NFC West Over/Unders: Is Trey Lance Ready for Prime Time?
NFL Preseason Week 2 - Cale: Welcome back to our preseason league-wide over/unders series! We officially have a week's worth of preseason games under our belts, Hard Knocks is back on our televisions, and the first hint of that cool, late-August breeze is in the air. Meaningful football is almost upon us, and what better way to celebrate that than to dive into the NFC West—home of the reigning Super Bowl champs?
Bryan: I'm always a little bit biased in favor of the division because it's where my rooting interest lies, but I do feel like the NFC West is arguably the most intriguing division in the league this season. No other division has such a gap between the top end and bottom end of the potential for all four teams involved. If everything goes right—for various values of "everything"—we could see three potential Super Bowl-contending teams in this division, with the fourth team could be punching away in the wild-card hunt. If everything goes wrong—for various values of "everything"—we could see three teams vying for top-five picks and the fourth blowing a wild-card game as the No. 4 seed. Obviously, the average results are going to be somewhere in the middle, and not every team will hit their high and low, but this is the division I feel I have the weakest grip on, the division where very little would surprise me.
Cale: You know what I love to do when I only have a tenuous grasp on something? Make predictions about it and let my money ride!
Arizona Cardinals (8.5)
Cale: Let's keep this discussion under our contractually mandated four hours, shall we? Of all the teams in the NFC West, I think the Cardinals epitomize your both-ends-of-the-spectrum description you gave above. On one hand, Kyler Murray is one of the better young quarterbacks in this league and has earned his payday. Having him on your team should keep you in competition in a strong division. On the other hand, the rest of the infrastructure around him gives me zero confidence this team will do well, and the Cardinals have done very little under Murray's tenure to instill any confidence this team's headed in the right direction.
Bryan: There does seem to be a larger-than-average amount of soap opera drama coming out of the desert this year, doesn't there? A lot of it surrounds Murray, though I don't think he's the instigator of most of it—deleting all Cardinals pics off his Instagram at the start of the offseason, the clause in his massive deal requiring him to study, the kerfuffle between him and Kliff Kingsbury over play calling and so on and so forth. None of that is a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, and any one of those things could be moved aside, but it feels like something new comes out almost every week. And that's before you get into things such as Hollywood Brown's arrest for excessive speeding or DeAndre Hopkins' suspension for PEDs—it seems like something is always going on in Arizona this offseason. I mean, it obviously could be worse (he said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of Cleveland and/or Miami), but it has not been a calm, quiet, preparatory period for a playoff team from a year ago.
Cale: The offensive side of the ball is responsible for generating the most drama, but it's also the position that needs the most stability, for Kyler's sake. The reason the Cardinals brought in Kliff Kingsbury is to maximize the potential of Murray, giving him a college-style offense he can maximize his talents in. Instead, the focus is on contract clauses and how Kingsbury passive-aggressively lets Murray call fourth-quarter plays in preseason games just to show how hard his job *really* is.
Having the team's top two receiving options get into hot water doesn't help things, either.
Bryan: We're a couple weeks too early for this, but Kingsbury is currently at +900 to be the first coach to fire or resign, five months after signing a contract extension. I'm not sure I buy into that, but that's a good indication of the atmosphere the team's currently operating under. And if Kingsbury falls off again in the last half of the season, and Arizona does feel like they need to make a change, well, you can't get rid of the highest-paid quarterback in football for salary cap reasons, so I suppose Kingsbury would be on the chopping block. We talked about the positive vibes coming out of Jets camp last week. What's the opposite of that?
Cale: This team is certainly on the opposite end of the vibes spectrum, and no amount of variance would push them into the top-half of league-wide vibes rankings. We haven't even touched on the defense, which boasted a sixth-best -8.2% DVOA but then let its face, Chandler Jones, walk in free agency.
Bryan: Our projections hate the Cardinal defense. I think some drop-off after losing Jones is inevitable, but 28th? Eef. It doesn't help that they have no cornerbacks to speak of, of course.
We have been very negative about the Cardinals here, but they do have one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the game, one who could easily take another step forward. He's certainly not one I enjoy watching play my team twice a year! They were one of the best teams in the league in September and October last year, and Murray was dealing. And while there are potential signs of regression on defense, Vance Joseph has done a good job at all his stops of producing competitive units, regardless of apparent talent. I think the Cardinals need more to go well than some of their division rivals, but I could absolutely see it.
That being said, I'm taking the under, and I think it's the easiest pick in the division. I think this is more likely to be a six-win team than an eight-win team, and even the latter would keep them under Vegas' line. A nasty schedule, toughest in the league by our numbers, doesn't help, either.
Cale: I think the worst part about their schedule is just how tough the back half is. Sure, kicking off the year hosting Kansas City, at Las Vegas, and hosting the Rams all without Hopkins is tough on its own, but the last eight weeks of the season see two games against San Francisco, contests against both L.A. teams, and games against the Patriots, Broncos, and Buccaneers. The second-half drop-off the Cardinals have faced every year of the Kingsbury administration tell me that back half isn't going to go great. If Arizona isn't 5-2 by the time the new Call of Duty drops Week 8, then this bet's dead in the water. Under is the call here.
Los Angeles Rams (10.5)
Bryan: Are we still standing in the afterglow of the Rams' Super Bowl win? Or is Sean McVay calling Matthew Stafford's elbow injury "abnormal" a cause for panic in SoCal?
Cale: We really thought Allen Robinson was going to end up with a good, quality quarterback for the first time in his football career, no strings attached. This feels like Robinson wished for a new quarterback on a monkey's paw.
I am actually nervous about Stafford's arm. Training camp is supposed to be the land of eternal optimism; even when your team is Urban Meyer-levels of chaotic, those stories don't usually rear their head until midseason. The reports around Stafford's elbow injury and the nebulous yet ominous language used in almost every one can't bode well.
Bryan: Stafford started throwing again last week, which is good news. But McVay also said that John Wolford won't play in any Rams' preseason game, which is less good news—McVay keeps his starters out of any and all preseason action, and keeping Wolford out is either a crazy escalation of that practice to the backups or an acknowledgement that Stafford might not be 100% and risking the veteran backup is a questionable move.
I am not terrified about Stafford's arm. I think it's going to be something he has to manage throughout the season, possibly taking fewer reps on a regular basis than he otherwise would, but he's not some wet-behind-the-ears rookie. I imagine the Rams will be able to figure out how to manage his workload to keep him as effective as possible. Which is good, because if you're running a stars-and-scrubs model, you need all your stars in play!
Cale: Plus, the star power of that offense should be enough to keep this team afloat even if Wolford has to start a few games. Van Jefferson's injury throws a bit of a wrinkle into things, but Robinson and Cooper Kupp is arguably a top-five wide receiver duo if we're getting a peak-of-his-powers Robinson in the fold. This is still a quality defense too, even with the loss of Von Miller. The Rams are actually poised to improve on their numbers from last year; we project them to finish with the fifth-best defense by DVOA. After adding Bobby Wagner to a position they have sorely neglected, the Rams have star power at all three levels in the defense in Wagner, Aaron Donald, and Jalen Ramsey.
Bryan: The Rams are one of four teams we project in the top 10 of DVOA on both sides of the ball, and deservedly so. Barring injury, the Rams have the highest floor in the division by far. So even if Stafford's arm is a little sore, and Kupp can't quite capture the magic of his record-shattering season a year ago, and Robinson remains better in our mind's eye than actually on the field, and the pass rush drops off without Miller there to capitalize, and the cornerbacks outside of Ramsey continue to be merely adequate, if that…
… OK, there are a lot of ifs. But I find it hard to imagine the Rams ending up with a losing record unless they're hit with a wave of injuries, be that Stafford missing significant time or a quorum of the stars getting banged up. I do feel that the Rams' model makes them more prone to problems if they suffer injuries; they're depth is not great, by design, but if any team suffers injuries they'll be in trouble. Assuming things go more or less according to plan, I have no problem predicting the Rams to be somewhere in the nine- to 12-win range, ticking along, making the playoffs, and trying to go back-to-back. So all I need to do is take the average of that and … get 10.5. Exactly their line. Great.
Cale: I feel a little more conservative than you do if only because of the Stafford elbow. Wolford did become the first player to throw for 200 yards and rush for 50 yards in an NFL debut, so I know McVay won't have any trouble generating offense if he has to turn to the backup, but this team is playing the ninth-hardest schedule by our projections. It's a gauntlet, and I think the stars-and-scrubs model hasn't been terribly injury-tested yet. Last year saw a star-for-star swap when Odell Beckham Jr. filled in immediately for Robert Woods upon news of his ACL tear, but could that hold up for the quarterback positon? How fragile is the depth of this team if something goes south? It's all speculative and being over-precautionary, but under feels like the call if there is even a small question surrounding Stafford's health.
Bryan: If I could get the push at 10, I would take the over. A healthy Rams team should be right up there with the top squads in the conference, and while I wouldn't call them favorites to repeat this season, I would be far from surprised if they managed the feat. But against a tough schedule, with some minor question marks at key positions, I really feel 10-7 is the most likely median outcome, which is a very, very, very slight under. Just too high of a line for my blood.
San Francisco 49ers (10)
Bryan: This, historically, has been the part of the over/unders where people have to wrench off my red-and-gold-colored glasses. That, or calm me down as I start talking about the eight zillion things that could go wrong in San Francisco. And this year, we get to do both! Hurray!
Swapping out the quarterback of record in the years you went to a Super Bowl and an NFC Championship Game is just one of those things that happens to every club, right? Entirely routine maintenance for a contender.
Cale: If anything, the uniqueness of the situation should give you faith in the rest of the system. If there wasn't so much trust in Shanahan's abilities as a playcaller and football mind, you wouldn't have a switch like that generate this kind of line. Not many organizations could switch to a quarterback with under 400 passing attempts since high school and still generate a double-digit line for their season win total.
I'm excited for the Trey Lance Experience just because of the extra level of dimensionality that kind of athlete could bring to the Shanahan offense. Hopefully the creative juices haven't spoiled with Shanahan's right-hand man Mike McDaniel heading to Miami, but with Lance playing alongside Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, and Trey Sermon, the upside for this offense feels sky-high, but it all comes down to the massive gamble San Francisco is taking on Lance.
Bryan: There are concerns outside the quarterback position—the interior line is completely revamped and the starting cornerbacks are already banged up, though not seriously. And there are reasons to celebrate outside the quarterback position—the Samuel contract situation got resolved to everyone's satisfaction, and Aiyuk is going crazy in camp with fantastic reports and highlights coming out almost every day. And you still have the majority of the bones of last year's top-five offense and top-10 defense in place, ready to go.
But spending time talking about rookie guards and cornerbacks isn't what we're here for. This really is the Lance question. If Trey Lance is the sort of player worth spending three first-round draft picks on, the 49ers' ceiling is higher than almost anyone else's in the league. There have been days at training camp where he has dunked on the defense over and over again. His mobilty gives the 49ers' offense a brand new dimension; his arm strength gives them a verticality that Jimmy Garoppolo simply did not have. Since the start of the 2021 preseason, Lance has three completions of 30-plus air yards; Garropolo has one in the last two years. If things work out, the 49ers have a higher ceiling than the Rams and should win the division.
If Trey Lance is the sort of player who hasn't played significantly in two years, and got his last significant work against FCS competition, the 49ers could suffer some serious growing pains this season. There have been days in training camp where he has looked unable to string two plays together, getting worked by the secondary and throwing wobbling balls around the field. That arm strength occasionally showed up negatively in the first preseason game, with his fastball being too much on a couple of plays you expect NFL quarterbacks to make.
So, you know. There's a range here.
Cale: I think the biggest X-factor for me with Lance is his mobility. Not only was Garoppolo not a threat to throw deep, he has just 182 rushing yards in five seasons with the 49ers. For comparison, Lance had 168 in six games last year. With San Francisco's emphasis on spreading defenses out horizontally—and now vertically, too, with the threat of Lance's long ball—the opportunities Lance has to run become enormous. It's just another wrinkle that defenses have to keep in mind, and it's something that has less chance for something to go wrong than, say, any pass Lance puts in the air.
The 49ers can always fall back on their defense, which we project to take a moderate step back from their seventh-best finish last year. Richard Sherman seems to be really high on the San Francisco secondary, arguing they'd be "amongst the best in football" by season's end. Plus, you can't go wrong with the one-two punch of Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead on your defensive line. Some stability on this end is good to have, especially considering San Francisco's schedule is projected to be much easier than the Rams' or the Cardinals'.
I feel confident in an over call here. Maybe I'm putting too much faith in Kyle Shanahan, or expressing too little concern with Lance's inexperience, but the pieces just fit for me. It all comes together so well. Maybe I'm a year early to the party, but Lance just has to play league-average for this team to go places.
Bryan: Like with the Rams, I really wish I had another half-win here to make me feel confident. With the line smack-dab at 10, we're basically arguing about whether the 49ers are more likely to go 9-8 or 11-6, and that's one of the larger two-win swings, at least from a perception standpoint. When I did game-by-game predictions, I had both the 49ers and Rams come out with 10 wins. From that standpoint, I would have gone over from the Rams on this line just based on more certainty surrounding them. But I will go under for the 49ers, under the theory that there will be days when Lance's inexperience ends up hurting enough to turn wins to losses. I still have them making the playoffs, and I think they'll be better at the end of the year than the beginning as Lance gets more reps, but I foresee enough potential for stumbling that I'm slightly more comfortable with the under. Tough lines, though.
Seattle Seahawks (5.5)
Cale: What an unceremonious ending to this era of Seahawks football. Bobby Wagner cut without warning. Russell Wilson making YouTube cringe compilation fodder out in Denver after the entire organization released collective statements blaming the whole trade on him. Just like that, it's all over. The Seahawks go from perennial postseason lock to potentially vying for a top-five draft pick.
Bryan: Yes, when I said there were three teams in the division who could be vying for the Super Bowl, the Seahawks were in fact the team I was leaving out of the equation. Losing Russell Wilson was cause for minor celebration throughout the rest of the division, and when you make a personnel move that causes your rivals to be happy, you have probably done something wrong.
It's almost too easy to talk about the floor falling out for Seattle. They have the worst quarterback situation in football (as we write this, at the very least). They have a coaching staff which seems to have not evolved with the times, who seemed to be actively attempting to put weights on their star passer multiple times over the last few seasons. They have had shockingly bad luck in the draft, as the magic touch that spawned the DVOA dynasty dried up. It's very, very easy to make the case for things just hitting rock bottom in Seattle.
Cale: The only hope out of this Seattle team comes from the fact they got the DK Metcalf extension done, and even then neither quarterback vying for a starting job has the tools to maximize his potential. Geno Smith doesn't have the arm talent to make the most of Metcalf's vertical game, and Drew Lock has major issues with accuracy in his deep game. I'd say the only bright spot in this offense comes from Rashaad Penny, and that optimism is really only coming from fantasy football owners.
Bryan: The offense is a big bundle of depressing wrapped in a thin layer of sadness. But, if I'm to play devil's advocate here for a minute, I actually have some optimism on the defensive side of the ball. There's a lot of upside in the front seven—upside that needs to be reached if the Seahawks are going to be any good this season, but upside that could be realized. Jordyn Brooks looked very nice at times last season. Darrell Taylor flashed pass-rushing chops. Adding both Uchenna Nwosu and Shelby Harris is bound to help as well. You could do far worse in the front seven than Seattle, even after losing Wagner this offseason. Tre Brown and Sidney Jones are solid enough in the secondary, and I really do like their star safety, by which I mean Quandre Diggs and not the undersized edge rusher that Jamal Adams has become. I don't think they're going to rise to the level of good, but I could see them surprising people and being adequate. Or, at least, the bright spot on the team.
Cale: I see what you're saying, and I recognize the upside of that front seven, but man does that secondary worry me. Last year, Seattle finished 26th in pass defense DVOA, and l can't imagine them getting any better after this offseason. Losing D.J. Reed is a blow, but even with him, I don't think the Seahawks had a real option to match up with a team's top wide receiver. Not only is their division loaded with those guys, but so are their opponents in the AFC West and NFC South (well, at least Tampa Bay and whatever version of Mike Thomas New Orleans gets this year).
Bryan: The schedule should, at least, do the Seahawks some favors. I know home-field advantage has dropped off in the past few seasons, but Seattle still has a reputation for being a tough place to play, what with the crowd noise and all. And they get the fearsome foursome of the Falcons, Giants, Panthers, and Jets all flying across the country to play in Lumen Field. The top of the schedule is tough, with the AFC West and NFC South on the schedule, but it feels like most of Seattle's potential winnable games are happening in Seattle. Maybe I'm a fool for still believing in the power of HFA, but it's hard to ask for a nicer road/home split for a team that we're projecting to struggle. And if we're right about Arizona stumbling without Hopkins, maybe that pushes the Seahawks to five wins, and then you just need one more win, somewhere, on the schedule to hit the over here. Seattle has been a thorn in San Francisco's side for years, and while the scissors are blunted in the rock-paper-scissors trio that was the Rams, Seahawks, and 49ers, it's still not a matchup I'm exactly looking forward to.
Cale: At least the game in Germany doesn't eat into their home schedule.
Side note: we're really sending this team to play in Germany? The road schedule for the Seahawks is tough enough as-is. We have to send them halfway around the world to get their doors blown off by Tom Brady?
Bryan: Hey, old people don't do well with international travel. So Brady and Pete Carroll can both rest off their jetlag while the kinder go and play some fußball.
I have talked myself into the over here. Not by a ton, mind you, but I think there are enough holes in the schedule, and just enough faith in the offense, that I think six or seven wins is within the realm of reasonable possibilities. That's depressing considering what the Seahawks have done in the Carroll era, but 5.5 wins is a pretty low bar to clear.
Cale: Your optimism in this team is brave. I, sadly, can't relate. Under for me. I just don't see Seattle doing much in 2022. The quarterback situation is a mess and there isn't enough talent on the offense for the skill position players to create a high floor. The defense is a lot of bets on young talent, and I have very little faith in this secondary—especially when you factor in the competition they'll be going against. I don't think this is the worst team in the league by any measure, but there are more paths to the bottom for Seattle than there are to the top.
It figures that the division with the widest range of outcomes would end up being our most divisive yet. For those keeping track at home, yes, two disagreements technically qualifies as our most disagreements on a division yet.
Bryan: Considering the history of this article series, two disagreements are basically the same as civil war. We'll see if we can't calm things down and get a nice, smoother consensus tomorrow with a more boring and simple division, the *checks notes* AFC West?!