In the run up to the 2018 NFL season, we’re previewing each division. Have a read of our other previews here. Next up: NFC West
Los Angeles Rams
Revolutionary-seeming innovations can go one of two ways in life. They can be gimmicky; a passing fad quickly forgotten or roundly mocked. Or they can the development that kick-starts a change in away of thinking. Sean McVay’s ability to ‘manage’ Jared Goff before the radio clicks off may well prove to be the latter, particularly in managing raw or limited quarterbacks. This season will be a neat acid test though – can teams start disguising coverages to fool McVay? Or will McVay adapt? Or heck, will Goff show development that he can change McVay’s calls based on what he sees. The closer to c) and the further from a), the more this innovative way of calling offensive plays will stick around.
The Rams sure seem all-in on winning now though. Bringing in Ndamokung Suh is a risky move, but you suspect even he realises he’s #2 on the D-Line pecking order behind the astronomically good Aaron Donald. The Rams, not being idiots, have given Donald all of the money, and he will deliver. Can the rest of the defense? LA have brought in more big names like Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to complement breakout youngsters like John Johnson and established names like Mark Barron. The result is that they’re up against the cap this year, though they’ve not mortgaged their future. So you can watch Wade Phillips coaching this stacked D without too much guilt.
Tom Cable had proved himself to be one of the worst positional coaches in the NFL in recent years. And that’s without talking about his history of violence towards women. So, it’s addition by subtraction that he’s no longer around to clumsily sabotage Seattle’s offensive line. Hence why Russell Wilson has enthusiastically cited having “ages” to throw during preseason. It’s great news for Seattle. Wilson has had a position that we underestimate how difficult is, making plays while running for his life.
A shame, therefore, that the rest of the Seahwaks roster has been gutted during this opportunity. The entire Legion of Boom is gone save for a thoroughly dissatisfied Earl Thomas. In its place we have Shaquill Griffin (an excellent corner) and some okayish players. They’re relying on former first-round bust Dion Jordan and someone with this level of human decency to provide the pass rush. Doug Baldwin is going to be playing injured all year. They spent their first round pick on a running back who can’t break through the depth chart. This roster is full of holes yet they traded up to draft a punter in the fifth round. Though, that’s unfair. Punter Michael Dickson looks like the best prospect at the position in years. Just as well really, Seattle are going to need him early and often.
Arizona are being written off as having one of the worst rosters across the league this year. But I just don’t see it. They’re not really playoff contenders, but have a good quarterback room, a truly elite, O-Line transcending modern running back, and smatterings of quality across the roster. It’s not a balanced roster (look at the secondary outside Patrick Peterson). But there are game-winning players and they are going to show more talent than we expect.
But that’s still probably a losing season. David Johnson might be able to transcend a poor offensive line, but the weakness is at tackle, and we know what happens to Sam Bradford when he gets sacked. So, look for an early baptism of fire for Josh Rosen. Rosen is the most mentally-ready of the rookie QBs, and possesses the smarts. But he’ll need to improve accuracy and a quick release to avoid going the David Carr route.
Will David Johnson be able to transcend Arizona’s O-Line struggles? (Getty Images)
Arizona have a star in Chandler Jones, but no-one to draw attention away from him. So Jones will have way too many double-teams for his liking. Outside of Peterson, only Budda Baker has proven quality in the secondary. The linebackers…well, best not mention them. Last year’s first-rounder Haason Reddick looked regularly overmatched last year. The other problem last year? Arizona’s regular incompetence on special teams. So there’s a lot to fix! But in a division likely with two other poor teams (and the Rams), there are wins to be had.
San Francisco 49ers
Amid all the Jimmy Garoppolo hype, lost somewhere amid the hasn’t lost a game yet is his TD:INT ratio. In 2017, in 6 games, 7:5. That is not impressive. He looked composed, didn’t give up too many sacks and posted 260 yards/game, sure. But 7:5 over 6 games is a paltry return. And this is what’s odd, because San Francisco aren’t suddenly awash with weapons for us to predict Garoppolo’s success. Jerrick McKinnon arrived, was miscast as a three-down back and tore his ACL before this could be shown. So, it’s Alfred Morris and Matt Breida at running back. Rookie receiver Dante Pettis is dynamic but fragile, and a vertical offense built around him and Marquise Goodwin isn’t a strong one. Especially when it’s going to be as susceptible to interior pressure through a weak O-Line as San Francisco’s is.
The defense still looks good – DeForest Buckner has been underratedly excellent in the middle, but can Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas live up to their first round pedigrees? It’s too soon to write Thomas off, in fairness. The secondary looks weaker as the 49ers replaced the excellent Eric Reid with Jimmie Ward, for non-football, and non-good reasons. I’m a big fan of corner Akhello Witherspoon, who will be their star corner this season, not Richard Sherman. But this roster is weaker and lacking in much more depth than a popular sleeper candidate’s should be.