Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
15 Aug 2012
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: Well, we did east last week, Mike. Do you have another preferred cardinal direction?
Mike: d6 says ... 5, so, west.
Tom: We'll start with the NFC again, so...
Mike: Always fun to talk about Steelers West.
Tom: Todd Haley is now the Steelers' offensive coordinator. The teams are now fully cross-pollinated instead of all the shared material going in one direction.
Tom: Like the Steelers before this year, the Cardinals share the affliction of "Who needs an offensive line, really?"
Mike: Let's not get ahead of ourselves, the Steelers line still has a lot to prove. Actually, considering the Pirates' past week or so, I'm all for talking about the Steelers.
Tom: We'll talk about the Steelers when we talk about the Steelers. While Ben Muth was complimentary of his play, I trust no offensive line that has Levi Brown as a starter at left tackle. Also, formally disavowing my affection for Kevin Kolb is an even better move in hindsight than it was at the time.
Mike: That's a very clever way of saying you were wrong.
Tom: As noted in FOA 2012, he may be better than John Skelton, but that's not exactly setting the world on fire. And that's not what I meant at all. I'm humblebragging. Except without most of the humility.
Mike: Or the coherence.
Tom: What I was trying to say is that I don't expect the Cardinals to get very good quarterback play this year.
Mike: Then why didn't you just say so? Fancy-pants lawyerman. Anyway, I agree. I think the line for this is, like many of the lines for the eastern divisions, just about perfect.
Tom: Pretty much. The Cardinals are a bad, but not really terrible, team in a bad division.
Mike: It's just another one of these teams with an extremely low overall talent level.
Tom: Unlike most bad teams, though the Cardinals have a couple of standout players. Larry Fitzgerald, of course, plus Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, and Patrick Peterson on defense. It's just that they can't make up for the guys around them.
Mike: Right, which makes the thought that they're just a quarterback away understandable. Perhaps they're a bit more cognizant of their shortcomings than I give the team credit for, but they didn't pull out all the stops to get Peyton Manning. It's just a shame that Kolb is costing a pretty penny for pathetic performance.
Tom: Aside from that, y'know, they did at least try to get Manning.
Mike: While true, there is a difference between attempting to secure the top free agent and selling out completely to secure him. You always have a shot at a free agent. It's whether you're willing to give up enough to take that shot.
Tom: Eh. We don't know for sure how serious their pursuit was and how much it was they didn't have a shot to get him. I'd cite the counterexample of Mike Tolbert taking less money to go to Carolina, but let's move on.
(You just did. -ed)
Anyway, the Cardinals would have been a much better team with Manning. On that, I think we both agree. Looking at the schedule, it's hard for me to find eight games I feel really comfortable about the Cardinals winning. Under.
Mike: What? The Cardinals have an easy schedule and they're still in a terrible division. Over.
Tom: Also known as my dark horse. I may be crazy, but I would absolutely bet on this team at current odds to win the division.
Mike: You are crazy.
Tom: They played a very hard schedule the first half of last season, then everybody got hurt.
Mike: Much like the year previous, where they played decently, and then everyone got hurt.
Tom: If Jeff Fisher can bring some of the excellent health Tennessee enjoyed the last five or so years of his tenure there, the Rams could be a lot better pretty easily.
Mike: Health is a skill. One the Rams clearly do not have. How on Earth is one year of Fisher going to magically instill this ability?
Tom: Bad health is sometimes also a result of poor training. Anecdotal data suggests that's been a problem in St. Louis, one I think a Fisher regime could help avoid. I also think Fisher's preferred run-first conservative style could really help the Rams improve. Adding Cortland Finnegan helps an injury-riddled and not great secondary, and I like some of their defensive pieces.
Mike: A Fisher regime might provide some benefit, but I doubt he is firing all of the conditioning staff.
Tom: While their offense isn't great, Fisher's ball-control style doesn't require great offense, just a good running back. He also did try to hire strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson away from Tennessee, but the Titans blocked the move. The Rams will enter the season with the same trainer and strength and conditioning coach.
Mike: So basically there will be no actual difference between the 2011 Rams and the 2012 Rams. Right. So expect a lot of injuries in St. Louis this year. Again.
Tom: I still believe in Fisher.
Mike: Anyway, Fisher is the right man for this job and I think he will have a lot of success, especially now that the Rams are in tear-it-down mode, or at least more committed to that plan than they were before. Ironically, they will almost certainly finish with a better record despite spending the season working heavily on their younger talent.
Tom: By saying I think they could win the division, I'm not expecting more than 8-8 or 9-7. And Fisher's gone 8-8 with a 6-10-type team before.
Mike: Hah! I think that's a stretch, this year. I think next year that is a very reasonable goal, and the year after that the Rams will start creeping back into contender status. They're still going to be terrible this year, though. Under.
Tom: Bah, I'm out on my limb. Over.
Tom: I think the team itself recognized at some level that 2011 was a bit of a fluke, or at least that their receiving corps was a bit of a disaster last year. Our projection system comes out boldly in one direction on the 49ers, as readers may have heard. So, Mike, do you buy what FOA is selling, or does Jim Harbaugh have the power of beating the trends?
Mike: I don't really understand why FOA is so low on them. It's not just a matter of whether Harbaugh has magic powers, though.
Tom: It's not? I'm crushed.
Mike: Most importantly, the defensive front seven is still quality and the offensive line, I think, will benefit greatly from Harbaugh's actual expertise, if not his arcana.
Tom: Motivation, play design, and being Not Mike Singletary?
Mike: Yes, yes, and yes. Also an understanding of how defenses attack offensive lines, and another year with his staff to put that knowledge into practice. I don't think San Francisco will be an offensive juggernaut, but I think their defense will be very good and their offense will be better than last year. I am getting really, really sick of these whole-number lines, because this one in particular is forcing me to go with the Over.
Tom: I get that, but I struggle to see a "skill position" player beyond Vernon Davis I see as particularly good. Combined with a natural amount of regression on defense and special teams, that's Under.
Mike: I'm really looking forward to Matt "Matt Cassel" Flynn.
Tom: Matt Cassel won a division title his
first second year as a starter. When he went into the season as a starter, that is. Our incredibly small sample size of Flynn experience is more flattering to him than Cassel's larger sample size as non-starter in the offseason was to him.
Mike: Yes, and then he went right back to being really bad. And both of their sample sizes are tiny!
Tom: Cassel did have 15-plus games.
Mike: Anyway. There is very little reason to believe Flynn is a franchise quarterback. So growing pains, regardless of whather he is, are going to be amusing in a very schadenfreude ... istic ... way.
Tom: It's fair to say, I think, that neither of us is as full-on with Flynn's future prospects as Vince's "only Pro Bowlers do this" article would suggest. And you have the new hawtness in Russell Wilson, who played the second half of last week's preseason game and gets a lot of rhetorical affection.
Mike: I will say that FOA is a bit overdramatic about Flynn. If he isn't great this year, that doesn't mean he's going to wash out. But anyway, there are other players on this team.
Tom: Let's embargo a discussion of the famous old wide receivers, and say some nice things about the defense. Like a pretty good and pretty young secondary. Yes, Brandon Browner is more NFL-inexperienced than young, but Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, and Richard Sherman is a nice grouping. The front seven is pretty good and fairly interesting as well.
Mike: It is, and the rest of the defense is set up very nicely to compliment them. Strong front seven against the run, very good secondary to allow them to play to their strengths.
Tom: I've been watching them a fair bit this offseason, for Titans-related reasons, and because Pete Carroll is a pretty good defensive coach.
Mike: Well, the linebackers were very active and made a lot of plays last year, but their pass defense was suspect. The Seahawks finished dead last in the league in DVOA allowed on passes to running backs.
Tom: That's a relative weakness. A lot of people I respect had a lot of affection for draft pick Bobby Wagner, but we'll see if he starts and how he does, especially in coverage.
Mike: And I suspect the above-average marks against tight ends was bolstered by Chancellor's excellent year. Fortunately, this line is pretty low, so I'm comfortable with the Over and the promise of more improvement next year.
Tom: I really hate this line. I'm tempted to do my "I know this is idiotic" push, but I'll go Over as well.
Tom: Almost all of these lines are whole numbers.
Mike: Why? That's just weird. Why would you bet on a line where you have two losing propositions instead of just one?
Tom: Just to annoy us people who have to make calls one way or the other.
Mike: I must admit, it's hard to be objective about the Broncos, just because my team lost in such embarrassing fashion to a team that was so very bad.
Tom: The Broncos were lucky to go 8-8 last year, getting outscored by 82 points. Normally they'd be headed for a fall like the 49ers, so of course they went out and added Peyton Manning. The playoffs were a perfect microcosm of the Broncos' season. They won one game in overtime and got blown out in the other game. Record of 1-1 with a terrible point differential.
Mike: The problem for me is that I basically believe Peyton Manning is an offense. He's not quite an entire team, but he's an entire offense. So in my opinion the Broncos have half of the game sewn up, even with the rather lackluster running game he's inheriting.
Tom: I actually like the passing game pieces. Peyton is an offensive line. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker I like, plus Jacob Tamme has played with Peyton before and Joel Dreessen is a good blocker and competent receiver at tight end. Obviously Thomas, Decker, and Dreessen likely won't have the near-telepathic link first Marvin Harrison and then Reggie Wayne developed with Peyton, at least not yet.
Mike: Well, all those guys are good enough for Manning to turn them into quality producers. That's really all they need.
Mike: Who are terrible against the run. And behind them, the Broncos field a fairly awful secondary, so they'd better get to the quarterback or Very Bad Things will happen.
Tom: I'm relatively optimistic. Relatively. In a vacuum, 9-7 is about where I'd expect the Broncos to finish. Given that's the line, I'm bullish enough to go Over.
Mike: I'm not. I think this is a .500 team, so Under.
Mike: I'm trying to figure out why FOA is so high on this team.
Tom: Like the Broncos, the Chiefs are a worse team than their 2011 record (7-9, in this case) would indicate, but one likely to be improved this year. Assuming, of course, Dwayne Bowe turns up sooner rather than later -- Cassel needs pieces around him to be successful. Jonathan Baldwin should be better in his second season, Eric Winston is a big upgrade at right tackle, and Jamaal Charles and Tony Moeaki (plus Eric Berry) return with intact ACLs. I completely get why FOA is high on the Chiefs, not that 8.3 projected wins is that high.
Mike: I think this goes back to the Flynn discussion we had earlier. I just don't think Cassel is very good.
Tom: I don't think he's very good either. I think he's shown he can be a somewhat effective starter if the rest of the team around him is good enough.
Mike: Which means Bowe has another mediocre year, and the box gets stacked against Charles and the admittedly impressive offensive line. Well, sorry, the offensive line that looks much improved.
Tom: It certainly wasn't in 2011. It was in 2010.
Tom: Again like the Broncos, the line (in this case, 8.0) is about where I would expect even an improved Chiefs team to finish. In what should be a highly competitive division, I think the Chiefs have the worst quarterback. That to me says Under.
Mike: We'll have to see how Charles comes back this year. I think he is the make-or-break piece for this team, which could spell trouble since I'm fairly certain Cassel won't be able to keep any heat off him. I'll also take the Under.
Tom: I'm sure by now you've all read the Raiders chapter and thus know everything there is to know or could possibly know about the team. About 2,000 words is all that could be written about any NFL team. As we all know.
Tom: The Raiders are theoretically good enough they could challenge for and maybe even win the division.
Mike: Everyone in that division is theoretically good enough to win the division.
Tom: Their problem is depth: they have virtually none at a number of positions. Their running back depth behind Darren McFadden is nil. Linebacker is about as bad.
Mike: To be fair, it doesn't really matter who the depth is in the secondary!
Mike: The team was near the bottom by open field yards and decidedly below average against other wide receivers. I'll get behind the lack of quality.
Tom: Their second-most targeted player was linebacker Rolando McClain, who's awful in coverage. No. 2 cornerback was a revolving door of mostly suck. If nobody gets hurt all year, I'm picking the Raiders to win the division. Denarius Moore's hamstring has not been fully healthy in months. Under.
Mike: As I said, anyone in this division has some chance of winning it. The Raiders' is just a very, very small one. Under.
Tom: And ... Ryan Mathews is already hurt. Glad we got that one out of the way.
Now that's out of the way as well. I've written in detail about the Chargers before, most notably in a book we may have mentioned in this column before known as Football Outsiders Almanac 2012. I don't buy the idea that 2011 saw the end of Philip Rivers as a very, very good quarterback. He forced some throws he probably shouldn't have, but needs better pieces around him.
Mike: I disagree with your book assertion that the defensive line isn't terrible. They were worst in the league in power runs, near-bottom in ALY, near-bottom in stuff percentage, no directional running stat higher than 18th, and below-average by ASR.
Tom: I did not think the defensive line was very good, but also did not think they were actively terrible.
Mike: I'm not sure what isn't actively terrible about them.
Tom: It was a team effort. Outside linebacker was a problem position, as since-cut Travis LaBoy led them in snaps, plus Takeo Spikes played heavily despite being 35-years-old. With Antonio Gates fully healthy and better depth at wide receiver, I think the offense should be better. The big problem is the secondary. Eric Weddle is awesome, Antoine Cason is okay, and the rest is an issue. They need either or both of second-year players Marcus Gilchrist and Shareece Wright to be good this year. Otherwise, they're stuck counting on Melvin Ingram to improve a league-average pass rush and hoping that's enough to prevent coverage lapses from being exploited. Unless Quentin Jammer goes back to playing like the elite cornerback his draft position and awesome last name would lead you to believe he is, anyway.
Mike: Oh good lord, they're starting Atari Bigby, aren't they?
Tom: Maybe. Probably. At least at first. It depends on when third-round pick Brandon Taylor is ready to play, and when Bigby gets hurt.
Mike: This feels just like last year, when we looked at most of the secondaries in the league and found them rather wanting, but this one is especially suspect.
Tom: Yes, technically Bigby getting hurt is an if rather than a when, as he hasn't played in 16 games since he and Bob Sanders had full 2007 campaigns. Yes, again, I've tried not to overemphasize marginal secondaries this year, but this is a tough one for me to avoid talking about. The defense has also ranked in the 20s by DVOA three of the last four seasons, so it's not like 2011's bad performance can easily be written off as a fluke.
Mike: On the other hand, Mathews did choose an opportune time to injure himself. He'll only miss two or three regular season games, so he should be back on track in no time, especially since he'll likely be returning just in time to feast on Kansas City and New Orleans. I'd be worried about a regression by the offensive line, because currently it's kind of a mess. They got lucky with a mess last year, when a solidly average line played way over its head. I don't see that happening again.
Tom: Left tackle Jared Gaither has missed most of training camp due to injury. Yes, already.
Mike: That said, you have a good point about Gates, and I also don't see anything to suggest Rivers is sharply falling off. Rivers played the same way he always has; moments of absolute brilliance interspersed with complete head-scratchers in equal proportion. That is a known quality at this point. The team knows that Rivers gonna Rivers.
Tom: They need Gaither on the field in the regular season.
Mike: They do. I think they'll get him with enough season to spare.
Tom: The current alternative is Mario Henderson. We've seen that before, in Oakland. It was ugly. Henderson probably didn't get better in the time he was out of the league.
Mike: I really wish the line was 8.5. I think this is another ugly push situation, but here I don't like the team, so I'd say we have better chances with Under.
Tom: Writing the chapter, my reasonable range for the Chargers was 7-10 wins. It wouldn't shock me if they go over, but I'm not expecting it. Under.
32 comments, Last at 21 Aug 2012, 3:04pm by BigCheese