Saturday 16 December 2017 / 12:41 PM

SEASON PREVIEW: NFC WEST

Our 2016-17 NFL Preview will highlight each division in the NFL, with an in-depth look at each team as we head into training camp and preseason football.  We’ll give predictions and summaries of a season.  We’ll also push out our first Power Rankings, as well as an early MVP preview and prediction.  Out final look is at the NFC West, a division that features two contenders looking to right the ship from shaky ends to the season.  Here are the predictions, in order of projected finish:

 

  1. Arizona Cardinals

Offense:  The Cardinals were a force on offense in the regular season, with Carson Palmer renewing his career in Arizona.  The running game again should be a force, behind David Johnson and Chris Johnson, who rushed for 1,400 yards in tandem, and 11 TDs.  Both should be featured quite a bit to set up a deep passing game. The receivers are talented and long, with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd being freaks of athleticism, and having some nice pieces behind them as well.  The tight end spot is a question, as Palmer had little faith in Darren Fells, who only saw 21 catches last season.  The right side of the line got better with Evan Mathis’ signing, but it’s still shaky.

Defense:  The Cardinals defense was solid last season, even without a pass rush, and missing Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary.  Both problems looked adjusted, with the Cardinals making a huge splash and acquiring Chandler Jones from the New England Patriots and picking up Robert Nkemdiche in the draft.  The rush should be much more formidable this season, which is trouble for teams that already struggled to find holes in coverage.  The Cardinals are going to run mostly five DBs at most times, so the defense will be small, but that package saw solid success last season.  Deone Bucannon and Kareem Martin will be counted on in coverage more now with some added help up front.  Patrick Peterson is one of the best in the business, but they’ll need Justin Bethel or another corner to step up and provide adequate production opposite him.  The return of Mathieu certainly hides some blind spots deep.

Best Case:  The Cardinals defense and offense carry their solid regular season production into the postseason, and ride a wave of momentum to a top seed in the NFC by running through a top-heavy division. They win the NFC and challenge for the Super Bowl.

Worst Case:  The defense struggles to get a pass rush and takes a slight step back.  Palmer again falls apart in postseason, and the Panthers or Seahawks again eliminates the Cardinals early.

How They’ll Finish:  This team is immensely talented, and is in win-now mode. But let’s be real: this all comes down to postseason production.  Carson Palmer and the Cardinals just are a different team after December, and they’ll have to get over that hump to really challenge a Panther team that absolutely boat-raced them last season.  They’ll win the division, but anything after that is anyone’s guess.

 

  1. Seattle Seahawks

Offense:  Any discussion about the Seahawks’ offense begins and ends with Russell Wilson, who will again return to anchor an offense that ranked in the top-five in the league last season.  But this season will be his greatest challenge.  The Seahawks line is again a question, as they very well may be starting two rookies by midseason.  It should be manageable, but they are far from the tough gang that bullied teams in 2014.  Also, the glaring omission is the loss of Marshawn Lynch.  Lynch called it a career over the offseason, and the Seahawks don’t really have an answer.

Thomas Rawls is talented, but injury concerns are glaring. The receiver group is still solid, with Jermaine Kearse and Baldwin providing great outside receivers, and Tyler Lockett coming on as a sensational threat deep.  The tight end spot should be improved, as Jimmy Graham is too talented to be as MIA as he was last season.

Defense:  The defense is again the strong suit of this Seahawks team.  The Legion of Boom returns, anchored by Richard Sherman who had another strong year.  Jeremy Lane will try and shore up the second corner spot, and the forces of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas return as the best safety combo in football. The linebackers are talented, with KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner as good as anyone, and Mike Morgan is gifted. Losing Bruce Irvin will hurt, however, and the pass rush is going to suffer.  Michael Bennett and the line will be breaking in a rookie, and missing Irvin, will probably take a slight step back this season.  This should still be a really talented group.

Best Case:  The defense continues to be one of the best in football, and the running game provides dynamic enough to keep the Seahawks a top-ten scoring offense in the league.  The Seahawks take the division back from the Cardinals, and again advance to the Super Bowl behind the arm of the ever-improving Russell Wilson.

Worst Case:  The offense grows stagnant without an imposing running back, and Russell Wilson regresses throwing against teams who are only keeping four inside.  The defense also takes a step back as the secondary can’t retain its strong levels and the pass rush takes a dip.  The Seahawks are eliminated again in the first round.

How They’ll Finish:  The Seahawks are still talented, but not at the level of the Super Bowl squad.  This team has the tools to take the division, but the Cardinals are just better right now.  They are a playoff team, but they aren’t at the level of the Panthers and Cardinals without Lynch.

  1. Los Angeles Rams

Offense:  The Rams took a big gamble in the offseason, trading some serious pieces to pick up Jared Goff.  Goff still isn’t the listed starter, but you have to believe he’ll get the keys before long in the offense.  Even if not, Case Keenum or Goff will have one of the NFL’s best young backs in Todd Gurley to support him, and Gurley should be even better after coming off an ACL injury last year to win the Rookie of the Year.  The offensive line he’ll run behind is a work in progress, however, and is incredibly young.  Greg Robinson must improve, and the rest, including Rodger Saffold, have to stay healthy.  The big hole, however, is at receiver. Tavon Austin has all-world speed, and Kenny Britt is serviceable, but nobody in this lineup is a game changer.  Rookie Pharoh Cooper should get some serious time in the slot.  But someone has to step up to give the QB a reliable target.

Defense:  The defense has shown some immense promise in the last few seasons, but has yet to put it all together into being a consistent force.  They’ve had some turnover, but it’s been by design as Gregg Williams wanted a new look and tempo.  They’ll build around a line that is solid, with superstar DT Aaron Donald, opposite solid ends in Robert Quinn and William Hayes.  The linebacker group is good, with Alec Ogletree leading a starting group that is solid, but not very deep.  The secondary is going to need some work, with new starters in EJ Gaines and Trumaine Johnson taking over for departed CB Janoris Jenkins.  They’ll have to gel very quickly, as they face a really pass-happy division.  TJ McDonald is a terrific safety, but there are some questions with the FS spot.

Best Case: The Rams defense finally lives up to the hype, and the Rams navigate a tough schedule and keep their heads above water at 10-6. They capture a wild card behind a consistent defense and solid offense, and finally bring in some deserved buzz.

Worst Case:  The defense still doesn’t take that next step, and depth issues keep them from moving forward.  The offense is slim aside from Gurley, as Goff struggles in his debut, and the team looks like one deep in rebuild as LA’s new team loses some of its shine.

How They’ll Finish:  New team, new city, and a new chance for some noise.  The Rams are a talented team, but their really young.  I like what Jeff Fisher is building, but it’s going to take some time.  LA has a bright future, but there’ll be some lumps in year one.

  1. San Francisco 49ers

Offense:  Chip Kelly takes over an offense that was the worst in the NFL last season in putting up points.  Year one of Kelly looks to right that ship, at least turning it into the right direction. He’ll rely on Blaine Gabbert, who’s trying to prove he belongs in the league after a rough few years to begin his career.  He won’t have much help up front aside from Pro Bowler Joe Staley, as the whole line has been reworked.  Former Pro Bowler Anthony Davis has switched around on the line, and they will be hoping for more consistent play.  Talented running back Carlos Hyde will need it, as the O-line will need to keep him from getting banged up.  The receiving group is pretty vanilla, with top receiver AnquanBoldin gone and the 49ers instead relying on Torrey Smith and a group of unproven guys, including undersized Bruce Ellington.  Gabbert will need to be protected, because he’ll have close to no one to throw to.

Defense:  It’s crazy to think this 49ers team once had one of the most feared units in the league on defense.  Last season was awful for the 49ers, as they were near the bottom in every statistical category.  They drafted DeForest Buckner to head the defensive line that struggles getting to the QB and stopping the run.  The linebackers are the strength of the unit, headed by NaVorro Bowman on the inside, and Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks outside.  They can get after the run, but pass rush is a struggle.  The secondary is inexperienced but promising.  Eric Reid is solid, but the rest will have to slowly fall into place around him before they start competing.

Best Case: Kelly gets one of the two QBs rolling and the 49ers show signs of life.  They win 9 games in Kelly’s first year, and compete for a wild card spot as Kelly as the 49ers kick start a new chapter.

Worst Case:  The 49ers don’t improve at all, and the division creates more of a gap.  They end up signing another QB, and the defense falls off a cliff.  The 49ers finish with the worst record in the NFL, and Kelly has to look for an answer under center in the draft.

How They’ll Finish:  This team has some nice pieces, but there’s no way this is the year for the 49ers to compete for the postseason.   I like what they’ve done so far in the offseason, but this team needs some work.  They are going to be pretty bad this year, but there should be some brighter days ahead.

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About the author

Austin Albertson

Austin is CBS' senior NFL and NBA analyst, bringing you commentary on everything between the lines and inside the hashes, from the film room to the scoreboard.

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