The NFC West might have four teams, but in reality, this division has two super heavyweights, and a couple of nobody’s. Fans get to watch the Seahawks and Cardinals square off twice each year — with each of those games resembling a modern day reenactment of “The Rumble in the Jungle” — and shouldn’t really bother paying much attention to what’s going on besides them.
The Arizona Cardinals are going to go as far as Carson Palmer‘s arm, Tyrann Mathieu‘s knee, and the team’s offensive line can take them. Palmer played as well as anyone for the first 13 or 14 weeks of the year — he was neck-and-neck with Brady for NFL MVP at the midway point of the season — and then looked rather pedestrian (perhaps putting it kindly) over the last four-to-six weeks of the season (including the postseason, which included his 235 yard, one touchdown, and four interception stinkbomb against Carolina in the NFC Divisional Playoff game). Still, in 16 regular season games last year, he threw for 4,671 yards (a career high for Palmer and fourth among all quarterbacks in the NFL last year), 35 touchdown passes (another career high, and tied for second among all quarterbacks), and only 11 interceptions (his lowest career total in any season where he played in more than 10 games). He finished the season with a passer rating of 104.6 (third in the NFL), and registered a passer rating of over 98 or more in 13 of the Cardinals 16 regular season games last year.
But as much as Palmer’s performance began to decline towards the end of the season, his teammates all agree that losing cornerback Tyrann Mathieu — was firmly in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, alongside JJ Watt and Aaron Donald — might’ve been what really derailed their season. As one of the emotional leaders of the defense (and arguably the group’s best player), losing Mathieu to another torn ACL injury in Week 15 of last years was a devastating and heartbreaking blow to the team. They simply couldn’t replace the energy he brought to the team, and the Cardinals really need that knee to heal up, to help Mathieu get back to form.
Otherwise, they are simply oozing with talent at so many different positions. In training camps so far, the coaches can’t stop gushing about running back David Johnson, the Cardinals’ third round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft; it wouldn’t be surprising to see him finish as the league leader in yards from scrimmage (rushing + receiving) in 2016. There might not be a team in the NFL with a better 1-2-3 at wide receiver as the Cardinals group of Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd (who could be in line for a breakout season), and John Brown. On defense, they added Pro Bowl pass rusher Chandler Jones from New England to a front seven that includes Calais Campbell and a promising pass rusher Markus Golden (the Cardinals second round pick in 2015). Cornerback Patrick Peterson regained the title of best cornerback in the NFL last season; he and Mathieu simply erased receivers each week last year.
The offensive line has questions from Center on down the right side. AQ Shipley is a nice player, but he’s far from one of the elite centers in the league. Evan Mathis (whom the team signed in free agency) used to be Pro Bowl player, but is beginning to show his age and has struggled in training camps. DJ Humphries — the team’s first round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft whom they’ve penciled in as their starting right tackle — spent most of the 2015 season in head coach Bruce Arians’ doghouse and didn’t start in a single game for the Cardinals last year. As long as they don’t derail an offense that has the ability to move the ball and score on anyone, it’s hard seeing how someone will be able to beat the Cardinals.
If there’s one team in the NFC — or maybe in the NFL — that’s got the talent, depth, toughness, and swagger to beat the Cardinals, it’s the Seattle Seahawks. Carolina and Denver once again proved that elite offenses are well and good, but elite defenses are what matter in the playoffs. Seattle has at least two blue chip players at every level of their defense: Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril on the defensive line, Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright at linebacker, and Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor in the secondary. That’s just an incredible amount of talent they have assembled. And on offense? In Russell Wilson’s last 10 games last season (his last eight regular season games plus the Seahawks two playoff games), he threw for 2,564 yards, 29 touchdowns, and five interceptions. The offense around him is loaded with speed and skill, from receivers like Doug Baldwin (who was tied for first in the NFL with 14 touchdown receptions) and Tyler Lockett, to a crowded backfield comprising Thomas Rawls and rookies CJ Prosise (who could be a lethal addition in passing situations) and Alex Collins (a short yardage specialist). Then there’s Jimmy Graham, who’s coming off a season-ending knee injury from last year. If the offensive line can actually keep Wilson upright, that offense could put up plenty of points, or at least enough to where the game would be out of reach because of the Seahawks defense.
In terms of head coaching tenure, Los Angeles Rams head coach Jeff Fisher has had more coaching “lives” than a cat on a lucky streak. Since taking the head coaching job in 2012, he’s gone four straight seasons failing to win more than seven games, spent high draft picks on a defense that still isn’t quite among the NFL’s elite, and fielded offenses that have been well-below mediocre season after season.
Sure, Todd Gurley was incredible last year; after getting his first playing time in Week 4, in the subsequent seven weeks, Gurkey ran for 766 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, and finished his rookie season with 229 carries for 1,106 yards (third in the NFL) and 10 touchdowns (second in the NFL). But beyond Gurley, calling this offense “a work in progress” might be extremely generous. Incumbent quarterback Case Keenum isn’t going to make anyone forget Joe Montana anytime soon, and he might be throwing to the second least potent group of wide receivers (only the San Francisco 49ers are more depleted at the position; more on that in a few). If the Rams decide they want to start rookie quarterback Jared Goff — the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, whom the Rams paid a boatload of picks to Tennessee to acquire — things might actually be even worse. For as talented as Goff might be, early reports from training camp are that he’s still got a long ways to go, in terms of transitioning to the spread offense he played in at the University of California to the style of passing in the NFL (it’s also not good for Goff that Rob Boras, his offensive coordinator, has exactly zero experience running an offense in the NFL).
The defense is supposed to be the strength of this team, but that might come into question in 2016. The Rams defensive line is still as fearsome as any you’ll find in the NFL. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald, by any measure, is one of the three-to-five best players defensive players in the NFL (many believe he should’ve been the 2015 NFL Defensive Player of the Year ahead of JJ Watt), and people around the league are already starting to ask whether Donald is one of the best to ever play the position. Defensive ends Robert Quinn and William Hayes are both lethal pass rushers. Fellow tackle Michael Brockers is an unheralded immovable object at the point of attack. But behind them? It’s very murky. The team let middle linebacker James Laurinitis leave, but not very many people are sold that moving linebacker Alec Ogletree into the middle was the best idea. They lost hot-and-cold cornerback Janoris Jenkins in free agency, but replacing him with reserve cornerback EJ Gaines (a sixth round pick in 2014) doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. The same story applies even more at free safety, where the Rams lost Rodney McLeod — one of the most underrated players at his position in the NFL — and plan to replace him with former undrafted free agent Cody Davis. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is as good as you’ll find in the NFL, but he’s going to have to work some serious magic to make this unit strong enough to buoy an offense that’s not going to put up very many points this year.
Luckily for the Rams, there’s no team in this conference — let alone the division — that’s as much of a mess as the San Francisco 49ers. Two or three years ago, people would’ve been intrigued if you told them that Chip Kelly would be the head coach of the 49ers. Now? People are wondering whether this pairing can work, and more importantly, whether Kelly is actually capable enough to coach at the professional level (or whether he’s just another Steve Spurrier).
It doesn’t help Kelly that he has exactly offensive skill players worth a damn: running back Carlos Hyde, and wide receiver Torrey Smith. Past that, the rest of the skill position depth chart could (or should) be condemned. Having to choose between Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick at quarterback is about the same as having to choose between Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne in an episode of “Jeopardy!”. The offensive line has a few nice pieces — left tackle Joe Staley is a Pro Bowl player, guard Zane Beadles was a nice signing from Jacksonville, and the team drafted lineman Joshua Garnett from Stanford in the first round — but what exactly is back there worth protecting?
The defense has a lot more to work with, starting with defensive ends Arik Armstead (the 49ers’ first round pick in 2015) and DeForest Bucker (the team’s top pick in 2016), who both played under Kelly at the University of Oregon. NaVorro Bowman is almost entirely back to form after his brutal knee injury in late 2014. Aaron Lynch is a capable pass rusher, and safety Antoine Bethea is one of the better players at his position in the league. But there’s just no way this group can compensate for how putrid this offense could potentially be. There’s plenty of reason to believe that Chip Kelly could be out of the NFL by late 2017 (if not earlier).