The next instalment of our NFL Season Preview explores the NFC West, mot notably featuring the powerhouse Seattle Seahawks who were one yard away from a second consecutive Superbowl title last February. The Arizona Cardinals also star, and if it hadn’t been for an injury to quarterback Carson Palmer they could also have made a deep run into January. San Francisco remain a solid team but a raft of retirements has weakened their defence in particular, while the St. Louis Rams will hope a change of quarterback can lead to a change in fortunes. For a more in-depth look at the division, just keep reading.
Key Additions: LB LaMarr Woodley (free agency), LB Sean Wetherspoon (FA), OG Mike Lupati (FA), OT D.J Humphries (draft)
Key Losses: DL Darnell Dockett (FA), CB Antonio Cromartie (FA)
After a 2014 season in which they led the NFC West for most of the campaign, Arizona suffered terribly when veteran QB Carson Palmer was lost with a knee injury, eventually losing the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Wild Card round. Palmer capably spread the ball among a plethora of offensive targets including receivers Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald plus running back Andre Ellington, while defensive co-ordinator Todd Bowles (since departed for the head coaching job with the New York Jets) created a ball hawking group led by elite cornerback Patrick Peterson. “Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu will line-up opposite Peterson, and as a pair the two form one of the best cornerback combinations in the NFL. The rest of the defense could be better, however, although in the offensively challenged NFC West their weakness’ in the front seven are less likely to be exposed. With some exciting young weapons in their armoury Bruce Arians Cardinals could well exceed ten wins again in 2015, although unseating the NFC champion Seahawks could prove to be a bridge too far for the second year in a row.
St. Louis Rams
Key Additions: QB Nick Foles (trade), DT Nick Fairley (FA), LB Akeem Ayers (FA), RB Todd Gurley (draft)
Key Losses: QB Sam Bradford (trade), OT Jake Long (FA), C Scott Wells (FA)
One of the biggest moves across the NFL in the off-season was the blockbuster trade that saw St. Louis send former number one overall pick Sam Bradford to Philadelphia, with Nick Foles and a second round pick heading in the opposite direction. Foles remains somewhat unpredictable as he enters his fourth season in the NFL, as he followed up his excellent 2013 campaign with a dud last year, culminating with him suffering a broken collarbone and missing over half of the season. Running back Todd Gurley adds power to the backfield, while the pickup of Nick Fairley in free agency bolsters what was already one of the top defensive lines in the league. Aaron Donald is a beast on the interior, while Chris Long has been excellent since the Rams drafted him second overall in 2008. Nonetheless, as is often the case across the NFL, quarterback play will determine the success for the team in 2015. Additionally, playing in the same division as Arizona and Seattle won’t make things any easier for Jeff Fisher’s team in what could be a make-or-break 2015.
San Francisco 49ers
Key Additions: RB Reggie Bush (FA), WR Torrey Smith (FA), DL Arik Armstead (draft)
Key Losses: ILB Chris Borland (retired), ILB Patrick Willis (retired), RB Frank Gore (FA), WR Michael Crabtree (FA), OG Mike Lupati (FA), DE Justin Smith (retired),
No team was as gutted this past off-season as much as the 49ers, who saw defensive stalwarts Chris Borland, Patrick Willis and Justin Smith retire, while offensive playmakers Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree also moved on. Borland’s retirement was by far the most shocking, as he had just come off a stellar rookie campaign where he’d filled in admirably for the injured Navarro Bowman. While Bowman is expected to return to the lineup following the horrific knee injury he sustained in the 2014 NFC Championship game in Seattle he’ll be without his wingman Willis, who will go down as one of the best inside linebackers to have graced the NFL in modern times. QB Colin Kaepernick saw his production drop for a second successive season last season, and without Gore and Crabtree to call on 49ers fans will have every right to be worried about the man who took the league by storm in late 2013. Kaepernick’s throwing motion has been dissected to death and unfortunately it just doesn’t look like improving, despite the dual-threat QB working with former Rams passer Kurt Warner during the summer. The likes of first round pick Arik Armstead and wideout Torrey Smith will help to soften the blows felt by the losses of Justin Smith and Crabtree, however they surely won’t be enough to help San Francisco bounce-back from a sub-par 2014 campaign and make the play-offs in new head coach Jim Tomsula’s first season.
Key Additions: TE Jimmy Graham (trade), RB Fred Jackson (FA), CB Cary Williams (FA)
Key Losses: C Max Unger (trade), OLB Malcolm Smith (FA), CB Byron Maxwell (FA)
Just one more yard. That’s all Seattle needed to achieve back-to-back Superbowl wins, something not done since the New England Patriots went two-in-two back in 2004 and 2005. Yet despite that monumental setback the Seahawks remain in a good place going into the 2015 season, and the addition of tight end Jimmy Graham should give mighty-mite Russell Wilson the best receiving option he’s enjoyed in his NFL career to date. Marshawn Lynch returns as one of the league’s top rushers, while the defence figures to be as stout as ever. Eric Thomas is one of the best pure free safeties in the NFL, while his partner in crime Kam Chancellor is the prototypical enforcer that all teams crave. Chancellor is currently holding out regarding his contract situation, however, so that situation will require close monitoring. Richard Sherman returns as the best shutdown corner in the game, while Bobby Wagner is another player who is among the elite at his position; in Wagner’s case, that position being inside linebacker. The pieces are in place once more for Seattle to make another deep play-off run, health permitting. All that remains to be seen what hangover they suffer from that one scarring play last February.