2017 NFL Season Preview: NFC West

A struggling Rams team. A weak 49ers. A Seahawks team that have failed to meet expectations. Welcome to the NFC West

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The Sideline Reports preview of the 2017 NFL season wraps up today with a look at the NFC West.

Arizona

Key Additions 

S Antoine Bethea, LB Karlos Dansby, LB Haason Reddick

Key Losses

DE Calais Campbell, LB Kevin Minter, S DJ Swearinger

What does a successful season look like?

After being blown off the park in 2015 NFC Championship game, the Cardinals fell out of the playoff race last season with a bitterly disappointing record of 7-8-1. Arizona will look to put 2016 quickly in the rear view mirror. With veteran QB Carson Palmer at the helm in what could be his final season, and with a stud young running back in David Johnson, this is an Arizona offense that can kill in many ways. There will be reshuffling on what was an inconsistent offensive line last season, with long time left tackle Jared Veldheer being moved to the right side to make way for young tackle DJ Humphries on the blindside (a move that seemed to help steady things on a shaky line late in 2016). With an interesting mix of receivers at his disposal, including future hall of famer Larry Fitzgerald, there’s no reason to suggest the Cardinal offense can’t get back to their point scoring ways of two seasons ago. The defense lost a handful of starters over the offseason, and none will be harder to replace than longtime star defensive end Calais Campbell. This is an intriguing defense in the desert that includes quite a few young players (defensive linemen Robert Nkemdiche and linebackers Markus Golden and Haason  Reddick) that will need to step up this season to help cover the holes left by last seasons departures. There are concerns in the secondary for Arizona, but if All-pro safety Tyrann Mathieu can return to his best in 2017 and rookie Budda Baker can have an early impact as a rookie nickel back, these Cards will prove stiff opposition in the NFC West. 11-5 would be a wonderful bounce back season, but enough to keep those other birds in the division at bay?

What does a disastrous season look like?

Time is running out for Palmer and the Cardinals, and coach Bruce Arians knows it. If it becomes apparent early in 2017 that one or both of QB Carson Palmer and WR Larry Fitzgerald have gone on a season too long, this be a forgettable season in Arizona. David Johnson has proven to be one of the true young gifted RB’s in the NFL, and if he is greeted with shoddy offensive line play every time he reaches the line of scrimmage in 2017, the Cards will struggle to gain first downs, let alone TD’s. There’s plenty of young potential in the defensive front 7, and it’s a front 7 group that must prove stingy in the run game and capable rushing the passer in order to cover for a secondary that is extremely lacking depth behind stars Mathieu and cornerback Patrick Peterson. The Cards look like a team who won’t implode for a second consecutive season, however, they do require a bit of luck and improved output from some of their younger players in 2017, or else Palmer’s chase for a first Lombardy could prove forever elusive. Anything less than 7-9 could signal the end of one era, and the dawning of another.

Cold Hard Truth

Not as talented on paper as the favoured Seahawks, but this is a Cardinals team that certainly has what it takes to win the division and claim a top for seed. A wild card spot is more realistic, and that may be tough in a conference where there is perhaps only 3 teams who aren’t considered playoff worthy. 9-7 would be a good season, however double digit wins may be what it takes to claim a wild card spot in the NFC in 2017.

Los Angeles Rams

Key Additions 

HC Sean McVay, OT Andrew Whitworth, LB Connor Barwin, CB Kayvon Webster

Key Losses

QB Case Keenum, OT Greg Robinson, DE William Hayes, S TJ McDonald

What does a successful season look like? 

A successful season for the Rams in 2017 hinges on the performance of second year number 1 overall pick Jarred Goff. After only winning 4 games in 2016 and with Goff not showing much in his rookie year, LA fans will be hoping to see much improvement from the young QB in year 2 to justify paying such a high price in the 2016 draft. Running back Todd Gurley is another who will be keen to get back to his best after a disastrous second season in the pros. After a year of offensive line issues, the Rams brought in veteran free agent left tackle Andrew Whiteorth in the hope he will help both Goff in the passing game and Gurley on the ground. If the issues can be solved on the line, this is an offense that could emerge quickly with quite a few promising young reveivers on the roster in rookie TE Gerald Everett and rookie wideouts Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds. With the defense switching to a 3-4 scheme in 2017, the football world is anxious to see just how defensive player of the year candidate Aaron Donald can perform in new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ scheme. The Rams formula this season looks to be playing good defense and keeping the ground game ticking over on offense. If Donald can go from strength to strength on a defense that lacks playmakers beside him, this could be, at the very least, an extraordinarily competitive Rams team. They may be a year or 2 from being considered playoff contenders, but if rookie Head Coach Sean McVay can double the Rams wins from a season ago and finish in the realm of 8-8, it would be a great launching pad for the coming seasons.

What does a disastrous season look like?

It all boils down to the development of second year QB Jared Goff in 2017. If Goff can’t show a regime that didn’t draft him in the first place he hasn’t got what it takes to play quarterback in the pros, the Rams could be forced to start over once again at the games most important position. The offensive line couldn’t possibly be any worse than a season ago, but if the lines improvement can’t help RB Todd Gurley get back to the top of the rushing charts, this could be one of the leagues least productive and lowest scoring offenses once again. Switching defensive schemes to one where you’re best player may not necessarily flourish is an extremely risky move by the Rams regime, and if offensive struggles are matched by the defense, this could be a team that has just as much trouble winning as it does getting fans to come and watch. Anything less than last seasons record of 4-12 could lead to a clean out from Coach McVay.

Cold Hard Truth

If Goff is light ears ahead in year 2, this could be a team that nobody is thinking about that could surprise. The Rams posses a great young RB and a good enough defense, but there’s quite a few queries elsewhere on a rather depressing roster. Playoffs don’t look to be on the cards this season, so LA fans may have to settle for another record of 7-9, which would be a big improvement under Sean McVay on year 1.

San Francisco 

Key Additions 

Head Coach Kyle Shanahan, C Jeremy Zuttab, WR Pierre Garçon, QB Brian Hoyer, LB Elvis Dumervil, DE Solomon Thomas, LB Reuben Foster

Key Losses 

QB Colin Kaepernick, WR Torrey Smith, S Antoine Beth, K Phil Dawson

What does a successful season look like?

After a horrible 2016 campaign left the 49’ers with a record of 2-14, the  front office decided against taking their next QB in Aprils draft. The 49’ers instead elected to bring in free agent veteran QB Brian Hoyer to steer the ship in 2017 before the franchise turns its attention to what looks to be a 2018 draft loaded with promising young quarterback talent. This doesn’t mean the first season under new HC Kyle Shanahan can be considered a wright off, though making the playoffs with what many football fans consider the most talent rid team in the league would be one of the all time great coaching performances. The most exciting group in San Francisco this season is unquestionably the front 7 on defense, a group that will be lead by former first rounders DeForrest Buckner, Arik Armstead and possible defensive rookie of the year candidate Solomon Thomas. After the 49’ers also took linebacker Reuben Foster in what was a steal late in last Aprils draft, they all of a sudden have a group of players that fans in the Bay Area can get excited about. The guys upfront on defense will be forced to gel and adjust quickly to the new 4-3 scheme, as they will be covering for what many would consider the poorest secondary depth chart in the league (besides above average safety Eric Reid). If there can be a few players that emerge from nowhere in the secondary, such as young CB’s Rashard Robinson or Ahkello Witherspoon, this could be a surprise defense in the NFC West. A season of Brian Hoyer at QB is probably enough to make some 49’er fans sick, but if he can thrive in Shanahan’s new offense with an interesting mix of receivers and a promising young running back in Carlos Hyde, the 9’ers could avoid finishing on the bottom of the division for a second straight season. Getting to the middle ground of 8-8 would an enormous achievement for Shanahan and these 49’ers.

What does a disastrous season look like?

It couldn’t be much worse than 2016, could it? The very least you say about this team is they have considerabley more young talent than the same roster 12 months previous. If they were to repeat the dismal 2-14 record or, god forbid, be even worse in 2017, Shanahan will surely be thinking he’s made a mistake. Despite the young talent on defense, if they don’t make as big an impact as expected or struggle to adjust to the new scheme while missing veteran linebacker Navarro Bowman, this could be a unit that struggle to contain the Seahawks, Rams and everybody in between. On paper, the offense is one that 49’er fans of the future would be keen to eliminate from their memory. There’s a solid offensive line in place, and a strong young running back in Carlos Hyde backed up by free agent full back Kyle Juszcyk, but Hoyer, despite his experience, is a quarterback who is odds on to be either injured or benched after throwing a flurry of INT’s. Fellow free agent pick up Matt Barkley will surely get his chance at some stage, as will rookie CJ Beathard. If the rookie can prove to be a mid-draft steel in the mold of Dak Prescott this season, the perception of this team from the locals could change over night. If none of the quarterbacks inspire, expect to see plenty of San Francisco scouts at USC and UCLA college games this season. A repeat record of 2-14 would mean a long season in San Fran, but would also guarantee access to perhaps their next Joe Montana. Perhaps.

Cold Hard Truth

This is a team that, overall, is simply not good enough to compete in a division that boasts a pair of decent football teams. 9’er fans may have to conced that this season will be a work in progress, and while there will be games they win unexpectedly, this is a team that may get well beaten on occasions also. A record of 4-12 and a pick inside the top 5 would be a good outcome for the 49’ers this season.

Seattle

Key Additions 

RB Eddie Lacy, S Bradley McDougald, G Luke Joeckel

Key Losses 

K Stephen Hauschka, DT Tony McDaniel, OT Bradley Sowell, OT Garry Gilliam

What does a successful season look like?

This is a Seattle team that has underachieved since QB Russel Wilson threw THAT interception. The Seahawks have been plagued by offensive line issues and problems with their running game since the retirement of franchise legend Marshawn Lynch. Seattle drafted rookie offensive lineman Ethan Pocic in the second round in April hoping that Pocic will be able to make the switch from playing centre at LSU to playing the troublesome left tackle spot on the Seattle line. If Pocic can play well and lead to an improved line overall, this offense could finally reach its potential with Russel Wilson at the helm. Despite having only a mediocre bunch of receivers to throw to in Doug Baldwin, Jermain Kearse, Paul Richardson and tight end Jimmy Graham, this offense could transform exponentially if free agent RB Eddie Lacy could arrive from Green Bay and reproduce his rookie season form. Seattle still boast one of the great defenses in the league, with their veteran nucleus now being joined by promising recent draft picks like defensive end Frank Clark, tackle Jarran Reed and boom or bust rookie lineman Malik McDowell. The vast majority on this defense have been together for most of the decade now, and season 2017 feels like it may be one last hurrah. If the Seahawks can’t reach the Superbowl in Minnesota this February, some of the big name defensive stars may be traded out next offseason in order to make way for the next wave of Seahawks defenders. Seattle are the deserved favourites in the West, and if a few of the issues on offense can be solved, we could be looking at a runaway division winning. 12-4 and another playoff campaign that runs through Century Link Field is not out of the question in 2017.

What does a disastrous season look like?

There aren’t too many teams in the league who have as many colourful characters on the roster as these Seahawks, and some of the infighting and sideline scuffles people see are bound to happen when the coaches and scouts tend to look at football ability over character concerns. This is an exceptionaly gifted football team, however there is a vague sense around the Seahawks that if by mid season things look to be heading slightly off the rails, this could be a locker room that implodes quickly. It’s hard to imagine a Pete Carroll team doing so, but there a select few personalities that know, come seasons end, they could be out the door. If things aren’t going well on the field, expect things to spill over into the locker room in 2017. If there was ever going to be a head football coach who you want to rally the troops for one last go around, it would be Pete Carroll. However, if things aren’t meant to be for these Seahawks in 2017, expect there to be an enormous fire sale in the offseasons. Even if the wheels fall off and 2017 turns into a disastr, it’s still almost impossible to the Seahawks fall to anything less than 8-8, given the sheer football talent this team has at its disposal.

Cold Hard Truth

This is certainly a team that is still good enough to get to the big game, if Coach Carroll and the other senior figures can get everyone to knuckle down and on the same page for 2017. If some of the offensive failings of recent years can be rectified, the Seahawks are a contender once more. If not, then Seattle fans may have to settle for a division title followed by an embarrassing loss in the playoffs to one of the other emerging teams, like the Falcons again, the Cowboys are Tampa Bay. The guess here is 11-5 and an appearance in the NFC Championship game. But from there?

 

 

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