2019 NFC West Division Team Previews

2019 NFC West Division Team Previews

There is a lot to like about the NFC West in 2019. The Los Angeles Rams remain the favorite to win the division title but both the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers will have something to say about how wins what. In addition, the less-than in the division has the No. 1 overall draft pick, Kyler Murray, as their starting quarterback.  2019 NFC West Division Team Previews.

The NFC West Division figures to be one of the more entertaining leagues to follow this 2019 season.

 

NFC West Division /  Arizona Cardinals

Arizona wasn’t expected to compete in ’18 and that proved to be true.  Placing a rookie QB behind a bottom tier OL was a recipe for disaster.  RB David Johnson was coming off injury, while WR speed was lacking and as usual, TE was an afterthought.  Armed with the 1st pick in the draft and 11 picks overall, Arizona has a chance to begin rebuilding its roster.

What went right: Not much!  Chandler Jones had 13 sacks.  Larry Fitzgerald was steady, and came up with many a big catch.  RB Johnson was terrible early coming off his serious ’17 injury but by season’s end he was regaining his stride.  He was at 4.0 per carry the 2nd half of the year after barely achieving 3.2 through game #8.  Arizona finished tied 5th in Rich Gosselin’s highly respected special team rankings.

What went wrong: Once again, not much offensively.  The run, pass, point and total offense all ranked last!  In this era of new age pass attacks, Arizona averaged just 180 pass yards per game.  The 3rd down success rate was 29%.  The OL allowed 52 sacks.  The 3.7 per carry run attack was also last in the NFL.  The defense regressed as well, contributing to a -118 1st down figure, -1,876 total yard differential, and -1,137 in rush differential.  The run D allowed 155 per game, and 4.9 per carry.  The pass D imploded at 67.6%.  All this led to a nearly seven minute time of possession edge for their opponents!  In all, the defense was 18th in the NFL after finishing in the top five the previous two seasons.  The turnover ratio was -12.

FREE AGENCY ANALYSIS AND STAFF NOTES (Short Version): Offensively, Arizona added TE Charles Clay, WR Kevin White and a trio of OL, J.R. Sweezy, Max Garcia and Marcus Gilbert.  These are all upgrades, but will Clay be properly used?  The only significant loss was LG Mike Iupati.  Defensive additions included DL Darius Philon, edge rusher Terrell Suggs, LB Jordan Hicks and three to the secondary, including Robert Alford.  Hicks is a solid addition if he stays healthy and Alford is worth a try as the Cards try to find someone opposite top five CB Patrick Peterson.  LB’s Josh Bynes and Deone Bucannon, and free safety Antoine Bethea left.  Kliff Kingsbury is the shocking new hire at Head Coach.  He was fired at Texas Tech (35-40 record).  He’ll double as offensive coordinator, meaning his debut in the NFL will be twice as taxing.  Vance Joseph (former Head Coach of Denver) is the new defensive coordinator.

2019 draft recap: Arizona’s mission was to draft players that fit the new and drastic scheme changes.  Murphy’s lack of elite CB speed won’t be an issue in this scheme, while Isabella (normally a 4th round target) could emulate Kingsbury’s Texas Tech WR’s with maybe even 60-70 rookie receptions.  Despite the huge number of rated players NFL teams continued to make draft mistakes.  This was far less the case here.  QB Kyler Murray will start and fits the scheme perfectly.  CB Murphy, WR Isabella and DE Zach Allen are likely to start or see significant playing time.  WR Butler would have, but as I summarize this section from my earlier 64 page draft document I see that Butler is going on IR.  I called safety Deionte Thompson a 2nd round steal if healthy.  He was selected at pick 139.  WR Kaesean Johnson should stick as should most of their picks.  Clearly GM Keim valued on-field production.  Like most analysts I thought this was a top tier draft.  Now, can Murray’s small frame withstand a beating in the NFL?  BEST PICK: Obviously Murray has the most upside.  WORST PICK: None, but the lack of need-based focus does concern me,  POSITION OF GREATEST WORRY: OL.  The hope is that Murray’s athleticism will mask holes in the interior OL, but at a minimum the power run game will be affected.  Still left to do?  OL and OLB are the primary areas left underdeveloped.

ROSTER ANALYSIS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st :

QB: Kyler Murray is elusive, accurate and dangerous outside of the pocket.  He’ll make rookie mistakes and his body type is not perfect for the NFL.  Backup Brett Hundley is a sack waiting to happen.

RB: David Johnson is a year removed from injury.  He could catch 90 passes in this system and be back to top five RB status.

T.J. Logan and Chase Edmunds offer change of pace ability.

WR: Larry Fitzgerald is still an elite route runner, blocker and mentor.  Christian Kirk is a nice target and should thrive in year #2.  Rookies Isabella and KeeSean Johnson will play roles.  Michael Crabtree was just added.  Arizona has NO stretch the field WR.

TE: The Cardinals haven’t had a Pro Bowl tight end since Jackie Smith in 1970.  The new staff will utilize this position more than they have in at least a decade.  Three players might share the wealth.

OL: By far the weak link.  Murray will throw on rhythm, limiting sacks but the unit is below average and has no backup depth.

DL: Well below average.  NT Corey Peters is just a guy.  So is Rodney Gunter.  Rookie Zach Allen will start.  That’s all there is.

LB: Haason Reddick and aging Terrell Suggs have talent, while Chandler Jones is the lead LB.  Jordan Hicks is the other starter for this not that bad unit.  Once again there is no talent after the starting group.

DB: Patrick Peterson is the star.  He’ll be suspended weeks 1-6.  I’m not a big fan of Tramaine Brock but rookie Byron Murphy will eventually win that job.  I like the starting safeties, and if healthy, rookie Deionte Thompson will be a nice piece as well.

Special Teams: T.J. Logan, Pharoh Cooper and WR Kirk all have return talent.  The kicking game seems in good hands.

Coaching: Kliff Kingsbury would have been a nice fit as USC’s offensive coordinator.  I suspect he will be overmatched as a Head Coach in the NFL.  Vance Joseph has some good qualities but his defenses have been a bit soft of late.  Jeff Rodgers returns as special team coordinator and that is a good thing.

TEAM KEYS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st: How the Cardinals defend the pass.  Patrick Peterson will miss the 1st six games and the coaching staff is not defensively proficient.  I’m also worried about time of possession with Kingsbury’s offensive scheme.  That could lead to defensive fatigue.  Finally, new staffs need to get that 1st win quickly.  When will Arizona get that initial win?

DID THE PRESEASON MEAN ANYTHING? We saw a lot of Kyler Murray in August.  He has the requisite NFL accuracy but except for broken plays I expect them to start with shorter passes.  Every WR got in great work, and shockingly, TE was not an afterthought.  David Johnson didn’t run for a great average but I like the work he put in and he’ll be another focal point for the offense.  The pass defense was poor, just as I expected.  The run defense was poor.  I do think the team used their players effectively in the preseason.  The two best looking rookies were WR KeeSean Johnson and underrated safety Deionte Thompson (15 tackles).  The entire special team unit looked pretty good.

STRATEGY AND BOTTOM LINE ANALYSIS: Once again Arizona will have a new staff.  Last year’s staff faced the NFL’s toughest schedule and did so with a – point ratio by Pythagorean Method standards.  This year’s schedule isn’t easy, but the big news question is how Kliff Kingsbury fares as a Head Coach.  Arizona is home three times in September.  The goal is to go 2-1 in home games vs. Detroit (good host history), Carolina (no recent meetings) and Seattle (poor host history).  There are three winnable games in the next quartile.  They go to Cincy after the not ready for prime time Bengals will have played on MNF.  They host vulnerable defensive team Atlanta.  They travel to the NYG, a team with a spotty home record.

The ceiling is probably 4-4 at this point but again, how ready is Kingsbury to coach in the NFL?  Also remember, CB Peterson will miss the 1st six games (suspension).  Games 10-12 are at Tampa and SF and home vs. the Rams.  I don’t like it when new staffs have their bye week late in the year.  Readers know that I feel new staffs have little time to make adjustments without the time off as they are so busy acclimating to their new role.  Arizona’s mini bye isn’t until November and the real bye is after game #11.

Kingsbury is also the offensive coordinator which makes his free time even more of an issue.  The Ram game starts a three game home stand.  That gives them a late advantage hosting poor west coast team Pittsburgh and Cleveland, who will be in a Divisional sandwich situation.  The closing games are at Seattle and the LA Rams.  BOTTOM LINE: While Arizona has some interesting scheduling situations and some winnable games early I think Kingsbury could be in over his head and the defense will miss Peterson early on.  I think 6-10 is the ceiling, and if they start slow, 4-12 is in play.  Watch the defensive #’s closely.

KEY GAMES: The opener vs. Detroit and 9/22 vs. Carolina.  Lose these games and Arizona will be a candidate for the worst record in the NFL.  Go 2-0 and there will be buy in from the players.

Handicapping Tip: Given the absence of Peterson in games 1-6, I’ll be looking at games to go OVER the posted total vs. mediocre defensive teams (where Arizona will have some creative offensive success.  9/8 (Detroit), 9/29 (hosting mediocre road team Seattle) and 10/13 (Atlanta, upgraded their offensive coordinator) are the games I’m looking at.  2019 POWER # SET: 19

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NFC West Division / Los Angeles Rams  

When Sean McVay took over as Head Coach the Rams were not built to win right away.  He revitalized a team stuck in the mud with old school Head Coach Jeff Fisher.  Incredibly talented DC Wade Phillips took a dismal back seven on defense and made them into something special.  In ’17 LA had its 1st winning record in 14 years and its 1st Division title since ’03.  Last year they added a few veterans to the mix and made it to the Super Bowl.  LA expects to be in playoff contention for years to come.

What went right: Offensively, Jared Goff continued to improve, aided of course by Todd Gurley, Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks.  Gurley ended the season hurt but still ran for 1,251 yards and 4.9 per carry.  Woods and Cooks each tallied over 1,200 yards.  LA’s total yards were over 1,000 more than they allowed and their 3rd down success rate was 45%.  Aaron Donald is considered perhaps the top defensive player in the NFL.  He tallied 20.5 sacks.  Johnny Hekker is the #1 punter in the NFL.

What went wrong: Some areas were not great such as the run D, but the overall #’s were not in the bottom tier of defenses.  Some areas slipped, such as the pass D%, but in this increasingly pass happy league, the final result was just below average.

FREE AGENCY ANALYSIS AND STAFF NOTES (Short Version): The Rams added QB Blake Bortles, LB Clay Matthews and safety Eric Weddle.  Losses include starting OL Roger Saffold and John Sullivan, hybrid LB Mark Barron and free safety Lamarcus Joyner.  DT Ndamukong Suh left later in the process.

2019 draft recap: The Rams selected seven players in my bolded areas of need, but went about it differently than what I would have preferred.  The value was not off-line but impact at OL, OLB and the DL was mostly missing.  At least the secondary got a much needed infusion of youth with draft dropping safety Rapp and CB Long, a player I wrote about as being coveted by LA.  A year ago the good news was LA drafted for their two major needs an amazing nine times!  The bad news was that LA led the NFL with six players chosen having NR (not NFL worthy) grades according to my ratings.  I like that they drafted three DB’s but Scott would not have been my choice in a draft full of impact safeties.  I think RB Henderson has massive upside but why LA?

Does this mean Gurley is not 100%?  Henderson ran 8.9 per carry in two separate seasons!  Gaines makes perfect sense.  Rapp was called the best tackling college safety out there.  Long was said to have allowed just nine completions last year.  It was noted that both Peters and Talib are entering contract years.  OL Evans and Edwards each had over 30 starts.  Edwards is off an injury.  Evans was called developmental and someone who will start his career at OG.   BEST PICK: Gaines.  CURIOUS DECISION(S): Leaving impact on the table at OL and safety, ignoring LB needs and taking a RB so high in the draft.  Still left to doThe two biggest omissions are OLB and front seven depth which is severely lacking.  Were the right OL taken?

ROSTER ANALYSIS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st:

QB: Jared Goff may have had a poor Super Bowl but he’s still improving and is a top 15 guy.  Blake Bortles is the new backup.

RB: Todd Gurley is a top three RB when 100% healthy.  Are there lingering issues?  Two guys are lower level replacements but rookie Darnell Henderson might have the ability to leapfrog into the #1 or #2 RB role.

WR: Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp have varied skill sets that make the group ultra-dangerous.  Three others are not bad, making the unit deeper than most.

TE: Like I said a year ago, Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee have upside and are still in developmental stages.

OL: The line is well-coached but lacks topnotch talent.  There are two new starters to analyze.  The only serious depth comes from the lower rated rookies.

DL: Michael Brockers can play and of course Aaron Donald is an elite player.  The NT is a liability but rookie Greg Gaines could easily be an upgrade over time.  The backups are suspect.

LB: Clay Matthews will be highly motivated in his 1st year back in Los Angeles.  Dante Fowler and Micah Kiser are decent starters and maybe Cory Littleton can spot start.  The depth is reasonable but not overly exciting.

DB: Aqib Talib is really good but Nickell Robey-Coleman is basically average.  In my eyes rookie David Long is the next best CB option.  I like the addition of Eric Weddle, who joins good safety John Johnson.  Taylor Rapp is a rookie to watch.

Special Teams: Kicker Greg Zuerlein is decent.  Punter Johnny Hekker is the best in the NFL.  The return game offense has an opportunity to improve.

Coaching: Sean McVay is an ascending Head Coach.  Wade Phillips is a strong defensive coordinator although his defense clearly regressed in ’18.  John Fassel is an above average special team coordinator.

TEAM KEYS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st: I don’t think LA is fully ready to start the year.  Is that the case?  Can the Rams do a better job of stopping the run?  Will they take better advantage of having two quality TE’s on the roster?  I like the additions of 100% motivated Clay Matthews and Eric Weddle.  Shouldn’t the defense improve with their presence?

DID THE PRESEASON MEAN ANYTHING? Is this some sort of experiment? That’s what I wrote a year ago when LA played practically no one from their starting 22.  They lucked out when Oakland imploded in the 2nd half of the opener.  Mike Thomas shows promise as a complimentary WR.  Rookie RB Henderson was just 23-57, but likely played behind the 2nd string OL.  One defensive starter saw action.  The rookies look good.  The return unit did not look as good as I had hoped thus far.

STRATEGY AND BOTTOM LINE ANALYSIS: Once again LA will have just seven home games as they are the designated home team in London when Cincinnati Head Coach Zak Taylor faces his former team.  Last year LA stayed mostly on the west coast.  This year five of their 1st nine games are on the east coast and beyond.  LA will travel the 2nd most miles in the NFL and will navigate a schedule that features five prime time games.  That’s the price for being a good team.  Carolina had an awkward preseason but LA’s was nonexistent.  This game at their place is hardly a guaranteed win.

With New Orleans (bitter playoff revenge) and a Sunday night game at improved Cleveland on deck could LA actually start 0-3?  The Rams have fared well up in Seattle but playing there on Thursday night (short week) favors the home team.  On October 20th the Rams will play in Atlanta.  That was the site of their Super Bowl loss.  The Rams will be rested before playing at Pitt.  That helps, but it’s still a tough venue.  LA has weather related revenge when hosting Chicago.  They were held to six points in frigid weather and will be all out to show the Bears that they can score.  LA will next host Baltimore on MNF.  I like the inter-conference matchup between two really interesting teams.  That means LA will have a shorter week of preparation before their initial meeting at Arizona and rookie QB Murray.

The defense may be challenged with the lack of time to prepare.  When LA hosts Seattle it will be their 4th straight meeting vs. a mobile QB (Trubisky, Lamar Jackson, Murray and now Russell Wilson).  I’m not sure what that means other than LA’s older defensive starters may get worn out.  That’s something to think about.  Closing games are at Dallas (Cowboy playoff revenge, which will only matter if Dallas is in the playoff hunt and focused), at SF and home to Arizona.

BOTTOM LINE: Despite increased travel the overall schedule plays fair and the Rams will control their own destiny, as four of their last five games are within their own Division,  In addition, LA will play four teams coming off MNF (New Orleans, Cleveland, SF and Seattle).  I show them about 8-5 not counting games at Atlanta, home to Baltimore and at SF.  I expect a 1-2 start, so going 1-2 in these games could make the NFC West race much more competitive.  The Rams are good and I like their veteran added pieces but there could be some pushback in ’19 if they are not focused.

KEY GAMES: Maybe the opener at Carolina and surprisingly, the game 10/20 at Atlanta.  A win in the opener is gravy in my eyes based on historical situations (see below).  A win in Atlanta erases demons from their Super Bowl loss and could lead to a big finish to the season.  Handicapping Tip: Super Bowl losers are not good plays in week one.  The visitor in the LA-New Orleans series has a 25-13 record vs. the spread.  With bitter playoff revenge the Saints could easily win at LA.  I’d lean LA in the London game vs. Cincy IF the Rams won in Atlanta the week before.  I like LA hosting Chicago.  Finally, I don’t like the placement of the Dallas game on 12/15.  LA has two Divisional games before and after this road game and could easily lose this one.  2019 POWER # SET: 30.

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NFC West Division / San Francisco 49ers  

 SF went 5-0 to end ’17 and expectations soared prior to September.  With a win total of 9, I preached caution (and a heavy dose of UNDER).  The team roster was still in flux, and chemistry with Jimmy Garoppolo was still not quite evident prior to the regular season.  The OL was a work in progress, as was WR and LB.  SF started 1-2 and then Garoppolo was done for the year.  SF crazily thought C.J. Beathard could function in the NFL (my 900th rated player at best when he was drafted) but after going 0-5 he was pulled and the season was lost.  Guess what?  After two years of prime fade material I may be bullish on SF in ’19.

What went right: Matt Breida ran well at 814-5.3-5 TD’s.  TE George Kittle was spectacular at 88-15.6-5 TD’s.  The offense finished middle of the pack which is not bad with all the injuries.  Nothing fantastic happened defensively but most statistical areas were decent (middle of the pack).  PK Gould was 33-34!  The punt return D was fine.  The return offense, staffed by rookies performed above average, just as expected.

What went wrong: Drives are still stalling in the red zone.  SF was sacked 48 times.  That # was NOT due to just the backups.  Garoppolo was sacked a way too high 13 times in just 89 pass attempts.  No WR totaled over 500 receiving yards.  The defense had some serious issues.  Despite a decent statistical profile the 49ers finished 28th in points allowed.  SF set a modern day NFL record (I’m told) by forcing just seven turnovers all season long, including just two defensive interceptions.  That led to a -25 turnover ratio.  No team can overcome that figure.  SF was 1-5 in Divisional play.  That won’t get them into playoff contention.

FREE AGENCY ANALYSIS AND STAFF NOTES (Short Version): SF added RB Tevin Coleman, DE Dee Ford (for a 2020 2nd round pick), LB’s Kwon Alexander and David Mayo and oft-injured CB Jason Verrett.  Three backup players are gone.  SF looks better now, even if they missed out in their quest to obtain WR Odell Beckham.

2019 draft recap: Despite repeated 1st round draft picks for the DL it was obvious that DE Bosa was coming to SF.  I’m not enamored with the WR choices made, but I love the focus.  SF routinely drafts 10+ players and also routinely drafts at least three players with NR (not draft worthy) ratings.  The 49ers could have secured higher rated talent.  Bosa scares me.  He seems like an injury waiting to happen.  If healthy he’ll make everyone on the DL better.  I’ve harped on the fact that SF has lacked the ability convert red zone opportunities into TD’s.  WR Deebo Samuel has the skill set to be a red zone threat.  Taking two WR’s early was a mistake.  Pick 67 should have been used for OL, LB or DB.  Should SF have taken a punter in the 4th round?  The remaining four picks were for a slow, lower rated TE to sit behind George Kittle and Levine Toilolo and a trio of unrated players!  The focus wasn’t bad but GM Lynch continued the tradition of drafting too many players with NR (not NFL ready or worthy) ratings.  The secondary allowed 35 TD passes and had two defensive interceptions.  No player was chosen.  Evan Silva agreed with my assessment of the final four picks, calling them “lifetime backups and/or throwaway picks”.  BEST PICK: Bosa, if he stays healthy.  READ A DRAFT BOOK: Why does SF continuously misfire on evaluating talent?  Please study up!  MEDIC ALERT: For years SF has drafted players with known and sometimes career ending injury concerns:  Garoppolo, McKinnon and Ward are coming off serious injury.  Free agents Alexander (ACL) and Verrett (always injured) are medical risks.  In this draft they added Bosa (11 missed games), Harris (medical redshirt), Samuel and Hurd (knee, shoulder).  Stop itStill left to do? It’s a short list, but OL, OLB and DB were not properly addressed.

ROSTER ANALYSIS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st:

QB: Jimmy Garoppolo must stay healthy.  He may be turnover prone.  I prefer Nick Mullins over C.J. Beathard as the backup.

RB: Both Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert run for high yards-per-carry averages.  Tevin Coleman might be the lead guy but all three can contribute.  Jerick McKinnon (missed ’18) is the forgotten man.

WR: Six or seven deep, but no true star.  The group is varied and I expect different contributors on a weekly basis.

TE: George Kittle emerged big time in ’18.  Two players add modest depth.

OL: They are stable at OT but vulnerable in the interior where Laken Tomlinson, Ben Garland and Mike Person are slated to start.  I see little to no other contributors here and that is why I made the draft comments listed above.

DL: Full of very high 1st round draft choices the unit has to play better as a whole.  Dee Ford and Nick Bosa were added in ’19.

LB: An average unit with Malcolm Smith, Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander the listed starters.  The depth is average as well.

DB: How healthy is Richard Sherman?  How healthy is Jason Verrett?  Ahekello Witherspoon is a CB starter and Quinten Rollins hopes to get one last shot to make it in the NFL.  This unit is fragile!  Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert are the listed safety starters.  Jimmie Ward has been serviceable and can sub in at any DB spot.

Special Teams: Robbie Gould is steady.  The rookie punter has a chance to be quite good.  Last year I said SF drafted numerous players with proven collegiate return skill.  The return game will be good.

Coaching: Like him or not, Kyle Shanahan brings creativity to the offense.  He’s not very high overall on my list of Head Coaches.  Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is pretty good.

TEAM KEYS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st: Getting off to a good start with a no excuse September schedule.  Finishing drives in the red zone!  That has been a longstanding issue under Shanahan.  I’ll have a huge check as to if SF can pass protect.  That -25 turnover ratio could turn into plenty of “free points” if the defense gets more aggressive.  Finally, this team drafted and signed numerous guys with injury concerns.  How will the health of this team play out?

DID THE PRESEASON MEAN ANYTHING?  Jimmie G was 15-26 for 188 yards and a 1-1 ratio, with one sack taken.  The run game has a shot to be top five.  I was right about their variety of WR options but I still don’t see a go-to guy.  The defense had 15 sacks.  Nick Bosa’s health remains a concern after he missed the preseason.  Sufficient work was done by the defense, with no real clues uncovered from their performance.  The kicking game looks real good.  The return game should be too.

STRATEGY AND BOTTOM LINE ANALYSIS: Not many people like SF’s ’19 schedule but if this staff is any good at all (I have some lingering doubts about Shanahan’s leadership skill) then the 49ers should be highly competitive this upcoming season.  Consider this: SF will face three new coaching staffs in the 1st four weeks and will play six games vs. new coaching staffs in the 1st 11 weeks.  They open at Tampa and Cincy.  They must split these games against what have been some very suspect defenses.  They have situational advantages hosting Pitt.

The crowd will be rocking as SF hosts Cleveland on MNF.  SF will be fully rested (15 days) while Cleveland will be off a tough Divisional game vs. Baltimore.  3-1 is possible and in my opinion, 2-2 would mean they are not realizing their full potential.  I expect a loss the next week at the Rams but I make the game at Washington a tossup.  Carolina will be rested and has had success at SF.  This game will tell me plenty about both teams!  SF is 0-5 lately at Arizona.  Can that be changed?  This game is on Thursday night (short week).  Games 9-11 are all at home.  Of course I’ll pre-check what their success rate has been at home thus far.  They host Seattle on MNF and then face Arizona before hosting a rested GB Packer team.  2-1 is the goal in this home stand.

December starts with tough road games at Baltimore and New Orleans.  I think they go 0-2 in these games.  The final three games are vs. Atlanta (Shanahan’s old team), vs. the Rams and at Seattle.  Those last two games look awfully tough although SF has held their own hosting LA and has a scheduling advantage.

BOTTOM LINE: A 3-1 start, and 4-3 heading to Arizona.  Two separate game by game projections ended with a soft 8-8 record.  SF opens ’19 with a + point ratio and a near certain expectation of reducing their -25 turnover ratio.  If they can just get even with turnovers the net result is at least 87 “free” points.  My main focal point will be red zone production.  Can they increase the # of drives ending in TD’s instead of field goals?  If so, SF has a decent shot at outperforming my soft 8-8 prediction.  Kyle Shanahan, the ball is in your court!

KEY GAMES: Many!  They must start at least 1-1, with 2-0 preferred.  They must beat Cleveland on MNF.  They must learn how to defeat Seattle.  If all goes well then games vs. Atlanta and the Rams in mid-December become very meaningful.  Handicapping Tip: I like them 9/22 hosting Pitt.  I might fade them 10/13 at the Rams after that emotional MNF game vs. Cleveland and Baker Mayfield.  I’ll look at Carolina 10/27 if they are the road dog.  Momentum will be my guiding force on 12/22 (Rams).  A win 12/15 hosting Atlanta would have me looking to be on their side.  A loss would mean the opposite.  2019 POWER # SET: 24.5

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NFC West Division / Seattle Seahawks   

I say this every year!  Pete Carroll is one of the best “teachers” of the game.  He can make average players better.  Players drafted into this organization are not always the highest rated, yet through coaching many survive and then thrive.  Expected to fall back after undergoing numerous staff changes as well as losing valuable members from their legion of doom defense, Seattle instead became a difficult team to beat.  Seattle’s draft mantra is quantity.  They’ll miss on as many draft picks as any team, but they also have more picks and generally find players who can play in their special system.  Incredibly, Seattle as of early April has only four draft picks.  For a team that averages over 11 selections per draft, this should be interesting.

What went right: Seattle went crazy running the ball at an amazing 160 yards per game.  Chris Carson led the way but he had plenty of support.  RB’s totaled 15 rushing TD’s, a year after recording just one!  Russell Wilson threw an average of about 530 passes per season in ’15-17, and part of the time he was not 100% healthy.  He threw just 427 passes in ’18.  He still had 35 TD passes, 2nd in the NFL in TD passes per attempt.  LB Bobby Wagner continues to play at a high level with 138 tackles.  The 3rd down defense was very stout.  Seattle finished +15 in turnover ratio.  They typically are plus, but this time the # spiked thanks to a sometimes random +10 fumble ratio.  Kick returns were strong.

What went wrong: Seattle’s OL did not pass protect well at all, especially considering the low # of attempts.  They allowed 51 sacks and have never been stout in this area.  In a strange twist, total yards for and against the Seahawks totaled 5,653.  This is because Seattle passed for 749 yards less than did their opponents.  Seattle’s new secondary dropped to 65% vs. opposing QB’s and allowed the 4th most completions of 20+ yards in the NFL.  The kick return defense was below average.

FREE AGENCY ANALYSIS AND STAFF NOTES (Short Version): Offensively, Seattle added OL Mike Iupati and lost RB Mike Davis.  The defense lost CB Justin Coleman and safety Earl Thomas.  Jason Myers is the new kicker.

2019 draft recap: Trades were the theme, as Seattle worked the draft board all three days.  Many established players left the past two seasons.  This draft restocked the roster.  The downside is that my draft need board was not used. Three days before the draft Seattle had just four selections.  Knowing this was a deep draft, Seattle turned four picks into 11.  Are you surprised?  Frank Clark and picks 21/92/159 became 29/47/64/88/120/132/142/204/209/236.  I would have drafted different players, but no team worked the draft board any better!

Seattle is never a great drafting team, usually just coaching the talent up.  DT Collier was drafted about 20 picks too high.  Seattle felt that the top edge rushers were gone after Winovich at 77 but as I noted in a conference call after the draft, I felt they would sign a veteran later on, which turned out to be the case with Ziggy Ansah.  Safety Blair went about 50 picks too high.  WR Metcalf represented value at 62.  He has some flaws, but like I said after the draft, Metcalf was not overly productive in college and has a small route tree but look for splash plays when Russell Wilson breaks containment.

LB Barton (3-88) had a 5th round grade.  WR Jennings and OG Haynes had proper draft value.  2nd year OL coach Mike Solari wants physical maulers not quickness guys as was the case under Tom Cable.  Haynes is 340 LBS.  There were two other picks I liked.  LB Ben Bufrr-Kirven is too instinctive to keep off the playing field.  Kirven is an ideal fit on special team units.  WR Ursua was productive at Hawaii.  Christmas says he’s a run stuffer.  It wasn’t until this pick (209) that the Seahawks addressed their 4.8 run D.  UDFA WR Jazz Ferguson was rated 25th on my WR board.  Seattle used three picks on WR’s in addition to Ferguson.  Clearly they knew WR Baldwin was hurting.  BEST PICK: No one stands out

SLEEPER PICKS: WR Jennings and the versatile Kirven.  CAN THE LA CHARGERS LEARN FROM THIS: Late last year Seattle allowed two blocked punts and a KR TD.  Barton. Kirven, Blair, and Amadi all have special team coverage skill sets.  QUANTITY AND QUALITY: I’m used to Seattle drafting three or more unrated players.  In ‘18 the # of unrated players was just two.  This year that # was reduced to one.  Still left to do? Unfortunately, my top three needs (OL pass blocker, OLB, CB) were not properly addressed.  With 11 draft picks the Seahawks could have taken care of these needs.

ROSTER ANALYSIS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st:

QB: Russell Wilson is wise beyond his years and joins Drew Brees as an effective undersized QB. Is there a current backup?

RB: Chris Carson looked good in ’18.  Rashaad Penny was awful early but then picked his game up.  Three others add depth.

WR: Doug Baldwin retired so Seattle went big on adding new talent.  Tyler Lockett is really good but more of an elite WR2.  DK Metcalf will win on broken plays but is stiff and has much to learn.  Jaron Brown is a WR3 type.  I like the two other rookies to develop over time and UDFA Jazz Ferguson was also rated.

TE: Less than dynamic as usual, the unit is led by serviceable Nick Vannett.  Will Dissly is the 2nd option with a few others in the mix for a team that seldom throws to its TE’s.

OL: They sure can run block, or maybe the elusive Wilson makes it look like they can run block.  Unfortunately, they’ve allowed between 41-51 sacks in each of the past six seasons.  The unit has been stable so shouldn’t the pass blocking improve?

DL: Seattle had defended the run well, but slipped way down in ’18.  Only modest talent exists and Frank Clark is gone.

LB: Bobby Wagner is the star.  K.J. Wright is near retirement but still can start.  I disliked contact adverse Barkevious Mingo who was just traded (see below).  There’s solid depth, and tackle machine Ben Burr-Kirven might be good in time.

DB: Shaquill Griffin is rock solid at one CB but Tre Flowers seems like a work in progress at the other spot.  Only a rookie is a viable backup.  The safeties are acceptable but not elite as in the past.  Rookie Marquise Blair is raw but the next best option.

Special Teams: Jason Myers is the acceptable new kicker.  As advertised, Michael Dickson was great as the rookie punter.  Lockett is a good to great return specialist but also the #1 WR.  There’s a drop in production if he comes off the unit.

Coaching:  Carroll is “different”, fun and a solid coach.  He consistently molds average or marginal talent into something better!  He gutted the staff last offseason.  The new guys performed decently but I had them a tad below the former coordinators.

Special 8/31 update: Jadeveon Clowney is now a Seahawk.  BOTTOM LINE: While rookie Collier was over-drafted, the additions of Ansah and Clowney make Seattle better in the front seven.

TEAM KEYS AS OF SEPTEMBER 1st: I was worried about sack regression but as I start this column Jadeveon Clowney is now a Seahawk!  I will remain worried about Ken Norton’s pass defense %.  Seattle has to learn how to reduce their penalties.

DID THE PRESEASON MEAN ANYTHING? Seattle likes what they have seen from Russell Wilson, RB Chris Carson and WR Tyler Lockett.  Rashaad Penny struggled, with C.J. Prosise outperforming him as he hopes to win a roster spot.  Drafted rookie WR’s D.K. Metcalf and Gary Jennings disappointed but UDFA Jazz Ferguson did what I thought he could do.  Also WR Ursua went 4-100.  Rookie DL L.J. Collier was not very effective and was not 100%.  The LB’s look great, including rookie Ben Burr-Kirven.  The pass defense % was poor.  All secondary starters got in good work so yes, this is a concern.  Jason Myers was 8-9.

STRATEGY AND BOTTOM LINE ANALYSIS: Seattle will incur plenty of travel miles in ’19.  As a result they will play in more 10:00 AM west coast time starts than usual, with four scheduled early starts.  The schedule is fair through week 11.  The 1st tossup game is 9/22 when they host Drew Brees and New Orleans.  Assuming they refocus at Arizona, Seattle will have a chance to beat the Rams in a short week Thursday night affair.  They’ve lost the last two as a host.  Games 5-7 are all intriguing.  They will be rested before heading to play upstart Cleveland, host Baltimore and Earl Thomas in what promises to be an emotional game and then travel to offensive-minded Atlanta.  When the dust settles the goal has to be a 5-3 start.

Seattle rarely plays road MNF games but will do so 11/11 at SF.  That should be interesting.  This is the 1st of four consecutive prime time games.  The 2nd one comes after their bye week and is at dangerous Philly.  The 3rd one is hosting a decent Minnesota team on MNF.  The final one comes with one day less of preparation and is at the Rams on SNF.  Seattle has played very well at Carolina but could be due for a letdown after all these games, especially with the last one being vs. a key Divisional rival.  The good news after that is closing at home vs. Arizona and SF.

BOTTOM LINE: 9-7 or 10-6.  Seattle surprised many by reloading rather than rebuilding a year ago and the team looks better now.  My biggest concern is replicating a +15 turnover ratio that was bolstered by a somewhat random +10 fumble ratio.  Most teams and coaching staffs would not be able to adjust to all the prime time games but Seattle and Pete Carroll are not most teams.  His reported prime time record is 26-5.  Seattle could challenge the Rams for the Divisional title but they do have some tricky early games that might hold them back.

KEY GAMES: 9/22 hosting New Orleans.  Splitting games at Cleveland and Atlanta is not a guarantee.  The 12/15 game at Carolina might have playoff implications.  Handicapping Tip: Seattle is a stout 36-15 vs. the spread as a home dog of over three points.  I’ll go Atlanta 10/27 if they are a dog with Seattle coming off hosting physical Baltimore and Earl Thomas.  2019 POWER # SET: 27.5.

 

 

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