Four Downs: NFC West

Four Downs: NFC West
Four Downs: NFC West
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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)

Seattle Seahawks

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, 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.

Major Free Agents: Steven Hauschka, K; Luke Willson, TE; Mike Morgan, OLB; Tony McDaniel, DT

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.

Arizona Cardinals

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.

Major Free Agents: Calais Campbell, DE; Chandler Jones, OLB; Tony Jefferson, SS

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.

Major Free Agents: Trumaine Johnson, CB; Kenny Britt, WR; Brian Quick, WR

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

Biggest Hole: The entire offense except for Carlos Hyde and Vance McDonald

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.

Major Free Agents: Glenn Dorsey, DE; Phil Dawson, K; Gerald Hodges, ILB; Nick Bellore, ILB

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.


20 comments, Last at 28 Feb 2017, 8:41am

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Gentlemen -

SF's situation makes me want to ask you all for a half-serious, half-fun "worst rebuilding challenge ever" article, ranking the franchises that have offered new GMs and HCs the fewest resources and worst rosters.

"They had the lowest DVOA of the decade, but hey, at least most of the roster was both over 30 and locked into guaranteed long-term contracts!"


2 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I'm not saying the niners are in great shape but they weren't last in DVOA this year, yet alone the decade, and have very little guaranteed money in any contracts which is why they'll have over $100 million in cap room (after Kap voids his deal plus releasing Bethea and Brooks).

The one silver lining the niners have is it's a very clean slate, there's only six million in dead money after those moves.

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

That's the good news. The bad news is who they have doing the rebuilding. I think Lynch is likely to be disaster. I am unsure about Shanahan he has been an up (Falcons/Washington) and down (Browns/Washington) OC, but never a HC and he was part of the dysfunction in Washington.

14 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

You're totally selling the job Shanahan did with the Browns short. They went 7-9 with an offense driven team run by Brian Hoyer and Jonny Manzel. Pretty sure he even had the at 7-4 before injuries set in. Given that his stint in Atlanta will always have a bitter aftertaste, I'd say that's his crowning accomplishment

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

The rebuilding job across the bay that Reggie McKenzie took on was far worse. Going further back, both the 60's Packers and 70's Steelers were preceded by some truly awful teams.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

It might not even be the biggest rebuild in 49ers history -- GM Joe Thomas left the 49ers in a heck of a state when Bill Walsh took over in '79. Trading five picks, including a first rounder and two second-rounders, for a washed up O.J. Simpson was perhaps the most memorable blunder, but feuding with coaches (going through four in three years!) and considering cancelling a home game because he feared he was going to be assassinated have to be up there on the list of mistakes, as well.

It'll be quite some time before we're back there in the late '70s in DVOA, but those 49er teams were terrible.

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

This is a situation where a lot of patience is going to be required, in essence they are going to have to build an almost entirely new roster from scratch. It is going to be four years assuming they draft pretty well, probably more like five. They will have to put up a working roster and give it time to learn how to play together, going wild in the free agent market is not likely to be of much help in developing an entire roster and will limit their ability to be flexible down the road. If they do not exercise patience you end up with the Browns.

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

The number of times I've read articles about the bad teams in football having "the worst roster" and then they get a new coach who takes that supposedly bad roster to a winning record and suddenly they're a great team full of great players.

Rosters get churned pretty quickly in this day and age so with good coaching and a few decent draft picks/solid free agents things can turn round quickly. See the 2014 Raiders as an example.

11 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I respect your opinion and you're right about the Raiders, who have turned things around, but it's my feeling that turnarounds of legitimately bad teams are few and far between in the NFL these days. There was a study on this website a while back about the death of parity in the NFL, and the study confirmed what I already suspected, that the NFL, once a bastion of parity, has now reached a point where the strong teams stay strong and the weak teams stay weak. Doesn't it seem like the Patriots, Steelers, Packers and Broncos have been strong forever, while the Browns, Bills and Rams have been weak forever? (Okay, not forever, but 10-15 years seems like forever when you're watching your team lose every Sunday.)

I root for the Browns, though their obvious ineptitude (and the strong suspicion that my dog could do a better job of running a team) is rapidly diminishing my interest. And I just don't see how any way that even a sharp executive could turn that organization around within the next few years. Football isn't like basketball, where you can draft one superstud (LeBron James) and turn a franchise around; you need a whole bunch of good players in football, and since the Browns at the moment have exactly one good player, it's going to take a long, long, long time for them to pick up enough other good players to compete. The same is true for any other team that's in a really deep hole. Climbing out of it can be a pretty monumental task. My hat's off to the Raiders, who managed to make the climb, but I think they're the exception these days, not the rule.

13 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I'm not saying it's an easy hole to get out of ... just that I feel I've often read stories claiming that a team has a bad roster yet somehow the coaching staff manage to parlay that team into great players within a season or two.

Maybe statisticially it doesn't stand up but if I go back to 1996-97 when the Raiders were floundering around with Mike White and Joe Bugel as HC, then they get in Jon Gruden who gets the same players who were on a supposedly crappy roster being voted to the Pro Bowl.

Turning the Browns around - note that before the Raiders got turned around they'd had a decade of futility because they had a meddling owner who fired coaches year after year. If you've got a dysfunctional owner, that filters down. I empathise with you because I pretty much gave up on the Raiders while Al was still there.

What's very notable about franchises like the Steelers, Patriots, Packers even the Broncos is that they have patience and a plan on how to achieve success.

As for whether the NFL has ever been a bastion of parity I'm not sure it ever has been. Certainly wasn't during the 70s or 80s when pretty much the same teams won the divisions year-in, year-out. I think there was probably a period when the salary cap/free agency came in where no-one quite knew how to win consistently but that's gone as teams have generally figured out to pay for QBs, focus on paying to retain a few key in-house superstars and churn the roster with the young, cheap guys.

15 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Yeah, you make a great point that the salary cap has changed the game ... mostly for the better. Now a team can't buy its way out of jail. A plan is required. The smart teams are the ones that are winning.

Unfortunately for me, my team isn't one of the smart teams. To put it mildly.

18 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

To be fair, the Bills weren't going to be any good until Wilson died, since he was too loyal to the somewhat inept football people he had. (The jury is still out on Whaley being a member of that group, but he's certainly more capable than the GMs before him.)

It will be interesting to see what the Pegulas do. The Rex Ryan Experiment was not exactly a glorious start...

19 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

When the Bucs and Seahawks joined the NFL in the '70s, they didn't get the extra picks for quick roster-building that later expansion teams got. They got nothing.

You talk about "rebuilding" but the Bucs had to "build" first. And the '76 Bucs still probably had the worst NFL roster ever. The 0-16 Lions would have kicked their butts.

20 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

That sort of sounds like the team that Belichick took over in 2000. Lots of money tied up in back-up quality linemen because they were company men, lots of dead money on the cap, very good, if overpaid, quarterback, but not a whole lot else on the offense, and while they had Law, Milloy, McGinest, and Bruschi defensively, they were either constantly hurt, underacheived, or mis-used under Carroll. The first Belchick Super Bowl team had something like 22 budget free agent signings on it...part-time young guys who'd yet to emerge (Vrabel), or aging vets with a year or two in the tank (Everybody else -- Bobby Hamilton, Brian Cox, Mike Compton, Anthony Pleasant, Terrell Buckley, Antowain and Otis Smith). Belichick winning with that roster might be his best GM job yet, if not coaching.

8 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I salute Vance McDonald's ability to put up non-terrible DVOA, but jeeeez....have you watched him? He has no natural instincts as a receiver. It barely matters because our cap is so empty, but Baalke has us paying about 10m a year for a TE combo that should be playing in the CFL.

12 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I have watched plenty of McDonald, and he does many things at least adequately, which is more than can be said for many on the roster.

His hands, though -- if Jerry Rice dunked his hands in stickem, maybe McDonald dunked his in molten lead or something? Some kind of hardening agent? I don't know what his receiving plus-minus will be -- and I suspect he'll have too few targets to qualify for the leaderboards -- but a 53% raw catch rate no es bueno. I believe only Tyler Higbee had a worse catch rate among tight ends last season.

Still, McDonald does good things when he ~does~ catch the ball, and on a team as bad as the 49ers, tight end's really one of those positions you can kind of ignore for a bit. Like, not worrying about your living room being cluttered when your kitchen is on fire.

16 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Please note Carl Yedor that Zack Miller hasn't played for the Seahawks for several years. This means that a reasonable signing of Luke Willson may be in order.

17 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Hey, thanks for your comment. I mentioned Miller to illustrate that Willson has filled in well as a backup from 2013 through 2016, not to imply that there is no need for him as a backup tight end. I doubt the team is writing off bringing back Willson in free agency, but if another team makes him a bigger offer, they will likely let him go.