2014 NFC West Preview: Seattle's Not Going Away
The NFC West was one of the most hotly contested divisions last season, boasting the Super Bowl Champion and the NFC's runner up in Seattle and San Francisco, but also featuring tough battles against a tough Arizona defense and the scrappy Rams.
2014 will bring more of the same in one of the toughest divisions in football, but how will the division shake out? Here are our predictions based on our team rankings. (nERD is a calculation based on our metrics which determines the projected margin of victory or defeat against an average NFL team. You can learn more about it and our other metrics here.)
4. St. Louis Rams
Chance of Winning Division: 10.6%
Offensive Rank: 21st
Defensive Rank: 17th
The Rams have a nearly identical nERD to the Indianapolis Colts, who are the top-ranked team in the AFC South. Unfortunately for St. Louis, they're the lowest-ranked team in the NFC West despite being nearly on par with an average NFL team. That's why they face a 10% shot at winning their division.
St. Louis finished last season with the seventh-best run defense in the NFL, but the defense as a whole ended up 20th according to our Adjusted Net Expected Points metrics (which account for strength of schedule). There are multiple talented sack artists in the front four (Chris Long and Robert Quinn are two of the best), but they couldn't do enough to hide the weaknesses in the back seven when it comes to covering potential targets in the passing game.
On offense, the Rams will see the return of Sam Bradford, who had taken a step forward in 2012 and seemed to be carrying that momentum into 2013 before an injury sidelined him. Bradford is by no means "good" (he's below average among quarterbacks in our passing NEP metric, even in his best season), but he showed signs of improving and could still take another step forward and be a passable NFL quarterback. And that might be a requirement to compete in this tough division.
He doesn't have a ton of help at the skill positions on offense, as Zac Stacy finished 13th in Rushing NEP among backs with 200 or more carries last season, and was a disappointing 17th in Success Rate, which determines how often a player gains positive NEP on a carry. Stacy may have been a blessing for your fantasy team, but he was certainly nothing special from an efficiency standpoint, and like Bradford, will need to improve to help the Rams finish anywhere near the playoffs this season. Tavon Austin had similarly underwhelming numbers in 2013, finishing with the sixth-worst Reception NEP per target among players with 30 to 50 catches, disappointing for a former first-round pick with all the speed in the world.
The defense must improve against the pass and get after the opposing quarterback more frequently than ever, while the offense must see improvements from its three young stars to have any hope of contending in a tough division. This is a roster that might make the playoffs in another division, but in the NFC West, it doesn't seem like there's enough ammunition to challenge the big boys.
3. Arizona Cardinals
Chance of Winning Division: 16.8%
Offensive Rank: 20th
Defensive Rank: 5th
Normally, a team with a top-five defense would be viewed as a Super Bowl contender. But like the Rams, the Cardinals are on the bottom-half of the rankings in a very tough division, so they face an uphill climb to deliver on their seemingly promising roster.
Last season, the Cardinals finished fifth in our Defensive NEP rankings, with a very strong run defense and a good pass stopping effort as well. They've added Antonio Cromartie, and drafted a young pass rusher in Kareem Martin and a promising defensive back in Deone Bucannon, who look to improve upon a really good defensive team from a year ago. Daryl Washington's suspension really hurts the defense, and our defensive metrics prove that when comparing the games in which he played to the one in which he didn't. Can they better account for his absence in 2014? That's a question that will determine the fate of the franchise in 2014.
The offense in Arizona isn't quite as impressive. Last season, the team finished 21st on that side of the ball, struggling to get anything going in the running game. Rashard Mendenhall is gone, and he was the main culprit when it came to the poor rushing numbers (he was among the ten worst players at the position in the NFL using our data), but they haven't replaced him with any proven talent. Jonathan Dwyer (who isn't very good) and a group of inexperienced backs join Andre Ellington in the Arizona backfield, and while Ellington was 10th in Rushing NEP among backs with 100 or more carries, it's impossible to predict how he'll do with more responsibilities in the offense.
The passing offense is a bit more predictable, as Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald provide top-notch targets for Carson Palmer through the air. Floyd is seemingly on the verge of a breakout, which would be nicely timed considering Fitzgerald's advancing age and inevitably declining skills. Both receivers finished in the top 25 of our Reception NEP rankings last year, and figure to do the same again in what should be a consistent, but not spectacular offense.
If the defense can account for the loss of Washington, and the offense can get a running game going, it's tough to find a hole in the Arizona roster. But it still falls short of the two heavyweights in the division, which means the Cardinals are still a long-shot to make the playoffs as division champions, and only have a roughly one-in-three chance of making the playoffs at all according to our team rankings.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Chance of Winning Division: 27.5%
Offensive Rank: 8th
Defensive Rank: 7th
The 49ers are a top-five team in our rankings, yet only have a 27.5% chance of winning their division. With just shy of a full touchdown advantage over an average team according to our nERD statistic, it's clearly not a lack of talent in San Francisco that's causing these reduced odds of success.
One of only a handful of teams to rank in the preseason top-10 in both offense and defense, the Niners return a good amount of players on both sides of the ball who posted solid numbers a year ago. The offense finished 13th in 2013, and with a healthy Michael Crabtree, there's an influx of talent to help boost them into the ten best (according to our projections).
The offense obviously hinges on Colin Kaepernick, who was our 10th best quarterback last season in Passing NEP, and had the most Rushing Net Expected Points of any top-10 passer. He got paid a big contract this summer, and is the face of the franchise, so can he improve in 2014 and help take the offense to new heights? Or have we seen the ceiling for Kaepernick (which isn't a bad ceiling at all), and the other players around him must step up to improve the unit as a whole?
On defense, the Niners are looking to repeat the performance of a team that finished seventh last season, but there are questions to answer before they can reclaim their spot in the top 10 on that side of the ball. Can Aldon Smith get (and stay) on the field, and is there enough talent to account for the losses in the defensive backfield and along the defensive line? Age and roster attrition may catch up to the 49ers sooner rather than later, but there's still plenty of good talent left.
1. Seattle Seahawks
Chance of Winning Division: 45.2%
Offensive Rank: 7th
Defensive Rank: 1st
The Seahawks outclass the rest of the division by a wide margin, thanks in part to a dominant defense expected to repeat as the top unit in 2014. Last year, the "Legion of Boom" helped lead Seattle to an Adjusted Defensive NEP that was over 100 points better than expectation, and nothing has changed in regards to their ranking as we head into next season.
The offense was eighth best last year, and actually proved to be very good through the air, despite the Seahawks being the second-most run-heavy team in the league. Russell Wilson finished seventh among quarterbacks in Passing NEP, and also chipped in with solid numbers as a runner. Seattle may stick with a very run-heavy approach, but should they choose to air it out more, they certainly have the talent to produce like the best passing offenses in the NFL.
Marshawn Lynch is seemingly always in the news for the wrong reasons, but he's one of only a few workhorse running backs left in the NFL. Can he stay out of trouble and provide Seattle with the high-volume runner it needs to run its ground-focused offense? If not, can Christine Michael and Robert Turbin replace Lynch's production? That's a scary question for a team so heavily reliant on the running game.
There are no such questions about the defense, which returns all of its stars from a year ago, and should dominate the league once again. That's the main reason why the Seahawks are nearly a coin-flip to win one of the toughest divisions in football, because their defense is so statistically superior to any other defense in the league. A nERD of over 10 reveals just how dominant we expect Seattle to be, as they should be running away with victories against most of their opponents in 2014.