Can the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers challenge the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals in 2017?
It being preseason, it’s optimism time. But let’s do a reality check. Is the NFC West shaping up to be the NFL’s second-least competitive division (AFC East)?
The NFC West looks once again to be a contest between the two usual top dogs: The Seattle Seahawks (division winners in three of the past five seasons; second place in the other two) and the Arizona Cardinals (two second place finishes in 2014 & 2016; division champs in 2015). Perhaps I should have offered a spoiler alert first. Perhaps not.
Forgive me for ruining the surprise. I’ll ruin it even further: If you’re looking for someone to make a case that the San Francisco 49ers or the Los Angeles Rams can take the NFC West in 2017, keep looking.
The case for and against
Seattle Seahawks (2016 record: 10–5–1)
In the Seahawks’ favor:
- The rest of the NFC West division.
- An easy early schedule (After opening on the road in Green Bay, the Seahawks are treated to the softest part of their schedule at home against San Francisco, at the Tennessee Titans [ok—iffy], home against the Indianapolis Colts and at the Los Angeles Rams) before their week six bye. Seattle could/should begin the season 4–1 and be in firm control while on their October mini-vacation.
- Passing chemistry: Russell Wilson will have his top five receiving targets from last year in full availability (Doug Baldwin, Jimmy Graham, Jermaine Kearse, Tyler Lockett, Paul Richardson).
- Return to rushing dominance: Probably not resurging to previous Beast Mode levels of 2011–2014, but a far cry better than last season’s 25th-ranked rushing attack.
- Russell Wilson’s two good legs; a net gain of two more than last year.
- All the key players back from last season’s fifth-ranked defense: Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Frank Clark).
To the Seahawks’ detriment:
- An offensive offensive line. Sure, there’s reason to hope for improvement over last year’s league-worst offensive line, but a big leap upward would still put them in the NFL’s bottom third. Losing George Fant in preseason did not help; nor has switching Germain Ifedi to right tackle. Expect growing pains on the line, particularly at the tackle spots.
- Defensive backfield depth is unproven; a concern in today’s pass-wacky league. Is the cornerback spot opposite Sherman going to be a revolving door again this year?
- Passing chemistry may suffer if Seattle trades Wilson’s security blanket (Kearse) and if Lockett and Richardson continue their oft-injured ways.
Arizona Cardinals (2016 record: 7–8–1)
In the Cardinals’ favor:
- 12 receivers “of NFL quality” (May 24, 2017).
- One of the NFL’s best all-around backs, David Johnson (1,239 rush yards, 4.2 YPC, 80 receptions, 879 rec. yards, 20 total TDs).
- A better-than-you-probably-remember Carson Palmer who had a decent season last year (26 TDs, 14 INTs, 4,233 yards, 7.1 per attempt) — still a far cry from his career-best year of 2015.
- 2016’s second-best defense (avg. 305.2 yards per game), featuring a back seven that rivals Seattle’s Legion of Boom.
- Should be no worse than 4–3 by week eight bye.
- Got the better of the Seahawks last year (1 win, 1 tie).
To the Cardinals’ detriment:
- “We might have two [receivers that can play in the NFL]” ( 15, 2017).
- A sometimes frail defense with depth concerns.
- A middling offensive line.
- This may be the year that Carson Palmer hits the wall.
- This may be the year that Larry Fitzgerald hits the wall.
- Head coach Bruce Arians has frequent, serious health concerns.
- Losing record in 2016 despite top defense, top running back and above-average quarterback.
Los Angeles Rams (2016 record: 4–12)
In the Rams’ favor:
- Aaron Donald leads the defensive line — usually.
- Ninth-ranked defense from last year was no joke.
- Todd Gurley is said to not resemble 2016 Todd Gurley (3.2 YPC, 4 TDs, 885 rushing yards).
- Eric Dickerson is back.
To the Rams’ detriment:
- Aaron Donald is holding out and is currently doubtful for week one … and beyond?
- A middling offensive line, although the aging (35) Andrew Whitworth is an upgrade over last year’s Greg Robinson. That’s kinda sad.
- Second-year quarterback Jared Goff has a long way to go (5 TDs, 7 INTs, 54.6 comp. %).
- Receiving corps received offseason makeover but still does not impress (Tavon Austin remains, Kenny Britt departed, Sammy Watkins arrived Aug. 11). Austin has missed all of the preseason with hamstring issues.
- Sean McVay is youngest NFL coach in league’s history (age 31).
San Francisco 49ers (2016 record: 2–14)
In the 49ers’ favor:
- The power of prayer.
- The audacity of hope.
- 49ers fans have to be somewhere. Some will end up at the stadium. Until halftime.
To the 49ers’ detriment:
- 13 straight losses last year. The only team they could beat was the Rams (twice).
- Openly admitting to rebuilding. Not admitting to tanking (looking at you, New York Jets).
- New first-time general manager (John Lynch), new first-time head coach (Kyle Shanahan).
- Name a wide receiver of theirs.
- Sub-par offensive line, protecting imported retread quarterback Brian Hoyer, who will throw (when upright) to who-dat receivers or hand off to (maybe improving, usually underwhelming) Carlos Hyde and other need-to-prove-it running backs. Hard to make a case for 17 points a game.
- 2016’s 32nd-ranked defense (406.4 yards per game).
Add it up and it looks like the Seahawks can only expect a challenge from the Cardinals, if age and creakiness does not take them down before season’s end. In at least this one respect, the Seahawks will be the New England Patriots of the NFC West in 2017.