2018 NFC West Preview

Welcome to the 2018 NFC West preview.  This is the 8th installment in our 2018 NFL season preview series.  If you haven’t had a chance to check out the earlier installments, be sure to catch up on all the action.  We are wrapping up digging into each division, a practice where we make predictions against each team’s Vegas win total, take an in depth look at the rosters, and finish with overall division predictions.  The order in which the teams appear is what we are predicting as the final standings for the division.  Onto the 2018 NFC West preview.

Los Angeles Rams – O/U 10 – Over

There are many things that scream regression for the Rams.  For starters, they had great injury luck last year, as they basically had no starters miss significant time.  There is also the fact that despite Goff and McVay being everyone’s favorite darling young duo this side of Wentz/Pederson, we have only seen it for a single season.  Furthermore, teams that improve ten fold like the Rams (4-12 in 2016 to 11-5 in 2017) tend to give back some of those gains in the win column the following season.

But good god this roster is loaded.  They didn’t overachieve last year based on performance level either.  They posted the 3rd best (or tied for second, depending on how you look at it) point differential in the league in 2017.  They finished 2nd in DVOA, with a balanced 6th place ranking in both offense and defense.  Their 11-5 record was right in line with their 11.3 estimated wins and 11.6 pythagorean win expectation.

Jared Goff made an unprecedented year over year improvement at the quarterback position during his sophomore campaign.  He didn’t play enough snaps to qualify for the leaderboard, but he posted a disastrous 18.9 QBR his rookie year.  He finished 16th in the metric in 2017, 6th in DYAR, 5th in DVOA, and 1st in ANY/A.  Through the first half of the season he had a legitimate argument as an MVP candidate.

The dramatic turnaround was fueled mostly by ditching Jeff Fisher and hiring Sean McVay.  However, the massive upgrades to the offensive line and receiving corps were no small part either.

The Rams enter the season with the 10th ranked offensive line, according to ProFootballFocus.  The improvement along the line may have been the single largest improvement among any unit in the entire NFL last year.  Andrew Whitworth did begin to show signs of aging at the tail end of the season, but Whitworth and John Sullivan aided in saving Jared Goff’s career.

The Rams also brought in Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins, and Cooper Kupp to be targets for Goff.  Watkins left in free agency but is replaced by Brandin Cooks.  Goff and Watkins never developed much chemistry last year, expect on the goal line where I swear Watkins caught 30 touchdowns on simple slant routes.  An entire offseason with Cooks should lead to better chemistry with the Watkins’ replacement, so Goff should continue his positive performance.

(Can we all just take a minute to notice that the only team that doesn’t think Buffalo’s receivers are any good is Buffalo?  As we sit here today, the Bills could run four deep at receiver with Watkins, Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and Chris Hogan.  Having the Patriots in the same division as the Bills isn’t fair.)

How much needs to be said about Todd Gurley?

There is no defense I am more excited to see in the entire league this year than the Rams.  To quickly highlight, PFF has the Rams pass rush ranked as the 4th best unit, and the secondary ranked as the 3rd best unit.  The cause for the excitement is that the Rams figure to be a fascinating case study on how to construct a defense.

Most of the Rams pass rush will be provided by interior defenders.  Aaron Donald is the best defensive player in the game, and combing him with Ndamukong Suh is perhaps unlike anything the league has ever seen before.  Michael Brockers also provides an interior rush.

But the Rams are sorely lacking at edge defender and edge rusher.  The majority of the rush will come from the interior.  And if they don’t get home, not to worry, because the Rams have a secondary with no weak link.  Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters are a top flight corner duo in the league, while the appropriately named Nickell Robey-Coleman is one of the best nickel corners in the game.  Lamarcus Joyner and John Johnson are an elite safety duo.

The reason the Rams make for an interesting test case is because of the lack of edge rush but the absolutely dominant secondary.  After the draft, on the PFF podcast the hosts were talking about the Browns choosing cover corner Denzel Ward over pass rusher Bradley Chubb.  One of the hosts made the argument that corner was actually the more important position.

The theory was basically if your last line of defense is garbage then you’re just screwed either way.  Even if Chubb hurries the quarterback, if the receivers get open quickly off the line then the pass can still be completed.  Also, if Chubb doesn’t get to the quarterback and he has time to throw, then your bad corner will just get torched and give up a big play.

It’s an interesting theory and cuts against the conventional wisdom that pass rushers, and specifically edge rushers, are the most valuable defensive commodity in all of football.  I have yet to see any empirical evidence that corners are more valuable than edge rushers.  If you were wondering if perhaps interior pressure was more important than edge pressure, the PFF analytics team put that debate to bed, and yes, edge pressure is more valuable.

This may not matter anyway, since this defense is run by Wade Phillips and he will generate enough heat off the edge.  The Rams have the potential to be the best defense in all of football.  At worst we’re looking at an elite offense, elite defense, with two brilliant play callers on either side of the ball.  Los Angeles faces the 14th easiest schedule, so nothing good or bad really.  Repeating as division champions is the most probable outcome, while getting to double digit wins shouldn’t be too hard.

Seattle Seahawks – O/U 8 – Over

Over because I think they will go 9-7.  Maybe it takes me too long to come around on things, but I’m not ready to abandon the Seattle train just yet.  They still have the best quarterback and coach in the division.  That’s a pretty solid start.

The offensive line last year was terrible, and they head into the season with the 30th ranked unit.  I actually don’t think the situation is that dire.  Duane Brown is such a massive upgrade over what they have been running out at left tackle in recent years that he alone changes this line.  Justin Britt is a serviceable center and hopefully Ethan Pocic progresses in his second year.  Perhaps most importantly, the team has replaced offensive line coach Tom Cable with not Tom Cable.

Doug Baldwin is a top flight receiver, but the options behind him are concerning.  There also appears to be not much to speak of at tight end, while there are reports that first round pick Rashaad Penny has ballooned up to 240lbs.  On the bright side Chris Carson looks quite good.

The defense was purged over the offseason but I just don’t think the sky is falling.  The only loss I think is going to matter is the loss of Michael Bennett.  Despite injuries to Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril, and Richard Sherman, the Seahawks still finished 13th in defensive DVOA.  What’s more is that they actually finished 10th in weighted defensive DVOA, which is a measure of how teams have played more recently.  So even after all the injuries, Seattle was still playing at a top ten level on defense.

With Bennett gone, and thus their best pass rusher, perhaps returning to the top ten is not feasible.  But being a top half defense in the league should be, despite all the big names that have left town.

Seattle enters the year with the 18th ranked pass rush, though that seems to be overstating how good they are.  Much of that appears to be buoyed by Dion Jordan, who was awesome in limited action last year.  But this is still the same Dion Jordan that was a huge bust for all of his career prior to landing in Seattle.  It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Pete Carroll get the most out of someone, but color me skeptical until Jordan shows it over more than just 60 pass rushing snaps.

The secondary seems to be fine, however.  It won’t be the elite Legion of Boom, but Seattle has been planning for this purge for some time.  The team regularly invested draft capital in defensive backs because they saw the writing on the wall.

Byron Maxwell is a solid starter at corner for the Seahawks and a bad one for any other team.  Fortunately for both him and Seattle he is currently a Seahawk.  Shaquill Griffin looks to be at least decent while Justin Coleman had a nice year last season.  Earl Thomas is the best in the game at what he does.  Overall, this group comes into the season ranked 21st as a unit, but I think they are being undersold here.

Seattle will play against the 13th most difficult schedule, so not the worst but not ideal.  In my mind Seattle and San Francisco are very, very close, and the 49ers get the 9th easiest slate, which almost made me go with San Francisco for second in the division.  While I believe in both Garoppolo and Shanahan, we have only seen a flash so far, where as we know what Wilson and Carroll can do.

San Francisco 49ers – O/U 8.5 – Under

The 9ers finished last season 20th in DVOA but 13th in Weighted DVOA.  As you may guess, that increase in performance later in the season coincides with Garoppolo entering the starting lineup.  Jimmy G was fantastic last year in San Francisco.  He easily led players that threw between 10-199 pass attempts in DYAR.  He posted an 80.7 QBR, which is incredible.  He had a 7.62 ANY/A, which would have ranked 4th in the league last season.

But again, this all came from 178 pass attempts.  I’m inclined to believe Garoppolo is for real, however, considering how reluctant Bill Belichick was to trade him away.  Before the trade I said Belichick knows what he has in Garoppolo and is going to try for as long as possible to end up in a situation where the team transitions from Brady to Jimmy.  It made sense of him turning down the Browns trade offers leading up to the 2017 NFL draft.  It just didn’t end up being feasible, with a massive pay day for Jimmy looming and Brady wanting to play until 45.

Unsurprisingly, the 9ers ranked 9th in Weighted offensive DVOA to close out 2017.  Again, this is a small sample size, but the Garoppolo Shanahan pairing seems to be quite the duo.

San Francisco enters the season with the 16th ranked offensive line according to ProFootballFocus.  There is reason it could perform better than that ranking if Mike McGlinchey is an immediate quality starter, which is in the realm of possibility.

The 9ers don’t boast the deepest group of weapons.  Marquise Goodwin is a popular breakout candidate, and between last season and training camp this summer, the Garoppolo Goodwin connection is clearly real.  But beyond Goodwin there isn’t much.

Garcon is too old for me to expect him to all of a sudden be the player he was in Washington with Shanahan.  I have to see Dante Pettis make plays on an NFL field before I believe in him as I wasn’t the biggest fan in the draft.  Maybe Trent Taylor will take a step forward in his second year.

Jerick McKinnon sadly tore his ACL on the last play of practice yesterday (Sept 1st) and will miss the season.  Alfred Morris will take his spot in the starting lineup.  Morris was quietly efficient last season, as he ranked 16th in DYAR and 10th in DVOA among running backs, with a 51% success rate.  He knows the offense and is the best outside zone runner on the team.

The defense gives grave pause for concern.  San Francisco finished last season 28th in defensive DVOA.  They enter the year with the 19th ranked pass rush according to PFF.  If the team would stop messing around with Solomon Thomas and move him inside I would like their chances of beating this ranking, but they continue to misuse him on the outside.

San Francisco’s secondary ranks 11th in the league, but I think that is too generous.  Richard Sherman is 30 years old and coming off a torn achilles.  A torn achilles is the worst injury you can have as an athlete, so the odds he ever gets back to his All-Pro caliber play are effectively zero.  There is a solid chance he is never better than just a decent starter for the rest of his career.

Ahkello Witherspoon was a nice find for the 9ers, and K’Wuan Williams has been both really good and mediocre at best at times in his career.  The safety duo is alright, led by Jaquiski Tartt.  The team let Eric Reid walk and then did nothing to replace him.

San Francisco has the 9th easiest schedule and a chance to sport a top ten offense.  Hitting the over here is entirely possible.  But the hype train may have gotten too large, fueled by Garoppolo’s incredible play in a small sample size.  I believe in Jimmy, and the most likely outcome is San Francisco goes either 8-8 or 9-7 so the 8.5 number is Vegas just nailing it.  I think there is just more equity with the under as 7-9 seems more plausible than 10-6 given the defense.

Arizona Cardinals – O/U 5.5 – Over

I was all set to make a case for why the Cardinals line wasn’t going to be that bad this year, and then starting center A.Q. Shipley went down for the year.  He will presumably be replaced by 3rd round rookie Mason Cole.

Alas, I still don’t think this line is going to be as bad as everyone thinks.  The unit was ranked 27th headed into the season, but it’s entirely possible both Justin Pugh and Mike Iupati bounce back to previous levels of play.  If both do, and Cole is alright, then combined with D.J. Humphries, the line is decent.  That is a lot of ifs, granted, but the potential is there.  Andre Smith won’t get back to previous levels of performance.

The quarterback situation should be an upgrade as well.  Whether it is Sam Bradford or Josh Rosen, either quarterback should be able to provide a better level of play than Carson Palmer, and definitely better than Blaine Gabbert or Drew Stanton.  Palmer was about the 20th best quarterback last season, so he wasn’t exactly terrible.  But Bradford and Rosen should be at least as good as Palmer, if not better, and play every game, avoiding the likes of Gabbert, Stanton, or Glennon being thurst into the lineup.

The ageless Larry Fitzgerald will never regress.  Him and Brady can lead the 2055 New England Patriots to their 20th Super Bowl title in franchise history.  Behind Fitz isn’t much except interesting rookie Christian Kirk who has chemistry with Josh Rosen dating back to their high school days.

David Johnson returns from injury, so the team won’t be running Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson out onto the field this year like it’s 2009.

The pass rushing unit is ranked 20th in the league.  Chandler Jones is a stud, but he isn’t receiving much help.  The secondary is ranked 19th, where Patrick Peterson is a stud, Antoine Bethea and Budda Baker make up an elite safety tandem, and the team has the ability to run three deep at corner.  This unit has the potential to far exceed this 19th ranking.

Fun fact: The Cardinals defense ranked 4th in DVOA last season.

Arizona went 8-8 last year but had a pythagorean win expectation of 6.1 and an estimated win total of 5.6.  Basically, last year’s team was already at the 5.5 number or even exceeded it, and that team didn’t have David Johnson, consistent quarterback play, or the potential for a mediocre offensive line.

The coaching change is a big question mark as Bruce Arians was one of the best play callers in football and knew how to drive this offense.  The defense, however, remains in tact and there is enough on offense to get this team to at least 6 wins.

Quick Hitters

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Christian Kirk, WR, Cardinals

Rashaad Penny reportedly weighs 240lbs and the starting job is Chris Carson’s.  Maybe that won’t be the case by the middle of the season, but given the lack of weapons beyond Fitz and DJ, Kirk should be able to get enough targets to win this award.  He also has the ability to contribute in the return game.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Tarvarius Moore, S, 49ers

Moore never should have fallen to the 4th round, as he was close to a top 50 player in the draft.  The 9ers never did anything to replace Eric Reid, and there’s no reason to think Moore can’t take Adrian Colbert’s spot in the lineup.

Breakout Player: Marquise Goodwin, WR, 49ers

The Garoppolo Goodwin connection is real and coming this fall to a television near.

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