NFC West preview: Best bets for every team

By Adam Burke  (VSIN.com) 

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The VSiN pro football experts have been hard at work this summer, writing up team previews and predictions for all 32 teams, including their favorite individual season win total and College Football Playoff bets.

Here are the team previews and best bets for the NFC West:

Los Angeles Rams

The NFL hasn’t had a repeat Super Bowl champion since the 2003-04 New England Patriots. The NFC hasn’t had a repeat champ since the 1992-93 Dallas Cowboys. The Los Angeles Rams are hoping to be part of the exclusive group to defend the Lombardi Trophy, but the health of Matthew Stafford is an enormous question heading into the season.

A much tougher schedule awaits the Rams this season, and some of the good fortune that they experienced last season may be hard to replicate. The Rams were fifth in Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) to injury according to Football Outsiders. They started off 7-4 with a lot of lackluster performances against good teams, before going 9-1 the rest of the way en route to a Super Bowl win. It took a Jaquiski Tartt dropped interception in the NFC Championship Game to get there as well.

Offense

Matthew Stafford is only entering his age-34 season, but his body sure seems to be a lot older than that. He’ll cross 7,000 pass attempts this season and has been sacked 415 times in his career. He threw the ball 601 times in the regular season and another 140 times in the playoffs, so it was a long year for a guy that has battled back issues and now has a “unique” shoulder injury he has managed throughout training camp.

Stafford actually led the league in interceptions last season and threw his fair share of pick-sixes, but had 41 touchdown tosses and tied for the best completion rate of his career. It certainly didn’t hurt having Cooper Kupp, who rewrote the record books with 145 catches and 1,947 yards. The Offensive Player of the Year was targeted 191 times and will get a ton of work this season as well, as the Rams go from Robert Woods to Allen Robinson II and look for Van Jefferson and Tyler Higbee to have bigger roles.

There has been a bit of movement on the offensive line with Andrew Whitworth’s retirement and center Austin Corbett now in Carolina. Brian Allen is now the full-time center and Joe Noteboom will try to fill the big shoes of Whitworth at left tackle, along with some other position shuffling. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see Los Angeles drop off a little from being a top-five offense by yards per play with a tougher schedule and some of these concerns.

Defense

Aaron Donald rightfully gets plenty of accolades and attention, but this was a strong defense outside of the best defensive tackle to ever play the game. Donald had 12.5 sacks, but he got plenty of help from guys like Leonard Floyd (9.5 sacks) and the late addition of Von Miller (8 sacks in eight games). Jalen Ramsey is a superstar at defensive back and the Rams have two really good under-25 safeties in Taylor Rapp and Jordan Fuller. 

This is something of a top-heavy defense, but having to game-plan around so many standouts creates opportunities for other guys to shine. Los Angeles finished ninth in yards per play allowed and finished third in sacks without having to blitz all that often. The Rams did struggle with yards after the catch, though, as they allowed the second-most YAC (2,758) behind only the Chiefs. Ramsey had 16 pass breakups, seven more than anybody else. Darious Williams had nine, but was also the victim of a lot of those YAC. 

Williams is gone now (as is Miller), so the Rams go back to Troy Hill. The Rams did bring in Bobby Wagner, who had 170 combined tackles and assists last season for the Seahawks, so there’s still plenty of tread left on those tires. The top guys are very good, but depth is a major question if Los Angeles’ string of mostly healthy seasons happens to end. 

Outlook 

The Rams only have seven road games because one of their “road” games is against their roommates at SoFi Stadium on New Year’s Day. This is a much tougher schedule than last season, as the Rams get 10 games against playoff teams from last season, plus the much-improved New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers. 

Stafford’s ongoing injury is a red flag. While this is still one of the best rosters in the NFL (and maybe the best in the NFC), an 11-6 record against this slate is a big ask. Depending on your view of the Stafford injury and the star-heavy roster, an alternate win total of Under 9.5 at + 185 may not be a bad approach. 

Pick: Under 10.5

Arizona Cardinals

This will be a huge year for Kliff Kingsbury and Arizona. After starting last season 10-2, the Cardinals finished 11-6 and were embarrassed by the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams in the wild-card round by getting more than doubled in yards and more than tripled on the scoreboard. 

Murray was hobbled at various points and only started 14 of the 17 regular season games, but Arizona went 2-1 in his absence with Colt McCoy at the helm. With “K1” now signed to a long-term extension, and last season’s collapse on the mind, there is a lot of pressure on Kingsbury and the coaches to maximize the potential of this team in one of the league’s toughest divisions. 

Offense

A healthy Murray is undoubtedly the key to the season. When Murray started all 16 games in 2020, he accounted for 37 total touchdowns with nearly 4,800 total yards, including 819 rushing yards and 11 scores. Murray has to be able to operate as a dual-threat signal-caller, which he couldn’t do it last season with the injuries (only 30.2 rushing yards per game, down from 51.2 the previous season). 

Playcalling and early-down execution were issues for Arizona last season. The Cardinals ran the ball 272 times on first down, accounting for nearly 55% of their rushing attempts. The quarterbacks were sacked 15 times on first down, the most of any down (11 on second down, 12 on third down), and that erased a lot of the good things that were done with a 75.7% completion percentage. The Cardinals took 13 sacks on 1st-and-10, which absolutely put the team behind the sticks far too often. 

The early part of the season could be very tricky. Arizona is trying to work in newcomer Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and some other new faces at wide receiver while DeAndre Hopkins serves a six-game suspension for PEDs. Christian Kirk, who led the team with 103 targets, is gone and A.J. Green only caught 58.7% of the balls thrown his way last season. 

Defense 

Turnovers can hide a lot. The Cardinals had 27 takeaways last season and wound up + 12 in turnover margin. Their 15.3% TO% ranked fifth in the NFL, which allowed what was a subpar defense to look better than it actually was. Arizona allowed 4.6 yards per carry (28th) and also gave up 30 TD passes (25th). 

Fumble luck was a big part of Arizona’s success last season as well. The Cardinals recovered a league-high 14 fumbles, but only lost four of their own. If those fortunate bounces and the interceptions regress to the mean, what will become of this defense? Star pass-rusher Chandler Jones is gone from a defense that blitzed at the fourth-highest rate per Pro-Football-Reference. Interestingly, while the Cardinals blitzed a lot, they finished just 21st in Hurry% and 10th in Pressure%. They were tied for 13th in sacks with 41.

J.J. Watt returns this season, which should help the pass rush stats, but the secondary looks a little shaky with below-average cornerback play. Teams that were smart enough to throw on early downs had a 12/1 TD/INT ratio on first down and a completion rate of nearly 71% on second down.

Outlook

Arizona loses a home game to Mexico City in Week 11 against the 49ers on Monday Night Football, but that might not be a bad thing, given that the Cardinals were 8-1 away from home last season. The only back-to-back road trips are for the Rams and the Mexico City game in Weeks 10 and 11, and then Weeks 17 (at Atlanta) and 18 (at San Francisco). The Cardinals do draw the best division in football with the AFC West, but do get a break with the NFC South and Tampa Bay at home on Christmas. 

The health and mentality of Murray define the ceiling for this team. He’ll have to compensate for a bad head coach and suspect defense. Now that he’s gotten paid, we’ll have to see if he’s more willing to run and if he can maintain his body. 

All you have to do is see Arizona’s win total of 8.5 is 2.5 wins lower than the number of victories the Cardinals had last season to get an idea of where this team is at for 2022. I lean more towards 9-8 than 8-9, but the over to play is the game total most weeks for this team. 

Pick: Over 8.5

San Francisco 49ers

Give Lance a chance! The 2021 third overall pick should be able to take the reins of the San Francisco 49ers as the quarterback of the future. There were some good things and some bad things for Lanc in his six games (two starts) last season, but an entire year alongside an offensive guru in Kyle Shanahan can only help the North Dakota State product as his career truly begins. 

The 49ers seem to be one of the teams receiving a lot of buzz this season. After having one of the best yards per play differentials in the league last season, there are a lot of people that feel like this will be the team to emerge from the three-headed monster in the NFC West. San Francisco has a high floor with Lance, but his performance will establish the team’s ceiling. 

Offense

It was a rough 3-5 start for the 49ers in 2021, as they committed multiple turnovers in five of the first eight games and only had five takeaways on defense. As the season went along, the ground game got going and Jimmy Garoppolo got more efficient in the passing game, but Lance has more upside potential. The second-year player looked lost at times in the offense, but it was a huge leap from FCS to the NFL. 

The 49ers will still be a run-first attack whether Lance maintains the job or Garoppolo has to step in (assuming he’s not traded). Lance brings a higher degree of mobility as a rusher and finished fourth in rushing yards, despite only playing six of the 17 games. Elijah Mitchell had 4.7 yards per pop and Deebo Samuel had nearly 1,800 combined rushing and receiving yards. Having just received “the bag”, Deebo will be more content with his role and the additional hits he’ll absorb. 

The 49ers do have questions on the offensive line, though. Laken Tomlinson is with the Jets and Alex Mack retired. If the protection comes together with the reshuffled offensive line, either quarterback has a lot of skill-position talent with Samuel, the backs, matchup nightmare TE George Kittle and emerging wide receivers in Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings. 

Defense

This projects to be a really strong 49ers defense yet again. San Francisco gets into the backfield a ton with the front four, allowing the guys in the back seven to focus on coverage or preventing big runs. According to Pro-Football-Reference, the 49ers had the fourth-lowest Blitz%, but still finished tied for fifth in sacks. Second-round pick Drake Jackson adds another edge rusher to go with Nick Bosa and internal pressure from Javon Kinlaw and Arik Armstead. 

The 49ers also led the league in tackles for loss with 98 and ranked in the top 10 in yards per carry allowed. They allowed a lot of completions, but limited explosive plays. One area in which San Francisco could improve is forcing turnovers.  They only had 20 takeaways and many were grouped late in the season. Perhaps that was simply an adjustment from Robert Salah to DeMeco Ryans, whose name came up in coaching searches (but he’ll be back as the defensive coordinator). Instead, San Francisco lost OC Mike McDaniel during this coaching cycle. 

The 49ers had the fourth-most Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) per Football Outsiders. Most of the primary defenders stayed healthy, but Emmanuel Moseley missed 11 games and still had 11 pass breakups. Kinlaw only played four games. LB Dre Greenlaw was limited to three games, but had 21 tackles and an interception. Jason Verrett was lost for the season in Week 1. There is more depth and should be better health for this unit. 

Outlook 

Between Shanahan on the sidelines in the fetal position and a dropped Jaquiski Tartt interception, the 49ers went from potential champs to watching their chief rivals go to the Big Game with the loss to the Rams in the NFC Championship Game. That is a hurdle that Shanahan still needs to get over, as everybody remembers this faux pas and the complete and utter debacle with the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 50.

Lance has the chance to get his feet under him with a soft starting schedule that features the Bears, Seahawks, Panthers and Falcons, though three of those four games are on the road. If Lance isn’t the guy for 2022, we should know. The question is whether or not Jimmy G will still be around as an insurance policy. Every other part of the team is loaded, though, so it’s all up to Lance.

Pick: Over 10

Seattle Seahawks

For the first time since 2011, the Seahawks will have a leading passer not named Russell Wilson. Russ leaves as the all-time leader in passing yards by nearly 8,000 and touchdowns by 118. It was time for a split, as the Seahawks need to shuffle the deck and start all over, but it doesn’t make it any easier on the fan base or the rest of the roster. Especially when the replacements are Drew Lock and Geno Smith.

Following their first losing season since that 2011 campaign (with leading passer Tavaris Jackson!), the Seahawks look to be in for a long year. For a team that hasn’t missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 2008-09, the prize at the end of the tunnel could be CJ Stroud or Bryce Young.

Offense

Smith actually played well in Wilson’s absence with a 5/1 TD/INT and a 68.4% completion percentage in three starts and a relief role against the Rams in Week 5 last season. Wilson came back quicker than expected, so Smith wasn’t asked to do too much, but he also took 13 sacks behind an offensive line that could not pass block last season.

Through it all, the Seahawks were actually + 29 in point differential and ran for five yards per carry. They had a bevy of explosive plays thanks to Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf at wide receiver. This was also the third-best red zone offense in the NFL … but that was with Wilson. The interception total is bound to go up Seattle’s two starting quarterbacks combined for only seven last season. Smith hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2014 and the team may opt to see what it has in Lock.

It will be up to second-year playcaller Shane Waldron to find creative ways to get Lockett and Metcalf the ball in space if this offense is going to have any success. There is a ton of pressure on ninth overall pick Charles Cross to protect the blind side; this will not be the same Air Raid offense he blocked for at Mississippi State.

Defense

First-year defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt has quite a job on his plate. He’s been an assistant head coach here since 2017, so he’s seen the good and the bad of this defense. Last year’s defense was fairly good, but there were some clear gaps with the personnel --and those won’t improve with Carlos Dunlap in another city. The Seahawks managed 34 sacks, but 15 of those came from Dunlap and Rasheem Green, who are now with the Chiefs and Texans, respectively.

This was a defense that only allowed 5.4 yards per play and was extremely stout against the run with 3.8 yards per carry. However, tackle machine Bobby Wagner is another one of the big losses after racking up 170 stops. As good as the Seahawks were against the run, they were just that bad against the pass, as opponents threw for over 4,500 yards. What saved the Seahawks last season was winning the field-position battle with limited offensive turnovers and the fourth-best red zone defense.

Seattle’s 61 red zone trips against were tied for the sixth-most, but their 31 touchdowns allowed tied for the 12th-fewest in the league. With situational and turnover regression both likely to come, this defense is expected to see a big drop in production.

Outlook

The schedule makers sure do have a sense of humor sending Russ right back to Seattle for Monday Night Football in Week 1. The Seahawks play the Buccaneers in Germany in Week 10 right before the bye, but they only have consecutive road games once (Detroit and New Orleans, Weeks 4 and 5). The schedule isn’t that bad and five of the seven games after the bye are at home.

However, we have to wonder just how much Seattle will actively try to win games with a franchise quarterback possibly attainable at the 2023 NFL draft. We also have to wonder just how much both sides of the ball fall off with Russ gone. This could be a long season for Seahawks fans.

Pick: Under 5.5

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