By: Garrett Belme
The 2015 division champs, barring any serious injury to key starters, look like a lock to capture the division crown again this year. The Cardinals doubled down on their biggest weakness from last year, rushing the passer, by trading for talented New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, and drafting Ole Miss defensive tackle, Robert Nkemdiche in the first round of this years draft. The Cardinals ranked in the lower half of the league at 20th in sacks last year, the addition of Jones and Nkemdiche should improve that ranking.
Running back David Johnson flashed every down back potential in his limited carries last season and will be given the chance to fulfill that potential as he is pegged to be the starter for week one. Johnson’s blend of size, speed, and relentless running style should take some pressure off quarterback Carson Palmer who played like a MVP last season when not asked to do too much.
This team is mostly the same as it was last year so I don’t anticipate a dramatic change in play. While they are a tad weaker on the offensive line and secondary, this is still one of the most complete rosters in football.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
For the past 4 years the Rams have been a team that is some decent quarterback play away from being in playoff contention. They gave up a lot to trade up to the first pick and draft the consensus best quart back in the draft Cal’s Jared Goff but all signs point towards veteran quarterback Case Keenum being the team’s starter.
I don’t see the season shacking out much differently no matter who starts at quarter back. While Goff could turn into a solid NFL quarter back, I don’t see him hitting the ground running a la Andrew Luck, and Case Keenum is just good enough to get you beat. Whoever starts under center will have the luxury of handing off to last years’ rookie sensation, running back Todd Gurley. Gurley finished 2015 third in the league in rushing with 1,106 yards despite not starting until week 4.
Getting to start all 16 games this year should have Gurley primed to lead the league in rushing. The Rams are oozing with young talent on both sides of the ball but it is hard to see them making a real run at the playoffs after losing three starters on defense and not particularly getting an immediate upgrade at the quarter back position. The Rams being a just below average team has become the surest bet in all of sports, which make this an easy decision.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The 49ers have been on a steady decline since their 2012 Super Bowl appearance and even with going 5-11 last year, I expect the decline to continue. The roster looks almost identical to the 2015 squad sans two of their better players, guard Alex Boone and wide receiver Anquan Boldin who signed elsewhere in free agency.
Head coach Jim Tomsula was fired after one year and replaced with Chip Kelly which is a solid upgrade. One of Kelly’s first big decisions as head coach is to name a starting quarter back as Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick are locked in what might be one of the most underwhelming quarter back battles in NFL history. Regardless of who starts (I have my money on Gabbert) he will be playing with no real receiving threats, a poor defense, and an unproven running game in the toughest division in football.
Even with a decent draft and a better head coach, this team is simply too talent starved to win very many games thanks to an exodus of quality players and the refusal to go after any star free agents.
2016 will be a bounce back year for the Seahawks. It’s almost silly to think a 10 win season that included a playoff victory would be looked at as a down year but it is when you consider just how dominate the Seahawks have been the past three years.
Their return to the top of the NFL will look dramatically different than years past thanks to last seasons offensive identity change. The Seahawks last year abandoned their traditional smash mouth rushing attack in favor of a high flying aerial assault, which propelled the Seahawks to a second half record of 6-2. Quarter back Russell Wilson will have his top 3 receivers back along with pass catching tight end Jimmy Graham who’s returning from injury so expect the the passing to continue.
The lack of quality starters on the offensive line was a problem last year and should again be a problem this year although Wilson’s uncanny scrambling ability will help counteract it. The defense has star players at each level and doesn’t have and real weaknesses.
Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, and Michael Bennett are all back which should lead to another dominate season on defense. Despite the offensive line needing a lot of work, the Seahawks still have a large nucleus of super stars with loads of playoff experience which should help them make a very deep playoff run.