X-Seattle Seahawks 12-4
The past four years have been the best stretch of football in the franchise history of the Seattle Seahawks. Over the stretch the Seahawks have a regular season record of 46-18 while they also have a Super Bowl Championship to their credit. And since Pete Carroll became the Seahawks head coach in 2010, this team has had depth at every position along with a competitive fire. In spite of not winning the NFC West last year, the Seahawks found a way to win a road playoff game before falling to the Carolina Panthers in the Divisional Playoffs. And as Seattle bid farewell to running back Marshawn Lynch who was arguably the most physical runner in the history of the Seahawks, this is a team that is ready to make another run at winning the Super Bowl.
As the Seahawks record over the last four years is 46-18, a solid portion of that can be attributed to quarterback Russell Wilson. In four years as the Seahawks quarterback, Wilson has provided the Seahawks with strong leadership at the most important position on the field. Aside from the quality winning percentage, Wilson knows how to take care of the football as in four years in the National Football League, he has only thrown 34 interceptions. And Wilson’s ability to protect the football, along with his strong pocket awareness put the Seahawks in a position to win each game.
The Seahawks will miss the powerful runs of Lynch, but as he missed the majority of the 2015 National Football League season due to injury, they were still third in the league in rushing. Wilson’s elusiveness as a runner will once again be on display, while the Seahawks have high expectations for running back Thomas Rawls. In 13 games with the Seahawks in 2015, Rawls averaged 5.6 yards per carry and he was on his way to gaining 1,000 yards before a broken ankle ended his campaign. But if Rawls is able to regain his form, he has plenty of speed and elusiveness in the backfield that will compliment Wilson.
The Seahawks don’t have Pro Bowlers at the wide receiver position, but it doesn’t hurt that Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, and Tyler Lockett are in sync with Wilson. Baldwin has become Wilson’s most dependable wide receiver; especially on third downs and scrambling situations, and that will once again be the case in 2016.
In the last two off-seasons there has been some roster overhaul on the Seahawks offensive line, but the new additions of offensive tackle J’Marcus Webb and guard Jahri Evans will need to keep the machine that has become the Seattle offense going.
Defensively the Seahawks can still get after opponents with the best of them as they were second in the National Football League last year in total defense. The Seahawks defense will miss the contributions of defensive end/outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, but they still have defensive end Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Aside from cornerback Richard Sherman, Bennett might have the biggest mouth in the Pacific Northwest. And just like Sherman, Bennett knows how to back it up as his motor on the field is just as active as his mouth.
But make no mistake about the fact the strength of the Seahawks defense is still in their secondary where they have a trio of All-Pros in Sherman, free safety Earl Thomas, and strong safety Kam Chancellor who can change the game plan of opposing quarterbacks.
Under Carroll, there isn’t a facet of the game that the Seahawks don’t take for granted as you can see with their commitment to special teams. The Seahawks have one of the best place kickers in the National Football League in Steven Hauschka, a punter in Jon Ryan who typically sets the defense up with great field position, and a kick returner in Lockett who has shown in a very short time that he is always one step away from breaking a big return.
In recent years the Seahawks toughest opponent has been the Los Angeles Rams, and when these two clash in Week 2, it could set the tone for each team’s season. But when the smoke clears at the end of the season, the Seahawks should once again be the team to beat in the NFC West.
Y-Arizona Cardinals 12-4
This is the dawn of a new day for the Arizona Cardinals as for the first time since 1974-1976 when the franchise still called St. Louis, Missouri home, the Cardinals have put together three consecutive seasons in which they’ve won at least 10 games. The Cardinals also made the NFC Championship Game last year for just the second time in franchise history as there has been a definite culture change that has taken place on the watch of head coach Bruce Arians and the folks in cactus country are definitely thinking about their team winning the Super Bowl.
The success of the Cardinals begins with the health of quarterback Carson Palmer. At 36-years of age, Palmer has bounced around during his National Football League career which has included stints with the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders. Palmer is still a very capable quarterback, but it comes down to his health as the injury bug has bitten him several times during his career.
Arians has gone to work as far as putting a solid team around Palmer that begins with the Cardinals offensive line. Guard Mike Iupati is entering his seventh National Football League season and each of the last four years have seen him reach the Pro Bowl as he is rapidly developing a reputation as one of the best guards in the game. Guard Evan Mathis joins the Cards after helping the Denver Broncos win the Super Bowl last year. And as the Cardinals are Mathis’ sixth NFL team, Arizona is hopeful that his experience will pay dividends for them this year. The Cardinals also employ two of the larger offensive tackles in football with D.J. Humphries and Jared Veldheer as this is the unit that is charged with keeping Palmer’s uniform clean.
Under Arians, the Cards have been committed to a solid running game which was evident by the fact that Arizona finished 2015 eighth in the National Football League in rushing. The Cardinals have a trio of running backs in Chris Johnson, Andre Ellington, and David Johnson that each possesses a different running style which keeps opposing defenses on their toes.
Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is set to begin his 13th year with the Cardinals. And as Fitzgerald is getting older, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down as he still has some of the best hands in football while being a dependable pass catcher for Palmer. Aside from Fitzgerald, the Cards have speed at wide receiver in the form of John Brown, along with Michael Floyd who has a big frame as he can ward off smaller defensive backs.
In 2015, the Cardinals were fifth in the National Football League in total defense as this is a veteran unit that has turned into a band of brothers. Arians has made it a point to hire former NFL players, and if you look at the Cards defensive coaching staff, defensive line coach Brenston Buckner, linebackers coach Larry Foote, and defensive backs coach Kevin Ross all played in the league which makes it easier as they can relate to their players.
The Cardinals typically run the 3-4 defense which requires a stout defensive line to open up things for the rest of the defense. On Arizona’s defensive line, the likes of Red Bryant and Calais Campbell never stop moving, while the expectations are high for rookie defensive end Robert Nkemdiche who was the Cardinals first-round pick this past spring. This off-season has seen the Cardinals acquire outside linebacker Chandler Jones from the New England Patriots as he is one of the best pass rushers in the National Football League which only makes this unit stronger.
But just like the Seattle Seahawks, the Cardinals possess one of the best secondaries in football. Cornerback Patrick Peterson has great tremendous cover skills, while safety Tyrann Mathieu is turning into one of the best defensive players in the league. And Arizona also has a hard hitting strong safety in Deone Bucannon who is known to creep up into the box as a run stopper as he is indeed an intimidator.
Of the Cardinals first six games in 2016, only the New England Patriots made the playoffs last year as they will look to keep up with the Seahawks for supremacy in the NFC West.
Los Angeles Rams 8-8
The 2016 National Football League season will be nostalgic for anyone old enough to remember the days when the Rams called Los Angeles home. From 1946-1994, the Rams played in Los Angeles, until former team owner Georgia Frontiere decided to move the team to St. Louis, Missouri. However the current Rams owner Stan Kroenke was seeking a new stadium on the St. Louis waterfront which he was unable to secure, and that led the Rams returning to Los Angeles. And once you factor in that the Raiders left Los Angeles in 1994 like the Rams did, this marks the first time in more than two decades that the second largest metropolis in the United States has an NFL franchise to call its own.
Jeff Fisher is set to embark on his fifth season as the Rams head coach and you have to wonder how much more rope that he’ll be given as he has yet to post a winning record with this team. Fisher feels that the lack of production from the quarterback position has been a hinderance to this team which led him to trading up in the National Football League Draft this past April to select quarterback Jared Goff with the first overall pick.
To me Goff needs some time to get adjusted to the professional game, but since the Rams gave up so much in the draft to get him, you can expect to see him under center sooner rather than later in Los Angeles. On top of that, Goff will be dealing with immense pressure he’ll be under the Hollywood microscope.
But while Goff is attempting to get his feet wet in the National Football League, he can rely on one of the best rushing attacks in the league. Last year as a rookie, running back Todd Gurley arrived in a very loud way with 1,106 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns to be named as the NFL’s Rookie of the Year. The Rams are hopeful that Gurley can avoid the sophomore slump while also adding to the franchise’s tradition at running back that includes Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk.
The Rams also employ one the biggest and ferocious offensive lines in football that includes offensive tackle Greg Robinson, and guard Roger Saffold as there is plenty of beef in Los Angeles.
The Rams have an intimidating defense, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are good. The Rams have a stout defensive line that includes defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald, along with defensive end Robert Quinn who are all talented pass rushers. But the Rams were 23rd in the National Football League last year in total defense and they allowed two leaders to leave this off-season in defensive end Chris Long who signed with the New England Patriots and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is now with the New Orleans Saints. And that lack of leadership will definitely hurt the Rams defensively as they are seeking their first playoff berth since 2004.
The bright lights of Hollywood will be on the Rams, and it will be interesting to see how they’ll be able to handle it.
San Francisco 49ers 4-12
After being one of the best teams in the National Football League from 2011-2013, the San Francisco 49ers have once again fell on hard times. Last year saw the 49ers go 5-11 for their worst campaign since 2007. After just one year as the Niners head coach, Jim Tomsula was fired and replaced by former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. Like Tomsula, Kelly was dismissed last season. But for Kelly, he had a mutiny on his hands in the Eagles locker room. And for some strange reason, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke decided that Kelly would be the right man for the job in San Francisco.
According to the salary that Colin Kaepernick is receiving, he should be the 49ers starting quarterback, but that is something which isn’t etched in stone. Kaepernick has been the 49ers starting quarterback since 2012. But whereas Kaepernick’s athleticism allowed him to become a household name upon his arrival to the National Football League, he has been unable to make the adjustment to becoming a pocket passer. Kaepernick has been lukewarm at best to playing for Kelly who does use spread offense principles, however he’s never been a head coach that was willing to commit to using just one quarterback. The Niners were on the verge of trading Kaepernick to the Denver Broncos this off-season, until the quarterback wasn’t willing to take a pay cut. And what this makes for is something that is festering in the Bay Area that doesn’t smell good with Kelly who still has a college mindset.
Overall last year the 49ers were abysmal on offense as they were 31st in the National Football League in total offense. The Niners once proud rushing attack was reduced to a heap of rubble as they were 21st in the league in rushing with the team’s leading ground gainer being running back Carlos Hyde with just 470 yards.
Make no mistake about it that the 49ers will do a much better job of running the football this season under Kelly as he is committed to the ground game. The Niners commitment to the rushing attack begins with the offensive line that features left tackle Joe Staley who has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last five seasons, and guard Joshua Garnett who is a rookie from Stanford University that San Francisco is high on.
When the 49ers were one of the better teams in the National Football League a few years ago, their defense was stingy and full of play makers. But that is no longer the case as middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman will try to lead an unproven group that will be fighting an uphill battle in the NFC West.
Unless Kelly has changed his mindset on how he treats his players, and how he chooses to treat his starting quarterback, San Francisco needs to prepare for a very long football season.