As I noted previously, we're getting close to the time when actual, meaningful football gets played in the Fall. Because of this I've spent some time analyzing all the teams in 2015 for both the NFL and College Football.
Next: NFC West
Projected record 13-3 First place
For Seahawks fans these are the salad days. Head Coach Pete Carroll has been building the NFL equivalent of the monster teams that he assembled (outside the rules at times according to NCAA sanctions) at USC in the NCAA. While the Seahawks lost a ton they kept a whole lot more and remain the class in the division.
Offensively they still have two things. Russell Wilson and Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch. They also have a good offensive line anchored by Russell Okung at LT and a new group of WR that should be a marked improvement on last year's lot. The Trio of Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette are penciled in as the opening day starters, but I wouldn't be surprised to see 2015 3rd round draft pick Kevin Lockett from Kansas State make a strong push for playing time in the pre-season. The Seahawks have Kevin Norwood and speedster Paul Richardson providing depth here.
Defensively the unit that has ranked at, or near, the top of NFL rankings is basically similar to the unit in 2014. The DL is manned mainly by savvy free agent acquisitions in the persons of Michael Bennett, Tony McDaniel and Cliff Avril. The LB corps returns Irvin, Wagner and Wright while the defensive backfield adds free agent Carey Williams to man the side opposite Richard Sherman. What's noticeably missing is the defensive coordinator, who has gone on to coach the Atlanta Falcons. New Defensive Coordinator Kris Richards has a ton of talent returning, so any fall-off would be due to scheme, unless injuries occur.
The x-factor for the Seahawks is their home-field advantage. They decided to copy Texas A&M and call it the 12th Man but whatever you call it it's real, and very loud. Because of their recent run of success (and their colorful uniforms) the Seahawks suddenly have fans where none existed, so they get a band-wagon road bump as well.
The fact is that this is a tough team that only really has to worry about one team beneath them......
The St. Louis Rams
Projected Record 10-6 Second place
The St. Louis Rams are a team that's been on the rise the last couple of years. With the expected collapse of the 49ers (more on them in a minute) and my general feeling that Arizona is going to revert to the mean, I think the Rams have a chance to seize the initiative and make the playoff leap this year.
Offensively they finally cut ties with oft-injured QB Sam Bradford choosing instead to role with oft-injured former Eagle signal caller Nick Foles. While Foles is not a world beater, he is capable when healthy and he has a pretty good group of WR's in Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin, Stedmon Bailey and Brian Quick to distribute the ball to. At running back the Rams have drafted Georgia stud Todd Gurley, who I think has the potential to become the next great NFL running back after Adrian Peterson. As a back-up they have Tre Mason, who is no slouch himself and was competent last year as a starter and should be able to spell Gurley so that the young rookie doesn't wear out after game 13 (when the average College season is finished). Expect the Rams to run a LOT of two TE sets to establish the run, take the pressure off of Foles and get both Jared Cook and Lance Hendricks on the field, which increases their flexibility. Besides Foles the big question for St. Louis is the offensive line, specifically RG and RT where they have two draft picks listed 1-2 on their draft chart at each position. Still, if the offense becomes left handed running the ball and if Foles can get rid of the ball to speedsters fairly quickly (both of which I think are doable) they'll be fine.
Defensively the Rams have possibly the best DL in the league with Chris Long and Robert Quinn at the ends, and Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers at the guard position. Depth at guard is a concern, which the Rams tried to address via Detroit disappointment Nick Fairly in hopes some new scenery will do him good. At LB I'm a fan of Laurenitis, and I like Ogletree OK, I don't think they have enough depth to be truly great at that position however.Where the Rams are weakest on defense, I think, lies in their defensive backfield. Janoris Jenkins is their best corner, and I think he is just OK, I'm betting that a lot of teams will identify the Left side, currently filled by EJ Gains, to be a target. Safety play and backfield depth is going to be a concern.
Head Coach Jeff Fisher has both won, and lost, during his time at Tennessee. He seems to have the faith of Rams management that he knows what he's doing so I don't think he's in immediate form unless the bottom falls out for one reason or another.
If the Rams do slip, I don't think the team behind them will be good enough to take advantage......
Projected Record 6-10 Third place
The Arizona Cardinals are trying desperately to turn things around as the careers of Larry Fitzgerald and Carson Palmer wind down. Unfortunately, I don't think they have the firepower on either side of the ball to do it.
Barring injury, Palmer at QB and Fitzgerald at WR are locks. I also think they have depth at WR in the persons of Malcom Floyd and John Brown. At RB however I don't think there's a quality back on the roster with Andre Ellington, Stepfan Taylor and 2015 draft pick David Johnson (Northern Iowa) each fighting for time. Over the last couple of years the Cardinals have done a good job bolstering their offensive line with free agent acquisitions Jared Veldheer, Ted Larsen and Mike Iupati joining 2013 first round pick Jonathan Cooper to complete a pretty solid line. The Cardinals will also employ a lot of two TE sets to try and protect the immobile Palmer but their TE group is nothing special.
Defensively I expect the Cardinals to be pretty decent. Their d-line (in a 3-4 scheme) is pretty solid but I worry about their lack of true edge rushers at the OLB spot. Alex Okafor is seemingly the best of the lot. In the defensive backfield I'm a fan of Patrick Peterson and Tyrone Mathieu but am not enamored with the remaining group. The success of this defense is going to depend, I think, on the ability of the starters to have career years and some of the rookie free agents to provide quality depth. That's a little bit of a reach which is why I think this year will be a step back. The Cardinals are going to pay a small price for all of the draft picks they gave up to shore up the O-line and defense.
Bruce Arians is a good head coach and I think he could be onto something if given time to build the team. I worry some about the ability of the Cardinals player evaluation department as they seem to be somewhat piloting without a clear destination in mind.
This year, at least, the Cardinals need not fear the team behind them who has seemingly imploded....
San Francisco 49ers
Projected Record 3-13 Fourth place
How fast the mighty have fallen. From three straight trips to the NFC Championship game to 8-8 to what I'm predicting this year will be an unmitigated disaster. (Full disclosure, the 49ers are MY team so writing this hurts)
Offensively the 49ers are a big mystery. Maybe Kaepernick revers to his form of three years prior and maybe Carlos Hyde can fill the void left by Gore, Maybe the WR group of Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin can turn back time but who is going to stretch the field? Vernon Davis is still around, and the o-line, despite losing Iupati, still has Joe Staley at LT but they are young at the guard position (two 2014 3rd round picks) and RT is a question mark.
Defensively things are looking bleak. The two FA pickups (Darnell Dockett and Glenn Dorsey) are players who have major question marks. Dorsey for his motor and Dockett for his health. Stud LB Patrick Willis is retired, and Navarro Bowman is returning from a major injury. Maybe you get something from Aldon Smith, maybe not, Only time will tell. I also worry about the defensive backfield, especially with Whitner leaving who provided some toughness. I still like Eric Reid at safety, but have never been a fan of Antoine Bathea during his time with the Colts. Shareece White and Tramaine Brock are both question marks at QB
Of course, the biggest concern with the 49ers is coaching and the general manager. After Trent Baalke and Harbaugh had it out the promotion of Tomsula was an unusual move. It's clear that Baalke feels an ego-driven need to prove that it's his brilliance, and not Harbaugh's coaching, that led this team to glory. I don't have faith in Mr. Baalke to deliver the goods.
Overall this division is not as strong as it used to be, losing the 49ers from the echelon of top teams, but they are not as week as could be. I think the 49ers are in for a rough fall, but I think the Rams and Seattle are still top teams to contend with.