NFC West Outlook
August 11, 2013
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NFC West Is Far From Decided
You’ll find the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers vying for position all season in the NFC West futures, and by all accounts it’s a toss up between both as to who wins out. The question is the rest of the division where St. Louis emerged as a bonafide upstart last season, but took two serious steps back offensively by letting running back Steven Jackson and wide receiver Danny Amendola walk in free agency. And I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I’m one of those weirdoes that thinks the Cardinals might be a dangerous team this year. No seriously! Stop laughing at me!
San Francisco 49ers (2012: 11-4-1 SU, 9-7 ATS)
The loss of WR Michael Crabtree is huge, and Anquan Boldin can’t be expected to make up the difference because they’re completely different receivers at different moments in their careers. Even if Crabtree gets back in time for the playoffs, there will be concerns about his rust and timing, which is all sad because Crabtree enjoyed his best season last year while falling in sync with Kaepernick to a great degree.
And while it’s easy to say that the read-option will still be as effective as it was in 2012, that’s hardly going to be the case. Everyone defensive coordinator in the league has done their homework and is game planning against it since they have to deal with so many teams that will use a version of it (there are almost six teams that can and will run it). While I have faith in Kaepernick overall, it’s hard to say where he stands as an NFL quarterback.
To be fair, he’s only played had 10 starts and played in 11 games so let’s stop with the parade before we anoint him the next, big thing. Kaepernick has all the tools to be a great quarterback one day, especially with Harbaugh grooming him from the sidelines, but the task will be even harder without Crabtree. The 2013 season was supposed to be an evolution in Kaepernick as a passing threat, but without his best receiver, we’ll probably see more of the same from last season. That sounds exciting, except for the fact that defenses will be expecting Kaepernick to run after designing blueprints to keep him grounded. Getting off to the races like they did last year will be no easy task.
Fortunately San Francisco still has the best defense on the planet and the sturdiest front line in all of football on offense. A stout rushing game and an always dangerous quarterback will keep the San Francisco 49ers at the top of the discussion. The smart thing to do is bet the Niners to win the division and hedge the UNDER in total wins. I see this as an 11-5 SU team next season, and getting over the hump to twelve is a tough order considering that every opponent will see Kaepernick coming in 2013.
Seattle Seahawks (2012: 11-5 SU, 11-5 ATS)
We’ve seen it time and again, but the Seahawks look like a team that’s adding too many new pieces at once. As much as I respect Pete Carroll, especially as a defensive backs mastermind and overall defensive creator, I’m not sure how well he’s going to handle a locker room full of major egos. And how long can Seattle go on giving free agent receivers mammoth contracts before it catches up with them?
Percy Harvin is the newest addition to Seattle and easily the most exciting. A hip tear is expected to keep Harvin out of action until halfway through the season, which is awful timing for Seattle given the opening that the Crabtree injury represents. Harvin, along with Rice (and Burleson, Branch and countless other receivers who have banked major contracts from Seattle), is another hiccup from a organization desperate to add a home run threat to their pass catching core.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the Seahawks are stacked. A lot of writers are quick to point out that Russell Wilson’s height (he’s 5’11) shouldn’t be a factor…but it is. The Seahawks have a mighty offensive line, but they can be stood up, and if that’s the case Wilson can’t see. Too many times, defenses were trying to penetrate the backfield against Seattle out of fear that Wilson or Lynch would gain extra yards. Listen, I’d rather take the 4 or 6 yards that either gets me on a tough carry than the 30 that Wilson can get by evading up the sidelines using his feet. But that’s just me.
To be honest, I’m not as high on the Seahawks as many others are. I think Wilson is poised to take a step back along with Griffin (injury) and Luck (literally luck running out) but Wilson doesn’t have excuses. He’s surrounded by All Pro talent at every important position on both sides of the ball and if he doesn’t continue to evolve as a player, and defenses will give him a tough test every week, the Seahawks are in major trouble.
They’re still a playoff team mind you, but I think that it will be tough for them to get to the dance without a bit of help from other contenders taking the anticipated lateral and backwards steps we’re thinking about. Seattle was a gold mine last season in terms of betting but with defenses on to Wilson, it will be hard for them to recreate the sneak attack they launched on the NFL in back to back seasons. That makes them a cautionary play in the NFC West futures and I can’t see them doing better than 10-6 SU unless the replacement refs are working their home games again.
St. Louis Rams (2012: 7-8-1 SU, 11-5 ATS)
How pissed would you be if you were Sam Bradford? I mean, last year you bring in Jeff Fisher, hand Cortland Finnegan a mammoth contract…and then let Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola leave (to Atlanta and New England respectively). How is this progress?
I can understand if St. Louis has some nice pieces waiting in the wings, but they don’t. Daryl Richardson is a great third down back, but he’s not an every down option. St. Louis was fortunate to land Tavon Austin, but I’m not positive that he’s going to be escape artist that Amendola was.
Bradford’s enormous rookie contract is the problem in St. Louis and a lack of financial creativity from the front office cripples the moves that this team can make every off season. This is all unfortunate because St. Louis was an exciting betting team last season and seemed headed in the right direction. If anything, they’ve hammered on the brakes of progress and gone back a few years.
Either way, the arrival of veteran Jake Long on the offensive line will help Bradford but the responsibilities on the quarterback are far greater than ever before. He has less talent and experience around him and no real direction with the franchise. The lack of a strong running game is going to make Bradford’s job even harder. That’s why their regular season win total is tough to gauge. By comparison, betting on their 10/1 odds to win the NFC West futures race is an easy play. In other words, don’t bother.
Arizona Cardinals (2012: 5-11 SU, 7-8-1 ATS)
Max Hall, Jon Skelton, Kevin Kolb, Kurt Warner, Matt Leinart…I mean I could keep going on listing all the guys that have thrown to Larry Fitzgerald but I’m not going to bother. The fact is that the only real quarterback that Fitz has had during his time in the desert has been Warner, and while Carson Palmer is not a Pro Bowl quarterback any longer, he’s still a strong armed freak that can muscle the ball downfield and find open receivers.
Along with Palmer, the Cardinals have been sneaky this offseason, picking up the Honey Badger late in the draft to pair him with Patrick Peterson. I mean, that’s a scary secondary and overall the defense in Arizona is better than you think. The only reason they were in a position to win games last season was because of their defense, which plays remarkably well at home. With a much better quarterback, Arizona could be in a position to create some unsettling upsets in the division.
If Palmer and Fitzgerald enjoy any chemistry (and reports have been good out of camp), the Red Birds will be a stealthy play in the regular season. They’re not nearly good enough to win the NFC West futures or contend for the championship, but I think they can rustle some feathers in the division. I love the OVER for them here, and while they won’t be challenging for a playoff spot, they’re going to play a major spoiler role in the NFC West futures. You read it here first.
Please disregard the last three paragraphs if/when the Cardinals get off to an 0-7 SU start.