Four Downs: NFC West
by Danny Tuccitto
Biggest Hole: Quarterback of the Future
In 2013, the Cardinals' defense ranked second in overall DVOA, fifth against the pass, and first against the run. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.) Their front seven finished first in Adjusted Line Yards and 12th in Adjusted Sack Rate. The team as a whole produced 9.5 Pythagorean wins and 10.3 Estimated wins, both of which resemble their actual 10-win total. From a week-to-week DVOA perspective, they were also the fifth-most consistent team against a schedule that ranked fifth-toughest. Put simply, the 2013 season gave us a pretty reliable indication of what the Cardinals can accomplish when relying heavily on one of the league's premier defenses.
It stands to reason that they need improvement on offense to reach higher ground in the NFC West. Anointing Andre Ellington (fourth in rushing DVOA last season), as the starter at running back will no doubt help matters. Michael Floyd (17th in DYAR) emerged as a valuable option across from Larry Fitzgerald, which bodes well for further improvement in his all-important third season. Even their offensive line, a perennial doormat in our rankings, rose from the bottom to the middle of the barrel in 2013.
And while it's true that these incremental offensive improvements will help the cause in 2014, they're more likely to translate into bona fide Super Bowl contention if accompanied by improved quarterback play from Carson Palmer. (You need look no further for evidence than the five-win leap from 2012 to 2013). But here's the thing: At this point in his career, Palmer is a known low-variance commodity. Before arriving in Arizona, his pass DVOA rankings among quarterbacks were 19th, 18th, 15th, and 18th from 2009 to 2012. Last season, he ranked 17th. His Total QBR rankings in that time have shown more variability but his average ranking from 2009 to 2012 (21.3) was almost identical to the one he produced last season (21st). Five seasons is not a large sample, and Cardinals fans can rightly cite Kurt Warner as an exception, but given Palmer's age and recent history, we're inclined to lean toward the lower side of the error margin, not the higher side that Arizona needs.
Which isn't to say that starting a rookie in 2014 would produce a better team outcome than sticking with Palmer; it most likely won't. However, the Cardinals were the oldest team in the NFL last season, so their window is closing. They may very well be in the same position heading into 2015 as they are right now, so getting a one-year head start on replacing Palmer isn't a bad thing.
Biggest hole: Offensive Line
Here's a fun fact: The Super Bowl champions had an offensive line that finished dead last in both actual sack rate (9.5 percent) and Adjusted Sack Rate, which accounts for down, distance, and opponent. Now, prior research into the matter shows that quarterbacks are more to blame for sacks than people realize, especially in the context of mobile quarterbacks like Russell Wilson. I consulted ESPN Stats & Information Group's charting of whether Wilson was inside or outside the pocket when he was sacked over the past two years. Theoretically, although sacks outside the pocket might be the result of a quarterback scrambling or getting flushed out by inside pressure, we can probably assume that the vast majority of sacks inside the pocket are the line's fault. Well, it turns out that Wilson was sacked inside the pocket on 7.8 percent of pass plays in 2012 (25 of 319), but that increased to 9.7 percent in 2013 (34 of 349).
An obvious argument here is that Seattle's offensive line was decimated by injury this season compared to last; and it was. Nevertheless, neither left tackle Russell Okung nor left guard James Carpenter has yet to play a full season in their NFL career, and they've had seven combined shots to do so. Meanwhile, one of the starters who has been able to play a full season at some point, right tackle Breno Giacomini, is an unrestricted free agent, likely to leave for greener pastures.
San Francisco 49ers
Biggest hole: Secondary
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San Francisco's main problem in the secondary is one most teams in their position face: Will they get more performance per dollar by re-signing their own free agents or replacing them with newcomers? They faced a similar decision last offseason, and it ended up paying dividends. By letting free safety Dashon Goldson leave for Tampa Bay and replacing him with rookie Eric Reid, the 49ers got Pro Bowl-caliber performance at one-fifth the cost.
This offseason, however, the hydra has grown four new heads. Starting cornerback Tarell Brown and starting strong safety Donte Whitner are unrestricted free agents, as is reserve cornerback Eric Wright. Meanwhile, although starting cornerback Carlos Rogers is under contract through 2015, he'll almost certainly be a cap casualty if he refuses to take another pay cut, and that's the early indication straight from the horse's mouth. All told, San Francisco's secondary potentially has 2,930 defensive snaps up in their air for next season.
So what's the best way forward here? Well, the easiest decision is to cut Rogers. He turns 33 years old in July. According to Football Outsiders game charting project, his success rate ranking among cornerbacks has dropped from ninth in 2011 to 48th this past season. After 19 passes defensed in 2011, he's only mustered a total of 15 over the past two years. He's also had some high-profile failures in the slot the past two years, so his stranglehold on those duties is more of a soothing neck massage these days. In short, he's not worth the money, and the return of Chris Culliver from knee surgery gives San Francisco a ready-made replacement.
Wright can be re-signed on the cheap, but Brown is a tougher call based on a higher price tag, middling performance the past two seasons (52nd and 40th in coverage success rate), and the depth of the cornerback class in this year's draft.
That leaves Whitner, who probably was as good as gone two months ago, but now stands a decent chance of remaining with the 49ers if the price is right. The change came via NaVorro Bowman's knee injury. The 49ers' secondary plays a ton of zone, while Bowman and Patrick Willis cover running backs and tight ends underneath. With Bowman's uncertain timetable, and both of his potential replacements (Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody) being green as the Levi's Stadium grass, San Francisco may end up being forced to (slightly) overpay for the devil they know than to extract maximum value from the devil they don't.
St. Louis Rams
Biggest hole: Offensive Tackle
The Rams were the youngest team in the league this past season, so it's tough to evaluate a roster when so many players are still unfinished products. That's especially the case on offense where none of the wide receivers have more than three years of experience, running back Zac Stacy just finished his rookie season, and Sam Bradford has only played the equivalent of three seasons in his four-year career.
With their defense finishing in the top 12 of DVOA both seasons under Jeff Fisher, that side of the ball should be fine going forward, so it's apparent that the Rams' hopes in 2014 (once again) lay at the feet of an upright Bradford. One problem: Their starting tackle positions are in shambles. Jake Long will (once again) be rehabbing a major injury, and he seems to be on the downside of his career. Meanwhile, Rodger Saffold is an injury-prone unrestricted free agent seeking an all-day ticket to ride when his pass protection only warrants a subway token or two. That leaves a couple of never-beens (Mike Person and Joe Barksdale) as St. Louis' potential Week 1 starters.
Obviously, with a bevy of draft picks (including two in the top 13), it's not going to come to that, but general manager Les Snead and company need to nail the tackle position if the Rams are going to convert all this youth into a playoff berth in the near future.
This article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.