ALL 32 of the NFL’s franchises are making their final preparations for the regular season, having completed training camp and played their four preseason games.
With that in mind, it’s worth looking at the state of play in each division, continuing this time with the NFC West.
Please, please remember that for all articles the preseason games will be ignored, no matter how good or bad a team looks. That means stellar preseason performances like Dak Prescott’s unfortunately have to go unappreciated.There’s been a changing of the guard in the NFC West. From 2011-2013 the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks were the unquestioned top two. Think of it like America and Russia in the space race: these two franchises hated each other but they made each other better – and everyone else was miles off. The two head coaches, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, had a fair claim to be the league’s top sideline generals.
But in 2014 things changed. Bruce Arians flew into Arizona fresh off a stint as a stand-in for the Indianapolis Colts’ head coach while Chuck Pagano battled for his life. Arians then laid his own claim to be the best coach in the league as he led the Cardinals to a 10-6 record. Meanwhile across the desert in sunny San Francisco, clouds began to circle. Harbaugh and the 49ers top brass, owner Jed York and GM Trent Baalke, weren’t getting on. There were rumours the players were tiring of Harbaugh’s relentless disciplinarian style. What from the outside would just look like a mediocre 8-8 season led to Harbaugh’s exit from the Bay Area and (not necessarily following him) a litany of players jumped off the ship. All this time the Seahawks were still flying highest, a year off winning the Super Bowl. In 2015, the Cardinals continued to improve and ended up flying all the way to the NFC Championship game. Both teams have an excellent chance of reaching the same heights again.
The Seahawks have Russell Wilson at quarterback who over his first four years in the league broke and set records on the way to being an elite player. There at people who still claim he isn’t an elite QB – they’re wrong. He is Houdini-like in escaping from the pocket, always keeps his eyes downfield and has great touch on all his passes. He doesn’t need to throw it deep often which is probably to his advantage but that doesn’t mean he physically can’t. Jimmy Graham was signed at tight end in a trade with the New Orleans Saints for Max Unger but the former school hoops star hasn’t produced what he’s capable of so far. Another year in the Seahawks offense – and a full offseason – should help. Tyler Lockett proved in limited snaps he was capable of big plays outside of the return game. And Doug Baldwin is now in the top half of the league’s receivers, if not the top ten. Even though the Hawks lost Marshawn Lynch, Wilson will demand enough attention that the run game can still be a success.
The defence has maybe lost a bit of its Legion of Boom swagger, but Richard Sherman remains as dangerous a corner as ever. He broke up 14 passes last year and two interceptions despite QBs avoiding him as much as possible. Safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are still among the league’s best. The secondary’s reputation overshadows a nasty front seven, with playmakers emerging like Bobby Wagner and Frank Clark alongside veterans such as Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril.
The Cardinals are high-powered on both sides of the ball. They have an explosive, big-play offense and a blitz-happy defence. Carson Palmer has been playing his best football in Arizona, even if he saved his poorest display for the NFC Championship game. But he still received his first Pro Bowl nod for nine years under Arians’ tuition. The Cardinals’ receiving corps is deep, too. Led by future Hall of Fame candidate and franchise legend Larry Fitzgerald (who is still making amazing plays despite his age) and backed up by Michael Floyd and the ‘Brown Brothers’, John and Jarrod, there’s enough talent here to sin battles against most secondaries. Moreover, David Johnson is a capable receiving back, in addition to climbing his way up the ladder to being considered a top ten runner in the NFL.
The defence, led by Patrick Peterson, wants to create pressure and force teams into mistakes. That equals turnovers. Peterson and Sherman have been battling it out over the past few years for recognition as the league’s best corner; Peterson receives more praise from opposing receivers. He travels with the best wideout the opponent field, whereas Sherman usually stays put in one area of the field. The health of Tyrann Mathieu will be key to the Cardinals maintaining their fear factor. Similarly, the continued development of Deone Bucannon, one of the first players to popularise the hybrid safety-linebacker position in the modern NFL, will be crucial to keeping Arizona in the top half of the league in turnovers – they ranked 20th in sacks with 37, which let down their 4th-ranked 19 interceptions and 25 forced fumbles, which tied the Denver Broncos for tops in the league.
The San Francisco 49ers are in meltdown. Overshadowed this preseason by Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest has been the fact that this team has lost so much talent since Harbaugh left town. Chip Kelly’s reputation has taken a hit. Still, the draft heralded DeForest Buckner, who was arguably the top defensive player available that was fully healthy, save for Jalen Ramsey. He’ll team up with his former Oregon Ducks coach Kelly, and teammate Arik Armstead, on a defensive front seven that is the unquestioned strength of the team. NaVorro Bowman led the league in tackles last year, proving he’s still a formidable presence at linebacker. Eric Reid is developing into one of the better free safeties in the league but the rest of the secondary has its questions. Jimmie Ward can make plays but will he be consistent enough against top offenses? Similar doubts concern Antoine Bethea. The front seven should generate more sacks but can the defence force more turnovers (San Francisco were in the bottom five).
The offense has major questions, too. Can Kelly rediscover the offensive flare that earned him his gig at Philadelphia in the first place, and subsequently led the team to a divisional championship and playoff berth? Who knows, but he’ll go with the quarterback who no-one outside of California is talking about: Blaine Gabbert. To say Gabbert played the best football of his career last year as a 49er isn’t a ringing endorsement of his skills. It’s more a measuring stick considering how bad he was in his first few years since being picked in the first round of the draft in 2011. Even though everyone thought Kelly and Kaepernick were a match made in heaven, injuries and a bit of the cold shoulder have allowed Gabbert to move in front. People forget he’s quite athletic too, which Kelly will like. More important than the QB (if such a phrase is ever applicable) is the health and development of Carlos Hyde. He showed flashes of genuine game-breaking talent in 2015 and if the former Ohio State Buckeye can hold it together he will be the focal point of this offense. (Which is just as well, because there’s basically no-one to catch the ball except for Torrey Smith).
Football returns to Los Angeles for the first time since Braveheart was in cinemas. But the Los Angeles Rams will struggle for similar Hollywood success this year. Jeff Fisher hasn’t had a winning season as a head coach since 2008 in Tennessee. Fisher cried out on Hard Knocks that he didn’t want to go “f****ing seven and nine”. They won’t. In fact, they’ll probably be worse. The Rams are mean on the defensive line – they are as hard to penetrate as a Scottish schiltron – and there are playmakers at linebacker (Alex Ogletree) and the secondary (Trumaine Johnson) but the offense looks anaemic sans Todd Gurley. Gurley will almost literally have to carry this offense on his back, which the 2015 Rookie of the Year may actually be capable of doing anyway, he’s that good. Case Keenum will start at QB over California’s own Jared Goff, who the Rams want to redshirt. Despite Keenum’s outstanding college numbers, he’s not a long-term answer in the NFL for a QB-needy team. It won’t help that the best player on his receiving corps is 5’8” and is having more impact as a runner or pitch-and-catch receiver than as the speedy, downfield threat he was drafted to be. Tavon Austin’s biggest plays continue to come in the return game, but I have faith he’ll turn it around if tow big IF’s are answered: IF he has the right quarterback and IF he has the right offensive co-ordinator. I’m not sure he has either. The Rams maybe have less faith than me, as they loaded up on receivers in the offseason.
1st – Seattle Seahawks
2nd – Arizona Cardinals
3rd – San Francisco 49ers
4th – Los Angeles Rams