeff Fisher likes. Robert Quinn is the speed rusher while Chris Long is more of a run stuffer and complete defensive end. Howie Long’s song has finished in the top 3 in the last 4 years in total sacks, hits and hurries that he earned, according to Pro Football Focus. Both Long and Quinn are able to terrorize quarterbacks and make it virtually impossible to double-team either of them. Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers round out a front four which, in my book, is at the top of the league. Both 3-techniques can move piles and keep those disruptive defensive ends clean when they come around the edges.
Where the Rams truly shine is the way the front and back end compliment each other. Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan do not get enough publicity as one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL. Jenkins is a ball hawk who scored three interception returns for touchdowns, two in one game against the Cardinals. He can play undisciplined and gamble too much at times but, as he grows as a corner, he will learn when to bait receivers and when to be more conservative. He has a lot of potential. Finnegan is as feisty as they come as a corner. He backs down from no one and can play press-man or zone with the best of them. It is an added bonus when your best corner can also be one of your best tacklers and Finnegan provided such production to the tune of 83 tackles. I was disappointed that they did not go after a safety, as that is still a position that is in flux and needs to be better especially with the loss of Craig Dahl to the 49ers.
The linebackers are led by James Laurinaitis who has been a solid contributor during his time with the Rams and is establishing himself as one of the more complete middle linebackers. Although he does not possess the athleticism of the new wave of middle linebackers, Laurinaitis has a tremendous presence of what will transpire at his position, as evidence by his 117 solo tackles, and is always in the right spot to make plays, whether it is versus the run or the pass. Jo-Lonn Dunbar also had a tremendous season with 4 1/2 sacks and over 100 tackles as well. You add in Alec Ogletree who has the speed and quickness of a safety and we’re looking at one of the best linebacker corps in the NFC. Sideline to sideline, you will be hard pressed to find a better combination of Sam and Will linebackers.
The special teams are in adequate shape with Greg Zuerlein, who was 7-13 on kicks that traveled over 50 yards. Chris Givens, who I will mention shortly on the offensive side, is explosive as a return man and will be counted on to provide solid field position for the offense. Tavon Austin should factor into the return game as well.
If the Rams are going to make the playoffs, this is the year Sam Bradford must take the reigns of the offense, from a leadership and production standpoint. He has struggled throughout his career when pressured. That problem should be rectified with the addition of Jake Long to protect his blindside. This move was predicated on the plethora of pass rushers in the NFC West such as: Aldon Smith and Bruce Irvin. Long has performed well throughout his career, although many believe he can still reach that elite level, which he has failed to do consistently. Roger Saffold and Harvey Dahl, round out an offensive line that has been on steady upswing in the last 3 seasons, which is music to the ears of their quarterback. Nevertheless, Bradford must improve his accuracy and completion percentage. For a quarterback who was pegged for his ability to deliver the ball with precision, completion percentages of 60%, 53% and 59% are frankly mediocre and more must be demanded from a former number 1 overall pick.
Of course, many will agree that Bradford has not always had the necessary weapons to achieve such levels of production that are expected of a blue chip prospect. In fact, since Bradford has been drafted, the leading wide receivers for the Rams have amassed 689, 683 and 698 yards: Pedestrian numbers to say the least. Gone are slot demons Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson. Enter in the incredible speed and quickness of first rounder Tavon Austin, who the Rams traded up to select. Austin racked up over 1200 yards receiving and 600 yards rushing and displays the same type of dynamic playmaking ability that Percy Harvin possesses. This is not your typical slot receiver who consistently runs 3 yard slants or drag routes. Austin can beat you in a myriad of ways, whether it is deep, intermediate or short and it would not be a shock if he won the offensive rookie of the year award. So far, reports indicate he has absolutely dazzled the Rams in mini camp. Stedman Bailey somehow did not get drafted in the first round. While West Virginia played in an offense predicated on a high volume of passes, 1600 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns is nothing to sleep on. His size and lack of top end speed may have turned off some scouts. Ultimately, Bailey and Austin could become a tremendous duo in year one.
Chris Givens and Brian Quick round out a very young wide receiver corps that has the potential to blow the top of the Edward Jones Dome. Givens has elite speed and was seen catching a 50-yard pass during a 5-game stretch early in the season. Quick was disappointing last season, but has great size and many believe he would have a stellar rookie campaign last year. At 6-4, 220 pounds, he is the total package, but must learn the playbook and subtle nuances of the position.
Finally, Jared Cook and Lance Kendrick’s form a tight end group that can be one of the best in the NFL. Cook truly is one of the great mismatches in the game, as he can lineup at split end, flanker, tight end or even H-back. Bradford will be pounding the ball down the seams of defenses to Cook’s direction with reckless abandon, as he will be too quick for linebackers and far too physical for safeties. Kendrick’s is your more traditional tight end who can block, but provide some much needed help as a pass catcher.
Steven Jackson was jettisoned out of St. Louis and while he made a name for himself as one of the most underrated backs in the league, it was time to go. Isaiah Pead and more notably, Daryl Richardson, who looked awfully good in a few games against the Dolphins and 49ers, has the talent to be a feature back, despite his diminutive size. Look out for Zac Stacy who is a stocky runner who is in the mold of a Doug Martin and Maurice Jones-Drew.
Overlook the Rams all you want, but they are talented and they are young. If a playoff birth is not on the horizon this season, it will surely not be that much longer until the Rams regain the dominance that they had a little less than a decade ago.
The Arizona Cardinals did well eradicating the remnants of the Kevin Kolb era. In short, for two seasons, they paid Kolb $20 million for a total of 15 games, a little over 3000 yards, a completion percentage of 58% and 57 sacks. An absolute bust in every stretch of the imagination and as such, it was a factor in Ken Wisenhunt losing his job.
New GM Steve Keim has been with the organization for years and immediately after he took the position, it appeared quarterback was a position that was going to receive a makeover.
Carson Palmer comes in after a trade from the Raiders and a tumultuous time in the Bay Area. Last season, I felt he played admirably despite an inconsistent and at times non-existent running game and unpolished receivers. He still has enough arm strength to get the ball down the field in Bruce Arians’ offense that is predicated on the deep ball. So far in mini camp, Larry Fitzgerald appears very happy with the acquisition and Palmer has drawn rave reviews.
Fitzgerald had a woeful season, but of course that can be attributed to having a quarterback who does not push the envelope and utilize his abilities, which is the downfield and aerial attacking game. As a side note, he only recorded 798 yards last season. In 2011, he had over 1400, with John Skelton and Kevin Kolb. Carson Palmer simply needs to show up and Fitzgerald will be back to his typical production.
Andre Roberts, who had a nice season as a slot receiver, played really well through spurts and was second on the team in catches (64) and targets (114). With improved quarterback play and more deep throws to Fitzgerald, safeties will roll over his way, freeing up room for Roberts to better his numbers. Michael Floyd was drafted in the first round to take pressure of Fitzgerald and he had a disappointing season at nearly 6-5 and over 210 pounds, he has the size and stature to dominate the aerial game, similar to his Pro Bowl running mate. Wide Receivers generally have a tough time adjusting to the NFL game as rookies, so we expect Floyd, with the advent of a better quarterback, to post better numbers. The tight end is typically an important aspect in the offenses that Bruce Arians has run, which is opposite of the last few seasons in Arizona. Jeff King and especially Rob Housler, who posted decent production, should have more catches and get more attention this season.
All of that is moot if the offensive line does not hold up. Levi Brown is back, which will help Palmer’s blindside and the drafting of Jonathan Cooper was a wise move to shore up that interior offensive line. Still, I have questions about how they will pass block, especially the way Kevin Kolb was battered and bruised in the last two seasons.
The backfield becomes more crowded with the defection of Beanie Wells and addition of Rashard Mendenhall. Both have been injury prone and dealt with knee issues in the last couple of seasons. Wells only played in less than 13 games once in his career, but he seems to always be fighting injuries. Mendenhall was never a burner and with a torn ACL, it would not be shocking to see him as even less of a factor as a back that can bounce on the outside, but more so as a straight line, one cut runner which suits his skills. Ryan Williams has a lot of talent and terrific straight line speed as a runner, but when given the chance to leapfrog Wells and even utility man/special teams star Larod Stephens-Howling and rookie William Powell, he simply did not deliver and ultimately only played 5 games. He has to stay on the field this season or his time in the desert may be done. Andre Ellington is of a long line of speedy Clemson runners and he may have a beeline on a position that is wide open.
The offense can only go up from a 5th worst ranking last season. If Palmer plays just a tad better than last season with the Raiders, where he threw for over 4000 yards, the Cardinals can at least be middle of the pack offensively. This offense benefits Fitzgerald greatly and he will definitely have a bounce back season.
On the defensive side, Arizona looked great during the first four games of the season when they started 4-0. They falter afterwards, but retained their ranking as 4th best in the league in passing yards allowed.
This season, the Cardinals were dealt a massive blow when Daryl Washington was suspended for the first 4 games of the season due to a violation of the substance abuse program. As a middle linebacker, he amassed almost 100 solo tackles and recorded 10 sacks. He is as dynamic a linebacker as you will find in the league and his presence will be missed for the first four games.
Aside from Washington the linebacker crew is solid but unspectacular. Lorenzo Alexander is a good outside linebacker snatched up from Washington and Sam Ache has potential to be a good player. Jasper Brinkley, who was signed in the offseason, will take upon the leadership role while Washington is gone and he played very well last season recording almost 100 total tackles.
The Cardinals defense was able to make a drastic jump due to the evolution in Patrick Peterson’s game. If you have not seen him play, please do yourself a favor. He was absolutely lights out last season, to the point where his pears voted him as the 33rd ranked player of 2013 and the number one ranked corner. High praise considering the season Richard Sherman had. Obviously, the players factored in Peterson’s incredible return skills (4 return touchdowns in two seasons), but his 7 interceptions last season and coverage skills garnered the attention he deserves as a top-flight corner. Both players are elite at their position, but Peterson may have an edge with his ball skills and the fact that his highlights make it easier to rank him higher, like it or not. The opposite side of the ledger features Antoine Cason who was signed from the Chargers as a free agent. He is a good tackler and provides solid depth as a second or third corner. He will be in the mix with former Colt Jerraud Powers.
Tyrann Mathieu is listed as a safety before training camp. His skills are plentiful as a player who can provide help from a nickel standpoint or as a box safety that can blitz and provide assistance against the run. I can very easily see Mathieu having a great rookie season if he is given free-reign, like he was given at LSU. If you want a potential comparison, look at the way Charles Woodson lines up all over the field. Mathieu was used in a similar fashion in College and the Cardinals would be well advised in using him in a similar fashion. Where he truly shines is in the return game and in special teams. As a gunner, he has the speed and instincts to be a terrific tackler as well. I would not be shocked if Mathieu had a defensive rookie of the year type of season.
Despite the loss of defensive coordinator Ray Horton to Cleveland, the Cardinals will still employ a 3 down line front. Calais Campbell has established himself as one of the best 5-techniques from the 3-4 position who, as per Pro Football Focus, has ranked as a top 10 3-4 end since 2009 and during that time frame, collected at least 6 sacks, which is terrific for a 5 technique defensive end. We all know how good Darnell Dockett is, despite his years in the league adding up. It is surprising that they were not better against the run, as they boast some solid talent in their front 7.
Ultimately, the keys for the Cardinals are consistent quarterback play and the ability to actually establish a running game. Defensively, they have enough talent to be average.
The Seattle Seahawks had a tremendous season, considering everything they were up against (with a rookie quarterback and young defense) and the prognostications they were dealt with. They finished fourth in total defense and third in rushing yardage. Their rookie quarterback was sensational with a quarterback rating of 100. They were undefeated at home and beat the likes of the Patriots, Cowboys, 49ers, Vikings and Packers at the “C-Link”.
What is even scarier is that they have the potential to be better than last season. Top to bottom, we may be talking about the most complete team in the league.
Russell Wilson had as good a rookie season as any quarterback in the league. While he did not have as many passing yards as Andrew Luck, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell structured game plans around a terrific running game, while still allowing Wilson to take chances at certain moments. What impressed me the most about Wilson was his moxie and leadership. His teammates swear by him and he is the unquestioned leader of that offense, at 24 years old. His performance during the Wild Card round and Divisional playoff matchup against the Falcons, in which he threw for over 380 yards and two touchdowns, was breathtaking and showed that this season, when Bevell gives him full reigns of the offense, the sky is the limit for a quarterback who 74 teams passed up on last season.
Marshawn Lynch had his best season as a pro, recording just under 1600 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns. He has established himself as an elite runner with his bruising style. It will be interesting to see how the new crown of the helmet rule will affect Lynch, as he often delivers punishing blows to his opponents. I was really impressed with Robert Turbin who has a similar type of running style to Lynch. The drafting of Christine Michael could pay dividends in a few seasons. He had some off the field issues at Texas A&M, but from all accounts, as a 5-11, 210 pounds back who can run a near 4.4 40-yard dash, he has tremendous ability. The depth at the running back position, for the Seahawks, is as good as you will see.
The receiving corps gets a big boost with the addition of Percy Harvin. Wilson and Harvin could form some terrific mismatches and combinations with the read-option, but what the Seahawks finally have is a consistent playmaker on offense and special teams. Harvin was never a great long catch or deep ball receiver, but that could easily be attributed to average quarterback play. His game is predicated as a slot demon and catching hitches and running them for big gains. He has also spelled Adrian Peterson for small moments at the running back position, which he played sparingly at Florida. He compliments Sidney Rice and Golden Tate beautifully, who will fittingly slide into more suitable roles as 2nd and 3rd wide receivers. Rice appears to be slowly creeping back to his level of play in 2009 when he had a breakout season with Brett Favre at the helm. Tate had some big games when the offense started taking more chances and giving Wilson more control of the offense. Zach Miller has been disappointing in his two seasons as a Seahawk, recording a combined 629 yards. However, he was Russell Wilson’s most reliable receiver in the playoffs catching 15 passes for 190 yards. If he can provide the type of production that he displayed in the playoffs, it adds another dimension to Darrell Bevell’s offense.
The offensive line was in flux for a few years, but they finally came together last season. Russell Okung finally stayed healthy and had one of the better seasons from the left tackle position in the league, appearing in his first Pro Bowl. Max Unger also made the Pro Bowl last season and is an underrated center, which did not get the same notoriety that other premier centers get, until he made it into NFL Networks top 100 players of 2013 list.
On the defensive side, Seattle’s defense is devoid of the leadership of defensive coordinator Gus Bradley who was the architect of a defense that has been in the top 10 of the league in back to back seasons. Defensive line coach Dan Quinn will fill in that role, basically allowing them to use most of the same schemes that they excelled upon under Bradley.
The Seahawks will have another dominant season on defense with a defensive line that has tremendous depth, with the additions of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who both had 9 and 9.5 sacks respectively this past season. The additions of two more defensive ends were made necessary after the ACL tear by Chris Clemons against the Redskins during the Wild Card round. Let us not forget Bruce Irvin (who will only be available in week 5 due to substance abuse), who was dominant at times as a rookie defensive end with 8 sacks, playing mostly on third downs. At this point, I have not even mentioned the interior defensive line yet, which features two behemoths in Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane, who all together, are virtually impenetrable. The loss of Alan Branch will hurt, but look for Tony McDaniel, Clinton McDonald or 2013 draft pick and Penn State standout, Jordan Hill to fill in immediately in his shoes. Depth at the defensive line position is crucial in the NFL and Seattle has it in abundance.
The linebackers are young but talented led by Bobby Wagner who had 140 tackles last season and K.J. Wright who continues to improve as a strong side linebacker. They are allowed to make plays and roam free with the dominance of their defensive line, most notably Mebane and Bryant who take on blockers with ease.
Where the defense makes its mark is in the secondary. Richard Sherman had arguably the best season of any corner in the league with 8 interceptions and Brandon Browner was terrific as well. They will out match you on the outside and knock you out when you cross the middle. Sherman and Browner are such mismatches with their size and strength, especially Browner, who when you see him, you cannot believe that he can effectively run with the elite receivers because he is so big. They can cover big or small receivers and run with any of them. Sherman has gained a reputation of a player who runs his mouth, but can back it up with his play. He is more technically sound than Browner, but can play press coverage as well as anyone in the NFL. Earl Thomas made the Pro Bowl last season and fits the mold of the new athletic safety that can make plays all around the field. His acumen is more renown against the pass than versus the run with his terrific range. It will not be a stretch to see him becoming a top 3 safety in the league as he has finally put it all together with his overall game Kam Chancellor is a box safety who stuffs the run as well as anyone in the league. You do not want to be caught hot-dogging a catch in the middle of the field or Chancellor will lay you out.
What Seattle has done is set the blueprint on how to build a great defense. Draft young and fast linebackers, collect depth on your defensive line and draft a tall secondary to go against the bigger receivers in the league.
It is hard to say exactly what Seattle needs to do to better their success from last season. There are very few weaknesses on this team from top to bottom. Their defense cannot lay an egg like they did in the playoffs last season and Russell Wilson needs to take the next step and avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, that every media publication is intent on asking him about. On paper though, you will be hard pressed to find a more talented overall team.
We finish off with the San Francisco 49ers that came 5 yards away from winning the Super Bowl. Like the Seahawks, they are right there in the upper echelon of teams who are on the cusp of a championship.
Unfortunately, the news that Michael Crabtree injured his Achilles is a devastating blow considering the chemistry he displayed with Colin Kaepernick when he was inserted into the starting lineup. In 8 games with Kaepernick, Crabtree recorded 665 yards and 6 touchdowns compared to only 3 touchdowns and 440 yards with Alex Smith at the helm. The addition of Anquan Boldin helps, but like Crabtree, he is not a burner. Boldin excels making the clutch 3rd down catches when the game is on the line, as he did during last season’s Super Bowl run with the Ravens and he also needs very little separation to haul in passes. The key for this receiving corps will be for them to develop a true deep target. Randy Moss proved to be far too washed up to make a real difference. A.J. Jenkins, who played sparingly last season, is a burner who has apparently looked really good in mini camps. He did not catch a pass last season, despite injuries to Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham, which did not result in more playing time. Marion Manningham will be a key figure in the offense as long as he is recovered from a torn ACL and Kyle Williams will have an opportunity be prove he is more than just a return specialist. Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette are rookies to keep an eye on, especially Patton who displayed great skills at the combine. Vernon Davis will also need to have a bigger impact on the offense. His receiving abilities are virtually second to none at his position, but he goes through stretches of inconsistency. The loss of one of my favorites, Delanie Walker to Tennessee, will hurt, as he was a terrific special teams player and blocker. Niners fans will not miss his hands of stone though.
Obviously, Colin Kaepernick could play even better than he did last season and make the point moot with regards to which receiver needs to step up. If we just assume Kaepernick plays relatively the same as he did last year, which would mean over 250 yards per game and a 98 passer rating, the 49ers passing game will flourish, especially with the way John Harbaugh and Greg Romain scheme and use a myriad of formations. No team does a better job of running any type of passing play from different formations. The 49ers could put a big set with two tight ends and no receivers and run the read-option from the pistol on one play and two plays later, from the same formation, throw a deep ball to Vernon Davis. They also do misdirection better than any team in the league. I have seen plays where their guards pull to one direction and the running back goes in another.
As good as Kaepernick is in the passing game, the scheme he is in is tailor-made for his read-option skills, which accounted for 415 yards rushing in those 7 starts, most notably the gashing of the Packers. When you factor in Frank Gore who, two years in a row, has avoided nagging injuries and managed to play all 32 games, you have what amounts to a top 5 rushing attack. LaMichael James was explosive during stretches and with Kendall Hunter back from injury, you have another back who can break it for 80 yards on any given play. The rushing attack is spearheaded by, in my opinion, the best offensive line in the league led by Pro Bowlers, Joe Staley, Alex Boone and Mike Iupati. They are athletic, they are strong, they can move well in this system and they are equally effective via the pass or the run.
The defense is just as good as any in the league and features one of the best front seven’s in the NFL. Justin Smith is an absolute warrior who does not get enough credit for the amount of pressure he alleviates from Aldon Smith. Losing Isaac Sopoaga to Philadelphia is a crushing blow, but they added former first round Glenn Dorsey who had been a solid contributor with Kansas City, but did not live up to the potential. Ray McDonald is on Smith’s opposite side and is a good complimentary player. All three are talented and versatile enough to play all positions on the defensive line.
As mentioned, their three down-line sets compliment their terrific linebacker corps, which has been recognized as the best in the league. If you ask me, Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis are virtually equals in terms of their ability as middle linebackers. Bowman has stepped his game up and makes plays all over the field, similar to the way Willis does. Both players can read the play at a moments notice; have the strength to shed blockers and the speed to attack the ball carrier. They are physical, but can also be terrific against the pass.
On the outside, no one has recorded more sacks than Aldon Smith over the past 2 seasons, with 33.5. His speed off the edge is tremendous, but as Pro Football Focus has alluded to, he is a very good inside rusher as well. Obviously, his success has to be attributed to Justin Smith with the way he can take on blockers and that was evidenced by Aldon Smith’s inability to register a sack as soon as Justin Smith was injured in week 15 against the Patriots. As per Pro Football Focus, Aldon’s pass rush grade (a metric that measures the frequency of pressure generated by a defender) was -4.8 compared to the 17.2 grade he scored before Justin Smith’s injury. Clearly that had an impact on Aldon. With Smith back, although a year older, both Aldon and Justin Smith will desperately need each other to continue their amazing production. Ahmad Brooks provides solid, yet unspectacular production on the opposite side. He is more of a run stopper. Keep an eye on Corey Lemonier who was drafted this year out of Auburn. He could provide some solid pass rushing production from that position.
The secondary will need to improve from their terrible performance against the Ravens in the Super Bowl. I like the pick of Eric Reid, but it will be very difficult for him to come in right away and replace the production of Dashon Goldson. Donte’ Whitner is a very good player, who complimented Goldson perfectly. Carlos Rogers and Tarrell Brown are a solid group, who may or may not benefit from the addition of Nnamdi Asomugha, who virtually laid an egg during his two-year career with the Eagles. It is fair to say Philadelphia did not have the scheme nor players to compliment, Asomugha and I suspect defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will find ways to utilize him, potentially as a safety and against bigger corners. Regardless, the secondary is still above average and as long as their front 7 can get to the quarterback, they can remain simply an above average unit.
On Special teams, David Akers is gone after a disaster of a season in which he was below 70% accuracy. Phil Dawson, has been one of the best kickers in the game, was at 93% accuracy. Impressive considering he played 8 games in the brutal Cleveland weather and the rest of the cold climate AFC North. Transitioning to the great weather of San Francisco should not be a problem.
While punters get very little notoriety, when you have a defense as good as the 49ers do, paired with their defense, you will consistently win the field position battle.
The 49ers were so close to winning the title and like Seattle, are virtually complete from top to bottom, that the difference between each team will be so minute. Their secondary will need to be better than last season, which will be tough considering the defection of Dashon Goldson. As long as Kaepernick can play to the same level as he did in 2012 and they can develop a consistent deep passing threat, they will likely find themselves in a position to take the Lombardi trophy again.