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4 important questions in the NFC West

Cam Akers, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kliff Kingsbury, and Seattle’s trenches could decide the division

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Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Some intradivisional thoughts on a Tuesday.

Can Cam Akers “Todd Gurley”?

Yes, I’m using Todd Gurley as a verb.

More specifically though, with reasonable expectations, can Akers “Rookie Todd Gurley” as a rookie?

The LA Rams heavily relied on Gurley from 2017-2018, when he ranked second in rush attempt (535) and first in touches (658) with a league-leading (by far) 3,924 yards from scrimmage. Had he not missed three games, Gurley likely would’ve had at least 1,000 more yards from scrimmage than any other running back over those two seasons.

Such was not the case in 2019, when Gurley ranked 17th in carries, 20th in rushing yards, and 37th in yards per carry. Some of this needs to be attributed to how the rest of the offense performed, how the defense performed, and opportunities for Gurley, but overall we know much of this decline can be attributed to how the Rams felt about Gurley’s knee and his physical ability to contribute like he had been contributing.

Gurley was released and now Akers is given that opportunity to be Todd Gurley, as he has no known physical ailments withholding him from getting the ball as much as Gurley was getting it. Does he have the physical and mental talents though?

As a rookie under Jeff Fisher in 2015, Gurley had 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games with 4.8 yards per carry. During his first season with Sean McVay, Gurley had 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns in 15 games with 4.7 yards per carry, plus 64 catches for 788 yards and six touchdowns.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference

Gurley’s rushing total in 2015 was the 10th-best by any rookie in the previous decade and his 85.1 yards per game was the seventh-best. A comparable season was just had by Josh Jacobs for the Oakland Raiders and that would likely be an ideal rookie campaign for Akers, minus the three games missed of course. While I think most overestimate how “easy” it is to be an NFL running back if you’re drafted to do so, as if no transition time or experience is necessary, I do think it is a position where you may be more likely to produce from the jump.

And NFL teams are making sure of it as the average age of a starting running back gets younger each season.

It won’t all be on Akers, of course. The Rams want a better season out of their offensive line. They want a better season from Jared Goff. They want their tight ends to be healthy and their defense to create more opportunities for the offense. There’s plenty of things that need to go right around Akers before Akers can run right around plenty of things, but in all cases, LA simply needs to end up with a better result on the ground.

If Akers can Gurley, then we’ll soon be wondering which running backs can Akers. And the Rams will probably be Super Bowl contenders.

Are Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray on an upward trajectory or did they hit their ceiling?

The Arizona Cardinals ranked 32nd in scoring, 32nd in yards, 32nd in passing yards, 32nd in rushing yards, 32nd in yards per attempt, and 32nd in yards per carry in 2018, plus 32nd in offensive DVOA, 32nd in passing DVOA, and 31st in rushing DVOA. In one sense, their rushing DVOA was phenomenal.

31st!

With Steve ... hold on ... uhhh ... oh yeah, Wilks, fired, the team hired Kliff Kingsbury to run an air raid offense with number one pick Kyler Murray and traded Josh Rosen to the Miami Dolphins. The 2019 results were outstanding. By comparison.

I mean, no more settling for 31st.

The 2019 Cards ranked 16th in scoring, 21st in yards, 24th in passing yards, 10th in rushing yards, 22nd in yards per attempt, and second in rushing yards per attempt. They were 13th in offensive DVOA and second in rushing DVOA, fueled by the acquisition of Kenyan Drake from Miami in a separate deal. This offseason featured the trade acquisition of DeAndre Hopkins, rated by some as the best receiver in the NFL, and the drafting of tackle Josh Jones in the third round when some viewed him as being worthy of the first.

Murray’s rookie season saw him complete 64.4-percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns, plus 544 yards on the ground with four more touchdowns. Given that before his Heisman-winning season at Oklahoma many saw Murray as a baseball player with a football pipe dream, he has destroyed expectations. My first thought after the 2019 season was “Murray could be 2020’s Lamar Jackson” and I was not alone.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference

But could their be comparable rookie quarterback seasons that don’t seem as promising with hindsight? Yes.

For example, did you know that Murray didn’t even have the highest passer rating of a rookie during his own rookie season? He was third. Gardner Minshew had 21 touchdowns and six interceptions with a rating of 91.2 for the Jaguars and Daniel Jones had 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with a rating of 87.7 for the Giants.

Murray had 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with a rating of 87.4.

I’m not saying Jones and Murray had equal rookie footing (Murray’s DYAR was 305, Jones’ was -256) but passer rating helps us unpack the box a bit and keep digging. Minshew’s DYAR was 193, about the same distance between him and Murray as their is between Murray and Jacoby Brissett (414 DYAR) for context.

If I had to rank those three rookie quarterbacks after one season, I’d go Murray, Minshew, and Jones, but I’d be close to 50/50 on Murray and Minshew (writing off Minshew because he was a sixth round pick feels like writing him off because the NFL screwed up the draft, not him) and I’d send out caution signals to judge Jones based off of his one rookie season.

And that’s not all because Drew Lock may have only had 156 pass attempts for the Broncos, but overall those were decent attempts and worth a longer look.

Some quarterbacks who had a higher passer rating+ than Murray as a rookie include Joe Flacco, Teddy Bridgewater, Mike Glennon, and Tim Couch. Murray’s season was a near perfect match to Andy Dalton’s rookie season in many ways. But Peyton Manning’s rookie campaign was a mess in many ways and did not indicate what his next 20 years would look like necessarily.

That’s what we’re waiting to see with another year in Kingsbury’s offense, another year with his offensive line (Murray was sacked an NFL-high 48 times), and a first year with Hopkins. Is Arizona trending up or did they already hit their max capacity? That will determine how far they go in a division with three recent Super Bowl teams.

Can Jimmy Garoppolo prove the 49ers made the right decision?

I just think there’s something backwards about a league in which Jimmy Garoppolo can make $10 million more per season than the next-highest paid player on his own team when Jimmy Garoppolo is potentially the player holding back the 49ers from winning a Super Bowl. And it’s not as though Garoppolo was paid based on a history of success. He signed his contract based solely on perceived potential to carry San Francisco to a Super Bowl because that’s what quarterbacks have become expected to do in most cases.

Instead, Garoppolo found himself floated to the Super Bowl in a parade surrounded by great defensive talent and coaching and the result was the 49ers seriously considering Tom Brady this offseason. Unable to secure him or any upgrades, San Francisco is giving Garoppolo another opportunity because they had no other choices. If Garoppolo fails again, they’ll have no other choice but to release him and look for the next Brady or the next ball of potential.

Garoppolo has had the appearance of being good though.

He completed 69.1-percent of his passes for 3,978 yards, 27 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 8.4 yards per attempt, four game-winning drives, and he was above average in every category except interceptions. Surprisingly, the 49ers went 3-0 in the regular season when Garoppolo threw two picks, and 9-1 when he threw at least one. They were 4-2 when he didn’t and 2-2 when he lost a fumble.

Then in the Super Bowl, Garoppolo stalled on his first drive with 1st and 10 at the KC 25. On the second drive, he threw a pick that setup the Chiefs for a field goal. He had some nice moments along the way but in the all-important fourth quarter, he proved to be a mere observer of what great quarterback play really looks like as Patrick Mahomes rebounded from an awful start to pull out a championship for Andy Reid.

In the fourth, Garoppolo went 3-of-11 for 36 yards, one interception, one brutal sack taken on 4th-and-10 with nothing left to lose but the game.

And he did.

Last season, San Francisco was able to shuttle Garoppolo into that opportunity thanks to an elite defense and rushing attack, but can they hope to be so fortunate again? DeForest Buckner was a vital piece in the middle and he was traded to the Indianapolis Colts. Richard Sherman turned 32. Repeating a defensive performance like that (second in DVOA, second against the pass) is not improbable, but it is fairly common for these teams to regress and sometimes to go well below regression.

Where top-3 defenses ranked the next season:

2014 - 1 Seahawks (4th), 2 Bills (24th), 3 Lions (16th)

2015 - 1 Broncos (1st), 2 Panthers (10th), 3 Cardinals (3rd)

2016 - 1 Broncos (10th), 2 Giants (24th), 3 Cardinals (4th)

2017 - 1 Jaguars (6th), 2 Vikings (4th), 3 Ravens (3rd)

2018 - 1 Bears (8th), 2 Bills (6th), 3 Ravens (4th)

If San Francisco ends up with the eighth-best defense, that’s still good, but is it good enough to win a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo?

Offensively, Garoppolo should have a quality offensive line again with Trent Williams replacing Joe Staley and likely keeping status quo there. But Deebo Samuel is recovering from a broken foot and probable to miss at least a couple of games to start the year, Matt Breida was traded to the Dolphins, and the bulk of pass attempts to start the year must be going to George Kittle (good for Kyle Shanahan), followed by rookie Brandon Aiyuk, Jalen Hurd, Kendrick Bourne, Dante Pettis, Trent Taylor, or other (potentially not good for Kyle Shanahan).

Garoppolo’s 2021 salary is set to be $26.9 million, which is almost $10 million more than second place Dee Ford. But if he continues to play like he did in the Super Bowl, the 49ers save $24.1 million by releasing him. And here’s a reminder for those in the back that San Francisco drafted Solomon Thomas over Mahomes and Deshaun Watson before they had settled their QB position.

Are the Seahawks the worst team in the NFL “in the trenches”?

Seattle has managed to make the playoffs in four of the five years since their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, but that is almost all due to the play of Russell Wilson and were it not for their rapid deterioration on the offensive and defensive lines, perhaps they would’ve gone past the divisional round in any of those seasons.

Though the Seahawks 2013 offensive line was not recognized as being “great” by anyone, and understandably so, they did have Russell Okung at left tackle (he did miss eight games), Max Unger at center, and right guard J.R. Sweezy has managed an eight-year career and continues to start for the Cardinals.

Unger was traded to the Saints in the Jimmy Garoppolo deal (potentially the worst move by Pete Carroll in Seattle) in 2015, Okung and Sweezy left in free agency in 2016, and other than the costly acquisition of Duane Brown, the Seahawks haven’t found adequate long-term starters anywhere along the line.

So much so that the 2020 offensive line appears to be 80-percent different than it was in 2019.

That likely includes B.J. Finney starting at center (13 career starts), Phil Haynes or Damien Lewis at right guard (0 career starts combined), Cedric Ogbuehi (0 starts in the last two years) or Brandon Shell (40 starts, but discarded by the Jets) at right tackle, and Ethan Pocic (five starts in the last two years) trying to hold 33-year-old Mike Iupati off of the left guard position.

Source: PFF’s offensive line rankings for 2020

And yet their objective in 2020 will be to keep players like Aaron Donald, Chandler Jones, and Nick Bosa away from Wilson. Seems unlikely.

But defensively, the line looks even further away from what it looked like during their championship runs.

The Seahawks added both Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril in 2013 to a defensive line who already had Chris Clemons as a pass rusher and Red Bryant as an underrated run-stopping 5-tech. Brandon Mebane, Clinton McDonald, and Tony McDaniel made up for an unheralded but important interior that helped Seattle rank seventh in run defense and first in rushing touchdowns allowed.

Piece by piece the defensive line was stripped apart and in 2019 the defense ranked 22nd in points allowed, 26th in yards, 24th in yards per pass attempt, 28th in yards per carry, and 31st in sacks. Seattle was 18th in DVOA on that side of the ball, 26th against the run.

The response thus far has been to rid themselves of their most disruptive pass rusher.

Unless the Seahawks re-sign Jadeveon Clowney or add another name like Everson Griffen, the edge rushers appear to be 2019 first round pick L.J. Collier, 2018 third rounder Rasheem Green, second round rookie Darrell Taylor, free agent signees Benson Mayowa and Bruce Irvin, both of whom happened to also be on that 2013 Seattle roster.

While Mayowa and Irvin combined for 15.5 sacks last season with their respective teams, they don’t ignite a ton of excitement in the pass rush. Collier was a healthy scratch for most of the season in spite of the fact that the Seahawks had a need for a defensive end. Green and Taylor are virtually just as unproven.

On the inside, Jarran Reed had 10.5 sacks in 2018 but was suspended six games last year and wasn’t as explosive when he returned. Poona Ford, Demarcus Christmas, and Bryan Mone could round out that group.

I would expect Seattle to be better in run defense and pass rush simply by regression, but on paper the defensive line appears less talented than it did a year ago and even the return of Clowney would still be the return of a player who had three sacks in 13 games in that same defense.

On either side of the ball, the Seahawks are relying on improvement through gaining more opportunity and experience for players who’ve yet to prove to be above-average in this league. It happens for teams sometimes but it could just as easily lead to another year in which the offense gives up 20 more sacks than what the defense ends up with.