Four Questions: NFC West
As we do at this time each season, we’ve cornered a group of our analysts and handed them a set of questions designed to pick their brains about what they expect for the upcoming year.
Giving you a glimpse into what they’re thinking as we head into the 2014 season, Ben Stockwell, Sam Monson, Steve Palazzolo and Gordon McGuinness have been good enough to share their answers.
Four analysts, four questions, division by division, next up…
Who wins the division and why?
Sam – Seahawks. I can’t see past Seattle. Not only for the NFC West, but in truth, for the conference and the Super Bowl. It’s tough as hell for a team to repeat in the NFL, but the Seahawks are best placed of any team in years to achieve it, and I think they’ll need to be hammered by injuries to not be in contention come January. Their roster is just too deep almost everywhere, and even the O-line, a bit of a problem area last year, looks better this season.
Ben – Without a shadow of a doubt the best division in the league right now and I foresee the Seattle Seahawks defending their crown in the division at least. I would be surprised to see a drop off in intensity and physicality from Pete Carroll’s team and they are still absolutely stacked with talent in depth and breadth on this roster.
Steve – It’s hard to pick against the defending champion Seahawks as they return so many key players, and they should have the depth to overcome their defensive line losses. The division will be tough once again, but the 49ers could take a step back after having exceptional health for the most part the last couple years, their depth is already being tested. The Cardinals and Rams should be competitive, but Seattle is still the team to beat in the West.
Gordon – Seahawks. They are still the best team in football for me, and they’re lead by a quarterback who is much better than he is given credit for, one downside to Seattle’s success. We saw Percy Harvin make a massive impact in the Super Bowl and, provided he can stay on the field, the Seahawks’ offense is going to be almost as terrifying for opposing teams as their defense.
Which position unit most intrigues you in the division?
Sam – San Francisco’s D-line. Justin Smith and Ray McDonald have been a force for years now, and Glenn Dorsey was quietly excellent as a two-down nose tackle last year. Dorsey will miss at least half the season with a biceps injury, while Smith and McDonald are not the force they once were, plus McDonald has a lingering domestic abuse charge hanging over him. Is this the year the unit fades from the elite?
Ben – If the Arizona Cardinals are to progress and compete for a playoff spot this season then their offensive line has to improve. Can Jonathan Cooper shake off the rust after his injury layoff and live up to his pre-draft billing at left guard? Can Jared Veldheer and Bobby Massie re-discover their form from the second half of the 2012 season when they were the two most improved tackles in the league? If Arizona is to take a playoff spot, the answer to both questions needs to be yes.
Steve – The Rams’ defensive line of first rounders will be fun to watch. Robert Quinn became a dominant player last season while Chris Long is still very good on the other side. I’d still like to see Michael Brockers make some progress and Aaron Donald will be interesting as he was so dominant in college and at the Senior Bowl, I want to see how it translates to the NFL.
Gordon – Seattle’s offensive line. The one unit on the team that struggled in 2013, the Seahawks welcome back a healthy Russell Okung and they’ve opted to go with rookie second-round draft pick Justin Britt on the right side after he beat out Eric Winston in August. While they’ve gone with Britt, he did look to struggle for some of the preseason so they will be hoping for more performances like the one they saw against the San Diego Chargers
Who is your pick for breakout player?
Sam – More of a comeback than an original breakout, but it’s been so long since we have seen Percy Harvin healthy that people seem to be forgetting just how dominant he can be. I expect Harvin to be a devastating weapon for the Seahawks and I don’t think they need to load him up with the kind of workload the Vikings did when he was last so effective. We’ll see Harvin in limited but deadly doses.
Ben – The nine-game suspension handed down to Aldon Smith affords Corey Lemonier the opportunity that Smith’s absence presented him in his rookie season, the chance to be an impact pass rusher. Lemonier won’t be a full-time player but, like a year ago, he will carry the burden as a pass rusher. In a three-game spell against the Texans, Cardinals and Titans in 2013, Lemonier notched 14 pressures (1 Sk, 1 Ht, 12 Hu) and I can see a similar impact as a specialist pass rusher this year.
Steve – I’m very interested to see Cornelius Carradine in his first NFL action, especially as he transitions into more of an interior pass rusher. He may not be ready to hold up against the run on early downs, but he has overmatched guards at times during the preseason and he has a chance to become a valuable interior rusher in the 49ers’ sub-packages.
Gordon – He might just be a rookie, but I really liked what I saw of wide receiver John Brown in Arizona this preseason. There’s space for him to have a big year as the Cardinals’ third receiver, and if this preseason is anything to go by, he’s more than capable of a big play or two.
Which rookie has the biggest impact, for good or bad?
Sam – Last season plenty of people were excited about Zac Stacy, but in all honesty, I think the running back position in St. Louis is still there to be won, and Tre Mason is going to be the guy to take advantage of that. His stats in preseason have been less than stellar, but that’s more down to the Rams’ blocking than anything he has done. I expect that line to struggle at times, and if they do Mason will maximise the yardage on his own more than the other running backs in the stable.
Ben – I picked Aaron Donald to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award at the start of the week, so I guess I’d best stick his name down here. The Rams have a terrific edge rush but they really lacked any sort of an inside presence in the passing game last season. Donald should add that and if he can, the Rams will not be a team that you want to be chasing on the scoreboard.
Steve – With RT Breno Giacomini moving on, the Seahawks will thrust second-rounder Justin Britt into the starting role. Seattle’s line wasn’t great last year, despite their offensive success, so the spotlight will be on Britt from the get-go.
Gordon – Jimmie Ward looks like the nickel corner in his rookie season in San Francisco, and he came off decent in preseason. He graded positively against the run, and allowed just 48 yards through the air in August, and looks like another good player on that San Francisco defense.
Also see… Four Questions: