NFC West Preview

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Updated: August 19, 2015
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Once known as the worst division in the NFL, the NFC West has evolved as the greatest division in football over the past few seasons.

Coming into this year, there are several questions surrounding the division, such as how does offseason departures affect the San Francisco 49ers? How newly acquired quarterback Nick Foles will perform with the St. Louis Rams? Will the Seattle Seahawks overcome the Super Bowl hangover, losing in the final seconds? And how will the Arizona Cardinals’ defense perform after the departure of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who moved on to coach the New York Jets?

The NFC West features a potential breakout team (Rams), a Super Bowl contender (Seahawks), a competitive playoff team (Cardinals) and a potential downfall (49ers).

With the competitiveness of the division, it makes the perfect drama for the greatest show on television, which is the NFL. Before I revealed my predictions of the NFC West standings, let’s analyze of each team in the division.

 

San Francisco 49ers (8-8 in 2014, 3rd in NFC West)

The 49ers’ 2015 offseason was the worst any team has had since I could remember. I don’t remember a team that has lost most of their talent in a single summer. Not only did they lose talent on the field, but they lost arguably the best coach in the league in Jim Harbaugh, who took them to three straight NFC Championship games from 2011-2013. Since the Harbaugh era began in 2011, the Niners’ strength has been the defense, which is depleted by departures of Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Chris Borland, Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald, Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox.

With key defensive departures, the Niners have only two starting players left from the defense that played in Super Bowl XLVII, who are NaVorro Bowman (who missed 2014 due to an ACL injury) and Ahmad Brooks. Losing Willis and Borland to retirement was unexpected, but Justin Smith retiring was bound to happen. Legal troubles have hurt the careers of McDonald and Aldon Smith, as they were both released this offseason, and losing Culliver and Cox hurts the Niners at cornerback, which is their weakest position on the team.

Despite losing so much talent on defense, the Niners still have quality players on that side of the field. Corey Lemonier will replace Aldon Smith at outside linebacker, who played solid last season when Aldon was out due to suspension. Aaron Lynch will substitute behind Brooks, who was also solid last season as a rookie. The defensive line will be comprised of three players that didn’t play a snap last year, in Glenn Dorsey, Arik Armstead and Darnell Dockett, but still make up a stout line on paper.

With so much talent missing on the defensive side of the ball, the Niners still have productive players on the roster, with most of them being on offense. Departures on the offensive side of the ball aren’t as bad as the defense, but the Niners’ key departures on offense include Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis. Gore, Crabtree and Iupati moved on in free agency while Davis retired unexpectedly at age 25.

Gore was a significant loss, considering he rushed for over 1,000 yards last year and has done so eight out of the last nine seaons, with 2010 being the only year he didn’t reach the mark due to injury. Iupati is the biggest loss on offense. He is one of the best guards of the league, and signed with the Cardinals during the offseason. It will be hard to replace him on a depleted offensive line.

The Niners’ offense will rely heavily on Colin Kaepernick, who showed promise early on in his career. They will have both of the receivers — Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin — that beat them in the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012. Losing Gore means the Niners’ coaching staff will potentially have a running-back-by-committee with Carlos Hyde, Kendall Hunter and newly signed Reggie Bush. If tight end Vernon Davis could get back to his 2013 form, he would provide a quality target for Kaepernick, who’s looking to improve from a regressed 2014 year. Even if Kaepernick has his best season statistically, it will still be difficult for the Niners to make the playoffs when they compete in the toughest division in the league.

 

St. Louis Rams (6-10 in 2014, 4th place in NFC West)

The Rams’ biggest offseason acquisition was at quarterback with Nick Foles, who the front office hopes will stay healthy throughout an entire season — something previous signal-caller Sam Bradford couldn’t do consistency. Foles is entering a different system, which could bring his numbers down from what he put up with the Philadelphia Eagles, but he should provide solid play at the position. The Rams have a defense that could compete on any given Sunday, but consistency and injuries at quarterback have been a problem for a team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2003 — the last time they won the NFC West.

Ever since Jeff Fisher has been the head coach of the Rams, they have become a more aggressive team, playing tough against their divisional opponents, but outside of the division has been a problem. If the offense could play solid to go along with a good defense, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t make the playoffs, except it’ll be a tough road to the playoffs with other divisional foes competing for the postseason.

The 1-2 punch of rookie Todd Gurley and Tre Mason should provide an excellent running game to go along with a receiving corps consisting of Brian Quick, Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin. If the Rams’ staff could provide ways to get Austin opportunities to stretch the field, the offense could put up solid numbers to compete not only against the division, but the rest of the league.

If Foles plays anywhere close to the way he did in 2013, the Rams could breakout as a surprise and possibly compete for a wild card spot.

 

Arizona Cardinals (11-5 in 2014, 2nd place in NFC West)

After a 9-1 start last season, the Cardinals were among the top teams in the league until injuries occurred and Ryan Lindley was forced to start a playoff game at quarterback. If Carson Palmer stayed healthy last season, he could have possibly led the Cardinals to a deep playoff run and compete for a Super Bowl berth.

Palmer is an average quarterback at best, but is good enough to win a championship if he’s surrounded by the right talent. The veteran signal-caller seems to have the talent around him to succeed with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown and Jaron Brown making up the receiving corps and Andre Ellington as the featured back, who is effective in the passing game as well. The offense should provide better numbers this season with the additions of Mike Iupati and D.J. Humphries on the offensive line.

The Cardinals’ offense is built to compete with any team in the NFL, but it’s the defense that will be their strength this season. Despite losing defensive coordinator, in Bowles, the Cardinals’ defense has enough talent to compete against the best teams in the league.

Key departures, including Dockett, Tommy Kelly, Larry Foote and Antonio Cromartie, will hurt the defense, but adding veterans LaMarr Woodley, Sean Weatherspoon, Corey Peters and Corey Redding should add solid value. The biggest addition to the Cardinals’ defense is the return of Calais Campbell who had a season-ending injury last season and should continue to perform as a Pro Bowler. The linebacker position should provide solid play with Alex Okafor, Kevin Minter, Weatherspoon, and Matt Shaughnessy lined up. The secondary features prominent names such as Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu and should continue to provide stellar play this season.

Without Bowles, the defense won’t over perform like they did last year, but could become a top-10 defense by the end of the season. If Palmer and company could put up solid numbers behind a solid defense, there’s no reason why the Cardinals can’t compete with the Seahawks for the NFC West title or a wild card spot. If the running game could improve, then the Cardinals’ offense could escalate among the league’s elite and become a dangerous team every Sunday.

 

Seattle Seahawks (12-4 record in 2014, 1st in NFC West)

Coming off a loss at Super Bowl XLIX, the Seahawks still remain as one of the top teams in the league. They did lose a few key pieces, such as Max Unger, Malcolm Smith and Byron Maxwell this offseason. But despite losing players who were vital in their run to the Super Bowl the last two seasons, acquiring tight end Jimmy Graham was the biggest splash they made this summer.

To acquire Graham, the Seahawks traded Unger, who was a key piece to the offensive line. Graham should be able to fill in as a red-zone target for quarterback Russell Wilson, who has performed well without great receiving threats.

With Graham, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, the Seahawks’ receiving corps is underrated compared to the rest of the division. Marshawn Lynch should continue to perform in “beast mode,” and take the focus of the defense off Wilson, which will provide opportunities for Graham to get the ball.

Even though the Seahawks’ offense looks improved, the defense is still the strength of the team and the best in the league. Despite key departures, the defense could perform better than last season, which is scary to think about it. The defensive line, consisting of Michael Bennett, Jordan Hill, Brandon Mebane and Cliff Avril, is as good as it gets and should perform at a high level once again this year.

The trio of linebackers — K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin — is a solid core that has performed well the past few seasons. The secondary of Richard Sherman, Cary Williams, Earl Thomas III and Kam Chancellor is arguably the best group in the league and should continue to perform that way, even without Maxwell.

The Seahawks seem to be a team that has no weaknesses and have become better at every position. Not only are the Seahawks the best team in the division, but they’re also the best overall team in the league. Even with a tough schedule, the Seahawks should compete for the division title and possibly make a third straight Super Bowl appearance.

 

 

Here are the NFC West standings I predict for the 2015 season:

1st place: Seattle Seahawks 13-3

2nd place: Arizona Cardinals: 11-5

3rd Place: St. Louis Rams: 9-7

4th Place: San Francisco 49ers: 8-8

Jeremiah Martinez

Jeremiah Martinez

Jeremiah is a senior at California State University, Sacramento, and is majoring in Mass Communications. He's also currently a staff writer for the student publication entitled, "The State Hornet." You can contact Jeremiah via email at JMartinezhw559@gmail.com, and you can give him a follow on Twitter @J_Martinez559.

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