Seattle Seahawks: St. Louis Rams
By almost everyone’s estimation, the rough and rugged NFC West was the best division in the NFL in 2013. It had the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, two teams in the NFC Championship Game (Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers) and another 10-game winner in the Arizona Cardinals. The St. Louis Rams were 7-9 but likely would have had a winning season in any other division.
And now? Other than adding Godzilla and three superheroes to the four teams, they could not get much better. It looks like the big boys on the NFC block will remain out west.
Most experts believe the Rams had one of the best drafts in the NFL, adding Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson and Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, giving St. Louis four first-round picks on what is arguably the best defensive line in football.
The 49ers had 12 draft picks, including seven in the first four rounds, and made a trade during the draft for talented Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson.
The Cardinals signed gigantic left tackle Jared Veldheer and blazing kick returner Ted Ginn in free agency. They also added a vicious hitter, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, with their first draft pick.
As always happens with Super Bowl champs, the Seahawks lost a few key players to free agency, but they kept the man they really wanted to keep in defensive end Michael Bennett and locked up "Legion of Boom" stars Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to long-term deals.
Believe it or not, the best division in the NFL just got better.
As usual, the Seahawks drafted some players other teams would have taken later, if at all. Should people question their choices, or have they earned the benefit of the doubt?
Terry Blount: Have we learned nothing from the past? Questioning Seattle's draft strategy, along with undrafted signees, now seems a little foolish. Shall I name a few who stand out that other teams passed up or the experts questioned? Sherman, Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin and Malcolm Smith, for starters. The Seahawks bring in players with specific traits -- unusual athleticism, driving competitiveness and obvious intelligence. Where those players rank on another team's draft board means nothing to them. And at first glance from rookie camp, they found some winners in receivers Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood, along with defensive end Cassius Marsh.
Josh Weinfuss: A little leeway should be given to the Seahawks because, first, they are the reigning NFL champions, and second, their personnel department has been able to piece together a pretty good roster with players who were not highly rated. With that being said, good will should only go so far. Sometimes a general manager and coach think they have the secret recipe and get cocky about their ability to find talent. When that happens, bad decisions are made. Obviously, the Seahawks have a reputation for picking good players, but they won't be right every time. Every team has an off draft and picks who don't pan out. It is also too early for us to know if some of their "rogue" picks will do anything. Their picks should definitely be questioned until they have a chance to show us their stuff.
Bill Williamson: The glue to the Seahawks is general manager John Schneider. Yes, coach Pete Carroll is a tremendous fit for the franchise and is a big part of the team's success. But Schneider is the architect of this franchise. He built this roster. There is little doubting the way he has drafted. Look at the core of the team -- they were all great value choices by Schneider. The tie goes to Schneider. You can doubt him if you choose, but it would be a lousy idea. Expect these Seattle rookies to develop into players. Schneider always wins.
@TerryBlountESPN No. People questioned Russell Wilson immediately after 2012 draft. We all know how that turned out! Takes time.- Tina Metcalf (@girlinseattle) May 27, 2014
Do the additions of Johnson and Carlos Hyde give the 49ers the most dangerous offense in the division?
Blount: Both players will help, but the real key for the 49ers is quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Having enough weapons wasn't really the problem. Using them effectively on a consistent basis and cutting down on mistakes is the issue. Kaepernick's extraordinary talent is unquestioned. But can he be the same type of team leader that Wilson is and make the big play in the most difficult moments? He couldn't do it last year in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game. If he shows he can do that consistently when the big game is on the line, watch out.
Weinfuss: It is certainly looking like the 49ers have one of the most dangerous offenses in the division, if not the most dangerous. San Francisco has the right pieces at every position, from quarterback to running back to wide receiver to tight end. But the first question that came to mind when going through San Francisco's offensive depth chart is this: Will one football be enough to go around? This might turn into a case of the 49ers being better on paper than they are on the field, which has happened many times throughout the NFL. The Cardinals bolstered their skill positions during the offseason, giving themselves a lot of talent at wide receiver and tight end to complement two young running backs and a veteran quarterback who finds ways to win. A team can have all the ammunition in the world, but if the coach doesn't know how to use it, it will be stockpiled for naught.
Williamson: I think so. There is nothing missing from this offense. We saw how dynamic it can be when Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles last December. Put Crabtree, the clutch Anquan Boldin and Johnson together and that is a great veteran group of receivers. Someone is always going to be open. Rookie Bruce Ellington was added to give the 49ers the ability to take the top off of defenses, an aspect they didn't possess last season. We didn't even mention Davis at tight end. Really, how is this offense going to be stopped? Kaepernick looked like a completely different quarterback when Crabtree played last season. Kaepernick with all of these weapons? Oh, and we didn't even mention the bread and butter of the 49ers' offense -- the running game. Hyde, Gore and a healthy Marcus Lattimore? How do you defend this group?
@BWilliamsonESPN sure does...how can you spy Kap now with 3 legit wrs + VD...Hyde taking on a 7 man front with our bulldozing line. #1- CDM (@CDM49er) May 14, 2014
After a narrow miss last season, have the Cardinals made enough of the right moves to get into the playoffs?
Blount: I don't think they needed to make many moves to reach the playoffs. Record-wise, they were a playoff team last season, but a victim of circumstances in the playoff structure. So the real question is can the Cardinals catch Seattle and/or San Francisco? And my answer is yes, especially the 49ers. Quarterback Carson Palmer will be better after having a full season in the Arizona offense. Bruce Arians might be the most underrated coach in the NFL. The team clearly is on the rise, while San Francisco's offseason turmoil could come back to bite it.
Weinfuss: The Cardinals have made enough moves to make the playoffs this season. They missed the postseason a year ago by a game, which might have been different if Arizona had been stocked with a better kick returner, left tackle, second cornerback and safety. The Cards addressed those issues in the offseason, which should make them better in 2014. Adding left tackle Veldheer to anchor the offensive line should ease Arians' concerns about Palmer's blind side. One thing Ginn has shown throughout his career is that he can return kicks with the best. But the biggest difference for the Cards will be their improved secondary. Signing talented veteran Cromartie gives the Cardinals two lockdown cornerbacks (along with Patrick Peterson) and drafting Bucannon gave Arizona an instant upgrade against tight ends and big receivers -- which there are plenty of in NFC West.
Williamson: I really like how well the Cardinals are coached. I think Arians is on to something. His players seem to respond to him. So the program will continue to rise under Arians. Also, I love the defense; it is nasty, aggressive and ball-hawking. Add great defense and a well-respected coaching staff and a team is going to win a lot of games. I think the bottom line with the Cardinals is quarterback play. Palmer had his moments last season, but I'm not a big believer in him. I think he will cost the Cardinals at some point. Maybe this is a playoff team, but I think the Cardinals are a couple of steps behind the Seahawks and the 49ers. The deficit starts at quarterback.
@joshweinfuss no. if o-line depth isn't addressed, look out for consistent pressure off the right side and more INTs from cardiac carson- Sean Kirchheimer (@stkirch) May 21, 2014
The Rams decided not to draft help at wide receiver and waited until the sixth round to add a young quarterback. Will their offense score enough to make up ground in the NFC West?
Blount: Sure, it would have helped to add a top receiver, but is there a bigger unknown in the entire division than Sam Bradford? What the Rams, and everyone else, have to find out is whether Bradford is an elite quarterback. Frankly, I have my doubts, but he did play well last season before his injury. Bradford's situation is much different than that of Kaepernick, who is as gifted a player physically as you will ever see. In Bradford's case, it's hard to know how good he really is or can be, because he hasn't had top talent around him. And it doesn't help that he has to play six games against three of the of the best defenses in the NFL. It's time for Bradford to step up, no matter whom he is throwing the ball to each week.
Weinfuss: The depth of the NFC West makes this the toughest question of the four. The Rams' additions weren't significant improvements to their offense, but will help. Bradford will come back with a vengeance and try to light up the scoreboard. He will have a talented group of receivers, but can they score enough to close the gap from the bottom of the West? Not sure that can happen. Rookie Robinson will take his lumps and bruises and might not come into his own until the second half of the season, so the Rams have to be hoping it's not too late by then. Points will be at a premium in the West, especially considering how good the three other defenses are, so the Rams will have to be even better than expected to make up ground, and I'm not sure they are ready for that just yet.
Williamson: Points scored? Who needs points with that defense. Man, the Rams' defense is getting silly good. Adding Donald to that defensive front should have been banned. It's simply unfair. The Rams are not going to allow many points this season. So the offense won't have to be overly dynamic. With that said, I am not a big Bradford fan. I don't think he is the answer. Until the Rams upgrade at quarterback, I don't think they will reach their full potential or be able to hang in the division race. But they will dangerous every week because of the defense.
2. Karlos Dansby, Arizona LB: He is 32, and that could scare teams, but he can still dominate.
3. Donte Whitner, San Francisco S: The 49ers could have some big competition, but Whitner is a strong defender they want back.
4. Brandon Browner, Seattle, CB: Even though he is facing a four-game suspension, Browner should get attention. Great talent and size. he may be worth the risk.
5. Golden Tate, Seattle WR: Tate might not be a numbers monster, but he has big potential.
6. Rodger Saffold, St. Louis OG: The Rams' biggest free-agent priority has proved capable of being a Pro Bowl-caliber guard when given the chance.
7. Clinton McDonald, Seattle DT: A solid plugger on a great defense. He will get interest.
8. Tarell Brown, San Francisco CB: Solid performer who could get looks as a No. 2 cornerback.
9. Walter Thurmond, Seattle CB: He isn’t as known as one of the Seahawks’ top cornerbacks, but he played big. He could be looking at nice payday.
10. Andre Roberts, Arizona WR: He quietly had a nice season in 2013, with 43 catches. He could attract solid interest.
11. Breno Giacomini, Seattle OG: A solid offensive lineman whom the Seahawks want back.
12. Shelley Smith, St. Louis OG: Started just two games in 2013 but flashed starter potential when given the chance.
13. Steven Hauschka, Seattle K: A standout kicker whom the Seahawks want back.
14. Phil Dawson, San Francisco K: The 49ers badly want this guy to return. He saved many games last season.
15. Eric Winston, Arizona OT: He’s not what he used but is still solid. The Cardinals want him back.
The Seahawks, 12-3, can reach those goals, no matter what any other team does this weekend, if they defeat the St. Louis Rams on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
Some questions will be answered in this game. Are the Seahawks the team that dominated the New Orleans Saints on a Monday night to go 11-1, or are they the team that has lost two of its past three games and struggled on offense?
And the Rams, 7-8, are a team that did a great job of shutting down the Seattle offense earlier this year in a Monday night game at St. Louis, which the Seahawks pulled out 14-9 with a goal-line stand at the end.
ESPN.com's Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount break down how this game shapes up:
Blount: Everything is on the line this weekend for the Seahawks, Nick, but I know the Rams would love to end the season with a .500 record and knock the Seahawks out of the top spot in the playoffs. CenturyLink will be rocking, to say the least. What will it take for the Rams to win this one?
Wagoner: I don't think the Rams have to stray too far from what they did in the first meeting, a blueprint they've followed in every win they've had since Week 5. That means pound the running game, stop the run, rush the passer and win the turnover battle. That sounds like a lot of steps and many of them won't be easy, especially against the Seahawks, but that's been the formula and nothing is going to change this week.
The Rams gave Seattle all it wanted in that first meeting on a Monday night following that plan and I expect them to do the same on Sunday.
Terry, in the first meeting the Rams kept it close with a dominant pass rush. Obviously, the Seahawks were missing some key pieces in that game but Robert Quinn & Co. have only gotten better. How has Seattle's offensive line come together and has it done enough to make you think it can have more success protecting Russell Wilson this time around?
Blount: They couldn't be much worse than they were that night, Nick, giving up seven sacks. The Seahawks were playing without both starting tackles that night: Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung and right tackle Breno Giacomini. Both will start Sunday, although Okung still has a problem with his toe injury. But even a limited Okung is better than anyone else Seattle could play at left tackle. Also, rookie offensive linemen Michael Bowie and Alvin Bailey have a lot more game experience now and are better prepared to play at a high level. So the answer is, yes, they will be better, but the offensive line remains the weakest area on the team.
Nick, the Rams certainly have played better than most people expected with Kellen Clemens at quarterback. What have they done well that has surprised you?
Wagoner: I have been mildly surprised by how much success they have had running the ball with Clemens at quarterback, especially given that teams are still loading up to stop the run with eight or nine men in the box. What's more, the Rams have had that success running it with a rotation of offensive linemen because of injuries.
Really, though, Clemens himself has surprised me the most. I expected him to be able to manage games and, in a best-case scenario, I figured he'd complete about 50-55 percent of his passes and not turn the ball over. He's been better than that, especially the past two weeks. He isn't afraid to push the ball down the field, but really hasn't made many bad decisions when doing that and he's completing plenty of passes that aren't just checkdowns. I knew he'd be a great leader and influence on his young teammates. I just didn't expect him to be as solid as he's been in the more tangible areas. Clemens struggled in that first meeting but I expect better from him this time since he's now got some games under his belt.
Terry, one thing that jumped out from the Monday night game was the relative ease with which the Rams and Zac Stacy ran the ball. I see the Seahawks' overall run defense has remained in the middle of the pack since. Obviously the dominant pass defense makes the whole thing go, but is the run defense a concern heading toward this game and the postseason?
Blount: As concerns go, this one would be a few rungs down the list. Part of the problem came when middle linebacker Bobby Wagner was out with a high-ankle sprain, then returned too soon and didn't play well for a couple of weeks. Wagner is back playing lights out now, which has helped plug some holes in the run defense, and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane has clogged up the middle. But it's still possible at times to get some yards against Seattle on the ground because the Seahawks put so much emphasis on rushing the passer and often spread the front line out almost to the numbers.
Nick, do you sense the Rams have a bit of a chip on the shoulder about the loss in St. Louis, when the Seahawks escaped with a 14-9 victory that took a goal-line stand at the end?
Wagoner: I think there's a little bit of that but what I sense more is a chip on their shoulder based on their inability to get wins in the NFC West this season. Last year, they were 4-1-1 in the division. This year, they're 1-4 entering this game. Worse, they're assured of finishing last in the division. That's not a good place to be because Seattle and San Francisco don't appear ready to go anywhere and Arizona is clearly a force, as well.
That first meeting is a game the Rams probably should have won and they know that, but I think they like any opportunity they get to beat Seattle. Add the chance to wreck their home-field party plans and the chance to get to .500 for the first time since 2006 and this should be a very motivated team.
One more thing, the Rams have a pretty impressive resume of victories this year, with wins against Arizona, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Chicago. Beating Seattle would be the icing on the cake as they build toward 2014.
Terry, the Rams under coach Jeff Fisher have played Pete Carroll's Seahawks three times, with the largest margin of victory being Seattle's seven-point win in the 2012 season finale. The Rams view Seattle as a tough, division rival. Have they earned similar respect from the Seahawks entering an important game from the Seattle side?
Blount: Absolutely Nick. The Seahawks honestly believe any NFC West opponent is tougher than anyone else they play because the games are more physical than other games. Carroll has the utmost respect for Fisher and his ability to devise defensive schemes to counter what Seattle tries to do on offense. And receiver Golden Tate, of waving bye-bye infamy earlier this year in St. Louis, said both teams love to talk trash to each other and try to out-man the other guy in one-on-one matchups. But Tate said that's a sign of respect for how much the Rams have improved.
Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 8:30 p.m. ET. See you there.
Sixty-three voters helped rank 100 top players on each side of the ball. NFC West teams accounted for 20 players on defense and 16 on offense. The 36-player total works out to 18 percent representation for the NFC West, above the 12.5 percent expectation for any division.
The chart shows where NFC West players ranked on each list. I shaded offensive players in gray to better distinguish the rankings.
The 49ers' Patrick Willis and the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald have long been perceived as the best players in the division. They've got additional competition, but those two ranked higher than anyone else in the NFC West.
There were sure to be oversights in a project of this scope. Defensive end Calais Campbell of the Cardinals stands out to me as the most glaring one. I might have placed him between Patrick Peterson and Chris Long in defensive rankings as they stood for this project.
Three Seahawks cornerbacks earned spots on the list even though one of them, Antoine Winfield, reportedly could be released by the team Saturday in the reduction to 53 players Saturday.
A quick look at ranked players by team:
San Francisco 49ers: Patrick Willis (3), Aldon Smith (10), Justin Smith (11), Vernon Davis (18), NaVorro Bowman (18), Joe Staley (25), Mike Iupati (32), Frank Gore (37), Colin Kaepernick (42), Ahmad Brooks (56), Anthony Davis (60), Donte Whitner (64), Michael Crabtree (78), Anquan Boldin (83) and Jonathan Goodwin (92).
Seattle Seahawks: Richard Sherman (8), Earl Thomas (17), Percy Harvin (26), Marshawn Lynch (27), Brandon Browner (46), Russell Wilson (47), Russell Okung (49), Kam Chancellor (49), Max Unger (57), Bobby Wagner (67), Winfield (70), Cliff Avril (74) and Chris Clemons (85).
St. Louis Rams: Long (40), James Laurinaitis (57), Jake Long (61), Cortland Finnegan (63).
Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald (7), Patrick Peterson (19), Daryl Washington (59) and Darnell Dockett (79).
The chart shows week-by-week snap counts for quarterbacks I singled out as projected starters heading into preseason. NFC West alums Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn might not start after all, but I've left them in the chart for context.
St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has generally played starters in the final preseason game. He did not this time.
"Typically I have, but I guess in the new world that we’re in, it’s hard to," Fisher told reporters after the Rams' game against Baltimore. "What that implies is that I'm pleased with where they are right now, those guys that sat. They worked hard. We got a great workout and it allowed them to fast-forward their minds to Arizona."
Fisher could have been alluding to the run of higher-profile injuries around the league this summer. Last year, the Rams lost rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers to a high-ankle sprain in the final preseason game.
The Rams emerged from this preseason healthier than their division rivals. That did not stop the 49ers from playing their offensive starters or the Seahawks from playing starters on both sides of the ball Thursday night. The Arizona Cardinals rested most of their starters, though Michael Floyd was one notable exception.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh offered no explanation for playing his starting offense one series. Kaepernick hadn't gotten many snaps through the first three games, however. Getting additional reps for Kaepernick and the team's group of emerging receivers made some sense on the surface.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll went into the final preseason game saying he wanted starters to play because the team values this games as competitive opportunities.
You can find those team sites here: Arizona, St. Louis, San Francisco and Seattle.
In the past, I would have handled predictions for all NFC West teams. We now have reporters in place to cover each team, with only a few teams unmanned as the final hires are made. Each team's reporter filed his own prediction for the team in question without regard for how other reporters might view things.
For example, Minnesota Vikings reporter Ben Goessling predicted an 8-8 record and second-place finish for the Vikings, while Chicago Bears reporter Michael C. Wright predicted a 9-7 record and second-place finish for the Bears. Those predictions would be exclusive if viewed together. However, they were made independently.
Here in the NFC West, Seattle Seahawks reporter Terry Blount predicted a 12-4 record and first-place divisional finish for Seattle. I am handling the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals predictions for the time being. I predicted 10-6 for the 49ers without knowing Terry was predicting 12-4 for Seattle.
My feel is that Seattle and San Francisco will be in that 10-11 range for victories and that the healthier team will probably prevail as the division winner unless one of the other teams is better than anticipated. I'm leaning toward Seattle as the top team, but it's a tough call -- a lot tougher than the two-game gap between my prediction and Terry's prediction might make things appear from afar.
The chart shows how many players each team from the division is carrying by position. Note that figures for defensive lineman and linebacker can be tricky, so a generic "front seven" figure could be more relevant in some cases.
One observation per team:
- Arizona Cardinals: Injury concerns have led the Cardinals to carry additional players at tight end. Starter Rob Housler suffered a high-ankle sprain and might not be ready for the opener. Veteran Jeff King has not yet played during preseason. The team added Richard Quinn as short-term insurance. Housler and King both passed physicals and have practiced during camp, making them ineligible for the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Both are expected back sooner than PUP rules would allow, anyway. For now, though, their injuries are creating roster challenges. Guard Jonathan Cooper is also ineligible for PUP. He could go on the injured reserve list with a designation for return later in the season.
- San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers have 10 wide receivers on their 75-man roster, tied for most in the NFL even after placing Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham on the PUP list. Four or five of their remaining cuts figure to come at that position. The 49ers' wide receivers are the oldest in the NFL by average age thanks to Anquan Boldin (32) and Kassim Osgood (33). If Osgood sticks on the 53-man roster, special-teams contributions will explain why. Boldin, Jon Baldwin, Kyle Williams, Quinton Patton and Marlon Moore would be by picks if the team kept five.
- Seattle Seahawks: Defensive end Chris Clemons remained on the roster instead of shifting to the reserve/PUP list, another indication the team thinks he could return from knee surgery sooner rather than later. The PUP designation would allow Clemons to resume practicing between Oct. 15 and Nov. 19, but all signs point to Clemons being ready before that. Seattle needs him, too. Bruce Irvin faces a four-game suspension. Cliff Avril has a hamstring injury that could affect his availability for the opener. Keeping Clemons in play for Week 1 makes sense as long as there's a chance he could be ready by then.
- St. Louis Rams: The Rams are a little heavy at tight end while Cory Harkey recovers from injury and Lance Kendricks gets back to full speed following knee surgery. The Rams' roster appears pretty normal overall. The decisions looming appear straightforward. That could change as the team continues to build its depth.
Colt McCoy is the guy behind the No. 1 guy, coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters Sunday night following a 34-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at Candlestick Park.
A chronology provides some context:
March 12: The trade sending backup Alex Smith to Kansas City becomes official.
April 2: The 49ers acquire McCoy to be their presumed No. 2 quarterback.
Aug. 8 and 16: McCoy performs unconvincingly in the 49ers' first two exhibition games.
Aug. 22: The 49ers sign free-agent quarterback Seneca Wallace.
Aug. 24: McCoy accepts a reduced salary. The news comes out a day later, at which point McCoy confirms that he accepted the reduction on Saturday night, the 24th.
Aug. 25: McCoy completes 11 of 15 passes for 109 yards and an interception during the 49ers' preseason game against Minnesota. Wallace hardly plays. After the game, Harbaugh tells reporters he "feels real good about Colt as the backup quarterback."
The timeline suggests Wallace's signing helped the 49ers secure a pay reduction from McCoy while providing insurance. That may or may not be the case. We know Colin Kaepernick is the starter and McCoy is the heavy favorite to serve in the No. 2 role, and that Wallace could have some additional time to learn the offense -- perhaps so the 49ers could turn to him later if a need arose.
Teams have until Tuesday to reduce their rosters from the 90-man limit to no more than 75 players. The mandatory reduction to 53-man limits is Saturday.