As you may have read, I conducted interviews with each of the SBNation NFC West sites: Niner Nation, Field Gulls and Revenge of the Birds. I asked them each the same questions to get some kind of metric going on the West, and to start dialing in where each team is at the moment. Then David Fucillo reminded me of the fact I hadn't answered the questions for Turf Show Times. I became confused, disoriented, and down right wobbly. How could I ask ME questions without talking to myself? I stood in front of a mirror, and tried to answer, but I began to babble incoherently, which in and of itself isn't all that uncommon for me. Still, I felt uncomfortable. So I decide to have Brandon Bate ask me the questions. It was easy! In my mind's eye, I just imagined Brandon, his eyes crossed as he struggled to open a beer with a toilet plunger. Did you know he drools when he asks a question? Lots of hand gestures too... Anyway, here's my answers...
While sorting through all the off season moves and losses via free agency, then adding in the recent NFL Draft, most teams have new questions in 2014? How did (Your team) do overall in the following categories: (Give me a 1 to 10 grade, with 10 being best; explain your reasoning)
The 2014 NFL Draft saw the Rams make finishing touches on a defense that's been in the making since 2010. Without a doubt, this is the portion of the Rams as a team that'll have zero excuses for failure in the season to come. Jeff Fisher and Les Snead have been building this team to compete in the NFC West, and have made winning the division a priority. The NFC West hitting top status in the NFL is the height of bad timing for the rebuilt St. Louis Rams. Having used many of their top picks on the defensive side of the ball for the last four years, the offense has lagged behind. The Rams' fan base has been screaming for a #1 wide receiver for the most part, so the defensive leanings during the draft have more than likely cut short Fisher and Snead's honeymoon period. The RGIII trade landed quite a few starters for the team. But let's not forget who they're replacing. When Fisher took over, he released 43 players from the previous regime - almost ALL of whom are no longer in the NFL. So while the "hit rate" on draft picks over the past couple years looks beyond impressive to outside observers, in truth, the newly added rookies walked into starting roles with little in the way of competition when compared to Seattle or San Francisco.
Offensive weapons for Sam Bradford have been subpar, as players cycled through St. Louis. 2013 starting running back Daryl Richardson is gone, replaced by Zac Stacy, who came on strong as a rookie last year. Tavon Austin showed flashes, but the questions of how to get the most out of the diminutive wide receiver still boggle Brian Schottenheimer's mind. Brian Quick - a second round draft pick in 2012 - has brought new meaning to "slow development curve". Where the Rams struck gold was the drafting of Chris Givens (2012) and Stedman (I took what?) Bailey. Both could hold the key to Sam Bradford's future. Bradford is both loved and maligned, depending on who you listen too. No matter your thoughts on the pro-s versus con-s debate on how good or bad the former Oklahoma University star quarterback is, this is Bradford's year to shine or fade away. NFL franchises are businesses first and foremost, and even though the NFL media sharks at large like Bradford - the person - they're starting to smell blood in the water.
After studying the NFC West teams, I think they all - particularly the St. Louis Rams - have offensive line needs. In fact, it looks like the position of need they all have in common is Guard (Right or Left)? How did your team address it's offensive line needs this off season?
Where the Rams may have made the most amazing move is along their offensive line. Drafting Auburn's Greg Robinson at #2 overall could conceivably vault the St. Louis offensive line into one of the best in the NFL. Health issues aren't far from Rams' fans thoughts though. Rodger Saffold - if he stays healthy - has the potential to be a Pro Bowl caliber Guard. Center Scott Wells has an excellent NFL resume - before he came to St. Louis. Since he's been here, he's struggled through a variety of injuries. Jake Long is recovering from a ACL/MCL suffered late in the 2013 season... Do you see a trend here? The good news is the Rams appear to have some serious offensive line depth to fall back on, which is a rare thing indeed. Bottom line: This may very well wind up being the single biggest improvement for the Rams - IF THEY STAY HEALTHY!
The NFC West appears to be sliding ever farther into a "run first" division. The Seahawks have the best running back (Marshawn Lynch) who fits this bill, with San Francisco's Frank Gore not far behind. The Rams have a promising second year RB in Zac Stacy, and Arizona's Andre Ellington showed flashes in 2013.
Arizona may be the last holdout to "the run", since they really haven't added any running back depth via the draft or free agency? San Francisco is so deep at RB, that it's hard to see how they can keep all of them on the roster. Seattle has proven depth at the position, after hitting prior drafts for quality running backs to groom behind "Beast Mode". The Rams have Stacy, and a marginally proven Benny Cunningham to go with recent draftee Tre Mason, but the signs are there that Sam Bradford will be edging more toward handing the ball off more often than passing this season.
How do you evaluate your team's run game for 2014?
While San Francisco and Seattle have established themselves as "Just Run Baby, RUN!" teams, the Rams are still more like "Run Forrest, RUN!" Potential in Zac Stacy made Rams' fans breath easier, and the curious 2014 draft of Tre Mason bodes for decent depth when you add in former undrafted free agent Benny Cunningham. Did I mention Isaiah Pead? No? Good, let's move on... More important than evaluating the St. Louis running backs, is who will be blocking for them. The aging - but pleasantly nasty - Harvey Dahl was a victim of salary cap cuts, and he'll be replaced Rodger Saffold at right guard. Left guard will be filled by #2 overall 2014 draft pick Greg Robinson - who has no idea just yet how to pass block - is the closest thing to a D-10 Bulldozer in the running game as I've seen in a long time. The loadstone of the Rams' running game will balance on just what happens at left tackle. If Jake Long comes back strong, the Rams will be opening holes in even the 49ers and Seahawks lines that even I could run through. If not...?
Defense is literally the watch-word for the NFC West. How did your team improve on defense this off season? What were the biggest additions - subtractions? - in the off season? What's the weakness on defense for your team?
As far as "losses" the Rams didn't lose anyone of note on defense. But have you ever notice how the "rich" just keep getting "richer"? Well, an already evolving top defensive line got better when the Rams selected Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald with the #13 overall draft choice this past May. If you're one of those people who can't read the Rams' defensive tea leaves, they're planning are rushing quarterbacks with a vengeance. New/old defensive coordinator Gregg Williams - back from soul searching with either the Dali Lama in the mountains of Tibet, or with a stripper name "Lana" in Las Vegas - has been described with one common word that seems to be an overall favorite among coaches, players, and the media: CRAZY! Shunning the tall corner backs trend in the current NFL, the Rams now have eight defensive backs vying for a starting job for St. Louis, only one of whom is over 6 feet tall (Trumaine Johnson). What they did add, was bone crushing tacklers to a secondary that was arguably one of the Rams' weakest links. Still, the biggest weakness I see for the Rams in 2014 is the ability to cover big wide receivers or tight ends.
The NFC West will be playing outside of division games against the AFC West and NFC East. Which opponents in these division look like the biggest problem for your team?
The Denver Broncos are going to be tough, but to me the outside opponent to watch is the Chip Kelly led Philadelphia Eagles. A wily bunch on the whole, NFL defensive coordinators have had a year to pick apart Kelly's fast paced University of Oregon offense. Yet, I don't think we've seen just how potent this offense can be. I think they'll surprise NFC West teams, especially those who have to play in "The City of Brotherly Love". Washington may surprise a few teams this year too. Don't discount just how explosive the Redskins' offense could be with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon catching passes...
Give me your win/loss forecast for each team in the NFC West, and more importantly, the team to watch in the division other than your own?
The fashionable team to watch among we of NFC West ilk is Arizona. But I'm going with the San Francisco 49ers, and their vastly improved wide receiver corps. It's conceivable - to me anyway - that the strength of the 49ers this year won't be their defense. Injuries, off field issues and age have me questioning just how strong the 49ers defense will be in 2014. What's peaked my interest though is their strong offensive line, great running back depth, a quarterback - who many love to hate for reasons that kind of allude me? - and a receiver group headed by Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson, and tight end Vernon Davis. I wouldn't be shocked to see the 49ers' defense sink out of the Top 10 in the NFL for the first time in years, and their offense to score more points than in either of the last two years.
My final win/loss tally for each NFC West teams?
Seattle Seahawks - 11-5
San Francisco 49ers - 11-5
St. Louis Rams - 9-7
Arizona Cardinals - 8-8