With the regular season bearing down on us, let’s take a look at the 2014 NFC West Predictions.
The NFC West teams have to play the AFC West and NFC East this season in addition to their divisional schedule.
I am making predictions as if injuries did not occur unless otherwise specified and each projected finish is from looking through each game over the course of the season and predicting each winner from each matchup.
For playoff predictions and award predictions, check out Football Fan Source’s 2014 NFL Season Preview!
1. Seattle Seahawks
Projected Finish: 12-4
If I was more optimistic, I might predict a 16-0 regular season record for Seattle. After all, they are that good. Alas, I must give them four losses, despite immense talent.
Seattle is set. The offenses is led by the calm, level-headed Russell Wilson and remains run-heavy. I think it’s important to point out that this run-focus with Seattle’s defense makes Wilson’s job much easier. He is very good and I thought he would be a great player from day one, but I’ll wait to say he is great until he is asked to really take the reins of the offense. He shouldn’t need to though, as long as Marshawn Lynch remains healthy at running back. He is a tank and has deceptive quickness for a bruising running back like he is. His brief holdout doesn’t bode well for his season if you are superstitious, but Seattle has two running backs in Robert Turbin and Christine Michael who would be competing for starting spots on a lot of other teams. At receiver, look for Jermaine Kearse to come into his own this season. He has been quiet in Seattle’s offense, but he has an opportunity and will need to step up. Percy Harvin is still an explosive talent if he can stay healthy. He has a huge season if he stays off the injury report. The offensive line is solid.
Seattle’s bread and butter is their defense. There really isn’t much more to say. Their defensive line is led by Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril on ends. Bruce Irvin will continue to develop as an explosive pass rusher and fellow linebackers, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are very good. The “Legion of Boom” is back in full force with Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Byron Maxwell back and ready for a Super Bowl repeat. Knowing Seattle, I would imagine they have a couple other players waiting in the woodwork for their chance. This is a big, physical defense that will be hard to beat.
Seattle’s biggest threats may come from within their own division with San Francisco and Arizona knowing how to play Seattle better than anyone. Seattle is 15-1 at home in their last two seasons with their lone loss coming to Arizona at the end of last season. I really don’t know if anyone can beat them in Seattle this season considering the home-field advantage that presents and the talent on the roster. Watch for Seattle to potentially struggle with 1:00 ET games on the east coast. Those are the games they traditionally struggle with due to the long travel and time change. Either way, Seattle has to be a favorite to repeat as Super Bowl Champion.
Player to Watch: RB Christine Michael – This is a little different because Michael is currently sitting third on the depth chart, but he is ridiculously talented. If Lynch deals with any sort of hiccup this season, Michael will be a guy to watch as he could be a breakout star with his skill set.
2. Arizona Cardinals
Projected Finish: 11-5
Arizona is a bit of a surprise pick here, but I really like what Arizona has going for them this season, despite some setbacks on defense. Watch out for the Cardinals in 2014.
Quarterback Carson Palmer has his chance, this season, to return to prominence in head coach Bruce Arians’s offensive scheme. The offense is riddled with playmakers and if Palmer can just play within himself and maybe channel some of his 2005 form, Arizona will be staring down a playoff appearance. Just look at Arizona’s offense. Andre Ellington is explosive at running back. In limited time as a rookie, he averaged 5.5 yards per carry. That is fantastic for an NFL running back. The question for him is if he can handle the beating of being a featured back at around 200 lbs. If he can, he will get the ball in the run game and in the passing game where he will make things happen all year. The wide receivers are future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald and a breakout candidate in Michael Floyd. Floyd is big, physical and athletic. After using two seasons to assimilate to the pro game, he is poised for a huge season. Remember that most wide receivers find their stride in their third season. John Carlson and Rob Housler provide Palmer with good tight end options and the offensive line is much improved this season with left tackle Jared Heldheer coming over from Oakland in free agency.
Arizona’s defense has already taken it’s share of lumps with Daryl Washington being suspended for the entire 2014 season and the departure of Karlos Dansby to Cleveland this offseason. A lot lies on Arizona’s ability to find people who can replace those players at linebacker. Defensive Calais Campbell is a great player and Frostee Rucker on the other side can get after the quarterback as well. The strength of this team is their secondary with Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie making up one of the most talented, if not the most talented, cornerback duo in the NFL. It will be hard to move the ball on Arizona, despite their setbacks.
The Cardinals are a part of the brutal NFC West, but I think they will emerge from the division with a playoff berth. They are a very dangerous team with big, physical receivers and a great, if not elite, defense. Everything in this division goes through Seattle and, at least on paper, Arizona matches up well.
Player to Watch: WR Michael Floyd – I am going to watch Peterson and Ellington too, but if Floyd finds his stride and experiences a breakout year like is expected, how do you stop him and Fitzgerald? Honorable Mention: WR John Brown – He dominated the preseason and will be Arizona’s T.Y. Hilton.
3. San Francisco 49ers
Projected Finish: 11-5
San Francisco don’t look as formidable as they did entering last season – on paper at least. However, this team is still loaded with talent and is a threat to make a Super Bowl run as long as they maintain their identity as a tough, physical team.
Talking about San Francisco begins with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He is elusive, has a rocket arm and can lead this offense effectively. I personally don’t buy into him being able to carry the team if he can’t effectively use his legs though. I question if he can be truly elite through the air. This might be the season where we answer that question as running back Frank Gore remains effective, but is aging quickly. Rookie Carlos Hyde is a phenomenal backup option and might actually be more productive than Gore by season’s end. That said, I think more rests on Kaepernick’s shoulders than in the past. His receiving options are back and healthy though, which helps tremendously. Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Stevie Johnson and Vernon Davis are great weapons to have at his disposal. If Crabtree can stay healthy, he could have a big year and Johnson was brought in to add another threat, but him and Kaepernick haven’t been able to get on the same page quite yet. The offensive line is great once again, but did seem to struggle a little in the preseason. That is uncharacteristic of this unit though.
Defensively, San Francisco is, first and foremost, looking to replace Navarro Bowman who suffered a gruesome knee injury in the NFC Championship Game this past January. That won’t be easy, as Bowman was, arguably, the best inside linebacker in the league last season. Patrick Willis is still in there, but he is getting up in years. Ahmad Brooks and Dan Skuta are solid players at the outside linebacker positions. The defensive line is dealing with their own storylines with end Ray McDonald facing the NFL’s first case of domestic abuse since they announced – only a couple days earlier, mind you – that the first offense of such a case would result in a six-game suspension with the second resulting in a year-lifetime ban. Justin Smith is still trucking at the other end position. Him being healthy means good things for San Francisco. In the secondary, they are surprisingly thin with their starting corners being Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver. They will be just fine, but it a weakness more than any other position on their roster.
The 49ers are, once again, solid and should be considered for a deep playoff push, but there is something about this team that makes me question them. They sort of remind me of the 2013 Ravens when they were coming off a Super Bowl victory and things just sort of began to go a little wrong off the bat with injuries and other factors. Kaepernick is a great player, but I still don’t trust him if he is asked to do too much. I feel like San Francisco is trending down a bit, yet the talent of their roster warrants an 11-win season.
Player to Watch: RB Carlos Hyde – I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ohio State product sees a huge chunk of carries this season as San Francisco tries to limit the wear and tear on Gore. Hyde is a great player who will flourish in this situation.
4. St. Louis Rams
Projected Finish: 5-11
The injury to quarterback Sam Bradford was a crippling blow to St. Louis. Their defense is very, very good and their offense, with Bradford, showed great promise to perhaps compete in the loaded NFC West, but now it’s a much greater, uphill battle.
Shaun Hill takes over for Bradford and although he has been a career backup to this point, people are quick to point out that Hill’s numbers are actually quite comparable to Bradford’s over his career. As far as backups go, Hill is actually pretty good. The problem is that when you have to rely on a backup week in and week out, you see their limitations. There is a reason why Hill hasn’t been a long-term starter in this league. Playing against teams like San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona every other week also don’t help. That said, the St. Louis offense won’t necessarily be horrendous. Zac Stacy is coming off a solid rookie season, but could be pushed by backup Benny Cunningham. Cunningham has a higher ceiling, Stacy is a bit limited physically, and had better numbers in the preseason. At receiver, St. Louis brought in Kenny Britt, who was once supposed to become the next elite receiver. Brian Quick and Tavon Austin are young, developing players. Stedman Bailey is a receiver to watch once he serves his four-game suspension for banned substances. The offensive line lacks depth, but should be improved this season with Jake Long coming over from Miami to take over at left tackle.
The Rams defense is really what had people excited about their prospects. The defensive line is deep and might be one of the best in the NFL with Richard Quinn and Chris Long lining up at end and Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers at the tackle spots. First-rounder Aaron Donald, who was compared to Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins in the lead-up to this past spring’s draft, will be worked in. Quinn, Brockers, C. Long and Donald are all first round picks. Alec Ogletree is a talent at outside linebacker and James Laurinaitis is one of the best inside. The secondary is relatively unproven, but Janoris Jenkins is still developing. Safety T.J. McDonald was having a nice rookie campaign until he suffered a season-ending injury.
St. Louis is an exciting team for the future, but I don’t think they can make enough noise with Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona in the division. The Bradford injury hurts their sleeper appeal, but Hill is one of the better backups you can find, so St. Louis will still be dangerous, even within the NFC West.
Player to Watch: QB Shaun Hill – All eyes are on the quarterback anyway. He has some difficult matchups this season within the division.