I'm a big fan of the entire NFC West this year...it may seem like heresy to root for the Cardinals, 9ers, and Seahawks, but I love what each team is doing. I live in Arizona (Cardinals fan), was born and raised in San Fran (9ers fan), and can't help but love Russell Wilson and the Seahawks (I don't know why...maybe it's the underdog factor since he's small and throws like Brees) - only thing is, I'm not too big a fan of the Rams, it may be because they aren't really a West Coast team all the way over there in St. Louie. BUT don't get me wrong! I have nothing against the Rams, they're a great team with a lot of talent and potential!
So, I'd like to consider myself somewhat unbiased. Here's how I look at it.
The division as a whole is packed with talent, more so than any other division I've seen in recent history. It's like a gladiators arena when these teams play. All you see is bone crushing, bloody, ruthless defenses and potent, Mayweather-style, "punch you in the face" offenses. LOVE IT!
9ers - Probably the deepest team in the NFL talent-wise, but now with some small chinks in their armor. Considering they lost Crabtree, Kaepernick will have to learn to spread the ball out effectively or he may take a step back. Forgot the stats, but Crabtree put up more TDs, less interceptions, and overall a better performance than the rest of the offensive weapons combined. That's a big loss, but they did get Boldin and a ton of defensive depth in the draft. Losing Crabtree might put them in 2nd place in the league in my opinion... with Crabtree though, the 9ers are the best team in this division and my home town team! I absolutely love what they've done in the last couple years!
Seahawks - Adding Harvin and younger talent on the defensive line made them a lot better. I just really don't see how they won't improve this year. The only thing that I could think of is continued PED use leading to more suspensions - this and Richard Sherman's big mouth are the only reason I don't like the Seahawks as much as the Cardinals and 9ers. I could go into all the additions/losses of the Hawks vs 9ers, but I'm sure fans of both have already looked at them all. After looking at them all, I just see the Seahawks have made more improvement. Since they were almost tied in terms of record with the 9ers last season (both 11-5 but, they lost by the 9ers tie-game with the Rams?) and they've improved more (in my opinion), I see them being the favorites in the league right now.
Rams - I did an analysis of the Rams just recently, and my main conclusion was that a lot of the additions were "huge-potential" additions of rookies/unprovens but they lost some key pieces who have produced in the past (i.e. Jackson, etc.). Somebody asked what I thought of the Rams and I said,
"Honestly, I don't like to talk negative about any team except the Jets, but I think the Rams might have taken a step back or stayed the same. My reasoning is this:
They got TE Jared Cook, OT Jake Long, WR Tavon Austin, OLB Alec Ogletree, S T.J. McDonald, WR Stedman Bailey, C/G Barrett Jones, CB Brandon McGee, RB Zac Stacy, if I'm correct.
They lost RB Steven Jackson, WR Danny Amendola, WR Brandon Gibson, TE Matthew Mulligan, C Rob Turner, CB Bradley Fletcher, S QUintin Mikell, S Craig Dahl.
Losing Jackson for Stacy and Amendola for Austin might hurt. Tavon Austin can't be expected to produce HUGE numbers as a rookie and neither can Stacy. That's my first impression.
Lets go down the list. Mulligan for Cook (upgrade, Mulligan didn't do much while Cook put up serious numbers). Jake Long (BIG upgrade depending on staying healthy). Austin/Bailey vs Amendola/Gibson (even now but better down the road, Amendola and Gibson both put up 600+ yard seasons last year while Austin and Bailey might put up one as a rookie and better ones down the road). Ogletree (upgrade, real potential). McDonald vs Mikell (downgrade to even, Mikell forced 4 fumbles, deflected 2 passes, and had 3 sacks while McDonald is a rookie with great potential). Turner vs Jones (even now, better down the road, Barrett Jones has serious potential) ETC ETC
I guess after looking at all the new additions that it all hinges on rookie performance. A lot of the Rams additions have "Potential" written all over them, but have yet to prove it while most of the players leaving are okay to better than average.
That's why it's kind of a grey area...it's one of those things that you just have to wait and see. It's like Floyd and Housler on the Cardinals - both have huge potential but they just have to live up to it. I could be wrong, but my opinion is that they took a big step for building towards the future while kind of letting a few things slip right now...biggest loss was Jackson by far, because the run game might fall from glory hard which means passing game slips as well."
Now for the Cardinals and why I think they are a deep sleeper in the NFC West this year:
1) Steve Keim (New GM) vs Rod Graves (Old GM)...Steve Keim has been a scout, talent evaluator, etc. for the Cardinals for 15+ years. He's accredited with sticking his neck out for some of the best players to ever play on the Cardinals (i.e. Fitzgerald, Adrian Wilson, Dockett, Cambell, etc.) and he's just gotten the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream as a GM. The combination of being a veteran talent evaluator, career Cardinal FO man, and motivation behind finally becoming a GM (his dream...) are already making him a rising star in the GM world.
2) Bruce Arians (New HC, Playcaller) vs. Ken Whisenhunt (Old HC)/Mike Miller (Old Playcaller)...If anyone doesn't follow the Cardinals, just know this: the combination of Ken Whisenhunt/Mike Miller coaching our team and calling plays is the equivalent of signing two blind monkeys up to throw in the World Professional Darts Championship. They'd call run plays (with Beanie Wells or a 3rd string running back, since he and Ryan Williams were both injured) on a 3rd and 18 situation. Or even worse, they'd throw in the 4th string quarterback (Hoyer, who just happened to be the best of the bunch) and call a play that has 3 receivers run to the same spot on the field 5-10 yards down with the Seahawks secondary playing zone coverage. If you don't see the irony in these situations, you shouldn't be a professional coach or offensive coordinator in the NFL. I can't stress this enough: Mike Miller was the dumbest offensive coordinator in the NFL last year and coach Whisenhunt was soft spoken that he couldn't motivated a man on fire to jump into a pool. Going from that to Bruce Arians "Top 5 NFL Playcaller" and former "Coach of the Year" is like going from John Doe High School Football Coach to Bill Bellichick in one year...or maybe a hair less.
3) Other Coaches...Tom Moore (Offensive Yoda and QB Whisperer), Tom Pratt (Defensive Pass Rush Specialist), Mike Caldwell, Harold Goodwin, Amos Jones, Freddie Kitchens, John Lott, and Larry Zierlein head up a new coaching staff - in comparison to our old coaching staff, it's like comparing Harvard to Mesa Community Colledge. Tom Moore and Bruce Arians are both accredited with developing Peyton Manning, to speak towards their ability to coach quarterbacks in addition to our new Quarterback Coach Freddie Kitchens. We've got a total of 3 coaches with offensive line coaching experience including Harold Goodwin our offensive coordinator, which speaks of how important the new regime views the offensive line to put a previous offensive line coach in charge of the entire offense. ETC ETC. The new coaching regime is bigger, smarter, more talented, and overall a 5 star improvement over the previous regime...For example, Russ Grimm used to be in charge of our offensive line...nuff said.
4) Carson Palmer (New QB) vs Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley, and Brian Hoyer (ALL old QBs) - I'm sure everybody's looked at Palmer's stats from last year with a Raiders receivers core that couldn't catch The Plague in 14th century Europe, a running backs core that couldn't break a tackle from a man with 2 prosthetic arms, and an offensive line that was bad at ours was last year with ALL of our second stringers. Still, Palmer put up 4000+ yards, 22 touchdowns, passer rating 85+, and a mere 14 interceptions (yes, MERE considering I've counted at least 4 of those were tipped/dropped by his own receivers after a good pass after looking at all the film from last year), 61+ completion percentage, etc. etc. Also, Palmer is one of the fastest in the league at getting the ball out of his hands to his receivers which is the ONLY reason IMO that the Raiders had one of the lower sack totals in the NFL. I've heard a lot of people say that most of those stats came in garbage time. If you look, there have been articles written on this very subject and they concluded that most of his stats WERE NOT in garbage time, AND considering that the Raiders had one of the worst defenses in the league, Palmer putting up points on the board was the only thing keeping the Raiders out of garbage time. Look back on the rest of his career, and you'll see that he's been a average to above average and even ELITE quarterback early on that has been stuck on untalented, crappy teams throughout his entire career - first the Bengals in the 2000s, then the Raiders in the 2010s. What it comes down to, is no matter how you slice it, Palmer is a MONUMENTAL upgrade to our quarterback situation.
5) Offensive line - Last year 4 of our 5 starters went down to injury early on. We were forced to put 2 rookies in at our left and right tackle whose bad performance paled in comparison following a absolutely terrible performance from Batiste (the first backup to go in) at left tackle. Then, we had arguably the worst right guard, Adam Snyder, to ever play the game on our team. The only somewhat bright spot on our entire line was Daryn Colledge last year, which couldn't play that well with nobody else around him. As the year progressed though, our rookies' metal were tempered and they performed admirably, Bobbie Massie in particular being hailed by PFF for his late year performance. This year, we drafted arguably the best guard to come out of college in decades in Jonathan Cooper (pretty much equal to Warmack), we've got ALL of our starters coming back healthy, we've got better depth, we've got rookies coming into their own in their second year, and we've actually got 3 competent line coaches in comparison to Russ Grimm, probably the worst o-line coach this team has ever seen. Overall, the difference in coaching and our o-line situation is comparable to one of the changes made at our guard position, releasing Adam Snyder and drafting Jonathan Cooper - it's like going from the Worst fit to the Best fit in a single season.
5) Running backs - Another area of big upgrade. Beanie Wells used to be our starter, and he'd get injured almost every single time he got on the field. Then, Williams would have to step up and HE'D get injured. Then, we'd put in our 3rd and 4th string RBs and see what they'd do! The running back situation in Arizona was very, VERY similar to our quarterback situation - it was just god-awful, handled in the worst way by the coaches, and combined with an injured quarterback and o-line, turned out to be a complete mess...Nobody even had a chance with all the injuries that compounded over the team last year. Now, on the other hand, we've got Mendenhall who's only 25 and has had 2 1000+ yard seasons under Bruce Arians in Pittsburgh. It's well known that Mendenhall's best years were under Arians' scheme, so he should flourish, considering he's now healthy after a 1+ year slump after tearing his ACL in a Todd Haley system that he hated after Bruce Arians left for Indianapolis. Besides that, we have Ryan Williams who's finally back 100% from his ACL/shoulder injuires. Then, we've got 2 of the best running backs drafted this year, including Stanford's All-Time Leading Rusher in Stephan Taylor. Our running back position is just like every other position now, it's been completely turned around in just 1 year by Head Coach Arians and GM Steve Keim. We've now got quality starters and depth at almost every offensive position, compared to last year when we didn't have either.
6) Wide receivers/tight ends - The only bright spot on our entire roster last year, but yet hindered by the relentless injuries to all of our QB, O-line, and RB starters. This is the position that NFL analysts have been taking notice on the Cardinals. I don't think anybody thinks Fitz won't have a bounce-back season with Palmer. Fitz has publically stated that he's in "prove-it mode" and hungrier than he's ever been while other players working out with Fitz have stated that he's been "working like he's broke [as in bankrupt, not injured]." Both Palmer and Fitzgerald have already publically stated that they are seeing major chemistry together and that they "love" what the other brings to the table and Arians' vertical offense this year. Fitz is also being moved around the field, learning all 3 receiver positions, similar to how Reggie Wayne was used last year in Indianapolis under Arians. Among other things, Fitz/Palmer has been hailed as THE new best passer/receiver combination this year in the entire NFL. In addition to all the Fitz/Palmer chemistry boiling over, you've got Floyd being hailed as the most probable number one breakout receiver this year. Floyd is Fitz's protege, and you've seen glimpses of a "young Fitz" in him already during last years end of the season 49ers game where he got a TD and about 170 yards receiving. Also, Andre Roberts is a SOLID slot receiver who's improved every season for the last 3 years since he entered the league, getting his best year last year with around 800 recieving yards and 4 TDs, all the while playing with the worst QB roundup in the league - which I must say, Fitz didn't even put up those numbers. Then, there's Robert Gill who "ran 25 mph on a treadmill" and is probably the fastest NFL football player since Deon Sanders, JUST TRYING TO EARN A ROSTER SPOT!!! Oh and don't forget Housler, one of the top 3 fastest tight ends in the league with great hands, 6'5" stature, and great route running, who's also young and been hindered over the last 3 years by absolutely abysmal play calling that never utilized the tight end and a stable of quarterbacks who probably should be playing 3rd string on good teams. So, in summary, our receiver position is STACKED with proven playmakers and HUGE potential guys...who just needed a quarterback to explode onto the scene, like they are almost all predicted to this year...I'm just saying, "watch out for these guys NFC West," because the Seattle Seahawks secondary might have a tough time with them, and that's saying A LOT!
I should probably just say that our defense got better as well, but I'll go into it.
7) Linebackers - Daryl Washington, Karlos Dansby, Lorenzo Alexander, Kevin Minter, Sam Acho, Alex Okafor, Obrien Schofield, Jasper Brinkley, etc head up our linebacking core. Daryl Washington was a pro bowler last year, we picked up Alexander who was a pro bowler last year, we picked up Kevin Minter who was hailed as the best linebacker in this years draft by some, we picked up Alex Okafor who was a first round caliber draft pick in the fourth round, oh and the Dirty Bird Karlos Dansby has come back to town as well after racking up just as many tackles in Miami as Daryl Washington did here. I'll just say that when you look at our linebacking core, we're just about as stacked as the 9ers and that's saying A LOT. We just don't have the proven pro bowl caliber OLBs as the 9ers do, but we've got some SERIOUS potential with Acho, Okafor, Alexander, Scho, and Brinkley...needless to say, we've got great depth at both ILB and OLB too..
8) Defensive line - Dockett, Cambell, and Williams...nuff said. Our defensive line has always been one of our strengths, but has been hindered in performance by Horton's scheme, no matter how effective it was for everyone else on the defense. The d-lineman were mainly for wrapping up o-lineman so linebackers and the secondary could blitz and take the credit...it worked though, but it didn't let Dockett go beast-mode like he has been in the past. Cambell had a great season last year and Williams was very effective at wrapping up lineman for Washington to attack downfield and make big plays. The d-line hasn't changed much, except that they'll be much more aggressive this year considering Bowles scheme.
9) Cornerbacks - Peterson's still here, and he's probably going to be better than ever. He was rated even higher than Richard Sherman of the Seahawks (which is disputable), and he's already showing big strides in OTAs making one-handed interceptions and the like. We got rid of Gay, because he wasn't that productive and replaced him with Antoine Cason and Jerraud Powers, both of which with big playmaking ability. Then, we traded our full back Anthony Shermann (useless in BAs system) for former first round drafted cornerback Javier Arenas - another masterful move by Keim and BA. I'll also say this, because I think he might be used as a nickelback: Tyrann Mathieu has exceeded expectations in OTAs so far. He's made multiple interceptions and even a "pick-6" in organized training activities. Palmer has compared him to Troy Polamalu, who Palmer played against for years as a Bengal, since Mathieu is apparently always buzzing around passes and has tremendous closing speed. The Honey Badger is looking like "no joke" and so far he's stayed on the straight and narrow with Patrick Peterson's tutelage. BTW - we are probably deepest of all positions at either WR or cornerback for this season. I find this funny, because both are related to passing the ball. Coincidence?
10) Safeties - Rashad Johnson has learned everything he could under the guidance of legendary Cardinals strong safety, Adrian Peterson, and so far he's been looking like he's going to burst onto the scene this year. There are some pretty interesting stats floating around about him, such as he's intercepted 33% of the passes that's come his way (don't know if it's true, because that's absurd), but he has held opposing QBs to a average rating of 74 apparently which is good. Then, you've got Yeremiah Bell, the pure bred, who's come in as a stop gap to allow Mathieu to ease his way into safety. Mathieu is no doubt the biggest new name on the Arizona Cardinals and he'll likely be playing a mix of safety and nickelback - expect big things from him, similar to what you saw at LSU. Then, you've got the Sooner touted undrafted free agents from Oklahoma Tony Jefferson and Javon Harris, and the absolutely freakish athlete Justin Bethel who might just inch his way into some sort of starting role. I love Justin Bethel, because he can jump like 60" into the air...kid's just a monster athlete and, similar to Robert Gill running a sub-4.2 40, I just don't see how he couldn't be a starter with some practice.
Other things worth mentioning...
1) Arians way of dealing with players is a breath of fresh air. He's holding players accountable - he put up a board that lists mental mistakes made by each player after each practice to hold everyone accountable. He's barking instructions at everyone and getting after even the smallest of mistakes, including those minute ones made by Fitzgerald, of all people. This is in stark contrast to the way Whisenhunt coached who would hardly even coach players on the practice field, he'd just make note of it for discussing later. I don't believe that's the way of coaching a football team at all. Players need to know they did something wrong immediately and how to fix it immediately. Just look at a very basic (and somewhat abstract metaphoric comparison): when a dog pees on the carpet, do you wait for it to run around the yard and go to sleep before sticking it's nose in it, or do you grab it immediately and say, "NO, NO!" BA says, "NO, NO" while Whisenhunt let's it slide until the player may have already forgotten what he did wrong.
2) Bruce Arians has been revolutionizing the way we practice. He's set up dual practice fields in OTAs to give each of our rookies as many reps as ALL the rookies combined on different teams. Every rookie and second stringer on the Cardinals have been getting as many reps as the first string players, where they'd be sitting on the sidelines if we did it like everyone else. Are the Cardinals the only team in the NFL running dual practice fields in OTAs? Also, he's instated using the headsets early with Palmer, so Palmer can get use to Arians calling plays in his ears. This has gotten Palmer used to Arians ways of calling plays.
3) The team has already developed chemistry, and there's a tangible excitement going into this year. There is a love fest triangle between Fitz, Palmer, and Arians - and I don't mean this in a gay way. I mean that each fits the others' strengths to a T. Palmer is perfect for Arians' scheme and what Fitz wants to achieve this year. Arians' scheme is a perfect fit for the combination of Palmer and Fitz. Fitz is the perfect receiver to throw to by Palmer in deep passing routes. There are even more nuances as well, like the specific routes Palmer is successful in throwing to are the ones that Fitzgerald is great at and loves to run as well as highly utilized in Arians' scheme. AND that's just the start of it. Besides the Arians Palmer Fitz trinity, you've got the Fitz Dockett Dansby trinity back again - Fitz, Dockett, and Dansby were all drafted in the same year 1, 2, & 3 and they were all on the Super Bowl team with Warner. Then, you've got other connections like the 2, 2, 2 linebacker group consisting of Daryl Washington, Karlos Dansby, and Kevin Minter - all linebackers drafted in the second round and who've had equally great success (excluding Minter, this year's addition). Then, there's the Patrick Peterson / Tryann Mathieu connection...both of which have the potential to develop into one of the most dynamic playmakers in the future NFL. Then, there's the Texas OLB clique consisting of Sam Acho and Alex Okafor, both drafted in the same EXACT spot (#128 in the draft or something) for the same EXACT roster position, OLB. The Texas OLB clique kind of overlaps the 2, 2, 2 linebacker group since Washington hails from a Texas college as well. Then, there's the LSU backfield bros consisting of Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, and Kevin Minter which also overlaps the 2,2,2 Linebackers. The details of this team are really interesting and turning out to be an overlapping web of little interconnected groups of people with something in common...it's funny how that works out, huh?
4) It's been rumored that we've instated a zone-blocking scheme that fits the strengths of our running back roster and o-line capabilities. This is something I had to research, because I was kind of misty on how this might help our team. Then, once you look into it, you realize that all of our running backs are very likely ones that will succeed in zone-blocking much more than in power run...also our lineman seem to be better suited for it as well. Let's start with the line, almost nobody on our line is the type of lineman that would just smash you in your facemask and maul the hell out of you - which is practically a requirement for power run scheme. Most of our lineman are more finesse, tactful, and athletic, which is better for zone blocking. The rushing stats of the best zone blocking teams have also been compared to those of the best power run teams, the zone blocking beats them in almost every category, including yards per rush, total yards rushing, but strangely not TDs or at least according to the article I read. Anyway, I'm not going to go into the details of each, but what you need to know is that running backs in zone blocking schemes need to be good at "cutting" or "dead legging" to make the "cut back" in zone blocking. A running back will run towards the line, then have to decide whether to keep going straight or make a cutback. Power run running backs will basically do just that, they'll power their way throw an opening in the line wherever it may be. I may be wrong on that, there's probably some technicality to it, so correct me if I'm wrong. The thing is, when you look at our running backs, none of them are particularly the biggest, strongest, freight train type running backs available (and they seem to be injury prone, or at least Ryan Williams and to some extent Mendenhall). So, we wouldn't want them smashing into defensive lineman every run play like a power run running back would. Instead, our running backs are more of the agile, cut back, juke around, and run like hell type running backs which are perfect for zone blocking. This is why, I believe, Arians is going to instate a zone blocking scheme, because both our lineman and our running backs are suited for it and over the course of zone blocking, it has produced better running teams that power run schemes.
5) The defense is apparently surprisingly good again this year. Palmer has stated that the defense has been coming up with a surprising amount of defensive looks and schemes. That, in addition to the obvious production of the team on the practice field by intercepting passes, make me think that Bowles truly isn't changing much when it comes to Horton's schemes. He's probably just making minor changes to accent our players strengths (i.e. Dockett, Cambell, etc.). We've added a few very high potential key pieces and everything seems to be coming together very nicely. Not much of a honeymoon period for the defense which makes me think that we'll be able to compete immediately next year, starting day 1.
6) Mendenhall is looking really good in OTAs, to the point where he's solidified his starting position. At the fan fest, I remember distinctly thinking, "who's that running back" and looking on the sheet to see it was Mendenhall. He looks crisp with great speed, nice angles, good moves, etc. I'm really looking forward to seeing more. And again, I believe that in the new zone blocking scheme, he's going to explode once again this year under BA.
7) Housler and Floyd are both quickly becoming Palmer's favorite targets already. This is both encouraging and nerve racking, because I want to see him spread the ball around, but I also want every throw to go to Fitz for a touchdown.
8) ALL the wide receivers, tight ends, and quarterbacks are practicing not once but twice (or at least Palmer and Fitz are) during this dead zone between OTAs and Training Camp. Palmer is holding a camp in San Diego where he lives and I know Fitz will be in attendance for sure, then Fitz is holding his annual camp in Minnesota (I think currently) and all the quarterbacks receivers, and tight ends are expected to be in attendance. This is significant, because not once can I remember our team taking this period in the off season so seriously. Palmer and Fitz are "working like they are broke [again bankrupt, not injured]".
9) Training camp is now in Glendale, reducing the travel time between players' homes and the practice facility. This will probably make them a little more fresh when the year starts and also get them used to the stadium before they actually take the field to play actual games. I love this!!! And I don't think you can underestimate the effect it's going to have on players this season!
10) Keim has killed it in his first year, actually getting the Cardinals off season graded highest among all teams in the NFC by some! This is just his first year as GM...imagine what the coming 5 will do for this team with Keim at the helm getting us talent! I'm expecting a 9ers, Seahawks, and maybe Rams type revival of competitiveness in the coming years. I only see this division getting tougher and more even as time goes on...it almost seems like the whole NFC West is building a dynasty. I wouldn't be surprised if teams from the NFC West went to 3 out of the next 5 Super Bowls.
Anyways, I'm reaching for stuff now, so I'm done. I started this off as a short comment to defend the Cardinals, but it turned into a full length article. My conclusion is this: the Cardinals have REAL potential to win even against the monster teams in the NFC West. It just wasn't on display last year after about the 4 game, because injuries started to mount to our starters and our whole offense collapsed. As the offense collapsed, so did the defense. The defense actually gave up against the Hawks in the 58-0 blowout, simply because why try when you can't score with a crappy offense. That was kind of the moment where the whole team gave up on the coaching staff - they just wouldn't play for the monumental failure that Whisenhunt called a staff. Which brings me to my final point!
11) Imagine how good our defense would have been if they had an offense that took them off the field occasionally! A good offense always helps a defense become better, because they give them rest when they're on the field and momentum when they get something going. While on the other hand, a crappy offense like ours last year simply sucks the life out of the defensive unit. When you're fates in someone else's hands and they can do anything to save you, what hope do you have? None. The Cardinals defense last year was playing for pride and that's it, while this year they'll be playing to win...big difference...
Oh, by the way, if anyone has any stats or additions to put into this article to support my arguments, just comment with them. Also, links to any good articles to support my points, I'll also insert them into the article