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NFL Weekend: NFC West Defense Rankings For 2016

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The NFC West is all about "Defense", or at least it has been for the last six years. Teams seeing Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles/StL, and Arizona on their schedules need to load up on Bengay, Ibuprofen, and truck loads of ice prior to their brutal challenges ahead...

In 2016, the thudding, slamming, and bamming of NFC West opponents will continue, but with an added feature to make opposing quarterbacks groan even more. Sacking the quarterback is going to hit a fever pitch, as the nasty West dials up the need to improve field position for their offenses in 2016. Solid secondary improvements can be seen on every NFC West team, and with that, the proverbial chains - holding back front sevens - are coming off. This latest NFL Draft and free agency has me leaning toward thinking "pass rush" is at the top of the "to do" list for the Rams, Cardinals, Seahawks, and 49ers. You're not convinced? Well, let's take a look as I rank the NFC West defenses for 2016...

#4 - The San Francisco 49ers now possess the highest ceiling pair of edge rushers in the NFC West, if not the entire NFL. Taking Arik Armstead in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft, and DeForest Buckner at #7 overall in 2016, the 49ers' front office made it clear to everyone they've put returning their team to defensive glory was at the top of their wish list. The player departure carnage experienced prior to the 2015 season is now in the rear view mirror, and GM Trent Baalke is making a hard push to rebuild this defense. Draft picks aside , the biggest signing for the 49ers may not have been landing Chip Kelly as their new head coach...

Ever so quietly, an entirely unsung defensive coordinator named Jim O'Neil joined the staff, and he's the guy to watch for San Francisco in 2016. Beginning in 2009 with the New York Jets, and a stint with Buffalo in 2013 before heading to Cleveland, O'Neil has built a solid reputation for harnessing player potential. Every defense he's been associated with over the last six years has vastly improved, and - oddly enough - features a bruising style that'll fit well into the NFC West defensive mindset. The NFL Draft has given him the pieces he needs on the defensive line and secondary. His challenge will be to find someone to help linebacker Navarro Bowman. If he does, don't be shocked to see San Francisco'd defense suddenly surge into top 10-ish mention...

#3 - The Seattle Seahawks lost pass rushing specialist Bruce Irvin in free agency, so their ability to swing for the fences on passing downs took a hit. Or did it? I've long been a doubter when it comes to slapping the "This is what this guy does.." label on a player, simply because it kind of sends up a big 'ol banner saying "we're about to do this", and gives a team something to key in on. Irvin fit this bill, and was just so-so when it came to run defense.

Taking this label away from Seattle's defense could do more good in the long run, but who'll step in to replace Irvin's quarterback sack numbers? Personally, I'm not sure that's where Pete Carroll's thinking may be? Instead, dialing up sub-packages - to take advantage of the most talent secondary in the NFL - will be the Seattle way in 2016. I look for the Seahawks' secondary to have - as a group - around 12+ quarterbacks sacks in the coming season...

#2 - In Los Angeles, the newest hometown team will have a different look on defense. Gone are Chris Long and James Laurinaitis, - defensive mainstays of the recent past - along with Janoris Jenkins, who departed via free agency. Returning from injuries, Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree will hold the keys to the Rams' 2016 season on defense. For me, the jury is still out on head coach Jeff Fisher's plan to move Ogletree to middle linebacker. The biggest knock on the former first round pick has been his tendency to "watch" a play unfold, then using his speed to make up for it. A tackling machine on the outside, I'll wait and see how he handles taking on the entire field before giving Ogletree a knowing nod...

Losses and position moves aside, the Los Angeles Rams' defense is a broadsword. It swarms in a sweeping path, using speed and unrelenting physical play. The loss of Jenkins won't be felt - like many believe - due to rather impressive position depth. If free agent safety Donte Whitner signs with Los Angeles, the fear factor for opposing wide receivers gets notched up quite a bit. How injured corner back E.J. Gaines returns to the line up may be key here, but not decisively so. This team is deeeeep on defense, and they'll have to be with an offense that's a work in progress. Look for defensive coordinator/mad man Gregg Williams to unleash his hounds like never before...

#1 - The Arizona Cardinals have put together a potentially terrifying defense. Adding Chandler Jones via trade with New England, they drafted the single biggest defensive "boom or bust" player in the recent 2016 NFL Draft: Robert Nkendiche. A seemingly mercurial college player, his potential talent meter is off the charts. The return of a healthy Tyrann Mathieu is key, but it's the pass rush of the Arizona front seven giving opponents pre-game nightmares. In fact, the only thing that could make this defense any scarier would be a sudden - and miraculous - return of linebacker Daryl Washington from perennial suspension. That's not going to happen, but NFL fans have to kind of drool at the prospect of just how great this defense could have been in a perfect world...

This is - without a single doubt in my mind - the single best defensive group the Cardinals have ever assembled. Adding in the fact they'll be facing feast-worthy offenses within their division, and well... Can you say: OUCH! Pain is headed Russell Wilson, Jared Goff, and (fill in the blank of the unlucky 49ers' quarterback here) way. Have a look at their 2016 schedule, and tell me how this Arizona defense doesn't end up being in the top 3 by season's end...

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