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2016/17 Preview of the NFC West
NFC West, NFL, Football
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Stromme’s Takes: Facts, Takes and Points: NFC West

Stromme’s Takes: Facts, Takes and Points: NFC West

Mike Stromme

Predictions:

  1. Arizona Cardinals (14-2)
  2. Seattle Seahawks (10-6 Wild Card)
  3. Los Angeles Rams (7-9)
  4. San Francisco 49ers (3-13)

 

To me, the Cardinals are the most well-rounded team in football. Lethal passing attack, strong running game, one of the better secondaries, a much-improved defensive front and one of the best coaches in football… The Seahawks are still a very strong team on both sides of the ball… The Rams are the future of this division, but not the present…  In San Fran, is it Kaepernick? Gabbert? Doesn’t matter, they’ll draft a new saviour in May.

 

Arizona Cardinals:

2016 is Arizona’s year. They are, in my opinion, the most well-rounded team in football.

They have a quarterback in Carson Palmer who can still bring it, still put up numbers and still win games. During Carson’s time in the desert, the Cardinals are 30-10 if you include playoff games. He’s completed 73.3 % of his passes, thrown for 11,151 yards, 74 TD to 41 INT during his Cardinal tenure thus far. If he can stay healthy, this team is destined for greatness. And even if he does go down, backup QB Drew Stanton has proven that he can get the job done in Palmer’s absence, he went 6-3 when Palmer went down in 2014.

To say that the redbirds have a deep arsenal of weapons is an understatement. Larry Fitzgerald is the ultimate veteran receiver. Last season at age 32, Fitzgerald set a career-high in receptions (109) and caught 75.2% of passes thrown his way; only Keenan Allen and Doug Baldwin had a higher percentage amongst wideouts. He’s had seven seasons of 1,000+ yards, caught 95+ passes in five season and five seasons of 10+ touchdowns. He’s as reliable as

Larry Fitzgerald leads a very deep Arizona WR core. (Image from huffingtonpost.com)

Larry Fitzgerald leads a very deep Arizona WR core. (Image from huffingtonpost.com)

they come.

On the other side is captain nine-route, John Brown. Brown is Palmer’s deep threat and the most explosive receiver the Cardinals have. He had six catches that went for 40+ yards, two of which were 65+ yards. He has incredible speed and knows how to use it, so does this coaching staff.

Michael Floyd would be a WR1 on a lot of teams. In Arizona, he’s just another target and a good one at that. At 6′-3” 220 lbs, he’s been a consistent option for Carson Palmer ever since he’s arrived in Arizona. Floyd has averaged 55/910/6 in the three seasons that Palmer and Bruce Arians arrived in Arizona.

Hell, even the fourth guy on the depth chart JJ Nelson has some big-play ability. He averaged 27.2 yards per reception in limited playing time.

Not only do the Cardinals have a high-flying passing attack, they have an incredibly strong run game to boot. Sophomore David Johnson lit the NFL on fire once the Cardinals gave him a chance. In his final five games, when he was named the starter following an injury to Chris Johnson, David Johnson ran for 4.9 yards per carry. He’s a dangerous combination of size and speed, traits every coach wants in his running back. Look for him to pick up where he left off.

David Johnson looks to build on a very successful rookie campaign (foxsports.com)

David Johnson looks to build on a very successful rookie campaign (foxsports.com)

This defense was strong in 2015, it will be even stronger in 2016.

The Cardinals were already strong against the run, 6th in rush yards against, 7th in rush yards against in 2015. So, what do they do? They go out and draft a monster of a man in Robert Nkemdiche in the first round of the draft. Nkemdiche, a 6-3 294 lb NT out of Mississippi has all the talent in the world, but character issues allowed him to fall all they way down to the Cardinals at pick 29.

According to Coach Bruce Arians, he’s already “bench-pressing linemen” . The kid is a beast and projects out to be the Fletcher Cox, Dontari Poe, Muhammed Wilkerson type of NT, who couldn’t have landed in a better situation both on and off the field given Bruce Arians’ successful track record with players who have off-field issues. Just look at Tyrann Mathieu. This rookie will be a beast in the not-so distant future.

Now, while the Cardinals were tenacious against the run in 2015, they underwhelmed in the pass rush department. They only sacked the QB 37 times (5.9% of dropbacks), good enough for the bottom third of the league. Not only did they add a disruptive force in Nkemdiche, they went out and traded for Chandler Jones. Jones has 36 career sacks in just four seasons and set a career high in 2015 with 12.5. He will be a force as a pass-rushing OLB for the Cardinals for years to come.

As strong as that front-seven is, it’s the secondary that’s the strength of this team. They gave up the 8th fewest passing yards, created turnovers on 16.7 % of plays (2nd) and opposing QBs only completed 59.9% of passes against them (6th). The core of this secondary is two of the best DBs in football,Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Not only are they talented, they’re deep. Tony Jefferson, who started alongside Peterson in 2015, moves to safety to fill the void left by Rashad Johnson. Behind him and Mathieu are veterans Tyvon Branch, Chris Clemons and D.J. Swearinger. Justin Bethel, a CB who has been to three Pro Bowls in four years, will move up to play with Peterson full-time. Behind those two are veteran Asa Jackson, who was acquired from Baltimore during the offseason, and 2016 second round pick Brandon Willams. Much like the rest of this team, this secondary is loaded.

The Cardinals are a well-coached, well-tuned, tough team that oozes talent. Watch out, they’re primed for a big year.

 

Seattle Seahawks:

The Seahawks are a well-rounded football team that can beat you in a variety of ways.

They did everything well in 2015. The passing attack was strong (especially late in the season). The run game was still one of the NFL’s best. Even without Marshawn Lynch for most of the season, the Seahawks still finished with the third-most rushing yards in the NFL. The secondary, that Legion of Boom, were still tops in the NFL; limiting opposing passing attacks to just 3,364 total passing yards (2nd-fewest) and a 60.8% completion

Richard Sherman and the Legion of Boom are still alive and well. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Richard Sherman and the Legion of Boom are still alive and well. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

percentage (11th). As good as the secondary was, the front-seven may have matched their effort. They allowed the fewest rushing yards against and sacked the QB on 6.3% of drop backs (14th). As a unit, they allowed opposing offenses to score on just 29.3% of drives (8th) and forced turnovers on 13.2% of plays (10th).

If this team is so good, how does one defeat them? Do they have a weakness?

Yes, they do. You beat this team with an aggressive pass rush.

The offensive line, while good in the run game, is very vulnerable in pass protection. In 2015, Russell Wilson was sacked 45 times last season, that’s 8.6% of dropbacks that resulted in him hitting the turf. Only Blake Bortles and Aaron Rodgers hit the turf more often. The Seahawks threw the ball considerably less than both the Packers and Jaguars. The Packers threw the ball 84 more times than Seattle. The Jaguars, 118 more times.

Their vulnerability against strong fronts showed in 2015, six of the team’s seven losses (including playoffs) came against teams who could penetrate the O-Line (Rams twice, Panthers twice, Cardinals and the Bengals). In 2016, they’ll get two tilts with the Rams and Cardinals, and date with the Panthers and the Jets. Should be interesting.

Despite losing Marshawn Lynch to retirement, LG J.R. Sweezy to the Bucs and Bruce Irvin to the Raiders, the offseason didn’t go too badly for the Seahawks.

Thomas Rawls filled in for Marshawn Lynch last season when he went down, and the offense didn’t seem to skip a beat. He had four games of 100+ yards, including a 23/169/1 game vs the Bengals and 30/209/1 vs the 49ers. His

Thomas Rawls looks to fill the void left by BeastMode (image from seattlesportscast.com)

Thomas Rawls looks to fill the void left by BeastMode (image from seattlesportscast.com)

season did end prematurely with an ankle injury, and his start of the season is questionable. However, if he’s unable to start, rookies C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins are more than primed to fill the void.

The loss of Sweezy was addressed in the form of first round pick Germain Ifedi. The team also signed veteran tackle J’Marcus Webb to help address the pass protection problem the Seahawks had in 2015.

An already top run defense got even stronger with the addtions of second round pick Jarron Reed out of Alabama, veteran DT Sealver Siliga from the Patriots and DE Chris Clemons returns after spending the last two seasons in Jacksonville.

Speaking of former Seahawks coming home, the team and Brandon Browner have reunited after Browner spent the last two season in New England and New Orleans. The LOB has reunited their original lineup, watch out NFC quarterbacks.

The pass rush may dip a little bit with the loss of Bruce Irvin, but the team still has Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to rush off the edge. The two combined for 19.0 sacks.

This Seattle team is still strong, still dominant on defense and still going back to the playoffs. Like I said, they can beat you in a variety of ways.

 

Los Angeles Rams:

Now, it’s time for the team I grew up rooting for (and still do to this day), the St. Louis Los Angeles Rams.

Every year right around the start of training camp during the Jeff Fisher era, I get teased into thinking that this team has the QB to push the team over the top.

2012: “Bradford was hurt last season, he’ll be okay! It’s only one season, he was good just two years ago! Besides, with this new coaching staff and all these picks we got from Washington, the team’s future is bright! We’re going to be good in a few years.”

Record: 7-8-1, a 5.5 game improvement from the season before. 4-1-1 divisional record.

2013: “Okay, 2012 wasn’t terrible. Still a young team, still have an up and coming defense, still have Sam Bradford. We can build on this! We’ll take another step forward in 2013!”

Record: 7-9, 3-3 until Sam Bradford tears his ACL in Week 7 vs the Panthers. Had a stat line of  159/262-1,687-14-4,

Todd Gurley looks to follow a long tradition of superb Ram running backs. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Todd Gurley looks to follow a long tradition of superb Ram running backs. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

his best season to date.

2014: “Alright, ACLs are a fairly common injury in this day and age, he’ll bounce back! Besides, we still have the best D-Line in football! Maybe we’ll challenge the Seahawks for the division this year!”

Record: 6-10, Bradford tears his ACL again. This time, in Week 3 of the preseason!

2015: “Okay, Nick Foles! He was pretty good before he got hurt. He’s been to the playoffs before, that’s something… Right? Plus, I bet this Gurley kid is going to be a stud! Plus, this D-Line is only getting better! Have did you see what Aaron Donald did last season?”

Record: You guessed it! 7-9! I was bang-on about this Gurley fellow. But my god Foles was awful!

Fisher Fist Pound

Foles only completed only 56.4% of passes and threw 10 INT to just 7 TD passes. He lost his job to Case Keenum Week 10, the team traded up to grab Jared Goff at number one and then cut Foles at the beginning of training camp.

So now, it’s 2016. We still have the killer defensive front, still have Todd Gurley and optimism at the QB position. I’m not gunna lie, it doesn’t seem much different than the years before.

Gurley’s a major boost to this offense, no doubt about that. But, what about the talent around him? Jared Goff has talent and potential, but it’s just that- potential. Who is he throwing to? Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt and Brian Quick all have, there’s that word again, potential.

In order for this team to be successful offensively, Goff needs to be a game manager and Gurley needs to run the ball 20 times. If this team gets into positions where they need to throw the ball 35-40 times, they won’t succeed.

Defensively, they are still stalwarts. Aaron Donald is the best DT in football and surrounding him on that defensive front, which might be the best in football, are four first-round picks in Robert Quinn (50.0 career sacks in 5 seasons),

Aaron Donald leads the NFL's best defensive line (image from cbssports.com)

Aaron Donald leads the NFL’s best defensive line (image from cbssports.com)

Michael Brockers, converted OLB Mark Barron and MLB Alec Ogletree. The front-seven also has Akeem Ayers and William Hayes. Ayers won a Super Bowl with the Patriots in 2014 and Hayes has averaged just over 5 sacks a season as a situational pass-rusher/bench guy in four seasons with the Rams.  The Rams also added former first round picks Quinton Coples and Dominique Easley for depth.

The secondary is a little susceptible to exploitation. In 2015, the rams allowed the 9th most passing yards to QBs and allowed them to complete 66.8% of passes. The loss of Janoris Jenkins and safety Rodney McLeod won’t help those numbers. However, the return of CB E.J. Gaines will help the secondary. Gaines had 2 INT and 15 pass defensed in his rookie season before sustaining a season-ending Lisfranc injury in training camp last season.

I may sound like a broken record, but this team is still young, still has room to grow, still has an incredible pass rush and still is the future of this division. New city, same story lines. They’ll flirt with .500 (again).

 

San Francisco 49ers:

I’ll be blunt, this team doesn’t have much… Yet.

The 49ers are a team who desperately need to rebuild, and who knows? Maybe Chip Kelly is the right guy for the job?

I mean, he’s a coach that clearly has a short shelf-life at the pro level. He clearly wasn’t a fit in Philly, a team that had many stars leave as a result of his presence. However, what if he already didn’t have anything in terms of talent to begin with? Would his go, go, go ways work on a team without any bloated contracts and egos? Does his coaching style fit a team that has limited offensive talent?

I can only imagine the competitive nature of this training camp. Outside of Torrey Smith and Carlos Hyde, there isn’t a skill position player on this offense that has a guaranteed spot at playing time. The team also drafted 11 players in 7 rounds in this past draft. From a roster standpoint, there’s tons up for grabs. Can that be enough to galvanise a squad? Especially in the competitive nature in which Chip Kelly has ran his locker rooms, both at Oregon and in Philly. The silver lining, Chip Kelly is a totally new face. Jim Tomsula was a hold-over from the Mike Nolan era, he coached under Nolan, Mike Singletary and Jim Harbaugh. Maybe

From a rebuild standpoint, the defense is much farther along than the offense. After drafting Oregon DE Arik

Chip Kelly faces his toughest task at the pro level to date (philly.com)

Chip Kelly faces his toughest task at the pro level to date (philly.com)

Armstead in the first round of the 2015 draft, the Niners selected his college teammate/linemate DeForest Buckner. Both guys played under Chip Kelly are Oregon as freshman in 2012. Both are 6′-7”, both are around 300 lbs and both look to be a disruptive force on that San Fran d-line for years to come.

The team also locked up 3x Pro Bowl linebacker NaVorro Bowman to a seven-year, $77 million contract. Bowman is the Niners’ most talented player and the face of the franchise.

Other than Bowman, the twin towers on the D-Line, Hyde and Torrey Smith, the Niners don’t have much from a talent standpoint. This team is a work-in-progress, and it remains to be seen if Chip Kelly is the man to turn this around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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