TSN football analyst Chris Schultz breaks down all the teams and each division in the NFL leading up to the regular season. Next up, the Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks of the NFC West.
San Francisco 49ers
If you evaluate teams in terms of toughness and heart, the San Francisco 49ers are as tough and driven as any team in the NFL. They have an excellent offensive line that runs complex blocking patterns and led by Justin Smith, a defensive line that can create a pass-rush without linebackers and defensive backs.
The line of scrimmage players are the strength of the team. A lot of emphasis will be put on quarterback Colin Kaepernick and as spectacular as he is and can be, he needs to improve. Surprisingly, San Francisco was the 30th-ranked football team in pass offence last season and when you consider how good the division is, that has to improve significantly to win that division.
Kaepernick throws bullets and sometimes overpowers his receivers. Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson with Vernon Davis give Kaepernick all he needs to improve as a complete passer. As a spontaneous or premeditated runner, I don't think he has a superior in the entire league. But to beat Seattle he has to have both skills at their best. With a new contract equal to any with his success and a fourth year pending, this could be - and should be - his best year ever.
I also though the 49ers' second draft pick, Carlos Hyde, was a good one. Frank Gore is in his ninth year and for a running back that is a lot. Hyde is a very similar type of back and because of his youth, he will have his opportunities.
Bottom line for the 49ers is the two Seattle Seahawk games. Both are in the second half of the season - on November 27th and December 14th - so injuries and avoidance of injuries may determine everything.
The recent history of success is very good for San Francisco and that is good and bad. Good in the sense that you know you can win because over the last three years the 49ers made it to the NFC championship game to lose to Seattle. They made it all the way to the Super Bowl and lost on the last play on offence 34-31 to Baltimore, and the year before lost to the Giants 20-17 in overtime. The 49ers know they are goo but do they have the energy to do it again and stay healthy all year long? The exhibition season has not been good for San Francisco so far and there are rumours that Jim Harbaugh is running out of his motivational ways. Still, this is a tough physical team in every way and is still hungry. Seattle is good but they have reached the mountain while San Francisco is still climbing.
49ers - first in the NFC West.
Even though the Seahawks lost 10 players to free agency, when you study personnel you must still conclude they have no individual weaknesses. What I find interesting when you look at the free agents that they signed is that the only well-known name is Terrelle Pryor. The other four free agents I don't recognize as previous starters to any major degree. Maybe Seattle does know something or evaluate and conclude a step better than the other 31 teams.
The Seahawks are coming of not just a dominant 35-point Super Bowl victory but a dominant season. The total margin of loss in their three defeats was 15 (Colts by 4, 49ers by 2, Cardinals by 7). You can truly say Seattle showed up every single week.
The goal this year is to "do it again" and with a healthy Percy Harvin they may be able to do it. But only eight of 47 previous teams have repeated as Super Bowl winners and none over the last 10 years. The confidence, composure and consistency of Russell Wilson was amazing to watch and the dominance of the secondary was the "group" reason for the team's success.
They finished last year tops in total defence (273 yards per game), passing defence, (172 yards per game), points allowed (14 per game) and best takeaway/giveaway ratio (plus-20). And, the Seahawks are one if the youngest teams in all of football.
I don't think Seattle will regress but I wonder if others will progress when they play Seattle now that they are the most hunted and identifiable team in the league. They will get the opposition's best each and every week.
Seahawks - second in NFC West.
The toughest division in football is the NFC West. When the third place team finishes 10-6 (Arizona) and does not make the playoffs even though Green Bay in the NFC North finished 8-7-1 but had a home playoff game, you're in a tough division. And each team in the division has a great defence, with the Cardinals as good as any.
Now, the loss of Darnell Dockett is significant. A very productive player and leader, it puts more emphasis on John Abraham as linebacker and defensive end to make an impact in his 15th year. The loss of Dockett is big but not insurmountable. Last year, Arizona finished number one against the run, number seven in least points allowed and number six overall. That side of the ball should still be exceptional without Karlos Dansby, but with Antonio Cromartie at cornerback and number one pick Deone Bucannon at safety. Defensively good. Offensively? Maybe.
Carson Palmer begins his 12th year and Larry Fitzgerald his 11. The two oldest on the offence have to play with an absence of age for Arizona to repeat at 10-6 or better. Fitzgerald, I don't think there will be a problem; Palmer you just don't know. Last year, he had 24 touchdowns but 22 interceptions. Can Bobby Massie hold down the left tackle position? Can Jonathan Cooper live up to first round expectations? Can Micheal Floyd, first round pick from two years ago be another Larry Fitzgerald? Who will emerge as a productive tight end? Very few questions on defence, yet a lot on offence. When you look at the six losses last year for Arizona, three of them could have been wins -- opening game at St. Louis lost by three, game 12 lost in Philadelphia by 3, and the last game of the year lost to the 49ers by 3. Even the six losses can be rationalized as a positive. Only once last year did Arizona lose back-to-back games as four times after a loss it was a win.
Finally, Bruce Arians seems to have a motivating effect on his players. From his days in Pittsburgh and assisting Ben Roethlisberger become what he is to his support and self-control in Indianapolis in regard to Chuck Pagano. To ask a rookie head coach creating 10 wins, you get the sense Bruce Arians knows the people side of pro football as well as any other aspect of the game. This division is going to come down to the six divisional teams when they play each other. Last year, Arizona lost to San Francisco twice, split winning one in Seattle and split with St. Louis. Going two wins and four losses. Key game to win the division is in Week 3 against San Francisco at Arizona on Sept 21. It all starts there.
Cardinals - third in NFC West
St. Louis Rams
Amazing how things can change in one moment and one play. Sam Bradford out for the year and Shaun Hill becomes the starter for the opener against Minnesota.
Shaun Hill is experienced with 12 years of NFL football but if he was better than Sam Bradford he would be the starter, so the regression is tangible. How the Rams will function in efficiency is unknown but they are in the toughest division in football so we will find out soon enough.
Can the defence carry the team? Well, they do have one of the best defensive front sevens in football and maybe the best pure pass rusher in Robert Quinn but to depend on that area alone is too much to ask. The front seven is a known commodity but the secondary is not. Can Greg Williams reproduce a dominate turnover advantage as he did the year the Saints won the Super Bowl? As a coordinator, Williams is proven but to offset the inevitable of early offensive inefficiency, the Rams will have to finish plus- 15 in takeaway, giveaway and not zero as they did last year.
The Rams use a running back rotation of Tre Mason, Zac Stacy, Bennie Cunningham and Isaiah Pea but it would be more beneficial if one became the number one. They do have explosiveness in Tavon Austin but can Chris Givens be similar in ability and can Kenny Britt rejuvenate his career? And more than in any year, they must stay healthy to off-set the absence of Bradford.
Jake Long at left tackle, Scott Wells at centre and Rodger Saffold who plays both left and right tackle have to be 16 game starters in 2014. With heath and a good year from number one pick Greg Robinson who will probably start at guard, the Rams in front of Shaun Hill could be pretty good.
Jeff Fisher and Les Snead have done a good job of collecting players but they have lost their most important one in Sam Bradford for the year. And in a division with a top defence in Seattle, a just as good defence in San Francisco and an underrated defence in Arizona that was number one against the run, it will be tough not to conclude.
Rams - fourth in the NFC West