Thursday, August 6, 2015

Joe & Daphne's Preview: The NFC West

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe) and Daphne Parello (@DaphnePup)

We took an extra long weekend, but Daphne and I are back to preview the NFC West, home of reigning conference champion Seattle, (mostly) involuntarily revamped San Francisco, and a pair of nasty defenses in St. Louis and Arizona.

Other than the Seahawks, major questions linger for each of these teams, and even Seattle comes into 2015 with something to prove after coming up one play short of back-to-back titles in last February's Super Bowl.

Will the Seahawks make it back to Super Sunday, or can somebody like Arizona or St. Louis possibly snatch the division from them? Daphne and I investigate.

The Favorites

Seattle Seahawks

If you don't think the Seahawks are a favorite, not just to win the NFC West again, but also to contend for a conference and Super Bowl championship as well, then you probably haven't watched much football the last two or three years.

Those seasons have seen quarterback Russell Wilson grow into the bright young stars of the NFL and, Super Bowl interception aside, one of the best decision makers as both a runner and passer in recent memory.

Wilson was paid like a franchise QB this offseason, and the Seahawks will now go back to work with a Top-10 offense built around Wilson and the legs of Marshawn Lynch. "Beast Mode" helped Seattle lead the league in rushing a season ago, though Wilson's ability to run on read-option keepers, and freelance as well, certainly helped. The offensive line built around left tackle Russell Okung, should again excel, even with the loss of star center Max Unger.

Where did Unger go? Well, he was dealt away so that the Seahawks could bring in another weapon in the form of former Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. While not a great blocker, Graham is definitely among the best at his position in terms of catching the ball, and Seattle badly needs options down the field, as no receiver on the 2014 team broke 1,000 yards or five touchdowns through the air.

The offense should be improved with the addition of Graham and Wilson's continued development, but let's be honest, this team is about defense. Seattle ranked No. 1 in the league last year in total defense, passing defense and scoring defense, and finished a God-awful third against the run.

The Seahawks have tremendous depth and speed up front, with pass rushers Michael Bennett, Bruce Irvin and Cliff Avril all getting to the quarterback at different times, and newly paid middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is one of the best in the league at his position.

Even with all that, the secondary is the absolute strength of this team. Richard Sherman may be the best corner in the game, and Earl Thomas is unquestionably the league's top free safety. Add in enforcer Kam Chancellor, and the Legion of Boom is set to go for another dominant run, even without No. 2 corner Byron Maxwell, who departed for Philadelphia.

The Question Mark

Finding Offense

Other than Seattle, questions abound for the offenses in this division. San Francisco will need to prove it can still run the ball (4th in the league last year) without the departed Frank Gore, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick simply needs to be much better in the passing game. After a quick start to his career in 2012 and '13, Kaepernick proved to be turnover prone in 2014, throwing 10 interceptions and fumbling eight times.

The 49ers signed Torrey Smith in an attempt to recreate the Ravens receiving group that beat them in Super Bowl XLVII, and give Kaepernick the weapons he needs to excel. While Anquan Boldin isn't getting any younger and Michael Crabtree is across the Bay in Oakland, San Fran is hoping the offense can take a step back in the right direction in 2015.

The Rams are hoping a change at quarterback will cure what ails them, as injury-prone Sam Bradford was shipped off to Philly for the also (but not quite as) injury-prone Nick Foles.

Foles should be an upgrade (again, if he can stay healthy) from the Austin Davis/Shaun Hill combo of last year, and the Rams will look for major improvement from within for a receiving group that returns talented, but so far inconsistently productive receivers like Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt and Stedman Bailey. There's depth at running back, but (surprise) also health concerns as rookie Todd Gurley is coming off an ACL tear from last October and returning starter Tre Mason wore down a bit at the end of last year.

We'll get to Arizona a little later, but let's just say teams with 35-year old quarterbacks coming off ACL tears and star receivers that are 32 don't have a tremendous track record of offensive success.

The Theme


But, like I said, the defenses in this division are mostly salty. St. Louis is stacked in its front seven and has some young talent in the secondary, Seattle is simply the best in the league on D and Arizona has enough talent in Patrick Peterson and Calais Campbell to overcome its offseason losses.

San Francisco is the one question mark here, as the 49ers lost star linebacker Patrick Willis, and his apparent replacement Chris Borland, to surprise retirements. Corners Chris Culliver and Perish Cox are gone as well, along with troubled defensive lineman Ray McDonald, but the Niners did sign Darnell Dockett in free agency, and drafted talented Oregon defensive end Arik Armstead in the first round.

With the ageless Justin Smith back up front, and stud LB NaVorro Bowman returning as well, even the depleted 49ers have a chance to be a Top-10 defense.

Daphne's Superlatives, by Daphne Parello
Daphne's Underdog
 St. Louis Rams

It's kind of hard to call the Cardinals underdogs at this point after Arizona has recorded double-digit wins the last two years, so I'll go with another team full of talent on defense and struggling to just find competency on offense.

The Rams showed great promise last year, and their defense was better than raw numbers indicated. Despite being an average unit in most traditional statistical categories (17th in total D, 16th in scoring D, 14th vs the run, 19th vs the pass), St. Louis actually ranked in the Top-10 of Football Outsiders' Defense DVOA, a defensive statistic that takes into account strength of schedule, and considers all fumbles, whether won or lost, as the same.

Basically, the Rams were a good, though occasionally unlucky, defense, and boast one of the best front fours in the game. With Chris Long and Robert Quinn coming back at defensive end, and interior quarterback killer Aaron Donald coming back at tackle, the Rams should again be able to rush the passer, and the addition of tackle Nick Fairley should also give them significant push against the run as well.

A solid linebacker group led by Alec Ogletree and James Laurinaitis should continue to improve, and the secondary has some nice building blocks in former Sunshine State corners Janoris Jenkins (UF, though he ended his college career at North Alabama after being kicked off the Gators) and Lamarcus Joyner (FSU).

Daphne's Alpha Dog
 Calais Campbell, DE, Arizona

The Cardinals will need to replace a ton of defensive talent in 2015, both on the field and in the booth. Former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is now off coaching the New York Jets, and he brought his exotic blitz packages and Antonio Cromartie with him. Up front, the Cardinal also lose immovable nose tackle Dan Williams to the Raiders and end Darnell Dockett to division rival San Francisco.

And yet, none of it may matter if Calais Campbell can take his next step as both a player and a leader.

Long considered one of the most complete defensive ends in the league, Campbell has become equally adept rushing the passer, setting the edge against the run, and simply eating up blocks for blitzing linebackers in Arizona's attacking 3-4 defense.

Despite being asked to do so much, Campbell has recorded at least six sacks every year since he became a starter in 2009, and was named an All-Pro by the Associated Press after a 2014 that saw him amass 7 sacks and 16 tackles for a loss.

If the Cardinals are to make good on their closing window to win, Campbell will be a major reason why.

In the Dog House

 Carson Palmer's Knee

When Palmer is under center the Cardinals actually have a somewhat decent offense, but when he went out with a torn ACL, things quickly fell apart for Arizona. While a healthy Palmer went 6-0 in 2014 with an 11 TD to 3 INT ration, the unholy combination of Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley went 5-6, including a playoff loss to lowly Carolina, with a TD to INT ratio of 9-9.

Palmer's already had a scare in practice this summer and, at 35, he's not exactly at prime bounce-back age. Still, the Cardinals are pretty much pinning their playoff hopes on him staying healthy, so protecting Palmer and managing his soreness during the week will be key.

Betting on Palmer to play a full season in 2015 is far from a sure-thing, but if he can tough it out and play most of the year, Arizona has a great chance to get back to the playoffs.


Joe: 1. Seattle, 2. Arizona, 3. St. Louis, 4. San Francisco
Daphne: 1. Seattle, 2. St. Louis, 3. San Francisco, 4. Arizona

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