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NFL Division Preview: NFC West

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The NFC West is the toughest division to pick and is clearly the best and most physical division in football. The key to this division could be who can stay the healthiest.

Jonathan Ferrey

The NFC West is the toughest division to pick (as can be seen by the confidence in my picks below). Last year the NFC West was my "Shocker" division as I picked the Cardinals to win it with an 11-5 record. While they made a valiant push, they came up just short.

I think they get it done in 2014, stunning the 2013 Super Bowl Champions Seahawks and the 2012 Super Bowl Runner-Up 49ers. I really like all 4 of these teams and prior to the Bradford injury, I could have seen any of them winning the division and making noise in the playoffs. The NFC West is clearly the best and most physical division in football and injuries may be the determining factor in who wins the NFC West in 2014.

Can Palmer, Fitzgerald, Loyd and Ellington bring back memories of Warner, Fitzgerald and Boldin?

Can Russell Wilson repeat his impressive 2012 and 2013 runs? Can Kaepernick repeat his take the next step as a passer?

Can Sam Bradford finally stay healthy and earn his contract?

1) Arizona

2014 Prediction: 11-5

2013 Record: 10-6; 3rd Place

Confidence in Pick: 30%

Key Losses:

  • Andre Roberts, WR (Wash)
  • Karlos Dansby, ILB (Cle)
  • Javier Arenas, CB (Atl)
  • Antoine Cason, CB (Car)
  • Rashard Mendenhall, RB (retired)

Key Additions:

  • Jonathan Dwyer, RB (Pit) - roster depth
  • Ted Ginn, WR (Car) - likely kick/punt return specialist
  • Antonio Cromartie, CB (NYJ) - should start
  • John Carlson, TE (Min) - roster depth
  • Deone Bucannon, S (1st Rd, Wash St)
  • Jared Veldheer, OT (Oak) - huge improvement for QB Carson Palmer's blind side protection
  • Larry Foote, ILB (Pit) - should start with the suspension to Daryl Washington
  • Ernie Sims, ILB (Dal) - roster depth

Key Injuries/Suspensions:

  • Daryl Washington, LB (Entire year - substance abuse)
  • Darnell Dockett, DT (knee)

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

Overall Talent - Laugh all you want, but the Cardinals were the most well rounded team in the NFC West in 2013 (12th in Offense, 6th in Defense) and managed to improve their offense in the off season (Ellington starting, Ginn at WR, Cooper back on the OL).

Carson Palmer - I can hear my fellow Bengals fans already, but, like it or not, Palmer is still a good QB. Would I want him on my team? No. Do I trust him to lead a team to a championship? No. Do I trust he won't quit on his teammates in AZ like he did in Oakland and Cincinnati? Again, no. However, the guy can, and will, put up numbers. In 2013, he again had 4,000+ yards, 24 TDs, 63.3% completion, and a 83.9 Rating. Yes he had 22 picks, but with a year under his belt in Arians's system and the added playing time of Ellington, Palmer's TD numbers may be closer to 30 and his INTS should decline.

Larry Fitzgerald - He may be the WR he once was, but he is still very good and the emergence of Michael Floyd in 2013 will only make him more dangerous.

Andre Ellington - For the life of me, I cannot understand why Rashard Mendenhall got more touches than Ellington in 2013. In just 118 carries, the explosive Ellington had 652 yards and a 5.5 YPC average (compared to Mendenhall's 3.2). Ellington also gives the Cardinals a receiving threat out of the backfield (39 rec, 371 yds, 3 TDs), and with the retirement of Mendenhall, Ellington should have a good year in 2014.

Improved OL - Palmer was sacked 41 times in 2013 and anyone that has followed Palmer's career knows that his performance declines greatly when under pressure. Getting Jonathan Cooper back at LG and adding Jared Veldheer should help keep Palmer up right and help keep his turnovers down.  With time in the pocket, this could be one of the most potent offenses.

Respectable Defense - In terms of YPG, the Cardinals were the 6th ranked defense in the NFL...unfortunately, that only put them 3rd in their own division. The Cardinals were 14th against the pass, 1st against the run and 7th in PPG. The loss of Dansby (Cle) and Washington (suspended) may hurt a little, but the pickup of veterans like Larry Foote, Ernie Sims and Antonio Cromartie, and a healthy Tyrann Mathieu should keep this defense towards the top 10 in the league. The recent news about Dockett's knee could hurt though.

Winning in Seattle - In the last 2 seasons, including the playoffs, the Seahawks are 17-1 at home. The only team to beat them? The 2013 Arizona Cardinals (17-10). Despite throwing 4 picks in the game, the Cardinals defense was able to shut down the Seahawks offense (and shut out the crowd) and  were able to do what no other team has done since 2011.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Carson Palmer - As well as Palmer can play, he is also prone to a lot of untimely picks, most notably, pick 6's. That can be a recipe for disaster in a defensive division like the NFC West.

NFC West - The NFC West is the best division in the NFL, so if the Cardinals are going to go make the playoffs, they have to come out of the gates fast and earn it.

O-Line - As much as this line looks improved on paper, "on paper" means nothing if they cannot gel as a unit.  Indications are that Cooper has looked rusty in the preseason and if they cannot gel, that could spell bad things for Palmer and the offense.

Home Field Advantage...or Lack Thereof - Phoenix is a large transplant city and not exactly full of a lot of passionate fans. Therefore, University of Phoenix Stadium can often be a home (or neutral site) game for the Cardinals opponents.

Overall:

NFC West Champions - Call me crazy, but I look at this team and see the most talented and complete team in the division. Your 2014 shocker pick - Cardinals win the NFC West and the 49ers miss out on the playoffs. You read it here first!

2) Seattle

2014 Prediction: 11-5

2013 Record: 13-3, 1st Place

Confidence in Pick: 30%

Key Losses:

  • Golden Tate, WR (Det)
  • Kellen Davis, TE (NYG)
  • Clinton McDonald, DT (TB)
  • Brandon Browner, CB (NE)
  • Walter Thurmond, CB (NYG)
  • Red Bryant, DE (Jax)
  • Chris Clemons, DE (Jax)

Key Additions:

  • Percy Harvin - WR (return from injury)
  • Kevin Williams, DT (Min) - roster depth
  • Terrelle Pryor, QB (Oak) - roster depth
  • Paul Richardson, WR (2nd Rd, Colo)

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

Russell Wilson - I like this kid. He is not your prototypical QB in terms of size, but what he lacks in size, he makes up for in heart and determination. I am a big Wilson fan and think he is a good QB and will be a good QB for a long time in this league.

Marshawn  Lynch - Beast Mode is a beast and the key to keeping pressure off Wilson. Lynch and the defense are key to keeping Wilson from having to win games.

The Defense - This was a smothering defense in2012 and 2013. In 2013 the Seattle defense was first in total yards, 1st in PPG, 1st against the pass and 7th against the rush. That is good.

The 12th Man - From all accounts, the loudest stadium in all of the NFL is Seattle's Century Link Field and it seems to have an effect. In the last two seasons (playoffs included), the Seahawks are 17-1.

A Healthy Harvin - If healthy and back to the player he was in Minnesota (a big IF), Harvin can make this offense much more dangerous and can be the first true playmaking receiver of Wilson's young career.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Receivers - Seattle's leading receiver (Tate) only had 64 receptions and 898 yards, and he is now in Detroit. That leaves Doug Baldwin as their top returning receiver. Besides Harvin (and possibly Baldwin), Wilson's weapons are unproven at best.

Division - The NFC West is hands down the toughest division in the NFL and a slow start, injuries or any slip ups could not only lose the division, but a playoff spot as well. There is not one easy game in this division.

Marshawn Lynch's Running Style - This is a love/hate relationship. I love his violent running style, but at 28 years old, 8 years in the league, and running in the physical NFC West, it is only a matter of time until he breaks down. I hope he does not, but common sense says he will (at some point). Lynch has 3 straight years of 285+ carries and NFL history is not kind to backs that carry the ball that much over 3 year periods.

Pete Carroll - The guy has a Super Bowl and looks like a fun coach to play for, but I am still not sold on his coaching style being sustainable in the NFL. I may be 100% wrong on this, but only time will tell.

Lack of Offseason Improvement - They won the Super Bowl in 2013, but let's not forget, they only won the division by 1 game, had another 10 win team in their division and are not head and heals above the NFC competition and they did very little in the offseason. If Harvin is healthy, that is a big addition, but they definitely lost more than they gained.

Wilson's Ability to Carry the Offense - As much as I like Wilson, and I like him a lot, at some point, every quarterback has to carry their team and I haven't seen that from Wilson to this point in his career. In his 37 NFL starts (playoffs included), Wilson has a grand total of two 300 yard games and 17 games with less than 200 yards. He has 19 games with 1 or less TD pass and 5 games with 0. Eventually, the defense and running game will not win a game for the Seahawks and it will be up to Wilson to win it. He really hasn't been put in that position so far.

Overall:

10-6 may sound crazy for the defending Super Bowl Champions, but the separation in the NFC, especially the NFC West, is razor thin and the Seahawks will have a target on their back. I like them making the playoffs as a wild card, but I don't think they repeat as division champs.

3) San Francisco

2014 Prediction: 9-7

2013 Record: 12-4; 2nd Place

Confidence in Pick: 30%

Key Losses:

  • Colt McCoy, QB (Wash)
  • Anthony Dixon, RB (Buf)
  • Mario Manningham, WR (NYG)
  • Jonathan Goodwin, C (NO)
  • Donte Whitner, S (Cle)
  • Carlos Rogers, CB (Oak)
  • Eric Wright, CB (retired)

Key Additions:

  • Josh Johnson, QB (Cin) - will compete for back-up duties
  • Brandon Lloyd, WR (out of football during 2013) - will compete for WR3 position
  • Blake Costanzo, LB (Chi) - roster depth
  • Antoine Bethea, S (Ind) - should start
  • Blaine Gabbert, QB (Jax) - roster depth
  • Stevie Johnson, WR (Buf) - roster depth
  • Jimmie Ward, S (1st Rd, NIU)
  • Carlos Hyde, RB (2nd Rd, Ohio St)

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

John Harbaugh - Rarely do you see a coach come in and make such an immediate impact in the NFL like Harbaugh has. Since taking over the 49ers in 2011 - in what was thought to be a rebuilding project - Harbaugh has led the 49ers to a 36-11-1 record, 2 division titles, 3 NFC Championship appearances and 1 Super Bowl appearance. Not bad.

Colin Kaepernick - Kaepernick, somewhat like his coach, took the NFL by storm. When Smith went down in week 8 of 2012, Kaepernick stepped in and stole the job, going 5-2-1, 1,814 yards, 10 TDs, 415 rushing yards and 5 rushing TDs. His raw athletic ability and passing effectiveness makes him a nightmare for defenses to game plan against.

The Defense - This is not the same defense it was in 2012 and despite some losses in the offseason, this is still a good unit.

Running Backs/Frank Gore - One of the most underrated RBs of the last 10 years is Frank Gore. He is the definition of a workhorse RB that just brings his lunch pale and goes to work. He has had one hell of a career, made even more impressive by the fact that he has had his knees reconstructed 3 times. Despite his age and workload, Gore has not shown signs of slowing down. However, if he does, I like the depth behind him with. Carlos Hyde was a steal in the second round, LaMichael James is a good change of pace back, and is there a better story than the comeback of Marcus Lattimore. I would not bet against Lattimore's ability to make an impact in the NFL.

Offensive Line - Like most good O-Lines, they pretty much go unnoticed. However, this is a very good line and is the reason Gore produces like he does and is the reason Kaepernick can get outside of the pocket and run like he does.  In 2013 they were 11th in sacks allowed (39) and 3rd in rushing yards.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Jim Harbaugh - The 49ers quick and amazing turnaround are likely a direct result of Harbaugh's high intensity, but that sort of intensity can wear on players in the long run (especially if the team is not winning). I am not saying this will happen, but it has already happened with the front office. If things don't go as well as they have in Harbaugh's first 3 seasons, this could be something to keep an eye on.

Colin Kaepernick - I love his athletic ability, but I still have questions about his accuracy and decision making (2 of the biggest questions you don't want to have about a QB). Kaepernick took a big step back in 2013 in terms of completion percentage (62.4% to 58.4%) and interceptions (3 to 8) and he has always had an issue with fumbles (9 in each of his first 2 seasons).

Receivers - On paper, Crabtree, Boldin, Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd sound like a Pro Bowl lineup from a few years back. Kaepernick and Crabtree clearly have great chemistry, but outside of that, I have questions. Boldin can no longer get separation without pushing (which he does a lot) and with the way they are calling it this year, it could render Boldin useless. Stevie Johnson has had some good seasons, but he fell off in 2013 (597 yards in 12 games) and he still has issues with drops and on field focus. Brandon Lloyd was once a top WR, but he is now 33, has been out of the league for more than a year and presumably still has attitude issues. He is not the type of guy I see as being willing to accept being a "role player."

Secondary - San Francisco has Arizona twice, Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia Denver, New Orleans and Washington on their schedule - all high powered passing attacks. The 49ers will be matching up with those offenses featuring a secondary of Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Antoine Bethea/Jimmie Ward and Eric Reid. That should scare the 49ers and 49er fans alike.

Offense - Despite all the excitement surrounding Kaepernick, the 49ers offense was 24th in the league in 2013 in terms of yards and 11th in terms of PPG.

Division - As good as the 49ers defense may be, it is possible that they are the worst defense in the NFC West this year and their offense may be 3rd or 4th as well.

Special Teams - The 49ers could have special teams issues in 2014. If they keep Crabtree, Boldin, Johnson and Lloyd at the WR position, that leaves them with 4 WRs that do not contribute on special teams and most teams only dress 5 WRs. If they keep Gore, Hyde, Lattimore and James at the RB position, none of those are likely to contribute on coverage or return teams (except James as a returner). Most teams have 2-3 WRs contributing on special teams and 1-2 RBs, which means the 49ers could be very thin on special teams in 2014.

Overall:

This pick is likely a shocker to most, but I see the 49ers taking a step in 2013. As I said above, it is possible that the 49ers are the worst defense in the NFC West this year and their offense may be 3rd or 4th as well. That is not a recipe for divisional success.

4) St. Louis

2014 Prediction: 5-11

2013 Record: 7-9; 4th Place

Confidence in Pick: 50%

Key Losses:

  • Sam Bradford, QB (ACL)
  • Kellen Clemens, QB (SD)
  • Daryl Richardson, RB (NYJ)
  • Cortland Finnegan, CB (Mia)

Key Additions:

  • Greg Robinson, OT (1st Rd, Auburn) - should start
  • Aaron Donald, DT (1st Rd, Pitt) - may start
  • LaMarcus Joyner, CB (2nd Rd, FSU)
  • Tre Mason, RB (3rd Rd, Auburn)
  • Shaun Hill, QB (Det) - will back-up QB Sam Bradford
  • Kenny Britt, WR (Ten) - should start
  • Davin Joseph, G (released by Tampa Bay) - will compete for right guard
  • Alex Carrington, DT (Buf) - roster depth

Coaching Changes:

  • Fired - Tim Walton, DC
  • Hired - Gregg Williams, DC (formerly defensive consultant with the Tennessee Titans)
  • Re-assigned - Lane Kiffin, DC (Asst HC-Def, Dal)

Reasons for Optimism:

Defense - I loved the picks of Aaron Donald and LaMarcus Joyner in the draft, adding more talent to a defense that already was already pretty good (15th in yards, 13th in points).

Second Year Players - Zac Stacy had a good 2013 and I believe he will follow it up with a solid 2014. And while Tavon Austin had a disappointing first year, I expect a jump in his production in year two, especially with a better offensive line and some more weapons on offense.

Kenny Britt - While I generally don't like the addition of guys with attitude problems, I believe this was a good addition for the Rams. They needed a big target and Britt had his most productive year under Fisher. If Fisher can keep him on track, this could be an offseason steal.

Reasons to be Cautious:

The Loss of Sam Bradford - He hasn't been great, but he also hasn't been terrible...especially given the weapons (or lack thereof) which Rams have surrounded him with. But, Bradford was finally getting some weapons and he was responding. In the 7 games prior to tearing his ACL in 2013, Bradford was on pace for nearly 3,900 yards, 32 TDs and 10 Ints. This year, the Rams gave him some more weapons and a stacked defense, good enough to compete in the NFC West. With Shaun Hill, despite what should be a very good defense, I can't see this team getting more than 5 wins given the division they are in.

Tavon Austin - While he is explosive and had 6 TDs as a rookie (4 receiving, 1 rushing, 1 PR), he only had 40 receptions, 418 yards receiving and 151 yards rushing. Those are numbers you may expect from a "gimmick" type player, not an every down player. The question will be, at 5'8" 174 lb are those numbers likely to be more the norm?

The NFC West - This is a tough division with a lot of talent and while I believe the Rams defensive talent stacks up, their offensive talent is still at the bottom of the list - even before the Bradford injury. Shaun Hill vs NFC West = bad year.

Jeff Fisher - Though he has a career .532 winning percentage, he actually has more losing seasons (8) than winning seasons (6). In fact, 13 of his 19 seasons have been at or below .500.

Overall:

Prior to Bradford's knee ripping for the second year in a row, I thought the Rams could potentially be a surprise team in 2014. I liked what the Rams did in the draft and I still see the Rams as a tough opponent. In fact, they could have the best defense in the West when it is all said and done. But, without Bradford the Rams don't stand a chance in this division. In most division, the Rams would be good enough to compete for the division or at least a playoff spot (even without Bradford), but not in this division.

**In depth offseason moves provided in part by Fantasy Football Impact (http://fantasyfootballimpact.com/offseason-activity-nfl/2014-nfl-free-agency-player-trades-offseason-moves/)