Four Downs: NFC West
by Carl Yedor
(Ed. Note: Four Downs is back, and this year we're going in reverse! For the next two weeks we'll look at each team's biggest hole and give readers a place to discuss upcoming free agency, but this year we're going from west to east instead of from east to west -- Aaron Schatz)
Biggest Hole: Offensive Line
We're starting off our Four Downs series with a bit of an obvious choice for the only team to beat the Tom Brady-led Patriots this season. Seattle's offensive line finished 26th in Adjusted Line Yards and 25th in Adjusted Sack Rate; their average rank of 25.5 between the two statistics was the worst of any playoff team this season (next-worst was Detroit at 24.5). Per OverTheCap.com, the Seahawks only committed 4.15 percent of their salary cap to offensive linemen, the smallest percentage in the league and half that of the next closest team, the Giants.
That lack of investment certainly translated into a lack of results on the field. In addition to the poor numbers on the offensive line, Russell Wilson suffered multiple significant injuries to his ankle and knee. While Wilson managed to play through the pain and start all 16 games, the injuries clearly limited his mobility. This had the added effect of allowing opposing defenses to ignore his normally threatening running ability and commit even more resources towards overwhelming Seattle's already overmatched offensive line.
Amidst all of that, center Justin Britt served as a relative bright spot for the team in his first year as the Seahawks' starter at the position; the Seahawks managed only five points against Tampa Bay in the one game he missed due to injury. Seattle is hoping for natural development from this very young group next year. Their starting line for the divisional-round game against Atlanta consisted of two rookies, one second-year player, and two third-year players. That possibility for internal growth shouldn't preclude the team from looking to address the offensive line in the draft or free agency.
On the other hand, with so little money committed to the offensive line in 2016, Seattle has essentially every other meaningful contributor from this past season already signed for 2017. Hauschka was inconsistent this season, and the team looks ready to move on and save money at the position, given their signing of former Vikings kicker Blair Walsh. 2013 fifth-round pick Willson was a useful backup to starters Zach Miller and Jimmy Graham during his rookie contract, but his potential replacement may already be on the roster in 2016 third-rounder Nick Vannett. Morgan had been a special teams player for most of his career and played 2016 on a modest one-year contract as the team's SAM linebacker. McDaniel signed with the team in training camp and was part of the defensive tackle rotation all season long.
Biggest Hole: Special Teams
Carson Palmer's play dropped off in 2016 from his MVP-worthy 2015, but he was nowhere near as bad as the Cardinals' special teams were this past season. Arizona finished 30th in overall special teams DVOA, 31st in weighted DVOA, 29th in field goals/extra points, 31st in punt returns, and 26th in punting. All told, that's a mess. Special teams can make a big difference along the margins, and that may have cost the Cardinals a shot at the playoffs in 2016.
Consider that Arizona finished 7-8-1, but based on points scored and points allowed they had 9.4 Pythagorean wins (explained here). Chandler Catanzaro had a chance to win games with field goals against the Patriots and the Seahawks at home, but he missed both, leading to a loss to the Brady-less Patriots and a tie against a Seattle team that couldn't do anything on offense for essentially the entire game. A blocked punt late in the fourth quarter of the Seattle game led to a field goal that both tied the game at three and served as the entirety of Seattle's offensive production in regulation.
Detroit ended up grabbing the sixth seed in the NFC with a record of 9-7, but the team rode a string of fourth-quarter comebacks to outplay their point differential (7.7 Pythagorean wins) and sneak into the playoffs. Given how well the Cardinals played in both games against the third-seeded Seahawks, Arizona must be kicking themselves (pun intended) over their missed opportunities to earn a third matchup against Seattle in January.
Campbell and Jones were a big part of the Arizona defensive front that ranked third in both Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate. Arizona has already made its intentions to franchise Jones clear, so he is a free agent in name only. Arizona will use the leverage of the tag to try to work out an extension for the former New England Patriots pass-rusher. Entering his age-31 season, Campbell will have no shortage of suitors looking to add an impact piece in pursuit of a title. Jefferson will only be 25 in 2017, and after going undrafted out of Oklahoma in 2013 could be looking for a big payday. He started 14 games this year for the Cardinals.
Los Angeles Rams
Biggest Hole: Quarterback
This was another easy choice. Los Angeles traded up in the 2016 draft from pick 15 to No. 1 overall. Altogether the Rams traded two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and two third-round picks to Tennessee for the aforementioned first-overall pick, a fourth-rounder, and a sixth-rounder. Yeesh. To top it all off, the guy they traded up to draft, Jared Goff, didn't even start for the first half of the season.
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It took all of that and a 4-12 record to eventually lead to Jeff Fisher's ouster as head coach in his fifth season with the team. Yet, for all the handwringing over the Rams benching their prized pick until the season was all but lost, the coaching staff's reticence to throw Goff to the wolves appeared justified after seeing the California Golden Bears star in action. The Rams started the season with Case Keenum under center, and in nine starts, Keenum finished 31st out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts in DYAR at minus-185; 31st in DVOA at minus-19.6%; and 32nd in QBR at 43.8.
Not to be outdone, Goff started seven games and achieved the trifecta of finishing last in DYAR (minus-880), last in DVOA (minus-74.7%), and last in QBR (22.2). Los Angeles will hope that newly hired wunderkind head coach Sean McVay can work some of the magic on Goff that he used as offensive coordinator with Washington, where he transformed Kirk Cousins from a replacement-level quarterback into a player worthy of the franchise tag. The 31-year-old McVay will have a tough task on his hands, but maybe he can pass on some wisdom to his second-year quarterback. At worst, they could probably compare notes on where to spend a night on the town in Los Angeles.
Johnson is one of the better cornerbacks in this free agent class and therefore should have a pretty strong market after playing 2016 on the franchise tag for the Rams. Considering how bad the Los Angeles offense was in 2016, Kenny Britt was a major positive for the team, posting the first 1,000-yard season of his eight-year career and finishing 28th among wide receivers with 167 DYAR. Doing so with Keenum and Goff throwing to him should earn Britt some type of medal. Although Quick possesses a great name for a wide receiver, the Rams would not miss him and his minus-28 DYAR (79th out of 93 qualifying receivers) nearly as much as they would miss Britt should the two of them both walk in free agency.
San Francisco 49ers
Seriously. Colin Kaepernick finished 30th in DYAR (minus-149) and DVOA (minus-17.7%) and 23rd in QBR (55.2), though he did finish first in rushing DYAR among quarterbacks. Kaepernick restructured his deal during the season to give himself an opt-out at the end of the year, and reports as of December indicate that he will likely do so. Blaine Gabbert did not have enough pass attempts to qualify for the full season DYAR rankings, but he managed minus-158 DYAR on 172 attempts and a minus-25.4% DVOA. Gabbert will also be an unrestricted free agent for 2017. The other two quarterbacks on the roster for 2016, Christian Ponder and Thad Lewis, will both also be free agents, leaving the quarterback position a major question mark.
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Remember how bad Seattle's offensive line was? San Francisco's was even worse, last in Adjusted Line Yards and 30th in Adjusted Sack Rate. They can at least take solace in the fact that their Adjusted Sack Rate of 8.4 percent was closer to Tampa Bay in 21st (6.3 percent) than it was to Cleveland in last (10.6 percent!). Left tackle Joe Staley was the subject of trade rumors at midseason, and it remains to be seen whether new general manager John Lynch intends to move the 32-year-old during the offseason as the 49ers commit to their rebuild.
San Francisco had three wide receivers meet the threshold of 50 targets for inclusion in the DYAR table. There were 93 total receivers at or above that mark, and Torrey Smith, Quinton Patton, and Jeremy Kerley finished 89th, 90th, and 92nd on the list. Part of that likely had to do with the quarterback play, but tight end Vance McDonald finished a comparably fantastic 19th out of 46 tight ends. The 49ers trio was joined in the bottom five by Seattle's Jermaine Kearse (91st) and Los Angeles' Tavon Austin (93rd). It wasn't a great year for most of the NFC West wide receivers.
The 49ers have a million free agents, but as one might expect from a team that went 2-14, most of them weren't very good. We already discussed how all four quarterbacks on the roster are going to be free agents, and wide receivers Patton and Kerley will be joining them as unrestricted free agents. Former top-five pick Dorsey had a fairly quiet season at age 31, but it's easy to go unnoticed as an interior defensive lineman on a bad team. Dawson is 42 and may retire this offseason. Hodges and Bellore finished second and third on the team in tackles and seem like pieces the 49ers would want to keep around; Hodges in particular will only be 26 next season, meaning he could still be a valuable contributor when the 49ers are further along in the rebuilding process.