Monday, August 28, 2017

NFL Preview: NFC West

It’s our fourth and final week of the joint Casa Cabeza / Hoosier on the Potomac NFL Preview.  If you’ve missed any of the preceding weeks’ previews, you can find them through the links below:
 -- NFC East
 -- AFC East
 -- NFC North
 -- AFC North
 -- NFC South
 -- AFC South
This week, we’re looking at the NFC West.  It’s a conference with some good teams and some teams with some serious question marks.  
Who’s gonna win?  
Eh.  My thoughts are below, along with links to highlight clips from each team’s 3rd preseason game.  The NFL disabled embedded clips, so the best I can do is provide the links.

Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks finished 2016 at 10-5-1.  This was good enough to earn them their third division title in the last four years and to catapult them into the playoffs.  Though the Seahawks beat the Detroit Lions handily in the Wild Card round, they lost just as handily to the then-world-beating Atlanta Falcons the next week.  
The enduring image of Seattle is of a doomsday defense backed by the power running of Marshawn Lynch.  But those were the days when QB Russell Wilson was arguably the most underpaid signal-caller in the League.  Lynch is now a Raider, and Wilson is a bit more than halfway through a four-year extension that puts his salary on par with his abilities.  The Seahawks now have to manage QB cap space in the same way that every other team with an elite quarterback does.
This maybe explains the Seahawks’ draft.  The Seahawks wound up trading back multiple times, taking eleven guys total, including two second-round picks and four thirds.  This included a center and several D-Linemen.  Acquiring that many guys with starting-caliber talent at distinctly affordable prices allowed the team to then sign S Cam Chancellor to an extension and to agree to terms with RB Eddie Lacey, a back whose physical style would seem to be a match for Lynch’s previous role.
Seattle still needs to improve its running game if they want to repeat as division champions, and even with the new acquisitions, I’m not sure that they did.  They ranked 25th last year and had Wilson out there on a bum ankle for seemingly half the season.  Wilson is a very accurate, very mobile passer--and has been again this preseason, going 13/19 for 200 yards and a TD with no interceptions against a very good Chiefs defense--but man, his game really relies on his being able to move.  On a bum wheel, he looked like a shadow of his former self in 2016.
-- FPI: +4.2, 10.2 wins
-- Over/Under: 10.5 (-115/-115)
-- Preseason Game Highlights
The smarts still believe in the Seahawks, but honestly, if I was a Seahawks fan, I’d be worried that maybe the glory days are over.  They’re already struggling with injuries, and the fact that you have guys like CB Richard Sherman sounding like they want to play somewhere else…  That’s a bad look.  Similarly, Wilson always looks like he could use more help from his supporting cast.  Seattle signed TE Daniel Graham last year from New Orleans, but then Graham disappeared.  That isnot how you take the next step with your offense.
Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals finished last season 7-8-1, and if that was something of a disappointment, I find myself wondering how much better fans could reasonably expect a team led by QBs Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton to finish.  Both guys have been around the League a long time and have occasionally flashed brilliance, but neither guy ever quite lived up to the hype.  In 2017, this is a team whose quarterbacks are seemingly in the Roger Murtaugh mode, starting each game saying, “Man, I’m gettin’ too old for this shit.”
Alas, quality NFL quarterback play is rarer than unalloyed vibranium.
The Cardinals had a spectacularly unsexy draft.  They took an inside linebacker from Temple, a safety from Washington, and a wide receiver from Gambling in the first three rounds.  Of these, only ILB Haasan Reddick looks to see significant playing time as a rookie.  Having watched Temple quite a bit last season, I expect Reddick will be stout against the run.  He joins a defense that is already very good, but which hasn’t always been able to carry its offense.
-- FPI: -1.5, 8.0 wins
-- Over/Under: 8.0 (-105/-125)
-- Preseason Game Highlights
Football Outsiders is predicting the Cardinals make the playoffs as a Wild Card team, and I’ll agree if they can muster enough offense to stay in games against their tougher opponents down the stretch.  Granted, they play the Rams and 49ers twice, and that helps.  The issue here is that WR Larry Fitzgerald can’t win games by himself, and Palmer isn’t exactly scary anymore.  In addition to their NFC West opponents, the Cards play the AFC South, the NFC East, and the Raiders, Bucs, and Broncos.  Some of those defenses will succeed in bottling up RBs David Johnson and Chris Johnson and will then bring some heat on Palmer.  Palmer’s got to avoid mistakes if his team is actually going to get back to the postseason.  If he can do that, his defense can keep the team in games, giving them a chance to win.  I think they start fast, but I am not at all sure that Palmer can provide the kind of ultra-durable quarterbacking that the Cards once got from Kurt Warner over the course of an entire season.
L.A. Rams
In at least one sense, the newly rechristened L.A. Rams made the best offseason move of all when they fired Head Coach Jeff Fisher.  Shorn of its deadest weight, the team now has a chance for a fresh start at a new stadium.  Long term, I like their business strategy.  Sharing stadium capital costs has worked magnificently in New York.
It’s hard to be sanguine about the Rams’ near-terms chances, however.  Just last week I heard NFL Films guru Greg Cosell ripping QB Jared Goff on the Ross Tucker Football podcast in the worst way.  I’m not an expert, but Cosell made Goff sound so bad that even new Head Coach Sean McVay is likely to struggle with him, and McVay is arguable the man most responsible for turning Kirk Cousins into an honest-to-God NFL starting quarterback.  But when you’re talking about a guy, and it’s hard to find anything that he does well…  I mean, that’s not a good sign.
The Rams did quite a lot in the offseason to try to protect their investment.  They bolstered their O-Line by signing C John Sullivan and veteran LT Andrew Whitworth.  They spent most of their draft acquiring playmakers on the outside to give Goff targets.  They even signed free agent QB Andrew Whitworth, to either “mentor” Goff or else to give themselves a second option if Goff proves untenable.  That stuff can only help.
-- FPI: -5.3, 6.0 wins
-- Over/Under: 5.5 (-115/-115)
-- Preseason Game Highlights
How excited can you be when the best player on your offense is a 35-year-old retread left tackle?  The Rams open against the Colts, then play the Redskins and 49ers before getting to the Cowboys, Seahawks, and the Jags.  After that, it’s Cardinals, Giants, Texans, Vikings, Saints, and Cardinals again.  So the Rams have three winnable games in their first six, and after that, they’re looking at a potentially long losing streak.  If they drop any of the easy ones in that first series, they might actually compete with the Jets for the League’s worst team.  That’s a tough outlook two years in a row.
San Francisco 49ers
It’s gotta be tough to be a 49ers fan.  The team boasted the League’s worst defense last season, has no discernable starting quarterback, and seems to have little in the way of a plan going forward.  This from the franchise that brought you the super-era of Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Alas, Niners fans.  You may live in the Promised Land, but you host arguably the only team in the League who could really use QB Colin Kaepernick on your football team.  
Well, except maybe the Colts.  Indy might outta sign some Andrew Luck insurance, too.  In fact, they should probably do that right now.
Anyway, the good news is that would-be starting QB Bryan Hoyer went 12/17 for 176 yards (71%!) and 2 TDs with no interceptions against a very good Vikings defense in the Niners’ third preseason game.  The defense has also looked much improved.  So hey, this isn’t 2016, and maybe the rebuilding effort is ahead of schedule.  Yeah, it’s hard to believe that Bryan Hoyer is your savior at quarterback, but if the ‘Skins can win with Kirk Cousins, I suppose anything is possible.
-- FPI: -7.6, 5.1 wins
-- Over/Under: 4.5 (-125/-105)
-- Preseason Game Highlights
I like what new GM John Lynch has done with the makeup of the organization overall, and I believe in Kyle Shanahan as a head coach.  But man, this is a team with lot of free agent additions.  The Giants made that strategy work on defense last year, but it’s asking a lot of your offense.  Is RB Tim Hightower really going to carry the load?  Somehow, I don’t see that as a viable 16-game strategy, though it might work with a quarterback who had enough mobility to make the read-option a viable threat.  
With the line at 4.5 games, I might take the over.  However, the rebuild remains a work in progress.
* * *
At this point, the Seahawks, Cards, and Niners all look ready for the regular season.  After watching the preseason highlights, I’m maybe a little more bullish on the Cards than I was.  I think the race for the division may well come down to the wire.
As always, Joe will be back on Thursday with his preview of the AFC South.  This was supposed to be the Titans’ year, but… somebody might want to tell Marcus Mariota, no?
Check out A Hoosier on the Potomac to get the run-down.

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