2016 NFL Preview: The NFC West

In a division where defense usually dictates who comes out on top, the 2016 NFC West may have a different feel to it. Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense has lost pieces over the years and those players who remain have gotten older; Arizona plays a tough style of defense but they go as far as that offense will take them; the Rams and Jeff Fisher are tough divisional opponents for anyone in the West, but that defense is not top tier in the NFC; and San Francisco has Chip Kelly running things — how defensive-minded can they be out there?

Look for the team with the most explosive offense to run this division. I expect all the defenses in this division to take a step backwards.

 

Arizona Cardinals

David Johnson will have a difficult time reaching the 1,000 yard rushing plateau; but he will amass 1,700 total yards from scrimmage.

Everyone expects the second year RB to have an incredible year. Johnson had explosive games — mostly receiving and returning — in 2015 that grabbed everyone’s attention. But it wasn’t until the end of the season that Johnson NFL: NFC Championship-Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthersgot the bulk of the carries, due to injuries to Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson. In only two games, Johnson carried the ball over 20 times and in only three did he surpass the 90 yard marker in rushing.

Head coach Bruce Arians and the coaching staff have said they will rotate their backs and plan to divide up time between the three. But Johnson’s game is much more versatile than either Ellington’s or C. Johnson’s — he can catch the ball and collect yards after the catch. However, he’s not a running back that’s going to make his money by running in between the tackles; Johnson will cut outside and get to the edge as much as possible.

Quarterback Carson Palmer will utilize Johnson’s pass catching ability along with the slew of other receiving weapons he has — Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Michael Floyd, and J.J. Nelson. Whatever Johnson’s able to do on the ground might be gravy. This offense may be good enough without a 1,000-yard rusher to win the NFC West. And possibly much more.

 

Seattle Seahawks

The defense’s streak of 4 straight seasons of leading the league in points against will come to a crashing halt.

Pete Carroll’s defensive coaching staff has taken a few hits over the years since their Super Bowl victory in the Meadowlands over the Denver Broncos. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley left to be the head man in Jacksonville; 12974237and Dan Quinn departed a year later to rebuild the Atlanta Falcons. All the while, the Seattle defense has remained as dominant as ever. But it’s hard to stay at the top — and the Legion of Boom have been at the top for a while.

The biggest reason for a decline in the Seahawks defense in 2016 will be their offense. Not following? Well, if the Seattle offense struggles — and it looks like that could happen — then the pressure on the defense increases. Reasons for the offensive struggles: (1) the offensive line is horrendous — ranked 27th in efficiency in 2015; (2) Russell Wilson doesn’t exactly have the greatest receiving weapons — Doug Baldwin overachieved in ’15 and Jimmy Graham remains MIA; and (3) Marshawn Lynch has retired and Seattle’s backfield features 5 players who’ve got less than a full season of experience, combined — three haven’t played a single snap yet in the league.

If Seattle’s defense is able to maintain it’s reign on their perch, then this team will be very very good. But I’m not convinced the 2016 version is anything like the previous years’.

 

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams return to LA is full of ups and downs, but in the end Jeff Fisher will have them at .500.

If you’ve watched any of this season’s episodes of the HBO series Hard Knocks, then you know that this Rams team has the potential to be quite entertaining. The problem is their entertainment value comes mostly from their personalities, not so much their play on the field.

Rookie quarterback Jared Goff will undoubtedly take over at some point and the team will get to see what their todd-gurley-011115-getty-ftrjpg_k3yhhb2ijxpq17cqttullpn2ifuture looks like. They know what they have in running back Todd Gurley and can be assured he is going to be their workhorse for years to come. Head coach Jeff Fisher is at home in Southern California and will likely be given a couple years to make this transition from St. Louis become successful.

But the West is tough and the Rams just aren’t good enough to really compete. However, they will play good enough defense when they need to — especially in the division against Seattle and SF — and should start to become more consistent on offense as the season wears on, as Goff becomes more and more comfortable. But the ups and downs probably all even out in the end. There’s definitely opportunity for growth and success in 2017.

 

San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick will start the majority of games for the Niners and will finish among the top 10 QBs in most major statistical categories.

I know, I know — Blaine Gabbert this and Blaine Gabbert that. The former Missouri Tiger filled in admirably in 119373652015, as the 49ers were undergoing many changes offensively and defensively. Gabbert started 8 games and threw for 250 yards per game while averaging just over one touchdown in each.

In 2016, more changes have arrived in the Bay Area — and they come in the form of new head coach Chip Kelly. Since Kelly’s arrival from Philly this past winter, the talk has been all about how much the innovative, offensive-minded Kelly likes Blaine Gabbert — even though most of us with half a brain see what seems like a perfect marriage in Kelly and the other quarterback in SF, Colin Kaepernick. After 3 straight NFC Championship games (2012-14) and one Super Bowl appearance (and one Michael Crabtree catch away from winning that Super Bowl), the 49ers shouldn’t have to think back too far to remember how good Kaepernick can be. He’s got an arm that makes me think of Ken Griffey Jr’s swing with a baseball bat — fluid, loose; he’s got imagination and creativity — something Chip Kelly appreciates; and he’s got the ability to run, run, run — just ask the Green Bay Packers.

Kaepernick’s “dead arm” has put the QB competition on hold for most of training camp and the preseason, but it appears Kaep is ready to get back on the field as the preseason wraps up. If he performs how we all know he can, there won’t be much of a competition. And if he and Kelly can have the type of player-coach relationship that Kaepernick had with former coach Jim Harbaugh, expect the QB to win Comeback Player of the Year.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

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The Fantasy 3: 2016 “Busts”

The number one thing most fantasy players do when projecting their version of the “Mel Kiper Big Board” prior to their draft is look at stats from the previous year. Yes, it seems sensible; yes, it’s helpful; yes, it has value in it; but no, it’s not giving you the whole picture. For instance, it’s really easy to get fooled by one season’s worth of greatness – or, on the opposite end, a season’s worth of underachieving. My point – collect more data, look at trends, and don’t get stuck on what your memory most easily and recently recalls.

Now let me explain – when I say “bust” I mean that they will likely be drafted too highly and will not be able to live up to the expectations that come with being taken so highly. Rather, I’d love to have any or all of these guys if it means I can grab them on the cheap – 1, 2, 3, maybe even 4 rounds lower than what their current ADP is. Here’s three players that I’d put in the “bust” category.

 

David Johnson

I find it a little funny that I’ve included Johnson on this list. I think he’s going to have a great season and will be a david-johnsonthreat as a runner and a pass-catcher; he’s young; and he’s in Bruce Arians’s high-octane offense. What’s not to like, right? But again, like I said, it’s about value. Johnson is going as high as 4 or 5 in PPR leagues. To spend a top 5 pick on the Cardinal running back, could be unwise.

While everyone will remember Johnson’s explosiveness and in particular his week 15 performance in the the fantasy playoffs where he torched the Eagles’ defense, we can’t be dismissive of some red flags that potentially exist: (1) Johnson is the worst projected 1st round RB when running in between the tackles — averaged 5.88 ypc outside the edge, but only 3.0 when rushing inside; (2) his rushing isn’t necessarily his strong suit — it’s his pass catching ability — so how will he respond when defenses begin curbing his production; and (3) the Arizona coaching staff relied on running back by committee for most of last season and have hinted at doing the same this year.

I expect Johnson to be very good this year — and will be a great RB1. I’d just prefer to get him with a second round pick and not a first. But with elite, top tier RBs in low supply this year, I don’t think he’ll get out of the first round.

 

Jordan Reed

Another player I love winds up on the “Bust List”. Like Johnson, I think Reed is an exceptional player and one of jordan-reed-050516-getty-ftrjpg_m2cqy1m9mgr01o07d29kw47knthe best at his position. One key difference between the two, though, is the injury history with Reed. The Washington tight end is going in the 4th round in drafts — and in many ways that’s understandable. He’s coming off a season in which he caught 87 passes for almost 1,000 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. Probably behind Gronkowski and Eifert, Reed is the next TE people want (add Olsen in that conversation too). But beware of three areas of concern with Reed.

First, this isn’t a guy who skates along injury free most years. In 5 years, Reed has suffered 5 concussions and 3 hamstring injuries. Second, Kirk Cousins will have a young, big, speedy WR on the outside in Josh Doctson that will likely take some looks away from the tight end. Lastly, in the two seasons prior to 2015, Reed never caught more than 50 balls for 500 yards nor did he score more than 3 touchdowns. You can easily argue 2015 was an anomaly — and with the injury history, it’s hard to take Reed at that ADP without feeling a sense of buyer’s remorse.

 

Thomas Rawls

The Seattle RB is currently going off the board in fantasy drafts in the 4th round. You heard me right. Let’s remember what Rawls is and what he’s proven (or not proven) in the NFL up to this point — he came to Seattle as Thomas-Rawlsan undrafted free agent and in his rookie season, started a whopping 7 games. Talk about a small sample size.

Take a couple other pieces of information into consideration before thinking I’m nuts and Rawls is the next Marshawn Lynch in Seattle. One, the Seahawks became the first and only team since 2000 to draft not 1, not 2, but 3 running backs in one draft. Not to mention Christine Michael is still there in the Seahawks backfield. So to think Rawls is going to win the starting job handily or to take for granted that he will get the bulk of the carries in a backfield that consists of 4 other RBs seems a little hasty.

Secondly, Seattle’s offensive line is widely recognized as less than average. They’re pretty fortunate that Russell Wilson is so mobile and elusive.

And three — just for good measure — Rawls injured his ankle at the end of last season and is still not fully recovered. Seattle has not disclosed how much preseason play the second year back will see, but it’s not likely to be very much.

 

Feedback is always welcome through the website in the comments box or on my Twitter feed — @brian22goodwin.

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