Thursday, September 6, 2012

2012 NFL Predictions - NFC West

1) Seattle Seahawks

Key Gets – Russell Wilson (QB, Wisconsin), Bruce Irvin (LB, West Virginia), Matt Flynn (QB, Packers), Jason Jones (DE, Titans), Robert Turbin (RB, Utah State), Bobby Wagner (LB, Utah State),

Key Gones – John Carlson (TE, Vikings), David Hawthorne (LB, Saints), Mike Williams (WR, FA)

Key Games – wk1 @ Cardinals, wk2 v. Cowboys, wk3 v. Packers, wk4 @ Rams, wk6 v. Patriots, wk7 @ 49ers, wk8 @ Lions, wk10 v. Jets, wk 13 @ Bears, wk14 v. Cardinals, wk16 v. 49ers, wk17 v. Rams

Pete Carroll’s Seahawks have gone 7-9 in both of his season at the helm.  They spent all of last year looking up at the 49ers who ran away with the division.  What makes this year different?

Starting on offense, this was a very limited unit last year.  Upgrading at QB was a glaring need, so they did it twice.  Matt Flynn was signed in free agency and was expected to win the starting QB job.  Someone forgot to tell 3rd round pick Russell Wilson.  The former Wolfpack and Badger passer had an amazing preseason and was named the opening game starter.  He makes plays with his arm and legs and improves the overall efficiency of the offense when he’s on the field.  A guy they hope can stay on the field is RB Marshawn Lynch.  Coming off a career year, Lynch got a DUI over the offseason and has been dealing with back issues this preseason.  He’s clearly the most talented player on offense and should threaten last year’s numbers if he can stay healthy.  I like Robert Durbin, the rookie rusher who is Lynch’s backup.  As valuable as Lynch is, I think Turbin can handle the load should the opportunity present itself.  Their stable of receivers still leaves a lot to be desired.  Sidney Rice hasn’t played in at least ten games since 2009 and is one big hit away from another shoulder injury.  Golden Tate and Ben Obomanu are backup talents, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable counting on a lot of production from Braylon Edwards.  I like Doug Baldwin, but he’s dealing with hamstring issues this preseason.  I see Wilson improving a lot this season.  They’re pretty young up front.  LT Russell Okung is reliable but has suffered two significant injuries in his first two seasons.  Max Unger has found a home at center, and the Seahawks are hoping to get James Carpenter back healthy soon.  If these guys can stay healthy and log a few snaps together, I like their chances of getting better as the year progresses. 

This is the side of the ball that has me excited for Seattle this season.  They’re an underrated unit that excels against both the run and pass.  Red Bryant, Alan Branch, and Brandon Mebane run a combined 959 pounds and are rock solid against the run.  The move to Seattle has worked wonders for Chris Clemons.  He has tallied 22 sacks in his two years under Carroll, which is one more than he had in the previous five seasons combined.  They needed another pass rushing threat and may have landed the best in this year’s draft in Bruce Irvin.  He was a controversial selection at #15 overall, but Seattle is confident that they’ve landed an explosive pass rusher that can rival the production of last year’s rookie standouts, Von Miller and Aldon Smith.  Veteran Leroy Hill remains the starting WLB and is joined by two youngsters.  Rookie Bobby Wagner has earned the starting MLB job after David Hawthorne’s departure, and the athletic KJ Wright took over the SLB job early in his rookie season last year and has been everything they had hoped he’d be.  The Seahawks line up what may be the NFL’s most physical duo at cornerback in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner.  They’re both young and have plenty of good football ahead of them.  Rounding out the defense are Pro Bowl safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.  Like the corners, these two compliment each other very well.  Chancellor is a rock against the run, and Thomas plays a tremendous centerfield. 

I like this team’s mojo and think they have what it takes to pull off the upset and unseat the Niners as division champs.

Team MVP – Marshawn Lynch
Breakout Player – KJ Wright
Disappointment – Sidney Rice

2) San Francisco 49ers
Matched up with AFC East – harder environments on road (Patriots, Jets)

Key Gets – Randy Moss (WR, Titans), Brandon Jacobs (RB, Giants), Mario Manningham (WR, Giants), AJ Jenkins (WR, Illinois), LaMichael James (RB, Oregon)

Key Gones – Braylon Edwards (WR, Seahawks), Josh Morgan (WR, Redskins)

Key Games – wk1 @ Packers, wk2 v. Lions, wk4 @ Jets, wk6 v. Giants, wk7 v. Seahawks, wk8 @ Cardinals, wk10 v. Rams, wk11 v. Bears, wk12 @ Saints, wk13 @ Rams, wk15 @ Patriots, wk16 @ Seahawks, wk17 v. Cardinals

If he knew it was going to be this easy I’m sure Jim Harbaugh would have thrown his hat into the NFL ring a lot sooner.  In his first year as head coach, Harbaugh’s Niners had double digit wins and made the playoffs for the first time since 2002.  Can they do it again.

Alex Smith actually looked like a professional QB last year.  He threw 17 TDs with only 5 INTs and eclipsed 3,000 yards for the first time in his career.  Despite the success, Harbaugh swung and missed in his attempt to acquire Peyton Manning.  The fact that they were pursuing Manning after Smith’s career year tells you that Smith probably isn’t headed down the road to Eliteville.  Frank Gore played a full season for the first time since 2006, but like Michael Turner in Atlanta, I think Gore is entering a season of substantial decline in output.  He has plenty of assistance though.  Kendall Hunter is still around, and the Niners added Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James this offseason.  Look for Hunter to draw a handful of starts.  Michael Crabtree returns as the #1 wideout, and they upgraded the other spot by bringing in both Mario Manningham and Randy Moss.  The latter two can stretch the field, but I’m not sure their talents will be maximized with Smith at QB.  Vernon Davis remains Smith’s top target and should again lead the team in receptions.  He seems to have really turned the corner as a pro and is among the top five in the league at his position.  There still aren’t many better athletes in the game.  With the Niners likely to once again lead the conference in rushing, they’ll need another big (healthy) year from their offensive line.  Their standouts are on the left side.  Joe Staley has developed into a very dependable left tackle, and Mike Iupati is a beast at left guard.  Center Jonathan Goodwin is limited, and both right guard Alex Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis are big question marks.

A sound running game and top notch defense will take you far in this league, and that’s what happened to the 49ers last year.  Inside linebacker Patrick Willis remains one of the game’s best defenders, and he’s joined in the middle by superstar in the making, Navorro Bowman.  Bowman is a guy with a ton of talent who gets the benefit of playing next to a perennial All Pro.  This combination is the heart of one of the game’s best defenses.  Flaking them are a couple of other studs.  Aldon Smith totaled 14 sacks last season and might have deserved the Defensive ROY award over Von Miller.  He’s going to be a force for a long time.  Across from him is Ahmad Brook, a veteran who excels against both the pass and run.  They’re not lacking studs up front either.  Justin Smith has been one of the game’s best defensive players for years and keeps producing like clockwork.  Ray McDonald occupies the other end spot and put up a career high 5.5 sacks last season.  This front seven doesn’t give opposing offenses much room to maneuver.  Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, and Chris Culliver gave San Fran three solid corners last year.  I just wonder if they’ll be able to repeat last year’s success.  Rogers isn’t getting any younger, and Brown never stood out before last year.  They’ll get help again from their safeties.  Dashon Goldson has been everything the Niners could have hoped for at free safety, and Donte Whitner remains one of the better run defending strong safeties. 

They’re returning virtually the same team that won 13 games last season, but something tells me they won’t catch as many breaks this season as they did in 2011.

Team MVP – Patrick Willis
Breakout Player – Kendall Hunter
Disappointment – Frank Gore

3) Saint Louis Rams

Key Gets – Courtland Finnegan (CB, Titans), Rocky McIntosh (LB, Redskins), Ovie Mughelli (FB, Falcons), Scott Wells (C, Packers), Michael Brockers (DT, LSU), Brian Quick (WR, Appalachian State), Janoris Jenkins (CB, N Alabama), Isaiah Pead (RB, Cincinnati)

Key Gones – Ron Bartell (CB, Raiders), Brandon Lloyd (WR, Patriots), Cadillac Williams (RB, FA)

Key Games – wk1 @ Lions, wk3 @ Bears, wk4 v. Seahawks, wk5 v. Cardinals, wk7 v. Packers, wk8 v. Patriots, wk10 @ 49ers, wk11 v. Jets, wk12 @ Cardinals, wk13 v. 49ers, wk17 @ Seahawks

The Rams have been football’s most pathetic organizations over the last five years, averaging a measly three wins a season over that span.  Not only did they have zero winning or even .500 seasons, they won two games twice and three games once to go with a fabulous 1-15 in 2009.  Pathetic. 

Enter Jeff Fisher.  One season removed from the sidelines, the former Oilers/Titans general was hired to rescue a floundering franchise.  Fortunately, QB isn’t in the top 20 list of problems for this team.  Sam Bradford hasn’t taken his game to the next level yet, but just about any QB would struggle with the options he’s had.  With apologies to the Wes Welker-lite Danny Amendola, Brandon Lloyd was the only professional caliber receiver Bradford has had the opportunity to work with.  He left after Bradford’s rookie year.  Amendola remains, but they haven’t improved.  Brandon Gibson and the other Steve Smith scare absolutely no one, and rookies Brian Quick and Chris Givens are huge unknowns.  TE Lance Kendricks was supposed to be a big factor last year, but he caught only 28 passes and didn’t score a single TD.  Will that change under new leadership?  The only constant positive of this organization over the last seven seasons have been the play of superstar Steven Jackson.  Despite having shoddy blocking and sparse supporting weapons on offense, the guy remains a model of consistency.  Yes he’s approaching the ancient age of 30, but I still think he has plenty left.  The Rams drafted insurance this year in Isaiah Pead, a guy of whom I’m a big fan.  Used effectively, the combination of Jackson and Pead could offset the weaknesses at receiver.  Those weaknesses are trumped only by the putridity of the worst offensive line in football.  LT Rodger Saffold and RG Harvey Dahl were the only moderately valuable players on last year’s line.  Adding Scott Wells at center is a step in the right direction, but this group has a long way to go. 

This side of the football is what I believe will keep the Rams out of the basement this year.  They certainly won’t threaten the Steelers and 49ers in dominance, but I think they’re moving in the right direction here.  Chris Long has established himself as a pass rushing force, and MLB James Laurinaitis is the defense’s equivalent of Steven Jackson, a consistent, high output player.  I like the additions this offseason.  Corners Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins were major gets for a secondary that started the likes of Justin King, Roderick Hood, and Al Harris last year.  They’ve improved at the corner position more than any other team this offseason.  In addition to Long, the Rams will line up two other young players with huge upsides in Robert Quinn and Michael Brockers.  Quinn started only one game last year but still tallied five sacks.  He’ll start across from Long this year and give the Rams the fiercest pair of edge rushers they’ve had in a long time.  Brockers is a huge boost to a run defense that ranked near the bottom of the league last year.  I like the future with Long, Quinn, Brockers, and Laurinaitis anchoring that front seven.  Finnegan has a lot left, and Jenkins can be an elite talent if he chooses to be an adult. 

They’re far from a complete team, but I think the additions they made this offseason, including installing Fisher as head coach, will help them emerge from the doldrums of the league. 

Team MVP – Steven Jackson
Breakout Player – Robert Quinn
Disappointment – Rodger Saffold

4) Arizona Cardinals

Key Gets – Michael Floyd (WR, Notre Dame), Jamell Fleming (CB, Oklahoma), William Gay (CB, Steelers)

Key Gone – Richard Marshall (CB, Dolphins)

Key Games – wk1 @ Seahawks, wk2 @ Patriots, wk3 v. eagles, wk5 @ Rams, w8 v. 49ers, wk9 @ Packers, wk11 @ Falcons, wk12 v. Rams, wk13 @ Jets, wk14 @ Seahawks, wk15 v. Lions, wk16 v. Bears, wk17 @ 49ers

On paper Arizona’s 8-8 record gives the impression of a pretty good season.  A closer look will show you that they didn’t win a game by more than seven points and half of them were by three or less.  Good teams win the close ones, but good teams also have an occasional runaway once in a while.

This team’s biggest controversy is who to line up under center.  Kevin Kolb cost the Cardinals $65 million and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.  He has three wins and nine TDs to show for it.  Arizona grudgingly turned to John Skelton, the backup who makes about 1/20 what Kolb does.  Skelton won the job this preseason in a competition that didn’t exactly rival Montana-Young.  I like Skelton a lot better than Kolb and hope he gets an honest chance to keep the job.  They’re better at RB but far from content.  Beanie Wells totaled 1,000 yards last year for the first time in three seasons but is limited as a runner and underwent knee surgery this offseason.  Ryan Williams is easily the more talented back, but he missed all of his rookie season with a knee injury.  He appears healthy this preseason, and if he stays that way, I’ll be surprised if the carry count doesn’t tilt more in his direction as the season progresses.  Larry Fitzgerald remains one of the game’s greats and is easily this team’s top offensive talent.  To illustrate how great he is, Fitzgerald caught 80 passes, had the second highest season yardage total of his career, and scored 8 times despite a shaky QB situation and few other offensive threats.  Neither Early Doucet nor Andre Roberts has taken the #2 job and run with it, leading the Cardinals to draft Notre Dame standout Michael Floyd.  Unfortunately, Floyd hasn’t separated himself either, and it’s likely none of them will until they get a little more stability at the QB position.  Speaking of instability, the Cardinals rival the Rams for the title of league’s worst offensive line.  Not that he was anything special by any means, but losing LT Levi Brown to a torn right triceps isn’t going to help things.  RT Jeremy Bridges is also gone for the year before it starts meaning really raw rookie Bobby Massie is sinking or swimming as a starter.  The lone bright spot on the line is center Lyle Sendlein, but he can only play one position at a time. 

The Cardinals will have to lean on their defense once again this season, and like St. Louis, they have a few gems of their own on this side of the ball.  Patrick Peterson – in my top five of favorite NFL players (with Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson, Ray Rice, and Ndamukong Suh) – had a fabulous rookie season.  He set multiple return records, was a weekly fixture on highlight shows, and made the Pro Bowl.  I believe he steps up into the elite tier of cover guys this year and rivals Nnamdi Asomugha for best cornerback in the conference.  Behind Peterson are two veteran safeties who know how to make plays on the ball in the air.  Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson have combined for 45 INTs in their career and do a fine job of keeping the action in front of them.  Arizona has one of the finer defensive end tandems in the league with Florida boys Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell.  The former seems to be showing signs of slipping at age 31, but the latter is on a steady climb to the top of the class.  If NT Dan Williams can finally come into his own, this front seven could be really dangerous.  Daryl Washington broke out in a big way in his second season, totaling 94 tackles and five sacks.  I predict he makes the Pro Bowl this season and becomes more of a household name outside of Arizona.  The Cardinals’ problem for years was the lack of a viable pass rushing linebacker off the edge.  Sam Acho stepped up and contributed seven sacks as a rookie and has the team hoping they’ve found something worth keeping.  O’Brien Schofield has shined as a situational pass rusher, and if he doesn’t have any setbacks from shoulder surgery, they should be stronger at the other outside position. 

I doubt the Cardinals are as fortunate in close games this season.  That means a few more losses, and if the Rams can get a few more wins, the Cardinals could be the team bringing up the rear in the NFC West. 

Team MVP – Larry Fitzgerald
Breakout Player – Ryan Williams
Disappointment – Darnell Dockett

Division MVP – Larry Fitzgerald
Division Breakout Player – Robert Quinn
Division Disappointment – Frank Gore

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