NFL Season Predictions Part 5: The NFC West

NFC West

The Seattle Seahawks

Weapons all around

Record Prediction: 13-3 (4-2)

This division has four of the best defenses in the league and has surpassed the AFC North as the best defensive division in football. Why not just pick the best defense to win the division? Thirteen wins may be high because this division may end up beating up on each other in a NFC East-like fashion, but I wouldn’t go that much lower.

What to like:

Let’s do this backwards and start with the Seahawks defense.

Any conversation about the Seahawks defense has to start with their secondary and any conversation that starts with their secondary has to start with Richard Sherman. Sherman is the best cornerback in the league and I don’t think there really is an argument to prove otherwise. He finished last season with eight interceptions, tied for second in the NFL. Along with the interceptions he had 64 tackles and led the league with 24 passes defended.

At six-foot-1 inch and 195 pounds, Sherman is not even the biggest member of the Seahawks’ secondary. When a quarterback looks at one side of the field and sees Sherman covering his best wide receiver he will quickly turn his head and see six-foot-four-inch Brandon Browner, another intimidating cornerback.  Browner was left for dead, playing in the Canadian Football League for four seasons after being waived from the Denver Broncos in 2006 due to an injury.  This is one of the many reasons why Pete Carroll is quickly becoming the best coach in the league. He is the biggest cornerback in the NFL, standing tall with the biggest wide receivers in the league.

This defense could be written about endlessly, but the numbers speak for themselves. The Seahawks as a team gave up 245 points on the season, the fewest in the NFL and there is no doubt they could lead in this category again in 2013.

Offensively  the Seahawks are lead by another Pete Carroll gem, Russell Wilson. The 2012 season was the year of the rookie quarterback and though the numbers may not back him up entirely, Wilson was the best of the bunch. Carroll and the Seahawks’ front office found a franchise quarterback with the 12th pick in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft. There are many teams in the league who can’t even get their first round picks right. Man am I jealous of a sports organization that can continuously find guys like Browner and Wilson.

Wilson threw for 26 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions in the 2012 season. Oh and he also rushed for 489 yards on top of that. With Marshawn Lynch behind him, this team should come pretty close to their 2012 rushing total of 2,579 yards (2nd in NFL) and 16 touchdowns (9th in NFL). Rookie backup Christine Michael (Texas A&M) has had an impressive preseason and should only add to this backfield.

Concerns:

This is not so much a concern as it is a confirmed disappointment but the biggest move for this team during the offseason was adding Percy Harvin, who never stepped foot on the field this preseason due to a hip injury that will have him sidelined for a bulk of the season. It is not a huge loss for the Seahawks, who bring back the core of their receiving core, but Harvin was only going to add to the dynamics of their passing attack.

Where Harvin will be missed the most is in the return game, where he was likely going to fill the role of Pro-Bowl return man Leon Washington, who was second in the league in average kick off return yards with a 29-yard average. This is a bit nit-picky, because return men can be replaced. Michael would appear to be the guy now.

The defensive line is the biggest flaw of this team right now and that is mainly because of injury issues.

Bold Prediction

This may be tough to judge, but if there is a sophomore quarterback in the league that doesn’t have any sign of a sophomore slump it will be Wilson.

I will quantify it. Wilson will improve in every meaningful category this season, surpassing his 26 touchdowns, 489 rushing yards, 3,010 passing yards all while eliminating a few interceptions.

If you didn’t catch on. I love Pete Carroll.

Pete Carrol GIF

The San Francisco 49ers

A bit too cocky

Record Prediction: 13-3 (3-3)

If the Seahawks and 49ers both finished 2013 with the best record in the NFL at 13-3 that would be incredible. Personally I like the Seahawks a bit more than the 49ers.  Ironically the only thing that made the Seahawks the NFC West champs was one more division win than the 49ers.

What to like:

The defending AFC Champions should be primed to make another run this season.

Colin Kaepernick is an exciting player, who may already have one of the stronger arms in the league. He ran Alex Smith out of town and now this is his team. In his 13 games (he started 7) in 2012 he completed 62 percent of his passes, throwing 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. He also ran for 415 yards on just 63 attempts. Alex Smith did not bring any threat of running to this offense, so this added skill-set could easily make the 49ers the top rushing offense in the league over the course of a whole season.

The 49ers lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl and then a few months later decided to trade for Anquan Boldin, the Ravens’ leading receiver in 2012. Statistically Boldin was never very impressive in Baltimore, not reaching the 1,000-yard receiving mark once in his three years with the team. The 49ers would love Boldin to play like the 2008-09 receiver who combined for nearly 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns, but with this team’s makeup he doesn’t need to.

Boldin gives Kaepernick another target in the red-zone to go along with Vernon Davis, who Kaepernick has developed a strong relationship with.  The backfield does not have any question marks as long as Frank Gore is around.

After mentioning how dominant the Seahawks’ secondary is, I have to mention how dominant the 49ers’ linebacker core is. It all starts with Aldon Smith. It feels like Smith has been the leader of this defense for years, but the scary thing is he is only in his third season. He led the team with 19.5 sacks in 2012, building off an impressive rookie season where he had 14. He joined fellow linebackers Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis being invited to the Pro Bowl, but obviously did not make the trip because of the Super Bowl.  The 49ers allowed an average of 94.2 rushing yards per game (4th in the league) and this linebacking core will make sure that they have a similar season in 2013.

Remember when Nnamdi Asomugha was picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles and was supposed to be the best cornerback in the league? Well the 49ers got him for pennies on the dollar, giving him a shot to make the team this summer and it looks like he is going to do so. They signed him for $1 million with a bonus of $225,000 for making the 53-man roster and an additional $6,250 for each week he is active.

Something tells me defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will find a way to get the best out of Asomugha.

Concerns: 

My opinion on Kaepernick is that he is a hot head who is going to struggle at times this season. The bicep-kissing-touchdown-celebration is almost as bad as the Aaron Rodgers discount double-check celebration.  I would like to see him be a little more humbled, but that’s just me.  This really is not a concern. He is a ridiculous talent, but if he got a bit flustered after a couple losses I would not be surprised.

Kaepernick is going to have to wait on a few of his weapons to heal before this offense can be 100 percent.

Michael Crabtree enters the season on the physically unable to perform list after having surgery to repair his torn Achilles tendon. Kaepernick fell in love with Crabtree when he took the starting job last year, helping the wide out have a career high in yards (1,105) and touchdowns (9). The hope is to have Crabtree back by week 12, but until then Boldin and the other wide receivers are going to have to make up for his productivity. Mario Manningham was not around for the team’s playoff run after tearing his ACL in week 16 of last season and will not be active until at least week six.

There are plenty of weapons in this offense with or without these guys, but these are losses that the team will have to overcome.

Bold Prediction: 

Kaepernick’s combined passing and rushing touchdowns is less than 25 and he has more than 10 interceptions.

The Arizona Cardinals

We did it with an old guy once, who says we can’t do it again?

Record Prediction: (8-8) (3-3)

This win total seems high for a team that finished 5-11 last season, but the Cardinals are one of those teams that a lot of teams are not going to want play this season. They have some guys that will give teams fits and they probably will two to three games that they have no business winning.

What to like: 

Do I dare say that my favorite part about the Arizona Cardinal’s offseason is the signing of Carson Palmer? I get a pit in my stomach just typing that. But when you have the best set of hands in the NFL on your team, anyone who can throw the ball 50 yards downfield is a godsend. Palmer will feed Larry Fitzgerald constantly, and Fitzgerald will make him look like a viable quarterback option on many occasions.

Palmer is easy to make fun of, having played for a 4-12 Oakland Raiders team last year, but the numbers suggest he can still play. He threw for 4,018 yards. His favorite target in Oakland was Denarius Moore, who may be a respectable receiver, but he is not even in the same room as Fitzgerald.

Remember when Fitzgerald had 96 catches for 1,431 yards and 12 touchdowns? That was his stat-line in 2008, the year the Cardinals went to the Super Bowl with 37-year-old Kurt Warner under center. Comparing Warner to Palmer is not even fair. It is pretty clear that Warner is the better quarterback, but Palmer does have above average arm strength and he will put up numbers in this offense.

If the Cardinals are going to get to eight wins this season their defense will be a big reason for that. This defensive unit often gets overlooked because of the dominance of the Seahawks and 49ers, but this is a very good defense.

Patrick Peterson may be one of the most exciting defensive backs in the league to watch. His seven interceptions and 16 pass defends led his team, and he continues to be a threat to score on punt returns. The Cardinals may have hit the lottery with Tyrann Mathieu, taking him with the 7th pick in the third round of this year’s draft.  The reasons for the Honey Badger dropping this far are well documented, but before he was released by LSU he was a Heisman Finalist. In his 26 games at LSU he had 133 total tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, 4 interceptions. His 11 forced fumbles was the most in LSU history and seventh in NCAA history.

Mathieu, a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and the nation’s top defensive player a year ago, played in 26 games for the Tigers during his two years, racking up 133 total tackles, 16.0 tackles for loss and four interceptions. He also forced 11 fumbles, which ranks first in school history and seventh in NCAA history, to go with eight fumble recoveries. Making the jump to the NFL after not being on the field in a year may be difficult, but Mathieu played in the SEC, which as close to the NFL as a you can get and will learn a lot from Patrick Peterson.

Concerns:

The Arizona Cardinals had the worst defensive line  last season and after spending one of their first three round picks on a lineman, they have little to no depth at the position.

I mentioned above that Palmer could be the biggest reason this team has a bounce back season, but that theory goes out the window if he is going to be sacked 58 times and hit 97 times like the Cardinal quarterbacks in 2012. At 33, Palmer is especially not mobile and if doesn’t have time to chuck the ball down the field, then the offensive production will be limited.

The offensive line issues translate to the running game as well. Part of the issue last season was none of the team’s running backs could stay healthy. The team produced only 1,204 yards in 2011, making them the worse rushing team in the league. They brought in Rashard Mendenhall from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mendenhall comes in with a decent resume, but he is not an elusive back. If the offensive line can’t create holes for him, he is not going to be able to do a whole lot.

Bold Prediction:

Larry Fitzgerald has a bounce back year, leading the league in targets and finishing top five in receptions.

The Saint Louis Rams

The greatest show on turf 2.0?

Record Prediction: 3-13 (1-5)

I am completely wrong on the St. Louis. In my season prediction chart, this is the one team that I know I shorted in the win column. This team has played the 49ers tough in the last few years and will not finish 1-5 in the division. I don’t think the Rams are much more than a .500 team, but they are much better than a 3-13 team.

What to like: 

Jeff Fisher continues to turn around the St. Louis Rams and as long as he is the coach you have to bet that the team will continue making strides. The team finished 7-8-1 last season, with the tie coming against the NFC Champion and division rival San Francisco 49ers. Their defense kept them in a lot of games last year as the offense only scored 299 points last season finishing 24th in the NFL.

Sam Bradford is in his fourth year, but it is the first time he will be in the same offensive system for two consecutive years. Brian Schottenheimer‘s system helped Bradford pass for a career high 3,702 yards with 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The team lost Danny Amendola to the Patriots, but they replaced him with one of college football’s most exciting receivers Tavon Austin. The Rams took Austin 9th overall in this Spring’s draft and they will use him in every way imaginable.

Austin padded Geno Smith’s stats with some electric plays out of the slot that turned short passes into long touchdowns. His draft profile compares him to Randall Cobb, but he also has some C.J. Spiller, Darren Sproles and Percy Harvin in him. Austin has an insanely high ceiling and should become Bradford’s favorite option very quickly.

The Rams’ receiving core has a lot of intriguing young talent to go along with Austin. Chris Givens led the team with 698 receiving yards last season. He had 10 plays of 20 yards or more, showing that he has some big play ability himself.  The Rams have not had this potential at wide receiver since The Greatest Show on Turf when Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt were on the team.

Concerns:

There are a few issues with the idea that the 2013 Rams can resemble the 1999 Rams’ team. Maybe the most obvious issue is there is no Marshall Faulk on this year’s team. The Rams lost their workhorse running-back Steven Jackson, who has gone to Atlanta. Jackson is a tough guy to replace. He has rushed for a minimum of 1,000-yards each of the last eight seasons, including 1,045-yards last year.

The receiving options are great, but Bradford is going to miss Jackson’s productivity out of the backfield. Daryl Richardson (Abiliene Christian) and Isaiah Pead (Cincinnati) are both going to be a part of the Rams rushing attack, but neither one is proven and both are pretty small guys.

The other question is about Sam Bradford. There still is some question of whether or not he is the future of this franchise. Coach Fisher has faith in him and it seems like he is headed in the right direction, but there is some question as to what his max potential is.

Bold Prediction: 

Despite what my season prediction says, I think this team will cause some fuss within the NFC West. The Rams will get a win against both the 49ers and the Seahawks this season.

Ofta! That was a long one. Next up: the AFC South.

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