Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Long And Suite Preview: The NFC West

Russell Wilson is poised to lead the Seahawks on another Super Bowl run.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

There is one common thread in the NFC West: Defense. Each of these four teams has a potentially elite defense - some of them have already established themselves as such (Seattle, San Francisco), others have been at that level without anyone really noticing (Arizona), and one has several budding superstars that could coalesce to be the best unit of the bunch (St. Louis). For the divisions playing the NFC West this year (the AFC West and NFC East), they'd better bring a lunch, because it's going to be a long fight.

The top of the division is a two-team race between the usual suspects: Seattle and San Francisco. The title very well could come down to scheduling. Both teams play the AFC West, but Seattle gets the Broncos at home. San Francisco has to travel to Denver for their matchup. As the first place team from a year ago, Seattle has the good fortune to play against Carolina (who will almost certainly take a step back from their NFC South Division Title last year), while San Francisco has to go on the road to play New Orleans, the second-place team from the South a year ago. This seems to point to Seattle being the favorite (and this is born out in Seattle's steeper odds for the division title), but as we've seen in recent years, especially in this division - weird stuff happens.

Here's how the division breaks down - separated into two groups. Teams better than you think they are, and teams not as good as you think they are:

(It should be noted here, and will be repeated, that how a team is classified here is not indicative of their relative quality within the division. For example, the Rams are listed as being better than advertised, and the Seahawks are listed as being worse. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Rams will be better than the Seahawks . It just means that one team is over-valued and one team is under-valued.)

**Odds Note: The "Odds To Win Division" were taken from a listing posted before Sam Bradford tore his ACL, we have not seen any updated odds since. St. Louis' Over/Under was taken off the board in most places, so we haven't listed it here.**

These Teams Are Better Than You Think They Are

St. Louis Rams

2013 Outcome: 7-9, 4th in NFC West, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +1500
Over/Under Wins: Off

Even more so after Bradford's ACL tear.

People seem to forget that St. Louis was just as good, if not better, under Kellen Clemens last season (they were 4-5 in his nine starts) as they were under Bradford (3-4 in seven starts). In fact, the scales tip even further when you realize that two of Bradford's three wins were against the lowly Texans and Jaguars, while Clemens picked up wins against the Colts, Bears, and Saints.

Clemens, unfortunately, isn't with the team - he's currently backing up Phillip Rivers in San Diego. The Rams will likely turn to journeyman Shaun Hill (unless they scrape the bottom of the barrel for a free agent quarterback), who actually put in a half-decent season (all things considered) for the 2010 Lions, which was the last time he was a regular starter.

But the Rams won't need exemplary quarterback play to exceed expectations this season. Their front seven is probably the most underrated in football, led by NFL sack leader Robert Quinn. And the rich are only getting richer - they jettisoned Will Witherspoon (the weak link of the linebacking corps) and turned the job over to Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who out-performed Witherspoon for most of last year. On the opposite side, Alec Ogletree, a first-round pick in 2012, should continue to improve off a stellar rookie season. And to bolster their already stellar pass rush, the Rams took Aaron Donald with the 13th overall pick, the premier pass rushing defensive tackle in the draft class. They have depth and premier talent across their defensive line, which alone should coast them to a handful of wins.

The offense is still a work in progress. Zac Stacy and Tavon Austin both showed flashes of future promise as rookies in 2012, and they took Greg Robinson, their left tackle of the future, with the second overall pick. This year he'll likely play at guard, which should open holes in the running game that weren't there last year. If the Rams can find a groove with the time-tested blueprint of power running + pass rush, there's no reason they can't fight their way to a .500 season.


These Teams Aren't As Good As You Think They Are

Seattle Seahawks

2013 Outcome: 13-3, 1st in NFC West, Super Bowl Champions
Odds To Win Division: -140
Over/Under Wins: 11

It seems rather disingenuous to list them here, as they'll almost certainly win 11 games and make the playoffs, barring an unprecedented collapse or a major injury. But there are a few simple reasons why Seattle will likely be not quite as good as they were last year.

First of all, scheduling. Last year, the Seahawks played the AFC South (a cake-walk) and NFC South, which didn't meet expectations due to Atlanta's struggles. This year, they play the AFC West, which had three playoff teams last year, and the NFC East, who always seem to field two or three good teams. Their "extra" games last year were the Vikings and Giants, who both fell apart down the stretch of last season. This year those games are Carolina and Green Bay.

They failed to re-sign Golden Tate, who will play in Detroit this year. Tate was their leading receiver in 2013. They'll replace him with Percy Harvin, which at face value seems like a huge upgrade, but Harvin has only played in ten games in the last two seasons. If Harvin misses extended time, Seattle's only reliable target in the passing game will be Doug Baldwin.

Granted, it's possible that none of this matters, because Seattle returns every relevant defensive player from last year's team except for Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, both who signed with Jacksonville. But those two players are easily replaced by Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, both of whom had exceptional seasons (and postseasons) last year. But the Seahawks defense was historically good last year, and with some player turnover (regardless of how seemingly minute), one would expect them to show some regression.

It won't be enough for Seattle to miss the playoffs, but they won't be quite the juggernaut they were last year.


San Francisco 49ers

2013 Outcome: 12-4, 2nd in NFC West, Lost in NFC Championship Game
Odds To Win Division: +160
Over/Under Wins: 10.5

The 49ers are one of those teams that check off all the boxes. Great offensive line, suffocating defense, play making quarterback, solid receiving corps and backs that can pound between the tackles, or bounce it outside for big gains.

What you may overlook is the fact that the Niners are actually not very impressive in my new pet stat, yards per game differential. This stat takes a team's net yards per game (plus or minus for what they gained compared to what they surrendered) and predicts a record. San Francisco should have been a 9-7 in 2013 team by this metric, having only out gained its opponents by an average of 6.9 yards per game.

The Niners have had an absurdly good turnover margin lately, checking in at +51 in total the last three years.

There is just no way to sustain that.

Yes, the 49ers will again have one of the league's best defenses, and yes, their ball control running game will again ensure they limit their own turnovers, but +15 TO margin seasons are usually an outlier, with teams falling back to Earth, or simply regressing toward the mean.

Expect the Niners to again be a great team in this regard, but expect them to be around +9 or +10 and, assuming they average around 10 more yards per game more than their opponents, that would equate to a 10 or 11-win team.

That's about what the Niners are, given the brutal division they play in. Still, Seattle isn't quite as good as it looked last year either so, while these two may be worse off than you think, they still just might be the two best teams in the NFC.


Arizona Cardinals

2013 Outcome: 10-6, 3rd in NFC West, Missed Playoffs
Odds To Win Division: +800
Over/Under Wins: 7.5

The Cardinals were unquestionably the most underrated team in football last season. You probably dismissed them because they finished third in their division and didn't make the playoffs, but objectively, they were the best non-playoff team in the league (no other 10-game winner missed out), and Football Outsiders actually had them ranked above San Diego, Indianapolis, and Green Bay. They had wins over both Carolina and Seattle, and the Seattle win came at Qwest Field, no less.

The defense was spectacular. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu patrolled the back end of the secondary, and seemingly everyone else crashed forward in run support, which paid off to the tune of the league's No. 1 rush defense. And it may seem hard to believe that a unit led by a stiff like Carson Palmer could be productive, but they actually finished in the top half of the league in passing offense, also.

So why aren't they as good as you think they are?

Well, they lost a good portion of that stellar defense. Darnell Dockett tore his ACL and will be out for the season. Karlos Dansby signed with Cleveland. Daryl Washington is suspended for the year following a substance abuse violation and a domestic assault charge. Along with Calais Campbell, those were three of the four best players from Arizona's front seven that carried them last year.

Don't get me wrong - they'll still have a good defense. Campbell is still around, John Abraham is still rushing the passer, and they added Antonio Cromartie at cornerback to play opposite Peterson. But they won't be the elite unit they were last year.

Offense should be a struggle for Arizona. A non-existent rushing attack (27th in yards per attempt) and a passing attack prominently featuring Carson Palmer (22 interceptions last year) just isn't conducive to scoring a lot of points. They can't expect to commit 31 turnovers and still be a 10-win team.


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