NFC West preview: Value on Rams

Jared Goff
© Imagn

With NFL free agency in full swing and the draft only a month away, it seems that nothing can stop activity in this league or a bettor’s appetite for discussing it. Here is my breakdown for what is arguably the most competitive division in the NFL, which produced a Super Bowl representative last season.

Arizona Cardinals

2019 record: 5-10-1

2020 season win total: 6.5

2020 division odds: 16-1

2020 non-division games: at Panthers, at Cowboys, at Patriots, at Giants, at Jets, Eagles, Redskins, Bills, Dolphins, Lions

Coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray enter their sophomore years knowing they won two of their last three games, finishing 2019 on a positive note. This team was not expected to be good in 2019, but Kingsbury and Murray surprised some of their critics. Five wins is not impressive, but the Cardinals ranked 20th in the league in DVOA, and only four losses were by double digits.

Through free agency, they have added help at linebacker and on the defensive line. This should assist a team that ranked 25th in defending the run. Arizona also acquired all-world wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from Houston for running back David Johnson. Hopkins is a tremendous addition, and running back Kenyan Drake should be able to fill the void left by Johnson.

With the eighth pick of the draft and two third-round selections, this team is likely to add offensive line help and someone in the secondary to aid a unit that ranked 31st in pass defense. The Cardinals might also consider trading veteran All-Pro defensive back Patrick Peterson for more draft stock, gaining more ways to help a defense that ranked 31st overall.

The skinny: Ranking 20th in DVOA and with a turnover differential of just -1, it suggests this team was better than its 5-10-1 record. I believe the Cardinals will be at least a seven-win team and would bet Over their season win total, but I am not ready to bite on them winning the division at 16-1 odds. Arizona will be improved and could be a profitable bet against the spread from game to game but still will finish last in the very competitive NFC West.

Los Angeles Rams

2019 record: 9-7

2020 season win total: 9

2020 division odds: + 275

2020 non-division games: at Bills, at Dolphins, at Eagles, at Buccaneers, at Redskins, Cowboys, Giants, Jets, Patriots, Bears

I agree with the Rams moving on from Todd Gurley, but they were unable to get draft picks for him in a trade. Many signs point to this team having a good year in 2020, but draft stock is not one of them. The Rams have no first-round pick in 2020. They do have one pick in all other rounds and two selections in the third. The Rams are my pick to win the NFC West in 2020.

The 2019 Rams lost division road games to playoff teams San Francisco and Seattle by a combined four points. Their turnover differential was zero, and they ranked 12th in the league in DVOA. All of this suggests much better than a 9-7 team. Los Angeles ranked 14th in passing defense and fourth in passing offense.

The Rams were 20th in defending the run and 22nd in rushing offense. In other words, Gurley was not a difference-maker. Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson move up the depth chart at running back with Gurley gone, and Henderson could be ready for a solid season. He forced a missed tackle over 25% of the time he touched the ball in his rookie season and gained nearly 4 yards after the catch. With an offense that ranked fourth in passing and an outstanding receiving corps, coach Sean McVay ought to be able to design plays that improve the running game.

With limited funds and draft picks, the Rams should look very similar to last season. But even after losing Dante Fowler and Clay Matthews, this team still has a great deal of star power — Jared Goff, Cooper Kupp, Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.

The skinny: This team was extremely close to making the playoffs in 2019, and that’s after going through a season as the Super Bowl loser, which is typically a difficult hangover to cure. With a 9-7 club losing some big names, the general perception is negative. However, I believe there is value in this team’s season win total and the odds to win the NFC West. I’m going Over nine wins and am on them to win the division at + 275.

San Francisco 49ers

2019 record: 13-3

2020 season win total: 11

2020 division odds: + 110

2020 non-division games: at Cowboys, at Patriots, at Saints, at Giants, at Jets, Eagles, Redskins, Bills, Dolphins, Packers

For the second time in four seasons, Kyle Shanahan ended up on the losing end of a Super Bowl he was well in control of winning. As the offensive coordinator for the Falcons in 2017, Shanahan’s team blew a 28-3 lead with 18 minutes left to the Patriots, and last season as head coach of the 49ers, his team blew a 20-10 fourth-quarter lead to the Chiefs. Shanahan is one of the better coaches in the NFL, but he obviously must learn to do a better job of closing out games on the biggest stage. The Niners went from 4-12 in 2018 to 13-3 last year and represented the NFC in the Super Bowl. The Rams went 13-3 in 2018, represented the NFC in the Super Bowl and fell to 9-7 in 2019. I would not be surprised if San Francisco too went from 13-3 to 9-7.

History tells us that overcoming the curse of the Super Bowl loser is much harder than avoiding a letdown as the Super Bowl winner. San Francisco’s roster looks very good. The 49ers traded standout defensive tackle DeForest Buckner but gained the 13th pick in the draft. They lost a key piece in wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders but can easily replace him, possibly with that 13th pick.

The numbers from 2019 are this: second-ranked rushing attack, 12th-rated passing attack, fifth in passing defense and 18th in defending the run. Turnover differential was + 4, and the 49ers were fifth in DVOA. The pass rush had a great deal to do with those pass-defense numbers. The secondary is getting older and will need to be bolstered if this team is to make another run.

The skinny: What goes up must come down. To go from 4-12 to the Super Bowl is a big jump, and losing that Super Bowl is a big blow to hopes for 2020. I expect San Francisco to be good but regress to a nine- or 10-win season. I’ll call for the 49ers to finish second in the division behind the Rams and will play Under the season win total of 11.

Seattle Seahawks

2019 record: 11-5

2020 season win total: 9.5

2020 division odds: + 230

2020 non-division games: at Falcons, at Bills, at Dolphins, at Eagles, at Redskins, Cowboys, Giants, Jets, Patriots, Vikings

If you recall the Seahawks’ 2019 season, you probably remember asking yourself: When is this team’s luck going to run out? The Seahawks won five games in 2019 by a total of 11 points. They recorded only one double-digit victory. The storyline in the playoffs was that they were battling injuries, but there’s always Russell Wilson. I believe the Seahawks will regress in 2020 — other than Wilson, whom I believe is the best athlete in the NFL and a contender for league MVP.

With an elite quarterback, a proven coach and a good stock of draft picks, the Seahawks might not regress. But given what they did in 2019, I believe they will. Seattle was No. 2 in the NFL in turnover differential at + 12. That is unlikely to repeat itself and is much more likely to regress. Wilson was sacked 51 times in 2018 and 48 times in 2019. This has to get much better. Seattle ranked 23rd in rushing defense and 28th in passing defense yet was eight in DVOA. Unless the Seahawks improve drastically on defense, they are unlikely to sustain being such a successful unit.

Jadeveon Clowney was an absolute disrupter on the defensive front late in the season. He will definitely help this team if he can be retained, but Clowney also has been prone to injury.

The skinny: The schedule looks very difficult on paper, and the Seahawks reside in one of the league’s best divisions. Given how this team overcame its defensive inefficiencies, was so fortunate in turnover differential and won so many close games, I expect the Seahawks to come up short of what they accomplished in 2019. I have them finishing third in the NFC West and will be betting their season win total Under 9.5.

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