Y-Los Angeles Rams 12-4
In 2016, team owner Stan Kroenke decided to move his Rams from St. Louis to Los Angeles in order to capture the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. In 2016, the Rams didn’t do anything to build a fan base in Southern California as they went 4-12 to be one of the worst teams in the National Football League. However 2017 would see the Rams enjoy a turnaround for the ages as they went 11-5 en route to winning the NFC West for the first time since 2004. The Rams became one of the most exciting teams in football as they could defeat you in so many ways. The Rams were led by a young head coach in Sean McVay who was 31-years of age at the time of his hire. But don’t let McVay’s age fool you as he is wise beyond his years, while it didn’t take him that long to earn the respect of the Rams locker room. And as McVay was able to help the Rams set the tone in the NFC West for 2017, what will they be able to do for an encore this time around?
In 2016, the Rams used the first overall pick in the draft to select quarterback Jared Goff. Goff’s rookie season was a nightmare as he went 0-7, while throwing 5 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. But the main reason that McVay was hired by the Rams was to work with Goff and develop him into a franchise quarterback which he was able to do in 2017.
Goff took his game to another level in 2017 as he threw 28 touchdowns to 7 interceptions, while he completed 62.1% if his passes. It was like night to day in comparing the two years for Goff as he had immense confidence in the pocket which trickled down to his play.
A big reason why Goff played better was due to the fact that the Rams put play makers around him at the skill positions. After a disappointing 2016, running back Todd Gurley was able to bounce back in a big way last year as he gained 1,305 yards on the ground to go along with 13 rushing touchdowns. When Gurley is on top of his game, he is one of the best running backs in the National Football League. But now the biggest question for Gurley is whether or not that he can put together quality seasons in consecutive years?
Los Angeles was tenth in the National Football League last year in passing offense, and Goff should have a big year through the air due to the wide receivers that he can throw the football to. After missing out on acquiring wide receiver Odell Beckham from the New York Giants, the Rams turned their attention to wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Cooks averaged 15 yards per catch last season with the New England Patriots, but they were eager to trade him as he is entering the final year of his contract. The Rams will be Cooks’ third team in the last three years, but he should be able to have a solid season in Los Angeles. The Rams will be utilizing a bunch of play-action passing due to the running ability of Gurley, and as Cooks is a speed demon, it will open him up to a bunch of one-on-one situations with cornerbacks.
Under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the Rams defense was 19th in the National Football League last season in total defense. The Rams could be one of the top units in the league this season, but it will be a matter of hit or miss.
The key to the Rams success on defense will be defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Donald was taken 13th overall by the Rams in 2014 and it has not taken him that long to become the best defensive lineman in the National Football League. Donald is extremely versatile as he has the ability to succeed in both the 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. Donald is a run stopper, while he also knows how to get to the quarterback. Donald is arguably the NFL’s best defensive tackle since Warren Sapp as he is a true disruptor of opposing offenses.
Aside from Donald, the Rams have defensive end Michael Brockers and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh as this could be the best pass rush that Los Angeles has had since the days of The Fearsome Foursome in the 1960’s. At times throughout Suh’s eight year career in the National Football League, he has been unblockable, but it comes down to whether or not that he is motivated or not. It’s either penthouse or outhouse in regards to Suh production as he has been known to wear out his welcome as both the Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins can attest to that. However if Suh is motivated, he is one of the best players in the NFL, and playing alongside Donald should light a fire under him.
The Rams might regret trading linebacker Alec Ogletree to the New York Giants this off-season as he was leader on their defense, while his departure also makes them more vulnerable on the second level of the unit. But the same cannot be said about the Rams secondary which could be the best in football. The Rams were 13th in the National Football League last year in pass defense and they have everything necessary to be top five unit this time around.
This off-season has seem Rams general Les Snead get busy in regards to upgrading the team’s secondary. The Rams made trades with two AFC West teams as they acquired cornerback Aqib Talib from the Denver Broncos and cornerback Marcus Peters from the Kansas City Chiefs. The Rams will be Talib’s fourth different team in the National Football League, but there is no discrediting his coverage skills. Talib is 6’1″, and his long arms give him an advantage when it comes to covering taller wide receivers. In his three years with the Chiefs, Peters was emerging as one of the NFL’s top cover corners, and now he will get to form the best tandem at the position in the league with Talib.
Aside from acquiring Talib and Peters, the Rams also signed former Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields. The addition of Shields will add more depth to the Rams secondary; especially as he can be a nickel back on third down. And once you combine these three additions in the secondary along with free safety Lamarcus Joyner who is becoming one of the better safeties in the game due to his ability to cover plenty of real estate, Los Angeles will be difficult to score on.
But the downside of this Rams defense is that they are littered with numerous combustible personalities. Since Suh entered the National Football League in 2010, no player has been fined more than him. Talib has found himself in hot water with the NFL on more than one occasion due to multiple incidents on and off of the field, while Peters is a walking penalty flag. All three of these players are only on one-year deals as it will be interesting to see if they will be able to behave enough in order to help the Rams win.
Kicker Greg Zuerlein continues to have one of the strongest legs in football as he connected of six field goals from beyond 50 yards last season, while punter Johnny Hecker had the fourth highest next punting average last season at 47.9 yards per attempt. And combined this duo will give the Rams a huge advantage on special teams.
Everything is in place for the Rams to win the NFC West for a second consecutive year, but their season will be defined as to how they can perform versus the elite teams in the league.
Seattle Seahawks 8-8
The Seattle Seahawks are heading into the 2018 National Football League season as a team that is in transition. 2017 marked the first time since 2011 that the Seahawks failed to make the playoffs as they were decimated by injuries. The Seahawks 9-7 record led to wholesale changes as this franchise is looking to get younger, while also still finding a way to compete for a playoff spot in the NFC.
This era of Seahawks football has been trademarked by their defense as that unit brought with it an attitude and swagger which helped them win Super Bowl 48. But this off-season has seen the Seahawks release cornerback Richard Sherman, while trading longtime defensive end Michael Bennett to the Philadelphia Eagles. And all signs point to strong safety Kam Chancellor retiring from the National Football League due to a neck injury, while free safety Earl Thomas is seeking a new contract or being traded. Together this quartet represented what Seattle football has been about this decade, but it now appears to be a thing of the past.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has been hard at work in regards to reshaping the team’s roster, and more importantly building a team around quarterback Russell Wilson.
Wilson has been the Seahawks starting quarterback since 2012, and during that time his record is 65-30-1, while being a four-time Pro Bowler. Wilson’s biggest attributes are that he is an accurate quarterback which includes him completing 64% of his career passes, while also being able to protect the football as he has thrown 161 passes to 56 interceptions. But now Wilson’s role with the Seahawks is changing due to the fact that the organization has parted with key veterans this off-season which now makes their franchise quarterback more of a focal point for this team.
Brian Schottenheimer is set to begin his first year as the Seahawks offensive coordinator and he inherits a unit that was 15th in the National Football League last season in total offense. But those numbers are deceiving due to Seattle’s struggles in the running game. The Seahawks were 23rd in the NFL last season in rushing offense with Wilson being the team’s leading rusher with only 586 yards.
In this year’s National Football League Draft, Seattle shocked many observers when they used a first-round pick on running back Rashaad Penny. But it is hard to overlook Penny’s production as he rushed for 2,248 yards last year at San Diego State which was fifth highest total in NCAA history for a single-season. Penny will bring an element of speed to the Seahawks running game which they’ve lacked for some time, while he will also be beneficial for them coming out of the backfield as a receiver.
But with all of the changes that the Seahawks are in the midst of, Wilson still has his go-to-guy at wide receiver in Doug Baldwin. As the years go by Wilson relies on Baldwin more due to his ability to move the chains on third down, while also being a deep threat in Seattle’s offense.
Offensively the Seahawks should be able to improve this year due to the fact this is arguably the best offensive line that they’ve had since they won Super Bowl 48. Last year the Seahawks acquired left tackle Duane Brown to protect Wilson’s blindside, and he did such a good job that he was selected to the Pro Bowl for the fourth time in his career. Center Justin Britt is quickly becoming one of the better players at his position in the National Football League, while aside from Brown, Seattle also has two first-round picks on their offensive line in guard D.J. Fluker and right tackle Germain Ifedi.
But the Seahawks will struggle on defense this year as they are lacking talent on their defensive line, as well as in the secondary. Seattle still has middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and outside linebacker K.J. Wright, but their inability to rush the passer will hurt them when they face the elite teams.
Right out of the chute three of the Seahawks first four games will be on the road, and a slow start could lead to them fighting an uphill battle all season long.
San Francisco 49ers 7-9
Year one of the working relationship between John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan as the general manager and head coach of the San Francisco 49ers is in the books, and there is plenty of optimism that duo has what it takes to once again make this franchise a contender. The Niners would lose their first nine games of 2017 before they rallied to win six of their last seven. And as the 49ers ended 2017 as one of the hottest teams in the National Football League, there is hope that this momentum will be able to carry into the new campaign.
That optimism for San Francisco begins with the play of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The Niners acquired Garoppolo from the New England Patriots during the 2017 season, and he showed that he is ready to be San Francisco’s quarterback of the future. In five starts for the 49ers, Garoppolo never lost, and including his time with the Patriots, he has never tasted defeat as a starting quarterback in the National Football League. Garoppolo’s ability to win led Lynch to giving him a new five-year deal this off-season for $137.5 million as the Niners have attached their wagon to “Jimmy G”.
But whereas Lynch and Shanahan have found their franchise quarterback in Garoppolo, the next step is for them to put talent around him at the skill positions. Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin is coming off of his best season in the National Football League as he finished just 38 yards shy of reaching the 1000-yard mark in receiving for the first time in his career. And as Goodwin looks to build off of his breakout campaign, it is important for he and veteran wide receiver Pierre Garcon to have good timing with Garoppolo.
The 49ers allowed veteran running back Carlos Hyde to leave in free agency as he signed with the Cleveland Browns. Hyde led San Francisco in rushing, and in his absence, the team’s top returning rusher from last year’s team will be Matt Breida. The Niners were 21st in the National Football League in rushing last season and that aspect of their offense could once again be a problem this year.
San Francisco is still lacking play makers on the defensive side of the football, and their best addition this off-season was picking up veteran cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman is a four-time Pro Bowl selection, but he does have some red flags attached to him as he begins a new chapter of his career in San Francisco. Sherman is 30-years of age and he is coming off of a ruptured Achilles injury, and there is also speculation by his detractors that he benefited from playing on the Seattle Seahawks defense with free safety Earl Thomas and strong safety Kam Chancellor. But being the competitor that Sherman is, he will be all-in this season attempting to prove his naysayers wrong.
There are those who expect the 49ers to contend for a playoff team this season, but whereas they were able to sneak up on some opponents last year, it won’t be as easy this time around.
Arizona Cardinals 7-9
Each of the last two years saw the Arizona Cardinals enter the National Football League expectations only to falter due to key injuries. The Cardinals had to settle with being just a .500 team which took a toll on their head coach Bruce Arians who decided to step away from the game that he loves. In Arians place, the Cardinals are turning to Steve Wilks to be their next head coach as after years of paying his dues in the NFL as an assistant coach is now getting his chance to be the man calling the shots.
Wilks didn’t take too long to begin shaping the Cards roster in his own image as his first ever draft pick was used on quarterback Josh Rosen. The Cardinals moved up five spots in the draft in order to select Rosen who some observers felt was the best available quarterback heading into the draft. Many scouts have been raving about Rosen’s ability as there isn’t a pass in the playbook that he cannot make, while he also brings smarts and moxie to the table. Rosen also has the opportunity to work with one of the best quarterback gurus in the National Football League in Mike McCoy, while Arizona’s quarterbacks coach Byron Leftwich spent 10 years in the league as a quarterback.
The Cards also have the luxury of not playing Rosen right away as they signed veteran quarterback Sam Bradford. The former first overall pick of the draft has nine years under his belt in the National Football League, and although that his career has been a whirlwind due to injuries, he is someone that Rosen can learn from, while not having to take his lumps initially. But the good thing for whomever the Cardinals starting quarterback will be this season is that he will have talent around him to work with.
There is no getting around the fact the wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is one of the best to have ever done it at his position in the National Football League. Four times throughout Fitzgerald’s NFL career he has gone for at least 100 receptions in a season, while he has been selected to 11 Pro Bowls. Fitzgerald continues to put up these quality numbers in spite of the fact that he always has not had a quality quarterback to get him the football, and at the age of 35, he is not showing any signs of slowing down. But most importantly Fitzgerald is a leader and he does it by example. Fitzgerald doesn’t do much talking as for him it is more by leading by example through work ethic as he is one of the best route runners in the NFL history, and the same can be said about his hands. At season’s end Fitzgerald will be second all-time on the NFL’s all-time list for receptions and receiving yards, while his talents will help to speed up the maturation process of Rosen.
Aside from Fitzgerald’s ability to still get it down at a very high level, Arizona is also looking forward to having a healthy David Johnson at running back this year. 2016 saw Johnson become arguably the best all-purpose back in the National Football League as he was able to talli 2,118 all-purpose yards. But in the Cardinals season opener last year, Johnson suffered a wrist injury which ended his season. But now Johnson is healthy and he should have a big impact for the Cardinals. Johnson didn’t suffer a leg injury last year which means that his legs and overall body are fresh from not having to take the pounding last year that comes with being a running back in the NFL. For Johnson’s career he has averaged 4.3 yards per carry, but it is his ability as a receiver coming out of the backfield, and if he is able to get 5 receptions per game, it will be huge benefit to the Cards offense.
As Al Holcomb is set to take over as defensive coordinator of the Cardinals, he will inherit a defense that has lost some of its top play makers, but they can still be problem for opposing offenses. Strong safety Tyrann Matthieu left in free agency to join the Houston Texans, while linebacker Karlos Dansby who led Arizona in tackles last season is still unsigned.
Defensive end Chandler Jones is coming into his own as he led the National Football League in sacks last year with 17. Outside linebacker Deone Bucannon was the Cards second leading tackler, while outside linebacker Haasson Reddick who was the team’s first-round pick in 2017 could be poised to have a breakout year.
Three of Arizona’s first five games this season will be on the road, and although that they will be a long shot to win the NFC West this season, they’ll be a thorn in the side of every team in that division.