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TGS 2018 NFL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE NFC WEST

                                      by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We conclude our summer TGS previews with a look at the NFC West. As always, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2017 straight-up, spread, and "Over/Under" (O/U) records included.


There wasn’t a bigger surprise in all of the NFL last season than the Los Angeles Rams (2017 SUR 11-6; PSR 9-8; O/U 11-6), whose return to the Coliseum from St. Louis the previous season more resembled some of the franchise lowlights during the Harland Svare era from 1962-65; the Rams finished 2016 as looking like perhaps the worst team in the league as they limped home with an interim HC (John Fassel) following Jeff Fisher’s well-deserved dismissal late in the season. (No coincidence, perhaps, that the pair of QBs who faced off in the NFC title game, Nick Foles and Case Keenum, were both benched and then overlooked by Fisher during the later stages of his Rams tenure). Enter brash, young (only 31!) new HC Sean McVay, off of a stint as the o.c. of the Redskins, who only kept Fassel (ST coach) from the preceding staff. And...voila! All of a sudden, LA was good, winning like some of the better George Allen and Chuck Knox teams from decades past as McVay began to work his magic with 2nd-year QB Jared Goff as he did at FedEx Field with Kirk Cousins. Along the way the Rams dismembered several teams, with a Tom Osborne-at-Nebraska-like five wins by 26 points or more! Young McVay also knew what he was doing assembling a staff, with a key addition being sage d.c. Wade Phillips, allowed to walk from Denver despite coordinating one of the best NFL defenses we’ve ever seen in the Broncos’ Super Bowl-winning season of 2015. The passing of the guard would be complete in the West with a 42-7 destruction of the Seahawks on December 17, an emphatic statement. Though in the end, maybe the rise was too quick, as the Rams seemed to peak that cloudy afternoon at CenturyLink Field; they weren’t the same thereafter, and closed the season with a pair of losses, the latter in the Wild Card Round when outclassed at the Coliseum by the Falcons. Which raised concerns of some of the doubters that maybe the 2017 Rams simply caught lightning in a bottle.

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To dispel any of those notions, LA acted like a contender in the offseason, making several key additions to the defense (CBs Aqib Talib, who flourished under Phillips in Denver, from the Broncos and Marcus Peters from the Chiefs, plus rugged DT Ndamukong Suh from the Dolphins) and a deep-threat wideout, Brandin Cooks from the Patriots, for the offense. All win-now moves by McVay and GM Les Snead; the rest of the NFC has taken notice.

Proving his brashness, McVay brazenly bucked convention in the preseason, not bothering to play offensive stars Goff or RB Todd Gurley, even in the normal third-game “dress rehearsal” exercise. It was the progress of Goff last season, however, that was most noteworthy after he looked lost (like every other Ram, it seemed) in the first year back in LA during 2016. Goff embraced the McVay scheme, which relies on timing and rhythm and emphasizes play-action, all seamlessly adapted to by the ex-Cal QB. Meanwhile, Gurley was not only a force as a runner, resurfacing as a big-play threat in 2017 when gaining 1305 YR and a healthy 4.7 ypc after having trouble getting past the line of scrimmage in a forgettable 2016, but as a receiver, too, gaining more yards per catch (12.3) on his 64 catches than even Card legend Larry Fitzgerald. McVay structured part the offense to make sure Gurley could get the ball in space, which meant using him on pass routes. Good idea. The arrival of Cooks now provides Goff with a legit deep threat and can make holdover wideouts Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods more effective on the intertwined routes that McVay prefers. Meanwhile, the OL was solidified thanks in large part to two of last year’s FA additions, LT Andrew Whitworth (ex-Bengals) and C John Sullivan (ex-Redskins), with Whitworth able to effectively protect Goff’s blind side while his 12 years of experience provided needed locker-room leadership.

If there was an anomaly last season, it was leading the NFL in scoring (29.9 ppg) but ranking well up the track in red-zone production. McVay also continues to hold the role of o.c., his specialty, but must replace last year's right-hand man Matt LaFleur, his passing game coordinator who has moved to the Titans as the new o.c. for Mike Vrabel.

There’s as much, if not more, excitement on the defensive side, where the Rams have seemed to put together one of the best DLs and secondaries in the league. Resolving the annual contract issues of star DE Aaron Donald before the regular season was key; the thought of Donald and the newly-added Suh jamming the middle of the defense reminds of the days when Merlin Olsen and Rosey Grier, then Roger Brown, manned interior spots for the famous “Fearsome Foursome” of the ‘60s. There might have been a practical reason to get Suh, too; even with Donald, the Rams ranked 30th in rush defense last year, something Suh should help alleviate. As for the secondary, the prospect of Peters and Talib, both high-risk playmakers, at the corners, is quite enticing, especially with Donald and Suh providing inside push. Phillips, however, might need more production from the edge to collapse, not just push back, the pocket, or the gambles of Peters and Talib could at times backfire. There’s also the question of a couple of combustible sorts like Peters and Talib, both involved in on-field controversies last fall, so Phillips will have to keep both on a tight leash. The position group to watch is at LB, which the Rams gutted by moving on from three of their four starters last season (including Alec Ogletree, traded to the Giants, and Robert Quinn, dealt to the Dolphins) in an effort to clear cap space for some of the new signees. Snead believes youngsters like 3rd-year ILB Corey Littleton and 2nd-year OLB Samson Ekuban are ready to step into featured roles, and if any defensive coordinator knows how to get the most of out a group of LBs, it’s Phillips, who has coached plenty of good ones (including Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware) during his career.

Lastly, note the Rams are in Year 3 of 4 at the venerable Coliseum, which is undergoing renovations by main tenant USC and will have a bit different look this fall. Owner Stan Kroenke’s new football palace in Inglewood, pushed back a year from its original target date of 2019, is well on course to be ready for 2020. Meanwhile, in fashion news, the Rams will be wearing a lot of their popular royal blue-and-goldenrod outfits this season that were first introduced at the beginning of the Knox era in 1973, replacing last year's unpopular all-navy ensemble. The Rams should once again be at home in the playoffs wearing those royal blue Knox-era costumes in January...maybe all of the way to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, where it will be the NFC team as host and able to pick its uniform color. Note also that LA again gives up another home date this season, this time for a game in Mexico City vs. the Chiefs, after playing in London each of the past two years. Whatever, now firmly entrenched back home in Southern California, it’s almost hard to remember that the Rams were in St. Louis for 21 seasons.

Spread-wise, McVay didn’t make quite as much impact last season, dropping 4 of the last 5 vs. the number to lower the overall mark to 9-8. Since moving back to LA, the Rams are also just 4-10-1 vs. the line at the Coliseum (3-5 a year ago).


False alarm, or a warning to the rest of the league? That’s the question most are seeming to ask about the San Francisco 49ers (2017 SUR 6-10, PSR 9-6-1; O/U 8-8), involved in what looked like a torrid race with the Cleveland Browns for the first choice in the 2018 draft into last December, only to win their last five games and suddenly become one of the flavors of the month entering this season. The resurgence coincided neatly with the insertion into the lineup of ex-Patriot QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who arrived just before the trade deadline in late October before being hidden away in what seemed like witness protection as the Niners continued to lose with Iowa rookie CJ Beathard at QB. Until, that is, the final moments of a November 26 loss to the Seahawks, when “Jimmy G-Q” finally entered the lineup near the end of the game and tossed a TD on just his second pass as a 49er. From that point forward, San Francisco was Garoppolo’s team, and an amazing surge of five straight wins followed that included success vs. three playoff-bound foes (Titans, Jags, and Rams, though the latter was resting many starters in the reg.-season finale). The whole operation seemed to be lifted by the presence of Garoppolo, as even the defense began flying around the field. It was all enough for GM John Lynch, not afraid to be aggressive in the marketplace, to reward Garoppolo with a top-tier contract extension in the offseason.

While some are wondering if the Niners jumped too quickly at locking up Garoppolo at top dollar, others believe that the move was justified, and cite the ease in which Garoppolo adapted to then first-year HC Kyle Shanahan’s schemes as an indicator of things to come. It is worth noting that over the past two seasons, Garoppolo is 7-0 SU (and vs. the spread) in games that he started, including two with the Patriots in 2016 when Tom Brady was serving his season-beginning suspension.  Now, with an entire offseason and preseason to more digest Shanahan’s verbiage and route combinations, Garoppolo might be ready to continue flourishing as he masters Shanahan’s intricate pre-snap shifting and motioning that is designed to reveal a defense’s intentions.

The news was not all positive this summer in Santa Clara, however; ex-Viking FA RB Jerick McKinnon, considered a key addition because of his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield (a requirement for RBs in the offense of Shanahan, who considered McKinnon a version of Devonta Freeman, who starred while Kyle was o.c. in Atlanta), went down with an ACL tear in late August. Expected to perhaps be a versatile upgrade from the departed Carlos Hyde, McKinnon’s injury instead means Shanahan is now scrambling for a serviceable alternative, at the moment either the well-traveled Alfred Morris or former FA Matt Breida. (A deal for another RB in September is not out of the question.) We’ll also see how a modest group of wideouts led by vet Pierre Garcon (59 catches LY) produces with a full training camp of work with Garoppolo. Watch 2nd-year ex-Iowa TE George Kittle, who hinted at bigger things in a surprisingly productive (43 catches) rookie campaign. Lynch also moved in the offseason to protect his considerable investment in Garoppolo, adding C Weston Richburg in free agency from the Giants and tabbing Notre Dame destroyer T Mike McGlinchey with the ninth pick in the first round in hopes to further fortify the OL.

(The cost for Garoppolo, by the way, was a second round pick in last April’s draft, which now looks to be another bit of very worthwhile business by GM Lynch.)

There are more questions regarding the defense. Key cog ex-Bama MLB Reuben Foster, who emerged as an immediate force after being tabbed with a first-round pick in the 2017 draft, has encountered various off-field problems and begins the season on a 2-game suspension. That puts him back into the lineup in later September, but the situation bears monitoring. After the “D” generated only 30 sacks last fall, the need for recent Pac-12 DEs ex-Oregon Arik Armstead and/or ex-Stanford Solomon Thomas to emerge as true edge pass-rushers is a concern, though there is little of that with another ex-Duck, giant DT DeForest Buckner, who could surface in Defensive MVP discussions. Foster’s return and ability to stay out of trouble will be a factor, and Lynch and Shanahan are also banking on returns from injuries from other potential key cogs like LB Malcolm Smith, DE Jeremiah Attaochu, and DBs Jacquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward. New ex-Seahawk CB Richard Sherman (Richard Sherman...a 49er?!?!) is coming off serious injury, too (Achilles tendon that shut him down last November), and his FA addition is not window dressing; the Niners have no other proven components on the corners, so Sherman’s presence is going to be crucial. Especially if he can maintain his old ballhawk tendencies, something this platoon needs if d.c. Robert Saleh is really intent on building this stop unit in the mold of the recent Seattle defenses.

Still, the difference between last September and this September in Santa Clara are night and day, with the Niners now feeling much better about the Shanahan hire after running thru four coaches in as many seasons (anyone remember the Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly years? And can Jim Harbaugh really be four coaches ago?) and believing they have their QB of the future in tow with Garoppolo. That 5-0 December might have been a bit of a mirage, but the Niners do seem to be headed in the right direction. If all falls in place, Garoppolo proves the last five games of 2017 were no fluke, and Sherman provides an electric surge for the defense, San Francisco challenges the Rams and contends for a playoff berth. But let’s not forget how this team was being mentioned in Browns-like terms as recently as last Thanksgiving. No matter, it has been a remarkable ascent in a short period of time.

Spread-wise, we mentioned the impact of Garoppolo, who won and covered all five of his 49er starts last December, and his 7-0 SU and spread mark as a starter since the 2016 season with the Patriots and Niners. Shanahan also recorded SF’s first winning spread mark (10-6) last season since the Harbaugh/Colin Kaepernick days of 2013. The Niners have also covered five in a row vs. the Rams, but have to do a bit better within the division vs. the Cardinals (SF 0-6 SU and 1-5 vs. line last six) and Seahawks (49ers 0-9 SU and 2-7 vs. points last nine).


Wow, that was quick! What looked the making of a dynasty with the Seattle Seahawks (2017 SUR 9-7; PSR 6-9-1; O/U 7-9) has disappeared almost as quickly as Halley’s Comet, the title window having apparently shut last year. A lesson, perhaps, in modern pro football economics, as the core of the roster was indeed set up to have an extended run...if the Seahawks could find a way to pay everyone at market rate. But the salary dynamics of the early Russell Wilson years were hard to maintain; other than paying QB Matt Flynn (who ended up a little-used backup in 2012), the Seahawks were paying way under market value at the QB position, especially for the Super Bowl seasons of 2013-14 when Wilson was still working on his rookie contract. Wilson’s pay scale, however, would soon have to be upgraded, then it was time for other stars on the roster to get rewarded, too. Keeping everyone happy would be impossible; key cogs began to peel away. A noteworthy casualty has been the much-hyped “Legion of Boom” secondary that would eventually fracture due in part to contract issues. Now the defensive backfield is barely recognizable from the Super Bowl years, with one-time spiritual leader Richard Sherman, of all people, even allowed to walk to the division rival 49ers (yes, the 49ers!) in free agency. The famous rah-rah style of HC Pete Carroll has not been enough to hold the roster together.

The lesson? It’s hard to keep a core of key players together for more than a few years in the modern NFL. Which makes the enduring success Bill Belichick and the Patriots all the more remarkable, but we digress.

If there is hope for a Seattle recovery this season, it mostly centers upon aforementioned QB Wilson, whose value to his team might only be matched in modern-day pro sports by the Lakers’ LeBron James, or maybe Cristiano Ronaldo of Juventus. Rarified air, to be sure.  Hard to think of many others who rate as highly, and Wilson was again the closest thing to a one-man gang in the NFL last season, accounting for more than 80% of the Seawhak offense. For good measure his 586 rushing yards were 346 more than the team’s runner-up rusher, Mike Davis. Oh yes, Wilson’s 34 TD passes also league the league in 2017. The silver lining in the clouds of an 0-4 preseason mark this August was that Wilson was hardly on the field, but looked ready for the regular season in his one somewhat-extended appearance in Game 3 vs. the Vikings.

It has been apparent that the Hawks offense has not been the same since Marshawn Lynch’s departure, but there is hope a physical rushing element might re-emerge with first-round pick Rashaad Penny from San Diego State, a punishing downhill runner not too dissimilar in style from Lynch. (Penny’s broken finger cost him some preseason work but he is expected to be ready for the regular season.) If the Seahawks really want to revert to a run-first offense as in the Lynch days under new o.c. Brian Schottenheimer, Penny will have to be key. Otherwise the “O” will again have to rely upon Wilson improvising, either by running out of the pocket or looking for one of his targets downfield when on the move (a Wilson specialty). Another problem, however, is that pass-catchers worth 20 TD receptions last season (Paul Richardson, Jimmy Graham, and Luke Willson) have all departed. Doug Baldwin remains as a reliable target, but this is not an elite group of receivers; they just have an elite QB. The OL has also been a sore spot for the past couple of years, but Carroll and GM John Schneider did not do much upgrading in the offseason, adding only journeyman T D.J. Fluker. So unless Penny really can reprise the old chop-busting Marshawn Lynch role, the “O” might amount to not much more than Wilson once again looking to pull rabbits out of his hat.

If only the issues ended on the offensive side. Last season was also the first time a once-fearsome “D” failed to finish in the top five of points and yards allowed since 2011, the campaign before the five-season playoff run began that coincided with the arrival of QB Wilson. We already mentioned the breakup of the old “Legion of Boom” secondary, with the aforementioned Sherman now in San Francisco, S Kam Chancellor now retired due to a neck injury, and S Earl Thomas once again holding out this summer. Byron Maxwell, a CB and original “Boom” member who departed for a couple of seasons before returning, is on IR with a hip injury and might not be available until late in the season, if at all. (There are reports Thomas might relent and report in front of the opener vs. Denver after the Hawks apparently rebuffed a late trade offer from the Cowboys.) GM Schneider has been quietly assembling more “Boom” pieces in recent drafts and has high hopes for the likes of S Tedric Thompson and CB Shaquill Griffin, but it’s not quite like the old days. That’s not all of the changes; three of four on the DL from last season have also departed, including perennial Pro Bowl DE Michael Bennett, who was traded to the Eagles (DT Sheldon Richardson and DE Cliff Avril have moved on as well.) Some playmakers remain, including LBs Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, and there is hope that S Bradley McDougald can emerge as a younger version of Chancellor. But swagger was a big part of the heyday of the Carroll Seahawk Super Bowl stop units, and that dynamic is hard to rediscover once so many key cogs depart. The “D” might remain functional, but that's a long way from dominant.

Most NFC observers thought a year ago might be the real last hurrah for the Carroll era in Seattle, and one more chance for the Seahawks to make a Super Bowl run before the championship window closed until further notice. Ominously, it didn’t happen, with the first playoff miss since 2011. Carroll, though a youthful 66 (67 on Sept. 15), is also the oldest coach in the league, and he almost seems a year-to-year proposition from this point forward. As long as Wilson is around, the Seahawks cannot be summarily dismissed, but this does not look like a serious contender in 2018. Those days seemed to officially end when the ascending Rams laid a 42-7 beating on the Hawks last December 17. If there ever appeared to be a passing of the torch within a division, that result was it, especially as it looked the way Carroll’s Seattle used to win games. All now apparently a bygone era in the Great Northwest.

Spread-wise, Carroll’s one-time dominance has also been on the wane in recent years; after a 30-16-2 mark vs. the line in the regular season from 2012-14, the Hawks are just 21-25-2 since. The one-time home edge at CenturyLink Field has disappeared along the way, too, as Seattle enters this season having covered only 2 of its last 9 as a reg-season host. Even in an underdog role, one in which Carroll’s teams were once notorious for their success, Seattle was just 3-3 a year ago. About the only link back to the glory years is a current 9-game SU win streak over the 49ers (7-2 vs. line), though even that would appear to be in jeopardy this fall.


We’ve seen this before. We’re talking about the preseason success of entries like the Arizona Cardinals (2017 SUR 8-8; PSR 6-9-1; O/U 6-10), who played about as well as any team in the NFL over the first three weeks of summer action. Which seemed to get a lot of the unconvinced fans in the Valley of the Sun suddenly on board the Big Red bandwagon now being led by rookie HC Steve Wilks, most recently the d.c. of the Panthers. By us, however, it looked a lot like last year’s Denver Broncos, who were similarly trying to win in the summer for their then-new HC, Vance Joseph. The Broncos would finish 4-0 last August; like Denver, Arizona was taking the exhibition slate seriously, jumping and high-fiving on the field and sidelines after big plays like it had just won a playoff game. Nothing wrong with any of that, but the results need to be put into context. The Cardinals impressively won their first three this August before running into, yep, Vance Joseph’s Broncos, who finally dealt Arizona (which was playing just 96 hours after its previous engagement at Dallas) its first preseason loss of the Wilks era.

The moral of this desert story? Pump the brakes a bit, because Arizona was trying to win for Wilks in August, and most of the opposition (save Denver) really wasn’t. As for Wilks, he’s a bit of a late runner into the head-coaching derby, with just one year of service as a coordinator (last season at Carolina) under his belt. Yet it is not lost upon most NFC West observers that the retired Bruce Arians might be a tough act to follow. Popular opinion is that the salty Arians squeezed about as much as he could out of the Big Red, taking them to the doorstep of a Super Bowl appearance and competing mostly heads-up with Seattle in a brief era in which the Seahawks seemed a budding dynasty. Various age and injuries on the roster kept the Big Red out of the playoffs the past two years, but it’s not as if Arians lost the plot; the Cards were still 8-8 last season and had hardly fallen off of the map in the NFC.

Now, however, things seem to be downgraded, not just because Arians leaves some big shoes to fill, but the offense is also without the pilot (QB Carson Palmer, who like Arians retired after last season) who flew the Big Red plane pretty close to the Super Bowl flame during the resurgence of a few years ago. After not identifying a long-term answer at QB during Palmer’s last years, GM Steve Keim finally jumped at the chance to find a successor in last April’s draft and nabbed UCLA’s Josh Rosen with the tenth pick in the first round. Still, 2018 might be a bit soon for the arrival of the brash Rosen, so in the interim vet Sam Bradford was added in free agency as a bridge to the future. Though, if Bradford remains as brittle as he’s been throughout his career, Rosen’s chance might come sooner than expected. Arians also got the Cards to .500 last season effectively without star RB David Johnson, who went down with a wrist injury in the 2017 opener vs. Detroit and didn’t return the rest of the way. A full season from Johnson, one of the breakout stars of the preceding 2016 when gaining 1239 YR, will be a plus. And Canton-bound WR Larry Fitzgerald, though a bit long in the tooth at 35, was still good enough to nab 109 passes from Palmer and Blaine Gabbert last fall, though now working mostly from the slot (gaining less than 11 yards per catch) and not the downfield threat he used to be. New o.c. Mike McCoy, a devotee’ of the sort of underneath routes that Fitzgerald has perfected and that Bradford prefers, might turn out to be a good fit, but the Big Red could use someone like Texas A&M 2nd-round pick Christian Kirk (who worked mostly out of the slot in college) to emerge as a legit downfield threat, or every defense will be stacked within five yards of the line of scrimmage. The OL has not been a strength in recent years, though here again McCoy’s quick-developing routes might camouflage some of the pass-blocking inadequacies. Wilks also says he wants to run and feature more of Johnson.

The best hope, then, would seem for the strike force to be efficient; fireworks would appear unlikely.

The specialty for Wilks in his career has been defense, and Arizona has held its own on the stop end in recent years, though most of that was with Arians’ d.c. James Bettcher, whose aggressive blitz tactics resonated (all of the way to a 6th overall ranking in the league last year) before he moved to the Giants in the offseason. Unlike Bettcher, Wilks prefers blitz packages out of zone coverage, not the man-to-man employed by Bettcher. Wilks had the LBs (such as Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis) for that to work with the Panthers, but not sure the likes of Deone Bucannon and Hassan Reddick, weaned in Bettcher’s full-bore attack mode, yet have the sort of field awareness to function as effectively. The Wilks scheme will also make a pure DE end out of Chandler Jones; no defender had more sacks or tackles for loss over the past two years. Wilks’ career has mostly been spent with defensive backs, where he is regarded as a fine tutor and has one of the best in the business at one corner in Patrick Peterson. But the Big Red has no one close to comparable on the other side, suggesting that opposing QBs might be doing a lot of throwing away from Peterson this fall.

The rise of the Rams and, apparently, a revival of the 49ers has made the West a bit more crowded than not long ago, when for a couple of years, at least, the Big Red had to only worry itself about the Seahawks. It was the combo of Arians the coach and Palmer the QB that made Arizona a contender for a brief while, but realistically that window closed two years ago. The Cardinals aren’t acting like it’s a rebuild situation, but they look closer to that than contention. And if Rosen takes the controls of the offense before the end of the season (as most expect), any win-now mode would be much harder to sustain.

Spread-wise, Arians, whose first two Cards teams recorded a combined 22-9-1 spread mark in 2013-14, saw his fortunes vs. the line dip the past three seasons, and Wilks will want to re-establish some sort of edge at U of Phoenix Stadium, where the Big Red is just 10-13-1 vs. line the last three reg seasons combined. Interestingly, Arizona has won and covered 4 of its last 5 at Seattle since Ken Whisenhunt’s last team in 2012 was destroyed 58-0 at CenturyLink Field. The Cards also enter 2018 “under” 13-5-1 their last 19 in Glendale.




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