Hawk Blogger Season Preview Part VI: Division Foes & Predictions
Scouting the NFC West
San Francisco 49ers
No team has had more players arrested or made more conference championships the past three years than the San Francisco 49ers. An immensely talented roster with some seriously questionable character, the 49ers inability to win it all may trace back to leadership. Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke reportedly bicker about a number of things, but both agreed to play Aldon Smith just days after he was found passed out in a wrecked car having driving drunk. Their public comments were to the effect of, “That’s not for us to police. The NFL will take care of it.” In essence, the two leaders of the organization were stating that they were okay with Smith playing as long as the NFL was. Harbaugh enters what may be the final year of his tenure in San Francisco as the perfect poster boy for the state of this team. Their on-field standards are high, but have yet to be high enough. Their off-field behavior is often reprehensible. With so many quality players either in the final years of their contracts (Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati), near the end of their careers (Justin Smith, Anquan Boldin) or both (Frank Gore), this has the feel of the last year of this particular championship window. They will not fade away as some younger talent like Eric Reid, Tank Carradine, Carlos Hyde and Quinton Dial step forward, but one does not just replace a player like Smith.
The other Smith, Aldon, will miss the first nine games of the season. NaVarro Bowman, my vote for best player on this defense, will miss the first six games at least, and likely more. It remains to be seen how effective he will be in the first year back from a gory knee injury. Glenn Dorsey, their nose tackle, will be out most or all of the season as well. Ian Williams was the starter at NT last year before getting hurt in week two, so they could be okay if he proves he is back to form.
The offense has more weapons than last year. Stevie Johnson combines with Crabtree and Boldin to form one of the best receiver corps in the league. Kaepernick is still a dual threat, and the running backs should be good. The biggest two on-field questions with the 49ers are whether their re-made offensive line can be as dominant as the one they fielded the past few years, and how the defense will hold up in pass defense. It is not clear where the pass rush will come from, and the corners are not great or deep. That combination could prove troublesome. This team is capable of winning 12-13 games, but could also slide to seven wins given some of the personnel challenges they face. The best news for the 49ers is they should end the season far stronger than they start it, and will learn a lot about their young depth players.
St. Louis Rams
Having the most talented defensive line in the NFL usually is enough to get a team into the playoffs. The Rams flashed all sorts of talent along the line last year, and added a great one in Aaron Donald this year, but have yet to put it all together into a dominant defense. James Laurinitis and Alex Ogletree are high quality linebackers that should help to form a dynamic front seven. The best team in the NFL last year, Seattle, had all sorts of trouble with this defense, but somehow other teams did not. The 49ers carved the Rams up in St. Louis, as the Rams looked intimidated. They get a Monday Night Football rematch in week six at home. They need to win that game to believe they are no longer just young and talented, but also dangerous. That game will be in the middle of a gauntlet they must run in the middle of the season when they play:
Those eight games will decide their season. Even a 4-4 finish would be a massive achievement. Losing Sam Bradford again was a crushing blow, but this team proved it could compete with Kellen Clemens at quarterback last year, and Shaun Hill looks like a better player than Clemens. When it clicks for this team on defense, few offenses will be able to compete with them. Until it does, the Rams will lose more than they will win.
Losing Darnell Dockett to injury was potentially devastating for a team that had already lost Karlos Dansby (free agency) and Daryl Washington (suspension). Dockett’s dominance has been largely hidden due to the perennially poor play in the desert, but offensive lineman can tell you how much of a handful he is. This was the one team to beat Seattle in Seattle since 2011. Their defense was fantastic that day. Their offense was just good enough. Carson Palmer has some great weapons to work with. Andre Ellington is dangerous out of the backfield. John Brown is a rookie receiver who looks fantastic. Add him to Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald, and there are some challenges for opposing secondaries. The offensive line, once again, could hold this team back. They look below average, even after spending big money on a new left tackle. This looks like an 8-9 win team.
There have been some disappointments during this Seahawks preseason. Their young defensive lineman have mostly underwhelmed. The team lost twice after winning nine straight preseason games over the last two years. Justin Britt is not the natural pass blocker I had hoped he would be. The cornerbacks after the top two are not on par with the players the team featured last year. I weigh all these things and find myself experiencing doubts I have not had about the Seahawks roster for a while. Maybe this team will take a step back. Maybe they are going to be one of those dynasties that wins three rings in four years instead of back-to-back right out of the gates.
Then I look at the offense. The growth of Russell Wilson. The mind-melting speed of Percy Harvin. The still underappreciated talents of Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. The quality depth behind them in Paul Richardson, Kevin Norwood and Ricardo Lockette. I see three running backs who are ready to carry the load behind an offensive line that looks like it might be the best run-blocking unit since the 2005 squad. This should be the best offense in Seahawks history, and could be the best offense in football.
The special teams has every reason to repeat their level of play from 2013 when they choked every yard out of opponents in coverage, and should include more explosive returns with Harvin and Thomas.
That brings us back to the defense. The biggest question mark among the starters is the nickel corner. Every other position features a potential Pro Bowl player. I need to see them stop the run with the newly-configured defensive line, but it is not hard to imagine them doing just that. Health on defense is simply more crucial this year than the last two. There is not a Maxwell and Thurmond sitting on the bench. There is not a Bennett and Avril and McDonald on the bench.
Every NFL season comes down to a combination of talent and durability. Teams will always face injury issues, and deeper rosters are better able to withstand the losses. Seattle may not have the same injury kevlar they have had on defense recently, but two things should help that matter less: the offense is deeper and better than it has been, and Pete Carroll is a fantastic defensive coach who is as good as anyone in the NFL at masking weaknesses on defense.
If someone could tell me the Seahawks are going to be injured here, and here, and here, my predictions about this season would be different. I cannot look at the best starting offense, defense and special teams in the NFL and assume they will be hurt at the specific positions where they are most thin. I will also not assume that they are incapable of repeating because it happens so rarely. This team has already made achieving rarities a force of habit. They were the youngest team to ever win a Super Bowl. Wilson was the third-youngest quarterback to win one.
What every pundit out there picking “not Seattle” to win the Super Bowl fails to realize is that this team is full of sharks that have now tasted blood. One feeding does not satiate them. It emboldens them, and steels their belief that every hunt will result in a meal. Try telling Earl Thomas he cannot win every game. Try telling Russell Wilson he cannot score on every drive. Try telling Marshawn Lynch that he is too old to break tackles. Please. Tell them.
Nobody wants to believe Southern Alaska is going to be the next dynasty. Nobody wants to feel like their team cannot compete. Their delusions will be forced out of the shadows and into the sunlight soon enough. This is once again the best team in all the land. Long live the kings.