Kicking off the NFC West, reigning Super Bowl Champions: Los Angeles Rams
Super Bowl winner: 11:1
Conference winner: 5:1
Division winner: +1.2:1
To Make Playoffs: No +228; Yes -285
Regular Season Win Total: o10.5 -110; u10.5 -110
Key offseason additions: Draft, trades, free agent signings
Via Free Agency: Allen Robinson (WR), Bobby Wagner (LB)
Via Draft: Logan Bruss (G), Decobie Durant (CB), Kyren Williams (RB)
Via Free Agency: Von Miller (DE), Darious Williams (CB), Austin Corbett (G), Johnny Hekker (P), Sebastian Joseph (DT)
Via Retirement: Andrew Whitworth (OT)
Odell Beckham Jr. was on the 2021 roster and has yet to sign.
From the outside looking in, you often wonder how the Rams continue to be so effective. Under the Les Snead (General Manager) and Sean McVay (Head Coach) era, the Rams have been to the Super Bowl four times in the last five years, two times having reached the Super Bowl (last year being victorious). It is beyond impressive when you think that most of the time, they have mortgaged future first round picks and have given out large contracts to numerous players. It seems like when any other team tries this approach, they are extremely unsuccessful. Last year the Rams acquired Matthew Stafford (traded Jared Goff and two future first round picks) in the offseason while also making big splashes by trading for Von Miller and signing Odell Beckham Jr (bought out by Cleveland). In the end, it all paid off and would venture to guess it will continue into this season.
Heading into the 2022 season, the Rams again made a few splashes and expect to let the league know they are the reigning champs. They extended the best defender in the game, Aaron Donald, giving him a lucrative contract. Furthermore, they signed All-Pro Linebacker Bobby Wagner and elite wide receiver Allen Robinson. The addition of Bobby Wagner gives an already stout defensive even more credentials and must make Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris very happy. At each level of the defense, he has one of the games best. The back end of the defense is anchored by All-Pro corner Jalen Ramsey. As already mentioned, the defensive line is held down by the one-man wrecking crew in Aaron Donald. While the linebackers will be manned by Leonard Floyd and newly acquired Bobby Wagner. Any defense with that amount of star power is in an advantageous position to succeed.
As for the offensive, Sean McVay looks to have plenty of toys at his disposal to keep it humming like a well-oiled machine. Running back Cam Akers will be a full go after missing most of last season (returned for the playoff run last year) with an achilles injury. Tyler Higbee is a versatile tight end who is very good at all aspects of the position whether it be pass catching, run blocking or pass protection. He has been reliable and experienced within the offense. And of course, where McVay and Stafford shine is in the pass game. The receiving trio of Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson II and Van Jefferson are about as good as it gets.
Matthew Stafford has finally gotten the monkey off his back that he cannot win the big one and that could be very dangerous for the league. He has all the weapons he could need. The only concerns at this point for Stafford are his health (which tends to haunt him a bit) and the potential downgrade in offensive line play after losing tackle Andrew Whitworth to retirement and Austin Corbett to free agency.
The Rams schedule, as anticipated as a result of their Super Bowl victory last year, is challenging. Based on this year’s opponents 2021-win percentage, Rams have the hardest schedule in the NFL. The Rams are set to face eight teams that qualified for the playoffs last season. This ultimately means that 10 of the Rams 17 regular season matchups will be against 2021 playoff teams. With playoff teams usually come strong quarterback play. And that’s what the Rams can expect this season as the quality of quarterbacks that Los Angeles will face represents some of the best the NFL has to possibly offer. The list includes quarterbacks Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott, Derek Carr, Russell Wilson, Josh Allen, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Justin Herbert. Simply stated, this slate of quarterbacks will heavily test the vaunted Rams defense, which will be led by above mention stars Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and newly acquired perennial All-Pro Bobby Wagner.
Strongest Leans: Los Angeles Rams o10.5 wins, Los Angeles Rams to make the playoffs.
Next up for the NFC West: Seattle Seahawks
Super Bowl winner: 200:1
Conference winner: 75:1
Division winner: 30:1
To Make Playoffs: No -800; Yes +550
Regular Season Win Total: o6 +135; u6 -155
Key offseason additions: Draft, trades, free agent signings
Via Free Agency: Quinton Jefferson (DT)
Via Draft: Charles Cross (OT), Boye Mafe (LB), Kenneth Walker III (RB), Abraham Lucas (OT), Coby Bryant (CB), Tariq Woolen (CB), Bo Melton (WR)
Via Trade: Drew Lock (QB), Noah Fant (TE), Shelby Harris (DE)
Via Free Agency: Bobby Wagner (LB), DJ Reed (DE), Duane Brown (LT), Gerald Everett (TE), Carlos Dunlap (DE)
Via Trade: Russell Wilson (QB)
Things are going to look very different in Seattle this year and so is the competitive nature of the ball club. In one off-season the Seahawks traded away the most successful player in franchise history in star quarterback Russell Wilson and let the cornerstone of their defense, Bobby Wagner walk in free agency. In addition, Seattle let up and coming corner back DJ Reed and veteran Gerald Everett sign with other teams. All of these moves following an offseason where they mortgaged several first round draft picks and a hefty contract to trade for safety Jamal Adams, who hasn’t proven to be worthy of the deal. Seattle has a big hole to climb out of, especially in a division where all the other teams seem to be making quality decisions and trending in the right direction.
The Seahawks were able to lock up superstar wide receiver to a lengthy contract extension giving Seattle an excellent 1-2 punch. Tyler Lockett is still in town and is one of the most reliable weapons in the game. Undoubtedly the receiver position is this team’s strength. The running back group has some upside in rookie Kenneth Walker III and fellow recent draftee Rashaad Penny, but between the running back by committee approach the Seahawks usually incorporate coupled with the horrid offensive line play, the ground game never seems to go anywhere.
Per Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) June 2022 rankings, the Seahawks offensive line ranked dead last out of 32 teams. The Seahawks plan on starting two rookie tackles in Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas. Sure, it could be a pleasant surprise and there is no way to learn quite like being thrown right into the mix. However, the offensive line doesn’t have another name on it that grades well to help these young tackles make the transition to the big stage. This does not bode well for the run game or for recently named starter Geno Smith. Russell Wilson was a wizard in escaping the pass rush and Seattle is going to really miss all the skills, leadership, and intangibles he brought to the table game in and game out.
For all the bad decisions this team has made over the past few years, I must give them credit with their most recent draft class. I feel they did an excellent job in bringing in guys that can contribute right away and can even be part of the franchise for years to come. Charles Cross was one of the most talked about offensive linemen in the draft and Kenneth Walker III was a standout running back in college. Seattle walked away with two steals in the draft in corner backs Tariq Woolen and Coby Bryant. There will undoubtably be bumps in the road for these two players but that is expected when you draft two rookie cornerbacks that you expect to jump into action right away and play meaningful snaps.
The Seahawks schedule is not exactly a gauntlet, but it certainly isn’t easy sledding either. Based on this year’s opponents 2021-win percentage, Seattle has the eleventh most difficult schedule in the NFL. Their 2022 schedule includes six total games against NFC West competitors that all earned postseason berths a season ago. The most challenging part of Seattle’s schedule will come on the road. Indeed, the Seahawks’ away schedule is the second most difficult in the NFL. In addition to playing tough NFC West competition, Seattle will face a daunting lineup that includes the Buccaneers, Chiefs, Chargers, and Saints.
The outlook for the Seahawks this year is not promising. It will be a great year to evaluate the talent on the roster and to see how the 2022 draft picks step into action, but it’s a new era in Seattle and it is going to take some time to turn around.
Next up within the NFC West: Arizona Cardinals
Strongest Leans: Seattle Seahawks under 6 wins
Super Bowl winner: 35:1
Conference winner: 15:1
Division winner: +3.5:1
To Make Playoffs: No -135; Yes +115
Regular Season Win Total: o9 +122; u9 -145
Key offseason additions: Draft, trades, free agent signings
Via Free Agency: Keke Kinglsey (DT), Darrel Williams (RB), Will Hernandez (G)
Via Draft: Trey McBride (TE), Cameron Thomas (DE), Myjai Sanders (DE)
Via Trade: Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (WR)
Via Free Agency: Christian Kirk (WR), Chandler Jones (DE), Chase Edmonds (RB), Jordan Hicks (LB), Jordan Phillips (DE)
There is no secret to Arizona Cardinals strategy when heading into any given season under Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury. Score. Score lots. And score some more. The game plan is to simply air it out and to get into high scoring affairs. Yes, the idea is always to outscore the opponent, but it is quiet staggering to see such little emphasis put on the defense and such a magnitude of focus put into the offense. Just when you think this team can’t put any more explosive players on the offensive side of the ball they go ahead and add some more. So far, this approach has worked marginally, but at the end of the day can only take you so far.
This team has had quite a few headlines this off-season and not the kind you would hope for. Rumors have swirled that Kliff Kingsbury was on the hot seat and that he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with his handpicked quarterback Kyler Murray. Speaking of Murray, he had some unwanted media attention of his own, as he was in a contract extension dispute with the Cardinals management. And when he finally got it, it was revealed the extension was married to Murray putting in the proper film preparation as there were concerns he wasn’t always game day prepared to the coaching staffs liking. The Cardinals ended up pulling that language from the contract, but that has got to leave a sour taste in Murray’s mouth. Lastly, superstar Deandre Hopkins was suspended for six games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
Despite losing some star power on offense due to free agency (i.e., Chase Edmonds and Christian Kirk) and having to wait for Hopkins to return, the Cardinals offensive skills players are not of any concern. The trade for Hollywood Brown should be enough to keep the Cardinals firepower afloat. Even without Hopkins, the Cardinals receiving core includes Brown, Rondale Moore, A.J. Green and Andy Isabella. And that does not include uber receiving talented tight end Zach Ertz (when healthy). The loss of Chase Edmunds stings a little bit because he was versatile and provided some needed depth at an important position, but James Conner has proven he can be highly successful in this league when given the opportunity. And we all know what Kyler Murray is capable of. He’s mobile, throws a beautiful ball, and generally seems to make great use of his talented skill position players.
The true issue of concern is the offensive line. Per Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) June 2022 rankings, the Cardinals offensive line ranked 25th out of 32 teams. The Cardinals made the interesting decision to basically run back a lackluster offensive line in 2022. Arizona finished 2021 as PFF’s 16th-ranked pass blocking offensive line, 30th run-blocking. As a unit, Arizona did well to prevent sacks (19 among the starters) but gave up 139 pressures. This is likely attributable to Murray’s elite mobility and ability to scramble. Arizona signed Will Hernandez in free agency, but he’s been a below-average guard throughout his career with Giants and has been a better run blocker than pass blocker the last two seasons.
Some may be optimistic about the Cardinals defense, but I am for one not a believer. Sure, Arizona still has the all-time great J.J. Watt, but he is on the back end of his career, and I can’t recall the last time he played a full season. Losing both Chandler Jones and Jordan Phillips is a crushing blow. Watt, Jones, and Phillips formed a jaw dropping trio, but that is no longer the case. Much has been said about third year linebacker Isaiah Simmons and second year linebacker Zaven Collins, but if there was ever a time for them to make an impact its right now. The secondary is hands down the best portion of the defense with the likes of young corners Byron Murphy Jr., Marco Wilson, and Trayvon Mullen. To top it off, the safety position is led by hard hitting, ball hawking do everything safety Budda Baker. The problem is, if the defensive front can’t get to the quarterback it is going to put this young secondary to the test and could potentially expose them.
The Cardinals schedule does not bring any sighs of relief. The Cardinals have quite the uphill battle to climb, highlighted by a restored AFC West division that consists of the Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos. They’ll also face off versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the rest of the NFC South, while taking on the Philadelphia Eagles. Moreover, the Cardinals will battle one NFC North team in the Minnesota Vikings and the New England Patriots from the AFC East. Most importantly, let’s not forget the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers who are in their own division and present two challenging matchups each for Arizona. Based on this year’s opponents 2021-win percentage, Cardinals have the second most difficult schedule in the NFL (behind only the Rams). The Cardinals are set to face seven teams that qualified for the playoffs last season.
Strongest Leans: Arizona Cardinals under 9 wins, Arizona Cardinals to miss the playoffs
And to round out the NFC West: San Francisco 49ers
Super Bowl winner: 16:1
Conference winner: 7:1
Division winner: 1.4:1
To Make Playoffs: No +180; Yes -220
Regular Season Win Total: o10 +100; u10 -120
Key offseason additions: Draft, trades, free agent signings
Via Free Agency: Charvarious Ward (CB), George Odum (S), Tyler Kroft (TE), Oren Burks (LB)
Via Draft: Drake Jackson (LB), Tyrion Davis-Price (RB), Danny Gray (WR), Spencer Burford (OT)
Via Free Agency: Laken Tomlinson (G), D.J. Jones (DT), K’Waun Williams (CB), Arden Key (DE), Tom Compton (G), Trent Sherfield (WR)
The San Francisco 49ers did a great deal of juggling and mending fences this offseason. First, they were able to win over All-Pro wide receiver Deebo Samuel and convince him to rescind his trade request and sign an extension. Secondly, and rather unfortunately, were unable to retain sought after left guard Laken Tomlinson, who signed a free agency deal with the New York Jets. And lastly, in a rather eye-opening move, the San Francisco 49ers decided to make a huge change this offseason. After being one game away from a second Super Bowl appearance with Jimmy Garoppolo as the starting quarterback, Niners General Manager John Lynch and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan decided now was the best time to switch to their 2021 #3 overall pick Trey Lance to begin leading the charge. The Niners tried to trade Jimmy Garoppolo, but due his recent shoulder surgery and hefty amount remaining on the last year of his deal, the 49ers found themselves without any suitors. Luckily for them, they were able to work out a deal with Jimmy G and bring him back on a team friendly deal (with incentives) to remain a backup.
Kyle Shanahan always knows how to put a competitive team on the roster and that won’t change this year even with a cloudy offseason. San Francisco remains one of the most balanced teams in the NFL as they continue to have one of the best defenses and have a very discipline, yet also creative offense. Even with the loss of Laken Tomlinson the 49ers offensive line will be one of the better groups in the league as left tackle Trent Williams and right tackle Mike McGlinchey lead the way. Kyle Shanahan is known for having one of the best running schemes in the league and it is almost as if it doesn’t matter who plays the running back position. In Shanahan’s system he can always count on a productive run game. And with an effective run game comes the threat of play-action, which the Niners have thrived at over the years. For example, Elijah Mitchell was drafted in the 6th round of the 2021 draft and in 11 games last year rushed for an average of 87.5 yards per game, totaling 963 yards. He did so well he is the starter heading into the 2022 season.
Another aspect of the run game that is overlooked and shouldn’t be is how well the tight ends and wide receivers block down the field. George Kittle and Deebo Samuel often get credit for their pass catching and big play abilities, but they take pride in physicality and the aspect of blocking. Complimenting Kittle and Samuel in the receiving game are Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings. All of these receivers would most likely have better production in another offense, but they all buy in to the ground and pound run game because they know how effective it is. Something tells me Samuel knows how important run blocking is because as saw in Shanahan’s bag of tricks Samuel was used as the ultimate weapon. He was used not only as a wide receiver but as a running back and he was an absolute force. The opposing defenses just could not stop him.
And this why Shanahan has made the decision to move on from Jimmy G to Trey Lance. Lance is raw and inexperienced, but his athleticism and mobility will bring another dimension to this offense that could take it to new levels. It’s a risk, but with the support of the other pieces of the offense coupled with the strong defense, now might be just the time to do it.
The defense is led by the front four and stellar linebacking core. Not many teams get to the quarterback and stuff the run quite like Joey Bosa, Arik Armstead, and Javon Kinlaw. Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are an outstanding linebacker duo that are hard to match. The secondary got a boost in the addition of Charvarius Ward, and Emmanuel Moseley has really started to come into his own. I’m not sure about the depth of this defense, but if it can stay healthy it is an absolute force that brings it every single game.
Much like the rest of the NFC West, the Niners strength of schedule is grueling. Based on this year’s opponents 2021-win percentage, San Francisco has the 5th hardest schedule in the NFL. The team’s schedule will include seven games versus opponents coming off a 2021 playoff appearance (Rams twice, Cardinals twice, Chiefs, Buccaneers, Raiders). The 49ers will have eight games in 2022 against teams who are projected to have a minimum of at least nine wins. That excludes includes the Raiders and Saints, who are looked at as borderline playoff teams. Four of those games are against the Rams and Cardinals since they are divisional games. One of the lone bright spots regarding the schedule for the Niners, is that they have 9 home games this year.
Bottom line is I am a believer in Kyle Shanahan. I believe he sees the promise in Trey Lance and wants to see him take the reins. He knows it’s going to be a bumpy road, with his young quarterback but do it now while the supporting cast is good enough to make up for some of his mistakes. And if not, the Niners can always fall back on Jimmy G and reassess the quarterback situation when the time is right.
Strongest Lean: San Francisco 49ers over 10 wins, San Francisco 49ers to make the playoffs