Chip Kelly, the new head coach for the San Francisco 49ers, poses at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., after being introduced during a Wednesday morning press conference, Jan. 20, 2016. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Bruce Arians has done marvelous work out in the desert, transforming the Cardinals from one of the league’s worst into a model of consistency. Arians has complied a 35-16 record in three seasons, and overtook the Seahawks for the division crown a year ago.
The biggest problem facing the Cardinals is quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer’s poor performances in the post-season throughout his career is the dark cloud of doubt that hovers over this team. During the regular season, Palmer put up MVP-caliber numbers. Durability is always a concern for the former top overall pick.
Arizona has built up one of the deepest backfields in the league. David Johnson was a revelation midway through the season, showing great ability as both a runner and receiver. Veteran Chris Johnson was another player salvaged off of the scrap heap by Arians, and has found new life with the Cardinals. Andre Ellington, a former starter, is still young and offers explosiveness off of the bench.
Another brilliant move by Arians last season was to stick wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald into the slot. Fitzgerald turned in his most productive season in years, responding with a 100-catch, 1,200-yard season while adding nine scores. John Brown and Michael Floyd have developed into potent outside weapons.
The Cardinals’ defense was a top-five unit a year ago, but struggled to generate sacks. Veteran Dwight Freeney led the team with eight. The team has looked to upgrade that aspect by trading for New England pass rusher Chandler Jones, who posted double-digit sacks a year ago.
The secondary will take a step back following the loss of safety Rashad Johnson, who many viewed as the quarterback of the defense.
Arizona’s championship window is open. At this point, they’ve surpassed Seattle in the division, now they need Carson Palmer to put things together in the playoffs.
Projected Finish: 12-4, 1st Place
The Seahawks need to do a bit of retooling.
Key pieces of their Super Bowl teams are slowly beginning to leave the team, and they haven’t added enough talent in some areas to replace them.
What’s been lost during the Seahawks’ success over the last few years is that this team hasn’t drafted well. 2011 and 2012 first-rounders James Carpenter and Bruce Irvin are playing for other teams.
Until this past April, the team didn’t have a first-round pick in the previous three seasons.
Their top second-round picks from 2013 (running back Christine Michael), 2014 (wide receiver Paul Richardson), and 2015 (defensive end Frank Clark) have been non-factors or disappointments.
Jimmy Graham, whom they parted with their 2015 first-rounder to acquire, was a poor fit for the offense, and also suffered a knee injury that could cause him to miss the start of the season.
Marshawn Lynch, the heart and soul of the offense for years, has finally decided to retire following an injury-plagued campaign. Thomas Rawls had some nice games in Lynch’s place, but battled some injuries of his own. The club spent a third-rounder on C.J. Prosise to add some depth to the position.
Fortunately, Russell Wilson is still ascending, and is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league, tossing 34 touchdowns to just eight interceptions a year ago. Doug Baldwin put up over 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns, but isn’t likely to repeat those scoring figures. Tyler Lockett is a guy who could still develop further, and Jermaine Kearse is a steady option that Wilson trusts.
The offensive line is going to be an issue. Russell Okung departed in free agency, along with guard J.R. Sweezy. Losing Max Unger in the Graham trade hurt the team. The club used their first-rounder on Germain Ifedi, who should begin his career at guard.
The Seattle defense is still strong. They return nine of their defensive starters from a year ago, and added defensive tackle Jarran Reed in the second round. Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor are still anchoring the secondary, with middle linebacker Bobby Wagner quietly one of the best middle linebackers in the game.
The Seahawks are still a contender in the NFC, but they aren’t quite as strong as they’ve been in the past. The offense could have some serious concerns if the wide receivers don’t develop, but this is still is a solid team that no playoff team will want to face as a Wild Card in January.
Projected Finish: 11-5, 2nd Place
Los Angeles Rams
Count me among the people that asks the following question every year.
How does Jeff Fisher still have a head coaching job in this league?
Fisher, who has posted a horrendous 27-36-1 mark with the Rams, has done very little to improve the team since his arrival five years ago.
The sad reality is that Fisher has likely bought himself at least two more seasons with the Rams thanks to the team’s trade up to the top of the draft to select Jared Goff. Fisher will invoke the “I need time to develop my franchise quarterback” excuse to get the extension he needs, and he’ll even supplement it by playing placeholder quarterback Case Keenum at the start of the season, allowing the season to end before Goff begins his development.
Whenever I want to feel better about the Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receiver situation, I simply look over the wretched talent that Fisher has put together during his tenure with the Rams. Tavon Austin was the team’s leading receiver with 52 catches for 473 yards and five touchdowns. Kenny Britt, the other starter, caught 36 for 681. It’s unbelievable that Fisher has been unable to do better than these two stiffs, and that he continues to roll them both out year after year.
Todd Gurley has become the face of the franchise, bursting on to the scene with 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns in just 13 games. Defenses will key in on him in his second season, and make it harder for him to repeat the performances he had a year ago.
The defense has been solid, but lost several starters, including Rodney McLeod and Janaoris Jenkins in the secondary.
The Rams will continue to be a plodding, mediocre team as long as Fisher remains in power.
Projected Finish: 6-10, 3rd Place
San Francisco 49ers
Oh, how the might have fallen.
Just a few years ago, the 49ers were an annual contender under Jim Harbaugh, but bizarre treatment of the head coach by the front office has led to a horrendous demise, capped off by the hiring of egomaniac Chip Kelly, fresh off of a season in which his various flawed philosophies were completely exposed in Philadelphia.
Kelly’s early success in Philadelphia was made possible by two key factors.
The first is that Kelly walked into a situation where Andy Reid left behind a cupboard stuffed with talented offensive players. The second was that the NFC East was (and still is) one of the most pitiful divisions in all of football. Add in the fact that in 2013, there wasn’t any tape of Kelly’s offensive tendencies to go off of, and you have the perfect recipe for a couple of hollow winning seasons that Chip obtained.
As Kelly arrogantly began to rid the Eagles of their best talent while failing to adjust or improve on his schemes, the league quickly caught up to him.
This time, their isn’t any talent for Kelly destroy, and he’s no longer in the powderpuff NFC East. Instead, he’s in NFC West, which has two legitimate Super Bowl contenders in Arizona and Seattle, both teams obliterated and humiliated Kelly in previous meetings with the Eagles.
The gutted roster with Jaguar reject Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick vying for the quarterback job, and a defense with just a few of the players of the once proud unit remaining has very little chance to win a lot of games this season.
Expect the 49ers to be ranked near the bottom of the league in time of possession, expect their defense to log more plays than any other team in the league, and expect Chip Kelly to be a punching bag in one of the toughest divisions in the league.
Projected Finish: 4-12, 4th Place