2018 Countdown To Kickoff Power Rankings: NFC West
The Zone Press’ fifth annual countdown to kickoff is underway. Just like last year, we’re going division by division. Next, we take a look at the NFC West.
1. Los Angeles Rams (Overall Power Ranking: 2)
2017 Results: 11-5 (Lost in Wildcard Round)
What a difference a year and a new coach makes. For years the Rams have been mired in mediocrity despite many pundits stating there was talent on the roster. Last year, the talent finally played up to their potential. And again, all it took was a change in coaching. Under Sean McVay, the Rams offense found new life. They went from the absolute worst to one of the best units in the league. Jared Goff looked like he couldn’t even throw a football in his rookie season. Last year, he looked like a long-term franchise quarterback. Todd Gurley looked like the best offensive player in the league. Wade Phillips led an improvement on the defensive side of the ball as well. And with that, the Rams were a playoff team for the first time since 2004. Repeated shots in the foot cost them in their playoff game against Atlanta, but it’s clear that this team is on the rise. Management got the memo, and decided now is the time for the Rams to go all in on a championship. The Rams look the part of the Los Angeles football glamour team. Now, they have to show consistency and prove they’re not a flash in the pan.
Key Additions: Brandin Cooks, Ndamukong Suh, Ramik Wilson, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, and Sam Shields.
Key Losses: Sammy Watkins, Derek Carrier, Robert Quinn, Connor Barwin, Alec Ogletree, Trumaine Johnson, Kayvon Webster, Cody Lewis
Defense: There’s an old saying that defense wins championships, and that seems to be what the Rams believe. The Rams basically have an all-new secondary thanks to their star-studded acquisitions at cornerback. Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib are considered two of the best cornerbacks in the league. Now, they’re on the same roster along with Sam Shields and Nickell Robey-Coleman. According to Pro Football Focus, the Rams’ cornerbacks have allowed a passer rating of 94.1 when targeted. The four corners previously mentioned allowed only a 76.5 passer rating when targeted. It will be very tough to pass on this unit. And if that weren’t bad enough for opposing teams, the Rams loaded up on the defensive line as well. The pairing of Suh and Aaron Donald will be very scary to see. And with Wade Phillips calling the plays, opposing teams could be in for a long season.
A Trio to Watch: The Rams also made upgrades at receiver during the offseason. After reports of them targeting Odell Beckham Jr., the Rams managed to get Brandin Cooks from the Patriots. Cooks is one of the deep threat receivers in the league and at only 25 years old. Goff and Gurley are both only 23 years old. So we could be seeing the birth of a very special offensive unit with these three. Gurley is arguably the most versatile back in the NFL with his ability to make plays via the run or pass. Cooks was one of just four receivers with 30 or more deep passing targets and rarely drops the ball once he gets his hands on it. Goff proved that he can play at the NFL level, and also proved that he can throw a good deep ball. According to PFF, Goff had a 99.5 passer rating and a 4:1 touchdown to interception ratio on deep passes.
A New Challenge: Those who read this blog over the course of last season knows that I am fond of issuing challenges to the Rams. Those challenges included beating winning teams, slamming the door on the Seahawks, and winning the division. The new challenge for the Rams will be to prove they’re here to stay. There’s a difference between winning when no one sees you coming, and winning when everyone sees you coming. Despite the hype, the Rams will need to show that they’re not a fluke. In the NFL, teams come and go every year. Some are good for a year and aren’t good again for another decade. So we’ll see if the Rams have consistency and staying power.
Season Outlook: Expectations are sky high for the Rams, and that can be dangerous. All in runs in sports are never a sure thing. We’ve seen teams win the offseason and then stink once the season starts. NFL fans remember the ‘Dream Team’ Eagles that only won eight games and missed the playoffs. Or how about the times when the Redskins won the offseason? Offseason champion doesn’t always equate to Super Bowl champion. So with that said, the Rams are the ultimate boom or bust team. I could see them in the Super Bowl in February, or fishing by the end of December.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Cooper Kupp
2. San Francisco 49ers (Overall Power Ranking: 12)
2017 Results: 6-10 (4th in NFC West)
It was a tale of two seasons for the San Francisco 49ers. They started the season looking like one of the worst teams in the NFL. Their offense was at the bottom of the league and they were looking like a team destined to be a laughingstock. And then, a trade was made the day before Halloween. The 49ers acquired then Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in exchange for a second-round pick. After taking a few games to learn the playbook, Garoppolo was handed the keys to the car. He started the final games for the Niners, and he won every single one of them. The Niners basically sprung up from the dead. Players looked like they were having fun and enthusiastic to go out and play. Fans had a reason to hope. One trade and on player did all of that. For the first time since the Jim Harbaugh era, there’s optimism and promise in San Francisco. But can Garoppolo sustain the level of play we've seen? And how good can the Niners be moving forward?
Key Additions: Jerick McKinnon, Johnathan Cooper, Weston Richburg, Jeremiah Attaochu, and Richard Sherman.
Key Losses: Carols Hyde, Trent Brown, Zane Beadles, Daniel Kilgore, Aaron Lynch, Tank Carradine, Elvis Dumervil, Dontae Johnson, and Eric Reid.
Jimmy G: The Niners wasted no time in paying the man as their franchise quarterback. Furthermore, the media hasn’t been shy about the hype they’re heaping on him. While Jimmy G does have the tools to be great, his résumé is still too short. He has only dropped back to pass 297 times in his career and has a 7:5 touchdown to interception ratio. The highlight of his career thus far is shredding the Jaguars defense. Back to the intangibles, there are numbers that do support the hype. According to PFF, Garoppolo was the third-highest graded quarterback from a clean pocket last season. Furthermore, he was the third-most accurate quarterback when throwing to open receivers according to PFF’s ball location data. So with the right tools around him, he should be fine…should be.
Offensive Supporting Cast: While Garoppolo will garner most of the attention and the headlines, it will be his supporting cast that will really be interesting to watch. Jerick McKinnon will be the lead back for the Niners this season. In Minnesota, McKinnon was used as a running back and a pass-catching option. Up front, the Niners will have three new starters on the O-line. The receivers to watch will be Marquise Goodwin, Pierre Garcon, and second-round pick Dante Pettis. And with a year under Kyle Shanahan’s system, the Niners offense should be well adjusted enough to put up good numbers.
Secondary: San Francisco invested heavily in the rebuilding of their secondary, but there are still a lot of question marks. Richard Sherman is the headliner of the aforementioned investments. While he’s routinely been on the short list of best corners in the league, he is coming off of an Achilles injury at age 30. Cornerback requires top-notch fast-twitch ability. So we’ll see how Sherman can rebind from this injury. On the second day of the draft, the Niners drafted Fred Warner and Tarvarius Moore. As for returning players, Jimmie Ward is back. The problem is he’s a jack of many trades but has yet to master one in the secondary. K’Waun Williams played well down the stretch, and will likely be a starter in the slot. But if Sherman can’t retain the bulk of his ability, this unit could become a problem for the team.
Season Outlook: This time last year, the Niners were at the bottom of the league as one of the rebuilding teams. Now they’re in a position to make the playoffs. With all eyes on the Rams and their big-name acquisitions, the Niners will be able to fly under the radar. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them win the division outright. The expectations and reality of the Niners spell playoff contender.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Jerick McKinnon
3. Seattle Seahawks (Overall Power Ranking: 23)
2017 Results: 9-7 (2nd in NFC West)
It’s been a slow slide down to this point for the Seattle Seahawks. Ever since the goal line debacle in Super Bowl XLIX, they haven’t been the same team. What could’ve been a dynastic level team has now hit rock bottom. The Seahawks missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011 as their identity shift was completed. What was once the pentacle of physical football and intimidation is now in the midst of a rebuild. In other words, the Legion of Boom era in Seattle is no more. Now the Seahawks will be built around their franchise quarterback, and they will try to recapture that competitive magic that Pete Carrol installed back in the beginning. The Seahawks organization mastered the art of drafting, developing, and team building en route to their Super Bowl triumph. Now it’s time to begin the process again.
Key Additions: Brandon Marshall, Jaron Brown, Ed Dickson, D.J. Fluker, Tom Johnson, Shamar Stephen, Barkevious Mingo, Dontae Johnson, Rashaad Penny, and Sebastian Janikowski.
Key Losses: Jimmy Graham, Richard Sherman, Luke Wilson, Luke Joeckel, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Sheldon Richardson, Jeremy Lane, Deshawn Shead, Kam Chancellor, Thomas Rawls, and Paul Richardson.
End Of An Era: It seemed like just yesterday that the Legion of Boom was dominating the league through their defense. Now, their era is left to the annals of history. Each member of the Legion of Boom are either on another team, retired, or soon to be traded (we think). As it stands now, Earl Thomas is the last one left and has requested a trade that has yet to be granted. Also, the Seahawks have lost players like Avril and Bennett from their defensive line. Their ability to get pressure on every level is what made their defense great. Now, the Seahawks have to start anew. But at least they have familiar faces ready to lead the way.
Returning Leaders: During times of turmoil, it’s a luxury to have steady leadership. On offense, the Seahawks have Russell Wilson. Last season, an argument can be made that the Seahawks offense turned into the Russell Wilson show. He led the team in Rushing and got the lion’s share of the team’s yardage on his own. If he didn’t have it, the Seahawks suffered for it. Seattle drafted Rashaad Penny to help alleviate that burden. And if he’s not enough at running back, the Seahawks have four other backs to lean on. But I doubt it will be enough to help (more on that in a second). On defense. Bobby Wagner is the clear leader. He’s a sure tackler with a high football IQ. It’s as if he’s the last of the Legion of Boom era. He will have to lead the unit who’s declined on each level of the defense.
Offensive Line: One thing that was easy to notice last season was the fact that Wilson was often running for his life. The blocking on offense has been a long-standing issue that has yet to be fully addressed. The most the Seattle front office did was get Duane Brown in a trade with the Texans. And while that did help on the blindside, it still wasn’t enough. The Seahawks didn’t really address the line outside of signing marginal blockers such as D.J. Fluker and Jamarco Jones. Which means we can expect more of Wilson running for his life. And remember that running back help I previously mentioned? What difference does that make if blocks aren’t being executed? This could prove troublesome in the long run.
Season Outlook: The Seahawks’ roster regressions will likely prove too great to overcome. Their defense will slide down the rankings and they once again failed to invest on the offensive line. At best, this is an even win team trending in the wrong direction.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Jaron Brown
4. Arizona Cardinals (Overall Power Ranking: 24)
2017 Results: 8-8 (3rd in NFC West)
Under the Bruce Arians era, the Cardinals loved to invest in veterans. And for a time, it looked to be a wise investment until the injuries starting piling up. And boy did they pile up last season when they lost many of their key players. Over their last six games, three different quarterbacks threw passes and Arizona banged to win four games. Now Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer have decided to call it a career and the Cardinals are now back at the drawing board. They have a new Head Coach in Steve Wilks and two new quarterbacks. They still have one of the best running backs in the league once he returns to the field, a few usual suspects, and a rising star on defense. But make no mistake about it, this team is rebuilding. And how long it takes to complete his a difficult question to answer.
Key Additions: Sam Bradford, Josh Rosen, Brice Butler, Andre Smith, Justin Pugh, Jamar Taylor, Marcus Williams, and Bene Benwikere.
Key Losses: Adrian Peterson, John Brown, Troy Niklas, Jared Veldheer, Tyrann Mathieu, Justin Bethel, Tyvon Branch, Xavier Williams, and Karlos Dansby.
Bradford and Rosen: Sam Bradford was one of three quarterbacks to depart from Minnesota during the offseason. He only played one full game as a starter for the Vikings, but he did show flashes in that game. He will start the season off as the starter, but I wouldn’t expect that to last too much longer. The first reason is that he’s only on a one-year deal. Secondly, the Cardinals traded up in the draft and selected Josh Rosen. Rosen was considered in some circles to be the best quarterback in the 2018 draft. It’s really only a matter of time before the Cardinals give Rosen a look. The only question is when will that happen.
David Johnson’s Return: Two years ago, you could make the argument that David Johnson was the best running back in the league. He displayed a unique versatility in his last healthy season as a back that can hurt teams via run or pass. In 2016, he ran 509 routes while being targeted 107 times. His injury was one of the reasons the Cardinals offense struggled last season. His return will make life easier for Bradford and Rosen.
Receivers: Larry Fitzgerald has been a fixture in Arizona for years. All that’s left to decide is who will be starting opposite of him as the number two receiver. Christian Kirk has reportedly been turning heads thus far in camp and the preseason. Chad Williams also had a good showing during the preseason and Brice Butler was considered the favorite when he was picked up in free agency. Either way, they will be considered thin at the position after Fitzgerald.
Season Outlook: While the Cardinals have some star power on their roster, but that doesn’t cover up their problems on the offensive line and lack of depth on defense. I firmly believe that they will turn to Rosen at some point, and that will likely expose this season for what it is. The Cardinals are rebuilding and will have to be patient. The playoffs will be out of their reach for now.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Christian Kirk