Monday, August 27, 2007

False Starts: The NFC West

We turn our attention today to the NFC, starting out West. The conference as a whole is noticeably weaker than the AFC, but with that relative weakness comes a significantly more wide-open field; it’s fairly easy to identify the best half-dozen or so AFC teams, but that’s not true in the FOX Conference. Let’s get right to it, so we can all snicker at Sharkey in December for picking the 49ers. . . .

A little birdie told me that Football Outsiders and their book are pretty awesome.


Your completely objective picks for the 2007 NFC West:

4. Arizona Cardinals

This whole division is pretty bad; trying to pick the West basically comes down to: Whose glaring deficiency is the least crippling?

The Cardinals appear to be headed in the right direction, having fired Denny Green over the offseason. Green’s merits as a coach in general are debatable, but he was clearly not in a good position in Arizona. He does not appear to be well-suited for running a reclamation project; see, for example, his senseless juggling of Josh McCown and Shaun King two years ago. I get the sense that Green expects to win instantly, and while that may be a commendable character trait, it doesn’t fit in Arizona.

To replace Green, the Cardinals imported a big chunk of Bill Cowher’s former Steelers staff, led by new head coach Ken Wisenhunt. (O-Line coach Russ Grimm and special-teams coach Kevin Spencer also left Pittsburgh to join the Arizona staff.) I suspect this will end up a wise move for the franchise; they desperately need some stability at the top, and few did it better than the Steelers.

All of the big names reside on offense. Matt Leinart enters his second year as the unquestioned starter, looking to build off of a fairly successful introduction to the pro game. There’s no reason to suspect he that he won’t improve in 2007, although he’ll probably endure his share of growing pains this year as well. A lot of his success or failure will be based on how much the offensive line improves under Grimm. You can ask Edgerrin James about last year’s offensive line; it was pretty ugly for most of the season (although it seemed to improve later in the season, judging by James’ rushing totals: all three of James’ 100-yard games came over the last third of the season). The Cardinals added Penn State tackle Levi Brown in the first round, and he has taken over the starting right tackle (remember: Leinart is a lefty, making the RT spot the more important one).

James had a terrible year last year, and whether or not that was due to aging or the line play will be important this year: having a decent running game to take the pressure off of the passing game would be a boon. The wideouts (Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald) are great, so if James and the running game can keep defenses honest, the air attack could thrive.

In the end, I just think the Cardinals are at least a year away. The defense outside of safety Adrian Wilson has plenty of holes, and the team needs to give the new staff time to mesh with the young players. We’ll see where things stand next summer.

3. St. Louis Rams

The Rams have a more established core than Arizona, which leads to their higher ranking here. They won’t be headed anywhere fast if they don’t shore up the defense in a hurry, though: while the Cardinals defense is below average, the Rams’ is cover-your-eyes awful.

The St. Louis defense was especially bad against the run, and based on their offseason moves they know it. They signed linebacker Chris Draft, known for his solid play against the run, from Carolina in free agency, then used their first-round pick on Nebraska defensive lineman Adam Carriker. It’s going to take more than two players to solidify that defense, but at least Draft and Carriker point St. Louis in the right direction.

The Rams can still score, but it’s not exactly the Greatest Show on Turf anymore. The Rams made Steven Jackson the focal point of their offense last year, and it paid off with a tidy little 2,334-total-yards season.

The St. Louis usage of Jackson is basically the Bizarro-Kansas City. Instead of plowing their star running back straight into the line 400 times, the Rams gave Jackson a relatively modest 346 carries in 2006. The rest of the touches came from the passing game: Jackson caught 90 balls for 806 yards and three scores to go along with his running numbers. All research done into running-back usage points to the conclusion that catches don’t really make much difference in terms of added injury risk, but an excessive number of carries does. This makes intuitive sense, of course: getting your back out away from the 350-pound monsters and into the terrain ruled my cornerbacks cuts down on the wear and tear. St. Louis understands this.

The passing game is still pretty decent, too. Marc Bulger is one of the top year-in, year-out QBs in football, and he has a nice new long-term contract. Bulger had what was probably his finest season last year, and while he might regress a bit there’s no reason to expect too dramatic a fall. Torry Holt remains an elite receiver, and Isaac Bruce had a surprisingly good year in 2006 as well. The Rams also added Randy McMichael and Drew Bennett in the off-season to compliment their main two wideouts.

It’s too bad that the defense is as crummy as it is, but at the very least the Rams will be worth watching to see how many linebackers Jackson can plow over.

2. Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks have missed their chance. They may have managed to buck recent history by making the playoffs the year after losing the Super Bowl, but that was just the start of their decline. There’s just not really that much left on this squad that isn’t approaching (or already past) its expiration date, so the question will soon become whether or not Mike Holmgren is willing to stick around through a rebuilding phase.

Shaun Alexander had essentially a lost season in 2006, battling foot injuries and never really getting healthy. His 2005 season teetered right on the brink of excessive carries (he got the ball 370 times), and keeping true to history injuries struck the following season. Alexander turns 30 this year (always a nasty age for running backs), and 30-year-old running backs with foot problems don’t tend to age very well. Maurice Morris wasn’t very effective while Alexander was out and Seattle doesn’t have anyone waiting in the wings; it might be time to start planning for life after #37.

QB Matt Hasselbeck dealt with his own injury problems last year, and while he’s probably not looking at the kind of imminent decline that Alexander is facing, he’s not going to be getting a lot of help from the rest of the offense. Without guard Steve Hutchinson, the offensive line took a noticeable dive. Glancing at Football Outsiders’ offensive line stats, Seattle fell from 6th to 30th in Adjusted Line Yards, and from 13th to 26th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Nagging injuries to left tackle Walter Jones only compounded the line issues, and at 33 years old Jones too is likely on the downside of his career.

Hasslebeck’s receiving corps is looking thin as well. Seattle traded long-time Seahawk Darrell Jackson to the 49ers, and added in his place. . .Marcus Pollard? I guess so. Seattle is betting heavily on Deion Branch’s ability to settle in with a full training camp, because there isn’t much else there. They’ll likely try to re-insert Nate Burleson at WR, and D.J. Hackett is currently listed as the #2. Hackett had a pretty decent season last year, so we’ll see if he’s capable of holding down a starting spot.

The Seahawks are undergoing a major overhaul in the secondary as well. Free safety Ken Hamlin signed in Dallas, and strong-sider Michael Boulware has been benched. Seattle brought in Deon Grant and Brian Russell to fill the safety spots. Both are likely to help solidify the pass defense, which will be important after corner Marcus Trufant’s disappointing 2006. Seattle has a fairly solid front line, although the continued absence of DT Marcus Tubbs after microfracture surgery weakens the trenches significantly. Linebacker Lofa Tatupu gives the Seahawks an anchor in the middle, and Julian Peterson played well last year (although Leroy Hill, by all accounts, struggled mightily in pass coverage). The defense looks pretty average (maybe a bit better, depending on the safety transition), but I just don’t see where the points are going to come from. The Seahawks will likely slide even further down the divisional ranks in the future, but they’ve already been passed by at least one team.

1. San Francisco 49ers

If Seattle is on the downward slope, then the 49ers are ready to jump into the divisional penthouse. They’re a testament to how quickly you can turn an NFL team around: a few good staffing hires, a couple of good drafts, and the occasional complementary free-agent signing, and you’re right back in the thick of things. (At least, you are in the NFC West.)

Frank Gore had the obviously great season in 2006, and it looks like he’s just beginning a run as one of the top handful of running backs in all of football. He totaled his 1696 yards on just 312 carries, and like St. Louis the 49ers appear to understand the importance of keeping your running back fresh. Gore added 61 catches, which led the team last year. He’s not likely to repeat that last feat, however—a couple of new additions and an important year of experience should see to that.

As I mentioned in the Seattle section, Darrell Jackson is now a 49er. Granted, he’s had some trouble with dropped passes since. . .well, forever, but he’s an obvious upgrade over the likes to Antonio Bryant. San Francisco also brought in Ashley Lelie, hoping they can capitalize on some of his heretofore untapped potential. He’s shown flashes of high-level talent, but has never been really able to put the whole package together. He’ll get a shot now.

Perhaps the biggest added weapon is simply a healthy and experienced Vernon Davis. Anyone who’s seen an Under Armour ad knows how freaky-built that guy is; he’s like an evolutionary Antonio Gates or something. He’s huge, he’s fast, he’s strong, and he’ll be dominating whoever tries to cover him in the very near future.

It’s going to be on Alex Smith to use these weapons effectively, and I like his chances of doing so. His hands aren’t getting any bigger and he’ll probably always have fumble issues because of it, but he took a noticeable step forward last year in his second season. He’s not an elite talent, but he’s more than capable of holding down an NFL starting job for a long time. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner may have left, but the 9ers wisely promoted from within to fill his vacancy, and Smith will not have to adjust to a new system.

On defense, the 49ers made a huge splash by signing corner Nate Clements from Buffalo to the richest defensive contract in history. He’ll allow the other major defensive signing, safety Michael Lewis, to play up in run support where he belongs, and along with Pro Bowl corner Walt Harris the three form a pretty fearsome defensive backfield. Coach Mike Nolan also feels that he has the personnel in place to run his preferred 3-4 full time this season, having added rookie LB Patrick Willis and free-agent Tully Banta-Cain to go with Manny Lawson. One curious thing on the depth chart, at least right now: Brandon Moore, who according to Pro Football Prospectus “had a superlative season in 2006” appears to have lost his starting job. I haven’t been able to find any reason for this; maybe Derek Smith has just outplayed him. In any case, San Francisco is nicely positioned to win the division not just this year, but for many.

Tomorrow: the NFC South. Click here to view the past editions of False Starts.

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