NFL Season Preview – NFC West – Watch Out for the St. Louis Rams

by Kent Sterling

UnknownThere is a lot of talk about the NFC West being the best division in the NFL, and it just may be.  If you take the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks of 2012, and add what many expect are going to be two of the most improved franchises in the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals, the expectation of excellence can be justified.

Others are going to look at the West as a copy of what fans saw in 2012 – 49ers, Seahawks, Rams, and Cardinals.

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But the 49ers and Seahawks are not the same as they were last year.  The quarterbacks are young, but the tools around them are not.  The defenses are stout, but aging in spots.  The running backs are productive but aging, and the receivers are ordinary.

The Rams are young, aggressive, and fast, while the Cardinals are in a state of flux that might coalesce into a formidable group, but likely will be among the lesser teams in the NFC.

St. Louis Rams – 11-5

The Rams are likely to be the youngest team in the NFL again in 2013, and young teams tend to win when they’re talented, and the Rams are talented.  Yeah, I’m picking them to win the division, and that will put me on an island about as heavily populated as the one Tom Hanks shared with his best friend the volleyball, but I think they look a lot like the 1984 Chicago Bears.

Schedule – The Rams would argue this, but the schedule sets up very nicely for them.  The opener against the Arizona Cardinals should be a divisional win.  That’s followed by road games against the Falcons and Cowboys.  Two home tilts against the 49ers and Jaguars follow.  The schedule finishes – again – in Seattle, so if the Rams are going to qualify for the postseason, they better wrap things up prior to December 29 as the Seahawks were 8-0 at home in 2012.

Offense – As is the case across all 32 NFL teams, as the quarterback goes, so goes the offense.  Sam Bradford was the top pick of the 2010 NFL Draft and through three years, his performance has been mediocre with a career quarterback rating of 77.3.  ESPN’s QBR rating had him at 51.6 in 2012 – a rating of 50 demonstrates average production.  The excuses given have always been a lack of continuity in the offense as his offensive coordinators have changed annually – from Pat Shurmur to Josh McDaniels to Brian Schottenheimer.  Well, Schotty is back for year two, so let’s retire that.  A lack of dynamic weaponry was also accurately listed as a reason for Bradford’s standing in the bottom half of the NFL’s QBs.  The Rams have used high picks on fast guys with good hands over the past two drafts to correct that.  They also made a bit of an under the radar free agent signing in tight end Jared Cook, who should be a perfect fit with the Rams, after being miscast in Tennessee last season.  If Bradford doesn’t show the Rams something this season, I’m not sure he ever will.

The rushing offense will miss Steven Jackson, who left after becoming the Rams all-time leading rusher with 10,135 yards, but both second year backs return.  Daryl Richardson averaged 4.8 yards per carry as he accounted for 23% of all carries.  Isaiah Pead carried the ball only 10 times, but showed flashes of the potential that led the Rams to take him in the second round of the 2012 draft.  The receiving corps is young but talented, and is led by Tavon Austin, who was drafted eighth overall in this year’s draft.  Both he and second year player Chris Givens can take the top off defenses.

The offensive line should benefit from the signing of dominant-when-healthy left tackle Jake Long.  That slides Rodger Saffold to RT, giving the Rams bookends who have graded very well.  Both have shown a recent propensity for injury, but if healthy, Bradford should have plenty of time to stand ramrod straight in the pocket waiting for receivers to break open without fearing for his life.

Bradford has the ability to look good, and the ability to look lost.  Franchise quarterbacks don’t look lost very often.  Andrew Luck is in his second year under his second OC, and he never looks like Bradford does.  Still, if the starting offensive line can stay on the field together, the Rams have a chance to be productive.

Defense – This is where the Rams will either sink or swim, and they are talented almost everywhere, as the offense isn’t good enough yet to carry the team.  The front four is young, deep, and aggressive.  The Rams had trouble stopping runs between the tackles in 2011, so they drafted Michael Brockers 14th in 2012.  They had trouble finding a weakside linebacker in 2012 who could make plays, so they took Alec Ogletree with the 28th pick.  Robert Quinn is entering his third year as a speed rushing defensive end, and appears ready to explode as an elite athlete.

The Rams were wretched at cornerback in 2011, so they signed Cortland Finnegan and drafted Janoris Jenkins.  Despite a behavioral hiccup by Jenkins in San Francisco last year, the Rams CBs went from weak to strong overnight.  The safeties are unproven, and will provide the biggest question mark for what – on paper – appears to be a group capable of making plays.  Third round pick T.J. McDonald, Darian Stewart, and Rodney McLeod will have to raise the level of their game to avoid being successfully targeted as the weak link.  If Quinn, Chris Long, and Brockers can put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks, it may not matter.

Seattle Seahawks – 11-5

Schedule – The Seahawks are almost unbeatable at home.  Last year, they were 8-0 at Century Link Field.  If teams in the West want to keep the Seahawks from running away with the championship, they better hold serve at their place.  Their wild card games are at the Giants and at home against the Vikings.  Look for Adrian Peterson to run the ball relentlessly in that game, and whether the Seahawks make the playoffs will have a lot to do with those two games.  Peterson vs. Lynch could be a battle for the ages.

Offense – Russell Wilson might wind up being the best of the four-man rookie quarterback class of 2012, or maybe he was a flash in the pan.  Part Flutie and part gunslinger, Wilson was a statistical beast last season – ranking in the top ten in many categories (passing TDs – 9th, Passer rating 4th, yards per pass – 4th, game winning drives – 3rd, yards per completion – 5th).  He throws every ball well, and has mobility combined with size that makes him tough to catch.

First team All-Pro workhorse Marshawn Lynch adds the kind of running game that makes coaches feel pretty good about facing third-and-two.  Among all running backs, he was 5th in touches, 6th in touchdowns, 7th in all-purpose yards, and 3rd in rushing yards – averaging just shy of 100 yards per game.  The receivers Wilson has to work with are Golden Tate and Sidney Rice.  Percy Harvin may miss the season with a surgically repaired labrum.  He was expected to bring some life to a return and receiving game that is productively nonelectric.

The offensive line is an uneven bunch that was not upgraded during the offseason.  Some guys are good run blockers, while others can pass protect.  None do both exceptionally well.  There needed to be a chink in the armor somewhere, and as you’ll see, it sure isn’t on the defensive side of the ball.

Defense – Man.  Where to even start with this group.  They are really good.  One weakness last season was the pass rush other than by Chris Clemons.  The Seahawks turned to free agency to bring in Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.  The free agency spending was made possible in part by paying an elite quarterback less than $1-million.  That helps a ton compared to the giant dollars being made by guys like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and even Sam Bradford, who was the #1 overall pick during the last draft where contracts for picks were negotiated without restrictions.

The cornerbacks are deep and excellent.  The starting combination of Richard Sherman (eight picks) and Brandon Browner were statistically the best in the NFL, and they added Antoine Winfield to provide depth.  The safeties are also top-notch with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.  The defensive tackles are a concern as Brandon Mebane can be great one game and not so good the next.  Alan Branch and Jason Jones are gone, replaced by Tony McDaniel, who is not as good as either.  Weakside LB spot with Malcolm Smith is a question mark, but Jeez, you can’t have All-Pros everywhere.

The Seahawks were special at home, and ordinary on the road.  As silly as it sounds, travel can wear on a team.  It seems illogical to pick the Rams ahead of the Seahawks, but I think Pete Carroll will have trouble beating them.  The division will come down to the final game of the season, and I think the Rams will win it.

San Francisco 49ers – 9-7

Schedule – The first five games are brutal, and could see the 49ers with a hill to climb.  All but the Rams made the playoffs last year, and that game at St. Louis will be a redux of a loss for the 49ers in 2012.  They host the Packers, travel to Seattle, host the Colts, head to the Rams, and finally host Houston.  They could be winless after that gauntlet.

Offense – The strength of the 49ers on the offensive side of the ball is in its line, and as long as that group is healthy, they should be able to keep quarterback Colin Kaepernick upright.  If Kaepernick gets hurt, the 49ers are looking at a long season, although that’s losing a starting quarterback would be fatal for every decent team in the league.  Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace are not going to keep many defensive coordinators up late.

The running game is Frank Gore running behind Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone, and Anthony Davis.  Gore turned 30 in May, and that is never a good thing for running backs, especially a guy like Gore with 1,911 career carries behind him.  If Gore can be as eerily consistent in 2013 as he was in 2011 and 2012 (1,211 and 1,214 yards rushing respectively), the 49ers will have a chance to remain a dynamic offensive team.

The primary problem with the offense is injury to productive wide receivers.  Both Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham may be lost for the entire season, which would cost the 49ers 127 catches, 1,554 yards, and 10 TDs.  That leaves Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis – both of whom are special.  Boldin is going to turn 33 in early October, but his primary weapons are hands and body, not speed.

Defense – Talk about weapons, the 49ers have some.  Justin and Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Ahmad Brooks are dynamic.  The secondary could be a problem with Dashon Goldson and Chris Culliver gone.  There is a name lurking on the depth chart at safety that could bring real trouble for offenses that are capable of throwing it over the top.  Former Giants and Rams safety Craig Dahl is listed right behind Donte Whitner, and he had the best looks at Rams opponents’ touchdowns last season than anyone.

I don’t list special teams on these previews because writing about kickers is normally a waste of time, but in the case of the 49ers, an exception must be made.  David Akers was brutal last year kicking field goals beyond 40 yards, making only 9-of-19, and overall only hitting 69%.  Akers cost the 49ers two wins against the Rams – one resulted in a tie.  If he makes a missed kick in each of those games, the 49ers finish the season 13-3 instead of 11-4-1.  Phil Dawson replaces him, and that should represent an upgrade.

Arizona Cardinals – 4-12

It’s easy to overlook the Arizona Cardinals as the fourth best team in this division.  New coach.  New quarterback.  Coming off a season that ended by losing 11-of-12 games.  Bruce Arians takes over as head coach, which might be good, and might be bad.  B.A. has been an assistant in the NFL for a very long time (began as an NFL assistant in 1989), and was never hired to lead a team until he was asked to keep Chuck Pagano’s seat warm in Indianapolis last season as Pagano battled cancer.

Schedule – They need to survive four of six on the road to start the season – @ Rams, @ Saints, @ Bucs, and @ 49ers, while hosting the Lions and Panthers in weeks two and five.  Hard to even fathom a guess as to what might happen in those six as the Cards have so many variables.  If they come out of there 4-2, they have a chance to raise a little hell, but it could turn into an extension of how 2012 ended.

Offense – Lots of change, beginning with the hiring of Arians.  He likes to throw it deep, and new quarterback Carson Palmer likes to throw it deep.  Special receiver Larry Fitzgerald likes to catch deep balls.  Can the line keep Palmer clean long enough to get vertical.  I was surprised to find that Palmer is only 33.  He plays more like 37.

Fitzgerald will turn 30 on August 30th, and while last year saw his stats go into the crapper, his demise was likely the fault of the woefully flawed quarterback situation in Arizona.  John Skelton was not nearly ready to inherit the reins from Kevin Kolb when he was lost for the season.  In 2011, Fitzgerald was elite with 80 catches for 1,411 and eight TDs.  In 2012, 71 catches on 153 touches – exactly the same number as he saw in 2011 (and 2009 for that matter) – but for only 798 yards and four TDs.  On the other side, Michael Floyd opens his second year.  Whether Floyd is going to take a step forward really isn’t debatable – he will if only because Skelton is no longer throwing to ball in his general direction.

The running game should improve with a hopefully healthy Rashard Mendenhall as the primary back.  Arians was the OC for the Steelers as Mendenhall became a very solid back, and he should flourish in Phoenix.

The offensive live of the Cardinals allowed a mindboggling 58 sacks last year, and while that unit should improve – because getting worse is impossible with Pro Football Focus ranking them dead last in the NFL – it’s filled with okay players who hope to become good.  A terrible line led to QBs lost, which led to abject failure late in the season.

Defense – The defense was the only reason that last year’s Cardinals weren’t a historically poor team in 2012.  Ray Horton’s group had talent and played hard.  Unfortunately, when Horton was passed over in favor of Arians for the head coaching position, he bolted for Cleveland.  Not sure he gave that a whole lot of thought, or else he doesn’t enjoy golf.

Safeties Adrien Wilson and Kerry Rhodes are gone, and Honey Badger Tyrann Matieu will see some playing time in their stead.  Worse, Jerraud Powers is competing to start at cornerback.  There is a reason that Powers is no longer in Indianapolis, and it has nothing to do with Powers aversion to the shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo’s.  Some of the good is that Calais Campbell is a flat-out beast.

Karlos Dansby and Sam Acho were productive last year, but whether that was a result of Horton’s scheme or their innate talent is TBD.

The more you dig into the Cardinals, the worse they appear to be.  There is a lot of hoping going on, and the media, as always, is transfixed by change.  If all that was needed to change a loser into a winner was to punt the coaching staff and front office staff, any chimp could do that.  Unfortunately, the replacements need to be better at their jobs – not better than those they replace, but of those against whom they compete.  Arians needs to be a better head coach than Jim Harbaugh, Jeff Fisher, and Pete Carroll.  And new GM Steve Kelm needs to be a better GM than Trent Baalke, Les Snead, and John Schneider.  Those are two serious hills to climb.

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