The San Francisco 49ers were tied for third-best odds to win the Super Bowl at this time last year. Jeff Fisher and the St. Louis Rams were tied for twenty-first with 50/1 odds. The latest post-draft odds have the 49ers at 50/1 and ranked twenty-first, and the Rams are ranked thirteenth (35/1). Some things have really changed. And some things stayed the same—Seattle, was the favorite last year at 6/1, and remains the favorite at 6/1 this year. A quick tour around football’s toughest division shows why the Seahawks are favorites to win their third straight NFC West crown.
Question marks: center, left guard, corner opposite Richard Sherman, split end
Seattle returns starters at all but three positions. They lost C Max Unger, LG James Carpenter and CB Byron Maxwell. Sticklers may want to add TE Zach Miller to that list, but he missed all but three games. Fifteen of the twenty-two projected starters for the upcoming season played significant roles in the last two Super Bowls. Few teams can boast that kind of consistency in the salary cap era.
Losing Unger and Carpenter, however, creates a sizable gap in an already questionable pass-blocking group. Seattle has added three interior lineman in the draft in Terry Poole, Mark Glowinski, and Kristjan Sokoli. Tom Cable also called out the work of Jesse Davis from Idaho during rookie mini-camp. Those players will join a competition that already includes third-year pro T/G Alvin Bailey who has lost 30 lbs, and C Patrick Lewis. Both players started games last year.
John Schneider has employed his usual strategy when the team has a weak area—he creates a pile of players and lets the coaches sort out the competition. Left guard should be in solid shape. There is even a decent chance that position will be better than it was with pass-protection-challenged Carpenter at the spot. Center will be the bigger question mark. Lewis has the inside track since he is young, surpassed backup Lemuel Jeanpierre during the season, and has starting experience. There was a massive gulf, however, between Unger and everyone else who played that spot for Seattle.
He was not only a better player, but he was smart enough to take the line call responsibilities off the shoulders of Russell Wilson. The whole offense played better when Unger was in the lineup. Sacks and bad plays can happen just as much from a missed protection as a bad play call. Only repetition, experience, and smarts can give a player what he needs to be good there. On sum, the Seahawks have reason to feel optimistic about their most pressing needs along the offensive line.
Similarly, Schneider has created a pile at the two corner spots—starter opposite Sherman and nickel. Cary Williams was signed as a free agent, and he will have some competition from Tharold Simon (when healthy), and rookie Tye Smith who has some growing buzz. Jeremy Lane may also figure into that outside corner conversation when he returns from a serious pair of injuries suffered in the Super Bowl.
The slot corner spot will see Marcus Burley and Will Blackmon battle. Lane would be the presumed starter if he was healthy, and Smith is seen as a potential fit inside after getting his feet under him on the outside, so keeping both Blackmon and Burley seems unlikely. Both are quality starting players.
Receiver is another position that gets plenty of questions. Their strength is inside with Doug Baldwin. They also have arguably the best tight end group in football with Jimmy Graham, last years starter Luke Willson, and Anthony McCoy. The bigger questions are on the outside. Expecting anything from Paul Richardson this year would be a mistake. The team does not need to rush him back, and he represents real upside if they take care of him coming off his knee surgery.
Jermaine Kearse, Chris Mathews, Kevin Norwood, and Ricardo Lockette return. There is some intrigue with 6’3″ Douglas McNeil, who is built like an Adonis. Seattle does not need a dominant outside threat. With their strength at tight end, it is not even clear how often the team will put two true receivers on the field. Graham could take a lot of receiver snaps. Kearse, Norwood and Mathews offer enough to make this a low-risk question mark for Seattle.
Question marks: linebacker, tight end, quarterback, nose tackle, running back, right tackle, center, cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson, defensive coordinator
Arizona was 9-1 for a reason last year. They featured a hard-nosed defense and a “just enough” offense. The result was just the fifth playoff appearance for the franchise since 1983, a span of over 30 years. It felt like a year to build on, even with the late season collapse. Adding Mike Iupati, LB Sean Weatherspoon, and a pair of veteran defensive tackles in Corey Peters and Cory Redding should add to the excitement. They also grabbed a first-round offensive tackle in D.J. Humphries that is reason for optimism.
The challenges come when you step back and see both what the team lost, and what they are counting on to work out. Start with the quarterback position that was their downfall last year. Carson Palmer is said to be doing great in rehab from his knee surgery. What happens if he is not the same player, or worse, he injures the knee again? Drew Stanton kept things afloat last year, but he is no better equipped to lead this team through the playoffs now than he was then. It is not a stretch to say the whole Cardinals season hinges on Palmer’s 35-year-old surgically repaired knee.
Palmer will be protected by an offensive line that will feature a new center for the first time in six years after veteran Lyle Sendlein was released. There is no proven replacement on the roster. Right tackle could be improved as Bobby Massie and rookie Humphries fight it out, but there are not guarantees there yet of Humphries being any better than Massie. Iupati is a fantastic run blocker, but has been suspect in pass protection.
The running game would be the other way to help protect Palmer, but Andre Ellington would appear to be too small to be the featured back, so the Cardinals drafted bigger back David Johnson. Short of a trade for Adrian Peterson, this group will enter the season as a question mark.
Assume, for now, that Palmer plays at the level he did last year. This great defense lost defensive coordinator Ray Horton a few years back and Todd Bowles this off-season. That matters more than the Seahawks loss of Dan Quinn and Gus Bradley because head coach Bruce Arians is the offensive thought leader while Pete Carroll is the defensive architect no matter who his coordinator is. James Bettcher takes over the role, and he has quite a few changes to deal with.
Gone are nose tackle Dan Williams, cornerback Antonio Cromartie, Darnell Dockett (yes he was injured last year), Tommy Kelly, and Larry Foote (much to Luke Willson’s dismay). Star linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended for all of last season, and there is reason to believe he will be suspended for at least six games this year for a domestic violence incident last year. The Cardinals are referring to him as “not on the team,” for now, so it’s probably best to evaluate the defense without him.
That leaves Arizona with a starting linebacker corps of Alex Okafor, Weatherspoon, Kevin Minter and Matt Shaughnessy. Yikes. Those linebackers are not going to have Williams occupying blockers in front of them. Former Husky Alameda Ta’amu is a promising nose tackle prospect, but is certainly a question mark. Peters is a big body, who some people like, but while he is probably a more complete player than Williams, I doubt he is the same level of run stuffer.
Redding should help the pass rush, but this was a team that had only three players with more than 2.0 sacks last season, and one of them (Frostee Rucker) is turning 32 this year.
There is no clear replacement for Pro Bowler Cromartie at corner. Add to that, a poor season from Peterson, and the Cardinals ability to cover is in question. They have some quality safeties in Rashad Johnson and youngster Deone Bucannon. Tyrann Mathieu has been a good pro thus far, and will either help at safety or slot corner.
It is tough to see how this Cardinals defense is better equipped to stop Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks offense than they were last season. The addition of Graham and even guys like Mathews, Norwood and Tyler Lockett would appear to make a Seahawks attack that piled up nearly 600 yards of offense when these teams last met even more lethal.
This is a dangerous team, but a lot has to break their way to supplant the Seahawks.
St. Louis Rams
Question marks: left tackle, center, right guard, right tackle, quarterback, safety, wide receiver, tight end
Confusion reigns with this Rams team. They flash some of the best defensive line talent in football, add to it every year, and still are wildly inconsistent. Aaron Donald was a monster addition in the middle of that line last year, and now the Rams welcome in Nick Fairley on a one-year deal that should have him playing at his best. A pass-rushing line of Chris Long, Fairley, Donald and Robert Quinn is something Madden would disallow. That’s just not fair.
As someone who has watched a historically good defense the past three years, I can say that I’m jealous of the youth and talent on that line. The rest of the defense could be zeros and that line group should still keep things competitive. St. Louis fans know the rest of the defense has far more than a bunch of zeros. The linebacker corps has three quality players in Jo-Lonn Dunbar, James Laurinitis, and Alec Ogletree. Dunbar has had some off-field issues that have kept him off the field at times, but he is a solid run defender when he’s out there.
The secondary has a playmaker in Janoris Jenkins, but he takes lot of chances and can get burned. The young safeties are decent, but they have a lot left to prove, and the other corners are a question mark as well.
This defense has been one of the toughest for Seattle to score on the past couple of years, and that probably continues. The Seahawks question marks at center and left guard better be answered by the season opener in St. Louis or Wilson will have trouble completing a pass.
Few teams have suffered more injury trouble at the quarterback position than the Rams. It has been a few years since they actually fielded a legitimate starting QB. Enter Nick Foles. People can love or hate him, but he has proven he can lead an offense and has to be more durable than Sam Bradford. If Foles can simply stay healthy, the Rams could leapfrog the Cardinals. Now about staying healthy…
This is the worst offensive line in the division. Top pick Greg Robinson was drafted to play tackle, but struggled and was slid inside to guard and wound up back at tackle after an injury to Jake Long. Scott Wells was their veteran center, and now they have some unproven young players behind him. Roger Saffold is decent at left guard, but the rest of the line is full of questions. That is why the Rams spent four draft picks on offensive lineman. The difference between them and Seattle is the proven track record Tom Cable has of developing young lineman who can contribute right away. If everything falls in place for the Rams line, this team becomes a fringe title contender.
The running backs are strong with Todd Gurley joining last years solid rookie Tre Mason. Receivers are decent after Kenny Britt returned and guys like Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin remain. Tight ends should be better than they have been with Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks, but perhaps a decent QB will help that.
This is dangerous team that will try to make a big statement on opening day.
San Francisco 49ers
Question marks: linebacker, tight end, quarterback, defensive end, running back, left guard, center, cornerback, head coach, defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator
Patrick Willis retired. Chris Borland retired. Either one of those players would be the best linebacker on the Cardinals roster. It did not end there. Both starting cornerbacks are gone. The franchise’s career rushing leader, Frank Gore, left. A head coach who took the team to three straight NFC Championship games and never had a losing record went back to college. The defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, who many whisper was a key component in Jim Harbaugh’s success left as well. All-Pro lineman Iupati went to division rival Arizona. Ray McDonald, a highly effective, albeit troubled, defensive end is gone. Starting wide receiver Michael Crabtree went across the bay for mediocre pay. And if all that is not enough, another shoe may drop in the next few weeks if Justin Smith declares his retirement as well.
Most teams would be facing certain doom with that talent drain. The 49ers were so stacked, and made enough quality additions, to keep their heads above water at least. Much will hinge on how well the team falls in line with the new coaching staff, and how good that staff is. Jim Tomsula has given a terrible first impression of a bumbling idiot who can barely handle simple media questions, let alone lead a team of alpha males. Eric Mangini has not been a well regarded coach for a few years. He inherits a unit with a lot of young talent, but some crucial losses. Geep Chryst is taking over as the offensive coordinator after being the quarterbacks coach for the last four seasons. Consider that the 49ers felt Kaepernick needed enough work on his QB play that they asked retired quarterback Kurt Warner to help him develop over the offseason, and his quarterbacks coach was promoted to OC.
There is enough talent on this team to compete. Kaepernick, as much as I dislike him, has elite physical tools. Carlos Hyde, Reggie Bush and Kendall Hunter form a terrific running back room even if they still have to prove they can replace a legend like Gore. The offensive line still boasts two quality tackles, probably the best pair in the division and a decent guard in Alex Boone. Marcus Martin was thrown into the fire last year, but could blossom into a good starting center. They also added a good deep threat in Torrey Smith, who is a better compliment to Anquan Boldin than the slow-footed Crabtree.
The offense was this team’s achilles heel last year. Teams that were able to force Kaepernick to throw, and were fast enough to contain his scrambling, made life miserable for San Francisco. The offensive line has to stay healthy, the young players must develop, and the running game has to take some of the pressure off Kaepernick.
On defense, the cupboard is not as bare as it might seem. There are some promising corners in Jimmy Ward, Tramaine Brock, Chris Cook, and Dontae Johnson. Johnson, in particular, flashed a few times last year. The safety play is terrific with Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea, so the corners will not have to do everything.
NaVarro Bowman returning is great if he is the same Bowman. If not, the linebackers are in serious trouble. Aldon Smith, as great as he is, has proven to be highly dependent on Justin Smith. Should he retire, the younger Smith could be a far less impactful player. The addition of Dockett, a return to health of NT Ian Williams, and the drafting of Arik Armstead in the first round gives the team a lot of ammunition. Young players Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial also show real promise.
That is the difference between this year’s 49ers and the teams of the past few years—they are more potential than realized talent. The ceiling is high, but not as high. The floor is lower. They will not be the pushover some fans might hope they become.