2015 NFC West Preview: The Most Competitive One-Sided Division
Over the past few seasons, the NFC West has staked a claim as one of the best divisions in the NFL. An NFC West team has played in the last three Super Bowls, and in those three years, the division has also sent two teams to the playoffs.
Even as the division has seen the competition grow over the past few years -- it was only 2010 when the Seattle Seahawks made the playoffs as a 7-9 division champion -- there seems to be little hope for three of the teams to come out on top in the standings during this upcoming season. While there could again be two teams to make the postseason from the NFC West, the favorite could not be more clear cut.
4. San Francisco 49ers
On the bright side, the 49ers didn’t lose as many players on offense as they did on the other side of the ball. And unlike the defense, the Niners were mostly able to replace what they lost on offense.
Michael Crabtree departed during free agency and found himself across the Bay after a limited amount of suitors. Replacing him is Torrey Smith from Baltimore, almost known more for his skill to draw defensive pass interference than his receiving ability. Smith was 11th in Reception NEP per target last year, but only caught 49 of his 92 targets. Much of that was due to his role as the team’s primary deep threat, and the high Reception NEP per target suggests when he caught the ball, good things happened. For those unfamiliar, NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average player would be expected to perform in each scenario using historical data, and a player’s NEP indicates how he performed relative to that expectation. You can read more about it in our glossary.
On the other side of the formation will again be Anquan Boldin who, at age 34, is still one of the most reliable receivers in the league. His Reception NEP per target dropped from 0.93 in 2013 (sixth among receivers) to just 0.76 in 2014 (35th) last year, but that was with a general downturn in just about the 49ers did in 2014.
Possibly the biggest loss on the offense comes in the departure of Frank Gore. Like Boldin, Gore kept producing at an advanced age -- he’ll be entering his age-32 season -- but he will be doing that for the Indianapolis Colts. Carlos Hyde will see a bigger role in the offense after carrying the ball 83 times during his rookie season. He wasn’t very efficient with those carries, ranking tied for 59th in Rushing NEP (-0.09) per attempt among 79 backs with at least 40 carries. Behind the same line, Gore was slightly better, (-0.06) ranking tied for 48th.
What could help as a change of pace is the addition of Reggie Bush. However, Bush is coming off a subpar year in Detroit and of concern should be his 36.84% Success Rate -- a really low average -- which measures the amount of plays resulting in positive NEP.
The best chance for the offense to turn around from its 22nd ranking in Adjusted NEP per play would be a bounce-back season from Colin Kaepernick. Last season, Kaepernick was equivalent to Brian Hoyer and Kyle Orton with each drop back, and didn't fare much better on the ground, ranking 10th in Rushing NEP among quarterbacks despite having more rushing attempts than all but two of the passer above him.
What could bring hope to the 2015 offensive is offensive coordinator Geep Chryst, who served as the team’s quarterbacks coach. Chryst has been backed by both Boldin and Kaepernick and has hinted on opening up the offense more than in the past.
Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Justin Smith were lost to retirement. Within the past few seasons, all three played a major role on the 49ers defense. Willis was one of the best linebackers in the league since he debuted and Smith has been a force in the interior of the defensive line that helped open things up for the pass rush. Borland stepped into a big role last season with injuries to Willis and NaVorro Bowman, and was immediately an impact player. For all the injuries that occurred for this defensive unit last season, the Niners still ranked tied for 10th in defensive efficiency by Adjusted NEP along with Denver and Carolina.
San Francisco will have to fill up the holes left by the departed starters, and the biggest may be at linebacker. Michael Wilhoite and Aaron Lynch will continue to see increased roles, as Aldon Smith and Bowman keep their places. Bowman’s ability will be a question after missing all of 2014 rehabbing from a knee injury.
The defensive line will also see a makeover with Glenn Dorsey as the only returning starter. Former Cardinal Darnell Dockett and first-round pick Arik Armstead are the likely replacements on either side of him.
San Francisco’s best player on defense now may be safety Antoine Bethea, who has long been underrated by many. He, along with Eric Reid, will likely have increased responsibilities to keep the Niners at league average against the pass -- they were 13th by Adjusted NEP in 2014 -- with an underwhelming cornerback tandem of Tramaine Brock and Shareece Wright.
Projected Record: 7.2-8.8
Division Probability: 8.5%
Playoff Probability: 18.3%
3. St. Louis Rams
St. Louis had no reservations making some changes on offense. Some were needed, others were not.
The shakeup started during the Kelly-palooza portion of the offseason, when nothing the Philadelphia Eagles' head coach and roster manager did could be predicted. During that time, the Eagles and Rams swapped quarterbacks, with Sam Bradford heading to Philly and Nick Foles coming to St Louis. Bradford never returned the massive investment the Rams put in him as the first-overall selection of the 2010 NFL Draft, but still, this season Bradford is slated for a $17.1 million cap hit.
Last year's Bradford injury led to Shaun Hill, Austin Davis and Case Keenum all seeing time at quarterback. That’s less than ideal. Enter Foles, who predictably took a step back after a great half season in his first year under Kelly.
Foles went from one of the most efficient quarterbacks by Net Expected Points (NEP) in 2013 to slightly below league average in 2014. Foles dropped in Passing NEP per attempt from 0.31 (fourth) in 2013 to 0.05 (24th) in 2014, partially due to an increase in interceptions -- he had an unsustainably low 0.6 percent interception rate in 2013 before throwing an interception on 3.2 percent of his passes last year. Still, Foles’s Passing NEP per drop back was better than Hill (0.01) and Davis (-0.04), so the passing offense should improve.
St. Louis was average running the ball last season. They ranked tied for 15th in Rushing NEP per attempt in 2014, with a less-than-stellar offensive line. To fix this problem, the Rams selected Georgia running back Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pick in the draft, and a slew of offensive linemen from the second round onward.
It can be debated whether that was the right way to try to fix the running game, but it will certainly be a fixture in the offense. Gurley is opening training camp on the active roster, but his ability will still be unknown coming off a torn ACL.
This is where the Rams get fun, and have been for the past few seasons. St. Louis has one of the best defensive lines in the league, and it somehow continues to get better. After adding destroyer of worlds, Aaron Donald, to the interior of the line last season, the Rams signed Nick Fairley to a one-year, $5 million deal this offseason. St. Louis ranked eighth in run defense efficiency by schedule-adjusted NEP, and throwing Donald and Fairley, along with Michael Brockers, in the middle of the defense won’t make jobs easy for opposing backs and offensive lines.
After only eight sacks through the first seven games of 2014, the Rams seemed to be a Jeff Fisher special -- a lot of talent that falls short of expectations. Then St. Louis came alive in Week 8 with eight sacks against the San Francisco 49ers. The Rams only tied for 13th in the league in sacks with 40, but that’s rather impressive given how the team started the season. We should expect more play like the second half of the season than the first.
St. Louis was also towards the top half of the league -- 12th by Adjusted NEP -- against the pass. Like the rest of the defense, the Rams have a young secondary with 26-year-old Janoris Jenkins entering the season as the oldest starter. Jenkins can be a big-play cornerback, but he’s been helped out by improving safety play behind him with Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald.
Projected Record: 8.0-8.0
Division Probability: 14.4%
Playoff Probability: 30.3%
2. Arizona Cardinals
Carson Palmer is expected to be fully healthy heading into the 2015 season, and that’s great news for the offense. Bruce Arians was able to keep the offense afloat with Drew Stanton under center, but could only do so much after the team was forced to rely upon Logan Thomas and Ryan Lindley. Over his 233 drop backs last year, Palmer had a Passing NEP per play of 0.18, which ranked seventh among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs. We shouldn’t expect that efficiency to hold up for an entire season, but it underlines an often underrated line of thought; Carson Palmer can be pretty good.
A healthy Palmer would be great for the talented group of receivers currently on Arizona’s roster. Michael Floyd was a 2014 fantasy disappointment, but still possesses the skills to be one of the better receivers in the league. Even if he doesn’t fully breakout, we can expect better than the 58th ranking he had in Reception NEP per target last season, among players with at least 30 targets. The standout last season was John Brown, who took over as the deep threat on a team that likes to stretch the field vertically. Brown was actually worse than Floyd on a per target basis per NEP, but he flashed the ability for big plays that can be better utilized with above average talent at quarterback for a full season.
Even with the mess at quarterback, the running game was the main concern for the Cardinals offense in 2014. Arizona was 25th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt and only 11 backs among 79 with at least 40 carries had a worse Rushing NEP per attempt than Andre Ellington. Arizona tried to fix that by signing Mike Iupati from the 49ers to play guard and drafting running back David Johnson in the third round. A better passing game should help set up the ground game. A healthy Ellington should also help improve the team efficiency.
Arizona’s defense was among the best in the league last season, seventh by Adjusted NEP per play. Without even considering anything with the personnel, their biggest defensive loss comes from the departure of Todd Bowles. Bowles, now the head coach of the New York Jets, is one of the most creative defensive minds in the league when it comes to formations, schemes and creating pressure. Bowles was a master at creating pressure and was a big advocate of the blitz. While that didn’t always produce sacks -- the Cardinals had just 35 last season -- the pressure was enough to impact opposing quarterbacks and was a significant factor in Arizona’s 11th ranked pass defense.
In order to take some sting out of the loss of Bowles, the Cardinals promoted from within to find a new defensive coordinator. James Bettcher, who served as the outside linebackers coach last season, will take on the role as defensive coordinator. As a Bowles disciple, Arizona is expected to keep the same terminology and scheme for 2015. Some of the looks may not be as creative as Bowles had crafted up, but there should not be a radical change on defense in Phoenix.
The defense will not lack talent in 2015, either. Patrick Peterson, after a down year in 2014, could see a bounce back in performance after getting a blood sugar issue under control that impacted his play last year. Behind him in the secondary is more talent, with Deone Bucannon, Tony Jefferson and Rashad Johnson at safety. Up in front remains Calais Campbell, who continues to be one of the great underrated players in football. Along with a continued breakout from Alex Okafor, who led the team with eight sacks, the front seven should again be a dominant force.
Projected Record: 8.2-7.8
Division Probability: 18.3%
Playoff Probability: 34.9%
1. Seattle Seahawks
Last season, the Seahawks had the best rushing offense in the league. And it wasn’t very close.
Seattle led the league with 0.18 Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt, and the second best rushing offense was Kansas City at 0.06. There was a bigger gap between Seattle and Kansas City than between Kansas City and the 26th ranked Cardinals. Not much of the unit producing that level of efficiency has changed. The biggest departure is center Max Unger, who was traded to New Orleans. But the players behind the line, notably Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson, remain. Both enter the season with new contracts after being the two most productive runners in the league last season. Lynch led all running backs and Wilson led all players in Rushing NEP last season.
The Unger trade could hurt both run blocking and pass protection, but in return the Seahawks got Jimmy Graham, which isn’t too shabby. Graham immediately becomes the best weapon Wilson has had in the passing game since coming into the league in 2012. Considering how efficient the Seahawks have been passing to unheralded players -- Seattle ranked sixth in Adjusted Passing NEP -- having a weapon like Graham could help unlock another level for Wilson and the Seahawks offense. Graham may not see the targets he’s been accustomed to in New Orleans, but he is likely to be the biggest component of the passing game.
When it comes to Seattle, the focus always come to the defense. Even as Wilson has taken up much of the offseason headlines, defense still remains the key for the Seahawks. While we can always project this unit to be among the league’s best -- they were third best by Adjusted NEP per play last season -- the Seahawks could enter the season with a huge question mark that would significantly impact the way they play.
Earl Thomas tore his labrum in the first half the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers. He had surgery in February after not missing a snap in the Super Bowl, but his recovery is expected to make him miss training camp and at least most of the postseason. Ian Rapoport reported Thomas is aiming to be back in action by the third or fourth preseason game to get in shape for the regular season opener, but should his recovery take more time, the way the Seahawks play defense would have to change.
Thomas is the key to the way Seattle plays in the secondary, as his ability to cover sideline to sideline allows cornerbacks Richard Sherman, and now Cary Williams, who replaces Byron Maxwell, to aggressively press at the line of scrimmage before backing out into coverage. Regardless of who would replace Thomas, should he miss time at any point in the season, the specifics of the scheme would have to be altered.
Projected Record: 10.1-5.9
Division Probability: 58.8%
Playoff Probability: 74.4%
Best in the West
It’s almost not fair to the other teams in the division, but the Seahawks are the overwhelming favorite. But they’re not just the favorite in the division -- they have our highest projected win total, and highest odds to make the playoffs, win the division and win the Super Bowl for any team in the League.
If there’s a chance for the Seahawks to go down, it’s probably going to take a prolonged Thomas injury and a hot streak from the Cardinals similar to how they opened the season last year. But, if come playoff time the Seahawks are back to full strength, it really might not matter at all.